A concept that originated in the mid-nineteenth century, free love meant an absence of legal ties rather than promiscuity, as frequently misunderstood and more frequently charged in the anti-socialist press. A mark of bohemianism until the 1960s, free love had become by the 1970s-1980s a historical predecessor of the radical critique of sexuality notably carried on by feminist and gay liberation movements.
A number of the utopian movements, religious and nonreligious, had endorsed such sexual practices as celibacy, polygamy, and complex marriage that were at odds with Christian norms. Abolitionism reinforced incipient free loveism through a critique of Southern sexual slavery. Free love entered the socialist movement via spiritualism, a veritable hotbed of free love doctrine, when Victoria Woodhull endorsed free love in Woodhull and Claflin's. The open statement of such policies justified -- in the eyes of [Karl] Marx's American allies -- the expulsion of the Woodhull group and its supporters from the First International. To the respectable public, Woodhull herself became "Mrs. Satan, " mirror of socialism's infidel status, when she not only justified philosophically her own practices but also made known the affair of noted minister Henry Ward Beecher with the wife of prominent reform editor Theodore Tilton, an ally of Beecher. Meanwhile, among German freethinkers and socialists, free love continued to be practiced, especially among intellectuals, but only rarely was it articulated in theory.
Anarchists vs. Comstock
Until the end of the century, anarchist of varying backgrounds carried on the free love agitation without notable socialist support. Moses Harman, Lois Waisbrooker, and Ezra Heywood, among other late-nineteenth-century individualist anarchists, conducted a vigorous protest of the 1873 Comstock Act, which prohibited broadly interpreted "obscenity" from the mails. They meanwhile published periodicals such as Lucifer, the Light Bearer, pamphlets addressing questions of birth control, and a lively correspondence with the liberal press (such as the more open-minded of woman suffrage journals). Among the Germans, Robert Reitzel and his weekly Arme Tuefelperhaps best captured the poetic possibilities of the entire subject, and placed it in the heroic traditions of German literature.
A Celebrated Spokesperson
In the early years of the twentieth century, anarchist Emma Goldman became the celebrated spokesperson of the free love cause, the most popular speaker and the darling of the surviving anarchist groups. Anti-socialist journals and lecturers meanwhile charged, despite the frequent denials of the Socialist Party, that socialism meant the end of the family. Casually at first, and then with some momentum, a movement of cosmopolitan intellectuals within or around the Socialist Party began to revive the subject in another light, attaining their major influence in Greenwich Village and the Masses magazine. With their philosopher the English homosexual writer Edward Carpenter, their international sexologist Havelock Ellis, and such noted writers as Upton Sinclair providing literary prestige, they marshaled a powerful case for free love as the soul of modernity.
From the Twenties to the Sixties
The splintering of the Socialist movement and the rise of a Communist movement with little concern for personal (especially women's) issues once more thrust free love issues back into private life -- except for anti-communists, who predictably charged that young revolutionary Russia had "nationalized" its women. During the 1920s, American bohemianism meanwhile gained a mass following of sorts, mostly hedonistic but connected in part with the Harlem Renaissance and the wish to escape the stifling American commercial culture. A small group of Left intellectuals around the Modern Quarterly, seeking to integrate sexology into a heavily anthropological "science of society," had little short-run impact upon the Left political movement. They did, however, help to keep alive a sexual element in the radical attack upon American racism. While Leninist workerism forbade the open return of the free love subject, a subterranean connection had already been made between interracialism and the principles of free love. Further connections with jazz, poetry and anti-war sentiments flourished in the bohemian and Beat movements of the late 1940s to early 1960s, with free love (including homosexuality) a measure of cultural bravado and a practical arrangement for transient lifestyles.
Sixties Sexual Revolution
During the later 1960s, revolt against the Vietnam War, the overall youth culture sensibility, and the commercial sexualization of culture together conspired to return free love toward the center of the radical picture. "Make Love Not War," a slogan of antiquity renewed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono among others, seemingly embodied the ultimate rejection of capitalist culture. An evocative photo of a young couple kissing at the barricades of May 1968 Paris became an overnight icon of popular New Left sentiment.
Opposition to Patriarchy
The women's liberation movement, following upon the efflorescence and decline of youth culture, made a strident critique of free love as practiced by the New Left. These objections, mounted in polemical essays and pamphlets, themselves become important new statements of free love principles. A proposed permanent revolution of sex radicalism to overthrow patriarchal practices wherever they occurred, the feminist view of sexuality led directly to the commentaries by gay and lesbian spokespersons on the authoritarianism of heterosexual domination, and to widespread movements to decriminalize homosexual activity.
Free Love in the 1980s
By the 1980s, gay liberation had become inseparable from other issues on the Left, substantially because gay activists had become a presence in virtually every field of struggle. At times and places (such as San Francisco), major gay political figures served doubly as socialist influentials. Meanwhile, free love (in the sense of an absence of legal bonds) had become paradoxically unassailable in Left (and liberal) attitudes toward private life, and somewhat more scarce in the practice of generations seeking economic and emotional security.
— Mari Jo Buhle
Excerpt from Buhle, Mari Jo, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas, eds. The Encyclopedia of the American Left. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission.