Children of the Revolution: Emma Goldman Would Have Danced at Occupy
by Rebecca Schoenkopf
A whole bunch of years ago, I pooh-poohed Chasing Amy without ever having seen it. How chauvinist, I wrote, this man’s fantasy of changing a lesbian. Then I saw the movie.
From that point on, I tried not to pass judgment on things I hadn’t actually experienced for myself. Do you remember “Sensation” at the Brooklyn Museum, the one where New Yorkers and the pope were up in arms over Chris Ofili’s portrait of the Virgin speckled with dung? I saw the exhibit; it was stunning; and I got up on the highest of all my horses (and they are legion!) to decry the idiots decrying it without … yeah, you guessed it! … having seen it for themselves.
But I was irked with the Occupy movement for very specific reasons—by all means, read why here; I stand by them—and I was sort of afraid to show my face at Occupy LA. Sure, there’s old folks holding informational meetings about veganism at the north end of City Hall—the quiet, clean little oasis the wags call “Westwood”—but mostly I feel like this is a movement for the kids. They’re the ones who are being absolutely screwed by rapacious colleges and universities; they’re the ones whose post-college careers aren’t going to get off the ground for probably the next several years, if ever. They won’t have the easy start I did, coming of age in Clinton’s expanding economy, amassing a little nest egg to see me through this shit. They have more to be pissed off about than I do, and I’m plenty pissed already.
So I wrote about Occupy without having been there. I saw the 50 (or less) Ron Paulites protesting the president out in Hancock Park (-adjacent)—but I didn’t see the thousand more who’d stayed back at the site.
A quick trip to City Hall last Sunday, and I was sold. Dancing freaks, a silkscreening shop, crunchy little girls who could have been me at 17 (minus a few sandwiches) twirling in front of the DJ table, nice folks, cute photogs whom I shadowed. I hope they stay forever—and if they don’t, their homeless friends should. Every public space short of the national parks should be occupied by the public for as long as it takes.
It was a lovely little field trip, which I very much enjoyed—but I was worried that I’d be seen as a square, and if anybody noticed me at all, I’m sure I was. And then I read Vivian Gornick’s Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, and I knew I wouldn’t just be seen as a square; I am one.
Emma Goldman addressing Union Square crowd
I have grown into something the anarchist queen—mostly known today for her principled insistence on dancing and fun*—herself would have loathed, as Gornick’s book brought home to my increasingly demoralized self: the “liberal intelligentsia” who shut up and sold out the minute people started going to prison. (Rose Pastor Stokes got 10 years for a letter to the editor, reading, in part, “no government which is for the profiteers can also be for the people, and I am for the people while the government is for the profiteers.”) Gornick names Goldman’s feelings for the silent liberals “alarm and contempt.” She cared not one bit for justice through electoral politics; “incremental change” for the better left her cold. She wanted nothing less than to remake society completely.
But that put her at odds with those who desperately needed incremental change for the better. Here is a (very) young Emma, at the beginning of her lifetime of speechmaking and rabble-rousing:
In Cleveland she resorted to sarcasm, scorning the workers’ stupidity in concentrating on such trifles as the eight-hour day. When she said this there was a momentary silence, and then a worker in the audience, thin-faced, white-haired, said he understood her impatience with such small demands as the eight-hour day—after all, she was young, what were a couple of hours more or less to her?—but he could not wait for the overthrow of the entire capitalist system; right now he needed two hours less of work a day to feel human, to read a book or take a walk in daylight.
When I was a girl, my mother would get arrested at places like the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. When she did, the name she gave was “Emma Goldman.” I was raised to be mouthy and moral. It’s only now, through the offices of Gornick’s excellent book, that I realize how little in common I have with my heroine. I have far more sympathy for the head of the Buffalo branch of the Socialist Labor Party, who told a reporter in 1879, “When I was in Russia I was a nihilist and advocated violence and did my share in the movement. But in this country … I regard it as madness and criminality to counsel violence in a place where men can speak and write and vote…. Here the ballot is every man’s weapon.” (For what it’s worth, Marx thought the same.) I don’t want to remake society from the ground up. I just want to re-elect a goddamn Democrat.
After Goldman was exiled to the USSR, she quickly became disenchanted; in fact, she fought against the Bolsheviks (they were imprisoning all her fellow anarchists) the rest of her life, becoming exiled then not from her country but from her worldwide community of radicals.
Gornick quotes Alice Wexler: “What made Russia so overwhelming an experience [for Emma] was its challenge to her deepest sense of personal identity … when she found that she had no place in an actual revolution.”
Ouch, Alice Wexler. Right to the gut!
In August 1893, Goldman stood on a packing box in New York City’s Union Square. “Do you not see the stupidity of asking relief from Albany with immense wealth within a stone’s throw of here?” she cried. “Fifth Avenue is laid with gold, every mansion a citadel of money and power. Yet there you stand a giant, starved and fettered, shorn of his strength.… Wake up. Become daring enough to demand your rights. Demonstrate before the palaces of the rich. Demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread. It is your sacred right.”
And here they are! And it’s marvelous, and it’s happy, and it’s mad. But it’s their revolution, not mine; I am the liberal intelligentsia who just wants Dem votes and two more hours to walk in daylight, and they are the real children of Emma Goldman demanding the tearing down and rebuilding of society.
I am thrilled that Occupy is pressuring Barack Obama at last from the left. (Like my favorite moment from FDR: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”) But maybe you are like me, and you also have a few Occupy friends who are turning away from the ballot (or at least the Democratic Party) and it scares you half to death that the kids will sit out this election like they did the 2010 midterms, and Karl Rove himself couldn’t have planned their disenchantment better. Maybe you, like I do, believe that Barack Obama has done everything humanly possible in the face of GOP willfulness, while your Occupy friends sniff that they will no longer vote for the “lesser of two evils,” and you’re left stammering that the root of your disagreement is that you don’t think Obama is “an evil” at all. Perhaps you cast your Nader vote already (for my mama, the “Nader vote” was for Eldridge Cleaver) and you lost your one-time True Belief that all those corporate parties were the same. Now why won’t any of them listen to well-educated, liberal-intelligentsia you?
I remember very, very clearly stating that if things got worse under George W. Bush (when I refused to give Al Gore my vote) that change would just happen that much faster. Guess what? Change did happen—I changed my mind.
*I always wanted to needlepoint her greatest saying, when faced with moralizing from fellow revolutionaries who thought her frivolity was hurting The Cause: “I won’t be part of any revolution that won’t let me dance.”
— Vivian Gornick, Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, Yale University Press, 2011. 151 pp.