Thursday, February 4, 2010

Red Emma Speaks

Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader
© 1973, 1996 ed. Alix Kates Shulman
464 pages

 Emma Goldman was an incorrigible political activist and social critic during the Gilded Age, speaking out against nearly everything society held dear – the government, capitalism, organized religion, and marriage. She was clearly a woman of passion, and I bought this book intrigued by what she might have to say about a period that I am a student of.

Red Emma Speaks consists of articles and essays opining on the organization of society, social institutions, violence, and revolution. Compiler Alix Kates Shulman introduces each section of the book, giving the reader context, and Emma introduces the book proper herself with an extended essay titled “What I Believe”. The themes there are repeated and expanded throughout the book. All of Emma Goldman’s beliefs originated from a fervent belief in humanity’s potential – the belief that people can and should take command of themselves, living purposely. She did not, however, value states and nations: her belief in the human spirit is ardently individualistic. She takes arms against any institution that would in any way limit the individual from living freely – thus her passion for anarchism. Anarchism as understood and practiced by anarchists is not the absence of order, but the absence of outside, inflicted order. She, like Emile Carles, sees people as being able control and governs themselves as individuals. She sees the society’s progress as not resulting from the will of the majority, but caused by the provocations of individuals. The “majority”, the masses, are an inert thing that conform to outside pressures and accomplish nothing on their own. 

Her worldview and passion are certainly interesting and well-expressed here. I enjoyed engaging with her, reading and reflecting. Her relationship with socialism was particularly fascinating: like Carles, her ideal is of anarchic socialism. Reading Carles made me realize that socialism and communism were not ideals necessarily connected with a strong state, and Goldman is a reminder of this. Socialism connects to Goldman in that it supports the equality of humanity. Of particular interest to those interested in the history of socialism and communism is her analysis of the Russian state, which she claims is not communistic at all. To her, Russia is nothing more than another class-bound state: its economy is not socialized, but nationalized. She draws a sharp distinction between any government and the society it purports to serve.  Her relationship to violence is equally interesting: she seems to wrestle with it, regarding political violence as a necessary evil but then retreating given that it creates more problems than it solves. A perfect example of this is the planned assassination of Henry Clay Frick: not only did the attack on the robber-baron’s life fail to draw positive recognition to their cause, but it undermined their moral high ground.

            This is a strong book, well worthy of a recommendation to students of the period and of related thought. Goldman’s is a passionate, articulate voice that provokes the reader into revaluating convention and old perceptions.

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