“We turn to each other and say: ‘How can we care for each other on all levels of our lives in ways that don’t involve hierarchy and domination and coercion?’”
In this moving podcast, Maura James McNamara interviews AK Press author Cindy Milstein. Cindy has given us with many titles, including Anarchism and Its Aspirations, Rebellious Mourning, and the just-released Deciding for Ourselves: The Promise of Direct Democracy. A bit of each of those books appears in this discussion, as Cindy discusses the the long history of mutual aid, the processes of grieving the countless unnecessary losses we experience in this society, and generally what anarchism has to offer us in times of crisis like the one we’re experiencing. As someone not very familiar with anarchism, Maura makes a great conversation partner with Cindy. As she put it, “I realized that I and so many people I know, maybe even you, are anarchist in spirit. That’s because anarchism is a vision for a society based on mutual care and compassion…which is really the only way forward that makes any intuitive and rational sense.”
You can find more of Cindy’s work here. Until April 21st her newest book, Deciding for Ourselves, is being offered on a pay-what-you-can basis for people whose financial situation is precarious due to Covid-19.
More of Maura’s podcast, Unbroken Chain, can be found here.
Hi friends! Below, we present a great article by Kimberly Dark, author of Fat, Pretty, and Soon to Be Old. We’re all dealing with a lot of fear and uncertainty these days. Figuring out how to live with it will go a long way toward helping us relate kindly to one another—to our friends, comrades, and loved ones. It will also help keep us be present and engaged with the needs and possibilities arising in the current moment. Whether you’re sewing masks, organizing a rent strike, or on the front lines of healthcare, keeping yourself healthy and balanced is important. Hope you find this useful!
Big things are happening in the world right now. Fear takes us out of the present moment, which for most of us, is not actually dire. (Seriously, it isn’t; you’re reading an article on an electronic device.) Anticipation and uncertainty suck, but they are not the same as struggling to breathe, needing medical care and not finding it, physical hunger with no food, etc.
I’m reminding you of this distinction because it’s vital for how we take care of ourselves right now. The range of specific things that people fear is varied — health, financial and emotional concerns top the list. Regardless of the specifics, it’s important to stay cool enough to make good decisions when confronted with choices. The fact that we likely have choices is another good thing to recall.
All of the following suggestions are good in a major crisis, like a spreading epidemic. They also work in the everyday. And let’s face it, a big crisis doesn’t stop anyone from having petty interactions, hurt feelings and may even increase the likelihood of individuals behaving badly. No matter what’s happening, much of our life difficulties boil down to this: Someone behaved differently than you would like. Something didn’t go your way.
Welcome to being human.
In the midst of a really bad time, like an epidemic, it may be the small bad stuff that pushes us over the edge. So let’s start small and daily. Small and daily is where most of us live, most of the time. The mind (and sometimes the body) recognize daily difficulties as hugely unsettling.
Pause for a moment and take a deep breath into the belly, the ribs and then the chest. Release the air from the chest, the ribs and then the belly. Do that twice more — maybe with your hand on your chest — before you keep reading (and really, any time you think of it).
We can’t stop the undesirable external circumstances, but we can learn to calm ourselves and decrease the likelihood of being the one who says or does ignorant or terrible things in a crisis. We can get ready to respond well to external problems, rather than just reacting to them. We can avoid the mind revving into a loop that turns others into enemies in the long term, preoccupies us with painful emotional difficulties in the short term, and sometimes even causes us to feel physical pain. (We can practice at least, without expecting perfection.)
Even in the midst of a shared crisis, like epidemic and economic collapse, it can be tempting to feel superior if you’re safely isolated with plenty of supplies and a stable income, or to feel like everything has gone to shit if that’s not your situation. The fact is, pre-existing power and resource imbalances have always been influencing every one of us. Everyone is NOT currently having the same experience, though we’re in a global crisis. Some are more precarious and seen as more disposable, and that’s not okay. Acknowledge that, even if you don’t know what to do about it. That problem is not wholly fixable today, but the calm we cultivate today can help us learn into solutions.
Here are a series of steps to deal with whatever causes you mental preoccupation. It might seem obvious why you and everyone else are stressed out right now, but the fact is, you are never going to have friends and family members, colleagues and lovers who behave as you would wish all the time. Self-calming is a skill for the rest of your life.
(1) Decide quickly whether you’re in actual danger.And I mean, is the danger immediate. It’s easy for the mind to project out into the future and say that because you couldn’t get work this month, or your spouse is leaving, or you have a cough and there’s no COVID-19 testing available that you’ll surely be destitute or dead by this time next month. While that’s possible — other things are possible too. If you are in actual danger and you can do nothing about it, some of these steps might still work for you. Chances are, however, that you’re experiencing upheaval at the moment, not assault or injury. Continue to Step 2.
(2) Ask yourself: Am I part of the problem right now? Hey, you might be. If you look down and see that you’re wagging your finger at someone or feeling superior, or wanting to control or malign others, oops, your pain-fear-anxiety is leaking out into the world. If you knew how to stop the pain-fear-anxiety, you probably would, but you can at least not make a challenging moment any worse by talking all over it. Here are some possibilities for things to say in the present moment of conflict that are not likely to make things worse and may even affect a positive change of course.
“Let me think about that and get back to you.”
“Please forgive me.”
“I love you.”
You may recognize the last four of those statements as part of Hawaiian ho’oponopono practice. (Thank you to my teacher, Harry Jim.) And yes, you have to find real sincerity within yourself when you say those things. You totally know the difference between a sincere and sarcastic, “I’m sorry,” between a sincere and exasperated, “I love you.”
Be gentle with yourself here. Even if you are not in immediate crisis, it still makes sense that you’re revved up because everyone is on high alert at the moment (unless they’re in denial). The fact is that most of the conflict we struggle with actually happened in the past or might happen in the future and is not having an immediate impact. Social distancing and self-quarantine, for instance, are strategies to avoid a big-deal crisis. If you currently have Covid-19, or you have to be out among people who might be ill, it’s time to focus on sensible action because you are IN crisis. See the difference?
Of course, your mind can tie you into a stress-ball and help you ruin your health, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid. Right. Now.
(3) Notice if the mind is in a fear-loop. You might be trying to plan for something you can’t plan for because it may or may not happen and you are not in control of all the variables. This is the current dilemma with a global pandemic. The good news is that life holds many challenges and we’re built to survive most of them. That is, your ability to give laser focus to a problem is great — and then you have to calm down to make good choices. Here are some ways to do that:
Focus your attention on a pleasurable bodily sensation. For some folks, it’s enough to just re-focus on the body. I say go for pleasure. You’re actually trying to over-ride an unpleasant thought in this instance, not just garden-variety over-thinking. You can always find a pleasurable sensation. As your body is capable, you might notice a pleasant temperature in the room, or use your eyes to look at some pretty scenery or a pleasing photograph. You might notice your skin touching your skin — and hey, you could even use your hand to caress your own arms, touch your own hair. And while I know it can be harder when the mind is in a spin, you could even give yourself an orgasm. I mean, not with the family around or while you’re at work. But if you’re fussing instead of sleeping in the night? Rub one out. So many endorphins.
