AK Press is having a back to school sale through to September 8, 2013, with each volume of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas on sale for a mere $21.74 each. That’s Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939), Volume Two: The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977), and Volume Three: The New Anarchism (1974-2012). Get them while they last!
I ended Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Ideas with excerpts from Herbert Read’s Poetry and Anarchism. I began Volume Two with excerpts from Read’s essay, “The Philosophy of Anarchism,” which helped inspire Murray Bookchin to develop his synthesis of anarchism and ecology. Both of these works are included in a collection of Read’s anarchist writings entitled, Anarchy and Order. In 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, the celebrated American historian, Howard Zinn (1922-2010), wrote the introduction to a paperback edition. Space considerations prevented me from including it in Volume Two. Zinn’s introduction is well worth reading in its own right. It not only does an admirable job introducing both Read and anarchist ideas, it also clearly demonstrates Zinn’s own anarchist sympathies. Accordingly, I have taken the liberty of reproducing excerpts from Zinn’s introductory essay, “The Art of Revolution,” here. His words remain as relevant today as when they were written.
The Art of Revolution
The word anarchy unsettles most people in the Western world; it suggests disorder, violence, uncertainty. We have good reason for fearing those conditions, because we have been living with them for a long time, not in anarchist societies (there have never been any) but in exactly those societies most fearful of anarchy—the powerful nation-states of modern times.
At no time in human history has there been such social chaos. Fifty million dead in the Second World War. More than a million dead in Korea, a million in Vietnam, half a million in Indonesia, hundreds of thousands dead in Nigeria, and in Mozambique. A hundred violent political struggles all over the world in the twenty years following the second war to end all wars. Millions starving, or in prisons, or in mental institutions. Inner turmoil to the point of large-scale alienation, confusion, unhappiness. Outer turmoil symbolized by huge armies, stores of nerve gas, and stockpiles of hydrogen bombs. Wherever men, women, and children are even a bit conscious of the world outside their local borders, they have been living with the ultimate uncertainty: whether or not the human race itself will survive into the next generation.
It is these conditions that the anarchists have wanted to end; to bring a kind of order to the world for the first time. We have never listened to them carefully, except through the hearing aids supplied by the guardians of disorder—the national government leaders, whether capitalist or socialist.
The order desired by anarchists is different from the order (“Ordnung,” the Germans called it; “law and order,” say the American politicians) of national governments. They want a voluntary forming of human relations, arising out of the needs of people. Such an order comes from within, and so is natural. People flow into easy arrangements, rather than being pushed and forced. It is like the form given by the artist, a form congenial, often pleasing, sometimes beautiful. It has the grace of a voluntary, confident act…
The order of politics, as we have known it in the world, is an order imposed on society, neither desired by most people, nor directed to their needs. It is therefore chaotic and destructive. Politics grates on our sensibilities. It violates the elementary requirement of aesthetics—it is devoid of beauty. It is coercive, as if sound were forced into our ears at a decibel level such as to make us scream, and those responsible called this music. The “order” of modern life is a cacophony which has made us almost deaf to the gentler sounds of the universe.
It is fitting that in modern times, around the time of the French and American Revolutions, exactly when man became most proud of his achievements, the ideas of anarchism arose to challenge that pride. Western civilization has never been modest in describing its qualities as an enormous advance in human history: the larger unity of national states replacing tribe and manor; parliamentary government replacing the divine right of kings; steam and electricity substituting for manual labor; education and science dispelling ignorance and superstition; due process of law canceling arbitrary justice. Anarchism arose in the most splendid days of Western “civilization” because the promises of that civilization were almost immediately broken.
Nationalism, promising freedom from outside tyranny, and security from internal disorder, vastly magnified both the stimulus and the possibility for worldwide empires over subjected people, and bloody conflicts among such empires: imperialism and war were intensified to the edge of global suicide exactly in the period of the national state. Parliamentary government, promising popular participation in important decisions, became a facade (differently constructed in one-party and two-party states) for rule by elites of wealth and power in the midst of almost-frenzied scurrying to polls and plebiscites. Mass production did not end poverty and exploitation; indeed it made the persistence of want more unpardonable. The production and distribution of goods became more rational technically, more irrational morally. Education and literacy did not end the deception of the many by the few; they enabled deception to be replaced by self-deception, mystification to be internalized, and social control to be even more effective than ever before, because now it had a large measure of self-control. Due process did not bring justice; it replaced the arbitrary, identifiable dispenser of injustice with the unidentifiable and impersonal. The “rule of law,” replacing the “rule of men,” was just a change in rulers.
In the midst of the American Revolution, Tom Paine, while calling for the establishment of an independent American government, had no illusions about even a new revolutionary government when he wrote, in Common Sense: “Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.”
Anarchists almost immediately recognized that the fall of kings, and the rise of committees, assemblies, parliaments, did not bring democracy; that revolutions had the potential for liberation, but also for another form of despotism. Thus, Jacques Roux, a country priest in the French Revolution concerned with the lives of the peasants in his district, and then with the workingmen in the Gravilliers quarter of Paris, spoke in 1792 against “senatorial despotism,” saying it was “as terrible as the scepter of kings” because it chains the people without their knowing it and brutalizes and subjugates them by laws they themselves are supposed to have made. In Peter Weiss’s play, Marat-Sade, Roux, straitjacketed, breaks through the censorship of the play within the play and cries out:
“Who controls the markets
Who locks up the granaries
Who got the loot from the palaces
Who sits tight on the estates that were going to be divided between the poor
before he is quieted.”
A friend of Roux, Jean Varlet, in an early anarchist manifesto of the French Revolution called Explosion [Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 5], wrote:
“What a social monstrosity, what a masterpiece of Machiavellianism, this revolutionary government is in fact. For any reasoning being, Government and Revolution are incompatible, at least unless the people wishes to constitute the organs of power in permanent insurrection against themselves, which is too absurd to believe.”
But it is exactly that which is “too absurd to believe” which the anarchists believe, because only an “absurd” perspective is revolutionary enough to see through the limits of revolution itself. Herbert Read, in a book with an appropriately absurd title, To Hell With Culture (he was seventy; this was 1963, five years before his death), wrote:
“What has been worth while in human history—the great achievements of physics and astronomy, of geographical discovery and of human healing, of philosophy and of art—has been the work of extremists—of those who believed in the absurd, dared the impossible… ”
The Russian Revolution promised even more—to eliminate that injustice carried into modern times by the American and French Revolutions. Anarchist criticism of that Revolution was summed up by Emma Goldman (My Further Disillusionment in Russia, in Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 89) as follows:
“It is at once the great failure and the great tragedy of the Russian Revolution that it attempted… to change only institutions and conditions while ignoring entirely the human and social values involved in the Revolution…. No revolution can ever succeed as a factor of liberation unless the means used to further it be identical in spirit and tendency with the purposes to be achieved. Revolution is the negation of the existing, a violent protest against man’s inhumanity to man with all the thousand and one slaveries it involves. It is the destroyer of dominant values upon which a complex system of injustice, oppression, and wrong has been built up by ignorance and brutality. It is the herald of new values, ushering in a transformation of the basic relations of man to man, and of man to society.”
The institution of capitalism, anarchists believe, is destructive, irrational, inhumane. It feeds ravenously on the immense resources of the earth, and then churns out (this is its achievement—it is an immense stupid churn) huge quantities of products. Those products have only an accidental relationship to what is most needed by people, because the organizers and distributors of goods care not about human need; they are great business enterprises motivated only by profit. Therefore, bombs, guns, office buildings, and deodorants take priority over food, homes, and recreation areas. Is there anything closer to “anarchy” (in the common use of the word, meaning confusion) than the incredibly wild and wasteful economic system in America?
Anarchists believe the riches of the earth belong equally to all, and should be distributed according to need, not through the intricate, inhuman system of money and contracts which have so far channeled most of these riches into a small group of wealthy people, and into a few countries. (The United States, with six percent of the population, owns, produces, and consumes fifty percent of the world’s production.) They would agree with the Story Teller in Bertholt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, in the final words of the play:
“Take note what men of old concluded:
That what there is shall go to those who are good for it
Thus: the children to the motherly, that they prosper
The carts to good drivers, that they are well driven
And the valley to the waterers, that it bring forth fruit.”
It was on this principle that Gerard Winstanley, leader of the Diggers in 17th century England, ignored the law of private ownership and led his followers to plant grain on unused land. Winstanley wrote about his hope for the future [in Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 3]:
“When this universal law of equity rises up in every man and woman, then none shall lay claim to any creature and say, This is mine, and that is yours, This is my work, that is yours. But every one shall put to their hands to till the earth and bring up cattle, and the blessing of the earth shall be common to all; when a man hath need of any corn or cattle, take from the next storehouse he meets with. There shall be no buying and selling, no fairs or markets, but the whole earth shall be a common treasury for every man, for the earth is the Lord’s.”
Our problem is to make use of the magnificent technology of our time, for human needs, without being victimized by a bureaucratic mechanism. The Soviet Union did show that national economic planning for common goals, replacing the profit-driven chaos of capitalist production, could produce remarkable results. It failed, however, to do what Herbert Read and other recent anarchists have suggested: to do away with the bureaucracy of large-scale industry, characteristic of both capitalism and socialism, and the consequent unhappiness of the workers who do not feel at ease with their work, with the products, with their fellow workers, with nature, with themselves. This problem could be solved, Read has suggested, by workers’ control of their own jobs, without sacrificing the benefits of planning and coordination for the larger social good.
“Property is theft,” Proudhon wrote in the mid-19th century (he was the first to call himself an anarchist, Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 8). Whether the resources of the earth and the energies of men are controlled by capitalist corporations or bureaucracies calling themselves “socialist,” a great theft of men’s life-work has occurred, as a kind of original sin which has led in human history to all sorts of trouble: exploitation, war, the establishment of colonies, the subjugation of women, attacks on property called “crime,” and the cruel system of punishments which all “civilized societies” have erected, known as “justice.”
Both the capitalist and the socialist bureaucracies of our time fail, anarchists say, on their greatest promise: to bring democracy. The essence of democracy is that people should control their own lives, by ones or twos or hundreds, depending on whether the decision being made affects one or two or a hundred. Instead, our lives are directed by a political-military- industrial complex in the United States, and a party hierarchy in the Soviet Union. In both situations there is the pretense of popular participation, by an elaborate scheme of voting for representatives who do not have real power (the difference between a one-party state and a two-party state being no more than one party—and that a smudged carbon copy of the other). The vote in modern societies is the currency of politics as money is the currency of economics; both mystify what is really taking place—control of the many by the few.
