The Relevance of Rexroth

Chapter 3: Society and Revolution


“It may seem absurd to talk of revolution . . . . But all the alternatives are even more absurd,
since they imply accepting the existing order in one way or another.”
  (Situationist International)1


Rexroth grew up in the final years of the old revolutionary movement. World War I not only demonstrated the bankruptcy of the old social order, it revealed the superficiality of the movement against it, as virtually all the supposedly antiwar and internationalist leftist organizations rallied to their respective nation-states. The end of the war brought a wave of upsurges in Europe, but all were soon crushed or neutralized. The one apparent exception, the 1917 Russian revolution, ultimately turned out to be the most disastrous defeat of all. The Bolsheviks took over, repressed the libertarian forces that had made the revolution, and imposed a new variant of the old system: bureaucratic state-capitalism. The “Communist” bureaucracy became the new ruling class; the state became the sole, all-owning capitalist.

Bolshevism is not communism or even socialism in any sense in which those words were understood before 1918. It is a very primitive form of state capitalism. It is a method of forcing a backward, semi-colonial country through the period of capital accumulation which the major capitalist nations went through in the early years of the 19th century.2

The Bolshevik counterrevolution was not only a disaster for Russia; its example poisoned and ultimately destroyed the entire international revolutionary movement for decades to come. The Bolsheviks’ power and prestige as the supposed leaders of the only “successful” revolution enabled them to dominate, manipulate and sabotage radical movements everywhere else “until there was no one left who was not completely centered on the Kremlin, either as a mindless Stalinist hatchet man or a psychopathic anti-Bolshevik.” “Many thousands have turned to reaction, religion, or plain folly because to them Socialist revolution meant Bolshevism.”3

Meanwhile in western Europe and America the system arrived at various accommodations with the reformist socialist parties and labor unions (New Deal, popular fronts, welfare statism).

The socialist and trade union movements in the West have functioned in reality — not just as governors to insure that steam is let off when the pressure gets too high, not just as what are now called “fail safe” devices, though they certainly are that — but as essential parts of the motive organization of capitalism, more, in other words, like carburetors that insure there will be just the right mixture of fuel and air for each new demand on the engine.4

In certain countries where this did not work well enough social crises were repressed through the imposition of fascism (a hybrid of totalitarian state-capitalism and traditional monopoly capitalism). Caught between Bolshevism, reformism and fascism, the genuinely radical elements were isolated and in many cases simply wiped out. The last and greatest manifestation of the old movement, the Spanish anarchist revolution of 1936-1937, was jointly destroyed by all three.

The generation of revolutionary hope was over. The conscience of mankind went to school to learn methods of compromising itself. The Moscow trials, the Kuo Min Tang street executions, the betrayal of Spain, the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the extermination of whole nations, Hiroshima, Algiers — no protest has stopped the monster jaws from closing. As the years go on, fewer and fewer protests are heard. The spokesmen, the intellects of the world, have blackmailed themselves and are silent.5

A whole generation of writers, artists and intellectuals was shell-shocked, mentally and morally maimed, and sunk into demoralization and compromise.

How many stopped writing at thirty?
How many went to work for Time?
How many died of prefrontal
Lobotomies in the Communist Party?
How many are lost in the back wards
Of provincial madhouses?
How many on the advice of
Their psychoanalysts, decided
A business career was best after all?
How many are hopeless alcoholics?6

Rexroth was one of the few exceptions. In the twenties he was an active member of one of the most exemplary organizations of the old movement, the anarcho-syndicalist IWW (Industrial Workers of the World); in the early thirties he carried on similar work independently. When there ceased to be any significant revolutionary movement, he set in for the long retrenchment — establishing contacts among persons who had maintained integrity and radicality, initiating reassessments of perspectives, continuing to speak out and act where possible. He had seen through the Bolshevik pretenses as early as 1921, when Trotsky and Lenin crushed the libertarian revolt of the Kronstadt soviet; but while clearly opposing all forms of “Communism” he did not, like so many others of his generation, react into supporting Western capitalism.

