The first complete French translation of Emma Goldman’s Living My Life (1931) was published in November 2018 by the Paris radical publisher L’échappée as Vivre ma vie; une anarchiste au temps des révolutions: the translators are Laure Batier and Jacqueline Reuss. The printing of 3,000 was sold out in a month, and a second edition continues to find a good response. Now a new German edition of the book is forthcoming from the well-known Hamburg publisher Nautilus, and the first Portuguese translation is announced for 2020. Penguin Classics published an abridged version of Living My Life, with an introduction by Miriam Brody, in 2006, and in Great Britain the Left Book Club just brought out Anarchism and Other Essays . This interest in Emma Goldman’s autobiography in Europe was as unexpected as it is welcome; it raises a number of questions about the response of a new group of young readers interested in radical experiences of the past. In April 2019, Laure Batier presented Vivre ma Vie at the Montreal feminist bookstore L’Euguélionne. A few days later she talked with the Rail about the significance of this project.
Charles Reeve (Rail): Why translate Living My Life now?
Laure Batier: Up to now, only an abridged version of Emma Goldman’s memoir, including just a third of the text, was available in French.1 This was actually, as the two translators said themselves, not so much a translation as an adaptation of part of the original text. Most readers who thought they knew the autobiography had read only this shortened and modified version. So when the Paris publisher proposed that we translate the complete text we accepted without hesitating. We formed a four-person team: two translators and two readers and editors (Hervé Denés and André Bernard). The work took four long years.
As the work progressed, we quickly became aware of numerous errors in the original text, errors of dates, places, and facts. A good example: in the first chapter of the book, Emma Goldman describes her emotions when she arrived as an immigrant in the port of New York, where she saw the Statue of Liberty. But in fact she arrived in New York at the end of 1885, and the statue was only erected one year later! We thus had to do a lot of research. For that we made use, among other resources, of the gigantic labor of Candace Falk and her foundation, the Emma Goldman Papers, housed at Berkeley, with archives covering Goldman’s life and activities, especially during her American period. Up to now, four volumes of A Documentary History of the American Years have been published. These archives are also entirely accessible on line at http://archive.org/details/emmagoldmanpapers.
When she decided to write her memoirs, Emma Goldman had no personal archive, all of her papers and documents having been confiscated by the American police in 1917 when she was arrested for propagandizing against the draft at the time of World War I. She therefore asked her friends to send her back the letters she had written them over the years. But for the most part she depended on her memory, with its many weaknesses. The French version that we made thus includes the correction of many errors—errors which have continued to be reproduced in the various editions of the original American publication and, therefore, in translations made from it.
Rail: How do you explain the unexpected success of this translation? Why are people interested in what Emma Goldman has to say today?
Batier: In the earlier French version, the majority of cuts had to do with Goldman’s American years. But those 35 years represented an essential part of her life and activities, and corresponded to the period during which she was formed as a human being and politically, when she became who she was. In addition, this period covers a moment in the history of emancipatory movements in the United States, of the workers’ movement in particular, from the end of the 1880s to the end of World War I, which is not well known to French readers. During the last few years, from Occupy to Black Lives Matter, there has been increased interest in the history of social movements in the United States; the publication and wide diffusion of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States was part of this. We therefore thought it was important to make the complete text of Emma Goldman’s memoirs available to francophone readers. The response to the book, including numerous reviews in a press little interested in radical movements, exceeded our expectations. Up to now, Jacqueline Reuss and I have been asked to present Vivre ma Vie in more than 20 bookstores and various collectives all over France, as well as in Montreal. The discussions occasioned by the book, especially among groups of young activists, confirms the correctness of our decision to translate it.
During the last few years we have experienced a succession of movements of social protest which have reactivated the critique of representative democracy, the necessity of self-organization and self-emancipatory action. After the movement of the indignados and the occupations of the squares (in Spain, in the Arab countries, in Turkey, in France) we have seen, in France and Germany, the creation of ZAD (zones à defendre)—most importantly, that of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, where the occupation and collective action forced the cancellation of a proposed new big airport2—and, recently, the mobilizations of the Yellow Vests.3 All this has created fertile ground, at least in France, for the renewal of political discussion and in particular for discussion of questions of self-organization and self-emancipation. But these questions were an integral part of the life and activity of Emma Goldman, of her thinking, and we discover them in her memoirs. It is the politically engaged younger generation, who know little or nothing about Goldman, who are particularly interested in discussing her ideas; I have seen for myself that the presentations of the book in bookstores and collectives in regions strongly affected by the recent political mobilizations attract younger people and provoke livelier discussions, even if the great majority are just discovering Goldman and the events of her life, the radicality of the American workers’ movement at the beginning of the 20th century, what was at stake in the Russian Revolution and the debates to which it gave rise. Emma Goldman’s original positions on questions of sexuality, relations between the sexes, artistic creativity, avant-garde theatre, her interest in Freud, and the way she lived her intimate life are appealing. One can read her book like the personal diary of a rebel woman who lived through a century in motion. In contrast, in areas where the audience is more confined within the classical left, even the anarchist left, discussions tend to be more dull.
Rail: How in general have people reacted to your presentations of the book? What questions are frequently asked about it?
Batier:A certain number of questions recur: What was Emma Goldman’s conception of anarchism? Did she have a position on the Jewish question? What was her relation to the black movement and the question of slavery in the United States? What was her perception of the German revolution and what did she think of revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg? During her stay in Russia, did she interact with the Russian women revolutionaries? Or with the leader of the libertarian movement in Ukraine, Nestor Makhno? What was her position with respect to the Mexican revolution? How did she square her needs as a free woman with her activism?
