Saturday, February 25, 2006


Mondrian Attitude
Originally uploaded by Ezu.

In his obituary, Paul Avrich, who died this week in New York, is described as a "historian of anarchism."

Among his favorite anarchists were George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and Eugene O'Neill. A book he hoped to write about O'Neill was never completed.

He left behind the 20,000 documents he collected on the subject of anarchism and later donated to the library of congress, several books, and this quote:

"Every good person deep down is an anarchist."

I've been mulling it over ever since I read it. (Being sick, lying on the couch all day is an otherwise dispiriting experience, but it does allow ample opportunity for mulling.) There's something about the simplicity of the quote that really strikes me--though I'm not quite sure I understand what he meant.

So what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Care to expound?


Michael said...

Hey Patry,

I think I agree with this quote, though I'm not completely sure why.
It seems that it pretty well sums up human nature: Speaking for myself, I want to do things my way, and I don't want to be encumbered by a bunch of rules and mores.
I don't mean that deep down I entertain fantasies of going on a killing spree or promoting myself at others' expense.
It's just that I grow weary of living within the seemingly arbitrary confines of the roles that society has set up for me (or maybe that I have set up for myself). Does that make sense?
In this instance, I think "good person" can translate as "person who is honest with himself."

Zhoen said...

Oh, yes, I think I agree. Deep down, we all want not to have anyone tell us what to do.

But it might be equally true that we are all instinctively dictators.

And certainly, in the living of life, many get tired of making choices and taking on authority and prefer someone else tell them what to do, and take the blame when it goes wrong.

It would have to be in the context of a debate where the definition of anarchy is clearly stated.

The painting is striking. Thank you.

Matthew said...

my response.

Patry Francis said...

michael: I like your definition of goodness--as being honest with yourself. True self-appraisal is rare.

zhoen: You touch on the very reasons for my attraction--and confusion about this quote--as does Michael in some way. For one thing, it's obvious that the reverse is not true: All anarchists are NOT good people. Many simply want to replace someone else's tyranny with their own.

While I could easily accept the idea of all artists being anarchists, I was less sure about the wider category of "good people"--though something in the sentence FELT true. However, if you consider that human nature is essentially selfish, then all good people ARE anarchists against their own egotistic inclinations. Anarchists of the deepest, truest, kind.

Matt: Thank you for your thoughtful response. I enjoyed reading and reflecting on it.

Brenda Clews said...

If by anarchy we mean live in a non-authoritarian culture where natural good will and benevolence towards each other predominates, then yes, "Every good person deep down is an anarchist."

To go back to the Enlightenment. For Hobbes, at base human nature was competitive, selfish, dangerous; for Locke, human nature was basically cooperative, benevolent. These two guys talk about it in terms of a 'state of nature,' which it really isn't, but only their own idea of what would emerge socially if we took away all rulership or governance.

Locke's ideas laid the way for the French Revolution, which could be called an uprising of anarchy, and the beginning of democracy...

Anarchy has good roots, in other words. But it's also a concept connected to notions of property. Who owns what. Anarchy is often against not just rulership but who controls the economy. And when we talk about economics there is usually nothing but disagreement.

Even editing capabilities on Wikipedia's entry on anarchy has been shut down there is so much disagreement (or vandalism, the entry says, which sounds awfully anarchristic - the entry on anarchy being attacked by anarchists).

Personally I can't say one way or the other; the term anarchist has been used in such opposing ways it is a word I find confusing and which needs to be carefully read in whatever context one finds it in.

I don't like to pass the ball here, but one would need to know what Paul Avrich's basic premises on anarchy are before deciding if it's an agreeable statement or not. :o)

Brenda Clews said...

Bleeps, Locke reacted to Hobbes' belief in absolute sovereignity and laid out this magnificent social philosophy, based on anarchy, that's led to the marvelous creation of democracy, which I think one of the true marvels of civilization (is it anarchist to say that?) :)

Brenda Clews said...

Locke set the foundation for civil society, and civil society is at heart anarchist. (The sovereign state was justified on the basis of 'necessity,' that we would destroy each other without authoritarian rule.)

I just can't stop, can I? :) Sorry!

