Laurens Otter: Nuclear Weapons and the Permanent War Economy

Laurens Otter 2016

Laurens Otter 2016

Laurens Otter, born in 1930, has been active in anarchist and pacifist movements since the 1950s. I heard him speak (briefly) at a History Workshop conference in 1986, where he recounted that during the French conflicts in Algeria, French anarchists fire bombed troop trains to stop the soldiers from reaching Algeria, a militant form of direct action that he, as a pacifist, did not endorse, advocating instead non-violent direct action. Recently, his memoir, The Accidental Making of an Anarchist, has been posted online. The memoir covers a period from his youth to the 1960s. While it is sometimes difficult to follow, particularly the changing relationships between various leftist and anarchist groups and their members, the memoir covers a period when anarchism emerged from its ideological exile during the era of Soviet and social democratic domination of the left, to yet again take its place at the forefront of campaigns against nuclear weapons, imperialist wars, and the “military-industrial” complex. This except deals with the attitude of the non-Stalinist left to nuclear weapons during the 1950s. The reemergence of anarchism during the 1950s and 60s is documented in Volume Two of  Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

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The Left and Nuclear Weapons

Attitudes of the Traditional Left to nuclear weapons need outlining. I hope I don’t need to say that I don’t consider Stalinism part of the Left, traditional or otherwise.

Given that most of the Left had been resisters for a long time, the reaction that ‘though this was a particularly nasty weapon, it was after all just that, one weapon, only worse than others as a matter of degree, not one of kind’, was understandable.

A minority, however, had decided in the past that a war might be the lesser of two evils, particularly an anti-imperialist war or a war to stop the spread of a tyranny like fascism, and were now confronted with a new evil, an evil that seemed to be the moral equivalent of the gas chambers. By its nature nuclear weaponry could not be selective to use it to counter tyranny. Inevitably the victims of the tyranny as well as the tyrant would be made the targets – indeed the tyrant might be able to build him/herself an adequate shelter, while the victim never could.

But it was not merely a question of the nature of the Bomb itself. It may have been understandable, for those who felt war against Hitler was a lesser evil, that the American uranium bombs were made in secret. The buildings where the designs were wrought unknown, the costs not mentioned in national budgets. But when this similarly happened in Britain after the war, when [Emanuel] Shinwell (who had been [Labour Party] Secretary of State for War) showed that he had not known that the Bomb was being made under his authority and he was made to look a fool in Parliament for not knowing; when no one had a chance to vote on the matter; when it became apparent that Government must have spent many millions on building research facilities, on buying and processing uranium and manufacturing bombs, at all times hiding the costs. (Did some of the money said to have been spent on the Health Service or on education, go to make nuclear weapons? Certainly, since the then major world source of uranium was in Rwanda and Burundi, the then Soviet allegation that the East African ground nut scheme was just a cover for transporting the ore had verisimilitude.)

This was why, right back in 1950, Common Wealth [an independent socialist group] argued that the [atomic] Bomb symbolised new class divisions, what [Alfred] Rosmer and [Pierre] Monatte had christened the permanent arms economy (a term taken up by, vulgarised and then hurriedly discarded by the International Socialists), that it was essential to the neo-Colonialism exercised by both Moscow and Washington, as also the remnants of traditional Imperialism. It was a weapon held exclusively by Whites, though uranium was primarily mined in Africa. It was thus not merely just another new weapon, not merely a symptom of new class society, but the symbol of it. Obviously such an analysis gave rise to divisions as to just how important the issue was in everyday politics.

The Bomb was not only a major manifestation of violence, it symbolized the lack of democracy; not even the supposedly relevant member of the Cabinet [Shinwell] knew it was being made, so Parliament (let alone the country) was never consulted; therefore nothing appeared in the budgets – none of the costs of the enormous factory-complexes (Aldermaston, Foulness) ever figured in government building costs. Some may have gone in under a cover-all of Defence, but not in itemized Defence Ministry accounts.

Huge housing estates were built for workers and this would have appeared in Budgets as normal housing. Many workers who didn’t want to work at Aldermaston told us that they’d lived in London and asked to go on the housing lists and been refused, and then they had been told that there were houses at Aldermaston for workers there. The Groundnut Scheme in Tanzania paid for two major harbours and two major railway lines from the coast to the Rwanda-Burundi border (Rwanda-Burundi was then the largest source of uranium), so probably a large part of what was meant to be Colonial Development and Third World Aid was spent as part of the hidden nuclear weaponry budget.

There was an enormous body of horrifying facts to be learnt that would only be revealed to people who asked questions and they only asked them when alerted by the ‘symptoms’ connected to the Bomb.

Laurens Otter

Copyright in this document as that of Laurens Otter and his family, though you may quote them freely in the spirit of the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial 4.0 International.

Not just an armchair anarchist

Not just an armchair anarchist

Direct Democracy & Ecology: Castoriadis and Bookchin

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Below I reproduce a recent piece on Cornelius Castoriadis and  Murray Bookchin by Yavor Tarinski, who emphasizes the similarities in their ideas regarding direct democracy and ecology (I have taken the liberty of correcting various grammatical and typographical errors). It is interesting that both Castoriadis and Bookchin were young Marxists during the 1940s who took seriously Leon Trotsky’s remark at the beginning of World War II that if the war was not succeeded by a world revolution, Marxists would have to rethink everything, an intellectual project that Castoriadis and Bookchin soon embarked on. Castoriadis, under the name Paul Cardan, helped found the Socialism or Barbarism group in France, which was very influential in the “New Left” of the 1960s, and helped inspire the events of May 1968. Bookchin began drawing the connections between ecological crisis, capitalism, hierarchy and domination in the early 1960s, in a series of essays, some of which I included in Volume 2 of  Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. While Bookchin rejected Castoriadis’ ideas regarding the constitution of the “social imaginary,” their concrete political proposals were very similar.

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Murray Bookchin

Cornelius Castoriadis

Cornelius Castoriadis

Castoriadis and Bookchin on Direct Democracy and Ecology

The primary threat to nature and people today comes from centralizing and monopolizing power and control.
Vandana Shiva

Nowadays constantly we are being told “from above” that we don’t have a choice but to conform to the status quo. The dominant power institutions are doing everything they can to convince us that the solution to our social and environmental problems is going to be found in the very same policies that have created them in the first place. The T.I.N.A. [There is No Alternative] narrative continues to dominate the mainstream discourse; and the widespread consumerist culture, in combination with the long-lasting representative crisis, is infecting people’s imaginary with cynicism, general conformism and apathy.

But germs of other ways of thinking and living are trying to break their way through the passivity of present day logic. New significations that are going beyond the contemporary bureaucratic capitalist discourse, offering new sets of reasons and values, which to navigate societal life away from the destructiveness of constant economic growth and cynical apathy.

