September 28, 2006

Review: Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, Volume 1

by David Porter

Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, Volume 1 – Made for America, 1890-1901. Edited by Candace Falk. 655 pp. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2003. $60.00

This book is lengthy, expensive and aimed primarily toward a scholarly, not activist, audience. That said, volume I of Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, a product of the massive 25-year-long Emma Goldman Papers Project at UCal-Berkeley, is a quite valuable, intensely-researched, new, detailed reference source for readers interested in greater understanding, at the micro-level, of the early influences, nuances and contexts of Emma Goldman’s personal and political evolution. The four-volume series (the second volume is due in November 2004) and the larger Emma Goldman Papers microfilm project are good reminders of the importance of her inspiring life and are very substantial resources for students and academic scholars alike. Anarchists will find the present volume interesting and potentially useful especially when translating Goldman’s issues and struggles to our current context.

The book and the larger Emma Goldman Papers Project raise the broader issue of the purpose and usefulness of scholarly anarchist history generally. Three concerns especially stand out: the danger of the weight of the past, the utility of relevant historical models for the present and the skill in presenting subject matter which bolsters authentic anarchist group memory with major substantive issues and with vivid spirit of the historical anarchists concerned.

As social beings, we seek clues, models, inspiration from many sources to make our own lived experience more intelligible, liberating and fulfilling, identifying better the sources of our alienation and oppression, choosing better strategies by which to overcome them, and finding pathways to positive and creative expression. But relying too much on external sources also leads to dependency, distrust of our own capabilities, and inappropriate quiesence in response to poor or irrelevant models. For such reasons, many contemporary anarchists, no doubt like those of previous generations, complain about the oppressive weight or unchosen “authority” of the anarchist “hall of fame,” the most well-known anarchist theorists or activists of the past, such as Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Rocker, Malatesta, Berkman and Emma Goldman herself. Perhaps anarchists, more than adherents to any other political ideology, are especially sensitized to the dangers of constricting traditions and models — even from their own historical movement. (In 1900, Emma Goldman complained of “bosses” in the anarchist ranks herself [401].) Yet just as we gain by recognizing and learning from similar spirits or movement comrades in the present, we naturally can find affinities with individuals and movements in the past and recognize the long-range continuity of patterns of institutional exploitation and repression. One can choose freely to respect useful “authority of the past” without allowing it to dominate analysis or compel certain actions in the present.

Because of the tension between libertarian affirmation in the present and the potential “authoritarian” weight of past “anarchist heavies,” the most useful anarchist histories are those that access life experiences and contexts most readily recognizable for the reader. Better anarchist histories present, analyze and implicitly translate the fundamental issues, challenges, struggles and vital anarchist commitment of the historical context into contemporary imagery and terms, allowing readers vicariously to “participate” in that context, thereby to potentially combine such “experiential” knowledge and sources of political energy with their own.

The present volume provides direct access to over 100 original documents by, to, or concerning Emma Goldman in her first decade of anarchist activism (1892-1901). These letters, articles, newspaper interviews and speech accounts, and government surveillance and court reports, inaccessible until gathered as part of and supplementing the Project’s 1991 microfilm collection, provide an interesting impressionistic mosaic of Emma Goldman’s early political evolution — usefully supplementing, while not significantly modifying, Goldman’s own images of her development during this period as laid out dramatically in her autobiography, Living My Life. These new materials will be used by future historians to deepen our sensitivities to the smaller-scale shifts in Goldman’s consciousness and activity. Assisting that effort and as a significant bonus of its own, the research and editorial team for this volume commendably produced detailed footnotes as well as a lengthy section devoted to rich sketches of anarchist and other activists referred to in the original documents. Similar sections provide detailed descriptions of anarchist and other movement periodicals and organizations of the 1890s. Such material is invaluable for scholars of American and foreign anarchist movements of this period and hopefully will stimulate more new studies about such individuals and groups, quite beyond the connection with Emma Goldman herself.