(I can see why a conversation with this quote went on in your mind for days, it's doing the same to me!!!)


Anonymous said...

I don't know if I agree with the quote, I'm too much of a buddhist to say "Every good person is ____."

It is too much like an ultimatum for me - I mean "Every" one really? Couldn't there be at least a handful of good people who think that x or y or z is a somewhat or utterly superior system?

ANYway, I thought it was funny that an anarchist donated his papers to the Library of Congress which is pretty connected to the establishment of the federal government, isn't it?

Not that I have anything against anarchists, I think anarchy is a good idea. I just don't see how it would work in reality. And I suppose giving your papers to the Library of Congress kind of reinforces that notion of the impractical ideal doesn't it?

Dale said...

Yeah, this is a rorschach.

My guess is that he means something like, "all good people would like us all to be able to live without political and economic coersion."

As Zhoen suggested, though, I'm not at all sure that domination and hierarchy aren't biologically coded in us, as they are in most primates.

But (being also a Buddhist), I don't think we're essentially human beings; I think we're just wearing human dress at the moment. So "biologically coded" isn't equivalent to "essentially" for me.

My guess is that he (like most anarchists) considers domination and coersion to be the root of all evil, so I'm not sure he's really saying much more than "good people really agree with me, even if they think they disagree with me." Which I find a little suspect, the more so because I don't think the distinction between good and bad people is valid. I'm an orthodox Buddhist on this point -- I think all people are good; they're just more or less confused about what they are, what they want, and what they have to do to get it.

Patry Francis said...

There is nothing that gratifies me more than when the thoughtfulness and depth of the comments exceed the post--as has clearly happened here. You've all given me enough thoughts to keep me "mulling" for hours.

I only wish that Paul Avrich were able to participate in the discussion! And yet, though the quote originates with him, it now belongs to anyone who hears or reads it. Somehow, I think and hope that as a "historian of anarchy," he would be pleased to trigger this discourse.

Irina: I think we lost a lot of widom when Latin became a "dead language". Concepts like coincidentia oppositorum, for instance. Thank you for teaching me.
And yes, a provocative thought or quote can create anarchy in the mind.

brenda: thank you for introducing the historical and philosophical dimension. I love that you returned three times as your thoughts expanded.

lisa: yes, I suppose there is a kind of ultimatum inherent in the quote, which I hadn't seen before I read your words. Thanks for expanding my vision--and for noting the irony of
the anarchist donating his papers to the Library of Congress.

dale: "A rorschach"--yes, it seems to be very much so. Your comment that all people are good; they're just more or less a powerful one indeed.

After reading all your thoughts, I think that anarchy, like so many abstract concepts, is neither good nor bad; it all depends on what one is rebelling against and what the ensuing freedom generates.

Anonymous said...

No I disagree with the quoation.

Firstly, it doesn't define its subjective version of 'good'.

Secondly, society wouldn't have lasted very long if we weren't deeply deeply invested in the benefits and comforts of conformity. Most of the things we blame society for limiting us to are - I believe - convenient excuses that prevent us from examining our own fre choices.

But - I'm a cynic. That's my subjective opinion.

Here's another quotation, from an airport novel: "I saw my real gods .... the gods of most men. Food, drink, and security in conformity".

Cate said...

I'm a bit of a pessimist and believe that in many human situations, a "bully mentality" evolves. People unite, often with the best intentions, become The Man, and then, sometimes attack the individual. I see the anarchist as the person who refuses to go with the crowd, who stands alone whether its popular or not (and it's usually not). To me, very "bad" people can be anarchists, and very "good ones," as well.

So many ways to interpret that, but fun to speculate! Hope you're feeling better!

Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed reading all these comments, it's a tough one Patry, I must say that I have a tendency to agree with with Cate said, there's a flip side to every question like this, to say that allllll people are anachists deep down, is well, to broad of a statement to make, depending upon the context, I've seen in my small community, toooo many groups, large and small that unite over a cause, whether the cause be uniforms for the kids school or to raise the legal age of consent, I've seen many people in these groups use the group for their own purpose, and...I've also seen how a "bad" group mentallity can form based on the strength and ability of one person to convince others...I'm rambling.. there are lots of good things that are done for sure, but....well, alot of times I want to throw away the rules, do what I want, I'm very passionate about things and volunteer with certain groups for things I believe in where I feel the end result, what the group is working towards it not self serving in any way, groups such as mothers against drunk drivers etc...and well...I'm rambling, thanks Patry...I hope you're feeling better..xoxoxo P

Becca said...

