Introduction to Emma Goldman's Living my life - Miriam Brody

Introduction to Emma Goldman's Living my life - Miriam Brody

Introduction to Emma Goldman's Living my life - Miriam Brody

Emma Goldman's deportation photo. Dec. 31, 1919.

Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition (2006) of Emma Goldman's Living my life, ed. Miriam Brody.

Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition (2006) of Living My Life edited by Miriam Brody.


“The most dangerous woman in America,” as J. Edgar Hoover described her, took pen in hand in June 1928 to write the events of her tumultuous life. “Red Emma” Goldman, who the popular press claimed owned no God, had no religion, would kill all rulers, and overthrow all laws, chose to begin her autobiography on her fifty-ninth birthday, a task she would later say was the “hardest and most painful” she had ever undertaken (Goldman, Nowhere at Home, 145). As she wrote about her life, she confronted not only her own loneliness but also the disappointment of her political hopes, the dream that anarchism, which she called her “beautiful ideal,” would take root in her lifetime among the people whose benefit she believed she served.

Others had urged her to begin her memoir years before, but she had been busy traversing the country, lecturing, organizing, writing, or if in prison, forging bonds with other inmates, protesting conditions, or alerting vast networks of supporters and friends to crises imminent or arrived. Now in a borrowed cottage in the south of France, years advancing, living on funds raised by friends and a generous advance from her American publisher, Emma Goldman began a labor that would require three years to complete, writing in longhand by night and dictating to a typist by day. “I am anxious to reach the mass of the American reading public,” she wrote to a friend, “not so much because of the royalties, but because I have always worked for the mass” (Drinnon, 269). In fact, she was writing also in her own interest, hoping to win the sympathy of American readers who might help reverse the decision to deport her that had left her a stateless exile.

Eight years earlier, in 1920, America, her adopted country, had deported her as a subversive, leaving her feeling “an alien everywhere,” as she wrote to her friend in exile Alexander Berkman (Nowhere at Home, 170). A permanent, often unwelcome guest in someone else’s country, she would infuse her writing with a sense of loneliness and despair. To Berkman she wrote “hardly anything has come of our years of effort” (ibid., 49). On the eve of fascist victories in Europe, she felt as well the nearness of catastrophe, the likelihood that once again, as it had in 1914, Europe would be convulsed by war.

Underlying this sense of impending disaster, she was aware that political radicals on the left were embracing the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, a revolution she believed had betrayed the expectations of the Russian peasants and workers in whose name Lenin’s government served. She had spent two years in the new Soviet state, having gone there as an anarchist victim of the infamous Palmer raids that launched the first widespread “red scare” at the time of America’s entry into World War I. Instead of meeting the intoxication of a liberated society that had thrown off the shackles of czarist autocracy, Emma Goldman found, she believed, a dispirited and growing Bolshevik state. To her dismay, the state was consolidating its powers, responding, she felt, incompetently and calamitously to its economic and political crises and, to compound the disaster, imprisoning and executing its dissidents.

Russia had been her birthplace in 1869, but more important, Russia had nurtured the revolutionary beliefs she had taken as a young immigrant girl to America. At sixteen, she had joined the thousands of refugees from eastern Europe, many fleeing the Russian anti-Semitism that broke out in violent pogroms in the eastern “pale of settlement” after terrorists assassinated Czar Alexander II. Now disappointed by Russia, Emma Goldman trained her hopes once more on the American shores, where she had left behind friends and family.

Writing her life story might have proved difficult. She had kept no diary. Although there had been a vast record of her writing and lecturing stored in the offices of Mother Earth, the journal she founded in 1905 and maintained through many busy years, these records had been destroyed by federal agents who systematically ransacked and looted the property of political radicals. Fortunately she had been a faithful and copious letter writer, and in response to her request more than a thousand of these were returned to her. Some letters to friends were meticulous accounts of her prison years—what she read, what she was fed, the gifts sent to her by loyal supporters, the campaigns she carried on for better conditions, the relations formed with other inmates. Other letters could provide testimony enough for her to recall her public life, years in which she was both witness to and a principal actor in the political convulsions that defined her time—workers’ strikes, riots, assassinations, the women’s rights movement, political repression, revolution, and exile. Five hundred more letters came from Ben Reitman, the man who had been for many years her publicist, road manager, and lover. In these she chronicled a response to a love affair in which she berated Reitman for betrayal, soothed his vanity when he was snubbed by the anarchist luminaries he hoped to impress, or frankly recalled the pleasures of his bed.

Goldman’s was a rich life to chronicle, the story of an intellectual and emotional journey of a Russian woman who became an American original, someone who combined the radical political traditions of nineteenth-century Europe with the insurgent individualism of the young American republic. The fusion she sought was an anarchism responsive to the changes in America in the early twentieth century, an anarchism that would transform the conditions of public and private life. To the call for radical reorganization of work life she inherited from European political tradition and to the conviction in the supremacy of individual liberty she found in the American literature of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, Goldman added advocacy of the birth control and free-love movements that had emerged out of nineteenth-century American anarchist and utopian communities. Without such reforms, she would argue, there would be no egalitarian emancipation of the whole of humanity.

The foundations of these beliefs, Goldman claimed in her autobiography, were laid in her earliest years in Russia when, as a child, her sympathies were stirred by the oppression of the peasants of her native Lithuania and the suffering of the political rebels, communists or anarchists, imprisoned or executed by the czars. While a young teenager in Russia, Emma Goldman had read Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s widely influential 1863 novel, What Is to Be Done?, in which a young woman from the propertied Russian gentry escapes from the constraints of bourgeois marriage to claim romantic love and economic independence. Chernyshevsky’s heroine allies herself with the young radicals influenced by the European revolutions of 1848, rebels who sought to redress the great disparities of wealth in their own native Russia. To the young Emma Goldman, this sexually and materially emancipated model of womanhood was inspiring, chafing as Goldman was under the authoritarian rule of a patriarchal and often violent father.

In 1886, after she joined some of her family who had come earlier to Rochester, New York, Goldman’s sympathy for victims of social injustice was stirred into a lifelong commitment to political action by events in Chicago that became known to the world as the Haymarket Massacre. Four American anarchist revolutionaries, hanged in Chicago, had been held responsible without evidence for throwing a bomb that killed seven policemen. As the police opened fire, perhaps three times as many more workers who were rallying for the eight-hour workday were killed. Goldman revered the memory of the eloquent and brave “Haymarket martyrs,” who had gone to their death believing that their own executions would rouse the anger of the laboring classes whom they hoped to liberate.

Awakened to a political life by the Haymarket affair, Goldman left her factory work and an early failed marriage in Rochester for the street corner, café, and saloon society of lower Manhattan, where she found a home among the European immigrants who had brought their anarchism and socialism with them to the new country. Emma Goldman’s work would carry the ideals of these immigrants from the self-imposed isolation of their insular community, where they preached to one another in their native tongues, into the mainstream of American intellectual debate.

She was not, in fact, the bomb-toting virago depicted by the popular press. But though she loathed violence, she would not condemn the radicals who practiced it, remaining loyal to the unsuccessful attentat, or revolutionary act of violence, committed by Alexander “Sasha” Berkman, her pal, as she called him—her lover, confidant, and lifelong friend. In 1892, when she was twenty-three, as she described fully in her memoir for the first time, Goldman helped Berkman plan and carry out an attempt on the life of Henry Clay Frick, the Carnegie Steel plant manager who presided over the bloody confrontation between Pinkerton guards and strikers in Homestead, Pennsylvania. As she described in her autobiography, Goldman made an awkward and unsuccessful attempt to procure funds for Berkman’s attack by walking the streets one night as a prostitute. But for lack of funds to buy the railroad ticket to Pittsburgh, Goldman might well have been by Berkman’s side when he fired his gun. While Frick survived his bullet wounds, Goldman endured Berkman’s long and often brutal imprisonment as a personal vigil. Faithful to her friend, as she described in her autobiography, she once ascended a lecturer’s dais and lashed her fellow anarchist and former mentor Johann Most with a horsewhip because he had ridiculed and disparaged Berkman’s act.

Although Emma Goldman was never connected to the attempt on Frick’s life, nine years later in 1901 her notoriety as a dangerous rebel was sealed when the young Polish immigrant Leon Czolgosz shot and killed President William McKinley. Czolgosz, who acted alone and whose connection to anarchism was vague, was alleged to have told reporters “I am a disciple of Emma Goldman. Her words set me on fire.” Goldman herself called the statement “a police fabrication.” Although she had met Czolgosz briefly, and he had indeed heard her speak, “no living soul ever heard Czolgosz make that statement,” she wrote, “nor is there a single written word to prove that the boy ever breathed the accusation” (Anarchism and Other Essays, 88). Still, the association with assassination was indelible, and named a firebrand, she came to know the insides of many jails, charged with inciting to riot or for disseminating birth control information in violation of the Comstock laws, laws that had since 1873 defined all public discussions of human sexuality as obscene and illegal. But it was not until she counseled young men to resist the draft in the wave of jingoism accompanying the United States’ entry into World War I that she encountered the full weight of the justice system of her adopted country, a system that ultimately found reasons to nullify her citizenship and deport her.


As an anarchist, Emma Goldman would have brooked no illusions about the state and its agent, U.S. Attorney General Alexander Palmer, nor anticipated from it any admirable administration of social justice. The founding principle of anarchism, she claimed, “is the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful as well as unnecessary” (Anarchism and Other Essays, 50). It made no difference if a government were run by kings or parliaments, the fabric of its laws constrained and fettered the liberty of individuals. She had found injustice not only in czarist Russia but also in the American republic. Newly arrived in New York City, Goldman carried angry memories of a factory owner in Rochester refusing her request for fair pay. As she joined the throngs of young, articulate, and combative newcomers, many of them Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, she was drawn to the anarchist movement of her Haymarket heroes, particularly to the lectures of German immigrant Johann Most, the social democrat turned anarchist, whose exhortations to violence in his newspaper Die Freiheit and publication of a bomb-making handbook helped to harden the police arm of the state into active repression.

