David Graeber: There is a Real Revolution in Rojava

Revolution in Rojava

Revolution in Rojava

In this post I reproduce an edited version of an interview with David Graeber that was recently published in Turkish by the daily paper, Evrensel. Graeber was part of the group that included Janet Biehl which recently visited Rojava to eyewitness what is happening there. I have already posted some of Biehl’s initial impressions, and previously reproduced Graeber’s call for support for the people of Rojava. In this interview, Graeber emphasizes that a genuine anti-capitalist libertarian revolution is taking place in Rojava, and criticizes those on the left, including the more sectarian anarchist groups, who can only criticize what is going on, when the people of Rojava desperately need our help. I included some selections by David Graeber on the “new anarchism” and anarchist alternatives to representative democracy in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I also included several selections from Murray Bookchin in Volumes Two and Three, where he developed his ideas regarding a libertarian form of direct democracy based on community assemblies. The unedited version of the interview with David Graeber can be found here.

Revolutionary Women in Rojava

Revolutionary Women in Rojava

A Genuine Revolution

If anyone had any doubt in their minds about whether this was really a revolution, or just some kind of window-dressing, I’d say the visit put that permanently to rest. There are still people talking like that: This is just a PKK (The Kurdistan Workers’ Party) front, they’re really a Stalinist authoritarian organization that’s just pretending to have adopted radical democracy. No.

They’re totally for real. This is a genuine revolution. But in a way that’s exactly the problem. The major powers have committed themselves to an ideology that says real revolutions can no longer happen.

Meanwhile, many on the left, even the radical left, seem to have tacitly adopted a politics which assumes the same, even though they still make superficially revolutionary noises. They take a kind of puritanical ‘anti-imperialist’ framework that assumes the significant players are governments and capitalists and that’s the only game worth talking about. The game where you wage war, create mythical villains, seize oil and other resources, set up patronage networks: that’s the only game in town.

The people in Rojava are saying: We don’t want to play that game. We want to create a new game. A lot of people find that confusing and disturbing so they choose to believe it isn’t really happening, or such people are deluded or dishonest or naive.


I find it remarkable how so many people in West see these armed feminist cadres, for example, and don’t even think on the ideas that must lie behind them. They just figured it happened somehow. ‘I guess it’s a Kurdish tradition.’ To some degree it’s orientalism of course, or simple racism. It never occurs to them that people in Kurdistan might be reading Judith Butler too. At best they think ‘Oh, they’re trying to come up to Western standards of democracy and women’s rights. I wonder if it’s for real or just for foreign consumption.’ It just doesn’t seem to occur to them they might be taking these things way further than ‘Western standards’ ever have; that they might genuinely believe in the principles that Western states only profess.

The reaction in the international anarchist communities has been decidedly mixed. I find it somewhat difficult to understand. There’s a very substantial group of anarchists–usually the more sectarian elements–who insist that the PKK is still a ‘Stalinist’ authoritarian nationalist group which has adopted Bookchin and other left libertarian ideas to court the anti-authoritarian left in Europe and America.

It’s always struck me that this is one of the silliest and most narcissistic ideas I’ve ever heard. Even if the premise were correct, and a Marxist-Leninist group decided to fake an ideology to win foreign support, why on earth would they choose anarchist ideas developed by Murray Bookchin? That would be the stupidest gambit ever. Obviously they’d pretend to be Islamists or Liberals, those are the guys who get the guns and material support.

Anyway I think a lot of people on the international left, and the anarchist left included, basically don’t really want to win. They can’t imagine a revolution would really happen and secretly they don’t even want it, since it would mean sharing their cool club with ordinary people; they wouldn’t be special any more. So in that way it’s rather useful in culling the real revolutionaries from the poseurs. But the real revolutionaries have been solid.

There were so many impressive things [in Rojava]. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anywhere else in the world where there’s been a dual power situation where the same political forces created both sides. There’s the ‘democratic self-administration,’ which has all the form and trappings of a state–Parliament, Ministries, and so on–but it was created to be carefully separated from the means of coercive power.

Then you have the TEV-DEM (The Democratic Society Movement), driven bottom up by directly democratic institutions. Ultimately–and this is key–the security forces are answerable to the bottom-up structures and not to the top-down ones.

One of the first places we visited was a police academy (AsayiÅ). Everyone had to take courses in non-violent conflict resolution and feminist theory before they were allowed to touch a gun. The co-directors explained to us their ultimate aim was to give everyone in the country six weeks of police training, so that ultimately, they could eliminate police.

I think most movements, faced with dire war conditions, would not nonetheless immediately abolish capital punishment, dissolve the secret police and democratize the army. Military units for instance elect their officers.


The President of Cizire canton is an Arab, head of a major local tribe in fact. I suppose you could argue he was just a figurehead. In a sense the entire government is. But even if you look at the bottom-up structures, it’s certainly not just the Kurds who are participating. I was told the only real problem is with some of the ‘Arab belt’ settlements, people who were brought in by the Baathists in the 50s and 60s from other parts of Syria as part of an intentional policy of marginalizing and assimilating Kurds. Some of those communities they said are pretty unfriendly to the revolution.

But Arabs whose families had been there for generations, or the Assyrians, Khirgizians, Armenians, Chechens, and so on, are quite enthusiastic. The Assyrians we talked to said, after a long difficult relation with the regime, they felt they finally were being allowed religious [freedom] and cultural autonomy.

Probably the most intractable problem might be women’s liberation. The PYD and TEV-DEM see it as absolutely central to their idea of revolution, but they also have the problem of dealing with larger alliances with Arab communities who feel this violates basic religious principles. For instance, while the Syriac-speakers have their own women’s union, the Arabs don’t, and Arab girls interested in organizing around gender issues or even taking feminist seminars have to hitch on with the Assyrians or even the Kurds.

It is absolutely true that the US and European powers will do what they can to subvert the revolution. That goes without saying. The people I talked to were all well aware of it. But they didn’t make a strong differentiation between the leadership of regional powers like Turkey or Iran or Saudi Arabia, and Euro-American powers like, say, France or the US. They assumed they were all capitalist and statist and thus anti-revolutionary, who might at best be convinced to put up with them but were not ultimately on their side.

Then there’s the even more complicated question of the structure of what’s called ‘the international community,’ the global system of institutions like the UN or IMF, corporations, NGOs, human rights organizations for that matter, which all presume a statist organization, a government that can pass laws and has a monopoly of coercive enforcement over those laws. There’s only one airport in Cizire and it’s still under Syrian government control. They could take it over easily, any time, they say. One reason they don’t is because: How would a non-state run an airport anyway? Everything you do in an airport is subject to international regulations which presume a state.

[ISIS] can’t be seen to lose. Their entire recruiting strategy is based on the idea that they are an unstoppable juggernaut, and their continual victory is proof that they represent the will of God. To be defeated by a bunch of feminists would be the ultimate humiliation. As long as they’re still fighting in Kobane, they can claim that media claims are lies and they are really advancing. Who can prove otherwise? If they pull out they will have admitted defeat.

It seems [Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish leader] has shifted from an anti-Kurdish, anti-Assad policy to an almost purely anti-Kurdish strategy. Again and again he has been willing to ally with pseudo-religious fascists to attack any PKK-inspired experiments in radical democracy. Clearly, like Daesh (ISIS) themselves, he sees what they are doing as an ideological threat, perhaps the only real viable ideological alternative to right-wing Islamism on the horizon, and he will do anything to stamp it out.


At the moment things look surprisingly good for the revolutionary [Kurdish] forces. The KDG even gave up the giant ditch they were building across the Rojava border after the PKK intervened to effectively save Erbil and other cities from ISIS back in August. One KNK person told me it had a major effect on popular consciousness there; that one month had done 20 years worth of consciousness raising. Young people were particularly struck by the way their own Peshmerga fled the field but PKK women soldiers didn’t. But it’s hard to imagine how the KRG territory however will be revolutionized any time soon. Neither would the international powers allow it.

