The Chronicle Review

Love and Anarchy

Emma Goldman's passion for free expression burns on

Bettmann, CORBIS

Emma Goldman speaking in favor of birth control in New York City's Union Square Park (left) in 1916
October 23, 2011

A handful of radicals throughout the centuries have intuited that a successful revolution includes a healthy passion for the inner life. One of them was the Russian-Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman, born in 1869. The right to stay alive in one's senses, and to live in a world that prizes that aliveness, was, for her, a key demand in any struggle she cared to wage against coercive government rule. The hatred she bore the centralized state was rooted in what she took to be government's brutish contempt for the feeling life of the individual. Fellow radicals who exhibited a similar contempt were to be held to the same standard. Comrades were those who, in the name of the revolution, were bent on honoring the complete human being.

Although Mikhail Bakunin, that fiercest of Russian anarchists, was one of her heroes, his famous definition of the revolutionary as a man who "has no interests of his own, no feelings, no habits, no longings, not even a name, only a single interest, a single thought, a single passion—the revolution" was as abhorrent to Goldman as corporate capitalism. If revolutionaries gave up sex and art while they were making the revolution, she said, they would become devoid of joy. Without joy, human beings cease being human. Should the men and women who subscribed to Bakunin's credo prevail, the world would be even more heartless after the revolution than it had been before.

The conviction that revolution and the life of the senses dare not be mutually exclusive made Goldman eloquent in defense of causes—sexual freedom, birth control, marriage reform—that a majority of her fellow anarchists derided as trivializing the cause. Comrades repeatedly took her to task for, as many of them said, interpreting anarchism as a movement for individual self-expression rather than a revolution of the collective.

Hotly, she defended her need to define anarchism as she experienced it, with or without radical consensus. After all, what good was a revolution if at the end of the day one couldn't speak one's mind freely? To retreat from this insight, she insisted, was to ensure political disaster. Indeed, after the party of Lenin came to power, in 1917—declaring the proletariat glorious, the intelligentsia contemptible, and any who said otherwise an enemy of the people—she knew that the Russian revolution was lost. When she said so in Moscow in 1921, she was promptly invited to leave—exactly as she had been in the United States in 1919 after years of challenging the American democracy on much the same grounds. Keeping her company in one state of exile after another was the daily reminder—to herself and all who would listen—that the right to think and speak freely had always been the first article of faith nailed to Emma Goldman's front door.

It was the intensity with which she declared herself—in lecture halls, on open-air platforms, in school auditoriums and private homes, from theater stages and prison cells, the back of a truck or a courtroom stand—that made her world-famous. That intensity, her signature trait, was midwife to a remarkable gift she had for making those who heard her feel intimately connected to the pain inherent in whatever social condition she was denouncing. As the women and men in her audience listened to her, a scenario of almost mythic proportions seemed to unfold before their eyes. The homeliness of their own small lives became invested with a sense of drama that acted as a catalyst for the wild, vagrant hope—especially vulnerable to mean-spirited times—that things need not be as they are.

This ability to make vivid the distress of living under the arbitrary rule of institutional power—Goldman's eternal subject, no matter what the title of the lecture—originated in an ingrained sense of oppression that burned as brightly in her at the end of her earthly existence as it did at the beginning. The story of her life, as she told it, set against a background of Russian despotism, Jewish marginality, and filial lovelessness, was one long tale of protest, not so much against poverty and discrimination (although there was plenty of that) as against a perception, there from earliest times, that some inborn right to begin and end with herself was forever being thwarted. There seemed always to be those in a position of authority to exercise restraint unfairly, and for no real reason, over those who were not free to throw it off. She had always felt the situation as puzzling and unjust; and in her—such was her disposition—that injustice burned unbearably. It was the "unbearably" that set her apart.

In short: Emma Goldman was a born refusenik. "Don't tell me what to do!" must have been the first sentence out of her mouth. An anecdote made famous in the 1970s, when Goldman's iconic status was being revived, says much on this score. One night when she was young, she was dancing madly at an anarchist party when a puritanical comrade urged her to stop, insisting that her frivolity was hurting the cause. On the instant, Emma flew into a rage, stamped her feet, and told him to mind his own damned business. "If I can't dance," her response has been paraphrased, "I'm not coming to your revolution." The tale is told as a tribute to the emblematic boldness with which she defended her right—everyone's right—to pleasure, but it could just as easily have concentrated on the startling extremity with which she balked at restraint and the swiftly felt hot defiance boiling up inside her.

