Kenneth Rexroth’s Autobiography (6)


World War II
The Libertarian Circle



[World War II]

About the time of Munich (“We can’t be expected to ask the British people to die for a country they have never heard of, the name of which they can’t pronounce,” said Chamberlain), I went to the leaders of pacifist religious groups, to Dan West of the Brethren Service Committee, to the Friends Service Committee, with one message:

“There’s going to be war. It’s going to be a world war, and the war that Roosevelt wants to get into is war with Japan. There will be war with Japan even if they have to be forced into it. When it happens, the persecution of Japanese and Americans of Japanese ancestry, because they are marked by their color and features, will be worse than that of the German-Americans of the First World War.”

If you say things like this, you discover that Americans are all Christian Scientists. They believe that you should not think bad thoughts which are “malicious animal magnetism” and will make bad things happen. All the pacifist leaders, mostly Protestant ministers, said, “Oh no, don’t say things like that.”

Of course they all secretly knew that I was right, so I managed to persuade them to set up a committee with the absurd title of the American Committee to Protect the Civil Rights of Americans of Oriental Ancestry. We never used the acronym, which would be TACTPTCROAOA, which sounds remotely Melanesian. [...]

[Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941...]

Marie and I and our new Japanese friend Londa Inoue sat down and listened to shortwave radio bulletins from all around the world. We were dumfounded at the Japanese government for thinking that by sinking the American fleet at Pearl Harbor they would be quickly able to conquer East Asia, India, and Australia; that forced by the British, the United States would make a negotiated peace. Of course, Roosevelt’s slogan was “No negotiation at all. Unconditional surrender on the part of the Germans and the Japanese.” There’s a big Italian-American vote in the United States, so he made a negotiated peace with Italy.

After the war, Charles Beard, who was then America’s leading historian, wrote a devastating book which pretty conclusively demonstrates, as Roosevelt used to say, “We planned it that way.” I don’t need to go into the scandal of Pearl Harbor, but it’s pretty scandalous. The curious thing is that the book is difficult to obtain now and is unknown in Japan. I’ve never met a Japanese who had even heard of it.

For the first few days after Pearl Harbor most of the people I knew were in a very shaken condition. I remember so well going to a meeting of the Friends Service Committee in the basement of the Quaker Church in Berkeley. Practically all the pacifists in the Bay Area were there. Everyone was talking at once: “We are in the war. We have been attacked. What shall we do now?”

Caleb Foote, a young law student, an Absolutist Conscientious Objector who had gone twice to prison, got up and said, “Who belongs to this first person plural pronoun? I don’t. I am not at war. I have not been attacked. The American state is at war. The American navy has been attacked. You are not the American state. You are each one an individual: John Post, Bill Cadbury, or whoever.”

I’ll never forget his talk. It summed up so briefly the pacifist response to war, and it had an extraordinarily calming effect on the people. Shortly after, he went to prison for the third time, and I understand is now a successful lawyer in Philadelphia.

During the war, the Left was all in favor of crucifying the Japanese. But afterward the Party line was that it was all a plot of the Associated Farmers to steal Japanese-Americans’ farms. The Associated Farmers had absolutely nothing to do with it and were as surprised as anyone else.

Not very long after the Friends Service Committee meeting, our contact in the White House called up and said, “Tomorrow morning there will be an order on the desk of the commanding officer in the San Francisco Presidio to evacuate all persons of Japanese ancestry, including half-Japanese, no matter how long they’ve been in America, from the entire West Coast to concentration camps to the east of Sierra Nevada, at least.”

I said, “That’s insane. How are they going to do that?”

He said, “Well, that’s their problem. The White House is in a turmoil. Eleanor has locked herself in her room. John has gone off somewhere and vanished. And the President insists on this and bites his cigarette holder and rears his jaw.”

That phone call came at dinner time. We immediately got on the phones and told each person we called to call at least five people. I phoned all the liberal and labor people, and they said it was terrible and awful and they were going to put a stop to it by writing letters to the President and their congressmen. The local head of the American Civil Liberties Union wept crocodile tears.

I called General Barrows, a retired chancellor of U.C. Berkeley, an old-fashioned, Hiram Johnson, radical Republican.

His response was, “Them damn Democrats can’t do things like this.”

So he too started phoning and, of course, had an infinite number of contacts. In addition, he put a number of students on phones all night. Our own Committee to Protect the Civil Rights of American Citizens of Oriental Ancestry woke up with a bang and went to work. Early next day, we had mobilized opinion, especially in the Bay Area.

