Emma Goldman Writes About Birth Control

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman

Continuing with the theme of sexuality, authority and revolution, Shawn Wilbur has edited a soon to be published collection of writings by Emma Goldman, ANARCHY AND THE SEX QUESTION: ESSAYS ON WOMEN AND EMANCIPATION 1896-1917. I used several of Shawn’s translations of anarchist material from the 19th century in my recently published book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It': The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. Here I reproduce an excerpt from Shawn’s Emma Goldman collection, part of a 1916 essay, “The Social Aspects of Birth Control,” written by Goldman shortly before her trial and imprisonment for speaking publicly about and in favour of birth control. While some of her Neo-Malthusian ideas raise concerns, the focus on women having control of their own bodies remains very  pertinent today, given the ongoing attempts in the United States to effectively outlaw abortion. I included several selections from Emma Goldman in Volumes One and Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Popular Goldman poster

Popular Goldman poster

The Social Aspects of Birth Control

From whatever angle, then, the question of Birth Control may be considered, it is the most dominant issue of modern times and as such it cannot be driven back by persecution, imprisonment or a conspiracy of silence.

Those who oppose the Birth Control Movement claim to do so in behalf of motherhood. All the political charlatans prate about this wonderful motherhood, yet on closer examination we find that this motherhood has gone on for centuries past blindly and stupidly dedicating its offspring to Moloch. Besides, so long as mothers are compelled to work many hard hours in order to help support the creatures which they unwillingly brought into the world, the talk of motherhood is nothing else but cant. Ten per cent, of married women in the city of New York have to help make a living. Most of them earn the very lucrative salary of $280 a year. How dare anyone speak of the beauties of Motherhood in the face of such a crime?

But even the better paid mothers, what of them? Not so long ago our old and hoary Board of Education declared that mother teachers may not continue to teach. Though these antiquated gentlemen were compelled by public opinion to reconsider their decision, it is absolutely certain that if the average teacher were to become a mother every year, she would soon lose her position. This is the lot of the married mother; what about the unmarried mother? Or is anyone in doubt that there are thousands of unmarried mothers? They crowd our shops and factories and industries everywhere, not by choice but by economic necessity. In their drab and monotonous existence the only color left is probably a sexual attraction which without methods of prevention invariably leads to abortions. Thousands of women are sacrificed as a result of abortions because they are undertaken by quack doctors, ignorant midwives in secrecy and in haste. Yet the poets and the politicians sing of motherhood. A greater crime was never perpetrated upon woman.

Our moralists know about it, yet they persist in behalf of an indiscriminate breeding of children. They tell us that to limit offspring is entirely a modern tendency because the modern woman is loose in her morals and wishes to shirk responsibility. In reply to this, it is necessary to point out that the tendency to limit offspring is as old as the race. We have as the authority for this contention an eminent German physician Dr. Theilhaber who has compiled historic data to prove that the tendency was prevalent among the Hebrews, the Egyptians, the Persians and many tribes of American Indians. The fear of the child was so great that the women used the most hideous methods rather than to bring an unwanted child into the world. Dr. Theilhaber enumerates fifty-seven methods. This data is of great importance in as much as it dispels the superstition that woman wants to become a mother of a large family.

No, it is not because woman is lacking in responsibility, but because she has too much of the latter that she demands to know how to prevent conception. Never in the history of the world has woman been so race conscious as she is to-day. Never before has she been able to see in the child, not only in her child, but every child, the unit of society, the channel through which man and woman must pass; the strongest factor in the building of a new world. It is for this reason that Birth Control rests upon such solid ground.

We are told that so long as the law on the statute books makes the discussion of preventives a crime, these preventives must not be discussed. In reply I wish to say that it is not the Birth Control Movement, but the law, which will have to go. After all, that is what laws are for, to be made and unmade. How dare they demand that life shall submit to them? Just because some ignorant bigot in his own limitation of mind and heart succeeded in passing a law at the time when men and women were in the thralls of religious and moral superstition, must we be bound by it for the rest of our lives? I readily understand why judges and jailers shall be bound by it. It means their livelihood; their function in society. But even judges sometimes progress. I call your attention to the decision given in behalf of the issue of Birth Control by Judge Gatens of Portland, Oregon. “It seems to me that the trouble with our people to-day is, that there is too much prudery. Ignorance and prudery have always been the millstones around the neck of progress. We all know that things are wrong in society; that we are suffering from many evils but we have not the nerve to get up and admit it, and when some person brings to our attention something we already know, we feign modesty and feel outraged.” That certainly is the trouble with most of our law makers and with all those who are opposed to Birth Control.

I am to be tried at Special Sessions April 5th. I do not know what the outcome will be, and furthermore, I do not care. This dread of going to prison for one’s ideas so prevalent among American radicals, is what makes the movement so pale and weak. I have no such dread. My revolutionary tradition is that those who are not willing to go to prison for their ideas have never been considered of much value to their ideas. Besides, there are worse places than prison. But whether I have to pay for my Birth Control activities or come out free, one thing is certain, the Birth Control movement cannot be stopped nor will I be stopped from carrying on Birth Control agitation. If I refrain from discussing methods, it is not because I am afraid of a second arrest, but because for the first time in the history of America, the issue of Birth Control through oral information is clear-cut and as I want it fought out on its merits, I do not wish to give the authorities an opportunity to obscure it by something else. However, I do want to point out the utter stupidity of the law. I have at hand the testimony given by the detectives, which, according to their statement, is an exact transcription of what I spelled for them from the platform. Yet so ignorant are these men that they have not a single contracept spelled correctly now. It is perfectly within the law for the detectives to give testimony, but it is not within the law for me to read the testimony which resulted in my indictment. Can you blame me if I am an anarchist and have no use for laws ? Also, I wish to point out the utter stupidity of the American court. Supposedly justice is to be meted out there. Supposedly there are to be no star chamber proceedings under democracy, yet the other day when the detectives gave their testimony, it had to be done in a whisper, close to the judge as at the confessional in a Catholic Church and under no circumstances were the ladies present permitted to hear anything that was going on. The farce of it all! And yet we are expected to respect it, to obey it, to submit to it.

