Emma Goldman in Exile: From The Russian Revolution to The Spanish Civil War

by Alice Wexler, Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. 301 pp., $24.95

Emma Goldman (1869-1940) was dubbed “the most dangerous woman in the U.S.” by a government outraged at her anarchistic activities, which began in 1889. A sexual outlaw who flaunted her attractions to younger — often married — men, a woman who advocated birth control and women’s liberation when both had considerably less support than they do today, Goldman’s public persona was fiery and passionate.

Yet in this excellent psychological history, which begins with Goldman’s deportation from the U.S. in 1919 and is the sequel to Wexler’s earlier book, Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), Wexler maintains that “as a Jew, an immigrant, and an unwanted daughter, later an anarchist, she found herself an outsider in almost every community in which she lived.”

This insider/outsider dichotomy was evident again and again. While living in the U.S., she was an immigrant. Deported to the Soviet Union, she was an American. Later, living in England, Canada, Spain and France she was an exile, burdened by cultural differences, loneliness and lack of a political base.

Drawing heavily on Goldman’s letters to American friends, relatives and long-time soulmate, Alexander “Sasha” Berkman, Wexler provides a close-up view of the rebel’s inner turmoil.

Goldman lacked the optimism of the many Russian anarchists she met in that newly-emerging revolutionary nation, focusing instead on the hunger, poverty and blight the regime had yet to eradicate.

Despite the fact that she remained an uncompromising anarchist throughout her life, her anti-Soviet writings, which ran in The New York Times and elsewhere, cheered a variety of unlikely allies. Although she never pretended to be on the same side as these forces, Wexler presents a frightening possibility: that Goldman’s bleak descriptions of hunger, shortages and brutality in the Soviet Union inadvertently fueled an incipient Cold War.

While we will never know the extent to which Goldman unwittingly contributed to decades of anti-Communist hysteria, it is clear that she was dissatisfied not only with the state of the world, but with personal relationships as well. Her unhappiness was exacerbated both by Berkman’s marriage to a much younger woman and by her own series of unsuccessful affairs.

Goldman died in 1940, never conceding the gains in Soviet Russia or acknowledging the successful grassroots organizing in the U.S. of the 1930’s, inspired and led by American Communists. Nor did she compromise on the political values that had fueled her activism for more than half a century.

Eleanor Bader writes frequently for New Directions for Women.