Jewish History & Culture: Emma Goldman

Our series of blog posts on Jewish History and Culture continues with this extract from Vivian Gornick’s biography of Emma Goldman, part of our Jewish Lives series.

A handful of radicals throughout the centuries have intuited that a successful revolution includes a healthy passion for the inner life. one of them was the anarchist Emma Goldman. The right to stay alive in one’s senses, and to live in a world that prized that aliveness, was, for her, a key demand in any struggle she cared to wage against coercive government rule. The hatred she bore the centralized state was rooted in what she took to be government’s brutish contempt for the feeling life of the individual. Fellow radicals who exhibited a similar contempt were to be held to the same standard. comrades were those who, in the name of the revolution, were bent on honoring the complete human being. 

Although Mikhail Bakunin, that fiercest of Russian anarchists, was one of her heroes, his famous definition of the revolutionary as a man who “has no interests of his own, no feelings, no habits, no longings, not even a name, only a single interest, a single thought, a single passion—the revolution” was as abhorrent to Goldman as corporate capitalism. if revolutionaries gave up sex and art while they were making the revolution, she said, they would become devoid of joy. Without joy, human beings cease being human. Should the men and women who subscribed to Bakunin’s credo prevail, the world would be even more heartless after the revolution than it had been before. 

The conviction that revolution and the life of the senses dare not be mutually exclusive made Goldman eloquent in defense of causes—sexual freedom, birth control, marriage reform—that a majority of her fellow anarchists derided as trivializing the cause; the comrades repeatedly took her to task for, as many of them said, interpreting anarchism as a movement for individual self- expression rather than a revolution of the collective. Hotly, she defended her need to define anarchism as she experienced it, with or without radical consensus. After all, what good was a revolution if at the end of the day one couldn’t speak one’s mind freely? To retreat from this insight, she insisted, was to ensure political disaster. and, indeed, after the party of Lenin came to power in 1917—declaring the proletariat glorious, the intelligentsia contemptible, and any who said otherwise an enemy of the people—she knew that the russian revolution was lost. When she said so in Moscow in 1921, she was promptly invited to leave—exactly as she had been in the United States in 1919 after years of challenging the american democracy on much the same grounds. keeping her company in one state of exile after another was the daily reminder— to herself and all who would listen—that the right to think and speak freely had always been the first article of faith nailed to Emma Goldman’s front door. 

It was the intensity with which she declared herself—in lecture halls, on open- air platforms, in school auditoriums and private homes, from theater stages and prison cells, the back of a truck or a courtroom stand—that made her world famous. That intensity, her signature trait, was midwife to a remarkable gift she had for making those who heard her feel intimately connected to the pain inherent in whatever social condition she was denouncing. as the women and men in her audience listened to her, a scenario of almost mythic proportions seemed to unfold before their eyes. The homeliness of their own small lives became invested with a sense of drama that acted as a catalyst for the wild, vagrant hope—especially vulnerable to meanspirited times—that things need not be as they are. 

This ability to make vivid the distress of living under the arbitrary rule of institutional power—Goldman’s eternal subject, no matter what the title of the lecture—originated in an ingrained sense of oppression that burned as brightly in her at the end of her earthly existence as it did at the beginning. The story of her life, as she told it, set against a background of russian despotism, Jewish marginality, and filial lovelessness, was one long tale of protest, not so much against poverty and discrimination (although there was plenty of that), as against a perception, there from earliest times, that some inborn right to begin and end with herself was forever being thwarted. There seemed always to be those in a position of authority to exercise restraint unfairly, and for no real reason over those who were not free to throw it off. She had always felt the situation as puzzling and unjust; and in her, such was her disposition, that injustice burned unbearably. it was the “unbearably” that set her apart. 

