Just as Marx and Engels had Christian backgrounds so too did the early anarchists. By anarchist we do not mean last year’s education protesters or the Occupy movement. These are merely overprivileged children who imagine that rioting, remaining unwashed and defecating in St Paul’s constitutes reasoned political argument. Real anarchists are more thoughtful and coherent, and many of the leading figures in western European anarchism have made a personal pilgrimage from Christianity, through socialism and on to anarchism.
William Godwin (1756-1836) father of Mary Shelly of Frankenstein fame is also considered the father of modern anarchism. According to Peter Kropotkin, Godwin was “the first to formulate the political and economical conceptions of anarchism, even though he did not give that name to the ideas developed in his work.” Godwin argued that government is a corrupting force in society, perpetuating dependence and ignorance.
The son of an independent minister Godwin originally started out as a student for the ministry with Samuel Newton a hyper-Calvinist. At this point in his life Godwin was a Tory. He then served as a minister himself before eventually departing from Christianity and moving through deism to atheism and utilitarianism.
Godwin’s departure from Calvinism and his eventual anarchism is not unusual. On the continent there are many examples of the same or similar process amongst those brought up in Christianity. Jacques Roux, an ex-priest and member of the Paris Commune was prominent amongst the enrages (fanatics). Although they did not call themselves anarchists they were quickly labelled such by their Jacobin opponents. Roux and his compatriots rejected revolutionary government as a contradiction in terms, revolution by decree was no revolution.
The brothers Elisee and Elie Reclus, 19th century French anarchists were sons of a Calvinist minister and brought up in that understanding of the faith. Whilst Elie, the anthropologist, retained a vestigial attachment to the Christian faith it is clear that Elisee, the geographer, rejected this entirely.
In the Netherlands Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis (1846-1919) pioneer of Dutch anarchism was a Lutheran minister who also rejected Christianity before moving through socialism to anarchism.
Guy Aldred (1886-1963) one of Britain’s leading anarchist propagandists began public life as an evangelical boy preacher in the streets of London, founding the Christian Social Mission with a friend only five days after his sixteenth birthday. This quickly became the Theistic Mission and then the Clerkenwell Freethought Mission. Aldred moved from Christianity to theism to agnosticism, to atheism, at the same time he moved politically from socialism to anarchism.
Not only have Reformed and evangelical Christians seen their children depart the faith for anarchism, Catholicism has seen the same movement. Sebastien Faure (1856-1942) the most active writer and speaker in the French anarchist movement of his day had been brought up in a well-to-do middle class Catholic family. Educated by Jesuits he was originally intended for the priesthood. On his father’s death he went into the insurance business, following his military service he spent a year in England before returning to France and marrying. It was at this point that Faure appears to have lost his faith and become a socialist. Under the influence of Kropotkin, Elise Recluse and Joseph Tortelier he then moved towards anarchism. Finally in 1888 he broke with the socialists, moved to Paris and devoted the rest of his life to indefatigable work as an anarchist propagandist.
Is this departure from Christian faith merely because in earlier periods of history people in the West were almost invariably brought up in the Christian faith, and if they became anarchists they inevitably did so from a previously generally Christian position? Whereas today, if someone arrives at an anarchist position, they do so from amongst the generally unbelieving post-Christian populace. Today for the majority of people in Western Europe it is not so much a position of rejecting Christianity in favour of something which is perceived as being better, as never having understood, seriously considered, or accepted Christianity in the first place.
Care must be taken not to invest past ages with a golden haze of piety suffusing all. The Hanoverian age in England which produced so many who rejected Christianity for various forms of freethinking was notorious for the formal vacuity of the established church. From absentee bishops to ill paid and drunken curates the general picture of Christian profession in 18th century England is a bleak one enlivened only by a few figures of genuine intellectual ability, evangelistic zeal and pastoral concern. These figures were, however, too often pushed to the margins of society and of the church, whether established or dissenting. It is from this group that William Godwin emerged.
Undoubtedly some of those who later became anarchists did so from a position of nominal Christianity. We cannot take the easy way out and say that those who abandoned the Christian faith and eventually moved to a position of radical anarchism had never known true Christianity in the first place. Just as likely is the position that intelligent men and women, having been brought up on the Bible and the principles inherent in the gospel found that the church, the bearer of the gospel, had failed to live up to the biblical principles of freedom and equality and in rejecting the institution so as to pursue those biblical principles which had formed their outlook they also eventually rejected the source of that equality and freedom, the living God.