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I just recently read that on May 11, 2009 Leonard Shlain died of brain cancer. Shlain was an author, surgeon, inventor, artist, student and teacher. His writings and lectures covered everything from anthropology to evolution to linguistics, and the man is credited with pioneering surgical techniques, designing houses, and inventing medical tools, as well as being a best selling author. By every account Shlain was a real renaissance man, which is the kind of person that I admire and strive to emulate every moment of the day.
On several occasions I’ve thought of writing a review of his most popular book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, but have never gotten around to it. In it Shlain takes an anthropological- albeit a somewhat casual one (meaning only that his assumptions, methods and conclusions aren’t 100% lock-step with what one would expect from a classically trained or traditional person in the field)- look at historical ties between language, dominate religious and spiritual currents, and the more subtle cultural meme’s of dualistically-oriented paradigms (i.e., ‘masculine’ versus ‘feminine’). Though there’s a lot of really good stuff packed into the book, Shlain’s overall thesis essentially boils down to something like “kinship, agrarian, non-hierarchal, polytheistic cultures which centered around women (as heads of family as well as of state/society/politics) existed for thousands of years and were the norm rather than exception in the cradle of civilization (essentially what we now know as the Middle East and Northern Africa)….” Ok, yes, I’m with you so far. “… and at pretty much the exact moment that written word arrives in each of the distinct cultures and societies of the region (as well as elsewhere throughout the world) we also see a rapid and drastic shift into monotheism, commercially-oriented/urbanized social and economic life, as well as home and social (and economic and political) life centered around men and at the (increasingly and continually for about 5,000 years) expense of woman….” Sure, a fair and accurate enough generalization. “… and so the written word is actually the cause of monotheism and masculine-oriented culture and political strata….” Whoa! what? “… and isn’t a femininely dominated culture better than a masculine-oriented one?” Ok, get a grip now.
As I said, I really like the book, think it is well written, well documented, generally fair and good, but that Shain’s conclusions from the evidence are off-base. The subtle and gross causal elements of human evolution simply cannot be reduced to something so simplistic; learning to read and write did not transform human society from Goddess-worshiping polytheists to God-worshiping monotheists. That these events happened at the same time in the same places is certainly an interesting note about human consciousness evolution; but says nothing about causation.
Towards the end of the book Shlain makes a very interesting observation though: in lock-step with what is widely seen as the beginning of the withering away of the masculine paradigm during the last half of the Twentieth Century and continuing today, Shlain notes the advent of television as a stark and drastic re-emergence of non-linear, image-based (and thus femininely rather than masculinely oriented) communication. Whereas every aspect of reading and writing reinforces the left, linear, rationalistic and “masculine” development of our brains, image-based communication (as well as audio communication such as radio and the transmission of sound through recordings) rely heavily on the right, non-linear, emotive and “feminine” aspects of human consciousness. So for all you hippies out there: TV actually reinforces and helps bring about your pagan Goddess-worshiping poly-everything culture, it doesn’t make you a mindless slave to the man!
Regardless of any of this though, Shlain was a very intelligent person who followed his passions and curiosities- two traits that we would all do well to emulate. Here’s to life lived at it’s fullest- cheers.
In typical Coetzee style, The Life and Times of Michael K considers the inhumanity of war, the State, and the State at war while simultaneously peering into the toll exacted upon the littlest individuals caught in the midst of such things. Michael K is a simple man with no family but his elderly mother and a birth defect that leaves his face as quick fodder for the jackals of society. Stuck in the midst of a civil war that makes little if any sense to him (waged “so that minorities will have a say in their destinies” as all war waged by liberalism claims, the poignancy of this war being its setting in apartheid era South Africa) the mildly clever yet thoroughly simplistic Michael K constructs a cart to push his increasingly ill mother in as they flee the building anarchy of war-torn Cape Town for her childhood farm in the distant Prince Albert. Trapped by curfews and a bureaucratic failure to receive the necessary travel permits the two embark on a desperate journey which soon sees his mother die in the sterile environ of a random hospital where her corpse is summarily cremated and the ash’s given to Michael with the heartless indifference of mechanized modern life. With the only love and care he has ever known now gone, Michael continues his journey until he finally finds what would seem to be the old family farm, long since abandoned and isolated on the outskirts of the town. Here, Michael begins a period- it’s never clear how long but as his pumpkin patch ripens and the season’s change we can think several months, if not a year or more- of isolation and subsistence that proves him to be far more intelligent and capable than anyone, even the author perhaps, had thought him to be. Michael is rightfully weary of being found, as it’s not his land, not the town he’s supposed to be in, and he has no job: each “crime” in themselves would land him in a work camp perhaps much like the one he was shuffled to when he was caught on the road earlier in the story.
