Chapter 4 Precursors of Anarchism

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 10, 2018

THE BELIEFS THAT lie at the core of the doctrine of anarchism, faith in the essential decency of man, the desire for individual liberty, the hatred of domination of man by men, are common to all ages and all races, and if that is all we require, then we can find the beginnings of anarchism in the works of many poets and philosophers, from Dean Swift to Oscar Wilde, and from Epicurus to Rabelais, whose Abbey of Theleme was as anarchist a community as one could hope to envisage.
But if by anarchism we mean a developed social creed, envisaging a form of society in which men could flourish in freedom, then we find our choice much more limited. In the ancient world, for instance, there was no developed doctrine of this kind. The nearest was probably that of the Stoics, who preached the necessity of individual freedom and the contempt of power and political action. “For your part,” said Epictetus “do not wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free.” But the Stoics envisaged an inner freedom, and held that a man could be free within an unfree society if he had the requisite contempt for power. For this reason they did not preach the need for endeavouring to bring about a changed form of society, for each man’s freedom was his own concern, and their philosophy was thus mystical rather than social in its attitude to freedom.
In ancient China, however, there arose a school of teachers who realised that outside circumstance did prevent a man developing the virtues within him, and taught the necessity for removing restraints in order that men might grow naturally. Taoism was a definite social creed that envisaged a society without government and in this way could be regarded as the first anarchistic doctrine. For this reason I am devoting the first section of this chapter to Lao Tze, the founder of this school.
The remaining sections will deal with those figures in comparatively modern Western civilisation who preached anarchism before the rise of an anarchist movement after Bakunin, and whose ideas influenced in some degree the development of European and American libertarian thought. They are Winstanley, Godwin and Proudhon.


Very little is known of the life of Lao Tze. He is said to have been born in 604 B.C., in the province of Tchu, and became curator of the Royal Library of Kao. Like Christ and Socrates, he became famous as an oral teacher, and many scholars listened to his teachings. In his old age he retired from the Royal Library, and went to seek a quiet retreat in the Ling Po mountains where he could spend the rest of his life in meditation. There a circle of disciples gathered round him, and at their request he set down in writing some of his teachings in his only written work, the Tao-TeChing, the Book of the Simple Way. When this was finished, he left his disciples and went alone into the depths of the mountains, from which he did not return.

His teachings, partly set down in the Tao-Te-Ching, but mostly recorded years later by Chuang-Tze just as the teachings of Socrates were recorded by Plato, became the basis of the cult of Taoism, which for the last twenty-five centuries has exercised a profound influence an Chinese thought and the Chinese way of life.
Lao Tze taught the inherent virtue of man, and the necessity for a natural and unfettered expression of that virtue. He believed that goodness must spring up within a man and could not be imposed on him by external forces. He therefore taught, by implication, the need for man to have the freedom for the development of his inner good, and the fruition of his personality, and emphasised the necessity of non-interference in the lives of others.

Thus in its social application Lao-Tze’s teaching was against authority and condemned the domination of man by his fellows. In this it opposed the benevolent Machiavellianism of Confucius, who believed that man could be made good from above. He reproved him thus:

“ The chaff from winnowing will blind a man so that he cannot tell the points of the compass. Mosquitoes will keep him awake at night with their biting and just in the same way this talk of charity and duty to ones neighbour drives me nearly crazy. Sir, strive to keep the world in its original simplicity. And as the wind bloweth where it listeth, so let virtue establish itself.”

While Confucius counselled rulers to govern wisely, Lao-Tse realised that the flaw did not lie in the method of government but in government itself, and consequently he taught them that they could be successful only by governing not at all, in other words, by ceasing to be rulers.

“When the actions of the people are controlled by prohibited laws, the country becomes more and more impoverished. When the people are allowed the free use of arms, the government is in danger. The more crafty and dexterous the people become, the more do artificial things come into use. And when these cunning arts are publicly esteemed, then do rogues prosper.

“Therefore the wise man says: “I will design nothing, and the people will shape themselves. I will keep quiet and the people will find their rest. I will not assert myself and the people will come forth. I will discountenance ambition, and the people will return to their natural simplicity.”

