An Anarchist in Reflection

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An Anarchist in Reflection

Bibliographic Citation

Harry Kelly, “An Anarchist in Reflection,” Mother Earth 8, no. 6 (August 1913): 180-185.

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By Harry Kelly


IN attempting to outline one’s development and portray feelings foreign to others, very much must be left to the reader’s imagination. We are unwilling participants in incidents and have experiences thrust themselves on us, as it were, that mould and shape our lives without consciousness on our part, making a sympathic imagination indispensable to the reader’s understanding of the tale unfolded. Life is not divided by three as this series of articles has been; it is a multiplicity of details with one overlapping the other, forming a unified existence. There are few red-letter days with any of us and it is not easy to say when our feelings change and why. We pursue a beaten path for a period of time and lament the sameness of things: life has that dull gray color of a battleship, and the same foreboding aspect. We love a woman, adhere to a political party and belief, or indulge in a certain form of superstition, and all the while coddle ourselves on the immutability of things. We wake up one fine morning and, looking back through the mind’s eye, find that things have taken on an entirely different color. We may profess the same things as formerly—more often we do not—but in an entirely different manner and usually with far less ardor than in the past; we have changed and without knowing it.

For the benefit of some good friends who seem to have misunderstood the aim of these articles, let me say, this is not an autobiography—-that stage has not been reached. It is an attempt (and being an untrained writer, a very imperfect one) to show how an Anarchist may be made and developed together with some of his reflections. Autobiographical details were of course unavoidable, but they are of a purely propaganda nature.

Cherishing illusions is characteristic of all of us, and I have cherished my full share. During the years spent in England, there was constantly with me a vague and undefined feeling that one day I should return to America and take my place in the trade union movement. The definite part of this idea was that my activity in the labor movement would be confined, as far as possible, to spreading my ideas on Anarchism. When the time came to return, and it came rather suddenly, it was surprising to find that my feelings in that respect had undergone a decided change. The change was not due to any slackening of faith in the necessity and utility of trade unions,—they seemed necessary then and even more so now. The thought that moved and moves me along these lines is that in spirit and in essence they are voluntary associations of workers and producers and are in embryo producing groups in a free society. Organized chiefly as defence associations, they have raised the standard of comfort and intelligence of their members more than any other force in society. If they have been unable to raise themselves above the level of the society in which they live and have failed to benefit the entire working class, that should not be held against them. Like all human institutions, they have grave faults; but those who stand outside the ranks and profit by the improved conditions created by the unions, are the ones really deserving of condemnation.

To speculate on what would happen if all the workers were organized, is rather dangerous. One view is that if all the workers organized and insisted on higher wages and shorter hours, the price of commodities would rise automatically and a balance be struck. Another view, and one equally sound, is that if the entire working class were sufficiently developed to organize and act in unison for better conditions, they might easily be conscious enough to overthrow the present system. Of the two theories the latter appeals to me most, as men do not and can not develop along one line at a time. Emotions conflict and ideas war upon each other, and during the conflict we are settling many problems instead of one. One of the most common and superficial expressions in current use is, “Let us settle one question at a time.” It is the equivalent of saying, “Let us settle the economic or land question first.” Not only must there be a much higher degree of intelligence than we have now, but an infinitely greater spirit of freedom and social consciousness before we can settle any really great question. Even such an elementary reform as clean streets can not be accomplished without a certain amount of this spirit, and we will have to have a fairly strong minority of free men and women before the land or economic question is settled. My reluctance and final abandonment of the idea of re-entering the trade union movement was due to purely temperamental causes and the realization of my unfitness to do the work of former years. The grind of committee work and the disputations over seemingly trivial yet perfectly essential things was out of the question for me. To have any considerable influence with the members of a union, one must be a member and participate in its life. This means constant attendance at meetings and a close application to the details of the trade. The efforts involved when one is working at the trade are considerable and fatiguing; but when one is outside the shop for years, as was the case with me, it is far more difficult. It was impossible to do this and my general propaganda work. Thus, after drifting for a time, I finally gave up the idea and remained outside, but at all times sympathetic and ready to help organize or develop any union that asked my assistance.

Anarchism is a much bigger thing to me than it was eighteen years ago,—more real, yet more intangible, fascinating and appalling. No longer a nebulous political ideal and a new economic order, it is a world concept meaning freedom in all phases of life. Free access to the earth and the tools of production, it surely means freedom likewise in art, literature, science, education, sex; in short, freedom to live a full life with a recognition of the rights of others as the one deterrent factor of our lives—other than, of course, the physical restrictions nature puts upon us.

