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Their Myths and Ours | The Nation

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Their Myths and Ours

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There's a German expression, heile Welt, that means "idyll" but translates literally as "intact world." I thought of it often as I read Sally Laird's interviews with Russian authors, conducted from 1987 through 1994. The site of the safe haven varies from writer to writer. It might be identified with children, as when Vladimir Makanin states, "In childhood you have your own internal world. The world still seems harmonious to you--not necessarily beautiful, but harmonious, whole. As soon as you grow up you lose that sense of harmony." Or with "decent people," as when Lyudmila Petrushevskaya says that "the right people have always understood me. Horrible people and fools, as I've told you, are never going to like my stories--so luckily the people who surround me have always been clever, nice, generous, shining people!" Somewhere or other there was likely to be a group that ostensibly retained its innocence despite the general fall of man.

Karen Rosenberg has taught Russian literary history in the United States and Austria.

About the Author

Karen Rosenberg
Karen Rosenberg is active in Europe and North America as a writer of essays, fiction and plays, and as a curator of art...

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As the World Economic Forum met in New York City recently, the American media were much more concerned with what protesters were doing in the streets than with what they were saying there. You'd think that dissenting views were old hat and "isms" were for the classroom, not the newsroom.

But it's far too early for that. Similarly, at first glance, Peter Glassgold's collection of prose and poetry from an American anarchist magazine of 1906-17 appears to be of only historical interest; something that might be recommended as supplemental reading in an American studies curriculum, because it treats the fights for birth control and civil liberties, and against joblessness and conscription in this period. It's full of names now obscure, words that have become archaic. Imagine a time when "a special throwaway" was printed up and "circularized" in New York City by the movement of the unemployed. Or when Zola was referred to repeatedly because his works had resonance. Another, distant era. But just when it seemed that anarchism was for scholars, along came demonstrations in Seattle, Philadelphia, Prague, Quebec City, Genoa. "Anarchist troublemakers" was the antique expression I heard on the TV news not long ago. Congratulations, Peter Glassgold--you couldn't be more timely.

Since the A-word is a dirty one to many, it's likely that the presence and actions of anarchists at recent demonstrations have been exaggerated to discredit the anti-WTO, global-justice movement. But it's also possible that anarchism is visible on the left because it has less competition at present. Now, as in the late 1960s, it may channel discontent after other outlets have been rejected. It can serve as the radicalism of last resort, profiting from crises in other camps. Socialism, sharing political power in much of Western Europe, has made so many deals and compromises with big business that it no longer seems principled to a lot of people. And there's widespread suspicion that ex-Communists are weak on democracy, having made excuses for repressive states for so long.

Anarchists have the advantage of exclusion, the nobility of failure, so to speak.

They've rarely had much power; in fact, they've rarely gotten on well with the powerful. There are exceptions to that oppositional stance, however, and Glassgold's book gives glimpses of some of them. The famous anarchist theoretician Peter Kropotkin supported France when it fought the German Kaiser in World War I. The prominent propagandists and agitators Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman rallied around the Bolsheviks in 1917, though they became angry and disillusioned when Lenin and his followers soon turned against rivaling revolutionary tendencies.

A "Philosophy of Non-Submission" was one name for anarchism, and the state and its institutions have not been the only target of anarchist wrath. Mother Earth, a New York journal edited by Goldman and Berkman, among others, which accepted work by anarchists and nonanarchists in the United States and abroad, spoke out against capitalism, the private ownership of land, religion, monogamy, female modesty, middle-class feminism--and I could go on. Glassgold's choice of texts captures not just the breadth but the depth of its antagonisms. "I do not want to 'love my enemies,' nor 'let bygones be bygones.' I do not want to be philosophical, nor preach their inclusion in the brotherhood of man. I want to hate them--utterly," wrote the American anarchist writer and activist Voltairine de Cleyre.

Clearly, the movement has attracted not only those who can bear angry isolation but those who find pleasure and strength in it. Berkman loved the menace in the black flag. When people try to inspire fear and loathing, I don't guarantee them satisfaction. I read this anthology with detached interest, to hear what all the Sturm und Drang was about.

Glassgold chose well when he culled from Mother Earth. The exuberance of its prose is what summaries of anarchism often fail to capture. It is all too easy for historians to make the movement sound more consistent and systematic than it was. The magazine itself, which I've examined in facsimile in a library, is full of a highly emotive type of writing and relies not just on metaphor but on a host of oratorical devices to stir an audience. Irony alternates with inspirational appeals for a better future. Essays in the journal often read like speeches (and sometimes were), where hyperbole covers holes in the arguments and exhortation often substitutes for analysis. But Glassgold hasn't prettified them.