I think the Kurdish struggle is quite explicitly anti-capitalist in both [Turkey and Rojava]. It’s their starting point. They’ve managed to come up with a kind of formula: One can’t get rid of capitalism without eliminating the state, one can’t get rid of the state without getting rid of patriarchy. However, the Rojavans have it quite easy in class terms because the real bourgeoisie, such as it was in a mostly very agricultural region, took off with the collapse of the Baath regime.

They will have a long-term problem if they don’t work on the educational system to ensure a developmentalist technocrat stratum doesn’t eventually try to take power, but in the meantime, it’s understandable they are focusing more immediately on gender issues. In Turkey, well, I don’t know nearly as much, but I do have the sense things are much more complicated.

I’ve spent my life thinking about how we might be able to do things like this in some remote time in the future and most people think I’m crazy to imagine it will ever be. These people are doing it now. If they prove that it can be done, that a genuinely egalitarian and democratic society is possible, it will completely transform people’s sense of human possibility. Myself, I feel ten years younger just having spent 10 days there.

There were so many striking images, so many ideas. I really liked the disparity between the way people looked, often, and the things they said. You meet some guy, a doctor, he looks like a slightly scary Syrian military type in a leather jacket and stern austere expression. Then you talk to him and he explains: ‘Well, we feel the best approach to public health is preventative, most disease is made possible by stress. We feel if we reduce stress, levels of heart disease, diabetes, even cancer will decline. So our ultimate plan is to reorganize the cities to be 70% green space.’ There are all these mad, brilliant schemes. But then you go to the next doctor and they explain how because of the Turkish embargo, they can’t even get basic medicine or equipment, all the dialysis patients they couldn’t smuggle out have died. There’ a disjuncture between their ambitions and their incredibly straightened circumstances.

The woman who was effectively our guide was a deputy foreign minister named Amina. At one point, we apologized that we weren’t able to bring better gifts and help to the Rojavans, who were suffering so under the embargo. And she said: ‘In the end, that isn’t very important. We have the one thing no one can ever give you. We have our freedom. You don’t. We only wish there was some way we could give that to you.’

I am by temperament an optimist, I seek out situations which bear some promise. I don’t think there’s any guarantee this one will work out in the end, that it won’t be crushed, but it certainly won’t [last] if everyone decides in advance that no revolution is possible and refuse to give active support, or even devote their efforts to attacking it or increasing its isolation, which many do.

If there’s something I’m aware of, that others aren’t, perhaps it’s the fact that history isn’t over. Capitalists have made a mighty effort these past 30 or 40 years to convince people that current economic arrangements–not even capitalism, but the peculiar, financialized, semi-feudal form of capitalism we happen to have today–is the only possible economic system. They’ve put far more effort into that than they have into actually creating a viable global capitalist system. As a result the system is breaking down all around us at just the moment when everyone has lost the ability to imagine anything else.

I think it’s pretty obvious that in 50 years, capitalism in any form we’d recognize, and probably in any form at all, will be gone. Something else will have replaced it. That something might not be better. It might be even worse. It seems to me for that very reason it’s our responsibility, as intellectuals, or just as thoughtful human beings, to try to at least think about what something better might look like. And if there are people actually trying to create that better thing, it’s our responsibility to help them out.

David Graeber, December 2014

kobane solidarity

David Graeber: Support the Kurds in Syria!


In the piece below, David Graeber asks why the world is ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Syria, drawing a connection with the situation in Spain during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War (1936-1939), when the so-called democracies imposed an arms embargo on Spain, while Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist dictatorships not only provided the Spanish military and Falangists with the most up-to-date weapons, but even supplied some of their own armed forces, bombing civilian targets like Guernica, which provoked Pablo Picasso into creating one of his greatest art pieces in protest. The situation in Kobane is also reminiscent of the situation of the Paris Commune in May 1871, when the reactionary armed forces of the Versailles government attacked the revolutionary Communards, massacring 30,000 Parisians while the world looked on and the Prussians ensured that no outside help would arrive, much as Turkey is doing to the Kurds in Kobane.

Mujeres Libres in the Spanish Revolution

Mujeres Libres in the Spanish Revolution

I included some selections by David Graeber on the “new anarchism” and democracy in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I also included a statement from Kurdish anarchists, and an interview that Janet Biehl conducted with PKK members regarding their adoption of a libertarian communalist approach inspired by Murray Bookchin. Volume One of the Anarchism anthology included several selections regarding the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and the Mujeres Libres group Graeber refers to below.

Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society) Meeting in Qamishli

Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society) Meeting in Qamishli

Why is the world ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Syria?

In 1937, my father volunteered to fight in the International Brigades in defence of the Spanish Republic. A would-be fascist coup had been temporarily halted by a worker’s uprising, spearheaded by anarchists and socialists, and in much of Spain a genuine social revolution ensued, leading to whole cities under directly democratic management, industries under worker control, and the radical empowerment of women.

Spanish revolutionaries hoped to create a vision of a free society that the entire world might follow. Instead, world powers declared a policy of “non-intervention” and maintained a rigorous blockade on the republic, even after Hitler and Mussolini, ostensible signatories, began pouring in troops and weapons to reinforce the fascist side. The result was years of civil war that ended with the suppression of the revolution and some of a bloody century’s bloodiest massacres.

I never thought I would, in my own lifetime, see the same thing happen again. Obviously, no historical event ever really happens twice. There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today. But some of the similarities are so striking, and so distressing, that I feel it’s incumbent on me, as someone who grew up in a family whose politics were in many ways defined by the Spanish revolution, to say: we cannot let it end the same way again.

The autonomous region of Rojava, as it exists today, is one of few bright spots – albeit a very bright one – to emerge from the tragedy of the Syrian revolution. Having driven out agents of the Assad regime in 2011, and despite the hostility of almost all of its neighbours, Rojava has not only maintained its independence, but is a remarkable democratic experiment. Popular assemblies have been created as the ultimate decision-making bodies, councils selected with careful ethnic balance (in each municipality, for instance, the top three officers have to include one Kurd, one Arab and one Assyrian or Armenian Christian, and at least one of the three has to be a woman), there are women’s and youth councils, and, in a remarkable echo of the armed Mujeres Libres (Free Women) of Spain, a feminist army, the “YJA Star” militia (the “Union of Free Women”, the star here referring to the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar), that has carried out a large proportion of the combat operations against the forces of Islamic State.

How can something like this happen and still be almost entirely ignored by the international community, even, largely, by the International left? Mainly, it seems, because the Rojavan revolutionary party, the PYD, works in alliance with Turkey’s Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), a Marxist guerilla movement that has since the 1970s been engaged in a long war against the Turkish state. NATO, the US and EU officially classify them as a “terrorist” organisation. Meanwhile, leftists largely write them off as Stalinists.

But, in fact, the PKK itself is no longer anything remotely like the old, top-down Leninist party it once was. Its own internal evolution, and the intellectual conversion of its own founder, Abdullah Ocalan, held in a Turkish island prison since 1999, have led it to entirely change its aims and tactics.

The PKK has declared that it no longer even seeks to create a Kurdish state. Instead, inspired in part by the vision of social ecologist and anarchist Murray Bookchin, it has adopted the vision of “libertarian municipalism”, calling for Kurds to create free, self-governing communities, based on principles of direct democracy, that would then come together across national borders – that it is hoped would over time become increasingly meaningless. In this way, they proposed, the Kurdish struggle could become a model for a wordwide movement towards genuine democracy, co-operative economy, and the gradual dissolution of the bureaucratic nation-state.

