Anarchism and the Unitarian Universalist Tradition


This was composed for a speech given to the Arlington Unitarian Universalist Church
in Arlington, Texas, on May 10, 2015

Anarchism, Unitarianism, and Universalism have a rich history together. With a history so rich between anarchists and UUs, mine will certainly not be the first talk given by an anarchist to a Unitarian or Universalist congregation. Anarchism, Unitarianism, and Universalism have had much overlap throughout history, as I aim to demonstrate. First, a short introduction to anarchism.

An anarchist is someone who does not believe government is necessary for a healthy society, but that government is actually the force that stands in the way of it. There are as many kinds of anarchists, as there are those who believe in government. Just as there are Republicans and Democrats, Greens and Libertarians, when it comes to government, and even more in the extreme, there are capitalists, socialists, communists, and fascists; there are a great number of ideologies within the wider interest of anarchism, including individualist and collectivist anarchism, anarcho-communism and anarcho-capitalism, nationalist and internationalist anarchism. Anarchists come in a wide range of flavors and colors, but it is rare that this is made apparent to the general public. More often than not, the media finds the fringe elements, and portrays their interests as those of the whole. There have been fringe elements involved in criminal activity and political assassinations, but, alas, criminal activity and political assassinations have also been undertaken in the name of governmental ideologies. These are fringe elements, and do not speak of the whole of anarchism. To look to the general theme in anarchism, one must understand it as an ideology which has brought with it labor unions, cooperatives, consensus decision-making, and community currencies, which have all contributed toward our brighter human future. Anarchism is concerned not with political terrorism, but—quite the contrary— with individual and community empowerment and self-determination.

The philosophy of anarchism does not have a definite origin, but it is most often attributed to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, French utopian socialist and author of What is Property?. Proudhon was the first to declare himself as such, but similar writers, such as Josiah Warren, and William Godwin, had previously taken very similar positions, though in different ways. Of these later proto-anarchists, if we must give the title of originator to Proudhon instead, William Godwin was a Sandemanian— which was an early form of Unitarian—, and Josiah Warren was to have a large impact on the philosopher and Unitarian, John Stuart Mill.

William Godwin was an early libertarian and communalist philosopher, who is probably most famous for having married the early feminist philosopher, Mary Wollstonecraft, with whom he would sire Mary Shelley, the author of the infamous Frankenstein. Aside from his affiliation with these influential women, Godwin himself had gained quite a reputation for his philosophy, particularly as laid out in his work, An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice. This was the book that is now attributed to the first work on anarchism. He had also been a Sandemanian minister for some five years. Sandemanians were early Unitarians. Already, at its origins, anarchism is crossing paths with early Unitarianism.

Josiah Warren was a musician, an entrepreneur, an inventor, an anarchist philosopher and moralist, and the founder of communities. Josiah Warren wrote books about his anarchist ideas, such as Equitable Commerce and True Civilization. He also put the ideas to work in a successful business, The Cincinnati Time Store; and in communities, including one called Utopia and another called Modern Times. Josiah Warren suggested that the price of a good should equal the cost, or the labor involved, in producing it. This would be known as the cost principle. He also coined the term, “sovereignty of the individual,” a concept which the famous Unitarian, John Stuart Mill, would repeat in his works. Holding Josiah Warren in high regard, John Stuart Mill suggested that “though being a superficial resemblance to some of the project of the Socialists, is diametrically opposed to them in principle, since it recognizes no authority whatever in Society, over the individual, except to enforce equal freedom of development for all individuals.” He says further, “A remarkable American, Josiah Warren.”

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a Frenchman of common origin, who would become an important, but much under-appreciated, philosopher, due to his class-interests. He is commonly cited as having been the first to call himself an anarchist in a positive sense. In its original in-depth formulation, as expressed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, an anarchist society could be expected to appear, not as chaos or disorder, but as people governing themselves through a highly organized confederation of voluntary cooperatives, networked through a democratic mutual bank. The sheer efficiency of anarchy— people governing themselves by way of voluntary democracy— was to keep it going, and, in fact, was to allow it to outgrow governments, making them obsolete. Proudhon was a revolutionist, but his was a gradual overthrow of domination by morality. He was not an insurrectionist, a rioter, or a trouble-maker, but a man of high esteem, who wanted to change society incrementally, by replacing old pieces, which relied on great amounts of coercion, with voluntary association, free contract, and reciprocity. Josiah Warren and William Godwin shared these beliefs to some degree or another, but it was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon who can be looked to for having the most elements of the following organized anarchist movements. Many following have been keen to take an idea— be it market freedom or industrial democracy— while ignoring the wider project and it’s focus on mutuality, the balancing of interests. Since the establishment of Proudhonian mutualism, anarchism has only expressed variations of its concerns, has modified, or added to the project, but the entire scope of anarchism— from the classical leftist forms to the more recent rightist forms— is present in Proudhon’s free market variety of socialism.

Around the same time the writings of the early anarchists surfaced, both in the United States, and in continental Europe and the British Isles, the transcendentalists would come around. Transcendentalism grew directly from Unitarianism. Among the early transcendentalists were included the prominent thinkers, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Both of these thinkers have been considered to be philosophical anarchists at one point or another, and both were Unitarians. In the case of Ralph Waldo Emerson, this is probably most apparent in the work of Proudhonist and Georgist, Bolton Hall, “Emerson the Anarchist,” wherein he quotes Emerson directly, “The state exists only for the education of the wise man; when the wise man appears the state is at an end,” clarifying that “He was only a theoretic anarchist.” Henry David Thoreau’s work, “Civil Disobedience,” is often cited as an early work of anarchism. In this work, Henry David Thoreau said, sounding much like a philosophical anarchist,

 I heartily accept the motto,—“That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,—“That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

Another prominent Unitarian who lived around the time of the origins of both anarchism and transcendentalism was Adin Ballou. Before having become a Unitarian minister, Adin Ballou had been a Univeralist, having even formed a Universalist community, called Hopedale Community. Hopedale was built around Adin Ballou’s ideology, which he called practical Christianity. Adin Ballou’s views were heavily pacifistic, and his economic leanings were toward socialism, which, at this time, was not yet associated with government, but community, control of wealth. Because of Adin Ballou’s pacifism, as well as some of his liberatory beliefs, his Christian socialism is also considered to be a form of Christian anarchism. This famous Unitarian Universalist anarchist would later have a great impact on the famous author, Leo Tolstoy. Leo Tolstoy was famous primarily for his fictional work, such as War and Peace, but, with great influence from Ballou, he had also authored such works as The Kingdom of God is Within You, a classic in Christian anarchism, which would inspire such renown social movers as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He never described himself as such, but his writings express a sort of Universalism. Leo Tolstoy, like the Russian Prince, Peter Kropotkin, before him, would give up his nobility in the name of anarchism.

Anarchists believe that government, or the state, is the establishing of control over others, and that, even if done by the majority, this is necessarily anti-social. However, anarchists do not believe government to be a physical thing as much as a role; government, or the state, is not the entity doing the controlling, but the control itself. The same entity, ceasing its aggression, will no longer be considered government, but security. Anarchists favor a society wherein people live peacefully at their own expense.

While anarchists are very much libertarians, they are classically also socialists, not in the sense that they want government to control all of the wealth in the economy, but in the sense that they want wealth to be more fairly distributed amongst society. Most of the anarchists believed, after Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and the other classical economists, in the labor theory of value, and many of them were followers also of Marxist economics, while remaining critical of government involvement in the economy. Instead, most of the anarchists wanted society to be organized along some lines of industrial democracy. This was to take the form of a confederation of communes, collectives, and/or cooperatives of various sorts. These organizations, rather than relying on internal hierarchy and authority, functioned democratically, and were responsive to the needs of their membership, which included, primarily, working people. The organizations would be organized for the sake of production, consumption, and banking.

