What is There in Anarchy for Emma Goldman?
An extended essay from the “Anarchism for Free Spirits”
Part One: The Cause
In this essay, I intend to investigate and interrogate the life and thought of Emma Goldman – mostly in her own words. If you read the first ten chapters of her memoir, Living My Life, written in the late 1920s and first published in 1931, you immediately get a sense of a young woman of great passion and sensitivity who had a childhood in parts of the Russian Empire and in German-speaking Königsberg that was at times physically brutal at the hands of a violent father and vicious teachers, relatives and acquaintances. The young Goldman was whipped, punched, kicked downstairs and sexually abused by those in whose care she was under and she also recounts the forced attentions of a young man upon her teenage body in a Russian hotel room as well as being struck by her mother for being found touching her youthful sex. Yet a third thing we find in these early chapters, besides a woman of great passion and sensitivity who had endured a physically testing upbringing, is an emphasis, in her retelling of how she began her life as an anarchist in New York, on “the Cause”.
This was particularly brought to her attention due to her being introduced to a young man with a large appetite in a cafe for radicals in New York on her first day there in August 1889. That man was to be her companion through adult life, Alexander Berkman. It was Berkman who was, at first, so animated by “the Cause” and who chided Fedya Stein, their common friend and confidant, for spending money [which they barely seem to have had very much of] on what Berkman thought of as “luxuries” but which Stein and Goldman thought of as “necessaries” that would bring some beauty and enjoyment into life. It was Goldman’s intuition, as it was Stein’s [who was an artist], that attachment to “the Cause” did not mean one had to live like a monk or a nun in a life of ascetic denial. [In this respect we get Goldman’s story about revolution and dancing.] Berkman had a different idea, however, and Goldman mentions “the Revolutionary Catechism” in this respect, the work of the Russian nihilist, Sergey Nechayev, that was first produced in 1869, the year of Goldman’s birth. This document sets out the demands upon the anarchist revolutionary [anarchist and nihilist have similar meanings in this context] and I quote it here below in full to give a flavour of what Berkman meant by “the Cause” and so the standard which Goldman found herself confronted with upon her falling in with Russian and German anarchists:
The Duties of the Revolutionary toward Himself
The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution.
The revolutionary knows that in the very depths of his being, not only in words but also in deeds, he has broken all the bonds which tie him to the social order and the civilized world with all its laws, moralities, and customs, and with all its generally accepted conventions. He is their implacable enemy, and if he continues to live with them it is only in order to destroy them more speedily.
The revolutionary despises all doctrines and refuses to accept the mundane sciences, leaving them for future generations. He knows only one science: the science of destruction. For this reason, but only for this reason, he will study mechanics, physics, chemistry, and perhaps medicine. But all day and all night he studies the vital science of human beings, their characteristics and circumstances, and all the phenomena of the present social order. The object is perpetually the same: the surest and quickest way of destroying the whole filthy order.
The revolutionary despises public opinion. He despises and hates the existing social morality in all its manifestations. For him, morality is everything which contributes to the triumph of the revolution. Immoral and criminal is everything that stands in its way.
The revolutionary is a dedicated man, merciless toward the State and toward the educated classes; and he can expect no mercy from them. Between him and them there exists, declared or concealed, a relentless and irreconcilable war to the death. He must accustom himself to torture.
Tyrannical toward himself, he must be tyrannical toward others. All the gentle and enervating sentiments of kinship, love, friendship, gratitude, and even honor, must be suppressed in him and give place to the cold and single-minded passion for revolution. For him, there exists only one pleasure, one consolation, one reward, one satisfaction — the success of the revolution. Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim — merciless destruction. Striving cold-bloodedly and indefatigably toward this end, he must be prepared to destroy himself and to destroy with his own hands everything that stands in the path of the revolution.
The nature of the true revolutionary excludes all sentimentality, romanticism, infatuation, and exaltation. All private hatred and revenge must also be excluded. Revolutionary passion, practiced at every moment of the day until it becomes a habit, is to be employed with cold calculation. At all times, and in all places, the revolutionary must obey not his personal impulses, but only those which serve the cause of the revolution.
The Relations of the Revolutionary toward his Comrades
The revolutionary can have no friendship or attachment, except for those who have proved by their actions that they, like him, are dedicated to revolution. The degree of friendship, devotion and obligation toward such a comrade is determined solely by the degree of his usefulness to the cause of total revolutionary destruction.
It is superfluous to speak of solidarity among revolutionaries. The whole strength of revolutionary work lies in this. Comrades who possess the same revolutionary passion and understanding should, as much as possible, deliberate all important matters together and come to unanimous conclusions. When the plan is finally decided upon, then the revolutionary must rely solely on himself. In carrying out acts of destruction, each one should act alone, never running to another for advice and assistance, except when these are necessary for the furtherance of the plan.
All revolutionaries should have under them second — or third — degree revolutionaries — i.e., comrades who are not completely initiated. These should be regarded as part of the common revolutionary capital placed at his disposal. This capital should, of course, be spent as economically as possible in order to derive from it the greatest possible profit. The real revolutionary should regard himself as capital consecrated to the triumph of the revolution; however, he may not personally and alone dispose of that capital without the unanimous consent of the fully initiated comrades.
When a comrade is in danger and the question arises whether he should be saved or not saved, the decision must not be arrived at on the basis of sentiment, but solely in the interests of the revolutionary cause. Therefore, it is necessary to weigh carefully the usefulness of the comrade against the expenditure of revolutionary forces necessary to save him, and the decision must be made accordingly.
The Relations of the Revolutionary toward Society
The new member, having given proof of his loyalty not by words but by deeds, can be received into the society only by the unanimous agreement of all the members.
The revolutionary enters the world of the State, of the privileged classes, of the so-called civilization, and he lives in this world only for the purpose of bringing about its speedy and total destruction. He is not a revolutionary if he has any sympathy for this world. He should not hesitate to destroy any position, any place, or any man in this world. He must hate everyone and everything in it with an equal hatred. All the worse for him if he has any relations with parents, friends, or lovers; he is no longer a revolutionary if he is swayed by these relationships.
Aiming at implacable revolution, the revolutionary may and frequently must live within society while pretending to be completely different from what he really is, for he must penetrate everywhere, into all the higher and middle-classes, into the houses of commerce, the churches, and the palaces of the aristocracy, and into the worlds of the bureaucracy and literature and the military, and also into the Third Division and the Winter Palace of the Czar.
This filthy social order can be split up into several categories. The first category comprises those who must be condemned to death without delay. Comrades should compile a list of those to be condemned according to the relative gravity of their crimes; and the executions should be carried out according to the prepared order.
When a list of those who are condemned is made, and the order of execution is prepared, no private sense of outrage should be considered, nor is it necessary to pay attention to the hatred provoked by these people among the comrades or the people. Hatred and the sense of outrage may even be useful insofar as they incite the masses to revolt. It is necessary to be guided only by the relative usefulness of these executions for the sake of revolution. Above all, those who are especially inimical to the revolutionary organization must be destroyed; their violent and sudden deaths will produce the utmost panic in the government, depriving it of its will to action by removing the cleverest and most energetic supporters.
The second group comprises those who will be spared for the time being in order that, by a series of monstrous acts, they may drive the people into inevitable revolt.
The third category consists of a great many brutes in high positions, distinguished neither by their cleverness nor their energy, while enjoying riches, influence, power, and high positions by virtue of their rank. These must be exploited in every possible way; they must be implicated and embroiled in our affairs, their dirty secrets must be ferreted out, and they must be transformed into slaves. Their power, influence, and connections, their wealth and their energy, will form an inexhaustible treasure and a precious help in all our undertakings.
The fourth category comprises ambitious office-holders and liberals of various shades of opinion. The revolutionary must pretend to collaborate with them, blindly following them, while at the same time, prying out their secrets until they are completely in his power. They must be so compromised that there is no way out for them, and then they can be used to create disorder in the State.
The fifth category consists of those doctrinaires, conspirators, and revolutionists who cut a great figure on paper or in their cliques. They must be constantly driven on to make compromising declarations: as a result, the majority of them will be destroyed, while a minority will become genuine revolutionaries.
The sixth category is especially important: women. They can be divided into three main groups. First, those frivolous, thoughtless, and vapid women, whom we shall use as we use the third and fourth category of men. Second, women who are ardent, capable, and devoted, but whom do not belong to us because they have not yet achieved a passionless and austere revolutionary understanding; these must be used like the men of the fifth category. Finally, there are the women who are completely on our side — i.e., those who are wholly dedicated and who have accepted our program in its entirety. We should regard these women as the most valuable of our treasures; without their help, we would never succeed.
The Attitude of the Society toward the People
The Society has no aim other than the complete liberation and happiness of the masses — i.e., of the people who live by manual labor. Convinced that their emancipation and the achievement of this happiness can only come about as a result of an all-destroying popular revolt, the Society will use all its resources and energy toward increasing and intensifying the evils and miseries of the people until at last their patience is exhausted and they are driven to a general uprising.
By a revolution, the Society does not mean an orderly revolt according to the classic western model — a revolt which always stops short of attacking the rights of property and the traditional social systems of so-called civilization and morality. Until now, such a revolution has always limited itself to the overthrow of one political form in order to replace it by another, thereby attempting to bring about a so-called revolutionary state. The only form of revolution beneficial to the people is one which destroys the entire State to the roots and exterminated all the state traditions, institutions, and classes in Russia.
With this end in view, the Society therefore refuses to impose any new organization from above. Any future organization will doubtless work its way through the movement and life of the people; but this is a matter for future generations to decide. Our task is terrible, total, universal, and merciless destruction.
Therefore, in drawing closer to the people, we must above all make common cause with those elements of the masses which, since the foundation of the state of Muscovy, have never ceased to protest, not only in words but in deeds, against everything directly or indirectly connected with the state: against the nobility, the bureaucracy, the clergy, the traders, and the parasitic kulaks. We must unite with the adventurous tribes of brigands, who are the only genuine revolutionaries in Russia.
To weld the people into one single unconquerable and all-destructive force — this is our aim, our conspiracy, and our task.
We know from how Emma Goldman writes about Berkman’s attitude to “the Cause” in the early chapters of her memoir that she was not entirely onside with such attitudes as this because Berkman came across to her in this respect as harsh and joyless, particularly in his constant complaining about any perceived luxury fellow anarchists spent their money on. Berkman seems to have been a young revolutionary who thought there was no room for the slight extravagance or enjoyment in life. Goldman was not of the same mind and instinctively wanted life to be about enjoyment, beauty and the occasional treat. We can see right from her first meeting with Berkman, in fact, that her “beautiful ideal” was what motivated her interest in anarchism, a perhaps utopian wish that all could find joy and beauty in life, each as they wished. In fact, as she expressed to the gentleman in the immortalised dancing incident, a “cause” that didn’t involve such joy and beauty was not anything she was interested in. One should not make the mistake, however, of concluding from this that Goldman was some naive wallflower or empty bohemian. She had an instinctive need, and an invective talent, for feeling hard done by – both on her own part and on the part of those for whom she felt affection — and she consequently didn’t hold her tongue about it! She seems to have had this from her mother’s womb for she recounts multiple childhood occasions where she was punished for knowing exactly what she wanted regardless of consequences and saying so to her inevitable detriment. It would be a talent she never lost.
In 1892 Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman were the two main figures in a plot to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, a violently anti-union man who had decided to stop negotiation with factory workers on a collective basis, fire them all and only rehire them on individual terms. He fenced off the factories and hired private detectives to physically reinforce his policy decisions. His actions caused headlines and this brought him to the attention of Goldman and Berkman who, for a couple of years now, had been looking for a way to involve themselves in their “Cause”. They seem to have both instinctively realised this was it and came very easily to the conclusion that Frick must die [for propaganda reasons]. So it was that, in July 1892, Berkman tricked his way into Frick’s office, shot him three times before being clubbed to the floor with a hammer and further managed to stab Frick before being pummelled into unconsciousness. Berkman would receive a 22 year prison sentence as a result, serving 14 years.
The effect on Goldman was also noticeable, however. In her memoir she occasionally feels shame that she had not been there to suffer the same fate as Berkman and belittles her own hardships besides those of the man now imprisoned. She acts, sometimes violently, in defence of Berkman when some others, like her initial “teacher” in anarchism – Johann Most – decried his actions and their uselessness. [In this respect, Goldman purchased a horsewhip and struck Most with it repeatedly at a public meeting at which he was speaking.] But, more than this, it seems to me that Goldman, who now had to make her own choices without her companion Berkman to confer with, felt the need to put herself in harm’s way, realising that “the Cause” – like an “ideal” — was not a matter of holding private beliefs about which one did nothing. In fact, not least in the light of Nechayev’s Catechism, it could never mean any less than total commitment and action, albeit that Goldman would always be a person who fought within herself over the place of personal desires in regard to the requirements of the Cause.
Thus, it is that just one year after Berkman’s imprisonment we find Goldman giving the following speech in Union Square, New York, at a gathering of starving and unemployed workers:
“Men and women… do you not realize that the State is the worst enemy you have? It is a machine that crushes you in order to sustain the ruling class, your masters. Like naïve children you put your trust in your political leaders. You make it possible for them to creep into your confidence, only to have them betray you to the first bidder. But even where there is no direct betrayal, the labor politicians make common cause with your enemies to keep you in leash, to prevent your direct action. The State is the pillar of capitalism, and it is ridiculous to expect any redress from it. Do you not see the stupidity of asking relief from Albany with immense wealth within a stone’s throw from here? Fifth Avenue is laid in gold, every mansion is a citadel of money and power. Yet there you stand, a giant, starved and fettered, shorn of his strength. Cardinal Manning long ago proclaimed that ‘necessity knows no law’ and that ‘the starving man has a right to a share of his neighbor’s bread.’ Cardinal Manning was an ecclesiastic steeped in the traditions of the Church, which has always been on the side of the rich against the poor. But he had some humanity, and he knew that hunger is a compelling force. You, too, will have to learn that you have a right to share your neighbor’s bread. Your neighbors — they have not only stolen your bread, but they are sapping your blood. They will go on robbing you, your children, and your children’s children, unless you wake up, unless you become daring enough to demand your rights. Well, then, demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread. It is your sacred right!”
Notable in Goldman’s descriptions of this event is the feeling she had that she had to do something to support and encourage the workers of the East Side among whom she had been living and who, in some respects, were the natural members of the anarchist ranks. She also did this in the face of her new lover, Edward Brady, an Austrian come to New York who supported the Cause but who had very different ideas about commitment to it than Goldman did [and so who did not share her “ideal”]. In particular, he seemed to regard men as the head of women and women, much as Goldman’s father had, as simple babymakers who should settle down, having been allocated a husband, to become wives and mothers. Thus, before this speech, we find Brady telling Goldman that “he will not permit” her to get involved in any action [Goldman had, previous to this, been quite sick with tuberculosis] and Goldman being possessed of, not for the first or last time in her life, a strong and undeniable call to the Cause and the need to deal with the personal consequences of that call. There was never any doubt that Goldman was going to do what she felt in her bones she had to do and, consequently, she set herself on a path of personal frustrations with those who wanted to restrain her from giving her all as she felt she had to. Although Goldman would have many great loves in her life, and although these would always cause her great anguish as a result, these loves never ultimately were as important to her as her personal attachment to the Cause, something that greatly disappointed Goldman since all she really wanted, but really never got, was a passionate love with a man who shared her values. Her bond with Berkman, one born out of their jointly planned attack on Frick but which was not a sexual bond after his release from prison, was the closest she would ever come.
Goldman was arrested a few days after the speech in Union Square and was about to face her own imprisonment of ten months for incitement to riot. Of course, she chided herself for being concerned about it when her companion Berkman was still potentially facing two decades inside. If he had been prepared to sacrifice everything then she must be too. Her memoir contains several references to her doubting the strength of her own “revolutionary faith” [Goldman’s text, although she was a stout atheist, contains many religious references. She calls Berkman “consecrated” and a “martyr”, for example] and doubting the point or efficacy of actions undertaken, not least the attentat for which Berkman was now suffering. Goldman, in her retelling of her story, always, in such times, sets a “beautiful”, “high” or “great” ideal before her and the description does not seem completely shorn of religious zeal – albeit that Goldman would have disdained such an idea. Yet this is how it comes across and Nietzsche’s charge that the various socialisms and anarchisms of the day were all so much secularised Christianity does not now seem so far-fetched when one considers the actual language Goldman uses to describe what she is doing and why in her own words; “No sacrifice is lost for a great ideal.”
Indeed, we may say that Goldman seems to regard her path as both sacred and committed, something that no one, whether close friend or beloved lover, should expect her to deviate from. It was a course that, once chosen, no one could reasonably expect her to give up and is demonstrative of the fact that anarchism, for Goldman, was not just some private interest one took part in whilst living “normal life”. It was a call which demanded everything and was ultimately more important than even deeply desired relationships [the most obvious analogue of which is exactly the religious call]. Goldman openly acknowledges this conflict in her text, saying, “To the end of my days I should be torn between the yearning for a personal life and the need of giving all to my ideal.” But, unfortunately for Ed Brady as for others who, from time to time, wished to normalise Goldman to the life of wife and mother, Goldman’s view was that “anarchism… embraces every phase of life and effort and… undermines the old, outlived values.” The ideal must ultimately eclipse that which had come before and so disappoint everyone stuck in the past who could not step forward to face an anarchist future as Goldman could.
“Of what use are ideals that you cannot live up to?” is then a question constantly present in Goldman’s memoir. In other words, you must expect suffering, and be prepared to suffer, for the values of anarchism, for these values, and the commitment they demand, are not compatible with either “normal life” or with inaction on their behalf. [“Nothing worth anything in life is achieved without pain.”] Goldman was certainly not blind to the fact that this zeal for the Cause made her stand out in a world of inauthentic people who could read radical literature all day yet never have a single word of it genuinely penetrate their sleeping minds so that they woke up to a new reality [a complaint of hers]. So, as Goldman says of herself in relation to Ed Brady: “What I prized most was freedom, freedom to do my work, to give myself spontaneously and not out of duty or by command. I could not submit to such demands; rather would I choose the path of a homeless wanderer; yes, even go without love.” And ultimately in Brady’s case, as with that of every other lover, she did.
Emma Goldman was neither the first feminist nor the first anarchist. Along with her comrade-in-anarchy, Voltairine de Cleyre, she was, however, the pioneer of bringing these two together and insisting that they implicate and entail each other. Goldman, probably even more than de Cleyre, who ploughed her own valuable and individual furrow, was one who pushed the consequences of anarchism back into the constitution and practice of every single human relationship – including that between husband and wife and that between parent and child. In this respect, she had novel and, to many, even among anarchists, disturbing ideas about the place of women in society and how children should be raised and schooled. Who else but Emma Goldman can we imagine standing in Peter Kropotkin’s own house in England and carrying on a heated debate with the master of the house about the necessity of “the sex question” [as women’s rights were called in those days] to the anarchist Cause? As Goldman tells the story, Kropotkin backs down when Emma sarcastically points out that Kropotkin is an old man who is past sexual enjoyment and so can no longer be expected to regard it as a concern. Yet we should note that Goldman’s views on the emancipation of women and the collective raising of children [so not merely by their biological parents] are only taking further than perhaps Kropotkin could himself see his own notions of mutual aid and human cooperation as the effective means of a new political relationship between people. Goldman was thinking out the consequences of Kropotkin’s own ideas more fully than even he was and Goldman was not afraid to push the revered academic of the movement further than he wanted to go in order to see it.
This leads us to ask a question of Goldman that so many commentators on her anarchism seem bound to ask even though, in reality, it really doesn’t matter much: what kind of anarchist was she? Many commentators here, usually people who imagine they have skin in the game, want to polemically assign Goldman a label in order to classify her and ‘put her in her place’ in so many words. [Murray Bookchin’s constant and indecent haste to assign her to an “individualist” anarchism is here only the most obvious, and most obviously rushed, example.] But that doesn’t do Emma Goldman justice for I believe she was novel in her approach – unique even, as we might expect a student of Max Stirner to be – and so calling her an “anarchist communist” [as Kropotkin and Malatesta] or an “individualist” [by which she would have understood the likes of Benjamin Tucker who she certainly regarded as having different priorities to her] doesn’t really work.
Readers of my other books will say, of course, that I myself wanted to include her in the pantheon of “egoist” anarchists in my last book, Egoism Explained, and this is true since a person who mentions Stirner and Nietzsche in the course of her work and who talks about “my ideal” rather than “the ideal” would seem open to an egoist interpretation which I would find it almost impossible to deny as at least part of her make up. Yet, as we know, Goldman also claims allegiance to the teachings of Kropotkin in regard to communistic organisation [not that egoism, at least Stirnerite egoism, would be against this for that was against “sacred communism” not communism as a form of human organisation] and so she is not woodenly simplistic or ridiculously partisan about being a representative of an identifiable “wing” of anarchism. Emma Goldman, in my view, has a personal vision in regard to what is important in anarchism and, in that, I believe we see what is most anarchist about anarchism at all: that you do your own thinking for yourself and come to your own conclusions about it and then form your own friendships which leads to your own action. Goldman is clear in Living My Life that her anarchism is never dogma and that is how she lived it as well — so we should be loathe to label her in this respect.
But this is not to say, of course, that there were not things which make Goldman’s own profession of anarchism distinct and, contrary to much disparaging thought on her own intellectual prowess in this regard, substantial. It is true to say that Goldman was not a detached theorist of anarchism in the way, for example, that her friend and colleague Kropotkin was. Goldman was an agitator, an activist, a person who got out amongst it who had something to say, a woman who would take police punches to the face which knocked her to the ground and knocked out her teeth [which actually happened], in order to have her say. She was one who wanted to rouse people from their incarcerated slumbers rather than one who wanted to teach theories about utopian social arrangements. Her concern was emotional and responsive to human suffering rather than detachedly theoretical.
