Anarchism in America

Steven Fischler and Joel Sucher

15 January 1983

Made in 1983, this film explores anarchist thought in America, and prominently features interviews from such anarchists as Murray Bookchin and Karl Hess.

This webpage contains (1) a preliminary note on terminology, (2) the feature film, (3) a series of quotes from the documentary, and (4) a short list of external links for those interested in learning more.

A Preliminary Note on Terminology

Some libertarians and Objectivists may have difficulty understanding the use of the word capitalism in this documentary.  Due to this defect in communication, they may say, “How can Bookchin (for example) claim to be an anarchist while also claiming to be against capitalism?”  I believe this quote from the second podcast of Jeff Riggenbach’s The Libertarian Tradition (12 January 2010) can help to clarify the misunderstanding some libertarians and Objectivists may be having:

[Professor Jennifer] Burns doesn’t seem to understand that when leftists, or conservatives or liberals for that matter, refer to capitalism, they don’t mean what Ayn Rand meant by it.  They mean the system that is otherwise known as mercantilism, corporatism, state capitalism, or even fascism—a system in which huge corporations, aided by the state, dominate a heavily-regulated and centrally-directed economy.  This is what both conservatives and liberals advocate, this is what the New Left opposed.  One New Left guru, the late Murray Bookchin, told me thirty years ago in Boston that he had no quarrel with what Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard meant by the term capitalism, a system in which people divide their labour, specialise in producing certain goods and services, and trade among themselves.  Bookchin told me that he would say that that is not capitalism, though there are many different definitions.

The Feature Film

Video uploaded to the Internet by YouTube user GreenAnarchismX.

Quotes From the Movie

Murray Bookchin

Almost anyone, I suppose, can call himself or herself an anarchist, if he or she believed that the society could be managed without the state.  And by the state—I don’t mean the absence of any institutions, the absence of any form of social organisation—the state really refers to a professional apparatus of people who are set aside to manage society, to preëmpt the control of society from the people.  So that would include the military, judges, politicians, representatives who are paid for the express purpose of legislating, and then an executive body that is also set aside from society.  So anarchists generally believe that, whether as groups or individuals, people should directly run society.


[T]here’s an interesting theory that says the American temperament reflects many of the qualities that anarchism idealises: distrust of government, suspicion of authority, and a belief in a plain ol’ do-it-yourself ethic.

Karl Hess and company


What’s your relationship with the IRS these days?

Karl Hess:

(laughs)  Miserable.  Terrible.


And why’s that?

Karl Hess:

Well, you know, they ask every now and then when I’m going to behave myself and I tell them never and I…


Are you not paying federal taxes?

Karl Hess:

Yeah, nothing.


I guess they don’t take too kindly to that?

Karl Hess:

No, they think it’s terrible.

Therese Hess:

On the other hand, they’re not being very active about it right now.

Karl Hess

Well, no, the last time he was here…

Therese Hess:

It’s like it’s no fun anymore or something.

Karl Hess:

Something like that.  The local people seem to take more of a kindly view as though they really think it’s a rotten thing.  I’m not doing anybody any harm. And…they seem to be more sensitive.  (laughs)  Or decent somehow.  I don’t…I don’t know, the federal people are…


What can they do?

Karl Hess:

Put me in jail.

Karl Hess

[A]fter I got evicted from the Republican Party, I began reading considerably more of the works of American anarchists, thanks largely to Murray Rothbard…and I was just amazed.

When I read Emma Goldman, it was as though everything I had hoped that the Republican Party would stand for suddenly came out crystallised.  It was a magnificently clear statement.  And another interesting things about reading Emma Goldman is that you immediately see that, consciously or not, she’s the source of the best in Ayn Rand.  She has the essential points that the Ayn Rand philosophy thinks, but without any of this sort of crazy solipsism that Rand is so fond of, the notion that people accomplish everything all in isolation.  Emma Goldman understands that there’s a social element to even science, but she also writes that all history is a struggle of the individual against the institutions, which of course is what I’d always thought Republicans were saying, and so it goes.

