Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

One afternoon in mid-October a young woman—dressed in a white Victorian shirtwaist, long black
skirt and rimless glasses shorn of earpieces—stood up in
Zuccotti Park to announce that she was Emma Goldman and that she had traveled through time to tell those gathered in the park that she loved what they were doing. Nothing in the way of OWS street theater could have better invoked the spirit of the protest than the appearance of a principled anarchist, born nearly a century and a half ago, who never considered herself more American than when she was denouncing the brutish contempt in which capitalism held the feeling life of the individual.

“Feeling” was a key word for Emma Goldman. She always said that the ideas of anarchism were of secondary use if grasped only with one’s reasoning intelligence; it was necessary to “feel them in every fiber like a flame, a consuming fever, an elemental passion.” This, in essence, was the core of Goldman’s radicalism: a lifelong faith, lodged in the nervous system, that feelings were everything. Radical politics, in fact, was the history of one’s own hurt, thwarted, humiliated feelings at the hands of institutionalized authority.

It was the intensity with which she declared herself—in lecture halls, on open-air platforms, in school auditoriums and private homes, from theater stages and prison cells, the back of a truck or a courtroom stand—that made her world famous. That intensity—her signature trait—was midwife to a remarkable gift she had for making those who heard her absorb the pain inherent in whatever social inequity she was exposing. As the women and men in her audience listened to her, a scenario of almost mythic proportion seemed to unfold before their eyes. The homeliness of their own small lives became invested with a sense of drama that acted as a catalyst for the wild, vagrant hope—especially vulnerable to meanspirited times—that things need not be as they were.

This is the second time within living memory that an American movement protesting social injustice has rediscovered Emma Goldman and taken her emblematic life to its bosom. In 1970—when social unhappiness seemed to be erupting all over the United States—a young radical said, “The New Left today comes upon Anarchy like Schliemann uncovering Troy.” Reading those words today, one realizes that the ’60s counterculture as a whole—and the liberationist movements in particular—resonated strongly with that sentiment. Suddenly, in those politically aroused years, everyone in America who felt sacrificed, sold, betrayed, was adopting the speech and tactics of anarchistic rebellion. Thinking back, for instance—as this writer surely can—to the raging intemperateness of early radical feminism—“Marriage is an institution of oppression!” “Love is rape!” “Sleeping with the enemy!”—it’s easy to see that the first feminists of the ’70s and ’80s were primitive anarchists. When asked (as they were repeatedly) “What about the children? What about the family?” they snarled (or roared) “Fuck the children! Fuck the family! We’re here to declare our grievance, and make others feel it as we do. What comes later is not our concern.” In the main, these were women of the law-abiding middle class who, at this crucial moment of unmediated revolt, were sounding like professional insurrectionists.

“Unmediated” was the operative word in the ’60s and ’70s—and not for activists alone. The prevailing spirit of unmanaged release acted not only as a prod to break up social ossification but as a catalytic reminder of something deep in the human psyche that, ironically enough, attracted even as it alienated. In the ’60s, when the ordinarily respectable citizen was being confronted (swamped, invaded, deluged) by social rebels—in your face morning, noon and night—the sheer concentration of their outrage took your breath away. There was in it something primeval: some undiluted purity in the naysaying that thrilled even as it dismayed.

The remarkable extremity of thought and feeling now being acted on by those taking part in OWS is reminiscent of those years; similar, now as then, to the kind of free-floating anger that, having been so long suppressed, explodes with elemental force, as though to an awakening of something evil about life itself that is reflected in the inequities of organized society.

It is a moment when—later it will be different, but at this moment—a pent-up critical mass seems to experience the exercise of any authority as a form of intolerable oppression; and expresses itself in language that is both mad and exhilarating, brave and absurd, heart-sinking and heart-swelling; language that seems to speak directly to a sense of insult and injury—perhaps inborn in the race—that periodically gathers strength in the face of the kind of inequity that seems to reflect and extend the existential grievance. When a moment in cultural time arrives that such a mass is consciously identified with that grievance, the language in which it first expresses itself is, inevitably, that of primitive anarchism.

If ever there was a life that embodied the spirit that is driving the Occupy Wall Street movement it is that of Emma Goldman, who went to jail in 1893 for having stood on a soap box in Union Square in the midst of one of America’s worst depressions and, pointing at the mansions on Fifth Avenue, implored 3,000 unemployed men and women to ask the ruling class for work. “If they don’t give you work,” she cried, “ask them for bread. If they deny you bread, take it!” These words made those listening to Emma erupt in thunderous cheers; they also made J. Edgar Hoover describe her in 1919 (when he was urging the government to deport her) as The Most Dangerous Woman in America.