Book Review: Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life

by on June 6, 2012 · 7 comments

in Culture, History, Labor, Politics, Popular, Women's Rights

Emma Goldman speaking about birth control in Union Square, New York City, 1912.

By Mel Freilicher / Special to the OB Rag

Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life
By Vivian Gornick
Yale University Press, 2011; 151 pages; $25

Rather than write a political history of Emma Goldman’s very full life (which is already documented in great detail, including in her own hefty, 2 volume autobiography, Living My Life), Vivian Gornick has chosen to “concentrate on the force of her extraordinary rebelliousness and try to understand it in light of the existential drive behind radical politics.”

To illuminate what she believes to be at the heart of many dedicated radicals’ commitment, Gornick delivers a provocative portrait of Goldman’s soul, really: embodied in what’s famously paraphrased as, “If I can’t come to your dance, I’m not coming to your revolution.” Individual liberation, “the right to stay alive in one’s senses, and to live in a world that prized aliveness,” was a key component of any struggle Emma Goldman waged against a coercive government’s “brutish contempt for the feeling life on the individual,“ as evidenced by her ardent fight for birth control, sexual freedom, and marriage reform, issues that the majority of her fellow anarchists saw as trivializing the Cause. Although Goldman’s brand of anarchism was strongly influenced by European communism, she also had a passion for the work of German and American philosophers and avatars of individualism, like Nietzsche, Max Stirner, Thoreau, and Walt Whitman.

 OB Rag readers would likely be intrigued by Gornick’s intermittent comments about how Emma Goldman’s, and Mikhail Bakunin’s deep rage both affected, and paralleled, the “sixties counterculture as a whole and the liberationist movements.” She sees Emma’s anger as a kind of sustained epiphany: “rising from the psychological deeps, as though with the force of an inner awakening into something evil about life itself that was reflected in the inequities of organized society.” Goldman’s effectiveness as a rabble-rousing speaker is largely attributed to her ability to summon, and make the crowd feel, her own personal fury.

Viewing “the raging intemperateness of exploding radical feminism” of the 1970s and ‘80s retrospectively, Gornick claims that “one can easily see that [they] were primitive anarchists.” Rather than seeking reform, “what they wanted was to bring down the system, destroy the social arrangement…under which women had lived for centuries as second-class citizens.” In Goldman’s time, of course, “anarchism was a serious element in a worldwide movement for political revolution,” and the committed “often endured expulsion, prison, death”; whereas Gornick describes the allure of ’70s anarchism as a change in consciousness: a “posture, an attitude, a way of protesting the transgression of a democracy.” Still, in both eras anarchists rejected militarism, corporatism, and non-egalitarianism, and “were devoted to the ideal of personal liberation and advocated direct action as opposed to gradual change.”

For those unfamiliar with Emma Goldman’s personal and political evolution, this succinct account of places, events, and personalities would be quite valuable. Emma is depicted as a “wild child” from her earliest days in Kovno, Russia where she was born in 1869 into a household of unsuccessful Jewish shopkeepers– with a remote mother, and a permanently enraged father who often whipped her. Emma, in turn, frequently lashed out, especially against authoritarian teachers: one declared her “a terrible child who would grow into a worse woman.” This gave her father the pretext to put her to work at a glove factory at age 13; when she threatened suicide, he finally let her follow her beloved older sister, and emigrate to New York in 1885.

Working in sweatshops, Goldman almost immediately plunged into the teeming center of Yiddish speaking radicals on the lower east side (she was a fluent speaker) which Gornick vividly describes. Ed Brady, a cultured anarchist who she lived with for 6 years, sent her to Vienna, where Emma was greatly influenced both by Freud‘s lectures on sexual repression, and Peter Kropotkin‘s, the anarchist son of a Russian prince, discussions on what he called the “scientifically proven” superiority of the impulse toward cooperation–diametrically opposed to Darwin’s claim for competition as the dominating principle of natural selection. Emma studied nursing and midwifery there (having previously worked as a nurse’s assistant in prison) which became her chief method of earning a living, along with working the cultural free-for-all of the American lecture circuit: featuring polemicists and medicine men, opera singers and hypnotists, scam artists and humorists, speakers on temperance, women’s suffrage, and virtually all political issues from every perspective.

