Problems of Anarchism


1.—Society and Individual Liberty

Life throughout all its manifestations has one common need, unimpeded growth, which in man becomes translated into the aspiration for individual freedom. Being a necessary condition to progressive development, it is remarkable that so primary a want arising out of life itself should still be so imperfectly understood and so dimly recognized.

The desire for liberty has accompanied the human race as well as other animal species under nearly all conditions known to us. Sometimes crushed and well-nigh stamped out, it has in the long run always reasserted itself, for indeed it is inseparable from conscious existence. The struggle of man against nature early became the struggle of man against man. This form of the battle is not ended yet. And the ever present need of personal freedom has borne and still bears a prominent part in the contest.

In the purely animal horde from which our human ancestors at some time slowly grew into societies having more or less cohesion there was doubtless a larger measure of individual liberty than was afterwards possible. But the term is meaningless except in its relative application to man as a social being living in some kind of definite relation to his fellows. So that, when we speak of personal liberty and the desire for unhindered development, it is always in relation to society, and only in the social state that the individual man is the subject of study and investigation.

Society, however, has never ceased to put a halter on the freedom of its members. Not content with limiting each so as to allow an equal share of liberty, or rather giving freedom to all bounded only by consideration of others, it has from the first inclined to destroy entirely the liberty of the individual; by custom, by law, by religion, by enforced economic conditions, by the whole routine of life it has checked his progress, stolen away his rights, fettered his natural power of development, and almost annihilated his freedom.

True progress and civilization are nothing but the gradual acquirement of liberty by each. Every progressive change, every reform, every improvement is a revolution in favor of the individual. Let us for a moment take a perspective view of the past. We can then better realize the position attained in the present.

The earliest social condition we yet know seems to have been largely communistic in form. The tribe or clan is the unit. The man is quite subordinate. No rights, no property, for him exists: these are thought of only as connected with the unit of which he is a part.

Seldom has he a wife of his own; children are not his, they belong either to the tribe or to maternal relatives. Custom rules all his actions. His conduct the crudest savagery; his passions, tempered by the instinct of self-preservation, his only guide. All, however, set in the mold of the social state in which he lives. Society claims him and holds him for its own. Individuality does not thrive here. There is but little aspiration for freedom or a better condition. Progress is painfully slow. The dark night of this age must have been terribly protracted.

The next stage of social growth discloses the family as the unit of society, not of course the family as it now obtains, but each member still dependent on the collectivity; chieftainship or monarchy having developed as the political form. Religion now takes a more permanent hold; whatever the individual may have gained through the evolution of the community, he loses by subordinating himself to the prevailing superstition. All the abuses that enslave man now hold revel, and liberty for him seems farther off than ever.

From this form of society various developments finally break forth. The individual at length emerges as the social unit. His rights, his property, his liberty begin to have theoretical recognition. Thus far reached the society of ancient Rome. But the domination of class, of riches and privilege, the power of political despotism, the sinister influence of religious superstition, combined still closer to enslave the individual. It would be too much to assert that we have left this stage entirely behind us even now. But it is safe to say that the first break was made in that dark epoch when the New World was discovered four centuries ago. Most assuredly this turned out to be the mightiest stroke, of all that followed in periodic succession, for the cause of human freedom, of personal liberty. A general revolt against the time-worn tyranny of a huge superstition, claiming universal authority over all men, soon followed. It was the spontaneous outburst of individuals in divers places awakening at last to the need for free growth for liberty, realizing, and wanting to break, the chains that for so long had bound them in moral and intellectual slavery. The shackles were not thrown off so easily. Again and again have they been forged afresh, but are snapped asunder as the ever-growing desire for freedom impels the individual to leave his ancient beliefs behind. Today we see them eternally shattered. Knowledge, truth, science, slowly but surely undermine all that is left, and leave supernaturalism the naked and unmistakable force of reaction and conservative decay, like a great mountain seen through a mist from which man is steadily receding as he goes forward in pursuit of his freedom.

Following closely upon the moral and religious revolt came the movement for political reform. Revolutions have destroyed the prerogatives of kings, taken the power from aristocracy, and we now see democracy wholly or in part wielding the privileges once the exclusive right of a few. Individual liberty has been sought through the form of political equality. Whether achieved or not, it has been the aim of all the great changes in the form and powers of government since the American and French revolutions. With this primary aim the young republic of the western world set out on her career. And ever since have the progressive nations of Europe been following in her footsteps. Liberty for all means freedom for each; unhindered individual development has thus been the motto and the essence of the great progressive movements of modern civilization.

Wm. Bailie.

This article is discussed elsewhere.

This article is part of a serial: Problems of Anarchism.

This article appeared in Liberty, Vol. IX. No. 19.