Most of these questions lead to long discussions. On her ideas about anarchism, for example, her position on propaganda by the deed evolved in the course of her life, and could be summed up in the formula: “The act is noble, but it is mistaken.” On the other hand, she always strongly admired theoreticians like the collectivist anarchist Peter Kropotkin and Errico Malatesta. During the Spanish Civil War, her desire to support the revolution kept her from public criticism of the participation of the anarchist CNT-FAI in the republican government. Similarly, during the Russian Revolution, she at first refused to criticize the Bolshevik party in order not to harm the revolution, a position that brought her into conflict with a number of her anarchist comrades. It was only after the repression of the Petrograd strikes and the Kronstadt massacre in March 1921 that Goldman decided to openly oppose the Bolshevik dictatorship.
On other questions, such as Black struggles in the United States, Goldman’s positions were limited by her historical period. Because she was engaged in the struggles of a violently exploited and repressed immigrant working class seeking a position in society, she had very little contact with black proletarians and radicals, who at the time still constituted a small minority in the northern states. She thus had little contact with the “black question,” apart from her time in prison, where she encountered many incarcerated African Americans, with whom her solidarity broke through the barriers of race. She was similarly not engaged with the “Jewish question”: If she never denied her origins, she never failed to stress to what extent her journey towards emancipation started with her detachment from the reactionary mores and traditions of family and community. Later, in Russia, she did not fail to express her revulsion and rage against the antisemitic pogroms before and during the revolution. But, basically, on all such questions one can say that she always saw class as more important than every idea which today might be called identitarian.
Emma Goldman, along with almost the whole of the anarchist movement, rejected Marxism and identified it with social democracy. She was not sensitive to the fissures that were opening up within social democracy on the question of self-organization, what Rosa Luxemburg called “the new energy of the masses,” and the paralyzing role of the party. When, like many other anarchists, Goldman was seduced by Lenin’s voluntarism and his revolutionary tactics, she did not see the new force of the movement of workers’ councils and its impact on the crisis of social democracy and as an alternative to the idea of a vanguard party. She was very affected by the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht by militarist thugs in the service of the German social-democratic leadership. But, despite her close relation with Rudolf Rocker, one of the German theoreticians of anarcho-syndicalism, and the fact that she found a refuge in Germany after her expulsion from Soviet Russia, she does not seem to have been very interested in the events of the German revolution and the council movement.
On the relationship between activism and emancipation, Goldman never hesitated to confront her own anarchist milieu and its macho and conservative sides. It was in response to an anarchist comrade who reproached her for her love of dancing that she made her famous declaration: “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Ultimately, what was exceptional about Emma Goldman was her absence of dogmatism. While holding to her basic principles, she was able to look at reality, to listen, to question her ideas, to take new positions, in politics as well as personal life. It is people’s response to this anti-dogmatic attitude, as well to all the questions she rose, that makes discussions about Vivre ma vie very lively, exciting, and full of feeling.
Rail: Emma Goldman is often seen as an important early feminist. How have feminist circles reacted to the book?
Batier: It should be remembered that modern feminists have been interested in Goldman, especially since the movements of the 1970s, for she took positions which made her well ahead of her time: on free love, on homosexuality, on the equality of the sexes, on the exploitation of women’s bodies and prostitution, on birth control and, more generally, on women’s control over their own bodies. With respect to the reproduction of what today is called “gender,” Goldman stressed the equal responsibility of women themselves. But she took a position outside of the feminism of her own time. That movement centered its demands on political rights, the right to vote, and on social rights of women within capitalist society, the rights to work and to equal wages. These issues were largely taken up later by social democracy and the Bolsheviks (notably by Alexandra Kollontai). For Goldman, there was no question of fighting for the right to vote and the right to work. Of course, she was not against these struggles, but she went much further. She insisted also that in the struggle for their emancipation women should not see themselves as the enemies of men: “Now, woman is confronted with the necessity of emancipating herself from emancipation, if she really desires to be free. This may sound paradoxical but is, nevertheless, only too true.” This idea perfectly fit her principles, which aimed at the general enlargement of social emancipation.
Vivre ma vie, like all her writings, widely diffused in social networks, have certainly found an echo in today’s feminism. As translators, we have been asked to present the book on various feminist radio programs—on both free and official stations—and I just spoke at the beautiful feminist bookstore in Montreal. But it should be stressed that the reception of the book has been stronger in politically radical circles than in the specifically feminist milieu. Some people explain this by the fact that Goldman did not approach the feminist issue in terms of conflict between women and men… I don’t know.
Rail: Are you saying that in France, Vivre ma vie is seen more as a political text than as a feminist one?
Batier: I would say that in France the majority of readers, women and men, do not make this distinction. Today’s readers of Goldman’s autobiography are likely to associate her ideas, the principles that guided her life, with the experiences of Occupy, of Black Lives Matter, or the spontaneous and self-organized strikes of American school teachers. In France, her words speak to those mobilizing in the ZAD or who are fighting against the consequences of neoliberal policies.
Emma Goldman’s idea that emancipation depends on exploited people’s taking their lives into their own hands remains a burning issue. Her spirit of rebellion is fully in phase with all those who are mobilizing against the destruction and disaster of the capitalist system and who are trying to find creative ways out of it.
- L’épopée d’une anarchiste. New York 1886-Moscou 1920, ed. and trans. Cathy Bernheim and Annette Lévy-Willard (Paris: Hachette, 1979).
- See the 2018 report in Field Notes: https://brooklynrail.org/2018/07/field-notes/ZAD-The-State-of-Play
- See “The Class Struggle in France, Field Notes, February 2019: https://brooklynrail.org/2019/02/field-notes/The-Class-Struggle-in-France