At the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam, Emma Goldman (1869-1940) and Max Baginski (1864-1943) spoke on the relationship between individualism, autonomy and organization, supporting a conception of anarchist organization which respects individual autonomy. Goldman and Baginski had traveled from the United States to attend the Congress. As Baginski makes clear, their argument that individuality and autonomy can and must be respected in anarchist organizations in no way signified opposition to such organizations, such as those favoured by the anarcho-syndicalists, whose views were represented by Amadée Dunois in his previously posted speech at the Congress. Emma Goldman’s positive assessment of anarcho-syndicalism, “Syndicalism: Its Theory and Practice,” is reproduced as Selection 59 in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.
The translation is by Nestor McNab and is taken from Studies for a Libertarian Alternative: The International Anarchist Congress, Amsterdam, 1907, published by the Anarchist Communist Federation in Italy (Federazione dei Comunisti Anarchici – FdCA); paperback edition available from AK Press.
EMMA GOLDMAN: I, too, am in favour of organization in principle. However, I fear that sooner or later this will fall into exclusivism.
Dunois has spoken against the excesses of individualism. But these excesses have nothing to do with true individualism, as the excesses of communism have nothing to do with real communism… I, too, will accept anarchist organization on just one condition: that it be based on the absolute respect for all individual initiatives and not obstruct their development or evolution.
The essential principle of anarchy is individual autonomy. The International will not be anarchist unless it wholly respects this principle.
Max Baginski: An error that is too often made is believing that individualism rejects organization. The two terms are, on the contrary, inseparable. Individualism more specifically means working for inner mental liberation of the individual, while organization means association between conscious individuals with a goal to reach or an economic need to satisfy. We must not however forget that a revolutionary organization requires particularly energetic and conscious individuals.
The accusation that anarchy is destructive rather than constructive and that accordingly anarchy is opposed to organization is one of the many falsehoods spread by our adversaries. They confuse today’s institutions with organization and thus cannot understand how one can fight the former and favour the latter. The truth is, though, that the two are not identical.
The State is generally considered to be the highest form of organization. But is it really a true organization? Is it not rather an arbitrary institution cunningly imposed on the masses?
Industry, too, is considered an organization; yet nothing is further from the truth. Industry is piracy of the poor at the hands of the rich.
We are asked to believe that the army is an organization, but careful analysis will show that it is nothing less than a cruel instrument of blind force.
Public education: are not the universities and other scholastic institutions perhaps models of organization, which offer people fine opportunities to educate themselves? Far from it: schools, more than any other institution, are nothing more than barracks, where the human mind is trained and manipulated in order to be subjected to the various social and mental phantoms, and thus rendered capable of continuing this system of exploitation and oppression of ours.
Instead, organization as we understand it is something different. It is based on freedom. It is a natural, spontaneous grouping of energies to guarantee beneficial results to humanity.
It is the harmony of organic development that produces the variety of colours and forms, the combination that we so admire in a flower. In the same way, the organized activity of free human beings imbued with the spirit of solidarity will result in the perfection of social harmony, which we call anarchy. Indeed, only anarchy makes the non-authoritarian organization of common interests possible, since it abolishes the antagonism that exists between individuals and classes.
In the current situation, the antagonism of economic and social interests produces an unceasing war between social units and represents an insurmountable obstacle on the road to collective well-being.
There exists an erroneous conviction that organization does not encourage individual freedom and that, on the contrary, it causes a decay of individual personality. The reality is, however, that the true function of organization lies in personal development and growth.
Just as the cells of an animal, through reciprocal co-operation, express latent powers in the formation of the complete organism, so the individual reaches the highest level of his development through co-operation with other individuals.
An organization, in the true sense of the word, cannot be the product of a union of pure nothingness. It must be made up of self-conscious and intelligent persons. In fact, the sum of the possibilities and activities of an organization is represented by the expression of the single energies.
It follows logically that the greater the number of strong, self-conscious individuals in an organization, the lesser the danger of stagnation and the more intense its vital element.
Anarchism supports the possibility of organization without discipline, fear or punishment, without the pressure of poverty: a new social organism that will end the terrible struggle for the means of subsistence, the vicious struggle that damages man’s best qualities and continually widens the social abyss. In short, anarchism struggles for a form of social organization that will ensure well-being for all.
The embryo of this organization can be found in the type of syndicalism that has freed itself from centralization, bureaucracy and discipline, that encourages autonomous, direct action by its members.