“I welcomed the Welsh crowds and their enthusiasm. The difficulty was not the indifference of the workers, but their dreadful poverty. . . If I could at least enter their lives, share in their struggles, show them that anarchism alone has the key that can transform society and secure their well-being. . .” - Emma Goldman, Living My LifeEmma Goldman is still one of the world's most celebrated radicals, despite the fact she has been dead for over 70 years, a recent survey of anarchists saw her come top of the 'who do you most identify with' question. Her refusal to be associated with the first wave of feminism gave birth to what we now know as anarcha-feminism and beyond her ideological contribution to libertarian socialism her work on contraception, abortion and the rejection of marriage laid the foundations for greater freedoms for countless women and men.
Born in Lithuania in 1869, her family moved to Saint Petersburg when she was 13. An avid reader of radical literature, she fled to the United States in 1885 with her sister to avoid marriage. Attracted to anarchism by the Haymarket affair, Emma was embroiled in some of the most tumultuous events in the protracted period of industrial unrest that characterised the USA at the time. Among other things she was involved in the attempted assassination of "America's most hated man" Henry Clay Frick, imprisoned for incitement to riot and accused of inciting the assassination of US President William McKinley.
The post-WWI red scare led to the deportation of 249 'undesirables' including Emma and her lover Alexander Berkman to the USSR in 1919. Despite defending the revolution to fellow anarchist critics, exposure to the reality of life in the Soviet Union and the tyranny of Bolshevism had a profound effect. The suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion proved the last straw, she left determined to expose the horrific reality of the soviet system and support the cause of political prisoners in the Gulag. After publishing her experiences in My Disillusionment with Russia, she moved to London and undertook numerous speaking tours around the UK, visiting Wales on several occasions.
Support for the Soviet Union was more pronounced in the British left than practically any other country at the time. The 'Hands off Russia' campaign was the first and only threatened political general strike by the entire labour movement. In the context of the harsh industrial life of the British working class, the USSR was viewed as some kind of promised land in the popular imagination.
Emma's itinerary of speaking dates during her stay in the UK shows that the most extensively toured area was the south Wales coalfield. During two weeks in 1925 she spoke to audiences from Swansea to the Rhondda, commenting in her letters that the coalfield was a "splendid field" to spread anarchist ideas. At a meeting in Gwaun-cae-Gurwen, the Amman Valley Chronicle recorded that the audience agreed to:
"protest against the conspiracy of silence and boycott of Emma Goldman's exposure of the Russian dictatorship by the British Labour press and pledges itself to do all in its power to combat the said conspiracy"
Emma was well aware of the difficult position she was putting herself in and the effect that exposing the reality of the Bolshevik regime:
"You can well imagine the time I had and how rotten I felt that I had to take away the last ray of hope from the unfortunate Welsh slaves in regard to the 'Heaven' in Russia. There is no doubt, we who have taken a stand against the Dictatorship are in a rotten position since we are compelled to tell the same tale reiterated by the reactionary press"Whilst in Amman Valley she renewed her acquaintance with a member of the local anarchist Workers Freedom Group James Colton. A collier and working class intellectual that attended meetings at the White House in Ammanford. These two advocates of social revolution married as a means of her securing a British passport. As befitted her celebrity status, the marriage was front page news in the New York Times:
"Cupid was armed with a coal pick when he dug his way into the heart of Emma Goldman. James Colton, a miner living here, is the man whom the Anarchist leader chose after spurning marriage for forty years. Colton won’t say much at present about the romance, which he considers ‘the personal affair of the two of us’, but told the Associated Press: ‘I have just completed writing the first true story of our association which extends over twenty years. It is a story that many have sought since the news of our romance was broadcast throughout the world, but as yet I have the manuscript in my desk, and perhaps it may remain there always. I am at liberty, however, to make public these interesting details when I see fit’....They lived very separate lives, though regularly exchanged letters, Emma continued to visit to Wales giving lectures critiquing bolshevism and championing anarchism. James died in 1933 and unfortunately never did see fit to make public the interesting details of their association. Despite his life merely figuring a footnote in her legacy as a cultural icon, throughout their lives both gave equal contribution to what Emma referred to as "a beautiful ideal".
Neighbours say the couple met twenty odd years ago. Then came a long period during which they did not see each other. Miss Goldman spent most of her time in the USA until she was deported in 1919. When the Bolsheviki forced her out of Russia, Cupid got busy again and brought them together, and the romance of the Anarchist and the miner ripened. The neighbor’s won’t say much about the romance because they all like Colton and agree with him that if he has married it is ‘his affair and hers’, and that Jim will tell all about it when the time arrives."
Further Reading: "A 'splendid field'? Emma Goldman in South Wales" by Kevin Morgan in Llafur vol.10 no.1 2008