Monday, November 21, 2011

The Life of Emma Goldman, Part V, in Which Emma is Exiled, Defends Gay Rights Before it Was Cool, and Gives Vladimir Lenin a Piece of Her Mind

That is the pince-nez of JUSTICE. And FREEDOM. And pure style.

As usual, I urge anyone who hasn't read the previous updates about Emma's life to start with part one and work their way forward. Chronology is important. Chapter One is here, Chapter Two is here, Chapter Three is here, and Chapter Four is here. Oh, and of course, Chapter Five is here:

This is going to be the final chronological entry in the Life of Emma series. I may do a bonus entry later, on this thing I found that was really interesting, but that I never managed to work into any of the previous chapters. Stay tuned for that. And, of course, for entries on more cool people! When the 19th century runs out of badasses, I'll stop writing, but until then, let's do this thing!

Last we checked in, Emma had just gotten out of jail. I realize that could apply to virtually any period of Emma Goldman's life, barring the ones where she was actually in jail, or about to be in jail. Her life was like that of an unlucky Monopoly player, only it would be weird to imagine her as a giant shoe or top hat, so I won't. Anyway, given her many imprisonments, I will clarify that I'm talking about the time in 1916, when she was arrested for distributing information about birth control. (Can't have that! As you will recall that Yiddish political cartoon from the last chapter pointing out.) She managed to stay out of police custody for a whole sixteen months after that one.

Before we get into what Emma was doing at this time, let's just take note of something important that she wasn't doing, especially in light of her obvious interest in winning women the right to have power over their own bodies. The movement for women's suffrage was happening at this point, and Emma kept herself well out of it. To a modern reader, I can see how it might look like Emma ended up on the wrong side of history on this one, but I'd argue that it was actually a good choice on her part. For one thing, it was in keeping with her principles; one of her most famous quotes is "If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal." Why fight for a right that only gave the illusion of control?

Additionally, Emma was reacting against some of the, to be frank, grade A bullshit that was coming out of the suffrage movement. A common argument being made by women's suffrage advocates was that if only women were able to vote, they would fix all of the problems in society, because they weren't greedy and corrupt and awful like men, but rather were pure, virtuous and angelic and a whole bunch of other stereotypical crap. Emma found this argument exactly as silly as you do, saying that she was pretty certain women were just as capable as men of selling their votes. Which they are. And arguing that they're not is just stupid.

There were a lot of other problems with the suffrage movement. It had strong elements of racism, for one thing; a lot of women's suffrage advocates would decry the fact that black men got the vote before white women. They didn't seem to care what black women might have had to say about THAT argument. Then there was the fact that the women's suffrage movement became closely tied with the Prohibition movement, which was in turn closely tied to the Klan. As if being tied to the no-booze party (not much of a party if you ask me, heh heh) wasn't bad enough, they had to be tied to maybe the worst organization in America EVER. Yeah, all in all, I'm not sad that Emma stayed out of this one. (I in no way mean to insult or denigrate the efforts of those who worked for women's suffrage. The women's suffrage movement was incredibly important, and the people involved were incredibly brave. However, it did fall into almost all of the traps that mainstream, white, middle-class led feminism can fall into. There, I said it.)

Anyway, that's what Emma Goldman wasn't doing in 1916. But if I try and do this by listing the things she wasn't doing, this is going to take a while, and get a little silly, so why don't we skip to what she was doing, which was advocating for gay rights, as well as all of her usual causes, and, just as sidenote, because she wasn't being kept busy enough, trying to stand between the United States and unbridled militarism.

Let's start with gay rights, because I keep meaning to bring this up. Talking about homosexuality was Not a Thing in the early 20th century, at least, not in the political arena. Remember her support for Oscar Wilde, way back when she was young? By 1915 she was giving public lectures on homosexuality, with titles like "The Intermediate Sex (a Discussion of Homosexuality)." Calling homosexuals members of an "intermediate sex" may sound crazy to us today, but it was pretty standard at the time, including among men and women whom we would today consider gay. It was basically the most progressive term out there, since, you'll note, it implies an identity, rather than a sin or a deviant behavior. The fact that Emma talked about homosexuality on a public stage when such a thing was completely taboo is really huge, and she received a lot of criticism for it, including from within the radical anarchist community. She persisted, though, because persistence was kind of her thing, and it seems like her lectures had at least some impact; many people approached her after she spoke to tell her their own stories of ostracism and repression. One woman she spoke to said that she had never known that anyone else in the world felt as she did. In those days, it was even easier than it is today for gay people to feel isolated and alone; Emma's lectures helped combat that, as well as making straight people question their prejudices.

Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, widely regarded as one of the first advocates of gay rights as we today understand the concept, called Emma "the first and only woman, indeed the first and only American, to take up the defense of homosexual love before the general public." But don't let that praise make you think Emma wouldn't be critical of Dr. Hirschfeld. In 1923 he published an article (not written by him, but printed in his publication), that alleged that the famous French anarchist, Louise Michel (future blog entry!) was a lesbian. Emma's response basically amounted to this:

1) Louise Michel wasn't gay. You're just saying she was because she was into "boy stuff" like books, and that's fucking stupid.

2) If Louise Michel had been gay, that would have been totally cool, it just happens that she wasn't.

3) Has anyone noticed how much persecution gay people have to deal with? I mean come the fuck ON, people!

Here's an excerpt: "Had Louise Michel ever manifested any type of sexual feelings in all those relationships with people whom she loved and who were devoted to her, I would certainly be the last to seek to cleanse her of this "stigma." It is a tragedy, I feel, that people of a different sexual type are caught in a world which shows so little understanding for homosexuals, is so crassly indifferent to the various gradations and variations of gender and their great significance in life. Far be it for me to seek to evaluate these people as inferior, less moral, or incapable of higher feelings and actions. I am the last person to whom it would occur to "protect" Louise Michel, my great teacher and comrade, from the charge of homosexuality. Louise Michel's service to humanity and her great work of social liberation are such that they can be neither enlarged nor reduced, whatever her sexual habits were."

Go, Emma! That was 1923. Nearly fifty years before Stonewall, if you want to measure things that way. What a badass.

And now, onto the other thing she was doing when she got out of jail.

Yes, those of you who know your 20th century history may have been thinking, a few paragraphs ago, "huh, 1916. World War I, entrance of United States to same...I wonder if Emma Goldman had anything to say about that?" Good point! Of course Emma Goldman had something to say about it. Show me a topic on which Emma Goldman had no opinion, and I will show you a damn boring topic. Emma opposed the war, on the basis that nationalism is stupid (it is) and that there was no point in a baker from Munich and a baker from Chicago trying to kill each other because of a quarrel between the very governments that were exploiting both of them. Class bonds, she had always felt, should be more real than national bonds. To that end, and because she was generally against war, and against people being told what to do by authority, she opposed conscription, which is where we get to her being arrested again.

Yup, somehow, with all the things she did over the course of her life to fight authority, religion, prudery, hierarchy, and everything else under the sun, the one thing America really couldn't deal with was her opposition to war. Tells you what's really near and dear to the national American heart, doesn't it? In 1917, she and her former flame Alexander "Sasha" Berkman formed the Anti-Conscription League, which was set up to do exactly what it sounds like. Avoiding the draft in the First World War was NOT a remotely acceptable thing to do. I'm not sure if I can explain just how nuts America went for sending young men off to die during World War I. I mean, it's something America generally has a fondness for doing, but it was really blatant and disturbing this time around. There's really no better way to explain than this, actually. Here is a link to the song America, Here's My Boy, written the same year Emma and Sasha formed the Anti-Conscription League. Listen to this song, which is supposed to be from the perspective of a good, patriotic, American mother, and if you do not feel like shuddering to death while throwing up, you are not me. (Sample lyrics: "America, I raised a boy for/ America, you'll find him staunch and true/ Put a gun upon his shoulder, he is ready to die or do!" ::vomitshudder::)

That, it is safe to say, is not the voice of a country that is interested in listening to people who oppose conscription, or war, especially (as always) if those people are immigrants and known radicals. Sasha and Emma were both arrested (Remember, Sasha is Alexander Berkman. It's cool if you lost track of who was who once, but do it again and I'll start deducting points), on the charge of "inducing persons not to register" for the draft, under the brand shiny new Espionage Act. The trial that ensued was, frankly, ridiculous. The judge actually told the jury that this wasn't about free speech, and that free speech wasn't the issue, which was funny, since the people on trial were there for exercising their freedom of speech. I mean, that makes it sound relevant to me, but I'm not a lawyer, so what do I know?

