Saturday, December 16, 2017

Haniel Long and Kropotkin

In my essay “Haniel Long’s Pittsburgh Memoranda: Documentary Form and 1930s Political Poetry” (College Literature, vol. 4, no. 1, 2015), I discussed Long’s progressive political orientation, especially his embrace of Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty (1879) (indeed, Long writes a whole section of the Memoranda [1935] inspired by George).  I also noted his suspicion of fanatics, whatever side of the political spectrum they happened to lean toward.  For example, throughout the first sections of the Memoranda, Long writes a lot about Pittsburgh industrialist Andrew Carnegie, his henchman Clay Frick, and the anarchist Alexander Berkman, who attempted to assassinate Frick in response to Frick’s crushing of the 1892 Homestead steelworkers’ strike.  While Long is completely on the side of the workers, for example lauding them as “more gleaming, than skein of metal” (16), he does not affirm Berkman’s actions.  In fact, he equates them with Frick’s and portrays both men as fanatics, one in the service of capitalism and the other of anarchism: “Frick was sure God was with him. // So was Berkmann [sic]” (30).

The problem here, for Long, is what he sees as the excesses of ideology, or of ideologically driven, self-important individuals.  In his book-length meditation on Whitman, Walt Whitman and the Springs of Courage (1938), Long attacks “our twentieth century world of megalomaniacs, neurotics, and convicts locked up in the jail of themselves and their theories” (43).  In place of such “theories,” Long, in Pittsburgh Memoranda, posits the necessity to overcome the self and move beyond such egotism: “Some people are not afraid things can overpower them,” he writes; “Some people can accept things without forcing their will upon them” (30).  While Long eschews prescriptive dogmas, it does not however mean that he constructs Pittsburgh Memoranda in the absence of any sort of political, philosophic, or economic foundation, and of course Henry George is important for him. 

But there are other thinkers who inform this work, including the Russian anarchist Petr Kropotkin.  While Long’s dismissal of Berkman might suggest that he was hostile to anarchism itself, this is not quite the case.  In an interview with Mary Frances Mackel, Long avers, “I have been greatly influenced by Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid as a Factor in
Evolution” (qtd. in Benjamin A. Botkin, Introduction, Notes for a New Mythology and Pittsburgh Memoranda, 1971).  As David Kadlec summarizes in his book Mosaic Modernism: Anarchism, Pragmatism, Culture (2000), “Peter Kropotkin is perhaps the best-known example of an anarchist who openly engaged with the writings of Charles Darwin.  In his 1902 treatise Mutual Aid, Kropotkin argued for cooperation rather than competition as a guiding principle of evolution; that work became one of the most widely read anarchist texts of the twentieth century” (250).  Kadlec numbers Kropotkin among the ranks of “nonviolent anarchists” (42), which further helps to explain Long’s willingness to extol him, where he discounts Berkman.

Though not explicitly referenced in Pittsburgh Memoranda, Kropotkin’s influence is apparent.  In Mutual Aid, he attacks the “reckless prosecution of personal interests” (1955 edition, 283) and “the self-assertion of the individual . . . in its efforts to attain personal or caste superiority” (295).  In Pittsburgh Memoranda, Long too attacks “self-assertion” (30) and the egotism of those he calls the “granite men” (12) or “the Napoleon-man” (85).  At the same time, Kropotkin makes clear that his emphasis on collectivity and cooperation does not come at the expense of individual expression, with “its much more important although less evident function of breaking through the bonds, always prone to become crystallized, which the tribe, the village community, the city, and the State impose upon the individual.  In other words, there is the self-assertion of the individual taken as a progressive element” (295).  Similarly, in the “Duse” section of Pittsburgh Memoranda, Long argues that “the need for the disappearance of the individual / has come upon us — but never of the individual soul” (63-64).  While Long is not an anarchist (following George, Long sees a role for the state as administrator of an egalitarian society), Kropotkin’s cooperative anarchism could be said to inform the dynamic between the individual and the collective that plays such a major role in this book, indeed in much of Long’s poetry.

Long, in Pittsburgh Memoranda, writes about political corruption, the growing power of corporations, and the exploitation of workers.  While his braiding of the thinking of Kropotkin and George is idiosyncratic, it is not to say it is easily dismissed.  It makes poetic sense, and, more than 80 years later, perhaps it can still even be inspiring.  Kropotkin formulated his political ideas in Mutual Aid by observing nature, and Long notes that “Science / teaches its lesson with a ruthless quiet” (83).  As he builds toward the conclusion of Pittsburgh Memoranda, he attacks the corruption that had befallen the democracy of his own time, but suggests hopefully that “The way of political action still remains”:

. . . Humility and brotherly love
and a knowledge of corporations
and a knowledge of mass production
and a recollection of the ancient truths
and thoughtful watching of how a good vine bears its grapes—
these are to be among the guides for action.  (83)
Finally, it is the collective power latent in the people that Long identifies as the mechanism for confronting and resisting political oppression.  As he comes home to Pittsburgh and observes the city through the smoke and fog, he gives us these lines:
Despite the horrors of my time, I knew
(and knew it with the greatest joy life gives),
that there were people in that hidden city
seeking the laws of life, mingling their knowledge,
suffering but finding peace in one another,
and learning more and more not to wish power
over anyone but themselves. (84)

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