April 03, 2006

Paul Goodman's Anarchism

by Wayne Price
Social Anarchism, No. 39

Goodman was the most prominent anarchist of his time and generation. The fate of anti-authoritarianism in the movement of the Sixties is closely tied to him, to his strengths and weaknesses.

Yet in spite of his significance, he eventually became estranged from the movement and even hostile to it. By the time of his death in 1972, he had lost his influence. At one time, his books were published yearly; then for a time, his books were mostly found on remainder tables. Now some have been reprinted. There has still been no full-scale biography of this remarkable man (but see Stoehr, 1994, and Widmer's 1980 study).

I will argue here that there is an enormous amount which we can learn from Paul Goodman, from his life and from his writing. I also believe, however, that he made a major error, namely his decision to develop his anarchism in a reformist rather than a revolutionary direction.

Goodman was impressive not only for his writings but for his life. He lived his beliefs. He was genuine. When the U.S. was moving into World War II, he was beginning to become known among intellectuals as a poet and writer. He could have played the apolitical poet. Instead he insisted on publishing articles in opposition to the war. As a result, he was, in effect, blacklisted, kept out of the influential art magazines, and denied his audience. His artistic career never quite recovered. (It is beyond my scope here to discuss Goodman's non-political work, including his novels, poetry, literary criticism, or work on Gestalt psychotherapy, of which he was a founder.) Out of favor before the 1960s, he lived in poverty. When his political books became popular, he continued a life style of simple austerity.

Goodman was openly Gay, or rather Bisexual, well before Stonewall. What is impressive is not his few comments on Gay liberation but the fact that he lived an openly Gay life well before coming out became accepted. This too cost him jobs, even in the most radical of colleges and schools, as can be imagined.

Near the end of his career, he was involved in organizing support for draft resisters. He expected to be arrested for this and certainly ran a risk. Dr. Benjamin Spock and others were tried for this. Goodman was surprised that he was not included.

In short, he said what he meant and meant what he said. In contrast to the infamous hypocrisy of U.S. politicians and even much of the left, it was inspiring to hear from an authentic person. Kirkpatrick Sale, the decentralist and Green writer, admires Goodman but portrays his political writings over the years as messy, unfocused, unframed, unfinished (1995, p. 496). It is true that Goodman never set out to write an anarchist equivalent to Marx's Capital. There is no such thing as Goodmanism. But there is a consistency to his writing, from his 1945 May Pamphlet (1962 and 1979) to his 1965 People or Personnel. In his 1962 preface to the reprinting of the 40's pamphlet, he says that his current thinking and his earlier thinking ...have an identical philosophical and political position (p. viii).

Central to Goodman's social thought was what he called the anarchist principle (or anarchist hypothesis or proposition). He identified it with participatory democracy. Stated in various forms, it underlay all his work. He believed that when there are common needs, groups of people can manage their own work, developing order out of the situation, working for pleasure or pride in doing the job, listening to specialists when necessary, choosing temporary leaders as needed, agreeing on reasonable rules, directly responding to the immediate and long-run conditions of their lives in communal self-regulation. Authority, power, competition, money, and violence are not necessary and are really disorganizing factors. This was the essence of his anarchism.

This hypothesis is, I believe, true--or, at least I am committed to believing it. At times he balanced it with a less idealistic conception, also rooted in anarchist and democratic theory, which is really the same hypothesis looked at from the other side. This is that power corrupts, so no one should be trusted with power over others. No one is good enough to tell others how to live. Decentralism, pluralism, social experimentation, as much direct democracy as possible--these are essential if we are to be free. In other words, if human goodness makes anarchism possible, human badness makes anarchism necessary. In any case, Goodman pointed out, no individual or small group is smart enough to manage everything in a complex modern society. Only a society in which everyone participated in decision making, in all areas and on all levels, can avoid making disastrous mistakes.

Goodman's political work was a consistent attempt to apply anarchist concepts throughout our authoritarian society, from its schools to its technology. In applying the anarchist principle, he was affected by the experience of the period after World War II. This was the time of the unprecedented post-War boom, which was to last until the ˜70s. Goodman accepted the prosperity, like virtually everyone else conservatives, liberals, and most Marxists), believing that capitalism had solved its problems of economic crisis and decline.

At the same time, the horrible face of Stalinism made all radical thought suspect, even of someone like Goodman, who rejected official anti-Communism but held only contempt for the Communist left. Speaking of the witchhunts by the state against the Communists in Hollywood (which he opposed, of course), he called it "the brutal comedy of McCarthy and the FBI investigating the Communists in Hollywood, so we had on one stage the three most cynical tribes in the country" (1960, p. 103).

