Friday, December 18, 2009

Free Comrades: Anarchism and Homosexuality in the United States 1895-1917

(AK Press, 2009)

Terrence Kissack's doctoral dissertation in American history serves as the basis for this book, which offers a concise exploration of sex-radicalism in turn-of-the-century anarchism. I found it to be a welcome addition to my collection of books on anarchism. It not only serves as a good introduction to the American movement and its major figures, but also drives home the following, in my opinion important points: First, the anarchists were the first to offer a thoroughgoing public critique of homophobia and a defence, if often ambiguous and troubled, of queer desires and lifestyles; second, anarchist politics of homosexuality were rooted in a revolutionary political movement and a devastating critique of marriage.

These points are important, since contemporary queer activism is overwhelmingly liberal/reformist/lifestylist in character. While the gay marriage debate rages, few remember that the politics of homosexuality used to strike at the roots of conventional kinship systems and social mores; fewer still try to carry such a radical critique forward (Judith Butler being an important exception; see Undoing Gender). Kissack's text reminds us of this, and shows us that there is a neglected way to approach homosexuality: as part of a fundamental transformation of society. Queer friendly capitalism and civil rights were simply not on the agenda for homosexuality's earliest exponents, who viewed the defence of homosexuality as an important part of a larger anti-capitalist, anti-statist social movement.

Kissack is thorough, and highlights certain largely forgotten connections (e.g. a chapter on queer readings of Walt Whitman). The style of the text is dry, suffering a bit from the dissertational perogative to say everything four times to ensure it's absolutely clear. Unfortunately, Kissack's text is also slightly marred by what I like to call "the usual AK typo treatment". AK would do well to get some more thorough copy editors. Apart from that, good on you Terrence.

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