Mutual Aid and Anarchist Conception

Mutual Aid and The Anarchist Conception Of Society

At first sight it might seem that a conception of social existence which would raise every individual on a pedestal and proclaim the complete autonomy of each would speedily reduce society to a number of independent personalities. Every social tie removed, there would remain just a few individuals in juxtaposition, and society as a ' collec­tive being' would disappear.

But it would be a grievous mistake to conceive of the anarchist ideal in this light. There is no social doctrine where the words 'solidarity' and 'fraternity' more frequently recur. Individual happiness and social well-being are to them inseparable. Hobbes's society, or Stirner's, where the hand of every one is against his brother, fill the anarchists with horror. To their mind that is a faithful picture of society as it exists to-day. In reality, however, man is a social being. The individual and society are correlative: it is impossible to imagine the one without thinking of the other.

No one has given more forcible expression to this truth than Bakunin; and this is possibly because no one ever had a keener sense of social solidarity. " Let us do justice once for all," he remarks, to the isolated or absolute individual of the idealists. But that indi­vidual is as much a fiction as that other Absolute—God. . .. Society, however, is prior to the individual, and will doubtless survive him, just as Nature will. Society, like Nature, is eternal; born of the womb of Nature, it will last as long as Nature herself. . . . Man becomes human and develops a conscience only when he realizes his humanity in society; and even then he can only express himself through the collective action of society. Man can only be freed from the yoke of external nature through the collective or social effort of his fellow-men, who during their sojourn here have transformed the surface of the earth and made the further development of mankind possible. But freedom from the yoke of his own nature, from the tyranny of his own instincts, is only possible when the bodily senses are con­trolled by a well-trained, well-educated mind. Education and train­ing are essentially social functions. Outside the bounds of society, man would for ever remain a savage beast.

Whether we read Proudhon or Kropotkin, we always meet with the same emphasis on the reality of the social being, on the pre-existence of the State, or at least of its necessary coexistence, if the individual is ever to reach full development. It is true that there are a few anarchists, such as Jean Grave, who still seem to uphold the old futile distinction between the individual and society, and who conceive of society as made up of individuals just as a house is built of bricks.

But is there no element of contradiction between this idea and the previous declaration of individual autonomy? How is it possible to exalt social life and at the same time demand the abolition of all traditional social links?

The apparent antinomy is resolved by emphasizing a distinction which Liberalism had drawn between government and society. Society is the natural, spontaneous expression of social life. Government is an artificial organ, or, to change the metaphor, a parasite preying upon society. Liberals from the days of Smith onward had applied the distinction to economic institutions; the anarchists were to apply it to every social institution. Not only the economic but every form of social life is the outcome of the social instinct which lies deep in the nature of humanity. This instinct of solidarity urges men to seek the help of their fellow-men and to act in concert with them. It is what Kropotkin calls mutual aid, and seems as natural to man and as neces­sary for the preservation of the species as the struggle for existence itself. What really binds society together, what makes for real cohesion, is not constraint (which, contrary to the time-honoured belief of the privileged classes, is really only necessary to uphold their privileges), but this profound instinct of mutual help and reciprocal friendship, whose strength and force have never yet been adequately realized. "There is in human nature," says Kropotkin, "a nucleus of social habits inherited from the past, which have not been as fully appre­ciated as they might. They are not the result of any restraint and transcend all compulsion."

Law, instead of creating the social instinct, simply presupposes it. Laws can only be applied so long as the instinct exists, and fall into desuetude as soon as the instinct refuses to sanction them. Govern­ment, far from developing this instinct, opposes it with rigid, stereo­typed institutions which thwart its full and complete development. To free the individual from external restraint is also to liberate society by giving it greater plasticity and permitting it to assume new forms which are obviously better adapted to the happiness and prosperity of the race. Kropotkin in his delightful book Mutual Aid gives numerous examples of this spontaneous social instinct. He shows how it assumes different forms in the economic, scientific, educational, sporting, hygienic, and charitable associations of modern Europe; in the munici­palities and corporations of the Middle Ages; and how even among animals this same instinct, which forms the real basis of all human societies, has enabled them to overcome the natural dangers that threaten their existence.

Anarchist society must not be conceived as a helium omnium contra omnes, but as a federation of free associations which every one would be at liberty to enter and to leave just as he liked. This society, Kropotkin tells us, would be composed of a multitude of associations bound together for all purposes that demand united action. A federa­tion of producers would have control of agricultural and industrial, and even of intellectual and artistic, production; an association of consumers would see to questions of housing, lighting, health, food, and sanitation. In some cases the federation of producers would join hands with the consumers' league. Still wider groups would embrace a whole country, or possibly several countries, and would include people employed in the same kind of work, whether industrial, intel­lectual, or artistic, for none of these pursuits would be confined to some one territory. Mutual understanding would result in combined efforts, and complete liberty would give plenty of scope for invention and new methods of organization. Individual initiative would be encouraged; every tendency to uniformity and centralization would be effectively checked.

