Seeds Beneath the Snow: Colin Ward’s Anarchy in Action

Join us November 19, 2015 for a discussion of Colin Ward’s Anarchy in Action (1973).

By the time he died in 2010, Colin Ward was regarded by many as one of the most influential anarchist thinker of the last century—and certainly “Britain’s most famous anarchist.”1 In his seminal Anarchy in Action (1973), Ward “revealed the influences of Gustav Landauer’s view that the State is a set of relationships, Martin Buber’s distinction between the ‘social principle’ and the ‘political principle,’ and Paul Goodman’s belief that a free society is not a new order but an expansion of existing spheres of free action.”2 Ward’s anarchism is to be found in the crevices of everyday human interaction, buried just beneath the surface.

In a famous passage Ward writes:

A society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism.3

In his 2004 introduction to anarchism in the “Very Short Introduction” series by Oxford University Press, Ward argues that the future prospects of anarchism lie with the ecological movement. Anarchism, he writes, is “the only political ideology capable of addressing the challenges posed by our new green consciousness to the accepted range of political ideas. Anarchism becomes more and more relevant for the new century.”4

Our primary reference for this session will be Anarchy in Action, but as always over-achievers and the exceedingly well-read are encouraged to go beyond the primary text and check out some of the other material available. Colin Ward has a formidable publication record so the following is only a small sample.

Selected Readings:

Secondary Analysis:

Videos:

November 19, 2015 @ 7:00 PM
CUNY Graduate Center
Department of Political Science
365 5th Ave. Room 5200.07
New York, NY 10016

Facebook event page.

1. Ken Worpole, “Colin Ward obituary,” The Guardian, February 22, 2010.

2. Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (New York: PM Press, 2010) 676.

3. Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action (London: Allen & Unwin, 1973) 11.

4. Colin Ward, Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) 98. 

Dwight MacDonald, Conservative Anarchist

Leon Trotsky reportedly declared, “Every man has a right to be stupid, but comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.” Paul Goodman cracked, “Dwight thinks with his typewriter.” Gore Vidal said to him, “You have nothing to say, only to add.”1 Join us on May 28, for a discussion of Dwight MacDonald, self-described “conservative anarchist.”2

Perhaps the most radical of the so-called New York intellectuals, Dwight MacDonald also outlived their casual transformation into disgruntled liberals and neo-conservative reactionaries. He is probably known by polite society for his cultural criticism—coining the terms “masscult” and “midcult” in a famous essay for Partisan Review—but his political writings are, in my view, far more interesting.3 MacDonald was a critic and essayist in the classic sense, a master stylist who deployed crisp prose with razor sharp wit and withering sarcasm. He is a pleasure to read, which makes his contemporary obscurity all the more perplexing.

MacDonald was editor of the Partisan Review before it became a reactionary Cold War rag, contributor to the New Yorker, and later editor of his own journal, the unabashedly critical Politics. In an introduction to an anthology of his writings for politics, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote:

Macdonald has turned his back on every kind of doctrine that implicitly would treat man as an object, even from a benevolent point of view. What he is concerned with is to create a humanism that can hold its own in the face of enormous bureaucracies and the atomic bomb. In so doing he has had to renounce many things which he had heretofore energetically championed. This is further evidence of what a really serious person he is.4

Far outside the mainstream of political commentary during the “good war,” MacDonald indicted Allied war crimes and lamented the double-standards of victor’s justice implemented at Nuremberg. His essay on the “Responsibility of Peoples” strongly influenced a young Noam Chomsky, who would later begin his own “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” with a brief discussion of MacDonald’s piece.5

It’s difficult to know where to begin for an introduction to his political thought. The Root of Man (1953) offers only a glimpse into MacDonald’s prodigious output; he was famous for changing his views often and with regularity. Indeed, his views had already changed considerably within months of the debate with Norman Mailer in which he expressed a willingness to “choose the West” in any final death-struggle between the USSR and the United States. So while the two essays printed in The Root is Man (1953) represent only a brief moment in his political thought, they strike at the heart of the intersection of Old and New Left. As Kevin Coogan argues in his introduction to the Autonomedia edition:

[R]eading ‘The Root Is Man’ today is no mere exercise in nostalgia. Macdonald raised issues that, almost 50 years later, have become even more critical. Macdonald’s assault on the scientific model of thinking echoed Frankfurt School critiques of instrumental reason. Macdonald, however, located Marxism itself in the general crisis of Enlightenment thought. … Other crucial issues raised by Macdonald included the question of active resistance to unfettered growth and the need for economic decentralization coupled with political democracy. He also took up the question of reification, citing George Lukács (not a household name is 1946) to argue that, in the concept of alienation, Marxism made its most powerful critique of the human condition under capital. The issue of reification and the damaging effect of mass culture that so concerned Macdonald would appear again in the mid-60’s Situationist polemic against the ‘society of the spectacle’ whose roots in dissident Western Marxism can be found in ‘The Root Is Man’ and politics in general. Above all, Macdonald was most concerned with the way we organize our daily political action. His insight into how mass socialist and communist parties reproduce the same deadening effect on the individual as other forms of bourgeois organization rings true today.6

Our primary source for the discussion will be the essays included in The Root is Man, but if you would like to read more, I would recommend perusing the essays in his Memoirs of a Revolutionist and perhaps also taking a look at his tremendously influential essay for the New Yorker, “Our Invisible Poor,” which prompted JFK to take action with the War on Poverty.

Readings:

Secondary Analysis:

Videos:

A short clip from MacDonald’s appearance on William F. Buckley’s show, Firing Line:

May 28, 2015 @ 7:00 PM
CUNY Graduate Center
Department of Political Science
365 5th Ave. Room 5200.07
New York, NY 10016

Facebook event page.

1. Dwight Garner, “Dwight MacDonald’s War on Mediocrity,” The New York Times, October 21, 2011.

2. Firing Line, May 1, 1967.

3. Dwight MacDonald, Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture (New York: Da Capo Press, 1983) 3-75.

4. Hannah Arendt cited in Gregory Sumner, Dwight Macdonald and the politics Circle: The Challenge of Cosmopolitan Democracy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996) 6. 

5. Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” The New York Review of Books, February 23, 1967. 

6. Kevin Coogan, “‘The Root Is Man’ Then and Now,” in Dwight MacDonald, The Root is Man (New York: Autonomedia, 1994).

Voltairine de Cleyre: Anarchism Without Adjectives

On April 22, we end the academic year with the writings of Voltairine de Cleyre, “the most gifted and brilliant anarchist woman America ever produced,” according to the gifted and brilliant Emma Goldman.1

Born into poverty and plagued by it her entire life, educated by nuns in a convent school, chronically ill, the survivor of a nearly successful assassination attempt, and dead at a tragically early age, Voltairine de Cleyre doesn’t seem a likely candidate to become what Paul Avrich called “a greater literary talent than any other American anarchist.”2 But de Cleyre was undeniably one of the most important anarchist thinkers in the US or any other country.

Through the years, de Cleyre moved from supporting individualist, non-violent anarchism to advocating the direct-action approach of the Industrial Workers of the World. She became more aggressive in her writing, declaring that there were times when acts of violence were the only means of opposing exploitation and tyranny.

Greatly admired by her contemporaries for her brilliant writing and tireless schedule of public speaking, her ability to approach the most complex issues with a mixture of common sense, passion, and clarity makes her works as relevant today as they were a century ago.

There are two somewhat recent collections of de Cleyre’s work. The SUNY anthology focuses on her essays, while the AK Press collection also includes some of her poetry. Alexander Berkman’s 1914 collection, published after De Cleyre’s death, is by far the most comprehensive of all with selections of her poetry, essays, and short stories. Feel free to pick and choose whatever piques your interest and we’ll have a general discussion of her work and legacy.

Readings:

Secondary Analysis:

April 22, 2015 @ 7:00 PM
CUNY Graduate Center
Department of Political Science
365 5th Ave. Room 5200.07
New York, NY 10016

Facebook event page.

1. Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre (Berkeley Heights, NJ: Oriole Press, 1932), 1. 

2. Paul Avrich, An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre ( Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), 7.

Murray Bookchin and the Ecology of Freedom

Join us on March 25, 2015 for a discussion of Murray Bookchin’s major work, The Ecology of Freedom (1982).

