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 is 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

IAN VINE, born 1943, left school to become an apprentice at Bristol Aircraft Ltd., but after four years his abhorrence of capitalist industry and the war machine had grown to such an extent that he left, and enters Bristol University in October. A member of the West Committee of 100 and the Bristol Federation of Anarchists, he has just published his first book of poems, The Holy Eye.
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 mugs, 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 sizeable 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 socialist 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.

Posted By

Nov 20 2017 00:26


Anarchy: a journal of anarchist ideas

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Nov 20 2017 13:38


Nov 20 2017 18:56
Hieronymous wrote:

Beat (heheh) me to it!

Nov 20 2017 19:55

the button
Nov 22 2017 12:59

Full communism, daddy-o

Nov 23 2017 01:23


This is hilarious ....

Beatniks in Newquay, 1960