Submission for SAAP Graduate Session 2007


TITLE:  Paul Goodman’s Place in the American Radical Tradition


AUTHOR: Anthony Giambusso


AFFILIATION: Southern Illinois University, Carbondale



Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

Department of Philosophy

Mail Code 4505

Carbondale, IL 62901

Phone – (618) 303-5469

E-Mail –




ABSTRACT: This paper positions Paul Goodman’s work within the American radical tradition.  Goodman was best known Growing Up Absurd, an analysis of alienated youth in the 1950s which was influential upon the New Left.  He finds youth in a crisis of meaning, a crisis of finding meaning in their work and in a society which had undergone what Goodman calls missed or compromised revolutions.  His solution to youth alienation lies largely in radical educational reform.  Goodman’s thought is grounded in what he calls “Jeffersonian” anarchism and in American Pragmatism.  One could argue that Goodman advocated a pragmatic, non-foundational form of anarchism. 





Paul Goodman’s Place in the American Radical Tradition








This paper positions Paul Goodman’s work within the American radical tradition.  Goodman was best known Growing Up Absurd, an analysis of alienated youth in the 1950s which was influential upon the New Left.  He finds youth in a crisis of meaning, a crisis of finding meaning in their work and in a society which had undergone what Goodman calls missed or compromised revolutions.  His solution to youth alienation lies largely in radical educational reform.  Goodman’s thought is grounded in what he calls “Jeffersonian” anarchism and in American Pragmatism.  One could argue that Goodman advocated a pragmatic, non-foundational form of anarchism. 


















            This paper attempts to position Paul Goodman within the American radical tradition.  Goodman’s work was highly influential upon the generation of radicals typically labeled the New Left and particularly upon its late 1960s and early 1970s incarnation.  He draws upon the American anarchist tradition, from what he calls “Jeffersonian anarchism” up to the brand of anarchism espoused by Emma Goldman and much of the left of the 1920s and 1930s.  Goodman was also influenced by American pragmatism, especially John Dewey’s philosophy of education.  He may be seen as a figure who bridges the gap between the Old and New Left,[1] as a radical who knew and appreciated the principles of the radical tradition but was aware of and could articulate the brand of alienation which would form the center of New Left critique.

            Goodman’s work is difficult to pin down.  He could alternatively be described (and described himself) as a novelist, a poet, a libertarian anarchist, a Jeffersonian anarchist, a Neolithic conservative,[2] a pragmatist, a psychologist, a gestalt therapist, and an educator.  Goodman was all of these things and more.  He was openly homosexual long before Stonewall and an outspoken pacifist during the rabid militarism of the early Cold War.  But he was best known for his writings on youth culture and education, especially Growing Up Absurd,[3] the book which made him famous and was so influential upon the generation that would comprise the New Left. 

            Growing Up Absurd was written, in part, in response to the spate of youth gang violence taking place in New York City in the late 1950’s.  In it, Goodman tried to account for these problems with an analysis of youth alienation, an alienation which he argues results from a social structure in which it is difficult to find what he calls “man’s work.” [4] What he means by “man’s work” is a job which is good for something, which is useful and done for its own sake, not just for the sake of a paycheck, but for the fulfillment one gets from accomplishing something.  Goodman finds few jobs which he considers “man’s work,” and even those jobs which happen to be useful for their own sake become less useful due to the social and labor structure under which they must be performed.  A youth may, for example, wish to be an auto mechanic – a useful trade – but discover that cars are designed with build-in obsolescence and that much of what a mechanic does amounts not to “manly” work but a scam.[5]  In another example, Goodman notes that New York City needs more housing, but building is discouraged because there is not a lot of profit in the type of housing that is needed.  He says of the building craftsmen: “none of these people is much interested in providing shelter, and nobody is at all interested in providing manly jobs.”[6]  Behind this lies a familiar critique of capitalism – alienation from the product of one’s labor – the fact that few work for the sake of the usefulness of the work itself, but work for profit or a paycheck.

