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Book Review: Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman

Book Review: Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma GoldmanSummary:
Emma Goldman was a Russian immigrant to the United States who embraced Anarchism and became an impassioned orator and pioneer in the movement for birth control.  She was deported in 1919 for her antiwar activities and spent the remainder of her life moving among multiple countries.  This book is a collection of a variety of her essays and includes a contemporaneous biographical sketch and preface. You may read more about Emma Goldman and her life here.

Review:
I picked up this essay collection due to my interest in both US and women’s history.  It then languished on my TBR pile for years until I heard about how the Emma Goldman Archive at UC Berkeley was going to lose its funding (source). The archive is currently still running thanks to charitable donations, (source) but I still wanted to invest some time in learning more about this important female historical figure, and what better way than by reading her own papers.

The essays in this collection are: Anarchism: What It Really Stands For, Minorities Versus Majorities, The Psychology of Political Violence, Prisons: A Social Crime and Failure, Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty, Francisco Ferrer and the Modern School, The Hypocrisy of Puritanism, The Traffic in Women, Woman Suffrage, The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation, Marriage and Love, and The Modern Drama: A Powerful Dissenter of Radical Thought.

The thing to understand about Anarchism (the historic early 20th century kind anyway, I won’t venture to talk about modern Anarchism as I have not studied it at all) is that the basis of Anarchist belief is that there should be no government and no religion.

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. (page 38)

Emma took this to the conclusion that fighting for rights within the governmental power structure was pointless since the government shouldn’t be involved anyway.  Modern readers may thus be surprised at how against women getting the right to vote she was.  The reasoning behind it, though was that she thought it was a pointless fight.  Like putting frosting on a shit cake.  It won’t make the cake any less shitty.  It’s interesting reading these papers how much faith Emma had in human nature to do good.  It’s the power structures she considered evil.

My lack of faith in the majority is dictated by my faith in the potentialities of the individual. (page 34)

What I found most interesting in reading these essays, beyond getting a firmer understanding of Anarchism, is how most of them are still highly relatable today.  They have not been particularly dated.  Only “Francisco Ferrer and the Modern School” and “The Modern Drama: A Powerful Dissenter of Radical Thought” came across as dated and a bit difficult to read to me.  The rest could have been pulled straight from a social justice Tumblr account, with just a few names and places changed.  The three essays on women were the most interesting to me, particularly for the rather prophetic predictions that Emma made about the direction women’s rights were heading.  In particular, one section discusses that women winning the right to work will just make everything more difficult because women are still seen as the primary caregivers and homemakers.  They will just end up working just as much at home and out and about.  Emma also pointed out that society would come to expect two incomes, making it impossible for women to not work even if they want to.  This has certainly come to pass.  Emma’s solution to this is more individual freedom, and her passage of advice to women still rings true today:

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.  (page 132)

Sections that would probably stir up the strongest feelings among modern readers include frequent rants against the Catholic church, hatred of all patriotism or nationalism, very strong anti-military positions, and a strong negative view of marriage.  However, if the modern reader keeps in mind that Emma was for 100% individual freedom and individuality, it’s easier to see that it’s not an individual institution she had something against, but rather institutions in general.  Think of her as an extreme libertarian, and it’s easier to understand.  In the case of marriage, for instance, it’s not that Emma was against love or being part of a couple, but rather against the state being involved in that love.

One aspect I think was missing from these essays was more from Emma on what she thought the ideal world would really look like.  How would things work once total individual freedom was won?  This is not touched upon very much, beyond Emma’s belief that crime would disappear without crooked institutions and there would be no more war.  I found her belief in innate human goodness to be overly optimistic, verging on naive.  But I also found it to be endearing that she had so much faith in humanity.

Overall, the modern reader will still find most of these essays highly readable and may be surprised by how modern many of them feel.  Readers will realize how little some things change through time and also will come away with a better understanding of the stance of the often feared and misunderstood Anarchists.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge

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  1. August 14, 2015 at 11:59 am

    Glad you read and liked Goldman. She is a favorite of mine. Many radicals like her are better at criticizing what exists and those in power than offering solutions. You are right about her being perceptive about women and how employment could backfire for them. What bothers me most about anarchism is not hers version, but the male leaders who claimed that men were kings in their own homes and could treat women and children as they saw fit. In their views women were not individuals with rights of their own. A bit like libertarians today who are willing to use government to control and limit women.

    • August 14, 2015 at 3:48 pm

      Thank you so much for such a thoughtful comment! I did not know about the large differences between male and female anarchists’ opinions, but it makes sense that they would exist. Reading this essay collection made me more interested in the radical movements of the early 1900s. I’ll have to read up more on them.

  2. August 20, 2015 at 11:53 pm

    How interesting! I actually really like what she has to say about women having careers, although I’m happy to say that my own experience suggests that the view of women as the primary caretakers does seem to be shifting to catch up with the times 🙂

    • August 21, 2015 at 1:38 pm

      I’m glad your experience is positive! I’d say from my own observations that while many people’s partners are very open to caregiving being more evenly divided or men being the primary caregiver that many workplaces and careers have yet to catch up with that. (i.e. maternity leave is more common than paternity leave in many workplaces).

      I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this read. Emma Goldman’s work aged well. 🙂

      • August 22, 2015 at 7:43 pm

        That’s a good point! Right now, I’m a grad student and I also don’t plan on having children, so work policies haven’t mattered to me personally yet.

  3. August 21, 2015 at 8:05 pm

    This is a very educational post. Although I disagree with a lot of Emma’s ideas (as you outline them), I can also see a surprising amount that I agree with. I will have to look further into anarchism.

    • August 22, 2015 at 1:37 pm

      Thank you! It was a challenging review to write. I really wanted to present Emma as neutrally and factually as possible. Her essays are the public domain, if you’re interested in reading a few for yourself!

  1. September 1, 2015 at 1:35 pm
  2. November 5, 2015 at 11:57 am

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