Category Archives: Communism
As a student of history, particularly Russian history, I was curious about the new film “The Death of Stalin,” then appalled when I did some online research and found out that it’s a slapstick comedy about officials grasping for power after Stalin died in 1953. What’s funny about something like this? Nothing. Also shocking is the way the film gives absolutely no context about Stalin, one of the key historical figures, for good or ill, of the 20th century. As Peter Hitchens, a London reader of The Guardian wrote in that paper’s letters section on 10-27-17, “As far as I know, this is the first time a mass-market film has dealt with this event. We may be saturated with serious drama and documentary material on the Nazis and the end of Hitler, but the equivalent evils of the Stalin nightmare haven’t received anything like the same treatment. For most who see the film, it will be the first time they’ve ever heard of these strange events. And what do they see? An intensely serious moment in human history played for laughs, with lavatory humor and plentiful use of the failed comedian’s standby, the F-word. We’re so free and safe that we can hardly begin to imagine a despot so terrifying that his subordinates are even afraid of his corpse. This trivial and inaccurate squib doesn’t help us to do so. Perhaps it’s the comedians who need to be satirized, by some fitting seriousness about a serious subject.”
The only critical review I found of the film online was one posted on the World Socialist website (www.wsws.org) on 3-9-18. David Walsh describes it as “a fatally ill-conceived ‘black comedy’ about the demise of the gravedigger of the Russian Revolution, Joseph Stalin, in March 1953. The film is not so much maliciously anticommunist as it is, above all, historically clueless. Iannucci presents the various surviving Stalinist officials, Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan, Nikolai Bulganin, and the rest, all of whom had gallons of blood on their hands, as a largely ineffectual bunch of bunglers and toadies, jockeying ‘comically’ for position. The betrayal of the Russian Revolution was one of the greatest tragedies in world history [not to mention the planned famine in Ukraine and Stalin’s purges, which together killed more people than Hitler]. Iannucci’s film doesn’t begin to confront the vast significance of events in the Soviet Union.
Taken in and of themselves, there are amusing lines and moments, until one remembers the general context and the historical stakes, and the laughter freezes in one’s throat. All the actors are fine at doing what they’re asked to do, but what they’re asked to do is terribly off the mark. It’s impossible to make sense of a film like ‘The Death of Stalin’ except in the context of the disastrously low level of historical knowledge or interest that exists in the arts at present.
Iannucci is a Scottish-born television, film and radio writer and director, responsible for ‘I’m Alan Partridge’ (along with Steve Coogan), ‘The Thick of It,’ ‘In the Loop,’ and ‘Veep,’ among other efforts, and under the right circumstances, he’s capable of creating funny, pointed satire. When it comes to bringing out the dishonesty, careerist opportunism, and stupidity of garden-variety politicians, media personalities, and other establishment figures, he probably has few equals today. However, when the writer-director steps outside the fairly narrow confines of parliamentary and entertainment industry backroom shenanigans, he falters badly. The second half of ‘In the Loop,’ which satirized the British government’s complicity in the Bush administration’s drive to war in Iraq, is politically blunted and largely unfunny. HBO’s ‘Veep,’ too, about a fictional female US vice president, finds Iannucci over his head. For all its coarseness, it’s quite timid in its portrayal of the ugliness of American politics, with little mention of war policy, drone strikes, and other things that surely consume a great deal of a real president’s focus and attention.
Art and comedy have to rise to – or at least approach – the level of the events or personalities they’re treating. That is, there needs to be some artistic and intellectual correspondence between subject and object. Iannucci’s film is based on a [non-comic] French graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Iannucci has undoubtedly added his own touch. And it’s simply inappropriate and, at times, grotesque.”
I believe history, as the backstory to current and future events, is the key to understanding where we are and where we could go, and I’m more than saddened by the preponderant lack of knowledge of or interest in it today – probably because of the boring, textbook-centered way it’s taught in high school. Good historical novels and films can make up for some of this, but bad ones, like “The Death of Stalin” just deepen the ignorance. Take the time to be curious about your world, and how it came to be the way it currently is. Find important history books by reading reviews on Amazon, then buy or borrow and read them!
Fifth Estate, a long-running anarchist magazine to which I subscribe, marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war in its current issue (Summer 2015) with several important articles, notably a recapitulation of “Looking back on the Vietnam War by George Bradford (David Watson) from its Spring 1985 issue. This and other articles are available on the magazine’s website, fifthestate.org (scroll down the left hand column to find the archive). Here is my edited version – long, but important reading, since we need constant counters to the historical and current events propaganda with which we’re continually bombarded. It’s followed by quotes from and comments on another interesting article in the same issue, debunking the “Vietnam Vets were spit on” myth. “Happy” summer reading!
AN ORWELLIAN WAR
There was no Nuremburg trial after the U.S. defeat in Indochina; no court ever punished the administrators of the American war – Nixon, Kissinger, Johnson, McNamara, Rusk, and the rest – for their crimes. They either died peacefully in their beds or went on to more lucrative jobs in the same line of work. Now they extol their “noble cause” and hint of treachery and betrayal. Now they say they could have, indeed should have, won. Perhaps they didn’t unleash enough bombs, declare enough “free fire zones,” defoliate enough land. Perhaps not enough people were rounded up into concentration camps, their thatch villages burned and bulldozed. Perhaps not enough were incinerated by napalm and phosphorous, not enough machine- gunned and bulldozed into open ditches. If America had spent more money, sent more troops, embraced a more ferocious national spirit, and ignored its own wounds, if it had been ready to risk everything in a deadly gamble to destroy all of Asia “in order to save it,” then perhaps America could have “won” its war. A few million more would have been sacrificed. And, in fact, countless more did die in the aftermath: See how evil, how savage they are, America says through its propagandists; after our bloodbath ended, they undertook their own.
AMERICA LICKS ITS WOUNDS
America has never confronted Vietnam or its role there. It has licked its wounds, engaged in recriminations without taking either its own history or the Indochinese people into account. They were simply “natives,” a hostile landscape before which the American crusaders fought their war against Wilderness. This war has gone on since the origins of America, and it’s never envisioned that inscrutable “other” on any terms but those of its own distorted projections.
For America, the war was a tragedy, we’re told. But to be a tragedy, it would have had to be an extraordinary transgression of a normal balance in the world. It would also have had to bring proportionally extraordinary suffering on the transgressors. Yet in these terms it isn’t Vietnam which was the tragedy, but America itself, and Vietnam only one more episode in its bloodletting. Of course, it was a moral tragedy for the Americans involved. But that’s not how many see it.
It’s partly my purpose to assess the price of the war not so much to the American soldiers who were both victims and perpetrators, but to its real victims and heroes: the Indochinese people who resisted American aggression. But to do so, it’s imperative to demolish the Big Lie originating in the lie of American “innocence” and proceeding to such dishonest formulations as “America’s involvement in” a war which was America’s creation. American soldiers, too, were victims, pawns of the policy-makers who blithely sent them to their brutalization and death while themselves living comfortably in suburban luxury, spending their time analyzing “body counts” and writing policy statements. But decency requires that a sense of proportion to the suffering be maintained. The soldiers were an occupation army engaged in a vicious, genocidal war against an entire population. The enemy was, quite simply, the Vietnamese people; indeed, it was the land itself, a “godforsaken mudhole,” as I heard many people, both for and against the war, describe it. So what did it mean to burn villages, run down peasants in tanks and trucks, shoot anything that moved?
“A SHOOTING GALLERY”
The U.S. war against Vietnam was no loss of innocence, no aberration, any more than the massacre at My Lai was exceptional. My Lai will be remembered as the subhamlet in Quang Ngai province in which a company from the 11th Brigade of the Americal Division murdered 347 old men, women, children, and infants, then systematically burned their homes. This happened in early 1968, but was covered up until late 1969. As the My Lai events were the logical outcome (and in fact only the most notorious of such massacres) of U.S. policy, the war itself was the inevitable outcome of America’s history. Could this outcome have been anything but a series of brutal pogroms such as My Lai?
Even the official Pentagon report revealed that My Lai was not extraordinary. In his penetrating study of the continuity of massacre and conquest in American history, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building, Richard Drinnon writes, “On the very same day of the butchery there, another company from the same task force entered the sister subhamlet My Khe 4 with one of its machine-gunners ‘firing his weapon from the hip, cowboy-movie style.’ In this ‘other massacre,’ American soldiers piled up a body count of perhaps a hundred peasants – My Khe was smaller than My Lai, ‘just flattened the village’ by dynamite and fire, and then threw a few handfuls of straw on the corpses. The next morning this company moved down the Batangan peninsula by the South China Sea, burning every hamlet they came to, killing water buffalo, pigs, chickens, and ducks, and destroying crops. As one of the My Khe veterans said later, ‘What we were doing was being done all over.’ Said another, ‘We were out there having a good time. It was sort of like being in a shooting gallery.’” None of this came out until writer Seymour Hersch obtained the forty or so volumes of the Pentagon report and summarized them in Cover-Up (1972), the source of Drinnon’s quotations. No one was tried for the murder at My Khe.
Yet even these massacres don’t convey the reality of the war. In hearings held by anti-war congressmen in Washington, D.C. in 1970, journalist Jonathan Schell testified that in 1967 he had spent a month in Quang Ngai province, surveying the damage of the war from the air and on the ground. “When I first looked down from the plane,” he reported, “I saw that the land below me had been completely devastated…What I discovered was that by the end of 1967, the destruction of society in Quang Ngai province was not something we were in danger of doing; it was a process we had almost completed. About 70% of the villages in the province had been destroyed.”
Schell decided to see an operation from its beginning to end in a forward air control plane. The operation, near Chu Lai, was one of thirty or so such “missions” proceeding against the Viet Cong at the time. The area he studied had a population of about 17,000, and had not yet been destroyed. Flying for two weeks with the forward air control planes, he saw the daily bombing of villages and their burning by U.S. ground troops.
He had been told by the psychological warfare office that villages were never bombed unless they’d been given warnings. Checking at the base at Chu Lai after the operation, he asked for a full catalogue of warning leaflets. “I hardly needed to do this,” he said, “because I had seen the people running from their burning homes, and had seen no leaflets dropped prior to the bombings. Indeed, five or six leaflets had been dropped, and not one of them had been a warning.” They were simply anti-Viet Cong tracts. When he asked if civilians had been evacuated, he learned that “initially the colonel in charge of the operation had given an order that no refugees, as they call them, would be taken out of the area. Late in the operation that decision was reversed, and 100 of the 17,000 were taken out. But even those 100 were taken out after most of the area had been destroyed. In other words, an area inhabited by 17,000 people was about 70% destroyed with no warning to the residents, and with only 100 people evacuated from the area.”