Since 2005 the PKK, inspired by the strategy of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, declared a unilateral ceasefire with the Turkish state and began concentrating their efforts in developing democratic structures in the territories they already controlled. Some have questioned how serious all this really is. Clearly, authoritarian elements remain. But what has happened in Rojava, where the Syrian revolution gave Kurdish radicals the chance to carry out such experiments in a large, contiguous territory, suggests this is anything but window dressing. Councils, assemblies and popular militias have been formed, regime property has been turned over to worker-managed co-operatives – and all despite continual attacks by the extreme rightwing forces of Isis. The results meet any definition of a social revolution. In the Middle East, at least, these efforts have been noticed: particularly after PKK and Rojava forces intervened to successfully fight their way through Isis territory in Iraq to rescue thousands of Yezidi refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar after the local peshmerga fled the field. These actions were widely celebrated in the region, but remarkably received almost no notice in the European or North American press.

Now, Isis has returned, with scores of US-made tanks and heavy artillery taken from Iraqi forces, to take revenge against many of those same revolutionary militias in Kobane, declaring their intention to massacre and enslave – yes, literally enslave – the entire civilian population. Meanwhile, the Turkish army stands at the border preventing reinforcements or ammunition from reaching the defenders, and US planes buzz overhead making occasional, symbolic, pinprick strikes – apparently, just to be able to say that it did not do nothing as a group it claims to be at war with crushes defenders of one of the world’s great democratic experiments.

If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis? If there is a parallel to the Mujeres Libres of Spain, who could it be but the courageous women defending the barricades in Kobane? Is the world – and this time most scandalously of all, the international left – really going to be complicit in letting history repeat itself?

David Graeber, October 12, 2014

Picasso's Guernica

Picasso’s Guernica

Anarcha-Feminism in Tunisia

feminism attack more graffitti

Below I reproduce an unattributed translation from the French anarchist publication, Le Monde Libertaire, of an interview with the Tunisian anarchist feminist group, Feminism Attack! I follow that with an earlier report about the Tunisian feminist activist, Amina Sboui, leaving the Femen group and declaring herself an anarchist. Femen is a radical feminist group founded in Ukraine which has captured some media attention through its topless protests where Femen activists paint various political slogans across their chests. One area in which Femen has been particularly active is in protesting prostitution and the traffic in women. For an anti-authoritarian critique of prostitution and its connection with male domination see the excerpts from Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

feminism attack better poster

Interview with Feminism Attack!

Tunisia, with a strong feminist movement for over a hundred years, is often considered the most advanced in terms of women’s rights among countries of the Muslim world. Since 1957, the Personal Status Code recognizes the rights of women, such as abortion, contraception and the right to education. Although the Tunisian feminist movements have allowed for these advances, the status of women, as in many places on the globe, is still far from anarchist ideals. Nothing new under the sun of male domination: women are still seen as mothers and wives before citizens . After a few days in, it is easy to see how the judgment of others and fear of compromising a reputation may hinder the engagement and activism of women. There are currently at least three feminist collectives in Tunisia:

Democratic Women, group consisting of bourgeois who gather themselves without political purpose or claims, Femen, recognized in Tunisia for their struggle (their actions, however, do not induce unanimous approval), and Feminism Attack, a self-managed and self-funded collective movement, whose members have an average age of about 20 years. It is inspired by anarchist ideas to search for radical solutions to social and political problems, and the dangers that threaten the position of women in society.

The movement aims to establish a self-management culture and believes in the obligation of the revolt of women against all kinds of exploitation. It challenges all aspects of the status of women in patriarchal society: abolition of stereotypes based on sex, abolition of dehumanization and objectification of women, complete elimination of violence against women (rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, forced sterilization, indecent assault, sexual harassment ).

We met Aika and members of Feminism Attack, with whom we conducted this interview.

Monde Libertaire: Where does Feminism Attack situate itself and what are your political leanings?

Feminism Attack: We are currently situated in Tunis and our political coloration is quite mixed.

ML: Can you tell us how, when and why did your create your group?

FA: We were a group of women who shared many ideas and we came to take the same actions, but as an individuals: hence the desire to build the movement in late 2011. This decision was taken due to our awareness of the status of women in Tunisia, which is, contrary to appearances, at the limits of acceptability. Especially since the so-called acquis have been threatened by the rise to power of the Islamist party. And the so-called feminist movements that already exist have not really served the cause we advocate, they do not represent the true Tunisian women, but rather a pseudo-bourgeois image serving the system.

ML: Who are the activists of Feminism Attack?

FA: We are still a small group of pupils and students, we belong to the middle class. The age range is between 18 and 24 years. We have not yet recruited male activists, although we do not see any problem in it.

ML: What is your activism and what are your preferred actions?

FA: At the moment, we do not really have any preferred actions, we do a bit of everything… but it’s more a lack of resources and opportunities than anything else. We expect, of course, to expand our field of activity and the way we do it in the near future.

ML: How do you organize yourselves, how often do you meet each other, what equipment and means of communication do you have?

FA: We are organized around general meetings in which all group decisions are made. The frequency depends on the need of the moment. We don’t have fixed premises, we meet in cafes or public spaces… which is not very convenient since we already had the police pressure, and we are even controlled by civilians. For the moment we don’t have any materials and that is why our actions are limited to the extent that we can auto-finance and only by our own money. We communicate with all the means at our disposal (Facebook, phone, etc.).

feminism attack poster

Take your head from the clouds and go into the streets!

ML: What are the different feminist groups in Tunisia ? Your relationship with them? What do you think of Femen ?

FA: The best known is the Tunisian Association of Women Democrats, there are others , but they are not widely known or very active on the political scene. We really have no relationship with them, since we do not end up with the same principles, and our working methods are different. Otherwise, we have already expressed our position vis-à -vis Femen, we even published a detailed section on our Facebook page.

ML: Can the political agenda of Feminism Attack in Tunisia combine with other movements? With which ones and in what form?

F A: We are close enough to the movements: Blech 7es , Disobedience and Alerta (note: Vegan/Green Anarchism ). We organize actions together: cultural events, film screenings , concerts, etc.

ML: Regarding the latest popular uprisings in Tunisia, and even today, where in this dynamic could you inscribe yourself?

FA: We inscribe ourselves in any popular uprising which is the cause of the people, which is against the system, and most importantly, which is not organized by political parties, which do not serve their own agendas and do not intend to achieve power.

ML: How are Feminism Attack’s initiatives perceived by Tunisians and other revolutionaries ?

FA: Our actions do not have a great popular echo in general; Tunisians are limited to information supplied ready by the media, and apart from one or two arrests followed by sloppy and disinformative articles, we do not receive full media coverage. We do not complain really because our goal is not… chasing after glory.

ML: What are the most pressing constraints on the activists of Feminism Attack?

FA: The system and the police generally.

ML: Are cities, in your opinion, more conducive to feminist actions?

FA: In the city, the work is easier, because there is some awareness of the people, the people are more open and women more emancipated, which is contrary to the countryside, where sometimes people are literally cut off from the world. But we plan to work in rural areas as soon as we have the opportunity; we also have several projects in this regard.

ML: What are the repressive actions exerted on feminist anarchists? Are there any precautions to take?

FA: The dangers are almost the same for anyone who goes “against the current”: tear gas , batons, police violence, arrests , imprisonment, threats, etc. We have taken no real care because it would limit us tremendously in terms of actions.

ML: In addition to traditional repressive forces, what are your most formidable opponents or political enemies?

FA: The extreme political parties, which are all in the service of the same system, either directly or indirectly.

ML: Finally, what is your outlook?

FA: We expect to fight for our cause much longer and, more importantly, if our actions are successful and they serve this struggle, we can achieve real change and participate in creating a certain awareness of the people.

