Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

Emma Goldman, Come Home

Emma Goldman was once considered "the most dangerous woman in America." Young J. Edgar Hoover cut his teeth in pursuit of "Red Emma," anarchist agitator and enemy of capitalism. The Russian-born Goldman was a political, social and sexual radical. Her lover, Alexander Berkman, tried to kill Henry Clay Frick, the chairman of Carnegie Steel. Frick survived. President McKinley's assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was a faithful reader of her articles in the anarchist press. She was imprisoned for her incendiary oratory, and was eventually deported from the United States in 1919. She traveled to Bolshevik Russia where she was bitterly disappointed by communist reality, rallied to the cause of Spain in 1936, and spent most of the rest of her life in Europe, organizing, lecturing, writing -- and missing America. In the decades following her death, she evolved from a 19th century anarchist into a pop icon, serving on the way as a patron saint for the women's movement, a test-case for the limits of free speech, and a colorful character in novels, plays and movies. Shrapnel from her ideas can be found in everyone from sexual libertarians to Reaganites, Jewish radicals and academics.

In her autobiography, Living my Life, she is passionate about love and social justice, without glossing over her contradictions and inconsistencies. Her heart and her mind were often at odds, but her work went relentlessly forward. She lectured, it seems, nearly every day she was at liberty all over the country, wrote prolifically, had a social life that made me tired just reading about it, was arrested countless times, and drove the establishment nuts. She rested only in jail where she caught up on her reading. Fearless Emma would have appreciated some of her posthumous victories. The working class, thanks in part to the efforts of foreign-born radicals like herself, is living in vastly better conditions. Birth control is no longer a criminal offense. The judicial system has better safeguards. But many other issues are eerily familiar today. The new talk about seditious immigrants, homeland security, limits to free speech, universal snitching, governmental secrecy and corporate corruption would have sent her right to the barricades. I find myself suddenly longing for "Red Emma."

The word "anarchist" -- often synonymous with terrorist -- became greatly overused and its publicity value for law-enforcement keeps growing. The question is now asked of every immigrant, "Have you now or ever been affiliated with an anarchist organization?" For most young people, "anarchist" is mainly an adjective denoting non-conformism -- but to the authorities, from Goldman to the present, it represents a cluster of threats, defined vaguely and conveniently deployed.

After nearly a century of carefully nurtured civil liberties, the old bogeymen are back. We need some fierce libertarians. Come home, Emma Goldman!

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