I am far better aware of
The evils of Stalinism
Than you are, you ex-Trotskyite
Warmonger. But it won’t get you
Anywhere to tell me I should
Welcome the beast who devours me
Just because a bigger lion
Is eating somebody else on
The other side of the arena.7

As for the limits of reformist politics: Hitching through Montana in 1927, Rexroth and Andrée get a ride with a well-to-do man of the world with an unusually cynical opinion of politicians. Rexroth asks if he doesn’t think there are a few honest exceptions, such as Robert La Follette and Burton Wheeler (radical reform senators from Wisconsin and Montana). The man answers by describing the backstop in a baseball field: “It catches the balls the catcher misses, and all the fouls that go off in that direction, so that nobody in the box seats gets hurt. That’s the function of guys like La Follette and Wheeler, and believe me, they know it if you don’t.”8 The next day they find out that their companion is Senator Wheeler.

The failures of Bolshevism and reformist socialism to bring about a truly radical social change confirmed Rexroth’s anarchism. It had become more evident than ever that capitalism cannot be eliminated by state programs and that any state bureaucracy, no matter how supposedly radical, naturally tends to perpetuate its own power. Capitalism and the state are simply interlinked aspects of the same system:

Labor power on the market,
Firepower on the battlefield,
It is all one, merely two
Aspects of the same monster.9

The state is basically a protection racket. The fact that it incidentally provides a few beneficial services merely camouflages its essential role as enforcer of the money-commodity economy, without which most of the artificially maintained conflicts of interest that now provide a pretext for the state would lose their rationale. “The state does not tax you to provide you with services. The state taxes you to kill you. The services are something which it has kidnapped from you in your organic relations with your fellow man, to justify its police and war-making powers.”10 Rexroth quotes Herbert Read to the effect that “anarchism possibly may sound impractical, but certainly less impractical than the modern capitalist nation-state would sound if described to someone in another civilization; and it is obvious that nothing else will work; any form of State is bound to fail from now on, and fail disastrously.”11

During World War II Rexroth was a conscientious objector (doing alternative service as an attendant in a psychiatric ward). He was not an advocate of strict nonviolence in every situation, but he does seem to have been absolutely opposed to all wars between modern nation-states, considering them worse than any of the evils they claim to be fighting. During the war he formed the antiwar Randolph Bourne Council (named in memory of a libertarian writer who wrote on the theme “War is the health of the state”) and worked to aid Japanese-Americans who were being harassed and sent to concentration camps. (He came up with scams through which many were enabled to escape incarceration altogether.)

After the war Rexroth and a few others organized the San Francisco Anarchist Circle (later renamed the Libertarian Circle).

Every week we had an educational meeting, each time devoted to a single topic. The Andalusian Agricultural Communes, the Shop Stewards’ Movement in revolutionary Germany, communalist groups in the United States, the Kronstadt revolt, Nestor Makhno and his Anarchist society and army in the Russian Civil War, the I.W.W., Mutualist Anarchism in America, and individuals: Babeuf, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre and the Anarchist Woman’s Movement. . . . The place was always crowded and when the topic for the evening was Sex and Anarchy you couldn’t get in the doors. . . . There was no aspect of Anarchist history or theory that was not presented by a qualified person and then thrown open to spontaneous discussion. . . . Our objective was to refound the radical movement after its destruction by the Bolsheviks and to rethink all the basic principles, i.e., in other words to subject to searching criticism all the ideologists from Marx to Malatesta.12

The ultimate influence of the Libertarian Circle seems to have been as much cultural as political. Flourishing from 1946 into the early fifties, it was perhaps the first major focus of the postwar ferment that came to be called the San Francisco Renaissance. Some of its participants went on to found Pacifica radio station KPFA, several experimental theater groups and numerous little magazines; others included many of the poets and artists who were to be influential in the Bay Area over the next two decades.