Emma used the opportunity of being on trial to act like an unmitigated badass, refusing to back down or apologize for what she had done, telling the jury "Even if we were convicted and found guilty and the penalty was that we be placed against a wall and shot dead, I should nevertheless cry out with the great Luther, here I am and here I stand and I cannot do otherwise." The jury was like "cool, let's convict you then." In the end, both she and Sasha got the maximum penalty, which was a $10,000 fine each, two years in jail, and the possibility of deportation upon release. By this time Emma pretty much reacted to jail time the way you or I would react to sneezing. Except most of us don't devote ourselves to prison reform while we're sneezing. Or spend two years doing it. Look, it was a flawed simile. I'm sorry. Won't happen again.

There were weird complications; between their verdict and their sentencing, Sasha actually got slapped with an extradition order to go and answer a clearly trumped-up murder charge in California. Emma, obviously, went to work, and, using Sasha's huge support base within the Lower East Side, and the radical Jewish community, she got massive meetings organized in his support. It actually worked; the extradition never happened, and the murder charge was eventually dropped (it was so clearly bullshit. They might as well have accused him of the Kennedy assassination. For those of you who are saying "but that hadn't happened yet..." I KNOW, RIGHT!), which meant yay, he got to go back to jail to serve his time. Sasha always had a miserable time in jail, which was a shame, because he spent even more time there than Emma. He was never the model prisoner, which tended to get him into trouble. Unlike Emma, he refused to work with prison authorities for reform, and he always ended up with all of his privileges, like visitors, exercise, access to reading material, taken away. Sucks to be him, but at least he got to feel good about his principles while he wasn't helping his fellow prisoners. I'm not trying to be an asshole or anything, I just think Emma's technique makes more sense; she would work with any prison authority that seemed friendly in order to try and achieve some reform, while at the same time refusing to be put in a position of authority over fellow prisoners. Seems like a happy medium to me.

So, two years in jail, for the both of them. When they got out, those of you who are good at basic math and basic history will have already deduced that the Great War was over and done with. So, I guess that means America is chill with its old friends, Rabble-Rousin' Emma Goldman and Frick-Shootin' Alexander "Sasha" Berkman now, right? Yeah, not so much. Something else happened during the First World War that had America a bit on edge; the Russian revolution. Around this time, America started getting jumpy about the whole communism thing, and decided to have itself a good old-fashioned Red Scare! Actually, I guess it was a good new-fangled Red Scare, since this was the first one, but you know what I mean. America loves its Red Scares. Nothing makes America twitchy like communism; America around communists is like a longtailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, except the rocking chairs don't even have to be real, they can just be other chairs that someone said they once heard say something nice about rocking chairs, or like, a table that might have thought about rocking once, or even an immigrant footstool that hangs out around rocking chairs. That's at least the second clearly insane simile I've made today. I'm sorry. I have an English degree, and I will try to do better.

This particular Red Scare actually started in 1917, but damn did it pick up speed once the war was over. It wasn't a minor sense of nervousness about communism; this was a full blown panic, with exactly one hundred percent of the awfulness you would expect from taking a bunch of people still all keyed up with violent nationalism and anti-German sentiment from World War I, and suddenly leaving them with nothing to do but hate communists. This lead to a predictable amount of anti-communist rhetoric, attacks on organized labor and its supporters, particularly Emma's old friends the IWW, both from the government and from vigilantes, as well as a not-as-logical, but still hardly surprising, given the known tendencies of white people in the United States, series of brutal race riots. At least forty-three black people were murdered by violent white mobs in the "Red Summer" of 1919 (see what they did there, with the the name? That there is what we English majors call a "double meaning."), including eight who are known to have been burned alive. There is a photograph here, that I do not recommend looking at if you do not want to see the charred corpse of a man, surrounded by smiling white faces, but if you're feeling up to it (trigger warning and all that) here it is.

That's from Omaha. Listen, if you're ever tempted to think too well of America, or to romanticize the past as a kinder, gentler time, I'd ask you to take a long hard look at the faces, and poses of that crowd. And if anyone else you know is tempted to do that, you can send them that picture and tell them to STFU.

