Interview with Chuck Morse by the Anarres Projects for Alternative Futures

This interview with Anarres Project for Alternative Futures was published on October 14, 2014. It is here.

* * *

Chuck Morse is an American anarchist, academic, translator, editor, and writer. He founded the Institute for Anarchist Studies and The New Formulation: An Anti-Authoritarian Review of Books. Morse was the editor of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory and taught at theInstitute for Social Ecology.

In 2006, Morse completed a translation of the classic biography of the revolutionary Buenaventura Durruti by Abel Paz, titled Durruti in the Spanish Revolution, published by AK Press. In 2007, he published “Being a Bookchinite,” a controversial account of the years he spent working with American anarchist, Murray Bookchin. In 2010, he completed a translation of Juan Suriano’s Paradoxes of Utopia: Anarchist Culture and Politics in Buenos Aires, 1890–1910, also published by AK Press. He has published widely in leftwing journals and blogs. (Source: Wikipedia)

How did you come to anarchism as a viewpoint that made sense of the world for you?

I was born in 1969 and came of age at a time when the white, American middle class was consumed by existential doubts about its place in the social order and its future. Although my family was very staid and restrained, with an attitude rooted more in the 1950s than the 1960s, I vividly remember the eruption of things like yoga, jogging, EST, and encounter groups (etcetera) into my white, suburban world. These practices, which emerged from the counterculture and later became mainstream, helped people address anxieties about their identities and how they fit into a larger context.

Anarchism helped me address some of these issues. Filtered through the lens of punk rock, it gave me a vocabulary with which to connect personal feelings of alienation to larger social processes, and it did so without the saccharine boundarylessness characteristic of the trends that I just described. Its insistence that ends and means should coincide resonated with the New Left idea that the “personal is political.” While I now see that my “anarchism” had more in common with democratic strains borne of the New Left than the classical anarchism of a Bakunin or a Kropotkin, it helped me place my experience in a broader framework and offered me tools with which to engage it.

Can you talk about what lead you to develop the Institute for Anarchist Studies? What were your hopes with this institute?

I founded the Institute for Anarchists Studies in 1996, during the early stages of what was an explosion of intellectual work by anarchists and about anarchism. I had been involved in the anarchist movement since 1982 and, at the time, was a frustrated graduate student in the philosophy department at the New School for Social Research. I really hated academia and desperately wanted to link my intellectual pursuits to a broader community of engaged, radical scholars.

Politically, I took inspiration from the Republican think tanks that had appeared all over the country in the mid-1990s and played an important role in the Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution.” Obviously I rejected everything about the Republicans’ views, but they appeared to have found a way to enlist intellectuals in a broader political battle and this appealed to me. It seemed that anarchists could do something similar if we approached intellectual work strategically. Surely this would be much better than letting the university or the market determine what does and does not get written. Giving grants seemed like a good way to do this—benign in itself, but amenable to political direction.

Most of the early participants in the project were in their 20s, although a few were older, and all of us had some link to the anarchist movement, particularly the corner of it associated with the ecological anarchist Murray Bookchin. He had been my mentor prior to my entrance to grad school and most of us had worked or studied with him. He had impressed upon us that intellectual work was vitally important. He tried to get us to understand the costs of left anti-intellectualism as well as the link between intellectual rigor and social emancipation. I think he was personally ambivalent about the IAS (although he applied for and received a grant from us), he was definitely an inspiration.

The project was very much my baby in the beginning. I conceived of its purpose and structure and selected all of the board members, although I ceded any unique position in the decision-making process when we formally constituted the organization. I was at the center of things until I left in 2005, but I had only one vote on the board, like everyone else.

Initially people had a hard time making sense of the IAS. The association of anarchism with chaos was still very prevalent in the mid-1990s, so the idea of an anarchist institute, particularly one focused on intellectual work, seemed like a contradiction in terms. Also, many anarchists had a problem with our institutionalization—weren’t institutions antithetical to anarchism as such?—and felt suspicious about our focus on ideas, which seemed to hint at elitism. Even more sophisticated types didn’t know what to do with us—the IAS was the first grant-giving organization in the history of the tradition, so there was no precedent upon which to judge it.

The early years of the organization revolved around painstaking, exhaustive efforts to build up structures and processes and, above all, raise money. We began with absolutely zero resources, so I spent the majority of my time tracking down potential donors, asking them for contributions, and following up with them. Our publishing efforts—Perspectives on Anarchist Theory and The New Formulation—were directly linked to fundraising. We used them to promote the organization and also, through interviews, articles, and reviews, demonstrate the value of our mission. We wanted the publicans to include writings that would show or at least suggest the value of developing anarchism as a perspective. Our funders were very generous. I raised about $160,000 over the years.

I had several longterm aspirations for the project. For one, I hoped that the IAS could initiate a virtuous cycle in which we would help great works appear, which would encourage donors to give us more money, which would allow us to make even more great works appear. Secondly, I also wanted us to expand our publishing efforts and initiate educational projects—additional initiatives organized around our core revolutionary goal. Finally, in the more distant future, I hoped that we could partner with a militant organization; we would support, defend, and extend its work much like the Republican think tanks did for the Republican Party.

