Herbert Read on Organic Society and Culture

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


From a profile of the anarchist philosopher Herbert Read:

"In the face of this modern disintegration, Read developed an anarchist philosophy based on the idea of an alternative “organic society” (9). As he explained in The Philosophy of Anarchism: “There is an order in Nature, and the order of Society should be a reflection of it”. (10)

This natural organic order did not just exist in the physical structure of our world, Read realised, but also extended into our own minds – which were, after all, part of the selfsame physical natural reality.

mandalaWoodcock tells how Read had “an apocalyptic experience” of personally seeing the form of the ancient mandala, the symbol of the self as a psychic unity, appear spontaneously in modern children’s artwork.

At that point it struck him that there existed “a collective unconscious which is in harmony with nature but out of harmony with the world created by abstract systems and conceptual thought”. (11)

This collective entity, a living being on another level to that of the individual, obviously had to have some way of “thinking”, which was where poets, artists and the rest of human culture came in.

Read wrote about this process, and the way it fitted in perfectly with anarchist thinking, in his 1960 book The Forms of Things Unknown.

He explained: “We are to be kept alive in more than one sense: first as individuals, then as communities, and finally as a species. To keep ourselves alive as individuals we must practise mutual aid – that is to say, we must form communities.

“It now begins to look as though, in order to keep alive as communities, we must practise mutual aid at the community level, and eventually as a species. In order to practise mutual aid, we must communicate with one another…

“The idea that words and symbols could be used positively, as synthetic structures that constitute effective modes of communication, does not seem to have occurred to our leading psychologists.

“Myth and ritual, poetry and drama, painting and sculpture – they have treated these creative achievements of mankind as so much grist for the analytical mill, but never as conceivably the disciplines by means of which mankind has kept itself mentally alert and therefore biologically vital”. (12)

For this communicative mutual aid to work, a society needed a living culture and “there is no culture unless an intimate relationship, on the level of instinct, exists between a people and its poets”. (13)


This organic functioning of human culture could never be possible under capitalism, where everything was reduced to the desire for money. But neither, saw Read, could it be possible under statist Marxism, which rejected any “mystical” anarchic ideas of organic collective entities.

He wrote: “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 naïve 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”. (16)

tree and roots2

Read’s organic vision of life was relevant not just for society as a whole, but also for his own personal understanding of what it meant to be an individual human being, doomed to a mortality which some can only see as absurd.

He saw himself as a metaphorical leaf on a collective tree: “Deep down in my consciousness is the consciousness of a collective life, a life of which I am part and to which I contribute a minute but unique extension.

“When I die and fall, the tree remains, nourished to some small degree by my brief manifestations of life. Millions of leaves have preceded me and millions will follow me; the tree itself grows and endures”. (17)"