Tracy Ryan interviews John Kinsella on Anarchism
Transcript of talk given in 2004 at the State Library of WA, originally with introductions by Professor Bill Louden (formerly ECU), and anarchist activist Mar Bucknell.
There are many different historical aspects of anarchism, some of which you would probably define yourself against. And I’m thinking particularly of the aspect of violence. So I’m going to start with a quote that I will run by John, that I read recently in a post-graduate French course studying Sartre’s play Les Mains sales, in which a lecturer gave the following definition for the benefit of students.
“An anarchist is a person (this is a very dated definition) who seeks to overturn by violent means all constituted forms and institutions of government and society, with no aim of establishing any other system of order in place of that destroyed.”
So, what I’m going to ask John is, Would you comment on that definition and perhaps contrast it with your own understanding of what an anarchist or anarchism might be?
Today I don’t want to get into an historical discussion of anarchism. I don’t want to regurgitate nineteenth-century anarchists, but Malatesta made a great point about anarchism being the abolition of government and not the abolition of society, and I kind of concur with that. The replacement of governing institutions and hierarchical bodies of control with co-operative, with mutual aid organisations, people interacting to support each other. It’s a very viable and practical alternative to me, if not the only alternative. So from the start what I’m talking about is a world without government, and not a world without social institutions or interactions. Institutions is the wrong word – social interactions. I think that’s extremely important.
Obviously I would say (agree with others) that such a definition was absurd. A dictionary definition that’s very convenient, immediately isolates, and removes any debate about anarchist issues. Anarchism isn’t, and from the most aggressive anarchists I’ve never heard it put as, simply a violent overthrow of the state with nothing in its place; that’s nihilism and not anarchism. I’m a pacifist above and beyond everything else, and veganism, the kind of non-use and non-abuse of animals, is the basis of my anarchist thought. I start from there and move out. So an anarchist’s world is one in which animals are equal, if you like, as much as humans.
The very starting point of a violent overthrow is not possible from my point of view. I don’t believe in “revolution as such”; I believe in change by example. And I’m going to be referring, as I know Tracy will as well, to a guy named Colin Ward. This is a book of his just come out called Talking Anarchy. Colin Ward is an interesting British anarchist, who is very much involved in architectural solutions to housing for people. And his anarchism is a very pragmatic and a very practical anarchism that works within the context of the existing state. He believes that the state can be best changed by good example. So if you behave in a way that’s better than the government is behaving, then people will gradually see that as a viable alternative to living, living communally. There is a lot I disagree with in Ward, but that basic principle I really do agree with. So, just as a starting point for this, I totally reject any kind of violent overthrow of anything – it seems a contradiction in terms to me.
We are working towards a better world of egalitarianism and equality especially in terms of what people have or don’t have. Then the moment you introduce violence, you are introducing a hierarchy already. Violence is the ultimate form of hierarchy. It’s the most controlling form of hierarchy. I would argue that many actual actions, ethically, cancell out any positive results. And I think that is a very personal view, as I said, that comes out of pacifism and veganism. That’s where I start.
Thinking about that better world you mentioned and looking at the quote that we have there which is from God and the State, where Bakunin says “the liberty of man consists solely in this, that he (and he says ‘he’ because he is using the word ‘man’) obeys natural laws because he has himself recognised them as such, not because they have been externally imposed upon him by any extrinsic world whatever, divine or human, collective or individual”.
Now what I’m going to ask you about that is the following: Many people find it hard to believe that a human being can or would follow what Bakunin calls “natural laws” without the existence of the whole paraphernalia that polices, punishes, regulates them and so on.
So this is linked to the popular beliefs that anarchism means “chaos”, that if we didn’t have those things we wouldn’t do the right thing.
There are a few questions coming up here that are kind of related. What do you make of the common complaint that anarchism as an idea is too optimistic or utopian? Does it rely too much on the concept of human goodwill and altruism? Is it naive, vis-à-vis the selfishness and the violence we see enacted around us daily, I mean in the world that is, rather than the better world? A similar accusation is often made regarding pacifism, you know, people say: if we try it, will all the pacifists be wiped out straight away? So I’m kind of playing devil’s advocate here, and asking John – is it too optimistic to think this way?