It was a congenial, conversational, and activist community in which she found herself in lower Manhattan in the late 1880S. The young people who crowded the teashops and cafeterias of the Lower East Side were often well-educated newcomers, compelled to abandon their professional lives in Russia by anti-Semitic prohibitions and pogroms instigated by the czar. In a lyrical description of the Lower East Side at the end of the nineteenth century, one activist reformer recalled the summer evenings when young men and women, weary from work in the city’s sweatshops and factories, escaped the heat of the crowded tenement streets by climbing to the roofs. In pleasant congregation from rooftop to rooftop they raised voices in German, Russian, or Yiddish debating responses to the oppression of the capitalist owners, their politics shaped by the revolutions in Europe, revolutions that witnessed the formation of new nation-states on the ashes of the houses of Bourbon/Orleans and Hapsburg monarchies (Hillquit 1-2.).

Although anarchism flourished among the newcomers, by the time Emma Goldman arrived in New York City in 1889, the appeal to native American workers of this radical alternative had waned, a popular animus against it raised by the Haymarket violence and fanned by a hostile press. Where kept alive, anarchism found its home among the immigrant Italian, Slavic, and Jewish communities in larger cities, as in New York’s Lower East Side. Goldman would become anarchism’s most spirited spokesperson in America, although, eclectic and pragmatic in her adaptation, she would raise the sharp incisive wit of her oratory to advance as well the sexual liberation of women and the redemptive force of aestheticism, advocacies that took her beyond the conceptual borders of the movement as it was defined by its European male architects. While she shaped the tradition she received to her own purposes, it was European anarchism that had nurtured her intellectual development and remained the “beautiful ideal” against which she would measure all political struggles.

Emma Goldman grounded her political belief on a fundamental repudiation of all states and governments. As did socialists, anarchists called for the end to private ownership of the means of production that involved the exploitation of labor. But while anarchists and Marxists merged in the coffeehouses, saloons, and street corners of lower Manhattan, joining forces to swell a protest or support a strike, a profoundly different response to the revolutionary changes in Europe divided them. So serious, in fact, was this division that in 1872, Karl Marx evicted the followers of the revolutionary anarchist Michael Bakunin from the First International, dividing the leftist enemies of capitalism into two irreconcilable camps.

In theory the goals of anarchists and socialists seemed similar: after destroying the capitalist class and ending its exploitation of labor, workers would share the product of their labor with one another in a stateless, communal society. But the Marxist commitment to the end of the state was theoretical, the positioning of an imagined and distant terminus, the process a slow “withering away” of a state apparatus after a protracted postrevolutionary period of political centralization. Following a Marxist revolution, the nation-state, although “temporary,” would still be alive and well, in principle working in the interests of the proletariat, whose well-being the new possessors of state power would advance and protect.

The anarchist followers of Bakunin, by contrast, continuing the tradition begun by the French printer and journalist Pierre Proudhon, sought the total and immediate elimination of the state after revolution. In its place, free federations of autonomous groups would emerge, networks of workers joined voluntarily into syndicalist associations, without any centralized administrative apparatus. Proudhon had conceived of the free individual as the basic unit of society. Rather than contracting with governments to ensure his well-being, as in the Lockean tradition that informed the American Declaration of Independence, the individual liberated from state tyranny enters into free associations with other individuals, these associations forming the social networks of public life. Although this new collectivity has its own force or character, Proudhon wrote, it must never become a monolithic totality in which individual differences are merged.

A whiff of nostalgia accompanies the anarchist vision, as it repudiates the new centralized nation-states that demanded allegiance from the smaller communities of premodern Europe. Anarchism looks backward for its model to the medieval city-state as a smaller, autonomous unit in a network of mutual interest with other such cities. Insisting on the liberty of individuals and preferring the ideal of small, autonomous groups of workers, perhaps at a printing press distributing political tracts, anarchism positions itself in libertarian resistance to authoritarian Marxism, opposing its call for a postrevolutionary centralized state, even when that is depicted as a transitional necessity.

Anarchists after Proudhon retained his notion of “mutual-ism” while becoming less clear about the constitution of the stateless collective that would replace nation-states, particularly as Proudhon’s world of peasants and small craftsmen gave way to large concentrations of industrial workers. As the great Russian anarchist theorists Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin coped with industrialization, the idea of a federation of workers’ collectives as the basic unit of social organization replaced the notion of individuals in association. Still, when pressed for details about such an anarchist community, Goldman claimed, with other anarchists, that she was less interested in distant outcomes than in correcting present ills, since no future community should be constrained by the imaginings of present planners, fettered as they were by the bonds of government.

By the time Emma Goldman had arrived in New York City, the work of the Russian aristocrat Kropotkin, elegant, lucid, and optimistic, dominated the direction of anarchist thought. A university-trained scientist whom many of his contemporaries regarded as saintly, Kropotkin believed that a spirit of cooperation was native to human beings, indeed to the animal world as well. Social organization among all species evolved in response to natural conditions. Human beings, like other natural creatures, adapted themselves in cooperative ways to serve their own interests in survival and would continue to do so without artificial regulations like the laws of government. Wedding this Darwinian framework, although in cooperative not competitive terms, to the philosophy of anarchism, Kropotkin described human beings learning to rely on “mutual aid” in their struggle to survive the vicissitudes of natural and social adversity. That such an intrinsic spirit of cooperation could be tapped in the struggle to form workers’ collectives was at the heart of his optimistic anarchist vision.

Goldman called Kropotkin the father of modern anarchism, not only because he had brought the discipline of Darwinian science to political philosophy, giving the stamp of a species’ inevitability to the Proudhonian vision of voluntary association, but because he became a theoretician as well of the modern industrial state. Rather than looking back to agrarian and craft communities as the model for social organization, Kropotkin admired the power of industrial production, on which achievement anarchist collectives might build and improve without wasting labor, as he argued, “in keeping up the stables, the kennels, and the retinue of the rich” (The Conquest of Bread, 24). Although Goldman revered Kropotkin, admiring his gentle and generous nature, as she described in meetings with him in her autobiography, privately she believed he was bookish, isolated from the real world, an isolation that may have explained his confidence in the intrinsic cooperativeness and generosity of human nature. While this did not lead her to Bakunin’s rather grim vision of cutthroat competitiveness, Goldman would become quite contemptuous of the “masses,” particularly as they failed to rise in defense of Berkman. His attempt on the life of Frick did not lead, as he and she had hoped, to wide-scale protests from the Homestead strikers he was defending. “The mass is really hopeless as far as real progress and freedom is concerned,” she wrote later in life to Berkman (Nowhere at Home, 49). “The mass unfortunately cannot be depended upon” (ibid., 106).

Such hopes as Berkman and Goldman entertained as they planned the assassination of Frick were derived from a strategy of revolution that came to be known in the 1880s as an attentat, or “propaganda by the deed.” The path to anarchist revolution had never been certain. Before Kropotkin, the principal anarchist theorists Proudhon and Bakunin had offered dramatically contrasting narratives of social change. Rather than the revolutionary violence Marx predicted, Proudhon foresaw incremental alterations in the political economy as associations of workers, educating the proletariat, took over production, workshop by workshop. The revolutionary Bakunin, on the other hand, envisaged an apocalyptic breakdown of society, a purifying and regenerating baptism by fire out of which, phoenixlike, the voluntary and autonomous network of workers’ federations would emerge. Kropotkin assumed that the path to revolution was a natural process, arising out of a clash that obeyed the inexorable laws of social development, although later in life he recoiled from violence and hoped for social progress through peaceful development.

And yet it had been Kropotkin who became identified with the theory of the violent revolutionary act as a tool of anarchist social change. Kropotkin’s newspaper Le Revolte had given a legitimacy to political terror that Kropotkin himself hesitated to endorse wholly: “Permanent revolt by word of mouth, in writing, by the dagger, the rifle, dynamite. Everything is good for us which goes beyond legality” (Miller, Selected Writings, 20). With few recourses for democratic protest, the attentat was an attractive strategy in repressive regimes like czarist Russia’s, where nihilists had conspired to achieve the assassination of Czar Alexander II and had, indeed, sent seismic convulsions through the political landscape.

On the Lower East Side in New York, the convulsions of the Haymarket murders and, later, the violence against the Homestead steelworkers had inspired talk of striking back. As a memoir writer of the period recalled the young radical immigrants in New York, “the judicial murder of the heroic anarchist leaders in November 1886 was still fresh in their minds and…they were full of bitterness. It was amusing to hear these mild-mannered and soft-spoken boys and girls talk glibly about blowing up buildings and killing tyrants. But it was all theory with them” (Hillquit 5). But for young Emma Goldman, enthralled by the call to self-sacrifice the anarchist revolutionary movement inspired in her, theory alone was inadequate. In a fusion of romantic and political passion, Emma Goldman and her young lover Alexander Berkman pledged themselves “to die together if necessary, or to continue to live and work for the ideal for which one of us might have to give his life” (Living My Life, 47).

Their early hopes were that the attentat  would provoke revolutionary uprising, a hope given luminous expression by Haymarket martyr August Spies’s death-house prophecy that “Here you will tread upon a spark, but there and there, and behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up” (Falk 23). Anarchists reasoned that not only would such individual acts of resistance, the attentats of Berkman and Czolgosz, for example, illuminate the social misery that compelled the assassin to violence, the acts must also humiliate existing authorities, revealing the limitations of their power by exposing their vulnerability. But even as Kropotkin himself regretted acts of violence, while never failing to sympathize with the conditions that impelled the actor to strike, Goldman too came to despair that any single attentat might illuminate the injustices that had nurtured the act. “Acts of violence, except as demonstrations of a sensitive human soul, have proved utterly useless,” she wrote to Berkman later, when both were exiled and living with the disappointments of their political hopes (Nowhere at Home, 95).

