Goldman, Emma, 1869-1940

Emma Goldman
Emma Goldman

A short biography of legendary anarchist Emma Goldman, "one of the most dangerous in America" according to J. Edgar Hoover, first director of North America's F.B.I.

Submitted by Steven. on September 26, 2006

Emma Goldman was born in 1869 in a Jewish ghetto in Russia where her family ran a small inn. When she was 13 the family moved to St Petersburg. It was just after the assassination of Alexander II and so was a time of political repression. The Jewish community suffered a wave of pogroms. The severe economic hardship of the time meant that Emma Goldman had to leave school after six months in St Petersburg and work in a factory.

It was here that Goldman secured a copy of Cherychevsky's 'What is to be done' in which the heroine Vera is converted to nihilism and lives in a world of equality between sexes and co-operative work. The book offered an embryonic sketch of Goldman's later anarchism and also strengthened her determination to live her life in her own way.

At 15 her father tried to marry her off but she refused. It was eventually agreed that the rebellious child should go to America with a half sister to join another sister in Rochester. Goldman quickly realised that for a Jewish immigrant, America was not the land of opportunity that had been promised. America, for Goldman meant slums and sweatshops where she earned her living as a seamstress.

What initially drew Goldman to anarchism was the outcry that followed the Haymarket Square tragedy in 1886 in Chicago. After a bomb had been thrown into a crowd of police during a workers' rally for the 8 hour day. Four anarchists were eventually hanged. Convicted on the flimsiest evidence; the judge at the trial openly declared; Not because you caused the Haymarket bomb, but because you are Anarchists, you are on trial.

Emma Goldman had followed the event intensely and as the day on the day of the hanging she decided to become a revolutionary. By this time Goldman was 20 and had been married for 10 months to a Russian immigrant. The marriage had not worked out so she divorced him and moved to New York.

Here, she befriended Johann Most, the editor of a German language anarchist paper. He quickly decided to make Goldman his protege and sent her on a speaking tour. Most instructed Goldman to condemn the in adequacy of a campaign for the eight hour day. Rather he argued we must demand the complete overthrow of capitalism. Campaigns for the eight hour day were merely a diversion. Goldman duly conveyed this message at her public meetings. However, in Buffalo, she was challenged by an old worker who asked What were a man of his age to do? They were not likely to see the ultimate overthrow of the capitalist system. Were they also to forego the release of perhaps two hours a day form the hated work?

From this encounter Goldman realised that specific efforts for improvement such as higher wages and shorter hours, far from being a diversion were part of the revolutionary transformation of society.

Goldman began to distance herself from Most and became more interested in a rival German anarchist journal 'Die Autonomie' Here she was introduced to the writings of Peter Kropotkin. She sought to balance the inclination of human beings towards the socialsability and mutual aid which Kropotkin stressed with her own strong belief in the Freedom of the individual. This belief in personal freedom is highlighted in the story where Goldman was taken aside at a dance by a young revolutionary and told it did not become an agitator to dance. Goldman wrote I insisted that our cause could not expect me to behave as a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. I want freedom, the right to self expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things.

In the early days Goldman supported the idea of propaganda by deed. In 1892, together with her occasional lover Alexander Berkman she planned the assassination of Henry Clay Frick, who has suppressed strikes in the Homestead Pennsylvania factory with armed guards. She even tried unsuccessfully to work as a prostitute to raise money for the gun. They believed that by killing a tyrant, a representative of a cruel system, the consciousness of the people would be aroused. This didn't happen.

Berkman only managed to injure Frick and was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Goldman tried to explain and justify the attempted assassination insisting that true morality deals with the motives not the consequences. Her time in post-revolutionary Russian meant that she re-assessed this belief that the end justifies the means but I'll come to that later.

Her defence of Berkman made Goldman a marked woman and her lectures were regularly disrupted by the authorities. In 1893 she was arrested for allegedly urging the unemployed to take bread 'by force' and was given a year in Blackwells Island penitentiary.

She was imprisoned a second time for distributing birth control literature, but her longest sentence resulted from her involvement in setting up 'No Conscription' leagues and organising rallies against the first world war. Goldman and Berkman were arrested in 1917 for conspiring to obstruct the draft and given two years. Afterwards they were stripped of their citizenship and deported along with other undesirable 'Reds' to Russia. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who directed her deportation hearing called her one of the most dangerous women in America. - see comments below, where this is identified as a misquote - libcom editors.

