19 March 2010

Anarchism and Humanism

Ever since reading an Emma Goldman reader (Red Emma Speaks), I've been thinking about humanism and anarchism. Anarchism was never an idea that crossed my mind before: to the extent that I thought of it, I regarded anarchism as the province of odd ducks -- people who wanted to reject everything in society, who cared only for themselves and what they wanted to do. The biography of Emile Carles, a fantastically interesting woman who became a freethinking humanist despite her background as a peasant girl in late 19th century France, first exposed me to the thoughts of self-identifying anarchists.  Carles seems to be as passionate a humanist as I, but she saw government as the enemy of her values -- as a tool of the few in power. I was hard-pressed to disagree given her account. Modern nation-states have a frightful amount of power over people, and they are quick to abuse it.  My own feelings of patriotism were already changing during this period: I increasingly distanced myself from politics while yearning for something on a smaller scale --a "human-sized" community where juggernauts were absent. Thanks in part to Stoicism, my moral code became sterner -- more demanding of me to live truly, to seperate myself from culture and live according to rational and human principles.  Laws, tradition, and culture do not matter: only goodness, only justice, only truth.

No gods and no masters for me, then. All the little roads in my life seemed to lead to anarchism: both humanism and Stoicism, for instance,  encourage people to free themselves from slavery -- from the will of outside forces, whatever form they take. Both cultures and dictators can be tyrants: I must stand against both.  When I read Red Emma Speaks, I found much of interest. She, too, stood for humanity: she opposed governments that use people unjustly, of religion that cripples us, of cultural norms.  She was a rabid individualist who derided the great mass of humanity who behave unthinkingly, following whichever flag their priests and politicans offer.  This is hard for a humanist to hear: we wish to believe the best of people. Losing heart in ourselves means conceding defeat to our weaknesses, not gloriously triumphing in spite of them.

I became and matured as a freethinker in 2006, and ever since then I have maintained a no-nonsense state of mind. When I hear an explaination or a model of something -- Marxism and Stoicism are my own personal examples -- I will admit that they sound valid, but I will not admit them into my mind before they show some rational identification of some kind. Whatever the model, if I am to believe it I want to understand it. Believing things without this inquiry is the path to self-deception. I suppose it's linked to naturalism: I call it my "show me the bones" mentality. I want to see what makes the model tick. When the subject is humanity, for instance, my "show me the bones" policy means the idea must rest on our biological heritage. We human beings are natural creatures, who are as inseperaable from Earth's history as elephants, pine trees, and the Indian Ocean.  I think it most likely that our ancestors, prior to settling permanently, acted like modern primates: we lived in family groups.  We are social animals, born into and living in groups. If we try to live by ourselves, utterly alone, I think it probable that we will be miserable.

Our intelligence grants us admittance to another world, the world of culture and beliefs. We live in this one, too. We live in this cultural-social world as assuredly as we live in the western or eastern hemispheres: we breathe ideas as we breathe oxygen.  To what extent can we seperate ourselves from that culture, from society, and be happy?  What balance between staying true to our highest ideals and compromising so to live comfortably within our society is the best for human flourishing? These are questions I am still grappling with, questions I doubt I will have answers for anytime soon.

For me, humanism and anarchism walk the same road for a great distance. They both stand for humanity, rejecting outside influences. Humanism tends to focus its wrath on religion, anarchism on government.  If Emma Goldman and Emile Carles are examples, both believe in the potential of humanity, and that this potential must be freed if it is to be realized in full.  I think, though, there is a point at which the paths diverge: humanism is more community-based, using politics to move society forward in ideals. Anarchism is fixated on the individual, the anarchist's role to be an island in a sea of culture. As much as I sympathize with the anarchist spirit, my heart is and ever shall be a Humanist one.


Hesiodos said...

Kropkin is a very interesting anarchist to read- less polemic and more communitarian. His idea of Mutual assistance helped to give a less "survival of the fittest" feel to the social darwinism of the day. Anarchism is certainly more than bombs and crazed assassins.

Hesiodos said...

That's kropotkin, sorry

dara said...

"Anarchism is fixated on the individual, the anarchist's role to be an island in a sea of culture."

This sin't really true of Emma G or any other communist anarchist. While it could be applied to the anarcho-capitalists and right-wing libertarians, the main body of anarchist thought is strongly socially oriented. I don't think there's any contradiction between humanism and anarchism in that respect.

Kropotkin is a good 'un as mentioned, you should also check the Anarchist FAQ for more info though:

I moderate a forum where you can see what contemporary anarchists are discussing: anarchistblackcat.org

smellincoffee said...

Hesidos: Thanks -- I'll see what I can dig up on him.

dara: Thanks for the comment. The only anarchist thought I've read is from Carles and Goldman, and Carles is...sympathetic, but not explicitly anarchist. In the anthology I read (Red Emma Speaks), she mentioned communities a time or two, but the emphasis seemed to be on what I might think of as hyper-individualism. This is of course only an impression made from one collection. Other selections not included in the book might have a different emphasis. Regardless, I'll be reading more of Goldman as I can and I'm sure my opinion will mature accordingly.

Thank you for the links. I sometimes lurk at RevLeft, but am not active enough to render an opinion of it. Ever go there?

dara said...

My guess is that might be down to the material contained within it, perhaps Red Emma includes more individualist writings. The clue to her socialism, however,is in the name if not explicit elsewhere.

The only forum I hang around is ABC - they take up so much bloody time, but there's a few good anarchists on Revleft. Good luck!

RedKnight said...

Strangely enough, I've been consigned to the "Opposing Ideologies" subforum, on RevLeft.com. This was because I had posted against late term abortion, as well as against radical Islamist groups like Hezbollah. I don't really care the "Commie Club" that administrates the site. So I largely just post on soviet-empire.com. A good site for would be anarchists is "Alliance of the Libertarian Left". http://all-left.net/ They also have a message board too.