Emma Gold­man: Rev­o­lu­tion as a Way of Life

Vivian Gor­nick

By – October 31, 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.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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?