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The Chronicling of a Revolutionary Spirit

ANARCHY!: An Anthology of Emma Goldman's Mother Earth, Edited and with ommentary by Peter Glassgold, Counterpoint: 428 pp., $25 paper

January 06, 2002|PAUL BERMAN

In February 1916, the doughty and notorious anarchist Emma Goldman was accused of having distributed literature on birth control at a public meeting in New York, a criminal offense in those dark times. She was duly summoned to trial. And in her monthly magazine, Mother Earth, in the April 1916 issue, she took aim at her persecutors.

"We are told," Goldman wrote--the tone is oratorical, haughty, scornful--"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? I readily understand why judges and jailers shall be bound by it.... But even judges sometimes progress."

In the next month's issue, Mother Earth reported that 200 people attended a banquet in Goldman's honor at the Hotel Brevoort in Greenwich Village. Five hundred people showed up for the trial. Goldman rose to the occasion. She said, according to the magazine's account, that "if it constituted a crime to contend for happier childhood and healthier motherhood, she was glad and proud to be a criminal." She was in rhetorical high stride. "The crowd in the courtroom burst into applause. Excited attendants throve to quell the clamor." She was sentenced to 15 days in the workhouse, and a guard dragged her away. The magazine reported, "many of her friends waved their hands as she was being rushed along, and some stuck their fingers through the wire grating of the pen runway. She tried to reach them in farewell as she passed. Her face was alight with enthusiasm."

Those scenes took place a very long time ago, yet as you read the account of them in Mother Earth, you pick up a mood that feels modern in almost every aspect. The sexual controversy, the free speech issue, the defiant courtroom oration, the question of women's rights, the cheering crowd, the spirit of civil disobedience, the tone of exasperated indignation, the martyr's exhilaration lighting Goldman's triumphant face--every phase of that anarchist episode from 1916 could, with a few variations, come beaming out at us from tonight's television news.

"Anarchy!," edited by Peter Glassgold, is a compilation of articles from the entire run of Mother Earth, 1906 to 1918, and a great virtue of the book is to reveal how many of the customs and controversies of our present-day "culture wars" got their start in the little world around Goldman and her small-circulation magazine and the radical public in New York's Greenwich Village in those years. Mother Earth was, in other ways, hopelessly old-fashioned. Glassgold has reprinted a number of articles laying out Goldman's anarchist doctrine and its main theses: the coming proletarian revolution, the abolition of the state and the establishing of a free society of liberated individuals--a utopian dogma with several attractive features.

But the doctrine, once you have read two or three expositions of it, begins to seem like one of those sci-fi fantasies from the 19th century in which the spaceship is made of wood and the captain steers with a tiller. The anthology includes an enthusiastic account of Goldman by the celebrated poetry editor, Margaret Anderson (whose own publication from those years, the Little Review, promoted literary modernism), yet even Anderson seems to have had her reservations. She wrote, "Emma Goldman's genius is not so much that she is a great thinker as that she is a great woman"--which is to say, even the keenest of Goldman's fans sometimes could grow weary of her ideas.

Some of those ideas can make you worry. Goldman's followers and fellow-thinkers in the anarchist movement stood on the far, intransigent wing of the American left of that time and were widely regarded as all too prone to throw bombs or kill people on behalf of the revolutionary cause. Glassgold, in his introduction to "Anarchy!," assures us that anarchism's violent fame was undeserved. "Revolutionary violence," he says, was "a minor question within the movement that nevertheless dogged its reputation and alarmed its opponents on the political right as well as the left, beyond measure." But his own selection of articles from the magazine makes the minor question look major.

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