Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?/3.7

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A.3.7 Are there religious anarchists?

Yes, there are. While most anarchists have opposed religion and the idea of God as deeply anti-human and a justification for earthly authority and slavery, a few believers in religion have taken their ideas to anarchist conclusions. Like all anarchists, these religious anarchists have combined an opposition to the state with a critical position with regards to private property and inequality. In other words, anarchism is not necessarily atheistic. Indeed, according to Jacques Ellul, "biblical thought leads directly to anarchism, and that this is the only 'political anti-political' position in accord with Christian thinkers." [quoted by Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible, p. 75]

There are many different types of anarchism inspired by religious ideas. As Peter Marshall notes, the "first clear expression of an anarchist sensibility may be traced back to the Taoists in ancient China from about the sixth century BC" and "Buddhism, particularly in its Zen form, . . . has . . . a strong libertarian spirit." [Op. Cit., p. 53 and p. 65] Some, like the anti-globalisation activist Starhawk, combine their anarchist ideas with Pagan and Spiritualist influences. However, religious anarchism usually takes the form of Christian Anarchism, which we will concentrate on here.

Christian Anarchists take seriously Jesus' words to his followers that "kings and governors have domination over men; let there be none like that among you." Similarly, Paul's dictum that there "is no authority except God" is taken to its obvious conclusion with the denial of state authority within society. Thus, for a true Christian, the state is usurping God's authority and it is up to each individual to govern themselves and discover that (to use the title of Tolstoy's famous book) The Kingdom of God is within you.

Similarly, the voluntary poverty of Jesus, his comments on the corrupting effects of wealth and the Biblical claim that the world was created for humanity to be enjoyed in common have all been taken as the basis of a socialistic critique of private property and capitalism. Indeed, the early Christian church (which could be considered as a liberation movement of slaves, although one that was later co-opted into a state religion) was based upon communistic sharing of material goods, a theme which has continually appeared within radical Christian movements inspired, no doubt, by such comments as "all that believed were together, and had all things in common, and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them all, according as every man has need" and "the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul, not one of them said that all of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things in common." (Acts, 2:44,45; 4:32)

Unsurprisingly, the Bible would have been used to express radical libertarian aspirations of the oppressed, which, in later times, would have taken the form of anarchist or Marxist terminology). As Bookchin notes in his discussion of Christianity's contributions to "the legacy of freedom," "[b]y spawning nonconformity, heretical conventicles, and issues of authority over person and belief, Christianity created not merely a centralised authoritarian Papacy, but also its very antithesis: a quasi-religious anarchism." Thus "Christianity's mixed message can be grouped into two broad and highly conflicting systems of belief. On one side there was a radical, activistic, communistic, and libertarian vision of the Christian life" and "on the other side there was a conservative, quietistic, materially unwordly, and hierarchical vision." [The Ecology of Freedom, p. 266 and pp. 274-5]

Thus clergyman's John Ball's egalitarian comments (as quoted by Peter Marshall [Op. Cit., p. 89]) during the Peasant Revolt in 1381 in England:

"When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then a gentleman?"

The history of Christian anarchism includes the Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Middle Ages, numerous Peasant revolts and the Anabaptists in the 16th century. The libertarian tradition within Christianity surfaced again in the 18th century in the writings of William Blake and the American Adam Ballou reached anarchist conclusions in his Practical Christian Socialism in 1854. However, Christian anarchism became a clearly defined thread of the anarchist movement with the work of the famous Russian author Leo Tolstoy.

Tolstoy took the message of the Bible seriously and came to consider that a true Christian must oppose the state. From his reading of the Bible, Tolstoy drew anarchist conclusions:

   "ruling means using force, and using force means doing to him whom force is used, what he does not like and what he who uses force would certainly not like done to himself. Consequently ruling means doing to others what we would not they should do unto us, that is, doing wrong." [The Kingdom of God is Within You, p. 242]

Thus a true Christian must refrain from governing others. From this anti-statist position he naturally argued in favour of a society self-organised from below:

   "Why think that non-official people could not arrange their life for themselves, as well as Government people can arrange it nor for themselves but for others?" [The Slavery of Our Times, p. 46] 

This meant that "people can only be freed from slavery by the abolition of Governments." [Op. Cit., p. 49] Tolstoy urged non-violent action against oppression, seeing a spiritual transformation of individuals as the key to creating an anarchist society. As Max Nettlau argues, the "great truth stressed by Tolstoy is that the recognition of the power of the good, of goodness, of solidarity - and of all that is called love - lies within ourselves, and that it can and must be awakened, developed and exercised in our own behaviour." [A Short History of Anarchism, pp. 251-2] Unsurprisngly, Tolstoy thought the "anarchists are right in everything . . . They are mistaken only in thinking that anarchy can be instituted by a revolution." [quoted by Peter Marshall, Op. Cit., p. 375]