Re-focus the mind on tasks that are easy and satisfying to complete. (Spoiler: this will largely be a list of things that bring pleasure.) Getting back to work also reminds us of the normalcy of the everyday. Be careful here. Re-focus yourself because it will feel good to get a few things done, not because you’re an idiot to still be obsessing about where to buy toilet paper or your stupid ex who wasn’t worth your time anyway. See the difference?
Elevate your gaze and soften it. Yeah, try it right now. Look up at a point somewhere higher than your line of vision–like, maybe the place where the wall and ceiling meet, across the room from you, if you’re indoors. Now, instead of staring at one point, let your awareness expand. Use your peripheral vision. In yoga, we call this a soft drishti. I have taught many people this technique at yoga, mindfulness and writing retreats (just as Caitriona Reed from Mazanita Village taught it to me). It’s harder for the mind to hurt you when you do this. Isn’t the brain amazing? The trick is to remember to do it. And do it again. And again.
Take a walk or put on a song you like and dance around. Not only is this pleasant, it’s also accomplishing the same brain trick as in the previous suggestion. Your eyesight is moving around — in and out of focused vision — and it helps the mind come into expanded awareness.
Help someone else. Pick up some groceries for someone if it’s easy for you. Listen without judgement to someone else’s troubles and maybe suggest some of these tools. Make your helping easy, pleasurable, if possible. When you’re feeling low isn’t the time to make big sacrifices. You’re helping to uplift both of you and also, you can remind yourself of your own good habits and best choices in the process.
Feel the feeling and move on. If only, right? No, really, you can actually practice this. When emotion comes up, especially sadness or uncertainty, lean into it to let it out. Do your best to quiet the mind and just feel the feeling. It’s scary sometimes because it feels like maybe sadness won’t stop. The trick here is not to let the mind keep throwing fuel on the fire. If you just focus on crying, it usually takes far less time than you think it will. And then there’s that tiny moment after the emotional release where you have a critical decision to make. Let the mind stay on the bad stuff or move toward pleasure. Take the pleasure, damnit! See 1–5.
Okay, here’s what not to do–at least not very often.
Don’t push your pain away by telling yourself you shouldn’t feel it, you’re a dumbass, or you’ve been sad long enough. You are your main person for the rest of your life. Give yourself comfort.
Don’t numb out repeatedly with drugs, alcohol, food, screen-recreation or sex. If you can find a little comfort in any of these things without turning into an addict, I’m for it, actually. But whoa, be careful about the place where choosing pleasure takes a turn into numbness. That can cause more bad behavior that needs to be cleaned up later (especially if you use or let down other people).
Don’t focus on pain in the body. If you have chronic pain at all, it’s likely to flare up if you don’t feel heard, understood, supported, connected or generally like a worthwhile human being. Yes, something may hurt, but now is not the time to identify your life with those sensations.
Don’t pay your irritation forward. This seems obvious, but it’s so embedded in our culture. Think about the common story–from TV shows galore–of the man who comes home from a bad day at work and takes it out on his wife who takes it out on the kids, who are then mean to the family pet. See what’s happening there? It’s not just that irritation is multiplied. We use pain to reinforce hierarchy, to establish who’s entitled to treat others poorly. And wow, talk about creating negative ripples long into the future.
If we can cultivate an overall mindset that allows for pain and irritation, disappointment and grief to be normal parts of a good life, it’ll be far easier to handle big challenges with focus and clarity.
We can even cultivate an ability to wait in a state of not-knowing-what-to-do. That state alone sends people into a spiral on a good day. Right now, it’s the biggest thing we have to practice: be sensible and wait without knowing how everything will unfold.
Learning to handle your own challenging feelings is not just for you, after all. When we each increase our own individual focus and comfort, our collective experience comes into greater focus and solutions emerge. We can find solutions that that are not even yet possible.
AK Thompson’s newest book Premonitions: Selected Essays on the Culture of Revolt is back from the printer and available for purchase. It’s a powerful text, full of useful strategic and analytical insights about how our social movements work…and how they don’t. We had a short conversation with him to get him to share some of the ideas that are central to the book. Read on for a taste of his approach, and then you can order the book here.
Let’s start by having you explain the title of the book, Premonitions. You’ve chosen it in relation to the titles of the two classic collections of Walter Benjamin’s essays, Illuminations and Reflections. How do you see your work in relation to Benjamin’s and what analytical premises are implied by “premonitions”?
Walter Benjamin’s contributions have always struck me as being a powerful corrective to those Marxisms that were more narrowly focused on political economy. In Capital, Marx showed us how getting below the level of bourgeois commonsense, which takes the market to be self-evident, made it possible to uncover the “hidden abode” of production where capitalism’s truth was revealed. Benjamin went one further by proposing that this “hidden abode” could be found everywhere. He showed that it was possible to describe capitalism by teasing out the tensions that shot through its culture. In this way, he sought to “grasp an economic process as perceptible.”
Early in his intellectual career, Benjamin observed that the German Romantics had viewed criticism less as an act of disavowal than as one of completion. Although our experience of the world was one of discontinuous fragments, it was possible—through reflection—to reveal these fragments’ “absolute” character. The implication is that the work of analysis can start from anywhere. If you know how to look for it, even the “hidden abode” can be found reflected in the culture. Sometimes, however, we encounter events, experiences, and images that are especially revelatory. The shock of recognition prompts us to reevaluate the world and the struggles that define it. In his essay on surrealism (1929), Benjamin described these experiences as ones of “profane illumination.”
Given the central role that illumination and reflection played in his thought, it was felicitous that these concepts were given as titles to the volumes that made Benjamin a familiar name in the English-speaking world. In assembling my own collection, I felt obliged to signal my debt by following suit. Premonitions are similar to illuminations and reflections in that, as forms of extrapolative reasoning, they reveal how a thing or event can be made to alert us to the broader social process from which it derives. The major difference is that, whereas Benjamin’s concepts placed emphasis on the resolution of accumulated tensions, “premonitions” direct our attention toward the future that will obtain should present dynamics be left undisturbed.
Because of his misgivings with “progress,” which he took to be both a central conceit of capitalist culture and an idea that had blunted class hatred among social democrats, Benjamin urged movements to turn their back on the future and focus more on “the image of enslaved ancestors … than that of happy grandchildren.” Even so, his work discloses a strong premonitory orientation. The concluding line to “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” (1935), for instance, recounts how “in the convulsions of the commodity economy we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.”
This is seductive, but we must resist the temptation to view ruins—even capitalist ruins—as somehow signaling redemption. Premonitory thinking reveals that capitalist ruins point just as logically to barbarism as they do to emancipation. For this reason, premonitions eject us from the continuum of history and deposit us before the moment of decision demanded by politics.
