Posts Tagged ‘Mohandas K. Gandhi’

Laurence Davis: “Only a Bold and Popular Left Radicalism Can Stop the Rise of Fascism”

March 11, 2017

Written by Laurence Davis and published on Open Democracy, 12 February 2017

Walter Benjamin’s observation that every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution speaks poignantly to our current condition.


Horkheimer is front left, Adorno front right, and Habermas is in the background, right, running his hand through his hair, Heidelberg, 1964. Wikicommons/Jeremy J. Shapiro at the Max Weber-Soziologentag. Some right reserved.

Two new worlds are now struggling to be born amidst the crumbling ruins of neoliberalism and market globalisation. The first is the waking nightmare now unfolding in the United States in the glare of the international media. A reality show with a cast of horrors, its politically successful mix of faux right-wing populism and neo-fascism has inspired and emboldened autocrats everywhere and threatens in the absence of an effective counter-power to become our new global reality.

The second, a just, compassionate, ecologically sound and democratically self-managed post-capitalist world, may be detected in what Colin Ward once described as scattered ‘seeds beneath the snow’. Deeply rooted in a rich soil of ideas and grounded utopian imagination nourished by countless counter-cultural critics of capitalism, industrialism and grow-or-die economics from William Morris, Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus to Gandhi, Ivan Illich, Murray Bookchin and Ursula Le Guin – as well as a long history of popular movements from below working together to resist regimes of domination and develop progressive and sustainable alternatives to them – the tender shoots of another world are emerging all around us.

They are visible in a wide range of grassroots practices, movements, and practical utopias, from Buen Vivir in the Andes, Ubuntu in South Africa, Ecoswaraj in India, Zapatismo in Mexico, and the budding degrowth movement in Europe to solidarity economies, commoning activities, permaculture projects, re-localisation movements, community currencies, transition towns, co-operatives, eco-communities, worker occupied factories, indigenous people’s assemblies, alternative media and arts, human-scale technologies, basic and maximum income experiments, debt audit movements, radical democratic movements such as Occupy and democratic confederalism in Rojava, and emerging anti-fascist fronts and coalitions uniting immigrant solidarity groups, anti-racists, feminists, queers, anarchists, libertarian socialists and many others.

The great danger we now face is that newly empowered forces of reaction will use that power to repress progressive alternatives before they are able to coalesce as an effective counter-power, sowing seeds of hatred and intolerance instead.

Many commentators of a liberal democratic or centre-left political persuasion have dismissed such warnings as scare-mongering, and suggested that the most effective antidote to ‘populist politics’ is a renewed commitment to social democracy and market globalisation with a ‘human face’. Rather than seek to understand the complex mix of reasons why American citizens voted for a demagogue like Trump, they blame an undifferentiated ‘populism’ and advocate more elite democracy instead.

The breathtaking naivety of this commentary is perhaps matched in recent memory only by Francis Fukuyama’s equally naïve and now risible prediction in 1989 of an ‘end of history’, i.e. an end to mankind’s ideological evolution with the ‘universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’.

Walter Benjamin, Paris, 1939

Now more than ever, it is vital that we recognise and articulate careful ideological distinctions between competing right and left wing varieties of populism, and that those of us committed to values like equality, democracy and solidarity take urgent action to oppose Trumpism and the rise of fascism not with more of the same failed elite-led liberal democracy, but with a bold left egalitarian and inclusive radicalism.

The Trump campaign gave voice to the ugly authoritarian and reactionary face of popular opposition to the political establishment. It castigated the elitism and corruption of the system, emphasised its ineffectuality in the face of sinister threats to national well-being posed by Muslims and illegal immigrants and other easily scapegoated ‘outsider’ groups, and maintained that Trump and Trump alone could ‘make America great again’. It succeeded by peddling false solutions and scapegoats for real social problems generated by the governance of interconnected political and economic elites.

By contrast, a bold and inclusive left populist radicalism would expose the real roots of festering social problems by speaking plainly and directly to ordinary people’s needs, without pandering to their worst prejudices and fears. It would offer a generous vision of a better world, and a sweeping programme for revolutionary social change that can be translated into everyday practice.

This will require a reconnection with revolutionary roots. Historically, revolutionary ideas and social movements have tended to emerge out of, and give ideological coherence to, popular democratic social forms. However, in our time once revolutionary ideologies and movements like socialism and anarchism have grown increasingly detached from their radical democratic roots, leaving a political vacuum that right-wing populists and demagogues have been quick to fill.

Walter Benjamin’s observation that every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution speaks poignantly to our current condition. It may be interpreted not only as warning, but as a grimly realistic utopian hope that we still have a fleeting historical opportunity to act before it is too late.

The Insurgent Kingdom of God: On The Politics of Zealot

February 18, 2016


First published on Anarkismo, 18 February 2016

Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Random House 2013. 296pp.