Moreover, valuable for non-scholars who read this book is an interesting and quite well-written lengthy introductory essay (84 pages) by Candace Falk, the director of the Emma Goldman Papers Project and chief editor of this volume. Well-documented with useful footnotes of its own, this narrative and analytical essay moves readers through the changing circumstances, challenges, issues and patterns of Emma Goldman’s life in this decade with much more apparent coherence and even flow than the 396-page primary document “montage” section itself. Similarly, an easy-to-use 27-page chronology greatly assists readers in following the documented personal and public events of Emma Goldman’s evolution from 1869 to 1901 and relating these to the larger changing contexts of U.S. and international anarchist movements, labor and other social movements of Goldman’s concern and significant international political events more generally.

Most striking to me from the new material by or about Goldman in this book was her rapid transition from an instinctively rebellious, socially-concerned, but relatively isolated immigrant factory worker in Rochester to a highly self-confident, quick-thinking and very effective public personality and speaker among radical audiences from a roomful to several thousand at a time — all while still in her twenties. Newspaper accounts of Goldman’s public emergence (the many newspaper sources in this book are well-chosen and insightful) give a close-up sense of how sensational her rapid rise to “radical stardom” must have appeared at the time, all the more so as one of the rare women public speakers on any circuit. Her focused presence of mind, her quick study of audiences, her disarming wit, her overall political sophistication concerning the broader radical issues of the day and her rapid, articulate and passionate oratorical skills all combined to give her a charismatic presence and rhetorical effectiveness comparable, in more recent times, to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

With some exceptions (such as later emphases on birth control, conscription and critiques of Communism and fascism), Goldman’s most prominent broad topics of concern in this first decade were the same that she would emphasize for the remaining three decades of her life. Capitalist exploitation of labor, the evils of patriotism, the universal inborn libertarian instinct clouded by social conditioning, the subjugation of women, sexual freedom, the critical significance of free speech, the art and literature of social change, the negative role of organized religion, the immorality and destructiveness of war, the role of violence in combating exploitation and repression, the futility of political reform or statist politics generally and the overall vision of anarchist society all were frequent themes of her writing and speeches both. Though she later published fuller, more sophisticated and more articulate essays on these topics (such as republished in anthologies currently available), already Goldman’s confrontation with the issues concerning each topic demonstrated her own powerfully creative and evolving synthesis and insights, analyses and visions which even today are highly resonant.

Consider, for example, her stance in speeches, articles and interviews on the issue of individual acts of violence by radicals retaliating against economic exploitation and political repression. This first decade of Goldman’s activism was marked by attempted and successful assassinations, especially in Europe but also in the United States, by known or self-proclaimed anarchists. Anarchist speakers and writers everywhere had to address such issues given the popularity in some circles for violent “propaganda by deeds” and the ensuing scandalized and vengeful reaction of politicians, the press and much of the public. But the issue also concerned Goldman directly because of her secret involvement in planning with Alexander Berkman the assassination of Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie’s manager of the Homestead steelworks near Pittsburgh and instigator of bloody repression of striking steel workers there in 1892. As well, the issue especially related to Goldman because of newspaper claims about her inspiration of Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of U.S. president McKinley in 1901.

Essentially, her comments and writings reported in this volume show a gradual evolution from her 1892 collaboration with Berkman. While originally involved in gut-level vengeful violent reaction to an especially tyrannical action, hoping thus to ignite a social revolution, incrementally, Goldman moved to a more emotionally-distanced explanation of natural social and psychological conditions which produce individual acts of violence and ambivalence about their effects in helping anarchism (through overall ensuing publicity about anarchist ideals) or hurting the cause (through repressive backlashes and stereotyping of the movement). She also came to emphasize that individual violent rebellion was a negativistic reaction or emotional destructionism as opposed to the positive constructionist anarchist vision of a creative, free and egalitarian society. Consistently throughout this period, she acknowledged the nobility of individual self-sacrifice involved, while gradually coming to acknowledge as well, however ambiguously, the physical suffering of oppressors (such as the wounded McKinley) in such attacks.

