An anarchist in Soviet Russia

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Dame Rebecca West

My Disillusionment in Russia by Emma Goldman is certainly one of the lesser know books on my list of classics to read, so it is worth explaining how it got there. The first reason is Rebecca West (and this is not the first time she prompted me to read a book). After reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and loving it, I searched around the internet for short pieces of her writing, and one of the first things I found was her introduction to Goldman’s book. One line from it had stuck with me from reading this introduction a couple years ago: “We must let each people seek God in its own way.” (I had forgotten the less inspirational-sounding next line, “and refrain from persecuting it in its search by such indirect methods as interference with the natural flow of trade.”) Although the line sounds relativistic or indifferent, at the very least, West is making the bold claim that the Revolutionary project in Russia is a search for God. She sees the project as an attempt (albeit mistaken) to establish man’s final end, which must ultimately be God. This language is very different from Goldman’s use of religious vocabulary, which she only uses to mirror the corruption of the Bolsheviks. (Whereas Rebecca West is capable of seeing reality as sacramental, Emma Goldman is a thorough and vehement atheist.) And yet this difference in outlook does not prevent West from praising the integrity of Goldman in recounting the facts as she saw them, the facts concerning the injustice and brutality of the Bolshevik regime. Both Rebecca West and Emma Goldman, despite identifying with the Left, were both ostracized by their Leftist peers who uncritically accepted the Communist project. This connection with Rebecca West was my first encounter with Goldman, but was not yet enough to convince me to read her work.

My second encounter with Goldman, which eventually pushed me to read her work, came only a few months ago. Seeing the widespread uncritical acceptance of contraception and Planned Parenthood among so many young people led me to wonder where this was coming from, and led me me right to the beginning of the birth control movement in the United States. Among the leading figures in this movement was Emma Goldman. Despite obvious difference in views, I wanted to understand where she was coming from on this, what led her to these positions. I figured the easiest way to get into her thought would be to start with a work where I could sympathize with the views represented. Thus My Disillusionment with Russia entered my list of books to read. Although I had never yet seen her on a list of classics, it turns out her autobiography is among the Penguin Classics, and so it seems no great stretch to extend the title classic to her important account of the Bolshevik regime.

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Emma Goldman

The book starts around the end of the Great War, not long after the October Revolution in Russia. Authorities in the United States are rounding up and exiling anarchists, and Emma Goldman finds herself among their number. This exile means she will end up in Russia. Despite the difficulties involved in mandatory relocation, she is enthusiastic to see first-hand the effects of so large a social revolution. The rest of the book is her experience of the (almost completely terrible) effects of the Revolution. She comes in with the greatest of expectations, but steadily comes to separate in her mind the Revolution from the Bolshevik regime. “I knew that the Revolution and the Bolsheviki, proclaimed as one and the same, were opposites, antagonistic in aim and purpose. The Revolution had its roots deep down in the life of the people. The Communist State was based on a scheme forcibly applied by a political party. In the contest the Revolution was being slain, but the slayer also was gasping for breath.”

The question I kept asking as I read the book was: Why does she still cling to the Revolution as a good thing even though the effects are so obviously terrible? At several points, she even admits that things were better under the Tsar, “if the gendarmes of the Tsar would have had the power not only to arrest but also to shoot us, the situation would have been like the present one.” Besides the humanitarian work of a few anarchists, the only people who seem to be doing well are those that stand against the Revolution in some way. There is an example early on of a factory that seems more tidy and efficient than anything Goldman had seen at that point: shortly after, she finds out that the former owner of the factory had been given permission to continue running it, and so things worked well there, only because he still possessed a sense of ownership. On another occasion, she is surprised to find nuns in habits working at a government school, where the government official was more lax in enforcing the anti-religious policies. The nuns were better workers than any she had seen, and the school was one of the few that wasn’t simply putting on a good show for the American visitors. Goldman tries to attribute their joy and duty to some anarchist or revolutionary principle, but I was not convinced. As for putting on a show for Americans: In her travels throughout Russia, attempting to collect items for a museum, almost no one trusts her at first—it is only when she displays her American identity that many open up both their revolutionary artifacts as well as their real thoughts and feelings about the Bolshevik regime.

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Emma Goldman

Although the book is primarily a journal of her travels and impressions, I was disappointed to find little theoretical treatment until the very end of the book. As far as anarchist morals go, I found myself sympathetic with Goldman much of the time: the things she found deplorable were usually things I found deplorable as well, but only vaguely did she indicate her reasons. She ends up emphatically rejecting the principle used by the Bolsheviks for their cause—that the end justifies the means. In my mind, this also means a rejection of violent revolution (in most cases), and in the Afterword, she makes some distinction between a revolution that takes place on merely the external level (which will be violent and have no lasting good effects) and a revolution that is a complete transformation of values. Much of the Afterword contrasts the authoritarian principle (which stands behind communism, socialism, and any statist scheme) and the libertarian principle (which sees at the base of her own anarchist ideology). There is plenty to think about there in her consideration of how freedom and order are related to each other.

One funny note: In nearly everyone of her first-time meetings, she is asked, “How close is America to the revolution?” And she, embarrassed by how little these comrades know, has to either let them down softly or give an account of the tiny groups of communists and anarchists in America. Even when she meets Vladimir Lenin, he leans over and eagerly asks, “When can the Social Revolution be expected in America?” And she just thinks, Wow, nobody here knows anything about what is going on in the world.