In the same hearings, historian Richard Falk discussed the My Lai massacre, observing that “long before these disclosures there was abundant evidence that the United States was committing war crimes in Vietnam on a widespread and continuing basis.” But far more serious than these atrocities alone, he added, was “the official reliance by the United States government on a set of battlefield policies that openly deny the significance of any distinction between civilians and combatants, between military and nonmilitary targets. The most spectacular of these practices are the B-52 pattern raids against undefended villages and populated areas, ‘free-fire zones,’ ‘harassment and interdiction fire,’ ‘Operation Phoenix,’ ‘search and destroy’ missions, massive crop destruction and defoliation, and the forcible transfer of civilian populations from one place to another against their will…In fact, the wrongdoers at My Lai, whether or not they were carrying out specific command decisions, were indeed fulfilling the basic and persistent United States war policies in South Vietnam.”
American policy was one of wanton, utter annihilation of the defiant land it faced. As U.S. Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze said in 1965, “Where neither United States nor South Vietnamese forces can maintain continuous occupancy, it is necessary to destroy those facilities.” And, surveying the destruction of Ben Tre during the Tet Offensive in 1968, an army officer told an AP reporter, “We had to destroy it to save it.”
Such a statement reflects what salvation has always meant for these grim crusaders: a desolation. William Appleman Williams has written that for U.S. policy-makers, “America was the locomotive puffing away to pull the rest of the world into civilization. Truman talked about “hordes of Asians” as a “wilderness threatening to overwhelm civilization.” Those images and metaphors tell us most of what we need to know about why we went to kill people in Vietnam. We were transforming the Wilderness in order to save the City on a Hill.
“I felt superior there,” said Lieutenant William Calley. “I thought, I’m the big American from across the sea. I’ll sock it to these people here…We weren’t in My Lai to kill human beings, really. We were there to kill ideology carried by pawns, blobs, pieces of flesh.” Richard Drinnon quotes another My Lai veteran who “equated ‘wiping the whole place out’ with what he called ‘the Indian idea that the only good gook is a dead gook.’ The Indian idea was in the air in Vietnam.”
This was only the latest unfolding in that westward movement, the empire’s relentless drive to destroy and subdue wilderness, the “savages” who inhabit it, and all of nature. The situation was essentially the same when the U.S. began to intervene in Vietnam as it was for Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 when he wrote his famous declaration that the dominant fact in American life had been expansion of its frontier. Though expansion had reached the Pacific coast, the rising imperial star of the U.S. indicated clearly to him that the movement would continue. This national mystique of Manifest Destiny plunged the Anglo-Americans into wars in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, the Philippines, and beyond.
In the mid-19th century, William Gilpin had written of the American destiny “to subdue the continent – to rush over this vast field to the Pacific Ocean, to stir up the sleep of a hundred centuries, to teach old nations a new civilization, to confirm the destiny of the human race, to cause a stagnant people to be reborn, to perfect science, and to shed a new and resplendent glory upon mankind.” This “perfected science” was the locomotive of modernity crystallized in the American Empire and its dream of conquest, and the destruction of Vietnamese society by the bureaucrats and the Calleys was only the most modern incarnation of that “glory.” By the time these conquerors and Indian fighters reached Indochina the frontier had become Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” his “relentless struggle in every corner of the globe.” As Drinnon writes, the troops were now being sent “into action against disorder on a frontier that had become planetary.”
In 1966, General Maxwell Taylor, leaving the ambassadorship in Saigon, revealed how deeply imbedded was the “Indian idea,” describing the “pacification” program: “We have always been able to move in the areas where the security was good enough. But I have often said, it’s very hard to plant the corn outside the stockade when the Indians are around. We have to get the Indians farther away in many of the provinces to make good progress.”
Fitzgerald comments that “American officers liked to call the area outside GVN [Government of Vietnam] control ‘Indian country.’ It was a joke, of course, no more than a figure of speech, but it put the Vietnam War into a definite historical and mythological perspective: the Americans were once again embarked upon a heroic and (for themselves) almost painless conquest of an inferior race. To the American settlers the defeat of the Indians had seemed not just a nationalist victory, but an achievement made in the name of humanity – the triumph of light over darkness, of good over evil, and of civilization over brutish nature. Quite unconsciously, the American officers and officials used a similar language to describe their war against the NLF. According to the official rhetoric, the Viet Cong didn’t live in places, they ‘infested areas;’ to ‘clean them out’ American forces went on ‘sweep and clear’ operations or moved all the villagers into refugee camps in order to ‘sanitize the area.’”
The Vietnamese, whether they were the enemy or the vassals of the U.S., were considered stupid savages, “Orientals,” in General William Westmoreland’s words, who placed a lower value on life than westerners. The NLF were nothing but “termites” in the general’s eyes, who showed his humanitarian concern for the country by advising that “We have to get the right balance of termite killers to get rid of the termites without wrecking the house.” An adviser in Pleiku told the head of the International Voluntary Service that the Montagnards (tribal highlanders) “have to realize that they are expendable,” adding that the “Montagnard problem” could be solved “like we solved the Indian problem.”
“Is it an exaggeration to suggest,” wrote Noam Chomsky in 1970, “that our history of extermination and racism is reaching its climax in Vietnam today? It is not a question that Americans can easily put aside.” This is the theme of Drinnon’s powerful book: “Winning the west amounted to no less than winning the world. It could be finally and decisively won only by rationalizing (Americanizing, westernizing, modernizing) the world, and that meant conquering the land beyond, banishing mystery, and negating or extirpating other peoples, so the whole would be subject to the regimented reason of one settlement culture with its professedly self-evident middle-class values.”
But the “stagnant peoples” had their own vision of destiny. A veteran told the Times’ Lelyveld, “I don’t think the people wanted to be saved.” When the conquerors saw the people wouldn’t, and couldn’t, be “saved,” they set out, within the terms of their mad equation, to destroy them, using all the perfected science at their disposal.
THE “LUNARIZATION PROGRAM”
This pioneer arrogance saw its culmination in the Vietnam war, in which the entire might of the technological megamachine was pitted against a small, poor, archaic peasant region. The proportions in comparative wealth, technology, and firepower were obscene. At any given time, the difference in firepower ranged anywhere from 50 to 1 to 500 to 1. The war represented “the triumph of the principles and values of the industrial bureaucracy,” a “General Motors of Death,” as Gordon Livingston, a regimental surgeon who served there, put it later. At the 1970 war crimes hearings, he testified, “The magnitude of the effort, the paperwork, and the middle-management attitude of many of the participants, as well as the predilection for charts and statistics, including that most dehumanizing and absurd figure of all, the body count – all these represent the triumph of technocracy over reason.”
The aerial bombardment was unrivaled in the history of warfare. By 1969, South Vietnam, North Vietnam and Laos were the three most heavily bombed countries in history. “On some days in 1969,” reported ecologist John Lewallen in his book Ecology of Devastation (1971), “800 sorties were flown in northern Laos, dropping napalm, phosphorous, and anti-personnel bombs. One old man described the effects: ‘First the houses and fruit trees were burned, then the fields and the hillside, and even the stream was on fire.’” Bombing became so intense by that year that at times it went on for 24 hours a day, and farming, if it could be done at all, could only take place at night.
The use of herbicides was even more devastating. “To a counterinsurgent,” wrote Lewallen, “plants are the allies of the insurgent.” E. W. Pfeiffer, a zoologist sent to Indochina by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to study the ecological consequences of the war, compared the U.S. policy of bombing, defoliation, and mass plowing with giant bulldozers with the extermination of the buffalo herds in the American West. “This modern program,” he reported in 1971, “has as destructive an influence on the social fabric of Indochinese life as did the ecocide (destruction of ecology) of the American West upon the American Indian.”
NLF sources reported that some 300,000 people were poisoned each year between 1966 and 1969 by exposure to Agent Orange, Agent White, and other chemicals. An epidemic of birth defects was already occurring at that time. Over five million acres had been sprayed with some seventeen million gallons of herbicides, and an area the size of Massachusetts cleared by defoliants. The very soil of Indochina was being destroyed by bombing and defoliation, increasing salination, flooding, erosion, and drought.
Vietnam, once a major exporter of rice, now had to import it from the U.S. due to crop destruction and the disruption of agriculture. Huge tracts of mangrove, evergreen rain forest, and fruit trees were wiped out, leading to the breakdown of associated ecosystems, especially in the Mekong Delta. By December 1970, at least 35% of South Vietnam’s fourteen million acres of dense forests had been sprayed.
A “food denial” program was implemented by the Americans to starve the insurgents into submission. This meant massive spraying of croplands and destruction of food stores. Of course, the insurgents, being more mobile, were able to evade some of the circumstances brought about by defoliation, but the villagers left behind starved. Many animal species, particularly birds and aquatic food chains, were destroyed by the chemical warfare.
To “dry up the sea” in which the rebels swam, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces also removed people from the land, forcibly relocating entire villages to so-called “strategic hamlets” (concentration camps), and to the desperation of the cities, turning their old lands into “free-fire zones” where anything that moved was a target. “You have to be able to separate the sheep from the goats,” said one Pentagon-sponsored analyst. “The way to do it is harsh. You would have to put all military-age males in the army or in a camp as you pacify the country. Anyone not in the army or in a camp is a target. He’s either a Viet Cong or is helping them.” As a result of this campaign and NLF resistance to it, by 1970 a third of the people of South Vietnam had become refugees. In the first six months of that year, another half a million refugees were created by forced removal and wanton destruction. This figure is conservative, since many refugees were never accounted for by official U.S./South Vietnamese government head counts. Vietnamese culture was also wrecked by forced relocation and flight to the cities.
Analysts and experts in the pay of the empire approved of this havoc. Samuel P. Huntington, Chairman of the Department of Government at Harvard University, wrote from the comfort of his study that “the United States may have stumbled upon the answer to ‘wars of national liberation.’”
