by Josie Glausiusz
The life and struggles of an anarchist and feminist born in obscure corner of the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth century are as inspirational and relevant today as they ever were, argues the science and environment journalist Josie Glausiusz.
I had just passed the midpoint of Emma Goldman’s nearly-one-thousand-page autobiography, Living My Life, when I discovered the existence of Olaf Tweetmore, the editor of Organized Labor, “the organ of the powerful building trades.” Goldman was protesting Tweetmore’s silence following the arrest of five Labor leaders in the wake of a bomb explosion at the June 22, 1916 San Francisco “Preparedness Day Parade,” held in anticipation of the United States’ imminent entry into the “Great War.” Tweetmore, whose last name was also spelled Tveitmoe, is one of thousands of characters whose names Goldman meticulously documents in her engrossing memoir, published in two volumes in 1931 and 1935. Some, like Tweetmore, are exceedingly obscure; others, like Vladimir Lenin, whom Goldman met after being exiled in 1919 to the Soviet Union from the United States, are definitely not.
Born in Kovno in the Russian Empire in 1869, Emma Goldman, who emigrated to the United States in 1885, was, most famously, an anarchist and free-thinker whose ideas were far beyond her time. She spoke up for workers’ rights, freedom in love, birth control, “and the problem most tabooed in polite society, homosexuality.” She organized the No Conscription League during the first World War, denounced the “criminal stupidity of war,” and was arrested, imprisoned, and deported in 1919 to the nascent Soviet Union for opposing conscription and “all wars waged by capitalistic governments.”
Goldman was also a gifted writer whose prose is at times darkly humorous. In her 1909 New Declaration of Independence, penned “for the fun of it,” she wrote that “that all human beings, irrespective of race, color, or sex, are born with the equal right to share at the table of life.” The Declaration, initially commissioned by the Boston Globe, was subsequently rejected: “Send that woman a check and return her damned anarchist declaration,” an editor had ordered. “I don’t want her in the Globe.” (She published it anyway, in her own magazine, Mother Earth.)
Sometimes I felt as if Goldman, writing of events a century ago, was speaking of present-day calamities: unending wars, the suffering of workers paid starvation wages, robber barons, restrictions on freedom of speech, and lack of reproductive freedom. I had the feeling that she was addressing me directly from a past that reverberates today.
I can’t exactly say what prompted me to pick up Goldman’s Living My Life after it had sat, unread, on my shelves for the past 17 years. Written inside is the date–August, 2002–on which I bought the two-volume set, most likely from a secondhand book stand on Union Square in New York City. The site of my purchase was à propos: It was there, on August 21, 1893, that Goldman addressed a crowd of 3,000, exhorting the unemployed workers to “demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread. It is your sacred right!”
Goldman’s writing quickly drew me into her world; I was enthralled, carrying her autobiography with me everywhere, and inserting post-it notes into the pages whenever I found a quote I particularly liked. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things,” she writes 56 pages in, after a fellow anarchist had warned her not to dance “with such reckless abandon,” as it was “undignified for one who was on the way to become a force within the anarchist movement.” But freedom, the right to self-expression, and everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things was what anarchism meant to Emma Goldman, “and I would live it spite of the whole world – prisons, persecution, everything […] I would live my beautiful ideal.”
She did. In defense of her ideas, she braved repeated arrests (always carrying a book with her in case she found herself in a prison cell) and more than one jail term. She remained loyal to her one-time lover and life-partner, anarchist Alexander (Sasha) Berkman, after he was sentenced in 1892 to 22 years in jail for his attempted assassination of robber-baron Henry Clay Frick: an act the two considered “propaganda by the deed”. Although Goldman refused to condemn some acts of anarchist violence–prompted, she wrote, “by [the] suffering and despair of their fellow-men, women and children,”–she also insisted that “anarchism is the only philosophy of peace, the only theory of the social relationship that values human life above everything else.”
To support themselves, Goldman and Berkman pair took jobs doing piecework; she and Sasha “often worked eighteen hours a day in the one light room of our flat, and I had to do the cooking and the housework besides.” A few months prior to Berkman’s foiled assassination of Frick, the pair ran an ice cream parlor in Worcester, Massachusetts. Later, Goldman trained as a nurse and midwife.
