Culture / Politics / World

‘Living My Life’ by Emma Goldman: the enduring appeal of anarchism

Emma Goldman, also known during her lifetime as “the most dangerous woman in America” – a pretty cool epithet if you ask me – is a key figure in the history of anarchism, particularly in the United States. Born in the Russian Empire in 1869, Goldman emigrated to the United States at the age of sixteen, going on to gain renown and infamy in her adopted homeland for her prodigious political activism, while also making important philosophical contributions to the development of anarchist political theory. In her 1931 autobiography Living My Life, Goldman describes in exhaustive detail the events which made up her tumultuous life. The book is not only a fascinating historical document; Goldman’s intensely personal writing style makes this a moving and engaging reading experience, with the emotional turmoil she experiences while battling for her “beautiful ideal” – anarchism – providing a unique insight into the nature of political struggle and social progress.

Goldman’s anarchism blended the socialist tradition of the continent from which she hailed with the individualism of the nascent USA. For Goldman, “individual liberty and economic equality (are) the twin forces for the birth of what is fine and true in man”. Moreover, these two aims are ultimately inseparable; Goldman’s ideal society can only exist when there is “the freest possible expression of all the latent powers of the individual”, which in turn is made impossible by the exploitation of and demands made upon the masses in the capitalist mode of production. One memorable event in the book, soon after Goldman’s arrival in New York, is emblematic of how central individual expression was to her philosophy, as well as how this set her apart from some of her contemporaries. At a dance arranged in support of a cloakmakers’ strike, one “grave faced” young comrade makes the mistake of informing Emma that “it (does) not behoove an agitator to dance”, and that her “frivolity would only hurt the Cause”. Goldman reacts by mounting a furious and righteous defence of her ideals, with her memorable riposte – “if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution” – living on today on the t-shirts, mugs and tote bags of present-day radicals.

Goldman’s activism against any social and economic structure she saw as inhibiting individual liberty and thus social harmony would ensure she incurred the wrath of the various forces in American society committed to upholding these structures. The diversity of the charges which led to her main stints in jail reveals the breadth of her activism in the US: first, in 1893, she was convicted of “inciting to riot” after speaking to a crowd of 3,000 unemployed men and women in New York, spending ten months in a New York penitentiary; then, in 1916, she spent two weeks in a prison workhouse for giving public lessons on how to use contraception; before, finally, she was sentenced to a further two years behind bars in 1917 as punishment for her anti-war and anti-conscription efforts. After completing this final spell Goldman was promptly deported under the Anarchist Exclusion Act, expanded at the height of the Red Scare.

The most tragic sections of the book, however, do not come during any of Goldman’s various tribulations in the US, the country she would come to see as her home. Rather, it is Emma’s experiences after she is deported and begins a new life in post-Revolution Russia which ultimately cause her to feel the most distress and disillusionment. Upon her arrival in January 1920, Goldman’s “heart trembled with anticipation and fervent hope”; for Goldman, the 1917 October revolution in the country of her birth had come to “symbolise humanity’s hope” and was “destined to redeem mankind”. Gradually, however, we see Goldman’s unease with the hypocrisy and the authoritarianism of the Bolshevik state grow, before the Red Army’s brutal suppression of the Kronstadt Rebellion in March 1921 drains the last of her faith in Lenin, Trotsky and co. As she finally leaves Soviet Russia by train in December 1921, she can barely suppress her sobs, her “dreams crushed”, her “faith broken” and her “heart like a stone”. Goldman is scathing about what she sees as the Bolsheviks’ betrayal of the ideals of the October Revolution, describing its purported socialism as in fact a form of “state capitalism” in the ordinary person’s life was no better – now they were simply fortunate enough to be exploited and repressed by a ruling class of state bureaucrats instead of the bourgeoisie.

Goldman’s political philosophy, then, placed her at odds with the two predominant political formulations (fascism aside) of the twentieth century: the capitalist democracies of the United States and today’s West, and the Marxist-Leninist state socialism of the Soviet Union and later examples such as Cuba. While Goldman reviled the various kinds of injustice and exploitation rife in the former, her nature proved just as incompatible with the often violent political repression enacted by the authoritarian states of the latter. The failure of her cherished anarchist ideals to gain mass acceptance amongst any of the populations in which she dwelt causes her to be in a rather despairing state at the end of the book, stuck in a painful and nomadic exile in Europe, unable to return to her many friends and loved ones in the US. With this in mind, it is somewhat cheering to note that the anarchist revolution in Spain in 1936 brought her great joy later in her life.

The fact that Goldman’s ideas cannot be associated with any of the failings of capitalism or authoritarian socialism, moreover, arguably enhances their persuasiveness in the present context. Certainly Goldman was well ahead of her time with regards to a variety of social issues, with her progressive positions on matters regarding love and sexuality predating the countercultural movements of the 1960s by over half a century. Anarchist ideas more generally, meanwhile, have undergone a resurgence in the 21st century, a development reflected perhaps most dramatically by the horizontal organisation of the Occupy movement but also in the participatory nature of all sorts of new movements on the left. Perhaps this enduring nature can be explained by the fact that the ideas of anarchists such as Goldman amount more to a set of timeless principles than a dogmatic picture of what the world ought to look like. For Goldman, anarchism merely reflected what she saw as the essential truths of the human condition, namely our yearnings for individual freedom and social harmony, as well as the concomitant belief that, once we dismantle and replace the various unjust hierarchies that structure our lives at present, we might be able to live more in tune with these fundamental truths.

Even if we never fully succeed in constructing a society free of such constraints, Goldman’s book stands as a powerful testament to the value of fighting for progressive social change. Goldman was contemptuous of parliamentary democracy in her time, perhaps understandable given that the US didn’t even get round to granting women the right to vote until after she was deported. Nonetheless, I’m in no doubt that were she alive today she would be highly gratified by the monumental achievements won by labour and left-wing movements in the twentieth century, particularly regarding healthcare and working conditions, which have done much to alleviate the suffering of the ordinary people for whom she cared so deeply. In her tireless advocacy for human dignity, liberty and equality, Goldman ultimately proved out of step with her time, passing away just as the malevolent scourge of fascism was beginning to wreak incomprehensible destruction across the lands of Europe. Yet her pioneering and influential life stands as a motivation and an inspiration to the radicals of today, as we begin to face up to the scale of the challenges we face in our own time.

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