The best political comment tumbles through the ages like a snowball, gathering mass momentum with each new appreciation. Whatever our politics, most of us can still find validation or inspiration in the works of Paine or Burke, Mill or Marx. So when invited to write in praise of my own ideological idol, the pioneering anarchist feminist Emma Goldman, I was not surprised to find her words still rang true clear. But as we approach the 100th anniversary of Anarchism and Other Essays, her first and best book, what is astonishing is the continuing relevance of her subject matter. Rereading the book today, one could easily be browsing any given week on Comment is free.
Could there be a better riposte than this to the New Labour stalwart scourge of sex traffickers, Denis McShane:
"What is really the cause of the trade in women? Exploitation, of course; the merciless Moloch of capitalism that fattens on underpaid labour, thus driving thousands of women and girls into prostitution … Naturally our reformers say nothing about this cause. They know it well enough, but it doesn't pay to say anything about it. It is much more profitable to play the Pharisee, to pretend an outraged morality, than to go to the bottom of things."
In the aftermath of the papal visit, how is this for a defence of aggressive atheism:
"Religion! How it dominates man's mind, how it humiliates and degrades his soul. God is everything, man is nothing, says religion. But out of that nothing God has created a kingdom so despotic, so tyrannical, so cruel, so terribly exacting that naught but gloom and tears and blood have ruled the world since gods began."
Or in the recurring debate about representation of women in parliament:
"I see neither physical, psychological, nor mental reasons why woman should not have the equal right to vote with man. But that cannot possibly blind me to the absurd notion that woman will accomplish that wherein man has failed… Are we to assume that the poison already inherent in politics will be decreased, if women were to enter the political arena?"
Or finally, I think this would be her response to abstinence education and purity rings:
"Can there be anything more outrageous than the idea that a healthy, grown woman, full of life and passion, must deny nature's demand, must subdue her most intense craving, undermine her health and break her spirit, must stunt her vision, abstain from the depth and
glory of sex experience until a "good" man comes along to take her unto himself as a wife?"
These are just a few examples of Goldman addressing not only the debates of her time, but also our own. Her book spans the inevitability of political violence as a consequence of repression and brutality; the shortcomings of prison in preventing crime, the insatiable expansion of militarism and so much more. They span diverse issues, but each point is argued with steely precision from her unwavering syndicalist anarchism: fundamental beliefs in both the absolute autonomy of the individual, and the humanitarian necessity of social collectivism.
If anything is more remarkable than Emma Goldman's words, it is surely the life she lived. Born a Lithuanian Jew, she fled forced marriage to the US when aged only 16, and took work as a seamstress and later a nurse. Still in her teens, she fell in love with both the burgeoning anarchist movement and the activist Alexander Berkman. He would soon be convicted of the attempted assassination of the industrialist Henry Clay Frick, in retaliation for the killing of nine striking steelworkers by Pinkerton detectives. Goldman was investigated for conspiracy though never charged, but for the rest of her life she was trailed, harassed and persecuted by police. In 1893 she served a year in penitentiary for incitement to riot, was interned in the aftermath of the McKinley assassination, imprisoned again for disseminating "obscene" birth control literature in 1916, then again in 1917 for organising against military conscription.
When at liberty Goldman toured the country tirelessly, speaking to mass meetings twice a day for months at a time, while still managing to write thousands of essays, articles and letters. In 1919, she was deported to post-revolutionary Russia, where she recognised, sooner than anyone, that Bolshevism was a barbaric corruption of socialist ideals. Even as an elderly woman, she threw herself into the service of Spain's anarchist republic, only to see the dream crushed between the iron pincers of fascism and Stalinism. She achieved all of this while maintaining an impish humour and lusty libido. It is ironic that a writer who left us so many memorable lines is best remembered for a quote she never actually said. Nonetheless, one suspects that given a choice of epitaph, she would have quite liked: "If I can't dance I don't want to be in your revolution."
From a political career spanning more than 50 years, it's not difficult to find positions one can disagree with. Her own views changed, most notably on the value of political violence. There is no shame in such turnarounds. Perhaps her most important observation came in the title essay of her first book:
"Anarchism is a living force in the affairs of our life, constantly creating new conditions. The methods of anarchism therefore do not comprise an iron-clad programme to be carried out under all circumstances. Methods must grow out of the economic needs of each place and clime, and of the intellectual and temperamental requirements of the individual."
To me, this means politics is not about the destination, but about the journey. Society is a living, growing being, and anarchism, if it can exist at all, occurs in what psychologist Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development – an ephemeral stage between an infancy we need to leave and a maturity we will never quite achieve. I still grasp at the hope that Emma Goldman can help guide us towards a more humane, fair and fulfilling world. Who knows if Emma would now agree, but at least we can be sure of one thing. She would have been an absolute demon on Cif.