There was never a case of violence in San Francisco, Berkeley, or Oakland, but immediately south in San Mateo there was one killing, and south of that there were more. There was considerable terrorism the further you got from the Bay Area, although there was none in Seattle or Portland. Curiously, there was very little in the San Joaquin Valley, where the Japanese were well known and precisely where the liberals were later to say the farmers plotted to seize their land. There was no evacuation of the Hawaiian Islands, which would have left them almost half empty, and there was no violence on record. During the whole war, there was never a case of sabotage or any other serious resistance, not just from Nisei but from the Issei and Japanese citizens. So the fraudulent character of the evacuation is obvious. [...]

One day we were waiting for the evacuation step-by-step to catch up with us. We were worried because Hazuko was still ill. She said something about how she would like to learn knitting and the design of knit and crocheted dresses. I thought, “Oh my God, why didn’t I think of this before?” In those days, cheap pulp magazines used to run phony correspondence school ads: “Copy This Picture and Win a Scholarship to the Midwest Art Academy in Chicago.” There were correspondence schools for all kinds of things, but the most profitable were in photo retouching, art, dress design, and knitting. I knew the field. I’d worked in it myself and it was strictly a grift.

I called up one of these guys and said, “How about it? Will you take a Japanese girl and sign her registration papers if she pays the fee?”

He said, “Why sure, hell yes. I think this evacuation is a horrible thing. As a matter of fact, they don’t have to pay registration. But it’s a fair amount of trouble, so if I get a check for a fin or a sawbuck it’ll be okay.” It was amazing. That response was almost universal; whereas, if you were a legitimate customer, they got all the money they could get out of you.

I went down to the old Whitcomb Hotel, which had been taken over as headquarters for the evacuation, and went to the colonel in charge and showed him one of these ads.

I said, “How about this? Is it good for an educational pass?”

He said in a deep Southern accent, “It sure as hell is. It’s education, ain’t it? It’s an art school, ain’t it? And this other one’s a photo school.”

I said, “Yeah, but it’s kind of a racket, you know.”

He said, “I don’t give a damn what kind of a racket it is. Anything that will get these yellow bastards off my back is okay with me.”

He was a Southerner and his language was a little different than his heart. Contrary to what the Left thinks, West Pointers and VMI’s do not enjoy shoving around the citizens of their own country. Of course this was long before My Lai and Kent State and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which destroyed public morals.

It was great. We started shoveling people out of the West Coast on educational passes. To get the money we went to the rich Jewish people in San Francisco and said, “You may be next. The United States might switch sides, just like Russia did.” Meanwhile the Quakers came from all over the country to work as volunteers and set up a student relocation program. Although they were volunteers and lovely people, they created an immense bureaucracy. They’d send delegations to small Iowa colleges and have long conferences with academic and community leaders and question them about their anti-Japanese feelings and, in fact, scare the wits out of them. We didn’t pay any attention to such problems. We just shoveled them out. At the San Francisco racetrack we got the reputation of being Quakers, which annoyed the Friends Service Committee dreadfully. We denied it, but the evacuees believed it anyway.

So we sent Hazuko to my dearest friend, Harold Mann, in Chicago. He and his wife, Helen, lived on Goethe Street, just off Clark Street. He was so shocked by the whole story and so impressed by Hazuko that he went to Washington, where he knew the man who had been appointed head of the War Relocation Authority, and he got himself made head of the WRA in the Middle West. Hazuko stayed with the Manns until she got a good job. As people arrived with their education passes, he went all around the neighborhood ringing doorbells asking landladies if they would take a Japanese-American roomer. [...] There were countless cases like this.

[pp. 487-491, 494-496]

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In the early years of World War II, the Fellowship of Reconciliation functioned with a fair degree of efficiency and considerable membership. We had a triple secretariat — the pastor of a Methodist church, the pastor of a Presbyterian church who was also a philosophy professor at San Francisco State College, and myself. We engaged in a modest amount of activity, usually some variety of first aid to conscientious objectors. I discovered from Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker that the Catholic CO’s were all in a couple of camps in far northern New England. At the beginning, the historic peace churches — Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren, Hutterites, and the rest — were supposed to support their own in camp. The idea of the cardinal archbishop of New York supporting conscientious objectors was ridiculous, although the leading American theologian, a Monseigneur Ryan, had just published a book in which he proved in true Thomistic fashion that it was no longer possible to fight a just war.

I found out that these boys were starving in the New Hampshire forest, living on oatmeal for days at a time. The San Francisco chapter of the FOR adopted them, and in the course of time we were able to persuade the Selective Service to abandon their camps and distribute them over the so-called secular camps. Eventually, camps run by the peace churches and confined to their membership were abandoned.

