A born propagandist and organizer, Emma Goldman championed women's equality, free love, workers' rights, free universal education regardless of race or gender, and anarchism. For more than thirty years, she defined the limits of dissent and free speech in Progressive Era America.
A World Ruled by Fear
Goldman was born in 1869 in Lithuania to a Russian-Jewish family of shopkeepers. She was educated in East Prussia and in St. Petersburg, where she moved with her family in 1881, months after the assassination of Czar Alexander II. Goldman lived in a world ruled by fear and the ubiquitous secret police, a world in which even the mildest expression of dissent would be summarily crushed. As a teenager, she began to embrace the ideas of the Russian revolutionary movement. The movement imagined a society of free equals, a tantalizing Utopia in which all problems could be solved on earth, by ordinary people. Its proponents were committed to removing a Czarist regime at any cost.
Disappointed by America
In 1885, Goldman emigrated to the United States. In America, her hopes outran the dreary reality of working in a Rochester clothing factory and a brief, unhappy marriage to a fellow worker. A year after her arrival, she was shocked by the trial, conviction, and execution of labor activists falsely accused of a bombing in Chicago's Haymarket Square. After their deaths, Goldman declared that America "had proved most disappointing."
In 1889, on a grimly hot day in August, Emma Goldman left her sister's family and her husband, and the clicking tongues of the Rochester Jewish community, and boarded a train for New York.
In New York City, Goldman joined the German anarchist movement and met one of its leaders, the brilliant editor and orator Johann Most, who helped shape Goldman into a witty, provocative speaker. She also met the man who would become the most important and abiding person in her life, Alexander Berkman. Her commitment to Berkman was boundless, and in 1892, she became an accessory in Berkman's attempted assassination of steel magnate Henry Clay Frick in revenge for Frick's savage treatment of workers during the Homestead Steel Strike.
Revolution on the Russian Plan
Goldman and Berkman expressed an idea of revolutionary violence -- in the form of political assassination -- that derived from their Russian experiences. "They do believe that by getting rid of Frick they'll ignite a revolution," commented historian Oz Frankel. "But what neither of them have is a cultural translator, someone to explain to them the intricacies of this culture. They really don't understand that there is a difference between living in United States and living in Czarist Russia."
Defending an Assassin
Goldman would be entangled in another act of political violence nine years after the attempt on Frick's life. In 1901 President William McKinley was assassinated by a self-proclaimed anarchist, Leon Zcolgosz, who said he was inspired by one of Goldman's lectures. Goldman came to Czolgosz's defense (although they had no previous connection), saying, "As an anarchist, I am opposed to violence. But if the people want to do away with assassins, they must do away with the conditions which produce murderers." Throughout her life, Goldman would oppose violence in theory, but defend it in practice by shifting the blame for acts of violence onto the state and governing classes.
While Berkman languished in prison for fourteen years for his crime, Goldman embarked on a career of public speaking, quickly rising to national attention through her relentless cross-country lecture tours.
A Biting Wit
Goldman's eloquence was legendary. "She often began her lectures with a quick humorous quip about the police, or current politics," wrote historian Candace Falk, "followed by a sweeping talk linked to contemporary issues that displayed her signature political and cultural critique of hypocrisy. "Her intention was to reach a varied audience through reason and emotion, always ending her talks with a rousing articulation of a vision of hope for a better world within reach. After her formal lecture, during the question period, her biting wit often left the audience in stitches." Goldman's anarchism was always part of her oratory. "Revolutionary anarchism in America was largely an immigrant phenomenon," her biographer, Alice Wexler, wrote. "Goldman hoped to Americanize anarchism by appealing to English-speaking audiences, especially to intellectuals."
The Anarchists' Subculture
Goldman belonged to a unique and expressive subculture that flourished in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Historian Leon Litwack described its members as "some of the nation's most creative and iconoclastic artists, writers, and intellectuals, most of them libertarians, some of them revolutionaries," among them Roger Baldwin, Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Henry Miller, Lincoln Steffens, Eugene Debs, "Big Bill" Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, John reed, Margaret Sanger and Eugene O'Neill. According to Litwack, they shared a "rejection of bourgeois culture and... embrace of such causes as the labor movement, sexual freedom, feminism, socialism, and anarchism."
Taking Up Unpopular Causes
From 1906-1917, Goldman published an influential anarchist magazine, Mother Earth, devoted to politics and literature. Its high-spirited prose, Goldman wrote, "would voice without fear every unpopular cause." One of her purposes in publishing an anarchist monthly, according to historian Dan Georgakas, was "to reanimate an anarchist movement that had been on the defensive since the assassination of President William McKinley by an anarchist."
Two Years in Prison
At the height of the Red Scare, Goldman and Berkman were imprisoned for opposing the draft during World War I. Goldman served two years at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. Berkman spent his prison sentence in Atlanta, Georgia.
Deported and Disillusioned
In December 1919, Goldman and Berkman were deported to Soviet Russia, just as the revolution there sank into an abyss of corruption and tyranny. After two agonizing years, Goldman and Berkman decided to leave Russia and alert the world to what they had witnessed. "All my life I fed on the wonderful spirit of Russia," Goldman later wrote, "then to have found it prostrate, kicked into the gutter, attacked on all sides, enduring tortures Dante's inferno did not contain. Above all, stabbed in the heart by its own friends. And then not to be able to help even a little bit ... but it was impossible."
An Early Exposé of Soviet Communism
For Goldman the betrayal of the revolution was unspeakable. She wrote a series of articles for the New York World exposing the harsh political and economic conditions in Russia. Her account of her experiences in the new Soviet Union, My Disillusionment with Russia, was, she said, "denounced by American radicals of almost every camp." Throughout the 1920s and 30s she continued her efforts to expose the Bolshevik regime as a reactionary dictatorship based on terrorism and persecution.
Life in Exile
In exile, Goldman and Berkman eventually settled in France. Berkman lived in Nice, where he died in 1936. Goldman lived in St. Tropez, where she wrote her epic autobiography, Living My Life (1931). On its publication, The New York Times advised readers "to pay less attention to Goldman's politics and to read the book as a human document of the most absorbing interest." Not everyone agreed. Another critic attacked the memoir as a "thousand dull pages of fornication and fanaticism."
One Last Fight
Sixty-seven years old, Goldman turned her attention to one last fight -- a doomed war against fascism in Spain. In the summer of 1936, Spanish workers, peasants and anarchists had beaten back a military insurrection led by General Francisco Franco, and began to lay the cornerstones of a far-reaching anarchist society. Goldman made three visits to Spain during the course of the war, acting as publicist and fund-raiser for Spanish anarcho-syndicalists. But the anarchist revolution was short-lived. The victory of Franco and the Nationalist forces came as a staggering blow. Goldman later said the Spanish Civil War had influenced her more profoundly than her experience in Russia.
Final Return From Exile
In May 1940 Goldman died of a stroke in Toronto, Canada. Although she had been denied entry into the United States except for one brief visit in 1934, she was allowed in death to cross the border. She was buried in Chicago's Waldheim Cemetery, near the graves of the Haymarket martyrs.