Emma Goldman’s Story: Living My Life

In Living My Life, anarchist, orator, immigrant, writer, and activist Emma Goldman chronicles her prolific life through a tumultuous period in world history. Born in 1869 in czarist Lithuania she became one of the millions of Eastern European immigrants who came to the United States in droves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In her book she details firsthand accounts of the Progressive Era, offering her own insights on the impactful people and events of that pivotal era in world history, including Peter Kropotkin, Voltairine De Cleyre, Vladimir Lenin, World War I, and the October Revolution.

Living My Life is powerfully written and provides insight into the internal thought-processes of one of America’s most well-known anarchists and her contemporaries. Goldman explains early in the text that she was first moved to the cause anarchism, the “beautiful ideal,” as she calls it, by the plight of the Haymarket Martyrs.  These were a group of anarchists who were subjected to show trials and swiftly imprisoned and executed following an explosion at a labor demonstration in Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 4, 1886. The explosion resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and four civilians, thus the proverbial bomb-throwing anarchist cliché was born, though the identity of the bomber was never proved. Goldman’s final resting place would come to be near the monument to the Haymarket Martyrs in a cemetery in suburban Chicago, alongside her fellow anarcha-feminist Voltairine De Cleyre.

Goldman opens her book on August 15, 1889, the day she arrived in New York City for the first time at the age of twenty. She initially immigrated to the United States four years earlier, moving in with other family members upstate in Rochester. New York City would be the setting for the majority of her quarter-century stay in the  United States. Shortly after her arrival in New York City, she links up with other Jewish-Russian anarchists, including her lifelong partner Alexander Berkman (whom she endearingly refers to as “Sasha” throughout the book), author of Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. It’s in Living My Life that Goldman would first disclose to the world the extent of her role in the conspiracy to assassinate William Clay Frick, the steel company magnate, whose botched assassination would send Berkman to federal prison for fourteen years.

Early in the book, she offers a powerful and somewhat comical account of trying her hand at sex work in order to raise the funds to purchase a pistol with which Berkman could assassinate Frick. “Saturday evening, July 16, 1892, I walked up and down Fourteenth Street, one of the long procession of girls I had so often seen plying their trade.”

The story veers into comical as she tells of accompanying a potential patron to a restaurant and is informed by the man that she is not cut out for this line of work.

He understood then that I was inexperienced; whatever might have been the reason that brought me to the street, he knew it was not mere looseness or love of excitement. ‘But thousands of girls are driven by economic necessity,’ I blurted out. He looked at me in surprise…. I wanted to tell him all about the social question, about my ideas, who and what I was, but I checked myself. I must not disclose my identity: it would be too dreadful if he should learn that Emma Goldman, the anarchist, had been found soliciting on Fourteenth Street. What a juicy story that would make for the press!

Goldman had begun a career in public speaking where she went on to tour the country and the world to lecture on a range of topics, from anarchism and labor solidarity, to anti-conscription, contraception, “free love”, atheism, and more. She quickly rose to prominence on the national and international stage due to her powerful oratory skills and controversial and outspoken opinions.

One of the more surreal episodes Goldman recounts in her book is being implicated in the assassination of then U.S. president William McKinley in 1901. The assassin, Leon Czolgoz, had — according to press reports — admitted to being an anarchist and claimed he was incited to violence by Goldman. Upon learning of her apparent (and false) role in the assassination Goldman would eventually return to Chicago where she was apprehended by federal authorities. While in custody for nearly two weeks, Goldman would incite the anger of the nation and the federal government, by offering up her nursing skills to the aid of both the assassin Czolgoz and the dying president McKinley.

One of [the reporters] was quite amazed when I assured him that in my professional capacity I would take care McKinley if I were called upon to nurse him, though my sympathies were with Czolgosz…. “I don’t get you, you’re beyond me,” he reiterated. The next day there appeared these headlines in one of the papers: “EMMA GOLDMAN WANTS TO NURSE PRESIDENT; SYMPATHIES ARE WITH SLAYER.

