Anarchy 44/Not quite an anarchist

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Not quite an anarchist


Thomas paine … was never enough of an opti­mist to let his na­tural anar­chism run its full course.[1] His con­tempor­ary, William Godwin, said in his “En­quiry Con­cern­ing Polit­ical Just­ice” (1793), “With what de­light must every well-in­formed friend of man­kind look for­ward to the dis­solu­tion of polit­ical gov­ern­ment, of that brute engine which has been the only per­en­nial cause of the vices of man­kind … and no other­wise to be re­moved than by its utter an­nihil­a­tion.” Paine takes a more neg­at­ive stance:— “Some writers have so con­founded so­ciety with gov­ern­ment as to leave little or no dis­tinc­tion be­tween them; where­as they are not only dif­fer­ent, but have dif­fer­ent ori­gins. So­ciety is pro­duced by our wants and gov­ern­ment by our wick­ed­ness … So­ciety in every state is a bless­ing, but gov­ern­ment even in its best state is but a neces­sary evil.”[2]

  Thomas Hobbes thought that with­out gov­ern­ment “the life of man (would be) solit­ary, poor, nasty, brut­ish and short.”[3] Paine took an op­pos­ing view; “Great part of that order which reigns among man­kind is not the ef­fect of Gov­ern­ment. It has its ori­gins in the prin­ciples of so­ciety and the na­tural con­sti­tu­tion of man.” In theory then Paine be­lieved that man was es­sen­tially a re­spons­ible being who should be per­fectly free, pro­vid­ing that his lib­erty did not in­fringe on an­other’s free­dom.

  He was scep­tical of the prac­tice of sub­ordin­at­ing the mass of men to the guid­ance of a few. We have seen that he clearly dif­fer­en­ti­ated be­tween so­ciety and gov­ern­ment in “Common Sense”, and he re­turns to this sub­ject in “The Rights of Man”, say­ing here “… so­ciety per­forms for it­self al­most every­thing ascribed to Gov­ern­ment.” He goes on to elabor­ate this theme, de­scrib­ing the state in America when there was no formal gov­ern­ment for more than two years fol­low­ing the out­break of the War of In­de­pend­ence. He main­tains that the dis­ap­pear­ance of gov­ern­ment there caused the flour­ish­ing of so­ciety, “com­mon inter­est pro­ducing com­mon secur­ity.”

  Here then there at first ap­pears to be a clear-cut posi­tion. Paine held that many of the activ­it­ies which gov­ern­ments con­cerned them­selves with were super­flu­ous. Not only were they un­neces­sary and a waste of time, but often defin­itely harm­ful. Pur­su­ing this line of argu­ment he writes—“But how often is the na­tural pro­pens­ity to so­ciety dis­turbed or de­stroyed by the oper­a­tions of Gov­ern­ment.” And again—“… in­stead of con­solid­at­ing so­ciety it (gov­ern­ment) di­vided it, it de­prived it of its na­tural co­he­sion, and en­gen­dered dis­con­tents and dis­orders which other­wise would not have existed.”

  How­ever, even ad­mit­ting that the ef­fects of gov­ern­ments in gen­eral were harm­ful or ir­relev­ant, Paine could pro­duce no real al­tern­at­ive. In a sar­castic ref­er­ence to Burke he says: “Mr. Burke has talked of old
and new whigs. If he can amuse him­self with child­ish names and dis­tinc­tions, I shall not inter­rupt his pleasure.” But, hav­ing stated this, Paine then pro­ceeds to dis­tin­guish be­tween good (new) gov­ern­ments and bad (old) ones, even though previ­ously he had been slat­ing the prin­ciple of Gov­ern­ment. This ac­com­mod­a­tion of con­tra­dictory ideas some­times ap­pears in the same sen­tence. For ex­ample:

  “Gov­ern­ment is no farther neces­sary than to sup­ply the few cases to which so­ciety and civil­iza­tion are not con­ven­iently com­pet­ent; and in­stan­ces are not want­ing to show, that every­thing which Gov­ern­ment can use­fully add there­to, has been per­formed by the com­mon con­sent of so­ciety, with­out Gov­ern­ment.”

  What is obvi­ously a very im­port­ant aspect of this doc­trine—“The few cases to which so­ciety and civil­iza­tion are not con­ven­iently com­pet­ent”—is left for us to guess at.

  The good and bad gov­ern­mental sys­tems are out­lined as fol­lows:

  “… the old is hered­it­ary, either in whole or in part; and the new is en­tirely re­pre­sent­at­ive.” “Gov­ern­ment, on the old sys­tem, is an as­sump­tion of power, for the ag­grand­ize­ment of it­self, on the new a de­leg­a­tion of power for the com­mon bene­fit of so­ciety.”

  Car­ried away by re­volu­tion­ary fer­vour, Paine eulo­gizes the French and Amer­ican pat­terns and sinks into ideal­istic my­opia.