By the time of the publication of her collected essays in 1910, Goldman’s confidence in workers’ uprisings was deflated. In her essay “Minorities Versus Majorities,” she is skeptical of the revolutionary potential of the “masses” and convinced instead of their “inertia, the cravenness, the utter submission of the mass” (Anarchism and Other Essays, 71). “The mass,” she regretted, “clings to its masters, loves the whip, and is the first to cry Crucify!” (ibid., 77). Change would come, she claimed, citing Ralph Waldo Emerson, as the masses were “schooled” (ibid., 78). Rather than believing in an epiphany of understanding jolting the “masses” into a revolutionary fervor, she placed her faith increasingly in an educated vanguard, the middle-class audiences to whom she lectured.

Goldman recalled, in her autobiography, the force of her conviction that she must continue her political work in English, among America’s native born. She was twenty-five years old, nine years in America. Her beloved Sasha was serving a twenty-two-year term for attempting to kill Frick. Newly released from a year’s imprisonment for “inciting to riot,” she found herself taken up by liberal middle-class sympathizers as a celebrated victim of political repression. Americans, too, she wrote, were “as capable of idealism and sacrifice as my Russian heroes and heroines…From now on I meant to devote myself to propaganda in English among the American people…. Real social changes could be accomplished only by the natives” (Living My Life, 106).

Educating mainstream America in anarchist ideals was uphill work. Against her was the popular prejudice toward anarchism, fed by the violent acts of Berkman and Czolgosz. Against her as well was the failure of anarchism to provide a clear picture of the kind of anarchist society that would replace capitalism. Nor did the unwillingness of anarchists to embrace piecemeal reform on the way to a vaguely depicted paradise of mutual-aid societies sit well with the American working class struggling for the eight-hour workday. Goldman recounts some rueful struggling with such “crimes…against the workers” in anarchist theory and resolves to do some “independent thinking” (ibid., 40).

As she became a more proficient English speaker and addressed audiences beyond the immigrant communities of the eastern seaboard, Goldman became increasingly a spokesperson for the reforms she believed were necessary to an emancipated, fully realized humanity. At the same time she embedded the ideals of European anarchism in the rich individualist tradition of America’s native soil—the revolutionary pamphlets of the insurrectionist patriot Tom Paine, the antipathy to the state and its liberty-crushing laws of the transcendentalist essayist Emerson, and, above all, the defiant individualism of Henry David Thoreau, whom Goldman called “the greatest American anarchist” (Anarchism and Other Essays, 56).

Thoreau’s essay Walden, recounting his two years of living simply and modestly in a natural setting, modeled the anarchist ideal of giving up unnecessary material possessions and dwelling in harmony with natural laws. Thoreau’s 1849 essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” argued for the primacy of individual conscience over the tyranny of authority, a primacy which Emma Goldman understood as anarchist and revolutionary. She applauded Thoreau’s great admiration for John Brown, who led the insurrection of slaves at Harpers Ferry (Living My Life, 330).

Goldman was drawn to notions of the individual capable of triumph in heroic combat with crushing authority. During her residence in 1895 in Vienna, where she studied nursing and midwifery, Goldman discovered the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher whom she described as hurling his anathemas against old values. Earlier, she admired the German philosopher Max Stirner’s notion of the paramount drive of individuals to seek their own self-interest, an “egoism” that positioned the fully free individuals in a permanent stance of resistance to that which threatens to thwart their will. Out of this conviction that the individual will is impelled by profound forces to assert its own needs, Emma Goldman explained the psychological conditions that result in political violence and the baleful effects of sexual repression. Convinced that a social revolution must be preceded by the education of the masses, Goldman ultimately laid the failure of the Russian revolution and progressive European and American political movements on the failure of the will of the masses to insist upon their own interests (Nowhere at Home, 82).


As Emma Goldman folded the American individualist tradition into European anarchism, she also expanded the notion of the essential liberty of the autonomous individual—an anarchist axiom—to include the fundamental rights of sexual expression. Although anarchists urged equality between the sexes in their resistance to all forms of authoritarianism, in practice they were reluctant to spend their political capital advocating sexual freedom. When Emma Goldman became a spokesperson for birth control reform, sex education, and the free-love movement, ideas which she found in proselytizers like the American free-love advocate Moses Harman, not all anarchists were willing to share such platforms with her. At the international meeting in Paris in 1900 she was rebuffed by anarchists who would not allow her to add sexual freedom to their political agenda (Living My Life, 163).

To be sure, she had sensed a breach earlier between her understanding of her own desires and what she came to recognize as puritanism among her revolutionary comrades, a sexual puritanism that went hand in hand with a more general ascetic disdain for pleasure. Her own beloved Sasha, for example, had responded angrily to the extravagance of her taste for flowers. Another comrade reproached her for the vivacity of her dancing at a party following a political meeting, to which the young Goldman responded angrily: “I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister” (ibid., 42).

Challenged at such moments, Emma Goldman defended impulses in her own nature that seemed at once profound and immutable, but she was nonetheless troubled. Her response to aesthetic and physical pleasure seemed to yoke her to her own personal desires, while the more self-denying Sasha burned with an altruistic and purifying zeal. Comparing herself to her friend, Goldman wrote in her autobiography, “I was woven of many skeins, conflicting in shade and texture. To the end of my days, I should be torn between the yearning for a personal life and the need of giving all to my ideal” (ibid., 104).

In 1885 in Vienna, a city she found “fascinating,” “light-hearted,” “gorgeous” (ibid., 113), she attended a series of lectures given by the young neurologist Sigmund Freud. Only the year before, Freud had published Studies in Hysteria, beginning his inquiry into the composition of the unconscious mind that established the modern school of psychoanalysis. As Freud lectured, Goldman described a “feeling of being led out of a dark cellar into broad daylight. For the first time,” she continued in her autobiography, “I grasped the full significance of sex repression and its effect on human thought and action. He helped me to understand myself, my own needs” (ibid., 114). Later readings of the European sexologists Havelock Ellis, Richard Krafft-Ebing, and Edward Carpenter, whose works she encountered during travels in Europe in 1895, added to her understanding of the baleful effects of sexual repression. Years after first hearing Freud lecture, Goldman traveled up from New York to Worcester, Massachusetts, a city where she had once sold ice cream with Alexander Berkman, to hear the Viennese psychoanalyst deliver his American lectures at Clark University. In her autobiography, the reconstruction of her childhood memories bears the imprint of Freud’s teaching. She renders early childhood memory as idyllic and erotic scenes. She recalls feeling a guilty repression of sexual desire after her mother’s admonitions, and a violent first sexual encounter leaves her feeling both desire and revulsion. Just as candidly, she narrates her sexual response to adult love affairs. The expression of sexuality was important to her as a liberation of consciousness, a value in its own right, but also one that would nurture both political and aesthetic self-realization.

As she learned to distinguish repression in her personal history, Goldman no longer allowed herself to be chastened by what she regarded as the sexual puritanism of her comrades, a puritanism that she believed destroyed natural and healthy impulses. Years after hearing Freud lecture, in an illuminating encounter with Kropotkin—whose belief in the anarchist ideal of mutual assistance rose out of a conviction that cooperation was a Darwinian trait hewn for survival—Goldman challenged his dismissal of the free-love interests of some American anarchists. When Kropotkin complained that an anarchist publication shouldn’t “waste so much space discussing sex,” Goldman quarreled with him energetically, saying, “All right, dear comrade, when I have reached your age, the sex question may no longer be of importance to me. But it is now” (Living My Life, 152).

Goldman believed that sexuality, if unfettered by convention, prejudice, and repressive state institutions, was an agency that could produce the social harmony that Kropotkin argued was an adaptive strategy for human survival. “Love,” she wrote, “should be the impetus for the harmonious blending of two beings” (Traffic in Women, 149). “If the world is ever to give birth to true companionship and oneness…love will be the parent” (ibid., 213). Anarchism, her “beautiful ideal” of autonomous individuals living in social networks of mutual respect, rested on a reading of human nature in which Goldman, inspired by Freud, considered sexual desire an ameliorative force. “Every stimulus which quickens the imagination and raises the spirits is as necessary to life as air. It invigorates the body and deepens our vision of human fellowship” (ibid., 157).

But until the unnatural constraints imposed on sexual desire by government, religion, and traditional conventions were lifted, this more profound vision of human fellowship would not be realized. Becoming a spokesperson for reforms in private life, Goldman recommended the radical reorganization of domestic life that became foundational in later feminist platforms in the 1960s and 1970s that assigned childcare to both parents, not simply the woman. While Kropotkin had argued that woman’s apparent inferiority could be remedied by making her man’s intellectual equal, Goldman insisted she must become as free as men sexually as well, unhampered by the Victorian convention of celibacy before marriage. “Can there be anything more outrageous,” she asks, “than the idea that a healthy, grown woman, full of life and passion, must deny nature’s demand, must subdue her most intense craving, undermine her health and break her spirit, must stunt her vision, abstain from the depth and glory of sex experience until a ‘good’ man comes along to take her unto himself as a wife” (Anarchism and Other Essays, 231 ).

While Freud’s lectures had provided the illuminating moment when she understood the harmful effects of sexual repression, her work on the Lower East Side taught her the necessity of birth control. Marriage itself she understood, as did all anarchists, Marxists, and nineteenth-century free-love advocates, as an “economic arrangement,” an “insurance pact” for women, although for many a vastly unsatisfactory one. Marriage, “that poor little State- and Church-begotten weed,” had little to do with love, but alas much to do with the misery of woman’s condition in poverty and the ill health of so many of her children (ibid., 236).