Midway in the war, Selective Service made a rather amusing move. They gathered up all the artistic and temperamental personalities from all the camps and put them in Waldport, Oregon — one of the rainiest parts of America. Lewis and Clark in their journals said that the worst part of their trip by far was the winter they spent on the Oregon coast.

Waldport soon produced lots of activity. There were three presses that put out little magazines and pamphlets of poems. There were painters and musicians, and there were two experimental theaters. People from Waldport usually came to San Francisco on furlough, and after the war, all the organized activities moved there, rather than to Portland or Seattle. It was this immigration of religious and anarchical pacifists which laid one of the foundations of the now notorious San Francisco Renaissance. Several people who had not been subject to the draft or had been discharged moved to Waldport and then came on down to San Francisco. The most notable example was the painter Morris Graves, who became a good friend at that time.

Many of these boys had little or no theoretical, ideological, or even religious basis for their conscientious objecting. They had simply gone on doing what their Sunday school teachers had told them to do. Many of them came down specifically to see me for counsel. Some of them were considerably disturbed. They had been put in CO camps prior to medical and psychiatric examination at the induction centers. We were able to get this changed and CO’s went through the same process as those inducted into the armed forces. This was accomplished through the influence of Eleanor Roosevelt, and it did away with a lot of injustice. Some of the first CO’s in the camps not only would never have been drafted into the army, but belonged in hospitals. [...]

After Hitler invaded Russia, about half the membership of the FOR left, including several clergy, but not the two cosecretaries, who were shocked and disillusioned. For the early years of the war, Roosevelt was regarded as a cryptofascist in league with British and French imperialism, and huge numbers of demonstrators thronged the White House singing “I hate woh, and so does Eleanoh.” After the “Quarantine the Aggressors” speech, Roosevelt ceased to be a fascist, and the Communist Party covertly supported him. However, General Secretary Earl Browder was sentenced to the Atlanta penitentiary for traveling on a false passport about the same time that Elliott Roosevelt was arrested in France with a false passport, and then apologized to by the French police.

With Hitler’s invasion, the Party line changed in a split second from the “Yanks are not coming” to “Open a second front now.” The League of American Writers, the League Against War and Fascism, and all similar front organizations were dissolved, with no warning to their members or even officers. Eventually the Communist Party itself “dissolved” and called itself the Communist Political Association. Only the inner core remained. This, of course, fooled nobody. Browder was immediately let out of prison and became a consultant to the White House brain trust.

Two days after Hitler’s invasion of Russia, I received an induction notice from my draft board, the chairman of which was a local merchant, but petty bourgeois or no, a Communist. My status had been changed without even a meeting of the board, from 4-E, Conscientious Objector, to 1-A, Available for Armed Service. I immediately appealed. The process dragged on for over a year while the FBI investigated the claim as by law they were required to do.

In the Civil Service regulations, there is a paragraph stating that an appellant for CO status has the right to see a précis of his FBI report when he is notified of his appeal hearing. I went to Selective Service headquarters and asked the young lady to phone the FBI and have my précis sent over (you could not take it with you). Now the FBI is not what spy stories would lead you to think. Like the later CIA, it is just a better paid WPA, just a method of keeping unemployable college graduates off the streets and from making revolution. The clerk at the FBI did not have the faintest idea of what a précis was. She sent over the whole file, as big as the manuscript of The Brothers Karamazov. I stood at the counter and read it all afternoon. They had investigated all my friends and neighbors, and not just my parents and grandparents, but remote Schwenkfelder and Mennonite ancestors. There was no question that I was a bona-fide Conscientious Objector.

But suddenly there appeared in the file, all together, letters and statements from all the Communists and fellow travelers who had been my friends. The accusations were insane in their virulence. I had a shortwave broadcasting set in my attic with which I communicated with Japanese submarines off the coast. I was the secret head of the German-American Bund in California and, at the same time, the secret head of the Trotskyites and had been in constant communication with Trotsky. Two of my mistresses were notorious Lovestonites and members of the Ukrainian Nationalist organization. The most amusing letter, sent voluntarily, was from a woman I had known since I first came to San Francisco, a hack writer whom I never suspected was a Party member. She said that when she and I were editors of the San Francisco Writers Project’s Guide to California, we used to work in the office and go out for morning coffee break. I would tell her Latin limericks about all our friends, which were so filthy they made her vomit her breakfast. I did not work in the office. I have never written a Latin limerick, and I had seen very little of this woman for years.

