August 23, 2020
From Anarchist Writers

This talk was given in February 2018 at the Five Leaves bookshop in Nottingham. As the name suggests, it discusses what anarchism is via the ideas and lives of twelve libertarians. The first part covered six male anarchists and the second six female ones.

The decision to split the talks into two based on “Founding Fathers and Mothers” was not mine’s and perhaps not the best as it creates some duplication and, of course, somewhat obscures that male and female libertarians interacted and influenced each other. Still, I think it went well and helped bring out some issues which are often forgotten in introductory talks. Both presentations can be found here and both included a few slides in appendices which were not used in the end nor included in this write-up.

Part 1: The Founding Mothers, 1840 to 1940

Thank you for coming. As you will know, this meeting was advertised as follows:

Anarchism is a much misunderstood and much misrepresented theory. Rejecting the chaos of capitalism and statism, it seeks to create the order of libertarian socialism, a free society of free associates. To discover more, please join Iain McKay (author of An Anarchist FAQ) for an exploration of libertarian ideas by means of six male and six female anarchist thinkers and activists.

Over two nights, the lives and ideas of the founding fathers and mothers of anarchism –including Michael Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Louise Michel and Emma Goldman – will be discussed and their continuing relevance highlighted.

Tonight, I will discuss the following key female anarchist thinkers:

André Léo

Louise Michel

Lucy Parsons

Voltairine de Cleyre

Emma Goldman

Marie-Louise Berneri

Some are better known than others, but hopefully you will learn something new about all of them. I covered six key male ones at last week’s talk and, as I said then, by discussing the ideas of these specific individuals I hope to indicate the meaning of Anarchism and why you should become an anarchist.

The Meaning of Anarchism

At the end of my last talk, I was in a position to define the meaning of Anarchism.

It is, fundamentally, simply freedom within free association. It is based on liberty which means free association and equality within the associations you join, otherwise freedom becomes reduced to picking masters. This, in turn, means self-management as those affected by decisions must make them and we create this by applying solidarity and direct action is our day-to-day struggles against oppression and exploitation now.

Such a society requires an economy in which ownership is undivided but its use is divided. In other words, one based on socialisation (or free access) of the means of life based on use rights (or possession) replacing private property and the hierarchies it creates. Such a society cannot be other than one based on federalism, one which is rooted in decentralisation (so that people control their own lives) and decentred around groups and federations based on functional democracy in both workplaces and communities.

In short, libertarian socialism.

Tyrannies, home and away

Anarchism, then, is rooted in a critique both public and private hierarchy. In other words, opposition to State, leading to government being replaced by federalism, and opposition to Capital, leading to wage-labour replaced by association. In this, all major anarchist thinkers agree.

But what about at home? Sad to say, Proudhon defended patriarchy and the male-run family. However, I must stress that he was alone in that and he expressed views, as Kropotkin notes, “with which most modern writers will, of course, not agree”. Yet while there is opposition to patriarchy on the left, this is all too often lip-service and often not even that – thus we find the Marxist Social-Democratic Federation’s paper Justice proclaiming that Kropotkin was “as wayward as a boy and as illogical as a woman” in March 1904. So, it is fair to say that socialists tended to ignore the issue in practice. In short, all schools of socialism have their idiots, libertarian and authoritarian included.

This was the context in which the six libertarians I discuss tonight found themselves and, unsurprisingly, they spent some time pointing out the inconsistencies and stupidities of their male comrades as well as fighting the same evils associated with Capitalism and Statism.

André Léo (1824-1900)

The first libertarian I will discuss tonight is probably the least well-known, which is a shame for she was as a leading member of the French left in the 1860s and 1870s, an Internationalist and Communard.

Born Victoire Léodile Béra, she took the pseudonym André Léo after her two twin sons’ names. A novelist and journalist, she was in 1866 a founding member of France’s first feminist group, Société pour la Revendication du Droit des Femmes and the same year joined the International Workers’ Association. She wrote for many papers and was editor of the journal La République des travailleurs, but she was also an activist and was active participant in the Paris Commune of 1871, working in the Association of Women for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded. After the defeat of the Commune, she went into exile in Switzerland (again) until 1880 and there she joined Bakunin’s Alliance of Socialist Democracy.

She wrote numerous books, including La Femme et les Mœurs: monarchie ou liberté (1869), La Guerre sociale: Discours prononcé au Congrès de la Paix à Lausanne 1871 (1871) and La Famille Au droit et l’éducation nouvelle (1899). In addition, she wrote numerous articles for many radical papers, including La Coopération, L’Egalité, La Sociale, La Commune, Cri du peuple and La Révolution Sociale. Sadly, very little of her writings have been translated into English.

