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The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
  Emma Goldman
  Peter Kropotkin
  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Max Stirner
  Murray Bookchin
  Noam Chomsky
  Bright but Lesser Lights
  Cold Off The Presses
  Anarchist History
  Worldwide Movements
  First International
  Paris Commune
  Haymarket Massacre
  Spanish Civil War


Sometime Fellow and Lecturer in Trinity College, Cambridge




Chapter I


      To all who are capable of new impressions and fresh thought, some modification of former beliefs and hopes has been brought by the war. What the modification has been has depended, in each case, upon character and circumstance; but in one form or another it has been almost universal. To me, the chief thing to be learnt through the war has been a certain view of the springs of human action, what they are, and what we may legitimately hope that they will become. This view, if it is true, seems to afford a basis for political philosophy more capable of standing erect in a time of crisis than the philosophy of traditional Liberalism has shown itself to be. The following lectures, though only one of them will deal with war, all are inspired by a view of the springs of action which has been suggested by the war. And all of them are informed by the hope of seeing such political institutions established in Europe as shall make men averse to war-a hope which I firmly believe to be realizable, though not with out a great and fundamental reconstruction of economic and social life.

      To one who stands outside the cycle of beliefs and passions which make the war seem necessary, an isolation, an almost unbearable separation from the general activity, becomes unavoidable. At the very moment when the universal disaster raises compassion in the highest degree, compassion itself compels aloofness from the impulse to self-destruction which has swept over Europe. The helpless longing to save men from the ruin towards which they are hastening makes it necessary to oppose the stream, to incur hostility, to be thought unfeeling, to lose for the moment the power of winning belief. It is impossible to prevent others from feeling hostile, but it is possible to avoid any reciprocal hostility on one's own part, by imaginative understanding and the sympathy which grows out of it. And without understanding and sympathyit is impossible to find a cure for the evil from which the world is suffering.

      There are two views of the war neither of which seems to me adequate. The usual viewin this country is that it is due to the wickedness of the Germans; the view of most pactfistsis that it is due to the diplomatic tangle and to the ambitions of Governments. I think both these views fail to realize the extent to which war grows out of ordinary human nature. Germans, and also the men who compose Governments, are on the whole average human beings, actuated by the same passions that actuate others, not differing much from the rest of the world except in their circumstances. War is accepted by men who are neither Germans nor diplomatists with a readiness, an acquiescence in untrue and inadequate reasons, which would not be possible if any deep repugnance to war were widespread in other nations or classes. The untrue things which men believe, and the true things which they disbelieve, are an index to their impulses -- not necessarily to individual impulses in each case (since beliefs are contagious), but to the general impulses of the community. We all believe many things which we have no good ground for believing, because, subconsciously, our nature craves certain kinds of action which these beliefs would render reasonable if they were true. Unfounded beliefs are the homage which impulse pays to reason; and thus it is with the beliefs which, opposite but similar, make men here and in Germany believe it their duty to prosecute the war.

      The first thought which naturally occurs to one who accepts this view is that it would be well if men were more under the dominion of reason. War, to those who see that it must necessarily do untold harm to all the combatants, seems a mere madness, a collective insanity in which all that has been known in time of peace is forgotten. If impulses were more controlled, if thought were less dominated by passion, men would guard their minds against the approaches of war fever, and disputes would be adjusted amicably. This is true, but it is not by itself sufficient. It is only those in whom the desire to think truly is itself a passion who will find this desire adequate to control the passions of war. Only passion can control passion, and only a contrary impulse or desire can check impulse. Reason, as it is preached by traditional moralists, is too negative, too little living, to make a good life. It is not by reason alone that wars can be prevented, but by a positive life of impulses and passions antagonistic to those that lead to war. It is the life of impulse that needs to be changed, not only the life of conscious thought.

      All human activity springs from two sources: impulse and desire. The part played by desire has always been sufficiently recognized. When men find themselves not fully contented, and not able instantly to procure what will cause content, imagination brings before their minds the thought of things which they believe would make them happy. All desire involves an interval of time between the consciousness of a need and the opportunity for satisfying it. The acts inspired by desire may be in themselves painful, the time before satisfaction can be achieved may be very long, the object desired may be something outside our own lives, and even after our own death. Will, as a directing force, consists mainly in following desires for more or less distant objects, in spite of the painfulness of the acts involved and the solicitations of incompatible but more immediate desires and impulses. All this is familiar, and political philosophy hitherto has been almost entirely based upon desire as the source of human actions.

      But desire governs no more than a part of human activity, and that not the most important but only the more conscious, explicit, and civilized part.

