There is much about the Beat Generation that is shrouded in confusion. Oftentimes it stems from wishful thinking on the part of Beat scholars and readers, and sometimes it emerges from the haze between the myths the Beats themselves created and their own reality. Partly, though, the confusion arises from the simple fact that the politics of the three best-known Beat Generation authors was in fact rather complicated, and no amount of simplification can detract from that fact. Allen Ginsberg was the face of the left for much of the late twentieth century, but was he was also critical of much of the left. Jack Kerouac was the hero of the left in the sixties, yet his personal politics then veered hard right. And William S. Burroughs… Well, his ideas concerning politics involve space travel, engrams, and word viruses.
We’ll start with the poet whose face practically represented the radical left-wing of American politics during the 1960s, when it seemed every demonstration against the Vietnam War and every protest in the name of human rights was done under his guidance. Allen Ginsberg is a name synonymous with left-wing politics. He even coined the term, “flower power.”
Ginsberg was raised in a political household where, for the early years of his life, his parents openly debated political matters. His mother was a communist and his father a socialist. Ginsberg grew up fascinated with global politics, even writing to the New York Times on the argument between isolationism and interventionism which dominated political discourse between the wars.
From a young age he was a pacifist, a socialist interested in what he thought would benefit humanity, and was interested in a career in labor law. In 1943 his yearbook entry claimed he “hates dull teachers and Republicans,” and he had no qualms about speaking his mind. He went through years of being “apolitical,” but his travels caused him to regain an interest in world politics. By the mid-fifties his poetry was challenging American laws of obscenity, as well as critiquing the United States government.
Later, he would use his position of celebrity to testify in court to defend the freedoms of others when their free speech or other rights were infringed upon by the government.
Yet Allen was not necessarily the embodiment of liberal values. He learned to cease his hatred for those on the other end of political spectrum, though their intolerance continued to frustrate him. He also despaired of the revolutionary left-wing youth of America whose anti-government stance he considered a form of “hatred.” “The entire left,” he said, “went into a completely masturbatory period of social violence, calling everybody pigs, with self-righteousness and self-isolation which finally led to the election of Nixon.” He worried, in the early seventies, that the left had been “poisoned by its own anger.”
He had been socialist through much of his youth, and yearned to experience life under socialist rule, and yet in Cuba, Czechoslovakia, and Russia he found oppression to an even greater scale than in the United States. His outspoken stance on gay rights and marijuana use caused him to be deported from Cuba and got his young lover, Miguel, jailed for a few days. Yet in Russia, Ginsberg’s friend Yevtushenko laughed at the idea of spending a few days in jail, as speaking freely in his country would earn you up to twenty years of prison. Ginsberg then realized how much freedom he had back in the United States, and how all his life he had been “making scandals without paying consequences.”
Jack Kerouac’s life was marked by a constant battle between opposing forces – on the one side his conservative, Catholic family background, dominated by his bigoted mother, and on the other his compassionate, poetic, intellectual nature, which pulled him towards Buddhism and bohemia. Through his life he seemed to veer back and forth between stances, but mostly avoided politics, instead caring more for people and poetry. His biographers, Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee said: “Jack’s portrayal of Americans who preferred murky personal goals to clear-cut official ones was subversive without being political.”
Allen Ginsberg claims that Kerouac “was overtly communistic for several years, from ’39 to ‘41’, ’42.” He went on to say,
I don’t think he read it with any formal scholarship but I’m sure he read in and out of Das Kapital and read through The Communist Manifesto and maybe a few other things and he read the Daily Worker. It was not a phase that lasted very long, it was only two or three years…
He explains that this happened when Kerouac was in the Merchant Marine, and indeed it was during this period of his life when Kerouac veered furthest left. But that he ever identified as communist or Marxist is unlikely, and perhaps wishful thinking on Ginsberg’s part. During his brief time in the army Kerouac was worried about being labelled a communist due to his passive resistance, and at this time he was reading a book which featured a communist hero, but that’s probably as close as he got to being a fully-fledged communist. Though he was a hero of the left, Kerouac’s swing in that direction never went particularly far.
Later on he would drift back over to the right, and became rather infamous for his intolerance and conservatism in later years – supposedly becoming fiercely anti-communist, anti-liberal, and pro-Vietnam war in the 1960s. Ginsberg, however, attempted to justify his position, saying that he was pushed right by the hatred of the left. “I think he got to dislike communist ideology later on because the Marxists’ reception of his prose, my poetry, and Burroughs’ prose was very stupid at first.” He goes on to talk about the ills perpetrated by the left against “revolution of consciousness,” and against Kerouac personally. “…Kerouac had suffered so much attack and abuse from all sides, left and right, particularly left in terms of the venomousness of it…” he said, and noted that critics had savaged his friend’s work, and “some radical goon, form the longshoremen’s union” physically beat Kerouac.
Between his left leanings and his hard right turn in later years, Kerouac generally seemed to flirt with a totally apolitical nature, telling one interviewer: “The political apathy of the Beat Generation is in itself a ‘political’ movement; ie will influence political decisions in the future and possibly transfer politics to their rightful aims, ie sense.” He bemoaned the fact that “all the old timers (Beat poets) are turning politicians… It’s politics, not art anymore.” Elsewhere he said, “I’m not interested in politics. I’m interested in [Chinese poet] Li Po.” His interviews are littered with countless quotes about his disinterest in politics, and always he turns to say that he prefers poetry or mysticism of some sort.