As I stood at the counter reading through this immense mass of material, a tweedy young man smoking a pipe came in and was greeted with effusive servility by the clerk.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m just going to wait here for a while.” About four-thirty I was through, and I pushed the files down the counter to him.

“I guess this is what you’re waiting for,” I said.

“Don’t let those letters worry you, Rexroth,” he said. “By law we have to investigate all complaints, but we’re glad to get that kind. A little while ago they were on the other side, and they’ll be on the other side again. We’re glad to know who they are, if we don’t know already.”

He put out his hand to shake hands. I didn’t take it.

I said, “Thank you very much,” and left.

I too was glad to see the letters. It eliminated a lot of malevolent people from my list of friends. Some of them had been close friends. One of them had been my lover. I might have been all broken up. Instead, I thought it was hilariously funny, especially the Latin limericks. As I’ve probably said before, “Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think.”

The curious thing is that all the people I knew in the Communist Party and its front groups are dead, yet, until recently, there were still survivors — Wobblies and Anarchists — from the pre-Bolshevik revolutionary movement who had been my friends in Chicago. I was once discussing this with my daughter Mary. Although she was only fifteen, she knew the answer.

She said, “They died of schizophrenia, in the literal sense of the word. They had split personalities. You cannot be forced to believe and act on absolute nonsense without damaging your hormones. This is the reason why all the Communist movements, and Russia itself, have always been so inefficient. All their actions are haunted by subconscious sabotage, the expression of frustration and resentment.”

People ask me, “Don’t you think it possible that the FBI forged those letters for the purpose of turning you against your friends, and the nonsense is due to the notorious inefficiency of the FBI?”

My answer is: There was evidence in most of the letters that they had actually been written by the signers, but I think the fantastic nonsense was due to subconscious resentment at what they had been ordered to do. The Latin limericks are a kind of signal, like the Moscow Trial defendant who confessed to meeting Trotsky in a Copenhagen hotel which had been out of existence for a generation.

Also, of course, it’s impossible to know how many of these people were themselves FBI agents. Just recently the Communist Party announced that it had 7000 members. One of the several people who took over the FBI from Hoover said that he was recalling most of his agents from the Communist Party and gave their number. How many? 7000 at the peak. [...]

Our organizational activities during the war were intense enough, but they were quite different from those of the earlier thirties. Not only did we belong to the religious pacifist organization the Fellowship of Reconciliation, but we became concerned with other pacifist groups. (I should say that I have never been active as a peacetime pacifist. I think the time to actively oppose war is when war is imminent or in process.) As I mentioned, we worked with but did not join the American Friends Service Committee and often attended the small First Day unprogrammed meeting, which was held in the evacuated YWCA. I became a local representative, along with a couple of other people, of the National Committee for Conscientious Objectors. We also had poetry readings to a small group once a week in our home.

In addition, we had meetings every two weeks at our home of what we all decided to call the Randolph Bourne Council. (Bourne was the most radical war resister in the First World War, an anarchist and the author of Untimely Papers and The History of a Literary Radical.) The council was collected from the most intelligent non-Bolshevik radicals in the city, although it included several ex-members of the Communist Party, the Trotskyites and the Lovestonites. Its purpose was to think through the foundations of Marxism and Anarchism to a new synthesis and regrouping after the destruction of revolutionary hope by the Moscow Trials, the betrayal of the Spanish revolution, and the Hitler-Stalin pact. All our activities had the same character, a rethinking and reevaluation of basic principles under the nervous tension of war.

All during the war years, I reread Quakers like Fox, Woolman, and Penn, and Jakob Boehme in William Law’s edition, Richard of Saint-Victor, Heinrich Seuse, Nicolaus Cusanus, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Jan van Ruysbroeck, Walter Hilton, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and The Cloud of Unknowing. On the ward, I usually read two or more Offices of the breviary, and compline before I went to bed. Also, I read continuously in the old Paul Carus’ The Gospel of Buddha, Arthur Waley’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, The Way and Its Power, and similar anthologies of Buddhism. Eventually I got to D.T. Suzuki in the old Rider editions, which led me to Sir John Woodroffe’s (Arthur Avalon) Tantric Text Society publications.