French original: Le Monde Libertaire, September 2013


Amina Sboui

Amina Sboui, whose actions as part of the Femen activist organization caused significant controversy in Tunisia, resulting in her being jailed for over two months, has left the group.

She confirmed to Tunisia Live that she cut ties with the Ukraine-based organization known for using nudity in their protests, saying their actions have been counterproductive.

Sboui initially gained attention in March when she posted topless photos on Facebook with “my body belongs to me, and is not the source of anyone’s honor” painted on her chest. The photos were part of a Femen campaign.

She was arrested on May 19 in the city of Kariouan after painting the world “Femen” on wall outside a cemetery. She was released August 1 after several appearances in court, but still faces a charge of desecrating the cemetery.

Amina Sboui told Tunisia Live that her trial may convene again next month, but she is not sure of the exact date. She says she will appear before the court again whenever she is called, and said she is guilty of nothing.

Sboui also commented on her most recent topless picture, released last week. In the photo, she lights a cigaratte with a Molotov cocktail with two anarchy symbols on her shoulder and “we don’t need your dimocracy [sic]” painted on her chest.

“Anarchy is the only solution” given the current state of affairs in Tunisia, she said, explaining the image.

Word of her departure from Femen came after she was temporarily detained after a protest this weekend.

Sboui and three members of the Feminist Attack organization, a radical anarchist, feminist activist group, were held by police for three hours on Sunday after throwing paint and eggs at the Ministry of Culture headquarters.

Sana Chamekh of Feminism Attack said the action was intended to show solidarity with Nasreddine Shili, an actor who reportedly threw an egg at Minister of Culture Mehdi Mabrouk last week.

The four were released after refusing to sign a police report of the incident, according to Chamekh.

Chamekh said that while her organization had known Sboui before her activities with Femen, with whom they are not aligned, she was working with them independently.

Sboui says she is discussing potential membership in Feminism Attack with them, but is currently not associated with any group.

August 19, 2013

Against the State and Capital

Against the State and Capital

Free Pussy Riot


Amnesty International is trying to organize an international day of solidarity for the imprisoned Russian punk-feminists, Pussy Riot, for June 10, 2013, to coincide with the broadcast of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a documentary film about Pussy Riot and their persecution by Russian authorities: http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/campaigns/individuals-at-risk/pussy-riot-punk-prayer?msource=W1306ECIAR1.

In support of Pussy Riot, I previously posted Michael Bakunin’s classic critique of the relationship between church and state, a critique which appears to hold true in Putin’s post-Soviet Russia. For many more of Bakunin’s anarchist writings, see Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot

Kytha Kurin: Anarcha-Feminism (1980)

Open Road Poster

In the lead up to the November 20, 2012 Vancouver launch of Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian IdeasI will be presenting some of the material I couldn’t fit in. Kytha Kurin was part of the collective which published the Open Road anarchist news journal from 1976 to 1990. The name was inspired by Emma Goldman, who originally wanted to name her monthly review The Open Road, from a Walt Whitman poem, but for copyright reasons had to use another name, ultimately choosing Mother Earth.  At its peak, Open Road was the largest circulation English language anarchist publication in North America, with over 14,000 readers. Selections from Open Road, including this one, are included in Allan Antliff’s anthology, Only a Beginning (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004). In this article, originally published in Open Road No. 11 (Summer 1980), Kytha Kurin describes how state laws regarding abortion and the failure of state authorities to deal with violence against women not only radicalized many women but also inspired some to become anarchists.

Anarcha-Feminism: Why the Hyphen?

For many women, our first specifically feminist politicization came through demanding the right to abortion, that is, the right to control our own bodies. When anti-woman laws were exposed not as neglected holdovers of the Dark Ages, but as conscious means of reinforcing a woman’s body as property of the State, many feminists were prepared to work in political movements because we had already found ourselves in a political confrontation. There was no question of “learning” to make politics personal; the intimacy of the personal was made political by the intervention of the State.

Men hadn’t been so clearly confronted by this reality. In spite of the fact that most men sell their body/mind power and potential through wage slavery, and that their creative abilities are drained, suffocated and side-tracked into commodity consumption, many so-called radical men still acted as if they accepted an electoral definition of “politics’ —something you go out and “do” for at most, a few hours a day. While many men recognized the urgency of political activity (something’s got to change soon), most did not recognize the immediacy (we’ve got to make changes everyday)…

Anarchism, with its recognition that the process of making a revolution can’t be separated from the goals of that revolution, appeared to understand the political in much the same way that feminism did. Anarchists recognized that an authoritarian, exploitative movement could not possibly create a non-authoritarian, non-exploitative society. But what anarchist theory recognized, feminists demanded.

Anarchist meetings were not substantially different from other Left party meetings. There were some subjects that were relevant to political meetings and there were proper ways of speaking at political meetings. But feminists who now understood politics all too well, demanded that all types of domination and exploitation be recognized as political issues because when oppression confronts people in every aspect of their lives, how can some areas of living be acceptable for political work and others not? These feminists insisted on confronting domination, power tripping, and sexism right when it happened in a meeting instead of simply in the abstract or outside the group.

Feminists also refused to decapitate the “reasoning” self from the “emotional” self before participating in political meetings and demanded that the whole person, complete with warmth and confusion of life, be present. We exposed the irrationality of believing that a life direction that didn’t spring from a sensitivity to the totality of life could in any sane way be considered rational.

Most anarchists had never been asked to so directly live their anarchism and found the feminist insistence on “process” and the repeated “interruptions” about male domination upsetting. And many feminists who had been attracted by anarchist theory but were really more concerned with anarchist practice, felt frustrated and refused to be placated with the rhetoric that would have one believe that anarchists couldn’t possibly be authoritarian sexists.

So a lot of feminists left mixed groups. Some worked in anarcha-feminist groups and many gave up on anarchism altogether…

Confrontations over abortion rights being the catalyst to many women becoming political, a logical extension was the growth of self-help health collectives. Aware that authoritarian structures, whether of the State or radical political groups, retain the power of authority by hoarding and mystifying knowledge, feminists tried to avoid becoming the “new experts.”

They worked to reclaim the body as a natural organism that could be understood and cared for by women themselves rather than left to the authority of doctors, multi-billion dollar drug companies or even radical feminists. They tried to share skills among themselves and tried to share knowledge’ and skills with the “patients.” Thus, “self-help” health collectives rather than simply “women’s” health collectives.

But the big job of combatting the insidious drug pushing in our culture and the need for major medical research has meant that if feminists are to be really effective we have to also work outside our small collectives. If contraceptive research has only managed to deteriorate since the Dark Ages because it is economically profitable to drug companies and patriarchy to have it that way, and if contraceptive research is absolutely essential for women, then the power of drug companies and patriarchy has to be confronted.

People working in rape relief centres faced the same kind of problems. While the centres are essential to rape victims, if they’re primarily “reaction” centres, they’ve got an unending future as helpers of the State.

While many women have pushed for stricter enforcement of rape laws, radical feminists know that rape is not a crime against society as we know it, but rather the ultimate expression of our society’s belief in and acceptance of force as righteous. Aside from the fact that it’s almost always poor and minority race men who are actually convicted, it’s to the advantage of the patriarchal State to encourage its citizens to see rape as a perverted form of sexual pleasure because that helps to contaminate the whole concept of sexuality as nasty, thus reinforcing the idea of the body as something that has to be controlled and legislated against by that State. When the State calls rape a crime it distracts people from realizing that implicitly through advertising, frustration inducement, and the concept of the righteousness of power of the stronger over the weaker, this society in fact promotes rape.