The way of Tao cut right across the worldly objectives of wealth and power, and in Lao-Tze’s triple doctrine of “Production without possession, action without self-assertion, development without domination”, it reaches a social and personal ethic which guards the spiritual development of the individual and is indistinguishable in its broad application from the way of anarchy.

Taoism was in no way an academic system, existing in a social vacuum. On the contrary, it sprang from the communal and mutualist principles which have always existed in Chinese society, and in its turn strengthened these principles and gave them articulate and coherent expression in a definitely social philosophy which has undoubtedly played a great part in Chinese life as a creed of the dispossessed and which may yet be one of the prime influences in the establishment of the free society when it reaches China.


When the English bourgeoisie triumphed over the autocratic monarchy during the Civil Wars of the 17th century, far from establishing the promised reign of liberty, they were already preparing a tyranny which would vary in degree only, according to which section within their own split ranks was triumphant. For the differences between Presbyterians and Independents were, politically, superficial. Both wanted a bourgeois regime, and both proved hostile to the petty-bourgeoisie and wage earners. The freedom they desired was one of exploitation, like the famous Free Trade of the nineteenth century.

Before the end of the war the people began to realise the nature of the fraud that was being practiced upon them. By 1643 Parliament had to conscript its soldiers because the flow of volunteers had dried up, and from the beginning of the war there were riots among the peasantry.

In 1645 discontent began to take form in the Leveller movement, both within and outside the army, and for some years, until the defeat of the mutinous regiments of the West it seemed that the movement might well overthrow the Cromwellian dictatorship.

But the Leveller movement was essentially petty-bourgeois, and in no way proletarian. Although the Levellers were sincerely concerned for the poor, they defended property and opposed common ownership, and their proposal of extended suffrage excluded the wage earners.

The characteristic proletarian manifestations of the time were religious and mystical. A multitude of sects arose who preached, as Christianity had preached to the slaves in Rome, a heavenly kingdom where the poor should rule. Poverty itself became an asset, because it was the way to Heaven. Out of this movement arose, paradoxically, the most advanced social philosophy of the time, that of Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger movement.

Winstanley, a small City tradesman whose business had failed during the economic depression and who had moved to the country at Cobham, appeared in 1648 as the author of two theological pamphlets which differed in no fundamental way from the mass of contemporary mystical literature.

But his ideas developed rapidly. In the latter half of 1648 he published two further pamphlets, which showed that he had passed to a stage in which he envisaged a pantheistic god whom he identified with reason. “The spirit of the father is pure reason, which as he made so he knits the whole creation together in a onenesse of life and moderation, every creature sweetly in love lending their hands to preserve each other and so uphold the whole fabrique.” From this conception of God arose a new theory of conduct based not on the arbitrary law of an anthropomorphic deity, but directly on reason and expediency.

“Let reason rule the man and he dares not trespasse against his fellow creatures but will do as he would be done unto. For Reason tells him is thy neighbour hungry and naked today, do thou feed him and cloathe him, it may be thy case to-morrow and then he will be ready to help thee.”

In a few months Winstanley’s ideas had crystallised into a definite social code, and in March 1649 he published “The New Law of Righteousnesse,” in which he revealed an understanding of social problems in advance of any English social thinker before Godwin. He realised the corruption inherent in government “everyone that gets an authority into his hands tyrannises over others.” He realised that economic inequality was the principal barrier to freedom and peace - “So long as such are rulers as calls the Land theirs, upholding this particular propriety of mine and thine, the common people shall never have liberty nor the land ever be freed from troubles, oppressions and complainings.” He denounced private property - “Selfpropriety is the curse and burden the creation groans under.” He realised too that the social system could be rectified only by the direct action of the poor. “The Father is now rising up a people to himself out of the dust that is out of the lowest and most despised sort of people... In these and from these shall the Law of Righteousnesse break forth first.” The people should act, Winstanley contended, by seizing and working the land, which represented the principal source of wealth. He did not favour the forcible seizure of estates. These might be left while the poor settled on the waste lands (which he estimated occupied two-thirds of the country) and worked them in common. From their example, he thought, men would learn the virtues of communal life and the earth become a “common treasury” providing for all men plenty and freedom. He ends his pamphlet with the promise of action. “And when the Lord doth shew unto me the place and manner how he will have us that are called common people to manure and work upon the Common lands, I will then go forth and declare it in my actions.”