Due to the rationing of gasoline, it was difficult to go to the Sierras, but all our free time was spent in the cabin in Devil’s Gulch in the northern corner of Marin County, now Samuel Taylor State Park. Twice we took our vacations there, and often when I was there alone I would devote much of my time to systematic meditation. For a while I was very interested in Hatha Yoga and Kundalini Yoga with Marie. The trouble with yoga is that after you have achieved its culminating experience, it becomes meaningless, a ladder you kick away. The illuminative experience becomes not an “experience” but a habitude, a state which envelops you like water envelops fish or air birds. It is always there, accessible with the slightest effort, or rather lack of effort, of recollection, even in the most mundane and confusing happenings. Eventually, “If thee does not turn to the Inner Light, where will thee turn?” Much of my early poetry, particularly the two long poems “The Homestead Called Damascus” and “A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy,” close in what could be called mystical experience and reflect certain “openings” that had occurred in my life since at least my fourth or fifth year, as I have mentioned earlier. The war years were years of deepening. Where else could I turn?

We learned from Kundalini Yoga that the sexual act found its completion in illumination. From then on, I suppose my philosophy could be called erotic mysticism. Certainly I came to believe that marriage is the last sacrament available to modern man, and with the terrible destruction of interpersonal relations by capitalism and its war-making State, it is not very available, nor is it surely enduring. But then, vision does not come with guarantees.

As a matter of fact, it was not Oriental mysticism which most influenced me during the war, but rather the Rheinish mystics I’ve just mentioned, especially Jakob Boehme. Although Boehme devised a system for which you need an Ariadne’s thread, I have always thought of the system as simply an object for meditation, no more real than the vajra, which in fact it greatly resembles. True, I practiced yoga, but I was aware at the time that what I was doing was simply autonomic nervous system calisthenics.

I look back with nostalgia and awe at the nights I spent alone in the little cabin in Devil’s Gulch, sitting in the lotus posture, doing controlled breathing, and emptying my mind of its detritus. There was nothing but the firelight and the sound of the two waterfalls that came down and joined directly under the cabin. I had a pet kingsnake who used to like to lie inside my shirt, and although you can’t make a pet of an owl unless you feed him live mice, the same owl came every night to sit on a shattered tree in front of the cabin and sing to me. There is a sign on the map of Samuel Taylor State Park headquarters, “This way to the Rexroth cabin,” but eventually I was not allowed to use it. Now the steep gully has washed out the trail, and the cabin itself has collapsed. Maybe someday it will be rebuilt, for there I wrote most of the poems in The Phoenix and the Tortoise and others in The Signature of All Things.

[pp. 499-507]

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[The Libertarian Circle]

We continued our meetings of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, usually picnic lunches on Sunday afternoon, meetings of the Randolph Bourne Council, and, at least once a month, often at our cabin in Devil’s Gulch, the gatherings of people who came to read their poetry to each other. [...]

One of the characteristics of all these new people was, to put it bluntly, mysticism. Although superficially Richard Eberhart appeared to be a quite conventional American, his poetry at its best was much like Blake’s visionary lyrics. Morris Graves was a member of the Vedanta Society and deeply read in Hindu religious literature. [Robert] Duncan had long ceased to be a Trotskyite and had evolved his own philosophy of transcendent experience. But then Duncan had come from a Theosophist family, so he had, as it were, a head start. Lamantia’s poetry, although surrealist in style, was saturated with an erotic mysticism quite unlike Breton’s rather pedestrian free associations. More, perhaps, like Robert Desnos. As time went on, Lamantia became a kind of Roman Catholic Tantrist, a rather chic philosophy nowadays that Philip adopted and abandoned long ago. I suppose I, too, was influenced by Tantric Buddhism, but all down the years I have tended to keep quiet about my Buddhism, Tantric or other — seeing how there is such a large number of Airedales running around calling themselves Buddhists. However, by the end of the war the ideological foundations of the San Francisco Renaissance had been laid — poetry of direct speech of I to Thou, personalism, anarchism.

(At the height of the movement, I was giving a reading at some university. Down in the front row of the auditorium was a young lady in a leather microskirt and a leather microbolero, tied with a leather bootlace, and nothing else whatever. I said, “I have an extremely wide repertory. What would you like — sex, revolution, or mysticism?” She looked up and said quietly, “What’s the difference?”)

It didn’t take the Communist Party long to attack us. There appeared in Harper’s Magazine just after the war an article, “The New Cult of Sex and Anarchy,” which laid the whole movement at the feet of Henry Miller, as the guru of Wilhelm Reich (of whom he had never heard). Miller lived over a hundred ten miles away from San Francisco and seldom came to the city. He had only one disciple, George Leite, the editor of Circle, a very good magazine published in Berkeley, to which we all contributed. [...]