Professor Reza Aslan’s Zealot is in large part the story of how the life of Jesus of Nazareth was “revised” ex post facto by the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. While Jewish themselves, these early Christians wished to break definitively with their mother religion in the wake of the brutal counter-insurgent campaign waged by Rome against the Jewish Revolt that had been launched in Palestine in 66 C.E., only to be finally put down when the Romans destroyed the Temple and ravaged Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Indeed, it was in this year or the very next one that the first Gospel, written by Mark, was composed; the rest of the gospels were written later, between 90 and 120 C.E. Aslan makes clear that the birth of Christianity was not the end sought by Jesus or his closest disciples, including Simon (Peter) and his brother James, but was rather the result of the unflagging efforts of Saul (later Paul) of Tarsus, who in his missionary epistles to the Greco-Roman gentiles stressed the divinity of Jesus, thus transforming the rebel-prophet Jesus into Christ the messiah, a “Romanized demigod” (171).

In this way, the ascendancy of Pauline Christianity was largely due to historical circumstance: with the “Jerusalem branch” of Jesus’ followers wiped out by the Roman attack on Jerusalem, Paul’s vision of Jesus was the only one left standing, with the exception of the hypothetical Q document on which Matthew and Luke were based (214). Plus, as Aslan observes, Paul’s views certainly permeate in Luke and John (215). According to the author, this geographical shift from Jerusalem to the Greco-Roman Diaspora implied the opportunistic transformation of the historical zealot Jesus into a pacifist and of the Kingdom of God he had proclaimed into an ethereal matter reserved for the afterlife. As Aslan notes, such conscious manipulation of history cannot be dissociated from the virulence of European Jew-hatred over the past two millennia, as inspired by the evangelists, who portray the Jewish rabble and/or their corrupt leaders as responsible for Christ’s execution, with Pilate merely “washing his hands,” when in fact Jesus was murdered by the State, the occupying power of Rome.

Aslan makes clear that Jesus was crucified for sedition—indeed, that crucifixion was the punishment reserved for political offenders, and that the two prisoners executed alongside Christ on Golgotha were “bandits” (lestai), not “thieves.” The author places Jesus’ rebellion within the context of the times, echoing the demands and fate of similar anti-Roman messianic figures and the movements they led from the century leading up to the general Revolt, such as the bandit chief Hezekiah, Judas the Galilean, “the Samaritan,” and “the Egyptian” (79). Ironically enough, Aslan argues that Jesus was effectively John the Baptist’s disciple, for Christ adopted John’s ascetic-defiant announcement of the Kingdom of God, and even shared the same fate as his master at the hands of the State (80-9).

In addition, the author provides a compelling clarification of Jesus’ well-known proclamation regarding the need to “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and render unto God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17/Matthew 22:21/Luke 20:25). Though this line has often been used to rationalize Christian subordination to the State, its meaning is in fact quite revolutionary, as demonstrated by the evangelists’ recording of the audience’s reaction, “amazed at him.” In response to the question posed by the Pharisees or their spies about whether Jews should agree to pay tribute to Rome, Jesus requests to be shown a denarius, an imperial coin, and asks “whose image and inscription hath it?” In response to his listeners’ correct identification, Christ tells the audience that the symbolic coin must be returned to Caesar, to whom it belongs, just as the land of occupied Palestine must be rendered holy, emancipated from the yoke of Roman occupation (76-8). Though the national-liberation zealot movement as represented by the Zealot Party would not formally be founded for another three decades after the death of Christ, Aslan observes that Christ’s view of the denarius and Caesar clearly communicates the prophet’s affinity for the philosophy of that movement. Of course, Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God being at hand should be interpreted similarly as a fundamental challenge to the established system of clerical-military domination, for “God’s rule cannot be established without the annihilation of the present leaders” (119).

Hence, Aslan clearly acknowledges that the “Kingdom of God is a call to revolution, plain and simple” (120). However, in his discussion of this insurgent concept, Aslan calls into question what is perhaps most radical within Christ’s teachings: the affirmation that the “greatest commandment” is to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:39). Aslan writes that Jesus’ declaration of this maxim was meant to be applied only to members of the Jewish nation only, and thus should not be understood as a universal humanistic declaration of equality and solidarity (120-2). “There is no reason to consider Jesus’s conception of his neighbors and enemies to have been any more or less expansive than that of any other Jew of his time” (122). To support this claim, Aslan argues that Christ’s clarification that he came not to destroy Mosaic law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17) necessarily means that the prophet must have endorsed chauvinist conceptions about peoples other than Jews. However, this claim is somewhat imprecise; it is unclear why Christ’s affirmation of the Golden Rule, if directed primarily toward Jews, could not also dialectically apply to gentiles or humanity in general. Beginning three centuries before Christ, the Stoics had identified the innateness of human equality and the unity of humankind through natural law.1 In parallel, four or five centuries before Christ, Buddha had developed the concept of the common struggle of all suffering beings. Christ’s “new commandment” for his followers to “love one another” (John 13:35) self-evidently shares a great deal with these other egalitarian philosophies.