            What amazed Goodman about this lack of interest in the work itself was that the usefulness of work was not even on the radar screen.  For example, Goodman notes that studies of working conditions, which examine a job’s wages, security, hours, etc., do not even factor in the usefulness of the job, “as if a primary purpose of working at a job were not that it is good for something!”[7]  In sum, Goodman asks why we find the behavior of “deviant” youth surprising when what they have to look forward to is eight hours (or more) of work a day which is not good for anything except for a paycheck.  The result is a crisis of meaning.

            Goodman’s analysis of this crisis of meaning differed sharply from that of the French existentialists in vogue at the time, as for Goodman very specific contemporary conditions were the prime cause of youth alienation.  In New Reformation, he says “Contemporary conditions in life have certainly deprived people, and especially young people, of a world meaningful for them in which they can act and realize themselves.”[8]  Goodman was critical of the universalizing tendencies of existentialists (or any philosophers) who spoke of a human condition.  For Goodman, vague theories of a human condition could not account for the particular brand of alienation experienced by 1950s youth, alienation brought about, not by something fundamental to humanity – a sense of nausea or absurdity essential to human experience as such, and therefore universal to the human condition – but rather a specific crisis arising out of specific contemporary conditions. 

            Goodman located this crisis in what he called missed or compromised revolutions.  In Growing Up Absurd he says “It is the argument of this book that the accumulation of the missed or compromised revolutions of modern times, with their consequent ambiguities and social imbalances, has fallen, and must fall, most heavily on the young, making it hard to grow up.”[9]  These missed revolutions, as detailed at the end of Growing Up Absurd,[10] include technological advance which has achieved efficiency without solving human problems; labor advances which have won greater wages for workers but not greater dignity (nor “manly” work); and, political advances which gain nominal freedoms without much affecting the dominant power structure.  As far as youth are concerned, the key missed revolutions include the banning of child labor without something else for the child to do (except sit in schools that may do nothing for them, or be harmful to them); the sexual revolution, which had achieved greater permissiveness but retained harmful old attitudes and prejudices; and, most significantly, progressive education, which has been implemented only half-heartedly, resulting in a lack of rigor, but without the accompanying truly humanistic impulse of progressive education.

            Education was central to Goodman’s thought in general and especially his analysis of why children grow up absurd.  He says “As John Dewey beautifully put it, the essence of all philosophy is the philosophy of education, the study of how to have a world.”[11]  Educational theory for Goodman was concerned with “how to transmit culture with a big C, the greatness of Man, for unless they want to continue our history, there is no point in their assuming our world.”[12]  Goodman did not think that the goal of education, as it was practiced in America, was to transmit culture, but rather to act both as a glorified babysitter and to provide free vocational training for businesses.  The schools were not, he argues, of much use to children, even in increasing the chances of getting a job, although Goodman recognized that credentials were becoming more and more significant, a fact he lamented. 

Goodman opposed compulsory education, because it failed to transmit culture and, worse, because educators did not take their students seriously.  Such education could only produce youth who did not care to live in or learn about their own culture.  In the place of traditional schooling, Goodman proposed decentralized and pluralistic modes of education, many of which did not even involve formal schools, but other modes of learning, such as working on a farm or in the local community.  Alternatively, he suggests breaking up and decentralizing urban elementary schools, turning one school into 20 to 50 small units, each equipped with items like pinball machines and record players, which would create spaces which “could combine play, socializing, discussion and formal teaching.”[13]  At the high school level, one suggestion Goodman makes is simply to give the money that would have funded the schools directly to the students, on the condition they use it for some sort of educational purpose, such as educational travel or as tuition for an experimental school.[14]  In general, Goodman argues for creative alternatives to traditional schools and an end to compulsory schooling.  He concludes: “as an anarchist and a psychologist, I am quite convinced that this kind of school organization, habituation to rote, and controlled environment is not, in a big way, viable.”[15]

As the above quote indicates, Goodman places his social thought within the anarchist tradition, identifying himself as a Jeffersonian anarchist.[16]  He neatly sums up his anarchism in New Reformation: “As an anarchist, I think all government and much law are foolish.”[17]  The tone of this statement is significant, as Goodman was not a firebrand like Emma Goldman, and he had a mild enough tone to condemn government and law with a word like “foolish,” unlike Goldman who, for example, more dramatically characterizes her anarchism as “so absolutely uncompromising, insisting and permeating a force as to overcome the most stubborn assault,”[18] a force to battle more than mere “foolishness.”  The word “foolish” not only indicates a certain tone, but a certain approach to anarchism – Goodman opposed government because it was foolish, because it did not work, not for any deep metaphysical reasons.  This contrasts sharply with Goldman, who argues that “anarchism is the only philosophy which brings man the consciousness of himself,”[19] and throws around weighty phrases like “natural rights.”  Goodman’s anarchism was more modest.