“the rights of labour”

Like all libertarians, Léo was very much focused on “the rights of labour” and recognised that “[t]he law of capital is aristocratic by nature. It tends increasingly to concentrate power in the hands of a few; it inevitably creates an oligarchy, which is master of the nation’s power […] It pursues the interest of a few as against the interest of all”.  This resulted in a “pretended order that admits suffering as the condition of what one calls peace is only disorder. There is no economic science, however profound, that is able to reduce to nothing the protest of the most humble workers, who demand with feeling their right to well-being, education, and the leisure necessary for all moral and intelligent creatures”. This limited the future potential and options of those subject to it:

“As long as a child is poor […] as long as he grows up with no ideal but the tavern, no future but the day-to-day work of a beast of burden, most members of humanity will be deprived of their rights”

Her position can be described as consistent mutualism as she argued for association in all aspects of life. Thus, in the paper La Coopération founded in 1867 she advocated the creation of workers associations and after a discussion of the merits of communism, she noted that she had been informed that her “conclusions are precisely those of Proudhon in his Memoirs on property”. Yet she also attacked the left for not applying its principles and being illogical by defending patriarchy at home and in society, arguing for “the full right of women – as for every human being – to liberty, to equality”. She noted how hierarchy at home affects all: “She moulds her child […] as a slave, she can only create slaves”.

While being unable to vote for it (as suffrage was male only), Léo took an active part in the Paris Commune seeing its vision of a decentralised, communal and associationist France as being the same as hers. Its Council issued her “Appeal to rural workers” as a leaflet (distributed by air balloon) in an attempt to widen support by proclaiming “THE LAND TO THE FARMER, THE TOOL TO THE WORKER, WORK FOR ALL”. However, she was critical of its lack of action over women’s rights, writing the article “Revolution without woman” in May 1871 which asked “[w]hen will the intelligence of the Republicans rise as far as to understand their principle and their interest?” The question for the Commune was simple: “do we believe we can make the Revolution without women? For eighty years this has been attempted and the Revolution has never come to pass.”

This concern during the revolution reflected arguments made before it on association at home. Her comments from 1869 about those on the left who were sexists were cutting:

“These so-called lovers of liberty, if they cannot all take part in the direction of the State, at least they will be able to have a little kingdom for their personal use, each at home. When we put gunpowder to divine right, it was not for every male (Proudhonian style) to have a piece. Order in the family without hierarchy seems impossible to them. – Well, then, and in the State?”

Léo exposed how, when it came to women, her male colleagues were more than happy to repudiate and contradict their own-stated principles:

“The democracy believes in association as the natural antidote to competition and hierarchy […] without the possibility of association, that is to say of agreement and peace between equals, democracy is a crazy pretence […] However, the democrats see in marriage no other guarantee of order and peace than obedience. They cry out: there must be a chief, a leadership; who will decide?”

The contradiction at the heart of those on the left who supported patriarchy at home but association everywhere else was obvious and had to be addressed. Socialists had to be consistent and logical to be taken seriously.

“the demon of Anarchy”

Fleeing the slaughter inflicted on Paris after the defeat of the Commune, she fled to Switzerland and there joined Bakunin in the struggle within the International Workers’ Association against Marx who, she argued, “construct[s] the old pyramid in the International as elsewhere”. This saw her attacked and “in debating the infallibility of the supreme council […] we too are threatened with excommunication, and we have no other course than to yield our soul to the demon of Anarchy”. I cannot help thinking that it is this, her opposition to Marx and his explicit denunciation of her as a dreaded “Bakuninist” which has helped ensured her relative obscurity to this day.

Her position in this was consistent with her libertarian ideas and so she saw the necessity of building the new world while fighting the old. It was the case that “[w]e who want to destroy your hierarchies are not about to establish another” and so the International must practice the ideals now and not relegate them to after a future revolution. This meant applying federalism within our organisations:

“Each section is sovereign, as are the individuals who compose it, and what binds them all is the profound belief in equality, the desire to establish it […] The new unity is not uniformity, but its opposite, which consists in expanding all initiatives, all freedoms, all conceptions, bound only by the fact of a common nature that gives them a common interest”

Léo rightly agued that socialism cannot use capitalist organisational principles – forged to best secure minority rule – if it wishes to be genuinely a force of liberation and so “[l]et all the old world’s politics go that way; socialism has nothing to do with it, for it must take the opposite path, that of the freedom of all in equality.” Socialism had to oppose the structures or principles of the society it rebelled against for otherwise what would be the point of it? Real liberation cannot be achieving by changing who the master is.

Louise Michel (1830-1905)

Our next libertarian was also a Communard and far better known than Léo, Louise Michel. A teacher by trade, she – like Léo – was a member of France’s first feminist group, Société pour la Revendication du Droit des Femmes, and both were arrested in September 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War.

An active participant in the Paris Commune of 1871, she was arrested after its defeat and sentenced to exile in New Caledonia. Reflecting on recent events, during this journey she became an anarchist and when freed in 1880 she took a leading role in the French movement. In 1883, she raised the Black Flag during a “Bread or Work!” march in Paris and was sentenced, again, to prison. Once freed, she helped form the International Anarchist School in London in 1890 and helped launch the newspaper Le Libertaire in 1896.

While remembered for her indefatigable activism which saw her imprisoned many time, she also wrote numerous books and articles including Défense de Louise Michel (1883), Mémoires de Louise Michel (1886), Les Crimes de l’époque (1888), Prise de possession (1890) and La Commune (1898). Sadly, very little of this is available in English.

