Below is the re-post of a review that I did earlier in this space on a documentary on Emma Goldman.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
"Red" Emma Goldman-The Fate of An Anarchist Woman
MARCH IS WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH
EMMA GOLDMAN: AN EXCEEDINGLY DANGEROUS WOMAN, PBS, 2004
Fair portions of the comments made in the following review were also made in a review of Emma Goldman's autobiography Living My Life for Women’s History Month in March 2007. This PBS documentary tracks a great deal of the chronology of events and Ms. Goldman’s reflections on her life made in that book. Needless to say, as is almost always the case with PBS documentaries the filming and editing are top notch even if the politics are fuzzy and reek of do-goodism. As always, as well, with theses types of documentaries you get a plethora of 'talking heads' giving their take on the life of this exceedingly interesting and controversial woman, some expressed quite passionately by comparison with other documentary efforts. Read on.
Sometimes in reviewing a political biography or autobiography of some capitalist hanger-on such as George Bush, Tony Blair or Jacques Chirac it is simply a matter of dismissing a known and deadly political opponent and so heaping scorn up that person is part of the territory of being a leftist militant. For others who allegedly stand in the socialist tradition, like the old theoretical leader of the pre-World War I German social democracy Karl Kautsky, who provide reformist rather than revolutionary solutions to the pressing issues of the day that also tends to be true, as well.
However, with an enigmatic figure like the anarcho-communist and modern day feminist heroine "Red" Emma Goldman it is harder to do the political savaging job that is necessary. Why? Ms. Goldman came out of that tradition of pre-World War I life-style anarchism (made fashionable in the Greenwich Village of the time) where her politics, to the extent that political carping is politics, placed her somewhere on this side of the angels. However, the total effect of her career as an anarchist propagandist, sometime agitator and proponent of women’s rights shows very little as a present day contribution to radical history. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) experiences (recently reviewed here), by comparison, are filled with lessons for today’s militants.
Obviously someone associated with the fiery German immigrant anarchist Johann Most is by any measure going to have trouble with some government at some point in their lives. Most was Goldman's lover and first teacher of the principles of ' propaganda by the deed' anarchism. For those readers not familiar with that tendency the core of the politics is that exemplary actions, not excluding martyrdom, by individual heroic revolutionaries are supposed to act as the catalyst to move the masses. In short, these are the politics of ‘shoot first and ask questions later’. As a tactic within a revolutionary period it may prove necessary and make some sense but as a strategy to put masses in motion, no empathically, no.
Emma's own life provides the case study for the negative aspects of this theory. At the time of the famous bloody Homestead Steel strike in the 1890's here in America Ms. Goldman's lifelong companion and fellow anarchist of the deed, Alexander Berkman, decided that the assassination of one Henry Frick, bloody symbol of capitalist greed in the strike, would serve in order to intensify the struggle of capital against labor. Needless to say, although Mr. Berkman was successful, in part, in his attempt both Mr. Frick and the Homestead plant were back in business forthwith. For his pains Berkman received a long jail sentence.
The most troubling aspect of Ms. Goldman's career for this writer is her relationship to the Bolshevik Revolution. Let us be clear, as readers of this space know, I have not tried to hide the problems generated by that revolution from which, given the course of history in the 20th century, the Soviet Union was never able to recover. However, from Ms. Goldman's descriptions of the problems seen in her short, very short stay in the Soviet Union just after the revolutionary takeover one would have to assume that, like most aspects of her life, this was just one more issue to walk away from because she personally did not like it. She, moreover, became a life-long opponent of that revolution.
In contrast, some pre-World War I anarchists, particularly from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, Wobblies) were able to see the historic importance of the creation of the Soviet state and were drawn to the Communist International. Others, like Emma, used that flawed experiment as a reason to, in essence, reconcile themselves to the bourgeois order. Nowhere is that position, and that tension, more blatantly spelled out that in Spain in 1936.
Spain, 1936 was the political dividing point for all kinds of political tendencies, right and left. While we will allow the rightists to stew in their own juices the various positions on the left in the cauldron of revolution graphically illustrate the roadblocks to revolution that allowed fascism, Spanish style, to gain an undeserved military victory and ruin the political perspectives of at least two generations of Spanish militants. The classic anarchist position, adhered to by Ms. Goldman, is to deny the centrality of conquering and transformation of the capitalist state power (and the old ruling governmental, social, cultural and economic apparatuses). To the anarchist this necessity is somehow to be morphed away by who knows what.
Yes, that is the theory but on the hard ground of Spain that was not the reality as the main anarchist federation FAI/CNT gave political support to the bourgeois republican government and accepted seats in that government. These same elements went on to play a part in disarming the 1937 Barcelona uprising that could have sparked a new revolutionary outburst by the disheartened workers and peasants. So much for anarchist practice in the clutch. Ms. Goldman spent no little ink defending the actions of her comrades in Spain. Wrong on Russia and Spain, on the side of the angels on women's issues and the need to fight capitalism. In short, all over the political map on strategic issues. Still, although Emma was, and her defenders today are, political opponents this writer does not relish that fact. Damn it.