            In The Community of Scholars, Goodman argues “It is impossible to consider our universities in America without being powerfully persuaded of the principle of anarchy, that the most useful arrangement is free association and federation rather than top-down management and administration.”[20]  The principle of anarchy is persuasive because it is useful, not because it represents Truth with a capital T.  Goodman makes no presence to know The Truth, and unlike many other anarchists does not claim any special status for anarchism regarding truth claims.  In New Reformation, he says critics tell him: “I do not attack the system itself, usually monopoly capitalism; and I am given the philological information that ‘radical’ meaning ‘going to the roots,’ whereas I hack at the branches.” His response is simply: “I do not know what is the root.  I have not heard of any one formula, e.g., ‘socialism,’ that answers the root questions.”[21] Not knowing the roots, Goodman is content to make practical proposals, proposals made with anarchist principles in mind, for sure, but not necessarily with the goal of creating an anarchist society.

            The principle of “usefulness” also points towards another influence Goodman identifies with: pragmatism, especially the brand of pragmatism found in John Dewey’s philosophy of education.  In Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals, Goodman laments, “in my opinion Americans have lost the spirit of their pragmatic philosophy, even when following the letter.”[22]  He proceeds to propose a “pragmatic social science”[23] which is very much in line with Dewey’s instrumentalism.

            Goodman’s pragmatism allows him to retain anarchist principles without explicitly proposing a revolutionary program.  His pragmatic Jeffersonian anarchism is neatly summed up in his discussion of the “right to revolution” in New Reformation: “It was certainly the intention of Jefferson, and the sense of American pragmatist philosophy up through James and Dewey, to try to devise institutions that would make permanent non-violent revolution possible.”[24]  Here, we see Goodman linking Jefferson, James and Dewey, and himself within a continuous radical tradition.

            Goodman’s acute analysis of “youth problems” stuck a chord with the youth of the New Left.  As a contemporary critic wrote: “Growing Up Absurd . . . was, in brief, precisely what young American radicals wanted, had waited to read: an indictment of the American life and culture that set their teeth of edge when described in sociology classes.”[25]  The New Left picked up on many of Goodman’s ideas, in particular his focus upon alienation and his emphasis on making practical proposals.  Regarding the latter, he is often seen as a major inspiration for such countercultural movements as the “free universities,”[26] movements clearly rooted in the anarchist principle of setting up structures alternative to the state apparatus.  However, Goodman did not think that the free universities of the late 1960s were the realization of his proposals, as “the courses have no professional value,”[27] and therefore cannot truly be called part of a parallel university.

            In general, Goodman found 1960s radicals shallow, without a sense of history.  The very students Goodman’s writings influenced often reacted to him personally with hostility and distance.  In New Reformation, Goodman laments the New Left students’ lack of knowledge of the radical American tradition:

Each coming class is more entangled in the specious present.  Elder statesmen like Sidney Lens and Staughton Lynd have been trying with heroic effort to recall the American antecedents of radical and libertarian slogans and tactics, but it doesn’t rub off.  I am often hectored to my face with formulations that I myself put in their mouths, which have become part of oral tradition two years old, author prehistoric.[28]


Goodman traces this lack of historical consciousness to the brand of youth alienation which led to a total rejection of American society and values.  He says of the youth:

The numerous and dynamic youth do take the social critics seriously; indeed, the bulk of their libraries and many of their slogans come from them, and they are eager to act out what they have read.  But they cannot read very well; they have been so alienated from history, the professions, and even the nature of things that they do not understand what a humanist is saying.[29]


Here, Goodman is describing a brand of alienation quite different from that of alienated labor – an alienation from culture and history at large.  David DeLeon accounts for this alienation thus: “they have not consciously evolved from his [American anarchist] tradition, they have been a rather authentic product of the American environment.”[30]  Goodman found his role to be, in part, to show how they are linked to the American anarchist tradition. 

Goodman’s reaction to the youth differs considerably from Herbert Marcuse’s praise.  Marcuse says of the counterculture: “these political manifestations of a new sensibility indicate the depth of the rebellion of the rupture with the continuum of repression.” [31]  On the contrary, Goodman found the rebellion rather shallow, because while it was the rupture with the continuum of repression Marcuse describes, it lacked a real connection with the American radical tradition.

            Goodman’s influence could be said to extent beyond the New Left of the 1960s to the consciousness-raising second-wave feminist and gay liberation movements of the early 1970s.  Arnold Krupat argues that Goodman’s speaking “up against a politics that ignored or belittled our profound claims upon experience” foreshadowed “much that was significant in the counterculture, and the gay and feminist movements, movements which at their best probe the dark recesses of consciousness and personality.”[32]  The same analysis of experience with drove Growing Up Absurd’s study of youth could be applied to the experience of women and homosexuals.

Goodman was openly bisexual and even published a set of journal entries he wrote in the second half of the 1950s, Five Years, detailing, among other things, his homosexual experiences.  These journal entries were direct, humorous and lacking in internal censorship.  For instance, he write in Five Years: “I distrust women clothed.   Naked, they are attractive to me like other animals.  Male dress passes – but I have to reach for their penises, to make sure.  This had damaged my reputation.”[33]  And indeed it did, as Goodman was fired from one college after another for making passes (or more) at male students.  But what is most interesting about Five Years, as revealed in the above quote, is Goodman’s absolute openness and honesty about his own experience, an openness which one would find in the “consciousness-raising” groups of women and homosexuals in the early 1970s. 

While Goodman is a clear precursor to the gay rights movement, there are difficulties with placing Goodman in the role of precursor to 1970s feminism.  One of the things one is struck with in Growing Up Absurd is his use of the term “man’s” work, by which Goodman does indeed mean only the work of men.  He makes clear that his book is only about the trouble of men growing up, not women. He writes in Growing Up Absurd:  “the problems I want to discuss in this book belong primarily, in our society, to the boys: how to be useful and make something of oneself.  A girl does not have to, she is not expected to ‘make something’ of herself.  Her career does not have to be self-justifying, for she will have children, which is absolutely self-justifying, like any other natural or creative act.” [34]  Goodman goes on to say that the “youth troubles” of girls are primarily sexual but the argument of the book does affect girls, who after all have to marry boys who have grown up absurd.  Taylor Stoehr points out that this passage was added to Growing Up Absurd as an afterthought and was not published in the original Dissent article – apparently the idea of discussing the problems of girls growing up did not initially occur to Goodman.  Stoehr notes that Goodman’s analysis of “growing up absurd” could be well applied to an analysis of patriarchy, but laments that  “Goodman clung with astonishing tenacity to the patriarchal skeleton.” [35]  Susan Sontag goes further, noting, second-hand, Goodman’s dislike for women as people.  Sexism, it seems, was Goodman’s major blind spot.

            It is curious how Goodman tends to be forgotten today, despite his influence upon radicals who have not been forgotten and despite his insightful, entertaining, and original critiques.  Reading Goodman today, his most striking contribution seems to be not so much his critique of youth culture in Growing Up Absurd, but rather his critique of what those youth became, in part due to his influence, in New Reformation.   Goodman was able to see what eluded Marcuse – that the New Left brand of radicalism was simply not sustainable and, far from resulting in a “new sensibility,” and a rejection of bourgeois society, was a rejection of society as such.  In a pessimistic mood, one could argue that New Reformation marks the death knell of the radical tradition in America, the great rupture with radical tradition which would dissipate the left.




Bronner, Stephen Eric, “Reconstructing the Experiment: Politics, Ideology, and the

American New Left,” Social Text, No. 8 (Winter, 1983-1984), 127-141.


