Herbert Read: War & Revolution (1945)

In April 1945, Marie Louise Berneri (Volume Two, Selections 4, 15 & 75), Vernon Richards (Volume Two, Selection 33), John Hewetson and Philip Sansom (Volume Two, Selection 58) were tried in England for “incitement to disaffection” and for conspiring “to seduce from duty” members of the armed forces by making available to British soldiers copies of the anarchist paper, War Commentary (which was shortly thereafter renamed Freedom, reviving the name of the paper founded by Kropotkin (Volume One, Selections 33, 34, 41 & 52) and Charlotte Wilson (Volume One, Selection 37) in 1886). Marie Louise Berneri was acquitted on a technicality (on the basis that she could not conspire with her husband, Vernon Richards), but the other three were sent to jail. Herbert Read (Volume One, Selection 130; Volume Two, Selections 1, 19 & 36) was active in the defence of the accused, and was even able to solicit support, on free speech grounds, from the then pro-war George Orwell. The following excerpts are taken from Read’s contribution to the Freedom Press Defence Committee’s pamphlet, Freedom: Is it a crime? The strange case of the three anarchists jailed at the Old Bailey, April 1945, in which he defends freedom of expression, exposes the hypocrisy of the authorities, and argues that war can only be prevented by radically transforming society.

Herbert Read: War and Revolution (1945)

At our last meeting I said that if our comrades were imprisoned, we who remained free would continue the struggle against the forces of repression now active in this country, against the political police, against every enemy of freedom. That struggle is now on. The weapons with which we can fight are limited: they are the very weapons which our authoritarian government is attempting to take away from us — our printing-press, our pamphlets, our right to speak and publish the truth that is within us. Limited as they are, these are nevertheless the only weapons we need to create such a volume of protest that press and parliament, the public at large will be compelled to listen to us. We shall not rest until our comrades are released, and even then we shall go on, to create such a consciousness of the existing danger to our common liberty, that the cause of it is forever eliminated from our society.

It will not be an easy campaign. Among the many lessons which this episode has taught us, the most surprising to me has been the indifference of the so-called liberal press… Here was a clear threat to the liberty of the Press. Did the Press rise in righteous indignation? We have not heard a single note of complaint. This institution which boasts that it is the guardian of our national liberties was perhaps a little drunk with the prospects of a military victory: at any rate, it slept whilst the very liberties which they thought were being secured in Europe were filched from us here in the Old Bailey [criminal court].

Then there is Parliament. We anarchists have never placed much faith in the dim inmates of that opium den, but we note that many of them talk frequently of liberty, inside the House and out. But what has Parliament done to defend our liberty in this case? We know well enough that all that gang talk endlessly about freedom, it is a nice, inspiring word — but they uphold its reality only so long as it does not threaten their private interests.

In these last few weeks more hypocrisy has been smeared over our daily and weekly papers than ever before in our history. If you can bring yourself to read the leading articles and commentaries in these periodicals, you will find the word “freedom” in almost every paragraph. You are told that we have just won the greatest war in history — for “freedom.” You are asked to celebrate this glorious victory — “in the cause of freedom.” You are even encouraged to get drunk for “freedom.” We are not deceived. So long as our three comrades remain in prison, victory is an illusion, and the man who celebrates it is nothing but a mug.

…[W]e are by no means intimidated by what has happened. The penalties of the Courts are only justified on the assumption that they deter others from repeating the alleged offence. We are not moved one inch from our course. All that legal pantomime at the Old Bailey was from every point of view a futile and costly farce…

But for what in actual fact were the prisoners in the dock? They were men who held a certain belief, a theory of society, an ideal of civilization, and all they had done, the only crime with which they could be charged, was that they had incidentally taken steps to bring their beliefs to the attention of members of His Majesty’s Forces.

What is this belief whose mere propagation constitutes a crime? I am going to tell you, in simple direct words, and what I shall say will amount to no more and no less than the substance of the beliefs for which our comrades are now suffering a sentence of imprisonment.

We begin with the central fact of WAR. We say that if our civilization is to survive — not this country nor that country, but the whole civilization of which we are members — war must be eliminated. War has now reached a stage of technical development which in future will involve, not merely the deaths of millions of human beings — men, women and children — but also the complete destruction of the material necessities of life: food, housing, communications, health. War will henceforth mean annihilation, not merely for the vanquished, but for all who engage in it.