Because Goldman had herself refused an operation that would have permitted her to bear a child, she entered into love affairs with a freedom from fear of unwanted pregnancies that most women did not enjoy. As a nurse and midwife practicing in the tenements of the Lower East Side, she recalled the misery of the squalid rooms in which a woman labored, often with “sickly and ill-nourished,” “ill-born, ill-kept, and unwashed” children trailing at her feet as she helped “another poor creature into the world” (Living My Life, 121). One progressive physician’s opinion that as woman used her brains more, “her procreative organs will function less,” did not ease the anguish of ceaseless childbirth. “I saw,” Goldman wrote, “that it was mockery to expect them to wait until the social revolution arrives in order to right injustice” (ibid., 127).

Goldman’s nursing work was not confined to the desperately poor living in Lower East Side tenements. As her professional work grew, she addressed physical complaints of unmarried middle-class women as well, many of whom were self-supporting and in principle freed from the economic dependency of conventional marriage. From these women and what she understood as their enforced celibacy, Goldman derived what she called the “tragedy of women’s emancipation,” a tragedy she believed began in their stunted and repressed sexual lives. Emancipation for women, as she imagined such liberation, would follow not access to the ballot box but resistance to all forms of prejudice, convention, and authority that thwarted individual liberty.

As an anarchist Goldman was not an advocate of woman suffrage. She considered the ballot a dubious privilege, its having led to no discernible improvement in the lives of women or workers in the few states where voting was extended to women. She called universal suffrage “our modern fetish” (Anarchism and Other Essays, 195), “an evil that enslaves people,” “the new idol” (ibid., 197), and was frankly contemptuous of the American woman’s suffrage movement, which she called “a parlor affair absolutely detached from the needs of the people.” In fact, debased by dependency, corrupted by puritanism into another Mrs. Grundy, the American woman, Goldman believed, was a “danger to liberty wherever she has political power” (ibid., 204): disenfranchising prostitutes in Idaho (ibid., 203), an enemy of free speech in a prudish support of the Comstock laws, and a supporter of Prohibition “which sanctions the spread of drunkenness among men and women of the rich class and yet keeps vigilant watch on the only place left to the poor man” (ibid., 204).

Goldman was impressed with the work of only a “handful of women” in the women’s rights movement, a few lone individuals who issued a manifesto called the Declaration of Sentiments at a Conference in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, a manifesto that had opened higher education and professional life to women. Goldman accepted that the “main evil today is an economic one,” but she added that the “solution of that evil can be brought about only through the consideration of every phase of life—individual, as well as collective; the internal, as well as the external phases” (ibid., 50). It is this “individual” and “internal” liberation that she demands, drawn from her readings of Nietzsche and Stirner, claiming “if society is ever to become free, it will be so through liberated individuals” (ibid., 44). Of woman’s liberation she writes:Quote:

Her development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself. First, by asserting herself as a personality, 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. (Anarchism and Other Essays, 211)

With sexuality no longer confined to a private realm but instead shaped and constrained by social conventions and institutions, Goldman argued that sexual liberation must ultimately challenge and transform church and state, the very edifices that protect sexual repression (Haaland 136). As the attentats of bullet and bomb might injure and humiliate authorities, so too individual acts of flouting sexual conventions might undermine state institutions. Goldman insists vehemently that anarchism engages “every phase” (Anarchism and Other Essays, xiii), the “internal” as well as the “external,” and that the liberation of sexual repression could be a “force hitherto unknown in the world” (ibid., 211).


During the early years of the twentieth century, Emma Goldman became a popular lecturer, welcomed to venues of middle-class respectability like the Manhattan Liberal Club and the Brooklyn Philosophical Society, where she spoke to audiences considerably different from the crowds of workers who hurrahed her impromptu speeches from carts in Union Square or crowded into the back rooms of Lower East Side cafés. To be sure, some of her radical political comrades were suspicious of her willingness to carry her message into the more respectable venues of the liberal middle class. Communist leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, for example, reflecting on this period, wrote that “As long as Emma Goldman spoke to poor people in the small halls with sawdust on the floor there was an agitational vibrance in her speeches,” a vibrancy Flynn found missing when Goldman became “the idol of middle-class liberals” (50).

Goldman intended, however, to carry her message—anarchism, birth control, free love, free speech—into the American mainstream. She had gone through a period of anguish and depression following the assassination of President McKinley in 1901. When she was falsely accused of assisting the assassin Czolgosz, Goldman was hunted down, bloodied by police, and briefly jailed. Alone among her anarchist comrades she sympathized with the young anarchist Czolgosz, whom she had briefly met; and she was stunned when Berkman wrote to her from prison that Czolgosz’s act had been ill conceived, directed mistakenly against a political foe rather than an economic one, an attentat therefore, without any social importance. Years later Goldman and Berkman, reliving their American activism while in exile in Europe, were still quarreling over Berkman’s response to Czolgosz, whom Goldman regarded as a well-intentioned unfortunate (Nowhere at Home, 95). Goldman defended the “Buffalo tragedy” in her essay “The Psychology of Political Violence,” again disavowing the political effectiveness of violence but ascribing the greater violence to those conditions that led such tortured young men as Czolgosz to act. “Poor Leon Czolgosz,” she wrote, “…your crime consisted of too sensitive a social consciousness. Unlike your idealless and brainless American brothers, your ideals soared above the belly and the bank account” (Anarchism and Other Essays, 90). As for Alexander Berkman, it was “the brutal slaughter of the eleven steel workers” that impelled him to take up arms against Frick (ibid., 93).

She was jolted from what she called “spiritual death” after the execution of Czolgosz (Living My Life, 206) by events in Russia, where the czar was violently repressing insurgents. Awakened out of her depressive lethargy by a sense that in her motherland others were struggling against tyranny, she resolved that she would use her “greater access to the American mind,” her steadily growing confidence as an English speaker, to “plead the heroic cause of revolutionary Russia.” She had befriended politically engaged American reformers such as the settlement worker Lillian Wald and the patrician reformer Lucy Stone Blackwell. At the same time new Progressive era sentiment was more responsive to political dissent, directing its fire against urban political corruption and the appalling conditions among the poor, crowded into the cities’ tenement slums. When the suffering of the Russian revolutionaries promoted some sympathy for socialists among middle-class liberals, Goldman was able to arrange lectures in New York for the “grandmother” of the Russian revolution, Catherine Breshkovskaya. The prominent Republican William Dudley Foulke became president of the newly reorganized Society of the Friends of Russian Freedom.

Goldman was meeting rich and influential people as well through her sponsorship of a progressive Russian theater group whose American tour she had arranged. Disguised as a Russian gentlewoman in reduced circumstances, she played her part in many tea parties in Chicago, where none of the fashionable theater patrons understood they were entertaining the notorious anarchist. Not all of Goldman’s friends were pleased by her new prominence. Like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, some of her comrades believed she was too easily accommodating the middle class. When Berkman was at last released from prison in 1906 and reunited with Goldman, he discovered the girl he remembered changed in uncongenial ways: “Her mind has matured, but her wider interests antagonize my old revolutionary traditions…. Her friends and admirers crowd her home and turn it into a sort of salon. They talk art and literature…even she has been infected by the air of intellectual aloofness” (493). Indeed the familiar Lower East Side neighborhood of immigrant kaffeeklatsches in backroom saloons was vanishing. But Goldman might have quarreled with him that these literary and artistic interests were new. Aesthetic passion was as real to her as sexual response, and she traced the provenance of her interests again to early childhood.

In a revealing anecdote Goldman offers in her autobiography (39), she describes a visit to the opera with anarchist Johann Most, in the early days of her romantic infatuation with him. Moved by the music, Goldman recalls her earlier encounter with opera as a child, so impressing Most with the passionate delivery of her memory that Most prophesies that she will replace him one day as a great public speaker (40). Listening to the young Emma Goldman, Most had heard a compelling force of conviction in her voice, one that would infuse her oratory with passion in the service of anarchism. Most, as Goldman recalls him, seems to have understood that the wellsprings of her political idealism nurtured as well a love of beauty. To the comrade who reproached her for spirited dancing at a party after a political meeting, Goldman responded: “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things” (ibid., 42). For Goldman the right to beauty was as important as the right to freedom itself. Just as physical passion was a force of self-expression, so too was aesthetic passion. “I cannot imagine a free society without beauty,” she wrote in exile to a friend, “for of what use liberty, if not to strive for beauty?” (Nowhere at Home, 99). Just as sexuality provided the adhesion that fixed individuals in social relations with one another, so too Goldman believed that the aesthetic response could be the conduit by which the “beautiful ideal” of anarchist values passed from the consciousness of one liberated individual into the minds of the members of a community.

In her essay “The Modern Drama,” Goldman denies that propagandistic literature can adequately represent “modern, conscious social unrest” (Anarchism and Other Essays, 241) and turns to the theater for the “leaven of radical thought and the disseminator of new values” (ibid., 242). The middle class might be able to insulate itself against the sufferings of the poor and against the hypocrisies and stultifying repressive force of its own prejudice and conventions; but the stage and its living representation of social misery bring home this painful reality even to self-satisfied audiences. For example, Goldman argues, when George Bernard Shaw’s character Undershaft declares that “the worst of crimes is poverty” and that “all the other crimes are virtues beside it,” his play is far more effective as political instruction than all of Shaw’s socialist tracts (ibid., 261). Other modern playwrights achieve similar force. Ibsen, “the supreme hater of all social shams,” wars against all false idols, paving the way for woman’s emancipation in A Doll’s House, performing “the last funeral rites over a decaying and dying social system” (ibid., 257) in An Enemy of the People, with “the regenerated individual, the bold and daring rebel” rising out of its ashes.