I do not know how many of you are willing to do it, but I am not. I stand as one of the sponsors of a world-wide movement, a movement which aims to set woman free from the terrible yoke and bondage of enforced pregnancy; a movement which demands the right for every child to be well born; a movement which shall help free labor from its eternal dependence; a movement which shall usher into the world a new kind of motherhood. I consider this movement important and vital enough to defy all the laws upon the statute-books. I believe it will clear the way not merely for the free discussion of contracepts but for the freedom of expression in Life, Art and Labor, for the right of medical science to experiment with contracepts as it has in the treatment of tuberculosis or any other disease.

I may be arrested, I may be tried and thrown into jail, but I never will be silent; I never will acquiesce or submit to authority, nor will I make peace with a system which degrades woman to a mere incubator and which fattens on her innocent victims. I now and here declare war upon this system and shall not rest until the path has been cleared for a free motherhood and a healthy, joyous and happy childhood.

Mother Earth, v.11 (April 1916), pp. 468-75

mother earth cover

Anarchist Ethics


In this installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist approaches to morality and ethics. Contrary to popular misconceptions, most self-identified anarchists were not nihilistic egoists or amoralists, like Max Stirner, but instead were critics of the parsimonious and hypocritical morality found in existing society, which is designed to encourage subservience and obedience. Anarchists argued that people can only be “moral,” in a positive sense, in a society of equals without hierarchy and domination.

goldman quote

Anarchist Morality

“Official morality,” wrote Elisée Reclus in 1894, “consists in bowing humbly to one’s superiors and in proudly holding up one’s head before one’s subordinates” (Volume One, Selection 38). True morality can only exist between equals. “It is not only against the abstract trinity of law, religion, and authority” that anarchists declare war, according to Kropotkin, but the inequality that gives rise to “deceit, cunning, exploitation, depravity, vice… It is in the name of equality that we are determined to have no more prostituted, exploited, deceived and governed men and women.”

This sense of justice and solidarity, “which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own,” has been successively widened, from the clan, to the tribe, to the nation, to the whole of humankind, until it is transcended by a “higher conception of ‘no revenge for wrongs,’ and of freely giving more than one expects to receive from his neighbours” (Volume One, Selection 54). For Kropotkin, acting morally is not only natural, but a means of self-fulfillment.

What anarchists sought to achieve was a world in which everyone is free to develop his or her talents and abilities to their fullest. This is impossible as long as workers are required to engage in labour merely to eke out an existence, taking whatever jobs they can get, women must work at home and in the factory or office, subject to their husbands and fathers at home, to their bosses at work, and to conventional morality always, and children must be trained to accept their lot in life and to obey their “betters.”

It is for these reasons that anarchism, Kropotkin wrote, “refuses all hierarchical organization” (Volume One, Selection 41). As Charlotte Wilson (1854-1944), who helped found the English language anarchist newspaper, Freedom, with Kropotkin in 1886, explained, “all coercive organization” with its “machine-like regularity is fatal to the realization” of the anarchist ideal of self-fulfillment for all, not just the privileged few (Volume One, Selection 37).

Robert Graham

Kropotkin quote well being for all

Kropotkin: Political Rights

Freedom in each otherIn the lead up to Kropotkin’s 170th birthday on December 21st, I will be presenting some more selections from Words of a Rebel that I was unable to include in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. The first selection, as topical today as when it was written, is on political rights, the most important of which can only be protected by people asserting them for themselves.

anarchy liberation

Political Rights

Each day, in a whole range of tones, the bourgeois press praises the value and the importance of our political liberties, of the “political rights of the citizen”: universal suffrage, free elections, freedom of the press and of meeting, etc.

“Since you have these freedoms,” they say to us, “what is the point of rebelling? Don’t the liberties you already possess assure the possibilities of all the reforms that may be necessary, without your needing to resort to the gun?” So, let us analyse, from our point of view what these famous “political liberties” are worth to the class that owns nothing, rules nobody, and has in fact very few rights and plenty of duties.

We are not asserting, as has sometimes been said, that political rights have no value for us. We know very well that since the days of serfdom and even since the last century, we have made a certain amount of progress; the man of the people is no longer the being deprived of all rights that he was in the past. The French peasant can no longer be flogged at the roadside, as he still is in Russia. In public places, outside his factory or workshop, the worker considers himself the equal of anyone, especially in the great cities. The French worker is no longer that being lacking in all human rights who in the past was treated by the aristocracy as a beast of burden. Thanks to the revolutions, thanks to the blood which the people shed, he has acquired certain personal rights whose value we have no desire to minimize.

But we know how to draw distinctions, and we assert that there are rights and rights. There are those that have a real value and those that do not, and whoever tries to confound them is only deceiving the people. Certain rights like, for example, the equality of the peasant and the squire in their personal relations, or the corporal inviolability of the person, have been won through great struggles, and are so dear to the people that they will rise up rather than allow them to be violated. But there are others, like universal suffrage, freedom of the press, etc., towards which the people have always remained lukewarm, because they know perfectly well that these rights, which have served so well to defend the ruling bourgeoisie against the encroachments of royal power and of the aristocracy, are no more than an instrument in the hands of the dominant classes to maintain their power over the people. These rights are not even real political rights, since they provide no safeguard for the mass of the people; and if we still decorate them with that pompous title it is because our political language is no more than a jargon elaborated by the ruling classes for their own use and in their own interests.

What, in fact, is a political right if it is not an instrument to safeguard the independence, the dignity and the freedom of those who do not yet have the power to impose on others a respect for that right? What is its use, if it is not an instrument of liberation for those who need to be freed? The Gambettas, the Bismarcks, the Gladstones need neither the freedom of the press nor the freedom of meeting, because they can write what they want, can meet whomsoever they wish, and profess whatever ideas they please; they are already liberated. They are free. If there is any need to guarantee anyone the right to speak and write, the freedom to gather together, it is surely to those who are not powerful enough to impose their will. Such in fact is the origin of all political rights.