Unless someone is really interested in reading first-hand accounts of Russia at the time, I would recommend reading the Introduction and the Afterword as these contain the most thinking. Her encounters and conversations with important intellectuals and politicians, such as Gorky and Lenin, are also interesting, but she usually only gives snippets of what they talked about.

9E0FD20B-9B56-4760-8559-4D4F2ADD5EB3-2747-000002B917BF7E1AIt is now 100 years since 1917 when Russia had her revolutions, but these were not the only sweeping changes in that year. 1917 was the year that the Catholic Church promulgated for the first time a Code of Canon Law, reorganizing all ecclesiastical laws according to rational principles instead of relying on ever-increasing compilations of councils and papal decrees. It was not so violent a revolution, but it was the most sweeping change made in centuries, and it still shapes the Church in our own day and especially my own life, as I dedicate the next month to preparing for my canon law finals. I hope to pick up again this summer with Tolstoy and Undset. Until then, pray that all goes well!

Rosmersholm and new ideas poorly conceived

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Henrik Ibsen

My third classic is Rosmersholm, a play written by Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian writing in Danish. I only discovered this play after discovering that Rebecca West was only the pen name of the author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, one of my favorite works of literature, and that she took this pen name from a character in Rosmersholm. She was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, but she changed her name to Rebecca West while she was about 20 so that she could write articles in Freewoman, a feminist magazine, without raising suspicions in her mother who did not want her reading it. Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier, her first published novel, contains themes similar to Rosmersholm: unhappiness in marriage, the impossibility of leaving it, and the suspicion of a feigned mental condition.

Near the beginning of this play, we find out that Rosmer has stepped down from his role as a pastor. His reason for doing this is that he has adopted the “new ideas” and wants to support the more radical party. We do not know the reasons for his changes of view, except that he has begun reading new books. Later, we are given the impression that it probably had more to do with him falling in love with a woman who espoused such ideas and shared such books. This impression is confirmed inasmuch as he early on claims to find a new happiness and freedom in these ideas, and yet Rebecca West, his “friend”, admits her conviction that he could never be happy so long as his wife was living.

And just what are the views rejected by Rosmer? We know that he no longer believes “the dogmas of the [Lutheran] Church”, as if these were mere political opinions that he is now shedding. His brother-in-law, Kroll, though not a bad man, seems somewhat crusty and unpleasant in clinging to those old ideas tied up with religion and institution. Rosmer is also asked later on whether he had books on the “new ideas” about marriage, so we can presume that his understand of this institution was also altered—his friendship with Rebecca West confirms this as well.

And so how does his happiness in his new ideas go? An old teacher of Rosmer shows up, asking for some help so that he may be able to share his own new understanding, such as he never before wrote. But it is all spent on profligacy and wasted. Rosmer then wants to put his name behind the radical newspaper in town. But the editor argues that they are in greater need of a Christian who supports their ideas rather than a nonbeliever—indeed, that would hurt their cause. So Rosmer, glad to be free from the “faith of our fathers”, is now asked by a radical to feign belief for the greater cause. And finally, while enjoying the freedom he obtained from the death of his wife, Rosmer finds out that her death may have been instigated by Rebecca West. He thought she was mentally ill—but no, rather the wife suspected that Rosmer would be happier if he were free to marry someone else, and so she destroyed herself for the sake of his happiness. But he cannot be happy upon knowing this. For Rosmer, happiness is founded on a sense of one’s own innocence, but he now feels guilty for the death of his wife. Rosmer had hoped to ennoble men through the diffusion of his newfound happiness, but he can no longer do so. The irony is sharpened by the fact that Rosmer’s wife was named Beata, which is Latin for “happy” or “blessed”. It should not be a surprise that little happiness can come from the death of “the happy one”. One additional irony is that Rosmer, who can no longer ennoble souls as he hoped, once had a profession where this was his primary duty. At the end, he and Rebecca, no longer trusting themselves or each other, feel there is only one course of action left to them.

In many ways, this is the predicament of people in our own age. There is a dissatisfaction with the institutions and prejudices we find all over the culture, and yet in cutting ourselves free from this, we do not end up more free than we started. (This reminds me of an article on David Foster Wallace.) Fellow rebels end up either in mere indulgence or they end up betraying the love of truth that led them to reject their inherited norms to begin with, telling lies to justify their actions. Without any clear sense of a higher purpose, freedom becomes the agent lower purposes.

When Rosmer is warned at the beginning that he will be breaking all of his ties with his new positions, he nonchalantly responds that he will simply make new ties. And yet later, when Rebecca says she must return to the North, Rosmer’s only argument against it is that she has no connections up there, nobody that she knows. Alasdair MacIntyre and (from what I can remember) Luigi Giussani make a major point out of seeing one’s own life within a wider context. This alone does not say much, but it prevents one from making human life a lonely affair and indicates that there is something to be learned from our whole past, and from the past of all humanity.

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Rebecca West

The play is short but complex enough that one could write on many of its themes. I initially wanted to take Rosmer’s presupposition that happiness is prerequisite for ennobling others, and take this as a point of departure for considering Thomas’ teaching that Christ enjoyed beatitude even during his earthly life. Although this was once a common theological opinion, many rejected it as a mere relic of scholasticism without purpose. And yet the presupposition underlying it is similar to that held by Rosmer, “you can’t give what you don’t have.” If Christ is going to bring happiness/beatitude to all men, he must himself possess it, and in the highest degree. Another topic I wanted to look at more closely is why Rebecca West, the author, would choose such a name sake. This would require greater knowledge of her early life than I had time to acquire.