The Lord did not delay. On April 1, 1649, Winstanley and his followers set out on St. George’s Hill, near Walton-on-Thames, to dig and plant the waste land. They were joined by other comrades, until they numbered between thirty and forty people. Winstanley believed that their numbers would soon be increased to 5,000, and invited the local populace to join them. All they gained, however, was the hostility of their neighbours, who regarded the Diggers’ ideas as a direct threat to their own property interests. A few days after their arrival, the Diggers were attacked by a large mob, who burnt their sheds, destroyed their tools, and imprisoned several in Walton Church.

This hostility of the local populace continued without abatement, time and again the Diggers were attacked, their persons injured, crops damaged, tools and sheds destroyed, time and again they were forced to leave the common, but for a whole year they kept returning and starting work again, maintaining their passive struggle with heroic persistence.

In March, 1650, the Diggers were finally driven from St. George’s Hill, but established themselves on a small heath in the vicinity. Even here their enemies would not leave them, and in April a clergyman led a mob who drove them away for the last time. Armed patrols were set to watch the common, and the Diggers did not return.

After the failure of the Surrey experiment, the Digger movement vanished. But during the months of struggle they had developed their social ideas, and they left a heritage of permanent value in the literature they published, remarkable for its depth of analysis and maturity of vision.

They perceived more clearly than any social thinker before Godwin the economic basis of social problems, and the necessity for evolving an economic remedy. It is for this reason that they were so insistent that the land (then the principal source of wealth) should be held and worked in common. “True religion and undefiled is this. To make restitution of the Earth which hath been taken and held from the common people by the power of Conquests formerly and so set the oppressed free.” They believed that many human faults originated in the social factor of exploitation “...I am assured that if it be rightly searched into the inward bondage of minds as covetousnesse, pride, hypocrisie, envy, sorrow, fears, desperation and madness are all occasioned by the outward bondage that one sort of people lay upon another.” They realised that the cause of war was economic rather than spiritual. “Propriety and single interest divides the people of a land and the whole world into parties and is the cause of all wars and bloodshed and contention everywhere.” Further, they realised the double role of the state as protector and tool of the property-owners - “...for what are prisons and putting others to death, but the power of the Sword to enforce people to that Government which was got by Conquest and sword and cannot stand of itself but by the same murdering power.” The only way to abolish oppression, they declared, was to abolish property; the only way to give men freedom was to give them a common share in the land and its produce. “True freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the Earth.”

I have no space to detail their scheme for a communal society. But it did anticipate in many ways the society envisaged by anarchists today, a society of work according to ability and remuneration according to need, a society without money or armies or permanent bureaucrats, a society where “Law is a Rule, whereby men and other creatures are governed in their actions, for the preservation of the Common Peace.”
In this last phrase Winstanley anticipated Kropotkin’s idea of Mutual Aid, as he anticipated anarchism in so many other ways. It can indeed be said that this obscure revolutionary and his tiny movement represent the most advanced and clear-sighted social conception that arose in Europe until the days of the French Revolution.


Anarchism has suffered in England because it has been regarded by the general public as an exotic growth, a creed originating among Russians, Latins and other suspect races and therefore something to be avoided by good Englishmen. The anarchists themselves have tended to perpetuate this illusion by their continued reliance on foreign sources and their neglect of the English predecessors of anarchism, who should be studied not from any sense of racial loyalty, but for the fact that the writings of men like Winstanley and Godwin present a philosophical case for liberty in a more capable manner than many of the commonly read anarchist classics.

Winstanley’s ideas vanished quickly after the break-up of the Digger movement. Their influence, if it persisted, must be regarded as tenuous in the extreme, and it is with William Godwin, a century and a half later, that modern anarchism appeared in the wake of the French Revolution.