But, looked at from this viewpoint, have the political rights we are talking of been created with an eye to those who alone need safeguards? Obviously not. Universal suffrage can sometimes and to a certain extent protect, without the need for a constant recourse to force in self-defence. It can serve to re-establish the equilibrium between two forces which struggle for power, without the rivals being forced to draw their swords on each other as they did in the past. But it can be no help if it is a matter of overthrowing or even limiting power, or of abolishing domination. Since it is such an excellent instrument for resolving in a peaceful manner any quarrels among the rulers, what use can it possibly be to the ruled?

voting changes nothing

Does not the history of universal suffrage tell us this? Whenever the bourgeoisie has feared that universal suffrage might become a weapon in the hands of the people that could be turned against the privileged, it has fought it stubbornly. But the day it was proved, in 1848, that universal suffrage held nothing to fear, and that one could rule the people with an iron rod by the use of universal suffrage, it was immediately accepted. Now the bourgeoisie itself has become its defender because it understands that here is a weapon adapted to sustain its domination, but absolutely harmless as a threat to its privileges.

It is the same with freedom of the press. What, in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, has been the most conclusive argument in favour of freedom of the press? Its powerlessness. Yes, its powerlessness. M. de Girardin has written a whole book on this theme: the powerlessness of the press. “Formerly—he says—we burned witches because people had the stupidity to believe they were all-powerful; now people commit the same stupidity regarding the press, because they believe that it also is all-powerful. But it is nothing of the kind; it is as powerless as the witches of the middle ages. Hence, more persecutions of the press!” This is the contention that M. de Girardin offered in the past. And when the bourgeoisie discuss the freedom of the press among themselves, what arguments do they advance in its favour?

“Look at England, Switzerland and the United States,” they say. “In all of them the press is free and yet capitalist exploitation is better established in them than in any other country; its reign is more secure among them than anywhere else.” And they add, “What does it matter if dangerous doctrines are produced. Don’t we have all the means of stifling the voices of the journals that project them without even a recourse to violence? And even if one day, at a time of agitation, the revolutionary press becomes a dangerous weapon, so what? On that day it will be time enough to destroy it with a single blow on the most convenient pretext.”

As for the freedom of meeting, the same kind of reasoning holds. “Give complete freedom of meeting,” say the bourgeoisie. “It will do no harm to our privileges. What we have to fear are the secret societies, and public meetings are the best way of paralyzing them. But if, in a moment of excitement, public meetings should get out of hand, we would always have the means of suppressing them, since we hold the powers of government.”


“The inviolability of the dwelling? Of course! Write it into all the codes! Cry it from the rooftops!” say the knowing ones among the bourgeoisie. “We don’t want policemen coming to surprise us in our little nests.” But we will institute a secret service to keep an eye on suspects; we will people the country with police spies, make lists of dangerous people, and watch them closely. And if we smell out one day that anything is afoot, then we must set to vigorously, make a jest of inviolability, arrest people in their beds, search and ransack their homes! But above all we must do this boldly and if anyone protests too loudly, we must lock them up as well, and say to the rest, ‘What would you have us do, gentlemen? We must deal firmly with the situation!’ And we shall be applauded.”

“The privacy of correspondence? Say it everywhere, write and cry it out, that correspondence is inviolable. If the head of some village post office opens a letter out of curiosity, sack him at once and proclaim loudly that he is a monstrous criminal. Take good care that the little secrets we exchange with each other in our letters shall not be divulged. But if we get wind of some plot being hatched against our privileges, then let us not stand on ceremony; let us open everyone’s letters, allocate a thousand clerks to the task if necessary, and if someone takes it on himself to protest, let us say frankly, as an English minister did recently to the applause of parliament: ‘Yes, gentlemen, it is with a heavy heart and the deepest of distaste that we order letters to be opened, but it is entirely because the country (i.e. the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie) is in danger.”

This is what these so-called liberties can be reduced to. Freedom of press and of meeting, inviolability of the home and all the rest, are only respected if the people do not make use of them against the privileged classes. But the day the people begin to take advantage of them to undermine those privileges, then the so-called liberties will be cast overboard.

This is quite natural. Humanity retains only the rights it has won by hard struggle and is ready to defend at every moment, with arms in hand.


If men and women are not whipped in the streets of Paris, as they are in Odessa, it is because on the day a government dared to attempt this, the people would tear its agents to pieces. If an aristocrat can no longer make way for himself through the streets with the help of blows delivered right and left by the staves of his servants, it is because any of the servants who got such ideas into their heads would immediately be overpowered. If a degree of equality exists between the worker and his employer, at least in the streets and in public establishments, it is not because the worker’s rights are written into the law but because, thanks to revolutions in the past, he has a feeling of personal dignity that will not let him endure an offense from anyone.

Yet it is evident that in present-day society, divided as it is between masters and serfs, true liberty cannot exist; it will not exist so long as there are exploiters and slaves, governments and governed. At the same time it does not follow that, as we await the day when the anarchist revolution will sweep away all social distinctions, we wish to see the press muzzled, as in Germany, the right of meeting annulled, as in Russia, or the inviolability of the person reduced as it is in Turkey. Slaves of capital that we all are, we want to be able to write and publish whatever seems right to us, we want to be able to meet and organize as we please, precisely so that we can shake off the yoke of capital.

But it is high time we understood that we must not demand these rights through constitutional laws. We cannot go in search of our natural rights by way of a law, a scrap of paper that could be torn up at the least whim of the rulers. For it is only by transforming ourselves into a force, capable of imposing our will, that we shall succeed in making our rights respected.

Do you want to have freedom to speak and write whatever seems right to you? Do you want to have the liberty to meet and organize? It is not from a parliament that we seekers of freedom should ask permission, nor must we beg a law from the Senate. We must become an organized force, capable of showing our teeth every time anyone sets about restraining our rights of speech and meeting; we must be strong, and then we may be sure that nobody will dare dispute our right to speak, to write, to print what we write, and to meet together. The day we have been able to establish enough agreement among the exploited for them to come out in their millions into the streets and take up the defence of our rights, nobody will dare to dispute those rights, nor any others that we choose to demand. Then, and only then, shall we have truly gained such rights, for which we might plead to parliament for decades in vain. Then those rights will be guaranteed to us in a far more certain way than if they were merely written down on a bit of paper.

