The Political Activism of Allen Ginsberg

(Level 3 Undergraduate Essay)

    By any conventional means of analysis, Allen Ginsberg could almost escape the gaze of political history, going down merely as an unremarkable poet of dissent, who dabbled in the popular protest movements of his time, joined the fashionable Buddhist trend of the late 1960s and took too many drugs; yet in many respects, Ginsberg alone can be given credit for creating a new politics that could address the social problems the political establishment chose to ignore.
    Sociological theories have presented readily traceable routes to a New Politics, in which New Social Movements have become a response to the limitations which the political establishment increasingly imposes against protest; such theories recognise little or no interplay between the two, and whilst the work of Offe (1990), Inglehart (1990) and others has highlighted key turning points in the development of New Social Movements, they have been quick to criticise the lack of revolutionary potential such movements present. The flaw of such theories lies in their inability firstly, to address the social movement in formation, thereby only providing a 'snapshot' of existing social movements upon which to base their critiques; secondly, they use the term 'social movement' for describing actual, tangible groups of indivuals with a common grievance, involved in definable political activism against the establishment. In doing this, they ignore the process of 'cognitive praxis' recognised by Eyerman and Jamison (1991)1., which is the driving force of a social movement, or perhaps more accurately, a social drift within society that leads to the formation of a protest movement, and continues as that movement endeavours to successfully achieve its aims. Recognising this process of cognitive praxis is vitally important to understanding the significant role that Ginsberg's brand of political activism played in creating a permanent social space in which new political protest movements could erupt out of social movements, and continually adapt to the 'New Politics' they had catalysed. As valid as the various accounts of events that lead to the shift to New Politics might be, it is likely that without Allen Ginsberg, issues such as the environment and gay rights accepted into the political arena since the 1960s would have remained firmly in the private realm, and the Old Politics would have struggled on, blind and relentless of the social reality from which it had once emerged.
    Eyerman and Jamison (1991) forward that there are three key elements to the process of cognitive praxis; of significance here is the cosmological element, which enables social movements to sell their 'new way of seeing the world' and formulate this into a political concern. It is this cosmological dimension of Ginsberg's cognitive praxis that exposes the immense impact he had on contemporary politics across the globe, particularly in the political democracies of Western Europe and America. In making public his own personal challenge to conventional politics and the values that it imposed on society, Ginsberg set the 'cosmological ball' rolling, by creating not a new world view, but a personal awareness in every individual that empowered them to challenge the conventional interpretation of reality, and a political space in which those challenges could develop.

    How one American citizen, the gay son of Russian immigrants, was able to generate so much social change is not readily dealt with by most sociopolitical theories of social movements, nor through any school of literary criticism; only through addressing Allen Ginsberg in light of his lifelong engagement in 'cognitive praxis', is it possible to see the widespread and enduring drift towards a 'new vision' of the world that individuals experienced as soon as they took up the Ginsberg challenge and 're-cognized' social reality. Ginsberg's early life experience posed questions that were left unanswered, and in attempting to answer them for himself, he entered a new cosmological dimension that freed him from the restraints of exclusive American Society, leaving the way open for others.
    Ginsberg's father, a published poet, came from a family entrenched in Socialism, his mother was a member of the Communist party and suffered long term chronic mental illness, each demanding "... that he accept their version of reality - diametrically opposed readings of the world." (Miles, 1989, p37); this conflict of politics, coupled with his mother's illness and the status of 'outsider' that being Jewish and gay afforded, gave Ginsberg a unique perspective of the inadequacies of conventional political movements, and the reluctance of many in society to become embroiled in social unrest in the era of supposed peace and prosperity that followed the Second World War, even though for those on the margins of American Society, 'You've never had it so good' was a cliché they simply could not swallow.
    In many respects, Ginsberg was indeed an 'outsider' by virtue of his cultural and sexual background from the outset, but it was his active choice to live within subcultural pockets of society that mark the significance of his lifestyle in terms of a cultural activism, as he attempted to put together a common world view that could be utilised to challenge that imposed by the political establishment; whilst Greenwich Village was a place Ginsberg felt he belonged, he believed it to be far removed from the career he had intended for himself (Miles, 1989), and unlike the other Beat writers, did not succumb to the snobbishness that accompanied la vie de boheme2., but realised the potential for change that his literary skills granted him.
    Ginsberg had intended to study labor law and devote his life to the working class (Jamison and Eyerman, 1994), but gained a degree in English and concentrated on developing his literary skills, although the political ideology of the 1930s shaped his writing into something that was of as much personal practical help to the 'working class' as any law degree could have been (Jamison and Eyerman, 1994); yet Ginsberg identified another group outside of the working class, excluded by virtue of its race, poverty, sexual orientation or other determining feature; in representing these individuals, marginalised on the basis of their differences from each other and wider society, Ginsberg sought out the common denominator that linked them to each other, and to wider society:
...Allen Ginsberg... gave voice to the sexual, spiritual, and psychological repression intrinsic in conformist culture. As fathers of the 1960s counterculture, the Beat writers reconceptualized in their very persons the meaning of culture in American Society.
(Jamison and Eyerman, 1994, p28).