It was, thus, also practical in its purpose and intent, a way that she thought people could avoid the social, moral, political and economic binds they found themselves in if only they would begin thinking for themselves. Goldman’s was an “eyes open” kind of anarchism and the purpose of her activity was to open eyes so that new kinds of human relationship could then be seen for the first time as matters of human possibility. Her enemies in this respect were then things most people never seemed to doubt – the legitimate existence of political states and governments, property rights, church dogmas, hierarchical and patriarchal morals, the economics of capitalism – and her actions were in order to make people doubt both the inevitability and the justification of all of them. Goldman, I would maintain, was as theoretically radical as any anarchist you could name and for this reason: she took seriously the anarchist idea that you should think and act for yourself in order to come up with your own construction of what it is about in lived practice. Perhaps most characteristic of Goldman in this respect is that SHE REFUSED TO CHOOSE BETWEEN A PURELY INDIVIDUALIST ANARCHISM AND A PURELY COMMUNIST ONE. SHE INSISTED ON BOTH AS NECESSARY FOR ANARCHISM. Another way of saying this is to point out that Goldman refused to narrow anarchism down to either politics or economics or social organisation. Her anarchism was an anarchism of everything from personal desires to world politics – and everything in between.
We can see this from her first decade as an anarchist, the 1890s. In this decade she took part in an assassination plot with Berkman in the matter of an industrial dispute that was, from the outside, not really anything to do with her, was herself imprisoned a year later for inciting the crowd at a New York rally for starving workers during an economic crisis, travelled to Europe twice, in 1895 and 1899, during which time she lectured abroad, met with other anarchists [such as Kropotkin, Malatesta and Louise Michel] and educated her own mind with the books of Nietzsche, the lectures of Freud and the plays of Ibsen, and engaged in nursing practices which, amongst other things, regularly brought her into contact with prostitution and the poor. Throughout this time, at least in her own memoir, Goldman maintains an active sex life with multiple interested parties and it seems, at least in her telling of her own story, as if this is as important to that story as some workers’ strike she was mobilising money and support for or the matter of Berkman’s imprisonment and actions to have his sentence commuted or otherwise reduced. Anarchism for Goldman in these years begins from the position that anarchism is not the matter of some external organisation of people which eschews state and government but is a matter of the personal values one holds which, at least in Goldman’s case, seem to mandate her to certain actions and to responsibility and response. In this respect it is interesting that Goldman talks in Living My Life about “the Cause” or her “ideal” [whether great, high or beautiful] for this is basically another way of talking about an ethic. Goldman’s anarchism was not a set of rules to be followed or a set of dogmas one could transgress but it was an ever-present ethic which made one responsible — both for their own life and the lives of others.
And Goldman took that cause, ideal or ethic seriously. She felt she had no choice and she seems to have always been measuring herself against others in this respect, whether the Haymarket anarchists who had given their lives for the Cause or Berkman who had paid the 14 year price for their assassination plot, something she stated she would never be able to forget and which bound her to him for life as a result. Where others gave so much and suffered so much for their beliefs Goldman seems to have imagined she could not be expected to give any less. Anarchism did not kill her in the way, for example, it killed Albert Parsons or August Spies or the other Haymarket anarchists who first inspired her to be of anarchist beliefs herself [although it certainly took a physical toll] but it did require, or so she felt, that she constantly put herself in harm’s way whatever the outcome [as she did before both American and Russian governments]. There are, in fact, numerous occasions Goldman willingly put herself in harm’s way where her end could have been violent and final, occasions where lesser men, let alone women, would have feared to tread. For years Goldman braved police, and sometimes mobs, who, to put it mildly, did not have her best interests at heart and if, on those occasions, she had died, no one in authority would have cared. She often received notes from people wishing her dead or describing, in violent detail, the sexual violence and suffering twisted men wanted to inflict upon her. [In this latter case she even remarks upon the ingenuity of the “perversions” to which such men were giving witness in so doing, things which she thought would interest scientists of sex.] Emma Goldman, with her “ideal” and “the Cause”, held herself to a standard, one that required taking responsibility and engaging in response, both to personal desires but also to social and political problems. The ethical demand was to her both obvious and necessarily engaging. She could not, as she often said, turn away as a result. We see this most clearly in her first major interview by Nellie Bly that brought her to public attention on the occasion of her imprisonment for incitement to riot in September 1893. Asked why she was an anarchist, what her object was and what she hoped to gain, she is quoted as replying:
“We are all egoists… There are some that, if asked why they are Anarchists, will say, ‘for the good of the people.’ It is not true, and I do not say it. I am an Anarchist because I am an egoist. It pains me to see others suffer. I cannot bear it. I never hurt a man in my life, and I don’t think I could. So, because what others suffer makes me suffer, I am an Anarchist and give my life to the cause, for only through it can be ended all suffering and want and unhappiness.”
I take this, from my own regular research on Goldman’s life, to be a thoroughly authentic answer that was as true about her as anything she ever said [something also verified in her around 10–12 year association with nursing in order to support herself]. Goldman’s actual one true love was not Berkman or Ed Brady or the later Ben Reitman with whom she would engage in a ten year affair that was the pinnacle of her sexual life, but “the Cause” or her “ideal” [described in a letter published in 1894 by the New York World after her release from imprisonment as “to open the eyes of the oppressed and show them a way to a better condition”]. Goldman was a professed believer in “free love” but, in this respect, we may say that her free love extended to personal affairs which spoke to deep desires in her heart and her body, sexually conceived, but which always, in some way, interfered with her one true love that was “the Cause” – and which were always doomed to lose out to it. Goldman’s was, in this respect, an egoistic anarchism of enlightened self-interest, but an enlightened self-interest she also wanted passionately to ignite in others. Hers was not an abstract political desire to set the world on a course to better organisation of its resources but a response to feeling, to suffering, to desire. Since such things are universal and ineradicable, Goldman came to the logical conclusion: she must dedicate her life to improving human relationships and so the consequences of human relationships. Yet not in a static or theoretical or political way, but in a personal and voluntary and direct way. Goldman’s method was to lead the horse to water but then let it decide if it wanted to drink or not. She was always of a mind that the final and important step was one you had to take yourself and that, in so doing, you liberated yourself to new possibilities in the only way you really possibly could.
In general terms, Goldman impugned systems not individuals – but these were not merely political or economic systems but moral and ethical systems as well. In this respect, Goldman took anarchism right back to the most basic and immediate things one has upon being born, one’s immediate relations, one’s childhood. Get this wrong, Goldman thought, and it would be an uphill battle against values imbibed with mother’s milk thereafter. It is therefore not at all surprising that two strands of Goldman’s anarchistic thought were the emancipatory education and raising of children and the emancipation of women [not least over control and expression of their own sexuality, thought then, as now, to be at the heart of “womanhood”] in total. She thought such things not desirable add-ons after some imagined political breakthrough but necessary to the breakthrough itself. Goldman seems to have seen, where notably many male anarchists did not [and still do not] see, that social and moral anarchism are completely and utterly necessary to any achievement of political change. You cannot change the outside whilst the inside is imprisoned in certain morals and ideas – something we still know to our cost today as more and more “rights” are taken away. In this respect, she found an echo in the Mujeres Libres of Spanish anarchism with whom she would meet and work for some time later on in the final decade of her life. They, too, faced a struggle in which “political” anarchism was seemingly oblivious to the need for anarchism of social and moral consequence that affected human relationships at a basic level. Goldman, in fact, was a pioneer of seeing anarchism as more than a quarrel about political organisation and we should all be entirely grateful that she took such a broad view on its implications lest the philosophy had remained stuck as a matter of politics, economics and little else. This was seemingly never Goldman’s view, however, and in her published essays, to which I now turn, she demonstrates this admirably.
Part Two: Ideas of Anarchism, Practices of Anarchism
Anarchism and Other Essays is the name of the book Goldman published in early 1911 that presented what she thought of as polished versions of talks she had been giving in various social contexts for several years as an expression of her anarchism. These are not just essays about what anarchism is or what about politics and/or economics is wrong with the world, however. Twenty years of anarchist expression on her own behalf after she threw off the shackles of reading Johann Most’s scripts as a fledgling anarchist reveal a woman as keen to talk about the dangers of majorities, the worthlessness of prisons, patriotism and puritanism, and the emptiness of what is currently in her context being called “woman’s emancipation” as anything else. In this presentation of the thought of Goldman she wants to include more pieces about women as prisoners of their sexuality – either inside or outside of marriage – than she does about “anarchism” as a thing in itself. Of course, it is the same values animating her thoughts about Francisco Ferrer and his “modern” education of children as it is her reflections on “the modern drama” but, to someone not familiar with Goldman, it might seem an eclectic selection of pieces and, I must add, it is certainly one specific to her time and place. Her reflections on marriage, for example, carry less force 111 years later because marriage has, over that century and a bit, become less popular and more people are now prepared to forego it in their relationships with others. Her words about marriage being a prison for women therefore carry less overall weight than they would have in her context. But this is not to say that such pieces are now valueless. As I go through her 12 essays in this book I will seek to draw out those things that I think of value to us.
I actually want to begin with Goldman’s preface where she explains that the essays have come from her career to date and form a kind of summary of it in terms of interests and ideas. Here she, perhaps surprisingly, expresses disappointment in her platform career of speaking to gatherings all across America because oral presentation doesn’t actually do much more than assault people with an idea, perhaps wake them up to it. More than once, in fact, Goldman expressed disappointment that in oral engagements it was more a matter of spectacle or entertainment [many came to hear her just to see what would happen] when what she actually wanted was to educate people who were seriously interested in her ideas and so took them seriously. She wanted to interact with people keen to learn and so prepared this book just for such people as would take time to read it and digest its ideas. [I know the feeling Emma for I wholeheartedly share it.] Yet, more than this, Goldman was of the mind – in line with her views about education – that people will only really learn in regard to that which excites their mind and has caught hold of them. This becomes a matter of what sort of people they are and how conscientiously they have prepared and fertilised the soil of their minds in order to receive seeds which might grow into something more. Goldman actually even states in this preface that she would really rather reach those actually animated by her ideas rather than performing for a crowd of those who simply want to be amused. Goldman, as we should see, was SERIOUS in her concerns. It wasn’t an act in search of fame for its own sake. Goldman was, in this respect, not at all cynical.
Something else Goldman’s preface is notable for is its mention of Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche. The immediate context is anarchism as the freedom of the open vista which the anarchist propagandist, such as Goldman, does not fill in for the DETAILS of the anarchist future ARE FOR PEOPLE TO FILL IN THEMSELVES. This is the whole point of a “no leaders” political philosophy, is it not? Goldman, heading off an imagined response to what she will consequently NOT say about anarchism in what follows, says:
“’Why do you not say how things will be operated under Anarchism?’ is a question I have had to meet thousands of times. Because I believe that Anarchism cannot consistently impose an iron-clad program or method on the future. The things every new generation has to fight, and which it can least overcome, are the burdens of the past, which holds us all as in a net. Anarchism, at least as I understand it, leaves posterity free to develop its own particular systems, in harmony with its needs. Our most vivid imagination cannot foresee the potentialities of a race set free from external restraints. How, then, can any one assume to map out a line of conduct for those to come? We, who pay dearly for every breath of pure, fresh air, must guard against the tendency to fetter the future. If we succeed in clearing the soil from the rubbish of the past and present, we will leave to posterity the greatest and safest heritage of all ages.”
Her second point in this respect of wanting to correct assumptions before they are made on the basis of her later text is in regard to her preference for minorities over majorities and consequent lack of trust in the public mass. It is here she brings in Stirner and Nietzsche as examples of those who have, as far as she is concerned, been misconstrued on the basis of random excerpted sentences from their larger works. Fearing the same in regard to herself, she praises Nietzsche as one who “called for a state of society which will not give birth to a race of weaklings and slaves” and Stirner as one whose “individualism contains the greatest social possibilities [but] is utterly ignored. Yet, it is nevertheless true that if society is ever to become free, it will be so through liberated individuals, whose free efforts make society.” Goldman adds here that if she is later to be read as an enemy of the people for “repudiat[ing] the mass”, she would rather accept this than be accused of encouraging them like a demagogue. Her “faith”, she states, lies in the direction of “the potentialities of the individual” for “Only when the latter becomes free to choose his associates for a common purpose, can we hope for order and harmony out of this world of chaos and inequality.” This brief catechism shared with the reader by the by in the form of a preface is actually one of her most anarchist statements in the book.
The lead essay of the book is “Anarchism: What it really stands for” and we can take it from the title that it was a subject Goldman was used to speaking on in a world of sensationalist newspapers who advertised anarchists as bombers and assassins [as they had done repeatedly even of Goldman herself]. Goldman begins here seeing anarchism as a “progressive idea” and, as such, as something no doubt to be prey to the “ignorance and venom of the world it aims to reconstruct”. Indeed, Goldman will refer to “the ignorant mass” or some similar compound idea multiple times in these essays and we may imagine that after 20 years of public speaking Goldman had come to know what kind of response she was to expect to her ideas from “the public”. Casting these as those who reason like “a child” and “make no pretense of knowledge or tolerance”, Goldman moves quickly along to what she likely experienced as the two most common objections to anarchism, these being that “Anarchism is impractical, though a beautiful ideal” and, second, that “Anarchism stands for violence and destruction, hence it must be repudiated as vile and dangerous.” In neither case does Goldman regard her audience as having any education on the subject — although she does credit them with “hearsay or false interpretation” – but she is prepared to consider it and offer a reply.
In fact, that reply, in its major thrust, actually impugns the very ignorance she imagines those who offer such evaluations are speaking from as that which is really destructive. She states:
“How is the ordinary man to know that the most violent element in society is ignorance; that its power of destruction is the very thing Anarchism is combating? Nor is he aware that Anarchism, whose roots, as it were, are part of nature’s forces, destroys, not healthful tissue, but parasitic growths that feed on the life’s essence of society. It is merely clearing the soil from weeds and sagebrush, that it may eventually bear healthy fruit. Someone has said that it requires less mental effort to condemn than to think. The widespread mental indolence, so prevalent in society, proves this to be only too true. Rather than to go to the bottom of any given idea, to examine into its origin and meaning, most people will either condemn it altogether, or rely on some superficial or prejudicial definition of non-essentials. Anarchism urges man to think, to investigate, to analyze every proposition.”
Goldman, who had before this very briefly offered a defence of anarchism’s practicality as that which could revivify stagnant waters or build as well as sustain new life, here then presents anarchism, first, as INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY and thoughtful seriousness. One wonders what she would consequently make of today’s “anarchists” who seem to spend all day sharing “memes” or “shitposts” on social media platforms. Goldman here stands for putting the mind to work for the cause in an intellectually taxing way and, inasmuch as people in general do not, they fall under her judgment, a victim of society’s worst violence: willed, lazy ignorance.
Goldman now offers the following definition of anarchism:
“ANARCHISM: The philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary.”
Saying that government rests on “violence” here means, of course, physical force but we should not forget the aforementioned “ignorance” as violence too for government certainly no less rests on lack of intellectual engagement than it does on police and their weaponry. Governments rely on the stupidity and lack of curiosity of the mass of the people exactly because it so eviscerates their ability to even want to assert their rights or demand their freedoms [which it might never even have occurred to them they had] and this, in fact, will be a major point for Goldman who has a holistic and totalising view of anarchism and its consequences which are a matter of “every phase of life” and not just some bits in distinction to others. Anarchism for Goldman is a matter of “individual, as well as collective; the internal, as well as the external phases.” Important here, too, is that these not be opposed as that which must cast the other out as if we must choose the internal OR the external, the individual OR the collective. Goldman will not have this and demands their harmonious integration. “Self-realization” is not for Goldman the nemesis of “mutual helpfulness and social well-being” [or vice versa] but its entirely necessary companion.
I do not think it would be wrong in my interpretation of Emma Goldman’s anarchism, however, to say that she sees in the concrete human being, the individual, that entity which lives and loves and actually experiences life, the thing which “social well-being” is actually for. It is individual people who can be enslaved or suffer violence; collectivities only do so in the abstract whereas individuals do so in their material persons. When Goldman thinks of the goods anarchism can do it is goods for individuals to experience in their consciousness of themselves [although, of course, not at all necessarily by themselves and Goldman, as is well known, was not averse to sharing and experiencing “good” with others] rather than as abstract collectivities. But her conception of anarchism doesn’t then separate people out into individuals; rather, it harmonises individual and social instincts as organs necessary to the same body [yep, here we go again!] as the following excerpt shows:
“Anarchism is the only philosophy which brings to man the consciousness of himself; which maintains that God, the State, and society are non-existent, that their promises are null and void, since they can be fulfilled only through man’s subordination. Anarchism is therefore the teacher of the unity of life; not merely in nature, but in man. There is no conflict between the individual and the social instincts, any more than there is between the heart and the lungs: the one the receptacle of a precious life essence, the other the repository of the element that keeps the essence pure and strong. The individual is the heart of society, conserving the essence of social life; society is the lungs which are distributing the element to keep the life essence — that is, the individual — pure and strong.”
Goldman has a nice line in keeping individual and social integrated into a wider whole here in a way almost Daoist in its conception [yin and yang? Individual and social?] in which neither can ever be jettisoned for then that whole would be shattered and have a necessary ingredient missing. This, then, is the answer to how someone who praises Stirner and Nietzsche, but also Kropotkin, Malatesta and Louise Michel, someone who was in the social anarchist group of Johann Most but then also the Autonomie group of Josef Peukert, can incorporate “social” but also “egoist” ideas into her conception of anarchism. [I do not believe, by the by, that Goldman was ever really knowingly interested in supporting a partisan form of anarchism. It seems to me she simply and quite willingly blended whatever ideas seemed good to her, wherever they came from, in her own unique blend. In 1894 Voltairine de Cleyre, who emerged from the individualist brand of American anarchism propagated by Benjamin Tucker, referred to Goldman as a “communist” whereas, in 1994, Murray Bookchin, in his own past a Marxist, communist and social anarchist – and soon to be a Communalist – insisted Goldman was an “individualist”. I think this says more about Goldman’s commentators than about Goldman herself who is clear to always keep individual and social together as equally necessary aspects of anarchism.] Goldman, echoing words of Ralph Waldo Emerson whom she thought of as a home grown American anarchist, can praise the “individual instinct” as “the thing of value in the world” but can also talk about “the re-born social soul” as a “still greater truth”. One never negates the other. Anarchism, in fact, “is the great liberator of man from the phantoms that have held him captive; it is the arbiter and pacifier of the two forces for individual and social harmony.”
But what then keeps the individual and social from their imagined harmonious cooperation? What are the enemies of anarchism? Goldman names three:
“Religion, the dominion of the human mind; Property, the dominion of human needs; and Government, the dominion of human conduct, represent the stronghold of man’s enslavement and all the horrors it entails.”
We might put these in other ways, for a moment forgetting the historically contingent wrappers Goldman has put them in, and say that Goldman’s anarchism is primarily concerned with people’s freedom to think uncoerced, their material circumstances and their freedom to act and to associate. Goldman herself wants to say a little more about each of them in what follows as well though. Thus, in reference to religion, she urges “Break your mental fetters, says Anarchism to man, for not until you think and judge for yourself will you get rid of the dominion of darkness, the greatest obstacle to all progress.” Property Goldman regards as “the denial of the right to satisfy… needs” and she launches into a diatribe about the squalid economic conditions of her day [which she had experienced in factories and brothels for herself] which she regards as “machine subserviency”. Still talking about property and the economic conditions it creates for the individual she says:
“A perfect personality, then, is only possible in a state of society where man is free to choose the mode of work, the conditions of work, and the freedom to work. One to whom the making of a table, the building of a house, or the tilling of the soil, is what the painting is to the artist and the discovery to the scientist, — the result of inspiration, of intense longing, and deep interest in work as a creative force. That being the ideal of Anarchism, its economic arrangements must consist of voluntary productive and distributive associations, gradually developing into free communism, as the best means of producing with the least waste of human energy. Anarchism, however, also recognizes the right of the individual, or numbers of individuals, to arrange at all times for other forms of work, in harmony with their tastes and desires.”
Goldman notes here that such an idea is only possible “under complete individual and social freedom” and so where there is no accumulation of private property, consequent inequality of wealth and so inability of many to satisfy basic needs, putting them at the mercy of others. As Goldman says herself: “wealth means power; the power to subdue, to crush, to exploit, the power to enslave, to outrage, to degrade.” It is, thus, wrong in itself.
On the matter of government, Goldman is happy to follow in the footsteps of Americans Emerson and Thoreau, the first of whom thought all government is tyranny whilst the second thought government “but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instance losing its integrity.” At each step, thought Thoreau, governments, through their laws, make people daily more unjust. Government, thinks Goldman, wants to reduce people to clockwork, to cogs in a mechanism whose actions can be controlled and so predicted with complete accuracy. She sees government as that which commits “the greatest of all offenses”, that being “the annihilation of individual liberty”. The State, that in whose fictional name government serves, Goldman thinks of as “the altar of political freedom and, like the religious altar, it is maintained for the purpose of human sacrifice.” Government, Goldman concludes, is just the policeman of property, the muscle which guarantees wealth stays with those greedy and exclusively self-interested enough to have accumulated it. Its only use is the defence of monopoly. It serves no vital life function in the relationships of the mass of people but acts instead as their jailer in what is essentially a vast open prison. Government knows only force “the club, the gun, the handcuff, or the prison” and so is not “a natural law”. Such natural laws, in fact, “the demand for nutrition, for sex gratification, for light, air, and exercise” need only “spontaneity and free opportunity”. They do not need the violent coercion which is the singular talent government has shown an aptitude for. All government offers is “order derived through submission and maintained by terror” but, states Goldman, “True social harmony grows naturally out of solidarity of interests.” It cannot be coerced.
Government then creates a kind of hothouse atmosphere in which everyone is on edge and force and coercion are everywhere. This atmosphere Goldman regards as inimical to individual and social harmony, a “[misdirection of] human energy into the wrong channels” which forces people to do “things they hate to do, living a life they loathe to live” whilst presenting it as nature-born necessity. Goldman is discussing this in the context of crime [which she thinks government-imposed circumstances necessitate even whilst the biggest criminal is “the State”] around which the state erects vast institutions of coercion and force when it is liberty and not control which is alone able to create harmony in and between human beings [and so which would be most beneficial in stopping “crime” should you even concede its existence to begin with]. Goldman, who was one who read psychology and sociology books, is here charging that government doesn’t even have the sense to create a social environment which could produce that which it says it wants [a crime-free society]; instead, it blindly and bluntly proposes violence as the answer to all social ills in a way not at all smart but simply dogmatic.
