“The most alive is the wildest,” Thoreau wrote. I couldn’t help thinking of that line as I read the first pages of Vivian Gornick’s Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, the book she’ll be reading from and discussing at our first Thoreau Farm Forum at Concord Academy this Sunday. Read Gornick’s opening paragraph, and you’ll see what I mean. It draws a bead on Thoreau’s idea of wildness as something within — something he wanted to liberate. She writes:
A handful of radicals throughout the centuries have intuited that a successful revolution includes a healthy passion for the inner life. One of them was the anarchist Emma Goldman. The right to stay alive in one’s senses, and to live in a world that prized that aliveness, was, for her, a key demand in any struggle she cared to wage against coercive government rule. The hatred she bore the centralized state was rooted in what she took to be government’s brutish contempt for the feeling life of the individual. Fellow radicals who exhibited a similar contempt were to be held to the same standard. Comrades were those who, in the name of the revolution, were bent on honoring the complete human being.
Goldman’s may not exactly be a household name anymore, but as Gornick reminds us, there was a time in this country, in the late 19th century and early 20th, when she could draw crowds of thousands from coast to coast, lecturing on anarchism and the rights of the individual. J. Edgar Hoover called her “the most dangerous woman in America,” and he saw to it that she was deported in 1919, having already been convicted and imprisoned for her vocal opposition to World War I. (Yes, this was America.)
Goldman took inspiration from Emerson and Thoreau, and as Gornick pointed out in a piece for The Nation in December, “Emma Goldman Occupies Wall Street,” there are at least some today who still take inspiration from her. I recently spoke to Gornick by phone about Goldman’s legacy, and the ways in which it resonates now. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation (edited primarily for length, and occasionally for clarity). I’ll have more thoughts on #OWS, and some recent writing on it, in a followup post.
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WS: In your piece for The Nation, you opened with the image of a young woman in Zuccotti Park, last October, announcing that she was Emma Goldman returned from the past, and that she loved what they were all doing there. So let me start with the simplest, and yet the largest, question about this biography — namely, why Emma, and why now? You obviously began this project long before Occupy Wall Street burst on the scene.
VIVIAN GORNICK: Emma Goldman is an iconic figure, and she has, in living memory, been invoked again and again, starting with us [feminists] in the ’70s. The reason is very simple: For at least a hundred years, since the turn of the 20th century, the basis for modernist politics has been, more than anything, a strong desire for “liberation of the self.” That is modernism in a nutshell, and politics as such has ardently followed that psychological course: What is happening inside of us? Do we feel alienated? Do we feel exiled from our society, or muffled or stifled or exiled within? Those have been key words on the lips of many who have mounted huge protests over labor, over social inclusion, over everything.
There were many faces to anarchism, many different kinds of anarchists, focused in different ways. And Emma was, as many anarchists were, passionate about liberation of the self. That’s why she was picked up by the feminists in the 1970s. And now, essentially, the 99 Percent are doing the same thing. A huge part of what’s behind their feelings and thoughts and actions is a sense of being muffled, stifled, exiled within themselves. So she fits very well into the mood of this moment.
WS: The way Occupy has been covered, and the way I’ve thought about it mostly myself, is that it’s about economics.
GORNICK: Well, economic inequality, yes. But inequality is the key word.
WS: Right. But what you’re pointing to is the psychology of it. That it’s about more than a paycheck — it’s about the whole human being.
GORNICK: Oh, yes, definitely. American capitalist democracy, from its inception, is filled with the struggle between making money, and the ruthlessness of capitalism, and the individual. When we speak of “the individual,” it’s not just the “lighting out for the territory” individual, the individualism of Daniel Boone or Huckleberry Finn — or, you know, venture capitalism — it’s the individualism of being able to feel like a human being throughout your life, no matter what you do. That was the promise of democracy — that one would feel oneself in the presence of one’s equals, that one would never feel discarded, humiliated, politically ignored. That is what’s behind this movement. The outrage of billions of dollars on one side and foreclosure on the other side has brought American democracy to its knees. It’s a situation that’s — not unparalleled, but not seen for a long time, such astonishing inequality. And it’s not just a matter of the money. The foreclosures are so humiliating. The joblessness. In the Great Depression of the ’30s, all people wanted was a job. Nobody wanted a handout, nobody wanted to be a millionaire, they wanted a job. When the society fails that way, the idiom is economics, but that’s not what’s at stake. You don’t feel like a human being anymore.
WS: You might find this laughable, but I can’t help wondering if Ron Paul, and certain aspects of the Tea Party movement, aren’t in some ways the anarchists of this particular moment. I mean, isn’t there something anarchistic in Paul’s libertarian worldview?