Related to the question of Christian, Buddhist, or Stoic egalitarianism is Aslan’s presentation of the Kingdom of God. Aslan intimates that Christ’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God was “neither purely celestial nor wholly eschatological,” but rather real and physical, such that Jesus envisioned himself ruling a reconstituted, liberated Israel in God’s name, with the twelve apostles serving as his lieutenant-governors (118-25). The accusation of Christ’s having proclaimed himself King of the Jews (INRI), was, according to the Gospels, the “evidence” for the charge of sedition on which he was executed. Yet Aslan also discusses the translation of a line unique to John that may have been uttered by Christ during his interrogation by Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this order [or system]” (John 18:36) (116). Usually translated as not being “of this world”—and hence understood as being reserved for the afterlife—Christ’s “kingdom” in this sense presents a very different vision of social organization, whether we think of the classical eastern Mediterranean or the world of our own day. This is particularly the case if we juxtapose this heretical declaration with the prophet’s condemnation of private property, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5-7), the parables about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) and Lazarus and the wealthy man (Luke 16:19-31), and the apocalyptical vision of Judgment Day, when the rich would be cast into hell, while the oppressed and those promoting mutual aid would be saved (Matthew 25:31-46)—to say nothing of his physical clearing of the Temple in Jerusalem of the money-changers (Mark 11:15-19/Matthew 21:12-17/Luke 19:45-48). Though Aslan recognizes Christ’s revolutionary vision, he does not explicitly acknowledge the Kingdom of God’s proto-communist character or the materialist metaphor of Christ’s healing of the sick free of charge, preferring to associate the former concept with the national-liberation struggle against the Romans and the concept of divine sovereignty. Nevertheless, he describes how Christ’s revolutionism influenced his brother James, known as “the Just,” who too would be executed for championing the cause of the oppressed (197-212).

One final matter to discuss from Aslan’s volume is the author’s dismissal of the evangelists’ imputing to Christ a stance of pacifism and the espousal of non-resistance to evil by violence. In Matthew 5:38-44 and Luke 6:27-29, Jesus includes within his Sermon on the Mount a critique of the established lex talonis stipulating “an eye for an eye” and in its place presents the injunction to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.” Aslan rejects these teachings as fabrications, for they contradict his account of Christ’s zealotry; he clarifies his view that Jesus was “no fool” when it came to social change, meaning that he “understood” that force would be necessary to realize the Kingdom of God (120-2). Aslan cites Christ’s statement that he had “not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34) to support the line of argumentation, though he entirely decontextualizes this statement—with the image of “sword” incidentally being translated in Luke 12:51 as “division” to express the same idea—for in Matthew the very next lines read as follows: “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother […]. He that loveth father or mother [or child] more than me is not worthy of me […]. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:35-8). Hence, while it is evident that Christ’s critique shares much in common with zealotry in terms of the question of the Roman occupation—as reflected, verily, in the prophet’s warning to his apostles that they would likely face execution for joining him—it is far less clear that Jesus agreed with the violent tactics used by zealots against Rome. Indeed, next to the commandment to love one’s neighbor, the calls for non-violent non-cooperation and the harmonization of means and ends are among the most innovative of Christ’s teachings. In this vein, while in no way uncritically advancing pacifism, one wonders if Aslan would also call Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or their followers “fools.”

In sum, Aslan has certainly provided a thought-provoking account of the “life and times” of Jesus of Nazareth. He places one of history’s most fateful personalities directly within the political and economic realities that led him on the path of anti-colonial, proto-socialist rebellion. In so doing, the author implicitly condemns the depoliticized image of Christ that has been propagated by the various institutionalized churches which arose over the past two millennia to officially “represent” Christianity—however fundamentally essentially all of these churches have departed from the essence of Christ’s teachings, summarized by Tolstoy as being the proclamation of “universal brotherhood, the elimination of national distinctions, the abolition of private property, and the strange injunction not to resist evil by violence.”2 As a biographical and philosophical examination of the world-historical Jewish prophet who demanded that his disciples “call no man [their] father upon the Earth [… and] neither be called masters” (Matthew 23:9-10), Zealot bears a great deal of contemplation, discussion, and action.

1Ernst Bloch, Natural Law and Human Dignity, trans. Dennis J. Schmidt (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986), 10-16.

2Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You and Peace Essays, trans. Aylmer Maude (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), 134.

Dialectical Communitarian Anarchism as the Negation of Domination: A Review of The Impossible Community

December 8, 2013

imposs community

John P. Clark, The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013)

First published on Truthout on 30 November 2013 (copyright,, reprinted with permission)


Professor John P. Clark’s The Impossible Community is a masterful work, one which seeks radically to invert the destruction of nature and oppression of humanity as prosecuted by capitalism, the State, and patriarchy by encouraging the intervention of a mass-confluence of anarcho-communist—or communitarian anarchist—socio-political movements. This project is only “impossible” because its realization is heterotopic—inherently contradictory—to the prevailing system of domination, such that it demands the very abolition of hegemony in favor of a different, liberated world: that of the “third great epoch of history,” in Clark’s vision, when “humanity finally frees itself and the earth from the yoke of dominion.” Taking equally from Buddhism as from dialectical philosophy, Clark stresses the importance of enlightenment, mindfulness, and awakening as preconditions of revolutionary political praxis, and though he implicitly seems to agree with the overall thesis of the (anti)catastrophist line developed by Sasha Lilley and company, he also affirms the productivity of a commitment to truth which squarely confronts the profoundly shocking, traumatic, and even convulsive nature of such truth: the very first page of his preface acknowledges the sixth mass extinction in which terrestrial life is at present entrapped and notes the “horror” of a capitalist world in which billions go without the basic necessities of a good life. Advancing the philosophy and practice of communitarian anarchism as an exit from the depraved present, Clark dedicates much of his text to examining the anti-authoritarian and cooperative spirit of humanity, as embodied in many of the customs of pre-modern or “traditional” societies, as in the history of Western revolutionary movements. In this sense, Clark does well to distance himself from the Eurocentrism advanced by many Western radical thinkers, including the social ecologist Murray Bookchin, whose imprint on The Impossible Community is otherwise nearly palpable.

