Drawing the Line Reviewed in Theory in Action

Drawing the Line Once Again: Paul Goodman’s Anarchist Writings

By Veronica Manfredi
Theory in Action
Vol. 4, No. 1
January 2011

Globalization and militarization have accelerated the concentration of corporate and executive power in the United States, and this centralization of authority has proceeded virtually unchecked despite the emergence of populist protest movements in the past decade. Drawing the Line Once Again: Paul Goodman’s Anarchist Writings is a collection of nine texts edited by Taylor Stoehr. Paul Goodman was an influential American activist of the 1960’s, and this book provides a fresh perspective on how to combat this disastrous trend. The essays were originally published between 1962 and 1972, but incorporate over 25 years of Goodman’s anarchist writings. Drawing the Line Once Again is a thoughtful, modern guide for individuals interested in combating institutional violence and securing individual autonomy. 

In his preface, Taylor Stoehr introduces the reader to the life and work of his friend and mentor, Paul Goodman. Stoehr’s perspective contextualizes the appeal of Goodman’s ideas to the 1960’s youth movement in America. The preface includes excerpts from Goodman’s writing not found in the body of the book which underline Goodman’s ever-present concern with the penal system, which Stoehr believes is the “apotheosis” of the modern state. Unfortunately, the preface does not provide background information on the specific essays present in the collection, nor does it give the reader a clear idea of why Stoehr selected these specific texts and ordered them in this way. The essays appear out of chronological order, which obscures the trends in Goodman’s writing that became more pronounced and refined over the course of his experience with the American student uprising. Nevertheless, the texts presented in the book provide a solid overview of Goodman’s anarchist thought on a variety of issues of continuing relevance.

The first text introduces Goodman’s notion of revolution as a “piecemeal” process that develops out of everyday “millenarian,” or prefigurative, practices. Penned in 1945, “The May Pamphlet” was subsequently revised in Goodman’s 1962 book Drawing the Line, which is the version that appears here. In this essay, Goodman holds individuals responsible for the coercive system in which they find themselves. For Goodman, institutional crimes are the sum of acts committed by individuals when they conform in ways that limit their ability to realize their human powers according to their instincts. Thus, modern man’s characteristic act is “drawing the line:” determining the point at which he will no longer acquiesce to this unnatural coercion. This act of refusal serves as the starting point for Goodman’s vision of a free society by forcing the consideration of alternatives which were previously submerged and opening up a space for free positive action. A revolutionary free society is built as these spaces are expanded. Goodman sketches concrete and thought provoking ways that this expansion may be achieved by individuals and small groups and maintains that individuals may assess the revolutionary potential of their actions to the extent that these acts are punished as crimes, since the system will respond to acts that threaten its existence. While a few of his specific exhortations may seem idiosyncratic or outdated, such as the importance he places on childhood sexuality and group psychotherapy, the essay provides a modern revolutionary vision and program that empowers the individual to pursue autonomy without having to wait for a large-scale social restructuring. 

The second essay, “Reflections on the Anarchist Principle,” originally appeared in 1966 in the journal Anarchy. Here Goodman argues that anarchism is based on the “social-psychological hypothesis” that “more harm than good” results from the restriction of individual autonomy by external authority. Goodman’s anarchist society is not a fixed ideal, but the result of a “continual coping” with, and “vigilance” against, the threat of unnatural coercion by institutionalized forms of power. Though anarchists’ targets evolve according to historical conditions, this principle allows one to recognize the anarchist spirit in all movements that seek to “increase intrinsic functioning and diminish extrinsic power.” Thus, he sees anarchism at work historically in developments as disparate as the Jeffersonian Bill of Rights, the emergence of free enterprise by joint stock companies, and the introduction of congregational churches. The essay provides an inclusive model by which one can trace a history of anarchism in action, distinct from later co-optations, and judge current practices. 

The most recent essay, “Freedom and Autonomy,” was originally published in 1972, the year Goodman died. Here he contrasts the call for freedom, which emerges from a state of desperation, with the call for autonomy, which emerges from a desire to be left alone to continue to do as one wishes. For Goodman, while freedom may provide a stronger motive for revolutionary change, anarchy “requires competence and self confidence…it does not thrive among the exploited, oppressed, and colonized.” Whereas “The May Pamphlet” emphasized the universal experience of drawing the line and proceeding on one’s own terms, this late essay focuses on the greater suitability of skilled workers and independent peasants to the prefigurative practices of anarchist revolution: “The pathos of oppressed people lusting for freedom is that, if they break free, they don’t know what to do.” The essay crystallizes Goodman’s disillusionment with the student movement, whose alienated character he became increasingly vocal about and critical of over the course of writing the essays which appear in this book.