The plus side to deportation meant that Goldman got a free ticket to Russia where she was able to witness the Russian Revolution at first hand. Goldman had been prepared to bury the hatchet of Marx's conflict with anarchism in the 1st international and support the Bolsheviks. However, in 1919 as Goldman and Berkman travelled throughout the country they were horrified by the increased bureaucracy, political persecution and forced labour they found.

The breaking point came in 1921 when the Kronstadt sailors and soldiers rebelled against the Bolsheviks and sided with the workers on strike. They were attacked and crushed by Trotsky and the Red Army.

On leaving Russia in December 1921, Goldman set down her findings on Russia in two works - My Disillusionment in Russia and My Further Disillusionment in Russia. She argued that 'never before in all history has authority , government, the state, proved so inherently static, reactionary, and even counter-revolutionary. In short, the very antithesis of revolution.

Her time in Russia led her to reassess her earlier belief that the end justifies the means. Goldman accepted that violence as a necessary evil in the process of social transformation. However, her experience in Russia forced a distinction. She wrote

"I know that in the past every great political and social change, necessitated violence....Yet it is one thing to employ violence in combat as a means of defence. It is quiet another thing to make a principle of terrorism, to institutionalise it to assign it the most vital place in the social struggle. Such terrorism begets counter-revolution and in turn itself becomes counter-revolutionary."

These views were unpopular among radicals as most still wanted to believe that the Russian Revolution was a success. When Goldman moved to Britain in 1921 she was virtually alone on the left in condemning the Bolsheviks and her lectures were poorly attended. On hearing that she might be deported in 1925, a Welsh miner offered to marry her in order to give her British Nationality. With a British passport, she was the able to travel to France and Canada. In 1934, she was even allowed to give a lecture tour in the States.

In 1936 Berkman committed suicide, months before the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution. At the age of 67, Goldman went to Spain to join in the struggle. She told a rally of libertarian youth: 'Your Revolution will destroy forever [the notion] that anarchism stands for chaos'. She disagreed with the participation of the CNT-FAI in the coalition government of 1937 and the concessions they made to the increasingly powerful Communists for the sake of the war effort. However she refused to condemn the anarchists for joining the government and accepting militarisation as she felt the alternative at the time was communist dictatorship.

Goldman died in 1940 and was buried in Chicago not far from the Haymarket Martyrs whose fate had changed the course of her life.

Emma Goldman has left behind her a number of important contributions to anarchist thought. In particular she is remembered for incorporating the area of sexual politics into anarchism which had only been hinted at by earlier anarchists. Goldman campaigned and went to prison for the right of women to practice birth control. She argued that a political solution was not enough to get rid of the unequal and repressive relations between the sexes. There had to be massive transformation of values and most importantly in women themselves. She argued that women could do this.

First, by asserting herself as a personalities and not as a sex commodity. Second, by refusing the right to anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children unless she wants them; by refusing to be a servant to God, the state, society, the husband, the family etc, by making her life simpler, but deeper and richer. That is, by trying to learn the meaning and substance of life in all its complexities, by freeing herself from fear of public opinion and public condemnation. Only anarchist revolution and not the ballot , will set woman free, will make her a force hither to unknown in the World, a force of divine fire, of giving a creation of free men and women.

From the Workers Solidarity Movement, Ireland



9 years 3 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by arminius on March 28, 2015

Berkman tried to assassinate Henry Clay FRICK, not Finch as it says above. (Sorry, !)


9 years 3 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Auld-bod on March 28, 2015

He should have been called 'Filch'.

Kate Sharpley

9 years 3 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Kate Sharpley on March 29, 2015

hey comrades, you might like to correct the Hoover quote, especially if you want to highlight it at the start of the article. "Most dangerous woman in America" is not what he said (it's what some people wish he had said).

"Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman are, beyond doubt," finally evaulauted Hoover, "two of the most dangerous anarchists in this country and if permitted to return to the community [sic] will result in undue harm."
- p215 of Rebel in Paradise by Richard Drinnon

(I notice the article comes from the WSM, but I assume the Intro is libcom's...)

Jacques Roux

9 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Jacques Roux on May 14, 2015

Thanks, Kate Sharpley for corrections.