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Part I: Philosopher

Stallman as the founder of Software Anarchism

Most readers know that Richard Stallman was the principal author of many important free software products including Emacs, GCC and GDB. Emacs is one of the few programs that has a definition in the Hacker Dictionary


EMACS /ee'maks/ /n./ [from Editing MACroS] The next plus ultra of hacker editors, a programmable text editor with an entire LISP system inside it. It was originally written by Richard Stallman in TECO under ITS at the MIT AI lab; AI Memo 554 described it as "an advanced, self-documenting, customizable, extensible real-time display editor". It has since been reimplemented any number of times, by various hackers, and versions exist that run under most major operating systems. Perhaps the most widely used version, also written by Stallman and now called "GNU EMACS" or GNUMACS, runs principally under Unix. It includes facilities to run compilation subprocesses and send and receive mail; many hackers spend up to 80% of their tube time inside it. Other variants include GOSMACS, CCA EMACS, UniPress EMACS, Montgomery EMACS, jove, epsilon, and MicroEMACS.

Some EMACS versions running under window managers iconify as an overflowing kitchen sink, perhaps to suggest the one feature the editor does not (yet) include. Indeed, some hackers find EMACS too heavyweight and baroque for their taste, and expand the name as `Escape Meta Alt Control Shift' to spoof its heavy reliance on keystrokes decorated with bucky bits. Other spoof expansions include `Eight Megabytes And Constantly Swapping', `Eventually `malloc()'s All Computer Storage', and `EMACS Makes A Computer Slow' (see recursive acronym). See also vi.

But what most readers probably not suspect is that RMS is also an influential left philosopher, a unique mass movement leader.  In this chapter I'll try to describe the details of his political crusade and telling analogies between Stallman views and the views of the famous Russian utopist, anarchist and philosopher Prince Peter Kropotkin.  And that's go besides the beard ;-) While Mikhail Bakunin represented the militant branch of anarchism, Kropotkin (although he started his career in the anarchist movement as a militant) was more focused on the value of cooperation and reciprocity.  That made his the most well known representative of classic anarchism, that professed a belief in cooperation as the cement that held human society together and guaranteed social and cultural progress and a total denunciation of state authority.  As utopian as they are, his ideas nevertheless were ahead of his time in understanding of the value of mutual aid and cooperation. See for example Anarchist Morality by Peter Kropotkin. The preface stated the following:

This study of the origin and function of what we call "morality" was written for pamphlet publication as a result of an amusing situation. An anarchist who ran a store in England found that his comrades in the movement regarded it as perfectly right to take his goods without paying for them. "To each according to his need" seemed to them to justify letting those who were best able foot the bills. Kropotkin was appealed to, with the result that he not only condemned such doctrine, but was moved to write the comrades this sermon. Its conception of morality is based on the ideas set forth in "Mutual Aid" and later developed in his "Ethics." Here they are given special application to "right and wrong" in the business of social living. The job is done with fine feeling and with acute shafts at the shams of current morality. Kropotkin sees the source of all so-called moral ideas in primitive superstitions. The real moral sense which guides our social behavior is instinctive, based on the sympathy and unity inherent in group life. Mutual aid is the condition of successful social living. The moral base is therefore the good old golden rule "Do to others as you would have others do to you in the same circumstances," --which disposed of the ethics of the shopkeeper's anarchist customers. This natural moral sense was perverted, Kropotkin says, by the superstitions surrounding law, religion and authority, deliberately cultivated by conquerors, exploiters and priests for their own benefit. Morality has therefore become the instrument of ruling classes to protect their privileges. He defends the morality of killing for the benefit of mankind --as in the assassination of tyrants--- but never for self. Love and hate he regards as greater social forces for controlling wrong-doing than punishment, which he rejects as useless and evil. Account-book morality --doing right only to receive a benefit-- he scores roundly, urging instead the satisfactions and joy of "sowing life around you" by giving yourself to the uttermost to your fellow- men. Not of course to do them good, in the spirit of philanthropy, but to be one with them, equal and sharing.