It is on the farm that Michael wages war with human nature itself, and in a way comes out the victor. He builds himself a feeble shelter dug into the ground, he plants a small garden from seeds and tools stolen from the farmhouse (but he forgoes taking anything of luxury from the house, or using the house in general- its desolation a roadside deterrent against those who enforce the laws of wartime living). Michael lives alone and meekly and spends hours, whole days in fact, asleep waiting for his harvest; too bored or simply unable to find purpose in doing anything otherwise. He becomes the man free from all of society and in his silent liberation becomes what war creates: starvation and rot, a mere skeleton of a man. He was raised as an idiot, but it is in his isolation that he grows truly ignorant and stupid: nomadic guerilla forces (the rebellion in the civil war, we assume) pass through and he can’t figure if they’re hunters or soldiers or even the owners of the farm; the entire logic of the war and the factions and the reasoning of the State become lost entirely not only from his comprehension, but from his imagination. He cannot fathom any life but the simple and pure one he has created; though he starves, he cannot eat except that which he grew himself. Though alone, he feels little but fear and discontent at the sight of human life. Read the rest of this entry »
Note: Because Guerin’s work here encompasses a lot- especially within the confines of a mere 159 pages- I’m offering my review of this text in several parts, mostly to coincide with the format of the book (Part 1: The Basic Ideas of Anarchism, Part 2: In Search of a New Society,Part 3: Anarchism in Revolutionary Practice, which dragged on for a second post, and this final Part, which will cover Guerin’s “By Way of Conclusion” plus his post-script “May 1968″). Breaking the text down into several parts gave me the added luxury of fleshing more out of each one, and expanding and interjecting my own views where they agreed or differed. This final post will be short and sweet: I gave you plenty in the previous installments.
Concluding Anarchism in 1965, Guerin is not so much feeling libertarianism defeated and lost:
The defeat of the Spanish Revolution deprived anarchism of its only foothold in the world. It came out of this trial crushed, dispersed, and, to some extent, discredited. History condemned it severely and, in certain respects, unjustly. It was not in fact, or at any rate alone, responsible for the victory o the Franco forces. What remained from the experience of the rural and industrial collectives, set up in tragically unfavorable conditions, was on the whole to their credit. This experience was, however, underestimated, calumniated, and denied recognition. Authoritarian socialism had at last got rid of undesirable libertarian competition and, for years, remained master of the field. For a time it seemed as though state socialism was to be justified by the military victory of the U.S.S.R. against Nazism in 1945 and by undeniable, and even imposing, successes in the technical field.
However, the very excesses of this system soon began to generate their own negation. They engendered the idea that paralyzing state centralization should be loosened up, that production units should have more autonomy, that workers would do more and better work if they had some say in the management of enterprises. What medicine calls “antibodies” were generated in one of the countries brought into servitude by Stalin. Tito’s Yugoslavia freed itself from the too heavy yoke which was making it into a sort of colony. It then proceeded to re-evaluate the dogmas which could now so clearly be seen as anti-economic. It went back to school under the masters of the past, discovering and discreetly reading Proudhon. It bubbled in anticipation…. Among other things it dug out the (Marxist and socialist) concept of the withering away of the State, which had not, it is true, been altogether eliminated from the political vocabulary, but had certainly become no more than a ritual formula quite empty of substance. (p. 144-145)
Guerin goes on to explore what was, at the time, the potentially exciting development of workers councils that were bringing a surprising degree of self-management into Yugoslavia and Algeria. Guerin noted the limitations of these quasi-libertarian developments, given that they were sanctioned and- most importantly- financed by heavily authoritarian and centralized single-party State’s. Nonetheless, 30 years after the end of the Spanish Revolution ended, these developments were some of the most glaringly anarchist-like in global politics. As for the future of anarchism:
To sum up, self-management (in the workplace) meets with all kinds of difficulties and contradictions, yet, even now, it appears in practice to have the merit of enabling the masses to pass through an apprenticeship in direct democracy acting from the bottom upward; the merit of developing, encouraging, and stimulating their free initiative, of imbuing them with a sense of responsibility instead of perpetuating age-old habits of passivity, submission, and the inferiority complex left to them by past oppression, as is the case under state communism. This apprenticeship is sometimes laborious, progresses rather slowly, loads society with extra burdens and may, possibly, be carried out only at the cost of some “disorder.” Many observers think, however, that these difficulties, delays, extra burdens, and growing pains are less harmful than the false order, the false luster, the false “efficiency” of state communism which reduces man to nothing, kills the initiative of the people, paralyzes production, and, in spite of material advances obtained at a high price, discredits the very idea of socialism. (p. 150)
Finally ending his work, Guerin rightfully admits to what Anarchism succeeds at:
In the preceding pages I have tried to show that this (chaos, disorder, violence) is not a true picture of anarchism. Bakunin’s works best express the nature of constructive anarchism, which depends on organization, on self-discipline, on integration, on federalist and noncoercive centralization. (p. 154)
Only Guerin wasn’t entirely done, because he came back a few years later to offer a post-script on the events of Paris in 1968. Though written elegantly, Guerin nonetheless feels the self-serving need to spend the first of this 4 page post-script detailing his own predictions about what was possibly building in France as early as 1958. Correctly though, Guerin sees the re-birth of anarchism and libertarian ideas in the events of May ’68 and he excitedly welcomes it. He notes that while the Revolution stopped short- just short- of spreading beyond the youth and into bona-fide worker self-management, the events in Paris were, regardless, a re-awakening of the possibilities of socialism and libertarianism; most importantly, Paris in 1968 showed that the political left rejection of capitalism didn’t need to be, and no longer would be, defined as state communism. Guerin notes that this very book only became a best-seller once the 1968 uprising was upon them, and that it’s subsequent English translation (for which he was writing this post-script) signaled an un-mistakable and generally un-predicted return to interest for anarchist ideas. Now, nearly 40 years later, the whole of it continues today and Guerin’s Anarchism serves as a great place to begin to learn about the anarchist tradition and experience.
Note: Because Guerin’s work here encompasses a lot- especially within the confines of a mere 159 pages- I’m offering my review of this text in several parts, mostly to coincide with the format of the book (Part 1: The Basic Ideas of Anarchism, Part 2: In Search of a New Society, Part 3: Anarchism in Revolutionary Practice, and a final Part, which will cover Guerin’s “By Way of Conclusion” plus his post-script “May 1968″). Since in Part 3 I ended up being a little bit verbose I chose to split it into two posts; I ended at the Russian Revolution of 1917 and here will pick back up with the anarchist experiences in the Urkaine, Kronstadt, and then touch upon Italy and Spain. Breaking the text down into several parts gives me the added luxury of fleshing more out of each one, and expanding and interjecting my own views where they agree or differ.
As “Voline reported that (the anarchist) movement was ‘still far too small to have any immediate, concrete effect on events” (p. 96) during the Russian Revolution of 1917, the libertarian revolt was easily co-opted and taken over by Lenin and his, er, less than libertarian agenda. However, there is ample evidence that in fact, though their numbers relatively small (no more than a few thousand) dedicated anarchists performed leading and undeniable roles in the revolution, especially in fighting for more worker autonomy and militarily against the White army. Anarchists and their sympathizers rapidly increased, especially in the larger cities of Russia, leading a French captain to note in 1918: “The anarchist party is the most active, the most militant of the opposition groups and probably the most popular… the Bolsheviks are anxious.” (p. 96). That anxiousness from the Bolsheviks, as they moved to consolidate and formalize their Party power and establish a new State, “did their best first to prevent, and then to forbid, any manifestation of libertarian ideas and finally suppressed them by brute force.” (p. 96). It would take until 1921 for the Bolsheviks to finally and completely have all the anarchists either in jail, murdered, or fleeing into exile.
… but things were different in the Ukraine, where the peasant Nestor Makhno had built up a strong rural anarchist organization, both economic and military. Makhno was born of poor Ukrainian peasants and was twenty years old in 1919. As a child, he had seen the 1905 Revolution and later became an anarchist. The Czarist regime sentenced him to death, commuted to eight years’ imprisonment….