In such a society as this complete concord between the general and the individual interests, hitherto so vainly sought after by the bour­geoisie, would be realized once for all in the absolute freedom now the possession of both the individual and the group, and in the total disap­pearance of all traces of antagonism between possessors and non-possessing, between governors and governed. Again we note a revival of the belief in the spontaneous harmony of interests which was so prominent a feature of eighteenth-century philosophy.

Such an attractive picture of society was bound to invite criticism. The anarchists foresaw this, and have tried to meet most of the arguments.
In the first place, would such extravagant freedom not beget abuse, unjustifiable repudiation of contracts, crimes and misdemeanours? Would it not give rise to chronic instability? and would the con­scientious never find themselves the victims of the fickle and the fraudulent?

The anarchists agree that there may be a few pranks played, or, as Grave euphemistically calls them, "certain acts apparently altogether devoid of logic." But can we not reckon upon criticism and disap­proval checking such anti-social instincts? Public opinion, if it were once freed from the warping influence of present-day institutions, would possess far greater coercive force. Our present system of building prisons, "those criminal universities," as Kropotkin calls them, will never check these anti-social instincts. "Liberty is still the best remedy for the temporary excesses of liberty." Moreover, such a system would enjoy a superior sanction in the possible refusal of other people to work with those who could not keep their word. "You are a man and you have a right to live. But as you wish to live under special conditions and leave the ranks, it is more than probable that you will suffer for it in your daily relations with other citizens."

But there is still a more serious objection. Were there no com­pulsion, would anyone be found willing to work? The host of idlers is at the present time vast, and without the sting of necessity it would become still greater. Kropotkin remarks that "it is only about the sugar plantations of the West Indies and the sugar refineries of Europe that robbery, laziness, and very often drunkenness become quite usual with the bees." Is it not possible that men are just imitating the bee?

The anarchists point out that many a so-called idler to-day is simply a madcap who will soon discover his true vocation in the free society of the future, and will thus be gradually transformed into a useful member of society. Moreover, does not the fact that so many people shun work altogether prove that the present method of organizing society must be at once cruel and repugnant? The certainty of being confined in an unhealthy workshop for ten or twelve hours every day, with mind and body "to some unmeaning task-work given," in return for a wage that is seldom sufficient to keep a family in decent comfort, is hardly a prospect that is likely to attract the worker. One of the principal aims of the anarchist regime—and in this respect it resembles the Phalanstere of Fourier—will be to make labour both attractive and productive. Science will render the fac­tory healthy, well lighted, and thoroughly ventilated. Machinery will even come to the rescue of the housewife and will relieve her of many a disagreeable task. Inventors, who are generally ignorant of the unpleasant nature of many of these tasks, have been inclined to ignore them altogether. "If a Huxley spent only five hours in the sewers of London, rest assured that he would have found the means of making them as sanitary as his physiological laboratory."3 Finally, and most important of all, the working day could then be reduced to a matter of four or five hours, for there would no longer be any idlers, and the systematic application of science would increase production tenfold.

The wonderful expansion of production under the influence of applied science is a favourite theme of the anarchists. Kropotkin has treated us to some delightful illustrations of this in his Conquest of Bread. He begins by pointing out the wonders already accomplished by market gardeners living in the neighbourhood of Paris. One of these, employing only three men working twelve to fifteen hours a day, was able, thanks to intensive cultivation, to raise no tons of vegetables on one acre of ground. Taking this as his basis, he calcu­lates that the 3,600,000 inhabitants in the departments of the Seine and the Seine-et-Oise could produce all the corn, milk, vegetables, and fruit which they could possibly need in the year with fifty-eight half-days' labour per man. By parity of reasoning he arrives at the conclusion that twenty-eight to thirty-six days' work per annum would secure for each family a healthy, comfortable home such as is occupied by English working men at the present time. The same thing applies to clothing. American factories produce on an average forty yards of cotton in ten hours.

Admitting that a family needs two hundred yards a year at most this would be equivalent to fifty hours' labour, or ten half-days of five hours each, and that all adults save women bind themselves to work five hours a day from the age of twenty or twenty-two to forty-five or fifty. . . . Such a society could in return guarantee well-being to all its members.

Elisee Reclus shares these hopes. It seems to him that "in the great human family hunger is simply the result of a collective crime, and it becomes an absurdity when we remember that the products are more than double enough for all the needs of consumers."

Amid such superabundant wealth, in a world thus transformed into a land of milk and honey, distribution would not be a very difficult problem. Nothing really could be easier. "No stint or limit to what the community possesses in abundance, but equal sharing and dividing of those commodities which are scarce or apt to run short." Such was to be the guiding principle. In practice the women and children, the aged and the infirm, were to come first and the robust men last, for such even is the etiquette of the soup kitchen, which has become a feature of some recent strikes. As to the laws of value which are supposed to determine the present distribution of wealth, and which the economists fondly believe to be necessary and immutable, the anarchists regard them as being no concern of theirs. The futility of such doctrines is a source of some amusement to them.