Godwin’s Philosophical Anarchism

William Godwin

William Godwin

This is the next installment of the “Anarchist Current,” my Afterword to Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, that appears in Volume Three: The New Anarchism (1974-2012). Here I discuss William Godwin’s philosophical anarchism in relation to the French Revolution (1789-1795). Previous installments dealt with Daoism and anarchism in ancient China, Etienne de la Boetie’s critique of voluntary servitude and the Diggers in the English Civil War, and anarchism in the French Revolution. Godwin’s companion was the early feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and their daughter became Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and other literary works.

Godwin Enquiry

Godwin’s Critique of Coercion

Jean Varlet’s English contemporary, William Godwin (1756-1836), developed an anarchist critique not only of revolutionary violence but of coercion as such, whether the institutionalized coercion of the law with its penal systems, or the individual coercion of a parent toward a child. Godwin wrote and revised his great philosophical work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (Volume One, Selection 4), during the French Revolution, publishing the final revised edition in 1797, around the time that Napoleon was coming to power, three years after the fall of Robespierre.

Godwin argued that coercion, and its positive correlate, inducements offered by those with wealth and power, distort political debate and moral discussion by causing people to evaluate a policy or course of conduct in terms of the punishments or rewards attached to them, rather than on their intrinsic merits. Coercion and inducements also have a debilitating effect on both persons in power and the people who obey or accept them.

“Dressed in the supine prerogatives of a master,” those in power are “excused from cultivating” their rational faculties. Those who are forced to obey their rulers become resentful and fearful. Instead of being encouraged to think for themselves, they learn how to avoid detection and seek power for themselves so that they can effect their own purposes.

The deleterious consequences of coercion and inducements are not surmounted by parliamentary debates, or what is now referred to as “deliberative democracy” (Dryzek, 2000). In the first place, the laws and policies of the government are not the result of direct debate among the people, but the result of the debates of elected representatives who represent particular interests. Decisions are made by majority vote of the representatives, who invariably vote along party lines. Even when a debate is not cut short by the ruling party, the “minority, after having exposed, with all the power and eloquence, and force of reasoning, of which they are capable, the injustice and folly of the measures adopted, are obliged… to assist in carrying them into execution,” since all the representatives are required to uphold the law. For Godwin, “nothing can more directly contribute to the deprivation of the human understanding and character” than to require people to act contrary to their own reason.

During parliamentary debates, which must come to a close with a vote of the assembled representatives, the “orator no longer enquires after permanent conviction, but transitory effect. He seeks to take advantage of our prejudices than to enlighten our judgement. That which might otherwise have been a scene of patient and beneficent enquiry is changed into wrangling, tumult and precipitation.”

This is particularly true during revolutionary upheavals. Reasoned and impartial debate “can scarcely be pursued when all the passions of man are afloat, and we are hourly under the strongest impressions of fear and hope, apprehension and desire, dejection and triumph.” Revolutions invariably provoke counter-revolution. When “we lay aside arguments, and have recourse to the sword,” amidst “the barbarous rage of war, and the clamorous din of civil contention, who shall tell whether the event will be prosperous or adverse? The consequence may be the riveting on us anew the chains of despotism.” To combat the counter-revolution, the revolutionaries suppress freedom of expression and resort to terror, organizing “a government tenfold more encroaching in its principles and terrible in its proceedings” than the old regime.

Despite regarding revolutions as being “necessarily attended with many circumstances worthy of our disapprobation,” Godwin recognized that “revolutions and violence have too often been coeval with important changes of the social system.” While we should “endeavour to prevent violence,” during revolutionary upheavals we cannot simply “turn away our eyes from human affairs in disgust, and refuse to contribute our labours and attention to the general weal.” Rather, we must take “proper advantage of circumstances as they arise, and not… withdraw ourselves because everything is not conducted according to our ideas of propriety.” Godwin’s critique of revolutionary violence must not therefore be misconstrued as tacit support for the injustices which the revolutionaries are seeking to overturn.

Since Godwin’s time, anarchists have continued to struggle with questions regarding recourse to violence and the role of anarchists during revolutionary struggles. The validity of Godwin’s warning, based on his own observations of the French Revolution, that revolution may result in a new tyranny because it is the strongest and not the most just who typically triumph, has been borne out by the experience of anarchists in subsequent revolutions. In the 20th century, both the Russian (Volume One, Chapter 18) and Spanish (Volume One, Chapter 23) revolutions resulted in dictatorships even more “ghastly” than that of Robespierre, despite the presence of significant anarchist movements.

