Dancing at the Revolution

By Dennis G. Dalton

Published July 25, 2003, issue of July 25, 2003.
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Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, Volume 1: Made for America, 1890-1901

Edited by Candace Falk

University of California Press, 655 pages, $60.

* * *

‘I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful radiant things.” That is what anarchism meant to Emma Goldman, the Jewish immigrant from Russia who emerged, at the turn of the last century, as America’s most notorious anarchist and feminist. Goldman, who was deported back to Russia in 1919, became a major figure in American political and social history, a subject of both controversy and ardor, and a great advocate of joy as the central truth whose life was essentially tragic.

No one has made a better case for Goldman’s lasting significance, in both her theory and practice, than Candace Falk, first in her definitive biography, “Love, Anarchy and Emma Goldman” (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984), and now with the publication of the first of four volumes of writings by and about Goldman. Edited with the assistance of Barry Pateman and several other scholars at the Emma Goldman Papers Project at University of California at Berkeley, the team’s commitment to scholarship is impressive and inspiring. As this initial volume in the series demonstrates, they have managed to retrieve and assemble with admirable editorial skill an unprecedented array of Goldman materials: personal correspondence, newspaper articles, government surveillance reports from the United States and Europe, court transcripts, unpublished lecture notes and related documentation of her life and thought, all helpfully annotated or enhanced by Falk’s 84-page introduction. In addition, chronologies, brief biographical sketches of relevant figures and other information make this volume alone indispensable for understanding Goldman.

The picture painted by the collection of these artifacts is indeed an extraordinary one. “By the end of the 1890s,” Falk notes in her superb introduction, “Goldman [only 30 years old] was probably the most proficient spokesperson in the United States to the general public for the core values of the vast and misunderstood spectrum of anarchist ideas.”

The project is indeed a tribute to its subject, but what of Goldman’s quality of thought itself or the astonishing life that she led? Do these have an enduring meaning and worth? Is Falk correct to argue that during the 1890s, or even by the time of Goldman’s death in 1940, she “matured into [an] integrative thinker,” who “above all… strove to be a person of principle and consistency”?

The book definitely shows better than any work previously published, including Goldman’s own autobiography, her splendid achievement during this early decade as an emerging anarchist. In a remarkably brief period, she became the center of a movement at a time when America had begun its sole experience with genuine anarchism — that is, with gifted intellectuals who acted fearlessly to promote their cause, believing without question that anarchy would replace government, overcoming class oppression with individual liberty and social equality. It is a sublime vision and, though its practicality will be dismissed, it is certain that no person during the 1890s enunciated it with greater eloquence than Goldman. This aspect of her achievement endures, and it will surely be shown to increase in the next volumes, at least until the 1920s and what she called “my disillusionment in Russia.”

Yet, the claim that Goldman matured into a serious, consistent thinker is problematic, primarily because of her stance on political violence — a persistent theme in her thought and her relationship to the anarchist movement, from this early period until the end of her life. Indeed, Falk concedes that “her ideas on the subject of violence, by necessity veiled, are ultimately difficult to unravel, and are permeated with duplicity in the name of protecting the guilty.”

In her private as well as public writings, Goldman seems incapable of recognizing, much less resolving, the glaring contradictions in her thinking about political violence. On the one hand, she characterized anarchist bomb-throwing as “great and holy” and extolled the assassinations of Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Canovas by an Italian anarchist and of President William McKinley by anarchist militants. On the other hand, she insisted that “every student of anarchist philosophy knows that anarchy has nothing to do with force and violence; that it denotes peace, safety and liberty, and does not recognize the right of one to rule, injure or coerce the others.” Faced with the actual responsibility for advocating violence, Goldman said only: “No, I do not approve of violence, but I never blame the one who commits it. There is always a cause — and it is the cause, not the person, we should blame.”

There are several serious flaws in this position. First, Goldman did approve of violence in her speeches, even rhapsodized over it with fiery oratory; then, after McKinley’s murder, she landed in a fearful maze of contradictory thought and behavior. Second, the anarchist cause was never helped by violence, either by the successful attendant of Leon Czolgosz or by anarchist Alexander Berkman, who unsuccessfully attempted to murder Henry Frick, the chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company. In fact, such actions indisputably hurt the movement and should have been unequivocally denounced, not defended, for both pragmatic and ethical reasons.

The worst consequence, though, of her confused approach to political violence was that it may be the reason Goldman was blind to the power of nonviolent movements, in America or elsewhere. She was obviously aware of both Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy because they shared with her an uncompromising opposition to the state, but she seldom acknowledged them and so missed the implications of their thought for the kind of civil disobedience that could have enlivened an anarchist movement. Thus, she could not appreciate their impact on Mohandas Gandhi — her exact contemporary — and ultimately underestimated his significance, precisely because she could not see the power of nonviolence when opposed to racist authority.

One is left to wonder, then, how Goldman might have responded to the American civil rights movement and the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., another eloquent spokesman for social justice — inspired not by Goldman, but by Thoreau and Gandhi.

In the end, Goldman may appeal to us because she is indisputably unique, not merely an American original because she was no more imbued with this nation’s tradition than the one she left in Russia. Her life cannot be compared with others any more than her thought can be deemed derivative or systematic. She requested burial in Chicago, next to her Haymarket martyrs, but she was nowhere at home, rather spoiling for revolution everywhere.

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