I think Avrich wishes that all good people were anarchists ...but I do not think they are. The statement seems self serving.

But I have really appreciated Irina's response - very much.

Patry Francis said...

sarsparilla: "food, drink, and the comfort of conformity" are powerful gods indeed, but there are times in history when those who clung to them in favor of rising up against an evil government became complicit with those evils.

Finn: good point about the limits that commerce places on art.

cate: I agree with you--that anarchy frequently breeds a new tyranny.

patricia: I've been involved in groups like that, and I hear you. I think the only kind of anarchy that is required of a good person, is anarchy against our own selfish nature.

becca: Our Irina is truly unique--a wise and holy young woman. "Meeting" her has been a true gift--as has meeting you!

Dave said...

I'm sorry to hear Avrich has died. His own beliefs were in the Kropotkin-Goldman mainstream of anarchist tradition, I think. According to this tradition, individual freedom and collective social arrangements need not be in conflict; our presumption that they are incompatible stems from a deeply ingrained prejudice toward coersion and hierarchy.

The quote seems to point toward the notion that everyone has an instinct for freedom, though i'd want to see the context before saying for certain. If anarchists can be said to agree on anything, it might be on the premise that people have everything they need, individually and collectively, to live happy, fulfilling lives and create free and just societies. But much as I share this belief, I side with Dale about the shallowness of the quote.

I don't think people are inherently anarchistic any more than they are inherently peaceful or violent, inherently sinful, etc. I do question whether nation-states and other large-scale, coercive social structures can ever be workable. In the few centuries of the existence of the modern nation-state, it has perpetrated acts of genocide of ecocide virtually unparalleled in recorded history, and has brought us to the brink of full-scale planetary destruction. By contrast, if the witness of countless anthropologists may be trusted, small-scale stateless societies can be quite stable, are often highly peaceful, and permit a great variety of cultural and individual variation. Also, Brenda's observation that civil society is basically anarchist is one that I am certain Peter Kropotkin would have endorsed (see *Mutual Aid*).

A couple of commenters have mentioned perceived conflicts between anarchism and religion. While it's true that many of the classical anarchists were fiercely opposed to religious institutions, it's also the case that here's a vital tradition of Christian anarchism going back to Leo Tolstoy. The great Jewish philosopher of alterity, Martin Buber, was very influenced by anarchist thinking (as well as by Daoism - see below). He traced the history of the communitarian ideal in his book *Paths in Utopia.* Jacques Ellul's *Anarchy and Christianity* argues that every true Christian is an anarchist.

Regardless of what Avrich might have meant by his simple statement, the fact is that anarchist tendencies crop up in all manner of texts and tendencies throughout history. Philosophical Daoism has many points in common with Western anarchism. Agrarian movements such as the Diggers in 17th-century England or the Demoiselles revolt in early 19th-century France do seem to point to a deep-seated human instinct for freedom and local control. Even some Islamic movements, such as the Najadect sect, can be said to have embraced the anarchist ideal.

Sorry for the over-long comment, and thanks, Patry, for sparking this great discussion!

1000 black lines said...

I think Brenda and Dave already said what I wanted to contribute. However, to lighten the heavy discussion -- no one has mentioned the indie film Anarchy TV ( Technically it's a comedy, but it sure makes a powerful statement.

robin andrea said...

I have nothing to contribute but awe at the depth and breadth of this discussion. I came by early when there were no comments yet, and thought I could not succinctly answer such a question in the little comment box. But I see how wrong I was. There are so many comments here that deeply grapple with the question. This is one of the most interesting philosophical discussions I've read on a blog, and I appreciate it immensely.

I think I don't know what an anarchist is.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

"You will all be anarchists, or else! We have ways of making you anarchists!"

Swirly said...