Seriously, it was like the entire country was a 'roided-up athlete who's suddenly been benched for the season, and has nothing to do with his rage and energy, so he just starts murdering people. There, that was a pretty good simile, right? It was just like that.

This is as good a time as any to talk about one of the major criticisms of Emma Goldman. (The major one that I find valid, that is. I'm not talking about criticism like "she was way too much of an anarchist" or "she was kind of unpleasant to be around if she didn't like what you had to say" or "she was real loud.") This criticism has to do with her discussion of race. Or rather, the lack thereof. She was certainly not actively racist, but neither was she as actively anti-racist as we might have liked. Discussion of racism is not missing entirely from her work, but it's also not given the attention it deserves. There are a couple of reasons for this, but I think the main one is that she, like many class warriors, saw race as less important than class. If the system of class oppression were gotten rid of, she believed, racism would go with it. This is a pretty common, and pretty demonstrably wrong idea, but Emma was hardly alone in holding it. Even Lucy Parsons, a black anarchist who will be a future entry on this blog, believed that. I'm not trying to justify Emma's inattention to race, just explain its roots. It came, not from a lack of respect for people of color, but from a profound misunderstanding of the best way to bring about racial equality.

I also don't want you to go thinking that Emma did not care, or did not know about, the struggles of people of color in America. In 1905 she wrote that "the position of the American negro,” was "sad and deplorable in the extreme.” She noted that "Rivers of blood have been shed to free the black man from slavery; yet, after almost half a century of so-called freedom, the negro question is more acute than ever. The persecution, suffering and injustice to which this much-hated race is being constantly subjected can be compared only to the brutal treatment of the Jews in Russia. Hardly a day passes without a negro being lynched in some part of the country. It is no uncommon occurrence for a whole town to turn out to witness the no less brutalizing than brutal spectacle of so-called “mob justice”: the hanging or burning of a colored man. Nor are these terrible atrocities perpetuated in the South only. Through in a lesser degree, the North is guilty as well. Nowhere in the country does the negro enjoy equal opportunity with the white man – socially, politically or economically – notwithstanding his alleged constitutional rights. Legally and theoretically, black slavery has been abolished; in reality, however, the negro is as much a slave now as in the ante-bellum days, and even more ostracized socially and exploited economically." She went on to discuss prejudice against Asian immigrants.

It's hard to say she ignored race completely when she was writing stuff like that. And, just to be clear, by comparing the lynching of black Americans to the pogroms perpetrated against Jews in Russia, she was not pulling the white person trick of saying something like "I understand racial prejudice. My great-grandfather was Irish." Rather, she was comparing one currently happening, horrifying instance of racially motivated violence to another, currently happening, horrifying instance of racially motivated violence. Moreover, by using that particular example, she called the attention of Americans to the contradiction in their attitudes towards the Russians perpetrating the pogroms and the white Americans perpetrating lynchings.

So, in conclusion, while it's accurate to say that Emma could have, and should have, talked a hell of a lot more about racial issues, it's not accurate to say that she was a racist. This has been a brief digression. Let's get back to the Red Scare.

The direct effect on Emma Goldman, was that no sooner was she released from jail than that "possibility of deportation upon release" thing started to look like not so much a possibility as a certainty. The Red Scare had seen the arrest of the entire leadership of the IWW, the imprisonment of Eugene Debs for ten freaking years for speaking against the Espionage Act (you know, speaking, with his mouth, about a law that he felt was unconstitutional. People have done less jail time for rapes and murders. Man, I should write about Eugene Debs! He was cool. I'll do that sometime.), and countless other acts of repression and harassment from the government aimed at socialists, communists, anarchists, and other dissenters. Emma and Sasha got out of jail, and were told there would now be a hearing to determine whether they could stay in America at all. Basically, they were going to be examined to figure out if they were anarchists or not, and if they were, they could be stripped of their citizenship and deported.

Sasha was actually the one who responded the most brilliantly to this one. (I'm sometimes mean to Sasha, but he was really kinda a BAMF too.) Both he and Emma refused to attend their hearings, because, obviously, no American citizen should have to defend their right to stay in America. Or, as Sasha (awesomely) put it "the purpose of the present hearing is to determine my 'attitude of mind.'...I deny the right of anyone-individually or collectively-to set up an inquisition of thought. Thought is, or should be, free...Free thought, necessarily involving freedom of speech and press, I may tersely define thus: no opinion a law-no opinion a crime." (That part makes me want to stand up and applaud, I don't know about you.) "This proposed hearing is an invasion of my conscience. I therefore refuse, most emphatically, to participate in it."

