TV movie review: Emma Goldman: an exceedingly dangerous woman (2003)

Emma Goldman and anarchism, with which she is usually linked, are rather enigmas to me. Anything that smacks of non-status quo thought or action tends to get labeled as treasonous and shoved aside in the US.

The documentary on Emma Goldman, which appeared in the American Experience series, sheds some light on her life and ideas. I strangely found that I didn’t know how her life unfolded after her deportation to the USSR in 1919—or really what happened to her before she arrived in the US. In fact, most of my knowledge of Goldman probably comes from the movie Reds.

Learning that she was quite the rabble-rousing speaker, charged with inciting others through speech, I am curious to read transcripts of her speeches, if they exist. She was depicted as an idealist—and naïve. Certainly her first-hand experience of the aftermath of the Russian Revolution ripped away the veil she was viewing the revolution through from afar. The revolution was anything but what she had been advocating for her whole life.

The documentary depicts anarchism, in theory non-violent but in practice sometimes violent (the end justifies the means), as an idealist philosophy. As the narrator talked about anarchism viewing people as basically good and able to live in a society without authority, I thought about other such societies that attempted to live out this philosophy and failed.

I also thought about how Goldman and other anarchists may not have thought that they succeeded in terms of how they defined success. But I think they did. By pushing society to the left, to more liberal labor and gender policies, and by introducing different social perspectives, anarchism and its proponents actually had a profound impact that we still feel today. Their perceived extremism raised issues and helped less radical elements in society achieve progress, such as 40-hour work weeks, contraceptives, sexual freedom, and equality.

How much progress in birth control or labor laws would have happened without the much maligned anarchists? Conversely, what ideas died because they were linked to this despised philosophy and the so-called Red Emma?

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