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American Experience: Emma Goldman
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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
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on August 29, 2008
This is an excellent introduction to a little known social activist who had massive public appeal at the turn of the last century.
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on July 27, 2008
This film offers a good overview of the high points of Emma Goldman's life, which may be all that a short bio-documentary can really do. Loaded with vintage stills and film clips as well as comments by a large number of experts (e.g., historians Barry Pateman and Martin Duberman, authors Andre Codrescu and E.L. Doctorow, and Goldman biography Alice Wexler), "Emma Goldman: An Exceedingly Dangerous Woman" chronicles Goldman's early break with her family and husband, her move to NYC and her involvement with the anarchist movement, her relationships with Alexander Berkman and Ben Reitman, her notoriety as a public champion of birth control, sexual freedom, free speech, and anarchism, her eventual deportation, her years of lonely exile, her disillusionment with the Soviet experiment, and her death in Canada.

But what's missing in the documentary is any sustained explanation, much less analysis, of what Goldman stood for. Instead, we're given one-liners about her positions. The film's personal information about Emma is interesting. But she was much more than her personal life. She was one of the leading (if not THE leading) public champions of anarchism of her generation. So to understand who she was, one needs to understand the worldview to which she was so passionately committed. What was her understanding of anarchism--individualistic, communistic, or something in between? Why was her insistence that joy and love and humor were essential qualities of the good life such a distinctive part of her revolutionary message? Why did she give lectures on literary figures as well as political issues? What were her specific criticisms of the Bolshevik regime? These and a dozen other issues are left nearly untouched by the film.

One of the film's better points, however, is its (brief) description of the repression of dissent after the US entered WWI. One of the great violators of civil liberties in this country was Woodrow Wilson's attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer (who ironically came from Quaker stock). With Wilson's consent, Palmer persecuted anarchists, socialists, and other progressives on the grounds that their beliefs violated the Espionage Act, a catch-all statute as notorious as John Adam's 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts.

So watch "Emma Goldman: An Exceedingly Dangerous Woman" for an overview. Then read some of her essays and particularly her autobiography, Living My Life, to discover why indeed she was exceedingly dangerous--and exceedingly wonderful. Howard Zinn's play "Emma" is a good weaving of Emma's life and beliefs.
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on March 20, 2008
<strong>DVD REVIEW

MARCH IS WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH

EMMA GOLDMAN: AN EXCEEDINGLY DANGEROUS WOMAN, PBS, 2004

Fair portions of the comments made in the following review were also made in a review of Emma Goldman's autobiography Living My Life for Women's History Month in March 2007. This PBS documentary tracks a great deal of the chronology of events and Ms. Goldman's reflections on her life made in that book. Needless to say, as is almost always the case with PBS documentaries the filming and editing are top notch even if the politics are fuzzy and reek of do-goodism. As always, as well, with theses types of documentaries you get a plethora of 'talking heads' giving their take on the life of this exceedingly interesting and controversial woman, some expressed quite passionately by comparison with other documentary efforts. Read on.</strong>

Sometimes in reviewing a political biography or autobiography of some capitalist hanger-on such as George Bush, Tony Blair or Jacques Chirac it is simply a matter of dismissing a known and deadly political opponent and so heaping scorn up that person is part of the territory of being a leftist militant. For others who allegedly stand in the socialist tradition, like the old theoretical leader of the pre-World War I German social democracy Karl Kautsky, who provide reformist rather than revolutionary solutions to the pressing issues of the day that also tends to be true, as well.

However, with an enigmatic figure like the anarcho-communist and modern day feminist heroine "Red" Emma Goldman it is harder to do the political savaging job that is necessary. Why? Ms. Goldman came out of that tradition of pre-World War I life-style anarchism (made fashionable in the Greenwich Village of the time) where her politics, to the extent that political carping is politics, placed her somewhere on this side of the angels. However, the total effect of her career as an anarchist propagandist, sometime agitator and proponent of women's rights shows very little as a present day contribution to radical history. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) experiences (recently reviewed here), by comparison, are filled with lessons for today's militants.

Obviously someone associated with the fiery German immigrant anarchist Johann Most is by any measure going to have trouble with some government at some point in their lives. Most was Goldman's lover and first teacher of the principles of ' propaganda by the deed' anarchism. For those readers not familiar with that tendency the core of the politics is that exemplary actions, not excluding martyrdom, by individual heroic revolutionaries are supposed to act as the catalyst to move the masses. In short, these are the politics of `shoot first and ask questions later'. As a tactic within a revolutionary period it may prove necessary and make some sense but as a strategy to put masses in motion, no empathically, no.