A COUNTRY SHATTERED
It became official U.S. policy, in the words of Robert Opton, Jr., a psychologist who was in Vietnam during 1967 and 1968 as a reporter, “to obliterate not just whole villages, but whole districts and virtually whole provinces.” At first, residents were moved out, but the vast numbers of refugees created by these operations led military officers to order that no new refugees be “generated.” As Jonathan Schell had witnessed, no warnings were issued when air strikes were called in on their villages, and every civilian on the ground was assumed to be the enemy and fired on. Free fire zones now came to include many inhabited villages. Opton witnessed U.S. Cobra helicopters firing 20 mm. cannons into houses, and soldiers shooting the people as they ran outside. “This was termed ‘prepping the area’ by the American lieutenant colonel who directed the operation. ‘We sort of shoot it up to see if anything moves,’ he explained, and he added that this practice was routine.”
Pfc. Allen Akers, who served in the 3rd Marine Division, testified at the Winter Soldier Investigation on war crimes in Vietnam, convened by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit in early 1971, “We were given orders whenever we moved into a village to reconnoiter by fire. This means to fire on houses, bushes, anything that looked like there might be somebody hiding behind or under.” Sgt. Scott Camil of the 1st Marine Division reported “burning of villages with civilians in them, the cutting off of ears, cutting off of heads, torturing of prisoners, calling in of artillery on villages for games, corpsmen killing wounded prisoners, napalm dropped on villages, women being raped, women and children being massacred, CS gas used on the people, animals slaughtered, passes rejected and the people holding them shot, bodies shoved out of helicopters, teargassing people for fun, and running civilians off the road.” When asked by the moderator if prisoners being tortured were civilians or North Vietnamese army men, he replied, “The way we distinguished between civilians and VC, VC had weapons and civilians didn’t and anybody that was dead was considered a VC. If you killed someone they said, ‘How do you know he’s a VC?’ and the general reply would be, ‘He’s dead.’” He reported that when villagers were searched, “the women would have all their clothes taken off and the men would use their penises to probe them to make sure they didn’t have anything hidden anywhere; and this was raping but it was done as searching.” All this had taken place in the presence of officers.
The list of brutality is endless, which explains psychologist Robert J. Lifton’s observation that of the two hundred or so soldiers he and his colleagues interviewed, none was surprised by the news of My Lai. “They had not been surprised because they have either been party to, or witness to, or have heard fairly close-hand about hundreds or thousands of similar, if smaller incidents.” Said Camil, “It wasn’t like they were humans. We were conditioned to believe that this was for the good of the nation. When you shot someone you didn’t think you were shooting at a human. They were a gook or a Commie and it was okay. And anything you did to them was okay, because they’d do it to you if they had the chance.” Others reported destroying rice and livestock, desecrating graves, firing 50-caliber machine guns at villages for sport, revenge massacres of whole villages after a GI was killed by a sniper, burning huts with people inside, and firing at peasants in ox-carts from planes to finish off unused ammunition. Yet among many soldiers there was the grotesque complaint that they were fighting “with one arm tied behind our back.” Opton noted that among soldiers he interviewed in Vietnam, “many felt that a final solution was the best and perhaps only solution, and many of their officers agreed. Extermination of the Vietnamese people, some officers felt, would be the best way to protect the men under them.” So the only way to “save” the Vietnamese would be to annihilate them all, which was probably true in terms of winning the war, since the Vietnamese were willing to fight to the bitter end to throw out the invaders.
Of course, there was also the fear on the part of war planners that the war could expand beyond their ability to “manage” it effectively. A widening of the war could also draw more massive protest against what was an increasingly unpopular war back home, and resistance in the army itself, which was starting to break down and turn against the war. Daniel Ellsberg pointed out later that it was only the resistance to the war by Americans at home that prevented Richard Nixon from committing that ultimate atrocity of dropping nuclear weapons on North Vietnam. Such an escalation could be the only logic of the statement current among those who refuse to face the reality of the hideous crusade, that the U.S. military was “not allowed to win” – the culmination of the “Indian idea.”
The Americans may not have been able to impose a “final solution” on the Indochinese, but they did enough damage in the course of that war to wreck their societies and lay the basis for further carnage, as in Cambodia. If some 58,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam and another 300,000 were wounded, and we add to that list the startling number of suicides among veterans since the war, some 50,000, how can these horrifying figures compare to those of three million Vietnamese killed and 4.5 million wounded? What would be the comparable length of a wall like the Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C. if it contained those three million names? And consider some other statistics: ten million refugees, a million orphans, nearly 10,000 hamlets destroyed in South Vietnam alone; 6,600,000 tons of bombs dropped on Indochina, including 400,000 tons of napalm, leaving some 25 million craters; 25 million acres of farmland and twelve million acres of forests destroyed, by among other causes, 19 million gallons of defoliants sprayed on them. The horror visited upon thousands of American soldiers and their families due to exposure to Agent Orange and other defoliants is only an indication of the far greater numbers and levels of contamination of Indochinese who were and continue to be the victims of the chemical plagues deliberately unleashed by the U.S.
The United States went into Vietnam to “save” the south by impeding reunification of the country and stopping the communists from assuming power over the entire country. In so doing it wrecked the possibility of any diversity in Vietnamese, Laotian, or Cambodian society, of anyone but the communists coming to power, by uprooting and destroying the groups that could have resisted or offset control by the Stalinists: the regional political groups and religious sects, the tribespeople of the highlands, the Buddhists, and other political tendencies. The U.S. claimed its desire to prevent domination of the south by northerners. Yet during the Tet Offensive in 1968 and the “Operation Phoenix” program of mass assassinations, jailings and relocations which followed in the early 1970s, it exterminated the mainly southern NLF cadres, making northern domination of the culturally distinct south another self-fulfilling prophecy (indeed, perhaps a necessity for the Vietnamese if they were going to win the war). “The U.S. has changed Vietnam,” wrote Fitzgerald, “to the point where it is unrecognizable to Vietnamese, and flattened the local ethnic, religious, and cultural peculiarities beneath a uniform, national disaster.”
Now, ten years later, history has been rewritten so that Americans can continue to evade individual and collective guilt for the slaughter of the Indochinese and the wrecking of their societies. One particularly repellent example was President Carter’s astonishing statement in March 1977 that “the destruction was mutual. We went to Vietnam without any desire to capture territory or impose American will on other people. I don’t feel we ought to apologize or castigate ourselves or to assume the status of culpability.” Vietnamese author Ngo Vinh Long reports that “a professor at Hue University likened this statement to a rapist saying that his victims hurt him as much as he hurt them.” Yet, incredibly, the refusal by Americans to face the truth of American culpability has brought about exactly such a reversal in many people’s minds.
The atrocities and injustices which followed in the wake of the U.S. war, which could only be seen as the tragic consequences of American devastation, as further proof that a holocaust does not create conditions for reconciliation and freedom but only for more holocaust and tyranny – these crimes are now employed by propagandists as a justification for the original violence that prepared the ground for them. The question never seems to be raised that even if the Indochinese were destined to mutual wars and dictatorship – a frequent occurrence in the troubled Third World – how could that justify the American intervention, the millions dead and wounded, the ruination of traditional forms of life which may have helped to prevent such brutality?
In fact, it is one of the war’s tragic ironies that the forced modernization so fondly touted as a solution by U.S. analysts will now be carried out by the Stalinists rather than the fascist puppets of the Americans, and only because the U.S. pulverized that society so thoroughly that the only force left capable of creating a new society was the communists.
Now that the “lesson” that American terror and death was necessary in Indochina is widely proclaimed, there are those who would wish to employ it for further holocaust in Central America. Edward N. Luttwak, one of the latest clones of American crackpot military realism, claimed in the Harper’s symposium that if the “1,000 sorties flown each day in Vietnam” had hit “worthwhile targets,” they “would have ended the war in a day,” and now prescribes American “victory” for El Salvador, using the same terms and justifications applied by counterinsurgency analysts in the 1960s in Vietnam: “I believe the United States should help the Salvadoran government, which is a democratizing regime, win the war. The United States can permit the Salvadorans to prevail by using their traditional methods: killing as many people as they can until there are no guerrillas left.”
And so the graveyards are in flower this spring ten years later. The slaughter is going on at this very moment in the highlands of Guatemala, in the ravines of El Salvador, and along the Honduras-Nicaragua border. We are now told by Richard Nixon (in a book which can only bring to mind the image of Hitler, say in 1955, writing a retrospective on World War II) that the idea of “no more Vietnams” means not that America shouldn’t intervene, but that it shouldn’t fail. Mayan Indians are being rounded up in strategic hamlets, tortured and massacred, their cultures wrecked and whole language groups decimated. The poor farmers of Central America are being exterminated, the “sheep separated from the goats.” Even napalm is being used against them in a stunning repetition of history. Of course these unfortunate people are only “Commies,” “subversives,” “guerrillas” – targets, more jungle to be paved and turned into an American parking lot.
AMERICA’S NEXT VIETNAM
I don’t confuse my opposition to U.S. intervention in Central America with any illusions about the politicians who run Nicaragua or the political parties involved in the resistance in Guatemala and El Salvador. But the blame must be laid where it belongs if we are to break the cycle of destruction: on the technocratic fascist war conceived and conducted by the U.S. imperialist war machine, and the daily acts of complicity by Americans with it.
To all the apologists for genocide, paid and unpaid, who repeat the imperial lie that the antiwar movement, which eventually became the great majority of Americans, inside and outside the military, “betrayed” the war effort, I can only reply: We didn’t do enough to undermine and betray your war. If there is any lesson to be learned from that war which can aid us in understanding the situation we find ourselves in today, it is that lesson – that now that the soil is being bloodstained by new, hellish wars, now that the engines of holocaust are again filling the air with their terrifying drone, we must find a way to rally our spirits once more, to blockade the beast, to stop its murderous career. Yesterday is today and today is tomorrow. The Vietnam wars are an American creation. It is here – and it is we who must act – where they will be stopped once and for all.
Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building (1980)
Frances Fitzgerald, The Fire in the Lake (1972)
John Lewellen, Ecology and Devastation: Indochina (1971)
Vietnam Veterans Against the War, The Winter Soldier Investigation: An Inquiry into American War Crimes (1972)
Harrison E. Salisbury et al, Vietnam Reconsidered: Lessons from a War (1984)
In “Nobody Spat on American GIs!,” subtitled “The Mythical Imagery of the American ‘Great Betrayal’ Narrative,” in the current issue of Fifth Estate, Jerry Lembcke likens this particular popular myth to similar images created by Germans after their defeat in World War I and France after its loss of Indochina in 1954, always including the image of women spitting on returning soldiers.
