Women In Trouble: Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life
Vivian Gornick
Yale University Press, September 2011 (Part of the “Jewish Lives” series of interpretative biography)
160 pages
$25.00

In a new regular series, Anne Gray Fischer reviews books by or about “women in trouble.”

Last month, when the city’s crackdown on Occupy Boston was imminent, a wave of exuberant rebellion swept through the camp: amid the thickening police presence, protesters threw a dance party, pounding drums and moving their bodies in ecstatic celebration of their waning freedom.  The furious, creative spirit of anarchist Emma Goldman—who famously, if apocryphally, declared, “If I can’t dance, I’m not coming to your revolution”—came alive that night.

Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, by Vivian Gornick, is a lean and searching biography of the anarchist who defied the authority of both state and industry with a flamboyant rage that, a century later, remains bracingly relevant and still, perhaps, ahead of its time.

In this lyric meditation on Emma Goldman, Gornick is absorbed with the question of rebelliousness: namely, what sustains the rebel flame in those she calls “born refuseniks”? And how does the enduring thirst for “permanent revolution” manifest in the rebels’ private lives? Though J. Edgar Hoover deemed Goldman “the most dangerous woman in America,” in Gornick’s hands, Goldman is presented as a melancholic and melodramatic exile who “never came in from the cold” of the revolutionary’s peripatetic and lonely life, who could only access her own emotions in a posture that was “most useful to the Cause,” and who felt “nowhere at home” long before she was banished from her adopted homeland in the United States.

Anarchism at the turn of the twentieth century—the anarchism that drew thousands of working people to daily lectures and rallies worldwide; provoked the assassination of six heads of states; and circulated dozens of periodicals to thousands of subscribers in America—was an uneasy marriage of Marxist communalism and modernist individualism that aimed to achieve unbounded personal expression in a leaderless, cooperative society. Like many of her fellow radicals, Goldman, anarchist and individualist with equal fervor, fought against institutionalized authority’s “small humiliations that ate into the soul,” and avenged private hurt with outsize collective action. In a lovely reflection of this tension between the collective and individual that is marbled throughout anarchism, Gornick mingles nuanced insights into Goldman’s personal life with smart, if spare, historical sketches of Goldman’s milieu.  Despite Gornick’s deeply psychological portrait of her subject, she keeps the reader satisfyingly aware of the social and political history in which Goldman was embedded.  Particularly well illustrated is New York’s Lower East Side, where Emma and her notorious comrades “swam like fish in the sea…exerting an influence disproportionate to their numbers.”

While Gornick persuasively argues that Goldman was a uniquely indefatigable radical, she was also “supremely well met” by her time: politically charged years when “a great refusal was filling the air,” and ordinary citizens believed the coming revolution was “a universal certainty.” Gornick’s subdued prose is a welcome foil to what she rightly calls Goldman’s “high-flown rhetoric,” and her biography is a fine primer into “the despair and the excitement of revolt”—for the budding anarchist, the seasoned activist, and the armchair occupier alike.

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About Anne Gray Fischer

Anne Gray Fischer is the event coordinator for Ploughshares. Her book-in-progress, Bodies on the March: How Prostitutes Seized the Seventies has received a Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grant, among other honors. Anne earned a B.A. cum laude from the University of Chicago and an M.F.A in nonfiction writing from Emerson College. She is the recipient of a Fulbright grant.
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One Response to Women In Trouble: Emma Goldman

  1. Scott Ufford says:

    Thank you Anne, you’ve written such a stirring summary of Emma Goldman’s influence I can’t help but want to read more about her.

    You mention she was banished from USA, her adoptive homeland. That must’ve been very painful for her.

    Emma’s fate is especially relevant today because NOW Congress is considering legislation putting into force that American citizens can be stripped of their citizenship if they’re judged (not in a trial by jury) as traitorous OR supporting an enemy of USA.

    How long before this vague, overreaching edict morphs into permanently booting out of the country those who demonstrate, speak out or rebel against evil or misguided laws…we’ve all seen a few of these laws in recent years, haven’t we? For example, one politician already suggests environmental demonstrators could be labeled “ecoterrorists” & prosecuted & stripped of citizenship under this law. Hello! Mission creep?

    Another example,”Just say no to Monsanto!”–what might happen then? “Young lady, didn’t you know opposing genetic engineering that makes monster plants, trees, fish & food is un-American? Besides, Monsanto provides jobs–are you some kind of anarchist? If you don’t love pesticides genetically engineered into your food (and so, into your body), why don’t you leave? Here, let’s make it easier for you…”

    Whatever happened to our right to peaceful civil disobedience? Sure, it was always risky & could get you beat up or killed if you were “the wrong color” or ethnicity in the wrong place, but the possible repressive influences in our society are growing, & don’t flinch except under the light of widespread publicity.

    One fact seems clear: once given a tool to be used sparingly, politicians & “law enforcement officials” will constantly get used to their toys, then expand their use as they get used to them. For example, the use of Tasers–formerly meant for self defense & in genuinely dangerous situations–are mindlessly used as a matter of course in endless inappropriate scenarios, including on children & nonviolent dissenters as at OWS!

    Next in the ranks of insane corporate deveopment is a very real threat, a form of “sound gun” that emits such a deadly percussive blast it can shatter the eardrums of anyone it’s aimed at–which of course can prove fatal.

    How’s THAT as a deterrent to the thought of joining a demonstration?

    “Accidental death” by demonstrating, or permanent eviction from citizenship–those are the ultimate social “Tasers”, wouldn’t you say?

    That’s why those who might rebel against this creeping institutionalized insanity must learn of it & oppose it–today.

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