Paul Goodman: American Anarchist


August of 1972 saw the death of a great libertarian, one of America's finest and most valuable citizens—a passionate, compassionate man of wide interests and deep insights.

Paul Goodman called himself a "conservative anarchist"; he was an individualist with a social conscience, who for 40 years proposed extreme, exciting, and sensible solutions to the often mundane and confusing problems of North American life.

His many books included fiction, drama, poetry, criticism and studies in psychotherapy, linguistics, politics, religion, sociology and city planning. Yet his unorthodoxy relegated him to relative obscurity until the late 1950's. Then, with the publication of his now-classic book on the difficulties of adolescence and youth in North America, GROWING UP ABSURD, he leapt into prominence and remained a well-known and controversial public figure until the end of his life.

Born in 1911 in New York City, he enjoyed a fatherless boyhood in the slums. There, he attended Hebrew school "forever" and was a brilliant student in high-school and college. He obtained "the best education poverty could buy" by sitting in on classes at Columbia and Harvard, and when he began writing in the early 1930's, he was too poor to buy stamps, so he bicycled around New York moving his short stories from one magazine office to another.

Thus he began his prolific production of books, pamphlets, tracts, articles, texts and exhortations. He seems to have been a libertarian by temperament from the first, never having to go through a period of Marxism as did so many intellectuals in the '30's, including those who later conspicuously switched sides, like James Burnham and Max Eastman.

"Many of my intellectual generation sold out," he said. "First to the Communists, then to the organized system, so that there are very few independents around that a young man can accept as a hero." Goodman was certainly one of those "independents" and for many young people in the late 1950's and the 1960's, he became that hero. He saw American society as "deficient in many of the most elementary objective opportunities"; as corrupting, repressive, anti-individualistic, corrosive of true community. His books, no matter what their ostensible subject or field, were essays toward easing and correcting those deficiencies and restoring to America, and especially to its young people, a potential for a more creative, integral, and satisfying life.

His solutions to a wide range of dilemmas were extreme and often brilliant. Sometimes, they were startling in their simplicity, as was his proposal to alleviate the loneliness of many old people and the emotional deprivation of many children by bringing the kids and the old folks together.

He was against compulsory institutions of all sorts and anticipated another libertarian psychologist, Thomas Szasz, in advocating the closing of the mental hospitals, allowing most of the inmates to roam the countryside as "local eccentrics or loonies." In his book THE COMMUNITY OF SCHOLARS, Goodman advocated doing away with university administrations so that teachers and students could get down to the enterprise of learning unhampered by bureaucracy. The book was attacked, of course, in the establishment press. The leftist NEW REPUBLIC called it "fundamentally irresponsible." (What would it have thought of his further proposal—the total dismantling of that juggernaut, the state school system, and its replacement by a multiplicity of diverse, voluntary teaching and learning arrangements?) In PEOPLE OR PERSONNEL, Goodman analyzed and attacked the growth of America's vast corporate enterprises, theoretically privately owned but in fact often auxiliary fiefdoms of the federal government.

Goodman voiced his views with such cogency and persuasiveness that in spite of his radical reputation he was often invited to give conferences, universities and city councils the benefit of his ideas on social change, educational methods, or town planning. Sometimes, they even took his advice.

He was a living refutation of the authoritarians' claim that egoism and individualism are "antisocial." His uncompromising individuality manifested itself in a deep concern for his society and a need personally to try to improve that society in any way he could. Though sometimes sneeringly called a "liberal" by spokesmen of the New Left, he was always unpopular with the liberal intellectual establishment. When America was awash in a flood of enthusiasm for John Kennedy and his hangers-on, Goodman described them as "not liberals (but) devils. They have no principles, no philosophy. They're just power-hungry." "Our mistake," he wrote years later, "is to arm anybody with collective power. Anarchy is the only safe polity."

