Social Anarchism: An Editor's History

If I had thought we would ever publish a history of the magazine, I might have paid more attention to what we were doing. What we were doing was innovative and exciting, but we were too busy doing it to really reflect on the full meaning of our actions. As Fats Waller commented, "One never knows, do one?" (Fats Waller was otherwise not a contributor to SA.)

I guess it all started in 1979 when we completed assembling a considerable number of articles, magazines, pamphlets and so on about anarchism. Why we began this strange task I can't recall, but I do recall feeling like we discovered that we had been speaking anarchism all our lives. There were four of us: David DeLeon, a pack-rat radical historian whose enormous collection of materials gave us a jump start; Carol Ehrlich, an editor and feminist writer; Glenda Morris, a Jill of all trades; and me, a sociologist and social psychologist. Our antiwar and other political work had led David, Carol and I to a premature departure from our professorial roles. The four of us were also members of the Great Atlantic Radio Conspiracy. The Conspiracy produced a weekly radio program of public affairs and the radical arts, and over its career won seven national awards for documentary productions. Having spent years writing about political issues, and having established a solid collective work style, the idea of putting together an anthology of anarchist writings seemed actually a simple thing to do. And so we did. Reinventing Anarchy, as we called it, seemed appropriate at the time and we were able to get a solid mainstream publisher to put it out.

It all seemed so easy. So easy, in fact, that one day while sitting around our home studio I proposed to Carol, David and Glenda that we put out a magazine. It had been so easy to get writers for the anthology, we thought it would be just as easy to get them for our magazine. And so, armed with the latest in printing technology, an IBM Selectric typewriter, we began our work.

Our first obstacle was choosing a name. There were four finalists: White Rose, which was a knockoff of Black Rose, a Cambridge-based magazine and collective; Broccoli, just to reassert our New Age credentials; The Radish ("going to the root"); and Social Anarchism. We liked Social Anarchism, in large measure because it confused people. It was a deliberate contrast to the stereotype of anarchists as violent and individualistic. And it worked. People even to this day ask what "social anarchism" means, giving us the opportunity for a brief political rap. More than that, the label social anarchism took on a life of its own.

We launched ourselves in the winter of 1980. We had assembled a group of 22 editors and put together a 55-page issue. The contents prefigured what was to come. At least in terms of content, it really was a solid issue. Graphically, we learned that we had a lot to learn about magazine production.

From the very beginning we made a series of decisions about the content. One, we were not going to publish reprints. Two, we would publish short works of fiction that had a political twist. Three, we would publish poetry that was accessible and had a political theme. Four, we would accept historical pieces, but try not to do more than one per issue. Five, we would try to have at least two editors review submitted articles, a practice that gave us extra credit with librarians and academicians since political magazines were almost never peer reviewed.

Sixth was our decision to emphasize reviews of new books of anarchist relevance. Especially when we started, anarchist books were hard to publish, and difficult to publicize. As a political matter, we tried, not always successfully, to allocate 10% of the space to book reviews. And while the quality of the reviews was consistently high, we have been plagued over the years with reviewers who request a book to review and then never follow through with an actual review. The result? The book never gets reviewed and hundreds of people or more never even hear of it.

Seventh, we committed ourselves to editorial balance. That has been difficult. Our intent in assembling and maintaining a board of editorial reviewers was to have, more or less, an equal number of men and women and an equal number of activists and intellectuals. By and large, we achieved those goals. Finally, we were politically and theoretically committed to a balancing of theory and practice: this anthology of our best reflects that commitment.

In issue one, we published a short story by Dan Georgakas. We were not successful in attracting other short story writers, in part, I believe, because short stories are difficult to write. Poetry was another matter. Over the years we have been inundated with poems, most of which were not publishable. Keeping up with all the poetry, especially the bad poetry, became so onerous that our first poetry editor, Susan White, left, because she felt she had to reply to all poets, and that simply was too much work. Here, for example, are the opening lines of what may well be the worst of what we received over the years.

"O wretched soul, what fowl
Have you provoked me to sallow?"

We have not included poetry in this anthology, but here is an example of a poem we enjoyed.

Warning label.

Phylis Campbell Dryden

Caution: the Federal
Food and Drugged
has found that
the active ingredients in this publication
may cause undue change
of attitude,
burning of the brain.
If symptoms desist, consult a physician
For internal use only.
Keep this and all other
out of the mouths
of babes.

The first two years were exciting. We produced four stimulating issues - our goal then and now was to produce two issues a year. Included in those issues were Peggy Kornegger, Kingsley Widmer, Elaine Leeder, Len Krimerman, Frank Lindenfeld, Jeff Stein, Leon Chorbajian, and Neala Schleuning. Not bad for a bunch of amateurs and first-time publishers. We were even able to move to a higher technology; we purchased an Olivetti typewriter that actually stored nine lines of type at a time. What excitement! Computers were still a long way off.