Although the end of the war gave me much more leisure to write and freedom from the psychological drain of caring for the mentally ill, and also made it possible to engage in more significant political, or rather apolitical activity, all the circumstances of the ending of the war and the cumulative effect of the last ten or twelve years gave my life a curious sense of unreality. I suppose this could be called a total alienation from the dominant society and at the same time the loss of revolutionary hope.

I should list as best I can the historical and social factors that caused this. First, of course, was the Bomb. After Nagasaki and Hiroshima nobody with any sense has been confident that the human race or even the planet will be here in the twenty-first century. “Apocalypse Now” — never before, except for a few religious cults, has mankind lived with the possibly impending end of the world. “The Eschatological Ethic” of Albert Schweitzer or the early Christians becomes simple common sense — a new kind of utilitarianism. For some this means a transcendent ethic. For others it means total moral collapse. If a terrible flash may light up the world at any moment, each moment lived has a more intense reality or, defined in other terms, a haunting unreality. “The combinations of the world are unstable by nature,” said Buddha as he entered final nirvana. [...]

Before the war, all revolutionary hope in Bolshevism had been destroyed by Stalin’s terror, the shameful Moscow Trials, the deliberate murder of the leading cadres of the Russian army (which we would later discover resulted from a trick by the Nazis), the betrayal of the Spanish revolution and the wholesale murder of the POUMists, Anarchists, Left Social Democrats. Stalinists even killed their own recalcitrant and disillusioned members, an activity supervised by my old friend the C.I. rep from Chicago, General Gusev, who in his turn was exterminated by Stalin as soon as he returned to Russia. (The POUM was not in any sense Trotskyite. Any book you read that says they were is either by a Stalinist or a dupe. They were Left Social Democrats affiliated with the British Independent Labour Party.) The Trotskyites in Spain were exterminated whenever the Stalinists could catch them. I have the last issue of their bulletin, The Bolshevik-Leninists. They were all busy arguing with each other about what was happening in Spain. Within a month, every contributor was dead. The murder of Trotsky was shameful and pitiful, but at the very time he was killed, he was in a controversy with Victor Serge, using the same shopworn Bolshevik lies, to justify the slaughter of the Kronstadt sailors, without whom he would never have come to power.

Yet immediately after the war, there was an extraordinary upsurge of what might be called apocalyptic optimism. All over the world, even in Russia, youth especially thought that at least the factitious promises of the Allies would be fulfilled, and that with a new social order, it would be possible to change the world. It is difficult to convey to younger people the nature of this spontaneous movement. In the first place it was spontaneous. It was not the result of any nation’s foreign policy. Secondly, because it was free of leaders and ideology, its philosophy was the very slogan of Lenin’s hoax — Peace, Freedom, and Bread. For a brief historical moment, it was a worldwide movement, largely of youth. Today it is forgotten.

In San Francisco, we organized an anarchist group which we called the Libertarian Circle. At first we met in a large dance studio in an alley off Mission Street. It belonged to one of those organizations once common in the foreign-born radical movement which Marx characterized as “coffin clubs,” combinations of insurance, social, and mildly propagandistic organizations. The Stalinists had one which was essentially a device for raising money for the Communist Party. This one was a Social Democratic, largely German one. Soon we took over the top floor of the Arbeiter Ring — the Workman’s Circle — in the Fillmore District, although we still used the dance hall for dances once a month.

The Workman’s Circle was really a relic of the pre-World War I European revolutionary movement. The members were mostly Jewish with a sprinkling of Italians and a few other foreign-born elderly radicals, mostly Left Socialists, Anarchists, and Left Communists. Today, of course, this is a most powerful ideological force in the revolutionary movement, even inside the Iron Curtain.

(At the founding of the Comintern someone asked, “Comrade Lenin, do you think we should call this the Communist International? After all, there are already Communists.” Lenin answered, “Nobody ever heard of them, and when we get through with them, nobody ever will.” Such was Lenin’s attitude toward the Left Communists.)

Needless to say, we were very welcome and our rent was minimal. 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, communalistic groups in the United States, the Kronstadt revolt, Nestor Makhno and his anarchist society and army in the Russian Civil War, the IWW, Mutualist Anarchism in America. We discussed such individuals as Babeuf, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre and the Anarchist women’s movement.

At this time, the Communist Party had pretended, on orders from Moscow, to self-destruct. The Socialist Party scarcely existed, the Socialist Labor Party less than scarcely. As demanded of Stalin by Roosevelt at Teheran, the Trotskyite leadership were all in prison. The Proletarian Party had gone out of existence. So we had by far the largest meetings of any radical or pseudoradical group in San Francisco. The place was always crowded, and when the topic of conversation for the evening was “Sex and Anarchy,” you couldn’t get in the doors. People were standing on one another’s shoulders, and we had to have two meetings, the overflow in the downstairs meeting hall.