In short: Emma Goldman was a born refusenik. “Don’t tell me what to do!” must have been the first sentence out of her mouth. an anecdote made famous in the 1970s when Goldman’s iconic status was being revived says much on this score. one night when she was young, she was dancing madly at an anarchist party when a puritanical comrade urged her to stop, insisting that her frivolity was hurting the cause. on the instant, Emma flew into a rage, stamped her feet, and told him to mind his own damned business. “If I can’t dance,” her response has been paraphrased, “I’m not coming to your revolution.” The tale is told as a tribute to the emblematic boldness with which she defended her right—everyone’s right—to pleasure, but it could just as easily have concentrated on the startling extremity with which she balked at restraint and swiftly felt hot defiance boiling up inside her. 

Felt is the operative word. She always claimed that the ideas of anarchism were of secondary use if grasped only with one’s reasoning intelligence; it was necessary to “feel them in every fiber like a flame, a consuming fever, an elemental passion.” This, in essence, was the core of Goldman’s radicalism: an impassioned faith, lodged in the nervous system, that feelings were everything. radical politics for her was, in fact, the history of one’s own hurt, thwarted, humiliated feelings at the hands of institutionalized authority. Handed down from on high, such authority was to be fought at all times, in all places, with all one’s might. From this single- minded simplicity—one that neither gained nuance nor lost force—she never departed. it was, in her, a piece of inspired arrest. 

There are at least two ways to make vivid the claim that Emma Goldman might have on the attention of the contemporary reader. one is to write a political history of her years as they unfolded both in Europe and america, showing in detail how her contribution to world anarchism speaks to our own time; the other is to concentrate on the force of her extraordinary rebelliousness and try to understand it in light of the existential drive behind radical politics. This biography is engaged with the second of these approaches. 

Anarchism itself is a protean experience, as much a posture, an attitude, a frame of mind and spirit as it is a doctrine. conventionally defined as a political theory that opposes all forms of government and government restraint, anarchism advocates voluntary cooperation and the free association of individuals and groups in order that all social needs be met. Within that basic construction of political thought there exists a distinct division between the anarchism of collective living and that of the individual. The first is concerned with class struggle and the success of the commune, endorsing an economic system organized around cooperative, worker- owned enterprises and a social system devoted to strict egalitarianism; the second is passionate about the inner liberation of the individual. Both kinds of anarchists believe that under anarchism, as each conceives it, every negative in the human disposition (greed, envy, irrational malevolence) will disappear, and with that disappearance will go every social humiliation: injustice, inequality, exploitation. if people feel free and equal, the anarchist insists, order and cooperation will emerge as a natural result of that beneficence. above all else, the anarchist is out to prove that cooperation, not competition, is the natural impulse of the human race. 

Emma Goldman was a hybrid anarchist. although she was formed by European (communistic) anarchism, and spent her life denouncing the state, she had a passion first for the work of the German philosophers of individualism (Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Stirner) and then for that of American dissenters like Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman whose romantic defense of the supremacy of the individual spoke even more directly to her emotional imagination; it was out of the language of the homegrown American rebel that her anarchism found its great expressiveness and defiant originality. This passion for individuation, as old as the Greek discovery of consciousness, burned in her not only as an angry hunger to feel free within her own self but as an undying insistence that that freedom was a human birthright. To live in a world that denied one’s birthright was the intolerable prospect that fed her rebelliousness and, in turn, led her to the kind of insight that contributed substantially to the never- ending inquiry into the question of what a human being needs to feel human.

Featured image: “EMMA GOLDMAN …” by mrbill78636 is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Listen to the author Vivian Gornick speak about the book on the Jewish Lives Podcast.

Jewish Lives

Jewish Lives is a major series of brief, interpretive biography designed to illuminate the imprint of eminent Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences. Subjects are paired with authors to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the breadth and complexity of Jewish experience from antiquity through the present. Jewish Lives is a partnership of Yale University Press and the Leon D. Black Foundation.

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Main image: “EMMA GOLDMAN …” by mrbill78636 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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