A crucial premise of the book—building, again, upon Benjamin—is that one can find, through a deep analysis of any particular element of a culture, a microcosm or reflection of (among other things) its social and economic relations. The general contained within the particular. You see one clear antecedent in Marx’s famous examination of the commodity at the beginning of Capital, and also in Henri Lefebvre’s claim that, through an analysis of a small event, one might grasp “the sum total of capitalist society, the nation and its history.” Could you elaborate on how this idea works throughout your book, and maybe give an example?
For me, revolutionary politics really begins with the realization that everything is about everything. Because we recognize that incremental tinkering will never change the system, we demand a total revolution in all areas of social life; but what does that mean? How do we get a hold of the whole? As an object of analysis, and much more so as one of intervention, “society” is pretty cumbersome. For this reason, it becomes necessary to grasp it through its fragmentary expression. In the end, Benjamin maintained that this method could reveal “in the lifework, the era; and in the era the entire course of history.”
I first began experimenting with this method in Black Bloc, White Riot, where what had seemed like a series of finite debates regarding tactics ended by disclosing a much broader set of concerns regarding the meaning of politics as such. The same idea is at work in Keywords for Radicals, where the dynamics of late capitalism are discovered through the contests over word usage and meaning that arise within radical scenes. In Premonitions, this method is directed primarily toward the cultural artifacts that emerge from radical movements.
This emphasis arose in part from my desire to understand the bond that sometimes develops between activists and particular movement-based artists. I recall, for instance, being struck by the nearly reverential use of images by Eric Drooker in the propaganda of the global justice era. What could this affinity tell us about the struggle? As an object of analysis, the work of art can be grasped more easily than “the movement.” By considering the bases of its resonance, it becomes possible to detect movement dynamics that might otherwise remain invisible.
Let me give you an example. The following image was used by the Direct Action Network to promote actions against the IMF and World Bank in DC on April 16, 2000.
For those with a background in art history, Drooker’s citation of Goya’s Massacre of the Third of May is fairly clear. Overlapping this citation, however, is a more oblique reference to Joshua’s assault on Jericho. The Goya reference is accusatory but foregrounds defeat; the Joshua reference testifies to the power of faith. By collapsing them into a single image, Drooker suggests how the movement, through faith, might triumph over the massacre that seems immanent to the confrontation they’ve initiated. It’s a seductive proposition, and it’s easy to see why it resonated with a political generation rediscovering the promise and perils of direct action.
It’s important to recall, however, that most activists are not art historians. For this reason, the image’s appeal must arise from something other than the conscious recognition of its animating citations. Why did nineteenth-century Romantic motifs resonate so strongly with a movement that took “Another World Is Possible” to be its profession of faith? In the end, my analysis suggested that the movement was stuck in an unconscious repetition of the dynamics that had plagued its predecessor. It reiterated the ambivalence of Romanticism’s anti-capitalism, which tended to function as a kind of loyal opposition within the horizon of bourgeois thought. Assembling this constellation gave me a better grasp on the movement’s shortcomings, and it helped me to envision concrete strategies for moving forward.
Such an analysis reminds me of another thing I liked about your book. Because you encourage it in your Introduction, I often found myself reading the word “analysis” in its Freudian sense. Throughout the book you use terms like neurosis, drives, wish images, repression, and trauma. It’s as if you put the whole culture on the analyst’s couch. Can you talk a little about how psychoanalysis fits into your framework?
Benjamin drew on psychoanalytic insights without feeling terribly beholden to the tradition, which was still very much in formation at the time. He was hostile to Jung for his reliance on archetypes, but his thinking often ran parallel to that of Freud who, especially in later works like The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and its Discontents, had become preoccupied with broader social and historical concerns. As an intellectual tradition, psychoanalysis is torn between radical and conservative poles. Freud’s unsparing critique of bourgeois morals coexists with the reality principle’s implicit demand for accommodation. Similarly, one can detect a tension between the tradition’s analytic dimension (which tends to unsettle normative presumptions regarding social dynamics) and its therapeutic one (which emphasizes work at the level of the individual psyche).
My own use of psychoanalytic concepts is largely in keeping with Benjamin’s, and with that of the Frankfurt School more generally. Benjamin’s main contention was that people collectively (and not solely as individuals) are driven by a search for resolution that leads both to wishful thinking and to historical recollection—though the latter most often gets refracted through myth. As with Freud, who thought that dreams arose from our practical inability to obtain a desired object (or even to acknowledge our desire for it), Benjamin perceived material culture to be a kind of ongoing dream work in which the social desire for absolution found expression in distorted form.
The task therefore becomes one of bringing the desires that animate existing forms into consciousness so that the struggle can begin to find its concrete referent. For Marx (and Benjamin was fond of this quote), “our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogma, but by analyzing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself… It will then become clear that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it only has to be conscious in order to possess it in reality… It is not a question of drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realizing the thoughts [desires] of the past.”
How about Romanticism, which is a much more explicit thread that runs through the essays? How does it help us understand where we are politically, or equip us for the struggles ahead?
Ever since their mutual inception at the end of the eighteenth century, social movements and Romanticism have been difficult to disentangle. Both traditions emerged in relation to the bourgeois revolutions of that time, and both flourished within the public sphere. From its hatred of dark satanic mills to its celebration of the heart that watches and receives, Romanticism generated an impressive catalogue of wish images that continue to resonate today. But Romanticism’s anti-capitalism was always ambivalent. Not only did it tend to fall into the role of loyal opposition by siding with the “ought” of bourgeois idealism, which (despite standing in opposition to the “is” of capitalism’s dominant empiricism) could never attain a synthesis of the kind called for by Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach, it also swung pendulously between the utopian and the imperious. Many scholars have identified a Romantic kernel at the heart of fascism.
Given these dynamics, I think the challenge for anarchists and communists today is to acknowledge Romanticism’s enduring resonance as a mode of anti-capitalist critique while recognizing that (in and of itself) this critique is not enough and that (when left unchecked) the desires it unleashes can be dangerous and unpredictable.
Having published a number of books on fascism in recent years, I couldn’t help but notice how certain Benjamin-inflected phrases call to mind contemporary definitions of fascism. For instance, you say that Benjamin “proposed that resonant images enabled people to anticipate the future by recalling traces of a mythical past whose promise had yet to be fulfilled” or, to consider a simpler take, “the present dreams the future by way of a detour through the mythic past.” This seems almost perfectly to describe what drives fascism, so how do you respond to its recent resurgence?
Benjamin was keenly aware of both fascism and its allure. In his famous “work of art” essay (1936), he began by dispensing with notions of genius and creativity, which he claimed led to a “processing of data in the Fascist [and, we might add, Romantic] sense.” Instead, he sought to focus on the contradictions inherent in the developmental tendencies of art as expressed under definite conditions. These tendencies were contradictory, and he took those contradictions and their manifest form in the culture to be reflective of contradictions in the base. For this reason, Benjamin urged us to read his theses not merely as descriptions but as weapons in the struggle against fascism. This struggle, he maintained, would proceed through the politicization of aesthetics, which he contrasted to fascism’s aestheticization of politics and the cult of death to which it gave birth.
