Mission: Impossible – Fallout – Worst Film of the Year

Not being one to run out to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster, Mission: Impossible – Fallout slipped under my radar when it was released last summer. Recently, while travelling by plane, I started watching it on the in-plane movie service. Within 5 minutes I got the gist of it: a group of rogue secret agents, formerly professional killers for various states, have become “anarchists” intent on bringing down the existing world order by detonating nuclear bombs in the Himalayan watershed. The intended result is to contaminate the water supply for billions of people, which will somehow lead to the collapse of civilization and the emergence of a new kind of world order from out of the chaos. Reminds me of a fellow university student years ago who seriously asked my why I was opposed to nuclear arms when a nuclear war would destroy everything — isn’t that what anarchists want? One commentator has suggested that this marks a shift in Hollywood from Islamic bogeymen to anarchists as the new “bad guys.” Let’s hope not, but MI: Fallout was a big hit at the box office. As a belated and partial antidote to this patent nonsense, I reprint a piece written by Paul Goodman in 1962 during the height of the Cold War, in which he points out that it is mainstream culture that has become suicidal, a theme he also pursued in “A Public Dream of Universal Disaster,” which I included in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Paul Goodman

In a disturbing study of the paralyzing effects of war spirit and war preparations, “The Arms Race as an Aspect of Popular Culture,” Professor Robert Engler of Columbia warns us of the dislocation of scientific and professional education; the dislocation of the normal pattern of economy and industry; the growing spirit of the garrison state: censorship, lying propaganda, the infiltration of the (retired) military into the industrial system; the crazy competitive goals in armaments and the space race; the astonishing distortion of community values in the private-shelter business. People accept the whittling away of civil liberties. There is distortion even in the play and dreams of children.

We must ask also the opposite question: Why are people susceptible? What in our society and culture makes such a development possible? What paralysis in the public allows these preparations to become so deadly? It is a useful question, because to the degree that we can answer it, we can try to withdraw energy from the conditions and feelings that lurk in the background of the present spirit.

The economic advantages of the Cold War (to some) must be mentioned first. And we may use economic policy as an unerring index of the secret position of the government in Washington. The government can protest as loudly as it wishes to the people of the world that it wants disarmament with inspection, etc.; but so long as there are no actual economic plans and preparations being made to reconvert industries to peacetime uses and to take up the slack of employment that disarmament would involve, we cannot believe the government. There are no such plans and preparations, though there is a Disarmament Agency and though Professor Melman has offered them a philosophy in The Peace Race.

John Ullmann of Hofstra has shown that even apart from the budget, our political structure itself predisposes us to the war spirit; for it combines prejudice and regimentation, self-righteousness and violence. And every study of the present regime in Washington shows that it has become largely a machine for waging Cold War. Even vested economic interests must succumb, for the government can make or ruin a firm by manipulating the contracts for armaments.

Let me now, however, go on to recall some psychological factors in the American cultural background that make the Cold War “advantageous.” Our modern times are affluent and disappointed, active and powerless, technical and purposeless. This clinch is the Cold War.

In America, the so-called high standard of living, urbanism, the sexual revolution only partly carried through, have notoriously resulted in excessive busyness with little reward in happiness, and in excessive stimulation with inadequate sexual or creative discharge. People are balked by the general inhibition of anger and physical aggression in our cities, offices, and streamlined industries and grievance committees. And since one cannot be angry, one cannot be affectionate.

At the same time, as part of the same urban-technological-economical-political complex, common people today are extraordinarily powerless. Few ever make, individually or in face-to-face associations, decisions about many of the most important matters. Labor decides about neither the product nor the process, the utility nor the distribution. Affairs are bureaucratized, with inevitable. petty delays and tensions. There is an almost total absence of real rather than formal democracy. A local meeting, e.g., a Parent-Teachers meeting, has no power to decide but can only exert pressure, which is usually cleverly evaded. Voters decide not issues or policies but the choice between equivalent Front personalities. The corporations dominate the economy and small enterprises are discouraged. The pattern, especially of middle-class life, is scheduled often down to the minute, and spontaneity is penalized. Even consumption goods are bought for emulation rather than final satisfaction. Police surveillance increases conformity and timidity. With increasing wealth, there is increasing insecurity.