Like all anarchists, Tolstoy was critical of private property and capitalism. He greatly admired and was heavily influenced by Proudhon, considering the latter's "property is theft" as "an absolute truth" which would "survive as long as humanity." [quoted by Jack Hayward, After the French Revolution, p. 213] Like Henry George (whose ideas, like those of Proudhon, had a strong impact on him) he opposed private property in land, arguing that "were it not for the defence of landed property, and its consequent rise in price, people would not be crowded into such narrow spaces, but would scatter over the free land of which there is still so much in the world." Moreover, "in this struggle [for landed property] it is not those who work in the land, but always those who take part in government violence, who have the advantage." Thus Tolstoy recognised that property rights in anything beyond use require state violence to protect them as possession is "always protected by custom, public opinion, by feelings of justice and reciprocity, and they do not need to be protected by violence." [The Slavery of Our Times, p. 47] Indeed, he argues that:

   "Tens of thousands of acres of forest lands belonging to one proprietor -- while thousands of people close by have no fuel -- need protection by violence. So, too, do factories and works where several generations of workmen have been defrauded and are still being defrauded. Yet more do the hundreds of thousands of bushels of grain, belonging to one owner, who has held them back to sell at triple price in time of famine." [Op. Cit., pp. 47-8] 

As with other anarchists, Tolstoy recognised that under capitalism, economic conditions "compel [the worker] to go into temporary or perpetual slavery to a capitalist" and so is "obliged to sell his liberty." This applied to both rural and urban workers, for the "slaves of our times are not only all those factory and workshop hands, who must sell themselves completely into the power of the factory and foundry owners in order to exist; but nearly all the agricultural labourers are slaves, working as they do unceasingly to grow another's corn on another's field." Such a system could only be maintained by violence, for "first, the fruit of their toil is unjustly and violently taken form the workers, and then the law steps in, and these very articles which have been taken from the workmen -- unjustly and by violence -- are declared to be the absolute property of those who have stolen them." [Op. Cit., p. 34, p. 31 and p. 38]

Tolstoy argued that capitalism morally and physically ruined individuals and that capitalists were "slave-drivers." He considered it impossible for a true Christian to be a capitalist, for a "manufacturer is a man whose income consists of value squeezed out of the workers, and whose whole occupation is based on forced, unnatural labour" and therefore, "he must first give up ruining human lives for his own profit." [The Kingdom Of God is Within You, p. 338 and p. 339] Unsurprisingly, Tolstoy argued that co-operatives were the "only social activity which a moral, self-respecting person who doesn't want to be a party of violence can take part in." [quoted by Peter Marshall, Op. Cit., p. 378]

So, for Tolstoy, "taxes, or land-owning or property in articles of use or in the means of production" produces "the slavery of our times." However, he rejected the state socialist solution to the social problem as political power would create a new form of slavery on the ruins of the old. This was because "the fundamental cause of slavery is legislation: the fact that there are people who have the power to make laws." This requires "organised violence used by people who have power, in order to compel others to obey the laws they (the powerful) have made -- in other words, to do their will." Handing over economic life to the state would simply mean "there will be people to whom power will be given to regulate all these matters. Some people will decide these questions, and others will obey them." [Tolstoy, Op. Cit., p. 40, p. 41, p. 43 and p. 25] He correctly prophetised that "the only thing that will happen" with the victory of Marxism would be "that despotism will be passed on. Now the capitalists are ruling, but then the directors of the working class will rule." [quoted by Marshall, Op. Cit., p. 379]

>From his opposition to violence, Tolstoy rejects both state and private property and urged pacifist tactics to end violence within society and create a just society. For Tolstoy, government could only be destroyed by a mass refusal to obey, by non-participation in govermmental violence and by exposing fraud of statism to the world. He rejected the idea that force should be used to resist or end the force of the state. In Nettlau's words, he "asserted . . . resistance to evil; and to one of the ways of resistance - by active force - he added another way: resistance through disobedience, the passive force." [Op. Cit., p. 251] In his ideas of a free society, Tolstoy was clearly influenced by rural Russian life and aimed for a society based on peasant farming of communal land, artisans and small-scale co-operatives. He rejected industrialisation as the product of state violence, arguing that "such division of labour as now exists will . . . be impossible in a free society." [Tolstoy, Op. Cit., p. 26]

