Remembering a Spirt of Rebellion

Author Vivian Gornick to discuss the life of Emma Goldman, during an appearance at Labyrinth books.

Emma Goldman was the spirit of rebellion. 

That’s how the author Vivian Gornick put it to me recently. Gornick, author of Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, says that the early 20th-century anarchist existed in a “state of rebelliousness against unearned authority” and would have stood with the protesters in Zuccotti Park in New York and elsewhere.

“The question of social justice–she was born in imperial Russia–she could feel it everywhere,” Gornick says. “The whole word was in state of incipient revolution and it melded with her temperament.”

Gornick, who will discuss her book and its subject on at , says Goldman not only would have backed the Occupy Wall Street protests, but have been down in Zuccotti Park carrying signs and making speeches and agitating for change.

“When I was at the protests,” Gornick says, “I saw a banner–‘I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one’–it is the kind of sign Emma would have been carrying.”

Goldman was born in Lithuania, then part of the Russian empire, in 1869 and immigrated to the United States in 1885, a year before the Haymarket riots in Chicago. She was drawn to anarchism in the riots’ wake and helped define the movement for the next 30 years, before being deported to Russia after opposing the reinstated military draft during World War I.

Goldman, who fought for access to birth control and legalized abortion, believed that government and capitalism were the enemies of human life. Both were—and continue to be—large concentrations of power that work together to maintain a status quo designed to advance the interests of the monied classes. Then, as now, capital—what we now might call corporate America—controlled the state. She called for a series of communes to replace the state, a system she viewed as a return to direct democracy and one that had no room for concentrated wealth.

“She felt that the capitalist system had government in its pocket and that government would never be on the side of working people,” Gornick says. “It always is wedded to capitalist profit.”

This system creates inequality by valuing profit over the lives of individuals. But, as the linguist and political theorist Noam Chomsky has pointed out, government is the only entity we have to act as a counterweight to the power of the corporation. Government, in its role of regulator of corporate behavior and guarantor of basic services, levels the playing field.

Chomsky’s notion of anarchism might not appear in step with Goldman’s earlier thinking, but it is consistent with the spirit for which she was fighting—equality and liberty.

“In the United States, she joined up with radical dissent,” Gornick says. “What we have now is radical dissent. People want more democracy—we want our fair share. The rich now are so unbelievably egregious in their behavior. What is happening now is a parody of capitalism. A parody, a cartoon. This is an incredibly serious situation. But nobody is calling for end of state.”

I asked her what lessons Americans could learn from Goldman. Her answer was simple: “Take action.“

“She did not live to see the changes that came with American liberal administrations, the changes in labor practices,” Gornick says. “She never lived to see workers treated like human beings. What is happening now is endless replay. There is a constant struggle between the rights of those who labor and those with capital.”

Those with capital have the advantage, which is why she would have been on the side of those who labor, Gornick says. She was for the underdog, the oppressed, the 99 percent.

“She was up there rebelling against the state as it was,” she says. “She was not a theorist. She was up there fighting.”

That, Gornick says, makes her a perfect symbol for the current political moment.


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