GORNICK: Yes, there’s no question about it. Many elements of what was generally called radicalism are shared by the right and the left. The problem with the Tea Party is just the outrageousness of their conclusions, the conclusions they draw about what to do, how to fix things.
WS: Let’s talk about Goldman’s anarchism, and how it relates to our moment. You write about her two years in Russia with Sasha Berkman, in the early days of the Bolshevik revolution, and how her “courageous” and “obsessive” early critique of the Soviet dictatorship “allowed her to avoid taking a hard look at her own movement, whose theoretical and practical limitations the Russian Revolution had brought to glaring light.” You describe how, in Russia, Goldman and Berkman came face to face with the fact “that anarchism as they knew it prepared one for nothing on the ground. What, after all, did an anarchist do the day after the revolution?” It’s true that anarchism can appear head-slappingly naïve.
GORNICK: That was the problem. There has never actually been an example of making a society in the image of anarchism, on the ground — except in the Spanish Civil War, those few years in which the anarchists held Catalonia. Emma didn’t have much of a role in it, but she was there. And it was the only time in her own life that she actually saw worker control, that she actually saw an anarchist government governing well and making it work. It only lasted three years, and it was in a rural, peasant population, very homogeneous. But you saw this thing come alive, and who knew how long it could last, or if it could be replicated.
WS: So with just the right conditions, and on a small enough scale, you could actually put the anarchist principles into action?
GORNICK: What anarchists wanted, their utopia, was a federation of small communes. They wanted an end to big government, an end to the state. And lots of people besides anarchists envision that. That’s a utopian vision. And it seems absolutely impossible now. You know, a federation, in which everybody would experience direct democracy, and rule themselves, and god knows what. And indeed, none of them had any sense of political organization, or of running anything — they just didn’t know how to do anything, and they never thought about it or talked about it. The Communists, on the other hand, were fantastic experts at organization. That’s what they were doing all the time, from day one. So the anarchists were very naïve, in lots of ways.
WS: There’s an anarchist strain in Occupy Wall Street, even using the anarchist label –
WS: And it seems to share some of the naïvete, the lack of a sense of what to do “on the ground,” “the day after the revolution.” You know, “Where’s the workable policy agenda?,” as even liberal critics of the Occupy movement ask.
GORNICK: That’s not their job! They’re anarchists in the sense that their job is to protest conditions. It’s not their job to come up with a working plan. They’re not revolutionaries, they’re dissenters. Look what’s happened — they have put 99 Percent into the cultural vocabulary, in a few months. But they don’t want to replace big government with small communes. They don’t have an anarchist vision. They want full democracy. These are not revolutionaries. And it’s not their job to come up with answers. It’s their job to do what they’re doing, which is to point out the awfulness with which we are living now.
WS: You mention a couple times in the book that Goldman was inspired by Emerson and Thoreau. What did Goldman learn from Thoreau?
GORNICK: It was the individualism. What she learned from Thoreau was the value of actually coming to experience yourself, to know who you are from the inside out. Thoreau said, I’m not going to the woods in order to become a recluse, I’m going so that I will know what I can give up and what I must have in society. How I can simplify. What I need. What I don’t need.
WS: And, he said, “to wake my neighbors up.”
GORNICK: Right, he was always like that. So was Emerson. This was Transcendentalism — the world will become a good place if people look into themselves and understand who they are. If they can fulfill themselves, if they can actually experience themselves – live in a world in which they can actually experience themselves — it will do away with antisocial feeling, with not seeing yourself in others. All those things.
Emma loved that. She loved that. She mentioned Thoreau in many, many speeches and lectures. And it was always along these lines.
WS: You know, Occupy and the Tea Party notwithstanding, it seems that Americans have lost their appetite for any sort of radical social protest –
GORNICK: That’s true. It’s not a political moment.
WS: It’s as though we’re too comfortable, we have too much to lose — many of us — for serious risk-taking and radicalism. It’s hard to imagine a figure like Emma Goldman on the American stage today. Where do we look for her? Where do we find Emma Goldman today?
GORNICK: We don’t. That’s why OWS is so remarkable. Because we haven’t had a political moment since the ’60s and the years that followed — the time of liberationist movements and of all this tremendous political turmoil. You haven’t had it since then. It exhausts itself and then it takes a long time to come again. This is not a moment when Emma Goldman, or anybody like her, is likely to arise — or would be welcome if she did arise. Where is she? Well, she’s nowhere. You can’t find her. If she’s there, she’s in embryo.
No, it’s a profoundly apathetic moment, and that’s why OWS is so remarkable. The Great Depression was a time both of immense sluggishness and immense rage. You had both. And in our time, OWS is the first indication, in our moment, of the depth of dissatisfaction that conceivably will bring about some change.