But while fascism has actively exploited wish images, they are by no means unique in sensing their allure. Indeed, it is precisely because wish images are so pervasive that fascism is capable of gaining ground. Because a mythic resolution is always easier to attain than a profane, material one, fascism can provide pathways to fulfillment that are for the most part unavailable to communists, anarchists, and those we would seek to recruit. Since this is the case, it might seem prudent to disavow wish images and focus instead on concrete conditions and concrete demands. I’m sympathetic to this conclusion; however, I think it’s dangerous to cede the field.
Wish images give form to the longing for resolution, but they do so in a refracted, mythical way. Following Benjamin (and echoing Marx), I believe our aim must therefore be to make the animating desire clear to itself so that it can be decoupled from the inadequacy of its posited resolution. From there, this same desire might find fulfillment through the profane demands of revolutionary politics. Left to their own devices, wish images are just as likely to fall into fascism’s orbit as they are to yield radical anti-capitalist conclusions. In contrast, when we commit to prying the animating desire from its wish-image cathexis, the effect can be like splitting the atom.
Concretely speaking, I think this means that communists and anarchists need to get better at developing modes of critique that don’t estrange us from the desires that animate mainstream culture. I understand the subcultural reflex, but the solace it affords must be measured against the social disconnect that arises when the critique is understood (correctly, I think) as a repudiation—rather than a suggestion regarding the realization—of the wish. Such repudiations leave people more open to fascism, which tends to affirm ordinary desires (e.g. for security) before binding them to dangerous, mythic resolutions.
I also think we need to get better at describing what a resolution to the historical accumulation of unrealized desires might look like in concrete terms. The challenge is that, while fascists can point to mythic futures and mythic pasts, the only things that communists and anarchists can responsibly point to are the tasks that accumulate whenever a decision is made. Still, people are more likely to assume such responsibilities when the desire that drives them has been affirmed and when the posited resolution seems more compelling than the myth to which it had previously adhered.
This review of Keywords for Radicals is an excerpt from a longer review recently published in the International Journal of Communication. The full review (by Jack Bratich of Rutgers University) also included another title—you can read the review in its entirety here. And you can find out more about Keywords for Radicalshere.
This splendidly sprawling tome arrives with a title announcing its interventionist direction and anticipated readership. The book thus broadcasts its commitment to the radical potential of the words within it. What is a keyword? Fritsch, O’Connor, and Thompson do a fine job distinguishing keywords from definitions: Rather than settling meaning, meaning itself is the subject of historical investigation. In tracing out these historical settlements, a keyword analysis can undermine common sense, especially when (due to historical circumstances) the words are more “brittle” (Williams’ 1983 term, as the editors note). The keywords here do not fix meaning, but mark moments when consensus is in crisis, thus rendering the terms contestable.
Keywords for Radicals is a considerable enterprise, containing 57 entries with as many authors. Some of the words have been commonplace in the radical milieu and thus are expected to appear herein: representation, utopia, vanguard, oppression, hegemony, rights. Others are timely as relevant additions to radical analyses: commons, crip, prefiguration, and trans*/- (a word that even looks different). One entry that is both timely and traditional: occupy. A.K. Thompson gives us a much-needed analysis of the contested meanings of this word, since key voices even at the time of Occupy Wall Street objected to its usage, citing its colonial legacy.
Other keywords were previously radical, became more mainstream, and were recently re-attached to radicality: friend, love, privilege, care, bodies, reproduction, leadership. Some, like populism, have accrued a new prominence since the book’s publication. And of course there are always omissions that are worth mentioning, such as party. I learned much from these entries—they all have some nugget to recommend them, whether as a thorough primer or a curveball thought-changer. For the latter, I would suggest readers start with demand, friend, victory, and accountability.
Fritsch, O’Connor, and Thompson lay out three main differences between their book and Williams’ initial project. First, its periodization. It’s not just that vocabulary changes in late capitalism—the editors trace how a number of thinkers, especially those with autonomist tendencies, have analyzed the subsumption of linguistic communication into Post-Fordist economic processes. Along these lines, the editors remind us that Williams (1980) also wrote a piece called “Means of Communication as Means of Production.” If language has been subsumed, then the means are in the hands (some would say brains) of the cognitariat. What would it mean to seize these means of communication? From whom, and by whom? The collection offers an excellent starting point to begin this reappropriation.
The second divergence is that while Williams developed a list of wide-ranging terms that could define contemporary flashpoints, KFR teases out words that indicate specific clashes on the radical left. While having broader implications, the material herein is most relevant to political struggles. Fritsch, O’Connor, and Thompson mark Williams’ own attempts at refusing the institutionalization of vocabulary. At the same time, the book embodies this tension over academicization, as many contributors find themselves in different positions vis-á-vis academic institutions (and to this we can add “being reviewed in an academic journal”).
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, this work emanates not from a solo author but via collective authorship. The decentralized writing (though centralized peer editing) means that a temporary community is formed in the making of the keywords. Here I should note one of the special features of this collection: the use of infographs in each chapter that visualize the “see also” function. Individual authors created lists of words they thought were related, which were then supplemented by the editors to generate an internal map of the book’s entries.
Fritsch, O’Connor, and Thompson are clear that the mere existence of many contested keywords does not result in pluralism or relativism. There is a method here, even a guide to how words are to be understood. In foregrounding the conflict over words as part of wider struggles, the editors refuse to treat the relation of word to thing as a relation of transparency or correspondence. The book instead takes a nuanced, dialectical approach to language.
Words are signposts of the linguistic turn, underscoring how language shapes, not just describes, the world. Those readers conversant with the decades-long development of this approach (the introduction covers a number of these thinkers: J. L. Austin, Adrienne Rich, Iris Marion Young, Judith Butler, Stuart Hall) will find this book covering familiar ground, whereas it functions well for those first encountering the linguistic turn.
The editors argue that, even if we take as given that language performs rather than reflects, we need to ask how performatives stick. What are the means of authorizing some utterances and meanings as definitions? In addition to the means of communication, we need to examine the means of authorization. Curiously, deconstruction is not mentioned as part of this lineage. As performed by Jacques Derrida and others, deconstruction amounted to an unraveling that exposed the operations of authority through which meaning was established. More than a social constructionist approach to the world via language, deconstruction deployed a series of stratagems and gestures that inhabited an authorizing mechanism to defuse that mechanism’s ability to settle matters.
Fritsch, O’Connor, and Thompson are also wary of the utopian projects of resignification, in which radicals find agency in reclaiming and detourning meanings. According to the editorial collective, these efforts indicate more of an intent than a success in transforming established social relations. Instead of a politics of resignification that affirms the ability to make any meaning stick, “radicals are left in the difficult position of having to complete or resolve the words inherited from injustice rather than simply disavowing them in favor of” new ones (p. 15, emphasis in original). 