“Stories of spat-upon Vietnam veterans,” Lembcke says, “have become so ingrained in the American discourse about war and veterans that they can now be referenced matter-of-factly with no acknowledgement of their mythical properties. Their migration from bar stools to the higher cultural ground of literary trope has been assisted by mainstream news organizations, which, with few exceptions, repeat the spit-on stories uncritically…
As one of the Vietnam War’s more enduring legacies, stories of denigrated veterans are now salted into the biographies of the latest generation. The late Navy Seal Chris Kyle wrote in his book American Sniper about being disparaged in San Diego upon his deployment to Iraq.
This American betrayal narrative was provided presidential imprimatur when Barak Obama used his 2012 Memorial Day speech to announce a $65 million Pentagon plan to commemorate the war on Vietnam with a 12-year series of events up to the 50th anniversary of the war’s end. Speaking to the cameras with the Vietnam Memorial wall as a backdrop, the president called the Vietnam war ‘one of the nation’s most painful chapters.” Treatment of Vietnam veterans, he said, “was a national shame, a disgrace that never should have happened. We’re here today to see that it doesn’t happen again.’”
Nations committed to avenging their hurts, Lemncke says, “are dangers to us all…The United States having gone to the Persian Gulf in 1990 to ‘kick’ its Vietnam Syndrome, as President George H.W. Bush said at the time, instead supercharged the jihadi movement and found itself, years later, bogged down in” another unwinnable, endless war.
“Remembered by many as a war lost because of betrayal at home, Vietnam has become a modern-day Alamo that must be avenged, a pretext for” more imperial war and more generations of veterans. It should be remembered “as a war in which soldiers, veterans, and citizens joined hands to fight for peace, demonstrating the effectiveness of popular resistance to political authority.
Here’s my solstice gift for you: the notes I’ve been slaving over for the past 2 weeks on Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism by Peter Marshall, 2010. I’m also going to put these notes — and some more on anarchism in the coming days, 2012 solstice goddesses willing, up as pages under “Possibilities.” Enjoy! I think it makes a lot of sense.
The word “anarchy,” conjuring up as it does for many terrorist bombings or the collapse of law and order, has had a bad press. In fact, only a tiny minority of anarchists have used terror as a revolutionary strategy, mostly in the 1890s, when there was a string of spectacular bombings and political assassinations. Over the long haul, anarchism has been far less violent than other political creeds, and certainly less violent than the states it criticizes. Anarchists believe that states and governments, theoretically intended to prevent injustice, are actually the main forces perpetuating oppression by force. They think people can live together freely and peacefully without states or formal governments – that this is, in fact, our natural state.
The historic anarchist movement had its high points during two of the major revolutions of the 20th century – the Russian and the Spanish. In the Russian Revolution, anarchists tried to give real meaning to the slogan “All Power to the Soviets [workers’ councils],” and in many places, particularly in the Ukraine, they established free communes. These efforts were short-lived, however – the Bolsheviks, believing in the need for the “dictatorship of the proletariat” to take over the state before it could “wither away,” crushed the Russian anarchists in the early 1920s.
The greatest anarchist experiment took place in Spain in the 1930s. At the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, peasants, especially in Andalusia, Aragon, and Valencia, set up a network of collectives in thousands of villages. In Catalonia, the most highly developed industrial part of Spain, anarchists managed the industries through workers’ collectives based on the principles of self-management. But the intervention of fascist Italy and Germany on the side of the far-right leader Franco and his nationalist rebels, and the Soviet policy of funneling arms through the Spanish communists, doomed the experiment. Communists and anarchists fought each other in Barcelona in 1937, and Franco triumphed soon after, establishing a 36-year dictatorship. Millions of Spanish anarchists were killed or imprisoned, or went underground. The Second World War which followed shattered the international anarchist movement.
The ’60s saw a revival in a diffuse form, since many of the themes of the New Left – decentralization, workers’ control, and participatory democracy – were central anarchist concerns. The growth of a counterculture based on individuality, community, and joy also expressed an anarchist sensibility, if not self-conscious knowledge. It became possible, once again, to “demand the impossible.”
Every state is a despotism, be the despot one or many. Max Stirner
Though anarchism by its very nature is anti-dogmatic, anarchists share certain beliefs and concerns, including a particular view of human nature, a critique of the existing order, a vision of a free society, and ideas on how to achieve it. All anarchists reject the legitimacy of the state and external government, and condemn imposed political authority, hierarchy, and domination. They believe society can be decentralized and self-regulating, consisting of a federation of voluntary associations of free and equal individuals.
The anarchist sensibility can be seen in the Taoism of ancient China and in classical Greek thought, and was expressed in the great peasant revolts of the Middle Ages and by extreme left factions of the English Revolution. It emerged as a conscious ideology at the end of the 18th century in response to the rise of centralized states, nationalism, industrialization, and capitalism.
The 19th century witnessed a flood of anarchist theory and the development of an anarchist movement. The first person to call himself an anarchist was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon of France, who insisted that only a society without artificial government could restore natural order: “Just as man seeks justice in equality, society seeks order in anarchy.” He launched the great slogans “Anarchy is Order” and “Property is Theft.”
The Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin provided a charismatic example of anarchy in action, while his compatriot Peter Kropotkin developed anarchism into a systematic social philosophy based on scientific principles. Though he didn’t publicly identify as an anarchist because of the word’s association with violence, the novelist Leo Tolstoy also created an anarchist critique of the state and property based on the teachings of Christ.
The anarchist mainstream is occupied by social anarchists – mutualists, collectivists, communists, and syndicalists, differing mainly on the issue of economic organization. All of these could exist side by side in the same society.
Individualist anarchists worry that a collectivist society will lead to the tyranny of the group, while social anarchists try to achieve a maximum degree of personal freedom in community, believing that only in community can an individual realize his or her full potential.
Pacifist anarchists see the state and government as the ultimate expressions of organized violence, involving legalized aggression, war mass murder, conscription slavery, and the soldier as a hired assassin. They argue that it’s impossible to bring about a free and peaceful society by the use of violence, since means inevitably influence ends. Their preferred tactics are nonviolent direct action, passive resistance, and civil disobedience, and they engage in strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, and occupations.
The indispensable premise of mutualism is that society be organized, without the intervention of a state, by individuals able to make free contracts with each other, exchanging the necessities of life on the basis of labor value, and obtaining free credit from a people’s bank. Labor notes would be valued according to the average amount of time it took to make a product. Local communities would link up in a federalist system of workers’ associations and communes coordinated by councils at the local, regional, national, and international level. The members of the councils would be delegates, not representatives, without any executive authority and subject to instant recall, and the councils themselves would have no central authority.
Many revolutionaries in the Paris Commune of 1871 called themselves mutualists. Since it made no direct attack on the class system, mutualism tended to appeal to craftsmen, artisans, shopkeepers, and small farmers. Some mutualists developed into collectivists, a term used for the first time by Bakunin in 1868. Collectivists wish to restrict private property to the products of individual labor, arguing that there should be common ownership of the land and all other means of production. They look to a free federation of associations of producers and consumers to organize production and distribution, upholding the socialist principle “From each according to his ability, to each according to work done.” Nearly all the Spanish anarchists were collectivists.
After the demise of the First International in the 1870s, the European anarchist movement took a communist direction, though at first the distinction between communism and collectivism wasn’t always apparent. Communists felt that since it’s virtually impossible to calculate the exact value of any one person’s labor, the whole price and wage system should be done away with. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is their slogan.
Where collectivists see the workers’ collective as the basic unit of society, communists look to the commune – consumers as well as producers – as the fundamental association. They believe that in a communist system economic relations would express the natural human sympathies of solidarity and mutual aid, releasing spontaneous altruism and creating an abundant way of life for all. The proper relationship between people, they believe, isn’t self-interest, however enlightened, but sympathy.
Anarcho-syndicalism, according to Wikipedia, “is a branch of anarchism which views revolutionary industrial unionism or syndicalism as an appropriate vehicle for subjugated classes in capitalist society to regain control over the course of their own destiny. Syndicalism is viewed both as a strategy for facilitating worker self-activity and as being an alternative cooperative economic system upon which to base a democratic regime of production for the satisfaction of human need once the injustices understood to be inherent to capitalist society have been overcome.” Anarcho-syndicalists take the view that trade unions and labor syndicates should be concerned with more than improving workers’ conditions and wages. They should also teach socialism and establish institutions of self-management so that when the revolution comes through a general strike, the workers will be prepared to begin the necessary social transformation.
Many Spanish anarchists were anarcho-syndicalists, as were, in many ways, the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World), founded in the US in 1905. The Wobblies, who believe in one international union, were powerful in the American labor movement and in politics until the Red Scare repression preceding and during World War II.
Pure anarchy in the sense of a society with no concentration of force and no social controls has probably never existed. Stateless and peasant societies employ sanctions of approval and disapproval, the offer of reciprocity and the threat of its withdrawal, as instruments of social control. But modern anthropology confirms that in “primitive” societies there is a limited and rarely imposed concentration of force. Anarchists wish to combine ancient patterns of cooperation and mutual aid with a more modern sense of individuality and personal autonomy.
In accordance with their beliefs about the state, anarchists have always preached abstention from conventional politics. Instead of paying taxes to a government, which then decides who is in need, anarchists prefer to help the disadvantaged directly by voluntary acts of giving or by participating in community organizations. They reject the claim made by democratic socialists that the state is the best means of redistributing wealth and providing welfare. They say that in practice the socialist state tends to spawn a vast bureaucracy that stifles the voluntary associations of community life, creates a new elite, and encourages dependency and conformity.
Rejecting the state, anarchists also reject its laws and coercive enforcement of them, pointing out that all human law is arbitrary. They seek to reduce the occasion for crime by eradicating its causes – government and accumulated property – and by educating people to think in terms of the general good rather than private interest. They admit that violent people might have to be restrained temporarily, but think they should be treated kindly and kept within the community if possible.
Most anarchists support national liberation movements as part of a wider struggle for freedom, but don’t believe people should give their loyalty to nation-states or serve as cannon fodder in nationalist wars.
Anarchists recognize that the freedom of all is the necessary condition for the freedom of each, and include freedom from want (in the sense of economic hardship) in this. The anarchist concept of freedom means freedom to do whatever one wants as long as it doesn’t interfere with the freedom of others or go against the common good. Such boundaries, however, are adopted voluntarily rather than being imposed by force by government or some other authority.
