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"The most unpardonable sin in society is the independence of thought."
August 21, 2007 12:03 AM   Subscribe

My Disillusionment In Russia. Deported American anarchist Emma Goldman's narrative of her time in 1920s Russia. Omitted chapters were published as My Further Disillusionment With Russia. Emma was not only an anarchist, she was also an advocate for free speech, women's equality, sexual freedom, birth control and more. For more of her writings, see Anarchism: What It Really Stands For, Patriotism: A Menace To Liberty, and Minorities Versus Majorities. [Previously 1, 2]
posted by amyms (53 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
"On a certain occasion, when I passed criticism on the brutal way delicate women were driven into the streets to shovel snow, insisting that even if they had belonged to the bourgeoisie they were human, and that physical fitness should be taken into consideration, a Communist said to me: "You should be ashamed of yourself; you, an old revolutionist, and yet so sentimental." It was the same attitude that some Communists assumed toward Angelica Balabanova, because she was always solicitous and eager to help wherever possible. In short, I had come to see that the Bolsheviki were social puritans who sincerely believed that they alone were ordained to save mankind. My relations with the Bolsheviki became more strained, my attitude toward the Revolution as I found it more critical."

Surprise.
posted by Avenger at 1:14 AM on August 21, 2007


Thanks amyms. Despite her fame, Goldman is one of the major figures of anarchist history I'm not as familiar with as I'd like to be, though I had read Berkman's critique of the Soviet regime.
One fascinating biographical snippet I did see recently was this obituary of anarchist activist James Colton, a miner from south Wales who married Emma to help prevent her deportation from Britain. They kept up a correspondence even after she had moved on, the marriage having served its purpose.
posted by Abiezer at 1:18 AM on August 21, 2007


Paging Mr. Language Hat, Mr. Language Hat please pick up the nearest white courtesy telephone...
posted by vronsky at 1:23 AM on August 21, 2007


Excellent. This is what I'll spend tomorrow reading.
As for your comment, Avenger, yes, actually this was actually something of a surprise, at least for Goldman, considering her era. The promised sexual revolution(s) of communist Russia were undoubtedly based on propaganda and not reality (given Lenin's famous 'dirty glass' comment), but still they were expected. The very fact that Goldman was able to have such clear view of Russia at the time is quite odd; most were frothing at the mouth one way or the other.
posted by Football Bat at 3:46 AM on August 21, 2007


In Soviet Russia, illusion disses you!
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:08 AM on August 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


Right on, sister!
posted by asok at 4:10 AM on August 21, 2007


First--Emma Goldman was a great writer. I am hanging on every word.

Second--the cowardly acts of the US Gov't toward the "threats" of the Anarchists by deporting these folks is only slightly modulated over the years.

Third--regarding her disillusion in and with the Bolsheviki--come meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
posted by beelzbubba at 4:57 AM on August 21, 2007


Worth noting that, on the index page at marxists.org, this work is described as being written from the perspective of an "extreme left counter-revolutionary". To those who know their Bolshevik jargon, those are pretty much fighting words.
posted by stammer at 5:20 AM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Goldman is one of my heroes; thanks for the post.

Surprise.

Your superior skills of analysis astonish and awe me! And I'm positive that had you been around in 1920, you would have had just as keen an understanding of what was going on in Russia. Because you're just that smart.
posted by languagehat at 5:44 AM on August 21, 2007


the smartest are usually the first up against the wall, languagehat.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:08 AM on August 21, 2007


anarchism is bunk.

the only way i'm getting along with an anarchist is a social contract. don't like social contracts? don't like social enforcers of contracts (aka the State, the Government, etc.)? well then, buddy, I don't like you. and my friend, he doesn't like you either.

...and she's not a great writer. go read Up from Slavery. Or, hey, the declaration of independence. I hear that's a good read.

the most unpardonable sin is the failure to recognize the protections afforded by the social contract and the obligations due it as a necessary consequence of those protections.
posted by ewkpates at 6:13 AM on August 21, 2007


And I'm positive that had you been around in 1920, you would have had just as keen an understanding of what was going on in Russia. Because you're just that smart.

Overthrowing the Tsar was undeniably a good thing. Socialism is pretty well accepted as a governing philosophy now, except in the US. I think the main problem was trying to create both a democratic society and a socialist society from scratch, while jump starting an industrial revolution at the same time.