Poetry as Cultural Activism
    Ginsberg and others that would become known as the Beat Generation, recognised, through their subcultural involvement, the need for a 'New Vision' that could transcend political allegiance and personal sentiment, empowering every individual in challenging hegemonic ideology; those excluded from mainstream society held the key to this challenge, but were unable to mobilise it in any real sense; it became the job of the Beat writers to give voice, through their writing, to those who were politically mute, and in doing so, reconceive the 'American Way' as wholly unacceptable; Ginsberg's 1956 poem 'America' in its entirety spells out the sentiments of the Beat Generation angrily and clearly (Appendix 1, Ginsberg, 1996)
     The 'New Vision', as described by Lucien Carr, who Ginsberg met during his first period at the University of Columbia and introduced him to Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and others who founded the 'Beat Generation', was a new way of seeing the world, which was to be sold to wider society through literary means (Miles, 1989). Imperative to this, was the development of a style of writing that was inclusive rather than academically exclusive, a reaction against what Ginsberg called "... 'the capitalist vocational training' offered in Columbia University with its virtual reduction of literature to the good manners of the 19th century novel..." (Widgery, 1985, p30); to this end, Ginsberg adopted the style of William Carlos Williams, writing his poetry in everyday American speech (Miles, 1989), and, like Kerouac, overtly rejected the forming literary school known as the 'New Criticism' (Jamison and Eyerman, 1994), by placing the author, himself, central to the text: for Ginsberg and Kerouac, the differences between individuals that determined their experience of reality, were transcended by being " together at once in the same place, temporarily, with a totally poignant tearful awareness that we're together." (Miles, 1989, p46).
    To this end, 'Howl' (Appendix 2, Ginsberg, 1996) is a prime example of the way Ginsberg's poetry endeavoured to present a communal experience of social reality, in listing an unpausing catalogue of the horrors of modern life, as experienced by Ginsberg and those he knew personally, but never reaching any real conclusion, and thus providing the reader with the opportunity to 'continue the howl'. The outrage expressed in 'Howl', especially through the hypnotic, pulsating rhythm apparent when read aloud, with 'Moloch' used repeatedly as a metaphor for hegemonic ideology, had the potential to tap the bubbling tensions in every individual, a danger which the establishment clearly recognised in attempting to ban the poem from publication and circulation on the grounds that it was obscene; Judge W.J. Clayton Horn ruled that the poem was not obscene, nor without "...redeeming social importance." (Miles, 1989, p232), and 'Howl' became the ultimate fashion accessory for the 'Beatniks'3., and a bible for those involved in the battle for 'a revolution of the mind', epitomising an alternative reality in condemning everything that was 'America', with part III dedicated to madness:
I'm with you in Rockland
where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the
United States that coughs all night and won't let us sleep
(Appendix 2; Ginsberg, 1996, p56)

