What Would Emma Do?
An Interview with Vivian Gornick
October 17, 2011
Oct 17, 2011
10 Min read time
In her latest book, Emma Goldman: Revolution As a Way of Life, Vivian Gornick examines the life and mind of the great American anarchist and dissident. BR Web Editor David Johnson spoke to her last week about her new book, the psychology of radicals, and the Occupy Wall Street protests.
David Johnson: Before you pursued the book were you an admirer of Emma Goldman? Did you know a lot about her?
Vivian Gornick: I knew about her in the cliché way that a kid growing up in a left-wing household knows about certain iconic figures. She was known as a friend of the international working class. The working class was saintly, it was heroic, it was untouchable, and everyone who was associated with the cause of the working man was a hero. And that’s all I knew.
DJ: In researching the book was there anything surprising that you uncovered?
VG: Many things were surprising. Emma Goldman was a person of tremendous inner contradiction, and she said and did many things that would have made my mother drop her jaw. She had many drives and compulsions that would have seemed shocking to the people of that generation, for whom she was simply an icon.
DJ: The book offers a deep psychological portrait of Emma Goldman, rather than a traditional historical biography. Do you think there’s such a thing as a psychology of the radical or the dissident? And if so, to what extent would Emma represent it?
VG: Emma was for me a prototype of rebelliousness. I think that is what characterizes the radical on the left: the refusal deep inside to accept the world as it is when it feels unjust, and to defy authority when that authority feels unjust. I think there’s a temperament that makes somebody become an activist and she was it; she was a primary example of that.
DJ: What do you think she’d make of the current Occupy Wall Street protests?
VG: I think she’d be right down there. In fact, I haven’t been down there yet myself but I’m planning to go this week. As I understand it they don’t have public speaker hook-ups and they are operating by passing the word from mouth to mouth to mouth.
DJ: The people’s mic?
VG: Yes, it’s a marvelous tactic. But if Emma were down there she’d be up on a soapbox in two seconds calling out her message with a pair of lungs that you could hear at the river. I think she’d love it. She’d say it’s about time. Long overdue.
DJ: Are you going to speak? Or are you just going to take everything in?
VG: No, I’m just going to go down and take a look and maybe join.
DJ: I must admit I was very excited to read this book given the state of the times. A lot of people think we need much more activism: we need to get angry, we need to get into the streets, we need to have some of that Emma Goldman passion.
VG: So, what do we have to learn from her? She was a great insurrectionist. She was a great defier of unjust authority. She was out in the streets. She is a marvelous figure to invoke at this time. It’s all true, but you know what happens with great radical figures: they can’t make the movement happen. They can only lead it if it’s ready to happen.
We are not living in political times. This is not a time where you can make a speech to 10,000 people out in the street as you could in the Sixties. Everything that’s happening in Washington, the horrors that have occurred, they wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t at one, in some terrible subterranean way, with the times. Obama is always being compared with FDR and the Great Depression, but when Roosevelt opened his mouth and suggested this reform and that reform, the whole country was behind him and people cheered in the streets. Obama—who is indeed a frighteningly disappointing president—nevertheless is made weaker by the fact that he doesn’t have the country behind him. We need to know how many Emma Goldmans there are today whose voices are being drowned out rather than being followed. It’s possible this Occupy Wall Street movement will spread, and it will be a people’s movement, and it might begin to have the effect that the Vietnam peace movements did, and I think that’s in a lot of people’s minds as it is in mine, and we’ll see. But you can’t have an Emma Goldman who just springs up from out of nowhere and has the power to turn the tide of a rising right-wing atmosphere.
DJ: I wonder whether the time of the Emma Goldman-type leader has passed.
VG: No, it’s not passed, it’s just not here now. It’s not passed as long as we have a future, as long as we’re alive.
Emma was crazy for people who spoke eloquently about the liberated self. That’s why she loved America.
DJ: When you look at the Occupy Wall Street protests, though, they’re based on the model of a leaderless collective.
VG: It’s the style of the moment, I think that was one of the reasons the initial Egyptian uprising was wonderfully non-violent and leaderless in the beginning: they took their lead from the world around them, which technology put them in deep contact with. When they used it they continued the dynamic of believing it could be that way. It’s an intensely democratic time, more than ever before, and so no, I don’t think voices like Emma’s will be coming out any time soon. It’s not a revolutionary atmosphere right now.
DJ: One thing that was interesting for me is how strongly Emma identified herself as an American and how despondent she was over her forced exile to Russia in 1919. But I still don’t understand why she thought America was the place for her, and for her radical politics. With so many radicals elsewhere, in Europe for example, why did she think America was the place for her?
