Monday, February 18, 2008

Quaker anarchism?

My Friend Phil Grove posted the following comment on my post the other day:

Glad to see you writing again! About the 1640s -- I'm very curious about the fact that the anarchist Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, arose in England at about the same time as the Quakers, and that Winstanley later became a Quaker. It seems to me that Quakerism has an affinity with certain forms of anarchism, and that anarchism should be discussed more by Quakers. Are there other historical connections between Quakerism and anarchists?

I'm not qualified to give a definitive answer, especially about the Diggers, but I do have some observations and book knowledge of early Quakers that may be helpful.

First, it's best to be very cautious before using a term like "anarchism" which became popular in the 19th century to categorize someone in the 17th century. The Wikipedia entry on anarchism records the first use of the term as being by Royalists during the English Civil War to describe people like the Levellers, Diggers and Quakers who they perceived as fomenting social unrest. (Actually, the Wikipedia entry says "fomenting social disorder", but I would deny that at least for the Quakers: they were not promoting disorder but rather a gospel order that merely seemed disorderly to those vested in the current arrangement.) There is little doubt that these groups (and remember that labels don't denote terribly precise categories and were all given as terms of derision by their opponents) radically opposed the current regime, but that doesn't mean that they were in principal opposed to any human government or outwardly coercive authority.

It is especially hard to tag the anarchist badge on the Quakers. Fox more than once accepted that the biblical understanding that the magistrate had a God-given role to protect the innocent and punish evil doers. See his letter quoted here.

Most of Fox's criticism of the government was that it had perverted its Godly duty: it punished the righteous (like the Quakers) and protected the guilty (like their tormenters). So he wasn't against good government; he was against bad government, and they understood the distinction. Quakers were well-known for their active role in court proceedings and lobbying in Parliament which I take to be a confirmation of the legitimacy of government as an institution, if not an endorsement of its current occupant or policies.

Furthermore, while George Fox and the early Friends might fairly be called anarchists in their critique of the organized churches of their day, Fox and Margaret Fell showed a very practical and realistic understanding of the propensity for even the Children of Light to run beyond their guide and to confuse their ego (or libido) with the will of God. This is why they set up the system of monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings for discipline that enabled the movement to survive and thrive during the persecutions of 1660-1689. These meetings did not use coercive force or violence, of course, but they did function as an effective church government to maintain unity and peace among its members. Not all Friends approved of this kind of church government and some found it to stifle movings of the Spirit. But it is hard for me to imagine the Quaker movement having survived in any recognizable form without this structure. (Of course, when the structure lost its juice and became calcified, it led to the divisions among Friends in the 19th century, a disaster from which we have not yet recovered.)

Finally, the enthusiasm with which the Quakers joined William Penn in establishing Pennsylvania is hard to square with any kind of principled anarchism inherent to the Quaker experience, at least in the early years. Penn's basic philosophy, which I take to be consistent with Quaker thinking in general, was that "governments depend on men rather than men upon governments, because if the men are good, the government cannot be bad; or if it is, they will cure it; but if men are bad, government will never be good." (See here for more detail on Penn's Holy Experiment.) Penn's Experiment lasted about 75 years -- at least, that's how long Quakers participated in the Assembly. Whether you consider the Experiment a failure or merely a limited success, there is probably a lot of material from that era that would support a more anarchist-leaning critique of the legitimacy government and of Christians ever participating in it.

What I know about the Diggers leads me to think of them as being animated more by a radically egalitarian or communist (to use other anachronistic terms) spirit, not as anarchists opposed to any human government per se. For example, their concerted action in digging up the common lands for food production seems to me to have required a good deal of organization and discipline. (Perhaps their premature dissolution indicates that they didn't have enough of either.)

All that said, I think that Quakers have always carried an anti-authoritarian gene in their DNA -- the affinity you're probably talking about -- and they probably share this gene with others who would characterize themselves as anarchists, or who would be so characterized by their enemies.

I understand that there is likely be a degree of congruence and overlap between Quaker understanding of the liberty afforded them by the gospel and what is generally known as Christian anarchism, taking care not to confuse anarchism with antinominalism (or anarchism with anarchy). A church whose governor is an invisible but living spirit may appear to be anarchic, but to the religious anarchist that's only an illusion. (I would like to concede here that a deeply loving community can live peacefully and responsibly without external coercive based solely upon the reason and strength of its participants and doesn't need the assistance of a Living God to bind it together, but I'm not sure I believe that it's true [not that very many religious communities have done better over the years]).

On an almost completely different note, writing this reminded me of John Sayles' great short story, The Anarchist's Convention, which I believe I may have referred to before in this blog. I first heard it read by Jerry Stiller on NPR's Selected Shorts more than 15 years ago and I'd love to hear it again.


John K. said...

Reading the George Fox letter that you linked to was to me a salutary reminder that we are not to listen primarily to our founders or to our traditions, but to the living Light within each of us, for I cannot concur with the sentiments Fox expresses there, insofar as Fox urged Friends to abstain themselves from all violence but had no problem with them calling the magistrate to exercise violence on their behalf, for the punishment of evil-doers. It would be one thing if this advice was merely to ensure that due process was followed, but the implication that Friends may not without fault participate in the same process (even with regard to victims other than themselves) that they may without fault instigate on their own behalf suggests otherwise.

I think there has been some variance or growth in our tradition, because Caroline Stephens in her book Quaker Strongholds takes the view that Quakers have traditionally not been prohibited from serving as police officers. Stephens distinguishes between the dispassionate administration of justice, which Quakers may presumably participate in, and the hatred and "lusts" which characterize full-blown state-sponsored war. She furthermore admits that theoretically certain purely defensive wars might in their nature be hard to distinguish from large-scale police action.

