I’ve been reading a number of interesting books recently relating to anarchism. This includes revisiting Jacques Ellul’s book Anarchy and Christianity (on which I posted at some length last year) as well as reading Colin Ward’s excellent Anarchism: A Very Small Introduction and Stuart Christie’s entertaining memoir Granny Made Me an Anarchist, in which Christie describes his experience of being jailed in Spain for attempting to assassinate Franco in the 1960s, and his subsequent trial (and acquittal) in the “Angry Brigade” trial in the early 1970s.
My personal take on anarchism is that I have considerable sympathy for its critique of political power and of the inevitable “political surplus” (in Martin Buber’s phrase) that is amassed, and abused, by any system of government. But from a Christian point of view I think that (like pacifism) anarchism is an “over-realised eschatology”, attempting to bring forward into this age things that can only be achieved in the age to come, and in particular often assuming an overly optimistic view of human nature. In other words, it’s not that it’s wrong, just premature.
Hence I find myself broadly in agreement with Ellul, who argued that while “the realizing of [an anarchist] society is impossible”, anarchism’s critique of, and challenge to, all forms of political power are essential, and are a necessary antidote to the church’s unfortunate habit of becoming the ally of civil authority and political power.
Here are a couple of quotes from the books I’ve been reading that express something of what the Christian relationship with the anarchist perspective should be. First, here is a quote from Christie’s book, where he describes his attitude towards “democratically elected governments”:
I share the Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti’s attitude towards democratically elected governments. Asked about how the anarchists felt about the recently elected Republican government in Spain in 1931, Durruti said he knew it could not meet the expectations of the Spanish working people, but at least it should have the benefit of the doubt. The role of anarchists in relation to governments, revolutionary or otherwise, he said, was in opposition. But the degree of opposition would be geared by the willingness of the Republic to confront the problems facing the Spanish workers.
Much of this can (and should) be affirmed by us as Christians. We know that governments will always let people down. New Labour let us down, and President Obama will let us down. And the role of the church should always be in opposition to government, never a cheerleader for the government as such (even if we approve of particular policies and actions).
On the other hand, to the extent a government professes aims consistent with justice, peace and the common good, we should give them the benefit of the doubt rather than cynically dismissing them from the start. And the degree and nature of that opposition will depend on both the aims of the government and its willingness to carry out those parts of its programme with which we are in agreement.
The second quote comes from the closing paragraph of Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity, where he describes the proper relationship between Christians and anarchists:
We must not equate anarchy and Christianity. Nor would I adopt the “same goal” theory which was once used to justify the attachment of Christians to Stalinism. I simply desire it to be stated that there is a general orientation which is common to us both and perfectly clear. This means we are fighting the same battle from the same standpoint, though with no confusion or illusion. The fact that we face the same adversaries and the same dangers is no little thing.
But we also stand by what separates us: on the one side, faith in God and Jesus Christ with all its implications; on the other side, as I have already emphasized, the difference in our evaluation of human nature.
In other words, Christians cannot subordinate the gospel to the political demands of anarchism any more than the demands of any other political ideology, whether of the Left or of the Right.