With popular dissatisfaction of the present order of things on the rise we can distinguish two significations that offer a radical break with the present normality:

On the one hand, there is growing interest in political participation and direct democracy. Nowadays it is becoming almost unthinkable to think of popular unrest outside of the general frame of democracy: first, the demands almost always revolve around more citizen involvement in one form or another; second, the way of organizing popular struggle for a long time has [surpassed] the centralism of the traditional political organizations, insisting instead on self-organization and collaboration.

On the other hand, ecology is emerging as major concern and as an answer to the contemporary growth-based politico-economic model that is responsible for the creation of a tangible environmental crisis and rapidly unfolding climate change. It is being expressed in the form of popular struggles against capitalist extractivist projects, harmful to the environment, human health, as well as to local autonomy. It also takes the form of resistance to consumerist culture, both of which boost innovative new theories like de-growth.

Amongst the diverse spectrum of thinkers that nowadays are developing these new significations we can distinguish Cornelius Castoriadis and Murray Bookchin as two of the most influential. Both emerged from the Left and through their thought, as well as activist practices, managed to overpass ideological dogmas and to develop their own political projects, incorporating and advancing further direct democracy and ecology. It’s not surprising that they collaborated in the journal Society & Nature, and later in its successor Democracy & Nature, until 1996, when a bitter conflict between the two emerged [http://www.democracynature.org/vol3/biehl_bookchin.htm].

Nowadays their legacy is being carried on by social movements and struggles that place these two significations at the heart of their political activities. Castoriadis’s thought was revitalized with the popular uprisings across Europe of the last years and especially with the so called “Movement of the Squares” (also known as The Indignados), that was driven not by “pure” ideologies but by passion for political action and critical thinking, while Bookchin’s project is being partially implemented in practice by the kurdish liberation movement in the heart of the Middle East (most notably in Rojava), influencing it to such a degree that it completely abandoned its marxist-leninist orientation.

It must be noted that the target of the present text is not the development of a deep comparative analysis between the works of both of them, but instead an effort at underlining two elements of their thought that are especially actual for our current context and are charged with huge potential for change.

Direct Democracy

Both Castoriadis and Bookchin saw great liberatory potential in direct democracy and placed it at the heart of their political projects. They devoted a great part of their writings to that matter, developing this notion beyond the frames set by traditional ideologies. In stark difference with authoritarian views, mistrusting society and thus calling for its subjection to hierarchical, extra-social mechanisms, on the one hand, and on the other, with such views that reject every form of laws and institutions, the two thinkers proposed the establishment of structures and institutions that will allow direct public interaction, while maintaining social cohesion through horizontal flows of power.

According to Castoriadis, the majority of human societies were established on the basis of heteronomy, which he describes as a situation in which the society’s rules are being set by some extra-social source (such as the party, god, historic necessity, etc.). The institutions of the heteronomous societies are conceived as given/self-evident and thus, unquestionable, i.e. incompatible with popular interaction. For him the organizational structure of the modern western world, while usually characterized as “democracy”, is actually a liberal oligarchy, with some liberties for the people, but the general management of social life is situated in the hands of tiny elites (Castoriadis, 1989).

For Castoriadis democracy is an essential element of the social and individual autonomy (the people to set their own rules and institutions), which is the opposite of heteronomy. What he called the project of autonomy entailed direct-democratic self-instituting by the society, consisting of conscious citizens, who realize that they draw their own destiny and not some extra-social force, either natural or metaphysical (Castoriadis, 1992). I.e. in the hands of society lies the highest power that is: to give itself the laws and institutions under which it lives.

Castoriadis derives his understanding of democracy from the classical meaning of the term, originating from Ancient Athens (demos/people and kratos/power). Thus on the basis of this he denotes today’s liberal regimes as non-democratic, since they are based on the election of representatives and not on direct citizen participation. According to him democracy can be only direct, thus incompatible with bureaucracy, expertism, economic inequality and other features of our modern political system (Castoriadis, 1989).

On a more concrete level he suggested the establishment of territorial units with populations of up to 100,000 people, which [were] to self-manage themselves through general assemblies. For coordination between different such units he proposed the establishment of councils and committees to which the local decision-making bodies [would] send revocable short-term delegates (Castoriadis, 2013: pp.42-43). Thus power remains in the hands of the demos, while allowing non-statist coordination on a larger scale.

For Bookchin too, the characterization of the today’s system as a democracy was a mistake, an oxymoron. He reminds us that two centuries ago the term democracy was depicted by rulers as “mob rule”, a prelude to chaos, while nowadays [it] is being used to mask one representative regime, which in its essence is republican oligarchy since a tiny clique of a chosen few rules over the powerless many (Bookchin, 1996).

Bookchin, like Castoriadis, based his understanding of democracy on the experience of the ancient Athenian politia. That is one of the reasons he placed so much attention on the role of the city (Bookchin, 1964). He describes how with the rise of what he called statecraft, the active citizens, deeply and morally committed to their cities, were replaced by passive consumers subjected to parliamentarian rule, whose free time is spent shopping in retail stores and mega malls.

After many years of involvement in different political movements, Bookchin developed his own political project, called Communalism. Based on direct democracy, it revolves extensively around the question of power, rejecting escapist and lifestyle practices. Communalism focuses instead on a center of power that could potentially be subjected to the will of the people – the municipal council – through which to create and coordinate local assembles. He emphasized the antagonistic character towards the state apparatus that these institutions have and the possibility of them becoming the exclusive sources of power in their villages, towns and cities. The democratized municipalities, Bookchin suggested, would confederate with each other by sending revocable delegates to popular assemblies and confederal councils, thus challenging the need of centralized statist power. This concrete model Bookchin called libertarian municipalism (Bookchin, 1996), which has influenced to a big degree Abdullah Öcalan and the Kurdish struggle for social liberation.

A distinguishing feature of Bookchin’s vision of direct democracy in his communalism was the element of majority voting, which he considered as the only equitable way for a large number of people to make decisions (Bookchin, 2002). According to him consensus, in which a single person can veto every decision, presents a danger for society to be dismantled. However, according to him, all members of society possess knowledge and memory, and thus the social collectivity does not have an interest in depriving “minorities” of their rights. For him the views of a minority are a potential source of new insights and nascent truths, which are great sources of creativity and progress for society as a whole.

Ecology

Ecology played major role in the thought of the two big philosophers. Both of them however viewed it in stark contrast from most of the environmentalists of their time (and of today as well). Unlike the widespread understanding of nature as a commodity, as something separated from society, Castoriadis and Bookchin viewed it in direct link with social life, relationships and values, thus incorporating it in their political projects.

Castoriadis argues that ecology is, in its essence, a political matter. It is about political choices for setting certain limits and goals in the relationship between humanity and nature (Castoriadis, 1993). It has nothing to do with science, since the latter is about exploring possibilities and giving answers to specific questions and not about self-limitation. However, Castoriadis urges mobilizing science’s resources for exploring nature and our impact on it, but he remains firm that the choice that will be made in the end will be in its essence a political one.