Freedoms are not given, they are taken.


The Haymarket Martyrs: Louis Lingg

Louis Lingg (1864-1887) was the youngest and the most militant of the Haymarket Martyrs. In his final speech at the trial of the Chicago anarchists he denounced the hypocrisy of the state authorities, in particular the prosecuting attorney, Grinnell, who accused Lingg and his fellow defendants of cowardice, when it was Grinnell who was urging the execution of the defendants based on their beliefs, not on any hard evidence, in order to advance his own career, and without any risk to himself. Lingg remained defiant to the end, cheating the executioner by committing suicide on the eve of his execution.

Court of Justice! With the same irony with which you have regarded my efforts to win, in this ‘free land of America,’ a livelihood such as humankind is worthy to enjoy, do you now, after condemning me to death, concede me the liberty of making a final speech.

I accept your concession; but it is only for the purpose of exposing the injustice, the calumnies, and the outrages which have been heaped upon me…

It is not murder… of which you have convicted me. The judge has stated that much only this morning in his resume of the case, and Grinnell has repeatedly asserted that we were being tried, not for murder, but for anarchy, so that the condemnation is—that I am an anarchist!

What is anarchy? This is a subject which my comrades have explained with sufficient clearness, and it is unnecessary for me to go over it again. They have told you plainly enough what our aims are. The state’s attorney, however, has not given you that information. He has merely criticized and condemned not the doctrines of anarchy, but our methods of giving them practical effect, and even here he has maintained a discreet silence as to the fact that those methods were forced upon us by the brutality of the police. Grinnell’s own proffered remedy for our grievances is the ballot and combination of trades unions, and Ingham has even avowed the desirability of a six-hour movement! But the fact is, that at every attempt to wield the ballot, at every endeavour to combine the efforts of workingmen, you have displayed the brutal violence of the police club, and this is why I have recommended rude force, to combat the ruder force of the police.

You have charged me with despising ‘law and order.’ What does your ‘law and order’ amount to? Its representatives are the police, and they have thieves in their ranks. Here sits Captain Schaack. He has himself admitted to me that my hat and books have been stolen from him in his office—stolen by policemen. These are your defenders of property rights!…

While I… believe in force for the sake of winning for myself and fellow workmen a livelihood such as men ought to have, Grinnell, on the other hand, through his police and other rogues, has suborned perjury in order to murder seven men, of whom I am one.

Grinnell had the pitiful courage here in the courtroom, where I could not defend myself, to call me a coward! The scoundrel! A fellow who has leagued himself with a parcel of base, hireling knaves, to bring me to the gallows. Why? For no earthly reason save a contemptible selfishness—a desire to ‘rise in the world ‘—to ‘make money,’ forsooth.

This wretch—who, by means of the perjuries of other wretches is going to murder seven men—is the fellow who calls me ‘coward!’ And yet you blame me for despising such ‘defenders of the law‘—such unspeakable hypocrites!

Anarchy means no domination or authority of one man over another, yet you call that ‘disorder.’ A system which advocates no such ‘order’ as shall require the services of rogues and thieves to defend it you call ‘disorder.’

The Judge himself was forced to admit that the state’s attorney had not been able to connect me with the bomb throwing. The latter knows how to get around it, however. He charges me with being a ‘conspirator.’ How does he prove it? Simply by declaring the International Workingmens’ Association to be a ‘conspiracy.’ I was a member of that body, so he has the charge securely fastened on me. Excellent! Nothing is too difficult for the genius of a state’s attorney!

It is hardly incumbent upon me to review the relations which I occupy to my companions in misfortune. I can say truly and openly that I am not as intimate with my fellow prisoners as I am with Captain Schaack.

The universal misery, the ravages of the capitalistic hyena have brought us together in our agitation, not as persons, but as workers in the same cause. Such is the ‘conspiracy’ of which you have convicted me.

I protest against the conviction, against the decision of the court. I do not recognize your law, jumbled together as it is by the nobodies of bygone centuries, and I do not recognize the decision of the court. My own counsel have conclusively proven from the decisions of equally high courts that a new trial must be granted us. The state’s attorney quotes three times as many decisions from perhaps still higher courts to prove the opposite, and I am convinced that if, in another trial, these decisions should be supported by twenty-five volumes, they will adduce one hundred in support of the contrary, if it is anarchists who are to be tried. And not even under such a law, a law that a schoolboy must despise, not even by such methods have they been able to ‘legally’ convict us…

I tell you frankly and openly, I am for force…

I repeat that I am the enemy of the ‘order’ of today, and I repeat that, with all my powers, so long as breath remains in me, I shall combat it. I declare again, frankly and openly, that I am in favour of using force. I have told Captain Schaack, and I stand by it, ‘if you cannonade us we shall dynamite you.’ You laugh! Perhaps you think, ‘you throw no more bombs but let me assure you that I die happy on the gallows so confident am I that the hundreds and thousands to whom I have spoken will remember my words; and when you shall have hanged us, then, mark my words, they will do the bomb throwing! In this hope do I say to you: “I despise you. I despise your order, your laws, your force-propped authority.” HANG ME FOR IT!

Kropotkin: Prisons and Their Moral Influence on Prisoners (1886)

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, subtitled From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939), I included excerpts from Kropotkin’s well known essay, Law and Authority (Selection 52), in which he presents an anarchist critique of the law and the criminal justice system. While he touches on the anarchist view of prisons as “schools of crime” which create more harm than good, it is in his other essay, Prisons and Their Moral Influence on Prisoners (1886), that he presents the anarchist case against the prison system, and in his book, In Russian and French Prisons (1887), much of which was written while Kropotkin himself was in the French prison in Clairvaux for his revolutionary activities (see my previous post, Manifesto of the Anarchists: Lyon 1883).

Prisons and Their Moral Influence on Prisoners

Once a man has been in prison, he will return. It is inevitable, and statistics prove it. The annual reports of the administration of criminal justice in France show that one-half of all those tried by juries and two-fifths of all those who yearly get into the police courts for minor offences received their education in prisons. Nearly half of all those tried for murder and three-fourths of those tried for burglary are repeaters. As for the central prisons, more than one-third of the prisoners released from these supposedly correctional institutions are reimprisoned in the course of twelve months after their liberation.

