A Vicious Freedom Embraced: How America Has Shunned True Messengers

emma goldman

Emma Goldman

They were both born during the waning decades of the Russian Empire, one in St. Petersburg, the other in Kaunus (present day Lithuania). Though 36 years spanned their births, similarities abound, one being that they were both from Jewish families in a terribly anti Semitic era. Their childhoods were likely spent encompassed in something of a siege mentality, always being viewed as an “other” by society as a whole.

Both women opted to leave Russia upon entering young adulthood, emigrating to the land they felt could feed their dreams, the United States. But despite the similarity of their crucible, the dramatic differences become wildly evident when their adult philosophies emerged. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine two worldviews more at odds with each other.

The two larger-than-life women I’m talking about are Ayn Rand, the influential creator of the school of Objectivism, and Emma Goldman, the Anarchist leader often called the “most dangerous woman in America” during her time.

Ayn Rand was brought into the world under the name Alisa Rosenbaum by a relatively affluent St. Petersburg family. Even with certain monetary advantages, she witnessed arbitrary and capricious treatment due to religious persecution. She saw the rightful property of her family being seized, and that likely altered her basic sense of well-being and safety.

The tenets of her worldview are well known to detractors and supporters alike; I won’t go into those topics in great depth —  this is more an attempt to consider why a nation would embrace a corrosive social philosophy likely forged out of fear and possible revenge fantasy, rather than embrace ideals of individual liberty so often advertised as part and parcel of American identity.

Emma Goldman probably had her views influenced by extreme childhood experiences as well, but instead of a reactive response, she mourned for the lack of freedom most experience during their lives. It is odd to consider that she came from similar circumstances as Rand, and if anything her upbringing was more severe.

Emma was not wanted by her poor parents — they desired a boy, which they later had. Young Emma was treated quite harshly by her father — basically what we would term abuse in modern parlance. But somehow this little girl born in 1869 did not become subservient or bitter. It’s quite likely that she never had much in the way of material goods — so the sharp anger from unfair wealth seizure was never learned. Perhaps this was the defining characteristic that led her in another direction than the young Rand.

Another thought about Goldman — bones become stronger when subjected to weight bearing, and seedlings turn more malleable and resilient when buffeted by a bit of wind. In much the same manner, young Emma seems to have become strong and flexible in her beliefs, even in the presence of what we would consider adversity. It doesn’t always work out that way, of course, but the recipe seemed to take in this case.

ayn rand

Ayn Rand

When a youthful Ayn Rand landed on US shores it didn’t take long for her to find a home in Hollywood; she worked in that business before finding her voice as a best-selling author and guru to individuals like future Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan.

Her unapologetic advancement of selfishness as a “virtue” found many receptive ears. Her books have sold in astounding numbers over the years, new fans emerging from each successive generation. She is mentioned frequently (though not in a positive sense, of course) even on progressive sites; it’s evidence of the tenacity of her theories.

It’s fascinating and discouraging that her ideas found such fertile ground in a nation that professed to be all about independence. And a woman like Goldman who advanced just that, certainly never found the same sort of acclaim or acceptance that Rand did.

Rand’s themes are often about individual choice, but it’s a narrow class that gets to enjoy such things. Her “brand” bleeds with talk of liberty, but it’s a strange freedom that indicates all regulations are wrong, and unbridled selfishness can ever produce something of worth. It truly has turned into a rationalization for the wealthy to do exactly as they wish with a theoretical justification to back them up on it. And certainly every time a welfare momma is conjured for discussion, but a welfare corporation is given a pass, one can probably thank Randian philosophy adherents.

The true believers may argue that this wasn’t her intention, but it certainly seems to be the fruit of her labor — the justification of that hierarchical elite and a neurotic nervousness that someone might take something from them. The up is down absurdity of it all doesn’t seem to register as they grab up far more than their share of resources, and use their wealth to ensure a playing field that is anything but level.

Rand’s notion that that the wealthy are the only “producers” of any significance permeates American social discourse and bleeds into most of the punitive legislation enacted and considered. Though productivity has achieved profound efficiencies in the last few decades, the worker has not been the recipient of the increased profit realization. The broad acceptance of this situation smells of Randian philosophy.

Even the fact that capital gains are taxed at a much lower rate than traditional and actual work stems from this type of foundation. Somehow the wealthy are deemed to be deserving of lower tax rates on investments that require no actual sweat from them to enlarge…..yet the workers are the parasites! There seems to be a palpable disgust for those who will not step on others to achieve personal goals such as wealth accumulation-and perhaps it causes an uncomfortable discord, thus the irrational hatred of those who truly do the work.