In other words, in the Old Right, there were a lot of statements that seemed correct, and they appeal to you emotionally, as well; it was why I was a Republican—isolationist, anti-authoritarian positions, but they’re not illuminated by anything more than statement.  They just are good statements.  But in the writings of the anarchists the same statements are made, but with this long illumination out of experience, analysis, comparison…it’s rock-solid, and so I immediately realised that I’d been stumbling around inventing parts of a tradition that was old and thoughtful and already existed, and that’s very nice to discover that—I don’t think it’s necessary to invent everything.

Mollie Steimer

When the strike was finished, (laughs) they took me…but I never signed my deportation papers!  This I never did.

My anticipation was that I’m going to a country where there is a revolution; but revolution took the wrong road, because they have a government, a police régime, and that I will—that the anarchists will have to continue the struggle.


[Peter Kropotkin] died in 1921, disillusioned with the course of the revolution.

[Michael Bakunin] warned that the Marxists, instead of abolishing state power, would simply transfer it from one group to another.  His words turned out to be prophetic.  He said Marx and his friends will concentrate all the powers of government in strong hands.  The Red Bureaucracy will be the most violent, terrible lie our century has created.

Murray Bookchin

I had entered the communist children’s movement, an organisation called the Young Pioneers of America, in 1930 in New York City; I was only nine years of age.  And I’d gone through the entire ’30s as a—Stalinist—initially, and then increasingly as someone who was more and more sympathetic to Trotskyism.  And by 1939, after having seen Hitler rise to power, the Austrian workers revolt of 1934 (an almost completely forgotten episode in labour history), the Spanish revolution by which I mean the so-called Spanish civil war—I finally became utterly disillusioned with Stalinism, and drifted increasingly toward Trotskyism.  And by 1945, I, finally, also became disillusioned with Trotskyism; and I would say, now, increasingly with Marxism and Leninism.

And I began to try to explore what were movements and ideologies, if you like, that really were liberatory, that really freed people of this hierarchical mentality, of this authoritarian outlook, of this complete assimilation by the work ethic.  And I now began to turn, very consciously, toward anarchist views, because anarchism posed a question, not simply of a struggle between classes based upon economic exploitation—anarchism really was posing a much broader historical question that even goes beyond our industrial civilisation—not just classes, but hierarchy—hierarchy as it exists in the family, hierarchy as it exists in the school, hierarchy as it exists in sexual relationships, hierarchy as it exists between ethnic groups.  Not only class divisions, based upon economic exploitation.  And it was concerned not only with economic exploitation, it was concerned with domination, domination which may not even have any economic meaning at all: the domination of women by men in which women are not economically exploited; the domination of ordinary people by bureaucrats, in which you may even have welfare, so-called socialist type of state; domination as it exists today in China, even when you’re supposed to have a classless society; domination even as it exists in Russia, where you are supposed to have a classless society, you see.

So these are the things I noted in anarchism, and increasingly I came to the conclusion that if we were to avoid—or if we are to avoid—the mistakes in over one hundred years of proletarian socialism, if we are to really achieve a liberatory movement, not simply in terms of economic questions but in terms of every aspect of life, we would have to turn to anarchism because it alone posed the problem, not merely of class domination but hierarchical domination, and it alone posed the question, not simply of economic exploitation, but exploitation in every sphere of life.  And it was that growing awareness, that we had to go beyond classism into hierarchy, and beyond exploitation into domination, that led me into anarchism, and to a commitment to an anarchist outlook.

Ed Hedaman

My understanding of anarchism has as part of its element a connection between ends and means.  To me, if one is an anarchist, then, from my point of view, one also must be nonviolent, and if one is nonviolent, one must be an anarchist—I see the linkages very clear[ly].

A person who believes in nonviolence is a person who believes that the sort of society we want to achieve is a society without violence, without wars, and without injustice; and to use wars, violence, and injustice to achieve that society is to be counterproductive.