Rexroth was in the thick of all this. In addition to his vital role in the Libertarian Circle, he hosted weekly discussions, seminars and readings in his own home, and in numerous articles, interviews and KPFA broadcasts he lambasted the cultural and political establishments and heralded the new dissident tendencies. At a time when most commentators were complacently declaring that the age of experiment and revolt was over, he began to see new signs of hope. In his pioneer article Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation (1957) he wrote: “The youngest generation is in a state of revolt so absolute that its elders cannot even recognize it. . . . Critically invisible, modern revolt, like X-rays and radioactivity, is perceived only by its effects at more materialistic social levels, where it is called delinquency.”13

Rexroth and the other San Francisco Renaissance poets are themselves sometimes loosely called Beats, but as he emphatically reiterated in numerous articles, neither he nor most of the others had much in common with the media-created beatnik stereotypes. His critiques of Jack Kerouac’s sentimentality, self-indulgence and general mindlessness were particularly caustic. (In retaliation, most of the current spate of memoirs, biographies and histories of the “Beat Era” dismiss Rexroth with a few snide remarks or spiteful rumors; while academia generally continues to treat him as a nonperson contemptuously pigeonholed as “the father of the Beats.”)

The emergence of the civil rights movement was more to his taste. In a 1960 article he praises the spontaneity and direct personal action of the first protesters, and warns them against attempts by bureaucratic “organizers” to take over and institutionalize them:

The brutal reactionary tendencies in American life were being challenged, not on a political basis, Left versus Right, but because of their patent dishonesty and moral violence. . . . The programs are used up . . . . power and program are not the question: what matters is the immediate realization of humane content, here, there, everywhere, in every fact and relationship of society. . . . This means personal moral action. I suppose, if you wish to call it that, it means a spiritual revolution. . . . The Montgomery bus boycott . . . demonstrated something that had always sounded like sheer sentimentality. It is better, braver, far more effective and far more pleasurable to act with love than with hate. When you have won, you have gained an unimpeachable victory. . . . Furthermore, each moral victory converts or neutralizes another block of the opponents’ forces.14

This spontaneous direct action was indeed a good beginning, to clear the air of decades of compromises and confusions. (The “Left versus Right” schema, for example, has long been a virtually meaningless pretense of opposition between virtually indistinguishable frauds.) But Rexroth’s wholesale rejection of “programs” is obviously too simplistic. In the aftermath of the destruction of the old revolutionary movement this sort of attitude was understandable: people were rightly suspicious of mindless subservience to doctrinaire programs and organizations; it was necessary to reassess perspectives from scratch and remain open to diverse possibilities. During this earlier period Rexroth’s strategy of fostering dialogue and creative community without worrying too much about a consistent theory did indeed prove very fruitful — no one else played such a vital role in laying the foundations for the San Francisco Renaissance of the fifties, which in turn was one of the pivotal points of departure for the more widespread contestation of the sixties. But that new contestation posed new tactical and theoretical questions which Rexroth, persisting in his previous empirical eclecticism, failed to address in any very coherent way.

In 1960 he accepted an offer to do a weekly column for the San Francisco Examiner (a Hearst paper). He seems to have had a policy of accepting virtually any congenial assignment as long as he was given complete independence — publishers had to accept a piece exactly as he wrote it or not at all. He said that newspapers and popular magazines offered him more freedom than the sectarian political journals and academic quarterlies: “They are interested in lively, engaging copy, and within reason, the more controversy the better.”15 This may be true as far as it goes, but what if what one has to say does not seem “within reason”? Even with a carte-blanche policy there are always subtle pressures to self-censorship. There is always the implied threat that one’s contract could be discontinued (as, in fact, Rexroth’s ultimately was after he wrote a controversial article on the American police in 1967).