It would have been hard to know that at the time, though.
posted by empath at 6:30 AM on August 21, 2007


ewkpates, anarchism is all about social contract. The difference is that it is voluntary and not enforced by the threat of violence or imprisonment.
posted by bonefish at 6:38 AM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yes, and the Internet is a good test case for how well people voluntarily hold to the social contract. And that's generally not very well. We are bullied by spammers and we are bullied by other bullies of various stripes.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:58 AM on August 21, 2007


paging RedEmma...
posted by Afroblanco at 7:17 AM on August 21, 2007


Yes, and the Internet is a good test case for how well people voluntarily hold to the social contract. And that's generally not very well. We are bullied by spammers and we are bullied by other bullies of various stripes.

Bullies like the government and the state, for example?

the most unpardonable sin is the failure to recognize the protections afforded by the social contract and the obligations due it as a necessary consequence of those protections.


I don't think an anarchist would disagree with you about this. The only thing they'd argue about is whether the state has a legitimate role in enforcing that social contract.

That said, I do wonder what an anarchist does when his loved ones are violated or their kid gets abducted? It's at times like that that everyone longs for the overwhelming legitimate force of the state to reach out and smite their enemies.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:27 AM on August 21, 2007


OK, I just remembered what an anarchist does in that situation.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:31 AM on August 21, 2007


the only way i'm getting along with an anarchist is a social contract. don't like social contracts? don't like social enforcers of contracts (aka the State, the Government, etc.)? well then, buddy, I don't like you


How did that Soviet Social Contract work out?
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 7:41 AM on August 21, 2007


“Bullies like the government and the state, for example?”

How are we (most of us) bullied by the government on the Internet? We're not.

Sure, the Chinese and many other people are. But no one is claiming that government can't be as bad, or worse, than anarchy. But, as a rule, Hobbes was right. Without the Leviathan, we get the rule of Nature, red in tooth and claw.

You know, like web comments.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:03 AM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


I adore Emma Goldman; I'm sure this comes as no surprise.

Among her more interesting positions was her opposition to Women's Suffrage, which was premised on three points: First, that women were no better or worse than men, and that therefore extending the vote to women would not improve the outcome of elections; second, that women were trained by American culture to be extremely conservative and might tip the voting scales in the direction of things like prohibition; third, that suffragists ought to be directing their energy at revolution rather than reform. An unusual position for a feminist, but wholly consistent with her politics and philosophy.

Also, all the "lol"s I can muster at the incessant "anarchists want total chaos and violence and killing and stealing forever!" that pops up in every thread on the subject. Give it a rest, folks, you're only fooling yourselves.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:10 AM on August 21, 2007


OK, I just remembered what an anarchist does in that situation.

Calling Bob Black an anarchist? Now them's fightin' words.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:11 AM on August 21, 2007


But, as a rule, Hobbes was right. Without the Leviathan, we get the rule of Nature, red in tooth and claw.

And anarchists don't propose a return to the state of nature.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:18 AM on August 21, 2007


i'd like to blame Bolshevism on the White Army (and it's international capitalist backers) and Franco on Hitler (and his international capitalist backers) but maybe a political and social revolution needs more than mutually assumed agreement about political philosophy as it's basis:

why is Christian fundamentalism the most successful *radical* (and proletarian) political movement in the U.S. today?

I'm inclined to think Anarchism is a more of an opiate than Jesus...
posted by geos at 8:25 AM on August 21, 2007


OK, I just remembered what an anarchist does in that situation.

Calling Bob Black an anarchist? Now them's fightin' words.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:11 AM on August 21 [+] [!]


I read the linked article. Bob Black calls himself an anarchist. But I'm confused by what PeterMcDermott may have meant by his comment. Surely, he doesn't propose that either Hogshire or Black are emblematic of all anarchists or anarchist thought? If so, then I propose that George Bush and Dick Cheney are emblematic of all capatilists and of democracy. Surely, neither of us is completely correct.
posted by beelzbubba at 8:31 AM on August 21, 2007


I'm inclined to think Anarchism is a more of an opiate than Jesus...

And I'm inclined to think that you don't understand Marx.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:32 AM on August 21, 2007


beelzbubba, Black's a primitivist. They can slap the "anarcho" on the front of it, but it doesn't make them anarchists any more than slapping "anarcho" on the front of "capitalist" makes the anacaps anarchists.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:33 AM on August 21, 2007



I'm inclined to think Anarchism is a more of an opiate than Jesus...

And I'm inclined to think that you don't understand Marx.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:32 AM on August 21 [+] [!]


willfully ignorant I am... and what exactly are you saying?