Despite this initial success, issue number five almost put us in the tank. I had come up with the idea, which everybody approved, to recruit other collective anarchist groups and literally rotate magazine production among them. The hope was to spur interest and strengthen connection among groups throughout the country. We started with Black Rose, which had been a fairly together collective, publishing a magazine of their own. The Black Rose people were enthusiastic, and received our go-ahead to run an interview with the anarchist and poet Philip Levine, along with some of his unpublished poetry, as their feature article.

I did not know at the time that the Black Rose collective was falling apart. There were, I believe, two factions: the artists versus the intellectuals. Although they kept assuring us they were working on the issue and that it would soon be ready, it became clear that we had just lost six months. By the time we wrestled the magazine back, they had procured the Levine interview but little else. We did not have enough copy to publish a new issue, since we were expecting them to do so. But we decided to publish what we had, if only to remind people that we were really a regularly publishing magazine. And so we printed number five - all 35 pages. It was demoralizing for us and we lost our momentum. Subscriptions expired and people forgot about us - just another transient anarchist magazine. But we continued to exist thanks to the support from the readers that stuck with us.

Over the next several years the magazine ran smoothly. We were getting to be reasonably well known and were able financially to always have enough to print the next issue, but not really enough to engage in advertising or other promotional activities. Then one day the phone rang. It was David Wieck, a long time activist, writer, editor and translator. He was a CO during World War II and was publishing anarchist and antiwar articles as early as 1938, as well as a professor of philosophy at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. From the start, David had been a regular contributor to the magazine, both financially and intellectually. "Would you have a use for 2000 copies of Giovanni Baldelli's book Social Anarchism?" He had translated the book from the Italian and had helped Baldelli obtain an American publisher. The book was no sooner published than the publisher, Aldine Atherton, plunged into bankruptcy. Some 30 cartons went from the printshop to the warehouse. The book sat in storage for almost 10 years until the bankruptcy court offered it to David for the cost of shipping. We saw it as an opportunity to offer the book as a premium for new subscribers and to sell bulk copies to distributors and bookstores. As it turned out, sales of the book kept the magazine solvent for many years.

We were joined in issue number seven by Chris Stadler. Chris came to us through the Alternative Press Center and was in the process of building a magazine distribution firm in Baltimore. He immediately became our managing editor, seeing to all the fine details that kept the magazine running. He was an excellent editor and proofreader and established the Chicago Manual of Style as our style sheet, appearing at times to have memorized the 14th edition of that work. He remained active with SA from issues 7 to 20 and is on call still today, when needed. Joining us too was Mark Bevis (issues 10-25). He came to us through the Radio Conspiracy and left us in 1998 for Pacifica National News. He became our first book review editor and subsequently our associate editor.

a.h.s. boy, a Baltimore writer and graphic artist also known as "Spud," took responsibility for the magazine's appearance and cover design in issue 17. He designed a unique database for subscriptions and sales, and a website where we plan to house all issues for free and easy access. Spud became editor at number 31, and in regard finally to both design and editorial content, we became a strong, creative, and productive team.

By issue 19, we were pretty well established. We had a European distributor, and regular outlets in Australia and England. Nevertheless, distribution was and is our major problem. Today there are fewer political bookstores than when we started. The costs of distribution have multiplied to the point where some issues cost more to distribute than to print. Distributors and bookstores demand a 50% discount. Payment in four to six months is not uncommon. Furthermore, individual subscriptions over the last several years have decreased, while our sales to distributors and bookstores have increased. Domestic postage rates have virtually doubled and our last mailing saw overseas rates tripling. As a result, our income today is considerably less than ever.

Over-the-counter purchases amount to almost half our sales. How people are moved to the point of purchase still eludes me. An attractive cover and interesting titles doubtless help, but there's no question that we have to overcome the stereotype and political stigma of anarchism.

By way of illustrating our uphill climb, I'll recount a story from my own experience. I had a contract to clean up the grant files of the Maryland office of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The office staff consisted of the director and her assistant. During the course of our many conversations, I let it be known that I published Social Anarchism. It was a very collegial setting and the director seemed genuinely curious, so I gave her a copy of the magazine. More than a month went by, and I received no comment on the magazine. I mentioned this to the director's assistant, who provided me with the details: the director had taken the magazine home with her and started to read it on the bus, but she felt like some of the other passengers were staring at her. Every day for a week, she would take out the magazine and try to read it, but people were watching what she was reading, and she was reading anarchism. A bit later she came to worry about what her husband's reaction might be, so she hid the magazine while at home, finally returning it to her assistant when the coast was clear. I sometimes wonder if we could have been more widely disseminated with another name. Broccoli, anyone?