Were the Goldman of 1902 transported to today’s world, my sense is that her position on Palestinian suicide bombers would thus understand and acknowledge their desperation in the face of harsh “state terrorism” against their communities while at the same time condemning both the policies of Israel and those authoritarian Palestinian ideological movements directly facilitating and encouraging such actions. She would deplore the tragic suffering of civilians killed or wounded in such attacks, while acknowledging early publicity benefits and later harm of such actions for the Palestinian liberation cause generally.

Add to Goldman’s intellectual and emotional stance the fact that those committing such acts at the end of the century came from her own movement (even if acting as individuals), or, in the case of Czolgosz, were perhaps partly inspired by her passionate words, and one can appreciate the delicate intensity of Goldman’s position and her courage in proclaiming it publicly against the hesitance or condemnation by some of her comrades and amidst bloodthirsty written and verbal attacks on herself and anarchism generally. Three decades later, Goldman’s sensibility about and ability to articulate both sides (emotional motivation vs. contradiction with the ideal) became obvious again, on a grand scale, in her zig-zag successive explanations and criticisms of Spanish anarchist collaboration in the Republican government and army in the Spanish civil war and revolution of the 1930s.

As in her discussion of the nature and role of political violence, Goldman’s special intensity and current subject matter in her speeches, articles and interviews reflected her own process of forging an anarchist vision and critique as much out of her own direct experience and observation as from the words and theories of others. In part, this reliance on her own experiential learning also led, unusually at the time, to a desire and effort to place the anarchist perspective within an American setting (and English language) more easily intelligible to what she perceived as increasing numbers potentially receptive in the broader population. Along with apparently just a handful of other social anarchist writers and speakers in the 1890s (such as Voltairine de Cleyre, Lucy Parsons, Kate Austin, and the editors of Lucifer, The Firebrand, and Solidarity) and probably more influential than any of these, Goldman dedicated already great effort to introducing anarchist ideals and political analysis to English-speaking audiences.

As part of this effort, increasingly in this period Goldman also cited libertarian themes and concepts in early American writers such as Paine, Jefferson, Thoreau and Emerson. At the forefront, given frequent police and politician interference with her public appearances, was her theme of the American revolution’s promised legacy of guaranteed free speech. Here, as in her personal example as a self-liberating woman, Goldman’s activism directly matched her substantive themes. Arguably, her ubiquitous insistent and publicized defiance of attempted restrictions on her own public speeches had as great, if not more, impact on public life during this and later periods as her written and verbal statements on this topic.

By activist and intellectual challenges of this sort, Goldman sought to present a mirror for her audiences to see clearly and objectively the realities of their own oppression. At the same time, she assumed, she directly articulated the fundamental thirst for free lives which everyone was born with and which she hoped to awaken by her example (368). By this “dual consciousness model” clearly stated in her remarks and writings of this period, those who maintained some level of self-dignity (as with activist class-conscious workers) and especially those with some social and moral education and fewer subsistence concerns (as with some elements of the middle class) were often unconsciously anarchist in orientation or at least better able to penetrate the fog of repressive socialization which had gradually obscured and smothered their inherent libertarian instincts from birth. With enough proper education and relief from repressive pressures of the state, capitalism, religion and other sources of authoritarian control, even a hardened brutal police lieutenant could awake to his own alternative liberatory self (442). “Were X-rays able to delve into the recesses of the human mind, we should all be astonished at the numbers of anarchists in existence but unknown to one another, and who have simply not had a chance to break through the layer of prejudices by which they are cocooned. And the social system stifling us would not long survive!” (321). In turn, Goldman viewed as essential the development “morally, intellectually, spiritually” of the individual, “as no amount of turning social conditions topsy turvy will better anything” without it (431). Ultimately, to create an anarchist society, “it is man who makes society, and not society that makes the man” (435).