The most famous work of Prince Kropotkin was Mutual Aid A Factor of Evolution. In this book he opposes the Darwin theory that only the strongest and toughest can keep up with the evolution. His view is that not rivalry but mutual aid is the key factor for survival. With many examples he shows that socializing rather than rivalry dominate. Even in the human world  mutual aid is more the rule than the exception. Kropotkin traces the mutual aid back from primitive tribes over early villages, communes to the present with the unions, the Red Cross and so on. He believes that the trend of the modern world goes back to decentralized, apolitical, cooperative societies, in which people can be creative by themselves without influence from bosses, soldiers, priests and other positions of power. Similar to the fact that GPL license influenced modern copyright theory and led to the proliferation of so called "free/open software licenses"   Kropotkin's views influenced modern legal theory, see for example Is Subjectivity Possible The Post-Modern Subject in Legal Theory by James Boyle.

Despite his heavy emphasis on the mutual aid Kropotkin did not ignore the evolutionary role of competition and struggle. He went so far as to suggest that both cooperation and competition are rooted in man's instincts, but that only cooperation ensures the progress of human society. In his view, Darwin used the term "struggle" in a figurative rather than in a literal sense. Kropotkin recognized competition, or conflict, as a functional component of social life: man always encounters natural or social barriers that he must overcome. Struggle is an immanent component of social relations, but it has a positive ethical and social value only when it is directed against institutionalized barriers, such as the bureaucratic structure of the state or a monopoly, that stands in the way of man's creative power. 

 "True Believers" and Utopian Visions

Utopian visions draw our attention to the deficiencies of existing society and help us to find alternatives.  They motivate people to work on social change. Realizing utopian visions in a real world is a difficult undertaking, a very few succeed.  You need participants to bring about the desired transformation and thus the success largely depends on the movement ability to attract and keep followers. That often depends on the factors outside the leader control. In this sense successful leaders are always accidental: chosen by the circumstances.

I also think that the most devoted participants of utopian visions ("true believers") is a special social type. Utopian visions appeal to people who are creative and imaginative, prone to building the castles in the air. They find the existing social order unjust and prefer revolt to adaptation.

The true believer yearns to return to a simpler, more certain, time, and is perfectly willing to throw out the baby with the bath water to get it, including equal rights, scientific advances, better living conditions, etc. Anyone skeptical of this statement is invited to consider Iran, the Taliban, Creationism, and the like. Coping with a world of harsh realities in an era of instant gratification, our society has become obsessed with magic cures for all ills and easy solutions to difficult problems. And that creates a fertile environment for cult-style Utopian movements.

The type of "true believers" that RMS belongs to and that was organized by him into a movement were programmers: not very common occupation until recently, but that in the late 80th  had grown into a pretty large international crowd.  This brand of "true believers" seek meaning in life through the commitment to the free software. This is often combined with a protest against the existing order (proprietary software or previous forms of free software that are considered "impure"). As we will see from the RMS biography, often "true believers" go though a period of searching before setting on a course. After than the chosen course became a dominant force in their lives and they often identify themselves so closely with their cause that have difficulty separating their personal life from the cause.


Early Years

Richard Stallman was born in 1953 in New York.  Here is how he describes his childhood in one of his 1999 interview (Richard Stallman High School Misfit, Symbol of Free Software, MacArthur-Certified Genius):