Godwin, a non-conformist minister, who had lost faith and discarded the cloth, was one of the leading figures of the literary circles of England during the Industrial Revolution and the romantic revival. His work had a profound - if in some cases transitory - effect on the ideas of such writers as Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, De Quincey and Hazlitt, and his arguments provoked Malthus to reply in his famous Essay on Population, which, by the irony of history, came to enjoy a greater fame than the book to which it replied so unconvincingly.

Godwin wrote many books, including school text books and novels, of which the most famous was ‘Caleb Williams’, but the work which expounded his social theory and on which his influence rested was the ‘Enquiry Concerning Political Justice’, published in 1793; it was a work of great scholarship and consummate argument, and remains one of the best philosophical expositions of anarchism that have yet been written.
Godwin held that all discussions of the form of the desirable government were irrelevant, because government itself was the cause of the principal social evils.

“All government corresponds in a certain degree to what the Greeks denominated a tyranny. The difference is, that in despotic countries mind is depressed by a uniform usurpation; while in republics it preserves a greater portion of its activity, and the usurpation more easily conforms itself to the fluctuations of opinion. By its very nature a positive institution has a tendency to suspend the elasticity and progress of mind. We should not forget that government is, abstractly taken, an evil, a usurpation upon private judgment and individual conscience of mankind.”

He refuted the current Jacobin idea of government being based on a social contract:

“We cannot renounce our moral independence; it is a property we can neither sell nor give away; and consequently no government can derive its authority from an original contract.”
The majority of the faults in society, he taught, sprang from the repressions of the individual, which were inseparable from the systematic, coercive and external rule of the state. Every human being had a fundamental will towards peace and freedom, and if authority were removed, this tendency would assert itself in individuals and cause them to desire and live towards a society based on justice.

“Normal man seeks the light just as the flowers do. Man, if not too much interfered with, will make for himself the best possible environment, and create for his children right conditions, because the instinct for peace and liberty is deeply rooted in his nature. Control by another has led to revolt, and revolt has led to oppression, and oppression causes grief and deadness, and hence bruises and distortion follow. When we view humanity we behold not the true and natural man, but a deformed and pitiable product, undone by the vices of those who have sought to improve on nature by shaping his life to feed the vanity of a few and minister to their wantonness. In our plans for social betterment, let us hold in mind the healthy unfettered man, and not the cripple that interference and restraint have made.”

Godwin repudiated the law, by which he meant the codified laws of organised states, and taught that in its place must be substituted natural justice, based on the elemental rights of man. Perhaps the most important section of Godwin’s treatise is the essay on Property. He realised, unlike the political radicals of his time, that men could only live together amicably if fair economic conditions prevailed and no man were subject to exploitation by another.

“However great and extensive are the evils that are produced by monarchies and courts, by the imposture of priests and the iniquity of criminal laws, all these are imbecile and impotent compared with the evils that arise out of the established system of property...” “Accumulated property treads the powers of thought in the dust, extinguishes the sparks of genius, and reduces the great mass of mankind to be immersed in sordid cares.”
The only just means of the distribution of property, Godwin held, would be one that ensured that every man’s needs were met, and that no man was idle in plenty while another toiled in poverty.

“If justice has any meaning, nothing can be more iniquitous than for one man to possess superfluities, while there is a human being in existence that is not adequately supplied with these. “Justice does not stop here. Every man is entitled, so far as the general stock will suffice, not only to the means of being, but of wellbeing. It is unjust if one man be deprived of leisure to cultivate his rational power while another man contributes not a single effort to add to the common stock. The faculties of one man are like the faculties of another man. Justice directs that each man, unless perhaps he be employed more beneficially to the public, should contribute to the cultivation of the common harvest, of which each man consumes a share.”
Godwin encouraged a society of individuals linked by free contracts relating to the common functions of society; unlike his predecessor Winstanley, he had evolved no scheme of full-scale communism in production and distribution.

