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

Drawing the Line

Read Anarchy & Order

During the Second World War, those anarchists who were still able to do so began to rethink anarchist approaches to social revolution. Revolution, conceived as a mass, armed uprising, was appearing more and more remote, as the warring states created more and more lethal weaponry in their struggles for world domination. Some anarchists in England and the United States, such as Herbert Read, Alex Comfort and Paul Goodman, began to not only advocate non-violent direct action and mass civil disobedience, but to advocate a kind of “revolution of everyday life,” a phrase later made popular by the Situationists. They no longer  thought it was possible to take on state power on its own terms, the terrain of mass military mobilization and destructive fire power, culminating with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the War. Instead, they argued that rather than trying to substitute a new order for the old one, anarchists should seek to expand the “spheres of freedom” until they encompassed all of social life. In more modern parlance, they advocated creating ever widening autonomous zones (see Hakim Bey, “TAZ,” in Anarchism, Volume 3, Selection 11). The following brief summary of their views is taken from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to my anthology of anarchist writings from ancient China to the present day, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Drawing the Line

Drawing the Line

Bearing in mind the difficulties recently faced by the Spanish anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, at the beginning of the Second World War Herbert Read warned against the revolutionary seizure of power, instead looking forward to “a spontaneous and universal insurrection” (Volume Two, Selection 1), but one which would employ nonviolent methods, for people “cannot struggle against” the modern state, armed with atomic bombs, “on the plane of force… Our action must be piecemeal, non-violent, insidious and universally pervasive” (Volume Two, Selection 36). Alex Comfort took a similar position, arguing that the “very states which are able to make and use atomic weapons are singularly vulnerable, by their very complexity, to the attacks of individual disobedience” (Volume Two, Selection 12).

Paul Goodman described this process as “Drawing the Line, beyond which [we] cannot cooperate.” But although we “draw the line in their conditions; we proceed on our conditions,” replacing “the habit of coercion [with] a habit of freedom… Our action must be aimed, not at a future establishment; but… at fraternal arrangements today, progressively incorporating more and more of the social functions into our free society,” for the creation of a “free society cannot be the substitution of a ‘new order’ for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of the social life” (Volume Two, Selection 11).

Read, Comfort and Goodman all advocated various forms of non-violent direct action, including war resistance and opposition to conscription through such means as draft evasion. Such attitudes were dangerous and unpopular, particularly during the Second World War. Anarchists who practiced draft resistance were imprisoned in France, England and the United States. It was only in the early 1960s in France, and a few years later in the United States, that mass draft resistance movements emerged in opposition to the French war in Algeria and the U.S. war in Vietnam (Volume Two, Selection 31).

Robert Graham

alex comfort on anarchism

Poetry and Anarchism: Herbert Read

Herbert Read

Herbert Read

Continuing with my installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in this section I discuss the contributions of Herbert Read to the development of anarchist ideas in response to the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. I included several selections from Read in Volumes One and Two of the Anarchism anthology. Read influenced people like Alex Comfort, Howard Zinn and Murray Bookchin, laying the groundwork for the new directions in anarchist theory that were to emerge from out of the aftermath of the Second World War.


Poetry and Anarchism

One of the anarchists involved in rethinking anarchism around the time of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War was the English poet, art critic and essayist, Herbert Read (1893-1968). In Poetry and Anarchism (1938), Read acknowledged that “to declare for a doctrine so remote as anarchism at this stage of history will be regarded by some critics as a sign of intellectual bankruptcy; by others as a sort of treason, a desertion of the democratic front at the most acute moment of its crisis; by still others as mere poetic nonsense.” Read sought to “balance anarchism with surrealism, reason with romanticism, the understanding with the imagination, function with freedom” (Volume One, Selection 130). He developed an ecological conception of anarchism emphasizing spontaneity and differentiation. He saw society as “an organic being” in which communities “can live naturally and freely” and individuals can “develop in consciousness of strength, vitality and joy,” with progress being “measured by the degree of differentiation within a society” (Volume Two, Selection 1). It was partly through Read’s writings that Murray Bookchin was later inspired to draw the connections between ecology and anarchism (Volume Two, Selection 48).

Read noted that even “if you abolish all other classes and distinctions and retain a bureaucracy you are still far from the classless society, for the bureaucracy is itself the nucleus of a class whose interests are totally opposed to the people it supposedly serves.” Taking advantage of the bureaucratic structure of the modern state, the professional politician rises to power, “his motive throughout [being] personal ambition and megalomania” (Volume One, Selection 130), a notion further developed by Alex Comfort in his post-war book, Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State, in which he argued that the bureaucratic state, through its power structures, provides a ready outlet for those with psychopathic tendencies (Volume Two, Selection 26).

ReadHerbert-1938Read sought to reverse the rise to power of professional politicians and bureaucrats by advocating a “return to a functional basis of representation,” by which he meant the development of decentralized but federated organs of self-management, as had long been advocated by anarchists from Proudhon and Bakunin to the anarcho-syndicalists. The professional politician would be replaced by the “ad hoc delegate,” who would continue to work within his or her area, such that there would be “no whole-time officials, no bureaucrats, no politicians, no dictators” (Volume One, Selection 130).