The reality of the staggering number of rape victims who are battered wives and the State’s horror of upsetting the nuclear family has further forced feminists into directly confronting and educating society about rape rather than relying on legal channels. In transition houses battered wives help each other in rejecting the “security” of their violent relationships. Unlike traditional social workers, radical feminists aren’t interested in patching things up in the home or “getting even” through the courts. They’re interested in eliminating rape. By distributing literature, which tries to explain the role of society in rape, by printing descriptions of rapists so that the rapists lose their anonymous power, and by going with rape victims in groups to confront rapists in public, feminists work to expose rapists, expose society’s implicit approval of rape, and by clearly attacking the real problems of frustration, weakness, capital and power, develop the highest form of education. That is, an education that learns from what really is and then moves forward to change the reality.

The kind of shared, living, explorative education that has grown within the self-help clinics and rape relief centres is representative of education as practiced by most radical feminists. The sharing of knowledge and skills is something women have been doing in their homes for centuries but because these skills were centered around such things as cooking and child care, they’ve generally been denigrated as “women’s stuff.” Likewise, the openness of women in talking about their relationships has been swept aside as “gossip.” Now, in our printing, theatre, health—in all our groups—women have continued sharing our skills, knowledge and feelings.

As feminists rejected the lopsided histories of patriarchal society and demanded “herstory,” we set to liberating education as lived experience in place of taught submission…

Peggy Kornegger suggested that women were “in the unique position of being the bearers of a subsurface anarchist consciousness”… Elaine Leeder said, “It has been said that women often practice Anarchism and do not know it, while some men call themselves Anarchists and do not practice it.” While neither Kornegger nor Leeder are saying that females biologically make for better anarchists, a too facile acceptance of their statements has encouraged many to believe just that. But if anarchistic tendencies within the feminist movement are accepted as a natural by-product of being female, it puts unfair pressure on women to “live up to their natural anarchism” and it limits our potential for political development because it discourages us from examining why women behave more anarchistically than men. Many women’s groups do disintegrate, many women do exploit other women and men, and feminists haven’t been able to liberate humanity. These “shortcomings” don’t make women less female, they confirm woman’s humanness.

So why have feminist groups incorporated so many anarchistic principles in our work situations? Largely because as women we’ve been raised to be sensitive, nurturing, and to think of our activities as being carried out in small intimate circles. While in the past these traits have facilitated the brute force of male domination, keeping women ineffectual in “worldly issues,” now, with a conscious appreciation of the life nurturing power of our “female” qualities, we are in a position to expand their influence while retaining their strength.

Also, by realizing that it is our education that has brought us to this point, we can more consciously extend that kind of education to men, and in particular, to rearing our sons and reinforcing our daughters. We can also recognize the inherent limitations of that very education. Those hesitations include a tendency towards passivity and towards exploding inside our heads instead of fighting our oppressors. While we may excel at working in small groups we’ve traditionally been cautious of larger groups and need to guard against isolation…

[A]narchism isn’t what it was before the radical feminist experience. If anarchism is its history, it is also a continuously created explorative and active response to the immediate and to the future. In theory, anarchism always included feminism but it’s only in the last few years that we’ve really discovered what that means and therefore been able to learn about that part of ourselves.

Theoretically anarchists shouldn’t have had to learn to be feminists, but they did have to learn and the lessons have been invaluable. These lessons have taught us what it really means to live our politics and they’ve given concrete, contemporary examples of direct, local, collective action.

It’s easy so see how anarchism has benefited from feminism and there are many who argue in favour of a feminist rather than an anarchist movement. But while I think it is premature to drop the hyphen in anarcha-feminism, I do see the eventual return to—or rather arrival at—anarchism as a liberating prospect.

Putting the anarcha into feminism has helped to place the immediate concrete work done into a historical perspective. That’s important so that successful, collective human ways of dealing with our struggles aren’t seen as isolated flukey episodes but rather as part of a total life approach and vision to ALL our living.

While we can only move forward if we first perceive the present real problems (and these have become clearer through the work of feminists), we need a vision if we are to move freely forward. A vision can only be the expression of our past, present and future. Part of that vision includes our anarchist history and part of that history includes the sharing of skills traditionally considered male. If our positive “female” skills are products of our education, so are our “female” deficiencies. Our male comrades can help us liberate “male” skills from our denied pasts and from the destructive uses they generally suffer in capitalist society.

Although the feminist experience has advanced the practice, we will find attempts at living non-authoritarian collective lives in our anarchist history—and present.

Anarcha-feminism isn’t the only compound in the movement. The other two one hears of most frequently are anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-communism. In all cases the addition to the anarchism is the element of anarchism that seems to need the most emphasis. Anarcho-syndicalists recognize that most people’s lives center around work and they believe that that is where the major organizing must be done. Anarcho-communists stress the importance of the communes and the community. Because anarcho-communism is concerned with life in all its personal interactions I would suggest that the word anarchism includes the communism.

Anarcha-feminism exhibits aspects of both anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-communism. To the extent that women are being exploited and degraded more than men, anarcha-feminism is like anarcho-syndicalism. The emphasis has to be on that part of anarchism that deals with personal and sexual exploitation. To the degree that feminism moves beyond “reaction” to exploitation and poses a total life approach, it is like anarcho-communism in that it becomes synonymous with anarchism.

Having said that it’s premature to drop the feminist stress in anarchism, why have I done it? Mainly because I do see anarchism—an anarchism broadened by the feminist experience—as the most viable revolutionary direction for the 80s. Those of us who choose at times to work in mixed groups will probably still have to direct a lot of our energy to emphasizing the feminism in anarchism and of course, many of us will continue to call ourselves anarcha-feminists. For myself, I drop the feminism in the label, but not in the struggle.

Work that I hope will be inspired by the feminist experience includes uncovering our own anarchist roots and experiences, and recognizing the political as an everyday issue.

Anarchist roots doesn’t just mean specifically anarchist inspired actions or theories. It means paying attention to all expressions of revolt and anti-authoritarianism. From such diverse revolts as the Diggers in England in the 1600s, to the Spanish collectives of the 1930s, to May 1968 in France, to squatters in present day Amsterdam, we are reminded that anarchist theory has grown from a human revolt against oppression and a responsibility to life that has preceded any theory. The experience of radical feminism is the most obviously recent example of this truth.

More attention to this heritage should encourage us to examine our immediate living situations more closely and to recognize in them the frequent indications of, and overwhelming potential for, radical rejection of authoritarian society. This is crucial if we are to be more than a discontented few and if we genuinely believe in the possibility of human liberation.

Particularly through “outreach” work such as the health collectives, street theatre, and rape relief, feminists have been most successful in combining a conscious political perspective with the unarticulated need of those whose lives are the expression of the need and potential for liberation.

The relation between a sense of immediacy and the effectiveness of the work being done has become clearer through feminist struggles and I expect that most radical feminists will continue doing the kind of work we’ve been doing for the last decade—fighting sexism wherever we encounter it. Women definitely are still more oppressed than men, the State is trying to crack down on abortions now that it sees the serious consequences of “granting” a woman some say in her own body, and for the most part, political groups are still sexist…

If we really do intend to live our politics more immediately, we’re going to have to work more on liberating our workplaces. Feminists have become progressively more involved in workplace organizing because the number of working women has risen so dramatically in the last two decades. As with our other political work we’ve had to fight the hierarchies of male dominated unions. Where unions already existed, women have fought to introduce even a slight degree of feminism, but for the most part, unions hadn’t previously been interested in organizing women so that now to a large extent we’re doing our own distinctly feminist organizing. It’s important that our organizing be as creative and liberating as our lives should be…

Just as feminists have fought to clarify the personal of politics, now feminists and anarchists have to insist on our humanness at our workplaces and reject our objectification as workers. It is as harmful to organize workers on authoritarian lines as to simply wish that people weren’t primarily workers. Because the workplace is generally so alienating and boring it seems difficult to liberate human energy. But, because the workplace is where most of us are, once we liberate the human being from the worker, the power of anarchy will be unlimited. Just as feminism has broadened the reality of anarchism, so will the unleashed energy of working people astound us with our own potential. If we are successful in claiming work as something we do for ourselves rather than something we are for others, our imaginative creative future will know no bounds. If we fail, we know our future only too well…

Obviously we can’t all be actively involved in fighting all the oppression weighing down on us but unless we see our struggles in their global context, we’re doomed to the repetition of individual or small collective struggles and finally, to no struggle at all because at some point we will be destroyed by nuclear insanity. That’s where the importance of an anarchist vision, history, and network come in.