In the 100th anniversary edition of the Progressive, the editor, Matthew Rothschild, wrote: "Magazines are fragile plants - magazines of dissent especially so. Only a few manage not to die from neglect or mishandling or poor planning." So far, so good.

Murray Bookchin had served a brief stint on our editorial board and I once asked him what he thought was the primary role of anarchists today. Without hesitation, he replied: "Making anarchists." That's the way we felt about the magazine. Our role was to put together for display and review the ideas and ideals of anarchism. Given that, I felt the strength of what we were doing lay in our diversity. If the magazine had a party line over the years, it was making anarchists across the spectrum of social thought.

Components/Principles of Social Anarchism

Social Anarchism "exists" as a personal philosophy, as a theory of organization, and as a theory of social change. The British anarchist, Brian Morris, characterizes SA as "an opposition to the state and all forms of power and oppression; recognition that the power of the modern state intrudes into all aspects of social life; a fervent anticapitalism; a rejection of the vanguard party, representation, and the notion that the transformation to socialism can be achieved through state power; a rejection of an abstract conception of human nature; and finally, the importance of creating alternative social forms of organization, non-hierarchic and independent of both the state and capitalism." To understand the full meaning of these principles we have broken them down into 22 principles and juxtaposed each anarchist component with a matching bureaucratic, capitalist component.

We live in revolutionary times recognizing that revolution is a process and not some arbitrary point in time when a mass of people fill the streets or tear down the ubiquitous wall hangings of some despot. The principles of social anarchism presented here are an integral part of this process.



The organization has a clear hierarchy of power and authority.

Organizational power is diffused.
The authority may be delegated on short-term basis.

Person or persons at the top carries final responsibility for work.

Responsibility is shared by all workers/citizens.

Decision-making follows established procedures in keeping with the
formal organizational structures.

Decision-making is by consensus or some representative variation in which all persons participate.

Routine maintenance tasks (housekeeping, sanitation, etc.) are allocated to specialized roles.
Persons performing those roles are at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Routine maintenance tasks are shared by all persons.

Rewards are differentiated by office and by role performance in keeping with organizational hierarchy.

Rewards are, typically, equally distributed with some concern given the differences in need.

Jobs are allocated to people on the basis of their competency.

There is a regular rotation procedure across all jobs. Technical competency is treated with ambivalence.

Jobs are clearly defined, structured, and stable with individual
achievement valued.

Job definitions are viewed as temporary, though they may be well-defined and structured. Collective action is valued.

Job methods should be carefully defined by engineers, systems
specialists, and management.

How jobs get done is generally left to those performing the work.

Groups and individuals should be given specific information necessary to do their job, but no more.

All persons have open access to all organizational information.

There should be close supervision, tight controls, and well-maintained discipline.

Control mechanisms are normative and consensual, self-discipline
is emphasized.

Files, rules, and written communications regulate organizational life.

Group meetings and informal communications predominate.

Role relations are designed to be formal, universalistic, and effectively neutral.

The personalization of social relations is encouraged. The personal is seen as the political.

Equalitarian relations between people across statuses is discouraged. The components of societal stratification are generally accepted within the organization.

Equalitarian relations are self-consciously worked at, and external sources of stratification are viewed
as improper if not divisive.

Play is seen as subversive of the organizational structure.

Emphasis on incorporating play into work.

The organization is viewed as autonomous — independent of the larger society.

The organization views itself as part of the larger community though
its definitions and reciprocal obligations are variable

Education on social issues is seen as irrelevant. Released time may be granted for occupationally relevant education.

Internal education programs about the work of your organization, the community and its relation to the larger society are routine.

Growth through increasing the size of the organization is desirable.

Increasing size is devalued. The optimum size is seen as one which does not exceed members' comprehension of organizational structure or where social relations become depersonalized.

The effectiveness of the organization or community is generally assessed by economic criteria.

Effectiveness is assessed by citizen or worker-defined criteria in which satisfaction is given primacy or balanced against economic and political criteria.

Finance, banking and money management are generally concentrated among those in power and are typically managed in secret.

People are involved in those economic processes that concern their well-being, with financial management being participatory and transparent.

The basic elements — earth, water, and the air — are regarded as private property subject to those who own them.

The basic elements are held in common with everyone under a communal stewardship.

Technology, like the basic elements, is subject to private ownership and is most efficient when centralized.

Technology should be decentralizing and liberatory.

Successful organizations require a clear division of labor and system of consistent leadership.

Decision making is collective within an agreed-upon division of labor.