Another significant angle is that the offence for which a man returns to prison is always more serious than his first. If, before, it was petty thieving, he returns now for some daring burglary; if he was imprisoned for the first time for some act of violence, often he will return as a murderer. All writers on criminology are in accord with this observation. Former offenders have become a great problem in Europe…

In spite of all the reforms made up to the present — in spite of all the experiments of different prison systems, the results are always the same. On the one hand, the number of offences against existing laws neither increases nor diminishes, no matter what the system of punishments is — the knout has been abolished in Russia and the death penalty in Italy, and the number of murders there has remained the same. The cruelty of the judges grows or lessens, the cruelty of the Jesuitical penal system changes, but the number of acts designated as crimes remains constant. It is affected only by other causes which I shall shortly mention. On the other hand, no matter what changes are introduced in the prison régime, the problem of second offenders does not decrease. That is inevitable — it must be so — the prison kills all the qualities in a man which make him best adapted to community life. It makes him the kind of a person who will inevitably return to prison to end his days in one of those stone tombs over which is engraved — “House of Detention and Correction.” There is only one answer to the question, “What can be done to better this penal system?” Nothing. A prison cannot be improved. With the exception of a few unimportant little improvements, there is absolutely nothing to do but demolish it…

So long as you deprive a man of his liberty, you will not make him better. You will cultivate habitual criminals: that is what I shall now prove.

To begin with, there is the fact that none of the prisoners recognize the justice of the punishment inflicted on them. This is in itself a condemnation of our whole judicial system. Speak to an imprisoned man or to some great swindler. He will say. “The little swindlers are here but the big ones are free and enjoy public respect.” What can you answer, knowing the existence of great financial companies expressly designed to take the last pennies of the savings of the poor, with the founders retiring in time to make good legal hauls out of these small fortunes? We all know these great stock issuing companies with their Iying circulars and their huge swindles. What can we answer the prisoner except that he is right?

Or this man, imprisoned for robbing a till, will tell you, “I simply wasn’t clever enough, that’s all.” And what can you answer, knowing what goes on in important places, and how, following terrible scandals, the verdict “not guilty” is handed out to these great robbers? How many times have you heard prisoners say, “It’s the big thieves who are holding us here; we are the little ones.” Who can dispute this when he knows the incredible swindles perpetrated in the realm of high finance and commerce; when he knows that the thirst for riches, acquired by every possible means, is the very essence of bourgeois society. When he has examined this immense quantity of suspicious transactions divided between the honest man (according to bourgeois standards) and the criminal, when he has seen all this, he must be convinced that jails are made for the unskillful, not for criminals…

Everyone knows the evil influence of laziness. Work relieves a man. But there is work and work. There is the work of the free individual which makes him feel a part of the immense whole. And there is that of the slave which degrades. Convict labour is unwillingly done, done only through fear of worse punishment. The work, which has no attraction in itself because it does not exercise any of the mental faculties of the worker, is so badly paid that it is looked upon as a punishment…

And what inspiration can a prisoner get to work for the common good, deprived as he is of all connections with life outside? By a refinement of cruelty, those who planned our prisons did everything they could to break all relationships of the prisoner with society. In England the prisoner’s wife and children can see him only once every three months, and the letters he is allowed to write are really preposterous. The philanthropists have even at times carried defiance of human nature so far as to restrict a prisoner from writing anything but his signature on a printed circular. The best influence to which a prisoner could be subjected, the only one which could bring him a ray of light, a softer element in his life — the relationship with his kin — is systematically prevented.

In the sombre life of the prisoner which flows by without passion or emotion, all the finer sentiments rapidly become atrophied. The skilled workers who loved their trade lose their taste for work. Bodily energy slowly disappears. The mind no longer has the energy for sustained attention; thought is less rapid, and in any case less persistent. It loses depth. It seems to me that the lowering of nervous energy in prisons is due, above all, to the lack of varied impressions. In ordinary life a thousand sounds and colours strike our senses daily, a thousand little facts come to our consciousness and stimulate the activity of our brains. No such things strike the prisoners’ senses. Their impressions are few and always the same…

In prisons as in monasteries, everything is done to kill a man’s will. He generally has no choice between one of two acts. The rare occasions on which he can exercise his will are very brief. His whole life is regulated and ordered in advance. He has only to swim with the current, to obey under pain of severe punishment.

Under these conditions all the will power that he may have had on entering disappears. And where will he find the strength with which to resist the temptations which will arise before him, as if by magic, when he is free-of the prison walls? Where will he find the strength to resist the first impulse to a passionate outbreak, if during several years everything was done to kill this inner strength, to make him a docile tool in the hands of those who control him? This fact is, according to my mind, the most terrible condemnation of the whole penal system based on the deprivation of individual liberty.

The origin of this suppression of individual will, which is the essence of all prisons, is easy to see. It springs from the desire of guarding the greatest number of prisoners with the fewest possible guards. The ideal of prison officials would be thousands of automatons, arising, working, eating and going to sleep by means of electric currents switched on by one of the guards. Economies might then be made in the budget, but no astonishment should be expressed that men, reduced to machines, are not, on their release, the type which society wants. As soon as a prisoner is released, his old companions await him. He is fraternally received and once again engulfed by the current which once swept him to prison. Protective organizations can do nothing. All that they can do to combat the evil influence of the prison is to counterbalance some of those results in the liberated men.

And what a contrast between the reception by his old companions and that of the people in philanthropic work for released prisoners! Who of them will invite him to his home and say to him simply, “Here is a room, here is work, sit down at this table, and become part of the family”? The released man is only looking for the outstretched hand of warm friendship. But society, after having done everything it could to make an enemy of him, having inoculated him with the vices of the prison, rejects him. He is condemned to become a “repeater”…

During all his prison life the prisoner is subjected to treatment which shows the greatest contempt of his feelings. A prisoner is not accorded the single respect due a human being. He is a thing, a number, and he is treated like a numbered thing. If he yields to the most human of all desires, that of communicating with a comrade, he is guilty of a breach of discipline. Before entering prison he may not have lied or deceived, but in prison he will learn to lie and deceive so that it will become second nature to him.

