An Introduction to Emma Goldman

Fun fact: Goldman never actually said “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution,” although she did recount a story in which she became furious with a fellow anarchist after he suggested that it did not behoove an agitator to dance.

Emma Goldman was an outspoken anarchist and writer ahead of her time in championing taboos such as free love, atheism, homosexuality, and prison abolition. She was born on June 27, 1869 in the Lithuanian region of the Russian Empire. The product of her parents’ arranged marriage, Goldman was the eldest of four children, the other three boys. She also had two older sisters from her mother’s first marriage. Goldman remarked that “whatever love [her mother] had had died with the young man to whom she had been married at the age of fifteen” and that her own parents were “mismated from the first.” Her father Abraham treated her poorly, beating her, dismissing her academic pursuits, and attempting to have her married at the age of 15.

Goldman refused and left home for the United States to live with her older sisters in upstate New York. There, she took up work sewing overcoats for ten hours a day, earning two and a half dollars a week. After being denied a raise and relocating to a different shop, she met her first husband Jacob Kershner, whom she married in 1887. Despite their shared love of books, dancing, and traveling, their marriage quickly unraveled due to Kershner’s impotence and the two divorced less than a year later. Her parents, whom in the meantime had emigrated to New York to escape Russia’s anti-semitism, disapproved of her divorce and refused to allow her to stay in their home.

In response, Goldman moved to New York City “with a sewing machine in one hand and a bag with five dollars in the other.” She had become interested in radical politics in the aftermath of the Haymarket Affair in which seven anarchists were sentenced to death under dubious circumstances (the surviving three prisoners were pardoned in 1893 by the Illinois Governor). On her first day in New York City, she visited Sach’s Cafe, a gathering place for radicals, and met her long-time lover Alexander Berkman. The two became involved in the Homestead Strike and plotted to assassinate factory manager Henry Clay Frick in an attempt to spur a popular uprising. It was decided that Berkman would commit the act while Goldman would propagandize it after the fact. Berkman, however, failed in his attempt and was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Goldman was spared prison time, as the police found no evidence of her involvement after raiding her apartment. By this point, she had made a small name for herself through her public speeches and writing. Her visibility grew in 1893 when she was placed on trial for urging a crowd to demand “jobs and bread” and take them by force if necessary following that year’s financial panic and ensuing depression. This time she did not escape prison, being charged with “inciting to riot” and sentenced to one year at Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary. Inside, she spent her time studying medicine, transcendentalist literature, and utilitarian philosophy. Upon her release ten months later, she was greeted by a crowd of 3,000 and waylaid with requests for interviews and lectures.

After traveling to Europe to earn degrees in midwifery and alternating between there and the United States for a number of years, Goldman again found herself in legal trouble after an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz assassinated U.S. President William McKinley. Though she had nothing to do with the plot and was released after a two-week detention, her refusal to condemn Czolgosz’s actions alienated her from both the public and her political circles. Anarchism, tainted by the incident and persecuted by McKinley’s successor Teddy Roosevelt, began to decline, with American radicals increasingly turning to socialism as an alternative. Goldman spent the next two years away from public life working as a nurse under the pseudonym E. G. Smith.

Goldman was brought out of anonymity in 1903 after the newly passed Immigration Act barred anarchists from entering the country. She defended fellow anarchist John Turner, who was threatened with deportation under the Act, and, while she lost the case, she gained favorable publicity. Goldman’s next major act was founding the radical journal Mother Earth in 1906, modeling it as “a place of expression for the young idealists in arts and letters.” For the next ten years, she lectured throughout the country to raise money for the journal. During this time, she published two texts: Anarchism and other Essays (1910) and The Social Significance of Modern Drama (1914) and was arrested for publicly supporting birth control.

In opposition to the WWI draft in the U.S., Goldman and Berkman, who had been released from prison after serving 14 years, founded the No Conscription League of “internationalists [and] anti-militarists…opposed to all wars waged by capitalistic governments.” The two were eventually arrested for conspiracy to “induce persons not to register” under the Espionage Act and held on $25,000 bail each. At their trial, Goldman defended herself and Berkman, asking how the United States could fight for freedom abroad while depriving citizens of their right to free speech at home. Despite her appeals, the two were sentenced to two years in prison. This time, Goldman spent her energies organizing for better inmate living conditions with fellow radicals Kate Richards O’Hare and Gabriella Segata Antolini, who together became known as “The Trinity.”

Goldman was released in September of 1919, but it was not long before she became involved in another conflict with the U.S. government. As part of the First Red Scare, the expanded Anarchist Exclusion Act allowed the government to deport any non-citizens that advocated anarchy or revolution. While Goldman had gained citizenship from her first marriage, the government ruled that because Kershner’s citizenship had been revoked in 1908, Goldman’s citizenship was null and void. She was deported to the Soviet Union alongside Berkman in December of 1919.