Nor has he excised the extremism in anarchist history, which is sometimes moving, sometimes painful to read about. He doesn't skip over its martyrology: the periodic celebration and commemoration of those who suffered or died defending their ideal. With hagiography and eulogies, the movement articulated and reinforced its values: purity, courage, perseverance, self-sacrifice, devotion. These are military qualities, demanded of the soldier under fire, for anarchists were at war with society. But battles were not fought by men alone. In the anarchist milieu, women were allowed to be comrades and leaders, and to display what was at the time an unladylike anger. Revenge was tolerated, sometimes encouraged in the movement of the era. "Even animals possess the spirit of revenge," Berkman wrote in 1906. "As long as the world is ruled by violence, violence will accomplish results," he added in 1911.

Not all anarchists have taken his position. Alternative revolutionary methods, such as the general strike, were advocated at the time. Direct action could mean, simply, that the people must liberate themselves and not delegate that job to parliaments or other representatives. But at the end of the nineteenth century, it was associated with dynamite used by lone individuals or small conspiracies, and Mother Earth shows a lingering sympathy for such tactics. The process of renouncing them was slow, faltering and, in the case of some anarchists, incomplete. To omit this history would be to whitewash the movement. But to restrict anarchism to this tendency would be unfair as well.

The title Mother Earth points to an equally important and oft-neglected aspect of the movement: its appeal to a romanticized nature as the ultimate standard. While Glassgold is right that "the message of the name was not environmental but libertarian," anarchism was and remains a philosophy of nature. One of its major theorists, the Russian exile Kropotkin, was a Darwinist of a particular stripe who believed that evolution favors mutual support and cooperation, not competition. "Without that [sociable] instinct not one single race could survive in the struggle for life against the hostile forces of Nature," he stated in a lecture to a eugenics congress in London that was printed in Mother Earth in 1912. Two years later, he asserted in the same journal that

once it is recognized that the social instinct is a permanent and powerful instinct in every animal species, and still more so in man, we are enabled to establish the foundations of Ethics (the Morality of Society) upon the sound basis of the observation of Nature and need not look for it in supernatural revelation. The idea which Bacon, Grotius, Goethe, and Darwin himself (in his second work, The Descent of Man) were advocating is thus finding a full confirmation, once we direct our attention to the extent to which mutual aid is carried on in Nature.

The Spanish educator Francisco Ferrer also tied anarchism to evolution, writing in Mother Earth about the need to adapt instruction to "natural laws" and "the spontaneous response of the child." And Max Baginski, a German-born editor of Mother Earth, spurned the "artificial, forced, obligatory" aid of one trade union to another in times of trouble, preferring solidarity based on human nature--that is, his concept of it: "The gist of the anarchistic idea is this, that there are qualities present in man which permit the possibilities of social life, organization and co-operative work without the application of force." Optimistic faith in the goodness and beneficence of nature, combined with intense distrust of the "machinery" of government, the law courts and the military, distinguished anarchists from most Marxists before the First World War. And still does today. It is this combination of ideas, I think, that has become diffused among contemporary leftists who would not identify themselves as anarchists. For many radicals, then as now, nature is what Richard M. Weaver (in The Ethics of Rhetoric) calls a "god term" because it trumps all others.

Of course, one may well ask exactly what the anarchists' nature--including human nature--consists of. Shouldn't it be interrogated, not assumed? After all, the nature of nature is not self-evident. Sorry to disappoint: In Mother Earth, as in most other anarchist writing, the concept of nature was not analyzed but invoked and revered. The magazine appealed to enthusiasts. In fact, it raised what Berkman called "active enthusiasm" to a principle. There Kropotkin declared, "In a revolutionary epoch, when destructive work precedes constructive efforts, bursts of enthusiasm possess marvelous power." (When Emma Goldman was convicted in New York in 1916 for spreading birth control information in an allegedly indecent manner to an allegedly promiscuous audience, her friend and supporter Leonard Abbott reported, "Her face was alight with enthusiasm.") As Voltairine de Cleyre put it, "Wholesale enthusiasm is a straw fire which burns out quickly; therefore it must be utilized at once, if at all; therefore, those who seek to burn barriers away with it must direct it to the barriers at once."

Fire, storm, earthquake, volcano--when the topic was the coming revolution, anarchists tended to transform human actors into a force of nature. Berkman, who served a long prison sentence for attempting to kill the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick after workers had been shot in the Homestead steel strike, declared in Mother Earth that the bomb "is manhood's lightning out of an atmosphere of degradation of misery that king, president and plutocrat have heaped upon humanity." Anarchist metaphors made the rebel and criminal part of earth science, integrating and naturalizing them.