Why has organizing a radical *political* movement around churches and attendant social gatherings proved to be a wildly successful strategy?
posted by geos at 8:49 AM on August 21, 2007


and why is "anarchism" a bunch of over-educated "writers" conspiring against eachother and trying to sell essays based upon outlandish and wildly impractical 'ideas.'

and I'm saying this as a friend... Reading Emma Goldman is depressing because you see the cast of characters hasn't changed much in almost a 100 years.
posted by geos at 8:51 AM on August 21, 2007


Religion as the opiate of the masses is the theory that religion keeps people in their place and prevents them from challenging the ruling class, by (for example) preaching doctrines that teach that wealth and power shouldn't be sought, thus reducing the threat to the wealthy and powerful. The fundamentalists are agitating in favor of a more strict social system that empowers wealthy and powerful individuals. It's perhaps not the same opiate specifically, but it's an opiate that comes with a hallucinogen to make people believe that they're rebelling.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:58 AM on August 21, 2007


why is Christian fundamentalism the most successful *radical* (and proletarian) political movement in the U.S. today?

I don't think "radical" means what you think it means. Nor "proletarian."
posted by SoftRain at 8:58 AM on August 21, 2007


It's funny how all the anti-authority commenters always come out in these threads and start getting all abusive and authoritarian.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 9:04 AM on August 21, 2007 [3 favorites]


thanks for the clarification Pope Guilty. I don't keep up with the labels & you can never tell the players without a pogrom.
posted by beelzbubba at 9:14 AM on August 21, 2007


Religion as the opiate of the masses is the theory that religion keeps people in their place and prevents them from challenging the ruling class, by (for example) preaching doctrines that teach that wealth and power shouldn't be sought, thus reducing the threat to the wealthy and powerful. The fundamentalists are agitating in favor of a more strict social system that empowers wealthy and powerful individuals. It's perhaps not the same opiate specifically, but it's an opiate that comes with a hallucinogen to make people believe that they're rebelling.

modern "christian fundamentalism" in the U.S., as a political philosophy, is about become powerful by embodying the power of god: pretty simple and 180 degrees from your description of Marx (I would have thought he had a more nuanced view but you tell me...). It is fundamentally about becoming powerful (and wealthy too) in this world.


I don't think "radical" means what you think it means. Nor "proletarian."
posted by SoftRain at 8:58 AM on August 21 [+] [!]


huh? You don't think the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth is a radical agenda? as to proletarian, you need to get out more, you need to have read 1000 obscure books and pamphlets to talk to an Anarchist(tm), to talk to a Christian you need to pretend to read only one.
posted by geos at 9:18 AM on August 21, 2007


i'd like to blame Bolshevism on the White Army

What the hell are you talking about? Bolshevism was Lenin, and Lenin's aims and methods had been consistent since at least 1902 (What Is To Be Done?). Lenin insisted, against the passionate opposition of Molotov and most of the rest of the Central Committee, on holding his coup before the meeting of the Second Congress of Soviets, where they were sure to have a majority: why? Because Lenin didn't want to govern with a majority, he wanted to govern alone. The Bolsheviks had taken power allegedly in the name of the Constituent Assembly, but when the Assembly met, they dispersed it. The Cheka was created on December 20, 1917. On January 8, 1918, the former cabinet ministers Andrei Shingarev and Fedor Kokoshkin were murdered in their hospital beds by Bolshevik thugs who were never punished. All this took place before any "White Army" threatened them in any serious way. I don't understand lefties who are still desperate to whitewash Lenin at this late date.
posted by languagehat at 9:20 AM on August 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


Another great read is the biography of Voltairine DeCleyre by Paul Avrich. Voltairine was a contemporary of Emma's but they didn't care for each other. Voltairine considered Emma to be somewhat of a sellout in the anarchist movement.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 9:38 AM on August 21, 2007



i'd like to blame Bolshevism on the White Army

What the hell are you talking about?


I meant the ultimate success of the Bolshevists. Without the existential threat of the "White Army" one could argue that Bolshevism would have been discredited... here's Kropotkin (from the link):

It should also not be forgotten Kropotkin emphasized, that the blockade and the continuous attacks on the Revolution by the interventionists had helped to strengthen the power of the Communist regime. Intervention and blockade were bleeding Russia to death, and were preventing the people from understanding the real nature of the Bolshevik regime.