Goldman was undaunted by her critics, and her response to audience questions could be droll. At one meeting at a church in Detroit, she was asked, “Does the speaker favour killing off all rulers?” She replied, “As to killing rulers, it depends entirely on the position of the ruler. If it is the Russian Tsar, I most certainly believe in dispatching him to where he belongs. If the ruler is as ineffectual as an American president, it is hardly worth the effort. There are, however, some potentates I would kill by any and all means at my disposal. They are Ignorance, Superstition, and Bigotry – the most sinister and tyrannical rulers on earth.” She brushed off verbal attacks. “In Cleveland I delivered three lectures. The reports in the papers were very amusing. One simply stated that, “Emma Goldman is crazy,” and “her doctrines demoniacal ravings.” Another enlarged upon my fine manners, more like a lady than a bomb-thrower.”
But it is her outspokenness on birth control that makes her sound as if she is speaking today, in an age when reproductive rights are under attack – most horrifyingly in the US state of Alabama, which recently outlawed abortion in nearly all circumstances, including rape and incest. Goldman campaigned against the 1873 Comstock Law, which prohibited the distribution of birth control literature, and on February 11, 1916, she was arrested for lecturing on birth control and for giving public lessons on how to use contraceptives. At her trial, she pleaded her own case, declaring that “if it was a crime to work for healthy motherhood and happy child-life, I was proud to be considered a criminal.” She was found guilty and sentenced to a $100 fine or 15 days in the workhouse; she refused to pay the fine and went to jail.
Her actions reverberated. A post-arrest protest at Carnegie Hall, she wrote, “awakened interest throughout the country in the idea of birth-control. Protests and public demands for the right to contraceptive information were reported from numerous cities. In San Francisco forty leading women signed a declaration to the effect that they would get out pamphlets and be ready to go to prison.” In a letter to the press a few days after her arrest, she explained her reasons for disseminating information on birth control: not for “personal gain or because we consider it lewd or obscene,” but “because we know the desperate condition among the masses of workers and even professional people, when they cannot meet the demands of numerous children.”
In the excitement of the birth control campaign, she did not forget the soldiers fighting and dying, by the millions, in the Great War. “The European slaughter was continuing,” Goldman wrote, “and the American militarists were growing bloodthirsty at the smell of the red stream.” She and Berkman threw themselves into protests against America’s entry into World War I, and in May 1917 formed the No Conscription League, opposing all wars by capitalist governments, which were, she believed, fought at the expense of the working class. She regarded President Woodrow Wilson’s conscription bill “as a complete denial of every human right, the death-knell to liberty of conscience, and we determined to fight it unconditionally.”
But the two ran up against the Espionage Act of 1917, intended to “prohibit interference with military operations or recruitment.” They were arrested on June 15, 1917, charged with conspiring against the draft, and were convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. On December 21, 1919, Goldman, Berkman, and more than two hundred other foreign-born radicals were herded aboard the USS Buford, and deported to the Soviet Union.
“We were led to the cabin,” Goldman wrote on that day. “A large fire roared in the iron stove, filling the air with heat and fumes. We felt suffocating. There was no air nor water. Then came a violent lurch; we were on our way.” In her mind, she saw Russian revolutionary martyrs driven into exile. “But no, it was New York, it was America, the land of liberty! Through the porthole I could see the great city receding into the distance, its sky-line of buildings traceable by the rearing heads. It was my beloved city, the metropolis of the new World. It was America, indeed, America repeating the terrible scenes of tsarist Russia!”
Goldman had earlier greeted the Bolshevik Revolution with joy: “the Russian masses, she wrote, “had risen to demand their heritage and to proclaim to the whole world that autocracy and tyranny were forever at an end in their country.” Back in the Soviet Union, however, she and Berkman were swiftly disillusioned by the repression and corruption of the Bolshevik government. Although they met with Lenin, they were not over-awed in his presence. Indeed, Goldman gives us an indelible portrait of the man: “Two slanting eyes were fixed on upon us with piercing penetration. Their owner sat behind a huge desk, everything on it arranged with the strictest precision […] A board with numerous telephone switches and a map of the world covered the entire wall behind the man; glass cases filled with heavy tomes lined the sides.”