That said, however, the way to ACTUALLY produce such a society is obvious:
“To achieve such an arrangement of life, government, with its unjust, arbitrary, repressive measures, must be done away with. At best it has but imposed one single mode of life upon all, without regard to individual and social variations and needs. In destroying government and statutory laws, Anarchism proposes to rescue the self-respect and independence of the individual from all restraint and invasion by authority. Only in freedom can man grow to his full stature. Only in freedom will he learn to think and move, and give the very best in him. Only in freedom will he realize the true force of the social bonds which knit men together, and which are the true foundation of a normal social life.”
The formula here is very simple but no less profound for all that and is the very irreducible kernel of Goldman’s anarchism: only in freedom can individuals and societies be the best they can be, be who they can really become; they can never be so by force, force which is all that government ever has, and ever will, offer. Consequently:
“Anarchism, then, really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.”
“Social order” but never forgetting “individual desires, tastes and inclinations” – that is the Goldman way. And this “social order” can only ever be based on “the free grouping of individuals” for that is the only real “liberation” when contrasted with coercion and force. But how to achieve this?
“As to methods. Anarchism is not, as some may suppose, a theory of the future to be realized through divine inspiration. It is a living force in the affairs of our life, constantly creating new conditions. The methods of Anarchism therefore do not comprise an iron-clad program to be carried out under all circumstances. Methods must grow out of the economic needs of each place and clime, and of the intellectual and temperamental requirements of the individual... Anarchism does not stand for military drill and uniformity; it does, however, stand for the spirit of revolt, in whatever form, against everything that hinders human growth. All Anarchists agree in that, as they also agree in their opposition to the political machinery as a means of bringing about the great social change.”
It is not then brought about by politics. It is neither a dogma to be followed in all times and all places. It is contextual, circumstantial, suited to those who carry it out and for whom it is intended. Indeed, it must be this for anarchism is intended to make the lives of specific people in specific places better and so it MUST come from them and be fitted to their specific circumstances. From this we can imagine as many specific manifestations of anarchist living as there are those to carry them out. Hence Goldman refers to Tolstoy, Bakunin and Kropotkin as those who may each legitimately prefer their own methods and to different locations as having different needs. She doesn’t see anything wrong with this; in fact, she seems to think it quite obvious.
In particular, however, Goldman warns against “the political superstition… still holding sway over the hearts and minds of the masses”. Goldman opposes this with Stirner’s egoism, saying that “true lovers of liberty” will “believe with Stirner that man has as much liberty as he is willing to take”. Anarchism, then, is not about politics or getting trapped in the political systems of electoral democracies but is about DIRECT ACTION [here we have warrant to understand this in Stirner’s sense too]. This is:
“open defiance of, and resistance to, all laws and restrictions, economic, social, and moral. But defiance and resistance are illegal. Therein lies the salvation of man. Everything illegal necessitates integrity, self-reliance, and courage. In short, it calls for free, independent spirits, for men who are men, and who have a bone in their backs which you cannot pass your hand through.”
“Open defiance” is not a prescription which leaves much room for manoeuvre. It is not, for example, hiding in a corner or keeping out of the way or playing politics. It is the prescription of deliberate, purposeful, civil disobedience in economic, social and moral spheres. It requires courage and Goldman is glad about this for it will show us who is for real and who is a fake. It will also show people what is necessary and what can only be failure. You cannot achieve the freedoms Goldman seeks by being shy and timid, by hoping to fit in with your imposed surroundings, by hoping someone else will achieve individual and social liberty for you. It is an act you must achieve, deliberately, purposefully, for yourself in acts of defiance and resistance: in acts of ILLEGALITY. I believe that what Goldman is actually doing here is saying that if you want anarchy then you MUST BECOME ANARCHY. You must be that which you want to see. There is no other way. You must take the responsibility yourself in a scenario in which what is sought for is exactly that people take responsibility for themselves.
I think, in fact, that this is actually the lesson of Emma Goldman herself. Goldman is not a theorist of anarchism and what she says about it is simple and rudimentary at best. But that is to miss the point for Goldman’s point is not that anarchism is theoretical but that it is LIVED. It is how you live your life in courage, honesty and integrity. It is facing down police and mobs as she did hundreds if not thousands of times. It is being known for living your values as Goldman was over decades [for example, in being sneered at by moral hypocrites as a believer in “free love”]. It is being prepared to break the law and being honest enough to accept the consequences. It is looking the world in the eye and, in the example of your own life, publicly impugning it. So anarchism is here “open defiance” of politics, of social arrangements, of customs and traditions, of “the way things are”. It is “resistance” against economic and political oppression – even at the cost of arrest, imprisonment or deportation or execution. It is about your self-cultivated “integrity, self-reliance and courage”. It is about being a “free independent spirit” who owes nothing to government or state and who will not bow down to them nor even concede their legitimacy to begin with. That is what Emma Goldman is about. It is not that her theory is spellbinding: IT IS THAT SHE IS LIVING THEORY, SHE DOES WHAT SHE SAYS AND SHE BEARS ITS CONSEQUENCES IN HER LIFE AND HER BODY.
This is why Goldman teaches direct action, for:
“Direct action, having proven effective along economic lines, is equally potent in the environment of the individual. There a hundred forces encroach upon his being, and only persistent resistance to them will finally set him free. Direct action against the authority in the shop, direct action against the authority of the law, direct action against the invasive, meddlesome authority of our moral code, is the logical, consistent method of Anarchism.”
As a good reader of Stirner, Goldman happily takes up the refrain that only in your direct action will you find any salvation from state, economic and individual oppression – and that whether you succeed or fail. You have no choice but to act directly in your own interest for anything else is submission to coercion, to living a life you yourself did not will from your own creation. Such action, thus, stokes the fires of revolution within and is the only means to revolution without [“revolution is but thought carried into action”]. Goldman is saying that you must will individual and social freedom and manifest it in the consistent actions of your own life. There is no other way. And that is what she tried to do herself.
But, turning to her second essay, “Minorities Versus Majorities”, this is not to say that this is what most other people did — not that Goldman in this essay is enamoured of what “most people” do anyway for she believes here that “the majority cannot reason; it has no judgment”. A public love for majorities and for “quantity” [one imagines over “quality”] Goldman in fact sees as a great danger in that the success and power of the wealthy few who control the economics and so politics of life is seen to rely on “the inertia, the cravenness, the utter submission of the mass” who “wants but to be dominated, to be led, to be coerced.” [This analysis, of course, provides useful background for her recently stated views on “direct action” and why it is now seen to be so necessary.] Here Goldman regards “the most unpardonable sin” as “independence of thought” in a now becoming regular refrain of Goldman’s that intellectual curiosity and that you think for yourself are integral parts of her anarchism as a lived practice of life. In social context Goldman sees personal intellectual integrity as a necessary strut in the structure of freedom, something which necessarily resists the dream-like state of groupthink which politicians, media proprietors and others are more than happy to facilitate.
But Goldman has no feeling for stroking the ego of the mass. Public opinion is not that which she intends to stoke. The majority, she states, “represents a mass of cowards, willing to accept him who mirrors its own soul and mind poverty.” Goldman rather tends to think that truth is not guarded by a mass but by a minority who alone can be guided by its light. She gives the example of the “agitator of Nazareth” [a title this former PhD student of the historical Jesus approves of!] whose “principle of brotherhood” remained intact whilst it remained with a few but which was turned into a hierarchy and inquisition once it became a thing of the mass. Goldman seems to be saying that the moment anything becomes a thing to be imposed upon all it betrays whatever was good in it to begin with but that, more than this, a numbers game simply honours raw numbers as if the fact something is popular means it is either good or beneficial. Yet, as should be obvious, it is always out of unpopularity, from perhaps even tiny minorities, that progress comes – and so there is no warrant to see in the mass and in popularity the weather vane of good society. The majority is, in fact, always the stumbling block, the coerced ignorance, the inherent, selfish conservatism of a society rather than its liberty.
Thus, Goldman can say:
“how long would authority and private property exist, if not for the willingness of the mass to become soldiers, policemen, jailers, and hangmen. The Socialist demagogues know that as well as I, but they maintain the myth of the virtues of the majority, because their very scheme of life means the perpetuation of power. And how could the latter be acquired without numbers? Yes, authority, coercion, and dependence rest on the mass, but never freedom or the free unfoldment of the individual, never the birth of a free society. Not because I do not feel with the oppressed, the disinherited of the earth; not because I do not know the shame, the horror, the indignity of the lives the people lead, do I repudiate the majority as a creative force for good. Oh, no, no! But because I know so well that as a compact mass it has never stood for justice or equality. It has suppressed the human voice, subdued the human spirit, chained the human body. As a mass its aim has always been to make life uniform, gray, and monotonous as the desert. As a mass it will always be the annihilator of individuality, of free initiative, of originality. I therefore believe with Emerson that ‘the masses are crude, lame, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered, but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them. Masses! The calamity are the masses. I do not wish any mass at all, but honest men only, lovely, sweet, accomplished women only.’”
And that is all Goldman really has to say on the matter save to add, as a parting shot, that, “In other words, the living, vital truth of social and economic well-being will become a reality only through the zeal, courage, the non-compromising determination of intelligent minorities, and not through the mass.” ‘Anarchism is not a mass movement but a movement of enlightened minorities’ seems then to be her point. “Zeal, courage and the non-compromising determination” of the intelligent is not for everyone. Nor should we expect it to be.
An example of this is furnished in Goldman’s third essay, “The Psychology of Political Violence” which is about those anarchists who committed violent acts in pursuance of their cause. This is a subject Goldman had necessarily had to deal with before, of course, not only because she herself planned an assassination with Alexander Berkman — which he then attempted to carry out — but also because she had vociferously defended Leon Czolgosz when he murdered President McKinley in 1901 [an act which the police for a month vigorously tried all they could, including physical intimidation, to implicate her in as well]. Goldman in fact begins this essay by pointing out that even trying to understand such acts of violence in order to explain them risks being regarded by the aforementioned public mass as “in sympathy” with the doers of such deeds or even as possible accomplices. Goldman, however, remarks that “intelligence and sympathy” are necessary qualities if one wants to understand what is going on in such acts in order to mitigate them. Goldman further suggests we must understand “the indignity of our social wrongs” and “the just indignation that accumulates in a human soul” and “the burning, surging passion that makes the storm inevitable” in such acts; or, at least, we do if we are not just going to assume people engage in such acts without any reason or motivation whatsoever.
But, of course, we might do this and, often, “The ignorant mass looks upon the man who makes a violent protest against our social and economic iniquities as upon a wild beast, a cruel, heartless monster, whose joy it is to destroy life and bathe in blood; or at best, as upon an irresponsible lunatic.” The facts of the matter often do not bear this out, however. Goldman rather sees them as those who take it upon themselves “to pay the toll of our social crimes”, an act, we might imagine, of the “courage and self-reliance”, not to mention “integrity” and “resistance”, she has already spoken about before. “Beyond every violent act,” Goldman insists, “there is a vital cause”. Recalling the case of Auguste Vaillant, who bombed French judiciary as revenge for the death of Ravachol [who had bombed judiciary himself in defence of attacked demonstrating workers] and inspired Émile Henry and Sante Caserio to similarly violent acts after him [the latter killed the French President, the former bombed a regular cafe believing no one is innocent of society’s arrangements but, if not actively against them, effectively acts to buttress them], Goldman asserts that:
“The guilt of these homicides lies upon every man and woman who, intentionally or by cold indifference, helps to keep up social conditions that drive human beings to despair. The man who flings his whole life into the attempt, at the cost of his own life, to protest against the wrongs of his fellow men, is a saint compared to the active and passive upholders of cruelty and injustice, even if his protest destroy other lives besides his own. Let him who is without sin in society cast the first stone at such an one.”
In other words, if by active involvement [perhaps as a cop, jailer or just a snitch] or passive acceptance [unthinking and uncaring of social and political reality] you allow the conditions of oppressive society to continue then you put yourself under threat of material consequence as a result. You may, at any time, be held responsible for your actions which keep you and your fellow human beings coerced. Under such a logic these violent people are then those of social conscience who act as consequences of a reality that cannot be hidden forever. Pressure, being deliberately created, will, sooner or later, rise to the surface. What are those who suffer to do – suffer in silence forever so that those responsible may live undisturbed lives of ignorance? Not according to such as these. The oppressed will, must, one day strike back and who knows where they will strike in their pain and indignation? If you had actually cared that human beings lived decent lives there would have never been a cause to strike in the first place. “Necessity knows no law”, as you should know very well, and in caring less about others you put everyone, even yourselves, in danger as a result.
Goldman then calls up the violent attentat as the inevitable result of more consistent violence already undertaken, passively and actively, by society in general. She refers, for example, to the deed of Czolgosz and the attempt on the life of the Chicago Chief of Police by someone named Averbuch in the following way:
“The question to the intelligent social student is not whether the acts of Czolgosz or Averbuch were practical, any more than whether the thunderstorm is practical. The thing that will inevitably impress itself on the thinking and feeling man and woman is that the sight of brutal clubbing of innocent victims in a so-called free Republic, and the degrading, soul-destroying economic struggle, furnish the spark that kindles the dynamic force in the overwrought, outraged souls of men like Czolgosz or Averbuch. No amount of persecution, of hounding, of repression, can stay this social phenomenon.”
What do you expect, says Goldman, if you are going to physically force people into lives of miserable coercion? Do you expect people to live in states that are effectively social prisons but not have anyone even protest? Do you really expect total, abject docility? Those who commit violent acts, insists Goldman whilst also taking the opportunity to once more defend Berkman’s act of 1892, act out of a need to respond to consistent violent acts wrought upon their neighbours and surroundings by the forces of the state and of capital. To this effect, she repeats the words of Auguste Vaillant at the trial which condemned him to death: “woe to those who, believing themselves of superior essence, assume to exploit those beneath them!” In other words, those of social conscience and possessed of integrity and courage WILL BITE BACK. And when a dog bites it may not always bite the most guiltiest of parties but it will always bite someone who, by being there, made themselves a part of the whole. [Émile Henry, of course, as I discussed in A Handbook for Anarchist Insurrection, justified his bombing of a regular Paris cafe by arguing that no one is innocent in society for all can see well enough what is going on. If they do nothing to stop it, if they do not impede the forces that oppress and coerce us, if they do not TAKE RESPONSIBILITY, then they are little more than allowing it to continue – and they bring such guilt on themselves as a result.]
What’s more, of course, freedom itself, even in the hollow and pathetic versions of these things states claim to offer, has only itself been secured somewhere in earlier times by violence. Did the French get their Revolution by peaceful chatter or by violent uprising? Did America free itself from the crown of England by parley or by gunfire? Were Royalist rights in England met with Parliamentarian talk or Roundhead armies? So, no, you can’t impugn violence as a means to freedom or in response to your own violent acts for it was ever thus. All those who do complain about such acts actually do, in fact, is argue that some people may use violence but not others [a role characteristic of states which insist on a monopoly of violence]. Such people simply insist their opponents must fight unarmed or with their hands tied behind their back. But the forces of political and economic power never intend to renege on their own use of violence for so much as a second.
Bourgeois justice, in fact, does not trouble itself about the innocents it tramples into anonymous history simply in the course of its daily routines at all. Yet out there in the world there are people who simply want to eat, have a modicum of private living space and satisfy natural human needs unmolested. But, says Goldman, as long as “tyranny” continues then so will “terrorists”. Anarchists are not naturally violent people who kill for fun but they do commit acts of social conscience which cry out for relief. Therefore:
“Anarchism, more than any other social theory, values human life above all things. All Anarchists agree with Tolstoy in this fundamental truth: if the production of any commodity necessitates the sacrifice of human life, society should do without that commodity, but it can not do without that life. That, however, in no wise indicates that Anarchism teaches submission. How can it, when it knows that all suffering, all misery, all ills, result from the evil of submission?”
Anarchism, as we have already learned in a previous essay, stands for direct action and a deliberate taking up of human responsibility. It does not sit back and do nothing but proceeds with active intent:
“So long as tyranny exists, in whatever form, man’s deepest aspiration must resist it as inevitably as man must breathe. Compared with the wholesale violence of capital and government, political acts of violence are but a drop in the ocean.”
Goldman’s next essay, in fact, is about this “violence” to which those of political conscience respond for it is about prisons [“Prisons: A Social Crime and Failure”]. In this essay, as in occasional others, Goldman relies on enlightened scholarship, such as that of Havelock Ellis, to whom she often turns, to argue for socially progressive societal solutions. The aim here appears to be twofold; first, to show that governed society does not proceed on the basis of the latest thought but, second, also to show what that thought is and disseminate it [as her magazine Mother Earth habitually did]. In the case of prisons, for example, we may ask why they even exist to begin with. In contemporary context, Goldman thinks its because men would rather risk crime than settle for the grinding poverty in which they are kept. [Remember, we can’t all be rich in capitalist terms otherwise “being rich” would cease to have any meaning. Capitalism is a hierarchical system for differentiating a few rich from a mass of poor.] Moreover, in the words of a convict quoted in one of the reference works to which Goldman refers:
“The laws of society are framed for the purpose of securing the wealth of the world to power and calculation, thereby depriving the larger portion of mankind of its rights and chances. Why should they punish me for taking by somewhat similar means from those who have taken more than they had a right to?”
Goldman sees prison [in which she had at least four extended stays in her 30 year American anarchist career, in 1893–94 for incitement to riot, in 1901 whilst under arrest during the Czolgosz affair, in 1916 for teaching birth control after she refused on principle to pay her initial fine, and from 1917–1919 for inciting Americans to avoid the draft — with dozens and dozens more temporary stays in between at the pleasure of various zealous police forces] as the state’s deliberate use of violence – and not merely on the offender but as a standing psychological threat to the population at large. “But legally and socially the statute exercises punishment, not merely as an infliction of pain upon the offender, but also for its terrifying effect upon others.”
This, she thinks, is based on an outdated philosophical notion that people have “free will” [see chapter 4 of part 1 where Nietzsche disputes this entirely] and so that any “punishment” meted out as a consequence is deserved and that people must pay the price of their freedom. But if people have “free will” don’t they also have “hunger” and what is a person with hunger to do if they don’t have food [or money to buy any]? “Be held responsible if they steal” is what government and the law and the state reply – presumably because they had the free will to starve instead and therefore not impugn the law or authority which, so they imagine, has the highest call upon anyone. [Of course, these are not the only two choices but you get the point.] Goldman’s point here is that the only reason the threat and actuality of violent punishment exists is that terrorising the general population is imagined to have a preventative effect. But do prisons regularly stand empty as testament to their preventative effect? Or do states keep building more and more of them? Prisons, thinks Goldman, are places where human beings are “tortured to be made good” as if being well behaved or law abiding could be violenced into people. Prisons have little to no interest in rehabilitating anyone, according to Goldman, and do not seek to make better citizens but simply to mete out violence to them as if this would have any effect but human degradation [one imagines of both prisoners and their imprisoners].
Assuming, of course, that prisoners are ever to be let out again [not always a wise assumption as repeating tales of people somehow left in prison for 15 years for not paying a parking ticket sometimes reveal] one would imagine that some thought might be given by authorities to what happens to people after they have been released. But not a bit of it as Goldman judges. “These men and women must live, for even an ex-convict has needs. Prison life has made them anti-social beings, and the rigidly closed doors that meet them on their release are not likely to decrease their bitterness.” Once again, Goldman’s point is that government appears always and only to be bad, poorly informed and motivated government, government which tries to drag people in general along with its retrograde ideas which, in Goldman’s mind, also includes “organized labor” which objects to prisoners being allowed to work for a decent wage and so learn useful skills. Goldman thinks working organisations should treat prisoners as brothers “and with his aid turn against the system which grinds them both.” Goldman is, in fact, convinced that “the hope of liberty and of opportunity is the only incentive to life”. If you want people to live honesty and responsibly then you must allow them something to be honest and responsible for and the freedom to engage in it. What we need is societies in which we no longer breed either prisoners or jailers, in fact.
Current society, however, is full of any number of bad habits and ingrained debilitating mentalities. Goldman has essays on two of these in her book in “Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty” and “The Hypocrisy of Puritanism”. To begin here with “patriotism”, the obvious question to ask at first is what it is. Goldman defines it as:
“a superstition artificially created and maintained through a network of lies and falsehoods; a superstition that robs man of his self-respect and dignity, and increases his arrogance and conceit. Indeed, conceit, arrogance, and egotism are the essentials of patriotism. Let me illustrate. Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.”
Sounds pretty fuckin stupid to me as if people automatically had different interests because of lines on a map or accidents of birth. Such people would essentially be fighting for a made up idea or a made up way of life they owe no more allegiance to than does anyone else hold allegiance to theirs. Patriotism then strikes me as ignorant arbitrariness made into a principle on the basis that you in some way “are” these things, these markers of identity, you did not choose. Goldman, in her essay, shows how this ignorant arbitrariness has, in her time, been expressed in ever increasing military budgets [the $2.6 billion US military budget she at one point quotes is now nearer $780 billion so it would seem “patriotism” is not a declining industry] and so comes with a price tag attached [or, expressed in food banks and lack of regular health care, a social and economic cost on the general population, an economic burden]. Patriotism, more often than not, is blind, not reasoned; it requires allegiance and obedience, not thought. Oh, and death – because nothing says “patriot” more than the dead body of someone who doesn’t look like you. What does “patriotism” ACTUALLY protect though, asks Goldman. Why, its the interests of our capitalists, of course. Patriotism, besides being ignorant arbitrariness, is also another capitalist con job — although I’m prepared to grant it can be a Communist con job too.
Once again, however, Goldman wants to go subterranean on ideas and ask if they stand up to scrutiny [of course, they usually don’t, once questioned, for most common beliefs are actually bullshit]. Is it reasonable, as it wasn’t with prisons and criminals, to assume that big guns, large armies and a vast array of weaponry is the best possibility for peace? Goldman thinks this about as realistic as thinking that the most peaceful man is the most armed man. [America has a lot of armed men and most days at least one of them decides to shoot a few random people just to see if his gun is still working.] Goldman argues that well armed people are “invariably anxious” to try their strength [true!] and that the same is true of governments as well [they don’t really buy all those tanks for police forces to have them sitting idle do they? The USA hasn’t militarily occupied the globe to watch, has it?] and consequently we live in a world where you may be machine gunned for littering the sidewalk, running a red light or not answering a police officer fast enough or in the right tone. [In the UK recently a law was passed which imprisons people simply for standing in the road – whether it was already blocked or not. If that doesn’t deter such behaviour I’m sure machine gunning people standing in the road won’t be far away. Of course, in the USA State Governors simply empower people to knock you down with their cars without fear of prosecution which is the same end by different means. Hurrah for the values of “civilization”!] Goldman diagnoses the real reason for armies and military might of the state, however, in population control, especially where any neighbourly solidarity of interest might spontaneously ignite. [That UK law was created in response to elderly climate activists who had started sitting in the road to alert people to using less energy, hopefully saving our planetary environment in the process, a responsible not criminal action.] Then a rhetoric of “the people” emerges and undesirable elements to authority are denounced as threats among us as the apparatus of war and repression is readied and unleashed.