Why did you decide to leave the organization?

Our actual accomplishments were much more modest and, after reflecting on this, I decided to leave the IAS, an organization to which I had given many years of my life. I had three concerns. First, the IAS was fundamentally a grant-giving organization, but the results of our grant program were less than impressive. Only a small portion of the projects that we supported actually appeared in print and few of those were exceptional in any way. In fact, it appeared that that our publishing efforts, and all the editorial work that they required, did more to generate high quality writing than our grant program. This was ironic, given that we thought of them as subordinate to the grant program.

Secondly, there were some ideological issues. When I drafted the IAS’s founding documents, I framed anarchism as a *potential* for a comprehensive critique of domination, not a finished doctrine. This quasi-Hegelian language of “potentiality” allowed us to differentiate ourselves from the old classical anarchist thinkers—we could say that we identified with the spirit but not the letter of their work—but we never really figured out what we meant by anarchism. We had only vague ideas of what sort of social changes we wanted to bring about and we weren’t clear about where we stood on the basic philosophical questions of the day. As a result, we pushed forward without a real sense of direction. Even though we expanded—we published more, put on annual conferences and some local talks, and built the Latin American Archives project, etcetera—we did this because we could, not because we had drawn thought-out conclusions about our next steps.

Finally, there was a structural problem. I considered trying to transform the IAS into a publishing collective that would focus on the editorial work that seemed so valuable (and so much less expensive than grants), but the board was scattered over the US and Canada. This wasn’t a dilemma when we met twice a year to award grants, but there was no way to transform the group into something more active. We were too geographically dispersed to work collaboratively on publications in any meaningful sense.

After wrestling with these questions, I submitted a proposal in 2005 that called for the dissolution of the IAS. I argued that we should satisfy whatever outstanding obligations we had, close our doors, and begin reflecting on what had been a valuable but flawed experience. Every single IAS board member voted against my proposal, but I had made up my mind and decided to move on. I have had little contact with the group since then, although I know that those who remained with the group, and joined the project since my departure, are sincere, dedicated people. I genuinely wish them the best.

The quantity, depth, and maturity of the anarchist work available today is scarcely comparable to what existed when the IAS began. The world of anarchist ideas is so much richer now. Anarchists have also played an important role in radical mass movements, from the anti-globalization movement to Occupy, and are vital to all sorts of other initiatives like movements against police brutality, battles for housing justice, and a range of LGBTQ issues, to mention only the most obvious examples. I know that the IAS made a small but definite contribution to this and I am very proud of that. Ultimately, the IAS didn’t satisfy the hopes that I had for it, and I gave nearly a decade of my life to an effort that I abandoned, but I’ve tried to learn from the experience. And, even with these disappointments in mind, I still consider myself an ally of young radicals who pursue novel, apparently unrealistic goals.

Who would you consider your social justice heroes and why?

While I can understand the need for role models and inspiration, I honestly don’t have heroes and think that the culture of revolutionary hero worship has been destructive. This practice, which dates back to the French Revolution, has been one foundation upon which Communist dictatorships have secured their power around the world (think of the cults of personality around people like Stalin, Mao, Che Guevara, etcetera). The celebration of revolutionary heroes and martyrs always correlates to assertions of popular weakness—to the claim that ordinary people are unable to run their own lives. This is something I reject. I should note that anarchists have also made the mistake of hero worship––I translated a large biography of Buenaventura Durruti that more or less falls into this category—but I oppose the practice.

What role do you think anarchism will have in struggles for social justice in the future?

Historically people tend to reencounter and reinterpret anarchism during periods of great social transformation. The doctrine appeared at a time of massive change (in the latter half of the nineteenth century) and major moments in the tradition more or less parallel major changes in society. Anarchism is uniquely suited to help people pose crucial questions about how they fit into the world, about the relationship between ends and means, and about the potential for egalitarian social forms. As such, I expect it to remain a touchstone for people attempting to think through alternatives, as it has been for me. Our readings (and misreadings) of the tradition will continue to be productive. Although, having said that, I think we need to focus on the challenges before us, not the work of our predecessors. To paraphrase Marx, the social revolution of the twenty-first century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future.

What books or movies would you recommend people look at for social change?

We are midst of a revolution in information technologies that has transformed and will continue to transform the way people consume and produce information. The books and films that were staples for my generation—Emma Goldman’s Living My Life, Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, or whatever—literally and figuratively belong to another millennium. The current generation will need to invent its own cannon and I suspect that it won’t even contain books or films.

What work are you engaging in now?

I am presently writing a book about the reign of liberal Democrats in Oakland, California. Drawing on the long tradition of anarchist urbanists (thinkers like Paul Goodman, Colin Ward, Murray Bookchin, among others), I criticize the content of the liberal democratic vision for the city and try to tease out some potentials for building upon Oakland’s legacy of radical, anti-capitalist action. On some level, I hope to link bread-and-butter political issues of housing, jobs, and crime (etcetera) with anarchism’s utopian imagination and to do so in the context of the complicated, conflicted city in which I live.