It’s important to see our constructive local struggles in their global context so that we don’t get assimilated into the system, so that we can learn from others who are struggling in their own areas, so that we never forget that we’re involved in a world revolution and so that when we do join in large demonstrations such as a militarist and anti-nuke, we do so from an informed position and are able to participate constructively… we’re going to need all the spirit, imagination, and endurance we can get. The big powers are gearing up for war and playing with nuclear power. We’d be foolish to be optimistic about our future.

But with the vision of anarchism, and the example of feminism’s durability, we’ll put up one hell of a fight to be human.


The Paris Commune and Workers’ Self-Management

Long Live the Commune!

The Association of Women for the Defence of Paris was one of the most revolutionary groups during the Paris Commune (1871). In the following submission to the Commune’s Commission on Labour and Exchange, the Association sets forth a revolutionary program similar to that of the anarchists. Capitalism was to be replaced by the free association of the producers by means of a worldwide strike of labour against capital.

Women workers

The Association of Women have considered the following:

There is only one way of reorganizing labour so that the producer is guaranteed the product of his own work, and that is by setting up free producer associations which will share out the profits from the various industries.

The establishment of these associations would put an end to the exploitation and enslavement of Labour by Capital, and would at last guarantee the workers the management of their own affairs. It would simultaneously facilitate urgently needed reforms, in both production and productive relationships, to include the following points:

(a) variety of work in each trade—a continually repetitive manual movement damages both mind and body.

(b) a reduction in working hours—physical exhaustion inevitably destroys man’s spiritual qualities.

(c) an end to all competition between male and female workers—their interests are identical and their solidarity is essential to the success of the final world-wide strike of labour against capital.

The Association therefore wants:

Equal pay for equal hours of work

A local and international federation of the various trade sections in order to ease the movement and exchange of goods by centralizing the international interests of the producers.

The general development of these producer associations requires:

Informing and organizing the working masses… The consequence of this will be that every association member will be expected to belong to the International Working Men’s Association.

State assistance in advancing the necessary credit for setting up these associations: loans repayable in yearly instalments at a rate of 5 per cent.

The reorganization of female labour is an extremely urgent matter, when one considers that in the society of the past it was the most exploited form of all.

Faced by the present events, with poverty increasing at an alarming rate, and seeing the unwarranted stoppage in all work, it is to be feared that the women of Paris, who have become momentarily revolutionary in spirit, may as a result of the state of continual privation, relapse into the more or less reactionary and passive position which the social order of the past marked out for them. That would be a disastrous step backwards which would endanger the revolutionary and international interests of the working class, thereby endangering the Commune.

For these reasons the Central Committee of the Association of Women requests the Commune’s Commission on Labour and Exchange to entrust it with the reorganization and allocation of work for the women of Paris, in the first instance providing the Association with production of military supplies. This work will naturally not be sufficient for the majority of working women, so in addition the Central Committee requests the commission to place at the disposal of the federated producer associations the sums of money necessary for the working of the factories and workshops abandoned by the bourgeois and comprising those crafts mainly practised by women…

For the Executive Commission

The Secretary-General


Communal Kitchen

Association of Women: Against Discrimination and Privilege

Women of the Commune

In the following proclamation, the Association of Women for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded directly draw the connection between sex discrimination and ruling class privilege. In subsequent publications, they called for capitalism to be replaced by workers’ self-management. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included Louise Michel’s defence of women’s rights, as well as her statement before the military tribunal in which she dared them to put her to death for her role during the Paris Commune.

Louise Michel before the Military Council


That it is the duty and the right of everyone to fight for the sacred cause of the people, that is, for the Revolution;

That danger is imminent and the enemy are at the gates of Paris;

That union makes strength; in time of danger all individual efforts must combine to form a collective, invincible resistance by the whole population;

That the Commune—representing the principle of the extinction of all privilege and all inequality—should therefore consider all legitimate grievances of any section of the population without discrimination of sex, such discrimination having been made and enforced as a means of maintaining the privileges of the ruling classes;

That the success of the present conflict, whose aim is to put an end to corruption, and ultimately to regenerate society by ensuring the rule of Labour and Justice, is of as much significance to women as it is to the men of Paris;

That many among them are determined that in the event of the enemy breaking into Paris, they will fight to the finish in defence of our common rights;

That effective organization of this revolutionary element into a vigorous force for the defence of Paris Commune can only be achieved with concrete aid from the government of the Commune itself;

Consequently, the delegates of the women citizens of Paris request the Executive Commission of the Commune:

1. To order all district town halls to make available in each district a room that can serve as headquarters of the committees;

2. To request that they provide large premises for meetings of women citizens;

3. To have the Commune subsidize the printing of circulars, posters and notices that these committees decide to distribute.

For the members of the Central Committee of Women

The Paris Commune

Revolutionary Women of the Commune: We Want to be Free

Women on the Barricades

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I could have included a whole chapter of writings produced by the revolutionary women’s group, the Association of Women for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded. The group came together in April 1871, soon after the declaration of the Paris Commune. Its members included André Léo, Natalie Lemel, Louise Michel, Paule Mink and Elizabeth Dmitrieff. All were socialists involved in the International Workers’ Association. After the defeat of the Commune, Lemel helped persuade Michel to become a self-avowed anarchist. For a time, Léo was close to the anarchists, sharing their opposition to Marx’s attempts to assert control over the International. Mink associated herself with the anarchist currents in the French socialist movement, but after the defeat of the Commune advocated revolutionary dictatorship. During the Commune, Dmitrieff appears to have shared the revolutionary socialist and anti-state views of other members of the Association, but remained close to Marx, who had sent her to the Commune at the end of March 1871.

The Association of Women for the Defence of Paris

On April 11, 1871, the Association published the following proclamation, calling for not only the abolition of exploitation but for no more bosses and freedom for all.


The fratricidal madness that has taken possession of France, this duel unto death, is the final act in the eternal antagonism between Right and Might, Labour and Exploitation, the People and their Tyrants!

The privileged classes of the present social order are our enemies; those who have lived by our labour, thriving on our want.

They have seen the people rise up, demanding: ‘No obligations without rights! No rights without obligations! We want to work but we also want the product of our work. No more exploiters. No more bosses. Work and security for all—The People to govern themselves —We want the Commune; we want to live in freedom or to die fighting for it!’

Women of Paris, the decisive hour has come. The old world must come to an end! We want to be free! And France has not risen up alone. The civilized nations of the world have their eyes on Paris. They are waiting for our victory to free themselves in their turn.

A Group of Parisian Women, April 11, 1871

Anarchist Feminism

Emma Goldman and Mary Wollstonecraft

Emma Goldman wrote and lectured on a wide variety of topics, from anarchism and syndicalism to education, the modern drama, atheism, children, birth control, love, marriage, jealousy and prostitution. In this rarely republished essay, she discusses the pioneering feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which Wollstonecraft wrote during the 1789 French Revolution in response to those male revolutionaries whose sole focus was on the “rights of men.”  Goldman’s essay was recently reprinted in Black Flag, No. 227 (Black Flag is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Readers who would like to see Black Flag continue can make contributions here).