The fact is though that people, and especially Americans, have been taught to fetishize a sort of violence [specifically any violence, usually carried out by others, which they can identify with or claim as in some way their own]. Peace seems like a nice idea but there’s nothing better than killing someone you don’t like who, of course, deserves it [because you don’t like him]. Goldman calls violence “the logic of patriotism” when she states:
“We Americans claim to be a peace-loving people. We hate bloodshed; we are opposed to violence. Yet we go into spasms of joy over the possibility of projecting dynamite bombs from flying machines upon helpless citizens. We are ready to hang, electrocute, or lynch anyone, who, from economic necessity, will risk his own life in the attempt upon that of some industrial magnate. Yet our hearts swell with pride at the thought that America is becoming the most powerful nation on earth, and that it will eventually plant her iron foot on the necks of all other nations.”
Once more I’m urged to reflect on the glory of “civilization” which, with absolute truth, can be designated as that network of human relationships which devises ever easier means to mass kill fellow human beings and lay waste to life in general. I reflect, sometimes on a near constant basis, about how many particularly American films are about violence or which regard violence as the solution to problems. But its only a certain kind of violence, the violence in which I win and you lose in a world in which who the bad guy is and who the good guy is is always obvious. This is the cardboard cut out world of the patriot in Emma Goldman’s terms. Patriotism brings death and must bring death for its fuel is seeing us win and the others lose. If we go too long without that happening it starts to induce doubt or, worse, questioning that what has stood fast as inarguable actually makes no sense if scrutinised. Of course, patriotism must itself NEVER be scrutinised for, if it is, you start to worry why lives on one side of a border count and lives on the other side don’t. So this is why regular death and victory is mandated as a result. It proves our patriotism.
In the course of this essay on patriotism Goldman mentions the case of the soldier William Buwalda who came to her talk on the subject of patriotism, probably a talk much similar to the meat of this one, in San Francisco where he was then serving in 1908. Buwalda, who didn’t agree with a lot of the talk, nevertheless went forward towards the stage at its end and, for some reason, shook Emma Goldman’s hand – a soldier of the state shaking the hand of a woman dedicated to its dissolution. Buwalda was imprisoned on return to his barracks at the Presidio in San Francisco and subsequently court-martialled. His sentence was originally 5 years in jail but was subsequently reduced after an outcry. Buwalda left the Army upon his release and became an anarchist, the events opening his eyes to the lack of the freedoms he had formerly thought he was protecting [singing “the Land of the Free” and living in actual freedom being quite different things].
Goldman mines from this turn of events that patriotism “turns a thinking being into a loyal machine” and we may reflect on this and that all too many regular citizens are more than ready to be its unpaid police officers because they think “the nation” actually exists and faces genuine threats from a whole host of variously generated [but always necessary] others. Goldman can herself join the dots here for she sees patriotism and the militarism it mandates as “the greatest bulwark of capitalism”, the mercenary force that alone ensures capitalism in its survival until our likely common bitter end. Patriotism is, in the end, just another capitalist bribe to keep capitalism going, another artificial way to stop people uniting in the genuine solidarity that is found in the brotherhood of common interests and which Goldman refers to as “that great structure wherein all nationalities shall be united into a universal brotherhood, — a truly FREE SOCIETY.” Patriotism, in fact, dissolves on contact with thought for it cannot be maintained for long that person A from over here has needs any different to person B from over there. That being so, the solution is solidarity not perpetual artificially generated war.
The other example of a brain rot mentality which Goldman attacks in her book is “puritanism”. Goldman’s view of puritanism which, like patriotism, is a freezing of thought in stone, a proscription of thinking [for oneself], a being told what to think, is that it “has made life itself impossible.” She continues:
“life represents beauty in a thousand variations; it is indeed, a gigantic panorama of eternal change. Puritanism, on the other hand, rests on a fixed and immovable conception of life; it is based on the Calvinistic idea that life is a curse, imposed upon man by the wrath of God. In order to redeem himself man must do constant penance, must repudiate every natural and healthy impulse, and turn his back on joy and beauty.”
Obviously a woman possessed of what she referred to as “a beautiful ideal” was never going to have what that was dictated to her. So Goldman gives a brief history of Enlightenment England as a time of Puritanism which inevitably led to the Pilgrim Fathers and the birth of America as a Puritan paradise before bringing this up to date in the censorship of Anthony Comstock who, through his famous postal laws, could literally dictate what people could send through the American postal system – in a time when this was the only way anybody could share anything with anybody else. [Stuff about sexuality, birth control or even various political opinions would regularly fall foul of this as even Goldman’s own Mother Earth did at one point.] Goldman doesn’t just impugn Comstock, however, for she sees him as but the symptom of a more diseased entity comprised of Temperance Unions, Purity Leagues and Prohibition Parties. Wherever someone is having a good time, as the saying goes, there is always someone who wants to put a stop to it.
Inevitably, this becomes something to do with the enjoyment of visceral, bodily pleasures, something with which Goldman was herself not unfamiliar. Of nakedness and sexuality Goldman says:
“’nakedness has a hygienic value as well as a spiritual significance, far beyond its influences in allaying the natural inquisitiveness of the young or acting as a preventative of morbid emotion. It is an inspiration to adults who have long outgrown any youthful curiosities. The vision of the essential and eternal human form, the nearest thing to us in all the world, with its vigor and its beauty and its grace, is one of the prime tonics of life.’ But the spirit of purism has so perverted the human mind that it has lost the power to appreciate the beauty of nudity, forcing us to hide the natural form under the plea of chastity. Yet chastity itself is but an artificial imposition upon nature, expressive of a false shame of the human form. The modern idea of chastity, especially in reference to woman, its greatest victim, is but the sensuous exaggeration of our natural impulses.”
As a consequence:
“Puritanism, with its perversion of the significance and functions of the human body, especially in regard to woman, has condemned her to celibacy, or to the indiscriminate breeding of a diseased race, or to prostitution.”
Goldman here, of course, is not just concerned that puritanical thinking is not free thinking but she is also thinking through its social consequences just as she had done with patriotism before. As the former leads to the violence and war of military might as a demonstration of its patriotism, so here puritans create victims in their moral censure of the body and sexuality, both of which they wish to control as is only too evident in May 2022 as I write this when Roe vs Wade has seemingly been struck down by a conservative Supreme Court in the USA. Goldman charges that puritans actually create, by their arbitrary and fixed views on moral issues, the social problems they then claim to despise with prostitution, in Goldman’s mind, being a perfect example. Puritanism is dogmatism and no dogma ever pays any concern to its consequences; in fact, it simply wants to see itself instantiated regardless of consequences. Goldman thus impugns puritanism on pragmatic grounds if on no others. Puritanism is, thus, essentially the desire for control based on an arbitrary set of views set beyond discussion. It is a power play and is not happy until it has power to instantiate itself by force. In this respect, Goldman says:
“The almost limitless capacity of Puritanism for evil is due to its intrenchment behind the State and the law. Pretending to safeguard the people against ‘immorality,’ it has impregnated the machinery of government and added to its usurpation of moral guardianship the legal censorship of our views, feelings, and even of our conduct.”
It is eradicating, rather than enabling, social control that Emma Goldman and her anarchism are interested in, however, the free association and individual and social development of human beings, and most of the rest of the essays in this book — which are to do with children, women or the relations between men and women – take this up. The first of these is an essay on the Spanish anarchist, Francisco Ferrer, and his methods of “modern” schooling which were carried on in the face of a Spanish schooling system entirely controlled by the Catholic Church. Ferrer was judicially murdered in 1909 by the state at the instigation of the Catholic Church and the heavy inference was that it was because he had dared to teach children a freedom to learn for themselves rather than Catholic dogma that this turn of events came about. Anarchism has a long interest in schooling that goes back to William Godwin and Goldman here mentions Louise Michel, who was also a teacher, whom she had met on one of her visits to London in this respect:
“our own great Louise felt long ago that the future belongs to the young generation; that unless the young be rescued from that mind and soul-destroying institution, the bourgeois school, social evils will continue to exist. Perhaps she thought, with Ibsen, that the atmosphere is saturated with ghosts, that the adult man and woman have so many superstitions to overcome. No sooner do they outgrow the deathlike grip of one spook, lo! they find themselves in the thraldom of ninety-nine other spooks. Thus but a few reach the mountain peak of complete regeneration.”
Such “mountain peaks” seem reminiscent of Zarathustra and it seems Goldman’s intuition that it is best to set off for them as a child rather than as an adult already weighed down with the dogmas of adults inculcated through authoritarian schooling. Goldman, indeed, envisions a kind of social utopia as the desired and necessary environment for the growth of the child into the adult, a place of “proper economic and social environment, the breath and freedom of nature, healthy exercise, love and sympathy”, a place of “deep understanding for the needs of the child” [thought of as a human individual rather than as an anonymous member of a class to be drilled in common]. What better way to make “liberty-loving men and women” than to raise liberty-loving boys and girls, boys and girls raised in liberty? This Goldman contrasts with state schooling that “make the poor in order to perpetuate the poor”. Mentioning Paul Robin and Sebastian Faure along the way, Goldman speaks to schooling which instils in children “the love of study, the desire to know, to be informed” which fits precisely with her picture of an activated anarchist mind I discussed earlier. Consequently, Goldman praises those educational places where children “never accept anything in blind faith, without inquiry as to why and wherefore” and where they never “feel satisfied until their questions are thoroughly answered.” In short, Goldman stands for schooling that teaches children intellectual curiosity and intellectual independence. Such, of course, will be less easily duped in adult life and much better equipped to assert their own rights and make their own lives. No wonder state schooling teaches no such thing.
Francisco Ferrer’s ideas on education found much appeal with Goldman who was herself instrumental in opening a “Ferrer School” in New York in 1911. She quotes him when he says:
“I would like to call the attention of my readers to this idea: All the value of education rests in the respect for the physical, intellectual, and moral will of the child. Just as in science no demonstration is possible save by facts, just so there is no real education save that which is exempt from all dogmatism, which leaves to the child itself the direction of its effort, and confines itself to the seconding of its effort. Now, there is nothing easier than to alter this purpose, and nothing harder than to respect it. Education is always imposing, violating, constraining; the real educator is he who can best protect the child against his (the teacher’s) own ideas, his peculiar whims; he who can best appeal to the child’s own energies…
Let us not fear to say that we want men capable of evolving without stopping, capable of destroying and renewing their environments without cessation, of renewing themselves also; men, whose intellectual independence will be their greatest force, who will attach themselves to nothing, always ready to accept what is best, happy in the triumph of new ideas, aspiring to live multiple lives in one life. Society fears such men; we therefore must not hope that it will ever want an education able to give them to us.
We shall follow the labors of the scientists who study the child with the greatest attention, and we shall eagerly seek for means of applying their experience to the education which we want to build up, in the direction of an ever fuller liberation of the individual. But how can we attain our end? Shall it not be by putting ourselves directly to the work favoring the foundation of new schools, which shall be ruled as much as possible by this spirit of liberty, which we forefeel will dominate the entire work of education in the future?”
Goldman ends this extensive quoting of Ferrer where he says, “I like the free spontaneity of a child who knows nothing, better than the world-knowledge and intellectual deformity of a child who has been subjected to our present education.” She follows it up by highlighting “discipline and restraint” as the source of “all the evils in the world”, not least of all including the murder of this man who sought to teach children to follow their own intellectual curiosity until they reached their own intellectual independence, free of the always suffocating control of “authority”.
Four of the remaining five essays in Goldman’s curated collection here essentially deal with society’s treatment of women which means that fully a third of the book can be said to be about this subject. Women, of course, were another component of society which was forcefully and effectively controlled just as children were. The first of these essays, “The Traffic in Women”, deals with prostitution — though as an adjunct to the greater insight of Goldman’s that women are essentially regarded as sex to be acquired in one way or another [commonly as a wife or as a prostitute]. Goldman never goes along with this proposition, however, regarding women, naturally enough, as complete human beings in their own right. Her argument is not some puritanical argument that women should be kept away from sex because sex is somehow dirty or degrading but that sexuality is only one component of womanhood and that women cannot be treated as human beings in social life until their whole personalities are respected in a human way. Goldman attacks the issue of prostitution here by highlighting the puritanical angle on the subject, however, showing that such people do not really care about the women concerned but only their static morals. Moreover, such people do not look beneath the surface to ask why women take to prostitution nor are they concerned about equitable social and economic conditions which might negate its manifestation. Such people, then, in Goldman’s eyes, are deeply unconcerned about the actual problems they claim to find or their actual resolution. Goldman’s rhetoric here is some of her best and bears repeating:
“Prostitution has been, and is, a widespread evil, yet mankind goes on its business, perfectly indifferent to the sufferings and distress of the victims of prostitution. As indifferent, indeed, as mankind has remained to our industrial system, or to economic prostitution. Only when human sorrows are turned into a toy with glaring colors will baby people become interested — for a while at least. The people are a very fickle baby that must have new toys every day. The ‘righteous’ cry against the white slave traffic is such a toy. It serves to amuse the people for a little while, and it will help to create a few more fat political jobs — parasites who stalk about the world as inspectors, investigators, detectives, and so forth. What is really the cause of the trade in women? Not merely white women, but yellow and black women as well. Exploitation, of course; the merciless Moloch of capitalism that fattens on underpaid labor, thus driving thousands of women and girls into prostitution. With Mrs. Warren these girls feel, ‘Why waste your life working for a few shillings a week in a scullery, eighteen hours a day?’ Naturally our reformers say nothing about this cause. They know it well enough, but it doesn’t pay to say anything about it. It is much more profitable to play the Pharisee, to pretend an outraged morality, than to go to the bottom of things.”
It should be formally noted here that Goldman is not in favour of prostitution. She was not one who, in today’s parlance and milieu, would have argued for the right to carry out sex work. [“Sex work is work” I imagine would have been a slogan which was missing the point for her where “work” was basically simple exploitation anyway – and why would you demand the right to that?.] Rather, she was one who sought to understand it and to be in sympathy with women forced into it by economic circumstances. So, in discussing this subject, it is not inconsequential that prostitution is sex FOR MONEY and the economics of the situation is important to Goldman in her discussions about it [for, ideally, she would like to change the economics and thus take the exploitation, because possibility, of sex for money away]. In regard to the morality of it, however, Goldman is much less concerned and she would have been the last person to stop people having consensual sex. More of interest to her is the economic and moral circumstances which force women into unfree choices and lifestyles. She wanted to free women from social, political, economic and moral shackles so that they were then better able to make choices uncoerced by circumstances. Therefore:
“Nowhere is woman treated according to the merit of her work, but rather as a sex. It is therefore almost inevitable that she should pay for her right to exist, to keep a position in whatever line, with sex favors. Thus it is merely a question of degree whether she sells herself to one man, in or out of marriage, or to many men. Whether our reformers admit it or not, the economic and social inferiority of woman is responsible for prostitution.”
Goldman here lays the fault for prostitution in other, greater things rather than seeing it as an issue in itself. It lies in the fact that women are seen socially as sex; it lies in the fact that economic inequalities can be exploited; it lies in the fact that women as a class can be presumed upon. Goldman, of course, was well used to the idea [from her own father Abraham and her upbringing] that women were regarded in economic terms as a walking sexual function. Had not Abraham Goldman thought that little 15 year old Emma should be found someone to marry so that she could push out babies? One startling thing about Goldman’s attitude to prostitution is that she doesn’t see it as any different to this for both regard women as sex that is bought and paid for. Goldman does not impugn the women concerned in this at all for how can they be blamed when they face adult lives cooped up in hothouse factories with 10–12 hour days of back-breaking work for a few measly dollars a week, an effective economic trap? Is it not the intuition of every human being to seek the best circumstances for itself that it can manage? Then why be surprised if women prefer providing favours instead of harsh factory environments? No, thought Goldman, the issue is not moral but economic. It is women’s economic freedom that would disrupt the system of prostitution rather than making it seem a more amenable economic solution than even worse others.
There was, in Goldman’s mind, a further cause of this issue, however: sexual ignorance. [In this way we may see how other of her essays intersect with this one for this has to do with Puritanism, with schooling and with self-realized, intellectually curious minds.] As Goldman explains:
“It is a conceded fact that woman is being reared as a sex commodity, and yet she is kept in absolute ignorance of the meaning and importance of sex. Everything dealing with that subject is suppressed, and persons who attempt to bring light into this terrible darkness are persecuted and thrown into prison. Yet it is nevertheless true that so long as a girl is not to know how to take care of herself, not to know the function of the most important part of her life, we need not be surprised if she becomes an easy prey to prostitution, or to any other form of a relationship which degrades her to the position of an object for mere sex gratification.”
‘An ignorant person is a more unfree, more easily manipulated, person’ is a sentiment that Goldman would have held to generally but it is even more true in regard to women and sex. It does not help either, thinks Goldman, that in regard to sex men and women are treated completely differently, the man who goes “exploring” regarded as a man just “being a man” whereas a woman would face scandal for exactly the same behaviour. Thus:
“Society considers the sex experiences of a man as attributes of his general development, while similar experiences in the life of a woman are looked upon as a terrible calamity, a loss of honor and of all that is good and noble in a human being. This double standard of morality has played no little part in the creation and perpetuation of prostitution. It involves the keeping of the young in absolute ignorance on sex matters, which alleged “innocence,” together with an overwrought and stifled sex nature, helps to bring about a state of affairs that our Puritans are so anxious to avoid or prevent.”
This is quite a regular refrain of Goldman’s, as we have seen before, that moral and economic choices [which are structurally intertwined] actually create the circumstances in which an undesired phenomenon comes to take place. Prostitution, thinks Goldman, was not created, and is not desired, by those women who take part in it; on the contrary, such women are only responding to a world and its circumstances NOT of their making; they are making the best of what society gave them to work with. The girl here, says Goldman, is NOT “to be held responsible for it”. It is “society” which “creates the victims that it afterwards vainly seeks to get rid of”. In fact, following Havelock Ellis, Goldman can even imagine that the prostitute is better off than the wife in her own day for the wife gives herself away completely whereas the prostitute does so only for a pre-arranged amount of time. Prostitutes, where they exist, are “driven into prostitution by American conditions, by the thoroughly American custom for excessive display of finery and clothes, which, of course, necessitates money – money that cannot be earned in shops or factories.” Goldman, then, sees prostitution as entirely a product of social and moral circumstances, effectively as a trap that many women have little choice but to embrace. As is often the case, governments try to suppress such activity and moralists rail against it but neither do anything to solve the underlying cause – of which their attitudes, morals and social and political desires are often the generative factor in the first place. Therefore, “we must… learn to recognize in the prostitute a product of social conditions” and, if we want to eradicate prostitution, we must engage in “a complete transvaluation of all accepted values especially the moral ones” and pursue “the abolition of industrial slavery”.
Another way of saying this, moving on to the essay “The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation”, is that Goldman sees prostitution as part of a larger, all-encompassing issue of economic justice more generally conceived. Thus, she states:
“The general social antagonism which has taken hold of our entire public life today, brought about through the force of opposing and contradictory interests, will crumble to pieces when the reorganization of our social life, based upon the principles of economic justice, shall have become a reality. Peace or harmony between the sexes and individuals does not necessarily depend on a superficial equalization of human beings; nor does it call for the elimination of individual traits and peculiarities. The problem that confronts us today, and which the nearest future is to solve, is how to be one’s self and yet in oneness with others, to feel deeply with all human beings and still retain one’s own characteristic qualities. This seems to me to be the basis upon which the mass and the individual, the true democrat and the true individuality, man and woman, can meet without antagonism and opposition. The motto should not be: Forgive one another; rather, Understand one another.”
“How to be one’s self and yet in oneness with others” sounds very theoretically simplistic and is not described in deeply philosophical terms – yet it is actually all that needs to be said, from an anarchistic point of view, and needs no theoretical embroidery to make it sound more grand or consequential. This is exactly the point of an anarchist imagining of society, that one can interact with others yet without that being at the cost of oneself. This is what I mean when I say that Goldman refuses to choose between communist anarchism or individualist anarchism but prefers her own way because she sees that both social relations and individual existence are [necessary] living realities. In this essay Goldman applies this truth to women in the context of their emerging emancipation for she is keen to ensure that women are not created as a class by society but allowed to develop as free, individual human beings who can create their own social links in society. So:
“Merely external emancipation has made of the modern woman an artificial being, who reminds one of the products of French arboriculture with its arabesque trees and shrubs, pyramids, wheels, and wreaths; anything, except the forms which would be reached by the expression of her own inner qualities.”
The problem, as Goldman memorably diagnoses, is that “woman is confronted with the necessity of emancipating herself from emancipation” for real freedom is personal and social – it is not dictated by the morals and politics of others. So, as in the push for women’s suffrage that was going on at this time, it is not to be regarded as “freedom” that women are put in the same position as men in what is, overall, a politically and economically deleterious situation. So, as Goldman explains, “Politics is the reflex of the business and industrial world, the mottos of which are: ‘To take is more blessed than to give’; ‘buy cheap and sell dear’; ‘one soiled hand washes the other.’ There is no hope even that woman, with her right to vote, will ever purify politics.” Freedom is more, in other words, that putting women in the same hole as men. An equality of exploitation and oppression is not freedom at all and may actually still leave women at a disadvantage anyway since men are regarded as superior and better suited to being pitted one against another. As in previous essays, what is required is an overall emancipation from which women benefit as well. We should also add into this equation the special needs of the woman who fears that love, and her unique capacity for pregnancy, may disadvantage her, robbing her of her freedom and independence. Unless this can be taken account of in some socially emancipatory way then “the self-supporting or economically free woman” will remain but a dream. Once again, however, this remains a matter of morally-infected politics and social organisation.