Language as Technology
    It is unlikely that the technological dimension of cognitive praxis recognised by Eyerman and Jamison (1991) is meant to be literally interpreted, but refers to any means by which a social movement draws on its resources to further its aims. In terms of the Beat Generation as a social movement working towards furthering the 'New Vision', it is language that becomes a technological resource to be recreated in a way that completely rejects the conventional interpretation of reality; it is this aspect of Ginsberg's work that marks its revolutionary potential, in that it created a new art form and a new language that made audible the murmurings of resistance.
     Trotsky (1957) recognised the fundamental role of art in the Russian Revolution, as a historical record of that epoch, and challenged those who saw art and literature as the product of political history rather than an effective activism against it, with their unquestioning acceptance of the notion of an 'aesthetic art' from nineteenth century Western Tradition, that held little revolutionary potential unless it was overtly political in the conventionally accepted sense. For Trotsky, art was not an expression of the party line, but held its own truth in being a portrait of the artist's social reality; he saw the work of the intellectual as the voice of the peasant, which was necessary to breaking down the class divisions of bourgeois society. The representations that Ginsberg and the Beat writers presented places them in this context: they were prepared to challenge the state and social control through "...wildly emotional art which was in each case revolutionary in its formal innovation." (Widgery, 1985, p30), inasmuch as they actively lived the experiences they were documenting, refused pointblank to conform to the linguistic constraints of academia, and in doing so, inspired the language of the 1960s counterculture. This was a language that legitimised talking openly about societal taboos such as sex, albeit metaphorically, as is excellently demonstrated by Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burrough's joint presentation, 'Pull My Daisy' (Appendix 3, Ginsberg, 1996); in combining subcultural sexual 'slang' with literary metaphor, Ginsberg et al gave birth to the 'lingo' of the counterculture.
    It has been suggested that preexisting subcultures, like those identified by Ginsberg, undergo a mere 'flowering' of their existing 'lingo', which ultimately is shaped by hegemonic ideology (Foss and Larkin, 1986). In identifying the commonalities of all individuals in the 'New Vision', Ginsberg, in essence, amalgamated their voices and created a wholly new language that offered a real challenge to hegemonic ideology -not only presenting an alternative interpretation of social reality, but presenting it through a new vocabulary that initially confused both the establishment and academia, and reversed the power knowledge relationship by reconstructing a discourse of personal politics4.; the 'lingo' of the counterculture was one that was 'scrounged' from its diverse membership (Foss and Larkin, 1986), and in reflecting that multiplicity of personal politics, camouflaged the level of change the counterculture affected from the ears of the establishment, who were neither prepared nor able to understand its significance.

Poetry as Political Activism
    Ginsberg's poetry has been called by some prophetic, in that it predates the counterculture of the 1960s and yet presents an accurate running commentary of the occurrences of the time. In placing Ginsberg's poetry alongside the growth of new political movements during the late 1960s and early 1970s, what becomes apparent is Ginsberg's use of his poems as a form of documentary evidence: 'Iron Horse' (Appendix 4, Ginsberg, 1996) is a prime example of this, in narrating his observations on a train full of soldiers leading up to the Vietnam War, enlightened by Ginsberg's realism, as in the first stanza, he acknowledges the extent of the power of the state, spelling out the tactics it employs to force conformity. Ginsberg's perception of reality, unclouded by propaganda, and his outspokenness on such issues in the public forum were key elements to his political activism; it would take no prophetic skills to realise that any major threat to the political establishment would sooner or later be quashed by legislation, and in many respects, the attempt made by New York City to close the cafés where Ginsberg organised poetry readings was a direct response to this threat. In much the same way as Trotsky recognised the significance of art in both shaping consciousness and historically marking an epoch (1957), Ginsberg fought successfully to keep the cafés open (Miles, 1989), because it was through his poetry that the New Vision was offered to others and provided an alternative history of the era. By the end of the 1960s, there was sufficient fragmented unrest to potentially create a political revolution: the New Vision was in essence a tool for uniting this unrest.
    To succeed in the process of cognitive praxis undertaken at the mass level attempted by Ginsberg, is to be greeted by the potential for mass movement and real social change; to fail is to be lost in a vague post-modernist attempt to transcend discourse. Allen Ginsberg's retreat into Buddhism coincided directly with the legislative arsenal that effectively silenced the counterculture:
Allen had to live with the fact that the revolution he helped to create did not win but lost. By this he meant the Beat, hippie, anarchic, flower-power, LSD-using, pot-smoking, sexual-freedom movement of the sixties, which was being swamped by the neoconservatism of the late seventies and early eighties.
(Miles, 1989, p491)

