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Emma Goldman | Article

An Activist's Evolution


Commentators from the film describe Emma Goldman's evolution from Russian émigré to anarchist firebrand, and explore her legacy.

Did Goldman's Russian Jewish childhood influence her political beliefs?
E. L. Doctorow, novelist: [She] probably got her launch into political life by rejecting the normative rabbinical tradition back in Russia, which she would have seen -- as so many young people did who came to America — as a way of holding people back, as a way of accepting your lot at the bottom of the heap, as a way of rationalizing your misery that Judaism, for her, was a way of praying your way to death... I think she lands squarely in the radical Jewish humanism that flourished around the turn of the century... the idea that the problems on earth should be solved on earth... that the conditions people struggled under were man-made and therefore could be corrected.

How did America, and New York in particular, affect Goldman?
Andrei Codrescu, writer: There's no question that she loved the freedom she'd found in America. But... built into the foundation of American democracy is dissent. I mean, this country started out as a dissenter from England.... She found anarchism in an enormous practicable state here.

Christine Stansell, historian: She came to New York in the summer of 1889... she talks about it in a very mythical way, but I think a way which tells so much about her love for the city and her love for America and really, her investment in a kind of left-wing version of the American Dream that drew so many people across the ocean.

Robert Rosenstone, historian: It began to be fashionable for uptown people to go down to Greenwich Village... It's a hotbed of cultural activity, and that's cultural activity in the wider sense. It's everything from discussions of feminism to discussions of birth control to socialism to Cubism to the theories of Freud... all this is being discussed in one way or another... It was a real mixture of artistic experimentation, political radicalism, and carefree living. They were kind of an impossibly optimistic and very American and dreamy generation.

Did Goldman experience a single decisive political awakening?
Barry Pateman, historian: The first great awakening for Emma politically is Haymarket... that must have been, I think, a total shock to her.

Andrei Codrescu: I think up to a point they still believed that the American justice system was working. And when the Haymarket anarchists were convicted and hanged, their outrage was boundless.... you expected that in Russia but... not in America.

Martin Duberman, historian: The hangings of the Haymarket martyrs -- as they were soon called by sympathizers -- had a profound effect on Emma Goldman. She saw these men as martyrs. She understood how unfair the trial was. And from that moment she dedicated herself to their memory, to devoting her life to fulfilling the goals that they had dreamed of. And it was, I would say, a real epiphany for Emma Goldman. She never looks back after that.

What was Goldman's philosophy of anarchism?
Barry Pateman: Jefferson, Paine, Whitman, Lincoln, even, [the anarchists would] argue, were anti-state and wanted a freer country with less state interference. And she would use those names time and time again in her speeches to reach back into what she saw as a history of America, and argue that its true, anti-state, libertarian tradition had been corrupted by capitalism... With both Nietzsche and Max Stirner she talks about the importance of the individual. In "Anarchism" and in other essays in 1910 she says the great thing about anarchy is that -- it's both the sole freedom of the individual... it's how men can become themselves. But it's also about social harmony, and she mixes this idea of being together, all of us, still with the importance of the individual.

How did Goldman relate to the suffragettes?
Alice Wexler, biographer: She didn't so much oppose [suffrage] as thought it was irrelevant. That for her, because she's an anarchist, she doesn't believe in the state, she doesn't believe in formal government and laws, and she believed that the vote was not going to liberate women.

Stephen Cole, historian: It's not that she didn't endorse the suffrage movement, she just didn't think it was important. Why would women want to be equal to unfree men?... Suffrage to her... was to focus upon one small aspect of the oppression of women. Women needed to be emancipated in a variety of ways, and to focus on one of them was to focus on something that was only part of a much bigger movement. Emancipation required sexual emancipation, social emancipation as well as political emancipation.

Can you describe Goldman's appeal as a speaker?
Christine Stansell: She practiced a kind of oratory... which was supremely confident. Confident of her listeners' interest, confident of her abilities to express. It was not tub-thumping oratory. It was not the oratory of maybe the run-of-the-mill union speaker, or union organizer. It was something more intellectual, and clearly magnetic at some fundamental level. And people evidently never forgot it, or so they said... And without question Goldman built that up over the years in the United States. And she worked her way up from small groups to larger audiences... She lectured in ladies' clubs, she lectured in Elks halls -- she did lecture in union halls, but she also lectured to literary societies.