MG: So you were born 1953. Where?
STALLMAN: In New York. My mother was a substitute teacher. And my father started a printing brokerage business at some point in the '50s, putting together the photographers and the typesetters and the platemakers and the people who owned the presses.
MG: Was he a serviceman? Had he been in the war?
RS: Yes. He avoided being in battles and getting shot at very much. But he had learned to speak French so well that he could pose as a Frenchman, and he did this before the U.S. was in the war because he wanted to use it to defeat the Nazis. So when he was in the Army, he did things for which knowledge of French was useful. For example, liaison with Free French battalions.
MG: Where did you grow up?
RS: Mostly Manhattan. West Side. 95th Street, 93rd Street, 89th Street.
MG: Growing up, did you go to public school?
RS: I went to public school for six years, and then I went to private school for five years, and then I went to a public school again. I was a discipline problem. I was very upset and miserable, and kids used to tease me, and it would make me enraged. I never believed that adults were entitled to give me orders. I considered them to be like any other kind of tyrant; they just had power.
MG: Did you have particular interests?
RS: Yes, I loved mathematics and science, and I wanted to learn as much as I could. I watched television then and I read comic books then, but I also studied advanced math whenever I could.
MG: So that probably made you something of an outsider in school.
RS: That did. But also, I'm weird, and I don't know how to get along with people the usual ways. I've never really learned that.
MG: But didn't you find that there were other people like that in school?
RS: No. I guess I was too weird. I did have friends, but I couldn't fit into a school. So I was sent to a private school for people like that. But most of the people there were either insane or stupid, and I was terribly shamed to have been lumped with them. I wasn't just too smart. Some smart people can get along fine with society. I couldn't. It was something other than just being smart. In fact, if I hadn't been smart, I probably would have been thrown in the garbage, basically. But because I was obviously smart, they couldn't just say, "This is a manufacturing failure; get rid of it."
MG: Were you in any way political as a kid?
RS: Eisenhower I wasn't aware of; I was too young for that. But my mother was very political, and I became political, too, once I got more like 8 or 10. Remember, I was only 10 when Kennedy was killed. I didn't know a lot about what was going on, but I have a vague picture of him as somebody who was trying to lead our nation, to do things that were great.

He was a gifted child according to his mother Alice Lippman. Here is an interesting story provided in  Ch 3 of the O'Reilly book Free as in Freedom: 

Richard Stallman's mother, Alice Lippman, still remembers the moment she realized her son had a special gift.

"I think it was when he was eight," Lippman recalls.

The year was 1961, and Lippman, a recently divorced single mother, was wiling away a weekend afternoon within the family's tiny one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Leafing through a copy of Scientific American, Lippman came upon her favorite section, the Martin Gardner-authored column titled "Mathematical Games." A substitute art teacher, Lippman always enjoyed Gardner's column for the brain-teasers it provided. With her son already ensconced in a book on the nearby sofa, Lippman decided to take a crack at solving the week's feature puzzle.

"I wasn't the best person when it came to solving the puzzles," she admits. "But as an artist, I found they really helped me work through conceptual barriers."

Lippman says her attempt to solve the puzzle met an immediate brick wall. About to throw the magazine down in disgust, Lippman was surprised by a gentle tug on her shirt sleeve.

"It was Richard," she recalls, "He wanted to know if I needed any help."

Looking back and forth, between the puzzle and her son, Lippman says she initially regarded the offer with skepticism. "I asked Richard if he'd read the magazine," she says. "He told me that, yes, he had and what's more he'd already solved the puzzle. The next thing I know, he starts explaining to me how to solve it.

Stallman had grow up as a pretty isolated child. Extremes meet and future anarchist used to be an extreme conservative. According to Ch. 3 of Free as in Freedom:

"He used to be so conservative," she says, throwing up her hands in mock exasperation. "We used to have the worst arguments right here at this table. I was part of the first group of public city school teachers that struck to form a union, and Richard was very angry with me. He saw unions as corrupt. He was also very opposed to social security. He thought people could make much more money investing it on their own. Who knew that within 10 years he would become so idealistic? All I remember is his stepsister coming to me and saying, `What is he going to be when he grows up? A fascist?'

The personality of the guru plays special role in any cult. The psychological make-up of a guru may be generalized as follows:

Some of those qualities were evident pretty early (the quote is taken again from the Ch3. of Free as in Freedom):

"He absolutely refused to write papers," says Lippman, recalling an early controversy. "I think the last paper he wrote before his senior year in high school was an essay on the history of the number system in the west for a fourth-grade teacher."

... ... ...

By age 12, Richard was attending science camps during the summer and private school during the school year. When a teacher recommended her son enroll in the Columbia Science Honors Program, a post-Sputnik program designed for gifted middle- and high-school students in New York City, Stallman added to his extracurriculars and was soon commuting uptown to the Columbia University campus on Saturdays.

... ... ...

Outside the home, Stallman saved the jokes for the adults who tended to indulge his gifted nature. One of the first was a summer-camp counselor who handed Stallman a print-out manual for the IBM 7094 computer during his 12th year. To a preteenager fascinated with numbers and science, the gift was a godsend.[5] By the end of summer, Stallman was writing out paper programs according to the 7094's internal specifications, anxiously anticipating getting a chance to try them out on a real machine.

... Hired on at the IBM New York Scientific Center, a now-defunct research facility in downtown Manhattan, Stallman spent the summer after high-school graduation writing his first program, a pre-processor for the 7094 written in the programming language PL/I. "I first wrote it in PL/I, then started over in assembler language when the PL/I program was too big to fit in the computer," he recalls.

After that job at the IBM Scientific Center, Stallman had held a laboratory-assistant position in the biology department at Rockefeller University. Although he was already moving toward a career in math or physics, Stallman's analytical mind impressed the lab director enough that a few years after Stallman departed for college, Lippman received an unexpected phone call. "It was the professor at Rockefeller," Lippman says. "He wanted to know how Richard was doing. He was surprised to learn that he was working in computers. He'd always thought Richard had a great future ahead of him as a biologist."

Stallman's analytical skills impressed faculty members at Columbia as well, even when Stallman himself became a target of their ire. "Typically once or twice an hour [Stallman] would catch some mistake in the lecture," says Breidbart. "And he was not shy about letting the professors know it immediately. It got him a lot of respect but not much popularity."

... ... ...

 As a 15-year-old high-school junior, Stallman was still having run-ins with teachers and administrators. Only the year before, he had pulled straight A's in American History, Chemistry, French, and Algebra, but a glaring F in English reflected the ongoing boycott of writing assignments. Such miscues might draw a knowing chuckle at MIT, but at Harvard, they were a red flag.

At the same time he was pretty capable of adaptation to the requirements of school and even manages to get a part time job at the university (he started part-time work as lab assistant at Rockefeller University):

During her son's junior year, Lippman says she scheduled an appointment with a therapist. The therapist expressed instant concern over Stallman's unwillingness to write papers and his run-ins with teachers. Her son certainly had the intellectual wherewithal to succeed at Harvard, but did he have the patience to sit through college classes that required a term paper? The therapist suggested a trial run. If Stallman could make it through a full year in New York City public schools, including an English class that required term papers, he could probably make it at Harvard. Following the completion of his junior year, Stallman promptly enrolled in summer school at Louis D. Brandeis High School, a public school located on 84th Street, and began making up the mandatory art classes he had shunned earlier in his high-school career.

By the end of his first semester at Brandeis, things were falling into place. A 96 in English wiped away much of the stigma of the 60 earned 2 years before. For good measure, Stallman backed it up with top marks in American History, Advanced Placement Calculus, and Microbiology. The crowning touch was a perfect 100 in Physics. Though still a social outcast, Stallman finished his 11 months at Brandeis as the fourth-ranked student in a class of 789.

Outside the classroom, Stallman pursued his studies with even more diligence, rushing off to fulfill his laboratory-assistant duties at Rockefeller University during the week and dodging the Vietnam protesters on his way to Saturday school at Columbia...

It looks like RMS started programming during his senior year in the high school. Here is a relevant quote from the - Interview with Richard Stallman of Free Software Foundation:

BeOpen: What was your first hacking experience?

Stallman: It was when the IBM New York Scientific Center let me use their computers, during my senior year of high school. I started writing a preprocessor for PL/I which would add some features to it. I first wrote it in PL/I, then started over in assembler language when the PL/I program was too big to fit in the computer.

He joined MIT AI lab in 1971 and despite his personality problems enjoyed academic freedom that was and is a characteristic of this environment. In his own words "there was no artificial obstacles. Things that are insisted upon that make it hard for people to get any work done -- things like bureaucracy, security, refusals to share with other people".  Now one can shrug shoulders about his naivety about security (as well as bureaucracy ;-), but please remember that it was early 70th. This was the time of mainframe-type computers and those machines really created a lot of unnecessary bureaucratic perversions.

Parallel to his work in MIT AI lab he managed to get a magna cum laude degree in physics in Harvard (1970 to 1974). That was a really impressive achievement of its own.

Lab Dweller

Stallman's personal life after he adopted his new purpose of life -- software freedom -- in more than one way resembles the life of prominent anarchists. RMS almost has no personal possessions and neither has his own house, nor rent an apartment (he actually travels most of the year). Between his frequent travels he lives in MIT laboratory where he works.

In her article Freedom's forgotten prophet (October9,2000) By Judy Steed (Toronto Star) wrote:

Fingering his long, tangled hair, Richard Stallman emerges from an office strewn with the detritus of a hacker's life.

Here at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he has made his home - literally, sleeping for 13 years on a narrow cot in a cubbyhole that resembles a nest, littered with candy wrappers, food containers, papers and magazines. Garbage tumbles off every surface, piles up in corners, allowing only a narrow track through which to navigate a life.

... ... ...

MIT's 545 Tech Square, home of the AI lab, is a squat, 9-storey building, where the computer revolution took off more than 30 years ago. Up on the fourth floor, Stallman lolls on the sofa in his office next door to his private cubbyhole. Javanese gamelin music (a personal favourite) clangs on the stereo as he talks, and three associates work at computers in the darkened lab. Occasionally, Stallman gets up and saunters around in sock feet, a recorder - not an electronic devise but the musical instrument - sticking out of his pocket. (He loves music and enjoyed Balkan folk dancing until he hurt his ankle.) He has no official status at MIT and teaches no classes, but remains under the protection of computer science professors who recognize his historic achievements. (Nowadays, MIT insists he rent a room elsewhere, in which to sleep.)

... ... ...

His vision of free software and social co-operation stands in stark contrast to the isolated nature of his private life. A Glenn Gould-like eccentric - the Canadian pianist was similarly brilliant, articulate and lonely - Stallman considers himself afflicted, to some degree, by autism, a condition that, he says, makes it difficult for him to interact with people.

He was characterized in the online magazine Salon as a practitioner of free love; in reality, he rarely dates. Nor does he take showers; he suffers from hydrophobia, a fear of water, but he does do sponge baths. And he often stays up all night, living by the light of a glowing computer screen.

He is not so unusual among geeks, nerds and hackers, says Sylvia Paull, 54, a former director of marketing for a California software company and a respected technology publicist. ``Many hackers have a mild form of autism, and dissociate from other people's feelings.''



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Fifty glorious years (1950-2000): the triumph of the US computer engineering : Donald Knuth : TAoCP and its Influence of Computer Science : Richard Stallman : Linus Torvalds  : Larry Wall  : John K. Ousterhout : CTSS : Multix OS Unix History : Unix shell history : VI editor : History of pipes concept : Solaris : MS DOSProgramming Languages History : PL/1 : Simula 67 : C : History of GCC developmentScripting Languages : Perl history   : OS History : Mail : DNS : SSH : CPU Instruction Sets : SPARC systems 1987-2006 : Norton Commander : Norton Utilities : Norton Ghost : Frontpage history : Malware Defense History : GNU Screen : OSS early history

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