Emma Goldman: Mary Wollstonecraft, Her Tragic Life and Her Passionate Struggle for Freedom

The Pioneers of human progress are like the Seagulls, they behold new coasts, new spheres of daring thought, when their co-voyagers see only the endless stretch of water. They send joyous greetings to the distant lands. Intense, yearning, burning faith pierces the clouds of doubt, because the sharp ears of the harbingers of life discern from the maddening roar of the waves, the new message, the new symbol for humanity.

The latter does not grasp the new, dull, and inert, it meets the pioneer of truth with misgivings and resentment, as the disturber of its peace, as the annihilator of all stable habits and traditions.

Thus the pathfinders are heard only by the few, because they will not tread the beaten tracks, and the mass lacks the strength to follow into the unknown.

In conflict with every institution of their time since they will not compromise, it is inevitable that the advance guards should become aliens to the very one[s] they wish to serve; that they should be isolated, shunned, and repudiated by the nearest and dearest of kin. Yet the tragedy every pioneer must experience is not the lack of understanding – it arises from the fact that having seen new possibilities for human advancement, the pioneers can not take root in the old, and with the new still far off they become outcast roamers of the earth, restless seekers for the things they will never find.

They are consumed by the fires of compassion and sympathy for all suffering and with all their fellows, yet they are compelled to stand apart from their surroundings. Nor need they ever hope to receive the love their great souls crave, for such is the penalty of a great spirit, that what he receives is but nothing compared to what he gives.

Such was the fate and tragedy of Mary Wollstonecraft. What she gave the World, to those she loved, towered high above the average possibility to receive, nor could her burning, yearning soul content itself with the miserly crumbs that fall from the barren table of the average life.

Mary Wollstonecraft came into the World at a time when her sex was in chattel slavery: owned by the father while at home and passed on as a commodity to her husband when married. It was indeed a strange World that Mary entered into on the twenty-seventh of April 1759, yet not very much stranger than our own.  For while the human race has no doubt progressed since that memorable moment, Mary Wollstonecraft is still very much the pioneer, far ahead of our own time.

She was one of many children of a middle-class family, the head of which lived up to his rights as master by tyrannizing his wife and children and squandering his capital in idle living and feasting.  Who could stay him, the creator of the universe? As in many other things, so have his rights changed little, since Mary’s father’s time. The family soon found itself in dire want, but how were middle-class girls to earn their own living with every avenue closed to them? They had but one calling, that was marriage. Mary’s sister probably realized that. She married a man she did not love in order to escape the misery of the parents’ home. But Mary was made of different material, a material so finely woven it could not fit into coarse surroundings. Her intellect saw the degradation of her sex, and her soul – always at white heat against every wrong – rebelled against the slavery of half of the human race. She determined to stand on her own feet. In that determination she was strengthened by her friendship with Fannie Blood, who herself had made the first step towards emancipation by working for her own support. But even without Fannie Blood as a great spiritual force in Mary’s life, nor yet even without the economic factor, she was destined by her very nature to become the Iconoclast of the false Gods whose standards the World demanded her to obey.  Mary was a born rebel, one who would have created rather than submit to any form set up for her.

It has been said that nature uses a vast amount of human material to create one genius. The same holds good of the true rebel, the true pioneer. Mary was born and not made through this or that individual incident in her surroundings. The treasure of her soul, the wisdom of her life’s philosophy, the depth of her World of thought, the intensity of her battle for human emancipation and especially her indomitable struggle for the liberation of her own sex, are even today so far ahead of the average grasp that we may indeed claim for her the rare exception which nature has created but once in a century. Like the Falcon who soared through space in order to behold the Sun and then paid for it with his life, Mary drained the cup of tragedy, for such is the price of wisdom.

Much has been written and said about this wonderful champion of the eighteenth century, but the subject is too vast and still very far from being exhausted. The woman’s movement of today and especially the suffrage movement will find in the life and struggle of Mary Wollstonecraft much that would show them the inadequacy of mere external gain as a means of freeing their sex. No doubt much has been accomplished since Mary thundered against women’s economic and political enslavement, but has that made her free? Has it added to the depth of her being? Has it brought joy and cheer in her life? Mary’s own tragic life proves that economic and social rights for women alone are not enough to fill her life, nor yet enough to fill any deep life, man or woman. It is not true that the deep and fine man – I do not mean the mere male – differs very largely from the deep and fine woman. He too seeks for beauty and love, for harmony and understanding. Mary realized that, because she did not limit herself to her own sex, she demanded freedom for the whole human race.

To make herself economically independent, Mary first taught school and then accepted a position as Governess to the pampered children of a pampered lady, but she soon realized that she was unfit to be a servant and that she must turn to something that would enable her to live, yet at the same time would not drag her down. She learned the bitterness and humiliation of the economic struggle. It was not so much the lack of external comforts, that galled Mary’s soul, but it was the lack of inner freedom which results from poverty and dependence which made her cry out, “How can anyone profess to be a friend to freedom yet not see that poverty is the greatest evil.”

Fortunately for Mary and posterity, there existed a rare specimen of humanity, which we of the twentieth century still lack, the daring and liberal Publisher Johnson. He was the first to publish the works of Blake, of Thomas Paine, of Godwin and of all the rebels of his time without any regard to material gain. He also saw Mary’s great possibilities and engaged her as proofreader, translator, and contributor to his paper, the Analytical Review. He did more. He became her most devoted friend and advisor. In fact, no other man in Mary’s life was so staunch and understood her difficult nature, as did that rare man. Nor did she ever open up her soul as unreservedly to any one as she did to him. Thus she writes in one of her analytical moments:

“Life is but a jest. I am a strange compound of weakness and resolution.  There is certainly a great defect in my mind, my wayward heart creates its own misery. Why I have been made thus I do not know and until I can form some idea of the whole of my existence, I must be content to weep and dance like a child, long for a toy and be tired of it as soon as I get it. We must each of us wear a fool’s cap, but mine alas has lost its bells and is grown so heavy, I find it intolerably troublesome.”

That Mary should write thus of herself to Johnson shows that there must have been a beautiful comradeship between them. At any rate, thanks to her friend she found relief from the terrible struggle. She found also intellectual food. Johnson’s rooms were the rendezvous of the intellectual elite of London. Thomas Paine, Godwin, Dr. Fordyce, the Painter Fuseli, and many others gathered there to discuss all the great subjects of their time.

Mary came into their sphere and became the very center of that intellectual bustle. Godwin relates how he came to hear Tom Paine at an evening arranged for him, but instead he had to listen to Mary Wollstonecraft, her conversational powers like everything else about her inevitably stood in the center of the stage.

Thus Mary could soar through space, her spirit reaching out to great heights. The opportunity soon offered itself. The erstwhile champion of English liberalism, the great Edmund Burke, delivered himself of a sentimental sermon against the French Revolution. He had met the fair Marie Antoinette and bewailed her lot at the hands of the infuriated people of Paris. His middle-class sentimentality saw in the greatest of all uprisings only the surface and not the terrible wrongs the French people endured before they were driven to their acts. But Mary Wollstonecraft saw and her reply to the mighty Burke, The Vindication of the Rights of Man, is one of the most powerful pleas for the oppressed and disinherited ever made.

It was written at white heat, for Mary had followed the revolution intently. Her force, her enthusiasm, and, above all, her logic and clarity of vision proved this erstwhile schoolmistress to be possessed of a tremendous brain and of a deep and passionately throbbing heart. That such should emanate from a woman was like a bomb explosion, unheard of before. It shocked the World at large, but gained for Mary the respect and affection of her male contemporaries. They felt no doubt, that she was not only their equal, but in many respects, superior to most of them.

“When you call yourself a friend of liberty, ask your own heart whether it would not be more consistent to style yourself the champion of Property, the adorer of the golden image which power has set up?

Security of Property! behold in a few words the definition of English liberty. But softly, it is only the property of the rich that is secure, the man who lives by the sweat of his brow has no asylum from oppression.”

