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Wall Street Journal

 

Lyrical Leftist, Dogged Idealist

October 24, 2011

By Fred Siegel

PRINTER FRIENDLY

Demeaning labor has an alienating effect on erotic love? Bet the Occupy Wall Street crowd hasn’t thought of that one.

In the early 1970s, Fontana Books put out the influential Modern Masters series in which a respected writer and thinker was aptly matched with an acclaimed philosopher, who then became the subject of a closely argued, extended essay. In two much-discussed short books, Alasdair Macintyre on Herbert Marcuse and George Lichtheim on Georg Lukács, the authors engaged the philosophers with both sympathy and searing skepticism.

The Fontana approach comes to mind with the arrival of the latest entry in Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series: “Emma Goldman,” a book about the famed anarchist, sexual rebel and memoirist, who died in 1940 at age 70. Goldman has been assigned to Vivian Gornick, herself a radical, a feminist and a memoirist whose ideas have been deeply influenced by her subject. The result is an intense, engrossing essay written with an allusive, sinuous style that so effectively entwines with the lives of the two women that the reader is not always sure if Ms. Gornick is referring to Goldman or to herself.

Emma Goldman led a life of fiery engagements both political and personal. Born in 1869 to a loveless Russian Jewish family, she emigrated to the United States in 1885 at age 16, eventually settling in New York. She was soon drawn into radical politics by news of the 1886 Haymarket riot in Chicago, where a labor demonstration turned violent and eight police officers were killed; four anarchists were arrested and later hanged. Goldman first came to public attention when her lover and political colleague, Alexander Berkman, tried to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, the chairman of Carnegie Steel, after nine steelworkers were killed during a bloody 1892 strike. Goldman was back in the news in 1901, when Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist inspired in part by Goldman’s blistering speeches, assassinated President William McKinley.

Goldman, Ms. Gornick says, “was not a thinker, she was an incarnation,” a “depth of spirit.” “Hers was the sensibility not of the intellectual but of the artist; and she performed like an artist, dramatizing for others what they could hardly articulate for themselves.” Her anarchist outlook insistently located the source of individual suffering in the transgressions of society. She dramatized society’s malign machinations through her own suffering—as a daughter, as a wife during a marriage to an impotent man and as a sweatshop worker. Demeaning labor, she said, alienated the Übermenschen (superior people such as herself) from their deepest feelings and the earthly paradise of erotic love.

Her sexual radicalism, said writer Max Eastman, made Goldman a fellow member of the pre-World War I “Lyrical Left”—a “sentimental radical” whose distrust of intellect gave her something akin to a religious faith. In Goldman’s case, explains Ms. Gornick, that faith was in “free love” as “the objective correlate of visionary politics. . . . To feel transformed by sexual passion was to be in touch with the primeval at the heart of her politics.”

Goldman attributed women’s romantic jealousy to capitalist customs that discouraged female self-expression. But when she was emotionally rocked by a man 10 years her junior, she had no trouble expressing herself—and was mortified to find herself nonetheless afire with jealousy: “The agony that our love has not saved us from the same coarse vulgar scenes of the ordinary has completely paralyzed me.”

Expelled from the U.S. during the anticommunist drive that followed World War I, she briefly fell in love with the Soviet Union, but her sense of individualism was repelled by the Leninist dictatorship. She became a fervent anticommunist, even though it meant excommunication from the conventional left. Her final, failed political romance was in the 1930s with the Andalusian anarchists during the Spanish Civil War.

Ms. Gornick, with her own fascination for political passion, is especially insightful about Goldman’s particular brand of engagement. In “The Romance of American Communism” (1977), Gornick insisted that communists were the best people because, whatever their failings, they, like Emma Goldman, were more intense, more passionate than others. Similarly, she writes of Goldman that it took “a certain kind of mad courage” to reject the evidence offered by experience and to go on insisting that idealism will work “because it must work.”

Yet Ms. Gornick is not so unswerving in her own radicalism. She has had second thoughts about the feminist movement of the 1970s, when activists wore T-shirts emblazoned with an image of Goldman and a quote (“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution”) that was mistakenly attributed to her but captured the essence of her stance. Ms. Gornick reflects on the “raging intemperateness” of the era’s feminist rhetoric—“marriage is an institution of oppression”; “love is rape”; “sleeping with the enemy”—and realizes now that reform wasn’t the goal. “They wanted to bring down the system, destroy the social arrangement, no matter what the consequences” for children, for families or anyone else. The message, she says with a note of older, wiser incredulity, was: “We’re here to declare our grievance, and make others feel as we do. What comes later is not our concern.” Another romantic falls out of love.

For all the book’s virtues, it misses the underlying implications of Emma Goldman’s elitist anarchism, rooted as it was in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and of Max Stirner, a harshly egotistical anarchist. Goldman insisted in her essay “Minorities versus Majorities,” which anticipated the feminist New Left, that “the calamity are the masses” and that the “mass itself is responsible for this horrible state of affairs.” The unenlightened working classes, in other words, were too willing to endure the boredom of the conventions that hold society together. “Everyday life,” she said, filled her “with horror.” It is hard to remake society when you detest so many of its denizens.

Original Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904060604576573200507131230.html

 

 
 
 

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