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Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years Volume 2 — Making Speech Free, 1902-1909

Emma Goldman, A Documentary History of the American Years Volume 2 — Making Speech Free, 1902-1909. Candace Falk, Editor; Barry Pateman, Associate Editor; Jessica M. Moran, Assistant Editor University of California Press, 2004. $60.00
Fear of terrorists and “aliens,” restrictions on immigration and free speech, harassment of dissidents, denial of rights to protestors, rabid ethnocentrism, unthinking “patriotism.” This could be a description of current events couldn’t it? But it also describes the climate in 1903 America, following the assassination of President McKinley by disturbed anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the French say. The same old, same old. And now, in November 2004, four more years of la même chose, the same old. Will anarchists survive the Patriot Act? Will free speech and liberty survive four more years? Questions not unlike those Emma Goldman and her compatriots asked themselves in those frightening years.

So it is that the timing of this volume on Emma Goldman’s fight for free speech is eerily appropriate. It opens just after McKinley’s assassination and the waves of laws suppressing free speech and protest, in a climate of hysteria and fear. Goldman, unjustly implicated in the assassination, suffered the wrath of the hysterical, mindless mob mentality of the “good citizens” of the country she had chosen to live in. Fearless and dedicated as she was, even Emma had to curtail her activities for months and remained wary the rest of her time in America.

A magnificently scholarly volume rich in historical information, it is a book that historians and those writing about American social movements will mine for many years to come. Not for the dilettante, it is dense but rewarding. With all entries carefully annotated, it includes personal correspondence, articles by and about Goldman, government reports, and other publications bearing on the events of the time and on the erosion of free speech. Accompanying these documents, many from obscure sources, is an 85-page introduction setting the stage and detailing the historical events surrounding Emma and her fight for free speech. The introduction brings out aspects of Goldman and her activities not widely recognized; including on the one hand, her outreach to radicals and liberals outside the sphere of anarchism and, on the extreme other, her more secretive willingness to fellow-travel with and perhaps even advocate violence. Emma was complex.

The correspondence gives an intimate glimpse into the lives of Goldman and her associates, providing a personal flavor often lacking in many historical accounts. This is especially true of the correspondence between Emma and her dear friend Alexander Berkman and her lover Ben Reitman. Signing one letter to Berkman, for example, “with all the devotion that I am capable to give I remain always and ever your friend,” we feel, as well as see, the steel-strong bonds of friendship and affection between two sympathetic human beings who also happen to be among the giants of anarchism. The love letters to Reitman signed “mommy” perhaps make us more uncomfortable, a bit like prying, remind us that Emma was not just an anarchist powerhouse but a woman too, with passions, worries and imperfections like any other human being. This serves a useful purpose. Anarchism may need heroes but it does not need idols, a statement Emma would no doubt have agreed with herself.

On a less intimate note, Emma’s correspondence with Peter Kropotkin, Moses Harman and other anarchists, as well as radicals and liberals such as Roger Baldwin, founder of the ACLU, make history come alive, almost like stepping into a time machine. The letters also show how far-reaching and international in scope was her influence. She did more than preach to the choir. How many activists today can say the same?

Another aspect of great interest to Emma fans as well as historians are the many articles not only from her own Mother Earth but numerous letters to the editor and articles by and about her that appeared in magazines and newspapers throughout the country. No wonder that “Red Emma” has become the most well-known anarchist in American history. The latter documents also serve to demonstrate a public interest in Goldman and her ideas for which there is no parallel today. How many anarchist op-ed pieces have you seen lately? In a time when women were still considered to be fragile flowers who should tend to the home fires, this remarkable woman forged her way into papers such as the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Public Ledger, Portland Morning Oregonian, and the Paterson Guardian, with pieces either by or about her. Few social activists today have managed to pull off anything like the Emma Goldman phenomenon so richly documented here.

Imagine this in your local newspaper in the wake of the religiously-based “moral values” election win of George W. Bush. In an article for the New York World, Emma, expounding on “What I Believe,” wrote “Religion is a superstition that originated in man’s mental inability to solve natural phenomenon… [Organized churchism] has turned religion into a nightmare that oppresses the human soul and holds the mind in bondage.” What conventional paper would dare print this? Have we gone backwards?

On free speech, Emma wrote in the same article, “Mental shackles have never yet stemmed the tide of progress…The Postmaster-General, who is not an elective officer, has the power to suppress publications and confiscate mail. From his decision there is no more appeal than that of the Russian Czar.” Enough power to make Ashcroft salivate in envy. Is this coming next for us?

Emma’s fearless advocacy of free speech and her tireless efforts to protect that most basic and crucial of liberties is an inspiration and model for today’s social activists. “Free speech,” she wrote in letter to Mother Earth while on tour, “means either the unlimited right of expression, or nothing at all. The moment any man or set of men can limit speech, it is no longer free.” Though advocates of truly free speech do not usually get the kind of rough treatment Emma got in her day (she was roughed up and arrested numerous times), they continue to be under suspicion and attacked, not just by the rabid right but by the rabid left as well. Whether in the dubious name of “family values” or “political correctness,” whether in suppression of radical ideas or of alleged pornography, those who would impose their own standards on others threaten our most fundamental liberties. Read her words, empathize with her struggles, gain courage from her bravery, continue the fight she so bravely fought. Let Emma live on in all of us who love liberty.