How Can They Make History So Boring? Emma Goldman, May Day, and The American Experience by Gordon Edgar

I turned on the TV with mixed feelings. I mean, of course I was going to watch the new PBS American Experience documentary on Emma Goldman. Its just that I feel wary when the story of one of my heroes is told by someone outside of my community. How was it? Well, I was going to try for a more nuanced assessment than, Well, what can you expect from the capitalist media, but really taking any other theme for a review would just be nit-picky. Sometimes you just have to go with the classics, especially on May Day.
They get most of the actual details of Goldmans life right and that part is fun to watch. Really, they could hardly fail with that. Emma Goldmans almost day-to-day account of her own life is broadly available and fairly well read for those who care to find it. The problem with this documentary is a typical one for a biography. It insists on the history of Great Men, even if in this case its a Great Woman. The history of anarchism and the anarchist movement of that time period is mostly de-contextualized or ignored. The only reference to the IWW, for example, is when Lenin asks Goldman and Alexander Berkman if the Wobs are capable of leading the American social revolution.
I guess the thing that actually got to me was when professional hand-wringer Kevin Baker** describes Emma Goldmans politics and the theory of anarchism as jaw-droppingly nave Hmmm, I'll consider that Kevin
Ok, considered. Fuck off.
It's not just the gall of a comfortable, never-challenging-politically, professional writer simply dismissing the politics and hopes of an immigrant, working class, woman revolutionary from a century before. It's not just that many of the things being fought for at that time are things taken for granted now. It's not just that it is appalling and ahistorical to judge a past movement with todays standards and assumptions. It is also that the documentary ignores the fact that many others shared her ideas. Throughout the movie, historical events or movements are mentioned, then its back to treating Emma Goldman (and to some degree Alexander Berkman) as an incredibly Unique and Special individual.
Which of course she was, but not in the way they mean it. Whenever one watches biographies of people who were enemies of the state in their own time, there is an undercurrent of if only they had realized how special they were they could have worked to succeed instead of wasting their time with the rabble on a unachievable goal.* Emma Goldman became famous because there was mass working class organizing and activism. Without downplaying her extraordinary speaking abilities, tireless fundraising and ability to rise above societal restrictions due to her gender, ethnic background, and class, if there had been no revolutionary working class movement at the end on the nineteenth century, we would not know the name Emma Goldman.
But this relationship is inverted throughout the documentary. There is some discussion, for example, about the theory of anarchism being too idealistic. Someone makes the obligatory it is just a different kind of Christianity argument. Others shake their heads and cluck. How could such a head-in-the-sky ideology possibly fit in with the day-to-day concerns of labor unions? They imply that its simply impossible. While this has clearly always been a historic tension in anarchist theory, it ignores the fact that the anarchist movement of this time was mostly working class, and that anarchists were active in bread and butter issues like agitation for the 8-hour day. Thats why the Haymarket martyrs were anarchists, after all.
It is a historical irony that even though International Workers Day came out of labor struggles in the US in 1886, the fact is long forgotten by most people here. If people still have an image associated with May Day (as opposed to Beltane), it is probably tanks and missiles rolling down Red Square past Soviet Communist Party generals and bureaucrats. But for Emma Goldman before the turn of the 19th Century, it was a radicalizing moment.
May 1 became known as International Workers Day because it marked the beginning of the first major "Red Scare" in U.S. history. In the midst of national strikes pushing for an 8-hour work day, organizers in Chicago had managed to shut down the railroads and many of the factories. Police and scabs turned the strike violent. Among other acts, police shot four strikers on May 3. Either in response or as a set-up, a bomb was thrown at police at the next rally. The police immediately arrested eight anarchist labor organizers who were convicted (five sentenced to hang) despite the fact that only one was even in attendance at the rally and he was on-stage speaking when the bomb went off.
The enemies of organized labor took advantage of this situation. Police and vigilantes attacked, arrested, deported, blacklisted and killed many labor organizers and union members in order to destroy the labor movement. Like the Palmer Raids after World War I and the McCarthy period in the Fifties, forces of reaction also attempted to split the workers movements by villainizing certain ideologies and whipping up anti-immigrant and anti-foreign sentiment. As an ongoing theme in U.S. history it is a lesson we cannot forget, especially in the days of the Patriot Act.
Though active in pragmatic politics, many anarchists were concerned with changing social relations permanently. But in the documentary, the whole theory of anarcho-syndicalist revolution is also never really explained. The viewer is left hanging about how this supposedly brilliant woman sees the revolution happening when it actually had a great deal of bearing on Berkman and Goldmans assassination attempt on Henry Frick. I'm not arguing that it was correct, but the idea of the Great General Strike certainly had many adherents throughout a cross section of the revolutionary milieu of the time. Certainly among most working class anarchists and the IWW, the most revolutionary union during a certain part of Goldmans life. The success of the Russian Revolution, while owing a partial debt to syndicalist thought, also rendered it obsolete as a mass theory of revolution in most of the world (Spain until 1939 or so is an obvious exception) but that wasnt until many years after the assassination attempt.