Taoism and Buddhism
The Chinese Taoists of the 6th century BC rejected government and believed that people could live in natural and spontaneous harmony. The Tao te Ching (“The Way and Its Power”), attributed to Lao Tzu and written in the 3rd century BC, celebrates the way of nature and describes how the wise person can follow it. The Taoist conception of nature is based on the ancient Chinese principles of yin and yang, opposite and complementary forces which together constitute the ch’i (matter-energy) of which all beings and phenomena are formed. Yin is the supreme feminine power, characterized by darkness, cold, and receptivity and associated with the moon; yang, masculine, bright, warm, and active, is identified with the sun. Both forces are at work within men and women and in all things.
The Tao, which can’t be defined – Lao Tzu likens it to a river flowing home to the sea or an uncarved block – follows what’s natural. It’s the way the universe works, the order of nature that gives all things their being, then changes them. The wise person contemplates and adopts its ways rather than trying to conquer or exploit it. For the Taoist, the art of living is to be found in simplicity, non-assertion, and spontaneity.
Central to Taoist teaching is the concept of wu-wei, the lack of wei. Wei is artificial, contrived activity that interferes with natural unfolding. From a political point of view, wei is authority imposed on natural order. Wu-wei is the creative and effective use of energy – work without effort, undertaken for its intrinsic value, that’s indistinguishable from play.
Favoring a form of agrarian collectivism, Taoists rejected all forms of imposed authority, government, and the state. The Tao te ching criticized of the bureaucratic, warlike, and commercial nature of the Chinese feudal system, and saw accumulated property as a form of robbery: “When the court is arrayed in splendor, the fields are full of weeds, and the granaries are bare.” Lao Tzu offers the social ideal of a decentralized classless society without government and patriarchy in which people live simply in harmony with nature, producing and sharing goods.
A small country has fewer people.
Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred times faster than man,
They are not needed.
The people take death seriously and do not travel far.
Though they have boats and carriages, no one uses them.
Though they have armor and weapons, no one displays them.
Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing.
Their food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple, their homes secure.
They are happy in their ways.
Though they live within sight of their neighbors,
And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,
Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.
The anarchistic tendency of the Taoists comes through even stronger in the writings of the philosopher Chuang Tzu, who lived about 369-286 BC. He wrote, “A mountain is high because of its individual particles. A river is large because of its individual drops. And he is a just man who regards all parts from the point of view of the whole.”
The disaffiliation, voluntary poverty, and nonviolence of practicing Buddhists continued the Taoist spirit. Zen Buddhism in particular attempts to reach truth and enlightenment without concepts, scriptures, and ritual. It developed in China in the 6th century AD, and reached Japan 500 years later. Zen is intended to bring the practitioner back to the original state of freedom he’s lost through ignorance. Anyone can become enlightened through direct and immediate experience, seeing into his or her own nature and realizing that it’s not separate from Nature as a whole. Zen monks live and work communally, with equal obligation and equal treatment, and, like all Mahayana Buddhists, are concerned with the welfare of the larger world and seek to be of service in it.
The Greek Cynics of the 4th century BC also rejected custom and law and wanted to live according to nature. They denied the competence of courts to judge actions, and argued that laws and hierarchies are without moral foundation. Antisthenes (c. 444-370 BC), a friend of Socrates, turned his back on his former aristocratic circle in order to pursue simple goodness among working people. He preached at open-air meetings that there should be no government, no private property, no marriage, and no established religion. His pupil, Diogenes, became even more famous. Condemning the artificial encumbrances of civilization, he aspired to live as simply as a dog. He was therefore called a “cynic,” which means “canine.” Diogenes not only rejected the institution of slavery, but declared his brotherhood with all beings, human and animal. He considered himself to be a “citizen of the world.”
The Stoics took up the doctrine of the Cynics, using nature as a guiding principle and developing the ideals of individualism, rationalism, equality, internationalism, and cosmopolitanism. Zeno (336-264 BC), called the founder of Stoicism, saw a social instinct that inclines people toward cooperation for the common good. In the fragments of Zeno’s Republic that have been preserved, there are no law courts, police, armies, temples, schools, money, or marriage. People live as a single “herd” without family or property, with no distinctions of race or rank, and no need for compulsion of any sort. A stateless society of complete equality and freedom spreads across the globe.
Christ’s voluntary poverty, his attacks on political authority and riches, and his sharing of food and other items inspired many early Christians to practice a form of communism. In the 4th century, Ambrose said, “Nature has poured forth all things for all men for common use. It has therefore produced a common right for all, but greed has made it right for a few. In accordance with the will of God and the union of nature, we ought to be of mutual help one to the other.” In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas recognized the right to property for personal use, but believed that anything extra should be distributed to those in need. The right to property is therefore only a right of administration or stewardship. Wealth is held in trust for the public good, and where death threatens or there is no other source of sustenance, it’s permissible to take what’s necessary.
At the beginning of the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi lived in ecstatic joy, delighting in nature and repudiating all notion of property, including items for personal use. His message implied that the established church and state were lost in ostentation and opulence, and that the poor were the only community capable of redemption.
The Diggers and Ranters, part of the radical republican wing in the English Revolution of the 17th century, rejected church, state, and all temporal law, feeling that they were in a state of grace and could commit no sin. They looked to the Second Coming of Christ and the immediate realization of heaven on earth in which people would live in perfect freedom and complete equality. The poet William Blake thought similarly at the end of the 18th century, believing that since human beings are made in the Divine Image they can govern themselves without law or government.
Inspired by Gerrard Winstanley, the Diggers tried to set up a colony on a wasteland area in the spring of 1649. Hoping to “lay the foundation of making the earth a common treasury for all,” forty people planted beans, wheat, rye, parsnips, and carrots. Despite harassment by the local clergy, landlords, magistrates, and freeholders, who trampled on their seedlings, stole their tools, and pulled down their crude huts, they persevered for a year.
Winstanley believed God wasn’t a personal deity or Supreme Being, but a “spirit that dwells in all mankind.” He identified God with Reason and Reason with the law of the universe. A person subject to Reason became a Son of God, no longer ruled from without but from within, by their conscience, love, and reason. Winstanley wrote that the “ruling and teaching power without dams up the spirit of peace and liberty, first within the heart, by filling it with slavish fears of others; secondly, without, by giving the body of one to be imprisoned, punished, and oppressed by the outward power of another.” He believed private property to be the principal source of social conflict, “restraining other fellow creatures from seeking nourishment from their mother earth.” For these reasons, Winstanley attacked the social and political order and advocated an anarchist and communist form of society without the state, army, or law. Opposed to violence, including capital punishment, he didn’t call for mass insurrection or the seizure of the lands of the rich.
The Ranters, whom Winstanley despised, sought total emancipation from all laws and rules, and advocated free love. They attacked private property and called for its abolition, and rejected all forms of government, whether ecclesiastical or civil. The Ranters were often confused with Quakers, and many may have crossed over from one group to the other. Both believed there was an “indwelling spirit” or “inner light” in each individual soul and thought the power of love would be enough to bring about a new era of peace and freedom.
Tolstoy’s radical interpretation of the Gospels led him to the anarchist conclusion that since the Kingdom of God is within and we can be guided by the divine light of reason, governments are both unnecessary and harmful. If people would but understand that they are “sons of God,” Tolstoy wrote, “and can therefore be neither slaves nor enemies to one another, these insane, unnecessary, worn-out, pernicious organizations called governments, and all the sufferings, violations, humiliations, and crimes they occasion, would cease.” Tolstoy inspired a long tradition of anarchist pacifists, including Gandhi, who developed his doctrine of civil disobedience into a highly effective form of nonviolent direct action.
Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker organization in 1933, sought with the anarchist Peter Maurin to decentralize society and establish a community of families, with a combination of private and communal property. She stressed above all the need for love. Ammon Hennacy similarly preached “the one-man revolution within the heart,” based on voluntary poverty and pacifism. “When we take part in government by voting for legislative, judicial, and executive officials,” he wrote, “we make these men our arm by which we cast a stone [judge others] and deny the Sermon on the Mount.”
Classic Anarchist Thinkers
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first self-styled anarchist, published What Is Property? In 1840, and was an important influence on the developing French labor movement. Even though Proudhon answered his question “What is property?” with the bold paradox “Property is Theft,” he was wasn’t opposed to private property as such; in fact, he called communists who wanted to collectivize it “enemies of freedom.” He was principally opposed to large property-owners who appropriated the labor of others.
On the subject of government, he demonstrated that “anarchy is order” by showing that authoritarian government and the unequal distribution of wealth are the principal causes of disorder and chaos in society.
Marx tried to get Proudhon to join his international communist group, but the French printer was put off by Marx’s doctrinaire and dominating personality and by authoritarian communism. He wrote, “Simply because we are leaders of a movement let us not instigate a new intolerance. Let us not set ourselves up as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic or reason.” Marx called Proudhon a “petty-bourgeois idealist” who failed to recognize that human nature isn’t an unchanging essence but a product of history. This opposition marked the beginning of a split between libertarian and authoritarian socialists that later came to a head in the dispute between Marx and Bakunin in the First International.
Mikhail Bakunin was born into an aristocratic Russian family in 1814. At 22, he resigned from the army and went to Moscow to study and teach philosophy. He made his way to Paris in 1843, where he was impressed by Proudhon’s critique of government and property. He also met Marx, whom he described as “vain, morose, and devious…head to foot an authoritarian.”
Bakunin was arrested in Germany in 1849 for revolutionary activity. Deported to Russia, he spent the next eight years in solitary confinement. In 1855 his sentence was changed from life imprisonment to banishment in Siberia, and in 1861, he escaped, taking an American ship to San Francisco, then sailing to London.
In 1863 Bakunin went to Italy, where he wrote that “new organisms can only arise from immense destruction, and we will be fortunate to see even that.” He no longer believed in national liberation movements as a revolutionary force and began to advocate social revolution on an international scale. He praised Marx for having been the first to understand “that all the intellectual and political developments of society are nothing other than the expression of its material and economic developments.”
Bakunin was strongly influenced by the Italian anarchist leader Carlo Piscane, who defined property and government as the principal sources of slavery, poverty, and corruption, and called for a new Italy organized from the bottom up on the principle of free association. In the absence of a well-organized Italian workers’ movement, Bakunin created a secret society in Florence in 1864 and another in Naples in 1866. Although his secret societies were never influential, Bakunin hoped they would act as “invisible pilots in the thick of the poplar tempest, assisting the birth of the revolution by sowing seeds corresponding to the instincts of the masses, then channeling the revolutionary energy of the people.”
