Steubenville Survey: Response by William C. Owen

[ Response by William C. Owen (Freedom) ]

An Enquiry on Anarchism

(The “Iconoclasts” Group, of Steubenville, Ohio, has organized an international enquiry on Anarchism, the replies to which are appearing in the weekly Supplement of “La Protesta,” of Buenos Aires. The following is Wm. C. Owen’s contribution.)


1. Anarchism’s actual problems, and the measures to be taken for provoking an international Anarchist effort in opposition to the authoritarian reaction.

To this question I answer as follows. In my opinion, a real and powerful revolt against the present authoritarian reaction can come only when the more active and daring minds, despairing of relief through any of the existing forms of government, become seized with a passion for taking into their own hands, individually and collectively, the management of their own lives. That is to say, it can only when, consciously or unconsciously, they have become saturated with what is the quintessence of Anarchist thought. Only those so saturated will be able to initiate and bring to fruition the great movement that will eventually emancipate the masses, and it is the development of real Anarchists in every circle, and wherever bold and active intellects are to be found, that all energies should be bent. Those who do not know where they stand, and those who have not the moral courage needed to take a definite stand, are always a source of weakness, as events since the outbreak of the Russian Revolution have clearly proved. For years our movement has been rent asunder because thousands of our so-called comrades imagined that by some mystical hocus-pocus the emancipation of the workers could be accomplished only by the establishment of a Dictatorship that would trample disdainfully on “the more or less decomposed corpse of Liberty.” For the moment I forget whether the phrase quoted was coined by Lenin or Mussolini, but that is immaterial. Both considered that the masses must be governed with an iron hand, and each received his training in the Socialist camp.

We find ourselves perpetually attacked and persecuted by Socialists whenever they have managed to climb into the seats of power; and instead of being surprised and indignant over this, we should accept it as inevitable, because Socialism is essentially an authoritarian, all-Government creed which teaches consistently that without supervision and control—exercised, of course, by some alleged superior over some alleged inferior—society could not hold together, and mankind would sink into savagery. Our view is the exact opposite of this, and it seems to me that every attempt to mate such opposites can result only in the production of sterile hybrids. To imagine that Socialism is a stepping-stone to Anarchism is to imagine that Despotism will give birth to Freedom, and that figs will grow on thistles. In the near future we shall have to fight Socialism far harder than we have fought it hitherto, and eventually we shall discover that on both sides it is war to the knife.

Men act as they think. They try to bring bout the conditions that, as they suppose, will give them prosperity and happiness; and if they calculate wrongly it is because they have not been in a position which enabled them to figure correctly. What chance of thinking correctly has a king, surrounded as hi is from the cradle to the grave by flatterers who never tell him the truth? And if the workers can see no farther than the particular occupation to which he is enslaved it is because his eyes have not had the opportunity of taking in a larger view. If he interprets the Class Struggle as representing merely a conflict over wages and hours between himself and is immediate employer, it is because a narrow Trade Union teaching has given him that impression; and it can be removed only by showing him that the real struggle is a far larger one, being between those who at present monopolize the sources of life, and thereby of power over their fellow-creatures, and those who are thus rendered helplessly dependent on them.

From first to last it is a question of education, and it seems to me that we have fallen into a most dangerous habit of minimizing the education value of straight propaganda and exaggerating enormously that of events. We trust that something will happen, but we forget that what results from that happening will depend on the mentality of those to whom it happens. An upheaval among men saturated with a servile philosophy of life will result in Dictatorship, and this is what has been taking place recently in many parts of Europe. The masses have been trained, alike by their former masters and by a widespread Socialist movement, to believe in Authority; to believe in a State run by men out of their own ranks; to put their trust in official saviours; to have no faith in their own capacity as individuals, and to rely altruistically on the strength and wisdom and benevolence of numbers. That is the most dangerous of teachings, for it plays on two great weaknesses to which all of us are prone. In our moral cowardice we shirk personal responsibility, and are only too glad to shoulder it on to others. In our laziness we leave it to others to think and act on our behalf.

We have to get the masses out of this timidity and this torpidity, and we can do it only by awakening them to a sense of their own importance and individual capacity, and to a recognition of their rights as men. Armed thus, we join battle with Special Privilege all along the line. We attack alike the exploitation of the worker, the subjugation of the individual by the State, military and commercial Imperialism, with its enslavement and annihiliation of weaker nations, and all the inexpressible brutalities of a decadent civilization which, with lofty moral maxims ever on its lips, recognizes in practice only the law of the jungle, and reduces to a scientific system the despoiling of all it succeeds in forcing beneath its yoke. The present condition of affairs, in which a large portion of humanity is regarded by those in power as a superfluous nuisance, cannot last indefinitely, but it will continue until it is shaken to pieces—determinedly and, above all, intelligently. We should aim at the bull’s-eye. Wars are waged for the annexation of territory, and the entire fabric of the Money Power rests on monopoly of those natural resources which should be for the free and equal use of all mankind.

