‘Red Emma’ Doc Lacks Activist’s Fire

“The Hebrew Anarchist Comes to Town” a 1893 New York Timesarticle alarmingly proclaimed. To other reporters, she was “Red Emma, Queen ofthe Anarchists.”

Readers of the time knew exactly how to decipher thejournalistic shorthand. It stood for Emma Goldman, one of those remarkableJewish immigrants from the old Russian empire at the turn of the last century,who left their imprint on America in so many different fields.

The life of this flamboyant woman, political activist,philosopher, editor, proto-feminist and war resister will be documented in PBS'”American Experience: Emma Goldman.”

Born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1869 and then moving with herfamily to East Prussia and on to St. Petersburg, Goldman showed her rebelliousspirit at an early age. She argued with her teachers, and when her father, agovernment theater manager, tried to force his daughter into an arrangedmarriage at age 15, Emma refused.

The following year, Emma and her half-sister left for America,where two years of working in a clothing factory in Rochester, N.Y., gave herample firsthand experience in the life of the working class.

She attended meetings of German socialists, and after movingto New York in 1889, began a lifelong sexual and political relationship withRussian anarchist Alexander Berkman.

Goldman, herself, became a fiery crusader for anarchism,free speech, the rights of working people and equality for women, as she andBerkman crisscrossed the country, speaking in crowded lecture halls.

She scandalized the country less for her radical politicalviews than for her assertion that a woman had the right to choose her ownlovers and control her body through birth control. Advocacy of birth controlwas illegal and earned her the second of three prison terms. The first was forinciting a riot in New York and the last for urging American conscripts not tofight in World War I.

In photos, Goldman comes across as a rather stern figure, apince-nez invariably clamped on her nose. But she was no dour theoretician. Shewas funny and something of a romantic, as attested by numerous love affairs.

Once upbraided by a fellow anarchist for frivolouslyenjoying a dance, she recalled, “I insisted that our cause could not expect meto behave as a nun.” That saying took on a new and misquoted life in the 1960son political buttons proclaiming, “If I can’t dance, I won’t be part of yourrevolution.”

However, she could also resort to violence or, as she putit, “propaganda by deed,” when she believed the cause demanded it. She plottedwith Berkman to assassinate a factory boss during the Homestead steel strike of1892. The attempt failed, observes Israeli historian Oz Frankel, becauseBerkman was “a bit of a klutz.”

For approximately 12 years, Goldman expounded her theoriesand thoughts in her magazine, “Mother Earth.” Finally, in 1919, when thegovernment despaired of shutting her up, Goldman was deported. Instrumental wasa rising young J. Edgar Hoover, who described his nemesis as “the mostdangerous woman in America.”

Noting her departure, a journalist wrote, “With Emma leavingand Prohibition coming in, this will be a dull country.”

She and Berkman arrived in Russia, ready to embrace therevolution that was to liberate the working man and realize their hopes.Goldman even managed a one-on-one interview with Lenin, who berated her for herbourgeois insistence on free speech in the Soviet Union.

Thoroughly disillusioned, she left in 1921 and spent much ofthe rest of her life writing and lecturing against the “reactionary andcounter-revolutionary” terror of Stalin and the Soviet regime.

Her constant wish in exile to return to the United Stateswas fulfilled in 1940, when, after her death in Canada, she was buried in a Chicagocemetery.

The 90-minute PBS documentary, produced, directed andwritten by Mel Bucklin, makes for a fine historical introduction for those whoknow little about Goldman and her era. However, the necessarily static photosand profusion of talking heads make it hard to catch the spirit and flavor ofthe extraordinary, fearless and lively woman.

Viewers whose appetites have been whetted may wish torevisit the Warren Beatty film, “Reds,” in which Goldman is one of thecharacters, or, even better, re-read “Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow, who is one ofthe commentators in the documentary.

Another participant is playwright Tony Kushner, though themost telling insights come from British historian Barry Pateman.

Plans call for a worldwide theatrical release of “EmmaGoldman.”

“American Experience: Emma Goldman”airs on KCET on Monday,April 12, at 9 p.m.