Interestingly, but not for the first time, Goldman here sees the real issue as one of underlying ethics and the need to root out the destructive ideas which create the patriarchal and hierarchical societies we live in. Here Goldman rightly argues that you cannot paste “emancipatory practices” on top of old values that have created the world as it is. It simply won’t work. It is, in fact, the very things that stand for us as unquestioned, our formative and supporting values, which need to be re-made as new values in order for new practices to emerge on a proper foundation. As Goldman says in relation to being “emancipated from emancipation” then:
“That such a state of affairs was bound to come was foreseen by those who realized that, in the domain of ethics, there still remained many decaying ruins of the time of the undisputed superiority of man; ruins that are still considered useful. And, what is more important, a goodly number of the emancipated are unable to get along without them. Every movement that aims at the destruction of existing institutions and the replacement thereof with something more advanced, more perfect, has followers who in theory stand for the most radical ideas, but who, nevertheless, in their every-day practice, are like the average Philistine, feigning respectability and clamoring for the good opinion of their opponents. There are, for example, Socialists, and even Anarchists, who stand for the idea that property is robbery, yet who will grow indignant if anyone owe them the value of a half-dozen pins.”
What is going on here is that it is not enough to parrot words or dream dreams. What is needed is visceral authenticity that can only come about from CHANGED VALUES. So, in this case, “woman’s freedom is closely allied with man’s freedom” and this is often forgotten even today where “women versus men” is the erroneous refrain as if “freedom for women” did not also entail freedom for men in an overarching understanding of what freedom really is. When Goldman talks about “women’s emancipation” she does not primarily mean “freedom from men” but “freedom for everyone, a free society of independent individuals who are free to create their own lives and associations”. How many feminists, then or now, stand for that? Thus, when Goldman talks about seeing in the emancipated woman “not only sex, but also the human being, the friend, the comrade and strong individuality, who cannot and ought not lose a single trait of her character” she is saying that within this all encompassing understanding. She wants people to see women like that because she wants people to see EVERYBODY like that. Goldman, in fact, wants not just external but also internal liberation, not just freedom from material tyrannies but freedom from “ethical and social conventions” as well. A revolution of the entire life and circumstance of human beings is what is required if women [as also men] are to be truly liberated and so Goldman’s emancipation goes far further than women suffragists [for example] had ever contemplated. Therefore:
“Salvation lies in an energetic march onward towards a brighter and clearer future. We are in need of unhampered growth out of old traditions and habits. The movement for woman’s emancipation has so far made but the first step in that direction. It is to be hoped that it will gather strength to make another. The right to vote, or equal civil rights, may be good demands, but true emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in courts. It begins in woman’s soul. History tells us that every oppressed class gained true liberation from its masters through its own efforts. It is necessary that woman learn that lesson, that she realize that her freedom will reach as far as her power to achieve her freedom reaches. It is, therefore, far more important for her to begin with her inner regeneration, to cut loose from the weight of prejudices, traditions, and customs.”
This, coming briefly to the essay “Woman Suffrage”, is just one reason why Goldman was a staunch OPPONENT of the idea of women getting the vote – because the imagined “freedom” it pretended to offer was not any real freedom at all. Goldman, who was of course against government, states and the entire machinery of politics anyway, saw women getting the vote as only the means to women being more tightly secured to the very tyrant that was oppressing them to begin with. Goldman, in fact, states plainly that “suffrage is an evil” that “has only helped to enslave people” and which does this by blinding people’s eyes to how it was done. Suffrage, thinks Goldman, is not what its supporters claim it to be:
“Woman’s demand for equal suffrage is based largely on the contention that woman must have the equal right in all affairs of society. No one could possibly refute that if suffrage were a right. Alas for the ignorance of the human mind which can see a right in an imposition. Or is it not the most brutal imposition for one set of people to make laws that another set is coerced by force to obey? Yet woman clamors for that ‘golden opportunity’ that has wrought so much misery in the world, and robbed man of his integrity and self-reliance; an imposition which has thoroughly corrupted the people, and made them absolute prey in the hands of unscrupulous politicians.”
The right of suffrage is here then painted as a fatal attraction which lures the naive into the hands of the unscrupulous:
“The poor, stupid, free American citizen! Free to starve, free to tramp the highways of this great country, he enjoys universal suffrage, and, by that right, he has forged chains about his limbs. The reward that he receives is stringent labor laws prohibiting the right of boycott, of picketing, in fact, of everything, except the right to be robbed of the fruits of his labor. Yet all these disastrous results of the twentieth-century fetish have taught woman nothing. But, then, woman will purify politics, we are assured.”
We are used, in our own day, to the rhetoric of politics as a “swamp”. Goldman would not have disagreed with this but, rather than arguing that the next guys would be the ones to drain it, she argued that it had never been susceptible to the salvation of drainage to begin with. The problem is not who takes part in politics: IT IS POLITICS ITSELF AND EVERY SINGLE ONE OF ITS INSTITUTIONS. Electoral politics it is which, in Goldman’s words, “is not susceptible of purification”. So there can be no emancipation for women in it because it is not an organ of emancipation. Goldman in fact examples this from those US states where, by the time she was writing, women had gained some suffrage rights. She argues that where this has taken place women with new suffrage rights have not made those states better but have simply used their new power in exactly the same morally proscriptive and politically heinous ways as men do. In other words, it was no emancipatory victory that Margaret Thatcher became the British Prime Minister in 1979 and the policies she pursued were not emancipatory because she was a woman but were as socially destructive and oppressive as any a male Prime Minister ever pursued before or since. This is the fault of inherently authoritarian electoral politics which is the policeman of capital. It cannot be reformed for it is serving its purpose. In centralising electoral power into various institutions as a result of its processes, in fact, Goldman sees suffrage as that which accentuates all kinds of economic and political problems rather than ameliorating them. And then there is the fact that the whole exercise is unnecessary anyway for:
“The history of the political activities of men proves that they have given him absolutely nothing that he could not have achieved in a more direct, less costly, and more lasting manner. As a matter of fact, every inch of ground he has gained has been through a constant fight, a ceaseless struggle for self-assertion, and not through suffrage.”
Here Goldman exposes the suffragist’s lie that it is through politics that human beings secure things when all of history shows that it is actually DIRECT ACTION which has done this, direct action in your own interest [as Stirner also suggested and as Goldman earlier reminded us he did]. All ballots achieve in this regard is your effective surrender of direct action, your handing over of your responsibility for yourself to others and the tying of your hands behind your back by the authoritative institutions of politics [which hardly needed such encouragement to begin with and to whom you have now given an excuse] – a thoroughly self-neutralising deal. Goldman’s argument is that, in order to achieve real freedom, women do not need to join men in being tied down by electoral institutions but genuine freedom and independence which will come from them asserting their own selves in acts of direct action. So, as far as women are concerned:
“Her development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself. First, by asserting herself as a personality, and not as a sex commodity. Second, by refusing the right to anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children, unless she wants them; by refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family, etc., by making her life simpler, but deeper and richer. That is, by trying to learn the meaning and substance of life in all its complexities, by freeing herself from the fear of public opinion and public condemnation. Only that, and not the ballot, will set woman free, will make her a force hitherto unknown in the world, a force for real love, for peace, for harmony; a force of divine fire, of life-giving; a creator of free men and women.”
In this respect, turning to the essay “Marriage and Love”, we can see that for Goldman acting on your own recognisance and in your own interest is always regarded as superior to an artificially created and adjudicated institution. So, in this essay:
“Marriage is primarily an economic arrangement, an insurance pact. It differs from the ordinary life insurance agreement only in that it is more binding, more exacting. Its returns are insignificantly small compared with the investments. In taking out an insurance policy one pays for it in dollars and cents, always at liberty to discontinue payments. If, however, woman’s premium is a husband, she pays for it with her name, her privacy, her self-respect, her very life, ‘until death doth part.’ Moreover, the marriage insurance condemns her to life-long dependency, to parasitism, to complete uselessness, individual as well as social. Man, too, pays his toll, but as his sphere is wider, marriage does not limit him as much as woman. He feels his chains more in an economic sense.”
Marriage, then, is thought of by Goldman as a state of unfreedom, especially for women in a patriarchal society. But, as in previous essays, Goldman also wants to site this institution within the moral and social frameworks within which it is justified. Thus:
“From infancy, almost, the average girl is told that marriage is her ultimate goal; therefore her training and education must be directed towards that end. Like the mute beast fattened for slaughter, she is prepared for that. Yet, strange to say, she is allowed to know much less about her function as wife and mother than the ordinary artisan of his trade. It is indecent and filthy for a respectable girl to know anything of the marital relation. Oh, for the inconsistency of respectability, that needs the marriage vow to turn something which is filthy into the purest and most sacred arrangement that none dare question or criticize. Yet that is exactly the attitude of the average upholder of marriage. The prospective wife and mother is kept in complete ignorance of her only asset in the competitive field — sex. Thus she enters into life-long relations with a man only to find herself shocked, repelled, outraged beyond measure by the most natural and healthy instinct, sex. It is safe to say that a large percentage of the unhappiness, misery, distress, and physical suffering of matrimony is due to the criminal ignorance in sex matters that is being extolled as a great virtue. Nor is it at all an exaggeration when I say that more than one home has been broken up because of this deplorable fact.
If, however, woman is free and big enough to learn the mystery of sex without the sanction of State or Church, she will stand condemned as utterly unfit to become the wife of a ‘good’ man, his goodness consisting of an empty head and plenty of money. Can there be anything more outrageous than the idea that a healthy, grown woman, full of life and passion, must deny nature’s demand, must subdue her most intense craving, undermine her health and break her spirit, must stunt her vision, abstain from the depth and glory of sex experience until a ‘good’ man comes along to take her unto himself as a wife? That is precisely what marriage means. How can such an arrangement end except in failure? This is one, though not the least important, factor of marriage, which differentiates it from love.”
Marriage, then, within the social and moral strictures within which it was set when Goldman was writing, arbitrarily decides a future for women [Goldman’s own experience is surely talking here], keeps her in ignorance of it and denies to her the freedom of her own body. It is obvious to see here that in “love” Goldman sees the opposites of all the freedom-denying conditions of marriage, an institution she further describes as “soul-poverty and sordidness”. You will remember that earlier, when discussing prostitution, Goldman did not see it as any different to marriage in its suffocating conditions which forced regrettable solutions. Here the home of the wife and mother Goldman metaphorically describes as a prison where the woman “learns soon enough that the home, though not so large a prison as the factory, has more solid doors and bars. It has a keeper so faithful that naught can escape him. The most tragic part, however, is that the home no longer frees her from wage slavery; it only increases her task.” Marriage is sold by its adherents as the protection and nurturing of woman in her imagined “essential” functions [warning bells should be ringing here] but as Goldman sees it:
“As to the protection of the woman, — therein lies the curse of marriage. Not that it really protects her, but the very idea is so revolting, such an outrage and insult on life, so degrading to human dignity, as to forever condemn this parasitic institution. It is like that other paternal arrangement — capitalism. It robs man of his birthright, stunts his growth, poisons his body, keeps him in ignorance, in poverty and dependence, and then institutes charities that thrive on the last vestige of man’s self-respect. The institution of marriage makes a parasite of woman, an absolute dependent. It incapacitates her for life’s struggle, annihilates her social consciousness, paralyzes her imagination, and then imposes its gracious protection, which is in reality a snare, a travesty on human character. If motherhood is the highest fulfillment of woman’s nature, what other protection does it need save love and freedom? Marriage but defiles, outrages, and corrupts her fulfillment. Does it not say to woman, Only when you follow me shall you bring forth life? Does it not condemn her to the block, does it not degrade and shame her if she refuses to buy her right to motherhood by selling herself? Does not marriage only sanction motherhood, even though conceived in hatred, in compulsion? Yet, if motherhood be of free choice, of love, of ecstasy, of defiant passion, does it not place a crown of thorns upon an innocent head and carve in letters of blood the hideous epithet, Bastard? Were marriage to contain all the virtues claimed for it, its crimes against motherhood would exclude it forever from the realm of love.”
Marriage is then just one more institution propagated as necessary but which, in reality, is not at all. Like governments and parliaments, marriage is not needed to produce some imagined necessary circumstance but is imposed as the means to it anyway. The method here is always the same: propose something as a good and a means to freedom which is actually a prison and a means of control. The controlling and coercing mentality always attempts to offer the jail cell as a comfortable guest house but nobody should be fooled, thinks Goldman, for what people really need is genuine freedom and the chance to let love blossom by itself not a forced institution to which people, more especially women in historical context, are fated. Historically speaking, of course, Goldman was publicly vilified as one of those forward thinkers who practiced “free love” and here it is right to point out that such views about sex and love are totally a part of her overall anarchist agenda and not – as Peter Kropotkin or Lucy Parsons argued – a side issue of second, third or even fourth rank. Freedom in love and sex was, for Goldman, at the heart of everything her anarchism was about, a crucial component of the intellectual curiosity and intellectual independence which freed people from controlling moral and social strictures which she thought as of first importance. So of “free love” Goldman says:
“Free love? As if love is anything but free! Man has bought brains, but all the millions in the world have failed to buy love. Man has subdued bodies, but all the power on earth has been unable to subdue love. Man has conquered whole nations, but all his armies could not conquer love. Man has chained and fettered the spirit, but he has been utterly helpless before love…
Love needs no protection; it is its own protection. So long as love begets life no child is deserted, or hungry, or famished for the want of affection. I know this to be true. I know women who became mothers in freedom by the men they loved. Few children in wedlock enjoy the care, the protection, the devotion free motherhood is capable of bestowing. The defenders of authority dread the advent of a free motherhood, lest it will rob them of their prey. Who would fight wars? Who would create wealth? Who would make the policeman, the jailer, if woman were to refuse the indiscriminate breeding of children? The race, the race! Shouts the king, the president, the capitalist, the priest. The race must be preserved, though woman be degraded to a mere machine, — and the marriage institution is our only safety valve against the pernicious sex-awakening of woman. But in vain these frantic efforts to maintain a state of bondage. In vain, too, the edicts of the Church, the mad attacks of rulers, in vain even the arm of the law. Woman no longer wants to be a party to the production of a race of sickly, feeble, decrepit, wretched human beings, who have neither the strength nor moral courage to throw off the yoke of poverty and slavery. Instead she desires fewer and better children, begotten and reared in love and through free choice; not by compulsion, as marriage imposes. Our pseudo-moralists have yet to learn the deep sense of responsibility toward the child, that love in freedom has awakened in the breast of woman. Rather would she forego forever the glory of motherhood than bring forth life in an atmosphere that breathes only destruction and death. And if she does become a mother, it is to give to the child the deepest and best her being can yield. To grow with the child is her motto; she knows that in that manner alone can she help build true manhood and womanhood.”
We see here how Goldman’s vision of love, sex and motherhood builds into an image of society as a whole, a society of free individual humans beings, self-realized to their fullest actuality and left socially free to make their own associations as they wish. It sounds simple, even simplistic, but Goldman was fully authentic in her propagation of it as the cure to social, moral, political and economic problems. This was her anarchist revolution of society, the institution of freedom and liberation in individual human lives and their social relations and the destruction of the coercing hand of authority and power by the destruction of all its institutions. Goldman imagined every human being, from their own unique childhood, growing into an adult of personality and character who strode across Zarathustra’s mountain peaks for themselves and she thought the freedom to love – if, when and who you like – the very building block of such a vision. As she in fact herself said, “If the world is ever to give birth to true companionship and oneness, not marriage but love will be the parent.”
Part Three: Evolution and Revolution
Goldman’s final essay in Anarchism and Other Essays was an essay titled “The Modern Drama: A Powerful Disseminator of Radical Thought” and it showcased her personal interest in fiction of social concern such as we might today, for example, see in the films of British film director, Ken Loach, who over several decades has produced multiple films from a socialist perspective which highlight social inequality and injustice and present it to the public in dramatic form. Goldman seems to have always been enamoured of such stories and wrote a further book about the subject which was published in 1914 [The Social Significance of the Modern Drama]. In the stories and characters of such tales Goldman seems to have found powerful examples of social ills which both held her interest in an iron grip and motivated her own personal and political responses. Such fiction was, so it seems, an opportunity for Goldman’s own inquisitive and constantly developing mind to work out social meanings and consequences in the sandbox of literary surroundings. What’s more, it seems clear that this interest of Goldman’s began in her own childhood with the Russian story What Is To Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky playing a particularly important role with both her and Alexander Berkman who, as nominal members of the Russian Empire themselves, were affected and influenced by Russian culture during their upbringing and throughout their lives.
In this novel the author condemns the patriarchal and authoritarian nature of family, social, and political relations as the principal source of Russia’s social inequality, oppressiveness, and economic backwardness. He also argues that intellectuals should play an active role in social development and moral regeneration. Meanwhile, the further point is made that individual self-realization, sexual liberation, and an economy that combines prosperity with social justice can be achieved only through the consequent reorganization of the family and society, and the means of production be organised in accordance with cooperative principles. Perhaps it is now not so surprising how Goldman and Berkman turned out if this was the reading matter that garnered and excited their youthful attention? Goldman in fact remarks in Living My Life, as one example, that she once gave a talk in Madison, Wisconsin to American students on the subject of the Russian intelligentsia and how they see in education “not a mere means to a career but something to enable them to understand life and the people, so that they [can] teach and help them” which seems a direct reference to the themes of What Is To Be Done?
This latter reference is to the second decade of the Twentieth Century which, unbeknown to Goldman at the time, was to be her last decade as a US citizen. It was during this decade that she carried out the majority of her on/off relationship with Ben Reitman [who also played the role of her Tour Manager, not unsuccessfully] which often stretched her patience to breaking point as both she and Reitman were strong personalities who simply were going to live the lives they wanted to lead regardless of circumstances. Sometimes this worked in favour of them being together but, sooner or later, it always required them to go their separate ways… before the separation required them coming back together again. This state of affairs would only finally be resolved by Goldman being imprisoned [along with Berkman] in 1917 for her “anti-war” activities as the USA entered the First World War and introduced the military draft. Goldman and Berkman both organised those who wanted to persuade men not to register to fight and, as a result, they were both arrested and received 2 year prison sentences. Upon release from prison they were then both arrested again during the first of America’s “Red Scares” and were eventually deported to Russia on 21st December 1919.
One notable feature of Goldman’s activism in her final American years before her arrest for “inducing persons not to register” for the draft was in the area of birth control. Clearly, as we have seen from the essays she collected to represent her first 20 years of activity, the issues of women and their lives were not new territory for her. Goldman had always regarded women’s emancipation and sexual emancipation as core topics of any anarchist rhetoric. But in her third American decade, especially, these interests began to coalesce around the area of birth control, a subject that was regarded as anathema in public and which came under the auspices of the Comstock Law in relation to sharing any communications about it. It was inevitable that Goldman would eventually fall foul of the arbiters of public morality on such an issue and this happened in 1916 when Goldman was tried in court in April of that year for discussing methods of birth control, something which, even in court, women were not supposed to hear the details of. Prior to the trial Goldman wrote a short piece for Mother Earth titled “The Social Aspects of Birth Control” in which she stridently defended women’s rights to control their own sexuality in safety, including, necessarily, the methods needed in order to do so. In the article she pictures her opponents as capitalist moralisers who regard women as baby factories churning out the necessary raw materials [workers] of capitalism. Yet she also argues that women should not have to destroy themselves producing child after child simply due to some empty moral prohibition, especially not when such progeny are then only introduced to lives of capitalist misery themselves as well as adding to the burdens of their parents. Her charge is then that woman is being used, as the following excerpt shows:
“woman’s function is to give life, yet neither the state nor politicians nor public opinion have ever made the slightest provision in return for the life woman has given. For ages she has been on her knees before the altar of duty as imposed by God, by Capitalism, by the State, and by Morality. To-day she has awakened from her age-long sleep. She has shaken herself free from the nightmare of the past; she has turned her face towards the light and its proclaiming in a clarion voice that she will no longer be a party to the crime of bringing hapless children into the world only to be ground into dust by the wheel of capitalism and to be torn into shreds in trenches and battlefields. And who is to say her nay? After all it is woman who is risking her health and sacrificing her youth in the reproduction of the race. Surely she ought to be in a position to decide how many children she should bring into the world, whether they should be brought into the world by the man she loves and because she wants the child, or should be born in hatred and loathing.”
Goldman, who in her earlier life had been diagnosed with a medical issue of her own that inhibited her from having her own children [she refused the operation which would have subsequently made having children of her own possible], thus argues that, amongst other things, woman “should have the knowledge that would enable her to recuperate during a period of from three to five years between each pregnancy, which alone would give her physical and mental well-being and the opportunity to take better care of the children already in existence.” As a measure of how important this issue was to Emma Goldman we may note that in this article she calls it “the most dominant issue of modern times” and she has absolutely no time for the hollow words of the moralisers as the following excerpt shows:
“Those who oppose the Birth Control Movement claim to do so in behalf of motherhood. All the political charlatans prate about this wonderful motherhood, yet on closer examination we find that this motherhood has gone on for centuries past blindly and stupidly dedicating its offspring to Moloch. Besides, so long as mothers are compelled to work many hard hours in order to help support the creatures which they unwillingly brought into the world, the talk of motherhood is nothing else but cant. Ten percent of married women in the city of New York have to help make a living. Most of them earn the very lucrative salary of $280 a year. How dare anyone speak of the beauties of Motherhood in the face of such a crime?”
Goldman here also links economics and sexuality as she had done in other scenarios before. Often, as with the young female factory workers she had spoken of in the past, she spoke of the enjoyment of sexuality as the only release from a life of economically necessary drudgery. Here she refers to “unmarried mothers” who
“crowd our shops and factories and industries everywhere, not by choice but by economic necessity. In their drab and monotonous existence the only color left is probably a sexual attraction which without methods of prevention invariably leads to abortions. Thousands of women are sacrificed as a result of abortions because they are undertaken by quack doctors, ignorant midwives in secrecy and in haste. Yet the poets and the politicians sing of motherhood. A greater crime was never perpetrated upon woman.”
