Anarchy 44/The morality of anarchism

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The morality
of anarchism


The moral idea be­hind anar­chism has always been some­what elusive. There have prob­ably been almost as many anar­chist moral­it­ies as there have been anar­chists, but for ana­lysis they can be broadly di­vided into two cat­egor­ies: the so­cially pos­it­ive and the so­cially neg­at­ive. The pos­it­ive anar­chist moral­it­ies have de­rived from many sources from William Godwin on­wards, but the neg­at­ive aspects can chiefly be traced to the in­flu­ence of Max Stirner.

  In his the­oret­ical at­tempt to escape from bour­geois hypo­crit­ical morals Stirner went to re­mark­able lengths in glor­ify­ing crime and deny­ing all that was con­sid­ered good by the re­spect­able middle-class of his day. This total amor­al­ity was quite ra­tional if one began with his prem­ises, since one could owe no al­le­gian­ces to a so­ciety to which one had no re­spons­ibil­it­ies. Stirner’s dis­be­lief in al­tru­istic actions, and his vir­tual de­if­ica­tion of the indi­vid­ual, was quite con­sist­ent with his be­lief that others were to be re­garded as little more than means to the end of per­sonal self-real­isa­tion. But this just­ifica­tion of theft, dis­honesty, rape and murder is in a sense the very op­po­site of anar­chistic. When we com­plain that epople are being ex­ploited by the ruling-classes we are not only com­plain­ing that the people con­tinue to en­dure it. We are also com­plain­ing about ex­ploit­a­tion per se; and it is this very act of re­gard­ing a person as a means rather than an end that under­lies Stirner’s philo­sophy. The Stirner­ite at­tempt to escape this prob­lem is to post­ul­ate a union of ego­ists, in which “en­light­ened” self-inter­est is best served by co-oper­ation, al­though he pre­fers to call it com­pet­i­tion! It is inter­est­ing to ima­gine an ap­pli­ca­tion of this. When two ego­ists make love each one tries pre­sum­ably to please the other solely be­cause such re­cipro­ca­tion of pleasure facil­it­ates his or her own en­joy­ment of the act. This may sound un­reason­able, but such intro­spect­ive evid­ence is not enough to prove that it might not re­pre­sent our true mot­ives. I do not be­lieve that we can take the easy path of dis­missing Ego­ism out of hand, tempt­ing though it may be to some tem­pera­ments.

  Godwin, in con­trast to Stirner, was a human­it­arian, and be­lieved that Justice—the gen­eral good—was above indi­vid­ual inter­est, al­though he real­ised that a per­son’s con­cep­tion of ex­actly what was the gen­eral good could only be a matter for con­science. He was im­port­ant in that he denied the Cath­olic doc­trine of Ori­ginal Sin, and as­serted that we are born neither good nor bad. He was a moral man, and pro­claimed that we have “no right to act any­thing but virtue and to utter any­thing but
truth”. We can see here the com­plete dis­agree­ment be­tween his idea of the moral anar­chist, and Stirner’s af­firm­a­tion that moral­ity is rub­bish. Both of these men made dis­tinct con­trib­u­tion to anar­chist thought how­ever, al­though I think neither of them held views which were com­pletely or dis­tinct­ively anar­chist in the moral sphere. It would be in­con­sist­ent with the spirit of anar­chism to say that either one had, or could have had, the sole and abso­lute truth, for it is un­likely that anar­chists will ever be abso­lutely un­anim­ous on any­thing, espe­cially with re­spect to moral­ity. In mild criti­cism of Stirner I would say that to assert that we can never act al­tru­ist­ic­ally is tanta­mount to deny­ing free­will, and I think that Godwin’s dogma that we must fol­low truth and virtue in all cir­cum­stan­ces is some­what au­thor­it­arian. But I think that any anar­chist moral­ity must borrow points from each of them.

  Although the Stirner­ite and Godwin­ian trends in anar­chist moral­ity have been sup­ple­mented by others, I do not re­gard these as very rad­ical alter­a­tions of prin­ciple, and so I in­tend to turn now to a man who is not re­garded as a mem­ber of the anar­chist ranks, yet who to me is one of the fore­most anar­chist moral­ists—Jean-Paul Sartre. In his article on the Ethics of Anar­chism (anarchy 16) Bob Green did not men­tion Sartre once. I find this rather re­mark­able in the light of Sartre’s views. The fact that he calls him­self a com­mun­ist should not allow us to dis­miss him, since he is re­pudi­ated by the French CP, and must be the most un-Marx­ist com­mun­ist since Kropot­kin. Sartre, prob­ably with­out hav­ing read them, achieves the feat of bring­ing to­gether the anar­chistic ele­ments in the moral­ities of both Godwin and Stirner while omit­ting the un­anar­chistic ele­ments of each.

