“The world is on fire,” Woodrow Wilson told his personal physician attending to him in Versailles as he attempted to negotiate a treaty to end World War I. Across the Irish sea, William Butler Yeats was composing lines that still resonate: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned/ The best lose all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
Emma Goldman, the world’s most celebrated anarcho-feminist, was in jail in New York, charged with sedition. Big Bill Haywood, the super-hero of American labor syndicalism, was in and out of jail in Chicago on multiple counts of criminal syndicalism, espionage, and sedition. John Reed, the adventuring radical writer whose Ten Days That Shook the World about the Bolshevik Revolution thrilled millions (Goldman among them) was in transit between Finland and the just-born Soviet Union, certain to be jailed should he return to the United States.
All three would soon find themselves in Petrograd, where the fire that so worried President Wilson had first ignited.
The year was 1919. 1919 marks the end of the long nineteenth century. The social and cultural foundations of modern Europe and the United States, in place since the days of the French revolution, seemed on the verge of collapse. The whole intricate web of international relations responsible for a century of uneasy peace in Europe had unraveled in the war, virtually guaranteeing a brutish struggle for supremacy afterward.
Domestic politics in practically every country were in a constant uproar. The leading capitalist economies of Europe were in shambles, physically devastated, mired in debt, spiritually demoralized. Normal social and political life seemed impossible.
Instead, the chaotic rhythms of the street took over: the politics of resentment and revenge, of scapegoating and conspiracy-mongering, of the putsch and the revolutionary insurrection. That axiomatic faith in progress, reason, private property, and liberal democracy, which had once seemed so unassailable, was profoundly shaken.
At least since the days of the Paris Commune, a specter had haunted the western world. In 1919, the specter became flesh and blood. For some it was a nightmarish creature, a harbinger of a social pandemonium that would obliterate civilized life.
But for others — prominent among them Goldman, Haywood, and Reed — it was an augury of a new world bearing an emancipatory promise, an end to poverty and industrial squalor, self-destructive competition, racial and religious hatreds, patriarchy and psychic repression, war and imperial domination, the exploitation of man by man.
Everything held sacred by bourgeois society – the nuclear family, Christianity, the free market, parliamentary democracy, individualism – was imperiled, shadowed by hypocrisy and losing traction. A new society of fraternal cooperation and solidarity, gestating first in Petrograd, would, it seemed, nourish a new kind of human being, one no longer infected with the self-seeking possessiveness, envy, and the will to domination that seemed inherent in capitalist civilization.
Great forebodings and great expectations, exactly a century old, seem far older than that now; exaggerated, hallucinatory, quaint, dead. But they were not for those living with them in that extraordinary year.
Kicking Off Everywhere
While the victors met in Versailles and tried to put back together again a world undone by war, whole empires (the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian) were going out of existence. The Bolshevik Revolution not only controlled Russia but threatened to overrun Europe. The Russians soon formed the Communist (or Third) International determined to seize the moment and prompt Bolshevik risings everywhere.
Indeed, early in the year a workers’ rising in Berlin was mercilessly crushed (its leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were assassinated, Liebknecht shot in the back, Luxemburg’s body found floating in the Landwehr canal weeks later). The Weimar socialist government which had dealt so mercilessly with Luxemburg and her comrades then had to fend off an attempted right-wing military coup (the Kapp putsch).
Events in Berlin were followed by more successful, if brief, revolutions in Bavaria and Bremen, with the former declaring its independence. Then Bela Kun, an inconspicuous radical Hungarian journalist, overthrew the Magyar land magnate and polo-playing Count Karolyi, and established a soviet government in Budapest that lasted four months. Romanian and other armies sponsored by the Allies finally exterminated the revolution.
Factory seizures swept through Italy and France.
The governments of Austria and Italy nearly went under. Barcelona was paralyzed by a revolutionary strike. General strikes erupted in Paris, Lyons, Brussels, Glasgow, and Argentina. The president of Portugal was murdered. Uprisings broke out in Norway, Holland, Sweden, and the newly born Czechoslovakia. Great Britain trembled at the prospect of proletarian intransigence, while the Irish republicans prepared for civil war with their English overlords when they tried to suppress the Sinn Fein.
Even the normally placid Canadians were in an uproar as general strikes erupted in Winnipeg and Edmonton in the west, and Toronto and Nova Scotia in the east. In Winnipeg, the strike’s central committee replaced the elected government until the Royal Mounted Police put an end to that.
While the Red and White armies ranged back and forth across the plains of Poland, the great powers at Versailles, including the US, sent aid and arms in the hope of isolating and killing off the Bolshevik contagion. But French sailors ferried to the Black Sea mutinied rather than attack. Longshoremen in Seattle and San Francisco refused to load armaments destined for counter-revolutionary Admiral Kolchak in Vladivostok.
Movements of national liberation rocked the colonial world. The British army massacred home-rule demonstrators in Amritsar, India; in Turkey, Kamal Ataturk mobilized on behalf of Turkish independence against the imperial designs of the British and French. In Egypt, an insurrection threatened when the British deported the head of the nationalist movement.
Amidst this chaos and mayhem, Benito Mussolini formed the fascist party. Adolph Hitler joined what would become the Nazi movement. From a military hospital, he penned his first piece of anti-Semitic propaganda.
America, where people had for generations taken comfort from their continent’s apparent immunity to the upheavals of the Old World, was shocked to find its precious isolation at an end. Even American participation in the World War had failed to shatter the national equanimity; the experience had been so brief, so triumphant. The US emerged from the war as the world’s pre-eminent economic power. But in 1919 great expectations were shadowed by great forebodings.
Sixty thousand Seattle workers began the year with a general strike early in February, an all but unheard-of phenomenon in American history. Mayor Ole Hanson (elected with labor’s support) denounced the strikers as Bolsheviks and called out the marines. The unions, led by the metal workers and longshoremen, set up a kind of provisional government (over which the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, exerted real influence) to assure the carrying out of vital municipal services. A Soldiers, Sailors, and Workingmen’s Council (modeled on the Russian soviets) made a brief appearance (although it was honeycombed with spies).
The Seattle Central Labor Council endorsed the Bolshevik Revolution; its rallies against American intervention a month before the general strike had been assaulted by the city’s police. Although the strike was quashed in five days, people around the country were astonished that matters could reach such a pitch of civil rancor.
All through the rest of the year, strikes broke out virtually everywhere, 3,600 in total involving four million people: In the coal mines (where there was talk of nationalization), on the railroads, in the lumber camps, on construction sites, among telephone operators, down in the subways, on the killing floors of the stockyards, even Broadway, became sites of class conflict. Thousands of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, shut down the industry. In Butte, Montana, copper miners established a workers, soldiers, and sailors council to direct their struggle. A soviet popped up in Portland, Oregon.
Each and every disturbance seemed to harbor, at least for some Americans, the frightening prospect of social and political mayhem, or, on the contrary, the inspiring vision of general human emancipation. Neither vision was warranted by the actual confrontations.
And that is precisely the point. The times were out of joint. No one could take the real measure of the events swirling around them. Hyperbole was the norm.
After Seattle, two strikes in particular dominated the landscape of social and psychic derangement. In September, Boston police walked off the job. Although these supposed guardians of civil order — God-fearing Irish Catholics all of them — only wanted to join the sober-minded American Federation of Labor, every public official and every newspaper from Boston to San Francisco denounced them as “agents of Lenin,” compared Commonwealth Avenue to Nevsky Prospect in Petrograd, and described a “Bolshevik nightmare” of terror in the streets, even though the actual amount of looting and disorder remained remarkably limited.
The otherwise timorous governor of Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge, joined the rhetorical overkill, refused to negotiate, summoned the army and a volunteer militia of Harvard students, and as the “savior” of Boston, ignited an otherwise somnolent political career that eventually landed him in the White House.
Not long after Boston subsided, the nation’s single most important industry, steel, became an inferno of vigilante terror as the steel companies and their political allies responded ferociously to a strike by their vast (nearly 300,000) and largely immigrant workforce. In obscure industrial hamlets all across western Pennsylvania and Ohio men, women, and children were beaten and jailed and cowed into submission. The strike raged on through to the end of year.
The air filled up with what had become by this point in 1919 an obligatory rhetoric of “red terror. What made this oddly incongruous, poignant in fact, is that these allegedly Bolshevik steel workers were in fact rural proletarians recently recruited from the steppes of eastern and southern Europe and the cotton fields of Alabama. They knew next to nothing about socialism or revolution; instead, they were preoccupied with surviving the purgatory of the steel furnaces, a work life so bestial and dangerous and degrading it is virtually unimaginable to us today. No matter: the hysteria about “aliens” as carriers of a bolshevism gone viral could not be stilled.
In 1919, the epithet “un-American” tainted multitudes, since, as Clinton Stoddard Burr wrote a few years later, “most of the hordes of immigrants who have been pouring into the United States from the countries of Southern and Eastern Europe, from lands inhabited by races impregnated with radicalism, Bolshevism, and anarchy belong for the most part to the lower strata of humanity.”
Since it was practically axiomatic that African Americans were “alien,” the same stigma attached to unruly black steel workers; indeed, the dozens of race riots that coursed through American cities and towns that year persuaded people like President Wilson that “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying bolshevism to America.” Wilson no doubt took note that during and after the nation’s largest and most fatal race war in Chicago 250,00 workers were on strike in that city.
But all this talk of radical infestation was not pure fantasy. During the war years, various sub-species of anti-capitalist insurgents — socialists, syndicalists, anarchists, Wobblies, and eventually communists — were active and hunted down by the government.
Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (a one-time progressive-minded Democrat who had favored women’s suffrage and trade unionism) initiated a series of raids against radical organizations throughout the country. Palmer deliberately began them on November 7, 1919, the second anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution.
In a first wave, federal, state, and local authorities arrested a thousand; then later another 4,000 in 33 cities. If the imprisoned were immigrants, they were denied any semblance of due process. And the raids rolled on through the steel and coal mine and railroad uprisings. Palmer’s list of sixty-eight prominent persons allegedly holding “dangerous, destructive, and anarchist sentiments” included social workers Jane Addams and Lillian Wald and historian Charles Beard.
Headquarters were pillaged and wrecked, posse-style justice meted out, and hundreds of radical-minded immigrants were deported (including Emma Goldman, who, as she sailed out of New York on the US Buford — dubbed the “Soviet Ark” — with 249 fellow deportees gazed shoreward and noted in melancholic irony: “It was my beloved city, the metropolis of the New World. It was America indeed, indeed America repeating the terrible scenes of tsarist Russia! I glanced up – the Statue of Liberty!”). By the time they were done, Palmer’s raiders had discovered three pistols and no explosives.
“Big Bill” Haywood, the larger-than-life hero of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), idolized by working stiffs and Greenwich Village bohemians alike, fled the bail bondsman and the prospect of twenty years in prison. Shipping out on a false passport, he went off to Stockholm and then to his final destination in the Soviet Union. Like Goldman, he had his own intimate moment with Lady Liberty: “Goodbye. You’ve had your back turned on me for too long. I am going to the land of freedom.”
Before all that, however, when the IWW remained a force to be reckoned with, Wobbly organizer Wesley Everest, a lumberjack who had served in France, was cornered in the backwoods of Centralia, Washington, where he was castrated and hung by an enraged mob of businessmen, American Legionnaires, and local thugs. The leader of the steel strike, William Z. Foster, was a well-known syndicalist. This made him an ideal target for those who wanted to believe that the “bohunks” had walked away from their furnaces not because they were dropping dead from exhaustion at the end of twelve-hour days of stupefying heat, but rather because they were being ministered to by satanic intriguers.
Mother Jones rallied the strikers noting that, “Our Kaisers have stomachs of steel and hearts of steel and tears of steel for the ‘poor Belgians.” She declared them to be “czars” relying on the help of mercenary “cossacks” to save their “slave” empire.
Anarcho-terrorists mailed off thirty-eight bombs hoping to incinerate the high and mighty, including John D. Rockefeller, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Secretary of Labor Wilson, among others. An Italian suicide bomber blew himself up outside Palmer’s Washington home, presumably the event that unleashed the Attorney General’s own reign of terror against dissent tout court. A house servant for Senator Thomas R. Hardwick lost his hand opening an exploding package at the senator’s house in Atlanta.
Bomb scares continued through the year and into the next, when a great explosion in front of the Morgan bank at 23 Wall Street wreaked havoc, killing more than thirty, wounding scores more.
The Politics of Fear and Paranoia
A great fear hovered over the country. People talked and behaved strangely.
A Connecticut clothing salesman went to jail for six months for saying Lenin was smart. In Chicago, a sailor shot a man for not rising during the national anthem. In Indiana, a jury took two minutes to acquit a man for killing an alien who had shouted, “To hell with the United States.”
General Leonard Wood suggested deporting radicals in “ships of stone with sails of lead.” A senator from Tennessee proposed shipping native-born radicals to a special penal colony in Guam.
Every mystery had the same solution. A huge storage tank in Boston harbor filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses exploded. Like a slow motion tidal wave, fifteen meters high and twenty-five meters wide, the molasses rolled irresistibly through the city’s streets, burying carriages, cars, houses, and warehouses, drowning people and animals. It took two months for heavy hydraulic pumps to rid the city of the molasses. Horses stuck in the goo were put out of their misery. Naturally, anarchists were blamed, but there was no proof.
Attorney General Palmer declaimed that “the whole purpose of communism appears to be the mass formations of the criminals of the world to overthrow the decencies of private life…to disrupt the present order of life regardless of health, sex, or religious rights.” He went on to denounce the “hysterical neurasthenic women who abound in communism.” He worried about revolutionary heat “licking the altars of the churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes to replace marriage vows with libertine laws.”
Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding lamented, “I really think we are facing a desperate situation. It looks to me as if we are coming to a crisis in the conflict between the radical labor leader and the capitalistic system under which we have developed the republic.” Evangelist Billy Sunday thought it might be a good idea to “stand radicals up before a firing squad and save space on our ships.”
From the other shore, John Reed painted a prose portrait of Judge Landis – a jurist of transparent prejudices who had sent dozens of anti-war radicals off to long jail terms on the flimsiest of legal pretexts — and gave him “the face of Andrew Jackson three years dead.”
Although these remarks are in some sense ravings, no one should think that their underlying concerns were merely the rabid hallucinations of extremists, of a fringe of revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. The President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, had this to say when he cabled Congress from Versailles: “The question which stands at the front of all other questions amidst the present great awakening is the question of labor.”
Wilson echoed a universal presentiment that fateful fundamentals were at stake. The president’s days as an active force in public life were numbered as he suffered a disabling stroke and heart attack in September. But his sense that America, along with the rest of the world, had arrived at a kind of judgment day had a long history stretching back to the Gilded Age.
It echoed the fatal Haymarket bombing of 1886, the slaughter at Carnegie’s Homestead Steel works in 1892, the terrible Ludlow massacre of women and children in 1914 at Rockefeller’s Colorado coal mines, and dozens of local confrontations that had accumulated until they reached critical mass and detonated in 1919.
As Wilson’s remarks and the bloody atmosphere into which he deposited them suggest, the “labor question,” just as in Europe, was the ne plus ultra of this extraordinary moment. Why? To our “post-industrial” ears, especially in the United States, there is something strange about this fact. If we think about the “labor question” at all today, what comes to mind are pedestrian conflicts over wages and hours and life on the job.
There was a time, however — and 1919 was that time’s climactic moment — when the “labor question” interrogated the fabric of American life. Many of the most memorable events of 1919, both here and abroad, pitted massed proletarians against all the institutions of political and industrial authority.
More than that, they alarmed or inspired people, because their outcome, many believed, would decide a whole range of matters: whether the traditional nuclear family would survive or give way to something more open-ended and communal; whether relations between men and women would remain patriarchal or become more egalitarian; whether existing systems of racial subordination would endure or die; whether bourgeois decorum, sexual restraint, and respect for material acquisition would succumb to more bohemian and openly erotic sensibilities; whether God was truly dead or not; whether the nation-state would give way to some form of global government, or perhaps more extremely, lose its distinctive tribal definition.
Utopia and dystopia collided head on. For generations, men and women devoted to the Enlightenment faith in progress and reason, but estranged from industrial capitalism, had dreamt of a proletarian emancipation which would simultaneously liberate all of humanity. The crack-up of the old order, first in war and then in revolution abroad, gave license to prophesy the arrival of that glorious day when the whole of repressive bourgeois life would join the exploitation of labor in the museum of humanity’s pre-history.
Homeland of the Revolutionary Dream
Goldman, Haywood, and Reed were all prophets of that emancipated tomorrow. Whether voluntarily or driven there by circumstances, all three ended up in Petrograd.
Reed died there, and his ashes are buried beneath the Kremlin’s walls. Haywood also died there, and half his ashes lie near Reed’s (the other half in Waldheim cemetery in Chicago, where the anarchists executed for the Haymarket bombing are entombed). Goldman after a time, left utterly disillusioned with what Bolshevism had become. But while she was there, and despite her anarchist reservations about what she considered Marxism’s dangerous attachment to the state, she defended the revolution with all the fervor and resoluteness which had earned her high regard and intense loathing almost from the moment she arrived in the United States in the late 1880s.
John Reed first came to Petrograd in September 1917, just after the combined might of the workers, peasants, and soldiers’ soviets had repelled the attempted counter-revolutionary putsch of the czarist general Alexander Kornilov. It was love at first sight, a passion that inflamed his classic account of the days leading up to the Bolshevik triumph.
In those perilous times no one knew if the Revolution could survive, but for Reed, “whether it survive or perish…it will have shown that dreams can come true.” It would stand as “a pillar of fire for mankind forever.”
Ten Days That Shook the World combined that poetry, pageantry, heroism, and romance which had distinguished Reed’ s journalism for years. Returning to the United States, he braved the suffocating atmosphere of state repression to address gatherings of thousands: “My people weep with joy to know that there is something like dreams come true in Russia.”
During the few short years left to him, Reed remained a committed Bolshevik, a founder of the American Communist Party, and the American delegate to the Third International. He died in 1920 due in part to a typhus infection he’d contracted on a mission to Baku at a Congress of Eastern Races Lenin asked him to attend.
As Reed lay dying back in Petrograd, he was nursed by Emma Goldman. She had spent a good part of her working life as a nurse. She and Reed of course had known each other for years; they addressed the same rallies, marched on the same picket lines, spent evenings together at gatherings of radical artists, writers, and intellectuals in Greenwich Village and Provincetown. To the last, she loved his youthful exuberance and was devastated by his death. When Goldman arrived in the Soviet Union, Reed was one of the first people she sought out at the Hotel Astoria in Petrograd, where they celebrated their reunion.
Goldman already was harboring reservations about the role of the Soviet secret police (the Cheka), but Reed reassured her: “You are a little confused by the Revolution in action because you have dealt with it only in theory.” Reed convinced her, if only temporarily, that whatever its shortcomings, the revolution had to be defended against the armies of counter-revolution surrounding it on all sides and undermining it from within.
In the end, those reassurances proved hollow. Goldman grew increasingly suspicious not only of the Cheka and its terror, but of the more general Bolshevik disregard of democratic protocols, the wholesale quashing of opposition parties, the emasculation of the soviets, the privileges accorded the upper echelons of the Bolshevik party amidst the severe privations most Russians faced during the period of “war communism,” the rampant corruption infesting state bureaucracies, and so on.
Given all that, however, and mindful of her lifelong, profound theoretical differences with the socialist (not just Bolshevik) commitment to state intervention, it is even more remarkable how passionately she defended the revolution — and for how long she kept silent about its transgressions.
Like Reed, she believed in its promise: “The October Revolution was the culmination of passionate dreams and urgings.” Even earlier, at the outbreak of the revolution in February, Goldman and her lifetime comrade Alexander Berkman considered returning to their homeland — something they had often mused about doing for years — and were urged to do so by Leon Trotsky, who was about to leave New York himself, and who, like Goldman, considered Kerensky’s provisional government then ruling Russia to be rotten to the core.
Dark days in wartime America were lightened for her by news of October, which carried “the message of fulfillment of the supreme promise of the Revolution.” At first, Goldman depicted the Bolsheviks as brilliant, demonstrating the courage of martyrs. She condemned those among the liberal and even radical intelligentsia who joined in the anti-Bolshevik hysteria then gripping America. Reed’s famous book (which she read while incarcerated in a Missouri penitentiary) transported her back to her homeland for “ten glorious days.”
Goldman spent two years in a federal penitentiary, then was deported aboard the Buford (trailed by a British man-of-war for fear the Bolshevik-minded deportees might revolt on board). She and her fellow exiles traveled in a locked train from the port of Hango in Finland to the Soviet border. Nearly there, her “heart trembled with anticipation and fervent hope.” There at last:
Sacred Russia! Sacred Ground! Magic People! You have come to symbolized humanity’s hope, you alone are destined to redeem mankind. I have come to serve you, beloved matushka. Take me to your bosom, let me pour myself into you, mingle my blood with yours, find my place in your heroic struggle.
Big Bill Haywood had already achieved super-hero status among legions of embattled workers and disaffected intellectuals. He was as well the primal anti-hero of the country’s establishment; the New York Times considered him “the most hated and feared figure in America.”
Haywood, Goldman, and Reed had shared many battlefronts. And Haywood too saw in the Bolshevik revolution the living embodiment of an emancipation he’d devoted much of his rough life to achieving. Incarcerated in Chicago, he was ecastatic to hear news of October and the prospect of global insurrection: “We have lived to see the breaking of the glorious Red Dawn.” Only his forced isolation from history in the making depressed him.
Haywood and the IWW he had helped create were first and last committed to action, not theory. The Bolsheviks had acted when others drew back so that Big Bill could see in the Revolution a Russian facsimile of what the Wobblies were all about; October was “the greatest event of our lives… the dawn of freedom and democracy.”
When he disembarked in Riga in 1921, he was immediately honored by the Bolsheviks and offered his services with enthusiasm. Lenin suggested he help develop an industrial colony in western Siberia along the Ural Mountains the “Autonomous Industrial Colony of Kuzbas”). He was expected to recruit thousands of American engineers and skilled workers to open coal mines, build steel plants, and pioneer modern farming. He tried but failed; he harbored feelings that he had been manipulated by party hierarchs.
Haywood returned to Moscow, diabetic and in generally poor health, drinking heavily, with few friends except for occasional visits from American comrades. He died there in 1928 and was given an elaborate state funeral.
A ruin of what he had once been, deeply longing to return to the fray in America or at least to the rugged landscape of the Rocky Mountain west that had nurtured him, alienated from the theoretical disputations that preoccupied the communist world, Haywood nonetheless remained a Bolshevik loyalist to the end, grateful not only for the revolution’s hospitality but for its historic accomplishments.
Exiled No More
“Exile” is not quite the best word to describe the condition of these three revolutionists. True, they weren’t welcome in the United States (Haywood would almost certainly have spent the rest of his life behind bars; Reed would most likely have done jail time as well; Goldman was simply outlawed from returning). And it’s true too that had they been able to come back, they would have, to carry on the struggle.
But when they set sail for Petrograd, they were consciously heading to their spiritual homeland — in exile no more.
The magnetism of October, however briefly it lasted, was so great for these three, as it was for millions around the world, that it is hard to calculate today. 1919, an exceptional, nearly apocalyptic year, began in 1917. For these three exiles, it was the summa of their loftiest aspirations, the justification for all they had endured. It was the righteousness of History with a capital “H.” They shared that faith.
Yet how utterly different they were. Not their doctrinal affiliations. Haywood was a syndicalist, Goldman an anarchist, Reed a free-floating radical writer until his conversion to communism. Those were distinctions that under ripe conditions could generate a lot of heat and bitter polemic.
But instead what is most striking is the vast distance separating their social origins. So too, the worlds in which they first established their bona fides as anti-capitalist heroes had little if anything to do with each other — or so it seemed.
The road that nonetheless led them all to Petrograd illuminates sub-surface tectonics characteristic of industrial and finance capitalism’s formative phase.
Emma Goldman hailed from a modestly middle-class Jewish family in Russia, not rich certainly but with enough to afford household servants. It was a tightly-knit and rather oppressive patriarchy, a religious but not a devout home. She was a diligent student, an avid reader and music lover.
Instinctively rebellious, Goldman, even as a teenager, was drawn from afar to the revolutionary, anti-czarist, pre-Bolshevik Narodnik movement, admired its heroes, including its czarist assassins, and the prominent role played by its female activists. She virtually committed to memory What is To Be Done?, the novel by Nikolai Chernyshevksy which effectively served as the Narodnik bible.
It was a demanding gospel. In Goldman’s case it instilled a sense of high moral purpose and self-sacrificing devotion to the cause even unto death which lodged in the marrow of her character for the rest of her life.
In the New World, she found her home away from home in the urban barrios and industrial ghettoes of the immigrant working classes. To be sure, her appeal eventually reached deep into the ranks of middle class reformers, most especially among feminists and defenders of the right of free speech. Her anarchism, however, was first of all a socialist-inflected anarchism, for which she tirelessly proselytized among German, Italian, Polish, Russian, and of course Jewish workers (with whom she periodically worked as a seamstress).
If her anarchism had a natural seedbed, it was among the dispossessed streaming to America from the desiccated provinces of southern Italy, from the evacuated steppes of eastern Europe, and from the impoverished shtetls of the Pale of Settlement. They constituted a first-generation industrial proletariat, barely removed from their former lives as peasants and small villagers. Stark encounters with the miseries and autocratic regimes of the medieval sweatshop and modern factory and with the brutal apparatus of corporate and state repression would make them combustible human material. That was Goldman’s conviction.
Anarchism in America never amounted to much as an organized movement. But those who advocated in its name, none more so than Emma Goldman, found enthusiastic listeners in the thousands.
Some were middle-class reformers and radicals who recognized in its precepts, especially in its uncompromising belief in individual freedom, a philosophical kinship with the teachings of people like Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Wendell Phillips.
Goldman herself was alert to that connection; it echoed her earliest infatuation with the Narodniks. But she was really an anarcho-communist for whom emancipation was a social act that would do away with capitalism and the propertied individualism it fostered.
And she was a woman of the world, a cosmopolitan, open to the disruptive currents of modern life, whether in the realm of marriage and sexual relations or the modernist breakthroughs in art and literature. However, sexual freedom, gender and racial equality, artistic experimentation, freedom of thought and speech were for Goldman integral features of a more fundamental liberation of the immigrant working classes among whom she had lived and worked.
Rejecting the whole of bourgeois life – its materialism, mammon worship, moral hypocrisy, and imaginative sterility – was the revolution’s mission. She might have agreed with the New York Times’ verdict about the Armory Show in 1913, that its contributors were “cousins to the anarchists in politics.”
A Roughneck Through and Through
Big Bill Haywood held to the same set of convictions. But he came of age in very different circumstances. Poor from the start. His father was a one-time pony express rider who died when Bill was three; by the age of nine he was working in the mines.
Haywood was a roughneck and proud of it. He was tutored by life and did most of his book learning when he was behind bars.
Later in life, when the government was hunting him down, intent on obliterating the IWW, Haywood made one thing clear: “They can’t stop us. No matter what they do we will go on until we — the roughnecks of the world — will take control of production and work when we please and how much we please. The man who makes the wagon will ride in it himself.”
Haywood’s world was full of roughnecks: cowboys; gold, silver, and metal miners; migrants harvesting corn and wheat; stevedores; itinerant prospectors; lumberjacks, mostly born and raised in the mountains and plains of the American West. As a boy and young man, Haywood did most of those jobs; he mined and tried prospecting, did a stint as a cowboy, tried homesteading and went bust. He lived in the country’s industrial outback; the land of extractive capitalism.
Here, labor was outdoors, often in isolated desert or mountain locales, and dangerous. Mines caved in or exploded or filled lungs with toxic fumes. Steers impaled cowhands, rustlers threatened them. Blizzards and droughts, floods and insect invasions made farming hellish. Tall trees crushed the incautious lumberman.
Employment was casual, which means it came and went with the fickle fortunes of far-away markets or simply because a mother lode of ore played out sooner than expected. Boom towns turned into ghost towns practically overnight.
This was the “precariat,” if there ever was one. A rootless proletariat, some still harboring dreams of escape — maybe through a lucky strike prospecting, maybe by running a small herd of one’s own — comprised a roaming army tramping the roads and riding the boxcars in search of survival. Transitory and violent, populated mainly by single males, the social universe created by extractive enterprise, small and big, bred a kind of insouciance and an impromptu sense of fraternity that Haywood made his own.
Twelve-hour days bent over a sewing machine in a garment sweatshop in New York or tending to the white-hot blast furnaces of Pittsburgh could be just as exhausting, injury ridden, and spendthrift when it came to human life. The same drive to accumulate capital operated in the small, pre-mechanized mines of Utah and Nevada where Haywood first worked as drove primitive tenement workshops in Philadelphia and St. Louis familiar to Goldman. The same compulsion to accumulate on penalty of commercial failure made the engines hum in the Mellon family’s high-tech, hard-rock mines out West as it did at Carnegie’s modern steel works in Homestead, Pennsylvania.
Otherwise, however, Haywood and Goldman were nurtured and matured in radically different environments: urban or rural, migratory or in settled ethnic enclaves, among immigrants or the native-born, among uprooted peasants and stigmatized minorities or among indigenous vagabonds, among people attached to Old World mores and faiths or those cut adrift, speaking two dozen languages or an American vernacular.
The social ecologies that characterized the extractive capitalism of the Rocky Mountain West and the industrial capitalism further east were genetically linked. They were kin but not identical twins. Those who lived and worked in these separate spheres carried with them distinctly different histories and outlooks on life; their motivations and desires, their social as well as their work experiences set them apart, if not at odds with one another.
Still, the IWW was always committed to building “One Big Union” to include all of laboring humanity. Immigrants who had lost their homesteads in Scandinavia and worked the Mesabi iron range became Wobbly militants. And the IWW enjoyed moments of high drama among the immigrant working classes of the East.
The strike in 1912 by thousands of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts — women and men whose birthplaces would have blanketed a map of Europe and the near East — was led by the Wobblies and was a victory. A year later, a mass strike by the polyglot silk workers of Patterson, New Jersey, was also a Wobbly-inspired uprising. It ended in defeat.