      In all the more instinctive part of our nature we are dominated by impulses to certain kinds of activity, not by desires for certain ends. Children run and shout, not because of any good which they expect to realize, but because of a direct impulse to running and shouting. Dogs bay the moon, not because they consider that it is to their advantage to do so, but because they feel an impulse to bark. It is not any purpose, but merely an impulse, that prompts such actions as eating, drinking, love-making, quarreling, boasting. Those who believe that man is a rational animal will say that people boast in order that others may have a good opinion of them; but most of us can recall occasions when we have boasted in spite of knowing that we should be despised for it. Instinctive acts normally achieve some result which is agreeable to the natural man, but they are not performed from desire for this result. They are performed from direct impulse, and the impulse is often strong even in cases in which the normal desirable result cannot follow. Grown men like to imagine themselves more rational than children and dogs, and unconsciously conceal from themselves how great a part impulse plays in their lives. This unconscious concealment always follows a certain general plan. When an impulse is not indulged in the moment in which it arises, there grows up a desire for the expected consequences of indulging the impulse. If some of the consequences which are reasonably to be expected are clearly disagreeable, a conflict between foresight and impulse arises. If the impulse is weak, foresight may conquer; this is what is called acting on reason. If the impulse is strong, either foresight will be falsified, and the disagreeable consequences will be forgotten, or, in men of a heroic mold, the consequences may be recklessly accepted. When Macbeth realizes that he is doomed to defeat, he does not shrink from the fight; he exclaims: --

      Lay on, Macduff, And damned be him that first cries, Hold, enough!

      But such strength and recklessness of impulse is rare. Most men, when their impulse is strong, succeed in persuading themselves, usually by a subconscious selectiveness of attention, that agreeable consequences will follow from the indulgence of their impulse.

      Whole philosophies, whole systems of ethical valuation, spring up in this way: they are the embodiment of a kind of thought which is subservient to impulse, which aims at providing a quasi-rational ground for the indulgence of impulse. The only thought which is genuine is that which springs out of the intellectual impulse of curiosity, leading to the desire to know and understand. But most of what passes for thought is inspired by some non-intellectual impulse, and is merely a means of persuading ourselves that we shall not be disappointed or do harm if we indulge this impulse. [1]

      When an impulse is restrained, we feel discomfort or even violent pain. We may indulge the impulse in order to escape from this pain, and our action is then one which has a purpose. But the pain only exists because of the impulse, and the impulse itself is directed to an act, not to escaping from the pain of restraining the impulse. The impulse itself remains without a purpose, and the purpose of escaping from pain only arises when the impulse has been momentarily restrained.

      Impulse is at the basis of our activity, much more than desire. Desire has its place, but not so large a place as it seemed to have. Impulses bring with them a whole train of subservient fictitious desires: they make men feel that they desire the results which will follow from indulging the impulses, and that they are acting for the sake of these results, when in fact their action has no motive outside itself. A man may write a book or paint a picture under the belief that he desires the praise which it will bring him; but as soon as it is finished, if his creative impulse is not exhausted, what he has done grows uninteresting to him, and he begins a new piece of work. What applies to artistic creation applies equally to all that is most vital in our lives: direct impulse is what moves us, and the desires which we think we have are a mere garment for the impulse.

      Desire, as opposed to impulse, has, it is true, a large and increasing share in the regulation of men's lives. Impulse is erratic and anarchical, not easily fitted into a well-regulated system; it may be tolerated in children and artists, but it is not thought proper to men who hope to be taken seriously. Almost all paid work is done from desire, not from impulse: the work it self is more or less irksome, but the payment for it is desired. The serious activities that fill a man's working hours are, except in a few fortunate individuals, governed mainly by purposes, not by impulses towards those activities. In this hardly any one sees an evil, because the place of impulse in a satisfactory existence is not recognized.

      An impulse, to one who does not share it actually or imaginatively, will always seem to be mad. All impulse is essentially blind, in the sense that it does not spring from any prevision of consequences. The man who does not share the impulse will form a different estimate as to what the consequences will be, and as to whether those that must ensue are desirable. This difference of opinion will seem to be ethical or intellectual, whereas its real basis is a difference of impulse. No genuine agreement will be reached, in such a case, so long as the difference of impulse persists. In all men who have any vigorous life, there are strong impulses such as may seem utterly unreasonable to others. Blind impulses sometimes lead to destruction and death, but at other times they lead to the best things the world contains. Blind impulse is the source of war, but it is also the source of science, and art, and love. It is not the weakening of impulse that is to be desired, but the direction of impulse towards life and growth rather than towards death and decay.

