Anarchy 31/Beatnik as anarchist?

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Beatnik as anarchist?


Many younger anarch­ists are used to being called Beat­niks, because it is a word which has been seized on by our free press and turned into a term of deri­sion, to be applied in­dis­crimin­ately to young non-con­form­ists who dare to chal­lenge the social norms in sex, dress, and mass murder. It has fre­quently been applied in ways very differ­ent from those in­tended by its ori­gin­ators, and unless we re-define it, is a word without real meaning.

  Who then are the real Beats? Clellon Holmes de­scribed being beat as:

  “. . . not so much weari­ness, as rawness of the nerves; not so much being ‘filled up to here’ as being emptied out. It de­scribes a state of mind from which all in­essen­tials have been stripped, leaving it re­cept­ive to every­thing around it, but impa­tient with trivial ob­struc­tions. To be beat is to be at the bottom of your per­sonal­ity, looking up; to be ex­ist­ential in the Kier­ke­gaard, rather than the Jean-Paul Sartre sense.”

Kerouac says:

  “. . . we seek to find new phrases . . . a tune, a thought, that will someday be the only tune and thought in the world and which will raise men’s souls to joy.”

But these are only the spokes­men. Most beats do not think in such high-flown terms as these. Most society dis­affil­iates will admit to sharing some of the ideas and feelings of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Mailer, whether they be anarch­ists or not, but most will not be Beat in the extreme sense. Simil­arly, by no means all of the defin­itive Beat char­acter­istics are pos­sessed by these writers.

  I shall then confine my use of the word to a par­ticu­lar extreme group, which is in fact that fur­thest outside society, and which happens to co­incide re­mark­ably closely with what the Sunday papers would have us believe is the norm amongst nuclear dis­armers. Actu­ally, al­though stat­istics are impos­sible, I doubt if these are more than a few hundred such beats in the whole of the British Isles.

  These real beat­niks are often visu­ally dis­tinct­ive, the boys fre­quently having beards, long hair, thread­bare jeans, sandals, and a variety of ec­cent­ric coats and neck-ties, while the girls, except for the beards, are more or less the same. But ap­pear­ances can be con­fusing, for there are a large number of other social rebels who adopt the same or similar uni­forms without adopt­ing the Beat philo­sophy and way of life. These range from art stu­dents and anarch­ists to the dis­sident sons of aris­to­crats, and to attempt to ana­lyse their ideas and motiv­ations would take a book in itself. One inter­est­ing point is that the bowler-hats and starched collars of the “ravers” are usually absent among the real beats—an indic­ation that they largely eschew the osten­ta­tion of oddity for oddity’s sake.

  Perhaps the most inter­est­ing char­acter­istic of the beat is his rest­less­ness. The average beat (if such an animal exists) likes to be “on the road”, always moving on, never forming fixed at­tach­ments with his en­viron­ment. Al­though there are certain recog­nised “scenes”, there are few perma­nent beat com­mun­ities. The pop­ula­tion in any given town is con­stantly chan­ging as someone moves on, perhaps not to return for a year, and someone-else “makes town”. The tradi­tional method of travel is hitch­ing lifts, and if you can con the driver for a meal and a few fags then so much the better. It is re­mark­able how far some beats travel by this means, most have covered almost the whole of Britain this way, and many have trav­elled widely abroad. One who was re­cently in Bristol for the winter was last heard of in the Sahara nuclear testing area, being looked after by the Foreign Legion. The relev­ance of all this to anarch­ists may be ques­tioned, but it brings me to my first main con­ten­tion: that the beat has found a solu­tion to the problem of how to remain almost en­tirely free in an author­it­arian society. His solu­tion may not be to our liking, but
because he has one he is cer­tainly worthy of our serious at­ten­tion.

  Need­less to say, they have bought their freedom at a price. Most of them do not work, and few can afford a “pad” of their own. Occa­sion­ally a flat is taken over by a small group who happen to have found an easy means of tem­por­ary employ­ment, but this never lasts for long, either because the land­lord is getting no rent, or because of the in­toler­ance of neigh­bours. Most of them will if neces­sary, rough it under a hedge or in a bus shelter, but norm­ally they will stick to scenes where someone is pre­pared to put them up for a few days or weeks. They do in fact depend largely on charity, which is usually pretty freely given, usually by someone on the beat fringe who has a perma­nent pad. Fre­quently their only pos­ses­sion is a sleep­ing bag, and occa­sion­ally even these get lost en route. And that too can be an ad­vant­age if it gets you the spare mat­tress.