Much of Clark’s introductory commentary focuses on the problem of individual and collective human enlightenment: the question is how to induce what Paulo Freire termed “conscientization” (conscientização), a catalyst for a societal awakening which would take into account normally overlooked social and ecological problems toward the end of engaging with and ultimately resolving them. How might a shattering intervention break the mass of humanity from much of its observed complacency and complicity with the capitalist everyday, which, “if we are to speak honestly, must be called a culture of extinction, a culture of extermination, and ecocidal culture”? In response, Clark presents a revival of classical anarchism, as developed in the thought of Mikhail Bakunin, Pyotr Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, Gustav Landauer, and Murray Bookchin, and he works to integrate the perspectives of such theorists together with the life-affirming aspects of various traditional cultures of the world to advance his communitarian anarchist vision. Practically, Clark argues that the notion of communitarian anarchism (or anarcho-communism) should be understood as referring to activity which renders the life-world common, as against its largely privatized nature now. In Clark’s vision, a multitude of strong international communitarian anarchist movements would work together to overturn the historical trend toward popular disenfranchisement, as promulgated by the expanding hegemony of State and capital seen in modernity, in favor of decentralized participatory democracy. Philosophically resisting much of the dominant dogmatism, nihilism, cynicism, and relativism which he sees as evinced by many contemporary anarchists, Clark defends a dialectical theoretical vision, whereby the world comes to be seen as a “site of constant change and transformation that takes place through processes of mutual interaction, negation, and contradiction.” Clark declares that one of the main goals of his Impossible Community is “to be fully and consistently dialectical,” such that the given social reality comes under challenge and “new possibilities for radical social transformation” are opened up. I should note that it is within this vein strange that, next to declaring Mohandas K. Gandhi’s Sarvodaya (“common welfare”) movement the “largest anarchist-inspired movement to appear between the Spanish Revoluton and the present moment,” Clark favorably cites the “radical kibbutzim” of Palestine/Israel on two occasions in the first two chapters of the work without noting a word about the imperialist dispossession processes directed against indigenous Palestinians with which such kibbutzim were complicit. The recognition that the kibbutz might function as a “tool of colonialism and oppression” is made only in a footnote during its third and last mention in the book’s sixth chapter. One wonders how this lapse jibes with Clark’s stated desire to preserve the positive communalist customs of non-Western cultures and overcome the strong tendencies toward Eurocentrism within much of anarchist thought.

Within his discussion of the philosophy of communitarian anarchism, Clark notes the mainstream’s puzzling perpetuation of mechanisms of denial, even amidst the depths of the various interlinking crisis of corporate capital. Against such uninspiring trends, Clark argues for a “Phantom of Possibility,” one that presently haunts left-wing and ordinary consciousness alike: it is “the chance that revolutionary, liberatory social transformation is still possible.” Evaluating the prospect for the embodied realization of such rebellious specters, Clark here expresses pessimism for the “mass of humanity” which continues to fail to act autonomously and radically to resolve the threats which imperil its future existence, particularly through looming eco-apocalypse: in observing this alarming violation of collective human self-responsibility, Clark would seem to agree with Karl Marx, whom he cites as declaring that history “progresses by its bad side.” Gloomily, though perhaps rationally, the author declares a “spectrum of possible ecofascisms” to be the most likely future outgrowth of society’s present structure, though his focus clearly is on making visible the chance of a “turning”—as in the etymology of the word revolution, a “turning around.” Bracketing his recognition of the frightening power of reactionary grassroots movements in the U.S., Clark considers Occupy, cooperative labor, the possibility of economic decommodification, and the solidarity and marginalization of immigrant communities as important popular counter-trends which point the way forward. At both the individual and social levels, Clark calls for a total revolt of the organism, one reminiscent of Herbert Marcuse’s Great Refusal, whereby individuals associate and develop autonomous alternatives that promote an institutional framework, social ethos, and social imaginary different from those on offer from the dominant death-culture. Equating the ecological crisis with the “ultimate intrusion of the traumatic real” into human life—a veritable “death sentence for humanity and much of life” on Earth—Clark raises the question of why there still is nothing approximating an anarchist Masdar City, in reference to the project currently financed by the Emir of Abu Dhabi in conjunction with private capital to create a waste-free, carbon-neutral settlement for 50,000 people in the desert of the United Arab Emirates. Given the very real existence of strong left-wing movements—for example as seen in the solidarity volunteerism engaged in by many youth in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—Clark recognizes that the struggle continues, but, like Marx in the “Theses on Feuerbach,” he leaves open the practical question of how to change the world at this point in the text.