      The complete control of impulse by will, which is sometimes preached by moralists, and often enforced by economic necessity, is not really desirable. A life governed by purposes and desires, to the exclusion of impulse, is a tiring life; it exhausts vitality, and leaves a man, in the end, indifferent to the very purposes which he has been trying to achieve. When a whole nation lives in this way, the whole nation tends to become feeble, without enough grasp to recognize and overcome the obstacles to its desires. Industrialism and organization are constantly forcing civilized nations to live more and more by purpose rather than impulse. In the long run such a mode of existence, if it does not dry up the springs of life, produces new impulses, not of the kind which the will has been in the habit of controlling or of which thought is conscious. These new impulses are apt to be worse in their effects than those that have been checked. Excessive discipline, especially when it is imposed from without, often issues in impulses of cruelty and destruction; this is one reason why militarism has a bad effect on national character. Either lack of vitality, or impulses which are oppressive and against life, will almost always result if the spontaneous impulses are not able to find an outlet. A man's impulses are not fixed from the beginning by his native disposition: within certain wide limits, they are profoundly modified by his circumstances and his way of life. The nature of these modifications ought to be studied, and the results of such study ought to be taken account of in judging the good or harm that is done by political and social institutions.

      The war has grown, in the main, out of the life of impulse, not out of reason or desire. There is an impulse of aggression, and an impulse of resistance to aggression. Either may, on occasion, be in accordance with reason, but both are operative in many cases in which they are quite contrary to reason. Each impulse produces a whole harvest of attendant beliefs. The beliefs appropriate to the impulse of aggression may be seen in Bernhardi, or in the early Mohammedan conquerors, or, in full perfection, in the Book of Joshua. There is first of all a conviction of the superior excellence of one's own group, a certainty that they are in some sense the chosen people. This justifies the feeling that only the good and evil of one's own group is of real importance, and that the rest of the world is to be regarded merely as material for the triumph or salvation of the higher race. In modern politics this attitude is embodied in imperialism. Europe as a whole has this attitude towards Asia and Africa, and many Germans have this attitude towards the rest of Europe.

      Correlative to the impulse of aggression is the impulse of resistance to aggression. This impulse is exemplified in the attitude of the Israelites to the PhiIistines or of medieval Europe to the Mohammedans. The beliefs which it produces are beliefs in the peculiar wickedness of those whose aggression is feared, and in the immense value of national customs which they might suppress if they were victorious. When the war broke out, all the reactionaries in England and France began to speak of the danger to democracy, although until that moment they had opposed democracy with all their strength. They were not insincere in so speaking: the impulse of resistance to Germany made them value whatever was endangered by the German attack. They loved democracy because they hated Germany; but they thought they hated Germany because they loved democracy.

      The correlative impulses of aggression and resistance to aggression have both been operative in all the countries engaged in the war. Those who have not been dominated by one or other of these impulses may be roughly divided into three classes. There are, first, men whose national sentiment is antagonistic to the State to which they are subject. This class includes some Irish, Poles, Finns, Jews, and other members of oppressed nations. From our point of view, these men may be omitted from our consideration, since they have the same impulsive nature as those who fight, and differ merely inexternal circumstances.

      The second class of men who have not been part of the force supporting the war have been those whose impulsive nature is more or less atrophied. Opponents of pacifism suppose that all pacifists belong to this class, except when they are in German pay. It is thought that pacifists are bloodless, men without passions, men who can look on and reason with cold detachment while their brothers are giving their lives for their country. Among those who are merely passively pactfist, and do no more than abstain from actively taking part in the war, there may be a certain proportion of whom this is true. I think the supporters of war would be right in decrying such men. In spite of all the destruction which is wrought by the impulses that lead to war, there is more hope for a nation which has these impulses than for a nation in which all impulse is dead. Impulse is the expression of life, and while it exists there is hope of its turning towards life instead of towards death; but lack of impulse is death, and out of death no new life will come.

      The active pacifists, however, are not of this class: they are not men without impulsive force but men in whom some impulse to which war is hostile is strong enough to overcome the impulses that lead to war. It is not the act of a passionless man to throw himself athwart the whole movement of the national life, to urge an outwardly hopeless cause, to incur obloquy and to resist the contagion of collective emotion. The impulse to avoid the hostility of public opinion is one of the strongest in human nature, and can only be overcome by an unusual force of direct and uncalculating impulse; it is not cold reason alone that can prompt such an act.

      [1] On this subject compare Bernard Hart's "Psychology of Insanity" (Cambridge University Press, 1914), chap. v, especially pp. 62-5.

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