Herbert Read (1893-1968)

Herbert Read


Herbert Read was born on a remote Yorkshire farm and never ceased to be at heart a salesman peasant. His experiences as a miraculously surviving officer in the First World War left him with a profound hatred of war and an equally profound distrust of the state. He became a poet and art critic, a publisher and lecturer; he wrote one extraordinary novel, The Green Child, and an equally pellucid autobiography, Annals of Innocence and Experience.

His anarchism lasted from youth to death, and though he always moved on the edge of the organised movement, he wrote some of the libertarian classics, including Poetry and Anarchism, The Philosophy of Anarchism and Education Through Art, which devises a mode of education that is in fact a method of creating anarchists by stealth.

Select Bibliography

The Philosophy of Anarchism

Poetry and Anarchism

Kropotkin: the Master

Art and Society


Herbert Read: The Philosophy of Anarchism (excerpt)

Admittedly a system of equity, no less than a system of law, implies a machinery for determining and administering its principles. I can imagine no society which does not embody some method of arbitration. But just as the judge in equity is supposed to appeal to universal principles of reason, and to ignore statutory law when it comes into conflict with these principles, so the arbiter in an anarchist community will appeal to these same principles, as determined by philosophy or common sense; and will do so unimpeded by all those legal and economic prejudices which the present organization of society entails.

It will be said that I am appealing to mystical entities, to idealistic notions which all good materialists reject. I do not deny it. What I do deny is that you can build any enduring society without some such mystical ethos. Such a statement will shock the Marxian socialist, who, in spite of Marx’s warnings, is usually a naive materialist. Marx’s theory – as I think he himself would have been the first to admit – was not a universal theory. It did not deal with all the facts of life – or dealt with some of them only in a very superficial way. Marx rightly rejected the unhistorical methods of the German metaphysicians, who tried to make the facts fit a pre-con-ceived theory. He also, just as firmly, rejected the mechanical materialism of the eighteenth century-rejected it on the grounds that though it could explain the existing nature of things, it ignored the whole process of historical development – the universe as organic growth. Most Marxians forget the first thesis on Feuerbach, which reads: ‘The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included -is that the object, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectivity.’ Naturally, when it came to interpreting the history of religion, Marx would have treated it as a social product; but that is far from treating it as an illusion. Indeed, the historical evidence must tend altogether in the opposite direction, and compel us to recognize in religion a social necessity. There has never been a civilization without its corresponding religion, and the appearance of rationalism and scepticism is always a symptom of decadence.

Admittedly there is a general fund of reason to which all civilizations contribute their share and which includes an attitude of comparative detachment from the particular religion of one’s epoch. But to recognize the historical evolution of a phenomenon like religion does not explain it away. It is far more likely to give it a scientific justification, to reveal it as necessary “human sensuous activity’, and therefore to throw suspicion on any social philosophy which arbitrarily excludes religion from the organization it proposes for society.

It is already clear, after twenty years of socialism in Russia, that if you do not provide your society with a new religion; it will gradually revert to the old one. Communism has, of course, its religious aspects, and apart from the gradual readmission of the Orthodox Church, the deification of Lenin (sacred tomb, effigies, creation of a legend-all the elements are there) is a deliberate attempt to create an outlet for religious emotions. Still more deliberate attempts to create the paraphernalia of a new creed were made by the Nazis in Germany, where the necessity for a religion of some kind has never been officially denied. In Italy Mussolini was far too wily to do anything but come to terms with the Catholic Church, and a deep and frustrating ambiguity exists in the minds of many Italian communists. Far from scoffing at these irrational aspects of communism and fascism, we should rather criticize these political creeds for lack of any real sensuous and aesthetic content, for the poverty of their ritual, and above all for a misunderstanding of the function of poetry and imagination in the life of the community.