  Work is defin­itely frowned on (and when it’s not there aren’t many em­ploy­ers who would employ a long-haired, bearded, un­washed beat), but few beat­niks draw na­tional as­sist­ance or un­employ­ment bene­fit. This is not through any laud­able refusal to be in­volved in the deal­ings of a cap­it­alist system, or a matter of con­science, but mainly because most of them are in­eligible to draw them. They are vag­rants in the most literal sense, and apart from having no fixed address dislike having to stay in one area, and being obliged to present them­selves regu­larly in front of some hostile offi­cial. This is not only an asser­tion of their freedom, but also pro­vides their second, and in­evit­able, claim to being anarch­ists, namely their hatred of orders and author­ity.

  They are of course not alone in this respect, since they share the char­acter­istic with the teds as well as with us, but they differ from most groups who detest the police in that they are not inter­ested in wasting time in con­tem­plat­ing liber­tarian utopias, they prefer to enjoy life here and now. Ignor­ing all that doesn’t happen to suit them, their search for living in­volves them in the drugs and alco­holic ex­cesses which delight the Fleet Street snoop­ers; and their dis­re­gard for “trivi­ali­ties” makes them un­enthu­si­astic bathers—espe­cially as few of them have a change of clothes anyway. All this horri­fies the right­eous, but criti­cism means nothing to them. If we can con­sider them as anarch­ists we should never expect them to help propa­gate the anarch­ist cause or listen to our criti­cisms. The typical beat could by no stretch of the ima­gina­tion be called “polit­ically minded”. It is true that many of them wear CND badges, and even march with us at Alder­maston, but they’ll never be found at polit­ical meet­ings or civil-dis­obedi­ence demos. Their reason is common enough—their ability to see through the hum­bug of politi­cians, and their dis­be­lief that any­thing can ever remove them. Most of them have packed more into 20 years ex­peri­ence than the “squares” do into 70, and they are cynical in the extreme. This is one very signi­fic­ant beat char­acter­istic—there is no desire to influ­ence or convert, each beatnik is his own philo­sopher and his own master, and is happy to remain such.

  Despite the di­ver­gence here from the anarch­ist aim of pro­moting change I feel we have still some­thing to learn from the beats. One
import­ant posit­ive virtue they have is their close com­mun­ity and co-opera­tive sense. This has been ef­fect­ively de­scribed by Colin Wilson in his novel “Adrift in Soho”, but an example from my own ex­peri­ence should help make the point. Re­cently a group of eight or so spent a couple of weeks in Bristol. Each even­ing they would con­greg­ate in the local left wing pub (where the land­lord far prefers them to the teds), and sit around talking, singing, and cadging drinks—which were freely shared—while one played guitar for hours on end, both for enjoy­ment and to enter­tain the at­tent­ive crowd. Towards closing-time the pret­tiest girls would go round with beer mug, sidling up to listen­ers and asking “Put some money in the glass, for the singer?” By doing a very ef­fect­ive “poor little girl” act they would bring in several shil­lings in a few minutes. This would then be counted out on the table and divided up be­tween the group, either equally or depend­ent on need. Like­wise, one beat would as­sidu­ously collect all the dogends from the ash­trays and these would then be taken back to the pad for a com­munal roll-up.

  This exist­ence of this com­mun­istic sense amongst the beats is partly due no doubt to force of cir­cum­stances, mutual co-opera­tion being essen­tial to guaran­tee their sur­vival. But it is an in­dica­tion of its strength that it exists des­pite the remark­able egoism and ruth­less­ness of some of them. Most will will­ingly fleece any out­sider who thinks to use them as a source of amuse­ment, but only the smal­lest few will cheat their own kind. They often display re­mark­able re­source­ful­ness. The “Please mister, sell me a cigarette for tup­pence” is well known, but there are many more tech­niques, and the inter­est­ing thing is that their begging does not make them servile as it might be ex­pected to. I have known some who almost make a living out of leading on queers, ac­cept­ing food, drinks, and fags, and then giving them the slip just before the time of reckon­ing comes. I have seen a few openly begging in the streets, but their pitiful looks only hide their secret smiles; they are para­sites, but far less so than the suc­cess­ful ones who ride in Jaguars and make their millions on the Stock Ex­change; in some ways they are de­gener­ate, but not as de­gener­ate as the crooks who uphold Chris­tian moral­ity and outward re­spect­abil­ity while they de­ceive the world with the myth of demo­cracy. They are under no illu­sions, and their rejec­tion is total. The world that judges them by its own ima­gin­ary stand­ards is false, and for this reason they see no wrong in milking it dry in what­ever way they can. Many will lie or shop­lift, con or cheat, their only prin­ciple is per­sonal freedom from the rat-race, and this, in a crooked world that rejects them out of hand, is the only way they can see to attain it.