The anarchists, taking after Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, would prefer a system of banking called mutual banking. The mutual bank was not to be a simple bank of savings, but a non-profit bank of issue. It would print its own money, backed by the labor or products of its members, and would issue that money into the economy as interest-free loans. The bank would be democratic and cooperative, as a credit union. One of the most important early thinkers regarding mutual banking, was the transcendentalist and Unitarian minister, William Batchelder Greene. William B. Greene had served as a colonel in the United States, but had later become interested in transcendentalism, becoming a Unitarian minister. He later became an important philosopher of anarchist economics, writing a book called Mutual Banking.

Benjamin Tucker, a prominent publisher and individualist anarchist, who was much influenced by William B. Greene, would give a famous address in 1890 to a Unitarian assembly in Salem, Massachusetts. This address was entitled, “The Relation of the State to the Individual.” As the address was made to a Unitarian audience, from a classical anarchist, I believe it will be quite appropriate to quote Mr. Benjamin Tucker at length regarding his opinion on the matter. Before quoting Tucker, however— as it will shift the topic toward ideology—, I would like to conclude our history lesson by clarifying his address to the Unitarian congregation would not be the last time anarchism crossed paths with Unitarians or Universalists. Kate Cooper Austin, for instance, was a universalist who later became a famous anarchist and feminist, writing a couple hundred articles on the latter two subjects. Nikolai Berdyaev was a Russian universalist, a Christian mystic, and an anarchist. He would have great influence on the thought of Jacques Ellul, a Christian universalist and anarchist from France. The folk musician and Wobbly, Utah Phillips, was a Christian anarchist and Unitarian Universalist. History now covered, I’d like to now look at some of Benjamin Tucker’s statements to the Unitarians in Salem.

Benjamin Tucker, in his address to the Unitarians of Salem, found it necessary to define his terms. As this lecture was regarding the relation of the state to the individual, Tucker went into detail regarding the nature of the state, or government. He understood the state as a form of absolutism and aggression. He said,

Aggression, invasion, government, are interconvertible terms. The essence of government is control, or the attempt to control. He who attempts to control another is a governor, an aggressor, an invader; and the the nature of such invasion is not changed, whether it is made by one man upon another man, after the manner of the ordinary criminal, or by one man upon all other men, after the manner of an absolute monarch, or by all other men upon one man, after the manner of a modern democracy. On the other hand, he who resists another’s attempt to control is not an aggressor, an invader, a governor, but simply a defender, a protector.

Being in the majority, for Benjamin Tucker and the anarchists, was no excuse for the domination of the minority. Democratic government, so long as it was government—that is, force used in a way other than defense—, was undesirable. Though he saw aggressive control as undesirable, Benjamin Tucker was not a pacifist. Defensive action, for Tucker and the anarchists, did not constitute government. Government was primarily aggressive. He said, “This distinction between invasion and resistance, between government and defence, is vital.” Still, he was sure to clarify, beforehand, that the state is primarily, but not wholly, aggressive. He said,

We designate by the term “State” institutions that embody absolutism in its extreme form and institutions that temper it with more or less liberality. We apply the word alike to institutions that do nothing but aggress and to institutions that, besides aggressing, to some extent protect and defend.

Having pointed to his position that the state represents aggressive use of force, Tucker lays in the anarchism, suggesting that the state must be opposed for the sake of society itself.

The average man of each new generation has said to himself more clearly and consciously than his predecessor: “My neighbor is not my enemy, but my friend, and I am his, if we would but mutually recognize the fact. We help each other to a better, fuller, happier living; and this service might be greatly increased if we would cease to restrict, hamper, and oppress each other. ‘Why can we not agree to let each live his own life, neither of us transgressing the limit that separates our individualities?” It is by this reasoning that mankind is approaching the real social contract, which is not, as Rousseau thought, the origin of society, but rather the outcome of a long social experience, the fruit of its follies and disasters. It is obvious that this contract, this social law, developed to its perfection, excludes all aggression, all violation of equality of liberty, all invasion of every kind. Considering this contract in connection with the Anarchistic definition of the State […] we see that the State is antagonistic to society; and, society being essential to individual life and development, the conclusion leaps to the eyes that the relation of the State to the individual and of the individual to the State must be one of hostility, enduring till the State shall perish.

