Emma Goldman: political thinking in the streets by Kathy Ferguson [Book review]

Emma Goldman is much discussed and often mythologised. Here’s a book which look at her ideas in context.

This is an academic work, so in places you get analysis about “producing opportunities for embodied participation in anarchist lifeworlds.” (p83; I have to point out that the next line is “Among the anarchists’ greatest successes were their beerhalls.”) Ferguson can also deliver some dry humour: “Given that the same agents and agencies tracked [Goldman and Berkman] over long periods of time, one would think that their Jewishness would cease to be news.” I also enjoyed her musings on the archive effect. “There is always one more dusty file to read … One tries not to lose what one has painstakingly gathered, but in the end, one wants a book about Goldman, not a reproduction of the Goldman archive.” (p9, 11)

Looking at Goldman’s ideas in context makes for useful insights. Ferguson suggests it is impossible to discuss the attitude of radicals to political violence if we ignore the violence they experienced from state and capitalist forces. The book also discusses how Goldman can be so much closer to Mexican and Mexican-American movements than African-American ones.

Ferguson does not come across as a confrontational writer, but her book is a corrective to myth-making around Goldman. She notes how Goldman has been recruited “to serve as an icon of feminist struggle.” (p211) Very telling is her inclusion of Paul Avrich’s misgiving: “Avrich was concerned that the full force of Goldman’s anarchism would be defanged by the popular image of Goldman as a free-sprited crusader for a revolution in which we could all dance.” (p39)

Emma Goldman: political thinking in the streets is so interesting because it does not demand that Goldman be perfect or a role model. The quest for “coolness”, to celebrate rather than understand, is corrosive but not confined to academia.

Ferguson challenges the image of Goldman as lonely pioneer, a woman ahead of her time: “Goldman was very much of her time: her time and her place were saturated with the bodies, voices, and ideas of many hundreds of radical women … They have largely been forgotten, not by innocent oversight but rather by the highly attenuated, individuated and celebrity-oriented way that memory is produced, leaving us with a stunted version of our radical history. Rather than a rich and complex history of radical thinking and acting, we inherit an emaciated account in which a few stalwart people, either lionized or demonized, fought the establishment. My goal is not to minimise Goldman, but to explore the context that made it possible for there to be an Emma Goldman, and in the exploration to claim radical movements, not just radical individuals, for contemporary feminist histories.” (p251, 252)

If you’re interested in Goldman’s life or ideas, read this book. A “rich and complex history of radical thinking and acting” is a lot to ask for. But what other sort of history would you want?

Emma Goldman: political thinking in the streets by Kathy Ferguson is published by Rowman & Littlefield (paperback $35/ £21.95)