The Transvaluation of Values and Communitarian Anarchism


After a short hiatus, here is the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” my overview of the origins and development of anarchist ideas, from ancient China to the present day, which forms the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. In this section, I discuss Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman’s critiques of the Russian Revolution, and connect their ethical anarchism to the communitarian anarchism of people like Gustav Landauer, and later anarchist writers, such as Paul Goodman and Murray Bookchin, who sought to create a “community of communities,” based on freedom and equality. Emma Goldman derived the concept of the “transvaluation of values” from the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.


The Transvaluation of Values

When Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman arrived in Russia in 1919, they were sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, whom they regarded as sincere revolutionaries. They began to take a more critical stance after making contact with those anarchists who still remained at liberty. Eventually they realized that the Bolsheviks were establishing their own dictatorship under the guise of fighting counter-revolution. Berkman noted how the “civil war really helped the Bolsheviki. It served to keep alive popular enthusiasm and nurtured the hope that, with the end of war, the ruling Party will make effective the new revolutionary principles and secure the people in the enjoyment of the fruits of the Revolution.” Instead, the end of the Civil War led to the consolidation of a despotic Party dictatorship characterized by the “exploitation of labour, the enslavement of the worker and peasant, the cancellation of the citizen as a human being… and his transformation into a microscopic part of the universal economic mechanism owned by the government; the creation of privileged groups favoured by the State; [and] the system of compulsory labour service and its punitive organs” (Volume One, Selection 88).

“To forget ethical values,” wrote Berkman, “to introduce practices and methods inconsistent with or opposed to the high moral purposes of the revolution means to invite counter-revolution and disaster… Where the masses are conscious that the revolution and all its activities are in their own hands, that they themselves are managing things and are free to change their methods when they consider it necessary, counter-revolution can find no support and is harmless… the cure for evil and disorder is more liberty, not suppression” (Volume One, Selection 117).

Emma Goldman drew similar lessons from the Russian Revolution, arguing that “to divest one’s methods of ethical concepts means to sink into the depths of utter demoralization… No revolution can ever succeed as a factor of liberation unless the MEANS used to further it be identical in spirit and tendency with the PURPOSES to be achieved.” For Goldman, the essence of revolution cannot be “a violent change of social conditions through which one social class, the working class, becomes dominant over another class,” as in the Marxist conception. For the social revolution to succeed, there must be “a fundamental transvaluation of values… ushering in a transformation of the basic relations of man to man, and of man to society,” establishing “the sanctity of human life, the dignity of man, the right of every human being to liberty and well-being” (Volume One, Selection 89).

Nietzsche on the State

Nietzsche on the State

In conceiving the social revolution as “the mental and spiritual regenerator” of human values and relationships, Goldman was adopting a position close to that of Gustav Landauer, the anarchist socialist martyred during the short-lived Bavarian Revolution in 1919. Before the war, he criticized those revolutionaries who regard the state as a physical “thing—akin to a fetish—that one can smash in order to destroy.” Rather, the “state is a relationship between human beings, a way by which people relate to one another… one destroys it by entering into other relationships, by behaving differently to one another.” If the state is a kind of social relationship, then “we are the state” and remain so “as long as we are not otherwise, as long as we have not created the institutions that constitute a genuine community and society of human beings” (Volume One, Selection 49).

This positive conception of social revolution as the creation of egalitarian communities was later expanded upon by Landauer’s friend, the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber (1878-1965). Consciously seeking to build upon Landauer’s legacy, Buber called for the creation of “a community of communities,” a federation of village communes “where communal living is based on the amalgamation of production and consumption, production being understood… as the organic union of agriculture with industry and the handicrafts as well” (Volume Two, Selection 16). Such a vision drew upon both Landauer and Kropotkin, particularly the latter’s Fields, Factories and Workshops (Volume One, Selection 34). This vision was shared by some of the early pioneers of the kibbutz movement in Palestine (Horrox, 2009), and by Gandhi and his followers in India (Volume Two, Selection 32). It received renewed impetus after the Second World War, with the development of communitarian and ecological conceptions of anarchism by people like Paul Goodman (Volume Two, Selections 17 & 70) and Murray Bookchin (Volume Two, Selections 48 & 74).

Robert Graham

goldman on freedom and equality


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Reblogged this on Fahrenheit 451 Used Books and commented:
    Left wing Books & Blogs

  2. I have very little exposure to EG’s deployment of Nietzsche’s concept of transvuation of values and am admittedly influenced by a very contemporary, Kaufmann-centric reading of Nietzsche that allows me to make of his work; I’m by no means a Nietzsche (or EG) scholar etc. From the brief excerpt included here, however, I have little confidence in Goldman’s reading of Nietzsche and am quite nervous about trying to support her analysis with arbitrarily selected remarks. Goldman is principally concerned here with the execution of (pragmatic, expedient) decisions and policies which don’t adhere to the ethical and ideological axioms fundamental to the revolution (and espoused its guiding party etc.) This critique, prescient and reasonable as it may be, has little to do with Nietzsche. One can interpret Nietzsche a myriad of ways and emphasize different aspects of his critique of morals according to one’s taste; under no circumstances, however, is transvaluation reducible to decision making which contravene one’s ethical axioms (whether sincerely held or duplicitously stated). I won’t reproduce the a subsection from the SEP, but the recognition of the arbitrariness (and instrumentalization) of existent ethical systems and choosing to embrace a self-affirming, creative, liberated, and authentic life is not the accusation Goldman makes against actors in the Russian Revolution (which we might call a devaluation of ethical consistency or something).

    One of my closest friends is a vocational Nietzsche scholar, which has led to my spending countless evenings assembling Nietzschean support for (leftist) social revolution. This task is nontrivial and demands one creatively account for many statements which superficially seem to disparage compassion, enforced equality, etc. I was excited to encounter a professional handling of this project, but this survey is nothing if the sort.

    [written on a phone from a hospital bed–please forgive my sloppiness and brevity/laziness]

    • My Afterword, “The Anarchist Current,” is a survey of anarchist ideas from 300CE in China to the present day. While I obviously didn’t have space to discuss the validity of Emma Goldman’s use of Nietszche’s concept of the “transvaluation of values,” I don’t think I’ve misquoted her and I suspect that you have misunderstood the passage in question. Goldman wasn’t criticizing the Bolsheviks for their alleged “transvaluation of values.” Neither she nor I have said that the problem with the Bolsheviks was that they “transvalued” revolutionary values, or that “transvaluation” consists of someone else contravening one’s own ethical axioms, or that “transvaluation” does not entail choosing to embrace self-affirming, creative, liberated and authentic life (which is really Kaufmann’s existentialist reading of Nietszche). Goldman’s point was that without an authentic transvaluation of values, any revolution is in danger of producing a regime which is quite antithetical to a “self-affirming, creative, liberated and authentic life.” As for whether Goldman is a good interpreter of Nietzsche, I leave that for the Nietzsche scholars. That’s not something I’m particularly concerned about. What interests me is the way some anarchists, like Goldman, were influenced by Nietszche in coming to their own views and relating them to very intense and momentous personal experiences, like the Russian Revolution.

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