"Felt" is the operative word. She always claimed that the ideas of anarchism were of secondary use if grasped only with one's reasoning intelligence; it was necessary to "feel them in every fiber like a flame, a consuming fever, an elemental passion." This, in essence, was the core of Goldman's radicalism: an impassioned faith, lodged in the nervous system, that feelings are everything. Radical politics for her was, in fact, the history of one's own hurt—thwarted, humiliated feelings at the hands of institutionalized authority. Handed down from on high, such authority was to be fought at all times, in all places, with all one's might. From this single-minded simplicity—one that neither gained nuance nor lost force—she never departed. It was, in her, a piece of inspired arrest.

There are at least two ways to make vivid the claim that Emma Goldman might have on the attention of the contemporary reader. One is to write a political history of her years as they unfolded in Europe and America, showing in detail how her contribution to world anarchism speaks to our own time. The other is to concentrate on the force of her extraordinary rebelliousness and try to understand it in light of the existential drive behind radical politics. This essay, and my new book on Goldman, is engaged with the second of those approaches.

Anarchism itself is a protean experience, as much a posture, an attitude, a frame of mind and spirit as it is a doctrine. Conventionally defined as a political theory that opposes all forms of government and government restraint, anarchism advocates voluntary cooperation and the free association of individuals and groups in order that all social needs be met.

Within that basic construction of political thought there exists a distinct division between the anarchism of collective living and that of the individual. The first is concerned with class struggle and the success of the commune, endorsing an economic system organized around cooperative, worker-owned enterprises and a social system devoted to strict egalitarianism. The second is passionate about the inner liberation of the individual. Both kinds of anarchists believe that under anarchism, as each conceives it, every negative in the human disposition (greed, envy, irrational malevolence) will disappear, and with that disappearance will go every social humiliation: injustice, inequality, exploitation. If people feel free and equal, the anarchist insists, order and cooperation will emerge as a natural result of that beneficence. Above all else, the anarchist is out to prove that cooperation, not competition, is the natural impulse of the human race.

Emma Goldman was a hybrid anarchist. Although she was formed by European (communistic) anarchism, and spent her life denouncing the state, she had a passion first for the work of the German philosophers of individualism (Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Stirner) and then for that of American dissenters like Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, whose romantic defense of the supremacy of the individual spoke even more directly to her emotional imagination. It was out of the language of the homegrown American rebel that her anarchism found its great expressiveness and defiant originality.

This passion for individuation, as old as the Greek discovery of consciousness, burned in her not only as an angry hunger to feel free within her own self, but also as an undying insistence that that freedom is a human birthright. To live in a world that denied one's birthright was the intolerable prospect that fed her rebelliousness and, in turn, led her to the kind of insight that contributed substantially to the never-ending inquiry into the question of what a human being needs to feel human. 

 Famously, for Emma Goldman, part of that need was the ability to experience sexual love without benefit of official sanction. To her it was a primary right. For Emma, "love, the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; love, the defier of all laws, of all conventions; love, the freest, the most powerful molder of human destiny"—was the quintessential experience; in fact, it was very nearly mythic. In that respect, she was at one with the sexual radicals among turn-of-the-20th-century moderns—people like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Alfred Stieglitz, Margaret Sanger, Eugene O'Neill, Isadora Duncan, John Reed, Max Eastman, and Walter Lippmann. For them, as for Emma, love without marriage was the objective correlative to visionary politics.

In Emma's case, however, the lifelong devotion to sexual love as a humanizing force—ongoing and unchanged in the face of one failed passion after another—is perhaps the single most important reflection of what her life as a professional revolutionary signifies. Her ability to idealize a love affair in the name of thwarted humanity was nothing short of extraordinary. However many times the star in the starlike quality of the grand passion flared, fizzled, and turned to ash, Emma insisted that the star was fixed, and that the next time it came into view, you, too, would see that it was fixed. This she declared at the end of her life as well as in the middle, imprinted as she permanently was by the significance of a sensation she invariably mistook for an epiphany.