The enduring passion of Emma’s life was for Alexander “Sasha” Berkman; lovers only early on, “she craved his presence always.” Although Gornick details many sexual liaisons, she believes that “an emotional defensiveness” condemned Emma to a lifelong sense of aloneness, which she paradoxically both courted and longed to escape. Berkman was sentenced to 22 years in prison for trying to assassinate Henry Frick, Andrew Carnegie‘s right hand man; Emma, who’s described as forever ambivalent about the use of violence, was originally set to be co-assassin. A rabid anti-unionist, Frick squelched a major strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania by closing the steel plant, evicting all workers from company housing, calling in scabs and 300 Pinkerton guards to defend them; during one 12-hour gun fight, seven guards and nine strikers were killed.

Along with many others, the fiery 18-year-old Emma had been further radicalized by the 1886 Chicago Haymarket Square rally. More than 1400 simultaneous nationwide strikes were attempting to force federal legislation to establish the 8-hour workday when a pipe bomb was thrown into a line of police; within minutes, the dead included seven policemen and eleven demonstrators. Eight well known Chicago anarchists were charged with the crime, though it was almost certain that none of them had thrown the bomb; after an internationally notorious, year and a half long trial, four of these martyrs were executed.

In the Greenwich Village years, heiress Mable Dodge’s salons brought together an incredibly heady mix of modernist artists, intellectuals, and radicals (like ‘Big Bill’ Haywood, Margaret Sanger, and John Reed) who partied together, and also collaborated on several massive strikes and ingenious, large scale, early agit-prop events. Goldman began editing and publishing the influential Mother Earth in 1906, a serious forum for every school and variety of anarchism–in contrast to its great rival, the more eclectic, humorous, irreverent, and graphic-filled The Masses–until she was rounded up in 1917. The ultra-jingoistic Sedition Acts between then and 1921, “one of the most politically ignominious periods in American history,” resulted in the arrests of between four and ten thousand people, chiefly those opposing the global land grab that was WW1, on charges of disloyalty.

Emma and Alexander Berkman spent two years in jail (hardly her first foray) before J. Edgar Hoover deported them to Russia. Their great expectations were dashed from the start. In April, 1918, the Bolshevik government had raided every anarchist center in Moscow, killing and jailing more than 500 people. Not a single workplace–the unions, the soviets, the collectives–was without the often menacing presence of a party representative, and all local decisions could only be enacted with permission from party headquarters. There were 33 categories of pay with different, minimal food rations for each one, while party officials often feasted lavishly in public.

Then came the uprising led by sailors in the Kronstadt fortress, home of the Soviet Baltic fleet. The Red Army, under Trotsky’s command, responded to their list of 13 demands, including freedom of speech and the right to assemble, by killing thousands; Kronstadt “went down in history as the first public demonstration of the Terror that would engulf the Soviet Union for the next 70 years.” 23 months after they arrived, Emma and Sasha left the Soviet Union. Stateless, and blacklisted, they wandered to a number of countries, mostly separately, until an elderly Cornish anarchist married Emma, granting her British citizenship.

In 1923, Emma’s book, My Disillusionment with Russia, was published to virtually everyone’s dismay–including her own. The publisher had changed the name from My Two Years in Russia, and had omitted the most crucial material: her analysis of what had gone wrong. This analysis, in Gornick’s estimation, was too “overwhelmingly negative–a black-and-white depiction of what was still only a revolution in trouble, not yet a full formed totalitarian state.” Ultimately, she claims, the book provided ammunition for deeply counter-revolutionary forces.

Soon after its publication, a grand dinner was given for Emma, attended by much of London’s intelligentsia –including Bertrand Russell, Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, Rebecca West, H.G. Wells–who mostly hadn’t read her book. During her talk, almost everyone rose and left the room, one by one. From then on, Emma found herself largely alienated from a weakened American and European left. Despite the brutality of the Spanish Civil War, Emma was happiest when she was welcomed to Catalonia, once it, and surrounding regions, had experienced a genuine workers revolution by a united left.

