The Emergence of the New Anarchism: Paul Goodman

In Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several selections by Paul Goodman (1911-1972), a pivotal figure in the post-war resurgence of anarchism. Goodman was a poet, novelist, playwright, lay psychoanalyst, social critic and political activist. One of his most influential writings was The May Pamphlet (1946), his anarchist anti-war statement in which he summed up his general social philosophy: “A free society cannot be the substitution of a ‘new order’ for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of the social life” (Volume Two, Selection 11). With his brother Percival, he wrote Communitas – Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life (1947), in which they present three community paradigms for post-war society, the second being an update of Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops (Volume One, Selection 34), in which the difference between production and consumption would be eliminated (Volume Two, Selection 17).

In the face of the apathy, conformism and unfulfilling consumerism of post-war America, amid the threat of nuclear annihilation, Goodman observed that it “is inevitable that there should be a public dream of universal disaster, with explosions, fires, and electric-shocks; and people pool their efforts to bring this apocalypse to an actuality” in a society geared “toward sadism and primary masochism” (Volume Two, Selection 37). Applying this analysis to the problems of youth in post-war society, Goodman achieved prominence as a social critic, particularly with the publication of Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society in 1960, and Compulsory Miseducation in 1964. He was an advocate of human scale technology (Volume Two, Selection 70), a vocal opponent of the U.S. war in Vietnam and a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books.

After the Second World War, when there was talk of turning the U.S. Army back into a volunteer force (something that was not to happen until 1973), Goodman wrote the following open letter to high school graduates. Seeing that the Army continues to rely on “volunteers,” his comments remain pertinent today.

Dear Graduate:

The congress is still squirming about deciding to extend the draft act, in the face of opposition of labor unions, farmers, religious organizations and other bodies of voters that seem to retain a little sanity on this direct personal issue though they cooperated with the war in their manufactures, taxes, dishonest sermons, and general compliance. The recalcitrance of the public and the congressmen’s fear of losing their jobs have put it up to the Army to offer added inducements to volunteers, in case the draft lapses. That is, unable to persuade the minds of adults, the Army turns its appeal to the immature graduates of high school, who in school have learned nothing of the facts of our social life and who, immured in their homes and schools, have had no chance of learning anything by direct experience.

The truth is that the inducements for a youth to volunteer are indeed persuasive; the Army has a good case. A good case to entice a young man into an unproductive waste of his years, subservient to ignorant officers, dedicated to a purpose admitted to be universally disastrous, and in a status that up to now in American peacetime history has always been regarded with contempt by the citizens. Nevertheless the Army has a good case! What an indictment of the state of our institutions if even the Army has a good case!


Omitting the prospect of being drafted willy-nilly, there are three main causes, interdependent on each other, that bring young men to volunteer: (a) The pressure of making a living and finding a job. (b) The fear of responsible independence (c). The need to escape from home. On all those three counts the Army seems to provide the best solution available in the institutions—unless the young man opens his eyes, frees himself from the fear of authority, and joyfully works to change those institutions.

(a) I have before me a crude mimeographed circular distributed by the Army Recruiting Station, 29 East Fordham Road, The Bronx, New York. It begins:

Dear Graduate, Congratulations upon your successful completion of High School. You are now standing at the crossroads of your world.

And the circular then presents a diagram of 3 roads:

1. Career Road: To Security! Career! 20-year Retirement with Army.

2. Education Avenue: To College! Five Years free after 3 years in regular Army.

3. Doubtful Lane? Civilian Job. No Security. Career Questionable. Retire—when? Education—Maybe.

Doubtful Lane?! Such is the breakdown of the system of “free enterprise” that up to now has been the chief apology for American capitalism!

“Let’s face facts,” the circular goes on. “Millions of veterans are coming back into civilian life. They need jobs and have first priority, etc.”

What gall!! to dare to argue from these “facts”! It is precisely the top of the hierarchy of this Army that has persistently withstood every struggle to improve economic conditions; this Army that has broken strikes when strikes were not yet controlled by the labor-bureaucracies and that will again break strikes; this Army that must be filled in order to protect American “commitments” abroad, and the commitments are nothing but the interests of the very class and the very State that maintain the conditions of “no security, career questionable, education maybe.” The Army helps to create and maintain the facts and then says face the facts. Is not this form of persuasion known as extortion?

I am myself academically trained, and I am astonished and ashamed to see how the colleges and the universities have grasped at these Army subsidies and fees. It is the end of free research and liberal education, for he who pays the piper calls the tune. The technical training of which the Army boasts will, for a time, invent new weapons, but it will not advance science.

(b) Even so, this economic argument of the Army circular would not be persuasive if it were not for the attitude of timidity, lack of self-confidence, and general lack of cultural and social interest with which it is received by the young men; for no independent and intellectually active youth would sacrifice during these exciting years of his life his freedom to explore and take his chances. But the pressure of parental economic anxiety has long since created in the child’s mind the feeling that it is impossible to make a living; the young man, bullied and beaten at home, secretly believes that he is worthless and could never make a go of it. Further, he is secretly afraid to be economically independent, for such independence implies also sexual independence and perhaps marriage, but long deprivation and coercive taboos have invested this idea with terrible anxiety and guilt. Fundamentally, to go it alone means to dare to take father’s place and even perhaps to become a father; but the child has long observed that father himself could not fulfill the responsibility in our society; how much the less can he, whom father has so often banged down and called a fool? Furthermore, years of mis-education have by now stifled every impulse of curiosity, cultural interest, and creative ambition that normally arises in growing boys; in his schooling no natural bent has been encouraged; now, consequently, every human activity seems impenetrably mysterious—the youth is sure that wherever he turns he will make a fool of himself; his ego resists the challenge with all its might.

But behold! the Army solves all problems. It imposes in an even stricter form the parental discipline and punishment that the soul craves; and in a better form, for there is at least no admixture of love. At the same time it releases one from all responsibility; the Army provides every safety as it prepares its members for the moment of extremest danger. In the Army the young man has a disciplined irresponsibility. In the endless hierarchy of the Army it will even be possible for the young man to bully someone in turn, for there is always a newcomer with one less stripe.

(c) And to get away from home! Really away and far away! This also the Army provides. But apart from the Army, as things are in our society, even if the young man finds a job he will still have to remain for several years within the accursed parental walls, his new contribution merely creating a new friction. If his family is what we can observe nine out of ten families to be, it will forever be impossible for the children to grow up to regard their parents as equal human beings for whom one has a special affection. The relations have become strained. It is forever impossible for the youth to express the love that is at the bottom of his heart; it is equally impossible to express the rage that is boiling up from the bottom to the top, and knock the old man down. Therefore the best thing is to get away quick, because the next battle will be worse than the last one—but in the Army one can fight guiltlessly against foreigners and anarchists.

These are, I think, the main reasons that lead the young men to volunteer. Of course there are many corollaries that spring from one or another of them; the pride of uniform, the camaraderie of the other fellows in the same boat, travel, the feverish fantasy of sexual license in strange towns etc., etc. I should be much surprised, however, if among these motives there often occurred a false sentiment of patriotism. The Americans are not yet so co-ordinated as to imagine that there is a need for this Army.

What then? I hope I have filled out the case of the Army circular so as to present their offer in its full attractiveness. I hope that a few young men who might see this will have a small feeling of shame at their plight, and then a great burst of laughter.

Young men! you are indeed at the crossroads—the circular is right. On the one hand are the specious and lying and not unchangeable “facts” that they tell you and that you perhaps inwardly fear. On the other hand is the simple truth: that you are not worthless, you have great powers in you; the world is full of interesting possibilities, creative jobs, crafts, arts, and sciences that are not impenetrable mysteries; we need each other’s mutual aid and no one is unappreciated or isolated; sexual love is guiltless and therefore not far to seek. You need money enough for health and happiness, not to buy what is pictured in advertisements and the movies, and if on our rich earth you can’t get this much without going into the Army, you ought damn well seek out who’s stopping you.

The inducements of the Army are not very different than extortion. Help us to change the “facts,” to free yourselves and set each other free!

Paul Goodman, April 1946

“Dear Graduate” was originally published in the anarchist magazine, Why?, which was later renamed Resistance, a journal which gave expression to the new directions in anarchist theory being taken by anarchists in response to the social changes that followed the Second World War. In Volume Two of Anarchism, I included two other contributions to Resistance, a 1953 article by David Thoreau Wieck in which he discusses, years before the situationists, how to resist a society in which “a small number of people, more or less talented, shall make… under the usual consumption-oriented conditions of the market, our ‘works of art,’ our ‘entertainment,’ while the rest of us are spectators” (Selection 39), and a 1954 article by David Dellinger on  small group communal living, something that became popular among disaffected youth in the 1960s and 70s (Selection 40).

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That is nice! Finally, some more Paul Goodman on-line.

  2. Reblogged this on wernerschwartz.

  3. […] Paul and Percival Goodman updated Kropotkin’s ideas in Communitas (1947), proposing not only the integration of the fields, factories and workshops, but also the home and the workplace, providing for decentralized, human-scale production designed “to give the most well-rounded employment to each person, in a diversified environment,” based on “small units with relative self-sufficiency, so that each community can enter into a larger whole with solidarity and independence of viewpoint” (Volume Two, Selection 17). In the 1960s, Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) argued that “the anarchist concepts of a balanced community, a face-to-face democracy, a humanistic technology, and a decentralized society… are not only desirable, they are also necessary” to avoid ecological collapse and to support a libertarian society (Volume Two, Selection 48), a point made earlier by Ethel Mannin (Volume Two, Selection 14). Kropotkin continues to influence and inspire “green” anarchists, such as Graham Purchase, who advocates an anarchist form of bioregionalism (Volume Three, Selection 28), and Peter Marshall, with his “liberation ecology” (Volume Three, Selection 30). […]

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