Immediately after the October Revolution, Makhno took the initiative in organizing masses of peasants into an autonomous region, a roughly circular area 480 by 400 miles, with seven million inhabitants… This was a traditionally rebellious region which had seen violent disturbances in 1905. (p. 98 ) Read the rest of this entry »
Note: Because Guerin’s work here encompasses a lot- especially within the confines of a mere 159 pages- I’m offering my review of this text in several parts, mostly to coincide with the format of the book (Part 1: The Basic Ideas of Anarchism, Part 2: In Search of a New Society, Part 3: Anarchism in Revolutionary Practice, and a final Part, which would cover Guerin’s “By Way of Conclusion” plus his post-script “May 1968″). In fact, Part 3 is making its way into being so long that I’m going to end at the Russian Revolution of 1917 and pick back up next time with the anarchist experiences in the Urkaine, Kronstadt, and then move on to Italy and Spain. Breaking the text down into four parts will give me the added luxury of fleshing more out of each one, and expanding and interjecting my own views where they agree or differ.
Having gone through the basic tenets of what the anarchist believes in (continually expanding and completely unhindered liberty for both the individual and society) and what such a society would need to include in order to maintain unhindered freedom, part 3 of Guerin’s Anarchism takes a look at several points from the beginning to middle of the Twentieth Century where anarchists, as a legitimate political pole, have found their ideas and methods on the front lines of actual revolution. Interestingly, before Guerin brings us to the moment where revolution is happening, he steps back to pre-revolutionary times in Europe (1880-1914 is the chunk he specifically calls out in a section titled “Anarchism Becomes Isolated From the Working-Class Movement).
Proudhon had taken a negative attitude to the 1848 revolution even before its outbreak. He attacked it as a political revolution, , a bourgeois booby trap, and, indeed, much of this was true…. As for the Paris Commune, while it is true that it spontaneously broke away from “traditional statist centralization,” it was the product of a “compromise,” as Henri Lefebvre has noted, a sort of “united front” between the Proudhonists and Bakuninites on the one hand and the Jacobins and Blanquists on the other. It “boldly repudiated” the State, but Bakunin had to admit that the internationalist anarchists were a “tiny minority” in its ranks.
(Anarchism had) succeeded in grafting itself onto the First International- a proletarian, internationalist, apolitical, mass movement. But sometime around 1880 the anarchists began to deride “the timid International of the first period,” and sought to set up in its place what Malatesta in 1884 described as the “redoubtable International” which was to be anarchist, communist, anti-religious, anti-parliamentarian, and revolutionary, all at the same time. (p. 73-74)
As for the idea of this explicitly anarchist International, Guerin calls it a “scarecrow” which is “very flimsy”, and I think his point on this matter shouldn’t be overlooked. For the first time, really, anarchists had intentionally made a strategic move to organize explicitly along ideological lines (as anarchists) rather than as a political pole within a class-based organization. By divorcing themselves from the larger working class movement they effectively removed libertarian ideas from it, and left those who did not come to anarchism ideologically on their own. Guerin points out that the result as “that it deteriorated and lost its way in sectarianism and minority activism”, a state of affairs that plagues most anarchists today, over 100 years later.
When they found themselves a small minority (rather than part of the larger class struggle), the anarchists abandoned the idea of militancy within large popular movements. Free rein was given to utopian doctrines…. Kropotkin, Malatesta, and their friends turned their backs on the road opened by Bakunin on the pretext of keeping their doctrine pure…. The anarchists turned in on themselves, organized themselves for direct action in small clandestine groups which were easily infiltrated by police informers. (p. 74) Read the rest of this entry »
Note: Because Guerin’s work here encompasses a lot- especially within the confines of a mere 159 pages- I’m offering my review of this text in three, possibly four parts, to coincide with the format of the book (Part 1: The Basic Ideas of Anarchism, Part 2: In Search of a New Society, Part 3: Anarchism in Revolutionary Practice, and perhaps a part 4, which would cover Guerin’s “By Way of Conclusion” plus his post-script “May 1968″ if I don’t cover those sections in part 3). Breaking the text down into three (or four) parts will give me the added luxury of fleshing more out of each one, and expanding and interjecting my own views where they agree or differ.