At this stage, Bakunin didn’t call for the direct and immediate expropriation of private industry, thinking that the abolition of the right of inheritance and the formation of cooperative workers’ associations would ensure the gradual disappearance of private ownership and economic inequality. He believed all property belonging to the state and to “reactionaries” should be confiscated, however. In place of existing nation states, society would be organized “from the base to the summit – from the circumference to the center – according to the principles of free association and federation.” The basic unit of society would be the autonomous commune, which would always have the right to secede from any federation. Decisions would be made by majority rule based on universal suffrage of both sexes. Every adult would be expected to fulfill three obligations: remaining free, living by his own labor, and respecting the freedom of others.
Bakunin recognized that this ideal society could only be put in place violently. He envisioned the revolution as a fight not against particular men, but against “antisocial institutions” that would not take long and would not degenerate into “cold, systematic terrorism.” In 1867 Bakunin acknowledged that the full realization of socialism “will no doubt be the work of centuries.” He also wrote that every human has a sense of justice deep in their conscience that translates itself into “simple equality.”
In 1868 in a speech at the Second Congress of the League for Peace and Freedom in Berne, Bakunin declared in no uncertain terms that all states are founded on “force, oppression, exploitation, and injustice, elevated into a system. They offer a double negation of humanity, internally by maintaining order by force and exploiting the people, and externally by waging aggressive war. By their very nature they represent the diametrical opposite of human justice, freedom, and morality.” He concluded that freedom and peace could only be achieved through the dissolution of all states and the creation of a universal federation of free associations, organized from the bottom up.
Later that year, Bakunin joined the Geneva branch of the International, and in 1869 acted as its delegate to the Fourth Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association in Basel. He soon found support among the watchmakers of the French-speaking Jura, who provided him with a base, and he went on to win over other workers, especially in France and Italy. Meanwhile, his Italian comrade Giuseppe Fanelli went to Spain and soon converted the Spanish Federation, the largest organization within the International, to Bakunin’s collectivist and federalist program. It was from these libertarian sections of the International that revolutionary syndicalism, or anarcho-syndicalism, developed.
Bakunin felt that the best way for workers to learn theory wasn’t through propaganda and education, but through practice: “emancipation through practical action.”
The differences between Bakunin and Marx came to a head at the Basel Congress of the International in September 1869 with a split between the former’s anti-authoritarian communists, communist federalists, and communist anarchists and authoritarian communists.
In September 1870 Bakunin went to Lyon, France to try to trigger an uprising he hoped would lead to a revolutionary federation of communes. The Lyon uprising was quickly crushed, but it marked the beginning of the revolutionary movement that would culminate in the Paris Commune the following spring. In a fragment on “The Program of the Alliance” written at this time, Bakunin rejected class collaboration and parliamentary politics. He also attacked union bureaucracy by means of which elected leaders often become “absolute masters of the rank-and-file, and replace popular assemblies by committees.”
On religion, Bakunin wrote that the idea of God implied “the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and practice.” Bakunin considered God to be such a threat to human liberty and virtue that he reversed Voltaire’s famous phrase to say “if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.”
Bakunin was also concerned about the authoritarian dangers of a scientific elite, saying that it would be better for people to dispense with science altogether than be governed by technocrats, for “life, not science, creates life; the spontaneous action of the people themselves alone can create liberty.”
Bakunin saw representative government as an “immense fraud” resting on the fiction that executive and legislative bodies elected by universal suffrage represent the will of the people. Irrespective of their democratic sentiments, he said, all rulers are corrupted by their participation in government – political power means domination. Even workers put into power would the day after their election become “the most determined aristocrats, open or secret worshippers of the principle of authority, exploiters and oppressors.” Bakunin wrote that representative government is “a system of hypocrisy and perpetual falsehood whose success rests on the stupidity of the people and the corruption of the public mind…Freedom can be created only by freedom, by a total rebellion of the people from the bottom up.” A people’s state even in a transitional period is therefore a contradiction in terms. In one of his most famous maxims, Bakunin insisted that “freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice, and socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.”
Bakunin abhorred the ancient Russian mir or peasant commune, because although the Russian peasants felt the land belonged to the community and were hostile to the state, they revered the tsar and were organized patriarchally. In contrast, the new commune in an emancipated society would consist of a voluntary association of free and equal individuals of both sexes. He believed individual freedom for Bakunin could only exist in the context of communal solidarity, and insisted that the basic principle of socialism was “that every human being should have the material and moral means to develop his humanity.”
Marx engineered Bakunin’s expulsion from the International at its Congress at the Hague in September 1872.
Bakunin considered the poorest and most oppressed and alienated to be the “flower of the proletariat,” while Marx dismissed this group, which he called the lumpenproletariat, as riffraff or rabble. Bakunin also felt that the peasants, whom Marx saw as “rural idiots,” were equally important in making the revolution. He hoped to see land being appropriated by agricultural associations and capital and the means of production by industrial associations. Marshall notes that Bakunin’s stress on the revolutionary potential of the peasantry has been confirmed by all the major revolutions of the 20th century – in Russia, Spain, China, Cuba, and Vietnam.
Bakunin died in Berne on July 1, 1876. His legacy was the spreading of anarchist ideas and the revolutionary spirit among 19th century workers, especially in France, Italy, Spain, and Latin America.
Peter Kropotkin, whom Marshall calls “the most systematic and profound anarchist thinker of the 19th century,” was born in 1842 into an aristocratic Russian family. As a military student, he became the personal page de chambre of Tsar Alexander II, whom he initially admired for liberating the serfs in 1861. The growing brutality of the regime eventually made Kropotkin distrust court politics and government in general, however. Later, his close observation of animals while serving as a military administrator in eastern Siberia led him to revise Darwin’s theory and insist that cooperation is the most important factor in evolution. Kropotkin’s contact with Siberian peasants and their communities also gave him a lasting faith in the solidarity and creative spontaneity of the people.
In 1871, having returned to St. Petersburg to study mathematics, Kropotkin was inspired by news of the Paris revolution, and the following year he visited western Europe. He became particularly friendly with Bakunin’s closest friend, James Guillaume, and absorbed his federalist ideas. Returning to Russia, Kropotkin became involved with the narodniks – young Russians who went to live with and educate the people (narod). Their goal was a new society based on a voluntary association of producers on the lines of the traditional Russian mir or village commune. The majority of these were for non-militant agitation, but Kropotkin advocated peasant uprisings and the seizure of land and property. He urged that society be organized by workers and peasants without government.
Arrested in March 1874, Kropotkin made a daring and dramatic escape from a prison hospital two years later. He left for England, determined to throw in his lot with the workers, and spent all his energy during the next five years in the anarchist cause. Arrested, he spent five years in a French prison, returning to London in 1886.
Kropotkin thought that small revolutionary groups should submerge themselves in workers’ organizations and act as catalysts to bring about a mass uprising and social revolution. He also recommended working through militant trade unions and was sympathetic to revolutionary syndicalism. Though associated with the doctrine of “propaganda by the deed,” Kropotkin was opposed to indiscriminate violence and believed that individual acts of violence were only justified as part of a revolutionary struggle with anarchist goals. He understood the despair that led to acts of terrorism, however, and refused to condemn anarchist terrorists outright, especially in view of the state’s mass terrorism.
Kropotkin maintained that man, like many other primates, is naturally adapted to live in society without artificial regulations. He noted that traditional people have always lived in clans and tribes in which customs and taboos ensure cooperation and mutual aid. People naturally engage in mutual aid out of an innate moral sense, and this voluntary cooperation hasn’t been eradicated by the appearance of coercive institutions and the modern state. The anarchist ideal, in other words, would bring people’s natural tendencies to the fore.
Kropotkin wrote that by its very nature the state can’t recognize a freely formed union operating within itself; it only recognizes subjects. “The State and its sister the Church arrogate to themselves alone the right to serve as the link between men.” In the history of human societies, the state has thus acted “to prevent direct association among men, to shackle the development of local and individual initiative, and to crush existing liberties in order to subject the masses to the will of minorities.” Kropotkin agreed with Marx that the political regime to which human societies are subjected is always the expression if the economic regime prevalent in that society. Even representative political systems, he believed, are by definition manipulated by those who control the economy.
Kropotkin criticized the revolutionary government advocated by state socialists as a transitional stage to a free society. Since a revolution is a growing and spontaneous movement, he wrote, any centralized political authority will check and crystallize its progress, and become a counterrevolutionary force resisting any development beyond itself. The immense and profound complexity of reorganizing society and elaborating new social forms can only be achieved by the collective suppleness of the mind of the whole people, not by an elected or dictatorial minority. Revolutionary groups should restrict their activity to awakening the consciousness of the people and reminding them of fundamental goals. On the morrow of the revolution, Kropotkin wrote, grievances and needs must be satisfied immediately so that the people can see that the situation has been transformed to their advantage and isn’t merely a change of persons and formulae. This necessitates the full expropriation of social goods and the means of production and the introduction of communism.
A free society for Kropotkin would be composed of a network of voluntary associations of equal individuals who are both consumers and producers. The network would include an infinite variety of groups and federations of all sizes – local, regional, national, and international, temporary and more or less permanent, formed for all possible purposes. The local commune would be the basic social unit and the center of life in town and country. Each group within the commune will be “drawn toward other similar groups in other communes,” and will federate with them “by links as solid as those which attach it to its fellow citizens,” constituting another “commune of interests whose members are scattered in a thousand towns and villages.”
In place of law, people would regulate their relationships by a combination of custom and free agreements, not enforced by any authority, but incentivized by common interest. With the eradication of private property and poverty, crime would be almost nonexistent, and the few disputes that arose could be easily settled by arbitrators.
When it came to organizing the economy, Kropotkin went beyond Proudhon’s mutualism and Bakunin’s collectivism to advocate a form of anarchist communism. Politically, this meant a society without government (anarchy); economically, it meant the complete negation of the wage system and the ownership of the means of production in common. Kropotkin felt that anarchist communism was the union of the two fundamental tendencies of society – toward political liberty and economic equality. The means of production would be owned by associations or communes of producers, organized on a voluntary basis and connected federally. Each person would do whatever work he could and receive from the common stock according to his needs, without money or exchange notes.
