Jewish Affairs 20:3 May/June 1990, pp. 7, 14
The Legacy of Emma Goldman
[by] Leonard Lehrman
May 14, 1990 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the Russian Jewish-American anarchist Emma Goldman. One of the greatest figures in the history of the American Left, she was a pioneer of free speech, reproductive freedom and war resistance and "the most dangerous woman in America" according to J. Edgar Hoover until he had her deported in 1919. Plans are afoot to commemorate the event in a special broadcast that morning on New York's WBAI-FM and in an exhibit beginning in May at NYU's Tamiment Library (which holds several of her letters) of materials culled from Candace Falk's Emma Goldman Papers project, located at the University of California at Berkeley.
In New York, the Bryant Library of Roslyn, L.I., will open its concert series May 15 with the 90-minute 2-person version of this writer's and Karen Ruoff Kramer's E.G.: A Musical Portrait of Emma Goldman, which will also be presented on WQXR's "The Listening Room" May 23 and at a WESPAC (Westchester Peace Action Coalition) benefit June 1.
Performances are planned for June at the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam (which houses extensive archives on Goldman and other anarchists) and this summer in Paris, East and West Berlin and Dresden. [Dresden was canceled; all the others took place successfully.]
Emma Goldman in Exile is the title of the latest book about her, published last June 27 (on her 120th birthday) by Beacon Press. It is Alice Wexler's second in her series of two biographical volumes: the first appeared in 1984 under the title Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life, but was later reissued in paperback as Emma Goldman in America.
There is enough in Wexler's first footnote on works inspired by Emma to engender an entire essay, which this brief article can only begin to sketch. At latest count Emma has been a major figure in six documentary or quasi-documentary films; four works by novelists; two poems; a trio for viola, cello and piano in her memory; numerous songs; six plays in which she is or inspired a character; four one-woman shows; a readers; theatre piece; and five full-length plays about her.
Alice Wexler's calling our work an opera and misspelling my name, while omitting Karen Ruoff Kramer's, is the first of a few small errors which do not, however, significantly diminish the extent of her achievement. (Others include the apparent misreading of her own notes, resulting in the misattribution of a Des Moines Register reviewer's phrase to the playwright Lawrence Stallings, and the date the U.S. Citizenship Act was passed -- which made it impossible for Emma to regain U.S. citizenship by planning to marry an American). for hers is the first politically critical biography of a subject who has undergone both deification and demonization, but rarely been explored thoroughly from both a positive and a negative standpoint.
While Wexler does not quite approach the depth of that definitive study of Emma in Spain, Vision on Fire (1983) by David Porter (whose review of her book in the latest Fifth Estate is a must read), her contribution is a valuable one to lay beside Richard Drinnon's Rebel in Paradise (1961) and his and Anna Maria Drinnon's Nowhere at Home (1975) -- which really deserves reprinting. (So do Emma's own writings -- especially her poignant essay, A Woman Without A Country.)
Wexler's two 300-page volumes also inevitably provoke comparison with Candace Falk's 600-page single-volume Love, Anarchy and Emma Goldman, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in the same year that Wexler's first volume appeared, 1984. Both books are full of fascinating details and loving analysis of Emma's struggles with both the personal and the political. Falk's is actually more thorough in terms of Goldman's "intimate life," which must have influenced the change of title when Wexler's first volume was reissued in paperback.
Neither book, however, goes very deeply into what Wexler refers to on page 10 as Emma's alleged concern with "the rights of homosexuals." The fullest treatment of that subject is found in the pages on and by Goldman and her life-long comrade-in-arms Alexander Berkman in Jonathan Katz's Gay American History: Lesbian and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (1976), where in 1925 she expressed sympathy for all oppressed groups, including homosexuals, but never really did touch on the question of their "rights." (The use of the term on Wexler's cover is thus slightly misleading.)