  “… the re­pre­sent­at­ive sys­tem dif­fuses such a body of know­ledge through­out a Nation on the sub­ject of Gov­ern­ment, as to ex­pose ignor­ance and pre­clude im­posi­tion … Those who are not in the re­pre­sent­a­tion know as much of the na­ture and busi­ness as those who are … Every man is a pro­pri­etor in Gov­ern­ment, and con­siders it a neces­sary part of his busi­ness to under­stand. It con­cerns his inter­est be­cause it af­fects his prop­erty. He ex­am­ines the cost and com­pares it with the ad­van­tages; and above all, he does not adopt the slav­ish cus­tom of fol­low­ing what in other gov­ern­ments are called LEADERS.”

  The two hun­dred years of histor­ical ex­peri­ence that separ­ates us from Paine en­ables us to see that he was mis­taken. In­stead of “ex­pos­ing ignor­ance and pre­clud­ing im­posi­tion”, these still exist to­gether with a ramp­ant apathy. Paine con­sidered that it was one of the sick­nesses of the “old gov­ern­ments” that a farmer was in­duced, “while fol­low­ing the plough, to lay aside his peace­ful pur­suits, and go to war with the farmer of an­other coun­try.” From our ad­van­tageous posi­tion it is obvi­ous to us that elected gov­ern­ments have been just as suc­cess­ful as hered­it­ary ones in per­suad­ing their pop­ula­tions to wage wars.

  Paine writes else­where that there should be “no such thing as an idea of a com­pact be­tween the people on one side and the Gov­ern­ment on the other. The com­pact (should be) that of people with each other to pro­duce and con­sti­tute a gov­ern­ment.” The Oxford Eng. Dic. gives as a de­fin­i­tion of the verb “to govern”—to rule with au­thor­ity; Mala­testa called it the “coer­cive organ­isa­tion of so­ciety.”[4] When any body of men be­comes ap­pointed with this func­tion it is in­evit­able that the gulf be­tween gov­ern­ors and gov­erned will be estab­lished. Proud­hon, born in the year of Paine’s death, summed it up say­ing “Be­tween gov­ern­ing and gov­erned, … no matter how the sys­tem of re­pre­sent­a­tion or dele­ga­tion of the gov­ern­mental func­tion is ar­ranged there is neces­sar­ily an
alien­a­tion of part of the lib­erty and means of the citi­zen.”

  The fourth right of man was that of polit­ical lib­erty. The seven­teenth was that con­cern­ing prop­erty; “The right to prop­erty being in­viol­able and sacred, no one ought to be de­prived of it.” Paine could not real­ize that the ac­cum­ula­tion of prop­erty by one man puts him in a domin­ant posi­tion with re­gards to others, whose eco­nomic and politi­cal lib­erty are cor­re­spond­ingly re­stricted. With the further in­sight of the nine­teenth century, Proud­hon again was able to ask him­self the ques­tion “What is property?” In­stead of de­cid­ing that it is an “in­viol­able and sacred” right he came up with the answer “Prop­erty is theft.” In agree­ment with this de­ci­sion, theor­ists like Marx and Kropot­kin called for the abol­i­tion of prop­erty, where­as Paine had ad­voc­ated its pro­tec­tion.

  “Com­mun­ism de­prives no man of the power to ap­propri­ate the pro­ducts of so­ciety: all that it does is to de­prive him of the power to sub­jugate the labour of others by means of such ap­propri­a­tion.”[5]

  “All things are for all men, since all men have need of them, since all men have worked in the measure of their strength to pro­duce them …”[6]

  To wind up, Paine’s main ideas are cer­tainly of im­port­ance in the quest to estab­lish polit­ical just­ice, but they by no means guaran­tee it. Few people would now argue with his opin­ions on hered­itary rulers. His other sug­ges­tions, though often paid lip serv­ice to, are rarely im­ple­mented. He could hardly have ex­pected such an anaemic doc­trine as the “neces­sary evil” of gov­ern­ment to be very satis­factory. He could not grasp the na­ture of prop­erty, and he was opti­mistic when estim­at­ing the degree to which re­pre­sent­at­ive gov­ern­ment can re­flect the inter­ests of its citi­zens.

  As a com­mun­ist (not a bolshe­vik) I be­lieve that all men must bene­fit when a sys­tem of co-oper­a­tion re­places the pres­ent one based on ex­ploit­a­tion. So­ciety spon­tane­ously ar­ranges it­self into basic nuclei—the vil­lage and the fac­tory for ex­ample. Each separ­ate unit should be self-con­trol­ling—the run­ning of it being a di­rect re­pro­duc­tion of the wishes of its mem­bers. Co-ordin­a­tion could be achieved on both re­gional, na­tional and inter­na­tional scales by con­gresses of elected re­pre­sent­at­ives. What would dis­tin­guish these de­leg­ates is that they would be merely the mouth­pieces of their elect­ors, and not in­di­viduals given the power to make de­ci­sions for, and thus rule, the pop­ula­tion. I should like to em­phas­ise that this would re­sult in a so­ciety of healthy and free citi­zens, but not in the crea­tion of healthy states, which would in fact cease to exist. We have had suf­fi­cient ex­peri­ence of polit­ic­ally healthy states, often dis­play­ing all the symp­toms of virile power, (thou­sand-year Reichs and the like) to real­ize that their flour­ish­ing exist­ence by no means guaran­tees the hap­pi­ness and well-being of their in­habit­ants.