[Reference] Review: American as Anarchist

Review: [untitled]
Author(s): Harvey Klehr
Reviewed work(s): The American as Anarchist: Reflections on Indigenous Radicalism by David DeLeon
Source: The American Political Science Review, Vol. 73, No. 4 (Dec., 1979), pp. 1126-1126
Published by: American Political Science Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1953999
Accessed: 10/09/2008 22:41

1126 The American Political Science Review Vol. 73

The American as Anarchist: Reflections on Indigenous Radicalism. By David DeLeon.
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979. Pp. xiii + 242. $14.00.)

The radicalism of the 1960s provoked a renewed concern for the American radical past. Within the past few years, an increasingly heavy stream of studies analyzing and dissecting the roots of American radicalism has appeared. While contemporary concerns often do and should encourage us to reexamine the past, there is a particular danger that present political needs will lead to distortion or alteration of that past. David DeLeon’s book, while often illuminating and insightful, unfortunately does not escape this problem.

DeLeon has not written a history of anarchism, nor has he set out to do so. His book is a series of reflections, with the strengths and weaknesses of that genre. He argues that there are two varieties of American radicalism-an indigenous type with an anti-statist or anarchist orientation, and a statist, primarily imported brand largely identified with European Marxism. The former is allegedly far more culturally significant even though its extent and influence have been vastly underestimated. Thus, for DeLeon there is a widespread indigenous American radical tradition which can be used and built upon by contemporary radicals if they would only learn to distinguish it from its European competitor.

The factors in American life which DeLeon believes have made our society particularly open to anti-statism include the dominance of a Protestant tradition emphasizing personal conscience, the persistence of a frontier spirit inculcating a sense of self-reliance and constant change, and a capitalist economic system with its ideal an Adam Smithian market. These factors have produced a variety of indigenous radical traditions: liberalism, right libertarianism and left libertarianism.

Liberalism is the most moderate of the anti-authoritarian strains, arising from the American Revolution and our aversion to big government. DeLeon seems to suggest that liberalism’s turn towards regulation in this century indicates its intellectual bankruptcy. He spends far more time discussing right libertarians-such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Benjamin Tucker-who insisted on a linkage between freedom and private property and such left libertarians as J. H. Noyes, Edward Bellamy and Emma Goldman who yearned for a communal anarchism.

After criticizing the statist radical doctrines of Daniel DeLeon, the Communist party and the Socialist party, DeLeon turns to the 1960s revival of radicalism and discerns elements in both the Students for a Democratic Society and the Young Americans for Freedom that hearken back, respectively, to left and right libertarianism.

The dangers of such a simplistic and unidimensional categorization of American intellectual history are readily apparent. Individuals and organizations are crammed into slots which they fit badly. To label George Wallace and Ronald Reagan representatives of the right libertarian tradition because they attack big government or pointy-headed Washington bureaucrats is to misunderstand seriously American political life and libertarianism. For DeLeon, however, American hostility to the state and government is essentially anarchistic, a sweeping generalization which ignores such other sources of anti-statism as contract theory. DeLeon to the contrary, contract theory does not self-evidently arise from the same sources or tradition as anarchism. Indeed, the European origins of liberalism-which DeLeon briefly acknowledges-are a primary example of how indebted “indigenous radicalism” is to imported doctrines. American anarchism itself was strongly influenced by continental writers and figures.

DeLeon is concerned not only with demonstrating the strength of native radicalism, but also he insists that it is left libertarianism which is more humane. He charges, for example, that hostility to the state, when not connected to a concern for the common good, is merely a “bourgeois ego trip” (p. 131). Many of the left libertarians DeLeon admires, such as Bellamy and Noyes, substituted hierarchical or authoritarian communal structures for state authority. He argues, however, that “the drugs, sex, literature, and dress of the left represented a more thoroughly humanist and utopian socialist vision than that of the right” (p. 130). While DeLeon prefers the cooperative to the competitive mode of anarchism, he forgets that American hostility to the state has come far more often from a selfish desire for self-aggrandizement and privacy than from a desire for a communal world. The latter vision has been articulated far more often by Marxists and other statists. Left anarchism has never created roots in America-numerous failed communities attest to that-but capitalism has been quite successful.

Emory University


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