Mass production, rendered possible by a subdivision of labour which reduces the worker to a position of mere automaton, is the most marked feature of modern industrial life. As a consequence, this age has gone crazy in its adulation of the big. The Labour movement is also stricken with that insanity, and believes it can accomplish anything and everything by mere force of numbers. All propaganda experience gives the lie to that delusion. In actual life we find that quality is far more important than quantity, and that one determined leader or teacher is worth a thousand sheeplike followers. We suffer greatly from lack of funds, but I am very positive that we suffer even more from the lack of talent; and lack of talent means lack of hard, honest, conscientious work. The Labour press is poorly supported because, with a few honourable exceptions, it is poorly edited. A Labour or revolutionary paper, being usually the “official organ” of some special “ism,” clique, or party, almost invariably booms its owners’ cause at the expense of truth, claiming victories where there have been no victories at all, and minimizing to the utmost of its power crushing defeats. This is generally done under the delusion that it is necessary to keep up the courage of the rank and file, but such a policy is the most dangerous of boomerangs. Sooner or later the truth comes out, readers become more discouraged than ever, cease to believe in the paper, and cease to support it. A reliable press that commands the confidence of its readers by reporting accurately, that gives evidence of thoughtful study, that analyzes current events intelligently, and displays throughout a clear and firm grip of principle—this I consider the first essential to the formation of a strong movement.

No movement can have permanent strength unless, first, it makes a simple and stirring appeal to truths so obvious that the dullest can comprehend them; and, secondly, gets the masses interested in them. In my judgment, we have an ideally simple programme, for the whole body of Anarchist teaching boils itself down to the statement that we seek to put an end to exploitation, and to the economic helplessness which renders exploitation possible, by winning equal opportunities for all. That covers the whole field and opens up the whole attack. We assail thereby the great god of Special Privilege, and, as Bakunin always insisted, Special Privilege is the universal corruptor. We strike at the central position occupied by all forms of government, for their invariable object is the capture of exceptional powers which will enable them to dictate to their subjects. We hit the priests of all denominations, for they strive always to impose on others what, according to their assertion, is the will of God, whose mouthpieces they are. We come into immediate conflict with the law, for that seeks to bind the living and the yet unborn by rules to which their consent was never asked; and the lawyer is always the defender of vested interests and the upholder of things as they are. All forms of dogmatism we attack; and we are bound to attack them, for our object is to set men free. This age is sick to death with shallow, pseudo-pious, and utterly meaningless talk of construction. How is it possible to emerge into a healthy social life without first destroying the impediments that block the way? How, for example, can men become free economically so long as the earth, on the natural resources of which all life is dependent, remains the private enclosure of the few?

We are essentially destructionists, first and foremost, because our object is to overthrow Special Privilege and give all an equal chance; but I am not so innocent as to believe that we shall bring the masses to our way of thinking by merely making that bald statement. We have to meet them in their separate fields of action and explain to men engaged in widely different occupations how the special privileges enjoyed by the parasitic few reduce all outside their circle to poverty, and keep them in it. I do not believe in Anarchists locking in a corner by themselves. They should scatter, and the ideal propagandist is the one who can hold his own in discussion with men of every class. We should attend all sorts of meetings, and be able to ask questions intelligently and dominate the debate.

The masses, on whom beating about the bush makes no impression, will always respond to broad, humanitarian truths, but they also want to be shown how these can be put into practice. I think we Anarchists have to explain how we propose to secure to each and every individual equal enjoyment of natural opportunities, and I myself favour the method advocated by Herbert Spencer, under which we should be all joint landlords and joint lessees of the joint estate—our Mother Earth—paying into the common fund whatever the privilege of occupying an exceptionally valuable piece of land may be worth. That seems to me the method an enlightened body of men who found themselves in possession of a virgin continent would naturally adopt. It was advocated and explained with great lucidity, as being a necessary corollary to the law of equal freedom, by one of the most penetrating scientific minds England has produce; and it has to be remembered that Spencer hated the State, and combated it with extraordinary ability throughout his long career. No one has shown more clearly that it is the child of Militarism, and saturated with the barbaric mentality of coercion and invasion. No one demonstrated more conclusively that we depart from savagery and advance towards civilization in proportion as we abandon the coercive State and substitute for it the voluntary agreements of free men. Yet I have known leading Anarchists who considered that the system of land tenure advocated by Herbert Spencer would reduce the State to impotence, and I feel very certain that its adoption would be opposed tooth and nail by every form of Special Privilege.