It's certainly possible or even likely, but like so much 'anarchist' writing it relies on thise very ahistorical 'if:' if things were different than they are then we might succeed. I don't think the Bolshevists succeeded because Lenin was an evil genius...
posted by geos at 9:43 AM on August 21, 2007


Book, DVD put spotlight on Sacco and Vanzetti execution
posted by homunculus at 10:58 AM on August 21, 2007


It's funny how all the anti-authority commenters always come out in these threads and start getting all abusive and authoritarian.

It's funny how the pro-authority commenters think that anything other than "Yes, you're right, and ever so smart" is authoritarian.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:08 AM on August 21, 2007


Well, I'd be happy to go at it on the merits, PG, but most anarchists I've spoken to get around five minutes in, say "fuck you, fascist" pack up, and go home. I'm not exactly Franco, but I have a hard time finding anyone who believes in anarchism who wants to discuss it, as opposed to preaching it.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 11:26 AM on August 21, 2007


Some of the objections raised here and in the other recent thread bear little relationship to the experience I've had applying anarchist principles in political activities and social development work over a couple of decades in some quite diverse social contexts. Those principles and the lessons of history have proved valuable tools for improving agency and participation and avoiding repeats of past mistakes. I don't think anarchism provides a blueprint for Utopia (and I don't think we need one). I found it addresses the important questions (principally power) and points to processes. With those in place, solutions emerge.
Really, the greatest legacy of anarchism as I see it lies in people like James Colton whose obit I linked above, activists first then propagandists, and the spirit they represent.
posted by Abiezer at 11:47 AM on August 21, 2007


Mind elaborating on that, Abiezer? I can see you have an interest in the theory, but how have you applied it? (Not snarking, genuinely curious.)
posted by StrikeTheViol at 12:30 PM on August 21, 2007


One thing was organising without authority, STV. You see a lot in the participatory theory in development that shares similarities with anarchist organisational approaches. Stakeholders in some issue get together and thrash out a collective view of what needs to be done, and this becomes easy to implement because there is a consensus. In some forestry and water projects I was involved in, this was able to resolve long-standing resource conflicts where previous punitive systems had failed. People didn't need to be compelled once they'd had a chance to participate in defining a common view. Of course, there might be mechanisms for monitoring - one drinking water thing we did the villagers drafted a series of fines for breaking allocated quotas. The people who collected these had no other authority than representing a commonly agreed process, but they rarely had trouble getting offenders to cough up, because pretty much everyone recognised they were in the wrong. Again, I can think of some failures and intractable individuals, but overall in a number of instances I saw for myself the outcome was a vast improvement on previous frameworks.
Defining your issue appropriately matters here, of course. But that seems also to suit an anarchist approach of collective decisions over issues rather than a single over-arching authority that determines a variety of aspects of community life. Horses for course and all that.
I could ramble on with a lot of anecdotes on other aspects, but I'm better at wibbling about this over beer than writing about it, so I hope the above serves to illustrate my point.
posted by Abiezer at 1:25 PM on August 21, 2007


Well, that strikes me as good consensus-based decisionmaking, and how democratic socialism actually can work. There's no single leader, but there is collective authority, and being part of the group helps people cohere. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, I've heard of microfinancing operations functioning like this. When I hear the word "anarchy" I don't think of centralized group activity, but clusters of cells, maybe three or four people each, that independently decide how they plan to contribute and consider themselves free to change that role as they wish. If what you're talking about is anarchy, maybe my town council is an anarchist commune I didn't know about...
posted by StrikeTheViol at 2:42 PM on August 21, 2007


One thing to remember is that at one point the choice was between the Bolsheviks and Counter-Revolution many people like Victor Serge felt they had no other choice but to side with the Bolsheviks.
posted by TheCassiniDivision at 5:10 PM on August 21, 2007


STV - one important distinction in my view is the difference between delegation of tasks and of authority. In a lot of real world situations it can seem a finicky distinction, but if you don't watch out, over time the latter can become set and extend beyond its original remit.
posted by Abiezer at 5:13 PM on August 21, 2007


Not to disagree with languagehat about anything if I can help it, but the civil war reinforced a vital Russian trait of paranoia, being surrounded etc, and helped justify the creation of the joy that was the Soviet Union. This is not to say that Lenin was some cuddly little fellow, but that his aspirations and methods were allowed to prosper given the events of the time. You don't get to kill as many people as the Chekists did during, and following, the civil war without the general population being terrified of something they regarded as even worse. I do have to agree, however, the the current Stalin: bad, Lenin: good, breakdown in leftist discourse is a bit, um, ignorant, not to say scary.
posted by Football Bat at 3:37 AM on August 22, 2007


but the civil war reinforced a vital Russian trait of paranoia, being surrounded etc, and helped justify the creation of the joy that was the Soviet Union