The last quarter of the book details the span of time from when she and Berkman are arrested for speaking out against conscription and the “global conflagration” that was World War I. She was convicted under the newly-passed Espionage Act, a law that is still used to this day to imprison influential political dissidents. Goldman, along with Berkman, would be sentenced to two years in prison and, at the conclusion of her sentence, both would be rounded up in the notorious “Palmer Raids” that saw hundreds of immigrant anarchists deported. This would begin a nearly two-year saga in the Soviet Union that brought Goldman to the ultimate conclusion that the communist ideals of the 1917 Russian Revolution were betrayed by Lenin’s authoritarian regime.

A major impression I was left with comes from Goldman’s account of anarchist and radical organizing spaces. What struck me was how little things have changed in terms of the organizational and strategic priorities of anti-capitalist organizing. The socialists and communists thought that a worker-state would be the quickest path to liberation. The anarchists contended that the State was the root from which capitalism implemented the oppression of working-class people. This divide is present throughout Goldman’s recount, and encompasses the majority of the last fifth of the book, which details Goldman’s initial support of the Bolshevik revolution and eventual  conclusion that a communist state was no less a state and therefore subject to all of the attendant problems of a state, namely, centralization, regimentation, and the suppression of political dissent.

Goldman was deported from the United States to the Soviet Union on December 21st, 1919 along with hundreds of other Russian anarchists. She explains that she was initially hopeful and encouraged by the Bolshevik revolution but upon arriving in Petrograd she was almost immediately appalled by the living conditions and political repression. She would tour the country and witness stories of raids by the Cheka against “counter-revolutionaries” whose crime consisted of selling the clothes off their backs to avoid starvation.

The hideous sores on revolutionary Russia could not for long be ignored. The facts presented at the gathering of Moscow anarchists, the analysis of the situation by leading Left Socialist Revolutionists, and my talks with simple people who claimed no political affiliations enabled me to look behind the scenes of the revolutionary drama and to behold the dictatorship without its stage make-up…. It was forcible tax-collection at the point of guns…. It was the elimination from responsible positions of everyone who dared think aloud…. The nightly oblavas (street and house raids) by the Cheka, the population frightened out of sleep, their few belongings turned upside down and ripped open for secret documents, the dragnet of soldiers left behind to haul the crop of unsuspecting callers at the besieged house. The penalties for flimsy charges often amounted to long prison terms, exile to desolate parts of the country, and even execution…

At one point, after fleeing the squalor of the Soviet Union, Goldman would remark to an ideologically aligned friend that, “…not only [the Bolshevik] régime, but their stepbrothers as well, the Socialists in power in other countries, had demonstrated the failure of the Marxian State better than any anarchist argument….”

Personally what I found to be one of the most interesting aspects of the book was the sense that there were a lot more anarchists in Goldman’s time than there are today. Sure, the media consistently slandered and misrepresented our beliefs, but anarchists had a platform and the ear of the public, unlike today. Goldman and other anarchists of her day were witnesses to the Progressive Era and the profound centralization of power in the federal government and executive branch that went with it, and they were some of the first to experience the brunt of the burgeoning surveillance apparatus.

This review is by no means definitive and I cannot recommend the book enough to anyone interested in American, world, or anarchist history. I intentionally chose not to include some of the more interesting episodes from her memoir so as not to ruin the surprise. Some of those episodes include the moment she had an audience with Vladimir Lenin and took the opportunity to press him on the imprisonment of anarchists throughout the Soviet Union, or the time Helen Keller attended one of Goldman’s lectures and followed along with the speech by placing her fingers over Goldman’s mouth. Goldman also speaks of the death of fellow Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and the funeral procession that followed. Emma Goldman lived in a remarkable time and was a truly remarkable woman.

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