Well, no, you see, I don’t see anarchism as utopia. I see it as something incredibly realisable. Speaking of Malatesta again, he also made the point – you can’t expect us all to know what will happen after changes come. He said after revolution – as I’ve already indicated, it’s a term I have a lot of problems with for all sorts of reasons, which might become evident as we go on. But certainly the point is that people and things find their own level of interaction. The basic principle of mutual aid, which is fundamental for understanding anarchist thought, is that people naturally help each other because it is in their best interest to help each other, and when Kropotkin wrote about mutual aid, he looked at the false nature of the Darwinian model in which people compete to beat each other, which is the system capitalism is based on, and basically, eventually, some of the strongest will survive and conquer. The other way of looking at it, he makes the point, is that animals have always had to work together to survive in their communities, and he gives interesting examples of that.
This kind of mutual aid is fundamental not only to the existence of animals, but to the existence of humans. We don’t have a policeman sitting watching over us – we might have in the audience! – we don’t have someone policing in this room, and we are sitting here listening to an argument we may not agree with. However, basic mutual aid is there in the sense of co-operating together to actually hear something, and maybe express ourselves at the end... People can interact, people can respond in a responsible way towards each other without being told to do so, and the idea is that without governing bodies, without the judiciary, without the different constabulary, without the kind of legislature and these kind of things, we can actually do this anyway. So there is a very practical side, certainly, to the anarchist thought that I’m interested in.
The other thing is that, apart from these “what will happen” scenarios, the idea that we are fundamentally good and not bad drives my thought. Many people say that a lot of the stuff I write about seems very negative. Well, negative in the sense that I criticise things I see as wrong. I see the treatment, the locking-up of refugees as wrong, I see the war in Iraq as wrong – I can list the whole series of wrongs I feel. My subjective take on it is one thing, but fundamentally what is being talked about here is an ethical way of living. Now, you may have very different ethical views, but at the same time you have some form of ethical system where you denote good and bad, and I think intrinsically people have that ability, and I don’t think it’s a class ability, and I don’t think it’s something you are taught. I think it’s very inherent. I think that in the same way that an animal is neither good nor bad, they are – I think that humans are neither good nor bad, they are inherently good because of that – if you know what I mean. You can have both because both exist in you; goodness exists in you as well.
So my kind of take on it comes from an ethical standpoint, and Bakunin is a problem for me in a variety of ways. I strongly believe that many ills of the world have come about because of the abuses of science. I have no problem with the accumulation of knowledge and the use of knowledge; I do have a problem with the systematising of knowledge, when knowledge is used to create a hierarchy, and science more than anything else has created hierarchy. You know the addiction of discovery isn’t always to benefit human kind; it’s to benefit the ‘discoverer’ or the ‘culture’ of discovery – the actual pleasuring of discovery – to ‘enlighten’ becomes to fetishise... in a marketed sense to add value to science. Now Bakunin recognised the irony of science but he still, like many anarchists in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, and indeed some people I would consider having very similar views who were involved with Freedom Press in Britain, strongly support/ed the kind of scientific approach to an anarchist solution.
So they say that when the government is gone, what we will have is a kind of knowledge, science will continue and the hospitals will be hospitals, and so on. And I have a more agrarian view of the world, and I think that society would naturally break down into smaller component parts. They are talking about a decentralised world, obviously, but I’m talking more literally about a very small component part, a very agrarian kind of anarchism.
I believe in direct contact and preservation of the land, and I think the only way you can do that is by actually understanding what the land physically is. Bakunin makes this very interesting point, and I strongly disagree with it. He says “What I preach then is, to a certain extent, the revolt of life against science, or rather against the government of science, not to destroy science – that would be high treason to humanity – but to remand it to its place so that it can never leave it again.” On one level he is talking about the fact that governance isn’t just literally the bodies that govern us; it’s the way systems operate, and science becoming a system, the kind of move towards cloning a human being isn’t about the survival of the human species, it’s about a kind of value-adding to humanity, which is a very big problem for me. Bakunin is challenging that, as he would if he was standing here, I imagine, challenge the art of cloning and these sort of things. But he is still reserving a place for science as rational. Science for him is rationality; it’s an Enlightenment thing, and he believes very much in a kind of logic. Anarchism for Bakunin was a very logical thing. His logic extended to violent revolution – mine doesn’t, and that’s where we strongly part; but it’s an interesting point.
Science, rational science, as we see it practised, has a lot of problems of course for the vegan, in ways that are perhaps obvious; and also, thinking of mutual aid, there is a kind of implicit recognition there, even if it’s not followed all the way through, of the relation between animals and humans, because he’s arguing that it’s not only in the competitive sense that we draw on our animal origin, but also in a sense of mutual aid.
Thinking about veganism: in my experience, many people, if they have heard of veganism and know what it is, believe it to be a dogmatic and authoritarian type of outlook. This may be partly a fear of difference, because it is potentially threatening to meet someone whose lifestyle implicitly rejects your own, and especially when it comes to food, because eating together is such a communal activity, some feel very rejected by someone who doesn’t eat the same.
But it’s also true that some vegans are very loudly critical of non-vegans and may appear to be rigid and fanatical. Could you comment on this image – how it squares with your own personal outlook, and also with your anarchist beliefs, because that kind of rigid authoritarian stance would be directly in opposition to anarchism.
One of the things that has always disturbed me in talking to fellow anarchists is that as soon as you mention that you are a vegan, most anarchists I’ve known haven’t been vegans or vegetarians – some have, but most haven’t – the objection has been that you’re imposing just another authority, another kind of hierarchy. But if you see an equality between animals and humans as a starting point, it’s not possible to have a hierarchy of imposition or declaration in that ‘equation’, and that’s the way I see it.
One of the scariest moments of my life when I was at Cambridge, where I lived part of the year, was when I met my first vegan straight-edge. He was a young guy and he had engraved in his arm a statement – it wasn’t “meat is murder” but it was something very similar – he did have some line from the Smiths on his arm, and I got talking to him. He went through his list of absolute ‘don’ts’, including no sexual activity – basically it was no pleasure on any level, and intellectually I can appreciate where he was coming from, I could see there was a kind of abstaining that was almost the ultimate control, and I can respect that even if I don’t subscribe to it.
But where I don’t agree is that he said basically: those of my friends who have betrayed us have been branded, physically with a branding iron, and I said to him, “That’s not a vegan activity. Vegan activity is not to damage or utilise or abuse any animals, humans included, for your benefit or for any other purpose.” And he said, “No, we don’t see it that way. We see the only way of creating a revolution against the damaging and hurting of animals is to be really strict and rigid in our thinking.” I could see where he was coming from, but it immediately defeated the ethics of his veganism, for me.
Near Cambridge there is something called Huntingdon Life Sciences, which is the main place for animal vivisection and animal research, and straight-edgers have been very prominent in direct action against this, literally breaking into it and damaging it and so on. Now I can understand, and in my younger years I was involved in direct action against property, but I learned that this can develop its own hierarchies of behaviour and overwhelm itself with contradictions. I have felt over the years that violent direct action – even against property – delays but doesn’t solve... I was prepared to try anything to resist and challenge what I considered to be state-imposed oppressions. I thought, well, maybe it’s worth trying. Mostly it was yelling and screaming at the tools of state and corporate capitalism, which I was very inclined to doing, certainly around the time I met my anarchist friend, Mar Bucknell. When I met with Mar and ‘his’ group in Fremantle, it was a really amazing experience. I had all this intellectual stuff, I had read all this stuff and I thought – this is where I’m at, this is what I think. But what struck me with these people and what deeply interested me in them – even though my behaviour was reprehensible and I apologise to them for my nihilism at the time – was their dedication to idea and action operating in tandem. Everything had to be discussed and worked through as a group of individuals. A consensus operated, as opposed to my individualised martyrdom for what I believed to be right.
This is going back how many years?
This is twenty or twenty-one years ago, it would be 1983/84; and as Mar told me at the time I was a nihilist, not an anarchist. I just wanted to basically remove everything that was a problem very rapidly. What interested me about this group was that they actually had practical solutions. They had this wonderful newsletter (and this is how I discovered them, when someone gave me a newsletter, New from Nowhere) where I saw this thing about someone who was in academic life, who was an anarchist, who’d drawn up this plan for a possible agrarian commune – with practical outcomes like ‘that’s where the water-tank should be’ – the kind of background information needed, and it made sense and it was very practical and I loved that practical side to it. These guys were very practical – direct action to them was something that was mediated by a kind of a longer view of things and that impressed me. Although I didn’t fit in, because I wasn’t capable of fitting in with anyone, pretty well, at that stage, I have thought about it over the last ten years and tried to put a lot of those things into effect.
Go to Part Two