Therefore the solutions that should be given to every ecological crisis should be political. Castoriadis remains critical of the green parties and the parliamentary system in general, since through the electoral processes it strives at “liberating” the people from politics, [leaving] it instead solely in the hands of professional “representatives”. As a result of this the people are left to view nature in a de-politicized manner, only as a commodity, because of which many contemporary ecological movements deal almost exclusively with questions about the environment, unconcerned with social and political matters.

Following this line of thought it comes as no surprise that Castoriadis remains critical towards the rare occasions when big green movements and parties come up with proposals of a political nature for resolving the environmental crisis (Castoriadis, 1981). This is so, because most of the time, although their political proposals revolve around more popular participation – for example green parties that have come up with proposals for sortition and rotation of their M.P.’s, more referendums, etc. – they are still embedded in the contemporary parliamentary regime. Being anadvocate of direct democracy, Castoriadis believes that single elements of it, being embedded in the representative system, will lose their meaning.

Similarly, Bookchin also links the ecological sphere with the social one and politics in general. For him nearly all of the present ecological problems result from problems deeply rooted in the social order – because of which he spoke about social ecology (Bookchin, 1993). Ecological crises couldn’t be either understood nor much less resolved if not linked to society, since economic, cultural, gender and other conflicts in it were the source of serious ecological dislocations.

Bookchin, like Castoriadis, strongly disagreed with environmentalists who looked to disconnect ecology from politics and society, identifying it instead with preservation of wildlife, wilderness or malthusian deep ecology, etc. (Bookchin, 1988). He insisted on the impact on nature that our capitalist hierarchical society is causing (with its large scale, profit-driven, extractivist projects), thus making it clear that unless we resolve our social problems we cannot save the planet.

For Murray Bookchin the hierarchical mentality and economic inequality that have permeated society today are the main sources of the very idea that man should dominate nature. Thus the ecological struggle cannot hope for any success unless it integrates itself into a holistic political project that challenges the very source of the present environmental and social crisis, that is, to challenge hierarchy and inequality (Bookchin, 1993).

Conclusion

Despite the differences and disagreements between them, Castoriadis and Bookchin shared a lot in common – especially the way they viewed direct democracy and ecology. Their contributions in these fields provided very fertile soil for further theoretical and practical advance. It is not by chance that in a period in which the questions of democracy and ecology are attracting growing attention, we listen ever more often about the two of them.

These concepts are proving to be of great interest to an increasing number of people in an age of continuous deprivation of rights, fierce substitution of the citizen by the consumer, growing economic inequalities and devastation of the natural world. Direct democracy and ecology contain the germs of another possible world. They seem as two of the best significations that the grassroots have managed to create and articulate as a potential substitute for the rotting ones of hierarchy and commodification which dominate and destroy our world today.

Yavor Tarinski

Bibliography:

Bookchin-Öcalan correspondence
Bookchin, Murray. Ecology and Revolutionary Thought (1964)
Bookchin, Murray. The Communalist Project (2002)
Bookchin, Murray. The Crisis in the Ecology Movement (1988)
Bookchin, Murray. What is Communalism? (1996)
Bookchin, Murray. What is Social Ecology (1993)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. Democracy and Relativism (2013)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. From Ecology to Autonomy (1981)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Project of Autonomy is not Utopia (1992)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Problem of Democracy Today (1989)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Revolutionary Force of Ecology (1993)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. Worker Councils and the Economy of the Self-managed Society (1972)

Republished from: http://www.babylonia.gr/2016/06/10/reflections-on-castoriadis-and-bookchin/

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From Protest to Resurgence

1960 Ban the Bomb March

1960 Ban the Bomb March

In this installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss the “Libertarians” of the late 1950s who had jettisoned any idea of a successful social revolution in favour of the idea of “permanent protest,” and the reemergence of anarchist currents in the protest movements of the 1960s.

protest withou illusionsPermanent Protest

The Impulso group was most concerned that the “new” anarchism represented by the “resistencialists” would lead anarchists away from their historic commitment to revolution, a concern not without foundation. In the 1950s in Australia, for example, the Sydney Libertarians developed a critique of anarchist “utopianism,” which for them was based on the supposed anarchist over-emphasis on “co-operation and rational persuasion” (Volume Two, Selection 41), a critique later expanded upon by post-modern anarchists (Volume Three, Chapter 12). In response, without endorsing the more narrow approach of the Impulso group, one can argue that these sorts of critiques are themselves insufficiently critical because they repeat and incorporate common misconceptions of anarchism as a theory based on an excessively naïve and optimistic view of human nature (Jesse Cohen, Volume Three, Selection 67).

For the Sydney Libertarians, not only is it unlikely that a future anarchist society will be achieved, it is unnecessary because “there are anarchist-like activities such as criticizing the views of authoritarians, resisting the pressure towards servility and conformity, [and] having unauthoritarian sexual relationships, which can be carried on for their own sake, here and now, without any reference to supposed future ends.” They described this kind of anarchism as “anarchism without ends”, “pessimistic anarchism” and “permanent protest,” stressing “the carrying on of particular libertarian activities within existing society” regardless of the prospects of a successful social revolution (Volume Two, Selection 41).

Hampstead CND

New Social Movements

The resurgence of anarchism during the1960s surprised both “pessimistic anarchists” and the more traditional “class struggle” anarchists associated with the Impulso group, some of whom, such as Pier Carlo Masini, abandoned anarchism altogether when it appeared to them that the working class was not going to embrace the anarchist cause. Other class struggle anarchists, such as André Prudhommeaux (1902-1968), recognized that the masses were “unmoved” by revolutionary declamations “heralding social revolution in Teheran, Cairo or Caracas and Judgment Day in Paris the following day at the latest,” because when “nothing is happening,” to make such claims is “like calling out the fire brigade on a hoax.” To gain the support of the people, anarchists must work with them to protect their “civil liberties and basic rights by means of direct action, civil disobedience, strikes and individual and collective revolution in all their many forms” (Volume One, Selection 30).

By the early 1960s, peace and anti-war movements had risen in Europe and North America in which many anarchists, following Prudhommeaux’s suggestion, were involved. Anarchist influence within the social movements of the 1960s did not come out of nowhere but emerged from the work of anarchists and like-minded individuals in the 1950s, most of whom, like Prudhommeaux, had connections with the various pre-war anarchist movements. There was growing dissatisfaction among people regarding the quality of life in post-war America and Europe and their prospects for the future, given the ongoing threat of nuclear war and continued involvement of their respective governments, relying on conscript armies, in conflicts abroad as various peoples sought to liberate themselves from European and U.S. control.

