Book Review

 Book Review: Emma Goldman – Living My Life


Book Title: Living My Life

Author: Emma Goldman

            ISBN: 0-486-22543-7

            Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 74-105452

            Published by: Dover Publications, Inc., New York

Unabridged republication of the original (1931) edition. Total of 13 plates. Xii + 994pp. Two Volume set, Paperbound    

Cover Introduction: “You damn bitch of an anarchist. I wish I could get at you. I would tear your heart out and feed it to my dog.” This was one of the less obscene messages received by Emma Goldman (1869-1940), while in jail on suspicion of complicity in the assassination of McKinley. The most notorious woman of her day, she was bitterly hated by millions and equally revered by millions. 

The strong feelings she aroused are understandable. She was an alien, a practising anarchist, a labour agitator, a pacifist in World War I, an advocate of political violence, a feminist, a proponent of free love and birth control, a communist, a street fighter for justice – all of which she did with a strong intellect and boundless passion. Today, of course, many of the issues that she fought over are just as vital as they were 75 years ago. 

Emma Goldman came from Russia at the age of 17. After an encounter with the sweat shop and an unfortunate marriage, she plunged into the bewildering intellectual and activist chaos that attended American social evolution around the turn of the century. She knew practically everyone of importance in radical circles. She dominated many areas of the radical movement, lecturing, writing, haranguing, and publishing to awaken the world to her ideas. After World War I she was deported to Russia, where she soon discovered that anarchists were no better liked than in America, despite Lenin’s first gesture of welcome. She escaped with her life, but never was allowed to return to the United States

Emma Goldman was a devastatingly honest woman, who spared herself as little as she spared anyone else. From her account the reader can gain insight into the curious personality type of recurrent interest: a woman who devoted her life to erase suffering, yet could make a bomb or assist in staging an assassination. Equally interesting are her comments on other radicals of the period, such as Kropotkin, Berkman. Mooney, Lenin, Trotsky, Haywood, Most, the Haymarket martyrs and many others. Her autobiography, written with vigor, ranks among the finest in English”.  

Emma Goldman did not have a happy childhood; her father was violent and her mother was disinterested. She doted on her elder sister, Helena, who looked after her and ‘brought her up’. When Helena elected to leave Russia and join her sister Lena in the USA, Emma was desperate to go with her to get away from her father who had no ambition for her other than to see her married off at the first opportunity. In December 1885, Emma and Helena set sail from St. Petersburg en-route to the ‘Promised Land’ via Hamburg

“The last day of our journey comes vividly to my mind. Everybody was on deck. Helena and I stood pressed to each other, enraptured by the sight of the harbour and the Statue of Liberty suddenly emerging from the mist. Ah, there she was, the symbol of hope, of freedom, of opportunity! She held her torch high to light the way to the free country, the asylum for the oppressed of all lands. We, too, Helena and I, would find a place in the generous heart of America. Our spirits were high, our eyes filled with tears”. 

Whilst in Rochester, Emma attended a meeting at which Johanna Greie was the main speaker. At that meeting, Emma learnt about the events at Haymarket and the arrest of eight leading anarchists. 

“At the end of Greie’s speech I knew what I had surmised all along: the Chicago men were innocent. They were to be put to death for their ideal. But what was their ideal? Johanna Greie spoke of Parsons, Spies, Lingg, and others as socialists, but I was ignorant of the real meaning of socialism. What I had heard from the local speakers had impressed me as colourless and mechanistic. On the other hand, the papers called these men anarchists, bomb throwers. What was anarchism? It was all very puzzling. But I had no time for further contemplation. The people were filing out, and I got up to leave. Greie, the chairman, and a group of friends were still on the platform. As I turned towards them, I saw Greie motioning to me. I was startled, my heart beat violently, and my feet felt leaden. When I approached her, she took me by the hand and said: “I never saw a face that reflected such a tumult of emotions as yours. You must be feeling the impending tragedy intensely. Do you know the men?” In a trembling voice I replied: “Unfortunately not, but I do feel the case with every fibre, and when I heard you speak, it seemed to me as if I knew them”. She put her hand on my shoulder. “I have a feeling that you will know them better as you learn their ideal, and that you will make their cause your own”. 

Emma Goldman devoted the rest of her life to the cause of Anarchism. She moved to New York, “the centre of the anarchist movement”, on 15th of August 1889, aged 20. She met her future life-long companion, Alexander Berkman (Sasha) almost immediately upon her arrival in New York. They remained close comrades through everything and were still close when Emma Goldman wrote the book in 1930. 

It was Howard Zinn’s “A Peoples History of the United States” that got me interested in 1800s / 1900s USA and brought Emma Goldman to my attention. In “Living My Life” you slip very easily into the time that she is writing about – you sense that you are there in Chicago or New York at the turn of the century.  

“A few days after our return to New York the news was flashed across the country of the slaughter of steel-workers by Pinkertons. Frick had fortified the Homestead mills, built a high fence around them. Then, in the dead of night, a barge packed with strike-breakers, under protection of heavily armed Pinkerton thugs, quietly stole up the Monongahela River. The steel-men had learned of Frick’s move. They stationed themselves along the shore, determined to drive back Frick’s hirelings. When the barge got within range, the Pinkertons had opened fire, without warning, killing a number of Homestead men on the shore, among them a little boy, and wounding scores of others.