In “Anarchism and Revolution,” Goodman defines anarchist revolution as “the process by which the grip of authority is loosed,” in contrast to the revolution-as-regime that appears in traditional Marxist and liberal thought, and assesses the causes and anarchist tendencies of the social upheaval of his day. The essay originally appeared in the 1970 Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Ideas of Today. Addressing a middle class audience, Goodman laments that the anarchist politics of the youth movement tend to be “Bakuninist,” or agitational, because students are “exploited and lumpen in principle,” but holds out hope that a more “Kropotkinian,” autonomy-focused community anarchism will be revived with the participation of “authentic young professionals.” He states that student alienation supports the Leninist tendencies of the youth movement (“fighting the Cold War in reverse”), contradicting their anarchist gut instincts. He traces the character of the revolutionary situation to a “crisis of authority,” in which citizens aren’t able effectively to manipulate structures which traditionally allowed them to correct the course of their government, and a “crisis of belief,” caused by a widespread distrust of authority that emerged when the universal belief in science was shaken due to its inhuman applications (e.g. the atom bomb). While recent decades have seen the emergence of new professionals in technological fields, who have arguably succeeded in addressing the religious crisis by “altering the…relationship of science, technology, and human needs” in the collective consciousness through the advent of high-tech personal consumption, the crisis of authority has only escalated. The cur-rent situation speaks to the resiliency of institutional, managerial modes of power.

In “Some Prima Facie Objections to Decentralization,” Goodman makes a case for decentralization while addressing its risks and limitations in a 1964 issue of the journal Liberation. Addressing student objections, he shows that decentralization is not disorderly, but rather relies on a different kind of order; that the existence of some necessarily centralized functions does not preclude its application in other spheres of human action; that we should question the usefulness of automation and not value it as an end in and of itself; that decentralist traditions can be traced to both peasants and urban professionals He claims that “States Rights” is not a valid form of decentralization and a limited amount of deurbanization would make decentralization feasible. Decentralization requires less faith in human nature than centralization, for both individuals in voluntary associations as well as centralized organizations can and continue to buck the trend towards concentration of power when it is expedient and efficient to do so.

Combining peasant and professional critiques of decentralization, he makes the case that centralization is “economically inefficient, technologically unnecessary and humanly damaging.” He urges the reader to adopt the pursuit of decentralization wherever possible as a “political maxim.” Goodman values decentralization as such, regardless of whether it is achieved through the formation of voluntary associations of individuals seeking solutions to shared problems, or through the actions of a central authority which recognizes that it would be more efficient to delegate power away from the center. While contemporary readers may be skeptical of this second form due to its association with the practices of certain large technology firms, by easing the the institutional regimentation of individual action this corporate concession fits Goodman’s criteria for anarchist revolution. Modern anarchists and reform-minded individuals will benefit from the wisdom of Goodman’s careful attention to decentralization, for example when analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of an anti-Iraq War movement. Here, many people protested the imposition of centralized authority abroad on the basis that it limited the ability to expand universal health care and access to institutional forms of education, which centralizes power domestically. This inconsistency could have been corrected with a dose of Goodman’s ideas.

 “The Black Flag of Anarchism” identifies and assesses the anarchist tendencies in the student movement for a mainstream audience. Originally published in New York Times Magazine in 1968, it contains an earlier version of many of the passages found in “Anarchism and Revolution” (1970) with only minor changes. In this earlier essay Goodman does not dwell on the disadvantage posed by the alienated character of student anarchists, nor does he see the movement as primarily “Bakuninist.”

