Writing the Struggle
In today’s mainstream consciousness, anarchist pretty much means “vandal,” and Emma Goldman is little more than a footnote in U.S. history textbooks. The Peter Glassgold-edited anthology Anarchy! tries to correct that oversight by presenting selections from Goldman’s radical journal Mother Earth, a “monthly magazine devoted to social science and literature,” which existed from 1906 to 1918. “This book was born of curiosity and need,” Glassgold writes in the preface, as the articles published in Mother Earth are nearly impossible to find nowadays.
Mother Earth showcased writings on the events of the day by the major figures of the radical left of the early 20th century. Overall, their writings are as much documents of the writers’ own actions in the struggle as they are commentaries on the important social issues of the time. After a detailed introduction where Glassgold tells the history of the magazine, the book is separated into five sections: Anarchism, The Woman Question, Literature, Civil Liberties, and The Social War. The selections take many forms, from academic probes into the theories behind the struggles and personal accounts of the jailings, trials, and deaths of fellow activists, to letters, satire, and as the third section title indicates, fiction and poetry. While the section titles give a general sense for the content within each part of the book, they’re aren’t strict categories; each part of the book covers many topics and events.
The first entry in the first part of the book, “Some Definitions,” gives this definition for anarchism: “The philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary.” The ideas of liberty, individuality, and freedom drive the words and actions of the Mother Earth writers. As Glassgold indicates when he writes, in the introduction, that Mother Earth “was an essential part of the action” and not just reporting and commentary, the writers and editors of Mother Earth were the major leftist figures of the time, a group that includes not only Goldman but other famous activists, leaders, and writers like Margaret Sanger, Max Baginski, Voltairine de Cleyre, Alexander Berkman, and Peter Kropotkin. As such, the majority of the articles in Anarchy! focus on specific actions and people of the movement, plus the actions taken against them by the government, which was essentially at war with a movement it perceived as a threat to maintaining order. There are pieces here on the assassination of President McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz and Czolgosz’ subsequent execution, the excecution of Denjiro Kotoku and other Japanese radicals, the hanging of anarchists for the Haymarket Square bombing, Goldman’s trial in 1916, the vice-suppression actions of Anthony Comstock, the execution of Fransisco Ferrer, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, the massacre of striking miners at Ludlow, Colorado, and much more. The key activists described in many of the essays are the same people writing the other essays. In this way, Anarchy! is both a depiction of history and part of that same history, yet readers also get an understanding of the trains of thought running through the anarchist movement, via numerous essays where the writers detail their views on social issues including birth control, prison reform, free speech, and workers’ rights.
The quality of writing in the book varies. Some essays are important more for their place in history than their verbal impact, yet there are some writers who are supremely gifted at putting their thoughts on the page. The best writer here is Voltairine de Clerye. From “Anarchism and American Traditions,” where she argues that anarchists are more in line with the “founding fathers’” ideals of liberty and justice than are mainstream politicians, to her forceful speech “On Liberty,” de Clerye’s essays are the highlights of the book. Interestingly enough, the least successful section, strictly in terms of writing, is “Literature,” although it conveys the important fact that Mother Earth included the contributions of creative-minded progressives as well as those on the street working for change.
At times Anarchy! comes across as an insular depiction of a certain group of people and their role in the movement for social change. While at this level the book’s release is significant enough, there is something here that should appeal to people other than just history buffs. The story offered here is not just a depiction of idealists trying to change the world, nor merely a journalistic relic from the past, but a convincing portrait of government repression in the United States, one which should not only enlighten readers about our country’s past but make them look closer at the present, as the situations are not that different. Anarchy!‘s power also comes in its documentation of action in the face of repression, of individuals standing up for their rights, no matter what forces they had to face. It’s an age-old story, the people versus the powerful, but one with all sorts of levels, nuances, and idiosyncrasies, all of which come to light through the words of the participants themselves.