Anarchy! An Anthology of Emma Goldman's Mother Earth

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Peter Glassgold's timely compendium of articles from Emma Goldman's Mother Earth directly addresses the concerns of the post-Seattle left.

Edited and with Commentary by Peter Glassgold

Reviewed by Bill Mithoefer

Thursday, June 21 2001, 2:17 PM

Peter Glassgold's timely compendium of articles from Emma Goldman's Mother Earth directly addresses the concerns of the post-Seattle left. Glassgold begins by providing an informative contextual essay that helped to dispel my own ignorance concerning the social upheavals of the early part of the 20th century and Goldman's industrious grass roots efforts to understand them. Despite knowing who Emma Goldman was, I had no idea, that with the aid of Alexander Berkman and Max Baginski, she spearheaded a well-read radical magazine that dealt with such issues as unfair treatment of labor, birth control, global capitalism, freedom of speech and avant-garde art. With the revival of interest in Anarchism by labor rights and anti-globalization activists, this book couldn't have a better audience in waiting.

In Glassgold's excellent introduction he outlines Mother Earth's history. The entire evolution of the magazine was interwoven with Goldman and associates' political activism and social protest. Both Goldman and Berkman were repeatedly imprisoned for their radical activities. The two were eventually deported to Russia for their anti-conscription activism during World War I. The U.S. Post Office frequently confiscated Mother Earth and gave lists of their subscribers to Federal Agents on witch-hunts for radicals. Mother Earthwriters were actively involved in public protests, giving speeches around the country on behalf of protestors and anarchists indicted during the 'anarchist scare' of the early part of the century. Goldman even had the strength of character to write an essay on behalf of Leon Czolgosz, a young anarchist arrested for the assassination of President William McKinley. For her efforts, she was frequently harassed by Anthony Comstock, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice who was hilariously lampooned in Mother Earth. Colorful figures abound such as Ben Reitman, King of the Hobos, a high-school dropout who became a doctor. He was Goldman's partner in crime for a time, and ended up beaten and left naked in the desert by a murderous mob in collusion with the police in San Diego while accompanying Goldman on one of her tours. All this and more is summarized in the introduction, which is worth the book's price alone.

Glassgold shrewdly divides the selections from Mother Earth into six sections, based on subject matter. These are 'Anarchism,' 'The Woman Question,' 'Literature,' Civil Liberties,' 'The Social War,' and 'War and Peace.' The section on Anarchism explains the basic philosophical tenets of the movement and associates it with Free Communism. It also includes sketches of some important figures in the movement and an excellent historical essay by Voltairine de Cleyre tracing American Anarchism to the Revolutionary Republicans and Jeffersonian democracy. Other relevant historical issues such as the Paris Commune and the important figures of Francisco Ferrer and Mikhail Bakunin fill out this section. The memoir of Bakunin is particularly interesting in its critique of Marx as a political figure with some rather oblique references to the differences between Communist Anarchists and Marxists.

The 'Woman Question' mostly deals with feminist concerns of the time: birth control, marriage, prostitution and eugenics. Marriage and prostitution are consistently portrayed as institutions of economic exploitation by both de Cleyre and Goldman. I was surprised to learn that the phrase 'birth control' as coined by Robert Allerton Parker, whose work also appears in this section. Peter Kropotkin's lecture to the Eugenics Congress in London in August of 1912 critiques scientists advocating sterilization concluding, "and then, once these questions have been raised, don't you think that the question as to who are the unfit must necessarily come to the front? Who, indeed? The workers or the idlers? The women of the people, who suckle their children themselves, or the ladies who are unfit for maternity because they cannot perform all the duties of a mother...Those who produce degenerates in the slums, or those who produce degenerates in palaces?"

While I could exhaustively continue to describe Anarchy!'s content, perhaps a good place to finish would be to draw attention to the book's one documentary moment. The center of the book contains original Mother Earth cover art by seminal modernists like Man Ray, as well as photographs of writers and editorial staff. The inclusion of these brief snapshots helps underline the sense that Mother Earthwas more than just a journal of radical commentary. It was also an enormous cultural event produced by a really eclectic group of people who lived out their radicalism in every possible way, interpersonally, artistically as well as intellectually. If ideology truly has physical forms, these pictures certainly attest to that. I can't think of a more convincing means by which to breath new life into an old revolution. Why no one ever thought of bringing out a collection like this until now is truly beyond me.

Anarchy! is a Counterpoint Press publication 

Copyright © 2001 by Bill Mithoefer. All rights reserved.

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