One of Clark’s major contributions to anti-authoritarian struggle comes with his conceptualization of the “third concept of liberty,” a Hegelian-anarchist supplement to the two concepts of liberty identified famously by Isaiah Berlin: negative liberty, or freedom from arbitrary interference and coercion, and positive liberty, or the freedom to flourish as a human and experience happiness through self-realization. To these two—with the former historically more associated with right-wing propertarian and liberal thought, and the latter related more to German idealism, materialism, and socialism—Clark adds a third, which he takes largely from the youthful and critical Hegel: freedom as self-determination. In fact, such a positive concept of freedom echoes Immanuel Kant as well, given the importance this German idealist placed on enlightenment as autonomous reason. Hegel took this concept seriously, and in his early works the element of Freigabe—the “renunciation of attempts to dominate and control the other” while simultaneously “allowing the other to be […] as she determines herself to be”—is central to his thought. Clark points to the interest Hegel expresses in his early religious studies (the Theological Manuscripts) for the Christian anarchist Joachimite tradition which calls for a “third age” in which human society would be organized along the principles of love and solidarity. Clark integrates Hegel’s youthful rejection of all “coercion, force, and violence” into his concept of the free community, one which is to be comprised of “self-realizing beings who are agents in their own development.” Alongside Hegel, Clark here also calls on the romatic German anarchist Gustav Landauer in theorizing his third concept: Landauer, unlike Hegel, acknowledges the value of traditional communal culture and, breaking importantly with progressivism, recognizes the tremendous destruction which history can caused—in contradistinction to Hegel’s mature apologism for the various genocides and slave-regimes of history, given his view that such brutality is a necessary prologue to the realization of reason. Thus, Landauer takes the World Geist (Spirit) to mean solidarity, and he calls on humanity to work practically for liberation:

“The state is a social relationship; a certain way of people relating to one another. It can be destroyed by creating new social relationships; i.e., by pepole relating to one another differently […]. We, who have imprisoned ourselves in the absolute state, must realize the truth: we are the state! And we will be the state as long as we are nothing different; as long as we have not yet created the institutions.”1

Clark sees Landauer’s advocacy of a new, liberated society based on human creativity and mutual respect as advanced in contemporary times by his comrade Joel Kovel, who in History and Spirit (1991) envisions political transformations aiming at a Hegelian reconciliation of society and individual, or universal and particular. Here, Clark importantly mentions Kovel’s relationship with the emerging ecosocialist movements, particularly given the theorist’s co-authoring of the 2001 “Ecosocialist Manifesto” and the 2007 “Belem Ecosocialist Declaration.” Clark affirms the necessity of such a melding of ecological and anti-capitalist thought, given the self-evidently profound nature of the environmental crisis, and he soberly declares the most likely means of addressing this world-historical problem to be some future form of eco-fascism, if a libertarian ecosocialism does not develop and intervene.

I will for the most part skip consideration of Clark’s fourth chapter, “Against Principalities and Powers,” which amounts to an elucidation of well-known anarchist critiques of liberalism, an ideology which bases itself in respect for the negative liberty mentioned above. Yet I will note two important points he makes in this intervention: one, that liberalist philosophy fails to acknowledge social domination in the present as deriving from an overarching system of domination manifested principally in the hegemony of patriarchy, capital, and State; and two, that liberalism fatally ignores the domination of nature, which as Clark rightly notes corresponds to “the most fateful form of domination presently existing.” In an intriguing amalgam of biocentric and anthropocentric thought, Clark here argues that interference with and destruction of the “self-activity of beings (organisms, populations, species, ecosystems, etc.) within the biosphere” and the concomitant prevention of “their flourishing, self-realization, and attainment of the good” must become realities with which social anarchists should concern themselves centrally today, toward the end of resisting such life-negating trends.

Clark provides a number of compelling reflections in “Anarchy and the Dialectic of Utopia,” where he distinguishes among different manifestations of utopianism: utopia as domination, utopia as escapism, and utopia as critique or (subversive) desire. With regard to the “dominant utopia,” Clark identifies some of the salient fantasies it advances, particularly its capture of the imagination via consumer spectacle on the one hand and the capitalist everyday labor routine on the other. As in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the “good life” advanced by the dominant imaginary is held out as available to “all who buy the right commodities, and know how to perpetually refashion their very selves into the right kinds of commodities.” Clark is clear to state that this false type of utopianism leads inexorably to the “destruction of all diversity and complexity—of ecosystems, cultures, personalities, and imaginations,” and indeed ultimately tends toward the very “reduction of the world” to a “condition of nowhere,” as through the threats hegemony poses to the future of life on Earth. As an alternative to this type of utopianism, Clark considers the escapist utopian forms which he finds notoriously to be subscribed to by academics and “leftist sectarians” like Leninists and libertarian municipalists; utopia for them becomes an idealist means of transcending their political frustrations with the state of society, or even “compensation for being denied real power or having real efficacy.” Clark criticizes such escapist utopians for their contempt for the people, given their belief that revolution will come “only [once] the masses finally learn how to pay attention and fall in line with the intended course of history.”

