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Emma Goldman and the American Left: Nowhere at Home

Emma Goldman and the American Left: Nowhere at Home
by Marion J. Morton (Twayne Publishers: NY , 1992) 183 pages, $14.95 paper

Marion J. Morton’s central premise in Emma Goldman and the American Left is simple. Goldman, a refugee from Lithuania and Russia, and a deportee (because of her political activism) from her adopted United States, was a woman without a country. Yet her affiliation with left-wing causes connected her with a variety of feminist, anti-war and people’s movements and gave her a way to be a part of communities the world over. “Faced with the common enemies of injustice and repression,” Morton concludes, “Goldman took her place with others on the left: Standing together, arms linked, joining in “We Shall Not Be Moved.'”

Oddly enough, Goldman herself, who lived from 1869 to 1940, was less certain about her place and role; Morton describes her as enigmatic, pushed by contradictory impulses and desires. Ideologically committed to anarchism—which she defined as a system that placed “the center of gravity in society in the individual; that he [sic] must think for himself, act freely, and live fully,” she often saw little reason to believe that people would do the right thing. But that was hardly that only contradiction in Goldman’s life. An opponent of the Bolsheviks, she sold her critiques to bourgeois American publications, and was assailed by other leftists as a turncoat, an agent whose words became tools of the ruling classes. Thickskinned and headstrong, she was also a feminist and an ardent supporter of birth control. Nonetheless, she eschewed Margaret Sanger, a leader in the field, and essentially did her own, parallel organizing.

Goldman’s personal life was no less complex. While cavalierly taking lovers who were decades younger, or married, she nevertheless rued her inability to sustain a long-term romance. Ben Reitman and Sasha Berkman, her most significant partners, and other less notable players, figure prominently in Morton’s account, but Goldman is portrayed as essentially alone in her day-to-day battles.

The context in which Goldman played out her passionate personal and political entanglements—the myriad ups and downs within the U.S. left and the rivalries between various anarchist and Communist factions—give Emma Goldman and the American Left a unique spin, and make for fascinating reading.

In documenting Goldman’s life and times, Morton has presented one of the world’s most chutzpah-driven women. Fully human, and not always likable, Emma is nonetheless an inspiring reminder that political and cultural progress are inseparable. As she put it: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.”