Alex Comfort: Barbarism and Sexual Freedom

In Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, subtitled The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977), I included selections by the English author, anarchist and anti-militarist, Alex Comfort (1920-2000), including material from Peace and Disobedience (1946), Art and Social Responsibility (1946) and his classic critique of the criminology of power, Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State (1950). Comfort became famous in the 1970s for his gourmet sex guide, The Joy of Sex. Few of his readers realized that he was an anarchist who argued that sexual health and liberation could only be fully achieved through the creation of an anarchist society by individual and mass disobedience  and resistance to existing power structures. Comfort more explicitly draws out these connections in the following excerpts from his 1948 Freedom Press pamphlet, Barbarism and Sexual Freedom: Lectures on the sociology of sex from the standpoint of anarchism.

Alex Comfort

The importance of sexual normality in psychical and social health has been increasingly recognised by psychologists, both as cause and as effect, but like most other workers in medical fields they are inclined to regard sociology which speaks in terms of politics with suspicion—there is a tendency for psychological studies to induce a kind of medical fatalism which equates the revolutionary and the malcontent with the psychical invalid, and regards “adaptation” and “morale” as gods to be bowed down before. But to the sociologist at least “adaptation” is to be regarded in the light of the specific value of the environment to which the subject is adapted—“adaptation” to war, fascism or sterility, for example, is a form of acquiescence which cannot be regarded as a sign of health.

Nobody in medical practice who uses his faculties can fail to be aware that it is largely the social organisation and environment which today is “psychopathic,” rather than its individual components, and if the idea that institutions can be regarded psychically as if they were individuals, or can behave like deranged individuals, is odd or heterodox to those who treat individuals, it is not new in sociology. The public conduct of individuals, from which social mechanisms are composed, is a world increasingly fenced-off from, though governed by the same processes as, personal psychology, and far as conceptions of the group unconscious have gone, they must go further still, assisted by theories derived not only from psychology but from history and zoology, and formulated by such social-biologists as Kropotkin.

I write as an anarchist, that is, as one who rejects the conception of power in society as a force which is both anti-social and unsound in terms of general biological principle. If I have any metaphysical and ethical rule on which to base my ideas, it is that of human solidarity and mutual aid against a hostile environment, the psychical and moral counterpart of the biological forces of adaptation which lead to phylogenetic change. It is in terms of these forces that human individuals, and human societies, exist or succumb, and the sexual impulse, whether we regard it as the Eros of Freud or as a force of purely biochemical status (they are not mutually exclusive), is in itself so essential a manifestation of this species-solidarity, and of the attempt and will to survive, that its submergence or diversion is a danger-signal in any society. A society which orientates itself toward life and human solidarity is a civilisation—one which orientates itself exclusively towards death and allies itself with the purely anti-human status of non-existence, non-living, asociality, is barbarism. Every indication points to the steady movement of Western cultures away from the first, and towards the second.

Since I am concerned… mainly to discuss sexual ethics in a non-medical context, I have said less than I would wish about the reverse aspect of sexuality and psychology, the effect of individual maladaptations on the social pattern. Societies cannot manufacture new evils, though they can aggravate existing ones. After a certain point the process of social imbalance and private neurosis becomes a vicious circle—each generation reinforces the errors of the last, until new factors enter to alter the pattern. It is not easy for the physiologist to mould the Freudian Eros and Thanatos to his own rather different conception of instincts, but they exist at the physiological level, if only as facilitation-patterns, which higher cortical processes can take over and employ in the more complex patterns of social conduct—thus sadism is unquestionably in part an exaggeration of a component in normal mating-behaviour, but it is also a process which can be taken over and assimilated by aggressiveness, conditioned as a source of sexual pleasure by experience, and substituted for normal, sexuality by deprivation—the mind is somewhat like an instrument which can play innumerable tunes on a limited number of chords, and in which any note once struck evokes overtones at both higher and lower levels of cerebral activity. The importance of the physiological conception is that this impulse, together with aggression and masochism, is both a component of the desire to govern and a means consciously employed by government—one can deliberately manufacture sadists by conditioning and it is a feature of barbarism that it does so—one can also make them by the destruction of creative freedom:

“The individual must be vouchsafed the opportunity to gratify the life-instinct of providing food, shelter, and the release of the sexual urge in socially accepted ways—otherwise frustration with its train of neurotic manifestations may fortify the death instinct… Suicide and all manifestations of masochism derive from the death-instinct. So do homicide, war, and that complex of aggressions known as the sadistic impulse. Love in all its sexual connotations springs from the life-instinct… The ascendancy of either one spells life or death for the individual” (A.J. Levine).

One might add that it spells life or death for the society of which the individual forms a part. Apart from sociology there can be no coherent psychology, any more than one can comprehend the biology and behaviour of ants by reference to one individual. And apart from individual realisation and action history is only too often a catalogue of futility and folly which would turn the stomach of any masochist. The factual history of power in society bears the same relationship to communal health as the works of de Sade bear to individual normality, save that it is real, not fantastic.

Either it is true that humanity by intelligence and by the practice of mutual aid and direct action can reverse processes which appear socially inevitable, or humanity will become extinct by simple maladaptation… I believe it to be the duty of psychology and medicine, for which they are particularly suited, to initiate the process of sociological change by prescribing conscientious, intelligent and responsible disobedience and resistance by individuals towards irresponsible power-institutions such as war, military service, and other forms of coercion—not as a sub-intelligent revolt of psychopaths but as a fully conscious and deliberate re-adoption of human responsibility. That a man should recognise and fight against his traditional enemies, Death, Power, and Fear, is the first step towards normality and freedom; and with this cause the psychologist must be prepared to ally himself if he is not willing to become a traitor to his vocation and to his species…

Physicians, more than any others, are apt to accept reformist methods because they are obliged in conscience to palliate, when they cannot cure. The “cause” of gonorrhoea is not the gonococcus; it is at present just, as much “caused” by Hitler, his opponents, London, Berlin, Glasgow, unemployment. We can kill or segregate the organisms, but it is not always possible to deal with the other causes by similarly immediate measures. Reformist activity, in sexual, matters, as in other branches of medicine, has achieved a certain amount, within its somewhat narrow limitations. It has at least brought matters into a state where they can be openly discussed. But for the investigator faced with the social problem of venereal infection, reform has reached its limits. Without the removal of war, no further progress is possible, and the roots of war lie in the structure of power—regulated societies.

The impact of political and sociological theory and action on medicine are nowhere so marked as in the field of sexual hygiene—the physician to whom public health is something more than the passive acceptance of public disease has reached the limit of his resources, and behind the psychical illnesses and the syphilis lie tuberculosis, malnutrition, occupational trauma, premature senility, and a host of conditions, all manifestly and grossly conditioned by social forces, which legions of social-workers, millions of pounds and excellent intentions are wholly impotent to tackle. There is the problem, and there are its causes—the logic of medicine is, or ought to be, capable of the decision involved. And yet the natural recalcitrance of the individual shows signs of outpacing the scientific observer—it does not need [Lewis] Mumford and [Patrick] Geddes to tell the city-dweller that his life is unhealthy, uneconomic and directed towards death and nullity, or [Carl] Jung to tell him that his family relationships are distorted out of all recognition, or Boyd Orr and McCance to tell the peasants and workers of huge areas of the world that they are starving. The social conditioning of venereal disease and prostitution, like that of war and power, is increasingly obvious, and the remedy lies jointly in the hands of the scientific worker and the public—it is with the individual that the ultimate power of action, if only by an unconstructive but effective recalcitrance to bad institutions, rests. Without this, the enormous resources of experimental science are bound to be in a great measure nullified and wasted.