    Viewed through the eyes of sociological theories that can only deal with existing social movements, it seems that the changes Ginsberg envisaged and the death of the counterculture he imagined into existence signified the end of Ginsberg's activism. Yet this activism had always occurred from two sides: within the formal public political arena and through his personal lifestyle choices. Whilst it could be argued that the relaxation of legislation governing various aspects of everyday life has been the result of the Counterculture toning down their demands in order to achieve mass consensus, cognitions of the world had experienced a widespread change, which, at the time was so subtle as to go almost unnoticed. With the benefit of historical hindsight, it is of course possible to recognise the significant freedoms of the post-1960s era, compared with the period after the Second World War, leading up to the 1960s, as well as the restructuring of politics to include issues such as the environment, gay rights and equality for men and women. Through the work of Allen Ginsberg, the 'personal' was now firmly in the political arena, and new modes of expression that did not rely on conventional forms of political mobilisation had been established.

Making the Personal Political
    Ginsberg's poetry was one of three separate yet interdependent elements of his political activism: poems such as 'Iron Horse' (Appendix 4, Ginsberg, 1996) that directly refer to political issues can be viewed as radical, and in the conventionally accepted sense, he was indeed a political activist, identifying with the single issue politics of specific, tangible social movements (Jamison and Eyerman, 1994), actively taking up the role of established intellectual (Jamison and Eyerman, 1991)5. within the 'Yippies' (Youth International Party), who were keen to use the credentials that the 'Howl' court case had afforded him (Miles, 1989). Yet more importantly, the 'New Vision' that Ginsberg and his fellow Beats shared and put into action through their choice of lifestyle, gained popularity as the 1960s progressed, and increasingly threatened "... the very idea of culture that had dominated American intellectual life since the mid-nineteenth century." (Jamison and Eyerman, 1994, p159).
    It is, however, the interchangeability in Ginsberg's poetry, of large public issues such as racism or the Vietnam war, and the personal account of his private life that mark the purpose of Ginsberg's work so poignantly. At all times, Ginsberg "... never turned aside from his stance of protest." (McQuade et al, n.d., p2041), that saw poetry, political action and personal expression as inseparable elements of cultural activism; in Ginsberg's own words:
The condition of society is one of homogeneity and hyperindustrialism, so the individual perceptions of body and mind are not valued. Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It's that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does. (Miles, 1989, p519-20).

Abandoning the Conventions of Political Resistance
    During the 'Cold War' post-war era in America, the time of the McCarthy 'witch-hunts' of supposed communists (Lloyd-Smith, 1993), socialism had come to be synonymous with communism, yet for Ginsberg, the politics of his parents had given him a vivid understanding of the contradictions of conventional left-wing politics. It was this, in part, that gave Ginsberg the motivation to look to new forms of political endeavour to achieve 'the revolution'. For those such as Ginsberg who lived on the margins of American society, it was clear that the existing political movements were so far absorbed into the political institution, they were incapable of representing those that had put them in power, and could no longer address, or even comprehend issues that did not fall within their hegemonic ideology, more concerned with maintaining the 'status quo' and the illusion of being the 'voice of the people', than hearing the voices of dissent. There existed in America a 'two-horse' race between the Republicans and the Democrats (Lloyd-Smith, 1993), and with Communism and all that was associated with it essentially outlawed, the most that any other party could achieve was to present those more acceptable issues on the fringe of the political arena before being absorbed into the system themselves (Lloyd-Smith, 1993).
    Ginsberg realised that there was little hope for those he represented if their grievances were perceived by the political establishment as non-political, forcing him to find ways in which the 'personal' could become the 'political'. In conceiving the 'New Vision', the Beat writers had found a way of tapping into the consciousness they believed existed in every individual, which would allow them to step away from the interpretation of social reality that the political establishment was propagating through the media, and 're-cognize' reality in terms of a 'personal politics', which could address issues including sexuality and the environment, often using the media and other tools of the establishment to bring their own political concerns to its attention (Jamison and Eyerman, 1994); it was not the focus of those individual concerns that was important, but the empowerment that the New Vision had provided to individuals in taking those concerns to the political arena.

