Revolutionary who fanned female fervour

By Jennifer Lipman, April 11, 2012

Emma Goldman, by Vivian Gornick, Yale University Press, £18.99

With Occupy protesters and tent cities having spread around the world in recent times, it is an interesting moment to consider the efforts of a prior generation of dreamers: the anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
From New York to Vienna, groups of angry, radical and often impoverished intellectuals met in cafés and salons to discuss how to throw off the chains of capitalism and capitalist society and to rail against the injustices of those who controlled them.

Among the many, one woman made a particular impression. Emma Goldman, a passionate anarchist from her youth, became something of a celebrity through her public speeches and writings, cast by enthralled journalists as a wild and wicked woman as well as a champion of the weak and vulnerable.

Goldman, as Vivian Gornick explains in her fascinating biography, was all those things and more. Her life was full of contradictions. She advocated sexual freedom but was unspeakably jealous when her lovers strayed; she rejected her Jewish upbringing but almost exclusively associated with others of the same background; she wished for the collapse of the United States government but was perversely attached to her adoptive country.

Most strikingly, she was a vehement individualist fighting alongside those who advanced a collectivist vision of society.

Gornick's book takes us through Goldman's life, from a bleak childhood in Russia in the 1870s to the false dawn of her arrival in the United States, where she was distraught to find a life of servitude in factories awaiting her.

We follow her arrival in the heady circles of anarchism and learn how she went from an initial struggle to prove herself as a young woman in a male-dominated world to find herself being discussed in the same bracket as thinkers like Bakunin - and reviled in the press for being a woman with a brain.

Gornick chronicles Goldman's affairs, her spells in prison and her eventual exile to Russia soon after the establishment of communism - an experience that turned her into an early and vociferous opponent of Marxism at a time when his beliefs were gospel to the majority of revolutionaries.

Much of the content is not new - Goldman was a prolific writer and remains a prominent figure in American history - but Gornick weaves it together in an accessible and engaging way.

The book is repetitive at times but Gornick is adept at focusing upon the hopes, dreams and idiosyncrasies of one individual as a way of exploring the story of a group who truly believed they could change the world. As an exploration of feminism and radical politics, it's a must-read.

It is not always a flattering portrait. Goldman is painted as self-obsessed, absurd and even deluded - and Vivian Gornick makes clear that history has disproved many of her theories.

But there is no doubt that Goldman's work provided succour for a later wave of youthful radicals and revolutionaries - that of the 1960s. And with revolution in the air once again, this is a timely and valuable contribution.

Last updated: 2:10pm, April 11 2012