Arguing that “real politics are local politics,” Read proposed that local councils or “governments” composed of delegates from the community and the functional groups that comprise it “control all the immediate interests of the citizen,” with “remoter interests—questions of cooperation, intercommunication, and foreign affairs—[being] settled by councils of delegates elected by the local councils and the [workers’] syndicates.” Read admitted that this was a system of government, but distinguished this conception of local and functional organization from the “autonomous State,” which “is divorced from its immediate functions and becomes an entity claiming to control the lives and destinies of its subjects,” such that “liberty ceases to exist” (Volume One, Selection 130).

Robert Graham


Authority and Sexuality


Getting back to the installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in this section I discuss anarchist ideas connecting sexual repression with authoritarianism.

Authority and Sexuality

Anarchists who sought to understand the popular appeal of fascism turned to the work of the dissident Marxist psychoanalyst, Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957). Reich was unpopular in Marxist circles, having described Soviet Communism as “red fascism,” which resulted in his expulsion from the Communist Party. In his book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Reich discussed the role of the patriarchal nuclear family, legal marriage, enforced monogamy, religion and sexual repression in creating an authoritarian character structure (Volume One, Selection 119).

Reich’s work was similar to the earlier psychoanalytic anarchist critique of Otto Gross (1877-1920), who argued on the eve of the First World War, echoing Max Stirner, that previous revolutions “collapsed because the revolutionary of yesterday carried authority within himself.” Gross believed that “the root of all authority lies in the family,” and that “the combination of sexuality and authority, as it shows itself in the patriarchal family still prevailing today, claps every individuality in chains” (Volume One, Selection 78). Although he put greater emphasis than Reich on the “inner conflict” between “that which belongs to oneself” and the “authority that has penetrated into our own innermost self,” Gross also called for the sexual liberation of women and for a struggle “against the father and patriarchy” (Volume One, Selection 78).

The Japanese anarchist feminist, Takamure Itsue (1894-1964), argued that the ruling class viewed sexual fulfillment “as a mere extravagance for everyone except themselves” and “babies as eggs for their industrial machines… to be chained up within the confinement of the marriage system,” with the burdens of pregnancy, child birth and child rearing being imposed on women. She acknowledged the changes in sexual relations arising from the development of birth control, which potentially gave women more control over their lives, but as with Carmen Lareva and He Zhen before her, warned against mere “promiscuity.” For her, “genuine anarchist love” was based on mutual respect, such that those who seek it can “never be satisfied with recreational sex” (Volume One, Selection 109). The liberalization of marriage laws and the legalization of birth control were not enough, for men would continue to view women as sex objects and deny responsibility for child care.

In Spain, Félix Martí Ibáñez argued that sexual revolution, because it involves the transformation of individual attitudes and relationships, can neither be imposed from above nor completely suppressed by the ruling authorities. The sexual revolution must begin now, “by means of the book, the word, the conference and personal example.” Only then will people be able to “create and forge that sexual culture which is the key to liberation” (Volume One, Selection 121). That this would be no easy task was highlighted by Lucía Sánchez Saornil, one of the founders of the Mujeres Libres anarchist women’s group in Spain. She criticized those anarchist men who used notions of sexual liberation as a pretext for looking “upon every woman who passes their way as a target for their appetites” (Volume One, Selection 123). Such conduct either results in the reduction of women to “a plaything of masculine whims,” or alienates them from participation in the anarchist movement.

Some anarchists felt that Reich’s analysis overemphasized the role of sexual repression in the rise of fascism. A Spanish article suggested that a “completely healthy and well-balanced individual in terms of his sexual life may be a long way off from being a perfect socialist and a convinced revolutionary fighter,” for “an individual free of bourgeois sexual prejudice may lack all sense of human solidarity” (Volume One, Selection 119).

Others were more enthusiastic. Marie Louise Berneri (1918-1949) endorsed Reich’s argument that the “fear of pleasurable excitation” caused by conventional morality and the legally mandated patriarchal family “is the soil on which the individual re-creates the life-negating ideologies which are the basis of dictatorship.” She also drew on the work of the anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, whose studies indicated that in those societies where people’s sex lives are “allowed to develop naturally, freely and unhampered through every stage of life, with full satisfaction” there are “no sexual perversions, no functional psychoses, no psychoneuroses, no sex murder,” in marked contrast to societies based on the “patriarchal authoritarian family organization.” Berneri accepted Reich’s claim that when his patients “were restored to a healthy sex-life, their whole character altered, their submissiveness disappeared, they revolted against an absurd moral code, against the teachings of the Church, against the monotony and uselessness of their work” (Volume Two, Selection 75). In other words, they became social revolutionaries.

Paul Goodman drew the connection between the repression of homosexual impulses among adolescent males and the war machine. These “boys” are made to feel “ashamed of their acts; their pleasures are suppressed and in their stead appear fistfights and violence.” In the army, “this violent homosexuality, so near the surface but always repressed and thereby gathering tension, turns into a violent sadism against the enemy: it is all knives and guns and bayonets, and raining bombs on towns, and driving one’s lust in the guise of anger to fuck the Japs” (Volume Two, Selection 11).

