In her latest book, Emma Goldman: Revolution As a Way of Life, Vivian Gornick examines the life and mind of the great American anarchist and dissident. BR Web Editor David Johnson spoke to her last week about her new book, the psychology of radicals, and the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Emma Goldman, c. 1911 / Library of Congress
David Johnson: Before you pursued the book were you an admirer of Emma Goldman? Did you know a lot about her?
Vivian Gornick: I knew about her in the cliché way that a kid growing up in a left-wing household knows about certain iconic figures. She was known as a friend of the international working class. The working class was saintly, it was heroic, it was untouchable, and everyone who was associated with the cause of the working man was a hero. And thats all I knew.
DJ: In researching the book was there anything surprising that you uncovered?
VG: Many things were surprising. Emma Goldman was a person of tremendous inner contradiction, and she said and did many things that would have made my mother drop her jaw. She had many drives and compulsions that would have seemed shocking to the people of that generation, for whom she was simply an icon.
DJ: The book offers a deep psychological portrait of Emma Goldman, rather than a traditional historical biography. Do you think theres such a thing as a psychology of the radical or the dissident? And if so, to what extent would Emma represent it?
VG: Emma was for me a prototype of rebelliousness. I think that is what characterizes the radical on the left: the refusal deep inside to accept the world as it is when it feels unjust, and to defy authority when that authority feels unjust. I think theres a temperament that makes somebody become an activist and she was it; she was a primary example of that.
DJ: What do you think shed make of the current Occupy Wall Street protests?
VG: I think shed be right down there. In fact, I havent been down there yet myself but Im planning to go this week. As I understand it they dont have public speaker hook-ups and they are operating by passing the word from mouth to mouth to mouth.
DJ: The peoples mic?
VG: Yes, its a marvelous tactic. But if Emma were down there shed be up on a soapbox in two seconds calling out her message with a pair of lungs that you could hear at the river. I think shed love it. Shed say its about time. Long overdue.
DJ: Are you going to speak? Or are you just going to take everything in?
VG: No, Im just going to go down and take a look and maybe join.
DJ: I must admit I was very excited to read this book given the state of the times. A lot of people think we need much more activism: we need to get angry, we need to get into the streets, we need to have some of that Emma Goldman passion.
VG: So, what do we have to learn from her? She was a great insurrectionist. She was a great defier of unjust authority. She was out in the streets. She is a marvelous figure to invoke at this time. Its all true, but you know what happens with great radical figures: they cant make the movement happen. They can only lead it if its ready to happen.
We are not living in political times. This is not a time where you can make a speech to 10,000 people out in the street as you could in the Sixties. Everything thats happening in Washington, the horrors that have occurred, they wouldnt have happened if they werent at one, in some terrible subterranean way, with the times. Obama is always being compared with FDR and the Great Depression, but when Roosevelt opened his mouth and suggested this reform and that reform, the whole country was behind him and people cheered in the streets. Obamawho is indeed a frighteningly disappointing presidentnevertheless is made weaker by the fact that he doesnt have the country behind him. We need to know how many Emma Goldmans there are today whose voices are being drowned out rather than being followed. Its possible this Occupy Wall Street movement will spread, and it will be a peoples movement, and it might begin to have the effect that the Vietnam peace movements did, and I think thats in a lot of peoples minds as it is in mine, and well see. But you cant have an Emma Goldman who just springs up from out of nowhere and has the power to turn the tide of a rising right-wing atmosphere.
DJ: I wonder whether the time of the Emma Goldman-type leader has passed.
VG: No, its not passed, its just not here now. Its not passed as long as we have a future, as long as were alive.
Emma was crazy for people who spoke eloquently about the liberated self. Thats why she loved America.
DJ: When you look at the Occupy Wall Street protests, though, theyre based on the model of a leaderless collective.
VG: Its the style of the moment, I think that was one of the reasons the initial Egyptian uprising was wonderfully non-violent and leaderless in the beginning: they took their lead from the world around them, which technology put them in deep contact with. When they used it they continued the dynamic of believing it could be that way. Its an intensely democratic time, more than ever before, and so no, I dont think voices like Emmas will be coming out any time soon. Its not a revolutionary atmosphere right now.
Wall Street Protest March, Financial District, New York (September 26th, 2011) / Paul Stein / Flickr(cc)
DJ: One thing that was interesting for me is how strongly Emma identified herself as an American and how despondent she was over her forced exile to Russia in 1919. But I still dont understand why she thought America was the place for her, and for her radical politics. With so many radicals elsewhere, in Europe for example, why did she think America was the place for her?