The collection takes its own position in this terrain, one that wards off transparency as a guiding value. If we take as given that power operates not primarily by obscuring its actions but “through extreme contradiction” (p. 5), then clarity and transparency will not address power’s capacities to manage meaning. A word instead is an “index of the struggle to shape reality according to particular interests” (p. 5). Vocabulary here is analogous to the commodity in Karl Marx’s Das Kapital—an analytic starting point that becomes a gateway to the hidden abode of production. A word is examined “so that its contradictions might be productively explored” (p. 18).
In paying attention to the words used about keywords, we find transparency banished but revelation installed. Words are indexes of socioeconomic dynamics: “When analyzed closely, words reveal themselves to be symptoms of underlying and overarching social contradictions” (p. 20, emphasis added). This is a method that places importance on the conflicts we “uncover in our most intimate utterances” (p. 18, emphasis added). And again: “Language as object that contains contradictions which, once unearthed, will collapse in favor of the new” (p. 18, emphasis added). Revelation is back, no longer pointing to referents in the world, but to dialectical processes.
There is thus a two-step process: (1) “unearthing [language’s] contradictions” and (2) “using those contradictions to map the social world they reflect” (p. 18; emphasis added). Words and world have a common ground: not correspondence, but homology. Each is filled with mirrored contradictions, with words as symptoms whose internal logics can be completed by, then found in, social relations. The collection thus seeks to reground usage not in consensus about meaning (this is not the “OED for Radicals”) but in an epistemological convergence—our maps of the social world will be discoverable as true once we see the linguistic debates in a particular, dialectical fashion.
This kind of homology, itself a variant of the base/superstructure model of analysis, is true to Raymond Williams’ legacy and open now to new audiences. Whether these concepts (dialectics, base, superstructure, map, social world, homology, symptom, contradiction, terrain) are worth debating (e.g., by finding their way into their own keywords collection) remains to be seen.
Ultimately, we can turn to the collection’s subtitle to summarize its trajectory: This is a contested vocabulary, one whose stakes are found in the book’s context—namely, late capitalism, but moreover the struggles against it. If, in the Trumpist era, we’ve seen an increasing weaponization of tools, techniques, and words, then this collection is a much-needed arms storehouse.
 This telos raises some curious questions: Do we push the terms to their exhaustion? Could we diminish, banish, reduce, rather than disavow? What would it mean to complete a concept borne out of injustice?
White nationalism is implicitly violent, it cannot exist without it. The proposition is, by its own merits, steeped in the most expansive and profound sorts of violence. Even liberal American society, which cannot sustain itself as an egalitarian community without revolutionary change, acknowledges the deep violence that led to its founding and that motivates all meager attempts at social progress. White nationalism sees the violence of the past, from slavery to colonialism to Jim Crow, as compromising measures: that violence is normal to racial relations. This is the “spoils to the victor” mentality crossed with belief in the inferiority of the other that allows the genocide of indigenous people and the ongoing racial revenge against African descended people as a logical and normal response by whites, an ideology that has violence at its center. It’s no surprise when that violence moves from implicit to explicit.
In 1979, the Maoist Communist Workers Party (originally named the Workers Viewpoint Organization) staged a rally in Greensboro, North Carolina, where they were organizing with a largely black community of textile workers. Their “Death to the Klan” slogan showed a certain amount of militancy after decades of Klan terrorism. Through the 1950s and 1960s, the Third Era resurrected Ku Klux Klan enacted a paramilitary style war against integration in the South, including lynchings, bombings, and assassinations. By the time the 1970s rolled around they had largely receded as a major terrorist movement after the United Klans of America were taken down by a lawsuit, and were instead channeling into the strange public facing organization that David Duke had intended for it.
But in Greensboro, several Klan organizers from the North Carolina Knights of the KKK and the National Socialist Party of America had united to form the United Racist Front. When they went out to meet the CWP on November 3rd, they were joined by informant, Ed Dawson, who was acting as a leader in the movement. In front of news crews, the white supremacist faction opened fire on protesters, killing five activists rallied with the CWP and one of their own. As documents were later revealed, law enforcement had early knowledge of what was going to take place, a part of their ongoing efforts to infiltrate radical organizations.
The Greensboro Massacre has taken a certain place in the history of Klan violence only because, to a large degree, it was the last public show of Klan paramilitary firepower in any coherent fashion and the state’s culpability was apparent even to outsiders. This was not the beginning or the end of white supremacist violence, more of a public blast into our memory, and in the 1980s the Aryan Nations tied organization The Order ran a trail of blood, robberies, and assassinations across the country, leaving us with a reminder of the revolutionary potential of the ideologies. Their ideas increased in virulence as well. Christian Identity took a vulgar reading of the Bible stating that European whites were the “lost tribes of Israel,” Jews were in league with the Devil, and people of color lacked the humanity, and souls, of whites. This led to some of the most militant acts of violence into the 1990s, and skinhead organizations took the street battle to urban areas as they created the ongoing specter of street attacks.
When the Alt Right first made itself known in 2015 (it had been lingering around for years before that), people immediately signaled, rightly, that they were ideologically the same as their North Carolina comrades, only with well pressed suits, books of pseudo-philosophy, and an upper-middle-class arrogance. This method was, however, not new by any means. When David Duke took over the largest KKK contingent in the 1970s, he largely dropped the buffoonish robes and argued wedge issues like immigration and affirmative action. He later left the Klan to form the National Association for the Advancement of White People and, throughout the 1980s, built up a base of support and talking points that would lead to his catastrophic political runs in the late 1980s and early 1990s. About the time David Duke was making waves, Jared Taylor, a former PC Magazine editor with a Yale degree, started American Renaissance, a “race realist” publication and series of conferences dedicated to reinvigorating academic-sounding arguments for the racial inferiority of non-whites and the perennial need for “a self-consciously European, Majority-white nation.” He brought together figures like Forbes-editor-turned-anti-immigrant-extremist Peter Brimelow and Kevin MacDonald, whose work has defined 21st Century anti-Semitism by suggesting Judaism was a “group evolutionary strategy” to outcompete non-Jews for resources.
This was, again, not new. Figures like Francis Parker Yockey had taken German Idealist and Conservative Revolutionary philosophy and melded it with elements of the left to attempt at a smart, and sober appearing, take on white nationalism. Organizations like the Pioneer Fund, a fascist and eugenic foundation that funded “race science” research used in books like the Bell Curve, had existed since the 1930s, using establishment money to push the academy to validate their most atrocious ideas. The Council of Conservative Citizens, a neo-Confederate group founded in the 1980s as a way of engaging the original membership lists from the pro-Segregationist White Citizens Councils of the 1960s, began holding conferences with scores of public officials, including Mike Huckabee and Trent Lott. At the same time, they were arguing that miscegenation was “against God’s chosen order” and publicly venerated slavery and the antebellum South.