While in Part 1 of Anarchism the base beliefs of the anarchist, especially in regards to what one stands for as an individual and towards individuals, was fleshed out by Guerin succinctly and straight-forward the task for Part 2 proves a trickier one. Anarchism comes in many forms, and while all libertarians are more easily held together by their views towards liberty, what a truly free society would look like (not to mention how to get there) isn’t quite so. Readers familiar with integral theory- and my stance on integral politics- may note the very beginning of this section:
Because anarchism is constructive, anarchist theory emphatically rejects the charge of utopianism. It uses the historical method in an attempt to prove that the society of the future is not an anarchist invention, but the actual product of the hidden effects of past events…. However harmful government may have been, it contained its own negation. It was always “a phenomenon of collective life, the public exercise of the powers of our law, an expression of social spontaneity, all serving to prepare humanity for a higher state. What humanity seeks in religion and calls “God” is itself. What the citizen seeks in government… is likewise himself- it is liberty.” (p.41)
And Guerin begins his trip through the visions of a society based on anarchist principles by noting the need for organization:
Anarchist theory does not see itself as a synonym for disorganization. Proudhon was the first to proclaim that anarchism is not disorder but order, is the natural order in contrast to the artificial order imposed from above, is true unity as against the false unity brought about by constraint. Such a society “thinks, speaks, and acts like a man, precisely because it is no longer represented by a man… because, like every organized living being, like the infinite of Pascal, it has its center everywhere its circumference nowhere.” Anarchy is “organized, living society” “the highest degree of liberty and order to which humanity can aspire.”
And to help illustrate, Guerin quotes Malatesta:
Under the influence of authoritarian education given to them, they think that authority is the soul of social organization and repudiate the latter in order to combat the former… Those anarchists opposed to organization make the fundamental error of believing that organization is impossible without authority. Having accepted this hypothesis they reject any kind of organization rather than accept the minimum of authority. (p. 42)
And then Voline:
A mistaken- or, more often, deliberately inaccurate- interpretation alleges that the libertarian concept means the absence of all organization. This is entirely false: it is not a matter of “organization” or “nonorganization” but of two different principles of organization… Of course, say the anarchists, society must be organized. However, the new organization… must be established freely, socially, and, above all, from below. The principle of organization must not issue from a center created in advance to capture the whole and impose itself upon it but, on the contrary, it must come from all sides to create nodes of coordination, natural centers to serve all these points. (p. 43)
Note: Because Guerin’s work here encompasses a lot- especially within the confines of a mere 159 pages- I’m going to offer my review of this text in three, possibly four parts, to coincide with the format of the book (Part 1: The Basic Ideas of Anarchism, Part 2: In Search of a New Society, Part 3: Anarchism in Revolutionary Practice, and perhaps a part 4, which would cover Guerin’s “By Way of Conclusion” plus his post-script “May 1968” if I don’t cover those sections in part 3). Breaking the text down into three (or four) parts will give me the added luxury of fleshing more out of each one, and expanding and interjecting my own views where they agree or differ.
In Guerin’s classic 1965 text Anarchism, the “French New Left” author attempted to put together a concise, encompassing and accessible book on what “anarchism” is, how it developed, what it seeks, does, and how that has looked in the real world. In the Introduction written by Noam Chomsky- I believe for the 1970 English translation of the book- we get a glimpse of just how difficult Guerin’s task was:
There have been so many styles of anarchist thought and action. It would be hopeless to try and encompass all of these conflicting tendencies in some general theory or ideology. And even if we proceed to extract from the history of libertarian thought a living, evolving tradition, as Daniel Guerin does in the present work, it remains difficult to formulate its doctrines as a specific and determinate theory of society and social change.
Chomsky then goes on to quote Rudolf Rocker, noting that anarchism is not
a fixed, self-enclosed social system but rather a definite trend in the historic development of mankind, which, in contrast with the intellectual guardianship of all clerical and governmental institutions, strives for the free unhindered unfolding of all the individual and social forces in life. Even freedom is only a relative, not an absolute concept, since it tends constantly to become broader and to affect wider circles in more manifold ways. (emphasis mine)
Which is a point that cannot be taken too lightly at all, especially because it is the point the trips up so many who struggle with a politic of their own that is often so close to anarchism (if not it, only not by name) but who fail to understand this concept. Anarchism, above and beyond any other definitions that have attempted to chain it down over the years, is a belief in the continually expanding freedom of the individual, but with a simultaneous recognition of our existence only as parts within the larger whole of society; recognizing that my “unlimited freedom” must come face-to-face with the same of my neighbors, anarchist thinkers through history have sought to envision a society which affords the maximum space for individual liberty- a tension not easily reconciled without lofty vision and imagination. As Chomsky rightly points out, anarchism has little at all to do with a particular program or “utopian vision” for what the world should look like, but instead concerns itself forever and always with demanding a broader and wider, a continually expanding, definition of freedom, for both the individual and society at large. Which is why anarchists are socialists; not advocating an “authoritarian socialism” like Marx did, or much if not at all what has been developed by various State-socialist models (the U.S.S.R., China). As Mikhail Bakunin famously put it: “Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without freedom is slavery, brutality.” Read the rest of this entry »