Wonderful question. What is throwing me is the "every GOOD person...". Perhaps that is true - that it is too easy to go the way of greed, laziness, anger, etc. - and that by choosing to be a force of good in the world is inherently rebellious, simply because it usually takes more effort. I know that for me - and I'm going to sound like a super snob here - I am driven by the idea of wanting to be better than the average. Better as in more honest, more authentic, more disciplined as opposed to wanting to be the "best" artist or writer. (To me that idea is preposterous.) I want to go the extra mile where most people would do the least they had to do, and this actually feels mildly rebellious. But if taken to the nth degree, would it lead to outright anarchy? I'm not so sure...I guess that depends on who's in charge!

kent.. said...

It might be ok if the opposite were also true: that all anarchists were good people. Then the only problem for society would be on a common definition of 'good', which has been the challenge of society for some time. Otherwise the imposition of someone else's beliefs on my freedom may stir up a little anarchy in me! It seems that in a civil society, rules imposed on us for the greater good of all, especially those defined and established in a true democratic manner, provide for a better way to live than rules decided on by anarchy. That said, a little anarchy in all of us likely leads to a more engaged community. All of this only matters when populations become crowded, or when there is competition for property and resources.

floots said...

I would take a simple view. Individuality and self-belief are the things which hold a person together. However "good" (a somewhat subjective term) is, that "selfness", and the recognition of it in others, will be paramount, thus giving, in a curiously non-technical sense, an acceptance of a form of anarchy.

What do I know? - I'm a hideaway hermit. :)

Patry Francis said...

Dave: I've been hoping you would show up and weigh in on this--and you made it well worth the wait. Not surprised that Avrich is a familiar name to you.

Your third paragraph about the differences between small scale societies and the modern nation state was particularly interesting to me.

I also suspect you're right when you posit that true Christians are anarchists. Certainly Jesus rebelled against the institutions and the mindset of his time.

matt: thanks for the link. The film looks like fun and there's a great quote from Emerson on anarchy, too.

r.d.: After reading through several of these great comments or mini-essays, I felt the same way--unsure of the meaning of the word. The dictionary definition feels inadequate compared to the thoughts expressed here, which have viewed the subject through historical, political, spiritual and moral lenses.

r.l.c: hmmm...I'm guessing that the quote brings out your inner anarchy against anarchy...or something like that.

kent: The concept of "common good" which you raise seems to be one that's very much neglected at this time--which could lead into another debate/discussion. Maybe you might feel the urge to write something and link it?

Maybe someone else?

Patry Francis said...

swirly: Yours is a definition of anarchy I could completely support. "Choosing to be a force for good in the world is inherently rebellious, simply because it takes more effort." Oh yes.

floots: (think we x-posted) Didn't someone else say "All hermits are anarchists"? No, maybe that was me, and I'm the first to admit, I contradict myself on a daily basis.

Anonymous said...

Back in my student days, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I knew several people who called themselves anarchists. The were, I believe, good people, but it was an innocent goodness which left them vulnerable to exploitation.

I can agree with Dale, who believes Avrich means "all good people would like us all to be able to live without political and economic coercion." Or that all good people strive to live in what Kant called "the k

steve on the slow train said...

Back in my student days, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I knew several people who called themselves anarchists. The were, I believe, good people, but it was an innocent goodness which left them vulnerable to exploitation.

I can agree with Dale, who believes Avrich means "all good people would like us all to be able to live without political and economic coercion." Or that all good people strive to live in what Kant called "the kingdom of ends," in which each person treated everyone (including him or herself) as an end, and not a means. But the world we live in is not such a kingdom, nor do even the best of us consistently treat others and themselves as ends.

Patry Francis said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Patry Francis said...

The terms "anarchist" or "revolutionary" can be romantic ones--and leave those put them on like a coat subject to exploitation and all the dangers of vainglory. But I still believe there are some evils that must be actively resisted. Complacency, in the face of injustice, becomes an evil in itself.

Anonymous said...

ooo I really like that quote. Let me go off and ponder it...

Fred Garber said...

Go to for an alternate history of the Battle for Stalingrad where the Aztecs are helping the Russian Anarchists fight the German Nazis.