Anarchists believe the phrase “law and order” is one of the great deceptions of our age. Law does not bring order, certainly not the harmonious order of a cooperative society, which is the best meaning of that word. It brings, if anything, the order of the totalitarian state, or the prison, or the army, where fear and threat keep people in their assigned places. All law can do is artificially restrain people who are moved to acts of violence or theft or disobedience by a bad society. And the order brought by law is unstable, always on the brink of a fall, because coercion invites rebellion. Laws cannot, by their nature, create a good society; that will come from great numbers of people arranging resources and themselves voluntarily (“Mutual Aid,” Kropotkin called it, Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 54) so as to promote cooperation and happiness. And that will be the best order, when people do what they must, not because of law, but on their own.
What has modern civilization, with its “rule of law,” its giant industrial enterprises, its “representative democracy,” brought? Nuclear missiles already aimed and ready for the destruction of the world, and populations—literate, well-fed, and constantly voting—of a mind to accept this madness. Civilization has failed on two counts: it has perverted the natural resources of the earth, which have the capacity to make our lives joyful, and also the natural resources of people, which have the potential for genius and love.
Making the most of these possibilities requires the upbringing of new generations in an atmosphere of grace and art. Instead, we have been reared in politics. Herbert Read (in Art and Alienation) describes the stunted human being who emerges from this:
“If seeing and handling, touching and hearing and all the refinements of sensation that developed historically in the conquest of nature and the manipulation of material substances are not educed and trained from birth to maturity the result is a being that hardly deserves to be called human: a dull-eyed, bored and listless automaton whose one desire is for violence in some form or other—violent action, violent sounds, distractions of any kind that can penetrate to its deadened nerves. Its preferred distractions are: the sports stadium, the pin-table alleys, the dance-hall, the passive ‘viewing’ of crime, farce and sadism on the television screen, gambling and drug addiction.”
What a waste of the evolutionary process! It took a billion years to create human beings who could, if they chose, form the materials of the earth and themselves into arrangements congenial to man, woman, and the universe. Can we still choose to do so?
It seems that revolutionary changes are needed—in the sense of profound transformations of our work processes, our decision- making arrangements, our sex and family relations, our thought and culture—toward a humane society. But this kind of revolution—changing our minds as well as our institutions— cannot be accomplished by customary methods: neither by military action to overthrow governments, as some tradition-bound radicals suggest; nor by that slow process of electoral reform, which traditional liberals urge on us. The state of the world today reflects the limitations of both those methods.
Anarchists have always been accused of a special addiction to violence as a mode of revolutionary change. The accusation comes from governments which came into being through violence, which maintain themselves in power through violence, and which use violence constantly to keep down rebellion and to bully other nations. Some anarchists—like other revolutionaries throughout history, whether American, French, Russian, or Chinese—have emphasized violent uprising. Some have advocated, and tried, assassination and terror. In this they are like other revolutionaries—of whatever epoch or ideology. What makes anarchists unique among revolutionaries, however, is that most of them see revolution as a cultural, ideological, creative process, in which violence would be as incidental as the outcries of mother and baby in childbirth. It might be unavoidable—given the natural resistance to change—but something to be kept at a minimum while more important things happen.
Alexander Berkman, who as a young man attempted to assassinate an American industrialist, expressed his more mature reflections on violence and revolution in The ABC of Anarchism [Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 117]:
“What, really, is there to destroy?
The wealth of the rich? Nay, that is something we want the whole of society to enjoy.
The land, the fields, the coal mines, the railroads, factories, mills and shops? These we want not to destroy but to make useful to the entire people.
The telegraphs, telephones, the means of communication and distribution—do we want to destroy them? No, we want them to serve the needs of all.
What, then, is the social revolution to destroy? It is to take over things for the general benefit, not to destroy them. It is to reorganize conditions for the public welfare.”
Revolution in its full sense cannot be achieved by force of arms. It must be prepared in the minds and behavior of men, even before institutions have radically changed. It is not an act but a process. Berkman describes this:
“If your object is to secure liberty, you must learn to do without authority and compulsion. If you intend to live in peace and harmony with your fellow men, you and they should cultivate brotherhood and respect for each other. If you want to work together with them for your mutual benefit, you must practice co-operation. The social revolution means much more than the reorganization of conditions only: it means the establishment of new human values and social relationships, a changed attitude of man to man, as of one free and independent to his equal; it means a different spirit in individual and collective life, and that spirit cannot be born overnight. It is a spirit to be cultivated, to be nurtured and reared, as the most delicate flower is, for indeed it is the flower of a new and beautiful existence… We must learn to think differently before the revolution can come. That alone can bring the revolution.”
The anarchist sees revolutionary change as something immediate, something we must do now, where we are, where we live, where we work. It means starting this moment to do away with authoritarian, cruel relationships—between men and women, between parents and children, between one kind of worker and another kind. Such revolutionary action cannot be crushed like an armed uprising. It takes place in everyday life, in the tiny crannies where the powerful but clumsy hands of state power cannot easily reach. It is not centralized and isolated, so that it can be wiped out by the rich, the police, the military. It takes place in a hundred thousand places at once, in families, on streets, in neighborhoods, in places of work. It is a revolution of the whole culture. Squelched in one place, it springs up in another, until it is everywhere.
Such a revolution is an art. That is, it requires the courage not only of resistance, but of imagination. Herbert Read, after pointing out that modern democracy encourages both complacency and complicity, speaks (in Art and Alienation) of the role of art:
“Art, on the other hand, is eternally disturbing, permanently revolutionary. It is so because the artist, in the degree of his greatness, always confronts the unknown, and what he brings back from that confrontation is a novelty, a new symbol, a new vision of life, the outer image of inward things. His importance to society is not that he voices received opinions, or gives clear expression to the confused feelings of the masses: that is the function of the politician, the journalist, the demagogue. The artist is what the Germans call ein Ruttler, an upsetter of the established order.”
This should not be interpreted as an arrogant distinction be tween the elite artist and the mass of people. It is, rather, a recognition that in modern society, as Herbert Marcuse has pointed out, there is enormous pressure to create a “one dimensional mind” among masses of people, and this requires upsetting.
Herbert Read’s attraction to both art and anarchy seems a fitting response to the 20th century, and underscores the idea that revolution must be cultural as well as political. The title of his book To Hell With Culture might be misinterpreted if one did not read in it:
“Today we are bound hand and foot to the past. Because property is a sacred thing and land values a source of untold wealth, our houses must be crowded together and our streets must follow their ancient illogical meanderings… Because everything we buy for use must be sold for profit, and because there must always be this profitable margin between cost and price, our pots and our pans, our furniture and our clothes, have the same shoddy consistency, the same competitive cheapness. The whole of our capitalist culture is one immense veneer: a surface of refinement hiding the cheapness and shoddiness of the heart of things.
To hell with such a culture. To the rubbish-heap and furnace with it all! Let us celebrate the democratic revolution creatively. Let us build cities that are not too big, but spacious, with traffic flowing freely through their leafy avenues, with children playing safely in their green and flowery parks, with people living happily in bright efficient houses… Let us balance agriculture, and industry, town and country—let us do all these sensible and elementary things and then let us talk about culture.”
The anarchist tries to deal with the complex relationship between changing institutions and changing culture. He knows that we must revolutionize culture starting now; and yet he knows this will be limited until there is a new way of living for large numbers of people. Read writes in the same essay: “You cannot impose a culture from the top—it must come from under. It grows out of ‘the soil, out of the people, out of their daily life and work. It is a spontaneous expression of their joy in life, of their joy in work, and if this joy does’ not exist, the culture will not exist.”
For revolutionaries, the aesthetic element—the approach of the artist—is essential in breaking out of the past, for we have seen in history how revolutions have been cramped or diverted because the men who made them were still encumbered by tradition. The warning of Marx, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, needs to be heeded by Marxists as well as by others seeking change:
“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something entirely new, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle slogans and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.”
The art of revolution needs to go beyond what is called “reason,” and what is called “science,” because both reason and science are limited by the narrow experience of the past. To break those limits, to extend reason into the future, we need passion and instinct, coming out of those depths of human feeling which escape the bounds of a historical period. When Read spoke in London in 1961, before taking part in a mass act of civil disobedience in protest against Polaris nuclear submarines, he argued for breaking out of the limits of “reason” through action:
“This stalemate must be broken, but it will never be broken by rational argument. There are too many right reasons for wrong actions on both sides. It can be broken only by instinctive action. An act of disobedience is or should be collectively instinctive—a revolt of the instincts of man against the threat of mass destruction.
Instincts are dangerous to play with, but that is why, in the present desperate situation, we must play with instincts…
We must release the imagination of the people so that they become fully conscious of the fate that is threatening them, and we can best reach their imagination by our actions, by our fearlessness, by our willingness to sacrifice our comfort, our liberty, and even our lives, to the end that mankind shall be delivered from pain and suffering and universal death.”
Anarchism seeks that blend of order and spontaneity in our lives which gives us harmony with ourselves, with others, with nature. It understands the need to change our political and economic arrangements to free ourselves for the enjoyment of life. And it knows that the change must begin now, in those everyday human relations over which we have the most control. Anarchism knows the need for sober thinking, but also for that action which clarifies otherwise academic and abstract thought.
Herbert Read, in “Chains of Freedom,” writes that we need a “Black Market in culture, a determination to avoid the bankrupt academic institutions, the fixed values and standardized products of current art and literature; not to trade our spiritual goods through the recognized channels of Church, or State, or Press; rather to pass them ‘under the counter’.” If so, one of the first items to be passed under the counter must surely be the literature that speaks, counter to all the falsifications, about the ideas and imaginings of anarchism.
Boston, October 1970
Yesterday this blog received over 400 hits from Korea, the most hits in one day from a single area. So here is a shout out to people in Korea interested in anarchism. Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas has two selections from Korea, one by the Korean revolutionary Shin Chaeho, and another from the Korean anarchist communist paper, Talhwan (Conquest – most likely an allusion to Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread).
Volume Two, The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977), has a piece by Korean anarchists from the end of the Second World War, calling for the rebuilding from the bottom up of a free Korea on the basis of mutual aid, another concept developed by Kropotkin that was very influential among Asian anarchists.
Recently I have been posting documents from revolutionary struggles in France during 1870-1871 which culminated in the Paris Commune of March – May 1871. Anarchists regarded the Commune as providing a glimpse of how, through direct action and federated but autonomous organizations, people could take control of their lives, throwing out their oppressors and exploiters, and create a system of popular self-management while abolishing capitalism and the state (see Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One). It was a risky endeavour, ultimately ending in the massacre of some 30,000 people by national government forces when the French state reimposed its control over a recalcitrant population. Given the enormity of state violence against “its” own population, many anarchists came to accept the necessity of armed struggle in order to achieve the social revolution. But after the suppression and military defeats of anarchist movements in the Russian and Spanish Revolutions and civil wars, some anarchists came to question the ability of anarchists through their own autonomous actions and organizations to achieve or defend a social revolution through armed force, leading some anarchists to adopt a policy of non-violence, and other anarchists to effectively abandon anarchism altogether, accepting the need for more authoritarian forms of organization in order to combat the counter-revolution.