The libertarian communist, Daniel Guérin (1904-1988), wrote that “patriarchal society, resting on the dual authority of the man over the woman and of the father over the children, accords primacy to the attributes and modes of behaviour associated with virility. Homosexuality is persecuted to the extent that it undermines this construction. The disdain of which woman is the object in patriarchal societies is not without correlation with the shame attached to the homosexual act.” While Guérin urged people “to pursue simultaneously both the social revolution and the sexual revolution, until human beings are liberated completely from the two crushing burdens of capitalism and puritanism,” he agreed with Emma Goldman, Martí Ibáñez, and Paul Goodman that the process of sexual liberation must begin now, not after the revolution. Yet, as with Goodman, he also recognized that the gay liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s “created a whole generation of ‘gay’ young men, profoundly apolitical… a million miles from any conception of class struggle,” casting doubt on the Reichian view that sexual liberation leads to social revolution (Volume Two, Selection 76).

Alex Comfort (1920-2000), who was also a pioneer of sexual liberation, suggested that part of the appeal of fascism lay in people’s consciousness of their own mortality and fear of death. Since “to admit that I am an individual I must also admit that I shall cease to exist,” people take refuge in the belief in “an immortal, invisible and only wise society, which can exact responsibilities and demand allegiances… Each sincere citizen feels responsibility to society in the abstract, and none to the people he kills… Fascism is a refuge from Death in death.” (Volume Two, Selection 20).

Robert Graham


Ursula Le Guin on Murray Bookchin and the Ecological Imperative

bookchin next revolution

Below, I reproduce some comments by Ursula Le Guin on Murray Bookchin, taken from her preface to a new collection of some of Bookchin’s writings on libertarian municipalism, communalism and direct democracy, The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, edited by Debbie Bookchin (his daughter) and Blair Taylor. In Volumes Two and Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several excerpts from Bookchin’s anarchist writings on ecology, popular assemblies, direct democracy and direct action. Murray Bookchin has been in the news recently as one of the ideological inspirations for the experiment in direct democracy now being undertaken in Rojava in northern Syria, under attack by the Islamic State and threatened by Turkish intervention. Ursula Le Guin is a well known science fiction writer who has often dealt with ecological and anarchist themes in her books, particularly in The Dispossessed, which is about an anarchist society in exile on a moon orbiting an Earth like planet, the strains within that society and the need for a social revolution on the planet below.

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin

Direct Democracy and the Ecological Imperative

What all political and social thinking has finally been forced to face is, of course, the irreversible degradation of the environment by unrestrained industrial capitalism: the enormous fact of which science has been trying for fifty years to convince us, while technology provided us ever greater distractions from it. Every benefit industrialism and capitalism have brought us, every wonderful advance in knowledge and health and communication and comfort, casts the same fatal shadow. All we have, we have taken from the earth; and, taking with ever-increasing speed and greed, we now return little but what is sterile or poisoned.

Yet we can’t stop the process. A capitalist economy, by definition, lives by growth; as Bookchin observes: “For capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit social suicide.” We have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.

Capitalism’s grow-or-die imperative stands radically at odds with ecology’s imperative of interdependence and limit. The two imperatives can no longer coexist with each other; nor can any society founded on the myth that they can be reconciled hope to survive. Either we will establish an ecological society or society will go under for everyone, irrespective of his or her status.

Murray Bookchin spent a lifetime opposing the rapacious ethos of grow-or-die capitalism. The nine essays in “The Next Revolution” represent the culmination of that labor: the theoretical underpinning for an egalitarian and directly democratic ecological society, with a practical approach for how to build it. He critiques the failures of past movements for social change, resurrects the promise of direct democracy and, in the last essay in the book, sketches his hope of how we might turn the environmental crisis into a moment of true choice—a chance to transcend the paralyzing hierarchies of gender, race, class, nation, a chance to find a radical cure for the radical evil of our social system.

Reading it, I was moved and grateful, as I have so often been in reading Murray Bookchin. He was a true son of the Enlightenment in his respect for clear thought and moral responsibility and in his honest, uncompromising search for a realistic hope.

Ursula Le Guin


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

Anarchism On Sale Now

Volume 3

AK Press is having a back to school sale through to September 8, 2013, with each volume of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas on sale for a mere $21.74 each. That’s Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939), Volume Two: The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977), and Volume Three: The New Anarchism (1974-2012). Get them while they last!

Anarchism Volume two white borders._SS500_

Howard Zinn: Anarchy and Revolution

Howard Zinn: The Art of Revolution

Howard Zinn: The Art of Revolution

I ended Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Ideas with excerpts from Herbert Read’s Poetry and Anarchism. I began Volume Two with excerpts from Read’s essay, “The Philosophy of Anarchism,” which helped inspire Murray Bookchin to develop his synthesis of anarchism and ecology. Both of these works are included in a collection of Read’s anarchist writings entitled, Anarchy and Order. In 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, the celebrated American historian, Howard Zinn (1922-2010), wrote the introduction to a paperback edition. Space considerations prevented me from including it in Volume Two. Zinn’s introduction is well worth reading in its own right. It not only does an admirable job introducing both Read and anarchist ideas, it also clearly demonstrates Zinn’s own anarchist sympathies. Accordingly, I have taken the liberty of reproducing excerpts from Zinn’s introductory essay, “The Art of Revolution,” here. His words remain as relevant today as when they were written.

art and anarchy

The Art of Revolution

The word anarchy unsettles most people in the Western world; it suggests disorder, violence, uncertainty. We have good reason for fearing those conditions, because we have been living with them for a long time, not in anarchist societies (there have never been any) but in exactly those societies most fearful of anarchy—the powerful nation-states of modern times.