According to the theory of masochism of Wilhelm Reich, which has become fairly standard, the result of such excessive stimulation and inadequate discharge is a need to “explode,” be pierced, beaten, etc., in order to release the feelings that have been pent up. Of course, it is people themselves who are imprisoning themselves; they could release themselves if it were not for the totality of their fearfulness and ineffectuality. That is to say, they cannot release themselves. Instead, they feel that release must come from outside agents or events. More healthily, this is felt as excitement in destruction and danger; in the lure of daring and dangerous sports; in the innocent joy in watching a house burn down and living through hurricanes and earthquakes (and discussing them endlessly.) And characteristically of poor mankind, once they been given the cosmical permission of Necessity, people act with the community and heroism that is in them from the beginning. The case is darker, more painful and sadistic when, avidly but generally more privately, people read up the air disasters. Likewise, the nuclear phobia of many patients is a projection of their own self-destructive and destructive wishes, and it vanishes when so analyzed, that is, when the patient can reconnect the images of disaster to the actual things that he wants to explode, burn, poison, annihilate.

Similar are fantasies of destructive Enemies, who will do the job for us. And it does not help if two opposed Enemies cooperate in their projections, so that each one recognizes a threat in the other and arms accordingly and so provides more tangible proof of the threat. (This phenomenon of mirror-image projections has been somewhat studied by Professor Osgood.)

A less familiar factor, but to my mind a very important one, is the inhibited response to the insulting and nauseating tone of our commercialized popular culture and advertising. People experience a self-disgust and a wish to annihilate, vomit up, this way of life; but they hold their nausea down, they feel powerless to give up this culture — it is all there is — they cannot even shut off the TV.

On these grounds, we can speak of War Spirit as an epidemic wish to commit suicide en masse, as one community. To have the frustration over with! to get rid of all that junk at once! Thus, an important explanation of the paralysis of the public in safeguarding against, or simply dismissing, the obvious irrationality and danger of war policies, is that people are inwardly betrayed by a wish for the catastrophe that they rationally oppose.

So far negatively. But there is a positive side. Powerless and uninventive in decisive affairs of everyday life, people increasingly find excitement in the doings of the Great on far-off stages and in the Big News in the newspapers. This occurs everywhere as spectatoritis and TV-watching. An event might be happening outside the window, but people will watch it on the TV screen instead; for there, it is purified, magnified, and legitimized by the national medium. What is sponsored by a national network is Reality. And, of course, of this Big News the most important is the drama of the Warring Powers, that toys with, and continually threatens to satisfy, every man’s orgastic-destructive urges. Brinkmanship and Playing Chicken and the Testing of bigger firecrackers — however stupid and immediately rejectable by common reason — are nevertheless taken as most serious maneuvers. The powerlessness of the small gets solace by identification with power Elites, and people eagerly say “We” and “They,” meaning one bloc or the other.

The outpouring of dammed-up hostility is channeled antiseptically and guiltlessly through pugnacious diplomacy, interest in impersonal technology, and the excitement of war-games theory. Push-button and aerial war is especially like a dream. It is forbiddingly satisfactory in its effects, yet one is hardly responsible for it, one has hardly even touched a weapon. Games-theory has the mechanical innocence of a computer.

My guess is that in the contemporary conditions of technology and standard of living, the Americans suffer somewhat more from the above psychological pressures than the Russians, who are still starved for consumer’s goods and hope naively to get important satisfaction from them. The Americans have more need for the Cold War than the Russians. They can afford it more and, for the same reason, need it more. Since the Russians can afford it less, they also need it less. (I am told, however, that in Russia the big arms-production has gone so far that they too have an industrial-military complex that now goes by itself.) On the other hand — again this is my guess — in dictatorships there is more underlying animal fear, fear because acquaintances have suddenly vanished, fear of speaking out; therefore their War Spirit might involve more desperate adventurousness, more need for little proving victories, because people feel more inwardly unsafe. Also — this is said to be true of the Chinese — when there is famine and utter misery of life, it is only extreme actions that can weld people together at all. (The remedy for this is rather simple, to feed them.)