In the various Occupy movements that have spread across the globe, there has been much debate over means and ends which invite comparisons to European debates in the early 1870s regarding the role of revolutionary communes. Below, I reproduce excerpts from a recent position paper from members of Occupy Oakland which raises a number of issues, some of which would appear familiar to the Communards, others which deal with much more contemporary concerns. The rest of the paper may be accessed here.
Who Is Oakland: Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-optation
This pamphlet – written collaboratively by a group of people of color, women, and queers – is offered in deep solidarity and in the spirit of conversation with anyone committed to ending oppression and exploitation materially. It is a critique of how privilege theory and cultural essentialism have incapacitated antiracist, feminist, and queer organizing in this country by confusing identity categories with culture, and culture with solidarity. This conflation, we go on to argue, minimizes and misrepresents the severity and structural character of the violence and material deprivation faced by marginalized demographics.
According to this politics, white supremacy is primarily a psychological attitude which individuals can simply choose to discard instead of a material infrastructure which reproduces race at key sites across society – from racially segmented labor markets to the militarization of the border. Even when this material infrastructure is named, more confrontational tactics which might involve the risk of arrest are deemed “white” and “privileged,” while the focus turns back to reforming the behavior and beliefs of individuals. Privilege politics is ultimately rooted in an idealist theory of power which maintains that psychological attitudes are the root cause of oppression and exploitation, and that vague alterations in consciousness will somehow remake oppressive structures.
This dominant form of anti-oppression politics also assumes that demographic categories are coherent, homogeneous “communities” or “cultures.” This pamphlet argues that identity categories do not indicate political unity or agreement. Identity is not solidarity. The violent domination and subordination we face on the basis of our race, gender, and sexuality do not immediately create a shared political vision. But the uneven impact of oppression across society creates the conditions for the diffuse emergence of autonomous groups organizing on the basis of common experiences, analysis, and tactics. There is a difference between a politics which places shared cultural identity at the center of its analysis of oppression, and autonomous organizing against forms of oppression which impact members of marginalized groups unevenly.
This pamphlet argues that demands for increased cultural sensitivity and recognition has utterly failed to stop a rising tide of bigotry and violence in an age of deep austerity. Anti-oppression, civil rights, and decolonization struggles repeatedly demonstrate that if resistance is even slightly effective, the people who struggle are in danger. The choice is not between danger and safety, but between the uncertain dangers of revolt and the certainty of continued violence, deprivation, and death. There is no middle ground.
I. The Non-Negotiable Necessity of Autonomous Organizing
As a group of people of color, women, queers, and poor people coming together to attack a complex matrix of oppression and exploitation, we believe in the absolute necessity of autonomous organizing. By “autonomous” we mean the formation of independent groups of people who face specific forms of exploitation and oppression – including but not limited to people of color, women, queers, trans* people, gender nonconforming people, QPOC. We also believe in the political value of organizing in ways which try to cross racial, gender, and sexual divisions. We are neither spokespersons for Occupy Oakland nor do we think a single group can possibly speak to the variety of challenges facing different constituencies.
We hope for the diffuse emergence of widespread autonomous organizing. We believe that a future beyond capital’s 500 year emergence through enclosures of common land, and the enslavement, colonization, and genocide of non-European populations – and beyond the 7000 or more years of violent patriarchal structuring of society along hierarchized and increasingly binary gender lines – will require revolutions within revolutions. Capitalism’s ecocidal destiny, and its relentless global production of poverty, misery, abuse, and disposable and enslavable populations, will force catastrophic social change within most of our lifetimes – whether the public actively pursues it or not.
No demographic category of people could possibly share an identical set of political beliefs, cultural identities, or personal values. Accounts of racial, gender, and sexual oppression as “intersectional” continue to treat identity categories as coherent communities with shared values and ways of knowing the world. No individual or organization can speak for people of color, women, the world’s colonized populations, workers, or any demographic category as a whole – although activists of color, female and queer activists, and labor activists from the Global North routinely and arrogantly claim this right. These “representatives” and institutions speak on behalf of social categories which are not, in fact, communities of shared opinion. This representational politics tends to eradicate any space for political disagreement between individuals subsumed under the same identity categories.
We are interested in exploring the question of the relationship between identity-based oppression and capitalism, and conscious of the fact that the few existing attempts to synthesize these two vastly different political discourses leave us with far more questions than answers. More recent attempts to come to terms with this split between anti-oppression and anticapitalist politics, in insurrectionary anarchism for example, typically rely on simplistic forms of race and gender critique which typically begin and end with the police. According to this political current, the street is a place where deep and entrenched social differences can be momentarily overcome. We think this analysis deeply underestimates the qualitative differences between specific forms and sites of oppression and the variety of tactics needed to address these different situations.
Finally, we completely reject a vulgar “class first” politics which argues that racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are simply “secondary to” or “derivative of” economic exploitation. The prevalence of racism in the US is not a clever conspiracy hatched by a handful of ruling elites but from the start has been a durable racial contract between two unequal parties. The US is a white supremacist nation indelibly marked by the legal construction of the “white race” in the 1600s through the formation of a cross-class alliance between a wealthy planter class and poor white indentured servants. W.E.B. Du Bois called the legal privileges accorded to poor whites a “psychological wage”: “It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown to them.”
We live in the shadow of this choice and this history. A history which is far from over…
Today I had hits from every continent, including Australia. Always liked Anarchy Comics, especially the front cover of Issue No. 1 showing anarchy igniting a detourned globe. PM Press will be publishing a complete edition of all four issues later this year.
George Woodcock (1912-1995) is perhaps best known for his 1962 publication, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, an eloquent and captivating, but ultimately pessimistic, history of anarchist ideas and movements, in which he concluded that anarchism was one of the “great lost causes” of history. In the mid-1950s, Woodcock took a much more optimistic approach, despite the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union that threatened the entire world with nuclear annihilation. In the following excerpts from Woodcock’s review of the 1953 reissue of Dwight Macdonald’s The Root is Man, Woodcock takes Macdonald to task for arguing in favour of “critical” support for the West in opposition to Soviet totalitarianism, rejecting Macdonald’s pessimism in the hope that movements against war and state power would eventually emerge. Ironically, when such movements did begin to emerge in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Europe and America, Woodcock had ceased to identify himself as an anarchist, and appeared to be slipping into the same pessimism as Macdonald. However, both were inspired by the resurgence of anarchism in the 1960s, although Woodcock insisted that what emerged in the 1960s was a “new” anarchism quite distinct from the class-struggle anarchism of the past, from which he was already distancing himself in the mid-1950s, as his remarks below make clear. I included excerpts from Woodcock’s 1944 critique of technology and organization, “The Tyranny of the Clock,” originally published in Macdonald’s Politics magazine, as well as excerpts from the original 1946 edition of Macdonald’s The Root is Man, in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.
Libertarians and the War
I believe that there is always need for a perpetual re-consideration of the validity of every aspect of our viewpoints. In left-wing circles, and particularly among Marxists, the word “revisionism” has often a pejorative sound; I believe that the attitude which this displays merely shows a resistance to growth among the people who hold it. And I am definitely out of sympathy with the romanticism of those last-ditchers who hold their positions out of an illusion of loyalty and a horror of self-contradiction. Every man whose ideas are living and growing must contradict himself many times during his life, and I am with Whitman and Proudhon in finding no reason for shame in this. But I do see reason for shame in holding on to a position unless I believe that, all things considered, it still remains the best and most reasonable.
Therefore I acknowledge and respect Macdonald’s change in his position on war, and I think we should consider carefully what he has to say in his own justification. At the same time I must say that I have found his arguments for radicals to enroll themselves in the cause of the Western states wholly unconvincing.
To begin, Macdonald quotes Karl Liebknecht’s World War I dictum, “The main enemy is at home!” He declares that this classic expression of the anti-militarist (though not necessarily pacifist) position does not hold good, and says: “Those who still believe it I must regard as either uninformed, sentimental, or the dupes of Soviet propaganda (or, of course, all three together).”
Let us begin from there. It is true that some pacifists are uninformed on Russia, and that a few of them—particularly among the Quakers—tend to become the dupes of Soviet propaganda about Russia being the representative of world peace. However, I think that the proportion of opponents of war preparations who are in either of these positions is much smaller than Macdonald believes, and I know that it is not true of any of the anarchists, to whatever branch of our very elastic movement they may belong. For more than thirty years we and our predecessors have been insisting on the reactionary character of Russian communism, and when it was considered unpatriotic in Britain and the United States to denounce Stalin as a dictator no better than Hitler, we were among the few who continued to do so. We are the last ever to have been the dupes of Soviet propaganda.
So, since I am sure that Macdonald would hardly persist in bringing these two accusations against the anarchists at least, I will concentrate on the third accusation, that we are “sentimental”. My contention is that we are in fact more realistic by far than those radicals or ex-radicals who have shouldered their harps of peace and, like the minstrel boy of the ballad, are now to be found in the ranks of war.
To begin, let me say that I do not in the least disagree with Macdonald in preferring the West to the East as a place to live in. Nobody but the most idiotic and starry-eyed fellow-traveller would think it better to live in Moscow than in London or San Francisco or Montreal or Paris. There is no comparison between the nature of life in a capitalist democracy at the present moment, despite its manifold injustices and discomforts, and the nature of life in Russia or East Germany. And I would agree with Dwight Macdonald that, again at this moment, Soviet communism is “far more inhumane and barbarous as a social system than our own.”
But to agree to these points is not to agree that the political aims of the rulers of the Western states are good, or that the superiority of Western culture is a logical excuse for war, or that this superiority will necessarily last forever—that it will last, for instance, more than a few weeks in the event of an atomic war.
It seems to me, indeed, that far from maintaining those qualities in which Western countries are more advanced than Russia, the kind of war that is likely to ensue under the pretence of defending democracy will be the surest way of all, not of reducing or counter-acting inhumanity and barbarity, but of universalising them. Atomic war, I maintain, is a more certain way of bringing about the collapse of what we regard as civilised values than any amount of Soviet aggression. And for this reason I consider any state that includes in its political and military manoeuvres the threat of atomic war to be as much an “enemy” of mankind in general as any other similar state.
Even without an atomic war, the gulf between American and Russian political life seems to contract with the years. In a little prophetic fantasy which he wrote for the New York Times, Bertrand Russell envisaged a future in which the atomic war would be averted because Senator McCarthy would have become President of the United States and would have discovered so little real difference between the outlook of his administration and that of Comrade Malenkov that agreement on spheres of influence would become easy. This may sound far-fetched in fact, but I think that in spirit it is not so, since McCarthy’s activities have been consistently directed towards preparing in America a totalitarian atmosphere which a Communist ruler would find congenial.