Kropotkin further advocated industrial decentralization, regional self-sufficiency, integration of town and country, and more intensive methods of food production. He was convinced that 5 hours of labor a day for 150 days a year would satisfy the basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing, with another 150 days to provide secondary goods. “After bread has been secured,” he wrote, “leisure is the supreme aim.”
All adults under a certain age – say, forty – would be expected to do some manual labor, but technology would reduce drudgery and toil and people could choose their work and vary it as they wished. The incentive to work would be the conscious satisfaction of the work itself and a sense of contributing to the general happiness.
Kropotkin returned to his homeland in 1917, but said after the Bolsheviks took power, “This buries the revolution. The method by which they seek to establish communism in a strongly centralized state makes success impossible and paralyzes the constructive work of the people.” In 1919, Kropotkin met with Lenin and complained about the persecution of the cooperatives and the bureaucratized local authorities. In December 1920 he wrote and complained about the hostage-taking practices of the Red Army during the civil war. The following year he wrote that the Bolsheviks were “perpetuating horrors” and ruining the country.
When Kropotkin died in February 1921, the Bolshevik government offered his family a state funeral, but they refused. His funeral proved to be the last great anarchist demonstration in Russia, for later that year the movement was crushed.
Feminist anarchist Emma Goldman was born in 1869 in a Jewish ghetto in Russia. At 15, her poverty-stricken family sent her to a half-sister in America. She decided to become a revolutionary in 1886, on the the Haymarket anarchists were hanged. Six years later, Goldman and her lover, Alexander Berkman, planned to assassinate Henry Clay Frick during the 1892 Homestead steel strike. Having wounded Frick, Berkman was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
In 1893, Goldman spent a year in prison for urging the unemployed to take bread by force. In 1906, Goldman and Berkman began publishing the monthly Mother Earth, which discussed anarchist ideas and featured writers like Thoreau, Nietzsche, and Wilde. Goldman also went on lecture tours, becoming one of the most magnetic and volatile orators in American history, despite the attempts of police and vigilante groups to silence her. She was imprisoned a second time for distributing birth control literature, but her longest sentence came from helping to set up No-Conscription Leagues and organizing rallies against the First World War. She and Berkman were arrested in 1917 for conspiracy to obstruct the draft and given two years in prison. Upon their release, they were stripped of their American citizenship and deported with other ‘Reds’ to Russia.
Goldman and Berkman were disappointed by the lack of free speech in the Soviet Union and the special privileges enjoyed by Communist Party members. Traveling throughout the country collecting documents for the revolutionary archives, they were horrified at the growing bureaucracy, political persecution, and forced labor they found. Their breaking point was reached when the Kronstadt rebellion was crushed by the Red Army. A series of workers’ strikes had taken place in March 1921 in Petrograd, supported by the Kronstadt sailors, calling for an equalization of rations, freedom of speech, and elections to the soviets. Goldman and Berkman obtained passports and left for Europe, convinced that the Revolution had been defeated.
Berkman settled in France, and Goldman in England, where she found herself almost alone in condemning the Bolsheviks so that her public lectures were poorly attended. On hearing that Goldman might be deported in 1925, another activist offered to marry her to give her British nationality, and she accepted his expression of solidarity. With a British passport, she was able to travel to France and Canada, and in 1934 was even allowed to return to the United States.
Depressed by the rise of fascism and by Berkman’s suicide in 1936, Goldman was greatly cheered to hear of the republican stand against Franco in Spain. In September 1936, at the age of 67, she went to Barcelona to join in the struggle. She worked with the anarchist CNT-FAI (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo-Federación Anarquista Ibérica), and on one occasion 10,000 of their members turned out to hear her call them a “shining example to the rest of the world.” She edited the English language edition of the organization’s bulletin and was given the task of publicizing their cause in Britain.
Goldman disagreed with the participation of the CNT-FAI in the coalition government of 1937 and the concessions they made to the increasingly powerful communists for the sake of the war effort. Still, she stood by her comrades.
Despite her profound disappointment at Franco’s eventual triumph, Goldman refused to compromise her anarchist principles. She wrote just before her death in 1940, “I am against dictatorship and fascism as I am opposed to parliamentary regimes and so-called political democracy.” Having met leading French syndicalists, Goldman saw syndicalism, with its wish to overthrow the wage system and replace the centralized state with the “free, federated grouping of the workers,” as the “economic expression of anarchism.”
While living in America, Goldman advocated the use of collective violence to overthrow the state and capitalism, and endorsed class war, direct action, and industrial sabotage. But after her experience in Russia in 1920 and 1921, she recognized the inconsistency in using violent means to achieve libertarian ends. Social revolution, she now thought, should recognize the sanctity of human life and aim at a fundamental change in values. As she wrote to a friend in 1923, “The one thing I am convinced of as I have never been in my life is that the gun decides nothing at all.” Goldman now thought the most effective way of reconstructing society was through example and “free school” education.
As a feminist, Goldman wrote that true emancipation for women began neither at the polls nor in the courts, but in a “woman’s soul” as she “assert[ed] herself as a personality…refusing the right to anyone over her body, refusing to bear children unless she wants them; and refusing to be a servant to God, the state, society, or her and family.” Living a “simpler, deeper, and richer” life according to her own lights, such free women will be “a force hitherto unknown in the world, a force for real love, for peace, for harmony; a force of divine fire,” able to give life to free men and women. Finally, she emphasized the importance of joy, saying, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.”
After the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, Nestor Makhno, an anarcho-communist revolutionary, organized a 400-square-mile area of the Ukraine with a population of 7 million into an autonomous region. The factories were occupied, and collectives organized their production. Makhno had to fight Whites, Ukrainian nationalists, and the Germans and Austrians who were given control of the Ukraine under the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
By September 1918, Makhno’s partisan army had captured the regional capital of Gulyai-Polye from the Austrians. Even under war conditions, the social revolution continued, with communes or free-work soviets set up in areas under Makhno’s control. When they passed through a district, his partisans would put up posters announcing, “The freedom of the workers and the peasants is their own, and not subject to any restriction. It is up to the workers and peasants themselves to act, to organize themselves in all aspects of their lives, as they themselves see fit. The Makhnovists can do no more than give aid and counsel. In no circumstances can they, nor do they wish to, govern.” Wherever they went, Makkno’s partisans carried the black flag of anarchy at their head, embroidered with “Liberty or Death” and “The Land to the Peasants, the Factories to the Workers.”
Groups of producers were federated into districts, and districts into regions. Free assembly, free speech, and a free press were declared. In January, February, and April of 1919, a series of Regional Congresses of Peasants, Workers, and Insurgents were held to discuss economic and military matters and elect a Regional Military Revolutionary Council.
Alarmed by the growing influence of the Makhnovist movement, the Bolshevik government tried to reach an agreement with Makhno in 1920. He insisted that in the area in which the Makhnovist army was operating “the worker and peasant populations shall create their own free institutions for economic self-administration; these institutions shall be autonomous and linked federally by agreements with the governing organs of the Soviet Republics.” In April 1919, the Third Regional Council had met despite being banned by the Soviet authorities, inviting delegates from the Red Army. After Makhno’s army defeated the Whites in October 1920, the Bolsheviks ordered that it be absorbed into the Red Army under Trotsky’s command. When Makhno resisted the order, the officers of the Crimean Makhnovist army were arrested while attending a joint military council, and shot. Makhno managed to fight on against hopeless odds until August 1921. In the end, defeated, he went into exile, slandered as a bandit and pogromist by the Bolsheviks. He died 13 years later in Paris.
Makhno’s widow and daughter were deported to Germany for forced labor during World War II. At the end of the war, they were arrested by the Russian NKVD and sentenced to eight years of hard labor. They lived in Kazakhstan after their release in 1953.
The Sarvodaya Movement
Sarvodaya, a Gujarati word meaning the progress or welfare of all, was used by Gandhi to express his political philosophy. He believed that the good of the individual is contained in the good of all, that all work has the same value, and that a life of labor is the only life worth living. The Gandhian social ideal also included an equitable distribution of wealth, communal self-sufficiency and individual freedom.
After Gandhi’s death, his followers in India (notably, Vinoba Bhave) continued working to promote the kind of society he’d envisioned, and their efforts have come to be known as the Sarvodaya Movement. Sarvodaya workers undertook various projects aimed at encouraging popular self-organization during the 1950s and 1960s, and groups descended from these networks continue to function locally in India today, some of them encouraging the voluntary donation and redistribution of land.
Marshall says that under Vinoba’s guidance the Sarvodaya movement took an increasingly anarchistic direction, advocating common ownership of the land. Gandhi had maintained that any property one has, including one’s talents, should be used for the benefit of the whole. As in the family, so in society: property should be held in common, each giving according to his ability and taking according to his needs. Like Gandhi, the Sarvodaya movement was and is committed to a decentralized economy of combined fields and workshops. Also, like Gandhi, the movement has been deeply suspicious of centralized authority. Stressing the right of private judgment and the importance of the individual conscience, Vinoba rejected the legitimacy of the state’s claim to obedience. “It is one mark of swaraj [independence] not to allow any outside power to exercise control over oneself. And the second mark of swaraj is not to exercise power over any other. These two things together make swaraj – no submission and no exploitation.”
Like their Western anarchist counterparts, the Sarvodayites assert that those who attain political power are inevitably corrupted. They also reject the idea that majority rule can express public opinion and bring about welfare of all, and believe that political parties are divisive. Recognizing that revolutions are never achieved by power or party politics, the Sarvodaya movement sought to develop a new form of politics based on the direct action of the people themselves, with all decisions taken either unanimously or by consensus (no member actively disagreeing). The movement is nonviolent, ascetic, and gradualist. Vinoba’s threefold program of political development moves from national independence via a decentralized self-governing state, to pure anarchy. The last stage will only be reached when all people are self-reliant and self-governing. The state will wither away as people build an alternative society through the slow and thorough transformation of ideas and values. Part of this process involves a new politics of party-less democracy based on the consensus of all classes and groups.
The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, a self-governance movement in Sri Lanka, provides development and conflict resolution programs to villages. Founded in 1958 by Dr A. T. Ariyaratne when he took forty high school students and twelve teachers from Nalanda College Colombo on an educational experiment to an outcaste village, it’s based on Buddhist and Gandhian principles, including sarvodaya and swaraj. The word “shramadana” means “a gift of labor.”