Amen! Preach it, brother! Testify! Or rather, don't. Which is the whole point of what you were saying. Yeah, carry on, Sasha.

I think one of the reasons Emma didn't go to her hearing was also that she believed America was better than that. She believed that the First Amendment, and the individual freedoms America supposedly stood for would protect her. For all she had problems with the American government, she did see it as less despotic and oppressive than czarist Russia, which in her mind was the epitome of a repressive state. This is not the first, nor the last time Emma's idealism would bite her in the ass. Her idealism was one of the most amazing things about her, but she did tend to assume the best of people and places she liked. Even Sasha didn't quite get why she thought so well of America, but the fact is that she had ended up with quite a strong attachment to the place; it was her home, and it was where most of what was good in her life had taken place.

But yes, deportation was the sentence handed down. Think about this for a second. Emma Goldman had shown up to America in 1885, and was now, over thirty years later, being stripped of her citizenship and deported from the country. She wasn't a visitor, or even a resident alien, she was a full-blown American citizen. In 1885, America was all "hey there, one of thousands of Russian Jewish girls. Sure, you can come here and be a garment worker. Enjoy your sweatshop! Welcome to America. Bring a sewing machine." And then when she started having dissenting opinions, suddenly they didn't want her anymore. Stay classy, America. Her deportation, though it caught Emma by surprise, was all but inevitable; some guy named J. Edgar Hoover, who had just been put in charge of the General Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Investigation, had decided she was trouble. In fact, he wrote that she and Sasha were "beyond a doubt, two of the most dangerous anarchists in this country." I call that a hell of an endorsement!

They got one more bit of fun, and a chance for them both to say something awesome before they were sent off. Remember Frick? And that time Emma and Sasha plotted his death, only to be foiled by Sasha's total failure at using a gun? (I am allowed to be mean to Sasha, even when he says great things. He was better at talking than he was at shooting. This is actually a point in his favor, as far as I'm concerned, but he was really comically bad at shooting Frick. That has to go down in history as one of the most inept assassination attempts ever. He was, as we shall see a few years down the road, pretty bad at shooting people in general, actually.). Well, Frick finally died, of non-shooting related causes. A long, long, LONG (like, 35 years) time after Sasha ineptly put those bullets in him. When told about Frick's death, Sasha and Emma, about to be deported, both pulled out the awesome. Sasha drily commented that Frick had been "deported by God." Hee, good one Sasha! Ten points to Gryffindor!

Emma went a step further, and, with levels of chutzpah visible from fucking space (or it would've been, had anyone been in space at the time, looking for clouds of chuzpah centered over Ellis Island), suggested that Frick should thank Berkman for the assassination attempt that would give him lasting fame and remembrance. I think most people who do know who Frick is today know because of an art gallery, rather than an anarchist attempt on his life, but still, suggesting a guy should thank your ex-boyfriend for shooting and stabbing him is pretty great. It's ballsy even for Emma Goldman.

Emma was, at this point, doing her best to put a positive spin on deportation. After all, she was being sent to Russia, her former home (not that she had liked it much before, but you know, still the nation of her birth), where there had just been a communist revolution. So that was good! Who doesn't love a communist revolution? When a reporter commented to her, on her way to surrendering herself for deportation at Ellis Island that this was "the end, Emma Goldman, isn't it?" She threw back "It may only be the beginning." THAT is how you make an exit from a fucking nation, people!

She, Sasha, and 247 other deportees were (after a lengthy imprisonment on Ellis Island) loaded onto a barely sea-worthy ship called the Buford, dubbed "the Soviet Ark" or "Red Ark" by the press, who loudly called for more, larger ships to follow with similar cargoes. She was an elderly ship; built in 1890, she'd been through the wars, in a seriously literal sense; her selection for the job of transporting the deportees was taken (probably correctly) as a sign that the US didn't really give half a damn whether these people made their destination alive or not.