His pamphlet THE BLACK FLAG OF ANARCHISM contained a concise description of Goodman's political stand:

Anarchism…is against existing social and political systems, but it proposes to replace them with some form of ordered, decentralized, individualistic community cooperation. Anarchism is to come about not through violent revolution, since that creates its own rigid counter-organization, but through eventual mass understanding and increased practice of anarchist living…Anarchism would run a complex modern society not by increased centralization but by using cybernetic techniques to make small communities viable. With modern technology it should be possible for very small units to maintain their own sources of energy, their own small-scale industrial units, their own computerized agriculture, and so on. Anarchism is not coercive. It holds that a people free of governmental, parental, bureaucratic and financial control would act in general harmony. The basis of such harmony would be each individual's freedom, his liberty to join and to contribute as he chose.


Goodman's romantic and sexual life was as unorthodox as his political thinking. He was married to his wife Sally for 30 years and had two children, but never took out a marriage license. "To license sex," he said, "is absurd." His freely admitted homosexuality cost him jobs at three "highly liberal and progressive" academic institutions. "Frankly," he related, "my experience of radical community is that it doesn't tolerate my kind of freedom.…I have been told that my sexual behavior used to do me damage in the New York literary world. It kept me from being invited to advantageous parties and making contacts to get published." From its beginnings, Goodman was a strong and outspoken supporter of the Gay Liberation movement.

His homosexuality was a strong force in his life and writing; it embodied his individualism and outsider's status as well as his deep sense of community, of contact, and sensuous affinity with others. Many of his love affairs were teacher-student relationships, and a number of his lovers, like the composer Ned Rorem, became outstanding in their own fields.

Always a champion of youth, Goodman welcomed the new life-style and critical attitudes of the young in the 1960s as leading towards an easier, more relaxed and tolerant society, a community on a more human scale, with more realistic, kinder values—an alternative to 1984. But gradually, he became disillusioned by the irrationalism and nihilism of much of the youthful revolt, its lack of a sense of history, its conformism and arrogant refusal to consider its own mistakes, its increasingly evident authoritarianism. He said at one point, referring to some of his students' lack of interest in poetry, "They don't think beauty's relevant." Most of all, he opposed the young activists' rejection not only of the abuses in the structure of Western civilization, but of the structure as well: civilization itself. He compared their penchant for seeking solutions in drugs to a passive search for a religion. He criticized their credulity as well as their cynicism.

It was largely Goodman's disappointment with some of the young people who had formerly given him such hope that led him to change the emphasis of his political/social writing in his last years. His libertarianism moved from left to right—from strong communitarianism to equally strong conservative individualism. The natural optimism reflected in his earlier writing had sometimes given the appearance of shallowness, but his later disillusionment gave to his last works a depth and astringency that was impressive and moving.

In fact, his political philosophy had always been fusionist—uniting much of what is best in conservatism and anarchism. These two aspects of his thought are revealed in two of his titles: THE BLACK FLAG OF ANARCHISM and NEW REFORMATION: NOTES OF A NEOLITHIC CONSERVATIVE. He devised no rigid ideology, but blended the various tendencies of his thinking into a social wisdom that was both innovative and traditional. His was one of the freest and most comprehensive minds of his time.

In addition, he involved himself personally in the issues and events he wrote about—joining demonstrations, attending conferences, writing letters-to-the-editor, registering his protest or his enthusiasm with his voice and his presence. He took for granted as the elementary business of life the acts of citizenship that are many people's finest moments. Matter-of-factly, often smiling at the rumpled spectacle of himself, he became an itinerant doctor to America, whose forthright bedside manner sometimes charmed his reluctant patient into taking some enjoyable medicine.

At the age of 60, in spite of two heart attacks in the space of a year, Goodman refused his doctor's advice to stay in a hospital bed, and continued until his death his regular activities—writing, counselling, talking with friends, gardening on his farm in New Hampshire.

"He wasn't a man to follow prescriptions," his doctor said. "He had too much to do." That would make a good epitaph.

Ian Young is book editor of the Canadian libertarian magazine OPTION. An accomplished writer and poet, he has contributed to THE INDIVIDUALIST, THE CANADIAN FORUM, and other periodicals He is the author of several published volumes of poetry, most recently THE MALE MUSE: A GAY ANTHOLOGY (Crossing Press).