We then analyze the causes of war, and this is where we begin to differ from other people who would also like to get rid of war. We say that modern war cannot be explained in terms of capitalism, of imperialism, of economics or of populations: it is a disease of civilization itself, something inherent in the very structure of modern society. In order to get rid of war, we must alter the structure of society.

But “to alter the structure of society” is merely a polite way of saying that a revolution will be essential, and it is for using this word “revolution” that our comrades are in prison. They would not have been put in prison if they had expressed a wish to alter “the structure of society” — which only shows what power is attributed to words when they become weapons.

But whatever we call the process, the choice before our civilization is clear: either revolution or annihilation. That is the inescapable conclusion which we anarchists have reached, and we claim that it is a rational, indeed a logical conclusion.

But what then does revolution imply? We say that the structural fault in our civilization which leads to war lies in the doctrine of national sovereignty, which requires for its expression and propagation the social organ known as the State. Modern wars are conducted by States, through their paid servants — the politicians, civil servants and armed forces. Wars do not, in our stage of development, break out naturally between peoples, and in spite of all the powers of persuasion which States can command and direct, the peoples remain largely indifferent to the issues involved in State wars. Put in another way, we might say that modern wars are essentially ideological, and ideologies belong to classes, not to peoples. The peoples have no ideologies, anywhere. They have interests and prejudices, customs and superstitions: they may be selfish and egotistic, but everywhere and at all time their main purpose is to secure a living from the soil, or from the labours of their hands or brains: and they know that such a purpose is not furthered, but frustrated, by war. Lives, houses, cattle, tillage, material possessions of every kind — these are the common wealth of the people, however unevenly distributed that wealth may be. That kind of wealth is destroyed by war. What is not destroyed by war is another kind of wealth — gold, bonds, credits and other goods not made by labour: these may escape war, just as German Bonds will survive this war, or as Russian Imperial Bonds have escaped “the greatest revolution in history”: but this kind of wealth does not belong to the people, but to the State and its servants, and, one must add, to its dupes.

Under defeat, a particular State may disintegrate. We have seen several States disintegrate during the past few years — France, Belgium, Italy, Greece, and now Germany. This, we say, provides a golden opportunity to make the necessary structural alterations in our social system. It is, in fact, a revolutionary situation, and in such a situation, when the State has revealed all its insubstantiality, and has vanished overnight, we must not let any body of gangsters or looters step out of the ruins and organize another State. That will only lead inevitably to another war and a worse war. In such a revolutionary situation, our comrades said, and I repeat, the armed forces have ceased to exist as instruments of a State: for the moment the nations have become peoples, people in arms. Let the nation remain a people in arms — stick to your arms, we say to such a people, rather than deliver them up to any gang which takes upon itself to speak in the name of a new State. If we are a people, all equal and all equally armed or disarmed, then we can get together and agree on a new form of society, a non-governmental society, in which nation will no longer be opposed to nation, State to State, but a society in which people will work together for the common good. When that reform has been accomplished, everywhere in the world, we can all throw away our arms, and live in peace ever after.

That is the doctrine which our comrades preached, for which they have been persecuted and imprisoned. You may not agree with it — you may not agree with Buddhism or Christianity, with communism or conservatism, but we do not, in this country, imprison people for being Buddhists or Christians, conservatists or communists. Why, then, in the name of all that is just and equitable, are these three anarchists deprived of their liberty?

Well, it is perhaps a simple miscarriage of justice, an anomaly of the law, some bad kind of joke played by the State jesters. That would be the most agreeable explanation to offer. But if that is not the right explanation, if our comrades have been imprisoned in the pursuance of a ruthless and determined policy, then the rights we believe we possess as citizens of this democratic country are at an end. There is no longer, in this land such a thing as the liberty of unlicensed printing for which Milton made his immortal and unanswerable plea: there is no longer any such thing as freedom of expression which ten generations of Englishmen have jealously guarded. These words are now a mockery, and either we have been duped slaves to accept such a breach of our traditional rights, or we resolve never to rest until they are restored… the war which has been won on the Continent of Europe has been lost in this island of Britain, and we can have no joy in victory, nor ease from strife, until our comrades once more stand beside us as free men.


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