Murray Bookchin at a Libertarian Party Conference

[Sitting next to Bookchin at the table is Karl Hess.]

The basic problem I really have is that whenever I meet leftists in the socialist and Marxist movements, I’m called a petit-bourgeois individualist.  (audience laughs)  I’m supposed to shrink after this—  Usually I’m called petit-bourgeois individualist by students, and by academicians, who’ve never done a days work life [sic] in their entire biography, whereas I have spent years in factories and the trade unions, in foundries and auto plants.  So after I have to swallow the word petit-bourgeois, I don’t mind the word individualist at all!

I believe in individual freedom; that’s my primary and complete commitment—individual liberty.  That’s what it’s all about.  And that’s what socialism was supposed to be about, or anarchism was supposed to be about, and tragically has been betrayed.

And when I normally encounter my so-called colleagues on the left—socialists, Marxists, communists—they tell me that, after the revolution, they’re gonna shoot me.  (audience laughs, Murray nods)  That is said with unusual consistency.  They’re gonna stand me and Karl up against the wall and get rid of us real fast; I feel much safer in your company. (audience laughs and applauds)

Karl Hess

[Hess’s commentary is played immediately after a clip of Ed Clark, 1980 Libertarian Party presidential candidate, saying that he does not believe that libertarians, as a political movement, see an absence of government as an immediate alternative.]

Well, it’s hard to tell on the basis of the Party’s rhetoric, after all they’re running for state office, but my experience is that most people who are in the Libertarian Party have pretty decent anarchist impulses, even if they do not say they are anarchists—most of them will say they are libertarians, at any rate.

And one thing that is useful is that they have a fairly well-refined analysis of why they aren’t conservative.  It took the New Left to do a proper analysis on American liberals, it seems to me, and I suspect that the libertarians are doing the best analysis of American conservatives.

I think that they are quite good people, and that the Party contains within it probably more people of an anarchist tendency than any other organisation in the country.


[A picture of Benjamin R. Tucker’s anarchist newspaper, Liberty, is on the screen as the narrator says this.]

Libertarianism has its roots in American individualism.

An employee of Worker Owned and Operated Sewing Company, Windsor, North Carolina

[I think her name is Lila Dudley, but it is hard to read.]

It [is] different because each worker has an opportunity to save whatever she likes, she or he likes, in any of the business part—in our holiday pay, our vacation, or whatever.  If we make a loan—the workers—each individual—each operator has a safe; we have to contact everybody, workers only, different from all other plants I’ve ever worked, because, usually, the head people—the manager and his personnel—come in and take care of everything; right here, the workers take care of everything.  It makes a difference.  You build your own business, and then you work it like you want to, you know, and you become a part of it, and it’s your business.  You know, working for the other man, you’re working for yourself.

It’s like working for myself, you know: what I put into it is what I get out of it.

“How Can You Tell An American” by Maxwell Anderson

How can you tell an American?

Has he any distinguishing flavor?

Would you spot him on an elephant in Turkistan,

Or floating on a raft, fifty miles at sea,

As you know a single leaf from the Sassafras tree,

By its characteristic savor?

It isn’t that he’s short or tall,

It isn’t that he’s round or flat,

It isn’t that he’s civilised or aboriginal,

Nor the head-size of his hat.

No, it’s just that he hates and eternally despises

The policeman on his beat and the judge at his assizes,

The sheriff with his warrants

And the bureaucratic crew

For the sole and simple reason

That they tell him what to do,

And he insists on eating,

He insists on drinking,

He insists on reading,

He insists on thinking

Free of governmental snooping

Or a governmental plan,

And that’s an American!

See Also

Rothbard, Murray N.  “The Origins of Individualist Anarchism in America.”  Libertarian Analysis 1, no. 1 (Winter 1970): 14–28.

Caplan, Bryan.  Anarchist Theory FAQ.

Martin, James J.  Men Against the State: The Expositers of Individualist Anarchism in America, 1827–1908.  Colorado Springs: Ralph Myles Publisher Inc., 1970.