Dances With Anarchists

“The most dangerous woman in America,” dead for seven decades, lingers on. Emma Goldman’s legacy has not always seemed so secure. There was little use for her after the Bolsheviks won radical hearts in the 1920s, even less during the heady days of the post-war boom. It took a New Left that saw no tension between personal and social liberation to resurrect Goldman’s image. The appropriation was selective, but the renewed interest came with more serious historical treatments. Goldman was a quick wit, passionate lover, and talented orator. That she would’ve made fine drinking company has never been in question — her politics have been. Yet Vivian Gornick’s new biography, like many of those that came before it, is hung up on Goldman’s mystique, a mystique that a laundry-list of humanizing anecdotes does little to cut through. Goldman is assessed less as a political figure than lauded as an “incarnation” who, as the book’s subtitle says, lived “revolution as a way of life.”

That life began in misery typical of nineteenth century Russia. Trying to tame his daughter, Goldman’s father beat her with a whip. She battled with authority at the school, too, denied a character reference needed to continue her education. One teacher’s report called the twelve-year-old “a terrible child who would grow into a worse woman.” Sent to work in a glove factory, Goldman witnessed capitalist exploitation first hand. Still, it was only after a journey to America, the bleakness of proletarian life in Rochester, and a profoundly personal response to the Haymarket massacre that “Red Emma” was forged.

Gornick doesn’t completely strip Goldman of the context that colored her political career, a career that spanned from Haymarket to the Spanish Civil War, a high tide for the Left, anarchism in particular. She paints a compelling portrait of the hotbeds of New York radicalism. Areas like the Lower East Side teemed with impoverished immigrants; impromptu soapbox speeches in every conceivable language called for the “expropriation of the expropriators.” Even the most dogmatic of radicals like Johann Most were met with crowds in the thousands in the most unexpected locations (Eugene V. Debs had the support of 17 percent of Oklahomans in 1912). In the last chapters of the book, the electric atmosphere that moved Greenwich Village’s bohemians is similarly conveyed with warmth and style.

Even in a crowded political scene, Goldman’s idiosyncrasies stood out, bringing her into frequent conflict with other leftists, including many anarchists. Gornick alludes to this with an unusual construction, calling Goldman “a prototype of the European anarchist crucially influenced by the American insistence on individuation.” She retells a familiar story: when told at an anarchist party that her frenzied dancing was a frivolity that was hurting the cause, Goldman replied, “If I can’t dance, I’m not coming to your revolution.”1 Gornick offers gentle rebukes here and there about Goldman’s indifference to the eight-hour workday struggle, or woman’s suffrage, or her unnuanced invective against the Russian Revolution, but basically paints Goldman as a less stylish Oscar Wilde. Lyrical, full of passion, prone to mistakes, but someone who, the author beams, recognized long before the New Left rattled into being that “the personal was political.” As such, pivotal political moments in Goldman’s life are offered less space than her erotic love letters (which feature the critical revelation that Goldman was “entranced with oral sex”).

Gornick’s underlying narrative is clear: Goldman’s anarchism was utopian, but in the pursuit of this lofty ideal our protagonist defended free speech, an all-American brand of individualism. Instead of examining a political life, we get a trite celebration of the “good fight” and some parlor gossip. It is, in a sense, the perfect biography for a neoliberal age that can’t help but smirk at genuine commitment.

Goldman, after all, wasn’t just self-medicating on the soapbox by day and sorting through her daddy issues at the chic soirées of the “lyrical left” by night. She was a serious revolutionary who left a decidedly mixed legacy. Goldman’s early activism was shaped by her association with Johann Most. The prominent anarchist groomed her to speak on cross-country lecture tours. Gornick relays a worker’s response after one such address, “Inspiring speech, but what about the eight-hour day?” Capitalism was bad and needed to be overthrown, but in the meantime what this worker said he needed was two less hours of work. Two hours in which he could feel human, take a walk in the park, read a book, or look after his kids. Goldman’s brand of insurrectionary anarchism, which touted “the propaganda of the deed” had no answer. It was moralism elevated to the level of politics. The direct action of a few individuals took on a romantic, mythic quality, while the larger mass of the workers’ movement unglamorously struggled to organize.

Nowhere was this contrast more apparent than at the Homestead strike. During the chaos of the early 1890s, the dispute at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Works emerged as the set-piece battle for the labor movement. The intervention from Goldman’s New York clique was swift and decisive—they printed pamphlets calling on workers to destroy the wage labor system. When the desired effect wasn’t achieved, they sent Goldman to make the same case in person. Again, it was to no avail. After plant manager and art patron extraordinaire Henry Clay Frick ordered an attack on unarmed strikers, Goldman and her life-long associate Alexander Berkman tried a more direct approach. Berkman traveled from New York, infiltrated Frick’s office and shot and stabbed him repeatedly. Frick survived and Berkman went to prison. Public support for the workers, who themselves had shown little interest in the insurrectionists, plummeted to such a degree that the strike collapsed. Workers returned to work on Carnegie’s terms.

This all gets quick treatment in Gornick’s account. There’s no exposition of the thinking that lay behind such a consequential act, but there is plenty of reflection on the anguish it caused…for “Emma.” Some of Goldman’s stances evolved over time, but her general approach remained the same. It would be gratuitous to give a blow-by-bow of her political shifts, since Gornick’s treatment of her protagonist follows the depoliticized pattern to which I’ve alluded. Even Goldman’s most admirable political intervention, a foray into Spain during that country’s civil war, is presented as a plot by her friends in England to cure her depression.

Gornick argues that Goldman’s relevance was assured by the rise of the New Left. She writes in her concluding paragraph that,

The most influential chant of the 1960s and 1970s—the one that most recalls the eloquent demands of the Lyrical Left—[was] ‘The personal is political.’ This is a phrase that for decades has conjured the noble enterprise of struggling against permanent odds to achieve a world in which a healthy respect for the inner life occupies center stage.

The lauding of “the personal is political” is telling. The social advances of the 1960s are undeniable. The stifling grey of the postwar establishment was confronted with verve. New cultural ideas emerged, in part, out of the struggle for civil rights and the global student insurgency. The woman’s movement challenged patriarchal assumptions that had stood for centuries. “The personal is political” emerged as an antidote to the drab conformity of both the Establishment and a complacent Old Left.

But there were limits to this approach. At its core, making love, wearing blue jeans and buying rock records weren’t just perfectly compatible with capitalism; they fueled its growth. In contemporary America, we can see everywhere a post-68, “post-Fordist” spirit of capitalism that encourages “non-hierarchical” thinking in a new workplace heavily mediated by political correctness. The narcissism buried within the “personal is political” outlook finds its inheritors in those who think drinking “fair trade” lattes from Starbucks or following G20 protests like groupies represents real political action.

Gornick’s citation of “permanent odds” strikes such a tone. She implies that radical transformation isn’t possible. Compelling people may engage in a Deepak Chopra-ish pursuit of “inner life,” but ultimately their political enterprises either end as “noble failures” or bloody disasters like the Soviet experiment. This much is made explicit early in the book. “In the 1970s,” Gornick writes, “anarchism was a posture, an attitude, a way of protesting the transgressions of a democracy most rebels wanted to see made more perfect; it was a revolution in consciousness rather than in the system that they were after.” This may be a fair description of “lifestyle anarchism,” but not the uncompromised “social anarchists” of Goldman’s day. For all their tactical failings, these revolutionaries’ screeds wouldn’t have been mistaken for Rhonda Byrne’s. They fought for the abolition of class society, a social fixture since the Neolithic Revolution. It’s hard to imagine a more fundamental change in the “system.”

It is perfectly appropriate that Gornick speculates on what motivated Goldman and often digresses into anecdotes from her personal life. Any three-dimensional biography demands such treatment. Unfortunately the political questions of Goldman’s life are breezed over and she is presented as someone who strived not to change the world, but merely to live an interesting life. Criticisms of the particulars of her worldview aside, Emma Goldman deserves more than a biography that reads like a black bloc romance novel. After Gornick’s emotionalizing of another woman’s revolutionary politics in The Nation, one can only hope that she finds a new creative outlet.