Lecturing on the social significance of modern drama, Emma Goldman had fixed yet another string to her bow. The comprehensiveness of her reform vision was enthralling. One young woman who became a social reform worker wrote, “Can you imagine the effect she had on an East Side girl of seventeen who knew nothing of the world of culture? She introduced me to Strindberg, Shaw, and Ibsen. I used to travel clear across town to hear her lecture Sunday nights on literature, birth control, and women” (Anarchism and Other Essays, vii). While all of her interests cohered in the primary value she placed on individual freedom, she insisted that such freedom was in essence aesthetic, political, and sexual, a mixed brew all her own.


While she was establishing a national reputation on the lecture circuit, Emma Goldman fulfilled a long-standing ambition and founded her own journal. Like herself, Mother Earth was “woven of many skeins,” an anarchist journal of impressive range and breadth that, with “Yiddish perseverance and boundless enthusiasm” (Living My Life, 312), she brought before the public in 1905. With revenues from her lecture tours, where she was finding a sympathetic audience willing to hear her out now that the McKinley assassination taint was fading, Goldman was able to supply the funding that kept the always financially precarious journal in print for more than a decade. Publishing Mother Earth represented a milestone for her. Bringing this dream for “an independent radical spokesman in the United States” (ibid., 312) to fruition signaled a personal victory over the depressive inactivity that followed the McKinley assassination. At the same time, the journal provided a means of constructing an anarchist platform that combined Goldman’s interest in social and cultural issues. Through Mother Earth and the community of activists it gathered, Goldman became the spokesperson for her kind of American anarchism, one that kept alive the theoretical insights of the European anarchists, but was free of a single-minded focus on propaganda for working-class consciousness and insurrection that had been the earlier focus of the immigrant communities. As she so often had reason to observe, her kind of anarchism was as interested in the “internal” as well as the “external,” in psychological well-being as well as economic improvement. She intended to keep Mother Earth “free from party politics,” “to voice without fear every unpopular progressive cause, and to aim for unity between revolutionary effort and artistic expression” (ibid., 312).

No surprise, then, that when he emerged from fourteen years in prison, Alexander Berkman noticed with unease that Goldman had moved beyond the single-minded focus of the German-, Russian-, and Yiddish-speaking immigrants of the East Coast. Goldman was addressing the liberal audiences of native-born reform-minded professionals—doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, many of them affluent and aristocratic patrons, now including communities on both coasts and in the midlands. These were the liberal intelligentsia of the professional middle class whom Goldman now considered in the vanguard of social change. She had learned the influence wealthy liberals could wield, an influence that helped keep alive the American anarchism she preached. A well-placed complaint in the ears of socially prominent liberals in any far-flung city could halt the kind of repressive police injunction against the “notorious” Emma Goldman’s speaking that might spoil the best-planned lecture tour. These tours were where audiences filled the coffers that fed Mother Earth not only by paying the price of admission but also by buying up the pamphlets of anarchist essays Goldman brought with her. Goldman was educating the middle class.

Mother Earth went to press with a “nest egg” of $250 from the progressive Russian theater troupe Goldman had sponsored in America (Living My Life, 312). Subtitled “a monthly magazine devoted to social science and literature,” the magazine’s cover offered a picture of the backs of a fanciful Adam and Eve, standing under the tree of knowledge. With their chains cast off behind them, they greeted a rising sun on the distant horizon, their feet on the open road that led to the new dawn. The mission statement of the opening issue extended the embrace of anarchism to all free thinkers, libertarians, and socially conscious aesthetes: “Mother Earth,” announced the first issue, “will endeavor to attract and appeal to all those who oppose encroachment on public and individual life. It will appeal to those who strive for something higher, weary of the commonplace…to those who long for the tender shade of a new dawn for humanity free from the dread of want, the dread of starvation in the face of mountains of riches (Mother Earth, Mar. 1906, 4).

The journal, Goldman’s “dearest child,” as she often referred to it, also provided its peripatetic publisher with a “family,” including, among others, fellow publisher and radical anarchist journalist Max Baginski; Harry Kelly, a printer with a union background; American anarchist Leonard Abbott; Czech anarchist Hippolyte Havel; the anarchist theorist Voltairine de Cleyre; and, of course, Alexander Berkman, whose painful reentry to life outside prison began with writing for Mother Earth. With some of these comrades, she experimented in collective living arrangements, although the ideal of honoring individual wills and mutual needs proved impracticable. Other problems in the extended family of anarchists and artists were perhaps also inevitable. The loss of a primary focus on economic materialism and the defense of middle-class liberals as an embryonic vanguard made Goldman seem less revolutionary than other anarchists liked. At the same time her literary taste, formed by nineteenth-century realism in her youth, was too conservative for many new modern writers, whose experiments in atonality, abstraction, and anomie were unsatisfying to her. Goldman published, among others, the nineteenth-century poetry of Samuel Butler, Matthew Arnold, Walt Whitman, Rudyard Kipling, James Russell Lowell, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. She gave space to poems by Anna Louise Strong and to Alice Stone Blackwell’s translations of Maxim Gorky’s poetry. Believing that literature claimed its importance as it exposed social problems, she chastised the “art for art’s sake” escapism of the New York literati. As Mother Earth bequeathed the voice of literary experimentalism to other journals, Max Eastman’s The Masses published the leftist literary avant-garde in America.

These criticisms aside, Mother Earth was a brave, dissident voice, preaching political and social change, while those who lectured to sustain its publication risked imprisonment for violation of the Comstock laws or, as anarchists, the violence of police raids, brutal arrests, and the threat of deportation. The journal itself was under constant surveillance. On one occasion when Goldman published a lecture on the importance of sexual education for women, disguised decorously with references to the “function of the most important part of her life,” the New York postmaster impounded issues and held up delivery for days.

As the foremost anarchist publication in the English language in America, the journal hosted an ongoing forum in which such theorists as Goldman, Berkman, de Cleyre, Baginski, Coryell, and Kelly defined anarchism and anarchist communism, criticized statist socialism, and explained anarchism’s position on “defensive violence”; it offered regular excerpts from major libertarian writings, from the anarchist Kropotkin to the philosopher Nietzsche and the writer Oscar Wilde. Works that might otherwise have reached far fewer readers, like the educator and anarchist Francisco Guardia Ferrer’s journal The Modern School, were excerpted. In 1910 Mother Earth published Goldman’s own collected essays. Two years later, when no other publisher for Alexander Berkman’s finely hewn Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist could be found, the Mother Earth publishing company found the money.

The magazine published commentaries on pressing current issues such as free speech, child labor, education, white slave traffic, Zionism, and legal defense for radicals under indictment. It was alone in exposing the brutality of America’s jails, with firsthand accounts by those who had been there. The magazine flourished also as a form of anarchist bulletin board with reports of state trials of anarchists from all over the world, as well as reports of international and national anarchist meetings, notes coming in from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, England, Russia, Argentina, China, and Japan.

While she traveled, Goldman remained in continual contact with the magazine’s home office, posting accounts of her lectures at various sites across America; in many of these reports her inimitable voice gave Mother Earth the feeling of a family letter. From St. Louis, she complained about some comrade’s regrettable indifference to “cleanliness and beauty,” ending “I cannot even for her sake [raising funds for Mother Earth] speak in dingy little halls, dark and gloomy, with the dust and smoke making it impossible to breathe” (Mother Earth, May 1907, 132)-Occasionally family quarrels that broke out on its pages revealed the fault lines of more serious divisions. One quarrel surfaced when Ben Reitman, Goldman’s road manager and lover, reported a London meeting with Peter Kropotkin, who worried aloud that the American anarchists were becoming too “utilitarian,” too “respectable” (ibid., Oct. 1910, 252). Two months later Voltairine de Cleyre complained in the same pages that she had been booked into “respectable halls” during her lecture tour to address the professional middle class, halls whose rentals required a ticket of admission that few working people could afford. De Cleyre, who chose a life of spartan simplicity, insisted that anarchists take their message to the working class and implied that she might cheerfully breathe the “dust and smoke” that offended Goldman in service of that greater good (ibid., Dec. 1910, 323).

In response to de Cleyre, Goldman defended the “respectable halls” she had come to know, and with them defended the middle-class liberals as a vanguard. “The pioneers of every new thought rarely come from the ranks of the workers,” she wrote in a letter to Mother Earth, suggesting that the economic exigencies of their daily lives made them less likely to grasp theoretical truths. “Besides,” she added, in an ironic reference to the Marxist call to workers’ revolution, “it is an undisputed fact that those who have but their chains to lose cling tenaciously to them. The men and women who first take up the banner of a new liberating idea generally emanate from the so called respectable classes” (ibid., 326).

Meanwhile, Emma Goldman and her comrades watched with mounting alarm as the drumroll of militarism in the United States intensified following the outbreak of World War I in Europe. In December 1915 Mother Earth denounced this swelling of patriotic fervor that was calling for intervention in Europe, and Goldman lectured widely across the country on “Preparedness to the Road to Universal Slaughter.” As Wilson’s government inched closer to war, calling it “the war to end all wars” and “the war to make the world safe for democracy,” Mother Earth called on the American working class to resist: “Workers alone can avert the impending war; in fact all wars; if they will refuse to be a party to them” (ibid., Mar. 1917, 10). Goldman told her audiences that the capitalist war was fought to enrich “the privileged few and help them to subdue, to enslave and crush labor” (Morton, 84).

In spite of the war propaganda maintained by a cooperative mainstream press, men did not immediately volunteer to join the hostilities. With war declared and a million-man army sought, only 73,000 men responded in the first six weeks, a lack of enthusiasm that made the antiwar efforts of the small dissident minority seem even more threatening. While Congress was debating Selective Service legislation, Goldman and Berkman organized a No Conscription League with branches in many American cities, the meetings often scenes of near-violent clashes with soldiers and sailors charging the platforms. When the Selective Service Act was passed in June 1917, requiring all men between the ages of twenty and thirty to register for the draft, Mother Earth was published with black borders, and men crowded the journal’s office in New York City to ask for advice. At such times the warnings of J. Edgar Hoover, the Justice Department’s new director of a radical-surveillance branch, that Emma Goldman was “the most dangerous woman in America” may have seemed prescient.