The post-war boom affected his analysis in many ways. In 1942, he and his architect brother, Percival, wrote Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life (1990). It was a brilliant critique of modern technology, architecture, and city and rural planning, based on the alternate possibilities of a technology of surplus. But with
hindsight, Percival was to criticize Paul and himself for not having appreciated the problem of scarcity, noting how quickly the economy of surplus had dried up (see his "Afterward: Communitas Revisited", 1990). While they had been very aware of the limits of the capitalist prosperity in terms of culture, social psychology, and spirit, they had not seen its economic limits. They had particularly not seen its
ecological limits--the using up of nonrenewable resources, the pollution of the air, water, and food, the extermination of species, the spreading of diseases, etc., all of which will cost a great deal to correct if we ever have a sane society.

The relative prosperity was the dominant fact on the landscape (at least for part of the world and for a time). It went together with the political isolation of radicals. Reacting to this situation, Goodman adopted a strategy which he called utopian thinking. He did not take on the industrial system directly, or declare revolutionary opposition, in the style of Bakunin, Kropotkin, or Marx. Instead he proposed specific reforms in each and everyarea--conceivable, piecemeal reforms which would apply the anarchist principle in a concrete, and down-to-earth fashion. Rather than engaging in frontal attack on the system-as-a-whole, he attacked it indirectly, from many sides, so it would eventually crash of its own weight--or so he hoped. His idea was to find objective needs that people had, whether they were conscious of them or not, and to propose practical solutions, whether or not they were politically acceptable.

This stance had several advantages. It permitted Goodman to stay in touch with current social problems, unlike sectarian withdrawal, while remaining in opposition to established power. It gave him a chance to expose and attack the system by exposing each of its aspects.

Undoubtedly many people (including myself) were moved toward more radical views by his reasonable-sounding but radical solutions--which the system would never implement. (The approach has some similarities to Trotsky's "transitional demands.") This method also had its limits, based on its permanent
expectation of a nonrevolutionary period. Before discussing that, I will examine some of the large and small problems he discussed. Of many such topics, I will look at technology, education, and war.


In his 1947 Communitas, and elsewhere, Goodman discussed the possibilities of a selective use of technology: decentralized, communitarian, and humanistic. This subject did not become topical until the 1970s, with the growth of the ecological and alternate technology movements. Goodman was way ahead of his time. As a young adult, I was convinced by Communitas that a decentralized society was technologically possible.

Goodman did not agree with those technophiles who believed that new technology was automatically liberating. Nor did he agree with those who rejected modern technology altogether, as do current "primitivists". Instead, he believed that modern technology was extremely flexible. It could be used for centralizing society further or for decentralizing, for top-down management or for democratic coordination. Goodman demonstrated that mass production, big factories, and management-by-command were generally inefficient, wasteful of material, and inflexible. If we realize that human beings are the most important factor in production, then, Goodman argued, the centralized system discourages creativity and initiative by the workers. There is the question of what efficiency means: whether we judge by profit and loss or whether we judge by ecological balance, the health of the people, the satisfaction and self-development of each worker.

Goodman reanalyzed possible technological ways of life. This led to an outline of an anarchist-communist/syndicalist utopia (Scheme II in Communitas). At the same time, it led to proposals for immediate reforms in city planning for contemporary New York City (as in, A Master Plan for New York, Appendix A in Communitas, or Banning Cars from Manhattan, in Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals, 1962b).

Education in an absurd society

Education was an area of particular concern to Goodman (1964). As he pointed out, he had taught every level from elementary school to graduate school. He made many utopian practical proposals for improving schools: smaller schools in storefronts for little children; bringing non-educators (carpenters and playwrights) into the classrooms; dividing universities into smaller colleges run by faculty and students; and so on. However, his most radical idea was that that schooling was not the only or best way of educating everyone in everything. He was fond of pointing out that in 1900 only 9 % of the population graduated from high school and only a small fraction of that went on to college. Today everyone is supposed to go to school and all middle class children must go to college. Yet for most jobs this is a matter of getting the necessary credentials, not of learning the skills really needed to do the work. And most young people do not have the academic interests which universities are supposed to be about.

He proposed to shrink the schools. He suggested more apprenticeship programs in crafts, skilled trades, and professions; youth work camps (so young people can get a break between childhood and adult responsibility without college or the army); other small scale public projects (little theaters and little machine shops) especially for youth. Throughout their lives, people should be able to drop in and out of the formal school system to learn particular topics and get specialized credentials. A small minority, with academic interests, would make school their main way of learning. Most would not.

Goodman's interest in education was associated with his concern over the problems of adolescents and young adults, the subject of his most well-known book, Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society (1960). The problem with juvenile delinquents, cultural dropouts, and cynical conformists was not a matter of personal psychology nor of their families. The real problem was the lack of a worthwhile world for them to grow into. People, especially youth, need productive and useful work (which is more than jobs), a sane attitude toward sexuality, and honest public speech. Our society does not ask whether jobs are socially useful, honorable, or valuable. Yet there is an impact on young people when they are aware, at some level, that I will spend eight hours a day doing what is not good (p. 29). If a society does not provide possibilities for creativity and meaningfulness in work, it will have a reaction among young people.