All of these organizations had come with a suit and tie, and the Alt Right was merely the latest incarnation of these, built for a Northern audience of meme-lovers and those steeped in paleoconservative, Third Positionist, and European New Right tracts. The argument that the Alt Right will try to make is that their presence is about ideas, not violence, and so the left’s response is hyperbolic at best: it is preparing to respond to violence when all they have are unpopular opinions. The same was said for its organizational ancestors, all clamoring just to have their voices heard in this unjust system of political correctness.
The problem, however, is that their violence is implicit for only so long before it breaks away. The Council of Conservative Citizens, long known for its ties to explicit white nationalist street groups with KKK and neo-Nazi affiliations, was cited as the inspiration for Dylan Roof’s massacre at the Charlton church in 2016. David Duke’s era KKK has been accused of dozens of acts of violence, and its membership went on to form projects like White Aryan Resistance, which was sued into oblivion after its associates murdered an Ethiopian immigrant in Portland, Oregon in the late 1980s. American Renaissance, as a central hub for the white nationalist movement in the U.S., has seen scores of the most violent edges of the racialist movement come through its doors, including members of Aryan Nations who were looking for a home after they lost their compound when several members attacked a black family passing by. It takes little to see the violence that is underneath the surface with their public facing organizations, all it requires is to look at its members, what they do, and what they want.
The Alt Right itself has also been mired in violence since its earliest incarnations, though it was hard to pick up on in public discourse because of its diffuse and confused nature. Attacks inspired by the Alt Right, such as the March 2017 killing of a homeless man in New York by James Jackson. He had been reportedly radicalized online by the Alt Right, including interacting with material from Richard Spencer, the founder of the movement. Jeremy Christian took out the anger he honed at Alt Right supporting organization Patriot Prayer, murdering two people in an Islamophobic frenzy on a Portland train. There are more as the news comes in, attacks linked to the Manosphere or those in the Atomwaffen Division, the Nazi Satanist inspired militant racialist organization.
What the Alt Right leadership, like Spencer, will tell you is that these are a violent fringe of their organization and that they would never condone that violence. That is likely true yet far beyond the point. Throughout the multiple generations of the KKK, tracing back to its rear-guard action defending the lost Confederacy in the 1860s through the Second Era Klan’s massive growth in the 1920s to its days with the violent United Klans of America, the vigilante violence usually followed a pattern that took itself out of the official functions of those organizations. While the Klan was clearly responsible for its murders, they were rarely “Klan sanctioned” in the most official sense, in the same way that Jim Crow relied on extra-judicial violence to enforce the softer codes issued by the state. The violent rhetoric, the revolutionary aims, and the apocalyptic tone has a way of sanctifying violence, and those “seemingly random” acts of violence are a sheer necessity for those organizations. If they were to admit who and what they are, the public reaction would force the state to cave and target them, and, in times past, they certainly did. After a series of bombings, one that killed four young girls in Birmingham, Alabama, the FBI began to focus in on the Klan violence in the South. As Matthew Lyons has pointed out, this was not out of altruism but of its contest to the state.
“Although FBI officials shared the Klan’s racist ideology, they saw the Klan as a threat because it carried out organized violence without authorization from the state. They also looked down on most Klansman as poor, rural, and ignorant (a stereotype shared by many liberals then and now). By contrast, the FBI had no problem with the equally racist but more genteel Citizens Council. The bureau also did nothing to disrupt either local police brutality or the informal (non-KKK) vigilante networks that enforced white supremacy in many rural areas of the South.” 
That happened only after the violence went from its implicit nature, where members were quietly encouraged to engage in violence in their personal capacity to the explicit violence of commands from a pulpit. As the early Morris Dees’ lawsuit that stripped the United Klans of America of their $7 million in resources in 1987, their rhetoric and intention was clear from the start. The violence that these organizations rely on are always stoked with subtlety, rarely carried out as praxis unless they want to completely destroy their above-ground wing and head into the world of pure armed struggle. This makes their violence more persistent, more ever present, always ready to spill over and take lives.
This begs the question, then, is Charlottesville, the most public and sensational act of violence from the Alt Right, our generation’s Greensboro Massacre? While there are some parallels, including the steady decline of the Alt Right as the communities they are trying to embed themselves in are able to see their agenda with clarity, it does not seem to match the intentional brutality. There was a decision to attack the CWP with brutal, and public, force, and that came from organizers and not just the fringe. While Charlottesville was the high-water mark in the public face of the Alt Right as (aspirational) mass movement, that says nothing about its potential for violence.
What does it take for white nationalist movements to move from public facing community organizing to open acts of terrorism, or Propaganda of the Deed? History shows that it is failure and desperation, the inability to see through their organizing goals in a conventional means and to, instead, turn to acts of spontaneous cruelty. The Order, Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 attack on the Oklahoma Federal Building, and a series of skinhead shootings over the past twenty years have shown this, noting a feeling of helplessness is the best indicator that intentional acts of mass killing are a possibility.
After the Greensboro Massacre, many of the white nationalists involved went on to become celebrities in the movement. Harold Covington went on to help form the violent neo-Nazi gang in the UK called Combat 18, which often provided security for the British National Party, as well as creating the Northwest Imperative to call for like-minded people to move to the Pacific Northwest. Frazier Glenn Miller, another co-planner of the attack and long-time white nationalist organizer, gave up on his larger work of building towards an Ethnostate without Jews and decided to complete his mission by shooting a 14-year-old boy and his grandparent who were leaving a Jewish community center in Oakland, Kansas. His years of work for his cause had seen nothing change in his favor and so, like so many before him, he loaded a gun and decided to take some people out on his trip into oblivion.
This desperation has become methodology since the 1980s as police crackdown and the left’s counter-organizing has allowed little success for the revolutionary aims of the white nationalist movement. Former KKK and Aryan Nations organizer Louis Beam outlined this most clearly in his paper “Leaderless Resistance,” which favored autonomous violent attacks over formalized organizations since this negated the threat of infiltration and internal dissension. This idea has been taken up by organizations around the world, and that “Lone Wolf” violence has had a persistent effect on giving purpose to the fringes of a movement where they feel ineffectual. All the justification for spontaneous acts of ultra-violence are built in, whether individually or with a few radicals on a mission.
This could explain Alex James Fields Jr.’s attack in Charlottesville last year that injured dozens and caused the death of activist Heather Heyer, but this single act occurred during a high moment for the Alt Right movement. What kind of violence happens on their trip to the bottom? The potential for violence in this “suit and tie” movement is there, their desperation assured, and the violence of their ideology is implicit. This could mean that more is on the way, but its leaderless nature means that the violence the Alt Right is fomenting could come from almost any direction.