Wexler goes a bit further than Falk in adding appreciably to what we know of Emma's influence on and relationships with many people, including Paul Robeson and Roger Baldwin. Wexler reports Robeson as telling an audience at one of the famous Foyle's Literary Luncheons in London that Goldman's sympathy and appreciation for his singing, at that critical moment in his life when he was trying to decide on a career, had helped persuade him to pursue music. Goldman gave him a feeling, he said, "I only get otherwise from novels of Dostoyevsky... the feeling that someone exists whose love really embraces all humanity." (p.117)
She reports that Baldwin, the A.C.L.U.'s founder, wrote of Goldman in 1931 that her battles "for free speech in America" were "unmatched by the labors of any organization." However, Wexler seems to find evidence from Baldwin of what she feels was her subject's Achilles heel. On May 15, 1925 Baldwin wrote Goldman in response to her unabating criticism of the Soviet government: "I am through with indicting evil in the world merely for the sake of satisfying myself that I have spoken out" (Wexler, p. 106). "I had to speak out," wrote Goldman to Havelock Ellis the same year, "no matter the consequences" (Wexler, p. 110).
Details such as these bolster Wexler's contention, shared no doubt by many Jewish Affairs readers, that Goldman's anti-Bolshevism was more emotionally than rationally motivated. Her initially enthusiastic embrace of the Russian Revolution gradually dimmed after her being deported there in 1919. Two years later, after the Kronstadt uprising was put down, she and Berkman fled back to the West and began a campaign against what they considered to be the tyrannical abuses they had seen.
Wexler lists detail after detail of Emma's carelessness with facts, to support her own contention that Goldman "contributed to the emergence of an anti-Communist consensus in America" (pp. 2-3). Pointing to the "continuity thesis" concerning the alleged inevitability of Marxism leading to Leninism leading to Stalinism, she cites Irving Howe's praise of Emma's My Disillusionment in Russia and comes close to blaming Goldman for helping to fashion the ideology of the Cold War. Hers is thus the first cogent, coherent American critique of Goldman and anarchism from the left.
In the end, however, the reader, or at least this reader, hungers for more information in order to make a final judgment. And it seems likely that Candace Falk may be the one to have the last word. As of this writing, her Emma Goldman Papers Project in Berkeley is planning to publish and release on microfilm copies of Goldman's extant 40,000 letters (she is estimated to have written over 200,000). And with glasnost has come a promise, at least, from the Soviet government to release to Falk the minutes of Goldman's and Berkman's fateful meeting with Lenin in 1920 -- of which we as yet have only her side, as narrated in Living My Life. Then will come the task, hopefully, of uncovering all the material which Goldman and Berkman assembled from all over the young Soviet Union:
printed matter, proclamations, pamphlets, banners, posters, weapons, stamps, money
-- relating to revolutionary movements as far back as the early nineteenth-
century Decembrists... also... data on various counterrevolutionary movements,
on the secret police archives of the czars, and on pogroms against the Jews
(Wexler, p. 42).
They had gathered all these things for a Museum of the Revolution, only to find on returning to Moscow that the project had been changed to the Museum of the Communist Party, and all their materials were put out of reach. Falk has already learned that the FBI consciously destroyed the wealth of materials they had confiscated from Goldman and Berkman. But much remains to be written, as for example the eagerly awaited first full-length biography of Berkman, by today's leading historian of anarchism, Paul Avrich.
A full portrait of Emma as a Jew also remains to be written. While mentioning her early fantasies of becoming a Judith figure, and her prescient remarks on the future state of Israel, Wexler also touches upon the resurgence of Goldman's Jewish consciousness, especially as she personally saw for herself the effects of anti-Semitic raids by counter-revolutionaries in areas only recently retaken by the Red Army: "When I was in America," Emma wrote to her niece Stella Ballantine from Russia Nov. 3, 1920, "I did not believe in the Jewish question removed from the whole social question. But since we visited some of the pogrom regions I have come to see that there is a Jewish question, especially in the Ukraine." And no matter how much Goldman would later criticize the Soviet government, Wexler does note that she had nothing but praise for its efforts to stop the pogroms and to keep anti-Semitism "rigidly in check" (p. 41).
May these efforts continue, as the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe grope their way to a society Emma Goldman dreamed of, even if she was, as William Marion Reedy wrote in The St. Louis Mirror, Nov. 5, 1908, "about eight thousand years ahead of her age."
Dr. Leonard Lehrman's review of a biography of Marc Blitzstein appeared in our last issue. The composer of over 100 works, he is director of the Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus and Laureate Conductor of the Jewish Music Theater of Berlin.