Initially supportive of the Russian Revolution, Goldman became critical upon viewing it up close. Travelling through the Soviet Union with Berkman, she witnessed political censorship, bureaucratic mismanagement, and grueling labor conditions. After the Kronstadt rebellion in which thousands of lefist Russian sailors were killed for demonstrating for social reforms, Goldman and Berkman left the country for Latvia and then Germany. While in Berlin, Goldman wrote a series of articles about her time in Russia that were collected and published — over her objections — with the titles My Disillusionment in Russia (1923) and My Further Disillusionment in Russia (1924).

Goldman found socializing in Germany difficult, being loathed by communists and liberals alike for criticizing the Soviet Union on the one hand and supporting overly radical politics on the other. She moved to London and entered into a marriage of convenience with Scottish anarchist James Colton to gain British citizenship.

Between 1928–1930, Goldman lived in France and worked on her autobiography Living my Life, which was published in two volumes in 1931 and 1934. She was granted permission to promote the book in the U.S. and did so to acclaim between February of 1934 and May of that year when her visa expired. She filed for an extension but was denied and was never able to return to the U.S.

In her final years, Goldman visited Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War and alternated between Britain, France, Spain, and Canada. After surviving a stroke that left her mute in February of 1940, she suffered another one in May of that year and passed away in Toronto at the age of 70. The U.S. government permitted her body to be brought back to a Chicago suburb, where she was buried near the graves of the executed Haymarket Affair anarchists.

Goldman’s philosophy is defined by a commitment to individualism and freedom from coercion. She identified three overarching coercive forces in society:

  1. Religion: “the dominion of the human mind.”

A radical even by today’s standards, Goldman argued for the abolition of all three. She draws on history to condemn religion, citing the church’s acts of violence during the Inquisition, in which tens of thousands of “heretics” were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. She also charges religion with promoting ignorance and obedience, keeping people in “darkness” and teaching them to loathe their natural impulses.

Goldman describes private property as a codified denial of the right of all humans to satisfy their needs despite there being enough to go around. Goldman asserts that since the surplus of modern humanity was produced collectively by humanity, humanity as a whole, and not just a fraction of it, is entitled to that surplus. Quoting Proudhon’s statement that “property is robbery,” she adds the addendum, “without risk and danger to the robber.”

There is no risk because the state exists “to maintain or protect property and monopoly.” The police enforce exploitation and poverty at home while the military enforces them abroad. In this light, what the state calls “social harmony” is really just the working class’s compulsory submission to the ruling class’s will. Goldman also objects to the state on philosophical grounds, asserting that it “restrains” the individual’s freedom and “invades” their personal life. She agrees with Emerson that “all government is in essence tyranny” and with Thoreau that “law never made man a whit more just.” Goldman contrasts the state, with its demanded obedience and inflexibility, to an anarchist society of “voluntary productive and distributive associations” that continually adapt to the “needs of each place and clime.” She emphasizes direct participation in governance over representative democracy, suggesting that voting leaves others to do the work, whereas if one really cares about something, they ought to do it themselves.

This approach is said to be the most conducive to individual flourishing. Goldman believed that society exists for the purpose of cultivating the individual: “society is the lungs which are distributing the element to keep the life essence — that is, the individual — pure and strong.” Under capitalism, individuals are starved for breath, made dull and lazy from the dehumanizing forces of centralization, alienation, and exploitation. Goldman sought to “strip labor of its deadening, dulling aspect…and make work an instrument of joy, of strength, of color, of real harmony.” Until we do, we cannot know what human nature is truly like, as we are like animals in captivity who behave poorly for lack of a healthy environment.

Goldman was not opposed to using violence to achieve a healthier environment. She viewed political violence as a natural, yea unavoidable response to the centuries of hidden violence committed by the church and the state. Among the many examples of attentaters she gives is Vailliant, the French anarchist who launched a bomb attack on the French Chamber of Deputies in 1893 in protest of France’s colonialism abroad and exploitation at home. At his execution, Vailliant exclaimed,

“Figure up the dead and wounded on Tonquin, Madagascar, Dahomey, adding there to the thousands, yes, millions of unfortunates who die in the factories, the mines, and wherever the grinding power of capital is felt. Add also those who die of hunger, and all this with the assent of our Deputies. Beside all this, of how little weight are the reproaches now brought against me!”

Goldman describes such revolutionaries as “supersensitive beings” unable to bear the vast suffering of others who martyr themselves “ because they believe, as truly as Christ did, that their martyrdom will redeem humanity.” Indeed, Goldman points out that “no real social change has ever come about without a revolution” and cites, among other examples, the abolitionist John Brown, whose slave revolts hastened the commencement of the Civil War and by extension the end of American slavery.

Goldman much prefers the attentater to the acquiescer, asking rhetorically,

“Are we to decry as miscreants these human beings who act with heroic self-devotion, sacrificing their lives in protest, where less social and less energetic natures would lie down and grovel in abject submission to injustice and wrong?…The man who flings his whole life into the attempt, at the cost of his own life, to protest against the wrongs of his fellow men, is a saint compared to the active and passive upholders of cruelty and injustice.”

Goldman emphasizes individual responsibility to an unusual degree among leftists, who often defer to Marxian concepts of historical necessity. In contrast, she blames the complicit masses as much as the ruling class for perpetuating capitalism:

“I insist that not the handful of parasites, but the mass itself is responsible for this horrible state of affairs. It clings to its masters, loves the whip, and is the first to cry ‘Crucify!’ the moment a protesting voice is raised against the sacredness of capitalistic authority or any other decayed institution. Yet how long would authority and private property exist, if not for the willingness of the mass to become soldiers, policemen, jailers, and hangmen.”

This point of view led Goldman, non-immune to the social darwinism of her day, to assert that “social and economic well-being will become a reality only through the zeal, courage, the non-compromising determination of intelligent minorities, and not through the mass.”

Goldman was appalled by the masses’ support for prisons and the military in particular, which she saw as two of the most egregious social ills. Goldman was a prison abolitionist, viewing prisons as a dehumanizing punishment for crimes committed out of poverty and holding that only “a complete reconstruction of society will deliver mankind from the cancer of crime.” She was also anti-militarist, arguing that governments had no business spending profligately on war while their citizens went homeless and hungry at home.

As an internationalist, Goldman was vehemently opposed to patriotism, asserting that the working classes of the world had much more in common with one another than with the ruling classes of their respective nations and writing that,

“Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.”

Goldman blamed “the bourgeois school” for the masses’ reactionary orientation and advocated the spread of an alternative, anti-authoritarian education system in the spirit of Francisco Ferrer to train the next generation in critical thought.

Drawing on her own critical thought, Goldman opined on women’s issues in both expected and surprising ways. Using her systemic understanding of social ills, Goldman blames the church and the state for the oppression of women. Puritanism, for instance, is said to repress female sexuality with the concept of purity, which consigns women to either breeding or celibacy. The state, for its part, prevented women from avoiding pregnancy by banning contraceptives. When unplanned pregnancies consequently occurred and women sought to avoid giving birth to a child that they could not properly care for emotionally or financially, they were forced to undergo dangerous back-alley abortions that frequently resulted in serious injury and death. Adding to the issue, the ban on condoms and other prophylactics caused women and men alike to contract venereal diseases.

Unafraid to address the controversial issue of prostitution, Goldman attributed the practice’s popularity to the economic despair of young girls and women. She cited a study that reviewed 2,000 cases of prostitution and found that almost all of the women came from impoverished and working class backgrounds. Additionally, Goldman viewed prostitution as a product of women’s “social inferiority,” which required them to perform sexual favors to secure a high status. Sometimes, women turned to prostitution simply to escape the misery and boredom low-class housewifery. And for women who desired to be sexually active out of wedlock, their only choice was to become a prostitute, as society condemned any woman who did not embrace either marriage or abstinence. But while the church and the state publicly prohibited prostitution, both routinely extorted brothels in exchange for protection; Pope Sixtus IV even built one himself. Interestingly, Goldman views the prostitute as freer than the housewife, as the former gets paid for sex and may refuse while the latter must offer themselves to their husband at all times with minimal compensation. Ultimately, Goldman believed that all women should be able “to love whomever [they] please, or as many as [they] please,” and that all people should be free to express their sexuality and “various gradations of gender” however they wish.

Goldman was sharply critical of traditional marriage, which she viewed as a sexist institution that commanded women’s obedience to the husband and bondage to the home. She believed that marriage cultivated dependence, forcing women to rely on their husbands for basic necessities such as food and shelter. If sexist tropes such as being “a nag, petty, quarrelsome, gossipy, [or] unbearable” exist, Goldman says it is because women lack lives outside of their role as housewife, which “incapacitates [them] for life’s struggle, annihilates [their] social consciousness, [and] paralyzes [their] imagination.”

Yet Goldman’s solution was more complicated than simply emancipating women from the home. In fact, she wrote that “now, woman is confronted with the necessity of emancipating herself from emancipation, if she really desires to be free.” Goldman recognized that permitting women to labor under the same unjust conditions as men amounted to little more than a trade in of one form of oppression for another. Furthermore, because women were historically disadvantaged with regard to education and skill development, they were “compelled to exhaust all their energy, use up their vitality, and strain every nerve in order to reach the market value.” What results is not true independence, but merely a different form of dependence. As Goldman puts it,

“How much independence is gained if the narrowness and lack of freedom of the home is exchanged for the narrowness and lack of freedom of the factory, sweat-shop, department store, or office?”

For Goldman, real emancipation lay not just in the removal of “external tyrants,” but also of “internal tyrants,” or the “ethical and social conventions” that pervade women’s minds. That way, women may discover and pursue what they themselves truly desire, whether it be a healthy career or a healthy marriage and motherhood.

Importantly, Goldman’s strand of feminism spoke out against both misogyny and misandry and emphasized mutual respect between men and women:

“A true conception of the relation of the sexes will not admit of conqueror and conquered; it knows of but one great thing: to give of one’s self boundlessly, in order to find one’s self richer, deeper, better. That alone can fill the emptiness, and transform the tragedy of woman’s emancipation into joy, limitless joy.”

This spirit of mutual aid and giving is why Goldman chose anarchism as her political ideology. Goldman describes anarchism as a vision of a society “based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.” Goldman spent her life promoting this vision and is remembered today as a tireless and visionary organizer true to her ideals.

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