At no time in human history has there been such social chaos. Fifty million dead in the Second World War. More than a million dead in Korea, a million in Vietnam, half a million in Indonesia, hundreds of thousands dead in Nigeria, and in Mozambique. A hundred violent political struggles all over the world in the twenty years following the second war to end all wars. Millions starving, or in prisons, or in mental institutions. Inner turmoil to the point of large-scale alienation, confusion, unhappiness. Outer turmoil symbolized by huge armies, stores of nerve gas, and stockpiles of hydrogen bombs. Wherever men, women, and children are even a bit conscious of the world outside their local borders, they have been living with the ultimate uncertainty: whether or not the human race itself will survive into the next generation.

It is these conditions that the anarchists have wanted to end; to bring a kind of order to the world for the first time. We have never listened to them carefully, except through the hearing aids supplied by the guardians of disorder—the national government leaders, whether capitalist or socialist.

The order desired by anarchists is different from the order (“Ordnung,” the Germans called it; “law and order,” say the American politicians) of national governments. They want a voluntary forming of human relations, arising out of the needs of people. Such an order comes from within, and so is natural. People flow into easy arrangements, rather than being pushed and forced. It is like the form given by the artist, a form congenial, often pleasing, sometimes beautiful. It has the grace of a voluntary, confident act…

The order of politics, as we have known it in the world, is an order imposed on society, neither desired by most people, nor directed to their needs. It is therefore chaotic and destructive. Politics grates on our sensibilities. It violates the elementary requirement of aesthetics—it is devoid of beauty. It is coercive, as if sound were forced into our ears at a decibel level such as to make us scream, and those responsible called this music. The “order” of modern life is a cacophony which has made us almost deaf to the gentler sounds of the universe.

The French Revolution

The French Revolution

It is fitting that in modern times, around the time of the French and American Revolutions, exactly when man became most proud of his achievements, the ideas of anarchism arose to challenge that pride. Western civilization has never been modest in describing its qualities as an enormous advance in human history: the larger unity of national states replacing tribe and manor; parliamentary government replacing the divine right of kings; steam and electricity substituting for manual labor; education and science dispelling ignorance and superstition; due process of law canceling arbitrary justice. Anarchism arose in the most splendid days of Western “civilization” because the promises of that civilization were almost immediately broken.

Nationalism, promising freedom from outside tyranny, and security from internal disorder, vastly magnified both the stimulus and the possibility for worldwide empires over subjected people, and bloody conflicts among such empires: imperialism and war were intensified to the edge of global suicide exactly in the period of the national state. Parliamentary government, promising popular participation in important decisions, became a facade (differently constructed in one-party and two-party states) for rule by elites of wealth and power in the midst of almost-frenzied scurrying to polls and plebiscites. Mass production did not end poverty and exploitation; indeed it made the persistence of want more unpardonable. The production and distribution of goods became more rational technically, more irrational morally. Education and literacy did not end the deception of the many by the few; they enabled deception to be replaced by self-deception, mystification to be internalized, and social control to be even more effective than ever before, because now it had a large measure of self-control. Due process did not bring justice; it replaced the arbitrary, identifiable dispenser of injustice with the unidentifiable and impersonal. The “rule of law,” replacing the “rule of men,” was just a change in rulers.

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

In the midst of the American Revolution, Tom Paine, while calling for the establishment of an independent American government, had no illusions about even a new revolutionary government when he wrote, in Common Sense: “Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.”

Anarchists almost immediately recognized that the fall of kings, and the rise of committees, assemblies, parliaments, did not bring democracy; that revolutions had the potential for liberation, but also for another form of despotism. Thus, Jacques Roux, a country priest in the French Revolution concerned with the lives of the peasants in his district, and then with the workingmen in the Gravilliers quarter of Paris, spoke in 1792 against “senatorial despotism,” saying it was “as terrible as the scepter of kings” because it chains the people without their knowing it and brutalizes and subjugates them by laws they themselves are supposed to have made. In Peter Weiss’s play, Marat-Sade, Roux, straitjacketed, breaks through the censorship of the play within the play and cries out:

“Who controls the markets

Who locks up the granaries

Who got the loot from the palaces

Who sits tight on the estates that were going to be divided between the poor

before he is quieted.”

A friend of Roux, Jean Varlet, in an early anarchist manifesto of the French Revolution called Explosion [Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 5], wrote:

“What a social monstrosity, what a masterpiece of Machiavellianism, this revolutionary government is in fact. For any reasoning being, Government and Revolution are incompatible, at least unless the people wishes to constitute the organs of power in permanent insurrection against themselves, which is too absurd to believe.”

Varlet: "The Explosion"

Varlet: “The Explosion”

But it is exactly that which is “too absurd to believe” which the anarchists believe, because only an “absurd” perspective is revolutionary enough to see through the limits of revolution itself. Herbert Read, in a book with an appropriately absurd title, To Hell With Culture (he was seventy; this was 1963, five years before his death), wrote:

“What has been worth while in human history—the great achievements of physics and astronomy, of geographical discovery and of human healing, of philosophy and of art—has been the work of extremists—of those who believed in the absurd, dared the impossible… ”

Herbert Read

Herbert Read

The Russian Revolution promised even more—to eliminate that injustice carried into modern times by the American and French Revolutions. Anarchist criticism of that Revolution was summed up by Emma Goldman (My Further Disillusionment in Russia, in Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 89) as follows:

“It is at once the great failure and the great tragedy of the Russian Revolution that it attempted… to change only institutions and conditions while ignoring entirely the human and social values involved in the Revolution…. No revolution can ever succeed as a factor of liberation unless the means used to further it be identical in spirit and tendency with the purposes to be achieved. Revolution is the negation of the existing, a violent protest against man’s inhumanity to man with all the thousand and one slaveries it involves. It is the destroyer of dominant values upon which a complex system of injustice, oppression, and wrong has been built up by ignorance and brutality. It is the herald of new values, ushering in a transformation of the basic relations of man to man, and of man to society.”

