Perspectives on
Anarchist Theory

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Vol. 1 - No. 2
Fall 1997

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Anarchism and the Emma Goldman Papers Project
by Rebecca Dewitt

Archives are an essential resource for radical scholarship and certainly most studies of anarchism would not be possible without them. Most archives are supported by the federal government or universities, while some archives are established by anarchists as self-consciously radical projects. Anarchist run archives are less numerous but they tend to more accurately preserve the history of anarchism because they function from anarchist principles, whereas archives that collect anarchist material but do not function from anarchist principles tend to misrepresent anarchist history. The Emma Goldman Papers Project (EGPP) focuses exclusively on an anarchist figure esteemed, quoted, and upheld by the anarchist community, but nonetheless does not embrace anarchist principles. The EGPP provides a good illustration of the problems that occur when an archive of anarchist material is run in a non-anarchist manner.

The EGPP all started with a dog, a guitar shop, and a shoebox. In the 1970's, Candace Falk and her dog, Red Emma, were visiting a friend's guitar shop when he offhandedly mentioned a shoebox he’d found full of love letters from Ben Reitman to Emma Goldman. This discovery eventually led to the publication of Falk's book Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman, which Falk hoped would "inscribe a more complete picture of her [Goldman] into the historical record."1 As a result of the book, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission of the National Archives (a federal agency) asked her to oversee the task of collecting Goldman's writings for archival purposes. Over a twelve-year period, Falk and others collected correspondence, writings, and government documents to establish the EGPP at the University of Berkeley.

The collection is mainly structured around Goldman’s correspondence with radical figures and, with over 20,000 documents, it is impressive. Letters, as many biographers of Goldman have pointed out, were the mainstay of her communication with the world. Correspondents included Alexander Berkman, Rudolf and Milly Rocker, Max Nettlau, Sinclair Lewis, H.G. Wells, Paul Robeson, Agnes Smedley, Eugene Debs, Kropotkin, Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Carlo Tresca. Historical periods covered by these letters span from the Bolshevik revolution in Russia to the Spanish Civil War, while government documents reveal the US government's role in booting her and other anarchists out of various countries.2 Overall the EGPP is an invaluable resource that documents not only Goldman’s life but also one of the most active periods of anarchist history.

The EGPP also has a formidable base of financial support that includes the University of California at Berkeley, the federal government, the Ford Foundation, and well-known individuals such as Howard Zinn, Michelle Shocked, and Gloria Steinem.3 In effect, the EGPP appears to have created an impressive scholarly resource, a niche for itself in the progressive community, and also legitimized Emma Goldman in the eyes of a dominant culture that persecuted her during her time. Unfortunately, a conflict has emerged between the EGPP’s goal to preserve the memory of Emma Goldman and the actual result.

To begin, the EGPP’s relationship to anarchism has always been a problem. On the one hand, anarchists have attacked it for its lack of radicalism. Emma GoldmanOn the other hand, according to Falk, the EGPP was attacked by the federal government when the "intellectual atmosphere among most federal agencies was hostile to the ideas Goldman championed,"4 enough so that its funding was jeopardized in the early eighties. Ironically, the EGPP never seems to have been concerned with or committed to anarchism. Although the EGPP’s focus is an anarchist figure, its Director, Candace Falk, described anarchism in her book as an "unattainable political philosophy," an "elusive political vision,"5 and ultimately claimed that the impossibility of anarchism was revealed by Goldman's failure to deal with such monstrous things as jealousy. The EGPP celebrates a famous anarchist figure, claims no substantive belief in anarchism, and accepts financial support from sources such as the federal government and the Ford Foundation. How does the EGPP manage to do justice to the anarchist life of Emma Goldman? Beyond collecting and cataloging historical documents, it cannot, and this becomes more obvious when reading through the middle and high school curriculum the EGPP produced as part of a public outreach effort.

The curriculum was produced with the goal of educating middle and high school students about Goldman and is made up of recommended readings and exercises designed to draw out the implications of Goldman’s beliefs. One exercise asks whether a group of students have had their first amendment rights violated when they are forbidden by the school board to wear black armbands in protest of the Gulf War. Another exercise asks whether a student’s first amendment rights have also been violated when he is suspended for making explicit sexual remarks during a nomination speech against his opponent. Both exercises demonstrate a complete misrepresentation of Goldman’s ideals. The freedom Goldman fought for is turned into the right to free speech and, subsequently, advocacy of the first amendment. The second exercise never bothers to mention the anarchist claim that patriarchy would be the cause of sexist behavior.6 Goldman and other anarchists never fought for federally guaranteed rights: they fought for freedom.