New Social Movements and New Politics
    Theorists have been quick to recognise the lack of revolutionary potential of New Social Movements and their single-issue campaigns (Inglehart, 1990); in usual style, they present such movements through snapshots of the movement in action, developed as a response to what they call 'New Politics' (Offe, 1990), with little regard of how the two entities evolved into being. In tracing a path from the fall of the counterculture, it is possible to reveal the significant role that Ginsberg, the Beat Generation and the counterculture they inspired, played in the development of 'New Politics', as a response to the very real threat the 'New Vision' held against the 'Old Politics'.
    Ginsberg as 'movement intellectual' (Eyerman and Jamison, 1991)6., publicly explicating the requirements of the New Vision, united all single-issue movements against a common enemy, which was conventional politics; the political establishment had to respond, and because the enduring conflict between the ideologies of liberal freedom and social democracy were still being fought , a space existed in which 'fringe' issues could be addressed (Offe, 1990); the response of the establishment was to structure the political system in such a way that this space was closed, so that protest movements had to formulate their grievances into political concerns to receive the attention of the establishment.
    To this end, New Social Movements (NSMs) are typified by the 1960s civil rights movement, anti-war movement and student movement, to name but a few, who did not rely on existing political parties for political mobilisation (Inglehart, 1990). In this respect, they are 'new' because they depart from the methods of protest used by earlier post-war movements (Offe, 1990), and are perhaps better described as 'non-institutional movement politics' (Offe, 1990).
    In considering the outcomes of these individual movements, it is possible to argue that even in the event of success, for the population at large, very little change occurs (Foss and Larkin, 1986); yet the movements of the 1960s were unique, in that the onslaught of single-issue groups, in particular the Black Civil Rights Movement, triggered other movements concerned with civil rights that represented more and more individuals who were excluded by hegemonic ideology. The counterculture was the culmination of all these groups, including those who survived with relative success within hegemonic ideology, but who's world view had been altered by the 'New Vision' to the extent that total rejection of the social and political system seemed the only response. From this standpoint, the fall of the counterculture bears little significance to the real changes that had occurred through the mass rejection of the conventional interpretation of reality, reflecting not the failure of the movements of the 1960s, but merely the legislative measures that diffused the time bomb of dissidence, and in never disarming it completely, gave birth to a new era of political protest.
    The key flaw of NSMs for Inglehart (1990) and others, is that their piecemeal approach creates a plurality of needs that offer no revolutionary potential, in that each group is concerned with achieving the goal of its own single-issue campaign; again, it can be argued that the individual and diverse politics of the Beats inspired this fragmentation, as for Ginsberg and others, it is the New Vision that offers the challenge to the establishment, not the issues of concern to any individual or group in particular. To reach this point, however, the process by which dissenting individuals come together must present a reinterpretation of social reality that holds some universal meaning in that it has a fixed, definable goal, and in doing so, they create a growing challenge to the conventional interpretation of social reality, or hegemonic ideology (Foss and Larkin, 1986). As the number of dissidents grow, this reinterpretation makes a nonsense of what is unquestioningly accepted as common sense, so that the goal of the movement which was initially a mere modification of hegemonic ideology, becomes a whole new way of seeing the world (Foss and Larkin, 1986).
    In this respect, the Beat Generation can be set aside from other new social movements, in that the 'New Vision' was prerequisite to, rather than the result of a challenge to the conventional interpretation of reality; whilst many NSMs of the 1960s were unable to sustain the feverpitch required to formulate real challenges to hegemonic ideology, and subsequently were absorbed into the political system (Foss and Larkin, 1986), the 'New Vision' drifted across society well away from the eyes of the political establishment and created a paradigmatic shift in world view that forced change from the outside, in the form of the counterculture. As the resulting counterculture grew in size, the 'Old Politics' became less and less representative of the new vision of its electorate, creating, in the ethos of democratically elected representation, a paradoxical and unsustainable relationship, which forced the political establishment to change. Rather than a change that addressed the grievances being brought forward, the response was to counteract the demands of the counterculture through legislative procedure, setting the wheels in motion for a New Politics that reconceived the increasing freedoms the protest movements of the 1960s had successfully brought to fruition, as permissive steps in the wrong direction, culminating in the Neo-liberalist governments of Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s, and a call for a return to 'the good old days', projecting new images of the (moral) freedom of the (responsible) individual to justify the simultaneous outlawing of mass protest.
    Throughout this time, Ginsberg remains the constant, his poetry a record critically reflecting these changes; the New Right politics of the 1980s that claimed to be reducing the power of the state comes under fire in 'Capitol Air' (Appendix 5, Ginsberg, 1996), where Ginsberg places it alongside the other historical world governments deemed tyrannical by western democracy. Although the poem was written in 1980, it seems prophetic of Ginsberg's blacklisting in 1984 from government overseas speaking engagements (Miles, 1989): "... all they're afraid of is your tongues" (Appendix 5, Ginsberg, 1996, p331: stanza 10, line 4). Ginsberg ultimately believed that the power of the 'New Vision' lay in its communication to others through the spoken and written word, and through leading by example.

