Monday, August 28, 2006

We Must Leave Failed Theories to the Past and Move On

You just have to regret the practical left’s loss of Emma Goldman to the sterile cause of anarchism. In an age with more than its share of great intellects and great hearts hers were astonishing.

Political action was the farthest thing from a hobby for her. She lived the life of a working woman, knowing what it was like to be poor and to work as a factory drudge. She saw the destructive force of poverty and the brutal working conditions of her time. She devoted herself to improving the lives of workers, the destitute and the dispossessed. Why would Emma Goldman, of all people, pass up any possibility of effective participation in politics; abandoning the possibility for improving millions of lives through existing means, for what turned out to be so obviously futile? How could she stick with anarchism as long as she did after seeing how its excesses had been used successfully against the left, setting back progress for decades?

I suspect that she was a victim of the truth, or of one truth that must have stunned her. The state is a beast that is always dangerous, seldom harmless, and almost never beneficial. Given the politics of her time she might have stated the case as its never being beneficial. Did that one truth overtake any consideration of the possibility of using politics to mitigate it’s evils or to do good? Anarchists tend to believe that the only way to deal with an animal like that is to kill it. But a state isn’t an animal. It can’t be killed once and for all. Although no metaphor is suitable, the state is more like the hydra, one head killed yields a more dangerous animal then before. Something will always spring up in its absence. As seen today in Afghanistan or inner cities around the world the chances are excellent that it will be worse than an ineffective attempt at democracy.

Anarchism is right about the state being dangerous but it is also wrong in assuming that it never can be anything but evil. We have numerous examples of the state being harnessed to be less harmful and even to do good. Emma Goldman had examples during her lifetime. It isn’t easy to make government work but since it is always going to exist in one form or other the only morally justifiable course to take is to try to make it work to the common good.

What does Emma Goldman leave us except some of the best political writing in our history? Can we learn from her even if her formal politics were as realistic as the movement to revive the French Royal House? If you think that’s too harsh, face the truth. Neither will ever happen. The results of either would be predictably awful. Though at least Goldman's motives were pure.
Maybe more can be salvaged from her than a few beautiful lines. Maybe we can learn from her in ways that she wouldn’t have imagined or even found flattering. Wonderful as she is, Emma Goldman is a great example of what we have to avoid. We have to face the reality of the situation as it is, now, during our life. We have to face the fact that there is not going to be an end to the potential dangers of the state. We have to participate in politics. We have to do whatever is possible to protect people from its dangers and to harness its potential to do good. If we don’t control the state others are eager to turn it on us. If we don’t do what is necessary to take it from them they will continue to use it for thier corrupt ends. We have to give up the impossible ideal for what can be done. For a real improvement in the conditions of people now. Near the end of her life, as she saw the rise of Naziism, even after her long and passionate advocacy for anarchism, she must have realized her mistake. She acted bravely and as selflessly as always, at her advanced age doing what she could to join the fight in Spain. If nothing. else her work against fascism gloriously capped a life of struggle.

We can also learn a direct lesson. Emma Goldman was a poet of the truth as she saw it. There is more poetry in just about any sentence she wrote than in all of the blather that Peggy Noonan put into the empty mouths of all her paying clients put together. Emma Goldman spoke truth to people about their lives directly and beautifully. She moved thousands of people in a way that all of the learned theorizers put together never could. People won’t listen to people they don’t understand. They will listen to people talking about things that matter to them who don’t talk down to them. We also have to listen with respect. Those of us without the ability to speak like her can at least do that. We will be out of power as long as the majority of voters can’t see the truth. And we have to keep in mind the seduction of brilliant ideas that blind us to the limits of real possibility. The limits of possiblity are more real than the ideas ever can be.

A note to trolls and others who leave irrelevant and stupid comments here. I will delete any comments which are pointless and rude, some which are rude and substantive but none which just disagree rationally.

To the anarchist who left that particularly silly message, look for an answer soon.
I should have added that points will be given for rude comments if they are really funny.
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