While the youth movement’s limited exposure to anarchist ideas leads to confusion, Goodman here is hopeful that the uprising itself will provide clarity and enable students to “become aware of and solve their own problems” and act in the anarchist tradition. Additionally, in this earlier essay he considers the conflict between the New Left activists and the hippies to be a contributing factor in the “confused anarchism” of the time. He criticizes the activists for failing to recognize the hippies’ call to drop out as a political position, which “seduc[es] by offering happy alternatives” and refuses to engage on the enemy’s terms, while cautioning that the hippies are insufficiently critical of themselves. Yet for Goodman, hippies and dropouts do not present a persuasive model for revolution: “play and personal relations…are not what men live for.” 

“The Limits of Local Liberty” is re-published from the journal New Generation in 1969. It identifies two urban problems that are of consequence to “this nation of cities”: the lack of citizens who feel a sense of ownership and responsibility towards their city, and the excessive density in urban areas. Goodman believes that the lack of citizenship can be addressed by delegating power to the people who live in the neighborhood in a way that increases self-determination in both family and professional life. On the topic of self-determination, he echoes other late essays in the collection, arguing that the participation of the oppressed is necessary but not sufficient to support radical decentralization, and insists a place for “professional thought and political action different from activism” is necessary in order to come to functional solutions for decentralized life.

The danger of alienated leadership in the fight for local self-determination is that it neglects professional liberty and becomes more interested in seizing power than “program, function, and final satisfaction,” as is the case when students focus on seizing control of academic institutions instead of targeting the “system of credentials…and draft that oppresses them.” On the issue of urban density, Goodman believes that current levels overwhelm an individual’s capacity for meaningful social exchange and entail a “sudden disproportionate rise in costs” to maintain.

Hence, he argues that rural revitalization and some dispersal of urban populations, specifically of city children, the elderly, and mentally ill, is necessary. His concern with the cost of urban density and his proposed plan of redress highlights a potential danger of professionalism in planning for local self-determination, for such professional expertise is informed by judgments about what constitutes a “better life” that might not be universal. Goodman fails to account for the possibility that people with disabilities and the young might be as attached to their city of origin as members of non-marginalized groups who are simply better equipped to reject exile.

In 1968, with several comrades under indictment, Goodman “rehearse[s the] case” for lawlessness in “Civil Disobedience,” published first in Liberation. Writing in part to advise activists on how to present their actions in a court of law, some of the passages found here can also be found in the two other essays addressed to middle class audiences.

Here Goodman argues that “the authority of law is limited” by its underlying purpose of securing life and liberty, which is what “men mean to promise” when they enter into the social contract; that a reliance on Law and Order does not ensure harmony but rather allows individuals to avoid anxiety; that “civil disobedience” is a misleading term which fails to capture the essence of challenges to the legitimacy of the regime itself; and that “lawless” and “civilly disobedient” actions emerge when the political means for reform are lost to the encroachment of centralizing managerial and technological styles. As Stoehr suggests in his preface, the need to question the legitimacy of law is particularly relevant today as unprecedented numbers of individuals are ensnared in the prison industrial complex, and those who profit from incarceration advise lawmakers on ways to expand and police the definition of “lawlessness.”

“’Getting Into Power’: The Ambiguities of Pacifist Politics” first appeared in a 1962 edition of Liberation and is the final essay in this collection. Goodman sees pacifism as necessarily anarchist and revolutionary, as the existence of sovereign national power thrives on violence, “is the ideal executive of murderous will,” robs individuals of their initiative, and sucks the vitality out of communal life. Both pacifism and anarchism require that we cease to practice a politics centered on “getting into power”, which reinforces patterns of dominance and submission, and instead return to the “normal politics” which tends to the mediation of “relations of specific functions in a community.” By doing so, we “positively…replace an area of power with peaceful functioning.” For contemporary readers, this last essay clarifies why peace cannot be achieved through electoral regime change, which has merely resulted in a rhetorical shift from “preemptive war” to “preemptive drone attacks.” 

Drawing the Line Once Again does an excellent job of gathering and introducing Paul Goodman’s anarchist thought to a new generation. Given the recent emergence of large, populist movements which confronted military aggression with permitted protests, channeled the desire for a system responsive to the needs of individuals into a mobilization on behalf of a presidential candidate, and branded the call for limited government as the domain of reactionary elements interested in increasing in corporate power, it is useful to revisit Goodman’s ideas. His millenarian and decentralized approach to revolution celebrates persistence and offers hope when meaningful structural change seems out of reach.

 Veronica Manfredi is a student at Corvid College in the Boston, MA area. 

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