The most dangerous woman in America
As a professional revolutionary, Emma Goldman had a career that spanned continents and a charisma that inspired thousands when she spoke publicly. But today, she may be just as well known for her advocacy of free love
Revolution as a Way of Life, by Vivian Gornick.
Yale University Press, 151 pages, $25
Emma Goldman would surely have been schepping naches − to borrow a phrase from her mother tongue, Yiddish − had she been around this past summer to see the Occupy movement fan out across America. It was just the sort of thing she loved: Ordinary folks taking to the streets, rising up against the excesses of government and big business, and demanding their fair share of the pie.
Longtime FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover called her “the most dangerous woman in America.” For others, “Red Emma” or the “Queen of Anarchism” was a modern Joan of Arc. Love her or hate her; for most of her contemporaries, there was no in-between.
Vivian Gornick, the author of “Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life,” clearly has a soft spot for her subject. It’s easy to see what drew Gornick, a feminist leader in her own right and a former staff writer for The Village Voice, to the likes of Goldman, a woman who was preaching free love and advocating birth control long before her counterparts even had the right to vote in the United States. But then again, as Gornick observes, Goldman didn’t have much use for the vote, arguing that it was more important to overthrow governments than to work within the system for change.
At 150 pages, this compact biography of Goldman − the latest addition to the “Jewish Lives” series published by Yale University Press − packs a lot of punch for its size. Gornick relies on Goldman’s memoirs and letters, as well as on scholarly historical research, to construct this profile of an intensely fascinating and controversial woman who in some ways was generations ahead of her time, yet in others, remained remarkably naive about human nature.
Gornick’s style alternates between the highly philosophical and the almost chatty. Some readers may find themselves a bit overwhelmed by her long-winded musings on the evolution of anarchism and its various strains, while others may feel they don’t need quite so much information on Goldman’s sex life or her obsessions with increasingly younger men. But if you aren’t all that familiar with the life and loves of this iconic Jewish-American revolutionary, this is certainly a good place to start.
Beating her into submission
Emma Goldman was born in 1869 in Kovno, then part of imperial Russia. She was the first child born after her mother’s second marriage to a man whose only way of coping with his strong-willed, independent-minded daughter was to try beating her into submission. Only after she threatened to kill herself did he allow her, though she was still a teenager, to leave for the United States, where she joined a half-sister living in Rochester, in upstate New York. After a stint in a sweatshop, where she experienced labor exploitation firsthand, as well as a short-lived marriage to an impotent husband, Goldman picked herself up and moved to New York City.
The formative moment in her political awakening came during the so-called Haymarket affair, when four Chicago labor leaders, all self-described anarchists, were framed and executed for a crime they apparently never committed. The event shook Goldman to the core, so much so that years later she submitted a request, which was granted even though she’d long since been thrown out of the United States, to be buried near her Haymarket heroes, in Chicago.
Goldman was 20 years old, “with a sewing machine under her arm and five dollars in her pocket,” when she arrived in New York, and on that very day she met [the] two men who would wield great influence on her life: Alexander Berkman, a fellow anarchist and Russian-born Jew, and Johann Most, editor of the German-language anarchist paper published in New York, Die Freiheit. Save for the long periods he spent in jail for his political activities, Berkman remained a constant in her life, even after their romance had fizzled out. It was with Berkman that in 1892 she conspired to assassinate the industrialist Henry Frick, a fierce adversary of organized labor (the plot was not successful), and it was with Berkman that she was deported from the United States to Russia in 1919 for inciting against the draft. Her relationship with Most was not as longstanding, but it was he who discovered her gift for public speaking and gave Goldman her first push into the public spotlight and onto the speaking circuit, where she proved an instant sensation.
In her 30 years in the United States, when she was not on the road firing up the crowds, inspiring presidential assassins (Leon Czolgosz, the man who shot and killed William McKinley in 1901, said he was motivated by a speech she had given) or doing time in prison, Goldman worked as a midwife and nurse. In 1906, she fulfilled a longtime professional dream, when she founded the anarchist monthly magazine Mother Earth − a publication that became the major focus of her life until it was shut down by the government in 1917.
Fundraising on Yom Kippur
Although Goldman considered herself a citizen of the world, most of her closest friends were Yiddish-speaking Jewish radicals from the Lower East Side just like herself. “In this tight little world it was radicalism that seemed to offer the first light at the end of the long tunnel that emigre Jews had entered upon leaving Europe for the Promised Land,” is how Gornick explains their political predilections. For members of this group, though, organized religion was almost as much of an anathema as capitalism. As the author observes: “The Jewish anarchists were the intensely secular children of a religion-based culture they experienced as unforgivably passive in the face of world injustice.” So great was their revulsion for religion, in fact, that they held their annual fundraising ball on Yom Kippur.
Goldman’s childhood experience as a member of a marginalized minority in imperial Russia certainly goes partway toward explaining why she came to champion the cause of the oppressed. But as Gornick points out, the rootlessness Goldman felt as a Jew may also account for the nomadic life she lived. Indeed, it was not unusual for her to spend as many as six months a year hopping from city to city mobilizing the masses who “flocked to hear in Goldman’s rich and resourceful flow of speech the words that would help them find a way out of the pain of ignorance.”
Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anarchism was enjoying its heyday as a political movement. For Goldman, an outspoken advocate of individual liberties and freedom of expression, it was a better fit than other revolutionary movements gaining popularity at the time − communism, for example − that put the good of the collective ahead of that of the individual. As the author notes: “After all, what good was a revolution if at the end of the day, one couldn’t speak one’s mind freely?”
Or sleep with whomever one wished, for that matter? Indeed, considerable space is devoted here to the long string of men who made their way in and out of Goldman’s life, almost until her dying day. “Emma’s lifelong devotion to sexual radicalism as an article of faith − ongoing and unchanged in the face of one failed passion after another − is perhaps the single most important reflection of what her life as a professional revolutionary signifies,” observes Gornick, noting that she brought the same idealism to her romantic life that she did to her political life.
Her love life, however, was one of the few areas in which her ideals were shaken. Like most anarchists of her day, Goldman rejected the institution of marriage and was an outspoken advocate of free love. When she discovered, though, that her lover Ben Reitman (a fellow anarchist and a physician known as “the hobo doctor”) was carrying on with other women behind her back, she suddenly found herself overcome by jealousy and anger, feelings that weren’t supposed to plague die-hard anarchists.
While Gornick clearly admires and draws inspiration from her subject, she doesn’t hesitate to take Goldman to task when she considers her to be out of line. Like many of Goldman’s own contemporaries on the left, the author contends that the great revolutionary came down too hard on the Russian Revolution in the book that was Goldman’s first-hand account of living under Bolshevik rule (“My Disillusionment in Russia”), and in doing so, played into the hands of her own ideological adversaries.
After leaving Russia, in December 1921, following a brutal crackdown by the Red Army, in which thousands of Russians were killed, Goldman spent most of the remaining years of her life in exile in England and France. Although she was certainly cognizant of the rise of Nazism and the persecution of Jews in Germany, it is not clear from this biography how she was able, or whether she even tried, to reconcile the events of the era with her fierce anti-war views and her conviction that anti-Semitism would go away if only the Jews would make themselves citizens of the world, as she had.
Goldman, who died in 1940, was rediscovered and embraced as the darling of the New Left in the 1960s. As the anti-establishment movement in America enjoys yet another resurgence these days, it seems that Gornick couldn’t have chosen a better time to publish this biography of a true trailblazer.
Judy Maltz is a regular contributor to Haaretz Books.