But granting that he did accept this dubious position, he didn’t do a bad job with it. The style of his columns is slightly adjusted to the more popular audience, but he is virtually as outspoken as in his other writings and his range of topics is if anything even broader. Reviewing a book about the San Francisco Bay, he says: “You can know all about what Henry James really meant, or the art of the fugue, but if you are not at home in the world under your feet and before your eyes, you are actually uncivilized.”16 In this sense his columns probably helped to civilize thousands of local readers. They certainly provide a wealth of material on the Bay Area scene of the time, including many topics not treated in such detail elsewhere in his writings, from the live arts to local politics, architecture and city planning.

Whatever his topic, he is always trying to foster the qualities of a vital, diversified community. In general he encourages local participation, experimentation and autonomy, though he sometimes urges centralized coordination in areas where consistent planning is needed. Of a free theater performance in the park he says: “Let’s hope this is an entering wedge, and that eventually we will have all sorts of musical and dramatic activity in the parks. I can think of few better ways to raise the muscle tone of a flabby community. Sooner or later out of the spectators will come participants.”17 It is amusing to see how cogently he addresses different groups in their own terms — challenging those who claim to be Christians to emulate Christ and go to the poor, the outcast, the hopeless (to help them, not to convert them), or telling Chinatown merchants they would make even more money if they turned Grant Avenue into a pedestrian mall, revived the Chinese opera and offered more authentic Oriental goods, instead of going for the fast tourist buck.

There is, of course, a certain irony in some of his proposals. Within their limits they may be more desirable — and even in some cases more “practical” — than prevalent policies, but he knows that ultimately they are not enough. Some of them would face too much resistance from entrenched political and economic interests; others are “zero-sum” (an improvement in one area would be at the expense of another). “The brutal fact is that the real problems — ecological, economic, social, moral, ethical, religious, sexual, intersexual — cannot be solved within the context of this society or any society at present known.”18

Most of these columns, however, are simply personal reactions to day-to-day issues, with only vague implications of a larger social critique. After being fired from the Examiner Rexroth shifted to a more explicitly political series of monthly columns for the San Francisco Bay Guardian (1967-1972) and San Francisco Magazine (1967-1975). In these increasingly pessimistic articles he blasts the corruption and collusion of politicians, governments, businesses and mass media, and bewails the mindless destruction of every vestige of human and ecological community. Most of his denunciations are only too justified; but they don’t add up to a coherent analysis that goes below the surface to elucidate radical possibilities. As usual with merely reactive muckraking, the result is merely oppressive, encouraging a retreat to the “personal” as the only terrain still partially free from the global madness.

Rexroth had perceptively discerned the first signs of a new revolt at a time when most commentators were blind to such a possibility; but he saw this revolt in largely cultural or spiritual terms. When more overtly confrontational struggles arose he tended to dismiss them as mere symptoms of social collapse and clung to his previous strategy of subtle moral and artistic subversion. This can be seen even in the one such struggle for which he does show a certain enthusiasm, the May 1968 revolt in France.

Probably the most significant thing about the explosion in France is the revelation of the moral bankruptcy of the establishment. Neither the General nor the leaders of the Communist Party had the faintest idea of what it was all about. De Gaulle had no explanation except the sublimely comic one that it was all due to the Communists. The Communists, with just enough insight to be really scared, indiscriminately denounced the revolt — both of the rank and file leaders of the striking workers and of all the youth — with savage, unbridled abuse. . . . Whatever the temporary settlement in France, this rejection of the immense, deadly system of false values which has ruled the age of commerce and industry will not stop.19

This is true enough as far as it goes; the problem is that he does not go any farther. It is typical that he recognizes the May revolt as a rejection of a system of false values but scarcely examines it as an attempt to supersede a system of social organization. He never analyzes its origins, its goals, its innovative tactics or its conflicting tendencies — all matters of greater significance than the “revelation” of a moral bankruptcy that had long been obvious.