It was probably such an easy sell because of the inherent laziness in a lot of American minds. I see it as the easiest and most comfortable path to take, and quite possibly a condition that belongs in a big fat psychiatric manual — not principles that should guide a “decent people”. It’s always much harder to love and understand the other. And it probably touches a nerve because we all do come across parasitic jerks on a daily basis — it’s easy to lose nuance and displace this anger away from the ones who truly deserve it. We swat at flies while a lion consumes the village.

emma goldman

A young Emma Goldman

Now when Emma Goldman arrived in the US, she found herself in a slightly different situation. She was only able to obtain seamstress positions with little dignity or pay. She promptly took to organizing, and found out almost by accident that she owned a powerful voice, which she decided to devote to the oppressed.

With every instance of state repression, her resolve hardened. Goldman’s talks engaged thousands over the years, discussing labor equity and fairness, as well as unusual topics for the time like free love and contraception.

Perhaps the most amazing bit of liberation she supported, considering the era, was an unabashed support for homosexual rights. Her agile mind debated and devoured those who spoke against any sort of individual liberty. She toyed with violence as a means for change, but eventually softened that tone with maturity. She simply couldn’t stand a group imposing its will on others.

Goldman’s philosophy pushed for the ruling overclass chains to be removed from the workers, and she was often very idealistic. An elderly man questioned her in regard to the impossibility of enormous change in his limited lifetime. This made Emma aware that tangible results, even small ones, needed to be attempted, as well as advancement of the big ideas. She kept fighting even as she was harassed and jailed, always hoping the nation would listen to her appeals for fairness.

The fact that we are revisiting the topics that Goldman spoke and wrote about are evidence of the timeless quality of her ideas. She was frustrated that, much like today, Anarchism was perceived to be about lawless disregard, not the realization of human potential without petty dictators and lords calling all the shots. Emma’s speeches would be at home at an Occupy Camp or as a rebuttal to the radical right’s latest assaults. But it is rare to see Goldman referenced, even in the populist type press- Rand, however dances in notoriety (probably the way she would want it).

Bits and pieces of Rand’s philosophy have been adopted and molded to fit existing desires of the self-perceived producers. They must have been thirsty for such a theoretical framework. It’s always delightful when the ears hear an echo of what is already believed, and her assertions resonate within the walls of power.

Of course, Anarchism isn’t a movement likely to be enjoyed by government types — this is a bit nonsensical, but probably not any more absurd than Rand fans running for office! The basic tenets of respecting individual dignity did not resonate much beyond the struggling working classes who would listen to Emma speak.

The siren song of Randian philosophy, which of course came a bit later, proved to be far more delicious to those in charge, and even to those aspiring to occupy elite positions in the future. No intelligentsia really emerged to advance Goldman’s thoughts in a broad manner. It’s all quite ironic since those who often espouse Rand’s views profess to care quite a lot about individual liberties — if this were true, then the thoughts of a radical like Goldman would be the truer fit. It lifts the veil in regard to what type of personal freedom they are advancing.

ayn rand

Ayn Rand

Both women lived into early senior citizen status.

Ayn Rand found her comfort shattered, however, by a diagnosis of lung cancer. The tremendous irony during her later years is that she opted to utilize the socialist design of the Medicare program to treat her ailment — the type of social safety net she would have readily disparaged as parasitic in the past. This fleshes out a slightly tragic, fearful hypocrite image — certainly not someone endowed with anything beyond a talent for rationalization. And this could describe our nation at this point as well.

Goldman found herself forced out of the country later in her life. She was sent to the Soviet Union by the US government as an attempt to purge immigrant troublemakers. Goldman found the lack of free speech there frightening and she even penned books discussing the failings of that model. Though termed “Red Emma” by detractors in the US, she showed that she would speak out against tyranny of any sort. She had no weak moments in her will when presented with adversity.

Goldman left The Soviet Union, hounded by immigration issues until her death. She continued to work and write, even providing personal inspiration to the Anarchist rebels during the Spanish Civil War. But her very last days were incredibly cruel as the amazing orator found herself stricken by a stroke and unable to speak.

She died in Canada, but her body was allowed back in the US to a final resting place in Illinois, her grave near those executed in the Haymarket affair.

It’s a fascinating thought experiment to consider if tenets of Goldman’s philosophy had trickled into the national consciousness in the same manner that Rand’s did. The fact that a woman espousing liberty and freedom from the chains of an oligarchy didn’t flourish more in a nation so able to fetishize its initial rebellion is telling.

Kathleen Peine

Kathleen Peine: Click image for more articles by Kathleen.

The country did opt to embrace the philosophy of one of these strong immigrant women — in effect, forging a national identity unlike any other. I would extend that the wrong woman was listened to in this nation that loves its superficial veneer of freedom — one that requires none of the depth of character that true respect for freedom requires.

Even so, Emma Goldman would probably say it is never to late for redemption. Me — I’m not so sure, but then again, it’s always easier to believe the worst than to fight for the best.

Kathleen Peine

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