The institution of capitalism, anarchists believe, is destructive, irrational, inhumane. It feeds ravenously on the immense resources of the earth, and then churns out (this is its achievement—it is an immense stupid churn) huge quantities of products. Those products have only an accidental relationship to what is most needed by people, because the organizers and distributors of goods care not about human need; they are great business enterprises motivated only by profit. Therefore, bombs, guns, office buildings, and deodorants take priority over food, homes, and recreation areas. Is there anything closer to “anarchy” (in the common use of the word, meaning confusion) than the incredibly wild and wasteful economic system in America?

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman

Anarchists believe the riches of the earth belong equally to all, and should be distributed according to need, not through the intricate, inhuman system of money and contracts which have so far channeled most of these riches into a small group of wealthy people, and into a few countries. (The United States, with six percent of the population, owns, produces, and consumes fifty percent of the world’s production.) They would agree with the Story Teller in Bertholt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, in the final words of the play:

“Take note what men of old concluded:

That what there is shall go to those who are good for it

Thus: the children to the motherly, that they prosper

The carts to good drivers, that they are well driven

And the valley to the waterers, that it bring forth fruit.”

It was on this principle that Gerard Winstanley, leader of the Diggers in 17th century England, ignored the law of private ownership and led his followers to plant grain on unused land. Winstanley wrote about his hope for the future [in Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 3]:

“When this universal law of equity rises up in every man and woman, then none shall lay claim to any creature and say, This is mine, and that is yours, This is my work, that is yours. But every one shall put to their hands to till the earth and bring up cattle, and the blessing of the earth shall be common to all; when a man hath need of any corn or cattle, take from the next storehouse he meets with. There shall be no buying and selling, no fairs or markets, but the whole earth shall be a common treasury for every man, for the earth is the Lord’s.”

Anarchy: Against the Machine

Anarchy: Against the Machine

Our problem is to make use of the magnificent technology of our time, for human needs, without being victimized by a bureaucratic mechanism. The Soviet Union did show that national economic planning for common goals, replacing the profit-driven chaos of capitalist production, could produce remarkable results. It failed, however, to do what Herbert Read and other recent anarchists have suggested: to do away with the bureaucracy of large-scale industry, characteristic of both capitalism and socialism, and the consequent unhappiness of the workers who do not feel at ease with their work, with the products, with their fellow workers, with nature, with themselves. This problem could be solved, Read has suggested, by workers’ control of their own jobs, without sacrificing the benefits of planning and coordination for the larger social good.

“Property is theft,” Proudhon wrote in the mid-19th century (he was the first to call himself an anarchist, Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 8). Whether the resources of the earth and the energies of men are controlled by capitalist corporations or bureaucracies calling themselves “socialist,” a great theft of men’s life-work has occurred, as a kind of original sin which has led in human history to all sorts of trouble: exploitation, war, the establishment of colonies, the subjugation of women, attacks on property called “crime,” and the cruel system of punishments which all “civilized societies” have erected, known as “justice.”

Both the capitalist and the socialist bureaucracies of our time fail, anarchists say, on their greatest promise: to bring democracy. The essence of democracy is that people should control their own lives, by ones or twos or hundreds, depending on whether the decision being made affects one or two or a hundred. Instead, our lives are directed by a political-military- industrial complex in the United States, and a party hierarchy in the Soviet Union. In both situations there is the pretense of popular participation, by an elaborate scheme of voting for representatives who do not have real power (the difference between a one-party state and a two-party state being no more than one party—and that a smudged carbon copy of the other). The vote in modern societies is the currency of politics as money is the currency of economics; both mystify what is really taking place—control of the many by the few.

Anarchists believe the phrase “law and order” is one of the great deceptions of our age. Law does not bring order, certainly not the harmonious order of a cooperative society, which is the best meaning of that word. It brings, if anything, the order of the totalitarian state, or the prison, or the army, where fear and threat keep people in their assigned places. All law can do is artificially restrain people who are moved to acts of violence or theft or disobedience by a bad society. And the order brought by law is unstable, always on the brink of a fall, because coercion invites rebellion. Laws cannot, by their nature, create a good society; that will come from great numbers of people arranging resources and themselves voluntarily (“Mutual Aid,” Kropotkin called it, Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 54) so as to promote cooperation and happiness. And that will be the best order, when people do what they must, not because of law, but on their own.

proudhon law

What has modern civilization, with its “rule of law,” its giant industrial enterprises, its “representative democracy,” brought? Nuclear missiles already aimed and ready for the destruction of the world, and populations—literate, well-fed, and constantly voting—of a mind to accept this madness. Civilization has failed on two counts: it has perverted the natural resources of the earth, which have the capacity to make our lives joyful, and also the natural resources of people, which have the potential for genius and love.

