06 December 2007

Nineteenth-Century Russian Exiles in Recent Anglophone Literature (Part Two)

Under Review
Sharon Rudahl, A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman (New York: New Press, 2007)

Historians have long been possessed by the notion of a usable past. In its simplest form, this tack has the historian cull from the past stories of human virtue—courage, loyalty, or kindness. At a higher level, historians draw parallels between past and present, looking to the lessons and thought of the past to guide inhabitants of the present through our sundry quandaries. Finally, historians may search for a usable, if not applicable, past by looking critically at earlier periods in order to explain the origins and limits of the present. It is to Sharon Rudahl’s credit that her graphic biography of Emma Goldman, A Dangerous Woman, operates on all of these levels.

Beginning with Goldman’s girlhood experiences in the Pale of Settlement, Rudahl captures the formation of a young radical through her everyday experiences as a working-class, Jewish woman and interactions with radical politics and literature. From Russia, Goldman arrived in America just before the Haymarket Riots, witnessing the inhuman conditions for immigrant workers, anti-labor violence and the crushing force of patriarchy as domestic practice and state policy. At the same time, she was exposed to, and soon became a major force in, the exciting world of immigrant radicalism. Thus began a half-century of anarchist activism, as Goldman traveled across the United States on speaking tours, breathed in the bohemian airs of New York and Paris, faced the First Red Scare, returned to revolutionary Russia (only to face disappointment in the ostensible achievements of Marxism-Leninism) and lived out the last two decades of her life in exile from both her native and adopted homelands. Into her sixties, the life-long activist took up the anti-fascist cause in Spain, one of her last stands.

Other reviewers have criticized A Dangerous Woman for not being more discriminating and attempting to tell Goldman’s life in every important detail. And I understand this evaluation, as too often the pages seem over-packed and the frames text-heavy. But, this style, as I imagine is its intent, communicates the urgency and energy of Goldman’s being, as she continually took up new causes, encountered novel ideas and shaped so many major events of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The problem is not that Rudahl was too shy when it came to excising moments from Goldman’s biography, but rather that she attempted to pack such an expansive life and vision into so few pages. (In this, I can’t help but wonder if the fault is hers, or if the blame falls on the shoulders of the publishing industry’s reluctance to accept and finance larger graphic novel projects.) For ultimately, the story unraveled by Rudahl is not merely a telling of Goldman’s life; cloaked in the presentation of the biography of an outspoken woman, one discerns the resurrection of the importance of anarcho-syndicalism in the period between Haymarket and the Spanish Civil War, an interpretation hinted at in Alice Wexler’s preface.

Contrary to the teleological vision of E.H. Carr (see the first part of this series) which envisioned a trajectory from idealism to scientific socialism from the early Nineteenth Century until the Bolshevik Revolution, Rudahl’s biography reminds us of an important passing remark in Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes:

Before 1914 anarchism had been far more of a driving ideology of revolutionary activists than Marxism over large parts of the world. Marx, outside Eastern Europe, was seen rather as the guru of mass parties whose inevitable, but not explosive, advance to victory he had demonstrated. By the 1930s anarchism had ceased to exist as a significant political force outside Spain, even in Latin America, where the black-and-red had traditionally inspired more militants that the red flag.
I take Rudahl’s penchant to relate so much of the history of Goldman’s life and world, not as a mark of her shortcomings as a biographer, but rather as evidence of her impulse to excavate the expansive worlds of bohemianism and anarchism in the period before the First World War and its lingering life and eventual death in the interwar period. These terrains are giftedly illuminated in A Dangerous Woman. Rather than wallowing in Carr’s rigid track of history or Stoppard’s doldrums of liberalism, we are drawn into the everyday world of activism and a life of political options outside of the Cold War epistemology of Wilson vs. Lenin. For bringing this history to light in graphic form, Rudahl is to be congratulated. I can only hope that she continues to combine her political commitments and artistic talents in future graphic histories, continuing the elaboration of this lost world.


Sean Guillory said...

Sounds like a very cool graphic novel. Thanks for bringing attention to it.