By and large, the panicky craze of the Americans for private, family bomb shelters seems best explicable in these terms. Because of the threat of poisoning and fire, public policy has come into an obvious clash with elementary biological safety. Yet it is impossible to change the public policy, and get rid of the industrial-military complex, for the war is wished for, and the identification with the Powerful is necessary for each powerless individual’s conceit. The private bomb shelter is the way out of the clinch: It allows the war to happen, yet it withdraws from reliance on the Public Policy which is evidently too dangerous to trust. It is a Do-It-Yourself. It even somewhat satisfies the biological instinct for safety — if one reads Life rather than scrupulous scientists. Naturally all the better if the Shelters can then be harmonized with business as usual and become an emulative luxury, a part of the high standard of living.

The entire argument of this essay is summed up in the official bulletin of the Office of Civil Defense, when it says, “Fallout is merely a physical fact of this nuclear age. It can be faced like any other fact.” Here we have the full-blown hallucination: dropping the bombs is — thought of as a physical fact rather than a social fact. And also this outrageous and moronic proposition is swallowed like everything else.

But as Margaret Mead has recently pointed out, this private flight of the Americans into their shelters has aroused shock and horror in the Europeans who are equally endangered. They cannot identify with the Powers; and many of them — British, Dutch, Russians — know what it is to be bombed and suffer in the war. (The Germans seem to be eager to assume the Bully role again themselves.) Naturally, Professor Mead’s solution is international bomb shelters for the fertile and academically talented!

Historically, the theorists of militarism have profited by the above analysis. From the time of Frederick William, the gait and posture of the warrior has been designed, by competent teachers of gymnastics, to cut off full sexual feeling and tenderness: the pelvis retracted, the anus tightened, the belly hardened, the exhalation impeded by squaring the shoulders. Marriage and other civilian ties are discouraged (but not the economic and political connections of retired generals). A soldier or sailor on the town must not become emotionally involved with the woman he picks up. And the Marine, balked in his manliness and insulted in his independence by spirit-breaking discipline and the chain of command, lives by a conceit of toughness and power, with slavish griping to let off steam. All are in a state of muscular hyper-toms, to snap unthinkingly to a command. The jaw is in a position of watchfulness. The public glorification of this mindless power is the complement of the public masochism; it is experienced as the terrible sublimity of war.

What then? How under modern conditions can we wage peace instead of war? We need a vast increase in the opportunities for initiative and making important decisions. This involves considerable decentralization of management, in industry, in government, in urban affairs like housing and schooling. (I do not think that this necessarily implies less efficiency, but that is another story.) It involves the use of our productivity to insure minimum subsistence, but otherwise the encouragement of individual enterprises. We must forthrightly carry through the sexual revolution, encourage the sexuality of children and adolescents, get rid of the sex laws and other moral laws. Many people might be offended by this policy, it might have disadvantages, but our present condition of stimulation and inadequate discharge is simply too dangerous in its irrational effects; we cannot continue it. We must revive individual worth and self-respect, by jobs of useful work that employ more of each person’s capacities, and an education that makes the culture and technology comprehensible and appropriable, so that people may be at home with it and possibly inventive and creative in it. We need a genuine folk-culture to enliven community, and a lofty public culture to give us meaning, and loyalty to a greater self. And paradoxically, if there were less false politeness, conformity, and civil peace — more energetic confrontation, loud quarrels, and fist fights — there would be less ultimate and catastrophic explosiveness. These things comprise, in my opinion, the modern moral equivalent of war that William James was after. They are entirely practical; and if, as the Americans are, they are utopian — there it is.