There was no aspect of Anarchist history or theory that was not presented by a qualified person and then thrown out to discussion. Even in business or organizational meetings, we had no chairman or agenda, but things moved along in order and with dispatch. Our objective was to refound the radical movement after its destruction by the Bolsheviks, and to rethink all the ideologists from Marx to Malatesta. In addition to the meetings of the Libertarian Circle, once a week we had poetry readings. And besides our monthly dances, we had picnics during the summer in Marin County. At the dances we always had the best local jazz groups, but for the old-timers we always had to have an accordion, guitar, and fiddle to play polkas, schottisches, and Italian and Jewish folk dances. This also contributed to the foundation of the San Francisco Renaissance and to the specifically San Francisco intellectual climate which was about as unlike that of New York as could be conceived. Our connections were entirely with the British and European movement and with circles in Bombay and the French Concession in Shanghai, a refuge for revolutionaries opposed to the Kuomintang — who were incidentally, exterminated to the man by Mao. All in all, it was the most intensive reeducation program I have ever known, and its results have spread far beyond it.

Our only problems were with the old-timers who were baffled by the religious and mystical orientation of many of the younger people. Fortunately, there were a couple of refugee members of the FAI (Federación Anarquista Iberica) who could act as a bridge to the anticlerical Italians. Very few people know that Annie Besant was a revolutionary, visited Spain, and converted a large percentage of anarchist intellectuals to Theosophy. It’s a little startling when you first meet a leader of the FAI who is as familiar with Madame Blavatsky as he is with Bakunin.

The group published two issues of a magazine entitled The Ark, now extremely scarce and valuable, printed on our own press, which later passed from hand to hand around the movement. Several theater and dance people came to the meetings, but the significant San Francisco little theaters had all started in the CO camp in Waldport. Several post-bop musicians came, and the band at the dances became quite Third Stream.

One of the most significant products of the group was the first subscriber-supported FM radio station, KPFA. I will never forget the night that Lew Hill, who had been the director of the Committee for Conscientious Objectors in Washington, showed up unannounced at a large meeting. He presented what was really a very simple thesis. There had been a great structural change in society, and the days of street meetings and little pamphlets were over. New, far more effective means of communication were available. It was comparatively easy and inexpensive to set up a cooperatively run listener-supported FM radio station whose signal would cover at least the entire Bay Area, and which could be supported by subscriptions without any commercials. [...] In a surprisingly short time, the station became a reality. In the early days, many of the people in its administration had been members of our Circle. [...]

There occurred a mild schism in the group. The more bohemian members, primarily because they wanted to smoke grass, decided to have separate poetry readings, essentially for poets only, at the home of Robert Stock. This little group was the beginning of the hippie lifestyle that matured almost twenty years later. The nucleus of the group, about eight people, migrated to New York and took over a half-ruined apartment house on Monroe Street on the Lower East Side near the Houston Street subway station. This was the beginning of the East Village. New York Bohemia had never seen anything quite like them, but soon there would be thousands. The Libertarian Circle itself however, was dominated by a revival of the pre-Russian strict anarchist morality. You avoided the minor vices and were honest and loyal with comrades in order to keep yourself efficient for the barricades when the revolution came. This new group was as antinomian as the French anarchist underworld of the end of the last century. Hence the Hippies and the Beats.

Meanwhile, the Libertarian Circle went on its way with its manifold activities, both educational and recreational. It began to get an underground reputation across the country. Our activities particularly worried the Communist Party, since we had larger public meetings than they did, and better dances, and certainly better educational sessions. Even meetings devoted to discussions of Marxism were on a far higher theoretical level. In fact, American Marxism in both the Socialist and Communist parties never had any theoretical level.

One day, three members of the New York Libertarian Circle showed up and began jockeying for “leadership.” It had never occurred to us to have leaders. After the damage was done, I discovered that they were former members of the Young Communist League and what in the movement were called “two-card men,” which means secret members of the Communist Party who, under Party orders, join the Socialist Party or other radical organizations. When I went to Europe, leaving the Libertarian Circle in a flourishing condition, one of them took the chair (we never had chairmen), another moved to discontinue the meetings (we never had motions), the third seconded the motion, and an audience full of people no one had ever seen before voted “aye” by a tiny majority. That was the end of the Libertarian Circle. The Party faction in the Workman’s Circle carried a motion to stop letting us use their hall. Today, the Russian Orthodox Communist Party is limited to a few old folks and FBI members. The ideas and lifestyle for which we stood have spread across the world.