Convict No. 2182

Michel received this number for being a communard. She was on the barricades (ostensibly as a nurse but a more, let me say, active role cannot be discounted). Proud of her activity and the revolution she was part of, she was defiant at her trial after its crushing:

“I belong completely to the social revolution and I declare that I accept complete responsibility for all my actions […] If you are not cowards, kill me!”

Her demand was refused, and she was sent into exile. She became an Anarchist after the Commune because she concluded that “dishonest men, in power, are harmful; honest men, in power, are ineffective. Liberty and power cannot possibly go together.” While in New Caledonia, she supported the Kanakas revolt of the native people in 1878 correctly recognising that “they, too, were fighting for independence, control of their own lives and liberty. I sided with them just as I sided with the rebellious, oppressed, and then defeated people of Paris.” This position, I should note, was not shared by all the exiled Communards.

Once released and back in France, she took a leading role in the anarchist movement and played a crucial part in making the Black Flag the anarchist symbol by raising it during a “Work or bread!” protest of the unemployed in Paris during 1883. Arrested after some of the marchers pillaged a bakers, she explained why she had raised it at her trial:

“We took the black flag because the demonstration was to be above all peaceful, because the black flag is the flag of strikes, the flag of those who are hungry”

She also used the opportunity to explain her ideas, arguing that “Individual authority is a crime. What we want is authority for all. M. Advocate General accused me of wanting to be a leader: I have too much pride for that, for I cannot demean myself and to be a leader is to demean yourself.” Unsurprisingly, she was imprisoned, again, and was released in 1886 along with Kropotkin and other anarchists as part of a general amnesty. She returned to activism and again raised the flags of revolt:

“The red banner, which has always stood for liberty, frightens the executioners because it is so red with our blood. The black flag, with layers of blood upon it from those who wanted to live by working or die by fighting, frightens those who want to live off the work of others. Those red and black banners wave over us mourning our dead and wave over our hopes for the dawn that is breaking”

I should note, though, that she viewed her release in a less than positive light: “I have never been so enraged, so indignant, so furious. I did not deserve the insult of a pardon”.

The General Strike

Like other libertarians, she argued for Direct Action against Political Action and was lecturing on “General Strikes and the Social Revolution” for many years – including in London during 1890 (as reported in a New Zealand newspaper of all places). That year saw Michel praise “the general strike, whose purpose was to destroy capitalism and usher in world liberty”. I should note that Michel’s advocating the general strike was at least five years before French syndicalism arose and championed it as the key method to create a social revolution. Her rejection of electioneering was as firm as her awareness of the power of direct action:

“I’ve never been involved in politics. The social question has nothing to do with that jackass parliamentary spectacle. I’m no interested in politicians. I’m quite content merely to observe their fear, which is the first sign of their impending fall.”

This applied to socialist politicians as well. Michel rejected Marxism for numerous reasons, not least for the intolerance shown at the 1896 London Congress of the Second International:

“Where I not an Anarchist of long standing, the Parliamentarian [Socialist] Congress in London would have made me one […] It was conclusively proved at the Congress that the best, the most intelligent, the most devoted of men will be worse than those they seek to replace”

These positions have not, needless to say, stopped Leninists seeking to co-opt her.

In short, Michel was without god or master and anarchism is for all. She argued that “I am an Anarchist because Anarchy alone, by means of liberty and justice based on equal rights, will make humanity happy”. This applied in all areas of life, public and private, work and home, for “[i]f power renders a man egotistical and cruel, servitude degrades him. A slave is often worse than his master; nobody knows how tyrannous he would be as a master, or base as a slave”.  She helped form The League of Women in 1882 for, as she put it, “[w]e wish to inform women of their rights and their duties; we want men to view their companions as equals, not slaves.” As well as breaking the chains – physical and mental – forged by patriarchy and fettering those subject to it, Michel recognised that those who benefit from it also need education in freedom:

“You are not used to seeing a women who dares to think; you want, according to Proudhon’s expression, to see in woman a housewife or a courtesan!”

However, self-liberation is essential and, just like the working class, women needed to free themselves. They cannot rely on men for even “when the most advanced men applaud the idea of equality between the sexes […] in spite of themselves and simply through custom of old prejudices, men will always appear to aid us but will be satisfied with that appearance. So let us take our place without begging for it”.

Lucy Parsons (1853-1942)

We now turn to America for our next libertarian, Lucy Parsons. Not much is known for sure of her origins. She was probably born a slave, probably in Texas with Native American, African American and Mexican ancestry (she always denied being black, incidentally). She married Albert Parsons – then a radical republican – and moved to Chicago in the 1870s where both became active state-socialists before both became anarchists in the early 1880s.

She was a founding member of International Working People’s Association (IWPA) in 1883 and a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. A well-known labour agitator, Parsons was described as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters” by the Chicago Police in the 1920s. Sadly, by this stage she had become sympathetic to Soviet Russia (in spite of its repression of both anarchists and the revolution) and worked with Communist Party throughout the 1920s and 1930s in the National Committee of the International Labor Defense (although it must be stressed there is no evidence that she joined the party).