If you didn’t catch it, Tucker suggested that people are learning to get along, and this learning to get along, the creation of social agreement, is antagonistic to the state, or government. The state, or government, as he saw it, is the negation of human compromise and agreement. He understood the two to be mutually exclusive. Having laid out the anarchist position, Benjamin Tucker then refutes the idea that government is needed for protection, or that protection is necessarily an act of government. He illustrates with a hypothetical objection,

“But,” it will be asked of the Anarchists at this point in the argument, “what shall be done with those individuals who undoubtedly will persist in violating the social law by invading their neighbors?” The Anarchists answer that the abolition of the State will leave in existence a defensive association, resting no longer on a compulsory but on a voluntary basis, which will restrain invaders by any means that may prove necessary. “But that is what we have now,” is the rejoinder. “You really want, then, only a change of name?” Not so fast, please. Can it be soberly pretended for a moment that the State, even as it exists here in America, is purely a defensive institution? Surely not, save by those who see of the State only its most palpable manifestation; the policeman on the street-corner. And one would not have to watch him very closely to see the error of this claim.

It’s important to understand Tucker’s position here. When he says, “Anarchists answer that the abolition of the State will leave in existence a defensive association, resting no longer on a compulsory but on a voluntary basis,” he is separating the identity of the state, or government, from its physical being, and attaching it to its role. Just as a bully stops being a bully when he stops bullying, a government stops being a government when it stops governing, that is, when it stops intruding on its citizens. He may agree with the sentiment from a European anarchist, Gustav Landauer,[1] who said that

The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another […] We are the State and we shall continue to be the State until we have created the institutions that form a real community.

To the anarchist, government is not intrinsic to a physical entity. One cannot stop government by blowing it up. Government, or statism, is, instead, an attitude, a cultural condition. It is a role, an idea that is played out. Governmentalism, or the state, is abolished by finding new ways for people to relate and to protect one another from harm. A student of Benjamin Tucker, Clarence Lee Swartz, clarifies in his work, What is Mutualism?, saying,

If the invasive activities of government were absolutely eradicated, it could still act as the protector of the individuals who compose it, or over whom it has jurisdiction. Yet, if it had no invasive powers at all, it could not forcibly provide for its own maintenance. It would therefore become a purely voluntary association, and would have to depend for its existence upon the satisfaction it gave in the service it rendered.

Clarence Lee Swartz, an anarchist, taking after Benjamin Tucker, suggests that if government was used only for protection and defense, it would be fine. Most anarchists would find it hard to consider a voluntary provider of defense a form of government. Clarence Lee Swartz, in context to the rest of the work, is suggesting that anarchy is a condition wherein the invasive aspects of government—its essence, that is—is removed, while its protective services may be retained. Without the intrusive actions of government, society would be free, and incentivized, to create democratic socialism from the bottom up. The goal of anarchy, after all, is not the elimination of order, but its fullest expression, by allowing people to participate in decisions that affect their lives.

 The Unitarians and Universalists have always been interested in freedom and equality, so extending these liberal values to their natural conclusion, voluntary socialism—otherwise called anarchy—, should not be hard. It is for this reason that one can see Unitarian Universalist involvement with the cooperative movement, and can find such papers as “Anarchism and Unitarian Universalism,” by Clayton Dewey. Dewey says,

Today I am a self-declared anarchist and Unitarian Universalist. While I can attribute my introduction into anarchism to YRUU and many of my UU friends are also anarchists, the fact remains that on both sides ignorance about the other is rampant. It’s a shame that this is true, especially because I feel that the anarchist movement and Unitarian Universalist religion could greatly compliment one other in their commitment to a better world.

Clayton says,

The Unitarian Universalist church is one that shares the most basic principles as we anarchists do: freedom, solidarity and mutual aid. It’s about time we begin to actualize these principles by reaching out to one another.

I certainly agree.

[1] Though he’d certainly disagree with the economics of Landauer!


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