But I do not think that McCarthy himself is the only sinister portent in the United States today. He is only an extreme example of a general trend among the ruling elite, and even the Republicans who oppose him do so because they consider him too inefficient and too tactless in his job. Behind the lurid façade of the Congressional committees the work of suppressing the minority opinion goes on quite happily in the hands of the administration; even the Army uses its present bout of shadow boxing with McCarthy as a front to cover a thorough-going plan of discriminating, not only against known Communists, but also against those within its ranks who are merely suspected of left-wing sympathies. Readers of Hannah Arendt’s book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, which has done so much to mould Dwight Macdonald’s recent thought, will remember that she pointed out that one of the most salient characteristics of a totalitarian regime was the creation of a perpetual and persecuted minority. Recent American government proposals to turn Communists or suspected Communists into second-class Americans by depriving them of citizenship are a significant step towards the same process of creating a scapegoat minority, a minority of opinion rather than race. Macdonald asserts that in the United States, the reaction is carried on “furtively and apologetically”; in recent months it has not been McCarthy or any of the protagonists of repressive legislation that has been “furtive or apologetic”, but rather those so-called liberals who could only muster one vote in the Senate against giving McCarthy the funds to carry on his work of witch-hunting. Here is a situation of liberal spinelessness before reactionary aggressiveness which reminds one forcibly of the situation in Italy before the March on Rome and in the Weimar Republic in the days of Hitler’s rise to power during the 1930s. It also reminds one of Trotsky in Russia creating the means of his own destruction by conniving at the persecution of other minorities in the days before his fall from power.
To return to Macdonald’s arguments, he accuses the war-resisters of believing that “the world’s most chauvinist and militaristic government [the Russian] is… striving for world peace against the evil machinations of the State Department and the British Foreign Office”. This, again, the anarchists definitely do not believe. On the other hand, I think I speak for many anarchists when I say that they do not allow a belief in the aggressive militarism of Russia to convince them that it is any greater a threat to world peace than the United States. Recent months have undoubtedly shown an increase in American sabre-rattling which has aroused misgiving, not only among war-resisters, but also among British Conservatives and their French equivalents. It is just as possible that war may come through the blundering blusters of Dulles as through the machinations of Malenkov; in this particular moment, it seems certain that, for purely practical reasons, Russia is even less anxious than the United States for a war, but the great danger remains the unplanned one—that the perilous game of bluff and counter-bluff will actually one day spark off a genuine war.
And that war may mean the end of most that we treasure in Western culture—and of much of the good that remains in Russia as well. Macdonald sees the present situation as a “fight to the death between radically different cultures”. I personally do not think the contests of states and politicians can have anything to do with cultures (except, of course, to harm or destroy them). Culture is a product of the talents and thoughts and spiritual impulses of individuals and peoples, it thrives on peace, and lives by other means than the political. Certainly the next war will destroy a vast part of the material capital of twenty-five centuries of world culture; what is worse, it will probably encourage the spread of circumstances that will inhibit renewal. Already, the very shadow of the Bomb seems to be causing a drying up of the spontaneity of art that is being felt all over the world; in England and France alike, for the first time since the middle of the last century, there are no real avant gardes in literature and the arts, and all over the world we are dismally lacking in those achievements of renaissance which followed the peace of 1918.
Macdonald seems to find some comfort in the fact that things in the United States are not so bad as in Russia. He is not wholly unjustified. At the very least it means that individuals living in Western countries have a few years more of comparatively spacious living than their unfortunate fellow men on the other side of the various curtains (though it must not be forgotten that some countries within the western orbit, e.g. Spain and Jugoslavia, are not far behind Russia in the degree of their totalitarianism). “Being on the same road is not the same thing as being there already”, Macdonald rightly remarks, and it is also true that “this malign trend [towards totalitarianism] can to some extent be resisted”. But, to my mind, it can only be resisted by those who are willing to go the whole hog and point out that all and any states are the seedbeds of tyranny and war. The folly is in those who try to pick and choose, who say, like Macdonald, that they wish to support the Western states but to declare objection to certain aspects, e.g. “the Smith and McCarran Acts, French policy in Indo-China, etc.” In fact, as events have shown in the last few months, all these things are integral aspects of American policy which cannot be divided from the whole. They are part of the intolerance and aggressiveness which any expansive state has to maintain in order to keep its initiative.
But, the situation being as it is, what is to be done? Macdonald, it is evident, is extremely uneasy in his new found situation of an unwilling supporter of war against Russia as an eventual possibility, and he admits that it provides no complete solution for the dilemma. But has he in fact examined all other alternatives? There is one significant passage at the end of his Appendices to The Root is Man. He says: “The only historically real alternatives in 1939 were to back Hitler’s armies, to back the Allies’ armies, or to do nothing. But none of these alternatives promised any great benefit for mankind, and the one that finally triumphed has led simply to the replacing of the Nazi by the Communist threat, with the whole ghastly newsreel flickering through once more in a second showing.” And if the Communist threat followed the defeat of the Nazi threat, what, one might ask, is likely to follow the defeat of the Communist threat? Is World War III any more likely to produce a peaceful and civilised world than World War II and World War I did? Of course not, unless there is a complete reversal of the attitude of the common people on the question of war. And since that reversal must appear somewhere and at some time, if it is to appear at all, there is no reason why we should not seek for it now just as well as after another destructive war.
When Macdonald says that the third alternative in 1939 was “doing nothing”, he is really directing a sneer at the protagonists of the policy of war resistance. He believes that non-militaristic resistance will cut no ice with the Communists and that the triumph which Gandhi won over the British in India would have been impossible if he had been faced by the tougher minded Russian Communists. Indeed, it is evident throughout Macdonald’s arguments that he has what seems to me an exaggerated idea of the mechanical perfection of the Communist machine. But no society is in fact, as he would contend, “perfectly dead and closed”. This is an abstraction, and like all abstractions it is riddled with the interstices of contradiction that are opened by the facts of real life. There are in reality well-established instances in which totalitarian governments retreated before movements of non-violent resistance; the recent strikes in Spain, the strikes in Copenhagen during the Nazi occupation, the demonstrations last summer in Berlin and throughout East Germany—all of these had a profoundly disturbing effect on the regimes against which they were directed, and it was found, in Germany at least, that even the trained policemen of the totalitarian order were far from impervious to the example of the resisting people. Furthermore, recent events in Russia have shown that even in the heartland of the Communist order the rulers have found that there can be a limit, even among workers with no civil rights whatever, to the extent to which sacrifices will be accepted. Beyond that limit there begins to appear at least a Schweikian kind of resistance, and concessions are needed; taken together, the recent concessions of the new Russian rulers—withdrawal from collectivity in agriculture, expansion of the supply of consumer goods, softening of cultural controls, and lessening of MVD powers—represent a radical modification of Russian policy which only a consciousness of deep-seated discontent could have induced. Added to such facts as these, there is always the process of softening which all empires in history have experienced when they have spread too far. Indeed, it seems probable that it has been less the threat of American guns than the difficulty of assimilating radically different cultures in Eastern Germany and Czechoslovakia that has kept the Russians back in Europe; they probably realise that even many professed Communists in France and Italy would be part of a great movement of non-cooperation if the Russian armies did march further West, a movement so corrupting that the Red soldiers would be no more proof against it than they were against the glamour of a higher standard of living in Germany and Austria in the first months of the occupation of 1944.
One of the reasons why a conscious and closely linked—if not formally organised—libertarian movement should be active against war in all the countries where it can work is the fact that it will be able to provide the nucleus for movements of resistance in the case of the imposition of foreign—or home-grown—totalitarianisms. But I think that it is also just possible that such a movement might play a vital part even in the event of atomic war. Perhaps, when we talk of the entire destruction of civilisation by the Bomb, this is a little on the rhetorical side. Certainly the big centres will go in the event of an atomic war, and most of the population as well, but it is just possible that the rural districts and the small towns will remain, and that a new, decentralised form of society will perforce have to emerge on the ruins of the old. If this should happen, then any man who has chosen a constructive rather than a destructive attitude will find his part to play in preventing the rebuilding of the centralised states which will have brought on their own destruction, and in nurturing the appearance of free and autonomous local societies.
Meanwhile, the war is not yet upon us, and every day that it is delayed should be a day of hope, not a day of despair. For I do not agree with Macdonald that a third front of the people against all the militarists is out of the realm of historical possibility. To later observers it is only the movements which have succeeded that seem to have been historically possible, but it must be remembered that even these movements, in their very beginnings, must have seemed Quixotic hopes to the majority of the people who saw them. Up to 1917, the Bolsheviks were a tiny minority group of exiled plotters and underground labour agitators, and their ascension to power within a few months must have seemed extremely unlikely. The Congress movement of Gandhi started out of minute beginnings, and nothing could have been more pitifully inauspicious than the group of seven fanatics who gathered to form the Nationalist Socialist Party in the dim beginnings of Hitler’s rise to power. What negative movements like Communism and Nazism have achieved from infinitesimal beginnings is surely not beyond the power of positive movements. And therefore I still maintain that a movement of the people that will carry through a formidable resistance to the threat of war, that will percolate through the weak points of the iron curtain—East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia—will only become impossible if there are no men to take the initiative, if there are no men with the imagination to conceive the right way to strike the thoughts and hearts of the world. There are those pessimists who contend that such a hope is Quixotic and that the day of movements of enthusiasm and faith is past. I would claim that in such times of crisis as our own we learn that the uncompromising rejection of negative forces—which our critics call Quixoticism—is in fact the only realistic hope of saving ourselves and our culture. And I would also suggest that there are plenty of signs to show that a time of this kind provides the very conditions in which a movement of faith and enthusiasm can take root. Already there are some such movements which have had an amazing amount of limited success; Bhave’s crusade for voluntary land redistribution in India is one example. A dynamic eleventh-hour anti-militarist movement that struck the imaginations of the world’s peoples would be thoroughly compatible with the historical needs of our time, and it might run through the channels of our decaying civilisation as the forces of early Christianity burst out from the catacombs into the similarly moribund structure of imperial Rome. More than ever before, such a movement could change the whole character of human social existence.
Resistance, Vol. XII, No. 2, June 1954
In Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, subtitled The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977), I document the remarkable resurgence of anarchist ideas and action following the tragic defeat of the Spanish anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, and the mass carnage of the Second World War. I have now created a special webpage with additional writings from many of the people who were responsible for that resurgence. Herbert Read, Marie Louise Berneri, Paul Goodman, David Wieck, Daniel Guérin, Alex Comfort and the Noir et Rouge group in France were among those who made anarchism relevant again, despite its critics’ attempts to consign it to the dustbin of history.