He looked to the dissolution of political government “that brute engine which has been the only perennial cause of the vices of mankind”. In its place he visualised a federalist system of decentralised administration by voluntary bodies rising spontaneously to organise in freedom any social functions that might be necessary. The revolution he thought could be achieved peacefully by education and example.

“Political Justice” had a great influence on the intellectual circles of Godwin’s day and, in spite of Pitt’s jibe that a three-guinea book would only be read by the well-to do, it reached the advanced workers, who often formed groups for the express purpose of purchasing the book. There is no doubt that the libertarian and anti-political character of the Owenite movements and the early Trades Unions was due in great part to Godwin’s influence. To him more than any other we must attribute the antiauthoritarian strain that, in spite of betrayals, has existed in the British labour movement down to the present day.


Proudhon was a French printer who became for some years the leading figure of the French labour movement, and whose ideas, in the years preceding the Commune, were extremely influential among the radical workers of Paris.

Proudhon had a brief period of political activity, when he sat in the National Assembly after the revolution of 1848, but for the rest of his life he was opposed to political methods and the political society. He was imprisoned twice for offences against the French press laws; and died in 1865.
Proudhon rejected the Jacobin tradition that dominated almost all his contemporary Socialists, and recognised the evil of the centralised state, and of economic monopoly, under whatever guise, capitalist or socialist, it might exist.

His ideas on property underwent certain modifications during the development of his social theories. In 1840 he wrote a book entitled “What is Property?” and answered the question with the celebrated definition, ‘Property is theft’. Later on, however, he changed his position, and condemned property only when it was the product of exploitation. He held that the individual producer had a right to the means of production and to the full enjoyment of the value of his produce. This value would be based, for the purposes of exchange, on the amount of time involved in its manufacture. Proudhon condemned money and interest, and envisaged a system of the exchange of actual goods through exchange banks.

Thus he admitted capital in the form of the means of production, provided it did not involve the exploitation of others. In his society the only capitalists were the men, or groups of men, working with their own tools and machinery and receiving a return equal to their labours. There would be no place for the rentier who lived by owning machines and employing others to work them, at a rate of remuneration so far below the actual value of work done as to leave him a substantial proportion on which to live without work. In Proudhon’s society a man would eat according as he worked.

Government and authority he rejected as alien to justice, and he proposed in their place a series of free contracts between free men. “That I may remain free, that I may be subjected to no law but my own, and that I may govern myself, the edifice of society must be rebuilt on the idea of Contract.” He envisaged production being arranged by groups of producers bound in free mutual contracts, which would ensure to the individual producers the right to the entire product of their labour.

This economic pattern of individuals and small groups owning their own means of production became outdated and impractical with the rise of modern industry, and it was later superseded by the collective ownership theory of his disciple, Bakunin. Proudhon rejected the state and all political forms of action.
“All parties without exception, in so far as they seek for powers, are varieties of absolutism, and there will be no liberty for citizens, no order for societies, no union among working men, till in the political catechism the renunciation of authority shall have replaced faith is authority. No more parties, no more authority, absolute liberty of man and citizen - there is my political and social confession of faith.”

While Proudhon talked of the revolution, in his latter phase at least, he did not envisage any sudden expropriation of the capitalists and abolition of the State.

Instead he advocated the method of practical example through the creation within capitalist society of co-operatives and exchange banks. The contrast between this system and the immoral system of capitalism would convince men of the justice of the new form of society, and the state and exploitation would vanish. Of the new society he wrote:

“The Revolution does not act after the fashion of the old governmental, aristocratic, or dynastic principles. It is Right, the balance of forces, equality. It has no conquests to pursue, no nations to reduce to servitude, no frontiers to defend, no fortresses to build, no armies to feed, no laurels to pluck, no preponderance to maintain. The might of its economic institutions, the gratuitousness of its credit, the brilliancy of its thought, are its sufficient means for converting the universe.”

Proudhon was the first of the important continental anarchists. He was in no way as brilliant a social thinker as Godwin, but, owing to his direct contact with the French workers and the stimulus he gave to the social development of Bakunin, his influence on the anarchist movement was the greater. He has a further claim to attention in that he was the first revolutionary actually to designate himself an anarchist.