Anarchist Writings Analysis


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Historically, autobiography occupies an important place in anarchist literature. Many classic anarchist thinkers wrote autobiographies, the best known being Kropotkin’s Paroles d’un Révolté (1885; Memoirs of a Revolutionist, 1899). In North American literature an important autobiographical work by an anarchist is Emma Goldman’s Living My Life (1931).

In Living My Life Goldman describes the formation of her identity as an anarchist and a feminist. She points to the prejudice that she experienced growing up as a Jew in Russia, to the brutality against women and peasants that she witnessed there, and to her exposure to the revolutionary doctrines circulating in Russia during her youth as important factors in shaping her mature values and beliefs. As an adult Goldman identifies herself with all who are oppressed and in particular with oppressed women. Goldman embraces elements of collectivist as well as individualist anarchism.

Poetry and Fiction

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In poetry and fiction, collectivist anarchism is primarily represented in the works of George Woodcock, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Ursula K. Le Guin, while individualist anarchism is primarily represented in the works of Paul Goodman and Karl Shapiro. In considering the identities embodied in the works of these authors, it is important to keep in mind that identities embraced by collectivist anarchists commonly differ significantly from those embraced by individualist anarchists. Collectivist anarchists generally conceive of their identity in social and political terms, as individuals who are part of a social group or movement. Individualist anarchists, on the other hand, especially those who are artists, often desire absolute freedom from authority in order to express and explore their own personal identities.

Collectivist Anarchism

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The authors whose works depict collectivist anarchism emphasize social issues over personal issues. In his travel memoirs Woodcock described his impressions of diverse societies with an eye to the political and communal potentials of these societies. Out of Woodcock’s numerous travel memoirs the most notable for the libertarian perspectives contained in them are Ravens and Prophets: Travels in Western Canada (1952) and Kerala: A Portrait of the Malabar Coast (1967). Ferlinghetti expresses his pacifist anarchism in works such as A Political Pamphlet (1976) and Populist Manifestos (1981). These works focus on the threats that capitalist society poses to human well-being and to the natural world. In her science-fiction novel The Dispossessed (1974), Le Guin explores the internal politics of an anarchist society existing on a barren moon. By comparing this anarchist society to the capitalist and socialist societies of the moon’s mother planet, Le Guin brings the political and social issues involved in collectivist anarchism more sharply into focus. Additional depictions of collectivist anarchist societies occur in the works of ecological feminists, such as The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993) by Starhawk.

Individualist Anarchism

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Goodman’s work contrasts sharply with that of collectivist anarchists. Emphasizing the value of tradition and advocating a version of individualist anarchism drawn from classic texts, Goodman sees the principles of anarchism at work in the everyday interactions of individuals. In his Collected of Poems (1973), he does not identify himself with a movement or political aim, but instead freely explores his identity as a Jewish gay man and as an inheritor of the Western tradition. Like Goodman’s poetry, Shapiro’s poetry is also confessional, and it also deals with issues concerning his identity as a Jewish American. In contrast to Goodman’s love of tradition, however, Shapiro’s individualist anarchism takes the form of a rejection of the Western tradition, as evidenced in The Bourgeois Poet (1964).

The works of Henry David Thoreau, John Dos Passos, Henry Miller, and Edward Abbey have also been associated with anarchism. Although works by these authors do not exhibit the direct influence of classical anarchist thought, they do contain strong currents of antiauthoritarianism and individualism and thus are relevant to the study of anarchism in literature.

The identities involved in a work of anarchist literature derive from the types of anarchism represented. While anarchist literature encompasses a broad spectrum of identities, all of these identities share the belief that external authority is harmful and that human beings benefit from the freedom to organize their lives as they see best.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Cummins, Elizabeth. Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Guerin, Daniel. Anarchism: From Theory to Practice. Translated by Mary Klopper. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970.

Heider, Ulrike. Anarchism: Left, Right, and Green. Translated by Danny Lewis and Ulrike Bode. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1994.

Hughes, Peter. George Woodcock. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974.

Kropotkin, Pyotr Alekseyevich. The Essential Kropotkin. Edited by Emile Capouya and Keitha Tompkins. New York: Liveright, 1975.

Parisi, Peter, ed. Artist of the Actual: Essays on Paul Goodman. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1986.

Runkle, Gerald. Anarchism, Old and New. New York: Delacorte Press, 1972.

Solomon, Martha. Emma Goldman. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Woodcock, George. Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1962.