Murray Bookchin (1921–2006) began publishing essays on anarchism and ecology in the mid-1960s (Volume 2, Selections 48 & 62). In the following essay, “On Neo-Marxism, Bureaucracy, and the Body Politic,” reprinted in Toward an Ecological Society (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980), Bookchin sets forth an anarchist conception of politics in which people are empowered to take control of their daily lives and communities through directly democratic popular assemblies. Bookchin sought to transcend the class-based perspectives of both the Marxists and the anarcho-syndicalists by developing a libertarian conception of democracy which includes all members of the community regardless of their role in the productive process, similar to the “libertarian democracy” found in the collectives in the Spanish Revolution documented by Gaston Leval. Bookchin was very familiar with Leval’s work and wrote an excellent history of the pre-Revolution Spanish anarchist movement. Bookchin sought to transcend the simple dichotomy between society and the state expressed by some anarchists by setting forth a conception of a nonhierarchical political sphere that will survive the abolition of the state and provide people with the collective means of determining their own destinies. Noteworthy in this essay, given his later writings, is Bookchin’s unabashed anarchism.
To some neo-Marxists who see centralization and decentralization merely as a difference of degree, the word “centralization” may merely be an awkward way of denoting means for coordinating the decisions made by decentralized bodies. Marx it is worth noting, greatly confused this distinction when he praised the Paris Commune as a “working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.”(1) In point of fact, the consolidation of “executive and legislative” functions in a single body was regressive. It simply identified the process of policy-making, a function that rightly should belong to the people in assembly, with the technical execution of these policies, a function that could be left to strictly administrative bodies subject to rotation, recall, limitations of tenure and, wherever possible, selection by sortition. Accordingly, the melding of policy formation with administration placed the institutional emphasis of classical socialism on centralized bodies, indeed, by an ironical twist of historical events, bestowing the privilege of formulating policy on the “higher bodies” of socialist hierarchies and their execution precisely on the more popular “revolutionary committees” below.
Similarly, the concept of “representation” intermingled with “direct democracy” serves to obscure the distinction between popular institutions which should decide policy and the “representative” institutions which should merely execute them. In this connection, Rousseau’s famous passage on the constitutive nature of a “people” in The Social Contract applies even more to the “mass society” of our times than the institutionally articulated one of his era. “Sovereignty, for the same reason that makes it inalienable, cannot be represented” Rousseau declares; “it lies essentially in the general will and will does not admit of representation: it is either the same or other; there is no intermediate possibility. The deputies of the people, therefore, are not and cannot be its representatives: they are merely its stewards, and can carry through no definitive acts. Every law the people has not ratified in person is null and void — is, in fact, not a law. The people of England regards itself as free: but it is grossly mistaken: it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.” However problematical Rousseau’s concept of “general will” may be, quite aside from his archaic concept of “law,” the premises that underly it cannot be evaded: “… the moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists.”(2)
It is precisely in terms of a “general will” more libertarian and individuated than any conceived by Rousseau that reveals the workers’ councils, soviets, and the Räte to be socially one-sided and potentially hierarchical. Councils may be popularly constituted, but they are not constitutive of a “public sphere.” As the locus of the decision-making process in society, they absorb within executive bodies the liberties that more appropriately belong to a clearly delineable body politic and thereby subvert institutions such as communes, cooperatives, and popular assemblies that indeed constitute a people and express a popular will. Councils, in effect, usurp the political subjectivity that should be shared by all in social forms that express the individual’s claim to social sovereignty. That Bolshevism recognized this possibility and later cynically exploited it is revealed by the emphasis Lenin placed on the factory as the social basis of the soviets. Here, indeed, a “proletarian public sphere,” to use Oscar Neckt’s phrase, was acknowledged and hypostasized—not as a truly democratic arena, but as the locus for a “proletarian public” that could be strategically deployed against the great mass of “unreliable” peasants whose villages comprised the authentic “public sphere” of revolutionary Russia.
But the factory, far from being the strongest aspect of the “proletarian public sphere” is, in fact, its most vulnerable. However much its social weight is reinforced by revolutionary shop committees and the most democratic forms of self-management, the factory is in no sense an autonomous social organism. Quite to the contrary, it is a particularly dependent one that can only function — indeed, exist — in conjunction with other factories and sources of raw materials. The Bolsheviks were to astutely use this very limitation of the factory to centralize the “proletarian public sphere” to a point where they were to remove the last vestigial remains of proletarian democracy: first, by employing the soviets to isolate the factory from its place in the local community; then, by shifting power from the community to the nation in the form of national congresses of soviets. The use of soviets to interlink the proletariat from factory to factory across the entire breadth of Russia, literally amputating it as a social stratum from any comprehensible roots in specific localities where it could function effectively, served to hopelessly delimit its powers and to rigorously centralize it. In the immense, national congresses of soviets staged annually during the revolutionary years, the Russian proletariat had lost all power over the soviets even before the authority of the congresses had been completely usurped by the Bolshevik party.
Quite likely, the centralization of the proletariat could have been achieved by the Bolsheviks in any case, without manipulating the soviet hierarchy. The very class nature of the proletariat, its existence as a creature of a national division of labour and its highly particularistic interests that rarely rise to the level of a general interest, belie Marx’s claims for its universality and its historic role as a revolutionary agent. These attributes, which hindsight clearly reveals today, explain the failure of all classical “proletarian revolutions” in the past. Neither the Paris Commune, which was really fought out by the last remnants of the traditional French sans culottes, nor the Spanish revolution, which was fought out by workers with rural roots, are exceptions…
If labour is the “steeling school” of the proletariat, as the young Marx was to emphasize, its locus, the factory, is a “school” based on “imperious, obedience,” as Engels was to add in later years — indeed, a “school” marked by the complete absence of “autonomy”(3)…
In whatever ways precapitalist societies differed from each other, they differed from capitalism in the fact that they were basically organic, richly articulated in forms and structures that were to be ultimately challenged and destroyed by bourgeois market relations. Even where the eye moves beyond the egalitarian world of the early human bands and clans, underlying all the bureaucratic and political formations that were to layer the surface of tribal, village, and guild-like societies were the extended families, tribal relationships, village structures, guilds, and even neighborhood associations that retained a subterranean autonomy of their own…
The most striking feature of the capitalist market is its ability to unravel this highly textured social structure, to invade and divest earlier social forms of their complexity of human relations. Even as capitalism seems to amplify the autonomy and claims of the individual, it does so by attenuating the content and structure of society. As Gemeinschaft theorists like Buber have pointed out:
“When we examine the capitalist society which has given birth to socialism, as a society, we see that it is a society inherently poor in structure and growing visibly poorer every day. By the structure of a society is to be understood its social content or community content: a society can be called structurally rich to the extent that it is built up of genuine societies, that is, local communes and trade communes and their step by step association. What Gierke says of the Co-operative Movement in the Middle Ages is true of every structurally rich society: it is ‘marked by a tendency to expand and extend the unions, to produce larger associations over and above the smaller associations, confederations over and above individual unions, all-embracing confederations over and above particular confederations.’ At whatever point we examine the structure of such a society we find the cell-tissue ‘Society’ everywhere, i.e. a living and life-giving collaboration, an essentially autonomous consociation of human beings, shaping and re-shaping itself from within. Society is naturally composed not of disparate individuals but of associative units and the associations between them.”
The capitalist economy and the centralized state “peculiar to it” begin to hollow out this highly articulated social structure until the modern “individualizing process” ends up as an atomizing process, a process that divests the individual of the social substance indispensable to individuality itself. Although the old organic forms retain “their outer stability, for the most part,” they become “hollow in sense and in spirit — a tissue of decay. Not merely what we call the ‘masses’ but the whole of society is in essence amorphous, unarticulated, poor in structure. Neither do those associations help which spring from the meeting of economic or spiritual interests — the strongest of which is the party: what there is of human intercourse in them is no longer a living thing, and the compensations for the lost community-forms we seek in them can be found in none. In the face of all this, which makes ‘society’ a contradiction in terms, the ‘utopian’ socialists have aspired more and more to a restructuring of society; not, as the Marxist critic thinks, in any romantic attempt to revive the stages of development that are over and done with, but rather in alliance with the decentralized counter-tendencies which can be perceived underlying all economic and social evolution, and in alliance with something that is slowly evolving in the human soul: the most intimate of all resistances — resistance to mass or collective loneliness”(4)…
To state the issue more broadly, the buyer-seller relationship of the market place, carried by the logic of the commodity relationship to the point of a market society, literally simplifies social life to the level of the inorganic… ecologically, the most significant problem we face today is not merely environmental pollution but environmental simplification. Capitalism is literally undoing the work of organic evolution. By creating vast urban agglomerations of concrete, metal, and glass, by turning soil into sand, by overriding and undermining highly complex ecosystems that yield local differences in the natural world — in short, by replacing a complex organic environment with a simplified inorganic one — market society is literally disassembling a biosphere that has supported humanity for countless millennia. In the course of replacing the complex ecological relationships, on which all complex living things depend, for more elementary ones, capitalism is restoring the biosphere to a stage where it will be able to support only simpler forms of life. If this great reversal of the evolutionary process continues, it is by no means fanciful to suppose that the preconditions for more complex forms of life will be irreparably destroyed and the earth will become incapable of supporting humanity itself.
This process of simplification, however, is by no means confined to ecology; it is also a social phenomenon, as sweeping in its implications for human history as it is for natural history. If the competitive nexus of market society, based on the maxim “grow or die” must literally simplify the organic world, so too must the reduction of all social relations to exchange relations literally simplify the social world. Divested of any content but the brute relationships of buying and selling, of homogenized, mass-produced objects that are created and consumed for their own sake, social form itself undergoes the attenuation of institutions based on mutual aid, solidarity, vocational affiliations, creative endeavour, even love and friendship. The “cell tissue ‘Society’” is thus reduced to the monadic ego; the extended family to the nuclear family and finally to disassociated sexual partners who enjoy neither the responsibilities of commitment nor emotional affinities but live in the vacuum of estranged intercourse and the insecurities of passionless indifference.
Indeed, the logic of market society is the market qua society: the emergence of objects, of commodities, as the materialization of all social relationships. No longer are we simply confronted with the “fetishization” of commodities or the alienation of labour, but rather with the erosion of consociation as such, the reduction of people to the very isolated objects they produce and consume. Capitalism, in dissolving virtually every viable form of community association, installs the isolated ego as its nuclear social form, just as clans, families, polis, guilds, and neighborhoods once comprised the nuclear social forms of precapitalist society.
Social regression on this scale imparts a new function to bureaucracy. Under capitalism, today, bureaucratic institutions are not merely systems of social control; they are literally institutional substitutes for social form. They comprise the skeletal framework of a society that, as Greek social thought would have emphasized, edges on inherent disorder. How ever much market society may advance productive forces, it takes its historic revenge not only in the rationalization it inflicts on society, but the destruction it inflicts on the highly articulated social relations that once provided the springboard for a viable social opposition. The most disturbing feature of modern bureaucracy is not merely the coercion and control it imposes on society, but the extent to which it is literally constitutive of modern society: the extent to which it validates itself as the realm of “order” against the chaos of social dissolution. Just as the ancient city — its temples, gardens, political institutions, and well-cultivated environs — represented human order as against the ever-menacing encroachment of natural “disorder,” so bureaucracy emerges as the structural sinews and bones that sustain the dissolving, decaying flesh of market society. Precapitalist societies have resisted or simply side-stepped bureaucratic formations that were imposed upon them with the highly articulated internal life they developed on their own or inherited from the past. Capitalism becomes bureaucratized to its very marrow precisely because the market can never provide society with an internal life of its own.
