The following is an excerpt of an open letter to Emma Goldman (activist, anarchist and writer, 1869-1940) written in June, 2001 by writer, educator and activist Abigail Nadell Robin.
Living My Life is your great American epic: your thousand-page feminist, activist, dissenter, anarchist odyssey. In 1886, at the age of seventeen while living in Rochester, NY, you became committed to the philosophy of Anarchism hearing of the political trial and conviction of eight Chicago anarchists, five of whom were sentenced to death for allegedly throwing a bomb into a crowd of police at a workers rally in Haymarket Square. I traveled to Chicago and queried a number of people about the Haymarket incident, and where the statue “The Anarchists of Chicago” now stood.
A crew-cut, clean-shaven man accosted me in a Chicago sports bar on Wabash Avenue and asked, “Are you the anarchist?” I shook my head in the affirmative, and he responded. “Well, Ma’am, that statue sits in the police station. It had so much graffiti on it that we decided to protect it.”
Well, Emma how do you like that for irony?
You were an outsider, the other, borderless, carrying the burden of a consciousness conflicted between the ideas of individual and group power, and you sought a reconciliation of these antitheses. You never joined a union, but always worked on behalf of the workers as a class, the real productive power of this country. You worked against the wrong kind of social individualism: the uncontrolled policies of the few against the interests of the many.
On September 1, 1893, at a New York City Union Square workers demonstration, you were arrested and charged with “incitement to riot.” You responded to the judges with this potent statement: “If giving one’s life for the purpose of awakening social consciousness in the masses, a consciousness which will impel them to bring quality and not quantity in society be a crime, I am glad to be such a criminal.” But, Emma, your dream of uniting workers languishes. Workers do not yet share equitably in the profit of their labor. Poverty is still considered a crime; money continues to concentrate even more in the hands of the few and along with this, the misplaced ethic of power.
I write to you to tell you how your “beautiful idea” has evolved since your death in 1940. Unfortunately, most of humankind has not yet learned to live cooperatively and to think individually. Competition and greed continue to motivate the powers that be. Many wars have taken place since your death, most of which were caused by economic and religious belief systems. We continue to vie for control over Mother Earth’s resources, as well as our own resources of mind and body. But your courageous championing of autonomy, authenticity and individuality still live on. You wrote in Anarchy and Other Essays, “There is no conflict between the individual and the social instincts, any more that there is between the heart and the lungs; the one is the receptacle of the precious life essence, the other one the repository of the element that keeps the essence pure and strong. The individual is the heart of society, conserving the essence of social life; society is the lungs which are distributing the element to keep the life essence, that is, the individual, pure and strong.”
I’m sure that you’ll be happy to know that your beautiful ideals and ideas continue to be explored by courageous man and women whom you’ve inspired with the publication of your magazine, Mother Earth. I tell the story of your 1906 exploit when you had only two hundred and fifty dollars, “sorry capital with which to launch a magazine.” You had trouble coming up with a name and couldn’t use Walt Whitman’s poem, “The Open Road” because the copyright law stood in the way. How ironic this was! You added, “Walt Whitman would have surely turned in his grave if he knew that someone had dared to legalize the title.” After a country buggy ride with your friend, Max Baginski, the beautiful idea came to you. You wrote: “It was early February, but already the air was perfumed by the balm of spring. The soil was beginning to break free from the grip of winter, a few specks of green already showing and indicating life germinating in the womb of Mother Earth. ‘Mother Earth,’ I thought. Why, that’s the name of our child! The nourisher of man, man freed and unhindered in his access to the free earth!”
An idea was born and the “beautiful ideas” continue. Thank you, Emma.
Yours in solidarity,
Abigail Nadell Robin
Abigail Nadell Robin is a Hudson Valley NY educator and writer.
(Publisher’s Note: As the publisher of Lightwood, I felt that this “open letter” still had resonance for the 21st century reader. We invite your comments, ideas and rebuttals to this and all of the writing and imagery on our pages. L. Carr)