Testament to his seemingly apolitical nature, or at least to never fully committing one way or another to the political spectrum, Kerouac never actually voted. He tended to avoid political discussions, voting, and demonstrations, though he would sometimes rant and rave when drunk, even going as far as to voice support from Joseph McCarthy. But still he defied categorization. In the 1960s he supported both Nixon and Kennedy. Sadly, as the mid-sixties approached and America seemed to descend into chaos, and Kerouac’s alcoholism worsened, he “retreated into the solace of Catholicism,” according to Paul Maher Jr. He became enraged by his former friends, especially Ginsberg and his “Pro-Castro bullshit,” and limped to the end of his life under the hateful influence of his mother.
William S. Burroughs
It is generally held that Ginsberg was the militant left-wing icon and Kerouac the moody, sometimes bigoted conservative. As we’ve seen above, that’s not entirely true, but it is also not without founding, either. So what, then, was Burroughs? He is sometimes described as a libertarian of sorts because of his position between the political extremes, and his own, well, personal extremes. He hated government interference, loved guns, and, like Ginsberg, believed in freedom of speech – and a great many other freedoms, too. Yet, Burroughs fell more into the Kerouac camp in that he was seldom politically active. He spoke politics and wrote about politics, but aside from covering the 1968 Democratic Convention, he was more likely to be found as far from the chanting, protesting masses as possible. When he felt politics threaten his own sense of freedom, he simply moved on to a new place, far from the reaches of that political system.
He also seemed to share in Kerouac’s view of the artist as the progenitor of political change: “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.” But what sort of change was he pursuing? Burroughs was famously interested in systems of control, and through his novels he explores various ideas and images of control systems, and their mechanisms of power. Like Kerouac, he felt as though power lay in the artist, rather than the politician, and he disagreed with Ginsberg’s idea that change could be brought peacefully from within the system through political discourse.
In the 1940s Burroughs liked to use the term “factualist” to describe his political leanings, and his views on the wider world. He dismissed the mysticism and superstition of others while essentially claiming that he was only interested in “facts” – ie he only trusted his own experiences. He viewed factualism as a means of breaking the stranglehold he perceived language to hold over people, and also in freeing himself and others from what he perceived to be the tyranny of liberal politics. Robert Johnson claims that to Burroughs, “liberalism was simply a plot to create conformity – politically, economically, and, as his letters to Allen Ginsberg constantly argue, sexually.” Therefore, contrary to Ginsberg, and perhaps in line with the later views of Kerouac, Burroughs would lump liberalism into his machines of control. His letters in the late forties and early fifties are filled with tirades against liberals.
Have you noticed all these fucking Liberals will show their yellow fangs when they think they can get by with it. All Liberals are weaklings, and all weaklings are vindictive, mean and petty.
Like so many libertarians, Burroughs’ political views seemed to stem from his feeling that the government was encroaching upon his own life, and he wanted freedom – and to hell everyone else. In the United States he was all-too-often in trouble with the law, so he moved to a farm in Texas, where he felt he was on the frontier, as far from the law as he could get. Here, though, he felt that he was still not free and eyed a move abroad, ultimately escaping to Mexico, and staying out of the United States for decades. Still, in Mexico in 1950 he was complaining about liberals:
The frontiersman has shrunk to a wretched, interfering, Liberal bureaucrat. Allen, by the way, has been utterly corrupted by those Liberal psychiatrists. He talks of becoming a labor leader! I wrote him what I think about Labor Leaders, Unions, and Liberals… You notice that any oppressive, meddling piece of legislation (anti-gun, anti-sex, anti-kick laws) is always loudly supported by the “Liberal” press? The word liberal has come to stand for the most damnable tyranny, a sniveling, mealy-mouthed tyranny of bureaucrats, social workers, psychiatrists and Union officials.
In 1960 he warned Allen Ginsberg, who was in South America, undergoing the early stages of his personal politicization, that politics was a “trap.” Then, in 1961, in an interview with Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, he said the following, which seems to perfectly capture his political views, and is something with which Kerouac would probably have agreed:
Political conflicts are merely surface manifestations… To concern yourself with surface political conflicts is to make the mistake of the bull in the ring, you are charging the cloth. That is what politics is for, to teach you the cloth. Just as the bullfighter teaches the bull, teaches him to follow, obey the cloth.
Burroughs’ novels are filled with heroic factualists and rugged individualists. Always there is a government or government-like entity exerting a crushing influence by means of a control system, and the heroes are those who bend not to the powers above, but who maintain their own entrenched perspective and survive by their own strength. He seems, then, like the archetypal libertarian. In 1984, he was asked:
Q: Are you sympathetic to libertarian ideas? Does the Libertarian Party hold any attraction for you?
B: I don’t even know what that is.
Q: They believe in as few laws as possible across the board, even down to building codes.
B: That’s sensible enough, of course. The fewer laws, the better.