In this installment from “the Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist responses to the death and destruction wrought by the Second World War.
Facing the War
At the beginning of the Second World War, a group of anarchists in Geneva wrote that it is “an indispensable right, without which all other rights are mere illusions”, that “no one should be required to kill others or to expose themselves to being killed.” For them, the “worst form of disorder is not anarchy,” as critics of anarchism claim, “but war, which is the highest expression of authority” (Volume Two, Selection 3). That expression of authority was to result in the loss of tens of millions of lives in Europe and Asia during the next six years, culminating in the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. As Marie Louise Berneri remarked, anarchist acts of violence pale in comparison. A single bombing raid “kills more men, women and children than have been killed in the whole history, true or invented, of anarchist bombs.” When Italian anarchists tried to assassinate Mussolini, they were denounced as terrorists, but when “whole cities” are rubbed “off the map” as part of the war effort, reducing “whole populations to starvation, with its resulting scourge of epidemics and disease all over the world,” the workers “are asked to rejoice in this wholesale destruction from which there is no escaping” (Volume Two, Selection 4).
When anarchists resort to violence, they are held criminally responsible, and their beliefs denounced as the cause. When government forces engage in the wholesale destruction of war, no one (at least among the victors) is held responsible, belief in authority is not seen as the cause, and the very nation states which brought about the conflict are supposed to bring, as Marie Louise Berneri remarked, “peace and order… with their bombs” (Volume Two, Selection 4).
In response to the comments of a U.S. Army sergeant surveying a bombed out area in Germany that in “modern war there are crimes not criminals… Murder has been mechanized and rendered impersonal,” Paul Goodman wrote that “it is ridiculous to say that the crime cannot be imputed or that any one commits it without intent or in ignorance… The steps [the individual] takes to habituation and unconsciousness are crimes which entail every subsequent evil of enslavement and mass-murder” (Volume Two, Selection 11).
Alex Comfort noted that modern bureaucratic societies “have removed at least one of the most important bars to delinquent action by legislators and their executive, in the creation of a legislature which can enact its fantasies without witnessing their effects, and an executive which abdicates all responsibility for what it does in response to superior orders.” The “individual citizen contributes to [this] chiefly by obedience and lack of conscious or effective protest” (Volume Two, Selection 26). Comfort argued that the individual, by making “himself sufficiently numerous and combative,” can render the modern state impotent “by his withdrawal from delinquent attitudes,” undermining “the social support they receive” and the power of the authorities “whose policies are imposed upon society only through [individual] acquiescence or co-operation” (Volume Two, Selection 26).
At the beginning of the war, Emma Goldman had written that the “State and the political and economic institutions it supports can exist only by fashioning the individual to their particular purpose; training him to respect ‘law and order’; teaching him obedience, submission and unquestioning faith in the wisdom and justice of government; above all, loyal service and complete self-sacrifice when the State commands it, as in war.” For her, “true liberation, individual and collective, lies in [the individual’s] emancipation from authority and from belief in it” (Volume Two, Selection 2).
Herbert Read held a similar position, but focused on the role of modern education in creating a submissive populace, much had Francisco Ferrer before him (Volume One, Selection 65). Through the education system, “everything personal, everything which is the expression of individual perceptions and feelings, is either neglected, or subordinated to some conception of normality, of social convention, of correctness.” Read therefore advocated libertarian education, emphasizing the creative process and “education through art” (1943), arguing that it “is only in so far as we liberate” children, “shoots not yet stunted or distorted by an environment of hatred and injustice, that we can expect to make any enduring change in society” (Volume Two, Selection 36).
Paul Goodman described the school system as “compulsory mis-education” (1964), which perpetuated a society in which youth are “growing up absurd” (1960). His friend Ivan Illich was later to advocate “deschooling society” as a way of combating the commodification of social life, where everything, and everybody, becomes a commodity to be consumed (Volume Two, Selection 73). By the 1960s and 1970s, people were again experimenting in libertarian education (Volume Two, Selection 46), something which anarchists had been advocating since the time of William Godwin.