Tolstoy's ideas had a strong influence on Gandhi, who inspired his fellow country people to use non-violent resistance to kick Britain out of India. Moreover, Gandhi's vision of a free India as a federation of peasant communes is similar to Tolstoy's anarchist vision of a free society (although we must stress that Gandhi was not an anarchist). The Catholic Worker Group in the United States was also heavily influenced by Tolstoy (and Proudhon), as was Dorothy Day a staunch Christian pacifist and anarchist who founded it in 1933. The influence of Tolstoy and religious anarchism in general can also be found in Liberation Theology movements in Latin and South America who combine Christian ideas with social activism amongst the working class and peasantry (although we should note that Liberation Theology is more generally inspired by state socialist ideas rather than anarchist ones).

So there is a minority tradition within anarchism which draws anarchist conclusions from religion. However, as we noted in section A.2.20, most anarchists disagree, arguing that anarchism implies atheism and it is no coincidence that the biblical thought has, historically, been associated with hierarchy and defence of earthly rulers. Thus the vast majority of anarchists have been and are atheists, for "to worship or revere any being, natural or supernatural, will always be a form of self-subjugation and servitude that will give rise to social domination. As [Bookchin] writes: 'The moment that human beings fall on their knees before anything that is 'higher' than themselves, hierarchy will have made its first triumph over freedom.'" [Brian Morris, Ecology and Anarchism, p. 137] This means that most anarchists agree with Bakunin that if God existed it would be necessary, for human freedom and dignity, to abolish it. Given what the Bible says, few anarchists think it can be used to justify libertarian ideas rather than support authoritarian ones and are not surprised that the hierarchical side of Christianity has predominated in its long (and generally oppressive) history.

Atheist anarchists point to the fact that the Bible is notorious for advocating all kinds of abuses. How does the Christian anarchist reconcile this? Are they a Christian first, or an anarchist? Equality, or adherence to the Scripture? For a believer, it seems no choice at all. If the Bible is the word of God, how can an anarchist support the more extreme positions it takes while claiming to believe in God, his authority and his laws?

For example, no capitalist nation would implement the no working on the Sabbath law which the Bible expounds. Most Christian bosses have been happy to force their fellow believers to work on the seventh day in spite of the Biblical penalty of being stoned to death ("Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death." Exodus 35:2). Would a Christian anarchist advocate such a punishment for breaking God's law? Equally, a nation which allowed a woman to be stoned to death for not being a virgin on her wedding night would, rightly, be considered utterly evil. Yet this is the fate specified in the "good book" (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). Would premarital sex by women be considered a capital crime by a Christian anarchist? Or, for that matter, should "a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother" also suffer the fate of having "all the men of his city . . . stone him with stones, that he die"? (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) Or what of the Bible's treatment of women: "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands." (Colossians 3:18) They are also ordered to "keep silence in the churches." (I Corinthians 14:34-35). Male rule is explicitly stated: "I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God." (I Corinthians 11:3)

Clearly, a Christian anarchist would have to be as highly selective as non-anarchist believers when it comes to applying the teachings of the Bible. The rich rarely proclaim the need for poverty (at least for themselves) and seem happy to forget (like the churches) the difficulty a rich man apparently has entering heaven, for example. They seem happy to ignore Jesus' admonition that "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me." (Matthew 19:21). The followers of the Christian right do not apply this to their political leaders, or, for that matter, their spiritual ones. Few apply the maxim to "Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again." (Luke 6:30, repeated in Matthew 5:42) Nor do they hold "all things common" as practised by the first Christian believers. (Acts 4:32) So if non-anarchist believers are to be considered as ignoring the teachings of the Bible by anarchist ones, the same can be said of them by those they attack.

Moreover idea that Christianity is basically anarchism is hard to reconcile with its history. The Bible has been used to defend injustice far more than it has been to combat it. In countries where Churches hold de facto political power, such as in Ireland, in parts of South America, in nineteenth and early twentieth century Spain and so forth, typically anarchists are strongly anti-religious because the Church has the power to suppress dissent and class struggle. Thus the actual role of the Church belies the claim that the Bible is an anarchist text.

In addition, most social anarchists consider Tolstoyian pacifism as dogmatic and extreme, seeing the need (sometimes) for violence to resist greater evils. However, most anarchists would agree with Tolstoyians on the need for individual transformation of values as a key aspect of creating an anarchist society and on the importance of non-violence as a general tactic (although, we must stress, that few anarchists totally reject the use of violence in self-defence, when no other option is available).