Robert Graham

anarchist unity

The Poverty of Historicism

daring future

Continuing with the installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I survey the historical development and evolution of anarchist ideas, here I summarize the anarchist critique of theories of history, such as Marx’s theory of historical materialism, which posit stages of historical development culminating in the achievement of socialism, with the working class being the agent of this historical process of revolutionary transformation.

poverty of statism

The Poverty of Historicism

The Impulso group remained committed to an essentially Marxist view of progressive historical development, the kind of view that Dwight Macdonald argued had literally been exploded by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Volume Two, Selection 13). One can no longer claim that from “out of present evil will come future good,” wrote Macdonald, when “for the first time in history, humanity faces the possibility that its own activity may result in the destruction not of some people or some part of the world, but of all people and the whole world for all time” (Volume Two, Selection 13).

The Impulso group clung to the view that as the result of an objective historical process, the working class developed “unitary, ongoing interests,” impelling it to fulfill its “historical role” of abolishing capitalism (Volume Two, Selection 38). That the working class has unitary interests is a concept that has been criticized by other anarchists since at least the time of Bakunin, who argued against Marx that city workers “who earn more and live more comfortably than all the other workers,” by virtue of their “relative well-being and semibourgeois position” form a kind of “aristocracy of labour… unfortunately only too deeply saturated with all the political and social prejudices and all the narrow aspirations and pretensions of the bourgeoisie” (1872: 294).

Macdonald pointed to the post-War “failure of the European masses to get excited about socialist slogans and programs,” suggesting that the “man in the street” feels “as powerless and manipulated vis-à-vis his socialist mass-organization as… towards his capitalistic employers and their social and legal institutions” (Volume Two, Selection 13). For Louis Mercier Vega (1914-1977), social stratification within the “working class” makes it necessary “to speak of several working classes,” each with conflicting interests. “Wage differentials,” for example, “make class consciousness that much harder to achieve… encouraging collusion between (private or state) management and privileged brackets of wage-earners. They accentuate rather than curtail the tendency to retain a sub-proletariat reduced to low wages and readily disposed of in the event of a crisis or economic slow-down, alongside groups of workers, employees and officials locked into complex [regulatory] arrangements wherein their docility and diligence are reflected in their wage levels” (Volume Two, Selection 45).

Marx's theory of history

Marx’s theory of history

The Impulso group implicitly accepted the Marxist view of historical stages of development which other anarchists, from Bakunin onward, have also challenged. Even before Bakunin’s conflict with Marx in the First International, one of the points of disagreement between Marx and Proudhon was whether an anarchist form of socialism could be achieved before capitalism created the technology that would produce an abundance of goods allegedly necessary to sustain a socialist society (Marx, 1847). Anarchists promoted peasant revolutions in a variety of circumstances, rather than waiting for the development of an urban proletariat as suggested by the Marxist view of history.

Gustav Landauer rejected that “artifice of historical development, by which—as a matter of historical necessity—the working class, to one extent or another, is called by Providence to take for itself the role of the present day ruling class” (Volume One, Selection 40). For Landauer, “the miracle that materialism and mechanism assume—that… fully-grown socialism grows not out of the childhood beginnings of socialism, but out of the colossal deformed body of capitalism—this miracle will not come, and soon people will no longer believe in it” (Volume One, Selection 49). Huang Lingshuang and Rudolf Rocker later put forward similar critiques of the Marxist theory of history.

popper poverty of historicism

In the 1950s, some anarchists were influenced by the contemporaneous critique of Marxist “historicism” that was being developed by philosophers such as Karl Popper (1957). Writing in the early 1960s, the Chilean anarchist Lain Diez urged anarchists to reject all “historicist systems” based on “the supremacy (in terms of decision making in men’s affairs) of History… which, unknown to men, supposedly foists its law upon them,” for this “new and jealous divinity has its intermediaries who, like the priests of the ancient religions, interpret its intentions, prophesying as they did and issuing thunderous anathemas against miscreants refusing to be awed by their revelations” (Volume Two, Selection 47). More recently, Alan Carter has presented a thoroughgoing anarchist critique of Marxist “technological determinism” (1988), emphasizing the role of the state in creating and enforcing “the relations of production that lead to the creation of the surplus that the state requires” to finance the “forces of coercion” necessary to maintain state power, turning Marx’s theory of history on its head (Volume Three, Selection 19).

Robert Graham

Alan Carter's anarchist critique of Marxism

Alan Carter’s anarchist critique of Marxism

The Art of Living/Living Anarchy in the Modern Era

art and anarchy

In the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist ideas about making life itself a kind of art, which drew from various modern art movements, such as surrealism, which I discussed in the previous installment.

Flavio Costantini

Flavio Costantini

The Art of Living

In the 1940s, Herbert Read, who had helped introduce Surrealism to English audiences, extolled modern art for breaking through “the artificial boundaries and limitations which we owe to a one-sided and prejudiced view of the human personality.” For Read, all “types of art are not merely permissible, but desirable… Any kind of exclusiveness or intolerance is just as opposed to the principles of liberty as social exclusiveness or political intolerance.” He argued that only in an anarchist society would everyone be free to develop “the artist latent in each one of us” (Volume Two, Selection 19).

Alex Comfort agreed with Read that “in truly free communities art is a general activity, far more cognate with craft than it can ever be in contemporary organized life.” He looked forward to the creation of communities in which “art could become a part of daily activity, and in which all activity [is] potentially creative” (Volume Two, Selection 20).

As Richard Sonn has put it, “In the anarchist utopia the boundaries between manual and intellectual labour, between art and craft, dissolve. People are free to express themselves through their work. Artistry pervades life, rather than being restricted to museum walls and bohemian artist studios” (Volume Three, Selection 38). In contrast, as David Wieck (1921-1997) noted, in existing society we “take it for granted that a small number of people, more or less talented, shall make—one would say ‘create’—under the usual consumption-oriented conditions of the market, our ‘works of art,’ our ‘entertainment,’ while the rest of us are spectators” (Volume Two, Selection 39).

Holley Cantine, Jr. (1911-1977) saw art as a form of play which “must disguise itself” in adulthood “as useful work in order to be socially acceptable.” The artist must either find a market for his or her art, put him or herself at the service of some cause, or live the life of an impoverished bohemian—in neither case “is the artist really free… Only a relative handful of spontaneous artists, who give no thought to any standards but their own satisfaction, can be said to function in the realm of pure art.”

For Cantine, a free society is one in which everyone “works, according to his capacity, when there is work to do, and everyone plays the rest of the time,” much as people do in “non-status societies,” where “play is regarded as natural for everyone, whenever the immediate pressure of the environment permits” (Volume Two, Selection 21), an observation confirmed by the anthropological studies conducted by Pierre Clastres (1934-1977) in South America (Volume Two, Selection 64).