Goldman thus sees the lack of birth control provision as a matter of deliberate cruelty based on moral censoriousness and a lack of concern for those living already oppressed lives. She speaks of “moralists” who “persist on behalf of an indiscriminate breeding of children [and] tell us that to limit offspring is entirely a modern tendency because the modern woman is loose in her morals and wishes to shirk responsibility.” In reply to this, Goldman, ever the reader of modern research in matters of social and sexual concern, refers to the work of one Doctor Theilhaber whose research had established that several ancient societies engaged in primitive birth control methods, thus establishing that it was not a new idea but one with a more primitive heritage.
Yet what does all this have to do with anarchism for Goldman? The ending of the piece establishes the link for her situation as an educator into the METHODS of birth control [as ever, Goldman’s anarchism was not a personal belief she did nothing about but was an action carried through into its consequences] put her in a perilous legal position. Thus, she says:
“We are told that so long as the law on the statute books makes the discussion of preventives a crime, these preventives must not be discussed. In reply I wish to say that it is not the Birth Control Movement, but the law, which will have to go. After all, that is what laws are for, to be made and unmade. How dare they demand that life shall submit to them? Just because some ignorant bigot in his own limitation of mind and heart succeeded in passing a law at the time when men and women were in the thralls of religious and moral superstition, must we be bound by it for the rest of our lives? I readily understand why judges and jailers shall be bound by it. It means their livelihood; their function in society. But even judges sometimes progress.”
This then turns into a speech about the necessity of living up to one’s ideals in the face of political and legal authority and Goldman is resolute about what is required:
“I am to be tried at Special Sessions April 5th. I do not know what the outcome will be, and furthermore, I do not care. This dread of going to prison for one’s ideas so prevalent among American radicals is what makes the movement so pale and weak. I have no such dread. My revolutionary tradition is that those who are not willing to go to prison for their ideas have never been considered of much value to their ideas.”
Goldman then goes into the “stupidity of the law” which meant that, even during the proceedings of her trial, what Goldman actually discussed was not allowed to be publicly disclosed lest women should hear about the details of birth control, something the law stated they were not, under any circumstances, allowed to hear. Of this, Goldman states:
“It is perfectly within the law for the detectives to give testimony, but it is not within the law for me to read the testimony which resulted in my indictment. Can you blame me if I am an anarchist and have no use for laws? Also, I wish to point out the utter stupidity of the American court. Supposedly justice is to be meted out there. Supposedly there are to be no star chamber proceedings under democracy, yet the other day when the detectives gave their testimony, it had to be done in a whisper, close to the judge as at the confessional in a Catholic Church and under no circumstances were the ladies present permitted to hear anything that was going on. The farce of it all! And yet we are expected to respect it, to obey it, to submit to it.”
Goldman then finishes her piece for Mother Earth in the following defiant tone:
“I do not know how many of you are willing to do it, but I am not. I stand as one of the sponsors of a world-wide movement, a movement which aims to set woman free from the terrible yoke and bondage of enforced pregnancy; a movement which demands the right for every child to be well born; a movement which shall help free labor from its eternal dependence; a movement which shall usher into the world a new kind of motherhood. I consider this movement important and vital enough to defy all the laws upon the statute-books. I believe it will clear the way not merely for the free discussion of contracepts but for the freedom of expression in Life, Art and Labor, for the right of medical science to experiment with contracepts as it has in the treatment of tuberculosis or any other disease.
I may be arrested, I may be tried and thrown into jail, but I never will be silent; I never will acquiesce or submit to authority, nor will I make peace with a system which degrades woman to a mere incubator and which fattens on her innocent victims. I now and here declare war upon this system and shall not rest until the path has been cleared for a free motherhood and a healthy, joyous and happy childhood.”
Goldman was found guilty and received a $100 fine [about $2,600 now]. As a matter of principle, not believing in courts or laws, she refused to pay it and was jailed for a few weeks for non-payment of the fine. The right of women to control their sexuality and their own bodies in America is, however, still shamefully unresolved. America, it seems to me, needs a few more Emma Goldmans who will not obey, whatever the cost.
Such was certainly Emma Goldman and, as already noted, in the next year, 1917, her anti-war activities, and those of Berkman, conspired to have them imprisoned for 2 years as a result of inducing men publicly to avoid the military draft. Behind the scenes, politicians and agents of the state, such as J. Edgar Hoover, worked to ensure that Goldman, Berkman and hundreds of others would be ultimately and finally expelled from the USA altogether and so it was, on 21st December 1919, that Goldman, together with Berkman, was deported from the USA – at the time they knew not even where to. They were kept under armed guard on the rickety ship they had been placed on – the Buford – and, in January 1920, found themselves docking in Helsinki before being taken in closed cars to the Russian border and, from there, on to the newly renamed Petrograd [St. Petersburg]. Goldman had always considered herself an American citizen and considered that country as the one which had finally ignited in her that which she knew as anarchism. She was sad and upset to finally be forced out. Yet, at the same time, she was excited to see what had become of the Russia she had left behind 34 years before. Whilst still in America she had praised the Russian people for their revolution and for the social and cultural hope it promised. But what she found, as recounted in her book My Disillusionment in Russia [her original title, which the publishers ignored, was “My Two Years in Russia”] was a revolution betrayed by the manipulative, coercive and violent forces of a Marxist party.
Somewhere hidden in the text concerning Goldman’s two years amongst the Bolsheviks she writes the seemingly benign phrase “revolutions are not made to order” yet I think this is a revealing phrase, a phrase that tells us something about Goldman’s values and why, at least according to her, the Russian Revolution failed. The text of My Disillusionment in Russia [and its “follow up” My Further Disillusionment in Russia which is but parts of the original manuscript Goldman wrote but which the publishers inexplicably left out of the original book – leaving it incomplete, something not all original reviewers noticed, to their everlasting shame] is a concise and clear description, without much artifice, of Goldman’s time and experiences among ordinary Russian people and occasional members of the Bolshevik authorities, including Lenin himself. It tells a tale, as the publisher’s title rightly states, of Goldman’s increasing disillusionment with what she is learning the longer she stays in Russia. Goldman had arrived fully prepared to give the Bolsheviks a chance and to learn and take stock in regard to what was going on. She did not, as she herself says, expect to immediately find a fully realised anarchism nor did she even expect to find anarchism at all. She knew the Bolsheviks were Communists informed by Marxism but was prepared, despite obvious political differences, to judge things on their own merits. What she found, in fact, so disturbed and upset her – contrary to all her desires to want to believe that the social revolution in Russia was real – that she finally had to get out of Russia, something she did on 1st December 1921, almost 2 years later.
For example, in her original preface Goldman describes the Revolution, and her reaction to it, in the following way:
“The actual Russian Revolution took place in the summer months of 1917. During that period the peasants possessed themselves of the land, the workers of the factories, thus demonstrating that they knew well the meaning of social revolution. The October change was the finishing touch to the work begun six months previously. In the great uprising the Bolsheviki assumed the voice of the people. They clothed themselves with the agrarian programme of the Social Revolutionists and the industrial tactics of the Anarchists. But after the high tide of revolutionary enthusiasm had carried them into power, the Bolsheviki discarded their false plumes. It was then that began the spiritual separation between the Bolsheviki and the Russian Revolution. With each succeeding day the gap grew wider, their interests more conflicting. Today it is no exaggeration to state that the Bolsheviki stand as the arch enemies of the Russian Revolution.”
Readers will note here a disparity between “The Revolution” itself and the Bolsheviks as a party or ideology. This is a disparity Goldman insists upon for she sees the values of one as being completely different to the values of the other – and it is VALUES, as we shall see, that Goldman cares about. Goldman was certainly no Marxist and in My Disillusionment in Russia [a title she hated and tried to have changed for her disillusionment, if anything, was not “in Russia” but in the Bolsheviks] she states that “for thirty years I fought the Marxian theory as a cold, mechanistic enslaving formula”. One suspects that the nature of Marxism as a theory, formula or dogma [which, as my own observation, it always seems to be as well, a dogma every bit as dogmatic as the gospel of a Christian religionist] was not the least of its problems in one who so highly valued the thought of Nietzsche, a man who proclaimed that he distrusted “systematisers” and regarded systematising as “a lack of integrity”. Goldman herself, in an echo of this thought, had written previously that anarchism was no “iron-clad program” and that needs and circumstances must decide what was necessary. A “Marxian formula” imposed on people by force could never hope to reach the high bar of such an anarchist value. So it is then no surprise when Goldman writes here that:
“Anarchism to me never was a mechanistic arrangement of social relationships to be imposed upon man by political scene-shifting or by a transfer of power from one social class to another. Anarchism to me was and is the child, not of destruction, but of construction — the result of growth and development of the conscious creative social efforts of a regenerated people. I do not therefore expect Anarchism to follow in the immediate footsteps of centuries of despotism and submission. And I certainly did not expect to see it ushered in by the Marxian theory.”
This comment sets us on our way to understanding the anarchist values of Emma Goldman as, in fact, does the following commentary on the course of events after 1917 according to Goldman’s own researches:
“To be sure, the peasants have the land; not by the grace of the Bolsheviki, but through their own direct efforts, set in motion long before the October change. That the peasants were able to retain the land is due mostly to the static Slav tenacity; owing to the circumstance that they form by far the largest part of the population and are deeply rooted in the soil, they could not as easily be torn away from it as the workers from their means of production.
The Russian workers, like the peasants, also employed direct action. They possessed themselves of the factories, organized their own shop committees, and were virtually in control of the economic life of Russia. But soon they were stripped of their power and placed under the industrial yoke of the Bolshevik State. Chattel slavery became the lot of the Russian proletariat. It was suppressed and exploited in the name of something which was later to bring it comfort, light, and warmth. Try as I might I could find nowhere any evidence of benefits received either by the workers or the peasants from the Bolshevik régime.”
To finally ask after the meaning of all this, and to put meat on the bones of Goldman’s anarchist values in the matter of “revolution” and its real anarchist meaning, we have to turn to the “Afterword” to her project of recounting her time in Russia for it is here where she concisely presents her overarching views. She does this partly in interaction with defenders of Bolshevik Marxism [of which there were several abroad whom she deeply offended by her criticisms of it which led to her being a largely European outcast to many “on the Left” for the rest of her days] but mostly she simply speaks for herself and to her own values. Her Socialist critics seem mostly to have been concerned with why Marxist dogma had not worked in Russia and so they tried to argue for some conditions, according to the dictates of their ideological champion, which had not been satisfied which resulted in the failure. Here Goldman suggests that “industrial conditions” in Russia were not at the level Marx had required for a successful revolution as the tack the Socialists took but Goldman herself disputes that such conditions can, by themselves, create “a new society” in any case. She says: “The truth is that industrial development and sharp social contrasts are of themselves by no means sufficient to give birth to a new society or to call forth a social revolution”, speaking instead of the need for a “necessary social consciousness” or “the required mass psychology”. It is here, in fact, that Goldman’s earlier comment about revolutions not being “made to order” becomes relevant for her point in saying this is that revolution is not a dogma or formula to be imposed but a living, breathing, dynamic phenomenon. It comes from the life of actual people; it is not merely a static “one size fits all” plan. Therefore, in Marxist context, “revolution does not await this process of industrialization and, what is more important, cannot be made to wait.”
Goldman’s point here is that lived reality – and real people — must always supercede the theoretical plan. Thus:
“The Russian peasants began to expropriate the landlords and the workers took possession of the factories without taking cognizance of Marxian dicta. This popular action, by virtue of its own logic, ushered in the social revolution in Russia, upsetting all Marxian calculations. The psychology of the Slav proved stronger than social democratic theories. That psychology involved the passionate yearning for liberty nurtured by a century of revolutionary agitation among all classes of society. The Russian people had fortunately remained politically unsophisticated and untouched by the corruption and confusion created among the proletariat of other countries by ‘democratic’ liberty and self-government. The Russian remained, in this sense, natural and simple, unfamiliar with the subtleties of politics, of parliamentary trickery, and legal makeshifts. On the other hand, his primitive sense of justice and right was strong and vital, without the disintegrating finesse of pseudo-civilization. He knew what he wanted and he did not wait for ‘historic inevitability’ to bring it to him: he employed direct action. The Revolution to him was a fact of life, not a mere theory for discussion.”
Inasmuch as “revolution” was then a matter of “direct action”, and all of a piece with the vital energies of the self-interest of the Russian people, it was good. But inasmuch as it was hide-bound by Marxist dogma, it was bad [and bound to fail]. Real life, imagines Goldman, does not conform to pre-determined plans or theories. It is not, contra Marx, “scientific”. It can only proceed according to the expressed will of people as a fact of their life. The key to this, thinks Goldman, is “common interest” which she describes as “the leitmotif of all revolutionary endeavour” and which she saw in the various “labour organizations and the cooperatives” which “combine the city with the country” in Russia along with “the Soviets” [“Soviet” is Russian for “council”] and “the intelligentsia” [as any good reader of What Is To Be Done? would think]. In comparison, however, Goldman impugns Lenin for interpreting “social expropriation” as “the transfer of wealth from one set of individuals to another” – not “common interest” but dispossession of some for the exclusive benefit of others. Goldman thus concludes that “True Communism was never attempted in Russia, unless one considers thirty-three categories of pay, different food rations, privileges to some and indifference to the great mass as Communism.”
So why did “The Russian Revolution” – thought of as a true revolution possessed of revolutionary values – fail? Goldman is quite clear on the answer:
“It is now clear why the Russian Revolution, as conducted by the Communist Party, was a failure. The political power of the Party, organized and centralized in the State, sought to maintain itself by all means at hand. The central authorities attempted to force the activities of the people into forms corresponding with the purposes of the Party. The sole aim of the latter was to strengthen the State and monopolize all economical, political, and social activities — even all cultural manifestations. The Revolution had an entirely different object, and in its very character it was the negation of authority and centralization. It strove to open ever larger fields for proletarian expression and to multiply the phases of individual and collective effort. The aims and tendencies of the Revolution were diametrically opposed to those of the ruling political party.
Just as diametrically opposed were the methods of the Revolution and of the State. Those of the former were inspired by the spirit of the Revolution itself: that is to say, by emancipation from all oppressive and limiting forces; in short; by libertarian principles. The methods of the State, on the contrary—of the Bolshevik State as of every government—were based on coercion, which in the course of things necessarily developed into systematic violence, oppression, and terrorism. Thus two opposing tendencies struggled for supremacy: the Bolshevik State against the Revolution.”
Goldman’s answer is that the values and aims of the Revolution — as held and carried out by the mass of Russian people — were at odds with the values and aims of the Communist Party. As she goes on to say, the problem with the Revolution and singular reason for its failure was “Fundamentally… the result of the principles and methods of Bolshevism. It was the authoritarian spirit and principles of the State which stifled the libertarian and liberating aspirations” in what amounts to a standard anarchist critique of authoritarianism. She actually describes the Bolsheviks as exponents of “fanatical governmentalism” in an analysis which asks “what is progress if not the more general acceptance of the principles of liberty as against those of coercion?” She argues, in the end, that a politically naive Russian people was duped into putting the “yoke” of the Communist Party around their necks and that their “instinctive” anarchism was “yet too unfamiliar with true libertarian principles and methods to apply them effectively to life.”
This, for Goldman, however, is a VERY important point for, as she had made mention of in her preface, anarchism, and its values, do not suddenly spring to life if found necessary. They are not just there waiting to be of use. Such things need cultivation and habituation. They need to be active to create revolution rather than being the results of a revolution propagated by other means. THEY ARE THE MEANS. It is, in fact, reminiscent of a question political radicals and even others sometimes ask: “Why does no one ever do anything in the direction of political freedom, why do we stay oppressed?” The answer is found in Emma Goldman’s analysis of The Russian Revolution here: it is not revolution which makes liberty but liberty which must make the revolution. The Russian Revolution failed, says Goldman, because it was not based on the freedom of people acting freely. The Russian people as a whole were not ready for revolution and so authority, acting opportunistically, simply took over once again in another form. What this means is YOU MUST BE FREE BEFORE THERE CAN BE A REVOLUTION. Your education into freedom, your practising new values, your living the life of liberty MUST COME FIRST. Revolution without this can only fail. So that is why “no one ever does anything”: people are not yet acting and living free, they have not educated themselves to the point where liberating action must come and, because it is free, the creation of a free culture of free relationships, is able to sustain itself. The struggle, as Emma Goldman always suggested, is with oneself and against cultural programming before it is with governments and states. You must be such people as are already free, and who are habituated to living in self-actualized freedom, before a revolution can have a hope to succeed. Thus, as Goldman states of her fellow Russians: “their work would have been of infinitely greater practical value had they been better organized and equipped to guide the released energies of the people toward the reorganization of life on a libertarian foundation.” But they did not have these habits; they were hamstrung.
Thus, as Goldman goes on to apply such thinking to The Russian Revolution:
“It remains true, as it has through all progress, that only the libertarian spirit and method can bring man a step further in his eternal striving for the better, finer, and freer life. Applied to the great social upheavals known as revolutions, this tendency is as potent as in the ordinary evolutionary process. The authoritarian method has been a failure all through history and now it has again failed in the Russian Revolution. So far human ingenuity has discovered no other principle except the libertarian, for man has indeed uttered the highest wisdom when he said that liberty is the mother of order, not its daughter. All political tenets and parties notwithstanding, no revolution can be truly and permanently successful unless it puts its emphatic veto upon all tyranny and centralization, and determinedly strives to make the revolution a real revaluation of all economic, social, and cultural values. Not mere substitution of one political party for another in the control of the Government, not the masking of autocracy by proletarian slogans, not the dictatorship of a new class over an old one, not political scene shifting of any kind, but the complete reversal of all these authoritarian principles will alone serve the revolution…
It is only when the libertarian spirit permeates the economic organizations of the workers that the manifold creative energies of the people can manifest themselves, and the revolution be safeguarded and defended. Only free initiative and popular participation in the affairs of the revolution can prevent the terrible blunders committed in Russia.”
A “revaluation of all values”. Where have we heard that before?
It is here that Goldman does her most convincing theoretical work, work which somehow manages to tie Nietzschean revaluing of values in with Kropotkin’s mutual aid. Whilst conceding that “anarchosyndicalism” is “alone able to organize successfully the economic life and carry on production”, she praises “the cooperatives” which must link town to country and the agrarian masses to the industrial ones. Thus, “A common tie of mutual service and aid is created which is the strongest bulwark of the revolution — far more effective than compulsory labour, the Red Army, or terrorism.” But Goldman sounds an anarchist note of caution too when she adds that:
“cultural forces, while remaining rooted in the economic soil, must yet retain independent scope and freedom of expression. Not adherence to the dominant political party but devotion to the revolution, knowledge, ability, and — above all — the creative impulse should be the criterion of fitness for cultural work.”
It is very much worth highlighting here how freedom and creativity [which, of course, relies on freedom to create to begin with] constantly remain necessary for Goldman. Her revolution is the absolute antithesis of a plan, formula or dogma. For her, revolution must stay vital, living, alive, dynamic, creative, lest it put itself in peril and fail. Revolution, for Goldman, can only happen inasmuch as it is tied to a living people self-actualized and habituated to living lives according to liberatory values freed from centralising coercions. Old values, cultural ideas and traditions must be expunged and people must find a way to transvaluate not just their values but their very selves to create the new people capable of making new relationships that a real revolution must achieve. Thus, for example, Goldman bemoans the split between “proletarians” and the intelligentsia which, in times of reactionary politics, politicians always seek to exaggerate in order to cause division between the educated and the uneducated. Following Peter Kropotkin, who had lauded the need for “brain work and manual work” in his theory of the revolution, Goldman argues that “The Russian Revolution has made it very clear that both brain and muscle are indispensable to the work of social regeneration. Intellectual and physical labour are as closely related in the social body as brain and hand in the human organism. One cannot function without the other.”
Here Goldman, as always before, refuses to come down on one side or the other of an imagined individual/social divide. She can speak about “the collective force which is to shape the revolution into the great architect of the new social edifice” but she can also say that “All must learn the value of mutual aid and libertarian cooperation, yet each must be able to remain independent in his own sphere and in harmony with the best he can yield to society.” Here there is no future in going it alone but, by the same token, there is no future in arbitrary collectivity either. Goldman’s social conception was that free human beings with free association and their own autonomy and agency made the best social organisms, the only ones, in fact, that had any opportunity to succeed according to an emancipatory agenda. As such, it is worth quoting her at length from her afterword to My Disillusionment in Russia in regard to “the state idea”, “the authoritarian principle” and “the whole Socialist conception of revolution itself”, ideas to which she stood implacably opposed and which led to her leaving Russia for good at the end of 1921:
“the STATE IDEA, the authoritarian principle, has been proven bankrupt by the experience of the Russian Revolution. If I were to sum up my whole argument in one sentence I should say: The inherent tendency of the State is to concentrate, to narrow, and monopolize all social activities; the nature of revolution is, on the contrary, to grow, to broaden, and disseminate itself in ever-wider circles. In other words, the State is institutional and static; revolution is fluent, dynamic. These two tendencies are incompatible and mutually destructive. The State idea killed the Russian Revolution and it must have the same result in all other revolutions, unless the libertarian idea prevail.
Yet I go much further. It is not only Bolshevism, Marxism, and Governmentalism which are fatal to revolution as well as to all vital human progress. The main cause of the defeat of the Russian Revolution lies much deeper. It is to be found in the whole Socialist conception of revolution itself.
The dominant, almost general, idea of revolution — particularly the Socialist idea — is that revolution is a violent change of social conditions through which one social class, the working class, becomes dominant over another class, the capitalist class. It is the conception of a purely physical change, and as such it involves only political scene shifting and institutional rearrangements. Bourgeois dictatorship is replaced by the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ — or by that of its ‘advance guard,’ the Communist Party; Lenin takes the seat of the Romanovs, the Imperial Cabinet is rechristened Soviet of People’s Commissars, Trotsky is appointed Minister of War, and a labourer becomes the Military Governor General of Moscow. That is, in essence, the Bolshevik conception of revolution, as translated into actual practice. And with a few minor alterations it is also the idea of revolution held by all other Socialist parties.
This conception is inherently and fatally false. Revolution is indeed a violent process. But if it is to result only in a change of dictatorship, in a shifting of names and political personalities, then it is hardly worthwhile. It is surely not worth all the struggle and sacrifice, the stupendous loss in human life and cultural values that result from every revolution. If such a revolution were even to bring greater social well-being (which has not been the case in Russia) then it would also not be worth the terrific price paid: mere improvement can be brought about without bloody revolution. It is not palliatives or reforms that are the real aim and purpose of revolution, as I conceive it.