Read artMaking the most of these possibilities requires the upbringing of new generations in an atmosphere of grace and art. Instead, we have been reared in politics. Herbert Read (in Art and Alienation) describes the stunted human being who emerges from this:

“If seeing and handling, touching and hearing and all the refinements of sensation that developed historically in the conquest of nature and the manipulation of material substances are not educed and trained from birth to maturity the result is a being that hardly deserves to be called human: a dull-eyed, bored and listless automaton whose one desire is for violence in some form or other—violent action, violent sounds, distractions of any kind that can penetrate to its deadened nerves. Its preferred distractions are: the sports stadium, the pin-table alleys, the dance-hall, the passive ‘viewing’ of crime, farce and sadism on the television screen, gambling and drug addiction.”

What a waste of the evolutionary process! It took a billion years to create human beings who could, if they chose, form the materials of the earth and themselves into arrangements congenial to man, woman, and the universe. Can we still choose to do so?

It seems that revolutionary changes are needed—in the sense of profound transformations of our work processes, our decision- making arrangements, our sex and family relations, our thought and culture—toward a humane society. But this kind of revolution—changing our minds as well as our institutions— cannot be accomplished by customary methods: neither by military action to overthrow governments, as some tradition-bound radicals suggest; nor by that slow process of electoral reform, which traditional liberals urge on us. The state of the world today reflects the limitations of both those methods.

Zinn quote

Anarchists have always been accused of a special addiction to violence as a mode of revolutionary change. The accusation comes from governments which came into being through violence, which maintain themselves in power through violence, and which use violence constantly to keep down rebellion and to bully other nations. Some anarchists—like other revolutionaries throughout history, whether American, French, Russian, or Chinese—have emphasized violent uprising. Some have advocated, and tried, assassination and terror. In this they are like other revolutionaries—of whatever epoch or ideology. What makes anarchists unique among revolutionaries, however, is that most of them see revolution as a cultural, ideological, creative process, in which violence would be as incidental as the outcries of mother and baby in childbirth. It might be unavoidable—given the natural resistance to change—but something to be kept at a minimum while more important things happen.

Alexander Berkman, who as a young man attempted to assassinate an American industrialist, expressed his more mature reflections on violence and revolution in The ABC of Anarchism [Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 117]:

“What, really, is there to destroy?

The wealth of the rich? Nay, that is something we want the whole of society to enjoy.

The land, the fields, the coal mines, the railroads, factories, mills and shops? These we want not to destroy but to make useful to the entire people.

The telegraphs, telephones, the means of communication and distribution—do we want to destroy them? No, we want them to serve the needs of all.

What, then, is the social revolution to destroy? It is to take over things for the general benefit, not to destroy them. It is to reorganize conditions for the public welfare.”

Revolution in its full sense cannot be achieved by force of arms. It must be prepared in the minds and behavior of men, even before institutions have radically changed. It is not an act but a process. Berkman describes this:

“If your object is to secure liberty, you must learn to do without authority and compulsion. If you intend to live in peace and harmony with your fellow men, you and they should cultivate brotherhood and respect for each other. If you want to work together with them for your mutual benefit, you must practice co-operation. The social revolution means much more than the reorganization of conditions only: it means the establishment of new human values and social relationships, a changed attitude of man to man, as of one free and independent to his equal; it means a different spirit in individual and collective life, and that spirit cannot be born overnight. It is a spirit to be cultivated, to be nurtured and reared, as the most delicate flower is, for indeed it is the flower of a new and beautiful existence… We must learn to think differently before the revolution can come. That alone can bring the revolution.”

Alexander Berkman

Alexander Berkman

The anarchist sees revolutionary change as something immediate, something we must do now, where we are, where we live, where we work. It means starting this moment to do away with authoritarian, cruel relationships—between men and women, between parents and children, between one kind of worker and another kind. Such revolutionary action cannot be crushed like an armed uprising. It takes place in everyday life, in the tiny crannies where the powerful but clumsy hands of state power cannot easily reach. It is not centralized and isolated, so that it can be wiped out by the rich, the police, the military. It takes place in a hundred thousand places at once, in families, on streets, in neighborhoods, in places of work. It is a revolution of the whole culture. Squelched in one place, it springs up in another, until it is everywhere.

Such a revolution is an art. That is, it requires the courage not only of resistance, but of imagination. Herbert Read, after pointing out that modern democracy encourages both complacency and complicity, speaks (in Art and Alienation) of the role of art:

“Art, on the other hand, is eternally disturbing, permanently revolutionary. It is so because the artist, in the degree of his greatness, always confronts the unknown, and what he brings back from that confrontation is a novelty, a new symbol, a new vision of life, the outer image of inward things. His importance to society is not that he voices received opinions, or gives clear expression to the confused feelings of the masses: that is the function of the politician, the journalist, the demagogue. The artist is what the Germans call ein Ruttler, an upsetter of the established order.”

This should not be interpreted as an arrogant distinction be tween the elite artist and the mass of people. It is, rather, a recognition that in modern society, as Herbert Marcuse has pointed out, there is enormous pressure to create a “one dimensional mind” among masses of people, and this requires upsetting.