I consider myself a "philosophical anarchist." I don't have a problem with laws which merely forbid me and others from doing things we have no right to do anyway, like steal or murder. But these are laws not because a self-appointed government says they are, but because they're written on our hearts and in our natures. I concur with Aquinas that "a bad law is no law at all." The government has no special prerogative to do anything that would be unjust if you or I did them. I would never agree to fight in a war for "my country," not because I believe that force or violence is inadmissible in any and all cases, but because as Plato put it in his Republic, the cause of wars between nations can invariably be found in the excessive lust for "luxury," and I refuse to make myself a party to the long-standing injustices committed by "my" government. Moreover, I think the sense of national "unity" that our politicians try to instill in us is a manufactured and mythological one, not true to the reality which Quakers are so concerned to be true to. It may sound cold, but I think we should be as concerned with aggressions committed against the people of Iraq as aggressions committed against Americans.

The book "Native American Anarchism," written in 1932 by Eunice Minette Schuster, singles out Quakers for special interest. According to Schuster, the early Quakers' in America "deep purpose was to make a fresh experiment in spiritual religion. Experiments in government were not their primary aim. They did believe, however, they they had discovered a new principle which would revolutionize life, society, civil government and religion.... The law or letter, which is without us, kills, but the gospel, which is the inward spiritual law, gives life; for it consists not so much in words as in virtue. And for this reason 'the principle rule of Christians under the gospel is not an outward letter, nor law outwardly written and delivered, but an inward spiritual law, engraven in the heart and in the mouth.' These principles dispense with and condemn all authority, law, or precept in religion. Had they been consistently applied to all society as originally intended, they would have served as the basis of an anarchistic society. But the Quakers failed to apply their doctrines universally, first, because of their belief in a duality of human nature, a strict separation and almost antipathy of the spiritual and the physical, and second, because they were actually forced from their position in order to preserve a few of their beliefs from the attack of society.... Beginning with the ideal of establishing a society based upon their religious principles, they were forced to cast off all those positive, aggressive aims in order to prevent the complete destruction of their whole sect. They kept only those principles with which they could comfortably and peaceably live within society. Although they still refuse to bear arms or to take oaths, they are essentially law-abiding citizens. They are, in a sense, 'disillusioned radicals.'"

Will T said...

The premature dissolution of the Diggers had much more to do with the tendency of magistrates to haul them off to jail and destroy their communities and fields than any lack of organizational skill on their part. The monied class were bent on enclosing common lands for private gain and could not stomach the idea of the starving poor laying claim to common waste lands and turning it back into productive farm land.

What was more interesting about Winstanley was that he associated the advent of private property with the fall of Adam. Well before Fox made the claim, Winstanley also claimed to have come into the state of Adam before the Fall, but he was referring to doing away with private property. It is no wonder that Friends often got into trouble. Not only were their ideas pretty radical but they borrowed language from other radical groups but tried to give it new spiritual meaning. It is not surprising that their enemies did not always grasp the subtleties of their position and lumped them in with the other radical riff-raff of the day.

Will T

James Riemermann said...

Not sure I'd quite call Winstanley or his movement anarchist, but I'd sure call him my hero. All his original work is sadly out of print. But after I read my first paragraph of his, I managed to find a couple used collections of his writings online.

In retrospect, the writing of the early Quakers now strikes me as echoes of Winstanley, but dialed down about three notches in every way. None of them, to my ear, can touch the beauty and poetic power of his rhetoric. I think he is one of the most astonishing writers of his century--a pretty strong century for the English language.

A great many--perhaps most--of the distinctive images and theological conceits of early Quakerism can be found in Winstanley. But in most cases he put it more clearly, more poetically, and more radically. I think perhaps his vision was too radical to flourish. If there were Diggers today I would be one.

One particularly striking passage:

"So that you do not look for a God now, as formerly you did, to be a place of glory beyond the sun, moon, and stars, nor imagine a Divine Being you know not where; but you see Him ruling within you; and not only in you, but you see and know Him to be the Spirit or Power that dwells in every man and woman, yea, in every creature, according to his orb, within the globe of the Creation. So that now you see and feel and taste the sweetness of the Spirit ruling in your flesh, who is the Lord and King of Glory in the whole Creation, and you have community with Him who is the Father of all things. Now you are enlightened; now you are saved, and rise higher and higher into life and peace, as this manifestation of the Father increases and spreads within you."

Even a godless sort like me can connect with that god. If you want more go here.

James Riemermann said...

I have to correct my last post. I wrote "If there were Diggers today I would be one." But I may be too cowardly for that claim. Let's just say, if there were Diggers today I would aspire to be one.

Rich Cairn said...

There have been nihilist anarchists who wished to abolish all forms of human organization, but most anarchists have always sought an alternative to government. The Industrial Workers of the World, the Spanish Revolutionaries of the 1930s, Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, many of the radicals of the 1960s, (many Greens) – all sought to replace government through careful, persistent organizing of alternate structures. The essential principle is VOLUNTARY cooperation as opposed to coercion by the state.

I developed a shorthand to explain the difference between anarchism and libertarianism. The libertarians want to get rid of everything in government except the military and the police. The anarchists see the military and the police as so pernicious that they are willing to give up government hospitals, schools, parks, bread lines, and roads to rid the world of those institutions.

Fox believed in a higher authority than government which, depending on the circumstances, could lead one to oppose any particular government. From the perspective of the rulers, this is of course a dangerous philosophy in any age, and near enough to anarchism to seek to tar it with the same brush.

I recommend Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed as a detailed and realistic exploration of anarchism. In it, she poses the question, "Once the revolution succeeds, then what?"