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Introduction: Ungovernable Hearts

From: Studies in the Literary Imagination
Volume 45, Number 2, Fall 2012
pp. v-viii | 10.1353/sli.2012.0014

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Of the political specters that have most haunted the imagination of economic and political elites in liberal democracies, perhaps the most durable and frightening has been the specter of anarchism. Forming the nightmare that spooked the capitals of Europe during the period of attentat in the 1880s and 1890s and providing the target of the first Red Scare in America during the 1910s, the old and seemingly vanquished specter of anarchy is once again haunting culture and politics in the West. Since the early 1990s, anarchism as a self-conscious social force has enjoyed a rather remarkable resurgence, serving as the inspiration and motivating political vision for a new generation of activists and community organizers in contemporary social movements from the alternative globalization protests to the Occupy encampments.

Anarchist ideas and practices provide examples of a real alternative for a new generation of socially active youth and people coming of age after the fall of Soviet systems and the broad discrediting of Marxist (especially Leninist and Stalinist) perspectives on social life and culture. For many in the new generation of alternative globalization movements, socialism provides only a sterile model for creative social and artistic development. Socialist visions politically and socially became too readily rigidified in statist and authoritarian bureaucracy and culturally sterilized in the domination of socialist realism.

In many ways, the renewal of interest in anarchist ideas in the present period of mass protest against neoliberal austerity and global capital is not surprising. Certainly the idea that a new generation of social activists might, in light of the failures of statist socialism, turn to anarchism as a model for social criticism echoes previous historical developments, such as the period before the Russian Revolution cemented the hegemony of Marxism among radical currents. This is also the case in terms of the influence of anarchism on artistic and cultural movements.

Helmut Kreuzer suggests in his path-breaking book Die Boheme that “If one surveys the history of Bohemianism in the 19th and 20th centuries, anarchism, more than any other political or sociological idea, proves to be the one the politically inclined bohemians were most disposed to support” (qtd. in Ossar xi). The English anarchist critic Herbert Read, whose anarchist [End Page v] aesthetics are explored in detail in this volume, opines in his Poetry and Anarchism: “I believe that the poet is necessarily an anarchist, and that he must oppose all organized conceptions of the state” (15). Eric Mühsam, an anarchist writer and revolutionary who played an important part in the Munich Council Republic of 1919 and was severely punished for it, offers an unequivocal assessment in quite moving terms. Here Mühsam emphasizes the intricate connection between the creative individual and the social fabric:

[It] must be said that all art is necessarily anarchist, and that a man must first be an anarchist in order to be an artist. For all artistic creation is based on the longing for liberation from coercion and is in essence free of authority and external compulsion. The inner coherence and order of art, however, is strongly connected to the relationship of the libertarian individual with the whole organism of society. To restore this relationship between man and humanity, which finds its highest expression in art, and which is crushed and destroyed in the bureaucratic mill of the state—this is the point of our … activity.

(qtd. in Ossar xi; ellipsis in original)

There has emerged recently a growing concern, both inside and outside of the academy, with anarchist literary production. The emerging orientation toward anarchy involves attempts to rethink the history of literary production in relation to anarchism. This, in turn, has led to new interest in overlooked or forgotten anarchist works, as well as a concern with rethinking or reevaluating relationships of noted writers to anarchist theory and practice. On one hand, scholars have rediscovered forgotten anarchists like Ōsugi Sakae and William Godwin. On the other, critics have sought to come to grips with the anarchist impulse in authors who have otherwise not been included in published histories and discussions of anarchist ideas and movements, such as B. Traven. The works of each of these authors are examined in this collection.

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