This book ends by reiterating Goldman’s iconic significance as “the prototype of the European anarchist crucially influenced by the American insistence on individuation.” Gornick concludes: “the most influential…and eloquent chant of the 1960s and 1970s, ‘The personal is political,’ is also the phrase that most deserves to be associated–in fear, hope, and excitement–with the legacy of Emma Goldman.” Gornick herself has taken up the banner in this biography, and in a number of her most impressive works, particularly The Romance of American Communism. There, she employed feminist methodology of intensive interviews with many former CP members who had been disciplined into party doctrine precisely to ignore their own personal reactions and analyses as being too subjective: both books yield a fascinating look into what makes radicals emerge and, often under severely adverse conditions, persevere.

Mel Freilicher is an author of several books,  and a longtime writing teacher at UCSD and SDSU.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Anna Daniels June 9, 2012 at 3:47 pm

Mel- it’s taken me a few days to digest your review. Emma Goldman has always been of personal interest to me because I grew up in the Pittsburgh area. My first generation Eastern European mother spoke about the Homestead strike and hissed the word “Pinkerton” as if that event had happened in her lifetime–it didn’t.
A few decades ago I found myself back in Pittsburgh taking a tour of the renovated Henry Clay Frick House. The docent talked about the assassination attempt of Frick and Emma Goldman’s association with it. Her delivery was as bland as it was rehearsed and oft repeated.
I took that tour with my husband and cousin. We were all children of a long line of laborers in the local steel mills who had been chewed up, used up and spit out by Frick, Carnegie et al. I was beside myself- we had PAID to go into that goddamn tasteful renovated house that the sweat and blood of our men had made possible. I asked for my money back and said my piece on the subject. (No, I didn’t get a refund at the end of the tour.)
On another note- I was struck by Goldman’s comment “the right to stay alive in one’s senses, and to live in a world that prized aliveness.” Volnick ascribes that to a belief in personal liberation, but it called to mind Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Dancing in the Streets A History of Collective Joy. I think Ehrenreich makes a pretty good case for at least a similar aliveness that some collective associations engendered. Aliveness matters.
I am looking forward to hearing more from you Mel.


mel June 9, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Hi Anna. Haven’t read the Ehrenreich book, but I’m always glad when I hear any leftists speaking about pleasure! And about unalienated labor which is closely aligned: seemed to be what impelled Marx early on, and, of course, what many of his progeny like Marcuse picked up on. I always think of the arts, especially something like being a jazz musician which has virtually no commercial rewards, as a paradigm of unalienated work, and so wonderful in itself, and also for that reason.

Hey, I would have been shocked if you got your money back! Mel


Anna Daniels June 9, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Mel- the topic of unalienated work is worth pursuing and I hope you will weigh in on that subject in the future. Writer Paul Fussell died last week, to my great sorrow. He wrote a book called Class, in which he trashes our cherished myth of social equality. He talks about Class X, which includes the jazz musician you mentioned as an alternative to the class system about which we do not dare speak.
The unalienated sector of our polity unfortunately has to deal with a lack of adequate wages and health care and affordable housing.
What life lacks in plot (& policy) it more than makes up for in irony.


Wendy Smith June 11, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Hi Mel and Anna,
I read Fussell’s Class as well (it was loaned to me by one of my so-called “basic writing” students) and the chapter on “Class X” was my favorite.

I think it’s interesting that Gornick tries to find the source of Goldman’s rebelliousness. It seems amazing that someone so disenfranchised, and apparently without early love and support, would become so righteously outspoken and defiant. Goldman is such a great reminder that it’s not right action to put our heads down, obey, work harder–that’s the message sent to us throughout our lives, especially as women. Even now it’s hard to emerge from that culture. How do you make an Emma Goldman?


Sanda Agalides June 14, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Thanks to Mel Freilicher for the great review, and to its readers commenting on it. It made me think of Emma then and there, butt also let me imagine her visiting the present;, her epiphaniies of anger exposing like lightning the life destructive paradigms of our time.
Quite interesting was the reviewer’s reference to Emma Goldman’s text on Two years in Russia. There is much disorientation concerning both the early stages of the Russioan revolution and the opinion on the subject of the few clear minded witnesses.
Reviewing the issue may provide new definitions of change , relevant, but not only, in the Eastern European region where after the second World War the early mistakes were reproduced and/or imposed by the Soviet Union.


Marcia Boruta June 16, 2012 at 9:59 am

Thanks for the historical insight into the problems we continue to face today. It gives inspiration to activists to continue the long struggle!


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Older Article:

Newer Article: