Emma Goldman: My Revolutionary Hero


So this was to be a special entry for yesterday, but my ancient computer finally decided to pass its usage onto the next generation and thus I am confined to the library’s machinations for the time being. But you may be asking, why was this post intended for yesterday? What made yesterday so special? Well I’ll tell you. Yesterday, May 14, 2015 was the 75th anniversary of the death of one Emma Goldman.

In Canada, there was Nellie McClung. In the US, there was Harriet Tubman, Charlene Mitchell and Susan B. Anthony. In Europe – specifically the Russian Empire – there was Emma Goldman. Although her first language was German, Goldman was born in Kovno, Russian Empire in what is now present-day Lithuania. But what made Emma Goldman so great?

Those who know me, know that I have an affinity for anarchism and anarchist theory. Emma Goldman has often been referred to as the grandmother of modern anarchism. Cavorting with Russians such as writer Alexander Berkman – her lifelong lover and friend – and the fact she was Jewish, did not endear her to those in power. She was indicted several times for “inciting to riot”, whatever the fuck that means, and although she was a proponent of violence in her early years, she later helped make anarchism a movement of peace. She even offered to nurse President William McKinley back to health after he was shot by fellow anarchist, albeit mentally unstable Leon Czolgosz. McKinley eventually died from his injuries and Teddy Roosevelt was sworn in as president.

Given that she lived around the turn of the 20th Century, Goldman was an early proponent of many modern-day social issues such as free speech, gay rights, free love, prison reform, atheism and anti-militarism and capitalism. She was not a feminist however, mainly because since she didn’t believe in any form of government, she didn’t feel the women should or needed to vote for elected officials, although she did find ways of incorporating gender politics into her anarchism.

Interest in Goldman was revived in the 1970s, and today she is seen as an iconic figure in women’s liberation and civil rights, as well as for her views on politics and sex. Everybody from linguist Noam Chomsky to children’s entertainer Raffi Cavoukian espouses a love for Goldman and her way of life.

Recently, I had a chance to speak with scholar and academic Vivian Gornick, who in 2011, wrote a book on Goldman’s life. Emma Goldman: Revolution as A Way of Life was published by Yale University Press. Gornick and I talked about what Goldman’s legacy was. One of the most effective things, Gornick stated, was that Goldman got people to understand and see their lives in historical and political terms, and was able to explain how the time they were living in was exploiting them; killing them in fact.

With the exception of a small portion of Francoist Spain for a couple of years, anarchism has never worked in practice on a large scale basis. Then again, this would kind of be self-defeating. Gornick acknowledges that it would near impossible to make anarchist theory work in a federated system such as the United States. But what I like about Goldman, besides the fact that she was a bad-ass woman ahead of her time, ahead of OUR time, in so many ways, was that she got people to think differently. Even if anarchist policies aren’t used on a wide-scale or day-to-day level, it is because of people like Goldman that many socially progressive ideas were put on the map. It is through the actions of women like Goldman, that women started to be treated as more than just obedient wives. Unfortunately, it seems that many politicians today are trying to push us back 100 years, with their horrifyingly anti-women policies.

So what is her legacy some 75 years after death? Gornick believes that is was her ability to get people to “experience themselves fully”. Her speaking and oration skills are in many ways still unrivaled. If she was still with us today, I wonder what her thoughts would be on a woman being the favourite to be the next president of the United States. Despite her distrust of the system, I’d have to think, on some level, she would be thrilled. She’d definitely be more Hilary than Carly Fiorina, though she would consider them both too right-wing for her liking. The fact that the United States still doesn’t have full Universal health care would appall her, especially since Goldman trained as a nurse. Double for the fact that women still don’t get equal pay for equal work. She would be puzzled as to why gay people still can’t get married nation-wide. (Though hopefully come summer, that issue will be over, and they will be able to)

Although the US and the west still has much to do in the area of human rights, we have come a long way since Goldman’s time, in large thanks to the work that she did. With a movement in the United States to put women on money, with a tinge of irony I would like to nominate Emma Goldman. If nothing else, at least more people and especially more youth, would know her name and her story.

Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life by Vivian Gornick was published in 2011 by Yale University Press. Gornick currently teaches at the University of Iowa.

Goldman herself was the author of six books including Anarchism and Other Essays (1910) and her memoir Living My Life, published in 1931. She also founded Mother Earth magazine.

Another great resource is the 2011 book The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century by Scott Miller

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