The Espionage Act of June 1917 made it illegal to encourage disloyalty to the military or to obstruct the draft, and issues of Mother Earth were impounded by the postal authorities. Along with other radical publications like Max Eastman’s The Masses and Berkman’s own publication the Blast, published out of San Francisco, Mother Earth ceased publishing. Its last issue of August 1917 never reached subscribers. The cessation of publication was painful for Goldman, who wrote, “A struggle of over a decade, exhausting tours for its supports, much worry and grief…and now with one blow its life has been snuffed out” (Living My Life, 642). A more modest publication, the Mother Earth Bulletin, kept some avenues of communication open within the radical community from October 1917 to May 1918, when it too was banned from the mail. In these pages the anarchist Goldman defended the Russian Marxist Bolshevik October Revolution, which swept Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government from power in 1917. Although apprehensive that in Soviet Russia “the same monster is being set up” and that “in the end it will be the same delusion,” she urged anarchists to rally to defend the infant revolutionary government from being attacked by “capitalistic and imperialistic bloodhounds” (Wexler, Emma Goldman in Exile, 261).

In 1918, Congress passed the Sedition Act, prohibiting “disloyal, scurrilous and abusive language about the government.” Some nine hundred people would be imprisoned for violation of the congressional acts passed to quell dissent during war-time, among them the progressive reformer and socialist Eugene Debs, who was not released until 1921. Among the first to be arrested were Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, who were imprisoned for conspiracy to encourage others to avoid the draft.

If anarchist agitators were not enough, established authority had additional reason to be fearful in those years. First the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia raised alarm, followed by labor unrest that spread across America with the end of the war. In 1919, a general strike was declared in Seattle that brought the city to a halt. Across the country, 250,000 AFL workers joined 100,000 union workers striking the steel industry in western Pennsylvania, where men worked exhausting twelve-hour days, six days a week, in brutal heat. The following year 120,000 textile workers struck in New England and New Jersey. In Boston, the police went out on strike. Class antagonism and civil unrest never seemed so high, with militant labor organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) attracting sympathy and followers from among socialists, anarchists, and radical trade unionists all over the United States.

In the summer of 1919, a bomb exploded in Washington outside the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, an act which fueled a new aggressive stage in government reprisal. Palmer began his notorious series of “raids” on immigrants who were not American citizens, enabled by a new federal law that permitted the deportation of foreign-born dissidents described as aliens. On December 21, 1919, Palmer’s men arrested Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, only recently released from a two-year prison sentence for their antiwar work. Goldman and Berkman were summarily deported along with 249 other “aliens,” crowded onto the ship the Buford for transport ultimately to the new Soviet Union, where the Bolsheviki were in the early days of making a proletarian revolution.


Goldman gives a riveting account of her residence in Russia, a story of a passage from hopeful expectation to profound disillusionment. In her two years’ residency, amply and dramatically narrated in Living My Life, Goldman traveled widely in Soviet cities and the countryside. She met defenders and critics of the Bolshevik revolution among government officials, revolutionists, artists, and writers, while touring factories, health facilities, schools, and prisons. Two years after their arrival, Goldman and Berkman left Russia, traveling without visas to an anarchist conference in Germany, resolved to tell the world they had found only misery and repression, not the social and economic revolution they had anticipated.

Goldman may have felt a special imperative to make her disclosure. Her 1917 pamphlet published by Mother Earth supporting the young Bolshevik revolution and urging anarchists to do likewise may have encouraged many anarchists to travel to join the revolution, a decision some paid for with arrest and execution. From prison in America, she had written an impassioned letter to her beloved “Babushka,” the Russian anarchist Catherine Breshkovskaya, asking her to recant her recent repudiation of the Bolsheviks. “They are flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood,” Goldman wrote (Wexler, Emma Goldman in Exile, 260). Although in the early days after the October Revolution, Lenin had welcomed the participation of anarchists, some even joining the government, the anarchists became the target of repression by the Cheka, the state police, as they criticized the growing state power of the Bolsheviks.

In Berlin in July 1922, needing money, and eager to share her story with the mainstream American liberals whom she had so long cultivated, Goldman told her story first to the New York World, which published her reflections on her two-year residency as a series of seven articles from late March to early April. Goldman’s chronicle of corruption, special privileges, widespread mismanagement, hunger, and police terror provoked outcries of disbelief from some on the left in America. Rose Pastor Stokes, with whom Goldman had worked in the birth control movement, suggested she be hanged “at least in effigy” (Morton 121).

In response to a suggestion from an American publisher that she turn the articles into a book, Goldman accepted an advance from Doubleday and Page, who, to her dismay, published her manuscript “My Two Years in Russia” with the altered and more sensational title My Disillusionment in Russia. Goldman felt the new title was misleading, as her disillusion had been with the Bolsheviks, not with the Russian revolution. Even more disturbing, the last twelve chapters of the book had become detached from the manuscript in transmission, and the work went to press without them or the afterword, in which Goldman offered an analysis of the failure of the Soviet state. A second volume containing the missing material was published in 1924, but Goldman could not escape the regret that she had been misrepresented to the American reading public.

In fact, the book with its preface and afterword serves as a concise and informative anarchist response to the events of the Russian revolution. Her witness to the historic experiment taking place in Russia is prescient in its unforgiving repudiation of political repression. Of her earlier support for Bolshevism, Goldman wrote, “For 30 years I fought the Marxian theory as a cold, mechanistic, enslaving formula…. But the Allied attack upon them made them the symbol of the Russian Revolution, and brought me to their defence” (Disillusionment in Russia, x). She accused the Bolsheviks of betraying the Russian revolution, replacing one state power with another.

Goldman offers Kropotkin’s distinction between the Russian revolution, which she wrote was inspired by “libertarian principles,” and the Bolshevik ascendancy, which ruled by “coercion” (ibid., 157). “The actual Russian Revolution,” she wrote, “took place in the summer months of 1917. During that period the peasants possessed themselves of the land, the workers of the factories, thus demonstrating that they knew well the meaning of social revolution” (ibid., ix). Indeed, these workers “were virtually in control of the economic life of Russia” (ibid., xvii). “But after the high tide of revolutionary enthusiasm had carried them into power, the Bolsheviki discarded their false plumes” (ibid., ix), broke up the “shop committees” that had formed under direct worker control in the factories, and crushed them “under the iron yoke of the Bolshevik state” (ibid., xvii).

She had not, she wrote, expected to see individual liberty immediately extended. “I should have been content if the Russian workers and peasants as a whole had derived social betterment as a result of the Bolshevik regime” (ibid., xvi). Instead, fuel lay untapped sixty-five miles from St. Petersburg while the city workers froze; farm implements lay stacked in warehouses of Kharkov, waiting for orders from Moscow for their distribution, while peasants in the Ukraine were unable to cultivate their land (My Further Disillusionment, 162). All this mismanagement, she believed, might have been rectified if independent units of workers had been free to establish networks of mutual aid. “The industrial power of the masses,” she wrote, “expressed through their libertarian associations—Anarcho—syndicalism—is alone able to organize successfully the economic life” (ibid., 163). Meanwhile, claiming the need to defend itself, the Bolshevik state strengthened its police arm and violently suppressed dissent.

The Russian revolution, the true libertarian revolution, failed, she wrote, because the Russian people, so long repressed by the czar, were inexperienced “in the political game and [had] a naïve faith in the miraculous power of the party that talked the loudest and made the most promises” (ibid., 159). Russian anarchists who might have led the masses to a consciousness of their own political and economic power had been themselves victims of suppression and were “too few,” and too engaged in “limited group activities of individualistic endeavour” (ibid., 159).

The field had been left to Lenin, whom Goldman met personally in Russia and whom she assessed: “he was a shrewd politician who knew exactly what he was about and…would stop at nothing to achieve his ends” (ibid., 151). There were, she wrote, “an all-powerful, centralized Government with State Capitalism as its economic expression,” with the transfer of wealth from workers to the new Soviet bureaucracy, an elite that maintained itself with privileges never imagined in “true communism” (ibid., 153).

Finally Goldman unequivocally repudiated the justification of human misery as a means to an end. While violence attends revolution, “if it is to result only in a change of dictatorship…then it is hardly worth while. It is surely not worth all the struggle and sacrifice, the stupendous loss in human life and cultural values that result from every revolution” (ibid., 170). She had witnessed true revolutionary values, “the sense of justice and equality, the love of liberty and of human brotherhood,” dismissed as “weak sentimentalizing” or “bourgeois superstition,” the sanctity of life itself disregarded as “unrevolutionary.”

The mainstream press in the United States received the work with predictable favor, but again some former comrades were vituperative. The IWW’s “Big Bill” Haywood who escaped imprisonment in America by fleeing to Russia and Communist William Foster suggested she was in the pay of the U.S. government (Morton 123). A reviewer for The Nation wrote that Goldman’s responses to Russia were not to be trusted, rising out of her “deep-seated antagonism” for Marxism. “Violent inner conflicts are not the soil out of which sprout unbiased opinion,” the reviewer wrote (18 Feb. 1925, 189-90). The Nation wryly suggested Goldman was being disingenuous in traveling to Russia, as if anticipating the Promised Land of “a cooperative decentralized Anarchist commonwealth” (ibid., 189). “They are Marxists,” reminded The Nation, “at the opposite pole from Anarchists.” Goldman anticipated the criticism: “Just because I am a revolutionist,” she wrote in her preface, “I refuse to side with the master class, which in Russia is called the Communist Party” (My Further Disillusionment, xix).