Goldman’s concern with constantly challenging the limits of free speech also exemplifies the dual nature of her legacy generally in American life. In her successful effort to broaden her appeal to American audiences never before directly exposed to anarchists, she commendably inspired and emboldened large numbers of liberals or progressives to expand their vision of liberty for themselves and the society generally. To the extent that Goldman’s example and message inspired successful free speech struggles, more independent lives for increasing numbers of women, and greater numbers to strongly oppose American imperialism in Cuba and the Philippines, such developments both encouraged and reflected growing liberalization of American politics and society generally in this period. Such liberalization and the broadening of perspective involved, Goldman hoped, could in turn lead greater numbers also to eventually embrace and lead lives consistent with an implicit or explicit anarchist perspective itself (273, 453). Yet most of those so influenced no doubt remained committed to political activity within a statist framework. Such liberalization of perspective and activity in the end merely expanded the breadth and strength of reformist politics.

Already in this first decade, Goldman was aware of this dialectic, indicated her frustration with it (412), and readily denounced the oppressive limits and contradictions of reformism as the duplicitous friendly face of authoritarian statism generally (418). In her first decade of activism, she found herself both courted and marginalized by elements in rival socialist or trade union movements, as well as by middle class liberal groups and the liberal press. During Goldman’s later forced exile from the United States and the ascendance of Communist influence on the left in American life, her influence in the U.S., specifically in promoting a communitarian anti-statist perspective, was all the more marginalized, whatever the significance of her broad progressive thematic appeals.

The present volume and the broad Emma Goldman Papers Project more generally appear to emanate primarily from liberal and radical admiration for Goldman’s activist life and messages in a general progressive sense as “a champion of independent thought”(1), a “ubiquitous gadfly” (136), and a “public intellectual” (41). Several past biographies of Goldman (let alone the recent PBS video documentary on Goldman) have placed her in the same broadly-defined amorphous progressive tradition while de-emphasizing or even criticizing her emphatic anti-state perspective or anarchist commitment. From this perspective, Goldman becomes the exponent of women’s liberation, sexual freedom, anti-imperialism, free speech, and other causes virtually as ends in themselves, palatable to and, I believe, eventually cooptatively digested and transformed by statist political perspectives. (Ultimately, the end point of this perspective would be to assume that Emma Goldman, if now alive, would campaign for Kerry instead of her actual stance of denouncing all political parties and the quest for the presidency and statist power generally [244–45, 249] and believing in the need to work toward anarchist society even if it took 500 or more years to accomplish [441].)

This critique is not meant to diminish the importance of Goldman biographies or the Goldman Papers Project in potentially inspiring many with the liberatory example of her activist life and concerns. But to present, even only as an implicit “master narrative,” Goldman and her legacy in mainly these broad progressive terms is effectively to distort or even ignore the conscious guiding central focus — anarchism — of her life and political vision and critique. It then becomes understandable, however still surprising, how two agencies of the federal government, the National Archives and the National Endowment for the Humanities, could contribute substantial funds toward gathering and publicizing Goldman resources in the Goldman Papers Project.

An interesting result of the present volume, however, is that by its very nature of detailed documentation of her activist activities, speeches and writings, Goldman’s core inspiration by and passionate focus on anarchism becomes loud and clear. To their credit, again from their scholarly commitment to archival and documentary excellence rather than apparent priority concern for the anarchist movement as such, the editors of this book have given us very substantial background data on anarchist figures, groups and periodicals of this period. When one looks closely and seriously at Goldman and her activist context, as this volume does, it is impossible to avoid immersion in the unique goals, issues and commitment of the anarchist movement itself. Since probably most readers of this volume will be progressive research scholars themselves, we will have to await the written products of their effort to assess the ultimate result of this interesting contradiction for the further development of significant anarchist history. In the end, it is subjective interpretations by a book’s readers which create the meaning and value of a book and it is thus the existing consciousness of those readers of this volume which will determine in what way and to what end Emma Goldman’s message here will be passed on.


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