[pp. 508, 510-511, 515-521]

* * *



I seem to have written a minor classic. On its first appearance my autobiography was greeted with enthusiastic reviews, pictures, interviews, television appearances. Since then it seems to have been read steadily, and I still get letters from people telling me it changed their lives. It couldn’t change their lives into the kind of life that a precocious youngster could live in my youth. The ways are closed; the options no longer exist. On the other hand many aspects of that life have become, to use jargon, the lifestyle of an entire subculture that has spread all over the world. If I drive down the highway from my home in Santa Barbara or down the roads of India, I see young couples everywhere, with packs on their backs headed into unknown adventures, like Kenneth and Andrée fifty years ago, and there are coffee shops like the Green Mask from Reykjavik to Bali, and in all the cities of what Mencken once called “the Balkans of America, the land of Bozart.”

Yet there is a difference. The Australian aborigines call the youth of their race, when the great people and totem animals came out of the earth, The Dream Time, and for the Irish their own beginnings were in The Land of Youth, whose bright immortals, the Sidhe, still live alongside them and emerge rarely in splendor from the grave mounds. “There were giants in the earth in those days,” says the Bible. I don’t think it is old age. There is a loss of scale in our civilization, a destruction of the elites, and as Spengler called it, Die Ausrottung der Besten. As a friend of mine once said, once there were only seven thousand of us in the world and we all knew one another. That’s not quite so. But capitalist culture reached its last height in a limited number of individuals who shared a high degree of both autonomy and community. And a high degree of accomplishment. There aren’t any Stravinskys or Picassos or Pablo Casals anymore, and no poet in France or the United States has replaced the classic modernists of the first half of the century. There is only one in the Western Hemisphere — Octavio Paz — and a few elderly people scattered around the Old World.

The great difference is the loss of revolutionary hope and the diffusion or defeat or cooptation of the revolutionary culture. As Paul Mattick said, “Hitler fulfilled the entire emergency program of the Communist Manifesto and in addition made May Day a legal holiday.” In the first Dada exhibition in Germany Max Ernst exhibited a small log and chained to it an ax and over it a card, “If you don’t like this piece of sculpture, you dirty bourgeois, make one of your own.” He was dissuaded from exhibiting a pistol mounted in a frame pointed at the spectator, and on the trigger a string with a card, “Tirez, s’il vous plaît.” Today Neo-Dadaist objects, beginning at $20,000, provide conversation pieces in the chic apartments of chic and idle women.

Up until well after the First World War, no one, and I mean nobody, not the Pope, not J.P. Morgan, not Calvin Coolidge, had any belief that the capitalist system would outlast the century, or even that it would last another generation. Beginning about 1912 with the mounting of the counterrevolution that came in 1914 to be called the First World War, the ruling classes, the state, and the economic system felt continuously threatened and endangered. On the other side intellectuals, workers, artists, writers, all sorts of people, were confident that things were going to change completely. Everything was going to change, dress, the game of chess, the relations between the sexes, race relations, everything would change completely and the world would be different by the middle of the twentieth century. It didn’t happen.

After the failure of the Russian Revolution, the Moscow Trials, the betrayal of the Spanish revolution, the betrayal of the French revolt in 1968, the failure of “The Movement” by 1970, there wasn’t very much revolutionary hope left, and it was largely confined to crazy people. The young woman, commander of The Red Army of Japan in Western Europe, said to the journalist who interviewed her, “We have only one ideological principle: Terror!” He said that she was the only person who ever frightened him. A few years ago a survey revealed that the great majority of college students did not expect to live to see the next century. Still, life goes on, and the positive flows against the negative like a clear stream entering a muddy river. For me, today life is better. For the Indian peasant or the herdsman in the sub-Sahara, or the inhabitants of the slums of Rio de Janeiro, it is not.

People ask why An Autobiographical Novel? How much of it is true? Substantially it’s all true. The title was the first publisher’s notion of one way of deflecting possible libel suits. Some of the people are divided up into two or three characters and then opportunely die. Now everybody of whom anything the least unpleasant is said really is long dead. Names have been changed throughout to avoid any embarrassment to the character or heirs; otherwise, this is all pretty much the way it actually happened. It will never happen again.

[pp. 525-526]


End of excerpts from Kenneth Rexroth’s Autobiography. Copyright 1991 Kenneth Rexroth Trust. Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.