It is possible that out of the ruins of our capitalist civilization a new religion will emerge, just as Christianity emerged from the ruins of the Roman civilization. Civilizations monotonously repeat certain patterns of belief in the course of their history, elaborate parallel myths. Socialism, as conceived by its pseudo-historical materialists, is not such a religion, and never will be. And though, from this point of view, it must be conceded that fascism has shown more imagination, it is in itself such a phenomenon of decadence the first defensive awareness of the fate awaiting the existing social order – that its ideological superstructure is not of much permanent interest. For a religion is never a synthetic creation – you cannot select your legends and saints from the mythical past and combine them with some kind of political or radical policy to make a nice convenient creed. A prophet, like a poet, is born. But even granted a prophet, we are still far from the establishment of a religion. It needed five centuries to build the religion of Christianity on the message of Christ. That message had to be moulded, enlarged, and to a considerable extent distorted until it conformed with what Jung has called the archetypes of the collective unconscious -those complex psychological factors which give cohesion to a society. Religion, in its later stages, may well become the opium of the people; but whilst it is vital it is the only force which can hold a people together – which can supply them with a natural authority to appeal to when their personal interests clash.

I call religion a natural authority, but it has usually been conceived as a supernatural authority. It is natural in relation to the morphology of society; supernatural in relation to the morphology of the physical universe. But in either aspect it is in opposition to the artificial authority of the State. The State only acquires its supreme authority when religion begins to decline, and the great struggle between Church and State, when, as in modern Europe, it ends so decisively in favour of the State, is from the point of view of the organic life of society, eventually fatal. It is because modern socialism has been unable to perceive this truth and has instead linked itself to the dead hand of the State, that everywhere socialism is meeting its defeat. The natural ally of socialism was the Church, though admittedly in the actual historical circumstances of the nineteenth century it was difficult to see this. The Church was so corrupted, so much a dependency of the ruling classes, that only a few rare spirits could see through appearances to the realities, and conceived socialism in the terms of a new religion, or more simply as a new reformation of Christianity.

Whether, in the actual circumstances of today, it is still possible to find a path from the old religion to a new religion is doubtful. A new religion can arise only on the basis of a new society, and step by step with such a society – perhaps in Russia, perhaps in Spain, perhaps in the United States: it is impossible to say where, because even the germ of such a new society is nowhere evident and its full information lies deeply buried in the future.

I am not a revivalist – I have no religion to recommend and none to believe in. I merely affirm, on the evidence of the history of civilizations, that a religion is a necessary element in any organic society. And I am so conscious of the slow process of spiritual development that I am in no mood to look for a new religion, and have no hope of finding one. I would only venture one observation. Both in its origins and development, up to its zenith, religion is closely associated with art. Religion and art are, indeed, if not alternative modes of expression, modes intimately associated. Apart from the essentially aesthetic nature of religion ritual; apart, too, from the dependence of religion on art for the visualization of its subjective concepts; there is, besides, an identity of the highest forms of poetic and mystic expression. Poetry, in its intensest and most creative moments, penetrates to the same level of the unconscious as mysticism. Certain writers – and they are among the greatest – Saint Francis, Dante, Saint Teresa. Saint John of the Cross, Blake – rank equally as poets and as mystics. For this reason it may well happen that the origins of a new religion will be found if not in mysticism, then in art rather than in any form of moralistic revivalism.

What has all this to do with anarchism? Merely this: socialism of the Marxist tradition, that is to say, state socialism, has so completely cut itself off from religious sanctions and has been driven to such pitiful subterfuges in its search for substitutes for religion, that by contrast anarchism, which is not without its mystic strain, is a religion itself. It is possible, that is to say, to conceive a new religion developing out of anarchism. During the Spanish Civil War many observers were struck by the religious intensity of the anarchists. In that country of potential renaissance anarchism has inspired, not only heroes but even saints – a new race of men whose lives are devoted, in sensuous imagination and in practice, to the creation of a new type of human society.

Compiled by George Woodcock


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