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  • Paul GoodmanFinding an Audience for Anarchism in Twentieth-Century America
  • Carissa Honeywell

Paul Goodman became an influential social critic in the 1960s aft er he published Growing Up Absurd, which looked at the problems of youth in the "organized system" of modern American society. With the publication of this book, he was well placed to address the anti-institutional social movements that emerged at this time. His books criticized the failings of the centrally organized technological society and advocated the recreation of modern society on a humanly intelligible scale. He positioned himself as an iconoclast of contemporary American politics and culture using his anarchist ideology of active individualism, community participation, and radical decentralization. Goodman was the principal anarchist political intellectual in America in the mid-twentieth century, and his contribution to Anglo-American radical thought, whilst generally overlooked in the recent resurgence of interest in anarchist political ideas, is worthy of emphasis and examination, both for its contemporary influence and for its contribution to key anarchist concerns. The period from 1945 to approximately 1999, during which Goodman is a figure of towering significance, has tended to be overlooked in anarchist studies. As a result, there remains a rather conspicuous theoretical and historical gap separating pre–World War II classical or old anarchism from the new, more recent resurgence of interest in anarchist approaches among activists and scholars. In particular, [End Page 1] insufficient attention has been paid to Goodman's role in transmitting the themes and concerns of anarchism to the early New Left in America.

The many anthologies of anarchist thought that appeared in the 1960s and early '70s usually gave Goodman a prominent place, and the outpouring of obituaries and final assessments when he died made the extent and value of his influence abundantly clear. In 1972, the year of his death, Susan Sontag wrote, "For twenty years he has been to me quite simply the most important American writer. He was our Sartre, our Cocteau."1 At the height of Goodman's fame, Theodore Roszak stated, "Whenever he speaks one feels for sure there is a contingent of the young somewhere nearby already inscribing his words on a banner."2 Similarly, Richard King claimed that "[i]n its way Growing Up Absurd was to the generation of the early sixties what Catcher in the Rye had been to the youth of the fifties."3 In Goodman's own lifetime, his reputation as anarchist critic was widely recognized, and it was generally understood even among nonanarchist audiences that his was the chief anarchist and decentralist voice of his times. As late as 1986, Dwight Macdonald attested to the influence of Goodman, who, he wrote, "opened my eyes to the frightening essence of American society today."4 Goodman's anti-institutional influence can also be traced in Noam Chomsky's reference to Goodman in his 1973 volume For Reasons of State, in which Chomsky quotes from Goodman's book Compulsory Miseducation: "The issue is not whether people are ‘good enough' for a particular type of society; rather it is a matter of developing the kind of social institutions that are most conducive to expanding the potentialities we have for intelligence, grace, sociability and freedom."5 However, in more recent treatments, Goodman's name rarely appears, and often as merely one in a long list of influences on the New Left. The sources of anarchist influence on 1960s radicalism and its relationship to contemporary movements and ideas are generally overlooked. Further, recent literature tends to misrepresent Goodman's place in the development of ideological traditions in the twentieth century.

In a twenty-first-century account of Goodman's work, Kevin Mattson argues that Goodman was fighting a rearguard action against the postwar betrayal of the liberal agenda in America. Mattson argues that Goodman injected a richer and more culturally grounded liberal vision into the ideological malaise created by technocratic domestic policy and aggressive anticommunist foreign policy. Whilst sympathetic to Goodman's political project, this argument assumes [End Page 2] that his professed anarchism was not a sincere ideological commitment to the tradition. It is true that Goodman did develop a pessimism regarding the New Left and unreflective youth movements...


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