Emma Goldman and Individualist Anarchism

Emma Goldman is someone who is frequently associated with anarchism as a historical phenomenon. Her mix of anti-state activism, radical support for feminism and free love movements in the early 20th century, and her radiant life of praxis for the sake of anarchy echo in our understandings of what it means to be an anarchist today.

Before getting into Goldman in this analysis, it’s worth mentioning that she was a communist, which might prompt some questions from sects of the libertarian sphere as to her validity as a speaker. Goldman, though, was vehemently anti-community control, anti-state, and pro-individualism. Her lifelong friend Voltairine De Cleyre is a favorite theorist of the center and for good reason. The two had disagreements on economics but repeatedly defended each other in the public eye because, as they saw it, both had much to add to the anarchist discussion. For today’s purpose, her analysis is useful, and if any “anarchist-communist” deserves to be respected by anarchists of the non-social strand, it’s her.

Goldman does not exist without contention in anarchist circles however, even beyond this. Much of the philosophical canon today would posit both Nietzsche and much “egoist” philosophy as, at least in some sense, anti-anarchist. Goldman, contrary to this notion (which also existed during her time, and which she openly attacked), incorporated egoism, particularly influenced by Stirner and Nietzsche, into her own anarchist communism (Was Nietzsche even an egoist? Maybe).

Many questions have been imposed in Cory Massimino’s Introduction to this symposium, surrounding how anarchism and egoism have historically and can potentially coincide and interact. A few of these questions, specifically surrounding questions of praxis, empathy, and ethics, can be answered insightfully with readings of Goldman and of other revolutionary readings of Stirner and Nietzsche. Rai Ling brings up an interesting perspective, one that I think is important to tackle. Not only are there questions about contradictions between egoism and anarchism, but more importantly, there are questions about what use anarchists can get from historical individualist and egoist philosophers. The goal of this piece is to point out some of the ways that Stirner, Nietzsche, and Egoism interact with anarchism, using at least in part Emma Goldman’s analysis of anarchism and individualism.

Nietzsche the Authoritarian

To start, Nietzsche is a weird figure when speaking from an anarchist perspective. He’s not exactly an “egoist” or an “anarchist” exactly, but his ideas are useful for us nonetheless. Nietzsche’s fierce criticism of group-think and democracy echo things that individualist anarchists have argued for centuries.

Goldman’s reading of Nietzsche offers us some key insights into what her individualist anarchism was about. To Goldman, the idea of an übermensch (to those not familiar with Nietzsche, the übermensch was a sort of ideal state of being that transcended what he saw as “resentment” or “slave morality”) was not purely an idea of a master, rather an entirely new concept of self bred without authority or negation. The extension of power to a nietzschean anarchist is the creation of a life that does not subordinate people to slave or master, that maximizes autonomy on principle and without ressentiment (borrowing slightly here from Deleuze’s Nietzsche as well.) 

“The most disheartening tendency common among readers is to tear out one sentence from a work, as a criterion of the writer’s ideas or personality. Friedrich Nietzsche, for instance, is decried as a hater of the weak because he believed in the Ubermensch. It does not occur to the shallow interpreters of that giant mind that this vision of the Uebermensch also called for a state of society which will not give birth to a race of weaklings and slaves.” (Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays)

Goldman also applies her Nietzschean individualism to morality as a concept, which is important for modern anarchists to keep in mind. Goldman’s ideas of free love and feminism were even more revolutionary then than they would be considered to be now, yet, echoing Bakunin and anarchists prior to her, she threw question to every aspect of societal morality, discussing how these systems that Nietzsche also criticized upheld the systems of domination that bred “a race of weaklings and slaves.” It is the ressentiment present in the master-slave relation, for example, that maintains a concept like “the patriarchy,” which traps both the “master” (lets say men) and the “slave” (lets say women) in the confines of ressentiment, and prevents an anarchist goal of the maximization of agency. A Nietzschean lens offers entirely new criticism of power relations and how to move beyond them.

Essentially, an anarchist lens of Nietzsche would posit that systems of power continue to breed those who dominate and those to be dominated. These power relations continue to foster their own existence, and liberty as a concept forces us to view identity in a scope beyond politics of domination.

