September 2, 2008
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the labor rights movement was in full swing with worker’s strikes, union mergers and a plethora of literary accounts of the states of poverty and social maltreatment received by the workers in the rapidly-industrializing Western world, especially in the United States. During this period, Emma Goldman was a writer, orator and activist who addressed such conditions in the growing worker population, usually from a standpoint that rejected the validity or sanctity of the establishments which exploited the workers for mere pennies. Her anti-authoritarian anarchist writings, however, were able to pinpoint address societal issues, such as crime and punishment, which still hold a great deal of relevance in our 21st century world.
During Goldman’s earlier days of labor activism, the population of the United States was going through a moral panic, with temperance committees springing up in every state and territory to counter the seemingly-ubiquitous vices of alcoholism, contraception, and pornography. Dictators of moral policy, such as Anthony Comstock, amassed and wielded political and litigatory power against advocates of women’s voting rights, free love, and legalized prostitution, often driving them to jail or suicide. Furthermore, the usage of the death penalty with seeming abandon by the state against individuals on trumped-up murder charges, often politically-motivated, was more than obvious during this time. In her “Anarchism: What it Really Stands For”, crime, punishment and moral prosecution by the state was roundly criticized as not only ineffective, but also examples of the state’s own biases against civil liberty (as has long been a cornerstone of American constitutionalism) and civil rights. In her view, the usage of the death penalty as a vengeful, “justice-based” response of the state against murder and other deprivatory crimes was laughable in its effectiveness, and only an extension of the state’s “need” to prosecute violence against individuals or rival states (and their individual citizens) through warfare.
Her writings on the state’s usage of “morally-justifiable” violence against “immorally-unjustifiable” violence have been examined time and time again since the publication of her Anarchism and Other Essays, and have served as inspiration for anti-capital punishment activists of different political orientations. Despite her own earlier advocacy of the violent “propaganda of the deed” against the state in order to catalyse revolutionary, direct action for the working class (she later rescinded this advocacy after viewing the usage of violence in the Soviet Union by a supposedly pro-working class government, and only advocated the “propaganda of the deed” for self-defense purposes for the rest of her life), Goldman’s stance against violence by the state has also found place among the anti-war and pacifist movements in the modern era. Her writings, almost a century after they were published, have found espousal among those who find the usage of anti-human violence and repression, and the institutions which facilitate the same, to be repugnant and less-than-worthy of retainment, if not easily disposable, in the 21st century.