The range of available commentaries on the 19th century American poet, Walt Whitman, should make anyone uneasy about placing him within a firm ideological tradition. On the one hand, his association with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his elevation of the United States as “the greatest poem” are flattering to a ruling class who extol rugged individualism and evangelize about American exceptionalism (I remember when his poetry was used in a Levi’s Jeans commercial). Yet, the admiration he enjoyed during his lifetime from socialists outside of the US, such as William Morris and Oscar Wilde, shows how much Whitman’s poetry equally appealed to their revolutionary zeal. Broadly speaking, Whitman’s enthusiastic readers felt drawn not only to his poetic flair, but also to his glorification of liberty and freedom.
His right-leaning devotees can easily find a comfortable home in Whitman’s obvious nationalism and chauvinism, neither of which left readers should ignore. His early support for the Mexican-American war (support which he later retracted), his antagonism toward abolitionists (whom he decried as “fanatical”), and his apparent disregard for Native Americans weaken any effort to elevate Whitman as someone who speaks for the left, despite his apparent bent toward sexual and individual liberties.
It might be fascinating, however, to underscore Whitman’s affinity for democratic principles that informed his admiration for the 1871 Paris Commune, about which he wrote an updated section for the 1871 edition of Leaves of Grass with the title “Songs of Insurrection,” followed by an elegy after the Commune’s demise. Whitman’s poems about the Paris Commune can offer us lessons for international solidarity, especially as we commemorate the Commune’s 150th anniversary. But the internal tensions and contradictions within his political views also warn against the pitfalls of rendering democracy and liberty completely incoherent and susceptible to ruling class appropriation.
Whitman’s most famous statements about democracy come out of his essay, Democratic Vistas. Writing on the “purpose of democracy,” Whitman actually constructs a model of democracy that would not be out of place today in the public statements of any liberal or conservative US politician, framing it as “the only scheme worth working from.” His view of democracy is undergirded with a staunch belief in America’s superiority on matters of personal liberty — aspects which Whitman felt were being ignored by his fellow citizens:
The purpose of democracy […] is, through many transmigrations, and amid endless ridicules, arguments, and ostensible failures, to illustrate, at all hazards, this doctrine or theory that man, properly train’d in sanest, highest freedom, may and must become a law, and series of laws, unto himself, surrounding and providing for, not only his own personal control, but all his relations to other individuals, and to the State.
These words are jarring to read alongside Whitman’s patriotism; and they are aggrandizing in a manner that provides support to the self-image of the US as a beacon of freedom and democracy even today. That he celebrates democracy at all is, of course, laudable. Yet, for Whitman, it seems to dovetail with his belief in the US as a unique and superior place in history for offering personal liberty, while shirking any acknowledgment of genuine equality or popular sovereignty.
The beguiling understanding that “democracy” as practiced in the US could ever assure “that man” become “a law…unto himself” surely complies with the stated principles of the American constitution, placing a high moral premium on the interests of the individual as opposed to the collective. But, the past century and a half should indicate how damaging it can be to empower personal liberties at the expense of the collective good (especially, say, during a pandemic).
Later in the essay, Whitman recognizes the revolutionary power that existed during the US Civil War: “The People, of their own choice, fighting, dying for their own idea, insolently attack’d by the secession-slave-power, and its very existence imperil’d. Descending to detail, entering any of the armies, and mixing with the private soldiers, we see and have seen august spectacles.” It is here in acknowledging the wider, active struggles within the Civil War that ultimately confirmed the power of “The People” to govern of “their own choice” and challenge the ruling class.
Although Whitman far too readily praised the triumphs of US republicanism (which were, in the 19th century, doubtful), this last point — in which he understands the “unconquerable resolution” animating the “unnamed, unknown rank and file” — supplies an important refrain for his views on the Communards in 1871.
The 1871 uprisings that led to the Paris Commune, a brief but inspiring experiment in radical democracy that took over Paris for two months, captured the hearts of many international observers, even decades after its dissolution. Karl Marx, of course, famously described the Commune as the “direct antithesis to the empire”: “The cry of ‘social republic’, with which the revolution of February was ushered in by the Paris proletariat, did but express a vague aspiration after a Republic that was not only to supersede the monarchical form of class-rule, but class-rule itself. The Commune was the positive form of that republic.”
Vladimir Lenin, 40 years later, noted the unprecedented and spontaneous nature of the Paris Commune, which owed its astonishing achievement to the workers who “remained loyal to the movement.” Yet, Lenin diagnosed the failures of the Commune as being a lack of support from the bourgeois republicans and the petty bourgeoisie: “Deserted by their allies of yesterday and supported by no one, the Commune was doomed to inevitable defeat.” It was ultimately this lesson from which Lenin learned and sought to consolidate power for the Bolsheviks.
Whitman’s kinship with revolutionary struggles in France began long before the Commune. As ongoing class conflict continued to shape late 19th-century Europe, Whitman upheld admiration for the myriad insurrectionist movements that occurred from 1848 onward. Betsy Erkillä, professor of Literature at Northwestern University (and author of four books on Whitman), argues that “revolutionary events in France were so important to Whitman’s attempt to come to terms with the ailing body of democracy” that when he heard about Louis Napoléon’s imprisonment at Sedan “he added a note in support of the popular struggle in France to the last page of Democratic Vistas just before he sent the pamphlet to the printer.”