An occasional fist fight, a better orgasm, friendly games, a job of useful work, initiating enterprises, deciding real issues in manageable meetings, and being moved by things that are beautiful, curious, or wonderful — these diminish the spirit of war because they attach people to life. They should not be postponed while we “buy time” with deterrence and negotiations. On the contrary, if people began to insist on more life, the Front Page would carry very different news.

Let me add a postscript. I read these remarks to a conference of learned men, experts in the social sciences, in engineering, and in politics, discussing the deadly danger of the Cold War and the need to get out of it. The great majority of them found what I said to be entirely irrelevant. They were, predictably, hilarious about the references to sexuality. We are faced with an unexampled situation, a matter of life and death, publicly apparent to all the people and to which people hardly respond. Yet these experts believe that the concrete facts of people’s lives are not involved at all. Being superstitious as only modern scientists can be, they believe that something comes from nothing. Presumably, none of these facts of a life worth living are existent facts for them — not when they are “thinking.” They are “practical”: they face the issues as presented. Presented by whom? why?

One scientist, from Washington, spoke up and said: “You say that the Americans have a neurotic feeling of powerlessness. You don’t realize that those in power are equally frustrated.”

Paul Goodman (1962)


David Wieck: Anarchism, Anarchy, Anarchists (1951)


The Free Society Group of Chicago was an anarchist group founded in 1923 in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, when most radicals went over to the Soviet camp. Two of its best known members were Gregory Maksimov and Sam Dolgoff. They helped to keep anarchist ideas alive at a time when anarchist ideas and movements were being repressed virtually everywhere. In 1951, the Group published a pamphlet, The World Scene From the Libertarian Point of View, an anarchist assessment of the human prospect in light of the mass murder of the Second World War, the atomic bomb, the Cold War and the Korean War. For some, the human prospect was bleak. Others held out hope for the reemergence of a social libertarian, anarchist approach regarding the many crises and problems then facing humanity. One of those holding out hope for the present and the future was David Thoreau Wieck (1921-1997), an American anarchist, war resister and editor of one of the best post-war anarchist journals, Resistance. In Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a piece by David Wieck on the realization of freedom, from the August 1953 issue of Resistance. Here I reproduce his still timely contribution to The World Scene From the Libertarian Point of View. Isn’t it time someone published a collection of Wieck’s anarchist writings?



Let us identify and locate ourselves, the Anarchists.

I shall speak, necessarily, of Anarchists as I understand Anarchists, Anarchism as I understand it.

We are people who have values, aims, and methods radically different from the dominant. Our comradeship is neither in doctrine nor daily program; on these we easily disagree, rather this: we face our nature, affirm life, stubbornly insist on the real and basic needs; and we understand that these are possible only as we are free from external oppression (authority as violence) and internal oppression (authority within us). We are people who insist upon, and affirm, liberty from authority, and freedom within the individual; we are those who assert (and follow our logic) that these ends of freedom and liberty can be achieved only by directness: freedom through freedom, liberty through liberty.

This last century, our oppressors, problems, goals, are specific in this way: the centralized political State, the dominant capitalist-military- political ruling class, an increasingly complex array of institutions binding these together, and the social organization (and ourselves) to them; holding society in tension and violence of world war following world war, concentration camps and extermination camps of indifferent flags and ideologies; most significantly in the systematic, ruthless, even purposeless, destruction of the principle of life. (The ideally adapted human today is composed, as it were, of a small small core of living substance, surrounded by a many times larger mass of deadness, confusion, violence; covered completely by a hard thin shell of customs, habits, and compulsions that constitute the daily economic rituals, the culture, civilization: this is the basic disaster; the great bombs are consistent, but ironically superfluous.)

Living so: burdened, threatened, oppressed, exploited, enslaved, regimented, killed, and left (living) for dead: for a century we have risen in rebellion, adamant in disobedience, joined as friends and neighbours in solidarity and community; this handful of Anarchists; believing firmly that this need not be, we need not live so, will be free.