Murray Bookchin was among the first thinkers to draw a clear connection between capitalism and the ecological crisis. “For time spent laboring in the trenches of radical environmental theory,” Nash argues, “Murray Bookchin … has few equals.”1 Indeed, his concern with ecology predates the coining of the very term. As he often liked to remind people, Bookchin published his book Our Synthetic Environment (1962) six months before Rachel Carson published Silent Spring (1962). And while Carson’s book received far more attention, it was Bookchin who more clearly advanced the thesis that “the domination of nature by man stems from the very real domination of human by human.”2 The rise of civilization (especially Western civilization), he argued, brought with it an obsession with hierarchy that led directly to the degradation of the natural world. “Just as Kropotkin renewed anarchism at the end of the nineteenth century by giving it an evolutionary dimension,” Peter Marshall argues, “so Bookchin has gone further to give it a much needed ecological perspective.”3

Bookchin’s views are given fullest expression in his major work, The Ecology of Freedom (1982). There he argues for an “ethics of complementarity” derived from an “ecological vision of nature.”4 Social justice cannot be divorced from environmental justice; rather, he sought a “new and lasting equilibrium with nature.”5 Though Bookchin later offered an idiosyncratic critique of the nascent Deep Ecology movement, the revolutionary thrust of his work—especially his belief that there could be no solution to the ecological crisis without a comprehensive economic, political, and ethical reorganization of post-industrial society—offered much to radical environmentalists that came after him.

Participants have decided to read The Ecology of Freedom (1982) for this month’s discussion. As always, below can be found a partial bibliography of Bookchin’s work as well as secondary material that might be of interest to more ambitious participants.

Readings:
Secondary Analysis:

Films:

There are many videos online of Bookchin speaking. Here is one particularly interesting interview from 1993:

March 25, 2015 @ 7:00 PM
CUNY Graduate Center
Department of Political Science
365 5th Ave. Room 5200.07
New York, NY 10016

Facebook event page.

1. Roderick Nash, The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 164.

2. Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (Palo Alto, CA: Cheshire Books, 1982), 1.

3. Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (New York: PM Press, 2010), 602.

4. Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (Palo Alto, CA: Cheshire Books, 1982), 366. 

5. Murray Bookchin, Toward an Ecological Society (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980), 58. 

Peter Kropotkin: The Anarchist Prince

On February 18, we kick off the new year with the anarchist formerly known as Prince. Peter Kropotkin was “the most systematic and profound anarchist thinker of the nineteenth century,” according to Peter Marshall.1 Geographer, theorist, and reluctant aristocrat, Kropotkin was one of the first truly international celebrities—known to the European and American publics as a brilliant scientist who just happened to hold some unconventional political views. At the time of his death, the Royal Geographic Society published an obituary that referenced Kropotkin’s politics only “to express regret that his absorption in [anarchism] seriously diminished the services which otherwise he might have rendered to Geography.”2 Notwithstanding such objections, Kropotkin’s anarchist vision is rooted in his scientism insofar as he understood his politics as directly related to his commitment to rational empiricism. How does one go about creating a society based on the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”?

Because Kropotkin is quite commonly read, we will not emphasize a specific book or selection of readings and instead attempt to address major themes. Kropotkin’s most important text on anarchism is The Conquest of Bread, in which he lays out the details of what a future society might look like. Mutual Aid is his contribution to evolutionary theory, arguing that cooperation and mutual aid among animals and humans are the most important factors contributing to the evolution and survival of species. His memoirs, serialized for The Atlantic at the time, are also superb and one can skim through his numerous and topically diverse articles.

Readings:

Biographies & Secondary Analysis:

Films:

The funeral of Peter Kropotkin, February 1921—the last public showing of anarchism in revolutionary Russia before the Bolsheviks crushed the remnants of the movement.

A short BBC segment on Kropotkin.

February 18, 2015 @ 7:00 PM
CUNY Graduate Center
Department of Political Science
365 5th Ave. Room 5200.07
New York, NY 10016

Facebook event page.

1. Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (New York: PM Press, 2010), 309.

2. J. S. K. “Obituary: Prince Kropotkin.” The Geographical Journal 57, no. 4 (1921): 317.

The Ideal: Emma Goldman’s Anarchism

A little Red Emma this winter? Join us on December 10 for the final meeting of the semester to discuss the work of a figure who continues to rile the indignation of bourgeois society. (Witness the recent decision to cut funding to the Emma Goldman Papers project at UC Berkeley.) Goldman’s radicalism targets virtually every political and social institution, advocating for nothing less that total revolution of self and society. Sex and marriage, education, women’s rights, patriotism, religion… it all falls under Goldman’s relentless and withering critique.

