Love, anarchy, and Emma Goldman

Hidden love letters reveal a great woman who struggled to match her political vision with her personal reality.

Candace Falk
21 August 2019, 12.18pm
Emma Goldman in 1910 in a photo taken by Takuma Kajiwara.
Flickr/Douglas_of_Sweden. CC BY 2.0.

Emma Goldman’s beliefs have always been considered radical. It was daring, and often illegal, to lecture on homosexuality (“the intermediate sex” in the day’s parlance) and on love outside the institution of marriage. She evinced respect from prostitutes when legislation ostensibly aimed at preventing “white slave traffic” actually criminalized consensual sex, and, in 1916, she risked arrest under the Comstock “obscenity” laws in the US for advocating access to birth control.

Yet her bold public affirmation of the many faces of intimacy - whether between women or between unmarried partners - never secured for Emma a license for unfettered openness about her own personal life. Her hidden letters remain a valuable record of her own relationship to many of the subjects about which she impersonally - though passionately - lectured and wrote.

The simple act of writing a letter had always been Emma’s way to ground her experience, mute her sense of isolation, provide herself with an opportunity to articulate the ideals that had won her public acclaim and transpose those ideals into her personal life. A close friend, the anarchist historian Max Nettlau, once remarked to Emma: “In letters happily, though tip top up to date otherwise, you are eighteenth century, doing honour to the good old art of letter writing which the wire and telephone have strangled, and this is a good thing, as a thoughtful way of communication by letters is an intellectual act of value on its own, which rapid talk cannot replace.”

In part, Emma’s ability to recognize, articulate, and transform pain was rooted in the sadness and lovelessness of her early life. Her ability to survive her own pain by refocusing on exalted potential could therefore stand on what felt like a natural ability to inspire the world. Rarely did she write a public speech without a messianic finale, or end an anguished love letter without a reiteration of her fixed ideal of what true love could be.

Emma’s letters are dynamic artifacts for the construction of a new narrative. Throughout her life, she sustained her active influence as well as her own internal balance through her correspondence with political associates, friends, and lovers. Emma once re-counted that her longtime friend Alexander Berkman “insists I’ll be punished good and hard when I come before my maker for having been such a prolific letter writer. I must say I find it infinitely easier to express myself in letters than in books.”

Love letters form the most revealing part of the correspondence. It is doubtful that Emma would have construed publication of such intimate letters as the fated “punishment before her maker” Berkman predicted, because it was she who insisted that the letters be preserved. In her belief, personal life and the great social issues of the day are always intertwined. The part of Emma’s story documented in my recently re-published book Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman illustrates her valiant though often unsuccessful effort to live without contradictions.

The tension between great ideas and individual limitations tormented Emma. She did not want her letters, which she considered the artifacts of her weaknesses, published in her lifetime, while she was trying to show the world her strengths. But she wanted them published eventually, for she believed they were critical to an understanding of the woman who stood behind the podium. She deliberately dated and ordered her letters, and addressed herself to her friends, lovers, and comrades, and perhaps, to those in an unknown future audience, who could hear their own voices and struggles in her voice, and envision their own struggles in hers.

In 1927, when Emma began to collect the material for the autobiography that would take her more than three years to complete, it was impossible for her to write a full account of her relationship with Ben Reitman, her lover and road manager, and to draw from it implications for her life and politics. She read their letters largely as stinging reminders of a part of her complex past that she planned to leave for others to unravel. During her lifetime, she became increasingly more certain that she did have something intimate to hide.

At certain points in their relationship, Emma’s need for Ben as a paramour began to overshadow her need for Ben as political helpmate, to the point where Emma questioned her own political commitment. Suddenly, the fiercely independent Emma Goldman found herself in the grip of the sort of intense love affair of her dreams, only to discover that it was causing an upset in the balance between political fervor and personal passion.

Though she persisted, it was difficult to sustain the political activity to which she was committed while she was being tormented by Ben’s promiscuity, for every time she discovered he had had another woman, his infidelity colored everything for months. Re-reading her letters from this period, she feared that if made public “the world would stand aghast” to find that Emma Goldman,” the strong revolutionist, the daredevil, the one who has defied laws and convention, should have been as helpless as a shipwrecked crew on a foaming ocean.”

Emma reiterated: “We all have something to hide. Nor is it cowardice which makes us shrink from turning ourselves inside out. It is more the dread that people do not understand, that what may mean something very vital to you, to them is a thing to be spat upon.”

Yet the wisdom of Emma’s decision not to make this intimate material public during her lifetime was evident in some of the offended responses that greeted the first publication of her love letters in Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman, in print forty-four years after her death. Reckoning with Goldman’s depressive side, her obsessions, her almost all-consuming passions and open sexuality is disturbing to those who still wish for a saintly portrayal of this giant of the anarchist and feminist causes.

Even I, propelled by the belief that lessening the gap between Goldman and the rest of us would encourage people to trust in their ability to contribute to the movement for a just society, have been overwhelmed at times in working on my book by Goldman’s fluctuating moods, by the sharp contrasts between what she wished and worked for and how she experienced her own life. But other readers were heartened by Emma’s vulnerabilities. She gained a new set of admirers for her heroic ability to transcend personal unhappiness to serve the larger world.

The lens through which Emma saw the world differs from our own. Still, her astute critique of the politics of greed, war, and the poverty of the body and spirit; of repression both physical and psychic, which stifles creativity and individuality; and her assertion that the right to dissent is essential to the well-being of a just society will, I hope, remain timeless.

Emma’s contention that personal struggles can coexist alongside large-scale political dramas is still relevant. Her subject-position as an immigrant Jewish woman and an anarchist - both inside the center of society and firmly on its periphery - afforded her a unique paradigm through which to analyze, critique, and fight the oppressive forces that dictated her life and the lives of marginalized people across the globe.

Some of her most famous quotes (repeated with varying degrees of accuracy) grace bumper stickers and tote bags, but her legacy lives on beyond whimsical tributes, especially in the fight for freedom of expression: not only is the personal political, but the political is and must be personal if the world is to be rendered habitable for a truer and more just society.

Emma Goldman defined anarchism as “the philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary.” In her autobiography she wrote, “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”

Perhaps, when it comes to love, most of us are anarchists, akin to Emma, dreaming of the glow of total harmony while living in the gray zone of “what is” - and forging on.

This article is an edited extract from Candace Falk’s book Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman, which is reissued this month by Rutgers University Press Classics.

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