Emma Goldman

An Anarchist Looks At Life




From transcript of proceedings of the Foyle's Twenty-Ninth Literary Luncheon, March 1, 1933 at Grosvenor House, London. Transcript housed at the Emma Goldman Archive, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.



Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,
the subject this noon is, "An Anarchist Looks at Life." I cannot speak for all my fellow anarchists, but for myself I wish to say that I have been so furiously busy living my life that I had not a moment left to look at it. I am aware that a period comes to everybody when we are obliged, perforce, to sit back and look at life. That period is a wise old age, but never having grown wise I do not expect to ever reach that point. Most people who look at life never live it. What they see is not life but a mere shadow of it. Have they not been taught that life is a curse visited upon them by a bungling God who has made man in his own image? Therefore most people look at life and upon life as a sort of stepping-stone to a heaven in the hereafter. They dare not live life, or get the living spirit out of life as it presents itself to them. It means a risk; it means the giving up their little material achievements. It means going against "public opinion" and the laws and rules of one's country. There are few people who have the daring and the courage to give up what they hug at their hearts. They fear that their possible gain will not be the equivalent for what they give up. As for myself, I can say that I was like Topsy. I was not born and raised--I "grewed." I grew with life, life in all its aspects, in its heights and in its depths. The price to pay was high, of course, but if I had to pay it all over again, I should gladly do it, for unless you are willing to pay the price, unless you are willing to plunge into the very depths, you will never be able to remount to the heights of life.

Naturally, life presents itself in different forms to different ages. Between the age of eight and twelve I dreamed of becoming a Judith. I longed to avenge the sufferings of my people, the Jews, to cut off the head of their Holofernos. When I was fourteen I wanted to study medicine, so as to be able to help my fellow-beings. When I was fifteen I suffered from unrequited love, and I wanted to commit suicide in a romantic way by drinking a lot of vinegar. I thought that would make me look ethereal and interesting, very pale and poetic when in my grave, but at sixteen I decided on a more exalted death. I wanted to dance myself to death.

Then came America, America with its huge factories, the pedaling of a machine for ten hours a day at two dollars fifty a week. It was followed by the greatest event in my life, which made me what I am. It was the tragedy of Chicago, in 1887, when five of the noblest men were judicially murdered by the State of Illinois. They were the famous anarchists of America--Albert Parsons, Spies, Fischer, Engels and Lingg who were legally assassinated on the 11th of November, 1887. Brave young Lingg cheated his executioners, preferring to die by his own hand, while three other comrades of the executed--Neebe, Fielden and Schwab--were doomed to prison. The death of those Chicago martyrs was my spiritual birth: their ideal became the motive of my entire life.

I realise that most of you have but a very inadequate, very strange and usually false conception of Anarchism. I do not blame you. You get your information from the daily press. Yet that is the very last place on earth to seek for truth in any state of form. Anarchism, to the great teachers and leaders in the spiritual aspect of life, was not a dogma, not a thing that drains the blood from the heart and makes people zealots, dictators or impossible bores. Anarchism is a releasing and liberating force because it teaches people to rely on their own possibilities, teaches them faith in liberty, and inspires men and women to strive for a state of social life where every one shall be free and secure. There is neither freedom nor security in the world today: whether one be rich or poor, whether his station high or low, no one is secure as long as there is a single slave in the world. No one is safe or secure as long as he must submit to the orders, whim or will of another who has the power to punish him, to send him to prison or to take his life, to dictate the terms of his existence, even from the cradle to the grave.

It is not only because of love of one's fellow-men--it is for their own sake that people must learn to understand the meaning and significance of Anarchism, and it will not be long before they will appreciate the great importance and the beauty of its philosophy.

Anarchism repudiates any attempt of a group of men or of any individual to arrange life for others. Anarchism rests on faith in humanity and its potentialities, while all other social philosophies have no faith in humanity whatever. The other philosophies insist that man cannot govern himself and that he must be ruled over. Nowadays most people believe that the stronger the Government the greater the success of society will be. It is the old belief in the rod. The more used on the child the finer will it be when grown to manhood or womanhood. We have emancipated ourselves from that stupidity. We have come to understand that education does not mean knocking in, does not mean crippling, warping and dwarfing the young growth. We have learned that freedom in the development of the child secures better results, both so far as the child and society are concerned.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is Anarchism. The greater the freedom and the opportunities for every unit in society, the finer will be the individual and the better for society; and the more creative and constructive the life of the collectivity. That, in brief, has been the ideal to which I have devoted my life.

Anarchism is not a cut-and-dried theory. It is a vital spirit embracing all of life. Therefore I do not address myself only to some particular elements in society: I do not address myself only to the workers. I address myself to the upper classes as well, for indeed they need enlightenment even more than the workers. Life itself teaches the masses, and it is a strict, effective teacher. Unfortunately life does not teach those who consider themselves the socially select, the better educated, the superior. I have always held that every form of information and instruction that helps to widen the mental horizon of men and women is most useful and should be employed. For in the last analysis, the grand adventure--which is liberty, the true inspiration of all idealists, poets and artists--is the only human adventure worth striving and living for.

I do not know how many of you have read Gorki's marvellous prose-poem called "The Snake and the Falcon." The snake cannot understand the falcon. "Why don't you rest here in the dark, in the good slimy moisture?" the snake demands. "Why soar to the heavens? Don't you know the dangers lurking there, the stress and storm awaiting you there, and the hunter's gun which will bring you down and destroy your life?" But the falcon paid no heed. It spread its wings and soared through space, its triumphant song resounding through the heavens. One day the falcon was brought down, blood streaming from its heart, and the snake said: "You fool, I warned you, I told you to stay where I am, in the dark, in the good warm moisture, where no one could find you and harm you." But with its last breath the falcon replied: "I have soared through space, I have scaled dazzling heights, I have beheld the light, I have lived, I have lived!"


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