Judith Malina and Julian Beck

Judith Malina and Julian Beck

In New York, Julian Beck (1925-1985) and Judith Malina (1926-2015) founded the Living Theatre in 1947, which sought to break down the barriers between playwright and performer, and between performer and audience. The Living Theatre staged plays by people like Paul Goodman, whose use of “obscene” language in the late 1940s and 1950s helped keep the Theatre in trouble with the authorities, when censorship laws were much stricter than in the USA today.

The Theatre developed a more and more improvisational approach, with the actors designing their own movements and the director ultimately “resigning from his authoritarian position” (Volume Two, Selection 24). By the late 1960s, the Theatre abandoned the confines of the playhouse altogether, pioneering guerilla street theatre and performance art in Europe and Latin America (Volume Two, Selection 25).

Richard Sonn has argued that only “anarchists can claim that not the state, not the military, not even the economy, but rather culture is central to it both as movement and as ideal” (Volume Three, Selection 38).

For Max Blechman, art “acts as a reminder of the potential joy of life, and as an anarchic force against all that which usurps it. It functions as a perpetual reminder that all meaningful life involves a stretching of the limits of the possible, not toward an absolute, but away from absolutes and into the depths of imagination and the unknown. This creative adventure, at the bottom of all great art, is the power which, if universalized, would embody the driving force of social anarchy” (Volume Three, Selection 39).

Robert Graham

Allan Antliff Art

Resplendent Anarchy (Anarchism after WWII)

refusglobal

A short installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, discussing some of the post-World War II artistic movements that embraced anarchist ideas.

Refusal Global/Global Refusal

Given the difficult political circumstances faced by anarchists in the aftermath of the Second World War, it should not be surprising that there was a resurgence of anarchist attitudes in the arts, for it was on the cultural terrain that anarchists had the greatest freedom of action. In Quebec, the Automatistes, who were loosely affiliated with the Surrealists, issued their “ Global Refusal” manifesto in 1948, in which they foresaw “people freed from their useless chains and turning, in the unexpected manner that is necessary for spontaneity, to resplendent anarchy to make the most of their individual gifts” (Volume Two, Selection 22).

The Surrealists recognized their affinity with the anarchists, sharing their “fundamental hostility towards both power blocs,” and seeking with them to bring about “an era from which all hierarchy and all constraint will have been banished” (Volume Two, Selection 23). André Breton (1896-1966) noted that it was “in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism first recognized itself,” but admitted that the surrealists, along with many others on the left, had for too long supported the Soviet Union, mesmerized by “the idea of efficiency” and the hope for a worldwide social revolution. Now it was time “to return to the principles” which had allowed the libertarian ideal “to take form,” arriving at a conception of anarchism as, in the words of Georges Fontenis (1920-2010), “the expression of the exploited masses in their desire to create a society without classes, without a State, where all human values and desires can be realized” (Volume Two, Selection 23).

Robert Graham

Andre Breton

Andre Breton

George and Louise Crowley: ‘Chaos” – or Else

Vietnam War Protest

Vietnam War Protest

Below, I set forth excerpts from an article by George and Louise Crowley, “‘Chaos’ – or Else,” originally published in the Seattle Group Bulletin, a mimeographed broadsheet published in Seattle from 1965 to 1971. The Seattle Group Bulletin was broadly anarchist in orientation, and contained articles on anarchism, women’s liberation, the Vietnam War and many other topics. The Bulletins are now available online here. They are a great example of the renaissance of anarchist ideas and practice in the 1960s, a portion of which I tried to document in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. George and Louise Crowley had been active in the U.S. Communist Party in the 1930s, but left the party because, according to Louise, they had “too much of a sense of humor.” Louise was a committed feminist who helped start some of the “second wave” feminist groups in Seattle in the 1960s, publishing the feminist Lilith magazine. This article, published in 1966, is reminiscent of George Woodcock’s earlier broadside, Anarchy or Chaos, with both Woodcock and the Crowleys arguing that the only real alternative to the insanity of modern warfare, capitalism, sexism, racism and the state is a positive form of anarchy.

Seattle group

“CHAOS” – OR ELSE

Recently a desperate and exasperated citizen asked through the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s “Personals” column: “In the name of God what can be done to end the senseless sacrifice of human lives in Vietnam”. That paper refused to accept our ad toward a constructive answer.

Two days later, a Sunday, a young man jumped to his death from the Freeway bridge. The note he left behind stated that he no longer wanted to be a part of the life into which he had been born.

Monday the United States resumed indiscriminate bombardment of the cities and people of North Vietnam.

There is a common denominator that bonds these events. It is frustration – a deep, demoralizing sense of futility which springs from our power-mad executive’s forward divergence from that steam of tolerance and humanism now in explosive upsurge around the world.

Quickly let us review the facts. The Kennedy administration built an enormous body of good will by backing away from the mess it inherited in Cuba. That administration’s apparent efforts to disengage the Cold War and withdraw from brinkmanship created a great resource of hope and popular favor which it bequeathed to LBJ and his government.

The Johnson campaign was based on what to millions of Americans sounded like a firm promise to make war on poverty instead of on people. In his maiden address to the UN, Johnson, with true insight, equated imperial adventurism with the rampant domestic exploitation that preceded the disaster of 1929. His promise to promote a world New Deal was taken at face value by millions both at home and abroad.

The current government (both the administration and its loyal opposition) have wantonly betrayed that mandate. No action great or small, real or imagined, can alter or justify that fact.

Thus have we arrived at this momentous hour of personal decision. We cast our ballots in overwhelming mandate and were repudiated. We protested to proper channels by millions and were ignored. We demonstrated in the streets by thousands and have been scornfully denounced although counter demonstrations couldn’t raise a corporal’s guard.

Hundreds of young men, faced with the insufferable demand that they join in the monstrous genocide of a weak and inoffensive people far, even, from the traditional spheres of Yankee dominance, have laid their futures on the line and said NO! and have been persecuted therefore.

Several persons, despairing completely of impressing a callous government by any means within the American tradition of petition and protest, have by demonstration in deeds given up their lives in horrible immolation like the Buddhists of Vietnam. The administration has mocked and ridiculed their sacrifice. Where can you go beyond this point!

Historically the area beyond, the transition to tyranny, was left to the revolutionary solution. Time was when this sufficed, but revolution (or the threat of revolution) in the classic sense is no longer a functional deterrent to tyrannical contempt for public will. The evolution of scientific police technology renders next to impossible the success of a revolution of other than coup d’etat nature in any advanced country…

Historically the stricken citizen could draw solace from a certainty that his tyrant would in time raise a community of opposition as his ambitions clashed with other sovereign states, and that an alliance would be raised to abate the horror. The coalition against the Third German Reich was the last such example we have. Reasoned hindsight suggests serious reservations as to whether the awful price of that war had any valid compensation to humanity.