More positively, Clark comes to consider the concept of utopia as critique and desire. Against the deadening tendencies of late capitalism, Clark quotes a statement made by Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim: “[W]ith the relinquishment of utopias, man [sic] would lose his will to shape history and therewith his ability to understand it.”2 Naturally, this quote nicely mirrors the quip famously made by Oscar Wilde on the geography of utopia, that “[a] map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.” In terms of geographical utopianism, Clark presents a fascinating discussion contrasting the repressive rationalism expressed by Kant with the sensual romanticism of Denis Diderot and Paul Gauguin in terms of these Europeans’ views of Polynesian society: the former was horrified by the prospect of social relations like those he saw as being practiced by the “inhabitants of the South Sea Islands”—“idleness, indulgence, and propagation”—while the latter two held such non-Western social environments to demonstrate the historical possibility of reconciling “pleasure, beauty, freedom, and harmony.” It is clear which of the two approaches Clark favors. Within this discussion, he approvingly cites the thought of Charles Fourier, William Blake, William Morris, and Gary Snyder as well, and declares forthrightly that “[t]he most liberatory utopianism affirms this existence of the eternal, the sublime, the marvellous, as a present reality and an object of present experience.” As concrete illustrations of this point, Clark considers the beauty of the lotus flower and the wondrous world experienced by many in childhood. He moreover mentions Reclus’ Man and the Earth, an encyclopedic examination of radical freedom movements which have represented undercurrents to the hegemonic course of world history, such as

“cooperative and egalitarian tribal traditions, anarchistic millenarian movements, dissident spiritualities, antiauthoritarian experiments in radical grassroots democracy and communalism, movements for the liberation of women, and the radically libertarian moments of many of the world’s revolutions and revolutionary movements.”

Practically, Clark notes some of the various impressive anarchist examples of modernity—from the sections of the French Revolution to the Paris Commune, the soviets of the Russian Revolution, and proletarian self-management in Spain and Hungary—and gives special consideration to the revolutionary anarchist culture developed in Spain for a half-century before Francisco Franco’s attempted coup in 1936: such cultural anarchism included movements for “libertarian schools, cooperatives, ‘free love’ advocacy, feminism, vegetarianism, nudism, rationalism and ‘free thought,’ mysticism, and early ecological and pro-nature tendencies.”

In “The Microecology of Community,” Clark considers social organization theory and applies it to the current situation in the U.S. Negatively, he claims grassroots organization today to be “overwhelmingly in the hands of the reactionaries,” given the well-funded right-wing coordination of fundamentalist churches and irrationalist media networks. The Left has largely failed to present any comparable base social movement since the end of the 1960s, argues Clark, when many former activists seem to have opted instead for reformism and a “long march through the institutions.” The question today then becomes whether there will develop a convergence of mass-radical social movements based on the principles of solidarity and liberation in time to save off looming socio-ecological catastrophe. Clark expresses hope in the catalyst model of small affinity groups which aim to secure “very joyful, fulfilling lives” for their participants and, it is to be hoped, society at large, as through an emanating radical cascade. As Clark notes, it is critical in this sense to ask whether such a small-scale model of transformation will be able to expand in scope and help along the struggle for a “new just, ecological society” and a “free life in common.” Clark seems to have an optimistic answer, for he endorses the evolutionary view that both biophilia and sociophilia are deeply rooted within us as humans, holding out promise for the eventual intervention of a “strong and hopeful movement for the liberation of humanity and nature.”

As he moves to close The Impossible Community, Clark provides an extended case study of the dialectical theories he has been examining throughout the text by considering the impacts—both negative and positive—Hurricane Katrina has had on his hometown of New Orleans. As he explains, his reflections on Katrina are written “a bit in the spirit of a jazz funeral,” for they “mourn” the “collective tragedy” yet “speak out also for our collective hope.” Incidentally, part of his chapter on Katrina had been written as a paper for an international conference in Milan on the thought of Reclus which was to take place just weeks after the hurricane struck, such that Reclus appears here as a sort of stand-in for Dante’s Virgil as we descend into an exploration of the hell of environmental destruction on the one hand and the affirmation of anarchist resurgence on the other. Situating the impacts of the storm systemically, Clark argues that the oil industry’s systematic destruction of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands—2000 square miles lost over the past half-century, as corporations extracted 20 billion barrels of oil from offshore sources—certainly worsened the impacts Katrina had on the population of New Orleans. The Army Corps of Engineers, the State, and the Red Cross similarly come under fire here—quite rightly, given their well-documented ineptitude. Clark also discusses the “disaster fascism” on hand in post-Katrina New Orleans, given “de facto ethnic cleansing” of African Americans, the “mistreatment and exploitation of migrant workers,” as well as “widespread police brutality, denial of prisoners’ rights, collapse of the courts and legal system, […] and [the] gutting of the health care system.” Grimly, Clark also acknowledges the “troubling” thought that, however devastating Katrina proved, New Orleans stands to face even more intense and frequent tropical storms due to the ever-accelerating processes of global climate change; one can think similarly of the plight of the Philippines and many other climatically vulnerable regions of the world—the tropics—in this sense.