DeLeon, David, “The American as Anarchist: Social Criticism in the 1960s,” American

Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 5 (Dec., 1973), 516-537.


Eisen, Jonathan and David Steinberg, “The Student Revolt Against Liberalism,” Annals

of  the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 382, Protest in the

Sixties (Mar., 1969), 83-94.


Goldman, Emma, Red Emma Speaks, Third Edition, Edited by Alix Kates Shulman

(Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1996).


Goodman, Paul, Compulsory Miseducation and The Community of Scholars (New York,

NY: Vintage Books, 1964).


---------- Five Years (New York, NY: Brussel & Brussel, 1966).


---------- Growing Up Absurd (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1960).


---------- Like a Conquered Province (New York, NY: Random House, 1967).


---------- New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative (New York, NY: Random

House, 1970). 


---------- Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals (New York, NY: Vintage Books,



Krupat, Arnold and Arnold Sachar, “Paul Goodman,” Social Text, No. 9/10, The 60’s

without Apology (Spring/Summer, 1984), 290-294.


Lynd, Staughton, “The New Left,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and

Social Science, Vol. 382, Protest in the Sixties (Mar., 1969), 64-72.


Roszak, Theodore, “Exploring Utopia: The Visionary Sociology of Paul Goodman,” from

The Making of a Counterculture (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1969)



Schwartz, N.S., Beyond John Dewey: Paul Goodman’s Theory of Human Nature (Ann

Arbor, MI: University Microfilms, 1972). (change to diss. Ref.)


Sontag, Susan, “On Paul Goodman,” from Under the Sign of Saturn (New York, NY:

Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980) 3-13.


Stoehr, Taylor, “Growing Up Absurd – Again,” Dissent (Fall, 1990) 486-194.


Wall, Richard, “The Radical Individualism of Paul Goodman,” 2003


[1] At least one critic (Taylor Stoehr) places Goodman himself within the New Left.  I prefer to see him as something of a transitional figure.  See Taylor Stoehr, “Growing Up Absurd – Again,” Dissent (Fall, 1990) 486.

[2] From the subtitle of a book he wrote late in his life, New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative (New York, NY: Random House, 1970).

[3] Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1960).

[4] Goodman, Growing Up Absurd, 17.

[5] Goodman, Growing Up Absurd, 19-20.

[6] Goodman, Growing Up Absurd, 18.

[7] Goodman, Growing Up Absurd, 22. (author’s italics)

[8] Goodman, New Reformation, 49.

[9] Goodman, Growing Up Absurd, 217.

[10] Goodman, Growing Up Absurd, 216-225.

[11] Goodman, New Reformation, 69.

[12] Goodman, New Reformation, 103-104.

[13] Paul Goodman, Compulsory Miseducation and The Community of Scholars (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1964) 33.

[14] Goodman, Compulsory Miseducation, 61-62.

[15] Goodman, New Reformation, 31.

[16] Goodman, New Reformation, 108.

[17] Goodman, New Reformation, 137.

[18] Goldman, 49.

[19] Goldman, 65.

[20] Goodman, Compulsory Miseducation, 164. (my italics)

[21] Goodman, New Reformation, 204-205.

[22] Paul Goodman, Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals  (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1964) 16.

[23] Goodman, Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals, 19.

[24] Goodman, New Reformation, 133.

[25] Eisen, “The Student Revolt Against Liberalism,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 382, Protest in the Sixties (Mar., 1969) 84.

[26] Eisen, 84.

[27] Goodman, New Reformation, 182.

[28] Goodman, New Reformation, 55.

[29] Goodman, New Reformation, 111-112. 

[30] DeLeon, “The American as Anarchist Social Criticism in the 1960s,” American Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 5 (Dec., 1973) 528-529.

[31] See Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1969) 36. (my italics)

[32] Krupat, “Paul Goodman,” Social Text, No. 9/10, The 60’s without Apology (Spring/Summer, 1984) 293.

[33] Goodman, Five Years, (New York, NY: Brussel & Brussel, 1966) 8.

[34] Goodman, Growing Up Absurd, 13.

[35] Stoehr, “Growing Up Absurd – Again,” 491.