October 2011

Matt McGregor


Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life by Vivian Gornick

In the middle of Vivian Gornick's quick and dirty portrait of Emma Goldman, we hear from Margaret Anderson, the editor of the Little Review. "Life," she tells us, "takes on an intenser quality when she (Emma Goldman) is there, something cosmic in the air, a feeling of worlds in the making." Later, she tells us, with wonderfully aphoristic glibness, that "Anarchism, like all good things, is an announcement." Like anarchism, Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, for better and worse, announces on all fronts -- hurried, scattershot, quick to raptures, and often quite spectacular, always searching, like Goldman herself, to blow us all away. 

If Gornick spends her time sending shots out into the night, we should not be surprised when they sometimes fail to land. In the early pages of Emma Goldman, we learn that Emma "never begged, never cried." This is, of course, hagiographic nonsense -- but it is nonsense of such an obvious kind, that we can shrug our shoulders, smile, and get on with things. But two pages later, we find that Emma "begged, once more, to be allowed to go back to school... She begged to be allowed to immigrate to America." Gornick's instinct is to declaim and declare, so that much of Emma Goldman reads like she were standing at a lectern, and we, her readers, a great dry tinder of proletariat, waiting to be set alight. 

Oh well. Emma Goldman is plump with hyperbole, but after a first chapter of rather odd speculations ("People like Emma Goldman, with their timeless hunger for living life on a grand scale, are born every hour, on the hour"), Gornick begins to find her mark, and the life of Emma Goldman is revealed as an endless chest of biographer's booty. If you grab this book to read of Emma, you stay for the bit-parts, the glorious walk-ons, which include Lenin, Kautsky, Kropotkin, J. Edgar Hoover, Freud, Bakunin, Wild Bill Hayward... Even with this astonishing cast list, it is the less-famous anarchists who are the most glorious. We have Johan Most, for example, who was jailed for eighteen months for openly celebrating the death of Tsar Nicholas II, and who publicly advocated political assassination. Then there was Ben Reitman, the astonishingly sleazy "hobo doctor," who organized Goldman's great lecture tours while treating -- and bedding -- the poor.  

Gornick paints Emma Goldman as an anarchist, but also as a woman of feeling, caught less by the intellectualism of socialist debates (on "the iron law of wages" and such), than the desperate indignity of life under the thumb of corporate capital and the state. Goldman is, we learn, unusually captured by the fever or flame of contrapuntal energies. She is, in sum, a political animal. But politics for Goldman is not the tiresome debates of policy detail and budget lines. Such concerns are, after all, more social democratic -- "revolutionary without revolution," as Kautsky would put it -- while Goldman always argued for systemic change, total change, following the simple moral: we must no longer be formed as we are formed.  

Though a "born refusnik," Goldman's specifically anarchist ideals were shaped in the wake of the infamous Haymarket Affair. This extraordinary injustice convinced her of the need, as Louis Lingg of the Chicago Eight put it, "to reply with dynamite." Such "replies" were forthcoming, and had been for decades: anarchism's "propaganda by the deed" knocking off six heads of state --including Tsar Nicholas II -- a bunch of political leaders, and smashing industrial targets across Europe and the Americas (a period wonderfully captured, incidentally, in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day).     

Where other European immigrants often softened their radicalism in the democratic climate of the United States, Goldman, fresh from the sweatshops of upstate New York, maintained her Russian faith in imminent revolution. Falling into the anarchist set, her life became crowded with exhausting radicals, who soon saw her capacity to stir an audience into outrage, and quickly put her to work. She discarded the usual bundle of leftist slogans, and Goldman began to perform what she called "my ecstatic song."  

And there were plenty of folks ready to listen: by 1893, Goldman was a celebrity, a tabloid star, an outlaw, and, for the right, a frightening, traitorous antihero. Touring the country, she played to bursting lecture halls, toeing the anarchist line on the intractability of capital to social democratic reform, on the folly of compromise, and educating her audiences of workers on the basic inhuman horror of their own lives. On the road, "Red Emma" was born. Emma Goldman was just twenty-four. For the next two decades, she would spend much of her life sleeping on the floors of friends' places, eating their food, lecturing ceaselessly. Crowds, of course, "flocked" to Goldman -- and Goldman rode the wave. She spent a week in Portland, Oregon, and gave ten different lectures, on topics like "The Philosophy of Anarchism," "Misconceptions of Free Love," "Frederich Neitzsche," "The Birth Control," "The Intermediate Sex (A Discussion of Homosexuality)," and the expertly titled, "Variety or Monogomy -- Which?" Gornick, as usual, is quick to raptures: Goldman is not just great, but "better than any number of firebrand speakers put together." Here, though, we might forgive the hyperbole, as Goldman's success was such that J. Edgar Hoover labeled her "the most dangerous woman in America."  

In 1917, Hoover would have his woman, as Goldman and her associates fell victim to an extraordinary government crackdown, coupled with the familiar wartime groupthink of liberal intellectuals. She was imprisoned for two years, with her longtime accomplice Sasha Berkman, for sedition and "licentious speech." As Gornick puts it, "The sedition trial of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman... ranks among the more egregious events in the history of political repression in the United States masquerading as a protection of the democracy." In 1919, Hoover would persuade the US government to deport her. 