Unfortunately, in this book, Goodman demonstrated one of his worst attributes, namely his sexism: The problems I want to discuss in this book belong primarily...to the boys....A girl does not have to, she is not expected to, ˜make something' of herself for she will have children, which is absolutely self-justifying.... (p. 13). This actually justifies the way young women are defined by one function and oppressed by lack of opportunities for productive work or independent incomes (which would have otherwise fit into his overall analysis of youth in society). At best he had a blind spot toward the problems of women, which continued in his writings and his relations with women.

To discuss war is a betrayal of sanity

Goodman was at his most radical when discussing war. Here he was strongest in his rejection of the national states. War has become so totally destructive in the nuclear age that Goodman felt that events had justified his radical pacifism. Many of us who are not pacifists have come to agree that, in relation to nuclear war, no sane sane policy is possible except complete rejection. War is not discussable as a possibility--it is already a betrayal of sanity to discuss it (1962, p. viii).

He elaborated on the way in which war-making and war-preparation have become the central activities of the sovereign national states. Peace will only be possible if the people of the world get rid of these national sovereignties. The conflict was not between the Russians and the Americans, but between the people of the world and the states. The states must be gotten rid off, their flags lowered. He preferred, as much as possible, to replace the states with decentralized communities, to safely multiply initiative. But he thought it would also be possible to organize aspects of the world community through international functional associations, such as the present UN agencies and NGOs.

Liberal opposition to war usually ends up in electoralism, voting for candidates who are the lesser evil. (This usually means the Democrats, although they have started every U.S. war since World War I.) Goodman said of liberals that they simply could not keep from pulling the voting lever. Instead he proposed to actively not vote, to run anti-voting campaigns.

He weakened his anti-electoralism by advocating votes for a handful of liberal Democrats and Republicans. The question is not whether anarchists can ever vote or run in elections. It is whether we tell people that war can be ended through elections. As Goodman himself said, speaking of a third-party campaign, It is not in the nature of sovereign power to decree itself out of existence....Such electoral politics confuses the basic issue, that pacifism is necessarily revolutionary (1965, p. 177). Which makes his support for a few liberal-imperialist candidates
hard to understand.

Goodman's wanted to oppose war by waging peace, that is, by engaging in productive activities which withdraw energies from war processes, including teaching people who their real enemies were. Waging peace would look very different from what passes for normal politics.

Goodman's reformism

Goodman was neither a liberal nor a social democrat, but he was a reformist. As a disciple of John Dewey, the great liberal and philosopher of pragmatism, Goodman pushed reformism to its furthest boundaries. His program was quite different from that typically raised by the liberals or state socialists, but he proposed to implement it by incremental steps, making minor changes here and there. He hoped that this would add up to a radical change in society. Otherwise, he repeatedly said, he had no idea how to bring it about. When asked, he answered that he did not know how to get his reforms implemented.

The problem with this is not his support for reforms. It is absolutely necessary to fight for reforms, up until the very moment of a revolutionary upheaval. But Goodman did not want a revolutionary change in society. In this he was contradictory, for his writings portrayed a society which was rotten in every way but he rejected the idea of revolution. Perhaps this was due to his denial of the existence of a ruling class. He argued that society was more like a network with no real center. With such a concept there would be no sense in revolutionary politics, for there was nothing that needed to be overthrown. In this he was himself fooled by the many ways the ruling class uses to hide the true nature of our society.

He was limited in his vision of a new society, insisting that he only wanted small changes here and there to make society livable. His proposed example of a better society was something like the Scandinavian countries, with cooperatives, family farms, small businesses, and big corporations. He wanted a mixed system. By this he did not mean only a mixture of different sorts of public ownership, coops, and small crafts and farms, but a system which included big businesses. Such a society would still be dominated by the corporate marketplace. This concept did not fundamentally challenge capitalism. He rejected the revolutionary socialist tradition of the great anarchists from Bakunin to the Spanish anarchists.

His pacifism was not only a justified rejection of imperialist war and nuclear war. He also rejected wars of national liberation and of revolution. I believe that it is impossible for a people to fundamentally change society democratically unless they are prepared to defend themselves from violent attacks by the state and private forces. This was clear to all of us who followed the course of the Vietnamese war as well as the history of fascism in Eruope or the outcome of Allende's Chile. Goodman's approach was simply unrealistic.

By the end of his life, he had become less interested in overall planning of alternate utopias, such as Percival and he had sketched out in Communitas. But he still held to the strategy of piecemeal reform which he had proposed in the 1940s.

Murray Bookchin described Goodman as historically important (1986, p. 34), along with Kropotkin. But Bookchin also denounced Goodman as an essentially individualistic anarchist, in the tradition of Max Stirner and Benjamin Tucker. He implied that Goodman was an aesthete but not...a social revolutionary (1995, p. 12). Bookchin supported this with a quote from Goodman in which Goodman writes that anarchism is not for freedom but for autonomy. Whatever the meaning of this distinction for Bookchin, Goodman plainly used freedom versus autonomy to mean freedom from (relief from oppression by the state) versus freedom to (the real opportunity of individuals and groups to take initiative and do things). That is, not How do we prevent the government from suppressing free speech? but How do people get the real
opportunity to speak out, considering the monopolization of the media? It divides liberalism from anarchism.

Perhaps Goodman was an aesthete; he saw himself mainly as an artist and man of letters, not primarily as a political activist. He did not work to build any organization of anarchists. Yet Goodman was not an individualist-anarchist. In his writings on Gestalt therapy, he argued that there was no such thing as a person outside of the individual/social field. Individuals were created by society and individuals created society. However, it is true that he was not a social revolutionary, not because he was an individualist but because he was, if not a liberal, then a social reformist.

Goodman really believed that peaceful reform of the system was possible. He declared, If ten thousand people in all walks of life will stand up on their two feet and talk out and insist, we shall get back our country (1960, p. xvi). Many more than ten thousand spoke out in the Sixties but we did not get back our country. It is not enough for individuals to speak up, as necessary as that is. Large numbers of working people and other oppressed people must organize themselves to take power away from the capitalists and the state.

Goodman in the Sixties

In the ˜60s, the hypocrisy of the liberals on the issues of war and racism radicalized a youth movement. Goodman welcomed this movement. He was especially delighted with its advocacy of participatory democracy. This slogan represented a reaction both against Stalinist authoritarianism and against the fraud of rrepresentative democracy. (where democracy means voting once every few years for one of two representatives of the rich).

Goodman had much to offer the radicalized young people. His criticisms of so many aspects of society helped them to generalize, to see the rottenness of the whole of this society. His analysis of schooling and the mistreatment of young people as they grew up helped them to see themselves as oppressed. And he gave some indications of what an alternate society might look like.

Over time, the movement ran into the limits of capitalist reform. In spite of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, racism and poverty continued. The first major demonstration against the war in Vietnam was in 1965, yet the war continued for ten more years. The politicians responsible for the war were not right-wing Republicans but more-or-less liberal Democrats: Kennedy and Johnson.

Increasingly a section of the youth movement turned in a revolutionary direction. With generous motives, they wished to ally themselves with the worldwide upheavals of the oppressed. Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, many were attracted to the revolutionaries in the so-called Third World who fought U.S. imperialism: Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse Tung. Naturally this attraction to revolutionary dictators turned into an interest in their ideology of Marxism-Leninism (and its variants, such as Trotskyism).

It was the task of anti-authoritarian socialists to propose an alternate program, one which would have attracted radicalized activists while opposing Leninism. The most prominent anti-authoritarian of the time was Goodman. He was appalled by the movement's turn to authoritarian politics. But his appeal to revolutionary U.S. youth was fatally limited by his reformism. His advocacy of piece-by-piece reform and pacifist non-violence flew in the face of the apparent need for revolution.

In my opinion, Goodman was right to criticize the authoritarian politics which the New Left developed. But the radicals were right to reject his reformism and pacifism. The result was a disaster for the left. Most leftists at the time were either liberals or revolutionary authoritarians.

At the end of his life, he gave up on his radical vision and "lost confidence in our species" (P. & P. Goodman, 1990, p. 225). He felt that he had not made any useful impact. In his last book he wrote that he was rather sour on the American young... (1970, p. xii). His bitterness toward the movement reminds me of ex-Communists who felt the workers had betrayed them. His disappointment with the radical movement, combined with sorrow over the accidental death of his son, probably contributed to his 1972 death of a heart attack at the age of 61.

What can we learn from Paul Goodman?

Today we are in the beginning of a new radicalization. There is much it can learn from Paul Goodman. His "utopian thinking," applying the anarchist principle to every aspect of society, is in direct contradiction to the methods of the liberals and social democrats. They approach each problem by asking how it can be solved within the limits of capitalism and without upsetting the conventional consciousness of most people. Goodman asked what was objectively necessary to solve the problem--regardless of the limits of the system or of what people thought at the moment. He expected that the necessary solutions would go beyond the limits of this society. He hoped that raising such demands would shake people up and change their minds. There are revolutionary implications to this approach to social problems. Revolutionary anarchists have a lot to learn from the strengths and weaknesses of Paul Goodman.


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