The Third International after Lenin

Thursday, December 15, 2011

On Thoreau

A coworker and I were discussing Thoreau in relation to anarchism today. Marxist material on Thoreau is hard to come by, but I did find the following from Albert Weisbord's book The Conquest of Power [1937] :

....THE classic land for the efflorescence and experimentations of bourgeois Liberal-Anarchism was America. If bourgeois Anarchism called for free land, free capital, free labor, and free exchange, what country could appear more favorable than the United States? (*1) Indeed, in a country where Liberalism could afford to appear as Radicalism, could there be a sharp line drawn between Liberalism and Liberal- Anarchism? The conditions of American life not only had forced men into a certain pattern of individualism, but had also compelled them to idealize this individualism and to make it an end in itself. It was in the United States that the development of State versus Individual had reached its sharpest point. Liberalism and Liberal-Anarchism could well blend into one another.

With Godwin, Anarchism had been argued for social reasons, for the welfare of society. With Stirner, Anarchism had been turned into more philistine egotism under a metaphysical guise. With the Americans, Anarchism turned practical and was actually put to work as a doctrine of individualism. Anarchism became the very apotheosis of individualism. Its credo was the “Sovereignty of the Individual,” a sovereignty which was being encroached upon by State, Law, and Government. Significantly enough, only after the first real capitalist economic crisis did Liberalism begin to feel the need to turn into Liberal-Anarchism. The devastating crisis of 1837 which caused such acute distress was the first sign that America would not escape the cataclysms of Europe and that the “little man” here, too—and America had been the classic happy hunting ground of the “little man” for so long a time—was doomed to go. With the first pinch of world competition, the petty bourgeoisie began to fear that their labor inevitably would be deemed inefficient and that they themselves were destined to become discarded. This realization only drove them all the more to attempt to defend whatever “sovereignty” was left to them, namely, the sovereignty of individualism.

Among the very first theoreticians of the sovereignty of the individual was Stephen Pearl Andrews (*2) who deduced his conclusions from a study of “Natural Law.” In his case, this meant a study of the actual wilderness and the natural forces around him. To him, “The doctrine of the Sovereignty of the individual---in one sense itself a principle---grows out of the still more fundamental principle of Individuality, which pervades universal nature. Individuality is positively the most fundamental and universal principle which the finite mind seems capable of discovering, and the best image of the infinite.” (*3) Thus individuality became the essential law of order, conformity became absolutely impossible, and all government would have to pass away. To support individualism by the Law of Individuality in Nature---could anyone have done this better than an American?

It is to this same type of Anarchism that Thoreau adhered. As a profound naturalist, a true son of this immense continent where sheriffs and police of the State had only just now set foot and defiled the land, or so it seemed, Thoreau could not fail to be impressed with the smallness of society as compared with the vastness of nature. Not only in comparison with geography but also in comparison with the individual, the State seemed insignificant. The individual had existed before the State, was suffering under the State; his soul, as the concrete embodiment of the infinite, the State would never possess.

America, be it remembered, was a land of abundance. Any man expert in the wiles of nature could prosper easily, provided he was let alone. Thoreau could manage. A skilled mechanic and naturalist, Thoreau did not have to work hard to live. Why should he work, then, for others? What duty did he owe to others? Why should he pay allegiance to the State and submit to all the horrible crimes which he could see so clearly the State was committing upon the people? Like Walt Whitman, he represented the care-free spirit of American youth. In his own Liberal-Anarchistic way he declared war upon the State.

He turned over the following statement to the selectmen of his town: “Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined.” (*4) “I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually…. In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases." (*5)

An open declaration of war against the State! Not with the bomb and not through revolution, but only through withdrawal not only from the State but from wicked society as well. A voluntary poverty, a voluntary asceticism, reducing his standards to that of the Indian, marked his life, .not because he desired to immolate himself to a cause or believed in asceticism for itself, but because he had turned partly Indian, because he had reverted to “primitive man” and was in that unique situation where Rousseau’s “Back to Nature” and primitiveness actually could be both idealized and practiced. Thoreau’s Anarchism was accomplished through renunciation, through pacifism, through running away from the struggle. This was no cowardly running away, however, but a deliberate retreat into the wilds of that nature which he loved and to which he was so thoroughly attuned. Thoreau was a high-type example of the “American Savage.” (*6)

And what country in the world would have treated this declaration of ,war in the way Massachusetts did? There was no howling of “subversive tendencies,” there was no campaign of destruction against the Anarchism which Thoreau not only was talking but trying to live. It was with the deepest regret that the sheriff jailed him for a day for non-payment of taxes. And there were many friends to get him out and to pay his tax for him, despite his protest. True, the childlike Anarchism of Thoreau could not possibly be harmful to American society; it was also true that the theory of “Sovereignty of the Individual” had been embedded entirely too long in the social consciousness for anyone in this country to become excited over its enunciation and its attempted practice.

Indeed, there was plenty of patriotic precedent for the views of such Anarchism. The Liberal had declared: “The best government is that which governs least.” The Anarchist merely added: “The best government, then, is no government.” The American Revolution had recognized, both theoretically and practically, the Right of Revolution. This implied the superiority of moral law to government; and, using his conscience as his guide, Thoreau declared his own revolution. The American Revolution, then, was the great inspiration for early American Anarchism! Nay, more. Anarchism could be said to stem from the early settlers themselves. Were not Mrs. Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dwyer in the seventeenth century perhaps the first Anarchistic persons to set foot upon this country? And what of the Quakers? In the nineteenth century, American Liberal-Anarchism simply broke its religious ties and stepped out in its own right.

Thoreau’s love of nature and his advocacy of Anarchist doctrine was far more than an accidental combination. Just as, in America, Nature took the place of society and “freedom” meant nature, as “restraint” meant State and Society, so have many Anarchists proved that their hatred of the State was really the hatred of artificial society and but another side of their love of nature. Between certain types of American Anarchists and “Friends of Nature” there is very little difference.

The American Thoreau thus was quite different from the Englishman Godwin who was living in a far more developed society. The Englishman had ridiculed the rationalization of “Natural Rights” and “Natural Law"; the Americans, like Thoreau, were still using the argumentations and the beliefs of the eighteenth century. The Englishman had carefully separated the concept of society from that of State and government; with Thoreau, society itself had disappeared and only the naked individual remained in all his “sovereignty.” Both Thoreau and Godwin stemmed from Liberalism, but how different were their Liberalisms! As different as the English bourgeois was from the American. Here, again, we see that Anarchism or at least Liberal-Anarchism was but the negative shadow that a solid bourgeois Liberal world was casting before it in its march.

The Anarchism of Thoreau, however, soon came into collision with the great forces leading to the American Civil War. He had opposed the Mexican War and had been against the institution of slavery, and, as the conflict of the Civil War became to all thinking persons more and more inevitable, Thoreau took his side with the Abolitionists. Prior to the civil War, he had written “On Civil Disobedience.” Now he wrote, “But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no- government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but AT ONCE a better government,” (*7) and in his plea for Captain John Brown he wrote: “I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable." (*8) Just as in many a critical moment Liberalism turned conservative, so did American Liberal- Anarchism turn into Liberal governmentalism.

The struggle of the Abolitionists taught Thoreau that he could not run away from society nor the struggle. And while he could write, “The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State and involuntarily go plotting against her,” yet did he defend that State in its struggle against chattel slavery. (*9)....

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