The wanton murders aroused even the daily papers. Several came out in strong editorials, severely citicizing Frick. He had gone too far; he had added fuel to the fire in the labour ranks and would have himself to blame for any desperate acts that might come.

We were stunned. We saw at once that the time for our manifesto had passed. Words had lost their meaning in the face of the innocent blood spilled on the banks of the Monongahela. Intuitively each felt what was surging in the heart of the others. Sasha broke the silence. “Frick is the responsible factor in this crime,” he said; “he must be made to stand the consequences.” It was the psychological moment for an Attentat; the whole country was aroused, everybody was considering Frick the perpetrator of a coldblooded murder. A blow aimed at Frick would re-echo in the poorest hovel, would call the attention of the whole world to the real cause behind the Homestead struggle. It would also strike terror in the enemy’s ranks and make them realize that the proletariat of America had its avengers”. 

Berkman paid a very heavy price for the ‘failed Attentat’ (propaganda by deed) – he was sentenced to twenty two years in the Western Penitentiary of Pennsylvania; he actually served fourteen years. In the same year, 1892, Emma Goldman was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment for ‘inciting to riot’; she served her time on Blackwell’s Island

The following paragraph related to mid-1890s USA but if the name and context was changed, could it not have been 2008 USA?

‘It gained in strength by the sudden ascendancy of William Jennings Bryan who had stampeded the Democratic Convention by an eloquent speech and the catch phrase: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labour the crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon the cross of gold". Bryan was running for the presidency: the "silver-tongued" orator had caught the fancy of the man in the street. The American liberals, who so easily fall for every new political scheme, went over to Bryan on free silver almost to a man. Even some anarchists were carried away by his slogans’.

I could not share the enthusiasm for Bryan, partly because I did not believe in the political machine as a means of bringing about fundamental changes, and also because there was something weak and superficial about Bryan. I had a feeling that his main aim was to get into the White House rather than “strike off the chains” from the people. I resolved to steer clear of him. I sensed his lack of sincerity and I did not trust him”. 

The 1890’s was a ‘golden era’ for anarchism in the USA. Although constantly harassed by police and officialdom, Emma Goldman gave many lectures on anarchism across numerous states and her audiences were increasing with each lecture. This support collapsed in 1901 with the assassination of President McKinley in Buffalo. Emma Goldman was, incorrectly, accused of inciting Leon Czolgosz to shoot the president.

“The country was in a panic. Judging by the press, I was sure that it was the people of the United States and not Czolgosz that had gone mad. Not since 1887 had there been evidenced such lust for blood, such savagery of vengeance. “Anarchists must be exterminated!” the papers raved: “they should be dumped into the sea; there is no place for the vultures under our flag. Emma Goldman has been allowed to ply her trade of murder too long. She should be forced to share the fate of her dupes.”

It was a repetition of the dark Chicago days. Fourteen years, years of painful growth, yet fascinating and fruitful years. And now the end! The end? I was only thirty-two and there was yet so much, so very much, undone. And the boy in Buffalo – his life had scarce begun. What was his life, I wondered; what the forces that drove him to this doom? “I did it for the working people”, he was reported to have said. The people! Sasha also had done something for the people; and our brave Chicago martyrs, and the others in every land and time. But the people are asleep; they remain indifferent. They forge their own chains and do the bidding of their masters to crucify their Christs.

Leon Czolgosz was executed on 29th October 1901 and Emma Goldman became a pariah.

“The Anti-Anarchist Immigration Law was at last smuggled through Congress, and thereafter no person disbelieving in organized government was to be permitted to enter the United States. Under its provisions men like Tolstoy, Kropotkin, Spencer, or Edward Carpenter could be excluded from the hospitable shores of America. Too late did the lukewarm liberals realize the peril of this law to advanced thought.”

“Turner was given the honour of being the first to fall under the ban of the Federal Anti-Anarchist Law passed by Congress on March 3, 1903. Its main section reads: “No person who disbelieves in or who is opposed to all organized governments, or who is a member of or affiliated with any organization entertaining or teaching such disbelief in or opposition to all governments….shall be permitted to enter the United States”. John Turner, well known in his own country, respected by thinking people and having access to every European land, was now to be victimized by a statute conceived in panic and sponsored by the darkest elements in the United States”.

The Patriot Act and Donald Rumsfeld could slip seamlessly into the above paragraph!

Emma Goldman started her publication Mother Earth in 1905 and used it as her vehicle for getting essays such as Anarchism and Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist into the public domain.

Volume 1 ends in 1912 with Emma caught up in a major labour battle in San Diego: “When I arrived with Ben in Los Angeles in April, San Diego was in the grip of a veritable civil war. The patriots, known as Vigilantes, had converted the city into a battlefield. They beat, clubbed, and killed men and women who still believed in their constitutional rights. Hundreds of them had come to San Diego from every part of the United States to participate in the campaign. They travelled in box cars, on the bumpers, on the roofs of trains, every moment in danger of their lives, yet sustained by the holy quest for freedom of speech, for which their comrades were already filling the jails”.

Emma Goldman wrote in a very easy to read style and the reader is quickly drawn in to her world. The cover introduction is accurate in all respects with the possible exception of the claim “yet could make a bomb or assist in staging an assassination” for which I could find no clear evidence from the book. I would strongly recommend this book. I have read both volumes but have only extracted from the first volume in this review. Time permitting; I would hope to be able to draft a review of the second volume in the not too distant future.



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