When the reviews of her autobiography came out in 1931, the praise from the mainstream press may have made Emma Goldman feel somewhat uncomfortable. Used to being caricatured as demonic, bomb-throwing, and foreign, Goldman found herself the author of “one of the finest autobiographies of its kind,” according to the reviewer in The New York Times, although at the same time the review suggested that the kind referred to was memoirs of ages so safely bygone that their authors may be considered to have already been embalmed (R. L. Duffus, 10/25/31). Reviewers from the left-wing press were less generous. Goldman had written frankly and lengthily about her lovers, some romances fleeting and others long-standing, and the candor disturbed some of her friends, who wondered why they needed to be subjected to such intimate confessions. Goldman’s friend Mollie Steimer, also unhappy with the revelations about Reitman when they were published, complained to Goldman that she had tipped the scales heavily in favor of romance, rather than describing her life in such a way that the cause of anarchism itself would be served (Falk, Love, Anarchy, xvi-xvii). It seemed to many that Goldman’s emotionally wrought narrative must reinforce the popular conception of the anarchist as a political enthusiast, an irrational and intemperate zealot.

But no reader, sympathetic or not, could have denied how intensely readable Goldman’s autobiography was. In it she describes her great service to anarchism as less an intellectual exercise in which principles are tested against practical realities and more as an affective state of discovery, commitment, and, perhaps, martyrdom. In this sense the autobiography that Goldman completed in 1931 took on the shape of a heroic journey, a quest for social justice in the service of the “beautiful ideal” she discovered as a girl when the Haymarket martyrs died in Chicago, an ideal she carried through the fire of America’s prisons and Lenin’s Russia, and whose flame she tended alone and solitary in exile in Europe. She imagined her work as a missionary, writing, “Perhaps it will help the young generations to see that no life is worth anything which does not contain a great ideal” (Falk 9). No one who had attended her lectures on anarchism, literary criticism, or birth control should have been surprised by the persona that Goldman crafted in her autobiography. The sense of herself she offered as she mined memory and archive for the personhood of Emma Goldman was utterly consistent with the figure who lectured from so many public platforms that the aesthetic, sexual, and political responses to life’s challenges were inseparable and mutually nurturing.

As she discussed her autobiography before she began to write, she expressed concern to friends about the project before her. While she recognized that she was writing about “the life of EG, the public person, not the private individual,” she wished at the same time to be faithful to “the other side, the woman, the personality in quest for the unattainable” (ibid., 3). Her friend Frank Harris, who had included a short biography of her in his book Contemporary Portraits, had written an erotic autobiography, My Life and Loves, which Goldman admired and Harris suggested she imitate: “We want a woman’s view of life and freedom in sex matters, want it badly” (Wexler, Emma Goldman in Exile, 146).

In the end, however, Goldman chose not to write graphically about her sexual intimacies. She had taken from Freud a sense that sexual feeling was important and legitimate, but she did not find the modernist style of detachment and abstraction sympathetic. “I do not consider the mere physical fact sufficient to convey the tremendous effect it has upon human emotions and sensations,” she wrote to Frank Harris (Nowhere at Home, 128). Instead, as Alice Wexler has noted, when Goldman described her love affairs, she did so in the sentimental and melodramatic vocabulary of popular romance novels and with the spiritualist and otherworldly principles of the nineteenth-century free-love movement (Emma Goldman in Exile, 147). Moreover, the commitment to write about her personal life was far more easily made than realized. She worried about disclosing the nature of her relationship with Ben Reitman, the “hobo” doctor who became the manager of her lecture tours, confiding to Berkman that “the world would stand aghast that I, Emma Goldman, the strong revolutionist, the daredevil…should have been as helpless as a ship-wrecked crew on a foaming ocean” (Falk 4). Reitman, called a hobo for his work organizing the unemployed, is depicted as weak and foolish and Goldman in a continual state of summoning the resolve to cast him adrift, a resolve she ultimately achieves.

In fact Goldman may have been ungenerous to Reitman, who was devastated by her treatment of him when he read the autobiography. After parting from Goldman, Reitman published a well-respected work on prostitution and worked for the prevention and treatment of venereal disease, doing notable work promoting public health among prostitutes and the homeless in Chicago. While it is certain that this American maverick struck the lower Manhattan anarchist intelligentsia as a buffoon, Goldman was lavish in Mother Earth in her praise of Reitman’s business management of her lecture tours, praise that preceded the demise of their relationship. Another former friend, Johann Most, also fared poorly in Living My Life. Goldman regarded Most’s scornful denunciation of Alexander Berkman’s attentat against Frick as apostasy, although in fact Most had begun to withdraw his advocacy of sabotage and assassination years before Berkman acted. It was indeed Alexander Berkman who had always regarded Ben Reitman as a fool, and Berkman who registered angry incredulity at Most’s apparent defection in his prison memoir (Berkman 101).

Goldman’s work bears the imprimatur of her old “pal.” She had mailed her manuscript in chapters to Berkman while she was writing and received the pages back from him with red ink prominently in evidence. Berkman wrote of his editing, “the Mss., after I correct it, looks worse than an ordinary battle-field” (Wexler, Emma Goldman, xviii). Berkman gave Goldman reassurance while she wrote and praised the finished work as “one of the greatest autobiographies,” if also “very feminine” (ibid., 153, 135). Although she had omitted Berkman from her narrative essay My Disillusionment in Russia, when she wrote her life, Emma Goldman accorded the status of lifelong confidant and soul mate to Berkman. They had not resumed their earlier love affair after Berkman was released from prison, but in her final years, with ties to country and comrades severed by deportation and statelessness, she found solace and continuity in this friendship that had been sealed in blood when they were younger. Alice Wexler has called Living My Life a “love letter” to Alexander Berkman (Emma Goldman in Exile, 152). As for Berkman, the prison memoirs he wrote years before her autobiography are in part a love letter to Emma Goldman, the unnamed “Girl,” the “immutable,” in whom he idealized the memory of shared political passion, a memory that sustained him through his long incarceration.

Alexander Berkman was not alone in finding an essential womanliness in the autobiography. The New York Herald Tribune called the book “a great woman’s story” (ibid., 154). Less favorably, the Boston Transcript said of Goldman that she “is lovable even where she is unintelligent—and frequently she seems so wrongheaded as to be laughable” (Nov. 21, 1931, 3). Perhaps the writer who was most able to receive both the confessional and intellectual dimensions of the autobiography as they had been intended was Nation reviewer Freda Kirchwey, who wrote:Quote:

Her personal affairs and emotions should in no way be segregated from her more public ones. Emma Goldman displays a complete incapacity for disinterest in the usual sorts of differentiation. The emotion that drove her was a single force, whether it was directed against the might of government of Russia or toward the fulfillment of personal passion. The excitement of a mass meeting was akin to the thrill of an embrace…. Herein lies her undeniable power. Her emotion is both intense and universal; her expression of it in words and action—unrestrained, her courage completely instinctive. She is contemptuous of any intellectualizing that stands in the way of faith and action. Always she feels first and thinks later. (Nation, 614)

Goldman thought Kirchwey’s the best of the reviews written, although she bridled at the suggestion that her feelings impaired her thinking clearly. She preferred the compliment of a friend who told her she was “among the few women who can think without having lost anything of [her] femininity” (Nowhere at Home, 101).

Although the reviews were favorable, the published work did less well at the bookstores than Goldman hoped. She had quarreled with Knopf over its length, wanting to conclude her chronicle with her deportation to Russia. When Knopf insisted that she narrate the events of her life up to the present moment, the book swelled to more than a thousand pages, coming out in two volumes for $7.50, a price greater than Goldman had originally agreed upon and one, she feared, that would place the book beyond the buying power of many readers in the Depression economy of 1931. Goldman considered her work to have been a failure because of the disappointing sales. But in fact, judged by library demands, the book was read widely, passed from hand to hand.

Disappointments from the publication aside, Goldman was soon distracted by the tumultuous turn of European politics. In 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor in Germany, and with him commenced the fateful challenge of fascism to democracy that would lead to World War II. Emma Goldman had always been granted dubious welcome in the countries she visited or in which she tentatively resided, her visits often preceded by clandestine warnings from the United States government that she should be considered a grave risk to security. But now with Nazism insurgent in Germany, she was subject to real threats and expulsion when she visited there. “The whole world is a prison and most people have turned into jailors,” she wrote to a friend (Falk 400). In Berlin, thugs on the street threatened her with the fate of the murdered revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Holland, fearful of antagonizing its near neighbor, had permitted her entry under condition she not speak out against Nazism, expelling her after she delivered an anti-Nazi lecture in Amsterdam. English reserve had never attracted her, and she must have been amused at British consternation when the loyal toast to King George (a traditional staple at English banquets) was omitted from the celebration of her autobiography in London, the omission in deference to her anarchist sentiments. Nor did she feel part of the political life in France, where she lived in a small community of exiles. To Berkman she wrote, “I…feel an alien everywhere” (Nowhere at Home, 171).

Home, if she had one, was America, where she had left behind family and friends who supported her financially and emotionally. To an American friend she wrote about her desire to return to the home she missed. That home was among the polyglot socialist and libertarian immigrant communities, among liberal settlement workers and reformers whose America, she believed, permitted “adventure, innovations, experimental daring, which, except for Russia, no European country does…. It is this surcharged, electric, and dynamic atmosphere which permeates its writers, poets, and dramatists,” she wrote to Berkman. “Europe is hoary with age; it sticks in its centuries of traditions; it dares nothing” (Nowhere at Home, 235). Most of her efforts to return had been fruitless. But after an impressive roster of artists and scholars intervened on her behalf—among others, John Dewey, Theodore Dreiser, H. L. Mencken, Sherwood Anderson, and Sinclair Lewis—she was granted a ninety-day visa in 1934, albeit with conditions that she confine her lectures to literature. Emma Goldman crossed the border in February 1934 at Niagara Falls, where a customs official noticed “a grandmotherly person with a blue twinkling eye” (Chalberg I).