  Sartre agrees em­phatic­ally with Godwin’s re­jec­tion of the no­tion of ori­ginal sin, yet still re­cog­nises that men are born into a so­ciety which pre­sents them with a “com­mon pre­dic­ament”. Man is tot­ally free in­as­much as his values and de­ci­sions are in no way laid down before­hand by de­ter­min­ism or his genetic and en­viron­mental in­herit­ance, al­though the con­di­tions which de­line­ate his choices may be in­flu­enced from with­out. Thus man is no more destined to “sin” than he is to do good—in every moral situ­ation there are at least two pos­sible courses of action, and it is en­tirely up to him which he chooses to follow. What is more, since we are tot­ally free there can be no ex­ternal au­thor­ity or guide for our actions. We can­not escape our total re­spons­ibil­ity for what­ever acts we do, and hav­ing denied an ex­ternal source of moral law or moral judg­ment we must build our own moral codes as free in­di­vidu­als. Con­se­quently there is not, as Godwin seemed to be say­ing, any in­her­ent moral sense to tell us what is right and wrong. “Right” and “wrong” have no ab­solute mean­ing; hav­ing de­stroyed God we are in an arbi­trary world of our own where we must choose as in­di­vidu­als what is right and wrong for our­selves. Sartre is in fact say­ing, with Stirner, that in any abso­lute sense there is no moral­ity.

  This doc­trine of total free­dom and in­de­pend­ence is one which should ap­peal to any strong-minded and con­fid­ent anar­chist, since it funda­ment­ally counters dogmas of re­vealed truth which have been the per­ni­cious in­spir­a­tion of so many tyran­nical sys­tems. To me the anar­chist must not only re­ject polit­ical au­thor­ity, but also moral au­thor­ity.
It is this fact that makes the posi­tion of Christian anar­chists so pre­cari­ous. Sartre seems to say that God is dead simply be­cause we have killed him by as­sert­ing our own free­dom and au­thor­ity over our­selves. It is im­mensely tempt­ing to ac­cept Sartre’s denial of God and de­termin­ism, since it re­moves the theor­et­ical bar­rier of “human na­ture” which says that we make our own na­tures by our choices and actions, that a man’s moral­ity is what he does. Also, since one’s choices are really one’s own, it doesn’t matter tup­pence if one hap­pens to find one’s moral­ity co­in­cid­ing with the bour­geois moral­ity Stirner hated on cer­tain points. In other words, if it is “bour­geois” to re­frain from murder, arson, and rape then I can be proud of being “bour­geois” if I refrain from those things from choice rather than fear of pun­ish­ment or from so­cial con­di­tion­ing.o re­ject a moral axiom just be­cause it is bour­geois would be for Sartre just as much mauvais foi (bad faith) as to try to avoid moral re­spons­ibil­ity with the phrase: “they’re just bour­geois values”. If one takes the view of Sartre this de­fence is in­ad­equate. As we have seen Sartre is the ad­voc­ate and philo­sopher of re­spons­ibil­ity. The pop­ular view of ex­ist­en­tial­ism as being aim­less­ness and amoral­ity could not be farther from the truth. Sartre says that there is no way of know­ing what is “right”, yet we can never make ex­cuses for our actions, since we have freely chosen to per­form them.   So let us real­ise this: all our moral de­ci­sions stand alone as choices for which we bear en­tire per­sonal re­spons­ibil­ity. We often re­cog­nise this when criti­cis­ing an obe­di­ent thug like Eich­mann, but we seem to forget it when we talk about fight­ing the sys­tem with its own weapons. We may choose to do this be­cause we feel it just­ified in a par­tic­u­larly bad situ­a­tion, but we must be under no il­lu­sions about such a choice, it is a free one, and we can­not validly as­suage our con­scien­ces by say­ing that the State forces us to do it. Un­for­tun­ately one tends to choose reason­ably con­sist­ently, and how­ever tempt­ing it may be to use State meth­ods (e.g. viol­ence, trick­ery, theft) in our at­tempts to de­stroy all that is rotten in our sick so­ciety, we have to real­ise that by doing so we are per­pet­u­at­ing the very values we seek ultim­ately to de­stroy. Per­haps if we real­ise how re­spons­ible we are as in­di­vidu­als for this per­pet­u­a­tion we may in fu­ture think twice before em­ploy­ing or ad­voc­at­ing such meth­ods. On the ques­tion of re­spons­ibil­ity in prac­tical af­fairs, such as keep­ing ap­point­ments, doing what one says one will do, and gener­ally being loyal to other com­rades, it seems to me that anar­chists are no better (and some­times worse) than other people. Yet anar­chists should, as Jack Steven­son said re­cently, be the most re­spons­ible of people, in fact reli­abil­ity and self-re­spons­ibil­ity are es­sen­tial con­di­tions for call­ing one­self an anar­chist. It must be obvi­ous to all shades of anar­chist thought that the Free So­ciety would re­quire more self-con­trol, more self-con­scious­ness, than any other so­cial sys­tem that has been de­vised. I be­lieve then that Sartre, in pro­vid­ing the philo­soph­ical back­ground to such a view and re­ject­ing the no­tion that man is no­thing
more than a pro­duct of his en­viron­ment and hered­ity, has made a vital con­trib­u­tion to anar­chist thought.

