Top positive review
Emma Goldman, Professional Anarchist
on July 7, 2014
There was probably no more interesting anarchist than Emma Goldman (1869-1940). At 16, she was a Lithuanian immigrant sewing overcoats in a Rochester, New York, clothing factory when a bomb was thrown in Chicago's Haymarket Square during a rally supporting a strike for the 8-hour day. A policeman was killed and in the darkness some 400 police surrounding the rally drew their revolvers and started firing, with the result that 8 police and four strikers were killed and 60 police were wounded, all by "friendly fire." That was the so-called Haymarket Massacre of May 4, 1886, which galvanized the labor movement but brought severe reprisals against it and against anarchism, which the popular press tended to lump together. Four self-identified anarchists who were almost certainly innocent of the bomb-throwing incident were found guilty of it and were hanged in October, 1887. That hanging was the occasion of Emma Goldman's epiphany. From that moment, and for the rest of her life, she was a dedicated anarchist.
Vivian Gornick, writing in the December 7, 2011, New York Times, told of an incident during the early days of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City. She said, "a young woman - dressed in a white Victorian shirtwaist, long blackskirt and rimless glasses shorn of earpieces - stood up in Zuccotti Park to announce that she was Emma Goldman and that she had traveled through time to tell those gathered in the park that she loved what they were doing." Gornick concluded her article by asserting, "If ever there was a life that embodied the spirit that is driving the Occupy Wall Street movement it is that of Emma Goldman, who went to jail in 1893 for having stood on a soap box in Union Square in the midst of one of America's worst depressions and, pointing to the mansions on Fifth Avenue, implored 3,000 unemployed men and woman to ask the ruling class for work. `If they don't give you work,' she cried, `ask them for bread. If they deny you bread, take it." For making those kinds of speeches she was deported to Russia in 1919, labeled by J. Edgar Hoover as "The Most Dangerous Woman in America "
There is a new book by Vivian Gornick, Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, the latest in the Yale University Series of Jewish Lives. It is more a character study and an examination of Goldman's psychological makeup than a fully developed biography, but I found it most enlightening. Emma Goldman discovered quite early that she had a gift for oratory. She could electrify her audiences with her passion for the integrity of the individual and her opposition to the arbitrary use of power. She also took on more narrow issues, such as sexual freedom and birth control, and she frequently aligned herself with the larger political left on civil liberties issues.
Emma Goldman famously enjoyed liberated love, and according to Gornick, she enjoyed it a lot. In 1908, when she was 39, she met her match in the form of 29-year-old Ben Reitman (1881-1943), and they went on, non-stop, for the next ten years. Ben Reitman became her manager and promoter, he had a genius for publicity, and he kept her booked up for six months of each year. In 1910, for example, she lectured 120 times in 37 cities in 25 states, bringing in audiences of 1,500 to 2,000 people every night. The scheduling and promotion was the work of Ben Reitman.
By the time of World War I she had been lecturing for almost 30 years. She had obtained US citizenship from an early, short-lived marriage but her citizenship was summarily revoked in the wake of anti-anarchist hysteria following the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 and enactment of the 1903 Anarchist Exclusion Act. She later regretted not having fought losing her citizenship, but at the time she just let it go. Then came the vigilante patriotism leading up to US entry into WW I. In May, 1917 the Selective Service Act was passed, after which it was a felony to object to the draft. In June, the Espionage Act was passed, and then the Sedition Act of 1918 (repealed December 13, 1920), which made any sort of open dissent of government policy punishable by up to $10,000 in fines and 20 years in prison. The laws were designed to muffle all criticism of the war and resulted in the arrest of as many as 10,000 people on charges of disloyalty. In October the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, and after that there were daily raids and arrests with draconian sentences. Emma Goldman said it "turned the country into a lunatic asylum."
When the Bolsheviks took control of Russia on November 8, 1917, there was jubilation among liberals and radicals around the world. Even anarchists were hopeful, although most of them were philosophically incompatible with movements inspired by writings of Karl Marx - which the Bolsheviks claimed to be. Two years after the Bolshevik coup, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman entered their exile in Russia with high hopes.
They were in Bolshevik Russia for 23 months and would probably have ended up in Siberia themselves if they hadn't got out when they did. Emma described her experiences during that period in My Disillusionment in Russia, published in the United States in 1923. She had quickly found that the primary objective of the new Communist Party (the Third International - the Comintern) was to concentrate all power in its own hands.
The takeover of the factories had set in motion a trend in Russia that, under Stalin during the 1930's, saw the collectivization of the peasant landholdings and dispossession of the Kulaks. That took care of the problem of peasant farmers wanting to be paid for their produce The process illustrates beautifully the truth of the French anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865 ) who famously asserted that "property is theft." It has often been said that if you go back far enough looking for the sources of wealth there is always "a hidden crime." In Russia the crime was not hidden - it started in 1917, was exacerbated in 1930, and most recently asserted itself in 1991. Emma saw it near its beginning and was shocked and frightened by it.
To bring it up to date, in 1985 Gorbachev began the period of perestroika which was to gradually result in a mixed economy that would prove more efficient and equitable than the Soviet command economy, and to transition from totalitarianism to democracy. In 1991 however, six years into perestroika, Boris Yeltsin officiated over the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and the privatization of State industries and public resources - and the instant creation of a number of billionaires, some of whom are among the wealthiest men on earth. As Proudhon said, "Property is theft." We see it over and over.
After they left the Soviet Union in 1922, Emma and Berkman were without passports and always at the mercy of their host countries. Emma settled in England and managed to get British citizenship, later moving to France. She did speaking engagements, talking mostly about the crimes and general idiocy of the Bolshevik regime in Russia, as experienced by herself. Those sentiments were not well received. Liberals and radicals, her natural audience base, did not want to hear about the underside of the worker's paradise. In 1934 she was granted a three-month U. S. visa for a book tour promoting her political memoir, Living My Life (1931), the only time she was allowed into the United States after her deportation.
She was 67 years old when the Spanish Civil War attracted her attention. In Barcelona the Spanish anarchists were holding out successfully against the Fascist forces being supported by Hitler's Germany. Emma went to Barcelona and was ecstatic of at last witnessing a city successfully organized and functioning under strictly anarchist principles. She was there from September 1936 until January 1937, probably the only time in history that she could have taken part in such an exhilarating event. She was back in London when she heard that the Anarchists, about to be annihilated by the Fascists, had agreed to accept support from the Soviet Union. She was aghast, speaking and writing publicly in opposition to any appeasement with the Communists, and in so doing alienated most of her anarchist supporters.
She moved to Canada where she intended to live out her remaining years. To pass the time one evening she was playing cards in her apartment when "one of the players took his turn, and Emma cried, `God damn it, why did you lead with that?' These were her last words." She had suffered a stroke and on May 14, 1940 she died in Toronto where the newspapers were still proclaiming her "the most dangerous woman in the world." She was 71 and whatever else that could be said about her, she had lived a life of exemplary integrity. Long forgotten, when she was rediscovered during the 1960's she was found to have "written an article, mounted a protest, sat in jail" in support of every item on the agenda of the "New Left." The same can be said for the agenda of the current "Occupy" movement. You've got to hand it to her; she was something else