Goldman and Haywood featured prominently in both. Indeed the “Patterson Pageant,” a staged re-enactment of the strike in Madison Square Garden, designed to marshal public sympathy and support, was the brainchild of Goldman, Haywood, and especially John Reed, a brilliant tour de force dreamed up at a Greenwich Village salon they all three regularly attended.
These East Coast uprisings were spectacular. Haywood and the Wobblies scared the readers of the New York Times. But whether in victory or defeat, they left little behind in the way of enduring organization. Rather, the Wobbly brand of syndicalism found its most loyal adherents back where it began.
At its peak during World War I (but before the United States entered the conflict which initiated the inexorable government-led destruction of the movement), the IWW had a membership of at least 100,000 (and probably a good bit more than that). Most worked the mines, forests, shipyards, ranches and farms of the Great Plains, the ranges of the Rocky Mountains, and the vast treed wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, and the turpentine plantations of the southern pine barrens. This was heartland territory for the Wobblies and for Haywood.
Goldman and Haywood (and Reed too) became international celebrities, traveling the world. Haywood was a hero not only among European radicals and labor activists as was Goldman, but even in such far-off places as Australia and New Zealand where syndicalism had laid down roots.
But Goldman, not Haywood, was the true cosmopolitan: learned, literary, at ease crossing class lines, at home on both sides of the Atlantic. Haywood, for all his global notoriety remained the untutored provincial, a rootless roughneck at home on the road.
The Patrician Revolutionary
John Reed uprooted himself. His origins were light years away from either Goldman’s or Haywood’s. Born into inherited wealth, his grandfather had been a merchant connected to the Astor fur trading empire in the days when Portland, Oregon, was still a frontier town. His father managed the estate, which also included holdings in public utilities, served the city of Portland as a Teddy Roosevelt progressive reformer, and instilled in his son a proper bourgeois work ethic, the family’s treasure notwithstanding.
Reed grew up with liveried servants, in a compound surrounded by formal gardens and greenhouses, riding the family’s horses, socializing at the city’s poshest country club, living the life of a carefree beau ideal while absorbing the finest education at prep school and eventually Harvard.
He gave all of that up to become a troubadour of the revolution, years before it erupted in Petrograd. The phenomenon is a familiar one; the offspring of aristocrats or the landed gentry or merchant princes or the haute bourgeoisie rejecting a life of privilege and siding with the underclasses.
This was the case, for example, for the Decembrist plotters against Czar Alexander early in the nineteenth century, for the Narodniks Goldman idolized, for Russian anarchists like Prince Peter Kropotkin, and even for a few Bolsheviks.
The same social inversion is detectable in Western Europe beginning with the French Revolution and emerging again and again in the socialist, syndicalist, and anarchist movements of the nineteenth century and beyond. It is a telltale sign that ruling elites are finding it difficult to reproduce themselves culturally, and that the legitimacy of the existing order of things is in question.
Family ruptures of this sort could be emotionally violent and irreparable. Reed, however, remained a devoted son even as he moved further away from his native bourgeois turf, its ways of life and cherished values. Beginning with his time at Harvard, Reed increasingly thought of himself as a knight errant for social justice. His spear was his pen, wielded mainly as a journalist but also as a poet and would-be novelist.
Reed wrote with fervor as well as with acute observation and insight, about the lives of Lower East Side poor. He went to Mexico to write about and even team up with Pancho Villa and his peasant army. A revolutionary, a general, an uneducated peasant, a democrat, and a highwayman, Villa was irresistible to someone of Reed’s temperament and political inclinations. He penned informative, vivid reports.
Along with them came an underlying fascination with the down and out, with tales combining masculine toughness and rough justice showing up in the barely visible warrens of the urban working class or in the deserts and mountains of rural Mexico. The subterranean worlds of sailors, prostitutes, cowboys, and hoboes were Reed’s oyster.
This wasn’t just a kind of romantic slumming. Reed immersed himself in a fellowship of writers, artists, and intellectuals who felt similarly disaffected from the norms of bourgeois life, in search of social, moral, and even aesthetic alternatives.
That began at Harvard where, while still living the life of the bon vivant, he also gravitated toward the university’s Socialist Club, at which other young men of privilege like Walter Lippman criticized the abhorrent features of Gilded Age capitalism. From Harvard he went to live in Paris, on the Left Bank, and then returned to “settle” (though Reed’s peripatetic life was hardly ever settled) in its bohemian American cousin, Greenwich Village.
There were a critical mass of people, more or less of his social background, migrating to New York from all over the country with a shared antipathy for capitalism,. They who quarreled fiercely over monogamy, terrorism, the role of government, sexual freedom, socialism, outré styles of painting and theater, the rise and fall of the nuclear family, war, pacifisim and much more.
This Village milieu, and on its outer fringes a much broader spectrum of middle-class people disturbed by the inequalities and corruptions of public life — if not quite as radical in their political inclinations — formed a kind of culture of resistance. And with great intensity and imaginative energy, this culture of resistance searched for ways out.
A Russian-Jewish anarchist, a roughneck from the mountains, and a man in self-imposed exile from bourgeois privilege could find common ground. All were uprooted and ready to link their fates to the uprooted everywhere.
The decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century bore the indelible marks of this all-sided social and cultural upheaval. Anarchism, syndicalism, and communism had small, committed followings. Socialism attracted larger numbers, but only for a short while.
But these movements were embedded in much broader and deeper antipathies. Capitalism by its nature is disruptive, penetrating and exploiting and subduing alien life forms. Naturally, it invited opposition, never more adamant than when it first appeared, so strange and ruthless. More than that, it inspired visions, whether concrete or vague, of some future cooperative commonwealth rather than the savagely competitive and destructive one that had descended on the country.
During those formative years, stretching from the antebellum period and with increasing intensity into the first decades of the new century, capitalism’s enemies appeared everywhere.
Workingmen’s parties, Greenback-Labor parties, the Northern and Southern farmers alliances, the Anti-Monopoly movement, the Eight-Hour Day crusade, the Populist Party, the Knights of Labor, the nationalist clubs of spawned by Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the Single-Tax movement — these were not sectarian gatherings but mass insurgencies. Novelists and poets, muckraking journalists and rebellious clerics and rogue intellectuals, aligned themselves with these upheavals, and mounted a multi-dimensional cultural moral, political, and ethical interrogation and indictment of the new order.
Considerable social distances separated Goldman, Reed, and Haywood. Their institutional affiliations and specific political perspectives differed. But each, in her or his own way, articulated a common language not merely of protest or criticism, but one that depicted a future without capitalism.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, that future world was more often than not described as a cooperative commonwealth; by 1919, socialism.
Haywood and Goldman both pointed to Haymarket and the executions that followed as turning points in their lives.
Haywood learned about the Knights of Labor as a young miner. During the depression of the 1890s he briefly joined “General Charlie Kelly’s Army” of the unemployed in Reno, one of several such “armies” tramping through America of which the more famous was the brigade led by Jacob Coxey. A first draft of the IWW’s founding document envisioned its purpose as the establishment of a “Cooperative Commonwealth.”
Goldman often alluded to the cooperative alternative. The founder of the Masses magazine, Peter Vlag, was a long-time proponent of the cooperative movement. Reed’s enduring admiration of his father honored his commitment to progressive reform in a town of complacent Babbits.
All three became famous and infamous figures in public life because they drew on a deep grammar of defiance that had grown lush over decades of use by rebels before them. The October Revolution, for a moment, seemed to embody all that energy and hope; all roads led to Petrograd.
Revolution breaks all the rules. Goldman, Haywood, and Reed were all law-breakers; or at least indicted for doing that. There are features of American capitalism in its youth, of the resistance movements it spawned, and of the experiences of these three rebel celebrities which reflect the unsettled state of this new way of life.
“Wage slavery” was a common phrase during the Gilded Age (virtually unthinkable to use today). It suggests how startling the appearance of an American proletariat seemed. It lived on the borders of the national imagination, visible but in shadow, unknown, inarticulate, ominous.
A sliver of the American working class — the most highly skilled, native American or west European craftsmen — escaped this social oblivion; they got educated, acquired modest homes, earned a certain social esteem, participated in conventional civic and political life, and joined American Federation of Labor affiliated unions. Radicals tried to win them over. And the AFL did for years include a small socialist presence. But the proletariat that Goldman, Reed, and Haywood found more hospitable was far more marginal to the American mainstream.
Marginal is an odd word to describe such an immense population. Yet it is apt for a country in which the industrial capitalism that was producing and reproducing this new social species was itself so recently born. Marginality, moreover, is one way of capturing salient traits and behaviors that made the era so fraught and lent the lives of these three exiles such cachet.
They were outlaws according to various local, state and national police and judicial authorities and they embraced the stigma. They were unruly, insubordinate, and proud of it. One might call them the intellectuals of the outlaw classes.
Goldman was not merely an anarchist. She identified with that wing of the movement which believed in “propaganda of the deed,” the politically purposed act of terrorism which she characterized as an act of sublime heroism. She was the accomplice of lifelong comrade Alexander Berkman in his failed attempt to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, the coke mining baron who, as the acting manager of Carnegie’s steel works oversaw the slaughter of the company’s striking workers at Homestead (with Carnegie’s full knowledge and consent).
She went so far as to try her hand at sex work to get money to arm Berkman for the assault. When the anarchist Leo Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley in 1901, there was a national cry to jail Goldman as his inspiration and collaborator. There was no collaboration, and Goldman had only the most fleeting encounter with Czolgosz.
But in the days leading up to his swift execution and for years afterwards, she defended him in principle, explaining to all who would listen and in the face of repeated efforts to shut her up, how the barbarism of the powerful drove the powerless to retaliate.
Recognizing the horror associated with this kind of political violence, and that Czolgosz was a “soul in pain” afflicted with “too sensitive a social consciousness,” she nonetheless “bowed in reverenced silence” before his “strength to stand and die alone.” In Goldman’s view, “Anarchism claims the right of Defense against the Invasion and Aggression of every shape and form and no one who has his eyes open will and can deny that those in Power are the Invaders.” Czolgosz counted as one of “the Exploited and Disinherited Millions who lead a life of darkness… one of the victims of the McKinley regime.” In some fundamental sense, anarchism was antithetical to the law as inherently repressive.
Syndicalists might or might not enter the political arena, but their respect for bourgeois law was minimal. This was emphatically the case for Haywood, the Wobblies, and for the whole frontier world of extractive capitalism out of which they emerged.
Haywood didn’t mince words: “I despise the law and I am not a law-abiding citizen.” At a rally at Cooper Union College in 1911, he proclaimed, “It is our purpose to overthrow the capitalist system by forcible means if necessary.”
The enemy could be equally cavalier about the law. When martial law was declared during the Colorado mine wars, a militia officer was blunt: “To hell with the Constitution. We are not going with the constitution.”
The Western Federation of Miners, out of which the IWW originated — took up arms to defend itself against the heavily weaponized mine owners, with the rallying cry “No Compromise, No Surrender.” The IWW was notorious for the disdain with which it viewed the labor contract; as a way of legitimating the exploitation of labor by capital, it was made to be broken. And there were many ways to break it, including not only spontaneous walkouts, but through acts of collective soldiering and sabotage at work.
Haywood could be circumspect about this. During the war, the IWW conducted many strikes and the government tried painting them as unpatriotic acts deserving of punishment under the sedition and espionage and criminal syndicalism laws just recently passed. And unlike the AFL, which had pledged not to strike while the war lasted, the IWW refused to knuckle under. Haywood made clear that, “It was better to be a traitor to your country than a traitor to you class.”
But Haywood always insisted that the strikes were strictly economic affairs. Moreover, although his organization opposed the wartime draft, IWW leaders steered clear of urging members to defy it (many Wobblies were indeed drafted and served). Still, Haywood was a “roughneck” who was never shy about expressing his underlying contempt for the law and order of capitalist society.
Similar instincts led Reed to ride with Pancho Villa and to gravitate to Bolsheviks because they were willing to break through to the other side when others hemmed and hawed. Reed’s journey to that existential position was unnatural, at odds with how he started out than was the case for either Goldman or Haywood. His father had been a reformer but one who worked strictly within the law; a steadfast opponent of those who abused the law, but not one to question whether prevailing law was in some sense unlawful, an affront to human rights and dignity. Yet even while attending prep school and enjoying the delights of the family compound, Reed found himself drawn to Portland’s urban underworld, hanging around with the sailors and longshoremen at the docks or with loggers on their way to and from their forest workplaces, fascinated by its gamblers, hoboes, and petty criminals.
