Wieck: An Anarchist Life
David Thoreau Wieck, an anarchist theorist, educator,
I met David 33 years ago, four years after he started teaching philosophy at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. I had no idea who he really was. He was just my professor in "Logic and Argument," an introduction to logical analysis. He would come into class looking neat, hair combed back and shirt tucked into his pants. But not long into class, he was drawing his hands through his hair, and twisting with such excitement, that his shirt would be out of his pants and his hair would go in all directions. I had never met anyone who was so involved in his teaching--and this was about logic, not politics, remember!
David was born in 1921, to parents who themselves were notable activists of their day. His mother, about whom David wrote an unusually insightful memoir, Woman from Spillertown: A Memoir of Agnes Burns Wieck, was known as "the Mother Jones of Illinois" for her work as a labor organizer. David's own principles eventually led him into jail for 34 months as a conscientious objector during W.W.II. As he told it, there "I learned the methods of non-violent resistance and ... what a hunger-strike is like by fasting for ten days in support of other C.O.'s."
After the war David returned to New York City to join the editorial board of Why?, soon to become Resistance, on which he played the leading role until it ceased being published in 1954. This publication provided a crucial voice and support for many people, including Paul Goodman before he became famous in his own right. Another member of Why?'s editorial board, even before David, was Diva Agostinelli, whose life is a good story itself, including a family heritage of other anarchists. To David she was also "my life-partner."
In 1958 David returned to Columbia University, his alma mater of 1941, to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy and came to Rensselaer to teach. David did not draw a line between theory and practice, between an intellectual life and an activist life. As he himself pointed out in his famous little piece, "The Habit of Direct Action": "the important distinction is between talk that it is mere moral assertion or propositional argument, and talk (in fact: direct action) which conveys a feeling, an attitude relevant to the desired end." David was always challenging his students and friends alike to think more clearly and deeply about everything they thought and did.
He had a way of drawing humor out of people as well. It was his laugh itself, I now realize: so delightful was it to hear, I would do anything to make it happen. And yet he could be intimidating to people at the same time, as they were often so distracted by his penetrating eyes and sharp tongue that they could not hear the twinkle of playfulness in his laughter. He was a truly wonderful person, and the world will sorely miss him.
David was fond of saying that, as an idea, anarchism is a negativity, because it can tell us what we need to unlearn in order to be free, but it cannot tell us how to use that freedom: anarchism does not impose a certain life on us, it challenges us to make a decent life together, to rid ourselves of all vestiges of the authority of power, political authority. To understand the mutual aid of our own authority of competence, David liked us to picture two sawyers, at either end of a two-person saw, cutting through a tree. For the work we need to do together, David had a special gift of description.
Right up to the end, even though he had suffered from Alzheimer's for several years, David could display his customary insight. One of his care-givers, herself Black, told Diva that David had said to her: "It's not the heritage of slavery that is the problem for Blacks. It is their exploitation today." When the caregiver asked her own companion how he understood David's remark, he replied, "You earn $4.35 an hour."
~ John Schumacher
John Schumacher is a regular contributor to anarchist publications and the author of Human Posture: The Nature of Inquiry (Suny Press, 1989). He lives in Troy, New York.