It all began with Ben Reitman, who "arrived in the afternoon," Emma wrote years later in her autobiography, "an exotic, picturesque figure with a large black cowboy hat, flowing silk tie, and huge cane. ... "

Reitman was 10 years younger than Emma (he 29, she 39) when they met, in Chicago, in March 1908. Flamboyant, impulsive, intellectually raw, he was a dynamite promoter and organizer, an instinctive enemy of capitalism, and a pathological womanizer. She slept with him the night she met him, and the sex, she later said, was like nothing she had ever before experienced. By June of that year, Ben and Emma had been together on the road for four months—he had quickly become her promoter and manager—and she was addicted to him. His primitive qualities, she said, had robbed her of her reason, had in fact aroused the primitive in her. She wanted to devour him, "yes, I would put my teeth into your flesh and make you groan like a wounded animal."

Many artists and intellectuals were made gaga by liberated love in those years, and in that department, Emma and Ben more than held their own. Feeling deliciously subversive, they created a private language of code words—Rebecca West and H.G. Wells, among others, did the same—with which to write each other letters of erotic intensity that heightened the drama in which they felt themselves engaged.

In these letters, Emma's vagina is her "treasure-box" (T-B), Ben's penis is "Willie" (or "W"), her breasts "M" (for Mont Blanc and Mont Jura). They both talked baby-talk porn, but Emma, especially, was outrageous: "I want my sweetheart, Willie boy, I want to give him the T-B, she is simply starved and will swallow him alive when she gets hold of him. ... Come hold me, ... let me nestle up, let me run a red hot velvety tongue over W and the bushes ... put my face to W and drink myself to sleep." Entranced by oral sex, she repeatedly wants to suck the head of his "fountain of life," which stands over her "like a mighty specter."

Almost everyone Emma knew was put off by Ben Reitman. Roger Baldwin (future founder of the American Civil Liberties Union) pronounced him "a terrible man, overbearing, arrogant, possessive."

But sexual infatuation is a force of formidable proportions, a projection of the senses at whose heart lies a psychological nostalgia that goes so deep it feels primeval; under its influence one "sees" something of oneself in the beloved that compels against all reason. And so it was with Emma and Ben. They recognized something of themselves in the other, and that recognition, once eroticized, had the power to seal them into a blend of pain and euphoria that would sustain the most astonishing amount of humiliation before it ran its course.

The fly in the ointment was Reitman's compulsive womanizing. There was not a moment of his waking life that he wasn't scheming to get some woman into bed. Almost every night on the road, while Emma was up on a platform speaking, Ben would wander off with a pickup, making sure only most (but not all) of the time to be back in the hall before she was off the stage.

Emma was astonished. Free love, for her, had definite characteristics: Great passion was one of them, a quick lay was not, much less a million of them. Soon she was appalled to see herself doing what she had repeatedly said a free agent could never do. "The same woman," observes her biographer, Candace Falk, "who affirmed in her coast-to-coast lecture tours that 'whether love last but one brief span of time or for eternity, it is the only creative, inspiring, elevating basis for a new race, a new world,' now found herself in the depths of the uninspiring emotions of jealousy and self-doubt."

Over and over again, Emma said that she could not accept the chaos and humiliation that went with loving Ben—no, no, she could not, she would not, such passivity undermined every ability she had to respect herself—and over and over again, she caved. Obviously, living inside a caldron of high-voltage emotion, with soul-destroying depression alternating regularly with convulsive desire, turned her on.

In her memoir, musing on "the forces at work" that seemed bent on refusing her stability in love, Goldman concluded: "The stars could not be climbed by one rooted in a clod of earth. If one soared high, could he hope to dwell for long in the absorbing depths of passion and love? Like all who had paid for their faith, I too would have to face the inevitable. Occasional snatches of love; nothing permanent in my life except my ideal."