In any event, the Anarchist movement will have to convince the masses that it invites them to a struggle for something really worth the having, viz., their natural inheritance, the Earth, on and by which they have to live. It must be able to convince them that thereby they will come into full and equal enjoyment of the practically inexhaustible resources of a civilization which, thanks to the discoveries made by Science, is only now at the first threshold of productivity; and that from such equal enjoyment none who is willing to bear his due share of the common burden of necessary work will be excluded. We must get our own heads, and those of the masses, out of the clouds and down to the earth beneath our feet; and I am fully in accord with Tolstoy, who declared years ago that the land question is now as ripe for settlement as was that of chattel slavery in the United States three-quarters of a century ago. Indeed, it is the ousting of a parasitic landed aristocracy, and the occupation of the land by the actual cultivator, that has given the Russian Revolution its real worth. In any event, economic freedom is unthinkable as long as the masses are barred from access to Nature’s storehouse.

Clear though seems to me the first pre-requisite to a strong Anarchist movement, for a mentally muddled agitation cannot be effective. It all comes down to work, and this, though it may be at first an irksome effort, soon becomes an absorbing passion as new horizons open up and the magnificence of the struggle breaks into view. I have no set plan for the regeneration of the race. In fact, I detest Utopias, regarding them as attempts to dictate to the future, and therefore doomed to failure. Humanity must work out its own life, and all we have a right to demand, and all we do demand, is that every one shall have an equal chance of doing that. For the rest, I conceive this entire struggle as being, at bottom, between Science, whose mission it is to establish realities, and the illusions we have inherited from a past steeped in superstition, credulity, and submissiveness to Authority—one and all the children of ignorance and of that mental timidity and moral cowardice ignorance begets. Anarchism must ally itself with Science, as against ignorance and superstition, if it wishes to be strong.

Men will sacrifice themselves only for what they passionately want, and they will not have any real passion for Freedom until they come to understand that she, and she alone, can given them what they want. When once convinced of that, they will go through fire and water to get it; but if they remain unconvinced, they will continue immolating themselves on the altars of their ancient gods. What we have to do is to see that the seed we sow is sound, and to scatter it with lavish hand. As to when and where it will take root we should not worry.

2. Anarchy as a principle of social organization—is it, or is it not, revolutionary?

In my opinion, Anarchism is essentially iconoclastic and therefore revolutionary. Its one aim should be to bring about the death of barbaric mentality and barbaric institutions, in order that a civilization worthy of the name may come to birth.

3. Being a human idea, is, or is not, Anarchy proletarian?

Anarchism seeks to do away with proletarianism; that is to say, with the condition of being disinherited. Eventually, as I have little doubt, men of all classes will work for the accomplishment of that object, for even to-day you will find men in every walk of life who are convinced that our present system is doomed. My own guess is that the intellectual proletariat will lead the struggle, as they have led it in the past. They suffer quite as acutely, and they think more boldly than does the ordinary industrial proletarian, who is usually still in the bonds of leadership.

4. How can children be best directed into courses that will enable them to work out as early as possible their own emancipation?

Bring up the child in an atmosphere of freedom, and the habit will become to it a second nature. Nothing is stronger than habit. Under present conditions this advice is difficult to follow, but we can all do our utmost to follow it as closely as possible.

5. Along what paths should Art in America and Europe direct itself, that it may the better saturate the atmosphere with Anarchism?

It is not Art that has to create the environment for Anarchism, but Anarchism that has to create the environment for Art. Art is a mirror that reflects the Spirit of the Age.

6. What value should be attached to the individualistic tendencies existent in the workers’ movement?

I wish the ordinary worker had a thousand times more individuality than he displays at present, for at present he believes, as a rule, that he can move only as his organization or party moves, and he follows his bell-wether of a leader as blindly as does any sheep.

7. What is the value of tradition, and to what extent should it be followed?

The test is always whether, as ascertained by research and experiment, the tradition is true to reality or false. Many old things, learned by the race in its age-long experience, are true, and should not be discarded. On the other hand, the mental atmosphere to-day is saturated with all sorts of new ideas which are merely passing fads, snapped up by the idle as novelties, or perhaps even more frequently manufactured by persons who hope to acquire a reputation for originality or to make money out of them. most decidedly it does not follow that because a thing is new it must be true.

8. In order to undermine more deeply and dissipate old beliefs that have become fossilized in popular thought, should comrades explain historically the Bible’s origin and fundamental bases?

My own judgment is that the Bible can be read safely, and even profitably, provided it is understood clearly as being merely a fragment of early Jewish history and a collection of Jewish literature. As the Jews, to-day a great and highly intelligent people, were, like the rest of us, originally a mere savage tribe, they inevitably created the sort of god savages have always created. Their rapid progress, especially as evidenced by the writings of the Prophets, who were the proletarian agitators of their day, has always seemed to me well worthy of study. Indeed, I think the origins of great religions should be studied carefully. Their founders knew how to make their propaganda go. I express the opinion that the marvelous influence exercised for centuries by the sayings attributed to Christ is due to their simplicity and to the beauty of their setting. Their endurance through so many centuries is a splendid testimony to the power of style.

Wm. C. Owen.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 1949 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.

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