To reclaim the reality of white nationalist violence, both historic and impending, is to reclaim the central function of white identity: violence on the “other.” The character change between the Alt Right and the neo-Nazis is one of minor philosophic shifts and branding, but the underlying cause and the overarching message retain a key component of revolutionary upheaval, of the mythic battle for “survival of their race,” and the growing need for power. Richard Spencer, for his part, has shifted his rhetoric from one of simply the preservation of “identity” to the need to take, and exercise, power in a dominating way. This is not “real politic,” but an acknowledgement that much of the language of identity that has filtered over from the European identitarian movement is disingenuous: what he wants from his Ethnostate is a Great White Empire. And why shouldn’t he say it? Their idealist vision is one that refuses to quit, that will take down opponents as it needs to, and whose sees the only reason to refuse violence is its optics.
For the antifascist left, this needs to be a check in to the reality of what is being faced. This is not just an argument, or a political force, but something capable, willing, and inevitably baked in potential violence. The surprising growth of the Alt Right has had one effect that was less predicted, that their violent rhetoric and vulgar racialism would infect the conservative communities they tried to cozy up to. Their violence has extended to the MAGA-Belt, the Independent Trumpists whose anger has become explosive.
The fringe of the white nationalist movement is an essential part of it, and it is where the move towards “IRL” violence takes place. They will never “condone” this violence in the practical, instructive sense, but they don’t have to, their message has been heard loud and clear. This creates a perpetual dilemma for the communities they target, both in active points of confrontation and in daily life. The potential only grows without resistance to stifle it, but conscious community defense and bonds is the only thing that can weather the storm. We have to wrestle with the reality that their violence is genocidal and persistent, and will never evaporate on its own.
(Credit for all above photos: Daniel Vincent/Daniel V. Media)
 Matthew N. Lyons, Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire (Montreal and Oakland: Kersblebedeb Publishing and PM Press, 2018): 170-171.
Shane Burley, author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It, will be on the east coast for a few days giving talks in three cities on, you guessed it, understanding today’s fascist forces and how to defeat them. Here’s the low-down, along with links to the events on Facebook: . .
The following is an excerpt from the first English-language edition of Peter Kropotkin’s Modern Science and Anarchy—which we’ve just published! A portion of the book is devoted to Kropotkin’s study of the nature and origins of the State. This brief excerpt comes at the end of a lengthy critique of the State-form. You can order the book itself here.
CAN THE STATE BE USED FOR THE EMANCIPATION OF THE WORKERS?
[F]ollowing an error of judgment which truly becomes tragic, while the State that provides the most terrible weapons to impoverish the peasant and the worker and to enrich by their labour the lord, the priest, the bourgeois, the financier and all the privileged gangsters of the rulers—it is to this same State, to the bourgeois State, to the exploiter State and guardian of the exploiters— that radical democrats and socialists ask to protect them against the monopolist exploiters! And when we say that it is the abolition of the State that we have to aim for, we are told: “Let us first abolish classes, and when this has been done, then we can place the State into a museum of antiquities, together with the stone axe and the spindle!” 
By this quip they evaded, in the fifties of the last century, the discussion that Proudhon called for on the necessity of abolishing the State institution and the means of achieving this. And it is still being repeated today. “Let us seize power in the State”—the current bourgeois State, of course—“and then we will make the social revolution”—such is the slogan today. 
Proudhon’s idea had been to invite the workers to pose this question: “How could society organise itself without resorting to the State institution, developed during the darkest times of humanity to keep the masses in economic and intellectual poverty and to exploit their labour?” And he was answered with a paradox, a sophism.
Indeed, how can we talk about abolishing classes without touching the institution which was the instrument for establishing them and which remains the instrument which perpetuates them? But instead of going deeper into this question—the question placed before us by all modern evolution— what do we do?
Is not the first question that the social reformer should ask himself this one: “The State, which was developed in the history of civilisations to give a legal character to the exploitation of the masses by the privileged classes, can it be the instrument of their liberation?”
Furthermore, are not other groupings than the State already emerging in the evolution of modern societies—groups which can bring to society co-ordination, harmony of individual efforts and become the instrument of the liberation of the masses, without resorting to the submission of all to the pyramidal hierarchy of the State? The commune, for example, groupings by trades and by professions in addition to groupings by neighbourhoods and sections, which preceded the State in the free cities [of the Middle Ages]; the thousand societies that spring up today for the satisfaction of a thousand social needs: the federative principle that we see applied in modern groupings—do not these forms of organisation of society offer a field of activity which promises much more for our goals of emancipation than the efforts expended to make the State and its centralisation even more powerful than they already are?
Is this not the essential question that the social reformer should ask before choosing his course of action?
Well, instead of going deeper into this question, the democrats, radicals, as well as socialists, only know, only want one thing, the State! Not the future State, “the people’s State” of their dreams of yesteryear, but well and truly the current bourgeois State, the State nothing more and nothing less. This must seize, they say, all the life of society: economic, educational, intellectual activities and organising: industry, exchange, instruction, jurisdiction, administration—everything that fills our social life!
To workers who want their emancipation, they say: “Just let us worm ourselves into the powers of the current political form, developed by the nobles, the bourgeois, the capitalists to exploit you!” They say that, while we know very well by all the teachings of history that a new economic form of society has never been able to develop without a new political form being developed at the same time, developed by those who were seeking their emancipation.
Serfdom—and absolute royalty; corporative organisation—and the free cities, the republics of the twelfth to fifteenth centuries; merchant domination—and these same republics under the podestas and the condottieri;  imperialism—and the military States of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the reign of the bourgeoisie—and representative government, are not all these forms going hand in hand striking evidence [of this]?
In order to develop itself as it has developed today and to maintain its power, despite all the progress of science and the democratic spirit, the bourgeoisie developed with much shrewdness representative government during the course of the nineteenth century.
And the spokespersons of the modern proletariat are so timid that they do not even dare to tackle the problem raised by the 1848 revolution—the problem of knowing what new political form the modern proletariat must and can develop to achieve its emancipation? How will it seek to organise the two essential functions of any society: the social production of everything necessary to live and the social consumption of these products? How will it guarantee to everyone, not in words but in reality, the entire product of his labour by guaranteeing him well-being in exchange for his work? What form will “the organisation of labour” take as it cannot be accomplished by the State and must be the work of the workers themselves?
That is what the French proletarian, educated in the past by 1793 and 1848, asked their intellectual leaders.
But did they [their leaders] know how to answer them? They only knew how to keep on repeating this old formula, which said nothing, which evaded the answer: “Seize power in the bourgeois State, use this power to widen the functions of the modern State—and the problem of your emancipation will be solved!”
Once again the proletarian received lead instead of bread! This time from those to whom it had given its trust—and its blood!
To ask an institution which represents a historical growth that it serves to destroy the privileges that it strove to develop is to acknowledge you are incapable of understanding what a historical growth is in the life of societies. It is to ignore this general rule of all organic nature, that new functions require new organs, and that they need to develop them themselves. It is to acknowledge that you are too lazy and too timid in spirit to think in a new direction, imposed by a new evolution.