Emma announced repeatedly that if reality began to usurp the ideal, she would ditch reality in less than a second. She would never opt for living without a life- (or world-) saving ideal to believe in—not only to believe in, but to worship. In "sacred desire," she saw the majesty of something in the human condition that she, as an anarchist, was pledged to redeem. The renewal of love aroused in her the sense of paradise gained and lost that haunted every anarchist's fundamental conviction that the world as it is resembles a forfeiture of humankind's original nobility. To feel transformed by sexual passion was to be in touch with the primeval at the heart of her politics.

This belief in the mythic power of erotic love was, 100 years ago, shared by the whole of Western culture. Poets and intellectuals, businessmen and philosophers, teachers and lawyers saw in its pursuit a metaphor for liberation of the spirit at the highest level. To know love was to penetrate the mysteries of the human condition, to see with radiant clarity the meaning of life and the world, not as it is but as it could be.

Emma Goldman's anarchism burned with original power for a good 50 years because she never abandoned her devotion to Love with a capital "L."

On her 70th birthday, an admirer told Emma Goldman, "It was not what you did or said that helped me, but what you were, the mere fact of the existence of your spirit which never gives in and fights on no matter how thick is the darkness in the world and in our own little worlds."

No one ever said it better: the spirit that fights on no matter how thick the darkness.

Emma Goldman was not a thinker; she was an incarnation. It was not her gift for theory or analysis or even strategy that made her memorable; it was the extraordinary force of life in her that burned, without rest or respite, on behalf of human integrity. Hers was the sensibility not of the intellectual but of the artist; and she performed like an artist, dramatizing for others what they could hardly articulate for themselves.

To hear Emma describe, in language as magnetic as it was illuminating, what the boot felt like on the neck was to feel the mythic quality of organized oppression. It made you see yourself in history. That insight eased the heart, cleared the air, clarified the spirit. To clarify was to gain courage; and courage, if nothing else, was an exhilaration. Through Emma's performance, anarchism did what Tolstoy said a work of art should do: It made people love life more.

Anarchism is the political philosophy that comes closest to addressing the anguish of the stifled spirit, and in Emma Goldman it found its visceral embodiment. Social injustice may or may not have been the cause of, or the explanation for, her exorbitant sense of insult in the face of power ill-used, but it surely was its intimate. It was not even the injustice itself that she found so oppressive, it was being forced to submit to it without recourse to opposition; that was the human right that was at stake.

To accept the denial of that right—the very right that Prometheus, chained to a rock and continuously being eaten alive, refused to relinquish—was to surrender something vital to one's humanity: that which supplied the difference between those who walked the earth upright and those who crawled on all fours. What Emma prized above all else was the honor and the glory of the Promethean refusal—and it was with those who shared this value that, all her years, she felt most alive. The world of the utopian anarchist future held much less reality for her than the one in which she fought daily to secure the rights of the rebel and the dissenter.

For that reason alone, she loved the United States more than any other country she lived in. On the barricades for international anarchism, Emma nonetheless never stopped being amazed at and delighted by Americans' appetite for protest as, time and again, she saw one part of the body politic or another rise up to claim what the democracy had promised but failed to deliver. With all its capitalist brutality, America was where the rebel seemed most unconquerable. She loved passionately the sight of anarchism being made to serve homegrown U.S. radicalism. She loved it, and she learned from it.

In Emma Goldman, we have a prototype of the European anarchist crucially influenced by the American insistence on individuation. Had she been alive in the 1960s, she would have been as excited by the rise of the new left and the liberationist movements as they were by her. No sooner had she been rediscovered than it turned out she had written an article, mounted a protest, sat in jail on behalf of nearly every issue on their agendas. For a generation of radicals that dreamed, 100 years after her birth, of a future in which direct democracy would be practiced and institutional politics abolished, she became an emblematic figure.

Forty years on, she is more than emblematic, she is iconic. Probably the most influential chant of the 1960s and 1970s—the one that most recalls the eloquent demands of the Lyrical Left—is "The personal is political." This is the phrase that for decades has conjured the noble enterprise of struggling against permanent odds to achieve a world in which a healthy respect for the inner life occupies center stage. It is also the phrase that most deserves to be associated—in fear, hope, and excitement—with the legacy of Emma Goldman.

Vivian Gornick is a writer in New York. This essay is adapted from her book Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, published this month by Yale University Press.