Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life

Yale University Press  2011


The Yale series of interpretive biographies of Jewish lives includes some figures known for their Jewish identity—Rashi, Solomon— but others not primarily identified as Jewish—Bob Dylan, Bernard Berenson, and now, Emma Goldman. These are not designed as traditional, in-depth biographies, but as meditations on the importance of the subject in the eyes of an author with a significant point of view. Many readers, particularly leftist-feminists who were active in the Sixties, will be eager, now that some of the dust of that era has settled, to know Gornick’s ‘take’ on Goldman. In Gornick’s eyes, Goldman was the quintessential American anarchist; unfettered personal freedom was her lifelong ideal. Two big challenges for Goldman came from her sense that Marxism seemed to elevate ‘ends’ above ‘means,’ when the two, for Goldman, were completely interrelated, much like the conflict between Goldman’s theories of sexual radicalism and the realities of her own heart. By sketching out the often-neglected trajectory of Goldman after her deportation to the Soviet Union—her disillusioned wanderings through Europe with lifelong friend Sasha Berkman, her solidarity with the Spanish anarchists, and then her final phase with Canadian anarchists—Gornick offers a surprisingly nuanced account of Goldman’s political dilemmas. While some readers may find the details of Goldman’s sex life—her penchant for younger men, her flagrant eroticism, her raging jealousies—memorable, what’s truly haunting is the way Gornick shows us a woman ahead of her times—maybe even ahead of our times. Bibliography, index.

Discussion Questions

1)Consider Emma Goldman’s early life and the reasons anarchism held such appeal for her. What was the source of her drive to defy the conventions that bound other young immigrant women? 

2)Vivian Gornick portrays an activist whose whole being was dedicated to protesting the tyranny of institutions over individuals. As Gornick shows us, the right to stay alive in one’s senses, to enjoy freedom of thought and speech, to reject the arbitrary use of power—these were key demands in the many public protests that featured Goldman. How do these concerns resonate with today’s protest movements? 

3)In Gornick’s view, Emma Goldman’s personality was central to her astonishing rise to fame. Discuss the role of Goldman’s personal charisma in the visibility and influence of her ideas in her own time. 

4)Goldman was a sexual radical who supported birth control and radically opposed the institution of marriage. She believed in free love and argued that the marriage contract stifled sexual passion and thus was antagonistic to love. How did Goldman’s real-life love experiences reinforce or undermine her theories about erotic love and relationships? 

5) What role does Jewishness play in Goldman’s development as a radical? 

6) How does Gornick’s feminist perspective influence her telling of Goldman’s life? 

7) Discuss Goldman’s experiences with regard to the Russian Revolution. What were her initial hopes for the Revolution? What were the reasons for her disillusionment? How did her final exile affect her as a person? How did this period affect her political views? 

8) Many today think Emma Goldman speaks directly to the social (not just economic) crisis in which we find ourselves.Why?

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