  The average anarch­ist, who rather proudly sees himself as the most re­spons­ible type of human animal, may perhaps feel little sym­pathy for the beat way of life. He may regard the beats as lost souls, lazy tramps who are little good to anyone. But this is a very un­anarch­istic posi­tion. These are lovers of freedom, lively and cheer­ful people, wander­ers who can surely claim the right to live the life of their choos­ing. They harm no one, they oppress no one, their pleas­ures are mainly
inno­cent enough. They make no claim to be intel­lect­uals or leaders of the world. They are a mixed lot, and every gener­alisa­tion must in­evit­ably exclude a sizable pro­por­tion of them, but most are basic­ally working-class in origin, with little regard for formal culture, intel­lect­uals, and symbols of status. Their rejec­tion of current society is largely an emo­tional one, their aware­ness is based on in­tu­ition rather than erudi­tion, but they are ob­serv­ant, and quietly per­cept­ive of beauty around them. Al­though they are rarely espe­cially artic­ulate they have very real and per­sonal ideas. Al­though they mock at reli­gion many of them are reli­gious. In re­sponse to a local Sunday after­noon evan­gel­ist who stopped in a Bristol park to tell a group that God was in his heaven and they should roll up and be saved, I heard one say: “God? God is every­where. In this grass and trees, not in your little book”.

  I suppose few beat­niks would con­sciously admit to being anarch­ists, but I main­tain that in their posit­ive love of per­sonal freedom and hatred of re­stric­tions, their de­testa­tion of Author­ity and its in­strum­ents—the police, the church, the mon­archy, the armed forces—and their com­mun­istic sense, they are anarch­ist in all but name, anarch­ist if not Anarch­ist. The ques­tion then is what is their relev­ance to us? They are not martyrs; they see no merit in suf­fer­ing for their beliefs any more than they have to, and I see no hope that many of them can ever be roused to polit­ical action. Their pres­ence on the Alder­maston march is more in the nature of a social occa­sion than an as­sump­tion that it helps ban the ever-present bomb. It is almost the annual gather­ing of the cult. Despite all this I believe that we can learn from them.

  They manage to live a per­son­ally anarch­istic life in spite of the system that sur­rounds them. Their cyni­cism does not have the stifling effect that it has on some polit­ically con­scious left-wingers. They are all very much alive, and they show that a small number of de­term­ined people scat­tered about the country can remain a re­mark­ably coher­ent and loyal group when the will is strong enough (and we can cer­tainly learn some­thing from them there!). Perhaps because they have no desire to expand they are un­harmed by public deri­sion and press dis­tor­tion, and they get away with the very min­imum number of com­prom­ises. As yet they are a young gener­ation, mainly in their early twen­ties or late teens. They have not ex­peri­enced parent­hood or loneli­ness. Perhaps the Beat move­ment will die a natural death, but more likely it will con­tinue to be a young gener­ation, the present beats finally com­promis­ing with con­form­ity in their late twen­ties while a new gener­ation takes their place. In doing so the civil­isa­tion will con­tinue, stand­ing out not as an ex­ample of beha­viour for the anarch­ist to follow, but as a con­stant re­minder that all souls are not captive ones, and that it is pos­sible, at least in the early years, to live a life un­hampered by the threat of immin­ent death.

  Above all the beats are prac­tical rebels, not the arm­chair revolu­tion­aries some­times to be found in anarch­ist and so­cail­ist circles. Of course they wouldn’t be found at the bar­ri­cades, fight­ing is for fools, they can live without a re­volu­tion. Life is what you make it, and the Beats can make it almost any­where.