Margaret C. Anderson, “Art and Anarchism” (1916)

Art and Anarchism


WHEN “they” ask you what anarchism is, and you scuffle around for the most convincing definition, why don’t you merely ask instead: “What is art?” Because anarchism and art are in the world for exactly the same kind of reason.

An anarchist is a person who realizes the gulf that lies between government and life; an artist is a person who realizes the gulf that lies between life and love. The former knows that he can never get from the government what he really needs for life; the latter knows that he can never get from life the love he really dreams of.

Now there is only one class of people—among the very rich or the very poor or the very middling—that doesn’t know about these things. It is the uneducated class. It is composed of housewives, business men, church-goers, family egoists, club women, politicians, detectives, debutantes, drummers, Christian Scientists, policemen, demagogues, social climbers, ministers who recommend plays like Experience, etc., etc. It even includes some who may be educated—journalists, professors, philanthropists, patriots, “artistic” people, sentimentalists, cowards, and the insane. It is the great middle-class mind of America. It is the kind of mind that either doesn’t think at all or that thinks like this: “Without the violence and the plotting there would be nothing left of anarchism but a dead theory. Without the romance of it anarchism would be nothing but a theory which will not work and never can until nature has evolved something very different out of man. It is cops and robbers, hare and hounds, Ivanhoe and E. Phillips Oppenheim all acted out in life. It is not really dangerous to society, but only to some members of it, because unless every one is against it there is no fun in it.”

There is no fun talking about anarchism to people who understand it. But it would be great fun to make the middle-class mind understand it. This is the way I should go about it:

What things do you need in order to live? Food, clothing, shelter. What things must you have to get life out of the process of living? Love, work, recreation. All right.

Does the government give you the first three things? Not at all. It isn’t the government or law or anything of that sort that gives you food or clothes. It’s the efficient organization between those who produce these things and those who sell them to you. And it isn’t government that keeps that organization efficient. It’s the brains of those who work in it. You will say that government exists to prevent that organization from charging you too much for food and clothes. Then why doesn’t government do it? Heaven knows you’ve got all the government you can very well use and you pay too much for everything.

Does the government give you a house? If you happen to be an ambassador or something like that. Not if you happen to be a mail man. Maybe some one leaves you a house—which means that he once bought it or stole it or had it left to him. You can do any of these three things yourself. Or you can go without, as nearly every one else does. Sometimes the government helps you to steal one—but not you of the middle class. What I want to know is why you are so crazy about the government?

Now, about work. What do you call work?—spending eight hours a day in an office to help make somebody’s business a success, and incidentally to earn the money for your bread and butter? But that’s a third of the time you’re given on earth. Another third has to be spent in sleep, and the last third in eating your dinner, “spending the evening,” getting undressed, getting dressed, eating your breakfast, and catching your train. I call that slavery. Work is something over which you can toil twenty-four hours a day if you feel like it, because if you don’t your life will have no meaning. It’s like art. What has the government to do with your work? About as much as it had to do with Marconi’s brain when he was conceiving his wireless.

What do you call recreation?—lounging in hotel lobbies, gossiping over tea tables, going to the movies? All right. But what has the government got to do with it? Or do you call it walking, riding, reading, lying in the sun ? The government doesn’t give you good legs or a motor car or books or a stretch of beach to lie on. But it can keep some of the best books away from you and close up the bathing beaches on the hottest October day. Maybe you call recreation what it really means: re-creation. That means the time and the leisure to invite your soul. You’ve got government: have you got either time or leisure?

And as for love. . . . You love some one who loves you, and the world is good. Or you love some one who doesn’t love you and the world is hell. Or you love and love and can find no one to love. Or you love and cannot give, or love and cannot take, or maybe you cannot love at all. And where is the government all this time?

The government can bring you a letter from some one you love. But why must even that be done with graft?

Some one assaults a woman in a dark alley, you say, and where would we be without the government? What has that to do with love, first? Now clear up your minds: have you ever imagined why these things happen? Because some people are vicious, you say. But every one is vicious—every one who has life in him. You are: only you can take it out on your wife or on whatever prostitutes you can afford, or in eating large dinners, or in joy rides, in vulgar parties, in the movies, in luxury, in fads, in art, even in religion. It just depends upon your type. The point is that you have your outlets and the other wretch hasn’t. And second, since these things are always happening and you have plenty of chances to see how the government deals with them, the only sensible question left for you to ask is: Why aren’t they dealt with? You’ve got government and you’ve got crime on the increase. May it be that you will ever see this: that the thing needs treat-ment, not govern-ment?

But if you’re talking about love. . . . In love you will act just like a cave man or an Athenian or an early Christian or an Elizabethan or a modern, like a satyr or a traveling salesman or an artist—it depends upon your type. Governments may come and go, may change or cease to be, and nothing remains forever except “your type.”

But it’s just here that your government has its functions. It can do various things. And since the value of your life depends upon the intensity with which you love something or somebody, you might as well recognize what your government can do for you in this regard:

If you think that love and freedom ought to go together the government can put you in prison.

If you marry out of respect for the government, and grow to hate each other, the government won’t give you a divorce out of respect for you.

If you marry as a concession to the government, because you don’t want to ruin your business or have your wife insulted, the government will divorce you—and on the concession basis: but you pay for both the concessions.

If you believe that love is love, whether it brings you children or not, you may be happy and prosperous, but you will not be safe. The government can put your physician in prison.

If you’re very poor or very ill, and ought not have children, the government can keep information for prevention away from you; and it can put any one who tries to give you that information in prison.

If you should die from an abortion—and you surely will die if you contract blood-poisoning; and you surely will do that if you must be treated in secrecy and without skill—the government can hang your physician.

Why are you so crazy about the government?

Why do you want to govern anything or anybody?—even your own temper? Nietzsche said not to preserve yourself but to discharge yourself Why not use your temper as well as your nice moods?

Why do you want to govern your child? To give him character? But who ever told you that life is for the making of character? Even if it were, you can’t give your child character. He can get it by going through a great deal. But if you govern him successfully he won’t go through a great deal. He will just be something that is like something else. He won’t be himself.

Why do you want to govern human nature? Because you want people to be good instead of bad? But how can you tell when they’re good and when they’re bad? Suppose you all agree that Jean Crones did a very bad thing? If you knew Jean Crones you should probably all see at once that he is a very good man—if he exists at all. Clear up your thinking !

Who ever told you that an anarchist wants to change human nature? Who ever told you that an anarchist’s ideal could never be attained until human nature had improved? Human nature will never “improve.” It doesn’t matter much whether you have a good nature or a bad one. It’s your thinking that counts. Clean out your minds!

If you believe these things—no, that is not enough: if you live them—you are an anarchist. You can be one right now. You needn’t wait for a change in human nature, for the millenium, or for the permission of your family. Just be one!

You have seen that “the blind, heavy, stupid thing we call government” can not give you a happy childhood. It cannot educate you or make you an interesting person. It cannot give you work, art, love, or life—or death if you think it is better to die.

And finally when you see that you can never get all the love you imagined from life; that you are trapped, really, and must find a way out; when you see that here where there is nothing is the way out, and that the wonder of life begins here—when you see all this you will be an artist, and your love that is “left over” will find its music or its words.

Margaret C. Anderson, “Art and Anarchism,” The Little Review 3 no 1 (March, 1916): 3-6.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2702 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.