And it goes hard with those who do not submit. If being searched is humiliating, if a man finds the food distasteful, if he shows disgust in the keeper’s trafficking in tobacco, if he divides his bread with his neighbour, if he still has enough dignity to be irritated by an insult, if he is honest enough to be revolted by the petty intrigues, prison will be a hell for him. He will be overburdened with work unless he is sent to rot in solitary confinement. The slightest infraction of discipline will bring down the severest punishment. And each punishment will lead to another. He will be driven to madness through persecution. He can consider himself lucky to leave prison otherwise than in a coffin.

It is easy to write in the newspapers that the guards must be carefully watched, that the wardens must be chosen from good men. Nothing is easier than to build administrative utopias. But man will remain man — guard as well as prisoner. And when these guards are condemned to spend the rest of their lives in these false positions, they suffer the consequences. They become fussy. Nowhere, save in monasteries or convents, does such a spirit of petty intrigue reign. Nowhere are scandal and tale-bearing so well developed as among prison guards.

You cannot give an individual any authority without corrupting him. He will abuse it. He will be less scrupulous and feel his authority even more when his sphere of action is limited. Forced to live in any enemy’s camp, the guards cannot become models of kindness. To the league of prisoners there is opposed the league of jailers. It is the institution which makes them what they are — petty, mean persecutors. Put a Pestalozzi [renowned Swiss pedagogue] in their place and he will soon become a prison guard.

Quickly rancour against society gets into the prisoner’s heart. He becomes accustomed to detesting those who oppress him. He divides the world into two parts — one in which he and his comrades belong, the other, the external world, represented by the guards and their superiors. A league is formed by the prisoners against all those who do not wear prison garb. These are their enemies and everything that can be done to deceive them is right.

As soon as he is freed, the prisoner puts this code into practice. Before going to prison he could commit his offences unthinkingly. Now he has a philosophy, which can be summed up in the words of Zola, “What rascals these honest men are.”

If we take into consideration all the different influences of the prison on the prisoner, we will be convinced that they make a man less and less fitted for life in society. On the other hand, none of these influences raises the intellectual and moral faculties of the prisoner, or leads him to a higher conception of life. Prison does not improve the prisoner. And furthermore, we have seen that it does not prevent him from committing other crimes. It does not then achieve any of the ends which it has set itself…

Until now, penal institutions, so dear to the lawyers, were a compromise between the Biblical idea of vengeance, the belief of the middle ages in the devil, the modern lawyers’ idea of terrorization, and the idea of the prevention of crime by punishment.

It is not insane asylums that must be built instead of prisons. Such an execrable idea is far from my mind. The insane asylum is always a prison. Far from my mind also is the idea, launched from time to time by the philanthropists, that the prison be kept but entrusted to physicians and teachers. What prisoners have not found today in society is a helping hand, simple and friendly, which would aid them from childhood to develop the higher faculties of their minds and souls — faculties whose natural development has been impeded either by an organic defect or by the evil social conditions which society itself creates for millions of people. But these superior faculties of the mind and heart cannot be exercised by a person deprived of his liberty, if he never has choice of action. The physicians’ prison, the insane asylum, would be much worse than our present jails. Human fraternity and liberty are the only correctives to apply to those diseases of the human organism which lead to so-called crime.

Of course in every society, no matter how well organized, people will be found with easily aroused passions, who may, from time to time, commit anti-social deeds. But what is necessary to prevent this is to give their passions a healthy direction, another outlet.

Today we live too isolated. Private property has led us to an egoistic individualism in all our mutual relations. We know one another only slightly; our points of contact are too rare. But we have seen in history examples of a communal life which is more intimately bound together — the “composite family” in China, the agrarian communes, for example. These people really know one another. By force of circumstances they must aid one another materially and morally.

Family life, based on the original community, has disappeared. A new family, based on community of aspirations, will take its place. In this family people will be obliged to know one another, to aid one another and to lean on one another for moral support on every occasion. And this mutual prop will prevent the great number of anti-social acts which we see today.

It will be said, however, there will always remain some people, the sick, if you wish to call them that, who constitute a danger to society. Will it not be necessary somehow to rid ourselves of them, or at least prevent their harming others?

No society, no matter how little intelligent, will need such an absurd solution, and this is why. Formerly the insane were looked upon as possessed by demons and were treated accordingly. They were kept in chains in places like stables, riveted to the walls like wild beasts. But along came Pinel, a man of the Great Revolution, who dared to remove their chains and tried treating them as brothers. “You will be devoured by them,” cried the keepers. But Pinel dared. Those who were believed to be wild beasts gathered around Pinel and proved by their attitude that he was right in believing in the better side of human nature even when the intelligence is clouded by disease. Then the cause was won. They stopped chaining the insane.

Then the peasants of the little Belgian village, Gheel, found something better. They said: “Send us your insane. We will give them absolute freedom.” They adopted them into their families, they gave them places at their tables, chance alongside them to cultivate their fields and a place among their young people at their country balls. “Eat, drink, and dance with us. Work, run about the fields, and be free.” That was the system, that was all the science the Belgian peasant had. (I am speaking of the early days. Today the treatment of the insane at Gheel has become a profession and where it is a profession for profit, what significance can there be in it? ) And liberty worked a miracle. The insane became cured. Even those who had incurable, organic lesions became sweet, tractable members of the family like the rest. The diseased mind would always work in an abnormal fashion but the heart was in the right place. They cried that it was a miracle. The cures were attributed to a saint and a virgin. But this virgin was liberty and the saint was work in the fields and fraternal treatment.

At one of the extremes of the immense “space between mental disease and crime” of which Maudsley speaks, liberty and fraternal treatment have worked their miracle. They will do the same at the other extreme.

The prison does not prevent anti-social acts from taking place. It increases their numbers. It does not improve those who enter its walls. However it is reformed it will always remain a place of restraint, an artificial environment, like a monastery, which will make the prisoner less and less fit for life in the community. It does not achieve its end. It degrades society. It must disappear. It is a survival of barbarism mixed with Jesuitical philanthropy.