This fact expresses both the possibilities of bureaucracy as a social infrastructure and its historical limits. The very anonymity of bureaucracy reveals the authority of the system over personality, of the social framework over its “personnel.” The ease with which Stalinism reproduced itself structurally as a grotesque persistence of bureaus amidst a chronic execution of bureaucrats is testimony to a total depersonalization of social control today — the appalling asociality that bourgeois society finally achieves in its mythic “socialization” of humanity. Together with the “denaturing” of humanity, capitalism creates a synthetic society so completely divested of organic attributes that its social relations are literally mineralized into objects. The bureaucrat is truly faceless because he or she has no protoplasmic existence; the depraved notion that administrative decision-making can be taken over by computers and public expression by electronic media — a notion seriously considered as a step in the direction of “direct democracy” by theoretically sophisticated radical groups like the French Situationists, not only zany science-fiction “utopians” — increasingly renders the flesh-and-blood bureaucrat and citizen an anachronism. As in Platonic metaphysics, the immediate world of perception becomes the imperfect, transient “copy” of an eidos that transcends the uncertain and chaotic materiality of life itself. If bureaucracy represents the culmination of social order, capitalism totally belies the historic destiny Marx imputed to it as the means for universalizing humanity and providing it with the means for controlling its own destiny. Bureaucracy, as a system perfected to the point of voiceless depersonalization, now represents a mute society even more divested of self-articulation than “mute nature.” In the structureless void to which capitalism has reduced society, the public realm literally becomes a public space, public only in the sense that it is occupied by interlinking bureaus. Flow diagrams and systems theory become the language of corporate entities that, lacking even the presence of the lusty “robber barons,” consist of objects moving through depersonalized agencies. The homeostasis of these corporate entities depends not upon personal judgments but the corrective power of deviations. Contemporary language unerringly calls this “feedback,” “input,” and “output,” not discourse, dialogue or judgment.
There is a moral that must be drawn from this massive regression to the inorganic: capitalism has not performed the historic function of “disembedding” humanity from nature. Over and beyond the haunting power of archaic tradition over the present is an “embeddedness in nature” itself… that found expression in the organic consociation of human beings: initially, a consociation expressed in clannic ties, a sexual division of labour, the eminence of the elders, and a “nature idolatry” that slowly cemented human ties into ever-expansive forms of association. Doubtless, these were primarily biological facts, not social; organic, not synthetic. But the price humanity has paid for its socialization — for the “denaturalization” of blood groups into territorial units, tribes into towns, and the stranger into citizenship — has taken the form of capitalism, a rapacious society that has carried through human socialization by “tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and material forces.”(5)
If it is true, as Jeremy Shapiro has argued, that for Marx capitalism creates the conditions for removing human beings from their “immersion” in archaic traditions and in nature by “(1) setting abstract labour free as a force of production through the process in which labour creates its own conditions, and (2) freeing individuals from their identification with particular social roles allotted to them by the social division of labour…,” it is no less true that capitalism removes them from organic nature only to “reembed” them in inorganic nature.(6) It removes them from a “concrete labour” that knows nature in all its wealth of forms and immerses them in an abstract labour that knows only abstract matter; it removes them from their personal identification with a social division of labour by divesting them of the very subjective apparatus required for personality. Although capitalism may seem to free labour as a force of production in the organic sphere, it enslaves it to the inorganic, transporting it from the world of living materiality to the world of dead materiality. Capitalism may have freed humanity from the archaic “idolatry of nature,” but it did so only by committing humanity to the modern idolatry of quantity. In Marxism itself, it may well be that the present releases the hold of the archaic past on itself, but the present holds the past captive to fictive conceptions of history that divest human consociation of all human attributes but “interest,” “productive power,” domination, and the values of the bourgeois Enlightenment conceived as a project of rationalization and control.
If the “dialectic of history,” as Shapiro tells us, is to be “resolved through completion of the self-transcendence of nature that occurs when embeddedness in nature is overcome and human beings bring the historical process under control,” then this “control” must involve the re-absorption of nature into society as a “retribalized” humanity in which the archaic solidarity based on kinship is replaced by free choice of association, shared concerns, and love.(7) Communes, cooperatives, and assemblies — in fact, new poleis — must replace the poverty of social forms created by the void we call “capitalism.” Let there be no mistake about the fact that we are never “disembedded” from nature. Indeed, it has never been a question of whether we were “embedded” in nature or not, but rather the kind of nature we have always been “embedded” in — organic or inorganic, ecological or physical, real or mythic, whole or one-sided, subjectivized or “mindless.” Only the absence of a nature philosophy that reveals the natural history of mind from the very inception of the organic world to the present, a philosophy that can reveal the changing gradations of a natural dialectic into a social [dialectic], that can relate the realm of “instrumental action” to “communicative” [action], and ultimately human society with nature as the voice of a “mute nature” resubjectivized by human consciousness —only by virtue of this lacuna in the interface between nature and society is it possible to speak of “disembeddedness” in disregard of the meaning of a truly organic society.
Today, any meaningful project for the reconstruction of a revolutionary theory and practice must take its point of departure from three basic premises: the reconstitution of the “cell tissue ‘Society’” in the physical sense of the term, as a body politic, that is bereft of the institutions of delegated authority; the abolition of domination in all its forms — not merely economic exploitation; and the obvious precondition for the latter achievement, the abolition of hierarchy in all its forms — not merely social classes. The reductionist attitude of Marx that defines a body politic in the ambiguous terms of a “public sphere,” of domination in terms of economic exploitation, and hierarchy in terms of economic classes, masks and dissolves the differences between these concepts. That we could easily achieve a “public sphere” that professes to be free of class rule and economic exploitation, yet is riddled by patriarchy, bureaucracy, and a system of ruled and ruler based on professional, ethnic, and age differences, is painfully evident if we are to judge from the experiences of the “socialist orbit.” To speak to the needs of an organic society — the formation of an authentic body politic and a socially active citizenry — is to restore society as genuine “cell tissue.” Society, in effect, must become a body politic in the literal sense that the citizen must be physically in control of the social process, a living presence in the formation and execution of social policy.
Rousseau is only too accurate in recognizing that a body politic, divested of embodiment as a citizen assembly, is the negation of a people. The term “people” has no meaning if it lacks the institutional structure for exhibiting its physical presence and imparting to that presence a decisive social meaning — if it cannot assemble to debate, formulate, and decide the policies that shape social life. To the degree that the formulation of these policies is removed by mediated and delegated institutions, from the face-to-face decision-making process of the people in assembly, to that degree is the people subverted as the only authentic constitutive force of social life and society, vested in the sovereignty of the few, reduced to an abstraction, an unpeopled “public sphere” or a mere “public space.” Underlying every enterprise for the dissolution of the body politic into the faceless sovereignty of delegated authority is the hidden belief in an “elect” that is alone endowed with the capacity to rule and command. Ultimately, this view amounts to a denial of the human potentiality for self-management, to the spark within every individual to achieve the powers of social wisdom that a privileged few claim for themselves. That circumstances, be they resolved into the denial of education, free time, access to culture, and even an enlightened familial background, not to speak of material and occupational circumstances, have concealed this spark to the “masses” themselves is no argument for the fact that social life, particularly as it concerns the individual, could be otherwise.
Delegated authority, in effect, not only negates a people but the claims of selfhood… underlying the notion of popular self-management… [A] society that professes to be based on self-management is inconceivable without self-activity. Indeed, revolution can be defined as the most advanced form of self-activity, as direct action raised to a level where the land, the factories, indeed the very streets, are directly taken over by the autonomous people. In the absence of this level of activity, social consciousness remains mere mass consciousness that can easily be manipulated by hierarchies. Delegated authority vitiates the individuation of the “masses” into self-conscious beings who can take direct, unmediated control of society into their own hands. It denies not only the constitution of a “public sphere” into a body politic, but the individual into a social agent — into a “citizen” in the Athenian sense of the term.
We live today under the tyranny of a present that is often more oppressive than the past… Our social “models” for freedom have been the Russian Revolution and the so-called “revolutions” of the Third Word, of the councils, soviets, and shop committees that are so seductive to many neo-Marxists as forms of social administration…
It is ironic that we must turn to John Stuart Mill, rather than his socialist contemporaries, for an insightful evaluation of how direct participation in social life and the development of selfhood mutually reinforce each other to form the civic virtues and commitments of the citizen — that make active citizenship the highest expression of selfhood. The defects of Athenian democracy notwithstanding, the practices of the dicastery and popular assemblages, Mill was to observe, “raised the intellectual standard of an average Athenian citizen far beyond anything of which there is yet an example in any other mass of men, ancient or modern.” The Athenian citizen was obliged “to weigh interests not his own; to be guided, in case of conflicting claims, by another rule than his private partialities; to apply, at every turn, principles and maxims which have for their reason of existence the common good…” He accordingly found himself associated “in the same work with minds more familiarized than his own with these ideas and operations” which supplied “reason to his understanding and stimulation to his feeling for the general interest.”(8)
Hannah Arendt was to formulate this educative process — an integral feature of what the Greeks called paideia, the spiritual forming of the individual — as an “enlarged mentality” that renders authentic judgment possible.(9) The polis was not only an end but a means that made political practice (“participation” is a feeble term) a mode of self-formation. At this level, a people not merely arrives at a “general interest” but begins to transcend “interest” as such…
Endowed with this [enlarged] mentality, “even when I shun all company or am completely isolated while forming an opinion, I am not simply together only with myself in the solitude of philosophic thought,” Arendt observes, “I remain in this world of mutual interdependence where I can make myself the representative of everyone else. To be sure, I can refuse to do this and form an opinion that takes only my own interest, or the interests of the group to which I belong, into account… But the very quality of an opinion as of a judgment depends upon its degree of impartiality.”(10) “Impartiality” must be taken literally if Arendt’s point is to have meaning — as a condition that rises above the “partial,” or one-sided, and the “partiality” of a predetermined commitment. The emergence of a “general interest” is, in effect, the abolition of the “partiality” of a self rooted in “interest” and in a one-sided society.