As always, feel free to read as much or as little as you like. Links included to primary readings and (some) of the secondary sources.

Primary Readings:

Additional Material:

Selected Biographies & Secondary Analysis:

Films

PBS: An Exceptionally Dangerous Woman


Paramount News: Emma Goldman is Back!

December 10, 2014 – 7 PM
CUNY Graduate Center
Department of Political Science
365 5th Ave. Room 5200.07
New York, NY 10016

Facebook event page.

Mohandas Gandhi: The “Gentle Anarchist”

For our meeting on November 19, we’ll read selections drawn from Gandhi’s voluminous writings. While Gandhi is not often discussed as an anarchist thinker, the major themes of his work suggest an affinity with those of the classical anarchists, including a strong antipathy to state violence and a belief in an inherent human capacity for cooperation. Many historians have noted his epistolary relationship with Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy (according to George Woodcock, he was Tolstoy’s “greatest disciple”),  while others argue that his work betrays influences from Henry David Thoreau, Peter Kropotkin, and even Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. As Peter Marshall writes in his history of anarchism:

The most important and outstanding libertarian thinker to emerge in India this century was undoubtedly Mohandas Gandhi. On several occasions he called himself a kind of anarchist and always opposed the centralized State and the violence it engendered. In a famous speech in 1916, referring to India’s violent revolutionaries, he declared that he too was an anarchist, ‘but of another type [than the terrorist kind]’. (Marshall 2008, 422)

Still, it is particularly difficult to know what to read of Gandhi’s work because his writings “chiefly consist,” as Marshall puts it, “of the monotonous repetition of a few basic themes” (Ibid. 423). I had initially planned to trace the citations in Jason Adams’s classic pamphlet, “Non-Western Anarchisms,” which attributes to Gandhi the following quote:

[T]he state evil is not the cause but the effect of social evil, just as the sea-waves are the effect not the cause of the storm. The only way of curing the disease is by removing the cause itself.

This sounds like something Emma Goldman might have said and it has been recycled again and again and again by people who don’t bother to check their sources. So where does the quote come from? Adams cites this piece by Adi Doctor in The Ecologist. But where did he get it? He cites Young India, Gandhi’s weekly journal—namely the February 23, 1921 edition—but as it turns out, the quote isn’t Gandhi’s at all. It certainly appears in Young India alongside a number of articles written by Gandhi, but the quote is specifically part of an article titled “Non-co-operation: It’s Theory and Practice,” prefaced with this note:

The following is published not for its originality but as an able contribution by a young Punjabi student who has non-co-operated lately.

No name is given for the author, but it is not Gandhi. Irritated, I went through each one of Doctor’s notes. Most of them are completely fabricated, which is a pity because I had hoped that his citations would make compiling a list of Gandhi’s anarch-ish writings a bit easier. Instead, his shoddy scholarship (if not outright academic fraud) wasted my entire evening so I recommend instead these materials, though I don’t think it particularly matters what you read of Gandhi. To briefly summarize the readings I suggest, Tolstoy Farm was an agricultural commune Gandhi founded on Leo Tolstoy’s principles very early in his political career. I’ve included some of his reflections on the project. The Hackett text offers a fairly comprehensive overview of the major themes in Gandhi’s political and social philosophy. It might not be worth reading everything there, so pick and choose whatever you find to be of interest. Finally, Iyer’s superb three-volume The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi actually includes a short subsection on Gandhi’s opposition to the state, which just calls out for our group to discuss.

As several people pointed out last meeting, the discussion might benefit from reading Gandhi in conjunction with more critical accounts of his work. Of the secondary sources listed below, Ambedkar’s piece, “The Annihilation of Caste,” was specifically mentioned. If you have time, consider taking a look at that as well.

Primary Readings:

  • Mahatma Gandhi, “Tolstoy Farm,” in Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy Letters, ed. B. Srinivasa Murthy (Long Beach, CA: Long Beach Publications, 1987), 62-78.
  • Mahatma Gandhi, Selected Political Writings, ed. Dennis Dalton (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1996).
  • Mahatma Gandhi, “Towards a Stateless Society,” in vol. 3 of The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, ed. Raghavan Iyer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 595-609.

Download these and several other scanned selections here.

Secondary Readings:

November 19, 2014 – 7 PM
CUNY Graduate Center
Department of Political Science
365 5th Ave. Room 5200.07
New York, NY 10016

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