Rexroth rightly criticized the New Left for its lack of coherent strategy, but he himself hardly seems to have had any strategy at all beyond vaguely encouraging “personal moral action” or occasional ad hoc collective action on specific issues. After the demise of the Libertarian Circle he and his San Francisco Renaissance friends never seem to have developed their social critique, or even to have presented in any very sustained or explicit way whatever libertarian perspective they still had. Since these people were in many ways deservedly influential, their failure to tackle the new theoretical and strategical issues contributed to the political naïveté of the sixties counterculture. In the absence of a coherent libertarian perspective, the old ideologies naturally returned to fill the void. Militant fractions of the New Left soon degenerated into the most dreary or delirious rehashes of old leftism; to which most of the rest reacted in disgust and turned in more reformist or apolitical directions.

The debacle of New Left politics in the late sixties in turn reinforced Rexroth’s emphasis on the more cultural aspects of the movement. The Alternative Society (1970) reflects this slant. Although it contains articles on a variety of social topics, nearly half the book is about recent developments in underground poetry and song; the alternative society turns out to be the youth counterculture, or at least its most profound tendencies: the “subculture of secession.” “It is a mistake to talk about protest songs, protest poetry. Protest assumes a possibility for correction. It occurs from within a culture. As the long tale of horror has gone by, protest has changed to alienation, alienation to total secession.”20 This is not so much a geographical secession (though it may include the formation of separate communities) as a fundamental reorientation of life values, a reorientation that has persisted, though less visibly, while superficial hippie fashions have come and gone.

As they strive for a new community, honest morality, sane goals in life, and their passing fads and follies drop away, the youth who are seceding from our crazy, lethal social order are converging with those predecessors — Mennonites, Brethren, Amish, Hutterites, Quakers — who withdrew from the madness and horror of the Wars of Religion and the collapse of the society of the Middle Ages.21

In Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century (1974) Rexroth examines these and other previous alternative societies, from the early Christians through the heretical sects and millenarian movements of the Middle Ages to the secular utopian communities of the last two centuries.

Until we arrive at the latter, almost all of them are religious. In this regard Rexroth’s book is a rich exposition of the social dialectic of religions, which have of course usually functioned to reinforce the ruling order, but which when pushed to their most radical implications have sometimes tended to undermine it. Even such apparently tame tendencies as lay monasticism may represent a potential threat: “Organized monasticism was a method of quarantining the Christian life. This is why the Church has always insisted that monasticism be celibate. . . . Lay monasticism, a community of families holding all things in common, living a life modeled on that of the apostles, unavoidably becomes a counter-culture.”22 This threat becomes more obvious in the connection of heretical groups like the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit with millenarian revolts, and in the emergence of religiously inspired anarcho-communist groups like the Diggers in the English Revolution.

Nevertheless all of these alternative communities, even the later, more consciously radical and secular ones, have had an ambiguous relation to the dominant society. To a certain extent they may have provided refuges from it and exemplified different values and possibilities; but by coexisting with it they inevitably entangled themselves in compromises and confusions, and usually soon fell apart from their own contradictions. Rexroth’s book is a very interesting account of the successes, failures, foibles and follies of these groups; but his analysis is too narrowly empirical. By treating the alternative communities mainly in terms of their internal organizational problems and individual survival (he regards the Hutterites, for example, as the most “successful” since they are the only ones who have maintained a fully communalist life for hundreds of years) he avoids facing their limited relevance to present-day contestation. Charismatic leaders, cohesive religious beliefs and hard work may, as he concludes, have been vital factors for small utopian groups struggling to survive within a world of scarcity and hostility, but they hardly have anything to do with the project of a global postscarcity society.

