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(en) Social Anarchism, No. 39 - Paul Goodman's Anarchism by Wayne Price

Date Thu, 30 Mar 2006 10:30:11 +0200

In the Sixties, Paul Goodman was an influential figure among student radicals and
militants. Todd Gitlin writes of his generation of radicals, "...We scorned 'mere'
intellectuals unless--like C. Wright Mills and Paul Goodman--they broke unequivocally
with the tone and texture of established America....Goodman was the insider's outsider,
the peripatetic freelance philosopher, enormously learned, yet economically and socially
(and sexually, although we didn't know it yet) a man of the margins. We loved them
for their bad manners" (Gitlin, 1987, p. 174). Similarly, Kirkpatrick Sale writes
that in the Sixties his "genius...made Goodman into one of the major
intellectual forces--along with Marcuse, Mills, and Norman O.
Brown--of [the] 'counterculture'..." (1995, p. 496).

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
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
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
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 every area--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,

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

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
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 representative
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
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
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.


Bookchin, Murray (1986). Post-scarcity anarchism (2nd ed.).
Montreal: Black Rose Books.
Bookchin, M. (1995). Social anarchism or lifestyle anarchism. San
Francisco: AK Press.
Gitlin, Todd (1987). The sixties: Years of hope, days of rage. NY:
Bantam Books.
Goodman, Paul (1960). Growing up absurd: Problems of youth in
the organized society. NY: Random House.
Goodman, Paul (1962). Drawing the line. NY: Random House.
Goodman, Paul (1964). Compulsory mis-education and The
Community of scholars. NY: Random House.
Goodman, Paul (1965). People or personnel: Decentralizing and
the mixed system.
NY: Random House.
Goodman, Paul (1970). New Reformation: Notes of a neolithic
conservative. NY: Random House.
Goodman, Paul (1979). Drawing the line: The political essays of
Paul Goodman. (T. Stoehr, ed.). NY: E.P. Dutton.
Goodman, Paul, & Goodman, Percival (1990). Communitas: Means
of livelihood and ways of life. NY: Columbia University
Press/Morningside Book.
Sale, Kirkpatrick (4/10/1995). Countercultural Elite. The Nation.
Pp. 496--499.
Stoehr, Taylor (1994). Here now next: Paul Goodman and the
origins of Gestalt Therapy.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Widmer, Kingsley (1980). Paul Goodman. Boston: Twayne
Publishers/G.K. Hall.
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