Nietzsche was also famous for his concept of a “will to power,” which may set off many anarchist red flags. To pretend as though there have never been revolutionary readings of Nietzsche, including this fundamental piece of him, is ignorant. To interpret Nietzsche’s concept of “power” as domination is shallow to begin with, as both Goldman and Deleuze would point out (which are the most useful lenses surrounding Nietzsche for anarchists in my view). Power is less a social status symbol and moreso a fundamentally ontological reality, in the sense that (without getting into too much jargon) Nietzsche views existence as a flux of drives, and power as the dominance of said drives. The “will to power” in the ultimate simplification could be explained as the will to being, domination of reality, not of agency. If anything, the will to power is an expression, an offshoot, of agency. One’s will to power is simply one’s existence, and in the sense that the will to power is social, it is largely expressed in desiring-drives, ones that anarchy, more so than any other “system,” can fulfill.

The use Nietzsche provides us here, according to Goldman, is that his analysis points to a whole new conceptualization of identity and relations away from hierarchy and negation. The presence of ultimate positivity and affirmation in his ontology is echoed in any political applications we have of him, and, in my opinion, only serve to aid the anarchist goal of agency as a virtue. The idea of the ubermensch, when applied to say, economics, can help us conceptualize a market actor separate from capitalism when thought of through an explicitly mutualist lens. Goldman and Deleuze have both worked to ally Nietzsche’s powerful analysis to a revolutionary individualist cause, and it’s up to us to apply it.

Stirner the Narcissist

Nietzschean analysis has been briefly explored, especially through the lens put forth by Goldman, as a useful tool for a modern anarchist. Even more popular in anarchist circles, even a key inspiration to historical figures in our own school of mutualist anarchism (Tucker and Lum, for example), is Stirner and his Egoism. There is much to explore between market anarchism and egoism (and postmodernism) but for brevity’s sake, I’ll go over a few key concepts in modern egoist anarchism and how I believe they can be useful for a mutualist point of view.

Returning to Goldman’s Stirner, Goldman uses him towards the start of her most famous published work to formulate an anarchist criticism of democracy. This criticism, namely how the majority itself has no right over the individual, and how agency is contradictory to the spirit of democracy itself, comes from her Egoism, and certainly is useful to anarchist analysis today. Goldman sees the mass as a force for evil, explicitly thoughtless and uncritical, and instead motivated by its own preservation and thus the continuation of needless social domination. She cites, for example, the continuation of racism throughout America despite her clear personal objection as well as, what she believed, the absolute agency of the individual superseding any sort of racist domination. This, in my opinion, is a pretty key insight to any modern anarchist about how anarchists historically have and should continue to blend our ethical analysis with social movements and social persecution.

This critique of group think isn’t unique to communists whatsoever. Applied to economics, we can also formulate criticism of some of the “democratic-planning” spouted by the further “left” of anti-capitalism (although, to be clear, not by Goldman herself). This idea that liberty at its most potent is not expressed via group democracy, but a radical display of agency against external control, helps to position a key difference between even some Marxist conceptions of equality and liberty, and those useful to an anarchist.

Modern Egoists also like to point to the “union of egoists” as a concept, essentially relations built entirely on voluntary action and participation at the hands of individuals. This is something libertarian individualists from across the board, Goldman to Tucker to Rand, can all tend to agree with, the power of a “union of egoists” so to speak. This concept though, with its full potential realized, rightfully criticizes certain flaws in state libertarianism, including the state as a mediator of contract.

Economically, a union of egoists could be perhaps imagined as essentially just transactions based on trust rather than state-enforced contract, which is once again useful for mutualist analysis (seeing as the concept itself would see the freedom to withdraw and the absolute lack of coercive oversight as crucial). An economy run on “unions of egoists” that can still adequately produce and provide would essentially run on entirely voluntary trade without authoritarian interference (…mutualism?) A “union of egoists” functions without force, purely of fulfilled desire and voluntary contract, which has been the stated economic goal of the market anarchist sects of libertarianism for several decades.

Goldman’s individualist analysis ties neatly into her own anarchism, which I once again see as a good thing to explore for anarchists all over the spectrum.

Anarchism urges man to think, to investigate, to analyze every proposition; but that the brain capacity of the average reader be not taxed too much, I also shall begin with a definition, and then elaborate on the latter.

ANARCHISM: The philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary.

The new social order rests, of course, on the materialistic basis of life; but while all Anarchists agree that the main evil today is an economic one, they maintain that the solution of that evil can be brought about only through the consideration of every phase of life, — individual, as well as the collective; the internal, as well as the external phases.” 

Her idea of anarchism as an ethical framework critical of all domination and hierarchical violence serves not only to pair nicely with an idea of a voluntary society built on “unions of egoists,” but also helps to directly disprove the idea that all anarchists want is chaos and destruction. In reality, she spent much of her career proving how her individualist anarchism, if anything, was most of all devoted to love.