Our definition in space and time becomes more exact now: the day after a century of unmitigated disasters to movement, comrades, friends, strangers; a handful still, seemingly forced to choose between illusion and despair; on the day before other atomic facts, amid the potent demonstrations of giant nation-states planning our (incidental) extermination. And, seemingly without reluctance, our neighbours perform the necessary labour: mass homicide, slavery, regimentation, and the rest.

These facts, the lack of even individual refuge for survival alive, the unimpassioned murderings by our neighbours—are these all there is? Are we to withdraw to museums and study histories of the decay of civilizations—or make peace, pact or armistice, so as to die a little later, in greater safety? (but not the safety of our selves). Or is it so, that there is work to do, joyful and rewarding work, and we may think and hope without illusion or despair?

There is this work, this illusionless, affirming thought, but it is easier not to see and do it.

Assume a worst: that it were so (if it were so), for example, that our neighbours, even our friends (our enemies cannot disappoint us as our friends can), are, forever will be, as they are (which we know too well) ; or, the same thing, the prevailing social orders are immutable in their central principle of slavery: were this really so (some argue) our Anarchism has no meaning, we ought to become one with the ideals and acts of the society and its population. No! Not so that a thing is better for being inevitable; not so that our happiness and health would no longer depend on rejection of this social machine, its inhuman demands, its suffocating terms: so, on the other hand, that a man must be as free as he can, make a revolution of indefinite (most possible) extension.

Were it really so—some argue this, too—that the mass is by nature docile, unrebellious, must be led and herded, it then does not follow that we should lead, herd and slaughter them into our (former!) utopia. Even so, when we observe the State’s seeming omnipotence, we cannot become its slaves, masters, or loyal opposition; again we protect ourselves, shelter our friends, undermine it in its locus of power (minds of subjects).

Or assume that no alternative to destruction can be: Could we then be “realists,” as we are bidden to be, argue the relative merits of a bomb now or two years from now; support (that is, help create) a war, be its soldiers, fabricate its weapons? No! If our belief is in life, community, and freedom, No! Not by participating in a lesser evil (killing strangers, to the gain of our oppressors), but by rejecting all the evils will we mitigate them all. (And I deny that we will not one day abolish them!)

But let us not give these people the best of the argument a moment more! We are learning; there is work to be done; we know (our friends disappoint us; but not always) from day to day that there is ability for another life in us, our neighbours, strangers.

Experience and our science tell us that the nature of man is not such as slavery causes to appear.

If, less than of old, we have faith in the virtue of propaganda, dramatic insurrections, quick revolution; less than of old, in the inevitability of mass anarchic rebellion to economic misery; if so, we have learned much of the power of direct action, immediate action, personal action, group action, learning that what is revolutionary in time of revolution is not so much street barricades but the immediate revolutionary act: as the Spanish anarchists taught us, a village or a factory is enough. We have learned that as groups living the ethics and meaning of Anarchism we create an Anarchist community in and as our movement, and demonstrate by this new society our ideas, and their practicality. We have learned that as individuals we do most by this same living of ethics and meaning of Anarchism, creating a new environment for our non-Anarchist friends, creating the new society, a new life.

By daily acts of life we are more deeply angered, gifted with hatred at a kind of life (as it is) ; more deeply knowing, in our hearts, that we must live differently; more earnestly searching in each direction our strength allows us, ways and instruments and friends and comrades in a struggle which must have this form: the creation of new life, or continuing death.

More urgent work, a finer goal, labour more consonant with our persons and ideas, surely we cannot imagine. To those who wish immediate, simple, political answers to atomic problems, we would seem to give no answer: but it is by plotting the utilitarian murder of a million strangers in a far-off city that one can intervene in this politics, guide the hands of States. We select, for our goals, other weapons: the strong desires and dreams of man, the strength and joy and magic of life. We can do this.

David Wieck, 1951

hierachy v anarchy

George Woodcock: The Libertarians and the Cold War (1954)

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.

Dwight Macdonald

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