A Forgotten Ancestor
I imagined to myself that the House of Commons were going to divide the common lands among the poor. But what was my astonishment and my indignation, when, by the after-clauses of the bill, I found that the poor and indigent were to be driven from the commons; and the land which before was common to all, was now to become the exclusive property of the rich! – The honourable House of Commons vanished from my sight; and I saw in its stead a den of thieves… (John Oswald)
The founder of anarchism as a modern political philosophy is generally held to be either William Godwin (1756-1836) or Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865). Some of the most influential ideas in anarchist philosophy come from Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), who proposed a system of anarcho-communism. Kropotkin’s ideas later influenced Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), whose philosophy has now been taken up by the Kurds in Syria. Bookchin’s system -which is not strictly anarchist – is based on networks of directly democratic people’s assemblies.
Forgotten in all histories of anarchism is the extraordinary and obscure figure of John Oswald, a veteran of the Black Watch Highland Regiment who turned his back on colonialism, lived for a time with the Kurds, joined the Jacobin Club in Paris, taught martial arts to the revolutionaries and then died in combat in the Vendée.
In a short work called “The Government of the People, Or A Sketch of a Constitution for the Universal Commonwealth,” Oswald proposed a system of directly democratic people’s assemblies in 1792 – a year before Godwin and decades before Kropotkin. Oswald never became as influential as these other thinkers, but you could make the case that he should be considered one of the founders of modern anarchism.
He was also, at least in some sense, a pagan. Consider this passage from his vegetarian tract “The Cry of Nature”:
But not to the animal world alone were the affections of man confined: for whether the glowing vault of heaven he surveyed, or his eyes reposed on the greeny freshness of the lawn; whether to the tinkling murmur of the brook he listened, or in pleasing melancholy melted amid the gloom of the grove, joy, rapture, veneration filled his guileless breast: his affections flowed on everything around him; his soul around every tree or shrub entwined, whether they afforded him subsistence or shade: and wherever his eyes wandered, wondering he beheld his gods, for his benefactors smiled on every side… From that joyous commotion of his heart arose the Queen of young desire; on the fond fluctuation of his bosom glided the new-born VENUS, deckt in all her glowing potency of charms. And thou too, O CUPID, O CUPID, or if RAMA-DEVA more delight thine ear; art thou not also with all thy GRACES a glad emanation of primal bliss?
Oswald’s writing style tended to be even more florid than 18th-century tastes required, but to sum up what he’s saying here in one sentence: humanity in prehistoric times worshiped the powers of nature under the names of the pagan gods, through instinctive gratitude for the beauty of the world.
Oswald was definitely what we would now call “anti-civ.” He goes on to say:
misled by the ignus fatuus of science, man forsook the sylvan gods… hence the inequality of ranks, the wasteful wallow of wealth, and the meagerness of want, the abject front of poverty, the insolence of power…
While I do not personally agree with his primitivist stance, I find it fascinating that Oswald linked the abandonment of pagan religion and the birth of inequality. Some of the ideas we talk about here at Gods and Radicals are not as new as people assume – they go right back to the birth of anarchism and the earliest days of the modern pagan revival in the late 18th century.
At that time, both paganism and atheism were seen primarily as statements of rebellion against Christian orthodoxy, and most people made no clear distinction between them. Godwin’s son-in-law, the poet Shelley, portrayed himself as an atheist in some contexts and as a pagan in others. Oswald was much the same, and was known for his intense hostility to organized religion. The few historians to write about him usually describe him as an atheist, but his own writings make it clear that Oswald was at least highly sympathetic to paganism. If he was still alive today, he would probably be one of the pagan humanists or atheo-pagans. According to Oswald:
The first adoration of mankind was paid, no doubt, to heaven and earth, and this worship was nothing else than a sentiment of gratitude emanating from the heart… The offerings of gratitude, which in the first ages the human race sacrificed to the gods, consisted simply of grass. In proportion, however, as men multiplied their enjoyments, more costly offerings were made of honey, wine, corn, incense.
In his own lifetime, Oswald was often accused of being a Hindu due to his vegetarianism and his frequent references to Indian deities such as Rama. This was not exactly true, but Oswald’s unusual political and religious opinions did have a lot to do with his exposure to Hinduism while fighting in India in a Scottish Highland regiment.
The Black Watch
The Black Watch began as a military policing unit in the Scottish Highlands, tasked with suppressing the Jacobite clans and preventing cattle raiding. It was eventually incorporated into the regular British Army as the 42nd Highland Regiment, and used in many of Britain’s colonial wars. This pattern is as old as the Roman Empire: after the conquest of a warrior society, the empire then recruits those warriors to fight on its behalf. The Highland Regiments were one of the earliest examples in British history, to be followed by Sikh regiments, Gurkha regiments and so on.
Oswald himself was not a Highlander, but a Lowlander from Edinburgh. His parents were the owners of a popular café. Other than this, little is known of his early life or why he decided to enlist in a Highland regiment. When he joined the regiment, he would have received instruction in the Black Watch style of Highland broadsword fencing. (Another Black Watch veteran who served around the same time as Oswald preserved this system in a fencing manual now studied by historical fencing enthusiasts.) Oswald carried a sword at his waist for many years, so we can assume he continued to practice Highland swordsmanship.
However, he seems to have had problems getting along with his new comrades at first, leading to a pistol duel with an officer named Norman MacLeod. As often happened after a duel, MacLeod and Oswald became close friends, and many years later MacLeod spoke up for Oswald in the British Parliament when news of his revolutionary activities raised the possibility of a treason charge.