Oz Frankel: She wants to come out of the lecture room winning; and she relishes a hostile crowd. She relishes the fight... sometimes she uses deception and all kinds of other technique to disarm... Sometimes she's more volatile. Sometimes she is more loud. Sometimes she is more outrageous. And other times she actually plays the other way around. She's being more reasonable, more trying to articulate an argument, trying to appeal to the sensibilities of the crowd. It's very important for her... to emerge victorious out of this encounter between her and the public.

Did Goldman support violence as a means to an end?
Alice Wexler: I think that she repudiated acts of individual political violence as a strategy and a tactic... however, she did not repudiate the people who committed them. So in certain respects, her position remained a little ambiguous and ambivalent.

Oz Frankel, historian: I think sometimes violence is... necessary to bring about social change. And for Emma Goldman, when Emma Goldman is asked this question, quite comfortably she goes back to American history to the American Revolution, or to John Brown. John Brown is very popular with Emma Goldman... He's someone who was willing to engage in a very violent act against the state. And in her construct, he freed the salves. He's responsible for emancipation because he triggered the succession of events that brought the Civil War and eventually freedom for four million slaves. So she goes back to American history to demonstrate that sometimes the only way to fight injustice and to bring freedom is through violence.

Specifically, how could Goldman defend Sasha Berkman's attempt to assassinate Henry Clay Frick?
Barry Pateman: The Pinkertons... were seen as agent provocateurs, they were seen as vicious. Rightly or wrongly, that's how they were perceived....When the news of the behavior of the Pinkertons and the whole battle comes through, it seems to have galvanized Berkman and Goldman and Fedya enormously... powerfully. They, I'm sure, see Frick as a new Czar. They see two things. They see abhorrent behavior on this man's part, awful, cunning, vicious behavior. And they also see the bravery and the militancy and the potential for a revolutionary solidarity with this mass of workers who fought back ... ...And somewhere and in some way they decide that Frick is going to be killed.

Martin Duberman: What the deed meant was you choose a prominent public figure and you assassinate them. And you do so in order to call the world's attention to the amount of suffering that they have caused and the amount of suffering that currently characterizes the lives of working class people who were living in a kind of semi-slavery at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.... They were fighting against very real injustices. There is no disputing that. The means that they sought in order to destroy this cruel system are certainly debatable.

Could Goldman see any problems with the practice of anarchism?
Barry Pateman: For Emma, doubts will always be there. She doubts, even in the 1900s, whether anarchism will work. Then she reaffirms herself. Berkman does the same in prison. There is a constant reaffirmation. They're not... fanatics or stupid. They're not sort of narrow-blinkered people. They are aware of their own weaknesses and their own failures as much as anyone... any critic of them is. But they try and lift themselves.

What was Goldman's life like in exile?
Barry Pateman: We do know, without being too dramatic, that when she was living in Canada she would go to the border and look across and she would cry because that was where her home was. That's where she had her own sense of who she was, was most developed when she was in America. And let's be quite frank, it's also where she had the adoring audiences and where she felt she could do something. For a political activist, sitting in... a hillside cottage in Saint Tropez -- without the glamour that we associate with it now -- where you can actually affect hardly anything, is hell.

Andrei Codrescu: People like Peggy Guggenheim and Laurence Vail, in the 1920s glamour of the Riviera and of Paris, used her as a kind of tourist attraction. She was the famous Emma Goldman, Anarchist, so let's drop by about four in the morning with some champagne and oysters and see what's happening... And of course they found her quite serious and... somewhat humorless for their frothy, effervescent company.

What is Emma Goldman's legacy?
Andrei Codrescu: Her legacy consists primarily of what she gave to the free speech movement in this country, of what she did for birth control. Her... militancy during the period of the First World War, and... her mystique, which is not only strictly part of her, but it's the accrued mystique of Emma Goldman from decade to decade.

Barry Pateman: Floyd Dell called her "the nettle in our conscience..." Whenever the state became too powerful, when it became too intrusive in people's lives... when it became too cruel, Emma's voice was there... The fight for free speech, the fight for women to have control over their bodies... the fight against state intrusion in our life, the fight against totalitarianism... Becoming the nettle of our conscience: she didn't do it for wealth, she didn't do it for money, she didn't do it for personal gain. She did it for all of us. And she's awkward, and she's ornery, and she's a pain. Great -- because that in itself has... made us think a little bit more before we take dangerous decisions.

Stephen Cole: For birth control there's a Margaret Sanger. For the down and out there is a Dorothy Day. For free speech there is an Emma Goldman... She puts the iron in peoples' souls. She puts fire into people. And that crosses generations. It was not simply for her generation, it echoes down through other generations so that people feel emboldened by her words and her actions, decades and decades after she has left our company.

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