SOCIETY IS THE aggregate of individuals, united for their common good. Society exists for the benefit of individuals and not individuals for the benefit of society. These statements are axiomatic, but they are also so important that they must be repeated. The highest common good of individuals is freedom. Freedom is both social and economic. Social freedom consists of the liberty of each man to live as he wishes provided he does not injure his fellows. But this liberty is dependent on the economic freedom conferred by a form of society that provides for each man a sufficiency of material goods to satisfy all his needs. To provide this sufficiency with as little labour as possible, it is necessary that men should co-operate in their work. Society in its pure form consists precisely in this working together for the common welfare.
Thus, men, like many other animals, find it convenient to live in society. Indeed, they have become so conditioned by social activity that it would be difficult for them to live apart from it, and this material helplessness of men outside the social group has given rise to ideas of the social unit as an organic body existing in its own right, to which the relationship of individual men is similar to that of members or cells to the human body. A little examination reveals the absurdity of this notion. A limb cannot live cut off from its body. But if a man of average resourcefulness were put on a desert island provided with a moderate plenty of natural resources, he would without doubt have a very hard time, but it would be possible for him to fill his belly and to evolve a life that might eventually provide certain mental satisfactions.
Nevertheless, despite its manifest absurdity, this idea of the community as an entity in its own right, above the individuals it comprises, has existed at all times in the history of civilisation. In modem times it is tacitly admitted in almost every country. In Germany the super-individual becomes the German Folk, in Russia the Socialist Fatherland, in England King and Country. In every land at war the conscript is incited to fight for his country - by which is meant the state in which he lives, or for some personification thereof, such as Adolf Hitler or the Mikado. He may be asked to fight for other things, according to the estimate his rulers have of his intelligence, but always the dominant idea behind a country at war is that of the state deified. This idea exists in peace, but it is in war that the subordination of the individual to the mass, to the artificial machinery of the impersonal and abstract state, reaches its most complete manifestation. In peacetime a man is ordered to curtail his freedom of action, to give up his money in taxes, to beget children so that the armies of the embattled state may be rich in cannon fodder. But in war he is ordered to give up his very existence that the state may live.
This state for which men are asked to die is a cruel abstraction of those who need a myth to enable them to maintain their rule over the majority of men. It is a lie - or a folly - to say that the state is above individual men. It is equally untrue - or foolish - to claim, that the state can exist apart from the men within it.
Men have arranged themselves into groups from the earliest days of human evolution, but solely for their own convenience - firstly, as animals do, for the protection of numbers and the reproduction of the species, secondly, because they found that social life made possible, by the differentiation of function within the group, a higher standard of comfort and living. It is from these beginnings that the modern and gigantic centralised social aggregates have arisen. Still the fundamental function of the social unit - and the only function that can be justified with any degree of reason, remains that of the well-being of the men and women within it.
But the modern state has acquired other functions, which are anti-social in nature - insofar as one regards as social what is beneficial to all men within a society. It has become an instrument for the protection of the interests of certain classes in the community against those of the remainder, and its forces are used for such objects as the protection of private property, the restriction of personal liberties that may be detrimental to the interests of the ruling class, the conducting of wars of conquest to obtain new markets and sources of raw materials, and the waging of imperialist wars against other state communities whose ruling classes are pursuing similar objectives. In such circumstances the state becomes an organisation for the maintenance of class rule and class interests, and not a group organised for the benefit of its members - except in the limited degree to which the ruling class find it necessary or advisable to satisfy the needs or wishes of the remainder of the community (and it is surprising how far they contrive to regulate such needs or wishes through their instruments of suggestion). In order to maintain the state as conceived by them and as necessary for the preservation of their interests, the ruling class must resort to means which would be regarded as criminal and anti-social if practised between the individual members of the social unit. For instance, although its own law forbids the settlement of disputes between individuals by brute force, the state, embodying and acting on behalf of and through the ruling class, uses brute force in a dispute between one set of individuals and another, e.g. uses both police and soldiers to break strikes and political demonstrations. And the use of lies and deceptions which would be regarded as immoral between men in the same class, is conducted without shame by the ruling classes against the ruled.
These evils cannot be dissociated from the state. Where there is a centralised state, the conduct of communal affairs must, if the organisation is to work at all, devolve on a minority obeyed by the majority. Government, therefore, is inevitable in the state system, and government cannot exist without coercion and its means. And where government exists, with the power and the means to force the people to its will, history shows that the governing class will use its position to establish privilege and its power over the people to follow ends other than the common good.