    Inasmuch as sociologists have attended to the surge of social movements that occurred during the 1960s, placing Ginsberg rightly in the context of founding father to the Beat Generation and the ensuing counterculture, the literary canon remains reluctant to recognise the radical subgenre that Ginsberg's poetry represents. At the same time as it is necessary to hold apart Ginsberg's poetry from his lifelong involvement in political movements, a commentary of his life brings together these elements to demonstrate the still dynamic impact his activities at every level had on the challenges faced by western 'democracy'. "While the other key figures of the Beat Generation followed a more nonpolitical road, Ginsberg helped to facilitate the transition to the new politics of the sixties. Allen Ginsberg was more than a seed of the 1960s..." (Jamison and Eyerman, 1994, p160), he was the moon to a tide of social movements that continues to erode and threatens to engulf completely the global institution of politics.


  1. Quotation taken from Jamison and Eyerman (1994, p160).

  2. La vie de boheme was the lifestyle adopted by many of those in Greenwich village, taking its name from the Bohemian culture of the seventeenth century (Miles, 1989).

  3. Beatniks are not to be confused with the Beat Generation, who were not politically active but adopted the look and lifestyle of the Beat Generation as a fashion statement (Miles, 1990).

  4. Foucault (1990) is a social constructionist analysis of power knowledge discourse, and the relation of language to that discourse.

  5. See Eyerman and Jamison (1991) for a more detailed explanation of movement intellectuals, as opposed to established intellectuals, and the role they play in the cognitive praxis of social movements.

  6. See 5.


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Foss, D.A. and Larkin, R. (1986). Beyond Revolution A New Theory Of Social Movements. South Hadley: Bergin and Garvey Publishers Inc.

Foucault, M. (1990). The History Of Sexuality Volume One An Introduction. London: Penguin Group.

Ginsberg, A. (1996). Selected Poems 1947 - 1995. London: Penguin Books Limited. p8-9, 49-54, 62-4, 180-8, 330-3. p56.

Inglehart, R. (1990). 'Values, ideology, and cognitive mobilization in new social movements.'. In R.J. Dalton and M. Kuechler. (Editors). Challenging The Political Order New Social And Political Movements In Western Democracies. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Jamison, a. and Eyerman, R. (1994). Seeds Of The Sixties. London: University of California Press. p28, 159, 160.

Lloyd-Smith, A. (1993). 'Is there an American culture?'. In J. Mitchell and R. Maidment. (Editors). The United States In The Twentieth Century Culture. Milton Keynes: Hodder and Stoughton in association with The Open University Press.

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Miles, B. (1989). Ginsberg A Biography. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. p37, 232, 491, 519-20.

Offe, C. (1990). 'Reflection on the institutional self-transformation of movement politics: a tentative stage model.'. In R.J. Dalton and M. Kuechler. (Editors). q.v.

Trotsky, L. (1957). 'Literature and revolution.'. In I. Deutscher. (1964). (Editor). The Age Of Permanent Revolution A Trotsky Anthology. New York: Dell Publishing Company Inc.

Widgery, D. (1985). 'Howling to the beat.'. Socialist Worker Review. November 1985. p30.