There are a lot of issues I would love to see discussed in an Emma Goldman documentary. What was Goldmans influence on anarchism as a whole? Was Goldman actually an anarchist theorist, or simply an eloquent and moving public speaker? What is her legacy today? What was the influence of 19th century anarchist principles on reforms that did happen (free education for all, official equality between the sexes and races, etc.)?
But many of the questions that I think many people, not just those who have an anarchist history fetish like me, would be interested in are related to the idea of Emma Goldman, the Feminist. At this point, she's probably the best known historic anarchist in this country and as such, is an obvious model for women involved with radical politics, especially combined with the famous, but fake, quote, If I can't dance to it, its not my revolution, (The documentary actually did a good job of debunking fun-loving Emma, without mentioning that quote.)
Was Goldman seen by other anarchists as making the anarchist movement too middle class because she was interested in birth control and sex, i.e. womens issues? Goldman is a wonderful feminist icon, partly because she realized that a strictly class-based revolution would still leave women unequal in society. Most of the feminist movement of the time was concentrated on attaining suffrage and dominated by the middle class, often disdaining working class culture. Goldman dismissed suffrage as a false goal. Comparing it to the right for non-property-owning men to vote, she wrote in Woman Suffrage:
The poor, stupid, free American citizen! Free to starve, free to tramp the highways of this great country, he enjoys universal suffrage, and by that right he has forged chains about his limbs. The rewards that he receives is stringent labor laws prohibiting the right of boycott, of picketing, in fact, of everything, except the right to be robbed of the fruits of his labor. . . But, then, woman will purify politics, we are assured.
Though critical of the suffrage movement and the way it supported the systems she wanted to destroy, she did long to end the role of women as sex commodities and second class citizens among the working class and everywhere. She staked out territory on womens issues that were less supportable then, but which we take for granted now, and was arrested for disseminating birth control information through the mail. To what extent did this broaden anarchist thought, and to what extent did this give working class men sympathetic to anarchism an excuse to tune out?
I can find many Emma Goldman quotes which most readers of Hip Mama could easily support and take as inspiration. But as an example of how interesting an Emma Goldman biography could have been, some of her work on reproductive issues is still incendiary. At a time when President Theodore Roosevelt was preparing for war and comparing childless women to military deserters, Goldman took a working class anti-militaristic view of womens reproductive rights which is as fascinating as it is problematic. She called for women to "no longer be a party to the crime of bringing hapless children into the world only to be ground into dust by the wheel of capitalism and to be torn into shreds in trenches and battlefields." According to an amazing, if fairly academic, paper by Dennis Hodgson and Susan Cotts Watkins, Goldman took the position that the working class could improve its negotiating position with capitalists by restricting the production of new workers, and they could crimp the expansionist plans of militarist leaders with birth strikes.
Ignoring for a second the ability of modern capitalists to find cheaper workers in other countries and the neo-imperialist system of having local leaders make desired countries safe for expansion, this position brings up a lot of issues. What are the emotional and political issues of going childless as an act of class solidarity? How much of the ideology behind the moronic child-free movement comes from a misinterpretation of these type of ideas? How much does this fit in with the eugenics movement of the time that sought to limit unfit children, including children of the working class? How much did this work against the racist elements of the eugenics movement which demanded more white babies? How different is this idea of empty-womb solidarity from the usual interpretation of anarchism as "do whatever you want" and where does that perception come from?
But no, the documentary treads mostly on safe ground. Not a single person was interviewed for the documentary as an activist, labor organizer, or politico. Only academics, artists, and writers were allowed to comment on Goldmans history and legacy. Certainly some are sympathetic. I will say that the documentary made me love Tony Kushner more than I already do. I also thought it was great that they got Barry Pateman,with a real anarchist beard, (almost a full Kropotkin!)to be Goldmans main defender and he was very eloquent. Martin Duberman was also looking good and had a nice coat.
I know Im being overly critical with this essay. This documentary wasn't made for anarchists, politicos, or anyone with a working knowledge of radical history. And lord knows, if they had a modern-day anarchist it would have been someone like John Zerzan talking about how Goldman had no criticism of industry and civilization and was no better than Stalin.
But these things always become a question of legacy at some point. At the Labor Relations school where I went to college, there was a picture of Emma Goldman among many union organizers and businessmen. Her plaque, amidst the myriad titles oil tycoon, banker and philanthropist, union organizer etc. bore the simple social reformer. It probably was well intentioned. But it would make her turn in her grave if she knew.
* Actually one of my favorite songs is about this kind of historical revisionism: Ulrike by Chumbawamba. Inspired by an article about Ulrike Meinhoff which said that if she had only been a reformer instead of revolutionary she could have worked hard and been a Green MP by now. Chumbawamba has her post-mortem, no-apologies response: Don't think I walked into banks to stand in the Queue./ Don't think I pressed up to the plexi-glass just to talk to you. / Don't wait for me to say I'm sorry. I won't / Who wants to be a Green MP? I don't.
Gordon Edgar is one of only a few anarchist-influenced cheesemongers in the United States. He lives in San Francisco.