Coercive morality, like coercive society, is breaking down. It cannot be reformed, only replaced by freedom or by a repetition of past errors. And while to a certain extent the individual can reform his own sexual life, and practice the freedom which I have described, we have to face the fact that until coercive societies are destroyed we cannot attain any general measure of biological normality. So long as it has megalopolitanism and war to contend with, sexuality cannot be in any sense normal. He who wants to eat must work— he who wants to attain a normal and satisfying sexual relationship, based on love, freedom, and responsibility for himself and his children must be prepared to fight for it by disobedience. Sexual freedom and political tyranny cannot co-exist, and it is to be hoped and expected that humanity, driven and inspired by the urgency with which its nature demands the first, will destroy the second.

It is because the whole emphasis of anarchist thought is upon the removal of power and the refusal to employ power-institutions as a vehicle for reformist measures that it seems to me to embody the most comprehensive and scientifically legitimate approach to sexual ethics. I think I have made it clear that the closeness of the relation between this branch of human conduct and social institutions in general makes it impossible to modify either except by way of the other. A general outbreak of public resistance to militarism would contribute more to the removal of sexual imbalance than any action through the channels which we have come to regard as political. The problem is that of human freedom, and human freedom has little to do with institutions or the reform of institutions. Yet there is a stronger case for reformist action as a stop-gap treatment in this field than in any other. While we cannot excise the problem radically until megalopolitanism destroys itself or is superseded through the direct action of peoples, that does not mean that we can afford to withhold first-aid measures.

Scientific research to devise a genuinely reliable contraceptive is of much importance. The continuance of public pressure through the machinery of power, as well as against it, seems to me well worthwhile. There are certain limited objectives, the end of conscription, the abolition of literary censorship, the destruction of the mediaeval elements in sexual law, and a wide dissemination of erotic knowledge and technique, all of them reasonably accessible to direct public pressure within the existing framework of society, in which many people who do not accept the ideological implications of much that I have said would be able to co-operate. Constructive experiments in communal health such as the Peckham Experiment [see Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action] contribute more to mental and physical hygiene than oceans of welfare services and good intentions. Reform of the penal treatment of sexual offenders, repeal of laws such as those relating to nudity and to indecent literature, and other measures such as the extension of child, adolescent, and adult sex education have impressive support. While they are in no sense a substitute for a free society they are a means toward it, and insofar as any victory for reasonable and biologically-founded principle over fear and irrationalism is a victory for man, such advances, however obtained, are in fact the means of a wider and more fundamental revolution in the structure of living.

The initial milieu of all such education is the family, and it is to the extension of knowledge through parental teaching and example that I feel science must attempt to direct itself. The influence of health instruction through guidance and child welfare clinics is already apparent in an increased rationality in parental attitudes towards masturbation and adult attitudes towards taboo manifestations of sexuality. A wider and more courageous encouragement and toleration of pre-adult sexual play among adolescents and an extension of the teaching of erotics to adults are both desirable on the evidence at our disposal. By such means the extension of the rational attitude, of the motto of Rabelais’ Abbey of Thelema, “Do what you will,” with the added clause, “provided it harms no-one,” may be brought about. If there is a single phrase to write over the door of the marriage guidance clinic, it is “There is nothing to fear.”

But advances in this field join hands at every point with the need for advances in education, in social living, and in the forgotten art of being human. At present there is evidence that the most educated groups, by long study and struggle, are regaining the kind of normality which is general in the behaviour of lower animals. Like all forms of sociological investigation, sexual knowledge finds that it can make little effective progress without the total reorientation of society toward the concepts of freedom and individual responsibility which recur throughout modern work, but time is short, and the tendency of events is running strongly in the direction of increased coercion. In such circumstances, while study and investigation are essential, it is with the active resistance of the individual to these trends, by the power of disobedience, of non-adaptation to death, that the future of social progress rests. The struggle against power is the concern of psychology and medicine, as of every other science, because it is the concern of man.

Alex Comfort (1920-2000)



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