The atom bomb and anarchy (1948)

“Around fifty years ago, some hotheads, described at the time as anarchists, threw bombs in a range of public places, into cafes, churches and indeed the Chamber of Deputies. Those outrages caused the deaths of a number of people and rightly triggered public indignation. The numbers killed and the material damage done were limited, however. How much greater they would be if, tomorrow, a fresh crop of anarchists were to succeed in deploying atom bombs likely to wipe out whole cities in their criminal ventures! True, today’s technical abilities would not allow one isolated individual to manufacture an atom bomb, but let us get to the real nub of the drama: the wishes of JUST ONE man could prove enough to unleash a phenomenon of formidable power. Due to such an enormous increase in our powers to trigger that, the moral responsibility on men is boosted to the same extent and the implications of a moral failing might prove incalculable. The moral issue thereby assumes a much greater edge than in the past and, if we may borrow Bergson’s language, since there is no indication that our souls have grown in proportion with our bodies, the sure fact is that humanity is not going to be overly endowed with all the spiritual resources upon which morality might call in navigating, without undue danger, the perilous byways that it is going to be obliged to travel.”
Science and Humanism, the Sorbonne, 29 December 1945, lecture by Prince Louis de Broglie of the Académie Française.

Our souls have not grown in proportion with our bodies”. What are we to read into that? Unlike animals’ bodies, which end at the tip of their horns, their hooves, their teeth and their claws, men’s bodies are extended by whatever man uses instrumentally: the tool, the domestic animal, the machine, and, in the case of the ‘political’ man, that machinery of social power: the State.

A very tiny soul in a huge frame – such is the social, military, financial, industrial and religious mastodon – as the current human world demonstrates to us. The largest soul is only ever that of a single person: one man alone, one free man. It is not liable to quantitative growth but belongs in the realm of quality. The more it marshals huge material instruments, the more of that quality it loses – especially when that instrument is human, made up of human resources reduced to the status of a technical resource. Along with the loss of consciousness and empathy that it presupposes, the science of “human engineering” is, above all else, a “loss of soul”. Rabelais had a good appreciation of this, back in the days when the centralized monarchies were being built and when a beginning was being made on those great pharaonic projects of modern times, when gigantic idols spawned by pride, greed and anger – Churches, States, Armies – were locked in ferocious battle with one another like giant dinosaurs on the face of the earth. It did not take long before Étienne de la Boétie, the author of Contr’un, [aka Discourse on Voluntary Servitude] was exposing the laughable mindlessness in the monsters spawned by voluntary servitude and searching for the chink in the armour of those voracious colossuses.

For centuries, a fiction prevailed that was the only thing that made the presence of great lumbering bodies, captive to their stupidity and their inevitability, acceptable. That fiction credited them with a super-human, vast, infinite soul; that soul went by the name God. These days we know that there is nothing less godly than blind omnipotence. And that omnipotence is ever thus.

What has come to be referred to as divine right monarchy was actually dependent on possession of a technology beyond the reach of the private individual: artillery. The secular and profane explanation calls it by its proper name: monarchy is the righteousness of the cannon.

The ultima ratio regum (ultimate righteousness of kings), the cannon, could demolish the walls of feudal boroughs and those of the medieval communes: and it laid the foundations of the modern nations. On the day when the divine nature of powers founded upon artillery was called into question, when the monopolistic crime of despots was acknowledged as crime – it looked like its taboos would be broken. The private individual, the social desperado, recaptured control of the chief means: to kings, parliaments, oppressive societies, he applied the lex talionis (law of revenge) by means of bomb and dynamite: in a world where crime was all around, there was an eruption of the criminal, sacrilegious revelation of “propaganda by deed”.

As we know, this brutal rebellion of a single individual against everybody; this revolt of individuals stripped by the modern State of their last remaining reason to live, was answered by a sweeping re-appointment of the authorities and the introduction of a worldwide police, but also by the granting of reforms, protective measures, and short-term outlets for private individuals needing to act and live.
Democracy turned “social”. And the best weapon in the arsenal of coercion and the maintenance of public order – once the religious and sacred aspect of divine right institutions had fallen away – proved to be the wide circulation press which imposes and moulds opinion by dint of day-to-day persuasion by “printed matter”, the mouthpiece for “science” and “truth”. Democracy has used the large circulation press as an essential political tool, without quite stowing away its artillery. Confronted by this weapon of the major newspaper consortia, organs of the capitalist and government monopolies, the heretic found himself defenceless once again. His voice was drowned out by that of the established parties and vested interests. Which left him with just one option: subversive, semi-clandestine recourse to the printshop – propaganda by tract, the flyer, the little sheet passed from hand to hand, the poster that appeared overnight – the anonymous, ever-present response to the omnipresence of the millionaire press.