The first duty of the revolution will be to abolish prisons — those monuments of human hypocrisy and cowardice. Anti-social acts need not be feared in a society of equals, in the midst of a free people, all of whom have acquired a healthy education and the habit of mutually aiding one another. The greater number of these acts will no longer have any raison d’être. The others will be nipped in the bud.

As for those individuals with evil tendencies whom existing society will pass on to us after the revolution, it will be our task to prevent their exercising these tendencies. This is already accomplished quite efficiently by the solidarity of all the members of the community against such aggressors. If we do not succeed in all cases, the only practical corrective still will be fraternal treatment and moral support.

This is not Utopia. It is already done by isolated individuals and it will become the general practice. And such means will be far more powerful to protect society from anti-social acts than the existing system of punishment which is an ever fertile source of new crimes.

Le Révolté, August 1886

Jean Grave: Against the Law (1893)

Jean Grave (1854-1939) was a prominent anarchist communist active in France. He became editor of the anarchist paper, Le Révolté, in 1883 after Kropotkin was imprisoned following the Lyon trial of the anarchists (see the Manifesto of the Anarchists: Lyon, 1883, previously posted). Grave changed the name of the paper to La Révolte in 1887. That paper was suppressed and Grave imprisoned by the French authorities in 1894, shortly after Grave published Moribund Society and Anarchy in 1893, from which the following excerpts are taken. The translation is by the American anarchist, Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912). The anarchist rejection of the ideology of the so-called “rule of law” was something that distinguished them from other revolutionary currents. Grave’s critique is reminiscent of the earlier critique developed by William Godwin (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One, Selection 51), although it is doubtful that Grave was familiar with Godwin’s work. Kropotkin developed a more sophisticated analysis of law in a variety of publications, including his essay, Law and Authority (excerpted as Selection 52 in Anarchism, Volume One), where he argues that for the ideology of the “rule of law” to be widely accepted, the law must incorporate certain accepted social mores, such as prohibitions against murder, in order for specific laws benefitting the ruling classes to be accorded any legitimacy.

The Magistracy

Authority, as we have seen, springs from that right which arrogates force to itself.  But man having widened the field of his thought it became necessary for this authority to justify its existence. Combining with religious sentiment and the support of the priests, it claimed to be of divine origin, assumed the form of an exclusive caste, and eventually succeeded in resisting the brutal power of the king and the nobles: thus the magistracy was founded. And when the bourgeoisie seized power, in 1789, they took care not to destroy this pillar of social order. (Moreover, did not the nobility of gowns belong much more properly to the bourgeoisie than to the nobility of the sword?) They were thus relieved of the task of searching for a mode of recruit more in accord with the new aspirations.

Divine right having gotten a powerful shock in the decapitation of Louis XVI, the magistracy could not continue to lean upon the said right without the risk of likewise passing under this equalizing leveller.  Hence they invented, or rather deified, the “law.” The magistracy was constituted its guardian and incorruptible administrator, so-called. The trick was done; the most redoubtable and necessary institution for the defence of privilege succeeded in preserving itself, and becoming the priestess of this new entity, the law, created by the new masters. The submission of France to the regime of the “law” is, in fact, one of the conquests of ’89 whose benefits the bourgeois historians are exceedingly fond of setting forth. The codification of authority, according to these, its censer-bearers, had the immediate effect of legitimizing the most shameless arbitrariness. From then on Frenchmen were all to be equal; the people no longer had anything to demand. Thereafter there was to be but one master, before whom, it is true, all had to bow, which had the effect of equalizing their situations. This master was the “law.”

But we who are not satisfied with words, when we try to find out what the workers have gained by this transformation, see that they have got  just one more duping. In fact, in the time of the absolute monarchy, when the king and the nobles constrained the peasant to serve them, there was no way of deceiving oneself about it; the formula “for such is our good pleasure” showed whence they derived their rights: they claimed them by the right of the sword only, counting much more upon that than the divine will; consequently it was upon force that their claim was based.  Their orders were obeyed, their claims were submitted to, but because the people were in no condition to resist them. There were at least no imbeciles to come and say to us – repeating the phrases of the interested – that we must obey because it is “the law,” and it is the duty of everyone to conform thereto until it be changed.

If it be admitted that the law may change it is thereby presumed that the law may become retrogressive; and to acknowledge that is to admit that from its very nature it may injure someone, for there are always individuals in advance of their generation. The law, then, is not just; it has not that respectable character with which men have sought to invest it.  If this law injures my interests or violates my liberty why should I be compelled to obey it, and what is the unalterable compact which can justify these abuses? In scientific matters when the savants after great research and labour at length formulate what is called a natural law, it is not because a majority or “chamber,” composed of persons believing themselves superior to the rest of us mortals, has decided, by virtue of its members’ will, that natural forces were ordered to conform to such or such a mode of evolution. We should laugh in the face of the imbecile who would make such a pretence. When a natural law is proclaimed, it is because it has been discovered that if a certain phenomenon be produced, if a certain chemical combination had been effected, it is by virtue of such and such a force, or the existence of such and such affinities; the environment in which the phenomenon took place being given, it was impossible for it to be otherwise. Given forces set in motion under given conditions produce given results; this is mathematical. Therefore the newly-discovered law does not come upon the scene to govern the phenomenon, but to explain its causes, these laws may be discovered, doubted, and even denied; the divers substances which compose our earth will none the less continue to combine according to their properties or affinities, the earth will turn, without any force being needed to protect the evolution thereof, or punish those who might want to “violate the laws.”