It has been the error of almost every revolution in history to establish a coercive government in place of the government it overthrew, and to take over the machinery of the state in the hope of using it to establish a new form of society that will supersede the state. Instead of performing the liberation for which it was designed, each revolutionary government has found it necessary to apply measures even more coercive than those of the deposed government, has drowned its newly proclaimed liberties in the blood of the guillotines, and ended, if it survived so long, in the establishment of a privileged ruling class, a military organisation, and all the appendages of the embattled state, while the idealism of the original revolutionary leaders has given place to the selfish tyranny of a new exploiting class. So the civil war in England ended in the Cromwellian rule of the generals under which the true libertarian movements of the Diggers and Levellers were destroyed and the liberties of the individual circumscribed far more narrowly and efficiently than under the Stuarts. The French Revolution led, through the Convention and the dictatorships of Marat, Danton, Robespierre, to the eventual triumph under Napoleon of the state and government in forms even more tyrannical and evil than they had assumed before. Imperialism and war were invoked in the name of that glorious revolution whose liberty, equality and fraternity had vanished in the rise of nationalist France and her emperor of murderers.
The Russian revolution was turned astray by the same illusion of a government, even a revolutionary government, being able to achieve a society in which freedom and justice would prevail. The specious doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat was applied in a country where the entire proletariat was a relatively small minority among the peasant masses. And in practice this dictatorship was not by the proletariat but over the proletariat by the Communist Party, itself a minority of between two and three millions in a population of nearly two hundred millions. Even within the Communist Party the vital decisions were taken by minorities in inverse proportion to the importance of the issue. So a pyramid was formed at the summit of which stood a handful of the Bolshevik leaders or, at a later stage of this ‘revolutionary government’, one man, who had displaced all his rivals for the tip of the pyramid. This man, Stalin, stands in the same relationship to the October Revolution with its demands for ‘All Power to the Soviets’(i.e. the assembled people) as Napoleon did to the real French Revolution with its slogans of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
Indeed, the study of revolutions confirms everywhere the melancholy conclusion of the nineteenth century historian, Acton, that “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
In practice, any government, however good the intentions of its founders, becomes counter-revolutionary - if we assume revolution to mean the profound changes in social structure towards political and economic freedom, which in reality can only spring from the deep, spontaneous movements of individuals acting with a common will towards some goal they all desire passionately. Any government, because its existence demands the establishment and defence of some kind of order at the expense of individual action and initiative, is by its very nature conservative and socially destructive.
But if we reject government and the state, we have to find some other pattern of social organisation which, while granting the individual liberty of action and expression, will yet ensure the smooth and effectual working of society to give men those material and intellectual benefits which can be obtained only from a life of association and co-operation.
This was a problem whose existence was realised by many of the Victorian individualists, and the most famous of them, John Stuart Mill, declared, “the social problem of the future, we consider to be how to unite the greatest possible individual liberty of action with a common ownership in the raw material of the globe and an equal participation in all the benefits of combined labour.”
But Mill, although he realised the failings of democracy and representative government, as they existed in his time, did not go far towards a solution of this problem, nor did most of the other Victorian radical thinkers, who realised the necessity of individual freedom and the evils of state power but could not pass beyond these realisations towards a social method and organisation which would give maximum liberty to the individual and at the same time prove more efficient than capitalist “democracy” in satisfying material needs.
Herbert Spencer, for instance, was led by his evolutionary beliefs to the view that humanity was advancing to a society “in which government will be reduced to the smallest amount possible, and freedom increased to the greatest amount possible.” But he did not attempt to envisage the nature of such a society and, although he disagreed with the state as he saw it developing in his day, still clung to the idea of government. “Not only do I contend that the restraining power of the State over individuals and bodies, or classes of individuals, is requisite, but I have contended that it should be exercised much more effectively and carried much further than at present”. It is true that Spencer favoured only the negative functions of government, but, in practice, the very nature of the state forces it to make positive demands on the individual, such as demands for military service, etc. In government, as in the Church, Thou Shalt Not cannot be divided from Thou Shalt.
The answer to the liberal problem is that society must be organised, not on a political basis, but on an economic and functional basis. If we administer the production and distribution of worldly goods, to ensure to each man a share commensurate with his requirements, we shall have found a solution to our main social problem. With freedom of the individual man and an organisation of his functional life and economic satisfaction on a basis that will provide for all his needs, we can well leave society to find its own form, which can never be fixed and stagnant. If we establish the principle of “to each according to his needs”, we shall be half way to obtaining acceptance of the principle of mutual aid, “from each according to his ability”.
The social philosophy that has given the only satisfactory answer to this problem is anarchism.