But all such considerations became moot in the holocaust that was Nagasaki and Hiroshima. With the advent of the nuclear age the question of war and peace ceased to be a matter of game probabilities; “victory” and “defeat” now have the same meaning: the end of the world. Indeed, the last US and USSR “tests” came closer to this gruesome finality than any disciple of authority and force is prepared to concede.

The matter does not end here. Advanced weapons systems are so failproof, so intricately interlocked, so linked to the response of the opposite or “enemy” equivalent, that the slightest mishap could unleash a fatal chain reaction irreversible by any human act. Life on earth remains an accident away from extinction until the overkill mechanism that is the insane glory of our power structure has been dismantled.

Just as the reign of the despotic state was traditionally transitory, so was the capacity of any state limited in its control over its subjects. The state could kill the individual against his will; but any other action, even imprisonment, entailed a degree of acquiescence on the part of the victim. Such acquiescence is always conditional and to a large degree temporary. Therefore, to the extent that the tyrant eliminated the will of the populace, to relax his vigilance was to risk destruction.

Further, to the degree that the state used death to quiet opposition or to cow its populace, it cheapened life value and thereby raised the readiness to rebel…

Because such oppressions were transitory and because they effected no permanent modification of his nature, man was able to adopt several rationalizations to make them tolerable. The nihilist could completely surrender his control over an environment to which he ascribed no reality, and could still rationalize a freedom of thoughts. This becomes untenable now in the face of the burgeoning array of pharmaceutic modifiers of the central nervous system. The stoic, accepting all events including death as governed by divine law, could do as he would with calm assurance that thus did he fulfill his destiny. This rationalization now comes to naught with the development of clinical modification of will. The theist and revolutionary alike could bear up with grim fortitude, each confident of his own forthcoming day of reckoning. Today this line of thinking offers no comfort in the face of imminent prescribed genetic modification, and the threat of a premature Armageddon.

Thus the crisis is joined not in the 21st century, not tomorrow, but here and now. Each must ask, and answer, in all seriousness.

Could any conceivable chaos be more awesome or deadly that that first, and last, globe-encircling flash of nuclear incineration? Could any “setback” to human progress be comparable to the finality of extinction?

Could any degree of “security” be an equitable or reasonable exchange for surrender of man’s free will?

We must end this war. We must dry up its sources of compliant manpower. We must cut its channels of supply. We must halt production of the goods that sustain it. And whatever bald and imaginative new means must be taken to achieve this, those means we must take. Johnson, MacNamara, Rusk and Company must be left alone to fight, without a shred of civilized support, this war that they alone want and that their decisions alone are perpetuating.

Since our government has ceased to be responsive to lawful and traditional expressions of the public will, it is futile and self-deluding to continue to limit our resistance to forms appropriate to a democracy but which the willful obstinacy of the Johnson administration has rendered ineffective.

Each of us must live, and die, with himself. Ultimately, it is to our own consciences alone that we must answer, to ourselves that we must be true. If today in the United States to live in accord with one’s principles has become treason for all thoughtful and informed people of good will, then with full consciousness we must make the most of it, for there is no other honorable course. The present administration came to power by murder, and holds power by lies. We owe it no allegiance. We do owe, to ourselves and our otherwise doomed posterity, whatever endeavor may be needed to restore our country to humane and responsible citizenship among the nations of the world. Only deceit and despotism enjoin the young men of America to become hateful predators in an Asian jungle, to be killed from ambush like other beasts, in a dishonorable cause. Only ignorance, servility, or malice could accede to such debasement. The extent to which we resist is the measure of our humanity, not to be compassed by conformism nor limited by law.

Each of us must do these things, and more, now. No longer can we delude ourselves with faith in the gradual processes of education and organization, slow at best and now invalidated by the impact of controlled mass media and the abrogation of constitutional safeguards. No longer can we depend on the organizations of labor, corrupted now by a share of the profits of war; nor do we have time to build new ones, even if the workers were at all inclined to accept them. And they are not; for war, after all, sustains the present high rate of employment. It is in the collapse of such hopes, traditional, familiar, and warmed by human comradeship, that the present frustration has its roots. Yet to succumb to despair is equally fruitless; and moreover, beyond this crisis, if we but survive it, an infinitely better life awaits us. Let us then assert the resiliency of the human spirit. If an era has passed, let us not futilely seek to recall it nor nostalgically mourn its passing, nor burden ourselves with its now useless baggage.

To protest this war, to refrain from all direct or supportive participation in it, to obstruct its continuance by all possible means – these are necessary but no longer enough.

Conventional forms of resistance to despotism, up to and including revolution, have been wrestled with the manifestations of force. Against force, they have posed counterforces, without seriously attacking the premises of authority as such. Where the basic premises have been shaken, they have been shaken only incidentally and new power has promptly entered the breach. Thus successful revolutions have but brought to power new governments, lacking only time to themselves become despotic. In the interval the populace could enjoy a welcome respite from oppression, and be gratified that much of benefit had been accomplished by overturn of the old regime.

For many millennia, acceptance of authority provided a functional method of harnessing human activity on behalf of an evolutionary direction counter to nature’s line of least resistance. Societies that took other paths developed no adequate defenses against the incursions of authority-organized expansionist peoples, and had little or no opportunity to contribute their values to the line of societal evolution that has now culminated in overkill force. Authority is so prevalent as to seem eternal and universal; shaped as we are by our authority-oriented culture, most of us imagine the dominance of man over man to be rooted in immutable natural law, or at least to be the only viable instrument for civilization. The organs of authority have of course found it advantageous to perpetuate this view, and suppress, denigrate, and smother any questioning of its validity and any exploration of alternatives. Even revolution has been kept within its bounds.

In this new era, resistance so limited is bound to fail. The administration’s intransigence over Vietnam is but the focal point of a multifarious campaign by which all organs of authority seek now to solidify their power against the imminent obsolescence of the props that have hitherto sustained it. The last vestiges of supernaturalism are condemned by the current scientific revolution, and in the normal course of events other forms of unreason could not long survive their loss. Economic scarcity, the whiphand of power, becomes untenable with development of cybernated productive complexes virtually unlimited in their capacity. At this juncture the war in Vietnam provides the domestic “affluence” needed to maintain stability while unshakable new props for a totally ordered society are being shifted into place.

Between the Scylla that would destroy the planet and the Charybdis that would negate our humanity there is no safe passage. The current crisis is thus a dilemma irresolvable within the framework of an authority-motivated and force-implemented society. Our efforts must now be directed toward shattering the basic premises upon which authority rests. We must expose the myth of its indispensability; we must discredit its claim to social worth; we must strip off its false cloak of natural law and proclaim its nakedness for all to see. We must dispel fear of the void by making manifest the outlines of the new anarchic society…

George and Louise Crowley

[Seattle Group Bulletin #14 from Seattle 1966 Spring; Bulletins 9 thru 17 of the Seattle Group, published Seattle, Washington. Transcription by Dotty DeCoster, October 31, 2011.]