Read HellHerbert Read’s attraction to both art and anarchy seems a fitting response to the 20th century, and underscores the idea that revolution must be cultural as well as political. The title of his book To Hell With Culture might be misinterpreted if one did not read in it:

“Today we are bound hand and foot to the past. Because property is a sacred thing and land values a source of untold wealth, our houses must be crowded together and our streets must follow their ancient illogical meanderings… Because everything we buy for use must be sold for profit, and because there must always be this profitable margin between cost and price, our pots and our pans, our furniture and our clothes, have the same shoddy consistency, the same competitive cheapness. The whole of our capitalist culture is one immense veneer: a surface of refinement hiding the cheapness and shoddiness of the heart of things.

To hell with such a culture. To the rubbish-heap and furnace with it all! Let us celebrate the democratic revolution creatively. Let us build cities that are not too big, but spacious, with traffic flowing freely through their leafy avenues, with children playing safely in their green and flowery parks, with people living happily in bright efficient houses… Let us balance agriculture, and industry, town and country—let us do all these sensible and elementary things and then let us talk about culture.”

The anarchist tries to deal with the complex relationship between changing institutions and changing culture. He knows that we must revolutionize culture starting now; and yet he knows this will be limited until there is a new way of living for large numbers of people. Read writes in the same essay: “You cannot impose a culture from the top—it must come from under. It grows out of ‘the soil, out of the people, out of their daily life and work. It is a spontaneous expression of their joy in life, of their joy in work, and if this joy does’ not exist, the culture will not exist.”

For revolutionaries, the aesthetic element—the approach of the artist—is essential in breaking out of the past, for we have seen in history how revolutions have been cramped or diverted because the men who made them were still encumbered by tradition. The warning of Marx, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, needs to be heeded by Marxists as well as by others seeking change:

“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something entirely new, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle slogans and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.”

The art of revolution needs to go beyond what is called “reason,” and what is called “science,” because both reason and science are limited by the narrow experience of the past. To break those limits, to extend reason into the future, we need passion and instinct, coming out of those depths of human feeling which escape the bounds of a historical period. When Read spoke in London in 1961, before taking part in a mass act of civil disobedience in protest against Polaris nuclear submarines, he argued for breaking out of the limits of “reason” through action:

“This stalemate must be broken, but it will never be broken by rational argument. There are too many right reasons for wrong actions on both sides. It can be broken only by instinctive action. An act of disobedience is or should be collectively instinctive—a revolt of the instincts of man against the threat of mass destruction.

Instincts are dangerous to play with, but that is why, in the present desperate situation, we must play with instincts…

We must release the imagination of the people so that they become fully conscious of the fate that is threatening them, and we can best reach their imagination by our actions, by our fearlessness, by our willingness to sacrifice our comfort, our liberty, and even our lives, to the end that mankind shall be delivered from pain and suffering and universal death.”

Read Polaris demo

Anarchism seeks that blend of order and spontaneity in our lives which gives us harmony with ourselves, with others, with nature. It understands the need to change our political and economic arrangements to free ourselves for the enjoyment of life. And it knows that the change must begin now, in those everyday human relations over which we have the most control. Anarchism knows the need for sober thinking, but also for that action which clarifies otherwise academic and abstract thought.

Herbert Read, in “Chains of Freedom,” writes that we need a “Black Market in culture, a determination to avoid the bankrupt academic institutions, the fixed values and standardized products of current art and literature; not to trade our spiritual goods through the recognized channels of Church, or State, or Press; rather to pass them ‘under the counter’.” If so, one of the first items to be passed under the counter must surely be the literature that speaks, counter to all the falsifications, about the ideas and imaginings of anarchism.

Howard Zinn

Boston, October 1970


Greetings Korea!

Korea – Temporary Autonomous Zones

Yesterday this blog received over 400 hits from Korea, the most hits in one day from a single area. So here is a shout out to people in Korea interested in anarchism. Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas has two selections from Korea, one by the Korean revolutionary Shin Chaeho, and another from the Korean anarchist communist paper, Talhwan (Conquest – most likely an allusion to Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread).

Volume Two, The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977), has a piece by Korean anarchists from the end of the Second World War, calling for the rebuilding from the bottom up of a free Korea on the basis of mutual aid, another concept developed by Kropotkin that was very influential among Asian anarchists.

Korean Anarchist Federation 1928

Risking Revolution: From the Commune to Occupy – New Adventures in Global Anarchy

The Paris Commune

Recently I have been posting documents from revolutionary struggles in France during 1870-1871 which culminated in the Paris Commune of March – May 1871. Anarchists regarded the Commune as providing a glimpse of how, through direct action and federated but autonomous organizations, people could take control of their lives, throwing out their oppressors and exploiters, and create a system of popular self-management while abolishing capitalism and the state (see Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One). It was a risky endeavour, ultimately ending in the massacre of some 30,000 people by national government forces when the French state reimposed its control over a recalcitrant population. Given the enormity of state violence against “its” own population, many anarchists came to accept the necessity of armed struggle in order to achieve the social revolution. But after the suppression and military defeats of anarchist movements in the Russian and Spanish Revolutions and civil wars, some anarchists came to question the ability of anarchists through their own autonomous actions and organizations to achieve or defend a social revolution through armed force, leading some anarchists to adopt a policy of non-violence, and other anarchists to effectively abandon anarchism altogether, accepting the need for more authoritarian forms of organization in order to combat the counter-revolution.