In my opinion—a thousand fold strengthened by the Russian experience—the great mission of revolution, of the SOCIAL REVOLUTION, is a fundamental transvaluation of values. A transvaluation not only of social, but also of human values. The latter are even pre-eminent, for they are the basis of all social values. Our institutions and conditions rest upon deep-seated ideas. To change those conditions and at the same time leave the underlying ideas and values intact means only a superficial transformation, one that cannot be permanent or bring real betterment. It is a change of form only, not of substance, as so tragically proven by Russia.
It is at once the great failure and the great tragedy of the Russian Revolution that it attempted (in the leadership of the ruling political party) to change only institutions and conditions while ignoring entirely the human and social values involved in the Revolution. Worse yet, in its mad passion for power, the Communist State even sought to strengthen and deepen the very ideas and conceptions which the Revolution had come to destroy. It supported and encouraged all the worst anti-social qualities and systematically destroyed the already awakened conception of the new revolutionary values. The sense of justice and equality, the love of liberty and of human brotherhood — these fundamentals of the real regeneration of society — the Communist State suppressed to the point of extermination. Man’s instinctive sense of equity was branded as weak sentimentality; human dignity and liberty became a bourgeois superstition; the sanctity of life, which is the very essence of social reconstruction, was condemned as revolutionary, almost counter-revolutionary. This fearful perversion of fundamental values bore within itself the seed of destruction. With the conception that the Revolution was only a means of securing political power, it was inevitable that all revolutionary values should be subordinated to the needs of the Socialist State; indeed, exploited to further the security of the newly acquired governmental power. ‘Reasons of State,’ masked as the ‘interests of the Revolution and of the People,’ became the sole criterion of action, even of feeling. Violence, the tragic inevitability of revolutionary upheavals, became an established custom, a habit, and was presently enthroned as the most powerful and ‘ideal’ institution…
This perversion of the ethical values son crystallized into the all-dominating slogan of the Communist Party: THE END JUSTIFIES ALL MEANS. Similarly in the past the Inquisition and the Jesuits adopted this motto and subordinated to it all morality. It avenged itself upon the Jesuits as it did upon the Russian Revolution. In the wake of this slogan followed lying, deceit, hypocrisy and treachery, murder, open and secret. It should be of utmost interest to students of social psychology that two movements as widely separated in time and ideas as Jesuitism and Bolshevism reached exactly similar results in the evolution of the principle, that the end justifies all means. The historic parallel, almost entirely ignored so far, contains a most important lesson for all coming revolutions and for the whole future of mankind.
There is no greater fallacy than the belief that aims and purposes are one thing, while methods and tactics are another. This conception is a potent menace to social regeneration. All human experience teaches that methods and means cannot be separated from the ultimate aim. The means employed become, through individual habit and social practice, part and parcel of the final purpose; they influence it, modify it, and presently the aims and means become identical. From the day of my arrival in Russia I felt it, at first vaguely, then ever more consciously and clearly. The great and inspiring aims of the Revolution became so clouded with and obscured by the methods used by the ruling political power that it was hard to distinguish what was temporary means and what final purpose. Psychologically and socially the means necessarily influence and alter the aims. The whole history of man is continuous proof of the maxim that to divest one’s methods of ethical concepts means to sink into the depths of utter demoralization. In that lies the real tragedy of the Bolshevik philosophy as applied to the Russian Revolution. May this lesson not be in vain?
No revolution can ever succeed as a factor of liberation unless the MEANS used to further it be identical in spirit and tendency with the PURPOSES to be achieved. Revolution is the negation of the existing, a violent protest against man’s inhumanity to man with all the thousand and one slaveries it involves. It is the destroyer of dominant values upon which a complex system of injustice, oppression, and wrong has been built up by ignorance and brutality. — It is the herald of NEW VALUES,ushering in a transformation of the basic relations of man to man, and of man to society. It is not a mere reformer, patching up some social evils; not a mere changer of forms and institutions; not only a re-distributor of social well-being. It is all that, yet more, much more. It is, first and foremost, the TRANSVALUATOR, the bearer of new values. It is the great TEACHER Of the NEW ETHICS, inspiring man with a new concept of life and its manifestations in social relationships. It is the mental and spiritual regenerator.
Its first ethical precept is the identity of means used and aims sought. The ultimate end of all revolutionary social change is to establish the sanctity of human life, the dignity of man, the right of every human being to liberty and well-being. Unless this be the essential aim of revolution, violent social changes would have no justification. For external social alterations can be, and have been, accomplished by the normal processes of evolution. Revolution, on the contrary, signifies not mere external change, but internal, basic, fundamental change. That internal change of concepts and ideas, permeating ever-larger social strata, finally culminates in the violent upheaval known as revolution. Shall that climax reverse the process of transvaluation, turn against it, and betray it? That is what happened in Russia. On the contrary, the revolution itself must quicken and further the process of which it is the cumulative expression; its main mission is to inspire it, to carry it to greater heights, give it fullest scope for expression. Only thus is revolution true to itself.
Applied in practice it means that the period of the actual revolution, the so-called transitory stage, must be the introduction, the prelude to the new social conditions. It is the threshold to the NEW LIFE, the new HOUSE OF MAN AND HUMANITY As such it must he of the spirit of the new life, harmonious with the construction of the new edifice.
Today is the parent of tomorrow. The present casts its shadow far into the future. That is the law of life, individual and social. Revolution that divests itself of ethical values thereby lays the foundation of injustice, deceit, and oppression for the future society. The means used to prepare the future become its cornerstone. Witness the tragic condition of Russia. The methods of State centralization have paralysed individual initiative and effort; the tyranny of the dictatorship has cowed the people into slavish submission and all but extinguished the fires of liberty; organized terrorism has depraved and brutalized the masses and stifled every idealistic aspiration; institutionalized murder has cheapened human life, and all sense of the dignity of man and the value of life has been eliminated; coercion at every step has made effort bitter, labour a punishment, has turned the whole of existence into a scheme of mutual deceit, and has revived the lowest and most brutal instincts of man. A sorry heritage to begin a new life of freedom and brotherhood.
It cannot be sufficiently emphasized that revolution is in vain unless inspired by its ultimate ideal. Revolutionary methods must be in tune with revolutionary aims. The means used to further the revolution must harmonize with its purposes. In short, the ethical values which the revolution is to establish in the new society must be initiated with the revolutionary activities of the so-called transitional period. The latter can serve as a real and dependable bridge to the better life only if built of the same material as the life to be achieved. Revolution is the mirror of the coming day; it is the child that is to be the Man of Tomorrow.”
This is as vital and as theoretical a text as Emma Goldman ever wrote, getting, as it does, to the heart of her anarchist values and her idea of “revolution”. It is NOT a matter of the right figureheads in government buildings or the correct parties occupying parliaments but of the values that each human being is imbued with and so the possibilities that their lives can create. Therefore, “What we understand as revolution” is the problem to be overcome if I am reading Emma Goldman correctly. She describes it much more as a Nietzschean “transvaluation of all values” than as a changing of the guard in some official residence of state, a mere political “scene shifting” as she calls it. In other words, this is to say that revolution is about us, who we are and what relations we can form with each other much, much more than it is about ANY sort of political organisation or control. Sort out the first, says Emma Goldman, and the second will take care of itself.
Part Four: Anarchism as Life
We must come to some conclusion about Emma Goldman’s anarchism to round off this appraisal of her life and character. It is, in fact, an interesting question to ask what Emma Goldman actually wanted, why she put herself on the line so deliberately and what she was hoping to achieve. Although she is often labelled as a “mere” activist, agitator or propagandist [perhaps even by me], there is within the textual fragments of her life evidence of quite a distinctively personal and theoretically interesting approach to life and anarchism – not to say to life AS anarchism. I say this if not only because it is Emma Goldman who has pre-eminently appealed to me as a person with an anarchist vision I have personally found fascinating and, as a result, impossible to ignore. In that, I must confess that it is not merely the content of that vision which has stirred me so but Goldman’s conviction that anarchism is NEVER MERELY CONTENT: IT IS LIFE LIVED OUT. Goldman’s, then, is an anarchism of ideas but also of practice, an anarchism that could not be anarchism unless it is practiced. THIS IS HER FIRST AND MOST IMPORTANT LESSON.
To help me get at what I regard as an insightful interpretation of Emma Goldman I am going to refer to the essay “When Theories Meet: Emma Goldman and ‘Post-Anarchism’” by Hilton Bertalan in the book Post-Anarchism: A Reader. Readers of my previous work will know that I am not unfamiliar with “Post-Anarchism” nor am I unreceptive to its insights. This would also be demonstrated in other of my books where the poststructuralists and post-anarchists have been called upon for theoretical insights at various points, poststructuralism and its own insights being particularly useful tools for the post-anarchist in their critique of anarchism. The reason I wish to refer to this essay particularly is because the more I read it [and I began reading it speculatively but I found I couldn’t stop reading], the more I found it described an Emma Goldman which made the utmost sense to me, both as a theorist and as a description of what animated her life and made it one of lived practice and personal journey.
Bertalan begins by arguing that Emma Goldman was not your typical “classical anarchist”. [The period of “classical anarchism” is not set in stone but many would mark its end with Goldman’s death in 1940 and its span as broadly contemporaneous with her own life, i.e. 1869 – 1940. This is the period which includes the stand out figures such as Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, etc.] Bertalan in fact sees Goldman as a bridge between classical anarchism and its stereotypical and tightly-focused concerns with politics and economics and a more modern anarchism “that is connectable to the theoretical and political efforts of several contemporary theorists.” This insight encompasses at least two facts about Goldman; firstly, that she pioneered an intersectional anarchism that was exactly about more than just politics and economics [she often referred to anarchism as being about “every phase of life”, for example,] and, secondly, that, in the end, anarchism was not for her a goal or achievement but a life lived contingently that is subject to change and so is articulated by values and an ethics. In this, Bertalan sees resonances with the ideas of modern theorists such as Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler and Michel Foucault. The most particular cause of this phenomenon Bertalan then argues to be Goldman’s exceptional interest in the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, an interest made all the more remarkable for the fact that many other anarchists [and commentators generally] disdained Nietzsche as an apolitical elitist who had no obvious relevance to the anarchism of the classical period. Goldman, however, notes staying awake all night in her devotion to his texts [“I had to do my reading at the expense of much-needed sleep, but what was physical strain in view of my raptures over Nietzsche?” says Goldman in Living My Life], had arguments with lovers who had a low opinion of Nietzsche’s worth and even gave lectures on Nietzsche’s relevance over several years and so he is not an insignificant figure in her intellectual world of ideas. Nietzsche himself, in the consequences of his own thought, is often seen as the modern father of things from postmodernism to poststructuralism [and with the downfall of epistemological philosophy generally] and so Goldman’s interest here can lead to many interesting connections between his thought and that of his modern interpreters.
One of these connections is that Nietzsche spoke of a world of becoming rather than of being and of subjectivity as “in a constant state of flux”. Goldman used these exact words to describe herself and further spoke of ‘human nature’ as “by no means a fixed quantity. Rather, it is fluid and responsive to new conditions.” Goldman, we may say, was, like Nietzsche, not an essentialist — as is also demonstrated when she spoke about the “variations and gradations of gender” and sexuality in correspondence with the pioneering sexual researcher, Magnus Hirschfeld. Goldman had a great sensitivity to personal differentiation and actual diversity of character that existed not at a class level [and so was never in a binary way] but that was fully individual. But it was not only a recognition of such difference: it was a respect for it. Whatever Goldman thought about the social organism and the necessity of social formation, this was never said at the expense of individual reality or proclivity. All social engagement for Goldman was of real individual human beings that mattered in their difference and personal desires. What we might take from this is that Goldman, always concerned that one must think in a revolutionary way to live a revolutionary life, actively sought to reweave and educate the ideas that constituted her as an intellectual being. She was not, was never, happy to rest in customs, traditions and handed down ideas about things that society or culture just happened to hand her. Goldman was determined to think for herself and believed passionately that only people who did were actually making the revolution because they were really the only people who could. She believed that the imaginary that guided a person and created their world, their interpretational matrix, was of vital importance to living authentically as an anarchist.
In this respect, Hilton Bertalan makes an interesting connection with Nietzsche. For one familiar with the words of Nietzsche who reads Goldman’s surviving textual corpus it is already clear to see that many words and phrases are taken over by Goldman and applied to her anarchistic endeavours. Sometimes she even references him explicitly as the impetus to the idea she is putting forward. One example here is those occasions in which she takes over Nietzsche’s idea of destroying old values in order to create your own new ones. [I discussed this in Nietzschean context in my exegesis of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in my previous book, Egoism Explained.] Thus, Goldman can say that anarchism “embraces every phase of life and effort and undermines the old, outlived values.” Nietzsche, of course, as in Zarathustra, spoke of “breaking the old law tables” in order to construct your own, new ones. So, when Goldman states that anarchism “is the destroyer of dominant values” or the “herald of new values” or even calls anarchism the “TRANSVALUATOR” and speaks of it as “the transvaluation of accepted values” we may expect that Goldman is regarding Nietzsche’s words as of direct relevance to anarchism. Indeed, she states plainly “I believe, with Nietzsche, that the time has come for a transvaluation of things” and writes in Living My Life – written in her later mature years rather than when she was an enthusiastic novice — that “Nietzsche was an anarchist”. Bertalan goes as far as to say that “Goldman’s anarchism was rooted in Nietzsche” and, in this respect, connects her most famous quote [which isn’t actually a quote because she never actually said it] about revolution and dancing with her Nietzscheanism because one of Nietzsche’s regular figures for his own philosophy was precisely the dance. Nietzsche affirmed books that, in his words, “teach how to dance” and looked for those who were “able to dance with one’s feet, with concepts, with words”. In his own work he wanted “to give birth to a dancing star”. Dancing is a very Nietzschean thing so if Goldman’s revolution is a revolution of dancing then it is a Nietzschean revolution of transvalued values and perpetual creation of new values and so new life.
Dancing, of course, has no end save enjoyment of the experience, self-expression through the experience, the self-expression of being and expressing oneself in a way that is unplanned. This is not insignificant and can be applied politically and epistemologically. Bertalan notes that “Nietzsche called for ‘as little state as possible’” and he told people to look beyond the state. Yet he criticised anarchists for replacing the state in their classical ideas with “a rationalist counter-system”, what the theorist Lewis Call refers to as replacing nations of people who share a nationality with “a nation of Bakuninites” or “a nation of Kropotkinites”. Call thinks that “the dominant figure in Nietzsche’s… political imaginary is much more profoundly non-sectarian. She is indeed nomadic in character.” Bertalan responds that she is precisely Emma Goldman. For:
“Goldman did not envision a nation of Goldmanites, nor did she imagine the final eradication of domination brought forth by a new system based on rationalist principles of human nature. Goldman recognized that any conception, however rational it may have seemed, was the product of particular conditions, and that those conditions were always subject to change.”
This is to say that her politics was like dancing. It was in the moment, self-expressive, an experience not necessarily to be repeated. It was making the most of things in your opportunity to do so. It was, to refer to that most common anecdote about her, not something where someone could come along and tell you what to do. Bertalan links this to Nietzsche’s thought that “the character of the world in a state of becoming is incapable of formulation” and this acts as a dividing line between those anarchists [and wider political theorists] who think of politics as a plan to be executed and those, pre-eminently like Emma Goldman, who absolutely do not. Here Bertalan, I think with absolute authenticity to Goldman, speaks of her as one who sometimes spoke of the utopian vision and the goal [she could hardly help it as others of her contemporaries imagined it this way and she would have at least wanted to respect them] but who finally maintained “that utopian visions remain open to constant modification and criticism”. What’s more, Goldman always spoke of such things as the result of specific activity that could and would be different in each case, not least due to the proclivities of those engaged in the action. As, in fact, we previously saw in her condemnation of the Bolsheviks, the “iron-clad program” was something she despised as politically inauthentic and unworkable. One had to be light on one’s feet, responsible to circumstances, always open and flexible, if one wanted political revolution to succeed. So it is actually important here that you DO NOT define the goal and never take the idea seriously that anarchism has one. Becoming, like dancing, is simply a process enjoyed for itself, as what it is, it is not about an achievement or a destination.
This leads us to the notion, in Bertalan’s interpretation, that Goldman is focused on twin transformations, that of the social and of the self. These are constant, never-ending processes. Anarchism is then not a linear path to a goal but an existence, a reality, an always unfolding experience subject to change. Evidence here is given precisely in reference to Goldman’s statement that anarchism “cannot consistently impose an iron-clad program or method on the future”, that it “has no set rules” and that “its methods vary according to the age, the temperament, and the surroundings of its followers”. Anarchism is here not one thing and it changes from person to person and from group to group. It is not a singular agenda imposed on everyone. I am reminded here, as I have mentioned in my writing before, of Goldman’s activities at the 1907 Amsterdam anarchist conference, typical of her, in fact, where, in the discussion on organisation, Goldman had been happy to allow people to organise as they saw fit provided individual latitude to act as you will was also approved. Goldman, again like Nietzsche, was totally against the idea of a “blueprint for the future” and, as we saw again with her comments on post-revolutionary Russia, saw no future for political action that was not based on free action and free association. Freedom was the pre-requisite, in fact, not the result.
So it is no surprise here to find Bertalan saying that “Goldman’s anarchism was non-prescriptive and contingent” and that “she viewed it not as a closed mapping that sketched forms of resistance or social organisation, but rather, as a flexible and open political philosophy in a state of perpetual transformation.” Anarchist politics, for Goldman, was absolutely not about “getting with the program” for, for her, there was, and could be, no “program”. The future, as Nietzsche had taught her, could not be thought out ahead of time and written down for it was a matter of its becoming in and through our own selves and our own values. Here something Bertalan says of Gilles Deleuze is relevant for Deleuze points out that the idea of planning out a revolution is a bad one for it stops people doing that which, actually, is most important: BECOMING REVOLUTIONARY YOURSELF.
Goldman, in my reading of her, instinctively understood this for her anarchism was an anarchism of who you are and how you live, a matter of being yourself in a permanent and consistent state of revolution, a revolution that is a revolution of becoming and of being that begins and ends in your values and so your means of thinking and existing. Next to this core idea, how such a thing develops relationally and socially is a matter for posterity to figure out in the white heat of the moment for, as Goldman said in regard to Russia, it is that you are such people as can be a revolution that really matters. Without that, the revolution is going nowhere anyway. So revolution, anarchism, is not, is never, a matter of a “totalizing discourse”, it is not a “political philosophy” in the sense of theories which “get things right”. This is a false conception of things that Goldman simply didn’t subscribe to which is why she never had an answer on the “thousand” occasions she was asked “How will things operate under anarchism?”. She didn’t have an answer to that question because she didn’t know. Her anarchism did not conceive of an answer to that question ahead of time for it was in and from the being that the doing came. “How can anyone assume to map out a line of conduct for those to come?” was Goldman’s comment on such a scenario. She pictured, again with Nietzsche as she expressly mentioned herself, “that we are staggering along with the corpses of dead ages on our backs.” Her conclusion to this thought was that “Theories do not create life. Life must make its own theories.” So Goldman’s anarchism was all about the spontaneity of the moment as articulated by those who had so formed and self-actualized themselves, despite the weight of a dead past with its dead values, that they literally created the future from themselves as revolutionary individuals creating revolutionary relationships and so new social futures. In saying “Life must make its own theories” Goldman even seems to suggest that this is always our responsibility. She certainly seems to have seen it as her own.
Goldman, as a consequence, did not believe that there were ever to be any resting places, final destinations or ultimate achievements. Life was, and is, a process and a matter of continual creation. Being Nietzschean about it, one might even say that, for her, anarchism is the matter of a continual overcoming – not only of the past and its values but of the self and its own values too. We must forever be creating ourselves anew, creation and recreation is then the anarchist’s stock in trade according to Goldman. Thus, she speaks of a “state of eternal change” and conceives of a universe and an existence that is constantly moving. There is no place to settle down for nothing is really ever standing still. Anarchism, consequently, cannot be the plan for plans are contextual, they fit some circumstances but not others. They will not do. This is why she sees “human nature” as “fluid and responsive to new conditions”: it has to be if it is going to be adequate to a life that is always moving. So Goldman’s anarchism is the anarchism of “life always in flux” and “new currents flowing from the dried-up spring of the old” and is, fundamentally, about “constantly creating new conditions”. Those statements span decades in Goldman’s commentary so they aren’t simply reflective of but one period of her life. It is not unimportant here either that Goldman focused on “every phase of life” in her anarchism and brought intersectional concerns to bear on it, not least what would now be called anarchafeminist concerns. Goldman’s anarchism was a broader “life anarchism” than was the more narrow “classical” anarchism of most of her contemporaries who were concerned only with politics and the economy, with workers and strikes. Goldman did care about these things, with dozens of examples of her involvement in them [and at least one direct imprisonment of her own because of them beside Berkman’s], but she did not ONLY care about them. Anarchism, for her, was both EVERYTHING and about everything, moral as well as political, modes of thought as well as economics. She was also often ahead of her time, not least in matters of sex and gender. She was a prominent voice speaking in favour of homosexuality and gradations and variations of sexuality and gender and refused “the absurd notion of the dualism of the sexes” where “man and woman represent two antagonistic worlds”. TERFs and gender criticals are very lucky she is long since dead!
Given the picture of Goldman as a fiery rhetorician who faces down mobs and faces up to crowds and police, a woman who, fundamentally, takes responsibility for acting and saying something, it is perhaps jarring to find that, at its heart, Goldman’s anarchism was self-described by her as a matter of a “beautiful idea” or “beautiful ideal”. [“I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”] She actually penned newspaper pieces in her lifetime using such titles, sometimes to contrast it with the popular notion, which newspapers amplified, of anarchists as destructive bomb throwers. In her 1908 essay “A Beautiful Ideal”, for example, Goldman states:
“Anarchism is a theory of human development which lays no less stress than socialism upon the economic or materialistic aspect of social relations; but while granting that the cause of the immediate evil is an economic one we believe that the solution of the social question confronting us today must be wrought out from the equal consideration of the whole of our experience.”