However, this curriculum is more than just a problematic interpretation of Goldman’s life and beliefs. It also shows how the EGPP can collect an impressive array of anarchist documents and at the same time bring a deradicalized image of anarchist history to the larger public. Perhaps this contradiction arises out of funding concerns, given the support the EGPP receives from the federal government and the Ford Foundation (sources that are anathema to anarchist principles but which uphold federally sanctioned free speech). The funding cut in the early eighties certainly shows that an archive is not independent from the larger political climate, especially when money is involved. Whatever the reason, the EGPP is in conflict with its purpose to encourage historical awareness of Goldman because it obscures the radical ideals that shaped her life.

On the other hand, archives run by anarchists and for anarchist purposes are built upon the desire to both preserve anarchist history and provide tools for anarchism’s development, not herald its demise. In doing so, an anarchist archive embraces anarchism as a living tradition unlike archives that relegate it to the dusty silence of library stacks or misrepresent it. Two examples are the Kate Sharpley Library and Documentation Centre (KSL) in the UK and the Anarchist Archives Project (AAP) in Boston, Massachusetts. Both have close ties with the anarchist movement, draw their support from the anarchist community, and maintain a valuable historical resource without sacrificing the integrity of anarchist history. Because of this, they can provide scholars who are interested in anarchism with a richer historical perspective.

Anarchist archives also create a fuller picture of the history of anarchism than other archives because of their desire to function as both an anarchist project and a historical resource. The KSL specifically attempts to illuminate people and events that the "official historians"7 of anarchism perpetually leave out. Similarly, the AAP not only preserves the many facets of anarchist history, including critiques of anarchism, but also collects current anarchist material to link the past with the present. Unfortunately, anarchist archives, almost de facto, forego financial stability for adhering to their beliefs and therefore have fewer resources to maintain their collection, to make it widely available, and to make themselves known to the public. Despite these hardships, anarchist archives make the admirable choice to preserve anarchist history in a way that is consistent with anarchist principles.

The decision to ground an archive in the desire to create social alternatives is the right one. Obviously the EGPP cannot accurately portray anarchist history because of its lack of commitment to radical ideals. This causes the EGPP to misrepresent anarchism and subsequently undermines its goal to encourage historical awareness of Emma Goldman and her anarchist beliefs. It is also clear that the EGPP has very valuable resources and should be used for scholarly purposes. However, the usefulness ends there because the EGPP can provide no guidance for the development of anarchism when it begins from a negation of anarchist principles. For anarchists today, the past is our most direct link to the tangible achievements of anarchism and therefore it is essential for anarchist history to be preserved in a framework of anarchist principles. Otherwise we will lose the historical imperative this history presents to us, not only for radical scholarship but also for our radical ideals.

Archives such as the EGPP have more money to spend than anarchist archives and are thus able to afford state-of-the-art preservation techniques, salaried staff to facilitate access to their collections, and various promotional efforts. Many radicals give their books to archives such as the EGPP out of fear that the poorer, anarchist archives will be unable to preserve their books or make them available to the public. However, we must not forget the anarchist imperative to build alternatives to the present society and to support those who are constructing such alternatives. This imperative demands that we provide both financial support and books to anarchist archives. This will help them expand, maintain, and make available their collections, and most importantly it will make sure that anarchist history is not only preserved but also presented in a way that is consistent with anarchist principles.


1 Falk, Candace. Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman. Revised edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990. Page xiii.
2 Falk, Candace. "Reconstructing The Documentary History Of A Vibrant Life ." The Emma Goldman Papers Project. 1994. (2 Sept. 1997)
3 "Emma’s List." The Emma Goldman Papers Project. 1997. (2 Sept. 1997)
4 Ibid
5 Falk, page xiii
6 "The Life And Times Of Emma Goldman. A Curriculum for Middle and High School Students: Freedom of Expression." The Emma Goldman Papers Project. 1997. (2 Sept. 1997)
7 The Kate Sharpley Library and Documentation Centre. 1997 (2 Sept. 1997)