Emma's own life provides the case study for the negative aspects of this theory. At the time of the famous bloody Homestead Steel strike in the 1890's here in America Ms. Goldman's lifelong companion and fellow anarchist of the deed, Alexander Berkman, decided that the assassination of one Henry Frick, bloody symbol of capitalist greed in the strike, would serve in order to intensify the struggle of capital against labor. Needless to say, although Mr. Berkman was successful, in part, in his attempt both Mr. Frick and the Homestead plant were back in business forthwith. For his pains Berkman received a long jail sentence.

The most troubling aspect of Ms. Goldman's career for this writer is her relationship to the Bolshevik Revolution. Let us be clear, as readers of this space know, I have not tried to hide the problems generated by that revolution from which, given the course of history in the 20th century, the Soviet Union was never able to recover. However, from Ms. Goldman's descriptions of the problems seen in her short, very short stay in the Soviet Union just after the revolutionary takeover one would have to assume that, like most aspects of her life, this was just one more issue to walk away from because she personally did not like it. She, moreover, became a life-long opponent of that revolution.

In contrast, some pre-World War I anarchists, particularly from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, Wobblies) were able to see the historic importance of the creation of the Soviet state and were drawn to the Communist International. Others, like Emma, used that flawed experiment as a reason to, in essence, reconcile themselves to the bourgeois order. Nowhere is that position, and that tension, more blatantly spelled out that in Spain in 1936.

Spain, 1936 was the political dividing point for all kinds of political tendencies, right and left. While we will allow the rightists to stew in their own juices the various positions on the left in the cauldron of revolution graphically illustrate the roadblocks to revolution that allowed fascism, Spanish style, to gain an undeserved military victory and ruin the political perspectives of at least two generations of Spanish militants. The classic anarchist position, adhered to by Ms. Goldman, is to deny the centrality of conquering and transformation of the capitalist state power (and the old ruling governmental, social, cultural and economic apparatuses). To the anarchist this necessity is somehow to be morphed away by who knows what.

Yes, that is the theory but on the hard ground of Spain that was not the reality as the main anarchist federation FAI/CNT gave political support to the bourgeois republican government and accepted seats in that government. These same elements went on to play a part in disarming the 1937 Barcelona uprising that could have sparked a new revolutionary outburst by the disheartened workers and peasants. So much for anarchist practice in the clutch. Ms. Goldman spent no little ink defending the actions of her comrades in Spain. Wrong on Russia and Spain, on the side of the angels on women's issues and the need to fight capitalism. In short, all over the political map on strategic issues. Still, although Emma was, and her defenders today are, political opponents this writer does not relish that fact. Damn it.
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on June 20, 2005
First, note that this documentary is available in widescreen dvd, from the PBS store. I don't know why amazon isn't carrying it.

America Experience is a little too sappy for Emma Goldman. She was an incredibly influential pioneer & political philosopher, and a brilliant american orator. Yet this film hangs around her personal story a bit too long. It is an amazing story, but she would have found the emphasis frustrating, I believe. It's the issues that are important here.

The only inaccuracy is ... her voice. She sported a radio voice, with an american accent -- very authoritative. For some reason, they used an actress with an eastern european accent to read her writings aloud. This isn't right.

Highly recommend her autobiography, which can really make your head spin. Or even "Reds", where Maureen Stapleton won an oscar for playing Emma, quite well. The movie is a little melodramatic, but interesting.
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on March 27, 2008
I am not quite as well read, perhaps as Mr. Johnson, but just the same I would like to challenge the suggestion that because of the actions of the supposed anarchists that sat with the council communists in Spain, anarchism does not work in practice. In fact, if it were not for the betrayl of the council communists I believe the Spainish anarchists would have succeeded in defeating Franco and the facists. But even assuming that they would have failed regardless, that says nothing to me as to whether or not anarchism is flawed. Only that a much lesser equipped force will be likely crushed by a superior invading force. As for the Anarchists working with the council communists, I suppose you could argue that that was or wasn't the right thing to do, tactically, but when trying to solve problems I find it's better to work together with people even if you don't agree on everything and I'm sure that the anarchists had something like this in mind.
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on March 15, 2007
Even though it was the end of the Victorian Era, it was great seeing a woman get published and be able to let others here her views in a time before Second Wave Feminism. However, I think she advocated anti-government tactics that would horrify those of us influenced by Gandhi, Dr. King, and others. No one fears anarchists now, but they were a real threat in her time. Some viewers may see this disc and the content as feminist and empowering; others as violent and creepy. This may be a work good for students, at all levels, who want to know more about early 20th-Century life in America and how immigration affected that.
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