For Hoover and others on the right of the new postwar security state, Goldman and her ilk had it coming. The constitutive lie of anarchism is that "the conditions are ripe," and that the world is but waiting for that timely stick of dynamite to make war against their own economies and states. This is the legacy of Bakunin, who spent his life joining revolution upon rebellion across the continent, never losing his dream of the oppressed rising to drown "the worlds of the state in floods of rage." Goldman and Sasha lived this idea as much as anyone -- so much that in 1892, with the help of Emma, Sasha landed three bullets and a knife in the union-busting toady of Andrew Carnegie, the dreaded Henry Frick.    

But if the tabloid image of anarchism was a free-loving lout heaving a stick of dynamite -- an image Bakunin, Sasha, and Goldman often played to -- many anarchists proposed a more beautiful path to social change. While touring Europe, Goldman meets with Peter Kropotkin, who countered both Darwinism and the firebrand strain of anarchism, arguing instead that there exists within humanity an innate instinct to work together and cooperate. This vision entailed a society of "loosely bound" communes, cooperating for survival. Here, Gornick explains, "through the simplicity of direct democracy, people would live and work and flourish, each being compensated according to his or her own need."      

Emma was attracted to the moral clarity of Kropotkin, but she remained energized by the basic thrill of revolutionary impatience. She stirred outrage more than hope, and was captured by what seems, from a century's distance, a rather bog-standard vitalism -- that standard modernist grasp for an unmediated life, a life that escapes the deadening reified landscape of the modern capitalist state. The cheap critique of Goldman's thought is that it trades on the same slogans as our own neoliberalism capitalism: self-expression, flexibility, creativity, and an anti-institutional nomadism that finds its purest expression in the libertarian right. This anarcho-capitalism was established by Hayek and Mises at roughly the same time -- for roughly the same reasons -- and was quite as radical, as any observer of our debt-ceiling "debate" can see. Gornick, though not putting the case in quite these terms, skirts alongside this more fascinating problem: institutional rot breeds radicalism on all fronts -- or, as Gornick puts it, "a great refusal was filling the air."  

On questions of feminism and suffrage, Gornick admits the difficulty of Goldman's views, which she sardonically but acutely compares to those of D.H. Lawrence. Goldman hated marriage, but was ideologically opposed the "social democratic" route of legal reform, nor did she admire the growth of childless professionals whose insides, she argues, must be withered and inert, having denied their "natural" function of hot sex and familial love. Here, Gornick rightly questions Goldman's penchant for rhetorical flourish, at a time when illegitimate children were often smothered at birth, woman's suffrage limited to Wyoming and New Zealand, and marriage technically constituted "legal death." Goldman -- and this is a gossipy thread running awkwardly throughout Gornick's book -- came to love sex a great deal, and her theories of the emancipatory potential of sexual passion colored her understanding of the basic material suffering of women. To make her case, Gornick quotes Goldman's hilarious and horny letters to the aforementioned sleaze Ben Reitman, one of the many love affairs she would enjoy until her old age, "shacking up" at sixty-five with a thirty-six-year-old acolyte for "two delirious weeks."   

In the final section, Gornick turns to the traumatic twenty-three months Goldman spent in exile in her native Russia. Touring the country, Goldman finds the people in the bureaucratic grip of desperate Bolsheviks -- an impression confirmed most outrageously by the Trotsky led suppression of the workers at Kronstadt. With this terror, Goldman leaves Russia -- escaping, Gornick speculates, a spell in Siberia. With Hoover warning the western powers not to admit this dangerous criminal, Goldman and Sasha are officially stateless. Hopping from state to state, Goldman writes her reflections on Russia -- revelations that outraged the left (still drunk on Bolshevik glory), fueled the red-scare crackdowns of the reactionary right (Goldman's lifelong enemies), and propelled a century of anti-Soviet caricatures, which populate the historical supermarkets of the west to this day.  

When Goldman returned to the US, she was greeted with warm nostalgia: by the 1930s, no one feared the anarchist dynamite. Her enemies romanticized the misguided martyr of an obsolete fight; the papers saw her as a personality of interest, and no longer the prophet of a living cause. She continued working, campaigning for political prisoners and speaking to the few audiences she had left, finding brief hope in the wondrous experiments of Spain, which seemed to many like proof of Kroptokin's discredited science, before these experiments were crushed, first by the Soviets, then by Franco. Goldman-style anarchism, despite Gornick's gestures to the New Left, died with the Russian revolution. Today, it seems that the distorted spirit of anarchism lives more in the influence of Mises and Hayek than in Goldman's, which is unfortunate. Let us hope that Gornick is right, and that other Emma Goldmans (and Kropotkins) are waiting in the wings, ready to join and make their own "great refusal," which is, of course, more urgent than ever.     

Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life by Vivian Gornick
Yale University Press
ISBN: 978-0300137262
160 pages