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Who the Hell Wants to be Reasonable?

Reflections on an Icon

I once joked to a friend and comrade that we should produce and distribute “WWED?” (What Would Emma Do?) bracelets. “She’s not the only famous anarchist, you know,” my friend replied. True enough. And yet, she is still the foremost foremother of modern-day anarchism, and the only person whose portrait I have ever considered having tattooed on my body. Undeniably, Emma Goldman more than any other single figure embodies the concept “anarchy” and the history that adheres to it. She is still “the anarchist” even to non-anarchists. Despite her insistence on the importance of individuality, she is by now less a person who lived than a symbol, and as such the repository of countless, multifarious, often contradictory dreams. Some of these are directly continuous with the dreams Goldman dreamed in her lifetime; others are based on creative interpretations or partial readings of her thought (into which category my own Emma Dreams fall is not for me to say). Yet all are equally precious to the dreamers themselves, as are the various Avatars of Emma with which they are bound up. Like all mythic personae, these avatars say less about Goldman herself than about the people who have created them. There is no question but that she is an icon, which is why I have found it nearly impossible to write about her.

I am not a Goldman scholar. Although I have fancily embossed pieces of paper on my wall that should in theory enable — some might say compel — me to approach the subject of Goldman from a proper academic stance, that has little to do with my relationship to her. There are many texts on and by Goldman I have not read, but I have stood at her grave in Forest Home Cemetery on the outskirts of Chicago, where at her request she was buried next to the Haymarket Martyrs, and cried — not from grief, but from the sheer overwhelming knowledge that I was standing as close to the woman herself as I would ever get. I am merely a lifelong and passionate Goldman enthusiast, and find that I can only write about her from this position. This, then, is a meandering reflection from the mind of one individual, accordingly with a bias toward the individualism through which Goldman filtered her anarchism. As such, it is likely fraught with inaccuracies and elisions. For this I apologize to the real Goldman scholars with whom I somehow ended up sharing these pages — I respect their presumed protective impulse toward their subject.

I first learned who Goldman was from my father, and as with so many of the cultural influences he introduced into my life, I imagine he later asked himself what on earth he’d been thinking. I was about 14. Somehow the topic was reincarnation, and he said that if I had been anyone of import in a past life, it would have to have been Goldman. I think it was another couple years before I came by copies of Living My Life and Anarchism and Other Essays, and otherwise began to read my way to the realization that anarchy was more than just a motif of punkrock album covers. But I never forgot how my father had seen Goldman in me.

Because I came to anarchism and to Goldman in my own meandering way, I was perplexed to discover, later on, the ways in which she is received in various larger contexts. In particular, when I arrived at higher education and the canon of feminist theory, I was surprised at how feminist historians had taken her up, inserting her into the pantheon of first-wave foremothers while tidily ignoring her anarchism. I had always understood Goldman’s feminism — a word that has itself always been applied to her by others — as part and parcel of her philosophy of human liberation. How ironic that Goldman had taken shit from her own male comrades for daring to insist that issues like birth control, marriage, and sex work were as integral to anarchism as structural change and workers’ struggle — only to have latter-day feminists attempt to write anarchism, the primary worldview on which she never wavered, out of her thought and history.

At some point in my travels through the discipline of women’s studies, I remember hearing or reading a nostalgic joke about that span of time in the mid-1970s when women were naming dogs, cats, and babies Emma in droves. Recently, I fell prey to this practice for, remarkably, the first time in my life. I acquired a new-to-me mountain bike from the Working Bikes Cooperative here in Chicago. All else being equal, I would not have chosen her silver and bright red color scheme. But at Working Bikes — a vast bicycle recyclery on the South Side that sells cheap refurbished bikes, to fund its primary work of shipping bicycles to poor communities in developing countries — one takes what one can dig out of the warehouse. Thus here I was with a bright red bike who needed a name: Red Emma, naturally.

I bring up the bike-naming as more than just a passing anecdote. For, anyone who’s talked to me in the past six months knows that, to me, the topic of bicycles is anything but passing. I never thought I would know what it felt like to be born again until last spring, when my car, its transmission long dead, was impounded. Shortly after that, my partner decided to sell his own car after three successive break-ins. For the first time in my adult life I did not own a car. It was, unequivocally, the best thing that ever happened to me. Forced by cruel fate and the Chicago Department of Revenue to turn to two-wheeled transportation, I was transformed from an auto-addict, albeit a guilty one, to a velorutionary in the space of a few weeks. These days, as a slogan of the city’s bike outreach program says, my bike takes me everywhere — including into some of the most fascinating cultures of resistance I’ve encountered in my lifelong career as a fringe-dweller.

What has all this to do with Goldman, besides that she is my trusty steed’s namesake? I tell the story of my personal velorution because it gets at the heart of what is to me one of the most pernicious debates in contemporary anarchism. Recently, it surfaced yet again on the email listserve of the Chicagoland Anarchist Network. Someone posted a brief note of personal thanks for all the learning experiences and other positive developments that had already come about through the work of this fairly young group. Listed among these were changes in this person’s own life: a greater understanding of queer issues, a conversion to veganism, the courage to confront an abusive history within the mental health system. Others responded in kind, leaping at the opportunity to talk for once about what might be right in anarchist community, until we had what one poster good-naturedly called a regular “hippie love fest.”

And then, the inevitable. Someone leveled the ultimate accusation: lifestylers. It was counterrevolutionary, this person said, to talk of such things when we should be out there agitating. Whatever “agitating” is, according to this line of thought it is revolutionary, while rethinking and revising our notions of gender, our eating habits, and our locus of control over our own healthcare to bring them more in line with our beliefs is not. Organizing the workers is revolutionary, but building community in the here-and-now, in such a way as to enact anarchist principles within ourselves and between one another, is not. And so on. The “lifestyle” versus “revolution” debate has been going on long enough now that most anarchists are well versed in it. What I find surprising is that more of us don’t loudly call it out as the false dichotomy it is.

If I could eliminate one word from contemporary English, it would without a doubt be “lifestyle.” What does this word even mean? And more importantly, how is it used to perpetuate forms of oppression?

According to the ideology of “lifestyle,” queerness is not a site of sexual and gender identity that carries a specific political stance and history; polyamory is not a conscious decision to conduct relationships nonpossessively and with respect for the individual’s ownership of his or her own sexuality; marriage resistance is not a politically informed refusal of state regulation of sex and relationships; veganism is not an ethically based boycott of profit from mass death; and use of non-motorized transportation is not a refusal to burn fossil fuels, support the auto industry, and depend on external forces for one’s personal mobility. (And so on.) No, these are all mere “lifestyle choices.”

“Lifestyle” is a strategically deployed concept that acts to neutralize the political agency of the individual. “Lifestyle” tells us our personal choices do not, cannot, and/or should not reflect and — more to the point — enact our political convictions. Inasmuch as it is used almost exclusively — both on the left and in the mainstream — to describe counterhegemonic identities and choices, “lifestyle” is in effect simply another way to describe deviance, thus legitimating and reinscribing oppression based on the same.

“Lifestyles” is the name of a brand of condom. This should tell us all we need to know. Because of course, only people who have “lifestyles” instead of lives need to protect themselves from diseases and/or pregnancy.

A “lifestyle anarchist,” those who subscribe to this term might say, is one who mistakenly believes that his or her choices about how to live — what and how to eat, how to conduct relationships and community or subcultural affiliations, and so on — constitutes anarchist praxis. But if as anarchists (and I’m making a strategic but likely groundless assumption here) we believe in diversity, individual freedom, and rejection of hierarchy, how can we say that living quotidian anarchy in such ways is less (or more) effective as political activism than attending a protest or organizing workers? We decry the failure of liberal activists to allow for a diversity of tactics when organizing large-scale protests, yet we ourselves commit the same failure amongst ourselves — by saying that some acts are tactics, while others are “lifestyle choices.”

In my experience, a “lifestyle anarchist” is actually someone with whom the speaker has a tactical disagreement — or more specifically, someone the speaker considers to be less politically active, committed, or effective than him or herself. Just as we don’t often hear people discuss their own “lifestyles” — for “lifestyle” is always a way to describe someone else’s identity or choices — no one generally self-identifies as a “lifestyle anarchist.” In practical usage, the label exists specifically as a put-down.

Incidentally, this state of affairs works out nicely for the forces of authoritarianism and profit. It could be disastrous for them if lots of people actually believed that their daily choices made a difference.

I know this kind of talk could get my anarchist membership credentials revoked for alleged bougie psychobabble. But I’m actually not saying that sitting around on one’s ass watching The Simpsons and surfing the Internet all day can constitute sound anarchist praxis. I’m just suggesting an expanded understanding of how not to sit on one’s ass — an expanded understanding, in other words, of what counts as action, direct or otherwise. Any action requires choice, both ahead of time and in the moment it’s taken. This is as true of deciding to block traffic or brick a window as it is of deciding what to ingest, who you want to fuck, and how you will treat others.

I think I’ve been articulating or at least skirting a position that used to be called “individualist anarchism” — which brings me back to Goldman. The debate around “lifestyle anarchism” as such is definitely a postpunk phenomenon. Nonetheless, I have often found myself wondering “what would Emma do?” with regard to this question. It’s those painful moments of her life that she allowed the world to see, and particularly the criticisms she endured from other anarchists (notably including her beloved mentor Peter Kropotkin), in which I find evidence that Goldman would have deemed the lifestyle debate specious.

Today it goes without saying that issues such as sexuality, birth control, and the rights of women within marriage are deeply political, reflecting as they do long histories of political struggle. But when Goldman took up these issues, insisting that they were consistent with and should be integral to the work of anarchism, she was accused of triviality and irrelevance, of attempting to dilute the revolution with minor personal concerns. In her book on Goldman and sexuality, feminist theorist Bonnie Haaland describes Goldman’s theoretical break with Kropotkin, who “viewed her emphasis on marriage, sexuality and reproduction as excessive and peripheral to the major concerns of anarchism [whereas] Goldman maintained that these matters were at the heart of anarchism.”1 This disagreement of teacher and student was in part based on the clash of Goldman’s belief in and practice of free love with the ultimately conservative social values of the older generation of anarchists, who did not integrate sexual equality into their political theory, nor extend their anarchist beliefs into the realm of personal relationships. However, it also signals the chief way in which Goldman’s thought exceeded the bounds of her mentor’s: her individualism — specifically, her insistence that the social structure articulated by Kropotkin not only depended on the agency of, but must ultimately exist to enable the freedom of the individual. “For [Goldman],” Haaland writes,

the “materialist” view of history was flawed as it represented a truncated view of human life — a view which did not recognize the “inner” life of individuals and how this inner life, if projectedin concert with a core of moral values, could transform a society.2

Often I see the term “lifestyle anarchism” applied to situations that I would characterize as “creating anarchist culture.” Such usage belies the artificial separation (popular amongst “serious” lefties, but almost entirely useless) of politics and culture, as though culture — including pop culture — were not political. The assumption that being “on the front lines” is more revolutionary than, say, feeding people further seems to me a holdover of hierarchically gendered notions of “domestic” and “public” spheres, and the consequent devaluation of that traditionally considered “women’s work.” By contrast, I want to submit the radical notion that putting on a show or learning to make clothes is no more or less radical and important than a banner drop or street protest — and moreover, that the two are not mutually exclusive. As to where Goldman might have stood, we have only to look at her advocacy of and writing on Modern art and theater to conclude that she fully recognized the political import of culture, particularly of creating new and potentially risky forms of culture. And as I have already mentioned, Goldman (who in periods of her life made a living as a nurse and a dressmaker) was far ahead of her time even in relation to other anarchists in addressing spheres of life considered domestic and/or feminine, hence trivial.

As I was struggling with how to write my way into the topic of Goldman, my good friend and colleague Jen Besemer came by and shared with me a startling gem from the last part of Goldman’s life. The final issue of the Modernist journal Little Review, published in 1929, consisted of the responses of dozens of luminaries and intellectuals, including Goldman and Alexander Berkman, to the following questionnaire:

  1. What should you most like to do, to know, to be? (In case you are not satisfied).</li >
  2. Why wouldn’t you change places with any other human being?</li >
  3. What do you look forward to?</li >
  4. What do you fear most from the future?</li >
  5. What has been the happiest moment of your life? The unhappiest? (If you care to tell).</li >
  6. What do you consider your weakest characteristics? Your strongest? What do you like most about yourself? Dislike most?</li >
  7. What things do you really like? Dislike? (Nature, people, ideas, objects, etc. Answer in a phrase or a page, as you will).</li >
  8. What is your attitude toward art today?</li >
  9. What is your world view? (Are you a reasonable being in a reasonable scheme?)</li >
  10. Why do you go on living?3</li >

In typical contrarian form, Goldman began, “I find the questions really terribly uninteresting and do not know what one is to answer to them.”4 Nonetheless, the answers she then gave are moving, characteristically razor-sharp, and richly revealing as to her person and passions, I think in ways that most of what she wrote or said publicly was not. Discovering this incidental bit of Goldman’s wisdom was for me not so much a revelation as a confirmation that she was the multifarious, flawed, brave, suffering, unruly, and, above all, fiercely individualistic person I have preferred to know her as, rather than the one-dimensional revolutionary icon as which she is more often received and held up. Already a decade in exile, and entering the last decade of her life, Goldman was famously embittered, but perhaps she also felt freer, that she no longer owed it to the Cause to put on a certain public face.

  1. I should like most to be able to travel a few years without any necessity of keeping lecture dates, writing books, being interviewed, or answering questions.</li >
  2. No, I should not want to change places with any other human being. Dull people do not attract me, interesting ones are probably just as uncomfortable in their skins as I am in mine — so why change?</li >
  3. I look forward to a time when human beings will be engaged in creating beautiful things rather than being satisfied with the substitute of publishing idle magazines full of idle questions.</li >
  4. For the future I fear most the continued sluggishness of the human mind.</li >
  5. There have been two happiest moments of my life: the first, when Alexander Berkman was resurrected from a living death of fourteen years in the Western Penitentiary; the second, when I came back to Russia in the glowing hope of the Russian Revolution. My unhappiest moment was when I realized that the Russian Revolution had been crushed by the Communist state and when I had to leave Russia.</li >
  6. My weakest characteristic as far as one knows oneself is that I love my friends too much. My strongest is that I do not hate my enemies enough.</li >
  7. I love nature, interesting people — I love my ideal. I dislike above everything else dull people, petty and envious souls and gossipers in pants and skirts.</li >
  8. Inasmuch as I consider modern art in the experimental stage I welcome its restlessness, its discontent and its desperate effort to find itself. Above all, I admire the arrogance and the reckless indifference of the modern artists. My worldview is Anarchism — a social arrangement where each can express himself to the fullest without fear or favor from his surroundings.</li >
  9. No, I am not a reasonable being, nor do I consider our scheme reasonable. Who the hell wants to be reasonable?</li >
  10. I suppose because my will to life is stronger than my reason, which tells me the stupidity of going on.5</li >

Here we can read so much of the pain of Goldman’s life (particularly by 1929) — her disillusionment with the Bolshevik revolution in which she’d placed so much faith, her longing not to have to be a “professional anarchist” in order to support herself. But she could easily (and in her younger years might) have answered with broad, general statements about political oppression and struggle. Instead, she speaks of people — individuals — in all their imperfection. In this she includes herself (thus demonstrating what is to me the most admirable characteristic in any public intellectual — the ability to admit one is weak or wrong): Her profoundly moving admission that she is uncomfortable in her own skin reads today almost as a rallying cry to all the outcasts and misfits whose very pain as such draws us to anarchism. In the same breath, she extols the obstinate nature of art, and defines Anarchism, not as a collective endeavor or a system based on voluntary sacrifice for the greater good, but as the human social arrangement that would allow for the greatest possible individual freedom and expression.

Finally, being neither overt nor covert, she speaks of love. Her happiest moment is the freedom of her lifelong comrade and companion Berkman — easily the love of her life, or at least one of the loves of her life, although they were only lovers as young people, before his imprisonment. But for me, Goldman’s single most moving response is number six: “My weakest characteristic as far as one knows oneself is that I love my friends too much.” It’s difficult to articulate just why this statement resonates so deeply for me, other than to say that it strikes at the core of my most tenacious frustrations with and desires in relation to anarchist community. Perhaps I sense that for Goldman (as it often seems for me) loving too much was both her downfall, and the most fundamental reason that she was a revolutionary.

I don’t know why I feel such a need to rescue Goldman from the clutches of some joyless mass revolutionism that is probably at least in part a figment of my paranoid imagination. I also recognize that most contemporary anarchist praxis — if not always the practitioners themselves — treats the lifestyle/revolution divide as much more integrated and less dichotomous — less total and less real — than my critique of the debate implies. Most of those who decry “lifestyle anarchism” probably don’t actually mean that, to be proper revolutionaries, we should never speak of love and beauty, examine our personal choices, or have any fun. Nonetheless, it rankles when Goldman is held up as a revolutionary icon by those who truly seem to believe that (to further mangle the most famous of all Goldman misquotes) if you dance, it’s not a revolution. Thus, I offer her responses from Little Review as evidence to suggest that Goldman would have defended as integral to lived anarchy most of the ideas and practices that today get dismissed as “lifestylism” — or at the very least, would have condemned the division of those practices from revolutionary struggle as specious and falsely dichotomous.

Or maybe all I’m saying is that the icon was human — flawed and inconsistent, as we idealists so often fail to allow ourselves to be — and as such, is paradoxically all the more worthy of her status as a celebrated and beloved symbol of anarchist desire.


[1] Bonnie Haaland, Emma Goldman: Sexuality and the Impurity of the State, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1993, 13.
[2] Ibid., 11.
[3] Little Review, Final Number, Spring 1929. Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, eds., 36.
[4] Ibid. 36-37.
[5] Ibid. 36-37.