As of 2006, Sarvodaya staff and programs are active in some 15,000 (of 38,000) villages in Sri Lanka, involving 11 million people. The program begins with an invitation from a village for discussion of what is needed and how it can be done. It then creates a village council, builds a school and a clinic, and helps the village become economically self-sustaining. Sarvodaya also sponsors public meditations in which tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians meditate together on each other’s welfare.
“Neither Victims nor Executioners.” Albert Camus
During the 1960s, many members of the New Left espoused the traditional anarchist principles of mutual aid, direct action, and decentralization. Activists called for an end to hierarchy and domination, challenging corporate, state, and university authorities and criticizing the oppressive nature of contemporary culture, especially in the realm of sexuality and the family. They recognized the revolutionary potential of the marginal and declassé elements of society, realized that the organization of the movement foreshadowed the structure of the new society, and saw the need to create counter-institutions and build the new society from the bottom up.
The predominantly pacifist New Left largely existed outside strictly anarchist organizations, and saw feminism as a central issue. Where the main support for the old anarchist movement came from peasants and artisans, the new anarchists were principally disaffected middle-class intellectuals, especially teachers, social workers, and students. An anarchistic counterculture also developed, experimenting with mind-altering drugs and rejecting rationality and objectivity in favor of emotions, playfulness, and mysticism. The counterculture never offered a real threat to the status quo, however. Many of its fashions were taken up by the market, and most of its members were eventually co-opted by the dominant society and culture.
In France in May 1968, a student rebellion triggered the occupation of factories in one of the greatest general strikes in history. Graffiti on the walls in Paris declared: “Neither Gods Nor Masters;” “The More You Consume the Less You Live;” “All Power to the Imagination;” “It Is Forbidden to Forbid;” and “Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible.” But while the workers occupied the factories, they didn’t work in them and failed to turn their strike committees into administrative organs of self-management. After six weeks, a 10% pay raise was accepted by the reformist Confédération Générale du Travail. That and de Gaulle’s offer of new elections led to the collapse of the strike.
The riot following the Democratic Party convention in Chicago in 1968 was the high point of mass opposition to the state in the United States, and by the early ’70s the New Left had disintegrated as a coherent movement. The worldwide economic recession of 1973-4 checked post-scarcity utopianism, and the vast majority of rebellious youth put away their beads and tried to make it in straight society. Still, Proudhon’s maxim “Anarchy is Order,” commonly reduced to an encircled capital “A,” has become one of the most common graffiti in the urban landscape.
Anarchism today is no longer dismissed as the creed of bomb-throwers, but is increasingly recognized as one of thoughtful people asking important questions and proposing new ways of seeing and doing. Anarchy has been reinvented, and the new anti-capitalist, anti-war, and anti-globalization movements reflect its goals and decentralized and non-hierarchical ways of organizing.
Associated with “post-left anarchy” in the US, where the movement first emerged, are the journals Crimethinc, Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, Green Anarchy, and The Fifth Estate. Many primitivists are post-leftists, although John Zerzan, one of their most influential thinkers, likes to call himself “anti-leftist.” Primitivists reject modern technology and try to adopt a primitive lifestyle close to nature. They believe that technology, far from being “neutral,” as many think, has adverse mental, physical, emotional, and social effects on us. For the anarcho-primitivists, it isn’t the centralized and militarized state that’s the principal cause of social, political, and ecological crisis, as most anarchists maintain, but civilization itself. In their view, human society went wrong around 7,000 BC when it settled down to domesticate animals and grow crops. By contrast, according to David Watson, the hunter-gatherer world is “affluent because its needs are few, all its desires are easily met. Its tool kit is elegant and light…It is anarchic…a dancing society, a singing society, a celebrating society, a dreaming society.”
Like deep ecologists, anarcho-primitivists wish to have an unmediated experience of nature, and with Edward Abbey and the members of Earth First! they’re prepared to engage in eco-sabotage to defend ecosystems and non-human species.
Many of these primitivists, such as Fredy Perlman, John Zerzan, and Derrick Jensen, would like to see the dismantling of urban civilization. They wish to go “feral,” and return to a condition of “wildness,” if not in the woods, deserts, or mountains, in the interstices of urban life, reclaiming abandoned buildings and vacant lots, and dumpster-diving. Rejecting wage labor, they try to become active agents rather than passive subjects – mere consumers.
Zerzan notes that the increasing trend of using symbolic representation, especially through language, cuts us off from each other and from the natural world. The experience of time as a linear process (clock and calendar time) also prevents us from living in the here and now. Jensen, who admires Zerzan’s work, advocates paralyzing the capitalist system by sabotaging commercial infrastructure and means of communication. As an older American anarchist, Noam Chomsky, has pointed out, however, this would cause mass suffering and many deaths. Which is the greater evil?
Marshall points out that, given the present human population, it would be impossible for all of us to abandon cities and live as hunter-gatherers. He says the only real wilderness left is “within ourselves. We were born to be wild and free; the great question for the new millennium is how to expand our freedom and preserve the remaining wilderness.”
Green anarchists, who share many of the primitivists’ beliefs, learn earth and survival skills, practice self-sufficiency, and try to simplify their lives while continuing to live in the city. They predict that the present form of industrial civilization, spreading across the world with global capital and political imperialism, will lead to a social and ecological catastrophe unless there is a major shift in values. While keeping a wider perspective, they stress the importance of local identity, rehabilitation of the land, and bioregionalism.
Syndicalists like Graham Purchase and Wobbly organizer Judi Bari have tried to develop a form of green syndicalism, in which unions committed to direct action and workers’ self-management take up ecological concerns. Anarchists have also been involved in the animal liberation and animal rights movements. Wild Greens and members of Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front defend the planet and its species with a wide variety of tactics carried out by autonomous groups and individuals. Another movement to emerge from green anarchy is freeganism, which advocates voluntary joblessness and living off the abandoned products of industrial society, such as the food thrown away by supermarkets.
Many green anarchists have been inspired by the poet and essayist Gary Snyder’s “Buddhist anarchism. He’s called for a return to a tribal way of life based on bioregions, truly dwelling in and caring for the land where we live. Synder reminds us that the most immediate and ordinary can be the most sacred, and that wildness isn’t just wild nature, but the wild culture of free peoples and the wild mind of creativity.
The science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin has introduced many people to anarchism (and Taoism), most notably through her utopian novel The Dispossessed (1974). As the hero Shevek makes clear, “You can’t make the Revolution; you can only be the Revolution. It’s in your spirit, or it’s nowhere.” In her great work of utopian fiction Always Coming Home (1985), Le Guin has created an ideal culture and its dystopian mirror image: the cooperative, egalitarian Kesh and the patriarchal, militaristic Condor people. Pagan anarchist and novelist Starhawk imagines a similar cultural dichotomy in her novel The Fifth Sacred Thing (1994).
Anarchists still reject political representation in favor of direct and participatory democracy, and have generally boycotted elections. John Clark has argued that in some circumstances tactical voting can be beneficial if candidates are trying to educate, rather than gain power, particularly in local elections. Today’s anarchists engage in nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action, including squatting, sabotage, defacing ads, and reclaiming the streets. “Critical mass” actions by small groups try to trigger a sustained chain reaction among the wider populace. Carnival, festival, theater, and pranks are used to highlight the coercive and empty nature of the state and corporate culture and show a different way of doing things that’s decentralized, democratic, egalitarian, and fun.
Marshall says his own view is that “when there are enough people who want to be free, we’ll have a free society.” He adds that love can subvert the “mad rationality of the Panopticon and Pentagon.” Just as the notion of self-organization, partly inspired by cybernetics, became popular in the ’70s, the more organic image of the rhizome now represents the principles of connection and heterogeneity – an a-centered, non-hierarchical, non-signifying system without organizing memory or central automation. The metaphor describes the kind of grassroots, leaderless networks of groups and movements that have emerged in the international campaign against corporate globalization and war. Working within mainstream society, it’s possible to create a new culture, building relationships of trust, support, and cooperation in ever-widening and overlapping circles. These networks are often made up of affinity groups, convivial gatherings of like-minded individuals that are autonomous, fluid, flexible, and responsive, coming and going according to need and desire. They can form loose clusters and confederations, and where necessary send delegates or “spokes” to larger assemblies or “spokes councils” to coordinate their thinking and action through a process of consensus decision-making. Current “practical anarchy” also includes experiments in communal living, alternative economic systems, and community currencies.
The theory and tactics of the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico have caught the attention of anarchists, too. Named after the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and partly inspired by the anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rose up in 1994 in the state of Chiapas, demanding the right of the indigenous people of southern Mexico to be different and self-governing. Holding off the armed forces of the Mexican state, they’ve organized in autonomous municipalities with no fixed leadership, executive body, or headquarters. Their charismatic spokesman, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos – probably a missing professor of philosophy – playfully expresses left-libertarian views. He says he wears his mask as a “vaccine against caudillismo,” against the danger of becoming a boss.
Marshall concludes his book by saying, “It is still realistic to demand the impossible; indeed, it is more urgent than ever, if we are to survive the ecological crisis and reverse the growing injustice and inequality in the world. We need to imagine and realize an alternative future and social reality, one based on autonomy, individuality, community, solidarity, and a deep concern for the natural world…Like Malatesta, Reclus, and Voltairine de Cleyre more than a century ago, I advocate ‘anarchy without adjectives,’ anarchism which embraces rather than spurns, which encourages mutual tolerance between different strands and schools. It does not try to impose a common economic system: mutualism can evolve into collectivism, which in turn can develop into voluntary communism. As in republican Spain during the Civil War, land can be held in common while at the same time allowing some to work their own plots. Individualism can be supported by community…The organized warfare of modern states, the ruthless exploitation of transnational corporations, and the blind hatred of religious fundamentalists can be subverted by an ethos of universal love, justice, and reverence for all life. There is no need to despair or feel powerless, for as the ‘velvet revolutions’ in the former Soviet bloc, the self-managing citizens of Argentina, and the Zapatista peasants of Chiapas have shown, if enough people do not accept those in power, they cannot stay there for long.
In the meantime, we can form affinity groups, develop communities and cooperatives, and create permanent and temporary autonomous zones within the fissures of the authoritarian society. We can develop grassroots, participatory institutions. Depending on how it’s used, the internet can also create networks of like-minded people all over the world, sharing their experiences and knowledge and organizing protest and resistance.”