Jewish Currents

May 1990 44:5 (482) pp29-31
The Legacy of Emma Goldman
Fifty Years Later


Emma Goldman in Exile: From the Russian Revolution to the Spanish Civil War
, by Alice Wexler. Beacon Press, Boston, 1989, 301 pages, indexed, $24.95.

May 14, 1990 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest speakers in the history of the American Jewish left, a pioneer of free speech, reproductive freedom and war resistance and "the most dangerous woman in America," according to J. Edgar Hoover (who had her deported in 1919), the anarchist Emma Goldman.

Emma Goldman in Exile is the latest book about her, published last June 27 (on her 120th birthday). It is the second of Alice Wexler's two biographical volumes about her. The first (Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life, 1984) was later reissued in paperback as Emma Goldman in America. Together they form the first two-volume politically critical biography of a subject who has undergone both deification and demonization, but has rarely been explored thoroughly from both a positive and a negative viewpoint.

There is enough in Wexler's first footnote, on works inspired by Emma, to engender an entire essay. At latest count Emma has been a major figure in six films (Yvonne Rainer's Journeys from Berlin, 1971; Warren Beatty's Reds, 1981; a CBC documentary by Paul Kennedy, 1983; and, in progress: a docu-drama by Lea Woods; If I Can't Dance, I Won't Join Your Revolution by Zimya Toms-Trend and Bound by a Thousand Threads by Mindy Washington and Holly Wolf); four works by novelists (Ethel Mannin's Love Under Another Name, 1935, and Women and the Revolution, 1936; Theodore Dreiser's Gallery of Women and E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime; Karl Shapiro's poem, "The Death of Emma Goldman," 1940; a trio for viola, cello and piano in her memory by Christian Wolff; numerous songs including Holly Near's "Dancin' Emma"; six plays in which she is or inspired a character (Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, 1946; Rochelle Owens' Emma Instigated Me, 1977; Martha Boesing's Antigone Too, 1983; Mary Kyte, Mel Marvin and Gary Pearle's Tintypes, 1981; Michael Kaniecki and Daniel Zippi's Czolgosz, 1988 and Nicky Silver's Siblings in Paradise, 1988); four one-woman shows (Stephanie Auerbach's A Woman of Valor; Jessica Litwak's Emma Goldman; Mindy Washington's Fire from Lucifer and Holly Wolf's Emma Goldman Living Her Life); and five full-length biographical plays (Carol Bolt's musical Red Emma: Queen of the Anarchists. 1974; Howard Zinn's Emma, 1976; Michael Dixon's Live Tonight: Emma Goldman, 1981; Lynn Rogoff's Love Ben, Love Emma, 1984; and this writer's E.G.: Scenes from the Life of Emma Goldman, 1984, with Karen Ruoff Kramer).

While Wexler does not quite approach the depth of that definitive study of Emma in Spain, Vision on Fire (1983) by David Porter, 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).

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 the same year as Wexler's first volume, 1984. Both books are full of fascinating details and loving analyses of Emma's struggles with both the personal and the political.

Neither book, however, goes very deeply into what Wexler refers to on p. 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: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (1976). There in 1925 she expressed sympathy for all oppressed groups, including homosexuals, but never really did touch on the question of their "rights."

Wexler goes a bit further than Falk in adding to what we know of Emma's influences on and relationships with many people, including Paul Robeson and Roger Baldwin. And in doing so Wexler seems to find what she feels was her subject's Achilles' heel. On May 15, 1925, Baldwin wrote to 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" (p. 106). "I had to speak out," Goldman wrote to Havelock Ellis the same year, "no matter the consequences" (p. 110).

Details such as these bolster Wexler's contention that Goldman's anti-Bolshevism was more emotionally than rationally motivated. Her initially enthusiastic embrace of the Russian Revolution gradually dimmed after she was deported there in 1919. Two years later, after the massacre at Kronstadt, she and Berkman fled back to the West and began a campaign against the tyrannical abuses they had seen.

Wexler lists detail after detail of Emma's carelessness with facts and figures to support Wexler's own contention that Goldman "contributed to the emergence of an anti-Communist consensus" in America (pages 2-3). Wexler cites Irving Howe's praise of My Disillusionment in Russia and comes close to blaming Goldman for helping to fashion the ideology of the Cold War. Wexler's is thus the first cogent, coherent American critique of Goldman and anarchism from the left. But a complete picture will have to await publication this year, by Falk, of Emma's 40,000 extant letters, and the release of documents just promised by the Soviet government.

A full portrait of Emma as a Jew also remains to be written. Wexler touches upon the resurgence of Goldman's Jewish consciousness, especially as she saw for herself the effects of anti-Semitic raids 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." No matter how much Goldman would later criticize the Soviet government, Wexler does note (p. 41) that she had nothing but praise for its efforts to stop the pogroms and to keep anti-Semitism "rigidly in check."

May those 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."