Sure, I don't disagree at all. The forward march of history helped Vladimir Ilich realize his fondest dreams of brutal subjugation of the evil bourgeoisie and total power in the hands of his little splinter group. My impression of the comment I was responding to, however, was not "Bolshevism was inherently bad, but the course of events enabled it to realize its worst dreams" but "Bolshevism could have been a good thing but those nasty Whites forced it to take a bad path." I may have been wrong, but I've seen enough of that kind of thing from lefties to have a hair-trigger reaction. Why are people so desperate for good guys? In politics, there are no good guys. (And of course the reverse of the coin is the people who hate the Bolsheviks and therefore make heroes of the Tsar and the Whites. The Tsar was a stupid, stubborn fool who made the situation a thousand times worse, and the Whites were vicious anti-Semitic thugs who wanted to restore the worst features of the old regime.)
posted by languagehat at 7:11 AM on August 22, 2007


you need to have read 1000 obscure books and pamphlets to talk to an Anarchist(tm)

while there are always overwrought sorts at every gathering of anarchist intellectuals, i came to it from a strictly instinctual and activist point of view. (hence, my admiration for my namesake). i became an anarchist long before i'd read any of the theory, and i still have a much easier time reading Emma's words than those of a more philosophical-treatise bent. to me, it just seemed eminently practical and fit with my *feelings*--my consciousness of the betrayal inherent in authority or people who attain authority, the inability to get anything truly accomplished within the paradigm of government.

i have a philosopher-anarchist friend who decided to become a city councilor as a sort of experiment and exercise in participation. doing so ruined him in a way that i have watched with grave concern. instructive, i guess. especially since there was a time a few years ago when people were pushing me toward the same fate. somehow, the compromise inherent in community-based consensus is far less poisonous than the scratch-my-back-i'll-scratch-yours world of government.

government always sells out the community interests, one way or another. and those who join in get assimilated like the sailors on Davy Jones' pirate ship. [POC] i am having a hell of a time pointing out to people that a lot of the anti-demonstration tactics we now experience flowered during Clinton's presidency, not the current resident's. as a for instance.

I'm not exactly Franco, but I have a hard time finding anyone who believes in anarchism who wants to discuss it, as opposed to preaching it.

i welcome you to come hang at our house, with two middle-aged anarchists who pause our TiVO during the Daily Show and Bill Moyers to hash out such things. we're the neighbors who let the wildflowers grow and spend five years painting our house. oh, and we try to "save the world" with our crazy ideas about using the internets to make education freely available to everyone. i think Red Emma would approve (except i haven't yelled at anyone in the streets in the last year. maybe she'd give me a pass since i keep getting collection letters over my civil disobedience fine at the recruiting center).

the greatest legacy of anarchism as I see it lies in people like James Colton [...] activists first then propagandists, and the spirit they represent.

agreed. all the talk about theory has nothing on the actual doing part. trying to live your life with anarchist principles in the belly of the beast is an interesting ride, but it's the only way to make a better world possible, IMO.

and that windbag Voltairine can kiss my ass.
posted by RedEmma at 10:45 AM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


The most absurd apology for authority and law is that they serve to diminish crime. Aside from the fact that the State is itself the greatest criminal, breaking every written and natural law, stealing in the form of taxes, killing in the form of war and capital punishment, it has come to an absolute standstill in coping with crime. It has failed utterly to destroy or even minimize the horrible scourge of its own creation.
Crime is naught but misdirected energy. So long as every institution of today, economic, political, social, and moral, conspires to misdirect human energy into wrong channels; so long as most people are out of place doing the things they hate to do, living a life they loathe to live, crime will be inevitable, and all the laws on the statutes can only increase, but never do away with, crime. What does society, as it exists today, know of the process of despair, the poverty, the horrors, the fearful struggle the human soul must pass on its way to crime and degradation.


(From "Anarchism: What It Really Stands For")
posted by RedEmma at 11:26 AM on August 22, 2007


Ah. So anarchism really stands for delusional and infantile wishful thinking? Glad to see that cleared up.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:43 PM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Does this mean there's no need to save a chair for you at the next syndicalist weekend teach-in then, Comrade EB?
posted by Abiezer at 2:45 PM on August 22, 2007


Yeah, give it to someone more deserving. :)
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:17 PM on August 22, 2007


If it's like the last one, we won't actually be pressed for space, even in a phone box :D
posted by Abiezer at 3:25 PM on August 22, 2007


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