The whole of history is there to prove this truth, that each time that new social strata started to demonstrate an activity and an intelligence which met their own needs, each time that they attempted to display a creative force in the domain of an economic production which furthered their interests and those of society in general—they knew how to find new forms of political organisation; and these new political forms allowed the new strata to imprint their individuality on the era they were inaugurating. Can a social revolution be an exception to the rule? Can it do without this creative activity?
1. [A reference to the famous 1884 work by Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, which argues: “The state, then, has not existed from eternity. There have been societies that managed without it, that had no idea of the state and state authority. At a certain stage of economic development, which was necessarily bound up with the split of society into classes, the state became a necessity owing to this split. We are now rapidly approaching a stage in the development of production at which the existence of these classes not only will have ceased to be a necessity, but will become a positive hindrance to production. They will fall as inevitably as they arose at an earlier stage. Along with them the state will inevitably fall. Society, which will reorganise production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers, will put the whole machinery of state where it will then belong: into the museum of antiquities, by the side of the spinning-wheel and the bronze axe” (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 26 [London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990], 272). (Editor)]↩
2. [A reference to, for example, Engels’s arguments from 1883 that while he and Marx saw the State’s “gradual dissolution and ultimate disappearance,” the proletariat “will first have to possess itself of the organised political force of the State and with its aid stamp out the resistance of the Capitalist class and re-organise society.” The anarchists “reverse the matter” by advocating revolution “has to begin by abolishing the political organisation of the State.” For Marxists “the only organisation the victorious working class finds ready-made for use, is that of the State. It may require adaptation to the new functions. But to destroy that at such a moment, would be to destroy the only organism by means of which the working class can exert its newly conquered power” (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 47 [London: Lawrence & Wishat, 1993], 10). (Editor)]↩
3. [Podesta were high officials (usually chief magistrate of a city state) in many Italian cities beginning in the later Middle Ages; Condottieri were the leaders of the professional military free companies (or mercenaries) contracted by the Italian city-states and the Papacy from the late Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance. (Editor)]↩
As you probably know, we’ve just re-issued Paul Avrich’s long-out-of-print biography, An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre. It’s an amazing study that Robert P. Helms, in a new foreword for this edition, rightly points out is “as readable as a novel.” Below, we’re sharing a portion of Avrich’s preface to the book, which outlines the interests and incidents that led him to this particular biography. If you want to read the rest of the book, you’ll find it here.
This biography of Voltairine de Cleyre, one of the most interesting if neglected figures in the history of American radicalism, is designed to be the first of several volumes dealing with anarchism in the United States, a project on which I have been engaged for the past six years. When I began my work, I expected to treat the entire subject between the covers of a single volume, in which Voltairine de Cleyre would occupy a modest place. My intention at the time was to produce a comprehensive history of American anarchism from its seventeenth-century origins until recent years, embracing the individualists and collectivists, the native Americans and immigrants, the pacifists and revolutionists, and their libertarian schools and colonies.
A study of this type was badly needed. For while there were a number of useful works on American socialism and American communism, the history of American anarchism remained largely unwritten. Two well-known surveys of anarchism as a whole, George Woodcock’s Anarchism and James Joll’s The Anarchists, contained brief accounts of the movement in the United States, in addition to a longer discussion by Max Nettlau in his multivolume history of anarchism, written half a century ago but never published in its entirety. On American anarchism itself most available studies were tendentious and unreliable. There were, however, a few creditable works, such as Eunice M. Schuster’s pioneering Native American Anarchism, which, if largely out of date, was still of some value, and James J. Martin’s Men Against the State, an authoritative treatment of the Individualist school, of which Josiah Warren and Benjamin Tucker were the outstanding exponents. Moreover, one of the leading Anarchist-Communists, Emma Goldman, had been the subject of a sympathetic biography by Richard Drinnon, Rebel in Paradise, in addition to which The History of the Haymarket Affair by Henry David and The Mooney Case by Richard Frost merited special attention. But much remained to be done, particularly on the immigrant groups; and in many areas scholarly explorations were completely lacking, sources uncollected and often unknown, and historical works, with few exceptions, encrusted with political and personal bias.
It was considerations such as these which led me, at the beginning of the 1970s, to contemplate the writing of a general history of American anarchism. At an early stage, however, my plans began to alter. For a fuller examination of the materials at my disposal, together with the discovery of new sources, aroused a growing sense of the complexity of the movement, of the richness and diversity of its history. Again and again, I encountered important figures begging to be resurrected, tangled episodes to be unraveled, neglected avenues to be explored—too many, it was clear, to be treated in a single volume. A larger design was required to do the subject justice and to incorporate the findings of such recently published works as Lewis Perry’s Radical Abolitionism and Laurence Veysey’s The Communal Experience, which have filled conspicuous gaps in our knowledge of American anarchism and enabled us to begin to separate historical legend from historical reality. To a significant extent, moreover, the need for a general history was met in 1976 with the publication of William O. Reichert’s Partisans of Freedom: A Study in American Anarchism, a work of 600 closely printed pages with useful bibliographical references.
I found myself, as a result, less and less inclined to produce an exhaustive chronological history of American anarchism. Besides, as my work happened in the movement had been due to the personal characteristics of its adherents, and that the nature of American anarchism might be profitably explored through the lives of a few individuals who played a central role in the movement and set the imprint of their personalities upon it. From most existing accounts, unfortunately, one gets little understanding of the anarchists as human beings, still less of what impelled them to embark on their unpopular and seemingly futile course. Anarchism, as a result, has seemed a movement apart, unreal and quixotic, divorced from American history and irrelevant to American life.
For these reasons, I have decided to tell the story of American anarchism through the lives of selected figures who, in large measure, shaped the destiny and character of the movement. In arriving at this decision, I have been guided by the assumption that by focusing on key individuals, their dreams and passions, failures and successes, weaknesses and strengths, I can make the movement as a whole more comprehensible. I have not, however, ignored the social and economic developments of the age, but have tried, as the story unfolds, to include sufficient historical background to make the lives of the anarchists intelligible.
What began then as a chronological survey has become a series of interrelated studies which, taken together, will form a kind of biographical history of a movement that included figures as striking and diverse as Josiah Warren and Alexander Berkman, Benjamin Tucker and Johann Most, Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre. By assigning Voltairine de Cleyre a separate volume, I do not mean to overstate her importance. Yet for twenty-five years she was an active agitator and propagandist and, as a glance through the files of the anarchist press will show, one of the movement’s most respected and devoted representatives, who deserves to be better known. Besides, there was so much rich drama in her life that a full-length biography was needed to do it justice. As a freethinker and feminist as well as an anarchist, moreover, she can speak to us today, across a gulf of seven decades, with undiminished relevance. For, in a remarkably detailed and articulate fashion, her writings anticipate the contemporary mood of distrust toward the centralized bureaucratic state. She was one of the most eloquent and consistent critics of unbridled political power, the subjugation of the individual, the dehumanization of labor, and the debasement of culture; and with her vision of a decentralized libertarian society, based on voluntary cooperation and mutual aid, she has left a legacy to inspire new generations of idealists and reformers.