At which point the government system of monopolies changed its spots and launched brand-new organs made available by fresh discoveries. To “news” from the main press, and to the censorship restricting or banning subversive publications, was added the incomparable power of active suggestion, of intrusive propaganda in the shape of radio, affording the party boss,  as he went about hypnotizing consciences with the power of the human voice, the lungs of a Stentor, to speak and be heard by an entire continent and without fear of contradiction. Modern political totalitarianism (Hitler being the purest example since he essentially relied on long-distance agitation of the masses) has used this technology to produce the miracles we are aware of. And we still await the subversive application by the individual of Radio which would allow the isolated individual to attack and, at the same time, to use the huge broadcasting and amplifying stations to establish free and equal speech, just like nature bestows upon two men, face to face. But no sooner had the war of the airwaves between London and Moscow on the one hand, and Berlin or Berchtesgaden on the other come to an end than there was an unprecedented revolution in the morphology and anatomy of “power”, given the appearance of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the U.S. Air Force.

This time, it was a case of a tool for political argument a thousand times more powerful than explosives, than the press and the radio taken together – its activation calling for the mounting of secret preparations unfeasible in the absence of the close industrial discipline of hundreds of researchers, thousands of technicians, hundreds of thousands of workers, mobilized across an entire country. The atom bomb requires the mobilization of a social body, a material organism of the sort that only the American or Russo-Asiatic continents can bear the burden of. Throughout that organism, which was unaware of what it was preparing, human responsibility had been eradicated and confined to obedience to orders received. As for the over-arching moral conscience, it boiled down to this rationale, worthy of a brutish Hottentot: “Unless we accomplish death’s work as soon as we can, the enemy will get there before us. Killing is good. Being killed is bad.”

Will the small souls who give the orders in New Mexico or in Atomgrad to the vast iron complexes and morally unthinking living cells whose handiwork we have already witnessed have the final say? 

If so, the predictions and apocalyptic preaching of the Jeremiahs of our age would come to pass. Man, the human mind would have had its day; blind, unfeeling matter would come back into its own. The annihilation of thought on earth would be at hand.

Is that a legitimate conclusion to come to? Is there in the existence of the atom bomb in the hands of one, two or several super-powers, an inevitability, damning beyond all rescue the living’s reach for freedom and autonomy of conscience? We think not. And in another article, we should like to spell out the reasons why. For the time being, let us make do with noting that one authoritative voice, the voice of Louis de Broglie, has spoken out  along with many others to call for control of atomic weapons in the name of the simple threat hanging over the whole of humanity. And note again that he confesses the profound ineffectuality of any exclusively political or police control measures.

Technically speaking, the disintegration of matter cannot be absolutely monopolized, any more than the use of explosives, the printing press or the radio could. Sooner or later, the atomic secret is going to pass into the public domain. So, in the final analysis, the issue is not State, national or supra-national control over the dangerous applications of nuclear physics, but man’s self-control by means of the elevation of his sense of personal responsibility vis à vis himself and the values of which he is the artisan and guardian:

As long as the wherewithal available to man in acting upon his surroundings is limited, the consequences of his malpractices were also limited and the resultant damage done to human societies could be mopped up pretty much quickly. As the means of action and thus the powers of destruction  placed at our disposal by the advancement of science and technology have grown, the ravages they are liable to produce have grown in extent and the blights caused thereby, being more deep-seated, have taken longer to heal.
Faced with the dangers to which advances in science, if misused, expose him, man has need of ‘additional soul’ and should strive to acquire such promptly and before it is too late.

But is that additional soul – which L. de Broglie has demanded for the individual, and which past centuries have sought in vain from belief and religious enthusiasm (namely, wonder at inevitability as personified in the attributes and aspect of the Almighty) – a swift-acting and revolutionary enough method of delivering that before it is too late?

That is the question.

Writing as A.P. in Le Libertaire, (Paris) No 125, 15 April 1948. From Un anarchisme hors norme (a collection of texts by André Prudhommeaux, published by Tumult )

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.