In a gesture of deep solidarity with French revolutionaries, Whitman writes: “O that I could express, in my printed lines, the passionate yearnings, the pulses of sympathy, forever throbbing in the heart of These States” for their revolutionary struggle. It is arguably in his salute to these putatively more radical and egalitarian insurrectionist movements where Whitman is at his most interesting.
The “Songs of Insurrection” testify to Whitman’s heartfelt commitment to and love for revolutionary power. The speaker in the poems reveals a deep camaraderie with the Communards:
For I am the sworn poet of every dauntless rebel, the
And he going with me leaves peace and routine behind
And stakes his life, to be lost at any moment.
Camaraderie, as Gilles Deleuze reminds us, is the term Whitman employs to “designate the highest human relation”: a “society of comrades” and a “march of souls in the open air.” He sees himself embodied in those who would risk “peace and routine,” carrying the weight of popular struggle and leading the way to liberation. For Whitman, the century of insurrectionist revolt in France is that from which “the great word solidarity has arisen,” as he says in Democratic Vistas. Like that essay, according to Erkillä, “Whitman’s ‘Songs of Insurrection’ were shaped by a similar urge to express American sympathy for the popular uprisings in Europe, and especially in France.”
In a voice that wavers between warning cry and rallying cry, the poems’ speaker offers words designed to rouse revolutionary spirit — a spirit that is unshakeable:
Then courage! European revolter! revoltress!
For, till all ceases, neither must you cease.
I do not know what you are for, (I do not know what
I am for myself, nor what anything is for,)
But I will search carefully for it even in being foil’d,
In defeat, poverty, misconception, imprisonment—for
they too are great.
Revolt! and the bullet for tyrants!
Did we think victory great?
So it is—But now it seems to me, when it cannot be
help’d, that defeat is great,
And that death and dismay are great.
Worn-out and bruised from defeat, socialists everywhere can identify with the final lines. Learning soon that yet another popular movement is quashed by state forces and the might of the ruling class, Whitman nevertheless presents a model for what international solidarity should look like — at once admiring of their cause and sympathetic to the barriers against victory. The demise of the Paris Commune during “The Bloody Week” was one such moment that justifiably led to momentary a retreat from revolutionary struggle. However, instead of despairing failures, the commitment to democracy means that one anticipates defeat: “Liberty! let others despair of you! I never despair of you.”
Whitman knew then, as we know today, that the ongoing struggle for liberation can be dispiriting. Unfortunately, it is also in these moments of despair, heartbreak, and defeat where revolutionaries can lose focus.
Whitman, thus, offers at the end of the “Songs” a caution to the democratic poets and revolutionaries in the US:
To The States, or any one of them, or any city of The
States, Resist much, obey little;
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved;
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city, of this earth,
ever afterward resumes its liberty.
It is here again where Whitman’s words can be easily construed and co-opted by a liberal elite, as the revolutionary spirit is emptied of any working-class or anti-capitalist content. It seems to be, instead, simply an attitude of opposition and contrarianism — sentiments which can easily appeal to anyone across the ideological spectrum.
We can locate here the tension in Whitman’s political ideals that make it difficult to fully embrace him from a socialist perspective. While his proclamations in support of the Commune are exemplars of international solidarity, they are also offered by someone who uncritically parroted American nationalism and hastily celebrated the American experiment, despite its ongoing patterns of destruction of which he was most certainly aware.
Whitman’s clarity about the events in France leaves much to be desired in the rest of his political observations. Had he not been so invested in declaring himself the “American bard” he likely would have taken a more critical perspective toward US democracy and engaged more actively in working class struggle.
The issue comes down, it seems, to Whitman’s impassioned defense of freedom and liberty, ideals from which he never wavered throughout his life. Yet, where Whitman misses the mark is when he seems to forget that freedom and liberty are neither disconnected from, nor incidental to, the cause of collective, international struggle and radical democracy. They are permanently tied together.
The material systems of coercive power are conditions that cannot be excluded from an emancipatory vision, especially if its horizon is international in breadth. It is a fight that engages everyone, regardless of country and status.
Resisting Empire requires the level of sacrifice, camaraderie and commitment that Whitman seemed to admire in the Communards. If the main focus of liberty, though, is placed upon individual freedom, then that freedom will always flow toward those who maintain the most material power —which makes Whitman is so appealing to conservatives. Those in power can simply invoke Whitman’s cries for liberty to justify the grotesque pursuit of wealth against any demands to provide a social good.
The bridge from individual liberty to collective liberation comes up against the challenge of making the stakes of collective liberation visible. This is where the poet comes in. Where Whitman succeeded, is in making solidarity knowable and visible; he made it an ideal that can be absorbed and productively engaged from the left.
We should not take Whitman as a sole, leading voice for socialists, but there is also nothing to say we have to. We can simply take up Henry Miller’s challenge to not only read Whitman, but to “include his thought and go beyond it.” And in our present moment of alienation and fragmentation, international solidarity and camaraderie are in short supply. But as long as we can see and know it, through the words and “songs” that Whitman provides, the joy of solidarity can be a weapon in the hands of a revolutionary, challenging and confronting those systems that wish to obscure its power.