U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Marriage Equality

I showed my class the PBS American Experience documentary on Emma Goldman. We talked a bit about how she fought for women’s rights, particularly her idea that the institution of marriage should not exist. I read from an interview with her, “What is there in Anarchy for Women?” where she argued that she did not believe in marriage, but rather “I believe that when two people love each other that no judge, minister, or court, or body of people, have anything to do with it. They themselves are the ones to determine the relations which they shall hold with one another. When that relation becomes irksome to either party, or one of the parties, then it can be as quietly terminated as it was formed.” This is still a largely minority position, at least for the middle class. but in terms of another quote of Goldman’s, I think she was prescient.

She argued that “The alliance should be formed, not as it is now, to give the woman a support and home, but because the love is there, and that state of affairs can only be brought about by an internal revolution, in short, Anarchy.” From the Victorian era that Goldman came of age during to today, there has been a revolution in marriage, to the point that it is assumed marriage is only done for the sake of love. Although, even as I write that, it seems like the last few years there is another transformation taking place where marriage can take place for health benefits or tax deductions, but is still a seal on a love-match. As my students pointed out, this revolution took place over a much longer time than Goldman would have wanted, and did not come about because of anarchy. However, it did come about in part because women have gained more rights and the ability economically to support themselves. (Stephanie Coontz has written a book titled Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. I haven’t read it, though I’ve read other work by her).

I asked the students what they thought of these ideas about marriage, since they are still very relevant with debates over whether or not to let gay people into the institution of marriage (and some gay people would argue they want to over turn the institution like Goldman did). I’ve been doing a lot of discussion based on present-day concerns. It has pluses and minuses. On the plus side, we’ve been having great discussions, in which many students participate. I think it is good to start from where students are and move forward. The danger is that we flatten out change over time, although at least once a class it seems like a student will remind us that “that was a different time.”

As much as I admire Goldman, anarchy does not make sense to me. I don’t understand how people would cooperate without a government (especially because she’s not arguing that capitalism take up the slack). Is it just a utopian ideal? Or am I missing something?

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. For some the idea behind anarchism is that people would cooperate without government because that’s what people do—animals as well. This idea certainly animates Peter Kropotkin’s anarchist communism. Kropotkin was a Russian prince turned naturalist who was heavily influenced by Darwin. He wrote a book called ‘Mutual Aid’ which highlights cooperation as a factor in evolution. As seen by Kropotkin, and arguably by Darwin himself, individuals don’t thrive through cut-throat competition but, rather, groups thrive through cooperation. Hence those groups best evolved to work together will be those who survive the struggle of life.

    Of course plenty of anarchists would dismiss this idea. David Graeber argues that human nature is expansive, and as such we should live within a system that encourages us to bring out those best aspects of human nature (love, sharing, cooperation, solidarity) rather than capitalism which encourages us to bring out the worst (greed, violent might-makes-right behavior, rampant individualism bordering on psychopathy). His work is based in anthropology but is historical. I can’t recommend enough either ‘Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology’— its free online in pdf (google it!) and looks at actual anarchist societies and how they have functioned—or his newest ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’ which contrasts what he calls human and exchange economies and highlights the tendencies towards both communism and hierarchy in human life.

    While these two don’t come close to exhausting the gamut, they are two of my favorites. I wouldn’t want to speak for others as I would likely make a bit of a straw man out of their arguments. I personally tend a bit more towards Graeber’s view although I think Kropotkin’s take on Darwin is spot on. Corey Robin briefly mentions in ‘The Reactionary Mind’ the fear reactionaries have of workers’ self-organization. Workers who take over their factories are frightening precisely because they are not wild, crazy, and running amok—the stereotypical view that associates anarchy with chaos—but rather they can be organized, diligent, and productive workers. (This is not, of course, to fetishize work for work’s sake) Time and time again working people have proven that they are quite capable of running their own lives by themselves if they can only, as they say, get the bosses off their backs. For me this is the essence that animates anarchism, the belief in the self-organization of the working class without bosses, landlords, government, or hierarchy of any kind.

  2. Anarchism was historically a response to the coalescing of nations and oppressive autocratic states in the 19th century. The exponents of anarchism, communism, socialism etc. were seeking an alternative society to escape the oppression. It seems a bit dismissive to refer to anarchism as utopian when proponents (Kropotkin, Proudhon, Godwin, Goldman, even Tolstoy et.al.)were generating worthy treatises on the subject. America has a rather strong anarchistic strain in its blood. The conservative objection to excessive government intrusion; the (some would say fanatical) desire to own a gun to protect oneself and not depend on the state; the on going attempts to establish communal entities based on agriculture and barter. If we viewed the United States as a living being whose life blood is as a constitutional democracy than anarchism may be seen as a benign virus that prevents us from falling into a more authoritarian state.
    Anarchism as a substitute for a government is, in a global and practical sense a seemingly unworkable system but it seems to exist as a kind of default in the human psyche whens all else fails.

  3. Chapter eight of this book provides a late twentieth-century critique of late twentieth-century anarchism in America—of what the author calls “the anti-political philosophers.”

    …And I thought this was a post about the “history of the idea of marriage in America”?! – TL

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