Her books include Life of Albert R. Parsons: with brief history of the labor movement in America (1889), The principles of anarchism: a lecture (1890s) and Twenty-fifth anniversary, eleventh of November, memorial edition (1912). She was involved with many papers and wrote numerous articles for The Alarm, Freedom: A Revolutionary Anarchist-Communist Monthly and The Liberator.

What Parsons stood for remained remarkably consistent throughout her long life as an activist and was expressed by the IWPA Manifesto:

First: Destruction of the existing class rule, by all means, i.e., by energetic, relentless, revolutionary, and international action.

Second: Establishment of a free society based upon co-operative organisation of production.

Third: Free exchange of equivalent products by and between the productive organisations without commerce and profit-mongery.

Fourth: Organisation of education on a secular, scientific, and equal basis for both sexes.

Fifth: Equal rights for all without distinction to sex or race.

Sixth: Regulation of all public affairs by free contracts between the autonomous (independent) communes and associations, resting on a federalistic basis.

This is often called “the Chicago Idea” and was developed by radicals in that city in the early 1880s who were originally state socialists but moved to anarchism, rejecting the ballot box in favour of militant – revolutionary – trade unionism. As with libertarians in the First International and after, they saw unions as the means to both fight and replace capitalism. As Parsons put it:

We hold that the granges, trade-unions, Knights of Labor assemblies, etc., are the embryonic groups of the ideal anarchistic society

This new social organisation was needed because of a rejection of the State for [a]ll political government must necessarily become despotic, because, all government tends to become centralised in the hands of the few, who breed corruption among themselves, and in a very short time disconnect themselves from the body of the people.”

Some may be aware that the IWPA had a reputation for violent rhetoric. Yes, this is true but such a claim usually ignores the violent rhetoric of bourgeoisie and violent actions of their State. Let me just note that the number of strikers killed by public and private police during this period far out numbers that killed by the anarchists – which was zero, incidentally – while four anarchists were hanged after an unfair trial because of their union activities.

For some reason a few, Leninists in the main, seem keen to deny that the IWPA were anarchists. Rather they were, it is claimed, syndicalists and even Marxists. As the claim that the Chicago anarchists were not anarchists is one you may come across, it is worthwhile debunking it here.

The first claim made was that Parsons and her comrades were not Anarchists but Syndicalists. This was asserted by Carolyn Ashbaugh in her biography Lucy Parsons: American Revolutionary which stated that they were “syndicalists” as they had “given up political work for work in the unions which […] would provide the social organisation of the future”. She also noted that “Parsons discussed the general strike”. Ashbaugh seemed unaware that these were Bakunin’s and Kropotkin’s positions – but we should not be that surprised for she proclaimed the latter as the “gentle anarchist theoretician of non-violence”! Sadly, not knowing about anarchism did not hinder commenting upon its advocates.

More recently, James Green in Death in the Haymarket suggested that they were, in fact, Marxists. He argued that the Chicago radicals had “turned away from electoral competition and adopted Karl Marx’s strategy of organising workers […] building class-conscious trade unions as a basis for future political action.” If so, then Bakunin was a Marxist while Marx was not!

Then there is the notion that “the so-called ‘Chicago idea’” was a “synthesis between anarchism and Marxism”, to use the words of Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic from their book Wobblies and Zapatistas. Strangely, Marxists at the time made no such claim – quite the reverse in fact as their press at the time bemoaned attempts to link anarchism with “socialism”. We also find Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in an 1887 article entitled “The Chicago Anarchists” stressing that “we are not Anarchists, but are opposed to Anarchism” as well as “our position of antagonism to [its] teachings”. Engels made no public defence of the IWPA but in private letters written in 1886 he noted “the anarchist follies of Chicago” and lamented that “there’s all sorts of tomfoolery going on — here the anarchists […]”.

Sorry for the slight digression, but these claims – when not done in bad faith– reflect a general ignorance of what anarchism actually means and so has to be covered. Ultimately, if arguing for class struggle and union organising is Marxist then Bakunin was a Marxist…

While the IWPA did not survive the State repression after the Haymarket events which cumulated with the judicial murder of four IWPA activists (include Lucy’s husband Albert), she remained active and continued to stress that political action (electioneering) was not revolutionary for the “trusts will not allow you to vote them out of power because they are the power” and so working people must “[n]ever be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth.” As such, political power was limited by the economic power exercised by big business and so economic transformation was the key. “We mean the land shall belong to the landless, the tools to the toiler, and the products to the producers”, argued Parsons, and the “method of taking possession of this Earth is that of the general strike […] the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production.” This expropriation was the only means by which freedom for all would be gained:

“anarchism […] it has but one infallible, unchangeable motto, ‘Freedom.’ Freedom to discover any truth, freedom to develop, to live naturally and fully.”

Parsons was well aware that exploitation and oppression were not due just to political and economic power as women were subject to patriarchy as well and argued that “[w]e are the slaves of the slaves. We are exploited more ruthlessly than men.” Freedom was freedom for all, everywhere:

“Let us trust that [wives who ‘submit yourselves unto your husband and his desires at all times’] will soon become extinct; then we shall have fewer children, better-bred children, and fewer slaves for our factory lords.”

As she put it in 1930: “I am an anarchist: I have no apology to make to a single man, woman or child, because I am an anarchist, because anarchism carries the very germ of liberty in its womb.”

Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912)

Our next libertarian, Voltairine de Cleyre, was also America, being born and raised in small towns across Michigan. After a secondary schooling at a Catholic convent, she began her activist career in the freethought movement before turning to anarchism as a result of the Haymarket events. Initially an individualist anarchist, de Cleyre later turned to (social revolutionary) mutualism before being an advocate of “anarchism without adjectives”.

She was a prolific writer and public speaker who learned to speak and write in Yiddish. As befitting how de Cleyre joined the movement, she made regular May Day speeches as well as conducting speaking tours. She also found time to translate Jean Grave’s La société mourante et l’anarchie (1899) and write numerous pamphlets and articles for papers like The Truth Seeker, Liberty and Lucifer the Light-bearer in her individualist days and for Free Society, Freedom and Mother Earth when she moved to social anarchism. Various collections exist of (some of these) writings and speeches, including Selected Writings (1914), The First Mayday: The Haymarket Speeches 1895-1910 (1980) and The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader (2004)

As noted, originally she was attracted to the individualist wing of the American movement and spent a great deal of time fighting sex-slavery, arguing that “[e]quality” for a woman meant “the freedom to control her own person” and so:

“Let Woman ask herself, ‘Why am I the slave of Man? Why is my brain said not to be the equal of his brain? Why is my work not paid equally with his? Why must my body be controlled by my husband? Why may he take my labour in the household, giving me in exchange what he deems fit? Why may he take my children from me? Will them away while yet unborn?’”

So “if social progress consists in a constant tendency towards the equalisation of the liberties […] then the demands of progress are not satisfied so long as half society, Women, is in subjection […] Woman […] is beginning to feel her servitude”. This meant that “[y]ou can have no free, or just, or equal society, nor anything approaching it, so long as womanhood is bought, sold, housed, clothed, fed, and protected, as a chattel.” However, freedom could never be granted – it had to be won by a process of self-liberation for “as a class I have nothing to hope from men […] No tyrant ever renounced his tyranny until he had to. If history ever teaches us anything it teaches this. Therefore my hope lies in creating rebellion in the breasts of women.”

Yet she soon recognised that to be consistent she also had to start fighting wage-slavery for picking masters is not freedom whether at home or at work:

“Break up the home? Yes, every home that rests in slavery! Every marriage that represents the sale and transfer of the individuality of one of its parties to the other! Every institution, social or civil, that stands between man and his right; every tie that renders one a master, another a serf”.

Under capitalism “working-people” went “from factory to factory, begging for the opportunity to be a slave, receiving the insults of bosses […] in these factories they built, whose machines they wrought”. Thus property was theft and despotism, as Proudhon had stressed decades before, for “a ‘free country’ in which all the productive tenures were already appropriated was not free at all […] to be free one must have liberty of access to the sources and means of production” This was “the natural heritage of all”. Those subject to oppression had to organise to create a counter-power to hierarchy to create and defend freedom:

“Nearly all laws which were originally framed with the intention of benefiting workers, have either turned into weapons in their enemies’ hands, or become dead letters unless the workers through their organisations have directly enforced their observance. So that in the end, it is direct action that has to be relied on anyway.”

Yet important as this was to defend and extend freedom today, this was not considered an end in itself and resistance had to turn into revolution. This meant going from Direct Action to Expropriation – to occupy everywhere and everything:

“Do the workers perceive, that it must be the strike which will stay in the factory, not go out? which will guard the machines and allow no scab to touch them? Which will organise, not to inflict deprivation on itself, but on the enemy? which will take over industry and operate it for the workers, not for franchise holders, stockholders, and officeholders”

Like other anarchists, de Cleyre saw that we had to move from unions to associations, to go from resisting the exploitation and oppression of wage-labour to ending it by self-management. Thus an “international federation of labour […] shall take possession of land, mines, factories, all the instruments of production” and workers will “conduct their own industry without regulative interference from law-makers or employers”. In other words, “the trade union is the nucleus of the free cooperative group, which will obviate the necessity of an employer”.

She also saw the limitations of what can be termed Anarchism with Adjectives, arguing that “[l]iberty and experiment alone can determine the best forms of society.” However, this did not mean she did not have her own preferences and predictions of what a free society should be like – even if these changed over the course of her life. Her reasons for moving from individualism are noteworthy and help clarify the meaning of anarchism.

Initially, de Cleyre was an Individualist Anarchist and did not see the need to end oppression along with exploitation. She soon recognised that while “bosses would be hunting men rather than men bosses” under individualist-anarchism and so “wages would rise to the full measure of the individual production”, such a regime, “resting upon property, involve […] the private policeman [which is] not at all compatible with my notions of freedom”. She also lamented the often obscure language utilised in individualist circles: “Can’t you simplify it as to language? […] I am frequently called upon to translate it.”

These issues saw her move to a (revolutionary) mutualist position before working on Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth. In 1907 she stated that “I am not now and never have been at any time a Communist” yet the following year saw her argue that “the best thing ordinary workingmen or women could do was to organise their industry so as to get rid of money altogether”. Then, just before her death in 1912 she penned an article on the Paris Commune:

“In short, though there were other reasons why the Commune fell, the chief one was that in the hour of necessity, the Communards were not Communists. They attempted to break political chains without breaking economic ones; and it cannot be done.”