  In pro­pound­ing Sartre’s views I have not at­trib­uted to him any spe­cific moral code, merely pointed out a few of the con­se­quen­ces of ac­cept­ing par­tic­u­lar codes. This is be­cause Sartre does not in fact ad­voc­ate a moral code. Sartre be­lieves that one’s life is the ex­pos­i­tion of one’s own moral values, and in his case these have been dis­tinct and con­sist­ent. That they can bee loosely de­fined as human­it­arian brings us back to Godwin. In fact Sartre, al­though de­fin­ing no rules of actual con­duct does make one point about con­duct in gen­eral. The philo­sopher Kant had postul­ated the cat­egor­ical im­per­at­ivethat one should act as though one’s moral maxims were a uni­versal law—and sartre takes this one stage further, saying that neces­sar­ily one acts as though one would wish others to act in the same situ­a­tion. This in­creases still further the bur­den of moral de­ci­sions, and gives some degree of ob­jec­tiv­ity to them. Yet at first sight it may ap­pear that uni­vers­al­is­abil­ity is an un-anar­chistic con­cept. Why as anar­chists should we not act as we wish with­out wish­ing other people to act like­wise? This is in fact the ex­treme in­di­vidu­al­ist posi­tion, but it seems to me that such ex­treme in­di­vidu­al­ity is at vari­ance with anar­chism as a move­ment, for it denies so­ciety. Any so­ciety is built on uni­vers­al­is­abil­ity, what I would call a so­cial con­tract entered into vol­untar­ily by every in­di­vidual in it. It is the force which re­stored the so­cial co­he­sion threat­ened by the de­struc­tion of au­thor­ity. It is the basis of mutual aid. When I offer my hand in friend­ship I do not ex­pect to get stabbed with a knife—yet were the arbi­trari­ness of values and modes of beha­viour uni­versal this would be quite con­sist­ent. So clearly, whether or not one wants to go quite as far as Sartre, it is im­port­ant to real­ise that uni­vers­al­is­abil­ity is im­pli­cit in any moral­ity to some degree. The situ­a­tion is made less omin­ous than may ap­pear by the fact that Sartre real­ises the in­di­vidu­al­ity of situ­a­tions—as a result one may feel com­pelled to take a par­tic­u­lar action in a par­tic­u­larly des­per­ate situ­a­tion, and will that an­other per­son should do the same, with­out will­ing the same action in far less des­per­ate cir­cum­stan­ces that would norm­ally oc­cur.

  Having said all this I hope to have shown that Sartre can pro­vide us with some use­ful start­ing points for de­velop­ing our moral codes. Clearly the im­pli­cit so­cial con­tract which I have postul­ated de­rives from his ideas, and clearly if it ex­ists it must be honoured by the vast ma­jor­ity of people if the so­ciety is not to break down. I am not say­ing there must be no ex­cep­tions. The curi­ous thing about human na­ture (or rather, human choices) is that we tend to hate people who are really and con­sist­ently moral, and most of us lesser mort­als would find a com­pletely moral so­ciety rather in­toler­able. How­ever, we must real­ise that those who ad­voc­ate a new so­ciety have a spe­cial re­spons­ibil­ity in this re­spect, since we are sup­pos­edly its van­guard and are apt to be re­garded very crit­ic­ally by those we seek to in­flu­ence. Viewed in this light many of us need to ques­tion the ad­equacy of our anar­chist ethic, and think again every time we feel like acting ir­re­spons­ibly.