Originally, Anarchism presented itself to my understanding much the same it seems to me as Socialism and the Single Tax presents itself to the advocates of those theories, theories worked out along certain fixed lines, to be obtained by definite methods. In the case of Socialism, there is the gradual absorption of industry by the government with industrial departments replacing the purely political ones, an extension of governmental functions with a larger and larger number of people employed by the State. With the followers of Engel— who seem to grow less each year—there is the theory that when everything has been governmentalized and the private capitalist abolished, the State or organized government will gradually die and be replaced by a system of free cooperation. The Single Taxer is equally definite with his idea, though it is a quite different one. The State is to become the landlord by the simple process of taxing land to its full rental value, so that all unused land will return to the State. An intelligent, alert electorate will see that assessments are honestly made and collected on land values, and all natural monopolies are to be governmentalized. With both schools of thought, poverty is to disappear upon the adoption of their theories or principles. The fact that some Socialists and Single Taxers are more advanced than others along certain lines, does not change or violate the general conceptions as stated above. To the novitiate in the Anarchist movement, there is much the same general idea in so far as a definite program is concerned. With the Anarchist Communist, there is the idea of a revolutionary upheaval followed by a general expropriation of the capitalist of land, houses, factories, warehouses; in short, of all forms of social wealth. This to be followed in turn by the establishment of free Communism or Anarchism. This was and is to a great extent my idea, but with a marked difference between the then and now. No one can tell when or in what manner the final crash of capitalism will come. We live in the midst of strife and change and the past decade is probably unparalleled in that respect. The revolutions in Russia, China, Portugal, Turkey and Mexico alone would make this a great period; but when the rise of the Syndicalist, Industrialist and anti-Militarist movements of Europe and America and the development of the Socialist movements all over the world are added, it makes of this probably the greatest revolutionary epoch of all history. Even these changes, mighty as they are, form but a part of the whole; for there is the great and growing Feminist movement, separation of Church and State in France, independence of Norway with a republic impending, and many other great and far-reaching changes of a political nature. Even this does not complete the list; for insurgency in the social, scientific and artistic spirit manifests itself in the breaking of old forms and customs and in the attempts to create newer and higher ideals of life. The social revolution is no longer coming. It is here, and we are working ourselves into the free society daily and hourly.

The revolutionary significance of Anarchism lies not only in what it stands for to-day, but what it will stand for to-morrow. It makes war not only on Church, State and capitalism, but on superstition in all its forms and expressions. It opposes the static in art, literature, science and the social relations. It transvalues the values of yesterday to-day and will transvalue the values of to-day, to-morrow. In proportion to the realization of certain social ideals, the Anarchist’s social ideals grow and expand. The sky line of Anarchism forever recedes and the Anarchist range of vision grows larger and larger. Anarchists grow to a certain point, then stop and crystalize; others start from that point or overlap and go on; but Anarchism grows as man grows. Without minimizing by a hair the importance of revolutionary action on the part of the workers or slackening our attack on exploitation of man by man, we realize—as has been stated—that man can not and therefore does not progress along one line without progressing along many others at the same time. Who will venture to say the twenty-five thousand workers who have suffered and starved through twenty-one weeks at Paterson, are the same human beings that entered in on that struggle? Some will become pessimists and philistines, while others will be strengthened and sweetened; but not one will remain as he was. Entering the struggle some defiant, others lighter hearted, these stormswept souls have had an awakening that will change the entire current of their lives. Similarly with the women’s movement now going on all over the world; its significance does not lie in granting them the right to make fools or charlatans of themselves, like men; it lies in the struggle they are conducting and the changes it will make in their character and outlook. No woman can conduct a hunger strike, smash all so-called womanly precedents by engaging in physical fights with the police, or endure the ridicule of the mob when she mounts a soap-box, without revolutionizing her views of life. Just as no reform worthy the name amounts to anything unless a struggle precedes it. Therefore we feel that if women have to fight another decade or two for political power (not rights, power), there will be a militant minority strong enough to prevent the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union governing us in the manner now advocated.

Enthusiasm is inseparable from vitality, and tolerance is symptomatic of what a friend calls an attenuated form of life. Anarchism is now bigger and grander than when the message first came to me; at the same time I am more tolerant—because less vital—to certain things now. Principles never meant anything to me unless I could approximate to them in my daily life, and the fact that some can profess Anarchist ideas and participate in politics, as well as observe all the forms of conventional society, moves me to sadness rather than anger. If this sounds perilously like a holier-than-thou attitude, it is because of an inability to see myself as others see me. After all, what do these deviations from the straight and narrow path matter? The earth rocks and the storm breaks over our heads; the old order changeth and giveth way to the new. Judged by yesterday’s standards, the world is better than it was, because some grievances have been redressed and abuses abolished. Judged by to-day’s, it is worse; for with a larger vision and deeper emotions, we feel the wrongs more heavily than those of the past. If matter and mind are inseparable, then liberty is a definite, tangible thing; if not, it is a myth. Myth or no, it has moved and moves the world. Anarchism and liberty are synonymous terms, and whosoever takes it upon himself to bathe at its font and distribute its precious waters, takes upon himself a heavy burden. If spiritual rewards will satisfy him, he will be amply remunerated in feeling that he has identified himself with and become a part of a movement which uplifts, inspires and will ultimately free the entire human family.


Harry Kelly, “An Anarchist in Reflection,” Mother Earth 8, no. 6 (August 1913): 180-185.




Kelly, Harry May, 1871–1953, “An Anarchist in Reflection,” The Libertarian Labyrinth, accessed July 16, 2019,