When anarchist movements began to emerge in 19th century Europe, Godwin’s work was relatively unknown. It was largely through the work of the anarchist historian, Max Nettlau (1865-1944), that the ideas of de la Boétie and Godwin were introduced to European anarchists, well after anarchism had emerged as an identifiable current of thought (Walter, 2007).

Robert Graham

Anarchist Writings Godwin

Additional References

Dryzek, John S. Deliberative Democracy and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Nettlau, Max. A Short History of Anarchism. London: Freedom Press, 1996.

Walter, Nicolas. The Anarchist Past and Other Essays. Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications, 2007.

Advertisement

Bakunin: What is the State (1871)

Michael Bakunin

Michael Bakunin

In March 1871, just after the proclamation of the Paris Commune, Michael Bakunin prepared a summary of his revolutionary principles, setting forth his critique of authority, his social conception of freedom, and his critique of the State. I included similar material from Bakunin in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, but the following passage on the State succinctly sets forth Bakunin’s position.

What is the State?

What is the State? It is the historic organization of authority and tutelage, divine and human, extended to the masses of people in the name of some religion, or in the name of the alleged exceptional and privileged ability of one or sundry property-owning classes, to the detriment of the great mass of workers whose forced labour is cruelly exploited by those classes.

Conquest, which became the foundation of property right and of the right of inheritance, is also the basis of every State. The legitimized exploitation of the labour of the masses for the benefit of a certain number of property-owners (most of whom are fictitious, there being only a very small number of those who exist in reality) consecrated by the Church in the name of a fictitious Divinity which has always been made to side with the strongest and cleverest—that is what is called right. The development of prosperity, comfort, luxury, and the subtle and distorted intellect of the privileged classes—a development necessarily rooted in the misery and ignorance of the vast majority of the population—is called civilization; and the organization guaranteeing the existence of this complex of historic iniquities is called the State.

So the workers must wish for the destruction of the State…

The State, necessarily reposing upon the exploitation and enslavement of the masses, and as such oppressing and trampling upon all the liberties of the people, and upon any form of justice, is bound to be brutal, conquering, predatory, and rapacious in its foreign relations. The State—any State, whether monarchy or republic—is the negation of humanity. It is the negation of humanity because, while setting as its highest or absolute aim the patriotism of its citizens, and placing, in accordance with its principles, above all other interests in the world the interests of its own self-preservation, of its own might within its own borders and its outward expansion, the State negates all particular interests and the human rights of its subjects as well as the rights of foreigners. And thereby the State violates international solidarity among peoples and individuals, placing them outside of justice, and outside of humanity…

The State is the younger brother of the Church. It can find no other reason for its existence apart from the theological or metaphysical idea. Being by its nature contrary to human justice, it has to seek its rationale in the theological or metaphysical fiction of divine justice. The ancient world lacked entirely the concept of nation or society, that is, the latter was completely enslaved and absorbed by the State, and every State deduced its origin and its special right of existence and domination from some god or system of gods deemed to be the exclusive patron of that State. In the ancient world man as an individual was unknown; the very idea of humanity was lacking. There were only citizens. That is why in that civilization slavery was a natural phenomenon and the necessary basis for the fruits of citizenship.

When Christianity destroyed polytheism and proclaimed the only God, the States had to revert to the saints from the Christian paradise; and every Catholic State had one or several patron saints, its defenders and intercessors before the Lord God, who on that occasion may well have found himself in an embarrassing position. Besides, every State still finds it necessary to declare that the Lord God patronizes it in some special manner.

Metaphysics and the science of law, based ideally upon metaphysics but in reality upon the class interests of the propertied classes, also sought to discover a rational basis for the fact of the existence of the State. They reverted to the fiction of the general and tacit agreement or contract, or to the fiction of objective justice and the general good of the people allegedly represented by the State.

According to the Jacobin democrats, the State has the task of making possible the triumph of the general and collective interests of all citizens over the egoistic interests of separate individuals, communes and regions. The State is universal justice and collective reason triumphing over the egoism and stupidity of individuals. It is the declaration of the worthlessness and the unreasonableness of every individual in the name of the wisdom and the virtue of all. It is the negation of fact, or, which is the same thing, infinite limitation of all particular liberties, individual and collective, in the name of freedom for all—the collective and general freedom which in reality is only a depressing abstraction, deduced from the negation or the limitation of the rights of separate individuals and based upon the factual slavery of everyone.

In view of the fact that every abstraction can exist only inasmuch as it is backed up by the positive interests of a real being, the abstraction, the State, in reality represents the positive interests of the ruling and property owning, exploiting, and so-called intelligent classes, and also the systematic immolation for their benefit of the interests and freedom of the enslaved masses.

Michael Bakunin, March 25-30, 1871

Mikhail-Bakunin-Quotes-4