Against the twin “disaster capitalism” and “disaster fascism” seen before, during, and after Katrina, Clark nonetheless gives space to the “disaster anarchism” which flourished in the hurricane’s aftermath, as in the founding of the Common Ground collective and the radical volunteer work engaged in by thousands of anti-authoritarian youths in the months which followed. In these efforts Clark sees the embodiment of Reclus’ view of mutual aid, “the principal agent of human progress.” Indeed, as he writes dialectically, despite the great “suffering and tragedy” inflicted by the storm, the weeks after the hurricane “have undoubtedly been one of the most gratifying periods in [his] life,” for they demonstrated very clearly to him “a sense of the goodness of people, […] their ability to show love and compassion for one another, and […] their capacity to create spontaneous community.” Clark speaks to the critical opening provided by the Katrina disaster, given the very clear “break with conventional reality” this event signified: like John Holloway, author of Crack Capitalism, Clark identifies Katrina very clearly to have represented a “system crack” that provided for the possibility of different future realities. Clark cites the commonly shared view of many post-Katrina volunteers who held that the catastrophe provided an unprecedented possibility to experience “the beauty, the wonder, and the sacredness of the place, and of the people of the place.” The catastrophist shock-value of such experiences forms a critical basis for the mass-expression of a transformative disaster anarchism, argues Clark; in breaking radically with prevailing state of affairs, disaster anarchism provides for the chance of “a qualitatively different way of life,” one based in “love, compassion, solidarity, mutual aid, and voluntary cooperation.”

As another important case study of communitarian anarchism, Clark next examines the Gandhian Sarvodaya (“common good”) movement in India and the radical movement it inspired in neighboring Sri Lanka, Sarvodaya Shramadana. Clark here illuminates the general political philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, largely ignored despite his world-famous advocacy of nonviolence: that of an “Indian version of anarchism,” one commensurate with the communitarian anarchism Clark is advancing in The Impossible Community. Citing previous anarchist studies of Gandhi’s thought, Clark claims Gandhi to have desired an India freed from State rule, private property, organized religion, and police and military forces, and he sees several commonalities between Gandhianism and much of Western anarchism, particularly given the former’s support for decentralization, local control, and popular direct action, yet he notes important differences between the two, including the Gandhian stress on spirituality, asceticism, nonviolence, and gradualism. Moreover, clearly, Gandhi’s philosophy emerges from a different social and geographical context than that of Western Europe; it focuses more on the radicalization of traditional indigenous institutions and customs than on the insurrectional break desired by many Western anarchist theorists. Importantly, Gandhi’s concept of swaraj or “self-rule” depended in large part on the devolution of power from the State to the gram sabha, or village assembly, and the panchayat, the village committee elected by the gram sabha. Thus did Gandhi favor the council system, or a radical participatory democracy. Moreover, besides nonviolence, Gandhi’s philosophy emphasized the following anti-authoritarian values, as Clark recounts: truthfulness, vegetarianism, celibacy, nontheft, nonpossession, fearlesslessness, rejection of untouchability, and the promotion of the equality of women.

In practical terms, the Sarvodaya movement continued to work in Gandhi’s spirit after his assassination in 1948, promoting economic transformation in India through the application of the ideas of bhoodan and gramdan (“gift of the land” and “gift of the village”), such that millions of acres of land have been voluntarily redistributed as collective property to be managed by landless peasants and villages themselves. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, Gandhi’s philosophy has inspired the impressive rise of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement, which, like the neo-Zapatistas of Chiapas, has promoted a “community-based, participatory, and ecologically conscious development movement” involving millions of people. Finding its basis more in Buddhism than in Gandhi’s Hinduism, Sarvodaya Shramadana stresses four basic virtue: upekkha, or mental balance; metta, or goodwill toward all beings; karuna, or compassion for the suffering of all beings; and mudita, or sympathetic joy for all those liberated from suffering. As with Gandhi, Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, founder of Sarvodaya Shramadana, is described as moving away from hegemonic technocratic and State-oriented development models in favor of the embrace of the “spiritual and ethical traditions” of Sri Lanka, particularly the self-help and mutual aid practiced at the local level. The movement also seeks to transform Sri Lanka into a commonwealth of village or community republics; concretely, it aids communities in bringing self-determined development projects to fruition. Additionally, Sarvodaya Shramadana has organized massive peace meditations, People’s Peace Dialogues, and Youth Peace Camps amidst the devastation of the nearly three-decade long civil war which raged in the country until 2009. Clark closes this section by noting the vast gap in wealth of community and self-management between places like Sri Lanka and the United States. He looks forward to the day when the villages of Sri Lanka will “send teams of advisors to the West to help it come to terms with its communitarian underdevelopment, and begin to discover a way out of its political poverty.” Finally, he calls on Western radicals to “make more serious attempts to learn from societies in which a long history of communal practice and a deeply rooted sense of social solidarity make possible exemplary experiments in social cooperation.”

