Jewish Currents September 1987 41:8 (452) pp26-27

Red Emma, Red Rosa [excerpt]

When Emma Goldman was in Berlin in 1932, according to Richard Drinnon's Rebel in Paradise, two Nazis stopped her in the street and told her they would do to her what had been done to Rosa Luxemburg. in linking the notorious "advocate of free love" to the earlier Marxist revolutionary, these two Germans displayed a certain historical sense. Rosa Luxemburg (1870/1-1919) and Emma Goldman (1869-1940) both belong to the struggle against oppression whereby the 19th century gave painful birth to the 20th. Both were Jewish (a fact ignored almost completely by Luxemburg and slightly less so by Goldman). Both lived the perforce international lives of revolutionary intellectual organizers, acting out their convictions through speech and pen; both were repeatedly imprisoned for it. Both were free women at a time when it could be argued that the phrase came close to being a contradiction in terms.

On the other hand, Luxemburg was born in to a middle-class Jewish family and was (financially at least) comfortable all her life. Goldman was born into poverty in Lithuania and worked in a sweatshop in Rochester, N.Y. upon her immigration to this country in 1885 at age 16. Goldman was necessarily self-educated; Luxemburg had a university education climaxed by a doctoral dissertation on the economic consequences of Poland's industrialization which remains a small masterpiece of its kind.

The most important difference between the two women, however, was of course that Luxemburg was a socialist and Goldman an anarchist. Together with Karl Liebknecht, Luxemburg founded the Spartacus group that became the nucleus of the German Communist Party. Her concerns were the critical analysis of politics and economy; feminism she shrugged off. For Goldman, although she excoriated capitalism and militarism as volubly as did Luxemburg (both women were imprisoned for their opposition to what they considered the "imperialist" World War I), the primary arena of human liberation was the individual. The struggles she waged about sex, birth control and the position of women in bourgeois society, which were revolutionary to the point of unthinkability in her own day, were still unresolved in the 1960s, when feminists made a slogan of her intuition that "the personal is political."

I recently had the opportunity to see two works that attempted to convey the essence of these women's lives and natures. The first was E.G., described as "a musical portrait of Emma Goldman," with book and lyrics by Karen Ruoff Kramer and lyrics and music by Leonard Lehrman. It was staged in straitened circumstances at a Workmen's Circle branch meeting place on 8th Ave. and 29th St., with a cast of six and the composer at the piano. (See "The Editor's Diary," July-Aug., for an account of an even more stripped-down but likewise rewarding performance.) But the score was appropriately romantic and saucy and the performers talented and vivacious.

The two acts are set up around Goldman's attempt in 1933 to return to the USA, whence she had been deported to the Soviet Union in 1919. In the play's one deliberate departure from historical accuracy, Roger Baldwin of the American Civil Liberties Union shows up to offer her a visa application. With the biographical questions on the application form serving as a framework, the play takes off on a series of musical and spoken vignettes illustrating relevant episodes from Emma's life: her revolt against her father, who thought she should make noodles and have babies; her "birth" as a revolutionary with the hanging of the Haymarket martyrs (beside whom she was buried at her own request); her involvements with Alexander (Sasha) Berkman and Ben Reitman, etc. Helene Williams played Emma with a full-throated lyric soprano that came to suggest all of Goldman's specific gravity as the evening went on. The first act ends with an all-out ragtime ensemble entitled (what else?), "If I Can't Dance, It's Not My Revolution."

In the second act Eugene Green pretty much walked away with the show as Ben Reitman, the preternaturally uninhibited "hobo organizer and whorehouse physician" who became Emma's lover and manager. The play concludes with a videotape of the newsreel made of Goldman's arrival in America in 1934, which ends with the words, "I will leave the country rather than deny my ideas.... I prefer to stick to my guns." She did stick to her guns -- and had to leave.