It is a truism that “opinion” and judgment so formed have material preconditions and a historical background that has received sufficient emphasis not to require discussion here. Arendt’s “enlarged mentality” must emerge from a terrain that is materially incompatible with the formation of “class interest” and its ideological expression as “class consciousness.” But once these material preconditions are emphasized, we must add that a “proletarian public sphere” is an anachronism because the proletariat as a proletariat, as the fictive expression of a public sphere, is an “interest” that opposes the universalization and abolition of “interest” and the formation of a public. It is not accidental that Marx follows in the wake of bourgeois reality by denuding the proletariat of the social and personal forms without which it cannot develop its public existence as part of a universalized humanity. Marx’s writings “hollow out” the proletariat as ruthlessly as capitalism hollows out the “cell tissue ‘Society’”. Just as abstract labour confronts abstract matter, so abstract classes confront each other in a conflict of “interests” that exists beyond their will or even their clear comprehension. That Marx conceives the proletariat as a category of political economy — as the “owner” of labour power, the object of exploitation by the bourgeoisie, and a creature of the factory system — reflects and ideologizes its actual one-sided condition under capitalism as a “productive force,” not as a revolutionary force. Marx leaves us in no doubt about this conception. As the class that is most completely dehumanized, the proletariat transcends its dehumanized condition and comes to embody the human totality “through urgent, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need…” Accordingly: “The question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat at the moment considers as its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do.”(11) (The emphasis throughout is Marx’s and provides a telling commentary on his de-subjectivization of the proletariat.) I will leave aside the rationale that this formula provides for an elitist organization. For the present, it is important to note that Marx, following the tradition of classical bourgeois political economy, totally objectifies the proletariat and removes it as a true subject. The revolt of the proletariat, even its humanization, ceases to be a human phenomenon; rather, it becomes a function of inexorable economic laws and “imperative need.” The essence of the proletariat as proletariat is its non-humanity, its creature nature as the product of “absolutely imperative need” — of brute “interest.” Its subjectivity falls within the category of harsh necessity, explicable in terms of economic law. The psychology of the proletariat, in effect, is political economy.
The real proletariat resists this reduction of its subjectivity to the product of need and lives increasingly within the realm of desire, of the possibility to become other than it is. Concretely, the worker resists the work ethic because it has become irrational in view of the possibilities for a non-hierarchical society. The worker, in this sense, transcends her or his creature nature and increasingly becomes a subject, not an object; a non-proletarian, not a proletarian. Desire, not merely need, possibility, not merely necessity, enter into her or his self-formation and self-activity. The worker begins to shed her or his status of workerness, her or his existence as a mere class being, as an object of economic forces, as mere “being,” and becomes increasingly available to the development of an “enlarged mentality.”
As the human essence of the proletariat begins to replace its factory essence, the worker can now be reached as easily outside the factory as in it. Concretely, the worker’s aspect as a woman or man, as a parent, as an urban dweller, as a youth or elderly person, as a victim of environmental decay, as a dreamer (the list is nearly endless), comes increasingly to the foreground. The factory walls become permeable to the development of an “enlarged mentality” to the degree that personal and broadly social concerns begin to compete with the worker’s “proletarian” concerns and values. No “workers group” can become truly revolutionary unless it deals with the individual worker’s human aspirations, unless it helps to de-alienate the worker’s personal milieu and begins to transcend the worker’s factory milieu. It is indeed doubtful that, in the event of truly revolutionary change, workers will want to control production and bask in the glories of an economy based on “worker’s control.” They will probably want to alter production, indeed sever society’s technical commitment to the factory as such. This kind of working class will become revolutionary not in spite of itself but because of itself, literally as a result of its awakening selfhood…
If we are not merely at the end of capitalism but at the end of “civilization” as Fourier might have observed — of hierarchy and domination — it is not enough to speak any longer of class and exploitation but rather of rank as such at the most molecular levels of human consociation…
A new “revolutionary subject” exists in the social vacuum left by society and the centralized power at its summits. The system turns everyone against it — be it the conservationist or the small struggling entrepreneur, the worker or the intellectual, women, blacks, aged, or the seemingly privileged suburbanite. The denuding of the individual from “brothers” and “sisters” into “citizens” and finally “taxpayers” expresses the common lot of every individual who is burdened by a terrifying sense of powerlessness that is so easily mistaken for apathy. Bureaucracy can never blanket this open, unoccupied social domain. This domain can eventually be filled by neighborhood assemblies, cooperatives, popular societies, and affinity groups that are spawned by an endless array of social ills — above all, decentralized groups that form a counterweight and a radicalizing potential to the massive centralization and concentration of social power in an era of state capitalism…
The simplification of the “social problem” into issues like the restoration of local power, the increasing hatred of bureaucratic control, the silent resistance to manipulation on the everyday level of life holds the only promise of a new “revolutionary subject” on which resistance and eventually revolution can be based. It is to these issues that revolutionary theory must address itself, and it is to a reinstitutionalization of a conscious body politic that revolutionary practice must direct its efforts.
Murray Bookchin, April 1978
1. Karl Marx: “The Civil War in France,” Selected Works, Vol. II (Progress Publishers, 1969), p. 220.
2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract (Everyman Edition, 1959), pp. 94, 96. Rousseau’s influence on Hannah Arendt is almost as great as Aristotle’s. Compare these remarks with Arendt’s in On Revolution (Viking Press, 1965), pp. 239-40.
3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: The Holy Family (Progress Publishers, 1956), pp. 52-53; Frederick Engels: “On Authority” in Marx, Engels, Lenin: Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism (International Publishers, 1972), p. 102.
4. Martin Buber: Paths in Utopia (Beacon Press, 1958), pp. 13-14 [see Anarchism, Volume Two, Selection 16].
5. Karl Marx: Grundrisse (Random House, 1973), p. 410.
6. Jeremy J. Shapiro: “The Slime of History,” in On Critical Theory, ed. J O’Neill, (Seabury Press), pp. 147-48.
7. Ibid, p. 149.
8. John Stuart Mill: Considerations on Representative Government (World Classics Edition, 1948), pp. 196-98.
9. Hannah Arendt: “Truth and Politics” in Philosophy, Politics and Society (edited by Peter Laslett and W.G. Runciman (Blackwell & Co., 1967), p. 115.
10. Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” Op. cit., p. 115.
11. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: The Holy Family, op. cit., pp. 52-53.
David Thoreau Wieck (1921-1997) was part of the new generation of anarchists to emerge after the Second World War, helping to spark the resurgence of anarchist ideas and movements of the 1960s. He came to anarchism during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War (1936-1939), while he was still a teenager. During the Second World War he spent 34 months in prison as a war resister and was involved there in protests against racial segregation. After his release, he became involved with the anarchist paper, Why?, later renamed Resistance, which he wrote for and edited during the 1950s. I included one of his pieces from Resistance in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. The following piece, in which Wieck discusses the importance, and the limits, of the “militant pacifist” movements which began using civil disobedience to protest war and racial discrimination in the U.S. in the 1950s, was originally published in Resistance, Volume XII, No. 1, in April 1954. Other noteworthy essays by Wieck include “The Negativity of Anarchism” and “Anarchist Justice” (1978).
From Politics to Social Revolution
It is now nearly a decade since the end of the war, and nothing in this breathing-space—let us be plain—gives even modest hope or satisfaction to people who desire peace, economic justice, freedom. Our social condition calls for a radical step, the exercise of our highest powers, uncalculated risks—to know this requires only a look at our world of permanent war, of clashing empire States, of Government and Business bureaucracy, of the current inquisition. History, the blind momentum of a blind past, is not rescuing us; even on the rare occasions when one can take a sensible action in relation to the big National Questions, it can hardly be with illusions that the best outcome will bring us sensibly nearer a good society; the Labor Movement is not resurgent, and the people give no ear to appeals to rise up and change it all. It is necessary to invent something else to do, and taken as a whole radicals have not been too inventive.
Now to invent “something else to do” is not at all easy—especially one does not tell someone else what to invent! It is possible, however, to give a rough description of what is needed. It is the more necessary to do so, since it is widely believed that we need “new directions.” It happens that the right directions are really quite old, and almost obvious, and so thoroughly ignored! So one cannot go amiss to speak of them.
The one striking innovation on the American radical scene is the campaign of civil disobedience waged by the militant pacifists, inspired directly by Gandhi and derivatively by Thoreau. I want to discuss this movement a little—to give it the praise that is due it, and to use its limitations to show crucial neglected directions in the thinking of American radicals.
Today being March 15 the mail carries news that 43 individuals have refused to pay income-tax this year. Over the last few years a certain number have been imprisoned for draft resistance; until silenced by the Government’s post-office regulations, the paper Alternative carried on vigorous agitation along these lines, as for a time did the Catholic Worker. Recently many of the same people, most of them associated with the Peacemakers movement, have issued a declaration of non-cooperation with Congressional inquisition and affirmation of intention to exercise free speech.
For reasons we come to later, anarchists have criticized this program, no doubt unduly harshly. Of all radical movements pacifism is the weakest theoretically, it is a sitting duck. But the fact remains that these persons, at sacrifice or at least risk, have made a symbolic gesture of protest. Not everyone else has done something and theirs is an admirable “propaganda of the deed,” deserving honor.
But Militant Pacifism is not a general method of social action, and its chief error is precisely in not seeing this. It is a technique. It is what some people have to do, as a matter of integrity. It is a practical weapon of some importance. But as a matter of demonstrable fact, it is not a method of changing society.
The history of civil disobedience illustrates our point. Thoreau was protesting against a particular law, the Fugitive Slave Law, a law that widespread disobedience could have put out of commission without more ado. More generally he saw civil disobedience as a way for citizens to exercise a continuing vigilance and personal responsibility toward law and government. But suppose the government is not fundamentally a sensible one, suppose it has been built up by a patchwork remedying of evils by lesser evils—what sort of way of life will this be, with the conscientious citizens spending most of their time in jail? (It is a nice thing to say, that in certain societies a free man “belongs” in prison; but except as a revolutionary slogan it is a mighty unpleasant suggestion). Or suppose the evils—in our case, the wars and armies and the rest—are not a foolish excrescence on a healthy body social, but part of the very fabric of society—how can the government retract and remedy it?
This is why a social revolution is needed, and why energies should not go to influencing the government, but to changing the total system.
The scope of the problem to which civil disobedience was applied in India was also very narrow, a fact obscured by the size of the nation. The single point in question was, would the government of India be British or Indian? Economic, communal and other relations remained the same, the British rulers had only to get enough of harassing and shaming and finally to devise a reasonably graceful way to get out. (Incidentally, it was probably the failure of Gandhism that it dissociated the independence and social questions).
Our problem in America, to repeat, is the different one of social revolution. “Wars will cease when men refuse to fight”—only if they re-order the society so as to eliminate the drives to war, the necessity for war.
