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Review by James Seckington
Peter Glassgold's collection, Anarchy! An Anthology of Emma Goldman's Mother Earth, is not only refreshing, but downright intoxicating.
Reading the collection of pieces culled from the pages of Mother Earth, an anarchist magazine of the early 20 century produced by Emma Goldman and company, one is transported to a world in which people actually had faith in the power of individual will. Writers like Alexander Berkman, Voltairine de Cleyre, Max Bag- inski, Peter Kropotkin, and, of course, Emma Goldman did more than produce flowery anarchist propaganda in the pages of Mother Earth; they affirmed life with almost every sentence.
Writing in his journal, Ralph Waldo Emerson confessed, “I love man, but hate men.” This feeling permeates the writings of early 20th century anarchists; indeed, it is one of the cornerstone principles of anarchist thought—the tap from which anarchists draw their anger. Ugly material realities have produced a deformed malnourished offspring. However, because anarchists assume, in Kropotkin's words, an “instinct for freedom” inherent within every human being, humanity, as a species, has tremendous potential to make life—to put it bluntly—a helluva a lot better.
Glassgold's anthology is brimming with tributes, memorials, and other celebrations of existence. What some have referred to as a cult of martyrdom among the anarchist movement is readily apparent in the pieces Glassgold has selected. This emphasis on the creation of martyrs within the pages of Mother Earth is perfectly consistent, however, with an anarchist philosophy of individual will.
Alexander Berkman, for example, eulogizing Voltairine de Cleyre, writes, “She was too strong in her humanity to be the plaything of Circumstance, that ‘inexorable' master of all ye that are weak in spirit. She would not be dominated by the Dominant Idea of the Age, nor yet by the power of her immediate environment. For the really strong,” Berkman concludes, “even if they cannot change their environment, do not suffer the environment to change them.”
Writing of Mikhail Bakunin, Max Baginski stresses a similar theme. Contrasting Bakunin to his great contemporary Karl Marx, Baginski says of Bakunin, “his lifework is not an appeal to mere intellectuality; he speaks to the whole man, the most precious part of whom is still his strong will, his instincts and passions.”
The unsigned piece published in 1910 on Peter Kropotkin privileges his emphasis on the power of human “energy.” “Be strong,” the piece quotes Kropotkin approvingly, “overflow with the passion of thought and action; so shall your understanding, your love, your energy, pour itself into others.... DARE to fight, to make a rich and overflowing life possible to all.” Kropotkin, argues the author, “exhausts language to convince his readers that ‘there is need of great events which rudely break the thread of history and hurl mankind out if its ruts into new roads.”
To read these tributes to fallen friends today, at a time when history has become the Great Excuse, and the bad behavior of the past and present is dismissed by many a well known historian with, “Well, people are just products of their culture...what do you expect?” is to be reminded of just how far many of today's “great minds” have strayed from their humanist origins. The writers for Mother Earth paid homage to their friends, mentors, and teachers on a regular basis. By focusing for a page or two on a single individual life, Mother Earth reminded its readers that one life—including your own—could not only make a difference and inspire others to action, but could actually be an end unto itself—a self-contained source of meaning, beauty, and hope. As Berkman put it, “Some die for their ideal; fewer live for it.”
For the anarchists featured in Mother Earth, the “self,” or the individual, is the foundation on which liberation shall be realized. Long derided as a bourgeois fallacy by many a card carrying socialist, this assumption shines forth in all its glory within the pages of Mother Earth. Whether memorializing each other, discussing the “woman question,” literature or war, each writer's argument can almost always be traced back to this root.
Georg Brandes, for example, in a piece on the dramatist Henrick Ibsen, concludes, “he has been dubbed by turn Socialist and Anarchist, idealist and materialist, and so on. He is all that, and he is nothing of all that; he is himself—that is, something as immense and manifold as humanity itself.” Brandes saw in Ibsen a man whose only master was his muse—a free individual who realizes his innate creative power through his art.
Emma Goldman and other anarchist writers viewed Art as the embodiment of transcendence. It was through Art that humankind could catch a glimpse of its utopian promise. In Art the material and the ideal are reconciled with one another. The artist uses the very stuff of this world—oil and canvas, ink and paper, stage and actors—to give form to an ideal. Art provided more than metaphor; it gave individuals a model for social action. Art, literature, theater, were not so much disciplines to be studied and appreciated, but rather, disciplines to be lived.
Hippolyte Havel, in a 1913 piece on Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, offers a useful definition of great literature and Art in general. “Does the book give one new values, a new view of life,” Havel asks, “does it disturb one's soul to the utmost depth? If it succeed in accomplishing this, it is a great book.” That is what the writers for Mother Earth were trying to accomplish —to literally reach in and shake the very spirit of their readers.
The old school anarchism of Mother Earth repeatedly stressed the creative life affirming nature of the human condition. While at times the magazine flirted with, and occasionally advocated, a course of destruction, it ultimately sided with the forces of creation. Indeed, the words seem to skip with a childlike zest for life through the pages of Glassgold's collection. That joyous bounce Goldman and friends displayed in their writings and in their lives is what makes this anthology so valuable today. Mother Earth's masthead proclaimed it was a “Monthly Magazine Devoted to Social Science and Literature.” And while there are plenty of articles infused with social science theory and methods within Anarchy!, in the end it is the voice of the poet, the artist, which one hears most clearly while flipping the pages. It is the voice of spirit, the voice of will, the voice that ultimately beckons us toward a better tomorrow.