Goldman and Berkman traveled across the Soviet Union, meeting Jewish survivors of antisemitic pogroms, and at one point celebrating Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, in Odessa, where they encountered the Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik, “square-set and broad-shouldered,” who looked “more like a prosperous merchant than a poet.” In 1921, however, the pair left the Soviet Union in the wake of the Kronstadt Rebellion, an uprising by Russian soldiers, sailors and civilians against the Bolsheviks. The revolt was crushed, and between 1,200 and 2,168 people were executed and a similar number jailed.
Goldman was one of the few radicals at the time to speak out against the crimes of the new Soviet Union, for which she was quarantined by the Left. But on this, as on so many other issues, she felt that she could not keep silent. “I had witnessed the slaughter of the Revolution and had heard its death-rattle. I had weighed the evidence that was daily being added to the mountain of Bolshevik crimes,” she wrote. “Now that I knew the truth, was I to be forced to slay it and keep silent? No, I must protest. I must cry out against the gigantic deception posing as truth and justice.”
As I was reading Living My Life, I kept thinking of the ways in which Goldman’s world mirrored our own. Her fight for safe and available birth control more than a century ago reminded me of the suffering of women today in countries like Honduras, a country in which abortion is illegal in all circumstances, including rape and incest, when a woman’s life is in danger, and when the fetus will not survive outside the womb. Her Union Square speech, in which she exhorted the unemployed workers to “demonstrate before the palaces of the rich,” reminded me that we live in a world in which centibillionaires are admired, while 736 million people globally live in extreme poverty. One of these centibillionaires is Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon, who paid no federal taxes in 2018 on his company’s income of $11.2 billion, while 12,000 homeless people camp out in tents on the sidewalks and alongside the highways in Seattle, the city where Amazon is headquartered.
Goldman’s campaign against conscription during the First World War reminded me that the United States appears to be on the verge of yet another unnecessary war with Iran, which could be devastating for both sides. Her willingness to go to jail for her beliefs reminded me of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia who have been jailed and tortured for demanding basic rights, while the country’s leader, Mohammad Bin Salman is slavishly appeased by the United States. Her sense that she was suffocating in the cabin of the Buford, with no air or water, reminded me that, at any given time, more than 2000 children are held in overcrowded US border detention camps, without their parents, denied basic amenities like showers and toothbrushes. Her radicalism reminds me of people who fight the deportation of refugees, those who face prison for offering food and water to migrants in the desert, and those who rescue migrants at sea and are arrested for their courage.
I think we could learn a great deal from Emma Goldman, her struggle, her passion, her commitment, her willingness to speak up for her views even when facing arrest and prison; her courage in facing down the mob, her ability to answer hostile questions with humor, and for writing, writing, writing of her experiences of bloodshed, repression, and prison.
In my own life, I try to emulate her courage, asking myself, when I am afraid to speak up, “What would Emma do?” Her words, from the distant past, give me hope. An example: on May 8, 2019, at an Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony in Tel Aviv, organized by The Parents Circle, I walked past flag-waving, hate-filled hordes screaming “Death to Arabs,” “Death to Leftists,” and–the putrid icing on the rotting cake–“the whores from Hitler’s sperm will die in terrorist attacks.” At the ceremony, speaking via video from Gaza, activist Fatima Muhamadin said, “I know that at this moment there are people in Gaza who are following this ceremony. Their hearts are full of craving for change. They want to live their lives like everyone else. Just like you. I want you to know that this ceremony gives them hope.”
In the distance, the hate-filled chants continued. I could not but help remember Emma Goldman’s words: “Ignorance, Superstition, and Bigotry – the most sinister and tyrannical rulers on earth.”
Josie Glausiusz writes about science and the environment for magazines including Nature, National Geographic, Scientific American, Aeon, and Undark. Her Hakai Magazine article Land Divided, Coast United won the 2015 Amnesty International Canada Online Media Award. From 2013 to 2015, she wrote the weekly On Science column for The American Scholar. She is the author of “Buzz: The Intimate Bond Between Humans and Insects.” Follow her on Twitter @josiegz.
Photograph of Emma Goldman, circa 1911, by T. Kajiwara, is in the public domain