The voyage was shitty. Again, I am speaking literally. There were two toilets for the two hundred and forty-six men. Deal with that for a second. The women were kept separately, and at first Emma's request to see Sasha was actually denied, but she gave the captain a 24 hour ultimatum to change his mind, or she would throw down. The captain gave in. Do you know how hard it is to get a captain to change their mind? I have; I've worked on ships. It pretty much takes an Emma Goldman threatening to raise Hell to do it. Good thing one was available!

There was actually some really great class solidarity on this trip, though. Emma and the others bonded well with the sailors and the guards, so well that they ended up offering to give the deportees weapons and help them lead a mutiny and take over the ship. Fuck. Yeah. It didn't happen, but the fact that they'd even talk about it is amazing; they were basically offering to become anarchist pirates. Sorry, I need to go bold, italics, all-caps for a second. You'll understand.

Or maybe I will. Anyway, back on track to Russia.

Seriously, Emma was enthusiastic about this whole Soviet Russia thing. So, imagine her surprise when it sucked. Hoping for a utopia, she found a place full of poverty, hierarchy (the enemy of anarchism) and oppression. When she finally managed to get a meeting with Vladimir Lenin, and demand to know why Soviet Russia sucked so much - sorry, I have to interrupt myself here. Emma Goldman went into Lenin's office, and said (if I may paraphrase) "Your regime sucks. Why is that?" Do you even understand how fucking brave a thing to do that was? I'm not sure I do...the fact that she did not end her life in Siberia is fucking amazing.

Anyway, before I interrupted myself, I was about to tell you that Lenin listened to her complain about how much he was oppressing people, and taking away the freedoms the revolution had supposedly been intended to ensure. Then he shrugged, and told her that free speech was a bourgeois ideal. He told her that there were no anarchists imprisoned for their beliefs in Russia, and gave a really long speech about how if there were anarchists in jail, it's because those anarchists were totally criminals. Emma let him finish talking, then told him why he was wrong. In astonishingly condescending terms. Seriously, she explained it how you would gently break an idea to a stubborn child. "Imagine," she said, "capitalist America also divides the anarchists into two categories; philosophic and criminal...yours also seems to be a distinction without a difference. Don't you think so?" Let me just take a moment for two things: 1) how fucking beautifully condescending is that? She said that to fucking Lenin. God she was cool. 2) of how many people could you write the sentence "she let Lenin finish talking, then told him why he was wrong?" Not many. That's how many.

So, Lenin told Emma not to worry about the loss of free speech, or about violent government oppression. "Russia was making giant strides at home and abroad. It was igniting the world revolutions, and here I was lamenting over a little blood-letting. It was absurd, and I must get over it."

Hey, you've all been reading what I write about Emma Goldman for a while now. Do you think she got over it?

Ultimately, Emma decided that Soviet Russia sucked. This doesn't seem like a groundbreaking realization to most of us. But keep in mind, this was the revolution, and Emma was part of a revolutionary community that viewed this as what they had been working towards their whole lives. They had been persecuted, jailed, threatened, attacked, for their belief in that revolution. For Emma fucking Goldman to (as she did), publicly, loudly, repeatedly, and vehemently declare the revolution to be bullshit, in numerous articles, letters, speeches, and books, even going so far as to make the bold statement "there is no communism in Russia," and, less concisely, but more vividly "the hideous sores on revolutionary Russia could not for long be ignored," was seen by most of her fellow radicals as a betrayal of everything they stood for, and everything she was supposed to stand for. She took a huge amount of criticism for it, including from Sasha, who spent a lot longer trying to reconcile the methods of the Bolsheviks with his ideals than Emma did. Being Emma Goldman, she stuck to her damn guns about it, because, here's the thing, she'd seen it, and she'd seen the massive disappointment it turned out to be. And, as we all know, she turned out to be as right as it's possible for a mortal human to be about how communism in Russia ended up working out.

Seriously, how many of us could publicly change our minds like that? That, to me, is why Emma is more than just an idealist; she didn't blind herself to reality in support of her ideals; she saw, when it was really important, the unpleasant truth in the nation she probably wished with all her heart she could support. She had other, more personal reasons for wanting to believe in the revolution; during her travels around Russia, she visited Jewish communities that had suffered massive pogroms before the revolution, attacks that the new communist government had put a stop to. (Anti-Semitism in Russia wouldn't really get going again until Stalin). Even with her own community under threat, Emma was able to decide that no, overall, this revolution was not a good thing. This may be kind of irrelevant, but something tells me you would not want to get into a hostage standoff with Emma Goldman.