Think of the wonderful penetration in a woman more than one hundred years ago. Even today there are few among our so-called reformers, certainly very few among the women reformers, who see as clearly as this giant of the eighteenth Century. She understood only too well that mere political changes are not enough and do not strike deep into the evils of Society.

Mary Wollstonecraft on Passion:

“The regulating of passion is not always wise. On the contrary, it should seem that one reason why men have a superior judgment and more fortitude than women is undoubtedly this, that they give a freer scope to the grand passion and by more frequently going astray enlarge their minds.

Drunkenness is due to lack of better amusement rather than to innate viciousness, crime is often the outcome of a superabundant life.

The same energy which renders a man a daring villain would have rendered him useful to society had that society been well organized.”

Mary was not only an intellectual, she was, as she says herself, possessed of a wayward heart. That is she craved love and affection. It was therefore but natural for her to be carried away by the beauty and passion of the Painter Fuseli, but whether he did not reciprocate her love, or because he lacked courage at the critical moment, Mary was forced to go through her first experience of love and pain. She certainly was not the kind of a woman to throw herself on any man’s neck. Fuseli was an easy-go-lucky sort and easily carried away by Mary’s beauty. But he had a wife, and the pressure of public opinion was too much for him. Be it as it may, Mary suffered keenly and fled to France to escape the charms of the artist.

Biographers are the last to understand their subject or else they would not have made so much ado of the Fuseli episode, for it was nothing else. Had the loud-mouthed Fuseli been as free as Mary to gratify their sex attraction, Mary would probably have settled down to her normal life. But he lacked courage and Mary, having been sexually starved, could not easily quench the aroused senses.

However. it required but a strong intellectual interest to bring her back to herself. And that interest she found in the stirring events of the French Revolution.

However, it was before the Fuseli incident that Mary added to her Vindication of the Rights of Man the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a plea for the emancipation of her sex. It is not that she held man responsible for the enslavement of woman. Mary was too big and too universal to place the blame on one sex. She emphasized the fact that woman herself is a hindrance to human progress because she persists in being a sex object rather than a personality, a creative force in life. Naturally, she maintained that man has been the tyrant so long that he resents any encroachment upon his domain, but she pleaded that it was as much for his as for woman’s sake that she demanded economic, political, and sexual freedom for women as the only solution to the problem of human emancipation. “The laws respecting women made an absurd unit of a man and his wife and then by the easy transition of only considering him as responsible, she is reduced to a mere cypher.”

Nature has certainly been very lavish when she fashioned Mary Wollstonecraft. Not only has she endowed her with a tremendous brain, but she gave her great beauty and charm. She also gave her a deep soul, deep both in joy and sorrow. Mary was therefore doomed to become the prey of more than one infatuation. Her love for Fuseli soon made way for a more terrible, more intense love, the greatest force in her life, one that tossed her about as a willess, helpless toy in the hands of fate.

Life without love for a character like Mary is inconceivable, and it was her search and yearning for love which hurled her against the rock of inconsistency and despair.

While in Paris, Mary met in the house of T[homasl Paine where she had been welcomed as a friend, the vivacious, handsome, and elemental American, [Gilbert] Imlay. If not for Mary’s love for him the World might never have known of this Gentleman. Not that he was ordinary, Mary could not have loved him with that mad passion which nearly wrecked her life. He had distinguished himself in the American War and had written a thing or two, but on the whole he would never have set the World on fire. But he set Mary on fire and held her in a trance for a considerable time.

The very force of her infatuation for him excluded harmony, but is it a matter of blame as far as Imlay is concerned? He her all he could, but her insatiable hunger for love could never be content with little, hence the tragedy. Then too, he was a roamer, an adventurer, an explorer into the territory of female hearts. He was possessed by the Wanderlust, could not rest at peace long anywhere. Mary needed peace, she also needed what she had never had in her family, the quiet and warmth of a home. But more than anything else she needed love, unreserved, passionate love. Imlay could give her nothing and the struggle began shortly after the mad dream had passed.

Imlay was much away from Mary at first under the pretext of business. He would not be an American to neglect his love for business. His travels brought him, as the Germans say, to other cities and other loves. As a man that was his right, equally so was it his right to deceive Mary. What she must have endured only those can appreciate who have themselves known the tempest.

All through her pregnancy with Imlay’s child, Mary pined for the man, begged and called, but he was busy. The poor chap did not know that all the wealth in the world could not make up for the wealth of Mary’s love. The only consolation she found was in her work. She wrote The French Revolution right under the very influence of that tremendous drama. Keen as she was in her observation, she saw deeper than Burke, beneath all the terrible loss of life, she saw the still more terrible contrast between poverty and riches and [that] all the bloodshed was in vain so long as that contrast continued. Thus she wrote: “If the aristocracy of birth is leveled with the ground only to make room for that of riches, I am afraid that the morale of the people will not be much improved by the change. Everything whispers to me that names not principles are changed.” She realized while in Paris what she had predicted in her attack on Burke, that the demon of property has ever been at hand to encroach on the sacred rights of man.

With all her work Mary could not forget her love. It was after a vain and bitter struggle to bring Imlay to her that she attempted suicide. She failed, and to get back her strength she went to Norway on a mission for Imlay. She recuperated physically, but her soul was bruised and scarred. Mary and Imlay came together several times, but it was only dragging out the inevitable. Then came the final blow. Mary learned that Imlay had other affairs and that he had been deceiving her, not so much out of mischief as out of cowardice.

She then took the most terrible and desperate step, she threw herself into the Thames after walking for hours to get her clothing wet [so] that she may surely drown. Oh, the inconsistencies, cry the superficial critics. But was it?

In the struggle between her intellect and her passion Mary had suffered a defeat. She was too proud and too strong to survive such a terrible blow. What else was there for her but to die?

Fate that had played so many pranks with Mary Wollstonecraft willed it otherwise. It brought her back to life and hope, only to kill her at their very doors.

She found in Godwin the first representative of Anarchist Communism, a sweet and tender camaraderie, not of the wild, primitive kind but the quiet, mature, warm sort, that soothes one like a cold hand upon a burning forehead. With him she lived consistently with her ideas in freedom, each apart from the other, sharing what they could of each other.

Again Mary was about to become a mother, not in stress and pain as the first time, but in peace and surrounded by kindness.  Yet so strange is fate, that Mary had to pay with her life for the life of her little girl, Mary Godwin. She died on September tenth, 1797, barely thirty-eight years of age. Her confinement with the first child, though under the most trying of circumstances, was mere play, or as she wrote to her sister, “an excuse for staying in bed.” Yet that tragic time demanded its victim. Fannie Imlay died of the death her mother failed to find. She committed suicide by drowning, while Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin became the wife of the sweetest lark of liberty, Shelley.

Mary Wollstonecraft, the intellectual genius, the daring fighter of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth Centuries, Mary Wollstonecraft, the woman and lover, was doomed to pain because of the very wealth of her being. With all her affairs she yet was pretty much alone, as every great soul must be alone – no doubt, that is the penalty for greatness.

Her indomitable courage in behalf of the disinherited of the earth has alienated her from her own time and created the discord in her being which alone accounts for her terrible tragedy with Imlay. Mary Wollstonecraft aimed for the highest summit of human possibilities. She was too wise and too worldly not to see the discrepancy between her world of ideals and her world of love that caused the break of the string of her delicate, complicated soul.

Perhaps it was best for her to die at that particular moment.  For he who has ever tasted the madness of life can never again adjust himself to an even tenor. But we have lost much and can only be reconciled by what she has left, and that is much. Had Mary Wollstonecraft not written a line, her life would have furnished food for thought. But she has given both, she therefore stands among the world’s greatest, a life so deep, so rich, so exquisitely beautiful in her complete humanity.

Emma Goldman



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