Goldman is a fascinating figure, especially as a female revolutionary who participated in movements in three continents.

The question I have for you, is why do you think that anarchism lost its appeal and more importantly why it appears to have made somewhat of a revised comeback, especially among young people in anti-globalization struggles?

Also, where would you place Rudahl's bio of Goldman in terms of explaining "the origins and limits of the present" (I really like this idea of "limits" and will probably steal it) in regard to contemporary anarchism?

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

Let me take a quick crack at these two rather large questions, and maybe we can elaborate in later conversation.

First, the fall of anarcho-syndicalism in the 20th century is a complicated story. While the international historian in me itches to put a larger theory out there, I really think it's a story that varies greatly from country to country, only some of which do I know anything about. In the US, I think it's a mix of repression (see WA Preston's Aliens and Dissenters--it's a great read, especially with the "new" afterword by Preston) and the lure of the CP, which has (a) the shining example of a successful revolution and (b) state sponsorship. My sense is that some mixture of these two elements explain the disappearance of anarcho-syndicalism over the course of the interwar period. There's a fair amount of new research coming out on the Communists' absorption of syndicalism that seems interesting, if still scattered.

As for the strength of anarchism at the fin-de-siecles, my rough sense of this is that anarchism appealed to those for whom "civil rights" claims made little sense (either due to the nature of their claims, or the nature of their relation to the State) and at a time of disruptions of massive immigration and economic changes. I don't want to stretch comparisons too far, so that's my very short answer that I could elaborate on later in an email, perhaps. My own work touches on this as a few Wobblies figure into my Moscow scene, but I would rather work out my ideas in a forum other than public blogging. We can add it to the list of things to talk about, huh?

As for Rudahl's bio and "the origins and limits of the present," I think the material is there in the book, though Rudahl's is a light touch. You won't find much editorializing, but the book was meant to have a large audience, so that makes sense. What I did find appealing was the ways in which Rudahl recreated Goldman's diverse influences and notions of a proper sphere of activism. And also the use of Voltairine as a contrasting radical, so one didn't get the sense that there wasn't a larger debate about the shape anarchism should take. Of course, having spent too much time reading about the M-L's, I kept waiting for a Congress to sort these issues out and decide on a line! It's so much nicer, actually, when that doesn't happen.

I digress. A short answer to your second query: I think there's a fair amount of implicit material in Rudahl's work, but it takes some work to make it explain the origins and limits. But as an impetus for the critical thinker, there's certainly material there. I do think it is too bad that other reviewers didn't really take up these (to me) more interesting questions posed by the work.

OK, I have to run back to the archive!

Chrisius Maximus said...

Buster, did you ever find out the bacjground to the Wobbly symbol you thought you spied?

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...


Yeah, I saw the famous Wobbly cat again at the entryway to that bookstore Falanster off Tverskaya--it's the symbol for Avtonomnoe deistvie. I assume that they also used the famous "The IWW is Coming" graphic too. No big surprise there, huh?

I picked up a few back issues of their journal, Avtonom, to see how their politics lined up with the IWW, but it seems more akin to 1980s Rock Against Racism and early 1990s hardcore music scene stuff (down to an article on starting Food Not Bombs in Russian provincial towns). I thought about writing up some stuff on them as a manifestation of contemporary Russian anarchism... but really the journals aren't that interesting. And the few tantalizing tidbits aren't developed, though I may try to look into them on my own.

Assuming I have time--I really need to focus on this dissertation, which is thankfully finally gathering steam.

Again, maybe it's an idea for someone else. Until some generous patron liberates me from academia with a fat grant to pursue whatever topics I want. Anyone? Anyone?

Chrisius Maximus said...

You guys so much make me wish I'd finished my dissertation.

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

By the way, I wanted to amend with two citations on early-20th-century syndicalism:

Vadim Damier, The Forgotten Internation [Zabytyi internatsional']


Benedict Anderson, Under Three Flags

The first suffers from that Russian avalanche of information style and the latter from the absence of an editorial hand, but they both have a lot of interesting information in them. It's too bad that Anderson's wasn't put together better, as I bet it could have really found an audience otherwise.