Oswald fought with the Black Watch in India, but he became disgusted with Britain’s colonialist policies and the war crimes he saw committed by the army. He was impressed by Hindu vegetarianism, and became a passionate vegetarian himself. Resigning from the army, he wandered for some time through the Middle East and lived among the Kurds. He ended up in London, where he became a hack writer for the Scottish publisher William Thomson. (Oswald may have ghost-written the biography of the famous swordsman Donald MacLeod.)
When the French Revolution broke out, Oswald went to Paris and became an active member of the Jacobin Club. However, he did not share the authoritarian views of fellow Jacobin Robespierre, with whom he publicly clashed on several occasions – before Robespierre had the power to do anything to retaliate.
Due to his military background, Oswald was an obvious choice to train the revolutionary sans-culottes of Paris. He designed his own system for using the pike, a kind of spear favored by revolutionaries without access to firearms. Oswald’s pike unit trained and drilled under his instruction in Paris, but when they were sent to fight the counter-revolutionaries in the Vendée they put down the pikes and took up guns.
Unfortunately for Oswald, he seems to have placed too much faith in the Highland Charge he had seen in action during his time with the Black Watch. The Highland Charge was originally a tactic for Highland swordsmen who had to fight regular troops armed with muskets. Knowing that the musket took some time to reload, the clan warriors would simply draw their broadswords and run straight at the soldiers while they were reloading. More often than not the soldiers would panic and run, and the Highlanders would claim the victory. In the final Jacobite uprising in 1746, government soldiers stood their ground and did not panic, and the Highland army was destroyed.
After the disastrous defeat at Culloden, the Highlanders were banned from carrying weapons except in the British Army’s Highland regiments. Many of them joined these regiments and fought for the British Empire, although not always willingly – families that refused to give a son to the army could be evicted or have their houses burned down over their heads.
The British Army was happy to use the tradition of the Highland Charge for its own benefit, sending countless Highlanders to die as cannon fodder, trying to storm almost impregnable enemy positions. (In the words of British general Wolfe, “they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.”) Despite the high cost in human life, the Highland Charge often succeeded through sheer courage and force of will. Oswald must have convinced himself it would work again.
When Oswald tried to get his sans-cullottes to stage a Highland Charge against the counter-revolutionaries, they shot him instead. It’s a sad ending for an idealistic revolutionary, although if he had stayed in Paris instead he would almost certainly have fallen victim to his old rival Robespierre during the Reign of Terror.
The Universal Commonwealth
Oswald’s attempt to get Parisian sans-cullottes to fight like Highland clan warriors got him killed. From the perspective of the men who followed him, charging straight at a fortified position must have seemed like suicidal stupidity. They reacted as many other soldiers have done under the same circumstances – by fragging the officer. Despite his death under these ignoble circumstances, Oswald’s political ideas were strongly anti-authoritarian, which is why I refer to him as a forgotten founder of anarchism.
Oswald called himself as a “universal patriot,” or what a modern radical would refer to as an “internationalist.” He strongly disagreed with the statist tendencies of his fellow Jacobins, and proposed a new system of localized government through directly democratic assemblies open to everyone equally. Networks of these assemblies would replace the nation-state, creating what Oswald called “the Universal Commonwealth.”
Unlike the silent hand symbols of an Occupy assembly, Oswald’s system was based on noise. Anyone in the assembly could stand up and make a proposal, and the crowd could either vote for it by shouting enthusiastically or against it by groaning. Oswald had nothing but disdain for the representative democracy the liberals wanted to establish, declaring that as long as one man could not piss for another, a man could hardly be expected to think for another either!
Oswald not only anticipated anarchist ideas about how to organize society, but Marx’s analysis of labor as well:
No, say some with an air of triumph, those only should have a right to vote who are men of property. But, pray, is there any man without property? Is not the daily labor of the peasant, or the mechanic, as much his property, and as precious to him, as the wide possession or funded wealth of the landholder, or man of money?
Although Oswald’s proposals lack the detail of later thinkers like Kropotkin and Bookchin, his emphasis on local and directly democratic assemblies places him in the same intellectual tradition, and his example of the sort of thing his assemblies might decide upon makes him an early anarcho-communist. According to Oswald, the first order of business was to decide:
Whether the land should be cultivated in common, or divided equally between the individuals of the nation?
Oswald did have some unexamined prejudices. For instance, he accepted the idea that some nations were “civilized” and others “savage,” and he never really addressed what role he thought women should have in his revolution. However, Oswald and his allies were also anti-slavery activists, and Oswald was friendly with Théroigne de Méricourt, a feminist revolutionary who carried a sword and trained an all-female pike unit using the system he had created. (Fore-runners of today’s YPJ among Oswald’s old friends the Kurds!)
The only book-length study of Oswald in English is Commerce des Lumieres by David V. Erdman, which includes more of Oswald’s writing and many details of his revolutionary activities. It isn’t a particularly readable work, but it does gather all the available information about Oswald in a single place.
“The Government of the People” has been out of print for a long time, but selections from it can be found at the end of Erdman’s work. Oswald’s vegetarian tract The Cry of Nature is available as a reprint, and some of his poetry can still be found online – although readers should not expect too much from it as poetry. Oswald may not have been a great writer or a major thinker, but he did anticipate some of the ideas that were to become important in radical circles over the next century. Like Kropotkin after him, he saw clearly that representative democracy would ultimately serve only the ruling classes – but also that authoritarian forms of radicalism would not fulfill their promises. The revolution Oswald wanted was egalitarian and decentralized, directly democratic and communist, and it included reverence for nature and the pagan gods.
When I leave offerings to my ancestors, his name will be among them.
Christopher Scott Thompson
Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/