Anarchy! An Anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth: Edited by Peter Glassgold, 458 pgs. By Jim Woster

Aug 16, 2013

Founded in 1906 by Emma Goldman, the magazine Mother Earth was designed to be, as Anarchy! editor Peter Glassgold writes, “a forum for anarchism of every school and variety. It appeared without interruption until August 1917, when it was killed by the wartime postal censorship and succeeded by an abbreviated Mother Earth Bulletin, which lasted until April 1918.”

Anarchy! is an anthology of writing from Mother Earth, organized into six thematic sections: Anarchism, The Woman Question (the interpretations of feminism and suffrage are not favorable), Literature, Civil Liberties, The Social War (covering revolutions and labor strikes), and War And Peace.

The book is a documentary history, and documentary histories are probably the least thorough of histories. (Always excepting those ghost-written on behalf of talk radio hosts.) Do you know who Francisco Ferrer is? I didn’t. After a paragraph explaining that he “introduced secular schools into Catholic Spain [and] was executed on October 13, 1909, on the patently false charge of fomenting a popular uprising in Barcelona,” we then read a Goldman screed written for an audience already intimately familiar with the Ferrer case.

Enjoyably, however (if, like me, you’re into this), it’s like reading a science fiction story that doesn’t spend much time on exposition, leaving the reader to discern on her own the world of the story—this is especially true of the text of Peter Kropotkin’s speech “The Sterilization of the Unfit,” which speech he delivered at the Eugenics Congress, which, yes, was an actual thing.

It’s worth remembering as you read Anarchy! that Mother Earth was intended to be a forum, not an op-ed page, and that when Goldman writes, “Unfortunately it is only too true that the people in our so-called Democracy are to a large extent a dumb, suffering herd rather than thinking beings who dare to give expression to a frank, earnest opinion,” she likely was not trying to convince middle America’s Babbitts of anything. When accused of preaching to the choir, Billy Bragg responded with something like, “I’m not preaching to them, I’m giving them ammo. “”

Comedian Jackie Kashian writes on Twitter, “[I’m in] Texas looking at a bumper sticker that says ‘libertarian’ next to an ‘anarchist’ sticker. That is a man who is honest with himself.” Anarchy! reminds us that the differences between political ideologies are about as distinct as the differences between grindcore and metalcore. (Sorry if that sentence fills you with rage.) Do you have any Tea Partiers in your life? Get them a copy of Anarchy! and bookmark Voltairine de Cleyre’s 1908 essay, where she writes that America sees the Boston Tea Party as “the one sacrosanct mob in all history, to be revered but never on any account to be imitated”—perhaps they’ll realize that they’re anarchy’s cousins. (“And then what?” I don’t know. Nothing, probably.)

And like all of us, anarchists could cite a Thomas Jefferson quote or two to support their view. (“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”) When the zombies finally take over America, I’m sure their leader will find a Jefferson quote that applies.

I’ll close with a gift for sports haters:

“I am not a lover of sports and athletics, for these I consider a misuse of energy, which might do much to relieve the poor.” –Leo Tolstoy, one of Mother Earth’s contributors. –Jim Woster (Counterpoint, 1919 Fifth Street, Berkeley, CA 94710,