Student Pages: Anarchism an Introduction

WYNFORD HICKS, born at Sevenoaks 1942, is reading psychology and philosophy at Oxford. He is a member of the Oxford Committee of 100, and his article is reprinted from the first issue of The Student Anarchist which appeared there last month.

Submitted by Reddebrek on November 2, 2017

FEW WOULD DENY THE DESIRABILITY OF A FREE SOCIETY: many would argue either that one exists already, or that it is unattainable, or that in order to achieve it the state must first be strengthened. An anarchist believes that a free society does not exist, that it is attainable and that it can only be achieved by certain methods.

Does a free society exist?

To the majority of readers this question will probably appear absurd and unnecessary, but it is important to make clear why Britain is not the 'free' country it is called. A liberal would say that Britain is free because it is a parliamentary democracy, because the press is not censored, because the legal system is impartial, because the police force is technically subject to the law, and so on. The contrast implied here is with 'totalitarian' regimes, where political freedom does not exist, where the government censors the press, takes 'justice' into its own hands and cannot be removed by the people it rules. Now there is obviously a difference between the 'totalitarian' and the 'democratic' state, but is the difference in human freedom as fundamental as is suggested? According to the liberal the press is free because there are no laws controlling it, in spite of the fact that newspapers are owned and controlled by a handful of press barons; the public schools should be preserved because they give parents the freedom to choose what kind of education their children should have (in spite of the fact that this 'freedom' is available to about 5% of the population). The temptation, when the absurdity of this view has become apparent, is either to replace it by Marxist doctrine of economic freedom, or to add a Marxist sugar coating to the original belief. Both these attitudes are inadequate.

In order to be free to do something, it is necessary that one should know that one can do it. It is possible for a 'criminal' to break the law, for a miner's son to be a novelist, even though most people do not break the law or rise above their economic environment. It is not possible, however, to do something unless one knows that it is possible and desires it. (By 'do something' here I mean 'perform a voluntary action'). In what sense is a child on a nursery floor 'free' to go to China if it has never occurred to him as a possibility that he might go there? And even if someone asks him why he doesn't go to China he can hardly be said to be 'free' to go if his parents have brought him up to believe that the Chinese eat foreigners, that the climate is appalling and so on. If 'free' means 'able to choose' it is obvious that the removal of external obstacles does not of itself ensure freedom: to be free to go to China one needs more than a passport and a ticket. To say therefore that most workers in British industry do not want workers' control is analogous to saying that the child who has been brought up to believe that China is a country inhabited by devils does not want to go to China; and to say that the parliamentary system permits the establishment of a political party which would introduce workers' control is like saying that the child will not be physically prevented from leaving the nursery floor; moreover to say that the people of Britain have chosen to live under a parliamentary system is like saying that a child chooses its family.

But despite the economic and social factors which limit freedom within the parliamentary system, is it not possible to say that we are free to choose our own government? In a sense we are, but what we cannot do without smashing the state is choose our own self-government. To accept the electoral system and all it implies is to abandon the responsibility of decision — and this is made quite clear by the use of the word 'representative' and not 'delegate'. However the system which exists in Britain came about (and the social contract theory is a historical curiosity nowadays) its essential deficiency is that it deprives us of the power to make our own decisions and gives our rulers the power to do things which nobody has the right to do. For instance, who decided that Britain should manufacture nuclear weapons and adopt a foreign policy based on the threat of genocide? The argument that in making this decision the government had to consider the will of the people because it had to fight an election is not only ludicrous in practice (since the major political parties agree in principle on foreign policy), it misses the point altogether, which is that the very existence of the state encourages irresponsibility in rulers and ruled alike. One of the lessons of the Cuban crisis is that hysteria is not confined to people living under what the liberal calls dictatorship. Acton's remark about power and corruption is incomplete: as power tends to corrupt, so too does the abandonment of power over one's own life. To have this power taken away is unfortunate: to surrender it willingly while imagining that one still has it is disastrous.

Is a free society attainable?