For the Bohemian sensibility, the prevailing order of things, from the most mundane to the most sacred, was vulnerable to root-and-branch criticism, and it could and should be overthrown.
Bohemia was Reed’s home away from home. Some “Villagers” broke the law or were broken by the law; Margaret Sanger, for example, in crusading for birth control; Emma Goldman for simply saying the impolitic about sex or terrorism or the “sacred right” of the hungry unemployed to take bread when it was denied them, speech acts which earned her jail time and made her a widely admired champion of free speech; Max Eastman for publishing the Masses and the unapologetically anti-war and anti-capitalist cartoons of Art Young.
Whether operating outside the law or on its elusive margins, whether choreographing the “Patterson Pageant” or mounting the Armory Show, the Village that housed Reed empathetically embraced the workers incinerated at Rockefeller’s coal mining complex in Ludlow, Colorado; the young immigrant women immolated in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire; that whole vast, barely visible, embattled working underclass which, like these cultural insurrectionists, stood at odds, by choice and circumstance, from the law and order of the way things were.
Outlaws have often exerted a subterranean allure, even among those most enmeshed in conventional routine — sometimes especially in those circles. Social bandits stealing from the rich to give to the poor – whether in fact or legend – drew cheers long before capitalism took root; there have been many Robin Hoods pursued by the King’s men. What is distinctly curious about the world of Village and proletarian “outlaws” is that they were not for the most part outlaws, nor did they did fit the profile of the social bandit. And rather than comprising a tiny band of merry men, they filled up a very large region of the country’s demographic landscape.
Yet these populations, the movements they formed, and the people that led them were frequently treated as if they existed in some gulag of the bourgeois imagination, in a hinterland of the despised and dangerous cultural “offal.” This may have been the case because American capitalism as a social system and political structure was itself immature, only half-formed, half civilized.
Capitalism and democracy have long lived uneasily together. The free market is, in some sense, a zone of freedom. All, in theory, can enter; all live there, in theory, as equals. Democracy should, in theory, thrive there.
However, capital is a political category before it is an economic one. It accrues commanding power over life to those who possess it, placing everyone who has had it denied or stolen from them in an inherently subordinate position.
The movement for democracy wages a seemingly interminable struggle against that imbalance. In Gilded Age, turn of the century America, that battle was conducted with great violence.
The potentates of the new industrial order were ill-educated parvenus, socially insecure, so recently risen they hardly formed a coherent, self-conscious class. They lacked, as well, much in the way of political know-how, and were not much drawn to the arts and crafts of governing. Preoccupied with accumulating the family patrimony, they relied on machine politicians, pliable judges, and the law to take care of business — their own and the country’s. Accustomed to unquestioning obedience as entrepreneurial empire-builders, they expected that to translate into the public arena, unobstructed by democratic protocols. Consequently, when class relations became heated, resort to the blunt instrument of violence was quick to follow.
Labor conflict in America was for decades the most violent anywhere in the capitalist world, by far. This is well known. Apart from direct class confrontations, the country has been and remains to this day extraordinarily violent in its everyday life, whether in its race relations, inside the family, or on the streets. Something more particular, however, is germane in the case of these three exiles and the movements and milieu in which they were embedded. Their outlaw status and the coercive means used against them was a function of this underdeveloped, immature nature of an American capitalist political order, still bloody in tooth and claw.
Later generations would condemn the violations of civil liberties that often accompanied the state terror that descended on these circles, the Palmer raids most infamously. But however censorious these later accounts might be, they would eschew Goldman’s point, that underlying motive that made Haywood and Reed ready to court extreme measures. The whole system had to go.
Drinking the Cup to the Last Drop
Why? What had preceded Berkman’s attack on Frick, or the way for Leo Czologz’s assassination of President McKinley, was the repeated resort to violence by the private armies of the country’s leading industrial enterprises, and the official violence authorized by public authorities at every level of government. This pattern of coercion, this mockery of democratic law, not only heavily discounted stated bourgeois dedication to law and order, but also provided the ethical justification needed to engage in what many of the marginal considered acts of self-defense.
That’s why it was not uncommon for armed worker militias to march in the streets of major metropolises to signal that if they were attacked, they would strike back. Who were the lawbreakers? Who did the law protect? In the overwhelming number of cases of industrial violence, the initiators were today what might call the 1 percent and their political enablers.
Before there was a “deep state” overseeing the country’s foreign relations, guarding its “national security” while far removed from democratic oversight and given wide-ranging freedom to exercise violence abroad, there was what a similar parallel state supposedly securing domestic tranquility. It too was immunized against democratic supervision, also empowered to act with the tools of extreme coercion.
That state wreaked havoc when Goldman, Haywood, and Reed were active; it operated in broad daylight, a tacit acknowledgment that for the wealthy and their political backers, when the stakes got high enough, capitalism and democracy couldn’t coexist.
What was to be done, as Goldman’s Narodnik heroes had pondered? Go the people. One way or another, that was the mission — the promise of emancipation would be fulfilled by The People. The People, in the eyes of our three exiles and their compatriots, were largely made up of workers; their labor and the relations of command and obedience in which it took place was the soil in which rebellion would grow.
Still, it was a category containing multitudes. The People could disappoint. Emma Goldman, whose faith in The People was virtually bottomless, also had this to say: “The People! [Berkman] had also done something for the people; and our brave Chicago martyrs and others in every land and time. But the people are asleep; they remain indifferent. They forge their own chains and do the bidding of their masters and crucify their Christs.”
Finally, in Petrograd in 1917, and the world over in 1919, The People had risen. Or so it seemed. If these premonitions so soon seemed premature, if desires so quickly and tragically turned into ash, Emma Goldman’s reflections on her own life might work as a fitting epitaph for an age: “My life – I had lived in its heights and depths, in bitter sorrow and ecstatic joy, in black despair and fervent hope. I had drunk the cup to the last drop.”