Living My Life by Emma Goldman is one of the most vivid books I’ve read in the past half year.
Emma Goldman, one of the world’s most famous anarchists, believed ‘free speech’ in the United States was a joke because the government often suppressed her own speech. Many times local police shut down her public lectures, and the government sometimes prevented her from publishing her writing by seizing all copies distributed through the mail and even raiding her office and confiscating her manuscripts. Right-wing vigilantes in San Diego (which the police ‘mysteriously’ could not control) threatened her with violence and forced her to flee to Los Angeles – though she returned to San Diego years later to prove that the vigilantes could not silence her. Even when offered police protection, she refused it unless coerced because, as an anarchist, she was anti-police. She was imprisoned for two years because of her public opposition to the United States entering World War I.
World War I was a revelation to her because many anarchists she looked up to – including her idol Peter Kropotkin – supported the war. She herself refused to side with either the Allies or the Central Powers, claiming that war hurt the ordinary masses of all countries involved. She saw many allegedly like-minded people support the war. On the other hand, some socialists and other non-anarchist leftists who she previously regarded as flaky came out against the war, despite economic, legal, and reputational risk.
April added another political [prisoner], Mrs. Kate Richards O’Hare, to our company… She had been convicted under the Espionage Law… Mrs. O’Hare was a socialist. I had read the little publication she had been issuing together with her husband, and I considered her socialism a colourless brand. Had we met on the outside, we should have probably argued furiously and have remained strangers for the rest of our lives. In prison we soon found common ground and human interest in our daily association… She had been convicted for anti-war speech, but the O’Hares had big political connexions. It was therefore reasonably certain that Kate would not have to serve long. I myself had declined the offer of friends to gain clemency for me. But it was different for Kate, who believed in the political machine. I hoped, however, that in her appeal would also be included the other political prisoners.
Kate O’Hare was not the only one; there were other leftists who Emma Goldman previously disdained but, because they had the guts to openly oppose the war, showed more courage than many of Goldman’s erstwhile associates. The war changed her judgments of many people.
Regardless of what I think of Goldman’s socio-political philosophy and World War I, I can relate to how she reacted to seeing which leftists stuck up for their previously professed antiwar ideals and who folded under pressure.
That’s nothing compared to what Emma Goldman experienced when she was deported from the United States to the Soviet Union because of her antiwar stance. She had been a U.S. citizen, but her citizenship was revoked because she was an anarchist (IANAL, but my understanding is that even today U.S. immigration law bars anarchists from becoming citizens).
The dream of the ‘October’ revolution mesmerized Goldman so completely that she overlook that the Bolshevik government was still a centralized government authority. She told herself full-fledged anarchy can’t happen overnight and a revolution of the masses is an essential step. When she first noticed how the Bolshevik government exploited ordinary people and suppressed individual freedoms, she made up excuses because she desperately wanted the dream to be real. But the more she saw, the less she could ignore. Over time, she realized that the Bolshevik government was exploiting workers and peasants and repressing individual liberties just as much as the Tsarist government. She found exceptions – the local communist government in Arkhangelsk governed humanely and the Bolshevik government had stopped the pogroms against Jews in Ukraine (which is why even devoutly religious Jews supported Lenin), but mostly she found that powerful Communist Party members were stealing from the masses for personal gain and relying on the Cheka to suppress dissent by imprisoning and/or killing anyone who criticized the party.
Being honest with herself about what the Bolsheviks were doing was excruciating. Then she saw how others dealt with the truth.
Some people resisted Bolshevik abuses, most notably the Kronstadt sailors. The Bolsheviks denounced, imprisoned, and/or murdered resisters. Some people, after they understood how oppressive the Bolshevik regime was, retreated because they felt helpless, including Goldman’s idol Peter Kropotkin. Goldman noticed that she herself was withdrawing into helplessness. She figured she had to leave Russia, or even let the Cheka imprison/shoot her, to rediscover meaning in life. Then there were the people she previously revered who condoned Bolshevik oppression. They used justifications such as ‘What matters is the Revolution, not whether a handful of people are imprisoned for their opinions. Believing that individual liberties matter is bourgeois sentimentality.’ Emma Goldman was shocked.
Goldman escaped Russia and eventually settled in Great Britain, which in the early 1920s was considered the place with the greatest political freedom. Unlike the United States, the United Kingdom did not deport her for expressing her political opinions.
She struggled to express her thoughts and feelings about the situation in the Soviet Union. When she finally spoke frankly, she was denounced by not just communists, but also her fellow anarchists and even the British Labour Party. Some leftists who were directly involved in the Bolshevik regime knew she was telling the truth but did not want the truth to come out; many more believed in the Revolution’s promise so fervently they did not want to hear it was a sham. They preferred to believe that Goldman was a ‘reactionary’ funded by right-wingers. Meanwhile, right-wingers, who had harassed her (including threatening to murder her) for most of her life, were for once relatively cordial towards her. This was socially and psychologically challenging for Goldman.
Emma Goldman’s autobiography proves that many things which are declared ‘unprecedented!’ today are, in fact, precedented. It’s discouraging to think about the problems she rails against which remain today. But some issues she campaigned on – access to birth control, family planning, LGB rights (she says nothing about trans people but my guess is that, to the extent she knew about trans people, she also supported them) are much better in the United States today than in the 1910s.
Speaking of Goldman’s advocacy of LGB rights:
Censorship came from some of my own comrades because I was treating such “unnatural” themes as homosexuality. Anarchism was already enough misunderstood, and anarchists considered depraved; it was inadvisable to add to the misconceptions by taking up perverted sex-forms, they argued. Believing in freedom of opinion, even if it went against me, I minded the censors in my own ranks as little as I did those in the enemy’s camp. In fact, censorship from comrades had the same effect on me as police persecution; it made me surer of myself, more determined to plead for every victim, be it one of social wrong or moral prejudice.
The men and women who used to come to see me after my lectures on homosexuality, and who confided to me their anguish and isolation, were often of finer grain than those who had cast them out.
Goldman herself was extremely heterosexual/romantic and spent lots of time pining for various men. That she openly advocated for LGB people in the 1910s demonstrates the sincerity of her commitment to individual freedom.
This all happened about a hundred years ago. Those hundred years allow us to see this situation with greater clarity than our own current circumstances. I’m very tempted to draw parallels between what Goldman describes and recent events (especially the way the United States government has used the Espionage Act against Julian Assange, the very same law which was used to imprison nonviolent antiwar activists during World War I). Though drawing such comparisons has value, it might muddy Goldman’s deeper message. In every place and era of history, people who faced the reality that their dreams are false had to choose between accepting reality or persisting in their beloved falsehoods, no matter how harmful. People have always been shocked when their allies’ actions reveal their true colors. As long as human nature remains broadly the same, this will happen repeatedly.
Perhaps my own cherished hopes and beliefs about the world are false. Perhaps the people who I believe share my values actually harbor very different values and will only reveal this when they have the power to abuse others. When faced with such challenges, I hope I meet them with the same intellectual courage as Emma Goldman.