August 26, 2005 Leave a comment
Another old review:
The most famous American anarchist.
Not only is Emma Goldman the most famous American anarchist, but she’s the only anarchist most Americans have heard of. (If they’ve heard of any.)
This is both good and bad news for American anarchists of a more individualist or philosophical inclination.
The good news is that there is at least one famous anarchist who is known more for her feminism and her rejection of war than for supposed murder plots or bombings. (Some might even know that she spent time in newly Communist Russia and rejected the growing authoritarianism and centralization she witnessed there.)
The bad news is that Emma Goldman’s philosophy is not well defined, and the anarcho-communism she is associated with does, in fact, deserve much of its association with bullets and dynamite.
While Emma Goldman did trace the roots of 20th-century anarchism to the 19th-century individualism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, she did not make self-ownership or individual sovereignty a clear and explicit part of her theory of freedom.
(It might be more accurate to say that she didn’t have a clear and explicit theory of freedom.)
Her own tendency toward individualism is simply an assumed part of her anarchism, where the other libertarian socialists and anarcho-communists with whom she is associated reject individualism as “typically American” (sneer implied) and see violence (a.k.a. “Direct Action”) and revolution as part-and-parcel with any movement toward anarchy.
In Anarchism, and Other Essays, we have Emma Goldman’s words at their most inspiring, and also at their most embarrassing.
She is right to recognize that authoritarian culture has deliberately cast “unregulated humanity” in a monstrous light — “Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name!” — but she responds with an antithesis that would blame the Church, the State and Capitalism for every selfish act or unsavory inclination. She was a woman well ahead of her time, herald to late-20th-century feminism, reproductive rights activists, anti-war protestors and the civilly disobedient. Unfortunately, she is equally the harbinger of left-liberal guilt and class-based double standards.