VG: Because the element of anarchism that blossomed in her was the question of individuation: the individual experiencing him or herself in an internally free way. She was more devoted to the idea of the liberated self than any other aspect of anarchism, and it’s an American brand of anarchism—the liberated self was not on the agenda of European anarchists. Instead they were devoted to finding alternatives to big government and to the system of communes. As I say in the book, her heroes were not political, but rather more literary and philosophical—Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman. She was crazy for people who spoke eloquently about the liberated self. That’s why she loved America, and it took her by surprise as much as anybody else when she found herself stricken to be deported. She never got over it actually.
DJ: She wrote a book on her years in Bolshevik Russia and took a very negative stance that cost her a lot of friends among the radical left.
VG: Famously negative. She doesn’t say one good thing. At that time a lot of people on the left were still willing to extend sympathy and understanding to the Russian revolution, even after the revolution started going sour. It was only 1920, and some were willing to see the good that the revolution was doing, but she wasn’t willing to see it for one second. There was a huge struggle going on in the minds and hearts of many people in Russia who she had no sympathy with. She saw things very much in black and white, as later on she did the same thing with the Spanish civil war when the anarchists were being defeated by the communists and they chose to accommodate and make deals with the communists. She never forgave them; she thought they should have gone down in flames. That was Emma.
DJ: Along with her lack of sympathy and blindness to the complexity of situations, you also write that she never had any real insight into the motive force behind her own behavior.
VG: No, she didn’t. I used her love life as an example of the fact that she never took in her own experience, never learned from it, and she self-justified to the very end. She made a huge glory out of romantic love, and she insisted it was the key to liberation: that love, that sacred desire was the greatest thing anyone could ever experience, and that it would make you all kinds of a miraculous person, and of course it didn’t. Over and over again it didn’t. And she would not take in this psychological reality and ask “Why am I doing this?” Anyone of the mildest abilities in the world today would ask: “Why am I doing this over and over again, and what does it show me about myself?” But she never went down that road.
DJ: I wonder whether she ever read Freud.
VG: She read Freud. She took from him what she wanted and ignored the rest. [laughter]
DJ: Regarding her relation to feminism, you write: “Emma Goldman was not a feminist, she was a sexual radical which made her a supporter of birth control and defender of sex without marriage, but not a proponent of women’s rights as that term is generally understood.”
VG: No, she wasn’t; this is evident in her criticism of the modern woman. She said the modern woman had become hard and unfeminine, had given up love and all the rest of it, and these were things she considered of primary importance. She said love was the most important thing in a woman’s life, she said having babies was the most important thing in a woman’s life; this is not the agenda for women’s rights. Women’s rights is a movement for equality. This did not interest her at all, nor did she support it—she didn’t give a damn about it.
DJ: At the end of the book you say that the slogan “The Personal is Political” is Emma’s enduring legacy. Do you think we’ve fully absorbed the ideal that the “personal is political?”
VG: I do to the extent that people set a lot of store by what was termed in the Sixties “their own hurt feelings.” All the movements in the Sixties grew out of personal testimony: we stood up and said, “This is who we are, this is how we feel, this is what we require to feel human, and we’re living in a world that’s not giving us what we require to feel human.” That’s how I look on “the personal is political,” exactly as I’ve just phrased it: to demand of a government and of a culture that it allow people to feel human, and take heed of what makes us feel inhuman.
David Brooks wrote a scurrilous column in the Times, when he said [paraphrasing]: “They’re all down there making victims of themselves, that’s not the way the world works. 99% of the people call themselves victims and set themselves up against the 1% as if that will solve all the problems.” That was disgusting. I generally like him, he’s reasonable, but that was awful to describe what was happening that way. “99% see themselves as victims.” That’s the whole country! It was insane.
DJ: He’s clever but he can be very slippery.
VG: It was such a painful denial of the meaning of what was happening.
It’s certainly possible spokespeople can come out of the protests but they’re not what’s needed at the moment. When you think about the anti-war movement of the Sixties, I don’t think there were any particular heroes. It was a true democratic movement. I think if these protests go on and become a genuine movement, it should be able to put a little backbone in Barack Obama’s administration and at least make him raise taxes—at least that, if nothing else. Occupy Wall Street is a whole host of things, but it’s a people’s uprising. We’ll see what it does.
So no, it’s not a time for Emma, but don’t forget the times in which she lived, and all those anarchists and communists and everyone who made themselves famous. They were up against the most inhuman of times—industrialization. So against that pressure, people wise up, and when they do, it’s revolution. But people like her and Lenin, they are intimately tied to revolution and we’re not having revolution here.
DJ: No. Not yet anyways.
VG: [laughter] No.
DJ: It’ll be interesting to see what the next several decades bring us.
VG: We should all live and be well to see what the next decades bring.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
October 17, 2011
10 Min read time