It is amazing how dogmatic the sceptical liberal can become: 'A society where people co-operate without being coerced by the state is impossible because man is basically aggressive and selfish; such a society has never existed before and therefore cannot exist in the future; you can't change human nature', etc. Statements of this kind, which seem to be rationalizations of fear and prejudice, are worth commenting on if only in order to define what one means by a free society. The fact that something has not happened is in itself no proof that it cannot happen: if it were there would be little point in trying to break athletics records. If by human nature is meant the way people physiologically are, then it cannot be changed; if by human nature is meant the way people behave then it is always changing. We are now left with the point about 'basic' evil. The statement that man is basically bad is as meaningless and absurd as the statement that man is basically good; Hobbes and Rousseau are both talking nonsense. As psychology advances we shall learn more about man's basic make-up: we shall never be able to describe it in social terms. Assertions about man's nature couched in language used to describe and evaluate social relationships are a logical mistake.

What is to be done with those who coerce other people in a free society, and would not their existence lead to its destruction? Two distinctions are necessary here — the first between those with a hereditary mental illness and those whose anti-social tendencies can be eliminated; the second between the function of a prison and that of a hospital. Much of what is now called anti-social behaviour is caused by environmental factors; as conditions improve it will eliminate itself. Where anti-social behaviour still exists it can, as is increasingly the case with mental disturbances, be treated as an illness — the word prison is an insult to humanity. Should a person who is dangerous to other people be forced to receive treatment? I think we must accept this possibility. To say that a free society is attainable it is not necessary that one should believe that utopia is round the corner.

There are other important objections referring to specific practical difficulties. For example, modern industrial society is complex — does it not require organization and planning? I would like to distinguish between function and power. Decentralization of power would not necessarily involve lack of co-ordination. The existence of an information switchboard is necessary whereas control by its operator of subscribers' lives is not.

How can a free society be achieved?

To the Marxist the phrase 'the withering away of the state' is as sacred as 'the kingdom of heaven' is to the Christian. One must not sneer at faith of course but it is a little hard to understand exactly how the state is going to wither away. The claim that this will inevitably happen after the transitional period of state socialism, as a result moreover of the strengthening of the state, is if anything harder to accept than the liberal claim that the state is an expression of popular will. Both are made blithely without any attempt at proof.

A free society can only be achieved by means which are consistent with the end. This is not because the use of coercion is immoral but because it cannot have the desired effect. So with violence. If the creation of a non-violent state is the aim it is a little futile to shoot the opposition. 'The more violence the less revolution'; the more coercion the less revolution. The destruction of coercive institutions does not of itself create a free society, and if the aim is that people should learn to live responsibly they cannot be forced to be free. If the child wants to grow up he has to break his playpen himself. Is an anarchist opposed to organization? Again the important distinction between power and function: in order that the revolutionary action should be successful it must be co-ordinated, but this does not mean that self-appointed (or elected) leaders direct what is to happen. Nor is it necessary for all those who use direct action techniques to call themselves anarchists, nor is the word 'anarchist' important. To be conscious of a problem it is not necessary to be able to define it, nor to accept someone else's definition.

The need for a free society

Since the beginning of human history violence and coercion have existed but never have they been more dangerous than now. The modern state is capable of destroying not only its own citizens but everyone else as well. This has been said many times before, but it is not capitalism or communism which threatens the world as much as the modern state itself. If there were a short cut to peace (for instance, by establishing a United Nations Super-state to police the world), without freedom, it would be worth taking — but these are no short cuts. If concentration of power has made nuclear war possible then it is this which must be destroyed if the world is ever to have peace. A free society is not an idyllic dream but a necessity,

My argument throughout has been that a complex of social forces from nutrition to education is acting on young people to create a generation whose moral outlook is new and of their own making. I would describe it as a generation which is self-sufficient, in some ways puritan and in other ways romantic. They are at present looking mainly inwards and trying to solve the contradictions of social life by the cultivation of self, in courtship and in early marriage. They do not as yet constitute a political force and the popular journalist and the adman succeed in bringing them into line in early adulthood; that is, they make them conform before they can be politically explosive. This may not, however, continue. Unemployment and the competition for higher education may change the situation. If this happens, then the adult world may face a new political problem — not of disciplining the young political animal but of facing youth as a political challenge.
—DENNIS CHAPMAN: "The Autonomous Generation"
(The Listener, 17.1.1963.)