In our society it is otherwise. These laws seem to be made to be violated; because those who made them consulted only their personal preferences, the interests of those whom they represented, and the average degree of moral evolution in their epoch, without taking into account the character, tendencies, and affinities of those who were to submit to them — which, moreover, would be impossible, the diversity of individual character and tendencies being given. Each estate has its laws; nor can there be any single and universal law in sociology, as there is in physics, under penalty of its becoming arbitrary and inapplicable.  In fact there is not, in our society, a single law which does not injure some of its members, either in their material interests or their ideas; not a single law which each triumphant party has not been able to turn against its adversaries.  Power once obtained, every illegal party becomes legal, for it is that party which, through its creatures, administers the “law.”   We may then conclude that the law being nothing but the will of the strongest, one is obliged to obey it only when too weak to resist it; that nothing really legitimizes it, and that this famous “legality” is only a question of more or less force. So when these rogues oppose the workers with their supreme argument, “legality,” the latter may laugh in their faces and ask if anyone ever came to consult the toilers about the making of those laws. And even if the people should have adhered to these laws for a time, the latter could have no effectiveness except so long as those who accepted them continued to believe them useful, and were willing to conform to them. It would be funny if under the pretext that at a given moment of our life we had agreed to a certain line of conduct, we were forced to adopt it for the rest of our existence, without being able to modify it, because to do so would be to displease a certain number of persons who, for one cause or another finding profit for themselves in the existing order, would like to crystallize their present condition. But what is more ridiculous still, is the desire to subject us to the laws of past generations, the pretence that we should believe we owe respect and obedience to the fancies which it pleased certain nincompoops to codify and set up as laws fifty years ago! The presumption of wanting to enslave the present to the conceptions of the past!

At this point we hear the recriminations of all the makers of laws and those that get their living out of them; they naively fall into line and cry out with the others that society could not exist if there were no longer any laws; that people would be cutting each other’s throats if they had no tutelary authority to keep them in fear and respect of acquired rank and condition. Later we shall see that, in spite of law and coercion, crimes continue to be committed; that the laws are powerless to repress or prevent them, since they are the result of the vicious organization which governs us; and that, consequently, we must not seek to maintain or to modify the laws, but to change the social system.

But what makes us still more indignant is that certain persons are audacious enough to set themselves up as judges of others. So long as authority leaned upon its divine source, so long as justice passed for an emanation from God, we can understand that those invested with authority should have believed themselves peculiar beings, endowed by the divine will with a portion of its omnipotence and infallibility, and should have imagined themselves fit to distribute rewards and punishments to the herd of vulgar mortals.  But in our century of science and free criticism, when it is recognized that all men are kneaded out of the same dough, subject to the same passions, the same caprices, the same mistakes, today when an agonizing divinity no longer comes to animate with its breath the ever fallible reason of mortals, we ask ourselves how it comes that there are men ignorant enough, or presumptuous enough, to dare to assume in cold blood and with deliberate intent the terrible responsibility of taking away another man’s life or any portion of his liberty. When in the most ordinary affairs of daily life we are most of the time unable to succeed in analyzing not only the causes which prompt our immediate neighbours to act but very often the true motives of our own acts, how can anybody have the self-sufficiency to believe himself capable of disentangling the truth in an affair of which he knows neither the beginning, nor the actors, nor the motives which prompted their actions, and which comes before the tribunal only after being magnified, commented upon, distorted by the misrepresentations of those who participated in it in any way whatsoever or, more frequently, have heard of it only through the repetitions of others?

You, who pose as severe and infallible judges of this man who has killed or robbed, do you know the motives which prompted him? Do you know the circumstances of environment, heredity, or even chance, which influenced his mind and led him to commit the act with which you reproach him? You, the implacable men that hurl your anathema against the accused whom public force has brought before your bar, have you ever asked yourselves whether, if placed in the same circumstances and surroundings under which this man acted, you would not have done worse? If, even, you were the impeccable, austere, and stainless men you are supposed to be, you, who with a word pitilessly cut off human life and liberty, you would not dare to utter your decisions if you had thoroughly reflected on human frailty; were you conscious of what you are doing, you would recoil appalled before your task!  How could you help being troubled with nightmares! How could your dreams help being peopled with spectres of the victims which your pretended justice creates every day!  Were it not for that official unconsciousness which stupidity and habit give, you would end by succumbing to the weight of remorse and the haunting of phantoms evoked by your judgments.

Our epoch of criticism and positive science no longer admits the principle of distributive justice, nor recognizes the legitimacy of a superior authority rewarding the good and chastising the wicked. Against this ancient doctrine, which the conceptions of the age during one period of humanity’s evolution rendered logical, we promulgate the opposite idea.  We no longer see actions as good or bad, except as they are agreeable or disagreeable to us, and in consequence act accordingly. We approve or become enthusiastic, defend or attack, according to the benefit or injury received by our interests, our passions, and our conceptions of the ideal. The common need of solidarity which leads people subjected to the same attacks to unite for their defence is to us the guarantee of a future social order less troubled than our own. We do not judge, but work and struggle; and we believe that universal harmony will result from the free action of all men, when once the suppression of private property no longer permits a handful of persons to enslave their fellows.

Hence we cannot admit that, six weeks or six years after an act has been committed, a group of persons supported by armed force should assemble to judge, in the name of some entity or other, and reward or punish the author of the act. That is hypocrisy and cowardice. You reproach a man with having killed, and to teach him that he was wrong you have him killed by the executioner, society’s hired assassin!  The executioner and you have not even the excuse of having risked your own necks, since you proceed under cover of an armed force which protects you. We are at war with the ruling caste: recognize, gentlemen of the magistracy, that you are its retainers, and let us alone with your big words and fine phrases.   Maintain the privileges whose care is confided to you, use the force which ignorance concedes to you, but leave justice in peace; she has nothing to do with you!

That you might be able to judge appreciatively of the ignominy of your role in beating down others, we would like, O judges, that it might happen to you that, being innocent, you should fall into the clutches of your fellows, to be judged in your turn. In such a situation you might learn what anguish and terror they have had to pass through who have filed before your bar, and whom you have tortured, you, magistrates, as the cat tortures the mouse.  With the floods of eloquence from the prosecuting attorney pleading against you rolling about your ears, you might see passing before your eyes the spectres of those unfortunates that, during your career, you have immolated upon the altar of social vengeance; you might ask yourselves then, with terror, if they also were not innocent. Oh yes, we would heartily wish that there might be one among you falsely accused, who should go through the terrors of those that come before your bar. For if, his innocence being one day admitted, he were reinstated in his functions, it is strongly to be presumed that he would re-enter his place in the tribunal only to tear his robe and apologize for his criminal life as magistrate, judging haphazard and trafficking in human lives.

Jean Grave, Paris 1893


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