Muddling the Tradition


The American as Anarchist: Reflections on Indigenous Radicalism, by David DeLeon, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1978, 242 pp., $14.

David DeLeon's book is not a history of American anarchism, but rather an interpretive essay on the strong but more amorphous thread of anti-authoritarianism that runs through American history and American radicalism. This is a massive task, and I can think of no single book that does take on "the long neglected and fallow field of American radicalism," as Albert J. Nock expressed it. The anticipation of reading such a book must fill libertarians with excitement. For there is a wonderful, though little-known, libertarian heritage that is ours.

It is quite a disappointment, then, to find that this book is self-important and confusing. It is a jungle of facts connected by capricious categories and definitions. By the time we have reached the last page, we have learned very little about anarchist history, the anarchistic impulses in American history, or the nature of American radicalism.

The organization of the book is sensible enough. The first part discusses three elements of our social environment that have nourished our liberatory urges: religion, the frontier, and capitalism. From this general framework, the second part of the book deals with some of the political expressions of this desire for freedom. There are chapters on liberalism, right libertarianism, and left libertarianism and one chapter on their opposite—statist, or authoritarian radicalism. Finally, the last section discusses the revival of the anarchistic sensibility during the 1960s and '70s and some of DeLeon's own ideas for an expanded and more relevant libertarian radicalism.

All this is done in approximately 140 pages of text, so we have to expect brevity, generalization, and abstraction. Unfortunately, in the process, most of the life is squeezed out of history, and people and ideas are placed in uncomfortable procrustean beds.

A sense of the problems that pervade this book can be appreciated by looking at several examples. In his discussion of the influences on American anti-authoritarianism, for instance, DeLeon rightly observes that "capitalism was a vital, progressive force when it cracked the structures of feudalism, allowing the emergence of a society of choice, a society of constant change." From there on the discussion of capitalism is confused. DeLeon's definition of capitalism is misleading, based as it is on ownership "by small numbers of people" (this sounds more like feudalism) and concepts like surplus value. He fails to distinguish between capitalism and state capitalism or to discuss the historical development of both tendencies. There is virtually no discussion of the sophisticated and liberating functions of the market and private property, while capitalism is summarily blamed for fostering "narcissism," "self-denigration," and "bondage to the individualism of consumption."

Why are religion, the frontier, and capitalism the formative influences, anyway? Admittedly, one cannot mention everything, but the case and context for these specific influences is not made. What about the crucial role that ideas have played in the development of our anarchistic sensibility?

After reading the first section of the book, one wonders how it was that statism ever arose and why we are not now living instead in total and joyous freedom. There is no appreciation of the rise of statism or of the elements of authoritarianism and obedience to authority that are also parts of our societal development.

The use of the terms left and right libertarianism perpetuates useless and misleading categories. There is an important methodological error here. People and ideas should be discussed in relation to their own time and place, not forced into contemporary molds. Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Benjamin Tucker, Albert J. Nock, Randolph Bourne, and Henry George—all libertarians—would be properly appalled to be called right-wing, as DeLeon does.

It is to DeLeon's credit that he acknowledges the existence and importance of individualistic and free-market traditions in American radicalism. But if one is going to simplistically package history in political phrases, then one should either use the usual definitions or define one's terms precisely. DeLeon does neither. What libertarian, of any persuasion, would include, as DeLeon does, workers' control and trust-busting as examples of right libertarianism, or John D. Rockefeller II and George Wallace as right libertarians?

Let me mention one last problem. DeLeon takes pains to distinguish between "indigenous radicalism" and "imitators of foreign radicalism." He wants to ignore the second because they are usually authoritarian and alien to our historical and cultural traditions. The truth of this distinction is quickly overshadowed, though.

One gets the sense from this book that American radicalism grew virgin from American soil. One looks in vain for the incredible heritage of liberty that came to this continent from, for instance, the Levellers, British radicals and old liberals, Enlightenment thinkers, free-market writers, and European anarchists. Some of their ideas represent the grounding of our libertarian heritage, while others have obviously been ignored or forgotten. Other aspects of this foreign influx of ideas have been either irrelevant to the American scene or baldly authoritarian. But without embracing this rich influence and analyzing it, any discussion of our tradition of anti-authoritarianism is misleading.

Yet, ironically, DeLeon's own ideas for infusing with new life this wonderful and culturally grounded American anarchistic sensibility is to import the lessons of the Paris Commune, the Spanish Civil War, and the Russian Revolution, together with the ideas of Pannekoek, Oscar Lange, and Andre Gorz. Those lessons may very well be able to enrich our view of liberty, but one cannot help but be skeptical about a book that, having consistently ignored foreign influences, brings them in without context in the last three pages.

One could go on, of course, about the problems with the chapter on liberalism, about how the old right is not discussed, or about how DeLeon's vision of a contemporary "anarcholibertarianism" looks like the old Socialist Labor Party program. In any case, this book has tried to provide a "general theory of American radicalism" that recognizes and firmly establishes its strong libertarian underpinnings, but in its stead we find confusion and little insight.

There is an inspiring and clear tradition of anarchist and libertarian impulses and thoughts in our history. But as Norman Birenbaum has written in another context, "The United States, insofar as major aspects of its past are concerned, remains an unknown country.…We are at the beginning of a voyage of self-discovery that may yet revise some of our notions of our social provenance." Unfortunately, DeLeon's book is of little help in this adventure.

Chuck Hamilton is the publisher of Free Life Editions and the former publisher of Libertarian Review.