Sun, 25 Feb 2007

Anarchism and Other Essays

— SjG @ 7:24 pm

Emma Goldman, with an introduction by Hippolyte Havel, 1911, a Gutenberg Project e-book, downloaded via

I started reading this over lunch. I was sitting in an In ‘n’ Out Burger outlet that’s located in the vast parking lot of a CostCo warehouse. The guy to my right at the counter was wearing a suit, and was studiously reading The Wall Street Journal. I’d be hard pressed to describe a more commonplace scene of overwhelming American capitalism.

In this environment, I started reading Havel’s introduction, which would be better described as a fawning hagiography written in full-on Socialist jargon. If written today, it would read as parody. But this sets the scene, which is important while reading all of the essays: when Emma wrote these, it would be nearly ten years before women gained the vote in the US; penicillin was twenty years away from being used as an antibiotic; no nation had yet bombed another from the air; no nation had yet been ruled under a formally Fascist, Socialist, or Communist philosophy; Ford’s Model T was a brand new product; nations measured their military might by their navies and their cavalries; the bloody and profound transformations of Europe that characterized much of the the 20th century had yet to unfold. Emma’s unbounded optimism of 1911 was inspired, inspiring, and based on a world full of the promise of great changes, however ill-placed and tragic it may appear in retrospect.

It was a very different time, and yet, for all these differences, it was very much like today. If I were to remove the names from one of Emma’s contemptuous dismissals of McKinley, I could easily pass it off as being contemporary. Her critique of what we today call the “prison industrial complex” reads like it’s straight from the papers, citing the dramatic growth in prison population and showing that the US had (has) the highest incarceration percentage of any industrial nation. She dove headlong into the nature versus nurture debate, arguing that children (even of impoverished, “lazy” people) could be raised in a wholesome environment and turn out enthusiastic and intelligent.

Where Emma surprised me was her dismissal of women’s suffrage, which reminded me of the bumper sticker that says “don’t vote — it only encourages them!” She believed that anything that could be voted upon would need be so entrenched in the system as to be meaningless. Change could only come from dismantling the system entirely. That Emma was against marriage was not surprising. That she was against the military and particularly the draft was also not surprising, although the intensity of her argument that barracks led to unacceptable “perversions” was.

Interestingly, the core of her belief in anarchy resided in a very Germanic attitude towards work. She believed that all the ills of the world lay in the inability for people to do the work they loved, unmolested. Work was the way to fulfillment, and if people were only allowed to do good, satisfying work, the anarchist utopia would arrive.

And, actually, her essay on the problems of feminism was perhaps the most poignant — she talks of the burden of being an intelligent woman in a society that holds women as second-class citizens. By living up to her intellectual potential, the woman is alienated from society, and thereby prevented from having meaningful relationships. Evidently, even progressive men are sufficiently trapped in convention that they can’t love a woman as an equal.

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2 responses to “Anarchism and Other Essays”

  1. Anonymous says:

    emma goldman would not approve of the ads running next to your writing. i’m not sure i do either. but it is good to read about her!
    -yer cousin

  2. SjG says:

    I like Google ads, not because they actually make me any money, but because they provide a humorous counterpoint.

    For example, when I wrote about creating software for the Palm pilot, Google gave me ads for a Psychic School. That one took me a while to figure out — it was Palm reading!

    I look at it as an experiment in Dada-ist capitalism run amok.

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