Although the initial welcome home was encouraging, the lecture tour was poorly handled, with bookings into large, expensive halls where at times only a handful of rows were occupied and those by the middle aged and middle class, a younger audience kept out by the ticket price. Still echoing sentiments that accompanied the reviews of her autobiography, some friendly mainstream press seemed to suggest that as the old anarchist tiger had been defanged by failure and passing years, kindness was appropriate. The New York Herald Tribune called her “our old friend,” and the Washington Herald observed that her legendary wit had become “more nimble with increasing age” (Drinnon 280). The Communists, whom she had enraged with her criticism of the Soviet Union, were unforgiving, suggesting not only that she was lecturing to fill coffers to feed a lavish exile in the south of France, but also that her “reactionary” politics would smooth the way for fascism in the United States. But even as she was being reviled by the Communist Daily Worker, one of the Hearst chain, in an excess of ignorance, reminded its readers that “Red Emma” was “for many years the leading Communist in the United States” (ibid., 280). Goldman’s tour revealed the anomalies of her situation—that in her anarchist opposition to centralized state power, she would draw fire from entrenched positions at opposite ends of the political spectrum. A writer for The Nation defined the irony of this stance. Saying nay to the twin behemoths of capitalism and communism, Goldman had become “a symbol of the ultimate social cleavage, of differences that cannot be bridged” (3/21/34, 320). The disappointment over audiences aside, America had become home, and Goldman was desolate when at the end of her ninety-day visa, despite efforts made on her behalf, she was compelled to leave the United States. To one friend she wrote, “for a revolutionist and internationalist it is indeed disgraceful to be rooted to the soil of one country. Perhaps one can not adjust oneself easily in later years as one does in one’s youth. Whatever the reason I have to admit defeat. The ninety days of my return dispelled whatever doubts I had on that score. I know now I will remain an alien abroad for the rest of my life” (Drinnon 290).

A year after Goldman penned these reflections, she bore a greater loss. Alexander Berkman, terminally ill and in great pain, took his own life in Nice. Her lifelong friend, he had been her comrade in exile, a second self with whom to share the disappointments when the anarchist ideal they served failed to take fire in the masses they attempted to instruct. In correspondence with each other Goldman and Berkman voiced despair as they watched Stalinism and Nazism overcome and brutally destroy anarchist positions where they had taken root. Finally Goldman and Berkman believed it was not Stalin, Mussolini, or Hitler who defeated anarchism, but the inadequacy of the people themselves. In such a mood of political hopelessness and personal loss, Emma Goldman was hardly likely to have anticipated that she might be revitalized. She was sixty-seven years old, separated by an ocean from family and friends on whom she was wholly financially dependent, and contrary to the innuendos of the Daily Worker, barely able to eke out a living on the proceeds of lecture tours, subject to continual harassment from governments that might find it politically inexpedient to tolerate her. The image of a society formed by workers in a benevolent network of mutual-aid associations could not have seemed more remote in Europe in 1936, a time when European democracies were busy making their peace with fascism, a menace that, even as she mourned Berkman’s death, was acquiring its most virulent shape.

Civil war in Spain shook Goldman free of the grief that followed Berkman’s death. While the working class in Germany and Italy had succumbed ignobly to fascism, here at last, it seemed, a brave people were resisting tyranny in the name of the “beautiful ideal” to which Emma Goldman had dedicated her life. Five years earlier in 1931 a popular vote in Spain supplanted the Spanish monarchy with a republic, a republic that was liberal, left-leaning, and supported by militant anarchists, who had learned their antipathy to repressive governments from a Spanish follower of Bakunin in the mid-nineteenth century. Consistent with some of the apocalyptic militancy of Bakunin, the anarchists had staged a series of violent insurrections in hopes of preparing the ground for social revolution. By 1933, grown contemptuous of the government they had initially supported, Spanish anarchists boycotted elections, permitting a more conservative government to come into power. Although a tentative popular-front government emerged to unite the left, the government faced opposition from both flanks. Meanwhile, forces of reaction, a powerful coalition of reactionary church leaders, landowners, conservative industrialists, and the military, had taken alarm.

In July 1936, the right struck with an army coup that divided Spain in two. In the northern provinces of industrial Spain and in the great southwestern estates of Andalucia and Estremadura, the coup was defeated by the spontaneous action of workers. In the industrial city of Barcelona, where workers toiled in appalling misery in airless textile mills, and among the miners in the northern provinces of Asturias and Oviedo, an uprising of militant trade unionists in the first few days of the war resulted in a massive collectivization of industry. Trade unions and political parties formed armed militias democratically organized without rank and privilege to defend themselves against the “Nationalists,” fascist brigades under the leadership of Francisco Franco. In the countryside, particularly in Aragon where agrarian workers had labored in unrelenting poverty, a collectivization of the land ensued with stunning rapidity after the fascist uprising was put down. Against all expectation, an anarchist social revolution had taken place and, for a few months, was declaring itself to the world in northern Spain and along its eastern coast.

Emma Goldman was ecstatic. In August 1936, she was invited by the Spanish trade unionists, the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) and the more militant FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica), to Barcelona to undertake English language propaganda for the anarchists. “At last,” she wrote, “I will be on the scene of revolutionary action” (Wexler, Emma Goldman in Exile, 201). “I have come to you as to my own,” she told the thousands of comrades who welcomed her at a mass meeting, “for your ideal has been my ideal for forty-five years and it will remain to my last breath” (Drinnon 302). To understand the Spanish social revolution and report on its progress, she toured factory and countryside, pleased that worker control was succeeding without the apparatus of state bureaucracy and police that she believed had destroyed the fledgling Russian revolt. She traveled to the front in Aragon, within hearing of fascist gunfire in the trenches of Madrid, to see for herself if a volunteer workers’ army had succumbed to hierarchy and discipline, relieved to find, as she sat in trenches with anarchist troops, that no special privileges separated officer from foot soldier. “Your revolution,” she told a meeting of FAI youth, “will destroy forever [the notion] that anarchism stands for chaos” (ibid., 303).

These moments of exhilaration were painfully short-lived. Mounting internal and external threats seemed to conspire against the young anarchist experiment. Within months of her confident public affirmations, Goldman worried privately to friends that power in anarchist strongholds was already shifting from the local revolutionary associations, whose autonomy was precious to anarchist principles, to the centralized republican government of the popular front. When leading figures in the CNT/FAI groups consented to take up offices in the popular front government, Goldman believed the “spirit” and “tradition” of their anarchism was succumbing to “pitfalls.” Of one woman anarchist leader whom she distrusted, she wrote privately to a friend that she was a “Lenin in skirts” (Wexler, Emma Goldman in Exile, 207).

While schisms within the Spanish republic widened and deepened, the European democracies and the international labor movement itself were ominously passive, while the fascist governments of Italy and Germany readied sophisticated military arms to meet the untrained militias of the republic. Back in England, where Goldman traveled in 1937 to rally financial support for Spain, the Tory government’s Non-Intervention Pact claimed neutrality while actually sabotaging republican military capacity by closing the ports of Tangier and Gibraltar to their forces and imposing strict laws prohibiting the sale of arms to the republicans. England’s extensive mining interests in Spain encouraged its keeping a wary eye on a social revolution that threatened its own economic interests. Other countries, including France and the isolationist United States, joined the Non-Intervention Pact. Meanwhile Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy passed arms into Franco’s arsenals without restraint.

Only the Soviet Union came to the support of the republic with arms for its fight against fascism, although the support came with a heavy price tag. Stalin, a shrewd political strategist, embarked on a program of dismantling the social revolution in Spain, telling comrades that the time was not right for such change. In fact, Stalin was determined to preserve an antifascist alliance with England and France as long as possible, well aware that while these governments might tolerate a Spanish bourgeois democracy, they would no more tolerate social revolution in southern Europe than they had been willing to see the Bolsheviks prevail in eastern Europe.

It was no surprise that Emma Goldman would recoil at the new influence of Stalin’s foot soldiers in Spain. With her memory firmly fixed on Bolshevik prisons, the oppression by the Cheka, the special privileges of a new Soviet elite, Goldman appealed to Barcelona youth to consider that their enemies were not only among the fascists: “All those who talk of the necessity of new governments, of new rules, are making ready to forge new chains for your enslavement. They are trying…to lead your glorious Revolution into channels that will inevitably end in a new form of dictatorship” (Wexler, Emma Goldman in Exile, 209). Stirring words, yet with her bleak forebodings of malign Soviet influence, her old friends in the CNT/FAI were not uniformly pleased at the direction their propagandist was taking. She was asked to mute her criticism of both the communists and the popular front, lest supporters in Europe and abroad believe the Spanish cause was either hopelessly compromised by the Bolsheviks or hopelessly ineffective because of its ideological purity.

Meanwhile, it must have seemed tragic to Goldman that so many forces conspired to defeat the revolution: the European democracies averted their eyes; the international working class remained strangely silent; the fascist enemies prepared their assault ; while the Spanish revolution was being devoured from within by deadly fighting among socialists, anarchists, and communists. In response, Goldman was not consistent with her advice, publicly making urgent appeals for support for the republic, no matter their mistakes or friends, privately alternately excoriating anarchists for making common cause with the popular government or accepting its strategic necessity, loathing the centralization of the military with its accompanying hierarchies while at the same time regretting the naïveté of the volunteer militias, so hopelessly less skilled and less well armed.

Share Tweet Send
You've successfully subscribed to Bangladesh ASF
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to Bangladesh ASF
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.