VG: Because the element of anarchism that blossomed in her was the question of individuation: the individual experiencing him or herself in an internally free way. She was more devoted to the idea of the liberated self than any other aspect of anarchism, and its an American brand of anarchismthe liberated self was not on the agenda of European anarchists. Instead they were devoted to finding alternatives to big government and to the system of communes. As I say in the book, her heroes were not political, but rather more literary and philosophicalThoreau, Emerson, and Whitman. She was crazy for people who spoke eloquently about the liberated self. Thats why she loved America, and it took her by surprise as much as anybody else when she found herself stricken to be deported. She never got over it actually.
DJ: She wrote a book on her years in Bolshevik Russia and took a very negative stance that cost her a lot of friends among the radical left.
VG: Famously negative. She doesnt say one good thing. At that time a lot of people on the left were still willing to extend sympathy and understanding to the Russian revolution, even after the revolution started going sour. It was only 1920, and some were willing to see the good that the revolution was doing, but she wasnt willing to see it for one second. There was a huge struggle going on in the minds and hearts of many people in Russia who she had no sympathy with. She saw things very much in black and white, as later on she did the same thing with the Spanish civil war when the anarchists were being defeated by the communists and they chose to accommodate and make deals with the communists. She never forgave them; she thought they should have gone down in flames. That was Emma.
DJ: Along with her lack of sympathy and blindness to the complexity of situations, you also write that she never had any real insight into the motive force behind her own behavior.
VG: No, she didnt. I used her love life as an example of the fact that she never took in her own experience, never learned from it, and she self-justified to the very end. She made a huge glory out of romantic love, and she insisted it was the key to liberation: that love, that sacred desire was the greatest thing anyone could ever experience, and that it would make you all kinds of a miraculous person, and of course it didnt. Over and over again it didnt. And she would not take in this psychological reality and ask Why am I doing this? Anyone of the mildest abilities in the world today would ask: Why am I doing this over and over again, and what does it show me about myself? But she never went down that road.
DJ: I wonder whether she ever read Freud.
VG: She read Freud. She took from him what she wanted and ignored the rest. [laughter]
DJ: Regarding her relation to feminism, you write: Emma Goldman was not a feminist, she was a sexual radical which made her a supporter of birth control and defender of sex without marriage, but not a proponent of womens rights as that term is generally understood.
VG: No, she wasnt; this is evident in her criticism of the modern woman. She said the modern woman had become hard and unfeminine, had given up love and all the rest of it, and these were things she considered of primary importance. She said love was the most important thing in a womans life, she said having babies was the most important thing in a womans life; this is not the agenda for womens rights. Womens rights is a movement for equality. This did not interest her at all, nor did she support itshe didnt give a damn about it.
DJ: At the end of the book you say that the slogan The Personal is Political is Emmas enduring legacy. Do you think weve fully absorbed the ideal that the personal is political?
VG: I do to the extent that people set a lot of store by what was termed in the Sixties their own hurt feelings. All the movements in the Sixties grew out of personal testimony: we stood up and said, This is who we are, this is how we feel, this is what we require to feel human, and were living in a world thats not giving us what we require to feel human. Thats how I look on the personal is political, exactly as Ive just phrased it: to demand of a government and of a culture that it allow people to feel human, and take heed of what makes us feel inhuman.
Emma Goldman addressing a crowd at Union Square, New York, on May 21, 1916. / Wikimedia Commons
David Brooks wrote a scurrilous column in the Times, when he said [paraphrasing]: Theyre all down there making victims of themselves, thats not the way the world works. 99% of the people call themselves victims and set themselves up against the 1% as if that will solve all the problems. That was disgusting. I generally like him, hes reasonable, but that was awful to describe what was happening that way. 99% see themselves as victims. Thats the whole country! It was insane.
DJ: Hes clever but he can be very slippery.
VG: It was such a painful denial of the meaning of what was happening.
Its certainly possible spokespeople can come out of the protests but theyre not whats needed at the moment. When you think about the anti-war movement of the Sixties, I dont think there were any particular heroes. It was a true democratic movement. I think if these protests go on and become a genuine movement, it should be able to put a little backbone in Barack Obamas administration and at least make him raise taxesat least that, if nothing else. Occupy Wall Street is a whole host of things, but its a peoples uprising. Well see what it does.
So no, its not a time for Emma, but dont forget the times in which she lived, and all those anarchists and communists and everyone who made themselves famous. They were up against the most inhuman of timesindustrialization. So against that pressure, people wise up, and when they do, its revolution. But people like her and Lenin, they are intimately tied to revolution and were not having revolution here.
DJ: No. Not yet anyways.
VG: [laughter] No.
DJ: Itll be interesting to see what the next several decades bring us.
VG: We should all live and be well to see what the next decades bring.