Seattle feminists' Lilith magazine

Seattle feminists’ Lilith magazine

Neither East Nor West

Neither east nor west

In the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss how in the aftermath of the Second World War, confronted by the “cold war” between the United States and the Soviet Union, anarchists attempted to maintain an independent position that refused any compromise with either power block. Marie Louise Berneri’s slogan, “Neither East Nor West,” was clearly meant to echo the 19th century anarchist battle cry, “Neither God Nor Master.” One of the more interesting attempts to mark out an independent path for anarchist movements was made by the Bulgarian Anarchist Communist Federation, which developed a conception of an interlocking network of organizations that anticipated the notion of “horizontal federations” articulated by Colin Ward and other anarchists in the 1960s. Unfortunately, the Bulgarian anarchist movement was crushed by the Stalinists when they turned Bulgaria into a Soviet client state.

anarchist communism

Neither East Nor West

After the Second World War, despite the “Cold War” between the Soviet Union and the United States, anarchists sought to keep alive their libertarian vision of a free and equal society in which every individual is able to flourish. Marie Louise Berneri coined the phrase, “Neither East nor West,” signifying anarchist opposition to all power blocs (Volume Two, Selection 10). Anarchists continued to oppose colonialism and the imperialist expansion of the Soviet and American empires (Volume Two, Selections 8, 9, 28, 29 & 31).

Due to their opposition to both dominant power blocs, during the Cold War organized anarchist movements faced almost insurmountable obstacles, similar to the situation faced by the Spanish anarchists during the Revolution and Civil War. In Bulgaria, there was a significant pre-war anarchist communist movement which reemerged briefly after the defeat of Nazi Germany, but which was quickly suppressed by their Soviet “liberators.” The Bulgarian anarchists repudiated fascism as an “attempt to restore absolutism [and] autocracy… with the aim of defending the economic and spiritual dominance of the privileged classes.” They rejected “political democracy” (representative government) because “its social foundations [are] based on the centralized State and capitalism,” resulting in “chaos, contradictions and crime.” As for State socialism, “it leads to State capitalism—the most monstrous form of economic exploitation and oppression, and of total domination of social and individual freedom” (Volume Two, Selection 7).

The program of the Bulgarian Anarchist Communist Federation is noteworthy today for its emphasis on anarchist federalism as “a dense and complex network” of village communities, regional communes, productive enterprises, trade unions, distribution networks and consumer organizations that would be “grouped in a general confederation of exchange and consumption for satisfying the needs of all inhabitants” (Volume Two, Selection 7). Such network forms of organization mark an advance over the “inverse pyramid” structure that had long been advocated by anarcho-syndicalists, which was much more prone to being transformed into a more conventional, hierarchical form of organization during times of crisis, as in Spain. By the early 1950s, many anarcho-syndicalists were advocating similar horizontal networks based on factory councils and community assemblies, resembling a “honeycomb,” as Philip Sansom put it, in which “all the cells are of equal importance and fit into each other,” instead of control being “maintained from the centre” (Volume Two, Selection 58).

Within their own organizations, the Bulgarian anarchist communists advocated a form of consensus decision-making. However, while “the decision of the majority is not binding on the minority,” in practice “the minority generally rallies to the decision of the majority,” after the majority has had an opportunity to demonstrate the wisdom of its position. Thus, while the minority was not bound to follow the decisions of the majority, the majority was not prevented from acting in accordance with its own views, such that the minority could not assume de facto authority over the majority by refusing to agree with the majority decision, as sometimes happens under other forms of consensus decision-making. The Bulgarian anarchist communists recognized that in broader based mass organizations that were not specifically anarchist in orientation, majority rule would generally prevail, but even then “the minority may be freed from the obligation to apply a general decision, on condition that it does not prevent the execution of such a decision” (Volume Two, Selection 7). In this regard, their position is remarkably similar to that of contemporary advocates of participatory democracy, such as Carole Pateman (1985: 159-162; see also Graham, 1996), and anarchist advocates of various forms of direct democracy (Volume Three, Chapter 2).

Robert Graham

anarchist communism 2

Communities of Freedom

anarchist communities wingnut

Continuing my installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterward to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, below I deal with the resurgence of communitarian anarchism after the Second World War. One of the pioneers of communitarian anarchism was Gustav Landauer, who advocated the creation of networks of anarcho-socialist communities, eventually resulting in a “community of communities,” as his friend Martin Buber later phrased it. The revival of these sorts of ideas by people like Dwight Macdonald, David Dellinger, Paul Goodman and Murray Bookchin helped pave the way for the North American “back to the land” and communal movements of the 1960s.

anarchist communities brooklyn

Community and Freedom

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Dwight Macdonald (1905-1982) wrote that the “brutality and irrationality of Western social institutions has reached a pitch which would have seemed incredible a short generation ago; our lives have come to be dominated by warfare of a ferocity and on a scale unprecedented in history,” leading him to conclude that the “Anarchists’ uncompromising rejection of the State, the subject of Marxian sneers for its ‘absolutist’ and ‘Utopian’ character, makes much better sense in the present era than the Marxian relativist and historical approach” (Volume Two, Selection 13).

Macdonald argued that in the face of these harsh realities, “we must reduce political action to a modest, unpretentious, personal level—one that is real in the sense that it satisfies, here and now, the psychological needs, and the ethical values of the particular persons taking part in it.” He suggested forming “small groups of individuals” into “families” who “live and make their living in the everyday world but who come together… to form a psychological (as against a geographical) community.” Through these groups their “members could come to know each other as fully as possible as human beings (the difficulty of such knowledge of others in modern society is a chief source of evil), to exchange ideas and discuss as fully as possible what is ‘on their minds’ (not only the atomic bomb but also the perils of child-rearing), and in general to learn the difficult art of living with other people.” The members of these groups would “preach” their “ideals—or, if you prefer, make propaganda—by word and by deed, in the varied everyday contacts of the group members with their fellow men,” working “against Jim Crow [racist laws]” in the United States, “or to further pacifism,” and supporting individuals “who stand up for the common ideals” (Volume Two, Selection 13).

The pacifist David Dellinger (1915-2004), writing a few years later in the anarchist journal, Resistance, went a step further, arguing for the creation of small communes “composed of persons who have the same type of disgust at the economic selfishness of society that the conscientious objector has concerning war and violence.” In these “experimental” communities, “economic resources” would be shared, “so that the total product provides greater strength and freedom for the members than they would be able to achieve, ethically, as isolated individuals,” while providing “daily pleasures and satisfactions” by “finding time to do things together that are fun” (Volume Two, Selection 40).