Clearly, de Cleyre had eventually embraced the (libertarian) communism which most anarchists subscribe to then and now. Like Déjacque, she although in reverse, she came to see the inconsistency and illogicality in denouncing hierarchy in one realm (the home, the State) while defending it elsewhere (the workplace).

Emma Goldman (1869-1940)

We now reach probably the most famous of the libertarians I am discussing tonight, Emma Goldman. Born in Lithuania in a religious Jewish family, her family immigrated to United States and there she worked as seamstress. Like de Cleyre, she became an anarchist due to the Haymarket events.

I cannot attempt to even summarise her eventful life beyond noting that she was arrested numerous times in America, the final time for anti-war work in 1917. She was sentenced to be deported in 1918 and was sent to Soviet Russia in December 1919 before leaving Russia in December 1921 after two years of “disillusionment”.

Goldman’s writings include the books Anarchism and Other Essays (1910), My Disillusionment in Russia (1923, 1924, 1925) and her famous autobiography Living My Life (1931) as well as numerous pamphlets including Syndicalism: The Modern Menace to Capitalism (1913), Deportation: Its Meaning and Menace (1919), Trotsky Protests Too Much (1938) and The Place for the Individual in Society (1940). She provided articles for many journals, including Mother Earth, Freedom and Vanguard.

“If I can’t paraphrase…”

As I am sure you are aware, Goldman is famous for proclaiming that “If I can’t dance, then it’s not my revolution” – except, she didn’t.

At best, it’s a paraphrase created for a T-shirt sold during anti-war protests in the late 1960s in America but it is reflective of her ideas and life. Indeed, she recalled in her autobiography an incident at an Anarchist dance just after she joined the movement where she had been reprimanded for enjoying herself too much by a puritan comrade, provoking this response:

“I told him to mind his own business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown in my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to behave as a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”

Admittedly, it would need a very big T-shirt for that to fit – or a very small font! – but the paraphrase summarises the sentiment extremely well. And she is right, anarchism is about individuals as much as society, otherwise what is the point of any form of socialism if it is not based on enriching the individual and their surroundings? As Goldman put it:

Real wealth consists in things of utility and beauty, in things that help to create strong, beautiful bodies and surroundings inspiring to live in […] the freest possible expression of all the latent powers of the individual.”

This means breaking both physical and mental chains, fighting our rulers and bosses as well as “[t]hese internal tyrants” which living under hierarchies create in all of us.

Goldman reiterated time and time that libertarians were not just opposed to the State, that Anarchism stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. She was well aware that we cannot have sexual equality without social equality. So the “private dominion over things […means ] that man must sell his labour […] his inclination and judgment are subordinated to the will of a master” and, given this, how much independence is gained if the narrowness and lack of freedom of the home is exchanged for the narrowness and lack of freedom of the factory, sweat-shop, department store, or office?” Feminism had to socialist just as socialism had to be feminist. She also rightly stressed the importance of militant minorities in social change and how their action can get majorities to change their ideas and take action themselves. Their importance was clear:

“true emancipation […] begins in woman’s soul. History tells us that every oppressed class gained true liberation from its masters through its own efforts […] her freedom will reach as far as her power to achieve her freedom reaches […] begin with her inner regeneration, to cut loose from the weight of prejudices, traditions, and customs”.

Freedom, in short, could not be granted: it had to be taken by the oppressed themselves in the face of resistance by the oppressors.

“The Modern Menace to Capitalism”

As freedom had to be conquered it meant that “the logical, consistent method of Anarchism” was direct action: Direct action against the authority in the shop, direct action against the authority of the law, direct action against the invasive, meddlesome authority of our moral code”. This was how we change ourselves and the world.

Some, particularly Leninists (who seem to hate her with a passion) try to present her as some kind of individualist or lifestylist, seeking personal liberation within capitalism rather than seeing the need for class struggle and a social revolution. This is nonsense as can be seen from the fact Goldman lectured on and wrote extensively on Syndicalism: the Modern Menace to Capitalism, noting approvingly that “Marx and Engels [were] aiming at political conquest” while “Bakunin and the Latin workers [were] forging ahead along industrial and Syndicalist lines […] Syndicalism is, in essence, the economic expression of Anarchism”. Indeed, Mother Earth regularly linked its ideas to “the Chicago Idea” of the International Working People’s Association and, for example, in 1907 argued that “labour unions […] can have but one worthy object – to achieve their full economic stature by complete emancipation from wage slavery […] They bear the germs of a potential social revolution […] they are the factors that will fashion the system of production and distribution in the coming free society.” Syndicalism, as she put it in “Reflections on the General Strike” in 1926 in Freedom, prepares the masses for fundamental social changes on a federative libertarian basis, away from the State […] its most effective weapon in the economic struggle – the General Strike”.

Rather than being the lifestylist of Marxist myth, she was a committed libertarian communist revolutionary who rightly argued that we needed to apply our ideas today in all aspects of life – whether in our personal relationships or in the class struggle.