Goldman also considered herself staunchly against morality, which, especially to right libertarians, can seem like sort of a red flag. Anarchism, after all, is a moral stance, no? Goldman’s stance on morality is not the stereotypical faux-egoist “do whatever you want” (or perhaps it is, in its most optimistic format). Rather, her criticism rests upon her readings of both Nietzsche and Stirner, and how they both, in their own ways, attacked the tendency of morality to suppress desire and autonomy, to deprave, to punish those starving and not those who are guilty for starving them, and to praise the concept of social domination as to punish free expression. Her critique of morality lies in the sense that she views morality as a set of imposed laws by a social body that restrict autonomy, whereas her fundamentally positive ethic of liberty positions itself in absolute favor of individualism and freedom. We must be mindful in how thinkers use and apply the concept of morality when discussing the entire field that is anti-moral anarchism.

Egoist criticisms of morality (beyond Goldman’s criticism of social dogma and group think,) as mentioned by Rai ling tend to deal at least partially in the rigidity of identity surrounding many moral claims, which apply quite often to right-libertarian conceptions of property and such. Dyer Lum applies his own criticism to capitalist ideas of natural rights, specifically how they refuse to deal with the fluidity present in naturally occurring situations, and ends up echoing the egoists (including Goldman) on this point. These critiques extend beyond certain conceptions of natural rights, though.

Property, to mutualists, and to certain egoists, is moreso important as a maximization of individual identity and agency. Mutualists can utilize the radical individualism of Goldman, Stirner and Nietzsche to criticize both the left and the right in the ways that they individually slip back into “group-think” and statism. In fact, many egoists posit themselves as distinctly different from capitalist-individualists in the sense that they view even concepts like the “NAP” or Lockean property rights as external conductions of force at the hands of society, which partially accounts for the mutualist critique of systems of absentee property. Mutualists and egoists alike would treat possession as in flux and a monopoly as a use of force.

Emma Goldman was a communist, sure, but not a Marxist in the sense that she wanted community dictatorship, rather, a communist in the sense that she wanted an absolute abolition of the forces upholding private property. Mutualists here would side with her old friend De Cleyre, insisting that while absentee property and individual property and such do directly require force, people asserting their own autonomy by use can also be understood as a sort of ownership, and thus an emancipatory property.

This is not to say, however, that her criticism isn’t in many ways real and valid. The rigidity of capitalist property identity, the seeming non-flexibility of Lockean property theory, the common right wing support for monopolization and the continued disfortune of the lower class, anarchy as a movement that fights for mutual aid despite state-induced obstacles to such — all of these serve as important lessons as to how property as a concept can bring about authoritarianism, and how the reclamation of property (modern capitalist property specifically, which was maintained and is upheld by the state) can be a force for anarchist revolution. This is why De Cleyre published an essay where she defended both Goldman and Expropriation as an anarchist principle, insisting that, contrary to some of her marketist peers, current property norms did not deserve our respect. And they still don’t.

Emma Goldman’s legacy is deservedly strong. Her synthesis of Kropotkin and Stirner was inventive. Her reading of Nietzsche was revolutionary. Goldman gave the anarchist movement something it needed: a comprehensive introduction of non-anarchist, individualist philosophy, and a subsequent construction of a libertarian ethic out of the synthesis. She used her anarchism, in conjunction with what she took from Stirner and Nietzsche, to criticize democracy, power, left governmentalism, majoritarianism, and in the process, helped highlight so much of what makes the anarchist movement stand out. As I put it in the first piece I wrote for the center, “Our resistance must revolve around free, dynamic and individual imagination.” That is what Goldman, through her individualist analysis and critique of society, democracy, leftism etc. was getting to. An anarchist ethic that went much, much deeper than vulgar majoritarianism.

At the end of the day, my anarchism is one that is radically individualist, subjectivist and fluid. Lum, Nietzsche, Stirner and Goldman, regardless of debates surrounding what does or does not make these people anarchists, have analyses worth exploring that can aid our own perceptions of authority and anarchist resistance. For an anarchism that claims to deal in “individualism,” including in at least some sense market anarchism, it’s worth exploring further one of the most rabidly individualist philosophical projects in recent history. This is not the end of the crossover between market anarchism and a million different individualist, egoist and anarchist interpretations of things, rather, a jumping off point. I think, going forward, a primary question can be posed: how can egoism inform our own analysis? In what ways does it make us think, question, and retaliate?

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