Whether or not such a society is likely, he knows that we have reached a point where it is both possible and necessary:

It is either utopia or catastrophe. . . . The symptoms of the collapse of the civilization are all about us, and they are far more pronounced than they were in the last years of the Roman Empire. Yet not all of these symptoms are necessarily pathological. The contemporary world is being pulled apart by two contrary tendencies — one toward social death, one toward the birth of a new society.23

But when he attempts to analyze the nature of this conflict he sometimes lapses into confusions and non sequiturs:

It is in the freer areas of the social interpersonal relations of individuals, away from factory or governmental bureaucracy, that the revolutionary developments are most apparent. Effective attack on the State and the economic system requires power, and the State, which is simply the police force of the economic system, has, so far, all the effective power. Demonstrations or Molotov cocktails are equally powerless before the hydrogen bomb. This is why the important changes are taking place in what the youth revolt calls “life style.”24

His treatment of “power” here is rather muddled. It is true that it is generally futile to fight the state on its own terms, but this does not mean that the only alternative is to limit oneself to changes in lifestyle and interpersonal relations. Where was all the state’s power in France in May 1968? or in Portugal in 1974? or in Poland in 1980? or in East Europe in 1989? And of what relevance then was the hydrogen bomb? In all these cases the system has survived not so much by physical repression as by cooption, by divide-and-rule tactics, by manipulating oppositional movements into reformist compromises.

All over the world we are witnessing an instinctive revolt against dehumanization. Marxism proposed to overcome the alienation of man from his work, from his fellows, and from himself by changing the economic system. The economic system has been changed, but human self-alienation has only increased. Whether it is called socialism or capitalism, in terms of humane satisfactions and life-meaning it is the same East and West. So today the present revolt is not primarily concerned with changing political or economic structures but is a head-on attack on human self-alienation as such.25

The economic system may have been modified in various ways, but it has never anywhere been radically superseded as envisaged by Marx. (As Rexroth notes elsewhere, “Marxism” has about as little to do with Marx as Christianity has with Christ.) The debacle of “Communist” state-capitalism and the long-evident inadequacy of reformist socialism have demonstrated the obsolescence of statist leftism, but not of the original antistate-anticapitalist project of Marx and the anarchists. Modern revolt is rightly contesting every form of alienation instead of limiting itself to the narrowly political and economic struggles of the old left, but it can hardly hope to successfully attack alienation “as such” without sooner or later eliminating its political and economic foundations.

Rexroth sees his alternative society as a “new society within the shell of the old,” but he never envisions just how it might break the shell and actually supersede the old society. He seems only to have a vague hope that a “saving remnant” of people quietly practicing authentic community in the interstices of the doomed system might somehow keep the flame alive. Even if this offers little chance of averting thermonuclear or ecological apocalypse, he feels that it’s the most satisfying way to live while you’re waiting for it.

If the alternative society becomes a society of ecological Bodhisattvas we will have reached the final confrontation — mutual aid and respect for life, full awareness of one’s place in the community of creatures — these are the foundations for an alternative society. . . . They’re not likely to win; the time is gone, but at least they can establish a Kingdom in the face of Apocalypse, a garrisoned society of the morally responsible which will face extinction with clean consciences and lives as happily lived as possible.26

Rexroth was speaking out on the threats to the ecology decades before most people had ever heard of the word, and it becomes more obvious every day that he was only too right about their seriousness. A viable global ecological balance is a delicate matter — once it is upset beyond a certain degree it becomes impossible to reverse the trend. There are now numerous well-known ecological abuses which if not promptly corrected could soon pass the point of no return. Even those that are stopped now may continue to have delayed effects for years. And of course most are still scarcely curbed at all, and are unlikely to be so as long as the system exists in which powerful interests can derive short-term profits from them.

It is my opinion that the situation is hopeless, that the human race has produced an ecological tipover point and is rushing toward extinction, a species death that will be complete within a century. This is quite without any consideration of the hydrogen bomb . . . . But assuming there is a possibility of changing the society’s “course in the darkness deathward set,” it can only be done by infection, infiltration, diffusion and imperceptibly, microscopically, throughout the social organism, like the invisible pellets of a disease called Health.27

This brings us back to poetry and song, which Rexroth sees as among the most effective means of such “infection.”

Underground song, he says, goes back at least as far as the medieval Goliardic lyrics of wine, women and satire (popularized in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and more recently recorded in the original versions). In France he traces its development from the sexual mysticism of the troubadours and the bohemian underworld of François Villon through the nineteenth-century poètes maudits and cafés-chantants to Georges Brassens and other post-World War II singers, who are “responsible for the greatest renaissance of song in modern times” and for “the replacing of the acquisitive appetite with the lyric sensibility.” Brassens, he says, “speaks for the hardcore unassimilables with complete self-awareness. He knew that he and behind him his ever-growing following could not and never would be assimilated, and he knew why, and he said so in every song, whatever that song was about. With him the counter-culture comes of age.”28

In America Rexroth traces a parallel evolution from the traditional ballads, folksongs and blues to the countercultural singers of the sixties. He distinguishes authentic folksongs — the “natural expression of an organic community”29 — from pseudofolk protest songs, most of which he considers laughably corny, if not worse: expressions of the Social Lie. Some of his own poems, of course, contain explicit radical statements, but he always rejected the notion that the arts should be subordinated to “progressive” demands. He felt that lyrics that communicate genuine personal vision are ultimately more subversive than explicit propaganda. Poetry, he says, “produces a deeper and wider and more intense response to life. The presumption is not that we will be better men — that’s up to us — but that deeply familiar with poetry, we will respond to life, its problems, and its people, its things, objects, everything, in a much more universal way, and that we will use much more of ourselves.”30 His further presumption is that this deepened response to life, by running counter to alienation and conditioning, tends to undermine the established order:

The counterculture as a culture, as a way of life — you can’t catch up with it, it’s in the bloodstream of society. You can’t pin it down. Its effect is continuously corrosive. . . . Joni Mitchell’s stuff . . . involves and presents a pattern of human relationships which is unassimilable by the society . . . . the kind of love it sings of can’t exist in this society. The song gets out like a bit of radioactive cobalt. It just foments subversion around itself as long as it is available.31

If only it were so easy! It is hard to determine the ultimate effects of a work of art, but it seems doubtful to me if any lyrics, whether by Brassens or Mitchell or anyone else, are all that unassimilable. At most they have probably played a modest role in preserving a spark of human spirit amid the dehumanizing pressures around us. Rexroth’s remark on William Blake’s poems points to this salutary role while at the same time revealing its limits: “This is the art of providing the heart with images of its alienation. If the individual or society can project the dilemmas which reason cannot cope with, they can be controlled if not mastered. This was Blake’s function. He saw the oncoming Business Civilization and prepared a refuge, a symbolic fortress or haven.”32

Moreover, it is necessary to distinguish between the counterculture “as a way of life” and as simply a new style in the arts. Insofar as the sixties counterculture consisted of audacious experiments in different modes of life and consciousness, it was indeed very “corrosive.” But it is misleading to present its artistic expressions as its central factor. A few poems and songs may have had a significant influence, but for the most part they were merely diluted and belated reflections of the adventures that were really going on.

Rexroth’s thesis seemed to be confirmed more in the “Communist” countries. He could point out how a mere visit of Allen Ginsberg to Prague or Joan Baez to East Berlin threw the bureaucrats into a nervous panic. But this was because virtually any sort of nonconformity threatened the ideological monopoly on which the Stalinist bureaucracies’ power depended. In the more flexible Western systems a work of art can be extreme indeed and still be assimilated as part of the show — its very extremism may serve to support the system’s pretension of offering total freedom of expression (as long as it is not realized in action, but remains a spectacle).

