Emma Goldman Living My Life

ISBN 13: 9781461078456

Living My Life

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9781461078456: Living My Life
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Emma Goldman (1869–1940) played a pivotal role in the development of anarchist political philosophy in North America and Europe in the first half of the twentieth century and her influence remains strong to this day.

Goldman became a writer and a renowned lecturer on anarchist philosophy, women's rights, and social issues, attracting crowds of thousands. She died in Toronto on May 14, 1940, aged 70.

During her life, Goldman was lionized as a free-thinking "rebel woman" by admirers and derided by critics as an advocate of violent revolution. Her writing and lectures spanned a wide variety of issues, including prisons, atheism, freedom of speech, militarism, capitalism, marriage, free love, and homosexuality; she even developed new ways of incorporating gender politics into feminism and anarchism. After decades of obscurity, Goldman's iconic status was revived in the 1970s when popular culture rekindled interest in her life.

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About the Author:

Emma Goldman (1869–1940) came to America from Russia when she was sixteen. As a political activist, publisher, lecturer, and writer, she was a central figure in the radical social movements of her age.

Miriam Brody has written biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft and Victoria Woodhull.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:



“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 sociali...

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