It all came to head in March 1921, when strikers in Petrograd came under attack by the government. Emma, and Sasha too, even though he was still more into the whole Bolshevik thing than she was, knew they had to support the strikers. The Soviet government famously responded to the strike by sending in the military and killing 1,000 workers in the port town of Kronstadt, where the unrest had spread to, at which point Emma had officially had enough of this Soviet bullshit. Even Sasha realized it was true; after watching what happened to Kronstadt, he was shaken, and in agreement with Emma. They stuck around for a few more months, hopping to effect some kind of change within Russia, but by the end of 1921, they had moved on. It wasn't easy to do; getting permission to go into Germany, the next country they went to, was a headache and a half, and involved going through Latvia and Lithuania. I'm not sure why. I don't feel like going back and figuring it out. I assume bureaucracy was involved. Also politics.

A lot of wandering came next. Emma now had no home country, and while she did find sympathetic audiences everywhere she went, she also found the usual trouble with local governments and occasional angry mobs. She shrugged that off, as was her old habit, but it was obviously tough for her. She kept herself distracted through love affairs, and writing, as was also her old habit.

Here's a fun incident from all the wandering; I think it shows off Emma's old badassery nicely. You know, that tendency she had to tell people who may have wanted to kill her how stupid they were. She was in Germany, riding the subway on her own, and she heard two men ranting about the Jews, whom they called "idle vampires and the cause of the ruin of the Fatherland." Look, I'm a Jew. If I'm riding the subway, and I overhear two men engaging in an anti-Semitic hatefest, and I'm alone, I am going to either try and sneakily get into the next car, or look really intensely at whatever reading material I've got while attempting to project waves of Gentile-osity. (That's a word I just made up.) I am, unless I feel like there are people around me who will back me up, unlikely to engage. This would be even more true were I, for some reason, in 1920s Germany.

Contrary to how I occasionally dress, I am not Emma Goldman. This is evidenced by the fact that she "listened for a while and then remarked that they were talking nonsense." She proceeded to argue the point with them until the train reached her stop, at which point she got off, with them calling after her that soon they would "fix such as you just as we did Rosa Luxemburg," a Jewish revolutionary who had recently been shot in the head and her body dumped in a canal in Berlin. For most people, an encounter on the subway with people vocally opposed to your ethnic group's existence, and a death threat would be a pretty serious thing, necessitating at the least a stiff drink when you got home. For Emma Goldman, I gather, that was pretty much the level of threat she was used to getting on her daily commute. Maybe it helped make her more alert for the rest of the day, like a cup of coffee or something.

In 1924, she headed for England, and actually entered into a sham marriage in 1925, to get permission to stay there. The guy she married was a Welsh miner named James Colton, 65 years old at the time of the ceremony, which I would have paid huge amounts of money (if huge amounts of money were a thing I had) to have witnessed. Just a free love supporting 56 year old anarcha-feminist entering into a sham marriage with a Welsh miner. Nothing to see here, people! Someone should make a movie about it. It could be called "My Best Friend's Sham Anarchist Wedding In Order to End Years of Nationless Wandering And Exile." (Titles are not my strong suit.)

Emma did eventually leave England. By plane! as she notes somewhat excitedly in her memoir. She ended up, in 1928, settled in a house that some friends paid for, in a little town in southern France (I am aware that it is conventional to refer to that region as "the south of France," but no one can give me a convincing reason why, so I'm going to call it southern France and let everyone just deal with it) called Saint-Tropez, today a glamorous resort town; back then a small fishing village. She basically hung out there, working on writing her memoirs, and waiting excitedly for mail and visitors. Oh, and learning to swim. Because, come on, she was only fifty-nine, and it's never too late to pick up a new skill. You can totally teach an old anarchist new tricks. As long as that trick isn't embracing authority.

The remaining years of Emma's life were relatively quiet. She traveled to Canada a little, and even back to the United States for a short, legal visit, and worked with the anarchist cause in Spain. It was a bad few years, though. When she published her memoirs, her publishing company insisted on charging way more for it than she wanted to, thus making it inaccessible to the people she truly wrote it for. She was continually criticized by those on the left who felt she'd betrayed the cause by criticizing the Soviet Union. Sasha, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, committed suicide on Emma's sixty-seventh birthday. (Happy birthday!) If I were an asshole, I would point out that he kinda fucked up the whole shooting-himself thing. He didn't die immediately AT ALL, instead going into a coma and taking a full day to die with a bullet in his spinal column. Again, if I were an asshole, I would make some joke pointing out that this was actually pretty consistent with his track record so far as shooting people goes, and that we should be impressed he managed to off himself at all.