“There Is No Communism In Russia”

Like all anarchists, Goldman welcomed the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and, thanks to the American State deporting her, she spent two years in Bolshevik Russia. Her initial enthusiasm soon disappeared as she saw the failure of the Bolshevik regime after “the Communists began their process of elimination […] of all independent organisations. They were either subordinated to the needs of the new State or destroyed altogether [….] the Soviets, the trade unions and the cooperatives — three great factors for the realisation of the hopes of the Revolution.” She chronicled the new bureaucratic regime and how it resulted in both inertia as people “did nothing else but stand in line, waiting for the bureaucrats, big and little, to admit them to their sanctums” and the creation of a new ruling class around the party hierarchy and the State officialdom.

Her opposition to the regime must be understood. Some like to suggest that it was driven by idealism and the new system not being perfect. Far from it. As she later noted, “these criticisms would be justified had I come to Russia expecting to find Anarchism realised […] I do not therefore expect Anarchism to follow in the immediate footsteps of centuries of despotism and submission […] hope to find […] the beginnings of the social changes for which the Revolution had been fought.” In fact her opposition was based on a clear class analysis, as shown by her comments against those on the left who argued that Russia was on strike and so revolutionaries cannot side with the master class by criticising it:

“It is not true that the Russian people are on strike [they…] have been locked out and that the Bolshevik State — even as the bourgeois industrial master — uses the sword and the gun to keep the people out. […] because I am a revolutionist I refuse to side with the master class, which in Russia is called the Communist Party.”

Yet it must be stressed that Goldman was “Disillusioned” with Bolshevism, not revolution (the title of her eye-witness account of Bolshevik Russia was changed without her knowledge by the publisher). She spent the 1920s and 1930s seeking to convince the left that “Soviet Russia […] is an absolute despotism politically and the crassest form of state capitalism economically” and to learn the lessons of that failure:

“Only free initiative and popular participation in the affairs of the revolution can prevent the terrible blunders committed in Russia […] libertarian, industrial organisations and the co-operatives”

These writings explain why Leninists hate her so much and why they stoop at nothing to demonise her in the eyes of radicals today, not least by ignoring her syndicalism to portray her as an individualist intellectual only interested in lifestyle choices. As can be seen, nothing could be further from the truth.

When the Spanish Revolution broke out in July 1936, she swiftly visited Barcelona and took the lead in drumming up support in the English-speaking world for the struggle against Franco. She was impressed by all the gains of the social revolution but she made special note of the activities of the Mujeres Libres (Free Women), the Spanish anarchist women’s federation which was formed shortly before the revolution and which organised against the “triple enslavement to ignorance, as women, and as producers”. It campaigned on many issues, not least the sexism rampant in Anarchist men who were happy to preach equality between the sexes but still expected their dinner to be on the table when they got home from trying to change the world. As they summarised:

We could not separate the women’s problem from the social problem, nor could we deny [its] significance […] by converting women into a simple instrument for any organisation, even our own libertarian organisation. The intention […] was much much broader: […] to empower women to make of them individuals capable of contributing to the structuring of the future society, individuals who have learned to be self-determining”

Part of the problem they faced was the sexism of their male comrades. Manarchy in action, if you like, or as one activist (Kyralina) put it:

“All those compañeros, however radical they may be in cafes, unions, and even affinity groups, seem to drop their costumes as lovers of female liberation at the doors of their homes. Inside, they behave with their compañeras just like common husbands.”

The Mujeres Libres considered that [it] was essential that we work and struggle together, because otherwise, there would be no social revolution. But we needed our own organisation to fight for ourselves” as another activist (Soledad) argued. This was based on encouraging Empowerment (capacitación) as Lucia Sanchez Saornil explained:

“It is not [the man] who is called upon to set out the roles and responsibilities of the woman in society, no matter how elevated he might consider them to be. No, the anarchist way is to allow the woman to act freely herself, without tutors or external pressures; that she may develop in the direction that her nature and her faculties dictate.”

Goldman wrote for the journal of the Mujeres Libres, seeing them as expressing the same kind of revolutionary libertarian ideas and activity she had been expounding for decades.

Marie-Louise Berneri (1918-1949)

Our final libertarian is Marie-Louise Berneri. She was born into Italian anarchist family, her father being Camillo Berneri (who was assassinated by Stalinists in Barcelona during the May Days of 1937) while her mother and younger sister were also active anarchists.

Her family had to flee Italy with the rise of fascism, going into exile in France in 1926 and then Britain where she was instrumental in revival of British Anarchism in the 1930s. She was arrested along with the four other editors of War Commentary in 1945, although she was acquitted on a legal technicality (the law proclaimed that wives cannot conspire with husbands and she was married to another one of the editors). Reflecting her position in the movement, she was sent as a British delegate to International Anarchist Conference in Paris in 1948.

Berneri wrote such books and pamphlets as Workers in Stalin’s Russia (1944), Journey Through Utopia (1950) and Neither East Nor West (1952) as well as many articles for papers like Spain and the World and its successors Revolt!, War Commentary and Freedom as well as Now.