Now there are two ways, just two, of conceiving a social revolution, of solving the problem that pacifism attempts to ignore. The one is by means of government: socialist; and the other is outside of government, and abolishing it: anarchist. Or to put it perhaps more meaningfully: in the socialist case the revolutionists obtain political power, and manage and coordinate social changes from the heights of power. In the anarchist case government is treated as by nature obstructive and oppressive and non-creative, the revolution is carried out by economic expropriation and re-organization, by the formation of independent communal organizations, by creating a new way of life in education, criminology and the rest; the State does not “wither away,” nor is it even “overthrown;” it dies on the spot.
In either case civil disobedience may play some role, and in the anarchist case it is civil disobedience—or to describe it more accurately, total ignoring—that abolishes government. But what is done about, and in relation to, government does not matter except for its effect on the total society.
A moment’s reflection will show that the problem is not futuristic. If the socialist method of governmentalism is followed—as we hope not—then a forthright preparation, ideologically and tactically, should begin now. If the anarchist method, then the social revolution should begin now (how, we will speak of later). A movement which repudiates these questions can be a very valuable “troublemaker”—there is need for troublemakers—but not a “peacemaker.”
One may make a very interesting parallel with “pure” syndicalism, which too attempted to be a thing sufficient in itself, neither socialist nor anarchist, and became a deadend except as it became an appendage of socialist parties or a rather confused associate of anarchism. There is another analogy which is even more striking, however. In the 19th century, gradually dying out since, there was in some quarters, including some anarchist ones, a retrospectively very naive faith in violence-in-itself—the magic of sporadic acts of violence culminating in barricades. (There was even a philosopher of permanent violence, Sorel.) Our “non-violent” friends have really turned this myth inside out—as though the shedding of blood was its unique miscalculation. If things were only so simple and violence alone to blame! But a revolution is a positive thing, it is vastly more than either violence or non-violence. Civil disobedience can be a powerful propaganda of the deed, and a powerful specific weapon, but that is all it is.
Third Camp and Democratic Illusion
The inadequacy of civil disobedience is not remedied—quite the contrary—by resuscitating the ancient radical illusion of the defensive united front. In this case the united front—of the Third Camp—marches right up to the problem of social revolution, comes out four-square for a good society, and proceeds to establish its compromise character as a defensive, opposing, protesting movement. But these institutions and these wars do not vanish under a good loud protest.
Except as the political elements gain the upper hand, or as the pacifists draw anarchist conclusions, the Third Camp remains in the pacifist dilemma—which it has managed to make worse. What is valuable in Militant Pacifism, its emphasis on individual action, individual responsibility and initiative, emerges from compromise as the viewpoint of a faction, not to characterize the movement. Interest and energy is necessarily shifted then to a hypothetical mass movement—which has the misfortune not to exist, nor is the ground prepared for it, nor steps to prepare the ground taken.
But the hypothetical nature of the mass movement does not save the united front from the consequences of mass movements. In the day-by-day of a liberation movement also there is a socialist way and an anarchist way—the way of Democracy and the way of Freedom. Ipso facto the creation of a unified third pressure force makes the choice of Democracy and ignores a century of history.
A century of history! Of labor unions that became bureaucracies and dictatorships, of revolutionary political parties that became exactly the same thing on a more terrible scale. In America we have had a century and a half of experience in democracy, in every type of organization from government down to local union, lodge and party. Still the illusion persists that the membership can control the centrally-directed activities of the organization by voting, going to meetings, etc. Almost any of these organizations, if it is more than a few months old, may be taken as a model of the devolution of democracy. It is a lesson each person can verify from his own experiences, and the first lesson for a 20th century radical to learn: that the coloration of every organization is determined ultimately by who makes the decisions, and very little by who votes for the decision-makers, or who votes to ratify their decisions in pre-fabricated conventions.
Unfortunately the anarchist appreciation of the problem of organization is not understood, and widely caricatured. Organization in itself is not evil: the evil is power, and the remedy for the evil of power is, not the half-step of Democracy, but the whole step of Freedom. “The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy” is almost true: but the constitutional safeguards are circumvented, the otiose membership slumbers on, and nothing changes. To define the abstract word in the context, freedom means individual responsibility and initiative, group discussion and decisions, and delegation only of specific, especially mechanical, functions which cannot be done by individuals and face-to-face groups. The corollary of this principle is that an objective achievable only by a freedom-defeating centralizing organization should be abandoned until a new way is found.
As responsibility and initiative and strong primary groups become more common, more elaborate organization becomes possible: finally a free society. But we do not have such people to work with, we are not such people.
Who is to unify the pressure force of the unit front? Who is to make the decisions? write the programs? coin the slogans? if not the leadership cadres who have handed down the line at every political conference and in every political movement of past and present—the anarchist, where anarchists have tried it, as much as any other. So that the choice is between making our revolutionary politics an activity of individuals and face to face groups, joining together more widely for specific purposes; or the mobilization of a mass movement which will take on, even if unsuccessful, the organizational tone of the society-at-large.
In the second case the sincere radicals may find themselves, rather too late, in libertarian revolution against the government of the microcosmic society which was to be the instrument of liberation.
To follow the anarchist way means to give up a lot of romantic images of the masses and general strikes and revolutions. But it also means to create something that actually tends to achieve the same good ultimate goals, a non-romantic revolution. Anyone can see that people who become sheep when they have a shepherd are, without one, more likely to act like lost sheep than like inventive men. It is, however, in the movement of liberation, if anywhere, that the ethics and dynamics of the future society are given birth, and men and women can begin to realize their powers.
The Social Revolution
Standing on an extreme peak of idealism anarchists have all the tools for tearing everybody to pieces. And this is rightly irking, if the anarchists cannot go on or refuse to go on.
We can proceed with two statements: (1) The individual is powerful. (2) The future society does not yet exist, nor can it be imposed by force.
To take the second first. Anarchists and revolutionary socialists in the 19th century agreed that the future society already existed: that there was merely a class of rulers, owners and priests to clear out and disperse, the government to nullify—even Marxism theorized this— and the revolution was made. Revolutionists sought to stir people to resist and rise up, they strove to release the underlying, suppressed—but not in the psychological sense repressed—solidarity.
Now, the case is, the masses are fragmented, desolidarized; government intervention, political and economic bureaucracy are deeply implicated in every-day life, they make the wars and the animating economic policies; primary community, the old underlying health, is gone, the instincts of cooperation are barely visible. The future society does not yet exist—and how this new fact is met is crucial.
The revolutionary socialists attempt to meet the new situation by imposing the future society through manipulative vanguardist movements. Whatever their theorizing about party dictatorship, they create variations on the single theme of the Bolshevik Revolution, not the Paris Commune or 1848. (We are not referring to those conservative socialists who simply want to extend the “socializing” tendencies of capitalism, by Laborism.)
But if 19th century socialism, by insisting on retaining the State for a certain time, thereby automatically hindered revolutionary creativity, the modern revolution-by-the-State, while full of “criticisms” of 1917, threatens to multiply the power and menace of the State. The existing Society is no longer the friend of the revolution, it is the body upon which the revolutionary State is to perform its surgery.
State-violence, however rationalized, cannot cure the disease of the society; a timid governmentalism cannot change the society, and a bold one is the equivalent of Bolshevism. The revolution—this is the negative lesson—absolutely must be able to abolish government, the institution can be regarded with no tolerance, the institution has too dangerous a role to permit equivocation.
But if the future society does not exist—and if government cannot legislate it—the social revolution must begin now, we must begin creating the conditions of liberty. This social revolution consists in present acts of liberation, present release and revival of vitality, which can begin—today we can barely begin!—to prepare our society for revolution.
It is fortunate that the individual is powerful!
The social revolution must begin now. Hardly a phrase is more facile, an idea harder to express concretely, an idea harder to implement, or an area of action more essential to a revolutionary program.
Let us spell out areas for action (the instances are not meant to be exhaustive):
Economics. The creation of direct solidarity in the working-place—which means recognition that the present labor movement is exactly not sociality-in-action; it means the practice of mutual aid and equality. The creation of workers’ cooperatives. The rejection of debasing work—and of its products. The revival of the instinct of workmanship, of craftsmanship and quality.
Politics. The association of libertarians in close face-to-face groups, warm communities of free men, who demonstrate freedom and are strengthened by it.
Community. The creation of small communities—particularly of communities which do not isolate themselves from the world and draw the surrounding area into some part of their way of life.
Education. The creation of small schools and colleges which educate for individuality, thought, creative activity. Or the vital activity of a single teacher who puts into the conventional school what was not intended to be there. Or even more radical experiments within a libertarian community.
Family. The practice of freedom and responsibility between man and woman, the exclusion of law and conventional morality from the private relations of people; and the affording to children of the right and possibility of individuality and a creative relationship to their environment.
Arts and Sciences. The revival of sincerity in art, and the abandonment of standards of commercialism and success. The refusal of scientists to work within the framework of government and corporation sponsorship—not to mention the war-contributing projects!—and the search for new ways to carry on their work.
Within this same framework we can begin to imagine both the character of a general social transformation, and the vital areas we can work in today. The truth is that very few people are doing so. But it is also the truth that very few radicals and revolutionists have understood the anarchist idea of social change, and still we watch the energy poured into politicalizing movements.
Underlying what precedes is the assumption, the individual is powerful. We are comparing him with the mass. We must state what we mean, since any fool can see that the individual is weak and powerless.
The individual is powerful when he is free, and more powerful when he is not alone; but he is weak when he is in a mass.
Without the idea of the free man, the anarchist idea falls to the ground: because the future society cannot exist, or its beginnings be nurtured, without him. This is the man who thinks, who acts for himself, who is responsible for his actions, who initiates and invents. He alone has the potential of cooperation, of community. He is not “created” by a demagogic propaganda, he does not act by immediate “interest.” He lives today as if he were in a sensible society—as far as one can— and in acting for the social good he does not fail to act to realize himself.
Without the idea of the free man, the anarchist idea fails. But also it is an idea peculiar to anarchism: for man is not viewed as a unit in an army wheeled to action against the ramparts of capitalism. Nor is he viewed as a man who spends his time disobeying and resisting the State. Where does this leave the work of “opposing the war” and “opposing the repression”? the acts of civil disobedience? Is it to be supposed that these men cannot get together to stage a public protest? If they cannot, maybe there is something wrong with the particular action? Is it to be supposed that such a man will sign a loyalty oath? Or that he will be an informer? (though he may choose to keep his address to himself, though he may choose to resist the war in his own way, though he may imagine that there is a time for “staying out from under the wheels,” and another for not budging in his tracks, all on his own terms).
In times as reactionary as ours, a program of action, and especially goals for action, are in a fantastic disproportion to the doings of busy History, when it is raining a terrible fire on the Pacific Ocean, and a small stupidity in Washington or Moscow or Tehran might conceivably leave our earth in ruins. It is necessary to notice this disproportion, but neither to be reduced by it to apathy, or seduced by it into the “crackpot realism.” It is necessary to go quietly ahead.
DAVID WIECK, April 1954
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.
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!
THREE MAIN CAUSES
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).