W. C. Owen, “Anarchism” (1895)



1.—Do Anarchist-Communists believe in the common ownership of land and capital?

I myself do not; that is to say, I certainly do not believe in making such ownership compulsory. Whether common, or private ownership shall prevail under Anarchism, is merely a question of detail. The principle is individual freedom; equal liberty to every man, woman, and child to develop all that is in him or her, and to have access to the life-opportunities necessary for such development; i. e. freedom of production, and of distribution or exchange, which is, of course, only the final process of production.

This—freedom to the non-invasive individual to do everything except invade—is, to my thought the vital principle, because on its observance depends all the development of life, in all that immeasurable diversity which alone makes progress possible.

Freedom for the individual—free access to the means of sustaining and developing his life—this is the basic principle. He must be free to use these means in solitude, or in co-operation with others, just as may seem to him desirable.

Were this liberty granted sociology would evolve just as all other sciences have evolved, by constant and varied experiment all along the line. Men would group themselves naturally; some would flock in a corner y themselves, and go it alone a la Thoreau; others would go for pure communism; others would set up a State Socialism of their own, and so forth. Certain experiments would succeed, others would fail; what proved workable would gradually gain universal adoption; what proved unworkable would gradually pass into innocuous desuetude; the fittest would survive, and progress would advance with leaps and bounds, because we should be working with natural law, instead of obstinately bucking against it.

Who are the reformers that they should lay down law for others—invasive laws compelling the non-invasive, harmless individual to cut his life-cloth to their particular pattern? Do they no know that what is one man’s meat is another man’s poison? Communism, save when forced on the unwilling, is neither good nor bad. For some it would be doubtless good, because suited to their tastes, characters, and to the particular stage in evolution that they have reached; for some it would be bad, because unsuited to them. The mistake is in laying down positive rules of conduct. Conduct must always be relative—conditioned by circumstances. What is good today may be anything but the right thing tomorrow.

Militarism still saturates all our thought; we are still slaves to the old barbaric idea that men cannot be trusted to work out their own destiny, but that they must be governed, and forced, and driven hither and thither. What is wanted is confidence in human worth and ability; confidence in freedom all round—in freedom of production and exchange; in freedom of sexual association and disassociation; in freedom to worship or not to worship; in the freedom, in a word, that allows and actively encourages, a man to be himself.

2.—If the answer is “yes,” how are they to become common property?

Obviously, from my point of view, the individual’s land and capital can only be merged into the common fund with his full and free consent.

3.—Can a worker who owns a number of machines, the product of his labor, keep them under Anarchist-Communism?

Under my philosophy he certainly can, and will if he wants to. He probably will want to.

4.—If he can, and if he uses them for productive purposes, can he keep the product?

Of course.

5.—Suppose a man has a plot of land which he is occupying and using, will he be permitted to continue to do so?

Tenure by occupancy should, in my judgment, never be disturbed, save when it has become manifest that the welfare of the community is being retarded by such occupancy; as where a man, for example, insists on keeping possession of a piece of land greatly needed for some public purpose. The verdict of a jury, deciding that his removal was a public necessity, and assessing the compensation to be paid to him, would settle the case, I think, both easily and justly. By the time that the people have risen to the elevation of thought necessary before just conditions of life can be adopted, they will by that very fact have risen above the hoggish philosophy in which they at present wallow, and, comparatively speaking, starve. My apologies to the four-footed hogs for the comparison, which does them great injustice. They are monopolists only when food runs short, and they themselves are starving.

In fine: The masses are everywhere in want, because they do not understand that the poet uttered a hard economic truth when he said “Bread is freedom, freedom bread.”

W. C. Owen.

W. C. Owen, “Anarchism,” Liberty (London) 2 no. 21 (September, 1895): 168.

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About Shawn P. Wilbur 2311 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.