The “families” of like minded individuals proposed by Macdonald would today be described as affinity groups, a form of organization that had been utilized for decades by anarchists, particularly anarchist communists wary of the more formal organizational structures of the anarcho-syndicalists (Grave, Volume One, Selection 46). As Murray Bookchin pointed out, the FAI in Spain had been based on an affinity group structure. In the 1960s, Bookchin helped to popularize this intimate form of non-hierarchical organization, which combines “revolutionary theory with revolutionary lifestyle in its everyday behaviour.” Much like the “families” advocated by Macdonald, each affinity group would seek “a rounded body of knowledge and experience in order to overcome the social and psychological limitations imposed by bourgeois society on individual development,” acting “as catalysts within the popular movement.” For Bookchin, the aim of anarchist affinity groups is not to subordinate “the social forms created by the revolutionary people… to an impersonal bureaucracy” or party organization, but “to advance the spontaneous revolutionary movement of the people to a point where the group can finally disappear into the organic social forms created by the revolution” itself (Volume Two, Selection 62).

Similarly, the small-scale communes advocated by Dellinger had long been a part of many anarchist movements, in Europe, the Americas, and in China, arising from the need and desire of anarchists to create daily living arrangements consistent with their ideals, and as an alternative to hierarchical and authoritarian social institutions, such as the patriarchal nuclear family. What distinguished these types of communes from affinity groups were the factors highlighted by Dellinger himself, primarily living together and sharing financial resources. In the 1960s and early 1970s, there was a flourishing of communal groups, particularly in North America, created by disaffected youth seeking to create alternate lifestyles. In Europe, the various squatting movements often adopted communal living arrangements, for example in the Christiania “freetown” in Copenhagen.

While many anarchist communes were short-lived, some have been remarkably resilient. In Uruguay, for example, the Communidad del Sur group, which originated in the social struggles of the 1950s, sought to create libertarian communities based on self-management, including productive enterprises (Volume Three, Selection 56). Assets were shared, compensation was based on need, education, work and art were integrated, and people lived communally. Despite a long period of exile in Sweden that began in the 1970s due to growing state repression, the Communidad group eventually returned to Uruguay where it continues to promote the creation of a self-managed ecological society through its own ongoing experiments in community living. For the Communidad group, the “revolution consists of changing social relationships,” much as Gustav Landauer had argued previously (Volume One, Selection 49). Fleshing out their “ideals of equality and sociability in a free space,” the Communidad group has sought to inspire the creation of that “community of communities” long envisioned by anarchists like Landauer, Martin Buber, Paul Goodman and many others (Volume Two, Selection 60).

Robert Graham

Community garden

Community garden

Anarchism at the Beginning of the Second World War

English anarchist anti-war cartoon (1945)

English anarchist anti-war cartoon (1945)

In this installment from “the Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist responses to the death and destruction wrought by the Second World War.

Anti-Militarist Poster

Anti-Militarist Poster

Facing the War

At the beginning of the Second World War, a group of anarchists in Geneva wrote that it is “an indispensable right, without which all other rights are mere illusions”, that “no one should be required to kill others or to expose themselves to being killed.” For them, the “worst form of disorder is not anarchy,” as critics of anarchism claim, “but war, which is the highest expression of authority” (Volume Two, Selection 3). That expression of authority was to result in the loss of tens of millions of lives in Europe and Asia during the next six years, culminating in the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. As Marie Louise Berneri remarked, anarchist acts of violence pale in comparison. A single bombing raid “kills more men, women and children than have been killed in the whole history, true or invented, of anarchist bombs.” When Italian anarchists tried to assassinate Mussolini, they were denounced as terrorists, but when “whole cities” are rubbed “off the map” as part of the war effort, reducing “whole populations to starvation, with its resulting scourge of epidemics and disease all over the world,” the workers “are asked to rejoice in this wholesale destruction from which there is no escaping” (Volume Two, Selection 4).

When anarchists resort to violence, they are held criminally responsible, and their beliefs denounced as the cause. When government forces engage in the wholesale destruction of war, no one (at least among the victors) is held responsible, belief in authority is not seen as the cause, and the very nation states which brought about the conflict are supposed to bring, as Marie Louise Berneri remarked, “peace and order… with their bombs” (Volume Two, Selection 4).

In response to the comments of a U.S. Army sergeant surveying a bombed out area in Germany that in “modern war there are crimes not criminals… Murder has been mechanized and rendered impersonal,” Paul Goodman wrote that “it is ridiculous to say that the crime cannot be imputed or that any one commits it without intent or in ignorance… The steps [the individual] takes to habituation and unconsciousness are crimes which entail every subsequent evil of enslavement and mass-murder” (Volume Two, Selection 11).

Alex Comfort noted that modern bureaucratic societies “have removed at least one of the most important bars to delinquent action by legislators and their executive, in the creation of a legislature which can enact its fantasies without witnessing their effects, and an executive which abdicates all responsibility for what it does in response to superior orders.” The “individual citizen contributes to [this] chiefly by obedience and lack of conscious or effective protest” (Volume Two, Selection 26). Comfort argued that the individual, by making “himself sufficiently numerous and combative,” can render the modern state impotent “by his withdrawal from delinquent attitudes,” undermining “the social support they receive” and the power of the authorities “whose policies are imposed upon society only through [individual] acquiescence or co-operation” (Volume Two, Selection 26).

At the beginning of the war, Emma Goldman had written that the “State and the political and economic institutions it supports can exist only by fashioning the individual to their particular purpose; training him to respect ‘law and order’; teaching him obedience, submission and unquestioning faith in the wisdom and justice of government; above all, loyal service and complete self-sacrifice when the State commands it, as in war.” For her, “true liberation, individual and collective, lies in [the individual’s] emancipation from authority and from belief in it” (Volume Two, Selection 2).

Herbert Read held a similar position, but focused on the role of modern education in creating a submissive populace, much had Francisco Ferrer before him (Volume One, Selection 65). Through the education system, “everything personal, everything which is the expression of individual perceptions and feelings, is either neglected, or subordinated to some conception of normality, of social convention, of correctness.” Read therefore advocated libertarian education, emphasizing the creative process and “education through art” (1943), arguing that it “is only in so far as we liberate” children, “shoots not yet stunted or distorted by an environment of hatred and injustice, that we can expect to make any enduring change in society” (Volume Two, Selection 36).

Paul Goodman described the school system as “compulsory mis-education” (1964), which perpetuated a society in which youth are “growing up absurd” (1960). His friend Ivan Illich was later to advocate “deschooling society” as a way of combating the commodification of social life, where everything, and everybody, becomes a commodity to be consumed (Volume Two, Selection 73). By the 1960s and 1970s, people were again experimenting in libertarian education (Volume Two, Selection 46), something which anarchists had been advocating since the time of William Godwin.

Robert Graham

Paul Goodman quote-humankind-is-innocent-loving-and-creative-you-dig-it-s-the-bureaucracies-that-create-paul-goodman-37-35-71