But what then is the beautiful ideal? Goldman explains further on:
“Anarchism in its scientific and philosophic calculations represents that force in human life which can harmonize and bring into unity the individual and social instincts of the individual and society. The greatest obstacles in the way of such harmonious blending, are property, or the monopoly of things—the denial of the right of others to their use, and authority—the government of man by man, embodied in majority rule, or the absolute disregard of individual life in the organization that for want of a better name stands for society. Therefore the first tendency of anarchism is to make good the dignity of the individual human being by freeing him from every kind of arbitrary restraint—economic, political, social. In so doing anarchism proposes to make apparent, in their true force the social bonds, which always have and always will knit men together and which are the actual basis of a real normal and sane society. The means of doing this rests with each man’s latent qualities and his opportunities…
Anarchism holds that the simplest human life, it given opportunity and scope, is infinitely more important to society than all the scientific regulation and adjusting of social arrangements. For, in proportion as that simple life grows into a conscious, intelligent, well-rounded factor, recognizing its true relation to its fellow, regulations and forms will take care of themselves.”
Of such a vision of a “beautiful ideal” Goldman comments:
“The truth can not be silenced by constant discoveries of ‘anarchist plots,’ or by designating every demented being as an anarchist, nor even by burning anarchist literature, or establishing a system of espionage, which invades the sanctity of individual privacy and makes the life of its victims an intolerable evil. There are thousands of people in this country who see in such methods the last desperate efforts of a dying age. The new, strong in thought and ideals, strong in human sympathy and fellowship, is fast approaching, and when it arrives the present will be remembered as a nightmare, that humanity dreamed, rather than as an awful reality it actually lived.”
This is a simple presentation of Goldman’s beliefs, suitable, as it was, to be read in a newspaper column for general consumption. It was also, incidentally, apparently too incendiary for the Chicago police who physically prevented her from delivering it as an oral presentation at Workingmen’s Hall on March 17th, 1908. What, one wonders, is so dangerous in a talk about “the dignity of the individual human being”, fraternity and brotherhood that denigrates early Twentieth Century America for having degraded “Man… into a mere part of a machine” and destroyed “all that makes for spontaneity, for originality, for the power of initiative” until he is “a living corpse”? Its hard to say. But Hilton Bertalan thinks that the answer is “love” and argues that “Goldman understood love as the most important element of life.”
Now I am myself no expert in love. Talk about “care” and I am more onboard and feel in more familiar waters. Yet I think both words apply to Emma Goldman and I also think that both words are concerned with “open and vulnerable connection”, something which Goldman’s lifetime of love and care demonstrate completely. For who was more “open and vulnerable” than Goldman in her love for others – as her memoir uniquely describes? Goldman, in fact, sees love as a necessity. “High on a throne, with all the splendor and pomp his gold can command, man is yet poor and desolate if love passes him by,” says Goldman. “Love,” she adds, “is the strongest and deepest element in life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; love, the defier of all laws, of all conventions; love, the freest, the most powerful moulder of human destiny.” Nietzsche, of course [because of course “of course”], would have agreed for it was he who said “that which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil”. Love, that is, transcends all morality and we know what Goldman thought about morality: that we should rewrite it for and in ourselves! But love also does much more than that for Nietzsche, as section 808 of his notes collected together in The Will to Power demonstrates:
“Do you desire the most astonishing proof of how far the transfiguring power of intoxication can go? — ‘Love’ is this proof: that which is called love in all the languages and silences of the world. In this case, intoxication has done with reality to such a degree that in the consciousness of the lover the cause of it is extinguished and something else seems to have taken its place — a vibration and glittering of all the magic mirrors of Circe —
Here it makes no difference whether one is man or animal; even less whether one has spirit, goodness, integrity. If one is subtle, one is fooled subtly; if one is coarse, one is fooled coarsely; but love, and even the love of God, the saintly love of ‘redeemed souls,’ remains the same in its roots: a fever that has good reason to transfigure itself, an intoxication that does well to lie about itself — And in any case, one lies well when one loves, about oneself and to oneself: one seems to oneself transfigured, stronger, richer, more perfect, one is more perfect — Here we discover art as an organic function: we discover it in the most angelic instinct, ‘love’; we discover it as the greatest stimulus of life — art thus sublimely expedient even when it lies —
But we should do wrong if we stopped with its power to lie: it does more than merely imagine; it even transposes values. And it is not only that it transposes the feeling of values: the lover is more valuable, is stronger. In animals this condition produces new weapons, pigments, colors, and forms; above all, new movements, new rhythms, new love calls and seductions. It is no different with man. His whole economy is richer than before, more powerful, more complete than in those who do not love. The lover becomes a squanderer: he is rich enough for it. Now he dares, becomes an adventurer, becomes an ass in magnanimity and innocence; he believes in God again, he believes in virtue, because he believes in love; and on the other hand, this happy idiot grows wings and new capabilities, and even the door of art is opened to him. If we subtracted all traces of this intestinal fever from lyricism in sound and word, what would be left of lyrical poetry and music?- L’art pour l’art perhaps: the virtuoso croaking of shivering frogs, despairing in their swamp — All the rest was created by love — ”
Love is “the greatest stimulus of life”; it “transfigures”; it “transposes values”; it makes one rich and magnanimous. This seems a very suitable thing for the kind of anarchism we have been prescribing for Emma Goldman or, rather, that she has been prescribing for us. This is love that is an “intoxication” [the metaphor is one of Dionysian revelry], that is a “transfiguration” [that metaphor is more Christ-like!]. This Nietzschean sort of love actually creates reality for it makes of the world what it sees through and in love. Anyone who has ever loved knows how love changes things, not least how you see and think about that which you love and how your appreciation of the world itself changes. The idea, then, is a very powerful one, an individually and socially transformative bond. [It is not then irrelevant either that the Greek mythological witch Circe could change one thing into another as part of this metaphor.] Love is a reality-creating phenomenon according to Nietzsche, an interpretational matrix, a valuing system, and that fits very well with what Goldman said of it before. “Love does not want what already exists” according to Bertalan and neither does it seek to reform. Instead, love TRANSFORMS, it creates for itself and out of itself. Love, in fact, is a law unto itself – as Emma Goldman knew only too well.
In regard to such love Bertalan says that:
“In this, a Goldman sense of love, we do not love under certain conditions, or because we understand one another, or because we share a particular vision, or even because we recognize each other as something relatable, translatable or familiar to something in our psychic, preferential, emotional or political sensibilities. It is not because we will be loved or find a desire satisfied, a lack filled, or be offered something absent. Instead, for Goldman, love takes place prefiguratively, before the encounter, before the advance or event that usually marks its beginning or containment in reachable social and political visions.”
Without illegitimately psychologizing Goldman here it seems to me that Bertalan is suggesting that Goldman, as the outcome of the person she was creating herself to be, pre-determined to love in and through her life. That is to say that she set her internal settings to “love” and so to care about individuals and about social conditions as an expression of a decision to love. Some might here want to go into the particularities of her background or upbringing and fathom some narrative of psychological necessity from this but, as I say, I leave such speculations for others. All that seems important to me is that she chose a life of love and of care in which the desire to love, the requirement to love, was both her method and her practice. This, it seems to me, is why she so deliberately inserted herself into all sorts of situations which she could have had nothing to do with. No one would have criticised her for doing so but it seems she felt a need and a responsibility to love whether in regard to Berkman and his attentat, the starving workers of New York in 1893 which led to imprisonment or a hundred other possible cases she refers to. The motive of love also ties together her personal and public lives as I suggested earlier when I said her ideal was her one true love and her erotic entanglements were her practice of “free love”. Many interpreters of Goldman see Goldman as hampered in her public life by her attachment to erotic love but I choose to see them as examples of exactly the same thing – albeit Goldman herself describes one as often getting in the way of the other. The point I am making is that Goldman actively chose to love and, whether public or personal, both are results of that same decision. All that follows from that is that such a thoroughgoing decision to love, to have an ethic of love, is not necessarily to be trouble free as a result.
Now love, of course, is a matter of relationships – and this is not unimportant for anarchism either as I have tried to show previously. It promotes the magnanimousness and adventuring that Nietzsche referred to in his comments on love. As Bertalan reads this in Goldman it is a matter of “multiplicity and interconnectivity”, a force equal to the openness and flexibility she saw as necessary political qualities of character if anarchism was to succeed. Goldman it is who encourages us to be “broad and big” in our relationships; her solidarity is not a unity of the same but a diversity of multiplicity that always respects the individual. We might then say that she envisages a love big enough to handle this. It is not a love which loves the same as it already is [which even Jesus knew anybody can achieve] but it is a love which loves multiplicity and diversity as examples of authentic humanity. Goldman, whom we have already seen, imagined a world of transformation and change, then had a love ethic that could connect what was different and whilst accommodating its differences too. In fact, it positively “cultivated multiplicity” wherever Goldman required individual integrity [which she always did].
Thus, Goldman can call for “diversity [and] variety with the spirit of solidarity in anarchism and non-authoritarian organization.” Such a thing can only be a refusal of domination and of any kind of centralization. Once more, I remind readers that Goldman didn’t stand against organization but neither did she promote it at the cost of individual proclivity or freedom of association either. She always wanted to leave the door open for individual ingenuity or decision. This, I think, is an example of her magnanimous love and her adventurous love of a Nietzschean type. As Gilles Deleuze then wrote of Nietzsche: “Nietzsche’s practical teaching is that difference is happy; that multiplicity, becoming and chance are adequate objects of joy by themselves and that only joy returns.” Goldman, I believe, would have fully endorsed this appraisal and embraced it herself – for it is, in fact, the life she tried to live both privately and publicly. Whether in sex or in social matters of political revolution, Goldman was the same; she embraced the multiple, accepted the diverse and chose to love, risking the vulnerability of relationship for a beautiful ideal.
But this was not love which smothered – as some love could be. It was not love which demanded “me, me, me.” Goldman’s love, as I will never tire of repeating, was not a controlling love but a freeing love, a love which respects personal agency and decision. It was a love which was empathetic as well as sympathetic as the following shows:
“It requires something more than personal experience to gain a philosophy or point of view from any specific event. It is the quality of our response to the event and our capacity to enter into the lives of others that help us to make their lives and experiences our own.”
An example of this from Goldman own life is when, as a grand dame of anarchism, she refused to issue advice or counsel to those in the Spanish revolution. Instead, responding to several contemporaries who urged her to weigh in, she replied that Spanish colleagues must be allowed room to find their own way, utilising their own experience. And then, of course, there is Leon Czolgosz, the assassinator of President McKinley. Goldman was not the only one who spoke up in his defence, although she was one of very, very few [Berkman, then in prison himself, did not defend Czolgosz whilst Voltairine de Cleyre was one of the few others who did] but she was by far the most notable, one who, no less, was detained for weeks herself in the forlorn hope that the crime could be pinned on her too. One can only imagine that Goldman’s ethic of love was here fully active for what must have then been one of the loneliest and most hated men alive. Goldman sought, in herself, to modulate a response of love to the man and an understanding of his act, to “enter into the lives of others” as she put it above, and this because, as previously stated, she saw value, potential at least, in every single human being. Unaccepting of scripts or pre-determined tables of values, Goldman sought, in love, to create her own and to judge “beyond good and evil” as a result. It is in such examples that we see that Goldman’s ethic of love and her revolutionary thinking are all of a piece, one and the same, inseparable.
The responsibility of love; the duty of care: I think these are things that meant something to Emma Goldman – even if she did refer to them as “the Cause”. I also think they provided the necessary meaning and value in her construction of life where what you are and how you live are the important things, the building blocks of relationships that can form liberating communities and can lead to freely associating revolutions. Goldman believed that the only way to make a revolution was to be the revolution and that the only way to overcome controlling and dominating values was to create your own emancipatory ones by works of self-education, self-creation and self-actualization. Not content to read anybody else’s script, as her story about the rejection of Johann Most’s discloses, Goldman stood for writing your own script and living it out in your own experience of reality in a world where she encouraged others to do exactly the same. She would never accept anything less as long as she lived and hoped that all our stories of self, when intertwining, would create a yet greater, diverse, multiplicitous story of relationships of love and care that were practiced in freedom and that would lead to a human revolution. This story is still being written [for it never stops being written, is always in progress] and so all we can do is carry on writing as Emma Goldman suggested.
Afterword: Emma Goldman in Action
In the preceding essay I have given an interpretation of Emma Goldman that was historical in nature and that was also philosophically and practically interested in her anarchism [the latter of which is not always the case]. I have tried to highlight what was important about this anarchism for Emma Goldman and how that was demonstrated by her in her life as well as in her speech and on the written page. Not all such examples are so clear cut, however. One incident in Goldman’s life, for example, and which she brings to public attention of her own free will in Living My Life, I know from my own personal experience of talking about it has caused some controversy among at least some of those who have been made aware of the basic facts of it. This is the sexual relationship that occurred between 37 year old Alexander Berkman and 15 year old Becky Edelsohn in the house they both shared with Emma Goldman and sundry others [which included a secretarial assistant for Mother Earth, sometimes Max Baginski, an early editor of the same and a one time lover of Goldman’s, and, at another time, a further lover of Goldman’s, Dr Ben Reitman, and even his beloved mother – although this last didn’t work out too well]. This is not an extensive list of everyone who stayed there.
Alexander Berkman, as we have read above, was released from prison in May 1906 after 14 long years for the attack on Frick in July 1892. When he emerged he was a changed man and was uncomfortable around other people. There is even an incident where he disappeared for a few days and was eventually discovered by Goldman to have bought a gun, wanting to kill himself. Ironically, it seems he had finally found his relative freedom after the horrors of consistent incarceration unbearable. Consequently, there were few people he felt comfortable with. One such person, however, was Becky Edelsohn. Of Edelsohn, Candace Falk says in volume two of her “documentary history” of Emma Goldman that:
“She was in her early teens when Alexander Berkman was released from prison and was one of the few people he felt comfortable with. She helped Berkman rehabilitate himself and became his companion in late 1907. Arrested in 1906 along with a number of other young anarchists at a meeting to discuss whether Leon Czolgosz was an anarchist [the talk was given by Goldman], their arrests helped bring Berkman back into political activity. She was arrested again at an International Brotherhood Welfare Association meeting at Cooper Union on Labor Day 1908, with Berkman, for defending Ben Reitman, after Reitman was attacked for reading a speech criticizing Labor Day that was actually written by Emma Goldman. Edelsohn was arrested again on May 23, 1909, with Leopold Bergman and charged with disorderly conduct at Emma Goldman’s Lexington Hall meeting that was broken up by the police.”
Clearly, Becky Edelsohn, who had previously lived in an orphanage and lived at this time and for a number of years thereafter in the Goldman/Berkman house that also served as the Mother Earth offices, was no ordinary teenager, and her relationship with Berkman, admitted by Goldman as sexual in her memoir, this aspect of Edelsohn’s relationship with Berkman beginning at least a year after their first acquaintance, was no ordinary relationship. Edelsohn, to be blunt, was a passionately engaged anarchist [reported as so later by the anarchist historian, Paul Avrich] who put herself in harm’s way just as Goldman and Berkman did and she racked up her own impressive sheet full of arrests. In 1914, in fact, now in her early 20s, she would be sent to Blackwell’s Island for leading demonstrations against John D. Rockefeller after the Ludlow Massacre in which striking workers of Rockefeller’s were murdered by an anti-strike militia. Whilst in prison, Edelsohn went on hunger strike [according to some, this makes her America’s first female hunger striker] but when she managed to smuggle a letter out reporting on her weakened state it was to Alexander Berkman that it was addressed. We do not know the precise details of for how long their sexual relationship lasted because the participants always seem to have regarded it as their private business [Edelsohn herself never publicly commented on it, for example] but we do know that Edelsohn was still working and corresponding with Berkman after their living arrangements changed in 1913 [when Goldman and Berkman had to leave the house they had shared with Edelsohn and after Edelsohn had had an abortion, aged 18 or 19, which was performed by Goldman’s lover, Reitman]. If Edelsohn, as some have suggested and assumed, was a victim of some sort of scandalous sexual impudence on Berkman’s part [with Goldman’s knowledge – although she writes that the sexual relationship began whilst she was abroad in 1907] then neither Edelsohn nor Berkman nor even Goldman [nor any other inhabitants of the house] ever gave any evidence whatsoever of this. Accusations of “rape” or “pedophilia” or the use of “power dynamics” are then entirely based on silence and completely lack either material weight or circumstantial support.
Since learning of this situation I have always tended to the view that Edelsohn’s involvement with Berkman was consensual and so that Goldman’s failure to impugn anyone about anything in regard to it was because there was nothing to impugn, “consent”, and Goldman’s anarchistic attitude towards the free development of free people, being the reasons for this. It is a line I hold to the more I think about those concerned and think about the situation itself. What has to be basically understood is that all of these people were committed anarchists [committed, that is, to the point of arrest and imprisonment] who were living by their own, freely chosen values and not by the bourgeois, and even puritan, values of those around them. [We know what Goldman thinks about puritanism and moral dogmatism because she sets it out in print quite plainly.] Both Goldman and Berkman had multiple “companions”, in the parlance of the day, but it may be plainly stated that such people were lovers. Berkman and Goldman did not hide their affinity for “free love”, as it was then called, and, at least in her memoir, Goldman reports this as being so right from their first meeting in 1889. If Berkman and Edelsohn had become sexually interested in each other, then, Goldman would have seen nothing wrong with this judging by her own stated anarchist values about which she spoke and wrote at some length — but also according to the anarchism she acted out in her own life. [Later in that life herself, when she was around 50 years of age, she would take at least one much younger lover of her own, for example. If “age difference” is something that outrages some modern puritans, it simply did not outrage her as a thing in itself.]
Indeed, I challenge any reader, reading the interpretation of Goldman’s anarchism above, to come to the view that a 15 year old teenage girl of Edelsohn’s demonstrated independence would not have been treated by Goldman [as also by Berkman] as an independent person in her own right who had the right to control her own sexuality. Goldman precisely taught both that such young women SHOULD be educated to the point where they could do this and also taught that independence begins with the learning of people in their childhood. It is not then feasible to argue, in line with bourgeois and puritan morality which Goldman despised, that Edelsohn was a victim of sex abuse and personally incapable of consent. To do so is simply to misunderstand the ethos of Goldman which, we must assume, Edelsohn was well aware of whilst living in her house and which Berkman was also well aware of. Goldman’s values were not bourgeois or puritan values and Goldman taught actively over several years the self-directed existence of children and young people, teaching she carried through in the establishment of a school in New York in 1911 and which she went to prison for in the teaching of birth control in 1916. Whatever can be said about Goldman in relation to this relationship, then, we cannot say it would have been something she was uninterested in. In fact, I’d argue, regardless of the howling of puritan mobs, that she would have seen it as an example of the anarchist values she was vociferously sharing and in favour of, an example of independent and responsible human beings making their own free associations for the creation of a mutually pleasurable relationship based on mutual affection and feeling. Against such a thing should there be dissent?
It is relevant here to put oneself in Goldman’s own shoes. When she was 15 Emma Goldman was both actually raped in a St Petersburg hotel room and the subject of her father Abraham’s attentions to get her married off where Goldman herself assumes her task would have been procreation thereafter. The latter case is part of why she tried to get away to America, even threatening to drown herself in the Neva river if her father would not let her leave. Goldman’s own sexual instinct was that her body was her own to decide what to do with and that was before “anarchism” had ever even come to her attention. So Goldman knew both the reality of sexual violence and the assumption of woman as a sexual function made use of by men, either to create families or for their sexual satisfaction, from her own teenage experience. Are we then expected to think that even this Goldman, let alone the one who was “the most dangerous woman in the world” of 1907, the “high priestess of anarchy”, was to stand by whilst another 15 year old teenager was sexually outraged under her own roof? Is this the most likely outcome or most reasonable interpretation given all we know about Goldman and her attitudes in regard to both youth liberation and the sexual liberation of women? It would seem to me to require some particularly blindfolded mental gymnastics in order to do so. If you actually take Goldman’s stated values and put them together to create a living picture of her anarchism, the most reasonable answer here is that she saw the Berkman/Edelsohn relationship as a matter of consensual free love in which Edelsohn herself had both the right and the educated ability to take responsibility for her own sexuality. Why should Goldman interfere because Edelsohn was 15 based on her own thinking? To Goldman, consent having been affirmed, that would be no issue at all. Critics need to take Goldman’s stated anarchist values into account when doing their own prudish and unanarchist mathematics in which, for them, 2+2 will always equal 5.
This incident, then, is a further demonstration that Goldman’s educative anarchism was a living thing, a set of practices carried out and present in living relationships that Goldman wanted to encourage in the real world as a matter of prefiguration. In unpleasant commentary around this incident when I have have publicly discussed it [always stressing we have no reason to believe Edelsohn was not a consenting participant], some more engaged commentators have pointed out to me that we cannot judge the activity inside the Goldman/Berkman house like that of any other because Goldman and Berkman [as well, clearly, as Edelsohn who, after the end of World War One, would marry another anarchist and have a child] were anarchists with their own values. This reasoning makes absolute sense to me. It needs to be asked what the values were like inside this house and what relationships such people sought and cultivated and on what grounds. Emma Goldman gives us a lot of evidence in this respect [not least of previous “in house” relationships] but it is not, unfortunately for those who scream hysterically that “a 15 year old cannot consent” [and is seemingly constitutionally incapable of consent like all other 15 year olds who are all the same], evidence which points towards abuse but towards responsibility. Emma Goldman wanted to create a culture of self-responsible and independently-minded people who could speak for themselves and express themselves freely. She taught that and she lived that. I suggest that, should we set the Berkman/Edelsohn relationship in this context, having full cognisance of the values by which Emma Goldman lived her own life and evaluated life itself, it sheds entirely new light on the whole affair and opens a way to a new understanding of human beings, of relationships, of sex and of love. We should not here be blithely and dogmatically condemning Goldman [or anybody else] but admiring their commitment to living out their stated beliefs in the face of dogmatic, puritan and very bourgeois others.
In short, then, and to come to a close, Emma Goldman defined anarchism as “the philosophy of a new social order”. We should take her at her word when she does that and not be surprised if and when she, and others of her close associates, choose of their own free will to live that out to the extent of their abilities.
Yours written with love,
ANARQXISTA GOLDMAN X