But here is the reductio ad absurdum of Rexroth’s thesis:

On the whole my own taste runs to poet singers who get to the root of the matter, who speak for fundamental changes in the sensibility in human relationships and therefore in language. Dylan at his best, Donovan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell . . . there are countless people like this all over the world, more perhaps in France than elsewhere. Much of the entertainment that went on night and day in the Theatre Odéon during the 1968 May revolt had nothing overtly to do with the, after all passing, revolt in the streets, the evils of the regime, or the betrayals of the political Left. People sang songs that attacked the evil at its source by presenting an alternative kind of human being.33

Whatever subversive effect poetry and song may sometimes have, Rexroth’s argument falls rather flat if, when a rare opportunity arises where everything is in question and people have a brief chance to change history, he can think of nothing more to do than go on singing. There was more poetry in the act of taking over the Odéon than in whatever songs may have been sung there. In a situation like May 1968, where millions of people have been shaken out of their usual sleepwalking existence and are getting a taste of real life, the point is no longer to “present” visions of alternative human relations, but to fulfill them.

The whole organization of modern society works against this, not only the obvious political and economic constraints, but the subtler, all-pervading cultural pacification that turns people into addicts of passive consumption. Our lives are dominated by a constant barrage of spectacles — news, ads, stars, vicarious adventures, images of revolt . . . The situationists have shown that this is not merely a superficial feature of modern life, but reflects a qualitatively new stage of capitalist alienation. “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle).34

In this new context the role of the arts becomes more ambiguous — whatever their creative or seemingly radical aspects, they too tend to become part of the show, to reinforce the passivity of the spectator:

The relation between authors and spectators is only a transposition of the fundamental relation between directors and executants. . . . The spectacle-spectator relation is in itself a staunch bearer of the capitalist order. The ambiguity of all “revolutionary art” lies in the fact that the revolutionary aspect of any particular spectacle is always contradicted and offset by the reactionary element present in all spectacles. [Debord and Canjuers]35

Rexroth does not really confront this new development, which to a great extent weakens his case for the subversiveness of art. Basically he still accepts the traditional roles of art, he just wants it to fulfill those roles better and more widely, to be more authentic and relevant. He stresses the need for art to be vital communication, but this communication remains a special activity done only by certain people within certain forms and circumstances.

Even those avant-garde tendencies that have sought to overcome the spectacle aspect of art by encouraging audience participation (in Happenings, for example) do so within limitations of space and time and content that turn such participation into a farce. As the situationists concluded, the true fulfillment of art ultimately implies going beyond the boundaries of art, bringing creativity and adventure into the critique and liberation of every aspect of life; and first of all into challenging the submissive conditioning that prevents people from creating their own adventures. This does not mean that all literary and artistic works are totally irrelevant or reactionary; but it is doubtful if even the best of them are as intrinsically subversive as Rexroth seems to hope.

But if Rexroth’s strategy of subtle cultural subversion is in some respects dubious, he is certainly right to encourage the fullest possible creativity and community here and now, to insist that “humane satisfactions and life-meaning” must not be postponed to some utopian future. The means may not be identical with the goal, but they must at least be consistent with it. The values that Rexroth stood for are vital to any genuine social liberation precisely because they are meaningful and satisfying for their own sake. As he put it in one of his most moving poems, written in 1952 for the funeral of an old friend:

We believed we
Would see with our own eyes the new
World where man was no longer
Wolf to man, but men and women
Were all brothers and lovers
Together. We will not see it.
We will not see it, none of us.
It is farther off than we thought.
. . . It does not matter.
We were comrades together.
Life was good for us. It is
Good to be brave — nothing is
Better. Food tastes better. Wine
Is more brilliant. Girls are more
Beautiful. The sky is bluer . . . .
If the good days never come,
We will not know. We will not care.
Our lives were the best. We were the
Happiest men alive in our day.36

Farewell, wonderful old mentor!


Final chapter of Ken Knabb’s The Relevance of Rexroth (1990). Reprinted in Public Secrets.

This text as a whole is not copyrighted. However, all the quotations from Kenneth Rexroth are copyrighted. Click the “Notes” link below for details.

[Contents of this book]
[Chapter 1: Life and Literature]
[Chapter 2: Magnanimity and Mysticism]
[Notes and Bibliography]

[French translation of this book]
[Spanish translation of this book]
[Portuguese translation of this book]