In the various Occupy movements that have spread across the globe, there has been much debate over means and ends which invite comparisons to European debates in the early 1870s regarding the role of revolutionary communes. Below, I reproduce excerpts from a recent position paper from members of Occupy Oakland which raises a number of issues, some of which would appear familiar to the Communards, others which deal with much more contemporary concerns. The rest of the paper may be accessed here.

Police crackdown on Occupy Davis encampment

Who Is Oakland: Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-optation

This pamphlet – written collaboratively by a group of people of color, women, and queers – is offered in deep solidarity and in the spirit of conversation with anyone committed to ending oppression and exploitation materially. It is a critique of how privilege theory and cultural essentialism have incapacitated antiracist, feminist, and queer organizing in this country by confusing identity categories with culture, and culture with solidarity. This conflation, we go on to argue, minimizes and misrepresents the severity and structural character of the violence and material deprivation faced by marginalized demographics.

According to this politics, white supremacy is primarily a psychological attitude which individuals can simply choose to discard instead of a material infrastructure which reproduces race at key sites across society – from racially segmented labor markets to the militarization of the border. Even when this material infrastructure is named, more confrontational tactics which might involve the risk of arrest are deemed “white” and “privileged,” while the focus turns back to reforming the behavior and beliefs of individuals. Privilege politics is ultimately rooted in an idealist theory of power which maintains that psychological attitudes are the root cause of oppression and exploitation, and that vague alterations in consciousness will somehow remake oppressive structures.

This dominant form of anti-oppression politics also assumes that demographic categories are coherent, homogeneous “communities” or “cultures.” This pamphlet argues that identity categories do not indicate political unity or agreement. Identity is not solidarity. The violent domination and subordination we face on the basis of our race, gender, and sexuality do not immediately create a shared political vision. But the uneven impact of oppression across society creates the conditions for the diffuse emergence of autonomous groups organizing on the basis of common experiences, analysis, and tactics. There is a difference between a politics which places shared cultural identity at the center of its analysis of oppression, and autonomous organizing against forms of oppression which impact members of marginalized groups unevenly.

This pamphlet argues that demands for increased cultural sensitivity and recognition has utterly failed to stop a rising tide of bigotry and violence in an age of deep austerity. Anti-oppression, civil rights, and decolonization struggles repeatedly demonstrate that if resistance is even slightly effective, the people who struggle are in danger. The choice is not between danger and safety, but between the uncertain dangers of revolt and the certainty of continued violence, deprivation, and death. There is no middle ground.

I. The Non-Negotiable Necessity of Autonomous Organizing

As a group of people of color, women, queers, and poor people coming together to attack a complex matrix of oppression and exploitation, we believe in the absolute necessity of autonomous organizing. By “autonomous” we mean the formation of independent groups of people who face specific forms of exploitation and oppression – including but not limited to people of color, women, queers, trans* people, gender nonconforming people, QPOC. We also believe in the political value of organizing in ways which try to cross racial, gender, and sexual divisions. We are neither spokespersons for Occupy Oakland nor do we think a single group can possibly speak to the variety of challenges facing different constituencies.

We hope for the diffuse emergence of widespread autonomous organizing. We believe that a future beyond capital’s 500 year emergence through enclosures of common land, and the enslavement, colonization, and genocide of non-European populations – and beyond the 7000 or more years of violent patriarchal structuring of society along hierarchized and increasingly binary gender lines – will require revolutions within revolutions. Capitalism’s ecocidal destiny, and its relentless global production of poverty, misery, abuse, and disposable and enslavable populations, will force catastrophic social change within most of our lifetimes – whether the public actively pursues it or not.

No demographic category of people could possibly share an identical set of political beliefs, cultural identities, or personal values. Accounts of racial, gender, and sexual oppression as “intersectional” continue to treat identity categories as coherent communities with shared values and ways of knowing the world. No individual or organization can speak for people of color, women, the world’s colonized populations, workers, or any demographic category as a whole – although activists of color, female and queer activists, and labor activists from the Global North routinely and arrogantly claim this right. These “representatives” and institutions speak on behalf of social categories which are not, in fact, communities of shared opinion. This representational politics tends to eradicate any space for political disagreement between individuals subsumed under the same identity categories.

We are interested in exploring the question of the relationship between identity-based oppression and capitalism, and conscious of the fact that the few existing attempts to synthesize these two vastly different political discourses leave us with far more questions than answers. More recent attempts to come to terms with this split between anti-oppression and anticapitalist politics, in insurrectionary anarchism for example, typically rely on simplistic forms of race and gender critique which typically begin and end with the police. According to this political current, the street is a place where deep and entrenched social differences can be momentarily overcome. We think this analysis deeply underestimates the qualitative differences between specific forms and sites of oppression and the variety of tactics needed to address these different situations.

Finally, we completely reject a vulgar “class first” politics which argues that racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are simply “secondary to” or “derivative of” economic exploitation. The prevalence of racism in the US is not a clever conspiracy hatched by a handful of ruling elites but from the start has been a durable racial contract between two unequal parties. The US is a white supremacist nation indelibly marked by the legal construction of the “white race” in the 1600s through the formation of a cross-class alliance between a wealthy planter class and poor white indentured servants. W.E.B. Du Bois called the legal privileges accorded to poor whites a “psychological wage”: “It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown to them.”

We live in the shadow of this choice and this history. A history which is far from over…

Without God, Without Laws, Without Husband: free, beautiful & crazy (Chile)


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