Emma Goldman, My Disillusionment in Russia (1925)


This is a book of the first importance because of both its author and its subject. Emma Goldman is one of the great people of the world. She is a mountain of integrity. I do not know how one would set about destroying Emma, except by frequent charges of high explosive, carried on for a very long time; and I think that the dust of the thus disintegrated Emma, borne through the air, would still continue to utter the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Attempts to achieve her destruction on other lines have frequently been made, for she has carried on this habit of truth-telling for a long time. For thirty years or so she travelled round the United States saying things that struck her as being true: that free speech was a good thing; that war was a bad thing. Every now and then, people who did not like the truth hunted her out of town or put her in prison. In due course, Emma came out and said it all over again. She has a proven genius for honesty and courage.

Now, from these things it may be known that in this book Emma Goldman is telling the truth as she saw it. And that her sight was accurate enough is very likely, since for one thing she is a Russian and speaks Russian as her native language. This equipment has been felt to be in the worst possible taste by other investigators of the Russian problem who lacked it. It has been objected that her conclusions are invalidated because, being an Anarchist, and therefore against all governments, she was bound to be against the Bolshevist Government. But this is to underrate her positive qualities which have made her willing all her life to work with and for non-Anarchists, provided they were on the side of liberty. It is largely through Emma Goldman's lectures that the works of George Bernard Shaw became popularly known in the United States. In point of fact her Anarchism predisposed her to admiration of the new Russia because it had the recommendation (and you may see from the afterword of this volume how very strong a recommendation that was) of having been created by a Revolution which to her Anarchist faith is per se a sacred t hing. It cannot be doubted that all her temperamental bias was towards approval of the Bolshevist Government, and that only contact with an extremely unpleasing reality would have disenchanted her.

It is necessary that we should grasp the nature of that unpleasing reality; though not in order to use that understanding as a basis for intervention either direct or indirect in the affairs of Russia. Whatever .Russia may be doing, it is certainly tackling the problem of its relation to the universe in a way so different from ours that we cannot help it. A country invariably gets the government which the genius of its people subconsciously desires; and it follows that if change in the political forms of a country proceeds with a rapidity that outstrips the pace of the secular variations in that genius there will tend to reappear a standard government which is of immense significance because it indicates the essential preferences of that people. The exact duplication under the Tsardom and under Bolshevism of a system that impedes the development of material prosperity, destroys individual liberty, and imposes general discomfort on the community, is a sign that, odd as it may seem to the Western mind, these are the ends towards which Russia likes its governments to work. And that is not quite incomprehensible. Consider the case of a people that belonged in its soul to the East, that held the Oriental conception of life and counted it the individual's highest destiny to be merged in the All, and material progress merely an impediment in the way of that end; and that was perpetually exposed by its geographical position to invasion by Western intellectualism and industrialism. Such a people might find in the Tsarist-Bolshevist Government its only way of maintaining what seems to it its spiritual integrity. Into such a situation, based as it is on a philosophy wholly alien from ours, we can intervene only blunderingly. We must let each people seek God in its own way; and refrain from persecuting it in its search by such indirect methods as interference with the natural flow of trade.

But for our own sakes we must understand Bolshevist Russia; and we must not shrink if our understanding leads us to the same conclusion as the Conservative Party regarding the lack of material for admiration and imitation in the Bolshevist Government. To reject a conclusion simply because it is held by the Conservative party is to be snobbish as the suburban mistress who gives up wearing a hat or dress because her servant has one like it. And the attitude of uncritical admiration towards Russia which is entailed by this rejection is in a fair way to rot the Socialist Movement and give over our unhappy country to the Conservatives for a generation. It renders those who adopt it intellectually impotent because it is an abandonment to sentimentality. It is foolish to be sentimental about the British Empire, to shut one's eyes to the real facts of the case and invent a glowing vision in their stead. Persons who do this become in time unable to look the real facts of any case into the face and become tedious liars about life. Exactly the same thing is bound to happen to people who are sentimental about Russia and pretend that it is a conscientious experiment in Communism, which it is not. This flight into sentimentality is not only degrading in itself, it is also started upon for a discreditable reason. It is a retreat made by Socialists who are not intellectually men enough to stand up to the job that the triumph of their Cause has brought upon them. In the past they were in a minority; and it is always much easier to be in opposition than to be in power. To be a small boy standing up before a bully is a much more comfortable position morally than to have to fight a boy of one's own size on equal terms. In the first case one has the sure victory of martyrdom; in the second case one has to fight in order to win. It was obvious when the Labour Party came into power that they found the change from being the bullied small boy to the boy who is dealing with his equals a source of embarrassment. They found the halo of static moral superiority easier to obtain than the laurels of dynamic victories of statecraft; and, indeed, this was natural enough in a party that is so unprepared to move in fighting formation that it has not made up its mind whether it stands for Free Trade or Protection. It can hardly be doubted that they espoused the cause of Russia because it negotiated them back into the comfortable place of opposition and relieved them from the labour of becoming creative and putting the creed of Socialism into effect.

This is not only a cowardly course of action which for the time being throws away the splendid work that the Socialists of the past have done to build up their organisation to the stage when it might assume the duties of government; it is poison laid at the roots of the movement. If there is one thing certain in this world, it is that the way by which our people must seek God is through faithfulness to the ideal of liberty. How are members of the Labour Party to practise that fidelity if they are moved by a sentimental loyalty to defend the proceedings of a government which repeatedly denies its citizens the elementary rights of free speech and assembly? We have a manifestation of how rapidly they cease to practise it in that amazing passage in the Trade Union Delegation's Report on Russia, where they admit that the population of Georgia would probably prefer to be governed by a local Menshevik Government instead of by the Bolshevist Government of Russia, but that it is our duty to overlook this preference on account of the efficiencv of the Bolshevists. It is not possible to imagine how persons capable of adopting such an attitude are going in face the problems of British influence in India or Egypt in any way that is consistent with the traditions of the Socialist Movement. That Tory Imperialism in its most stupid and brutal form would be openly and gleefully advocated by professed followers of the faith of liberty, equality and brotherhood, is proof enough of the mental chaos which has been created by sentimental loyaly to the Russian myth. We owe therefore a great debt of gratitude to Emma Goldman for having written this book, which tells us so much of the truth behind the myth.

Rebecca West.

Preface to the First Volume