Some may be wondering why Berneri is included as a “founding mother” given when she became active. Well, she played a key part in reinvigorating the British Anarchist movement – indeed, without her our history would have been radically different and nowhere near as strong. As such she is a “founding mother” of British anarchism and, as I hope becomes clear, someone who should be remembered for her contributions, both practical and theoretical.

Berneri summarised her core politics – “a few fundamental truths”, as she put it – as follows:

“1. That workers and capitalists cannot have a common cause.

“2. That imperialism is the prime cause of war, and the cause must be eradicated.

“3. That governments, Tory and Labour, are always instruments of oppression, and that the workers must learn to do without them.

“4. That parties seek power only for their own benefit – a small minority. Therefore all power must be seized and retained in the hands of syndicates which comprise the great majority of the men and women producers.”

These are basic anarchist principles and, unsurprisingly, she was against the State Socialism which infatuated so-much of the left at the time. Looking at Stalinist Russia, it was clear that a “strong State necessitates a ruling class or caste holding power over the rest of the people” and so “[t]o hold political and economic power the workers should be able to control the factory they work in, or the land they cultivate.” Without this base in workers’ control, no socialism was possible for “the creative instinct of the workers should be able to manifest itself, not only outside the sphere of their work, but in the factory itself. It is therefore important that the State should not deprive them of the work of organising and running the factory.” This applied to social freedoms as well, with Berneri indicating how the relatively progressive laws on marriage and such-like introduced under Lenin were removed by Stalin. The conclusion was clear:

“real freedom for women cannot be established by Government decrees […] Women can have only a caricature of liberty so long as they are not prepared to organise their own lives but instead allow the State to decide for them in the minutest details.”

We can see that this applies every where and that freedom cannot be secure as long as we are dependent on the good intentions of our rulers – we need to wrestle as much freedom as we can and defend it ourselves.

Berneri is probably best known for her critical book on utopias, published shortly after her untimely death. This is unsurprising as her views of nowhere – yes, indeed, a terrible pun on William Morris’ utopian novel, News from Nowhere, but a necessary one! – shed light on both the politics of such writers and on contemporary society.

Her analysis showed that utopias are usually authoritarian. “The builders of utopias claimed to give freedom to the people,” Berneri noted, “but freedom which is given ceases to be freedom”. They wish to create and enforce their vision of a perfect society and that, necessarily, means “setting up a vast machinery which will ensure the perfect running of society […] The State becomes an all-wise, all-providing God which can never make any mistakes” and so in these utopias “the amount of autonomy granted to factory committees or consumers’ unions is mostly fictitious. There is little which the workers can discuss when everything is regulated by the State, thanks to its experts and bureaux of statistics”. She said the same of that “utopia realised”, the Soviet Union.

Berneri is also of note for being the first to introduce the works of Wilhelm Reich and his analysis of the hierarchical family to the English-speaking movement. She noted how “the authoritarian family […] accustoms [the children…] to respect the authority of the father; they will later obey just as unquestionably the orders of the State”. It was a case of looking at the whole person rather than the fractured, compartmentalised thing created by capitalism:

“The worker is not merely the producer in the factory or the field; he is also the lover, the father. The problems which he faces in his home are no less important than those at his place of work. By trying to separate biological and psychological problems from the sociological ones, we not only mutilate our theories, but are bound to reach false conclusions.”

Her work reminds us that class struggle anarchism does not imply the ignoring of other, wider, issues and that it always critiqued all forms of social hierarchy, seeking freedom everywhere and recognising that oppression in one sphere was never separate or isolated from oppression in others.


The meaning of anarchism is now, I hope, clear.

It stresses that for people to flourish a new society is needed for, as Lucy Parsons put it, there are certain things that are priceless. Among these are life, liberty and happiness, and these are things which the society of the future, the free society, will guarantee to all”. This does not mean it would be a perfect world but rather a better one as Emma Goldman noted:

“I do not claim that the triumph of my ideas would eliminate all possible problems from the life of man for all time […] Nature and our own complexes are apt to continue to provide us with enough pain and struggle. Why then maintain the needless suffering imposed by our present social structure […with its] broken hearts and crushed lives […]?

A new world needs new structures, forms and attitudes for as André Léo recognised “[i]f we act like our adversaries, how will the world choose between them and us?” So ideas matter. Goldman was right to argue that “had the Russians made the Revolution à la Bakunin instead of à la Marx” then the result would have been different and more satisfactory […] Bolshevik methods […] demonstrated how a revolution should not be made”.

Hence the need to apply anarchist ideas now, to increase the numbers and influence of libertarians in the social struggles of today. This also means that we need to hove true to our ideals regardless of political expediency. Marie-Louise Berneri put it well when she argued that “[w]e cannot alter our views about Russia simply because, for imperialist reasons, American and British spokesmen now denounce Russian totalitarianism.” Yet having the right ideas is not enough: ideas need to be applied for reasons Louise Michel indicated:

“We women are not bad revolutionaries. Without begging anyone, we are taking our place in the struggles; otherwise, we could go ahead and pass motions until the world ends and gain nothing.”

This struggle ensures that we change ourselves as we change the world, so ensuring that anarchism becomes more than a nice idea but a factor in social evolution towards a freer, better world.