Before turning to consideration of Clark’s final chapter, I would here like to note some problematic aspects of his discussion of Gandhianism and the Sarvodaya movement in India. Clark deals with Gandhi’s pacifism in only a handful of paragraphs in “The Common Good,” and he gives the Mahatma the benefit of the doubt when counterposing the non-violence of satyagraha (“truth-force”) with the horrible violence faced in recent years by indigenous adivasi communities at the hands of paramilitaries acting in the interests of mining companies and the Indian State, as Arundhati Roy has observed. On this, Clark merely says that “a case can be made that Gandhi himself would have rejected a rigid adherence to [strict pacifism] in situations such as this one,” and then drops the question entirely. There is no mention made in Clark’s chapter of the armed resistance undertaken by the Naxalites in central India for the past several decades, nor is the example of left-wing militant Bhagat Singh or the Telangana insurrection of 1946-1951 against the indigenous landowning aristocracy discussed at all. These lapses I find troubling, if not somewhat disingenuous. Moreover within this vein, Clark’s presentation of Gandhi’s advocacy of voluntary land redistribution is not terribly critical. Though Clark does acknowledge that Gandhi’s strategy is flawed, in that the goodwill of the wealthy will not likely result in the abolition of exploitation, there is little sense in his account that contemplation of such a deluded approach—which so radically contradicts the Western anarchist emphasis on the outright expropriation of capitalists and feudalists by revolutionary workers, whether urban or rural—should lead us precisely to call into question the putatively anarchist nature of Gandhi’s political philosophy. Lastly in these terms, Clark fails to discuss or even mention the fact that Gandhi’s views on the caste system evolved over time, such that in the 1920’s before meeting the Dalit radical intellectual Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the Mahatma held the caste system in an uncritical light, declaring it to be the “natural order” of Hindu society. In 1921, indeed, Gandhi declared that he was “opposed to all those who are out to destroy the caste system.3

Clark’s closing chapter, “Beyond the Limits of the City,” is comprised of rather severe criticisms of the mature political philosophy of his former friend and mentor Murray Bookchin, an approach the latter termed libertarian municipalism. For all the critique to which Clark subjects Bookchin’s late philosophy—granted, some of it certainly justified—it is important to note here the profound political commonalities between the two thinkers. It is unfortunate—and once again disingenuous—that Clark fails to acknowledge the great influence Bookchin has had on the development of his own perspectives, and indeed on many of the principal points set forth in The Impossible Community! To take but one example of this dynamic, the very list of “revolutions within revolutions” which Clark cites favorably in his chapter on utopia—the “impressive historical examples” which “continu[e] to inspire the radical imagination,” from the section assemblies of the French Revolution, self-management in the Paris Commune, the soviets of the Russian Revolution, and the embodied anarchism of the Spanish and Hungarian Revolutions—is literally the same one Bookchin repeatedly pointed to in his writings as hopeful historical developments which validated his dialectical social-anarchist approach. Yet Clark fails to mention Bookchin at all in this discussion. It would seem that Clark has allowed his issues with Bookchin’s late views to paper over the great deal the two have in common: near the outset of this last chapter, Clark defines Bookchin’s ultimate political goal as being “the creation of a free, ecological society in which human beings pursue self-realization through participation in a nondominating human community, and further planetary self-realization by playing a cooperative, nondominating role within the larger ecological community.” Rather obviously, these lines also describe the author’s political tasks in The Impossible Community rather well, but Clark refuses explicitly to make this evident.

As I have suggested, some of the criticisms Clark makes of Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism are justified. Bookchin was rather infamous for his sectarianism, and Clark illuminates this tendency well in his discussion of the rejection Bookchin and his partner Janet Biehl made of the 1991 Draft Program of the Left Green Network, which called for a 95% reduction in the Pentagon budget, a universal $10 minimum wage, a workers’ superfund, and a thirty-hour work-week, among other things. Bookchin and Biehl refused to support the proposal, for it did not mandate the elimination of the remaining 5% of the military budget. Clark argues that the main reason they rejected the Program, though, was that the Left Greens did not adopt libertarian municipalism as their specific socio-political approach—in this he likely has a point. Moreover, Clark makes the legitimate point that the mere devolution of decision-making power to “the People” may very well not result in the anti-authoritarian, rational outcomes Bookchin expects from an application en masse of his libertarian municipalist approach. Indeed, with regard to the U.S., Clark worries that a libertarian municipalist politics could well have “extremely reactionary consequences” within certain geographical contexts, considering the likelihood of a popular extension of anti-immigrant and anti-poor legislation, capital punishment, and religious impositions, to name a few examples. In the last few pages of the text, Clark ultimately leaves the question open as to whether people’s power is an appropriate strategy to pursue at present, but he does not suggest any alternatives here for realizing the admittedly “admirable goals” of libertarian municipalism. It is highly unlikely that he is implying support for some sort of enlightened Leninist vanguard here, but if the way forward is not through the people—then what?

In closing, I will say that Clark raises some good points against Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism, particularly in challenging his former mentor’s questionable assumption that popular empowerment has an “almost miraculous” ability to nullify the negating socio-cultural values that have been ingrained so long by capitalist hegemony. Yet I am unconvinced that this consideration is reason enough to reject an approach to politics summarized well in the famous slogan of the Black Panthers: “All Power to the People!” Rationality and humanity will not arrive spontaneously through the machinations of State, capital, and patriarchy, as Clark makes clear throughout his text. Despite my problems with aspects of his final two chapters in The Impossible Community, Clark’s intervention with this book represents a crucial contribution to the struggle against domination and for liberation—with neither side of this struggle lacking evident justification in our day.


1Gustav Landauer, Revolution and Other Writings: A Political Reader, ed. and trans. Gabriel Kuhn (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2010), 214.

2Karl Mannheim, Ideology and History (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1936), 263.

3Bhimrao Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches (12 vols., Bombay 1979-93), ix, 275f.