And then there are the environmental images for the vitality, joy and beauty of the anarchist goal. I wish I had a nickel for every "dawn" and "blooming spring" I've met in old anarchist publications. Glassgold's anthology has some superior examples. Praising the Paris Commune of 1871, Kropotkin asserted in Mother Earth, "The Government evaporated like a pond of stagnant water in a spring breeze." And the first cover of the magazine was heavy with traditional, even banal, symbols of paradise: human nakedness within lush vegetation. A New Age scene, Glassgold cannily observes.

Indeed, the alternative lifestyle we now call New Age was intertwined with anarchism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Health and dress reformers, homeopaths and herbalists, practitioners of free love and nudism were often sympathetic to anarchism, friends and neighbors of anarchists, if not anarchists themselves. In the German-speaking world, this symbiosis is relatively well-known, since it has been described in such books as Ulrich Linse's Ökopax und Anarchie("Ecopeace and Anarchy," 1986). The historian Paul Avrich has often demonstrated the close connection of anarchism to bohemia, and the tie between the two tendencies cannot be missed in the writings and biographies of Emma Goldman, Mabel Dodge and Margaret Anderson.

Yet it remains to be shown that in the American cultural realm, anarchists have had an influence out of proportion to their numbers. If we knew the continuity of anarchism in America--its influence on Gestalt psychology, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, the folk-song counterculture of Joan Baez, the avant-garde art of Yvonne Rainer, etc.--we might not be surprised when it pops up in the news today. Certain ideas are in the air, distributed by word of mouth, more than secondhand. You may well repeat them never knowing they appeared in Freud, Marx or perhaps Bakunin. The process of popularization is notoriously hard to chart, which is probably one reason historians and social scientists tend not to study it. But the fact that something is vague and elusive doesn't necessarily make it trivial and unimportant. Is the marginalism of anarchism only apparent? I vote to leave this question open.

Let me lay my cards on the table: "I am not now nor have I ever been" an anarchist, but I've written essays as well as fiction about this tradition because I think it's widely misunderstood. Ignored, idealized or caricatured, it is still largely the stuff of polemics. Glassgold's achievement is to help it be heard in its intensity and complexity.

I would surmise that similar statements can be heard today in the former USSR--in fact, the worse things get there, the more people may seek refuge in such constructions. If you lived in a place racked by corruption, shortages and violence, you too might be tempted by nostalgia.

In Laird's book, such idylls are generally presented by the writer as a source of strength. Psychologists might call them enabling fictions. Andrei Bitov appears to derive security from his sense of belonging to the pre-Soviet intelligentsia: "Our family kept a kind of insurance by living all together--several different families, brothers and sisters, all lived together in one big apartment, and because of that we were able to keep a certain way of life as it used to be, before Soviet times. For the rest of my life it gave me a feeling of what 'home' was, the feeling of a place to return to."

Tatyana Tolstaya's self-confidence also seems linked to her image of her family, which included the writer Aleksei Tolstoy. According to her, it had "no sacred cows," exerted "no pressure at all" to live up to the family name, and they "never envied other people their success--it just isn't in their genes." The hyperbole marks these statements as a form of mythmaking. As a member of that charmed circle, she shares its magic. "I seem to be able to walk straight through what other people regard as walls. No one can create an obstacle for me," she tells Laird.

I would call this creation of idylls neo-Romantic if Romanticism had ever ended. It is probably more accurate to speak of varieties of Romanticism. The one called Socialist Realism located utopia not only in the Communism of the future but also in its heralds or precursors. Yet that ideology and aesthetic lost most of its appeal among intellectuals long before the fall of the Soviet Union, as Laird shows. Within the USSR, alternative value systems were articulated in literature, sometimes as a direct challenge to the state and party but more often as an implicit one. To quote Fazil Iskander, best known for his novel Sandro of Chegem, which was published in mutilated form in the USSR in 1972 and in full in the United States in 1979: "Dictatorship presented a kind of wall which every honest writer was duty bound to hack away at with any instrument he possessed. And at the same time the deeper you plunged into this work, the better you carved yourself out a sort of peaceful, harmonious niche within the wall."

In German: heile Welt.

In fiction, an image of wholeness may function as an effective foil, providing welcome contrast to fractured and fragmentary stories. It can serve as a source of fresh insights, moral judgments and consolation for all the nastiness in a text. So far, so good. When Iskander, for example, tells Laird, "I think the combination of seriousness or lyricism with irony and satire is much more interesting--more human," I nod along. My problems begin when a writer stops talking about literature--when Iskander, for example, speaks nostalgically of patriarchal Abkhazia, although earlier in the interview he had distanced himself from antidemocratic forces. On the map of current utopias, nationalism appears as a spacious haven where a lot of very different people have sought comfort and warmth. It cannot be identified solely with the right wing in the former Communist states; the situation, Laird reveals, is much more complicated.

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