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!