“The personal is political” has become so familiar a coinage, over the last forty years of liberation politics, that we may forget how distant it once was not just from conservative political consciousness, but liberalism as well. Even today, it remains controversial in many quarters. At how many “Occupy” encampments (I visited half a dozen) do straight white males speak out against oppression, unaware of their own “stuff”—not just privilege, but the gendered and class-based ways in which they speak, act, interrupt, drum, march, strut, and demand? How many anarchists and socialists deliberately shunt aside “personal” concerns in favor of a notion of liberation that looks a lot like they do themselves—erotophobic, chain-smoking, and angry?
Vivian Gornick’s masterful short biography of Emma Goldman, Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, part of the Yale Jewish Lives series, shows how old, and fundamental, this conundrum is. In Goldman’s day, as in ours, many on the Left saw issues of sexuality, happiness, and what we might generally call the “personal” as peripheral to the class struggle. Yet Goldman herself demurred. She elucidated an anarchism that was a personal as well as a political platform, and, as the subtitle to Gornick’s book suggests, she lived it out in practice.
This set of convictions led Goldman to become one of the first American proponents of what would later be understood as gay liberation. Her thinking on sexual diversity was not terribly original; it draws heavily on Edward Carpenter, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and other theorists who understood homosexuals as belonging to a kind of “intermediate sex,” and, more or less, born that way. But Goldman gave these views a prominence never before known on this side of the Atlantic. “Gay liberation” was never the center of her political platform, but it was a part of it, and she spoke of “the intermediate sex” before huge audiences in the 1900s and 1910s.
It’s hard to imagine, today, that a diminutive, Russian-accented Anarchist could be a national celebrity. But as Gornick tells us, that is exactly what Goldman was: notorious, infamous, but also one of the most well-known women in America from around 1893 (Goldman had served a two-year prison sentence for political agitation, but used the time to master fluent English, and thus exponentially amplify her voice) until her deportation (at the hands of J. Edgar Hoover) in 1919. To include the oppression of homosexuality within her platform was indeed revolutionary.
And yet, as Gornick recounts in sad detail, her own erotic life was often, well, pathetic. Early on, she and fellow Anarchist leader Alexander Berkman were both a couple in their own right and part of a free-love circle of New York Anarchists who now seem sixty years ahead of their time. As time went on, however, Goldman pursued a line of increasingly unworthy men, often unrequitedly, and often debasing herself with florid love letters that more befit a besotted teenager than a woman who, at the time of their writing, was in her 50s and 60s.
As throughout the book, Gornick’s writing on, and insight into, this aspect of Goldman’s life is absolutely stunning. Although I may be momentarily influenced by Goldman’s penchant for hyperbole, I believe Emma Goldman to be the most beautifully written biography (of any length) that I’ve ever read. After recounting yet another of Goldman’s ridiculous affairs with an unavailable and unworthy man, Gornick writes:
This was the moment when she should have seen herself caught in the gap between practice and theory – and found the strength to either accept the situation as it was, or end the affair. But that moment never came. Living inside a cauldron of high-voltage emotion, with soul-destroying depression alternating regularly with convulsive desire, turned her on.
Sigh. Has anyone but me also been in that situation?
So – was she or wasn’t she? A lesbian, I mean. Well, no, she wasn’t. Goldman yearned for the company of men. That being said, she was quite queer for her time. A liberated woman, she demanded both erotic satisfaction and intellectual respect. Even when her free-love ideology caused her misery, she stuck to her principles. There were many lesbians in her circles of friends and associates. And we do also have some evidence that Goldman herself had at least one sustained affair with a woman, Almeda Sperry, whose passionate love-letters to Goldman are excerpted online at outhistory.org. Sperry herself was clearly bisexual, and clearly desired Goldman erotically. And it does seem that those desires were physically consummated. But obviously, Goldman’s significance to LGBT people is not about “was she or wasn’t she.” Whatever her primary erotic orientation, she was one of the queer community’s earliest supporters and, if we take a more robust understanding of queerness than anatomy and preference, highly queer herself.
Gornick is at her best when comparing Goldman to the 1970s radicals and feminists who embraced her, after decades of historical neglect. Rightly, she notes that Goldman’s anarchism was truly a threat to established order, whereas the radicalism of the late 1960s and 1970s was “a posture, an attitude, a way of protesting the transgressions of a democracy that most rebels wanted to see made more perfect.” Yet the zeal with which both sets of revolutionaries pursued liberation made real the linkage between personal and political – and both experienced the disillusionment that followed upon the inevitable failure of idealistic hope. In the end, they lived their politics, and we are their beneficiaries.