Alexander "Sasha" Berkman: good at anarchism, bad at shooting. Rest in peace.

Emma did get a lot out of her involvement with the Spanish anarchists, and did a hell of a lot of work to support them. This, she seems to have decided, not the Russian revolution, would finally show the world that there was a viable alternative to capitalism and authoritarianism, and that anarchism meant something other than chaos. Students of history will know, of course, that the Spanish Civil War was ultimately won by the German-backed fascist forces. More sadness and disappointment for Emma, in a period of her life that was basically full of just that.

In the last years of her life, Emma would be criticized for her opposition to a war against Germany and Italy. To be totally clear, she hated both of those regimes, but she believed that 1) war was wrong and 2) the countries talking about fighting/fighting against them didn't have a moral high-ground, and were, in her opinion, as fascistic as the actual fascists they were fighting. It's pointless to speculate as to whether she would have changed her mind on this one if she had lived longer. To me it speaks to the level of cynicism she'd reached by that point in her life. She couldn't believe the slightest amount of good from any authoritarian government, so why support one in a fight against another? I think she was wrong about this one, but I don't know that I lose a lot of respect for her over it.

::sigh:: Ok, time for the really sad part.

In 1940, in Toronto, while mildly cursing out a friend for making a bad play in their game of bridge, Emma Goldman suffered the stroke that would ultimately lead to her death. That's sad, but not unbearably sad; god knows she'd had a full life. The sad part, for me, is that she lived for three months after her first stroke, and never recovered the ability to speak, remaining completely silent until a second stroke finally killed her. She could hear, but not speak. Think about that one for a second; arguably one of the greatest orators in the world, such a powerful speaker that her words alone frightened America so much that they repeatedly imprisoned and exiled her, reduced to silence for the last three months of her life. I am so fucking sad right now, you guys. It was a depressing way for her to go out, and far worse than she deserved.

And that was the end of Emma's life. In a way, she actually had a narrow escape; had she stayed in Saint-Tropez, and lived just a little longer, I don't think things would have been pretty for her once the Nazi occupation started. If you want to call that a bright side, go ahead. The greater bright side, I think, is her legacy, which has been striking, not just because of the number of people for whom she has been an inspiration and a symbol, but because of the deeply personal level on which she seems to touch those people. Something I've noticed a lot, in reading what people write about Emma Goldman, is that almost everyone who loves her seems to think of themselves as the only one who remembers her, the only one who understands her. I feel that way sometimes, even though I know it's not true. There's something about the way she spoke, wrote, and lived, I think, something about the deeply personal, honest way she approached political and social issues, that makes us feel that when we study her, we know her. In that sense, she's much more than a political figure.

That's why I perform as Steampunk Emma Goldman, really. Because her personality and power can't be captured by reading her essays and speeches; she is as much an image as she is a thinker. I don't mean that as a bad thing; I think her power as an image speaks to the force of her personality and the extraordinary life she lived. I try to bring her to life, and to let people interact with her, because that, I think, is what all of her admirers really want; to be able to meet the incredible woman who, though she's over seventy years dead, is able to move and inspire them to such an amazing degree.

Well, that, and it's really fun. I know I bring up Batman a disproportionate amount in this blog, but for me, putting on the pince-nez and long skirt is the rough equivalent of tying a towel around my neck and pretending to be Batman. We all want to be our heroes. Sometimes pretending feels good, and if I can spread the word on this amazing woman while I'm doing it, so much the better.

I promise I'll write more about Emma soon, even though I've finished her life story. I have one or two oddments I want to talk about, and she comes up in the life stories of a few of the other folks I'll be talking about. See you soon for more amazing historical activists!

1 comment:

  1. I was hoping to find out what game she was playing when she had her first stroke. I'd guessed it was bridge, and was gonna email you, but there it is, you told us. A great story. Do you still perform? I read the Wikipedia entry on Emma, and found it rather pale.