Emma Goldman (1869-1940) was an inspiring anarchist activist and writer who helped shape the movement in both the USA and Europe.
Her anarchism was not some sterile pseudo-academic dogma but the vision of free human beings coming together to reassert the vital spirit of the species.
Goldman knew Peter Kropotkin and was influenced by a diversity of other thinkers and writers, including Mikhail Bakunin, Johann Most, Henry David Thoreau, Knut Hamsun, (1) Mary Wollstonecraft and Gustav Landauer, whom she described as “brilliant”. (2)
Most of all, perhaps, she admired Friedrich Nietzsche, who expressed his unique philosophy in the soaring and stormy language of the Romantic movement, the spirit of which is very present in Goldman’s own deeds and writing.
In her autobiography, Living My Life, she wrote of Nietzsche: “The magic of his language, the beauty of his vision, carried me to undreamed-of heights. The fire of his soul, the rhythm of his song, made life richer, fuller and more wonderful for me… (3)
“I pointed out that Nietzsche was not a social theorist but a poet, a rebel and innovator. His aristocracy was neither of birth nor of purse: it was of the spirit. In that respect Nietzsche was an anarchist, and all true anarchists were aristocrats, I said”. (4)
Goldman’s anarchism exemplifies the way in which the philosophy, in its authentic undiluted form, combines a fierce sense of the need for individual freedom with an understanding of our belonging to a greater whole.
She wrote that her own life was linked with that of the entire human race: “Its spiritual heritage was mine, and its values were transmuted into my being. The eternal struggle of man was rooted within me”. (5)
In describing the wonderful “tempest of vehement indignation” against the status quo that she encountered on a 1919 lecture tour, she concluded that “it was the eloquent voice of the awakened collective soul, thrilled by new hope and aspiration. We merely articulated its yearnings and dreams”. (6)
One beautiful passage in Living My Life particularly conveys the depth and power of her commitment to battling for a better future for humankind: “The storm outside had stopped. The air was still, the sun slowly rising and spreading its red and gold over the sky in greeting of the new day.
“I wept, conscious of the eternal rebirth in nature, in the dreams of man, in his quest for freedom and beauty, in the struggle of humanity to greater heights. I felt the rebirth of my own life, to blend once more with the universal, of which I was but an infinitesimal part”. (7)
As witnessed by the title of the political and literary review she published, Mother Earth, a sense of our belonging to nature formed an important part of Goldman’s anarchist philosophy.
The first issue of the magazine, published in March 1906, explained: “Man issued from the womb of Mother Earth, but he knew it not, nor recognized her, to whom he owed his life. In his egotism he sought an explanation of himself in the infinite, and out of his efforts there arose the dreary doctrine that he was not related to the Earth, that she was but a temporary resting place for his scornful feet”. (8)
Goldman joined Bakunin and Kropotkin in equating anarchism with the free functioning of the natural laws that allow animal and human life to flourish organically, without interference from authority and hierarchy.
She wrote: “A natural law is that factor in man which asserts itself freely and spontaneously without any external force, in harmony with the requirements of nature…(9) Anarchism is therefore the teacher of the unity of life; not merely in nature, but in man”. (10)
This organic radical approach was spelled out explicitly in her autobiography, where she explained: “Just as the animal cells, by mutual co-operation, express their latent powers in the formation of the complete organism, so does the individuality, by co-operative effort with individualities, attain its highest form of development… Anarchism asserts the possibility of an organization without discipline, fear or punishment and without the pressure of poverty: a new social organism”. (11)
Her understanding of anarchism as a force of nature – nature defending itself – was extended to her vision of revolution. She wrote: “Anarchism, whose roots, as it were, are part of nature’s forces, destroys, not healthful tissue, but parasitic growths that feed on the life’s essence of society. It is merely clearing the soil from weeds and sagebrush, that it may eventually bear healthy fruit”. (12)
She added elsewhere that anarchist revolution was “the negation of the existing, a violent protest against man’s inhumanity to man with all the thousand and one slaveries it involves.
“It is the destroyer of dominant values upon which a complex system of injustice, oppression, and wrong has been built up by ignorance and brutality.
“It is the herald of NEW VALUES, ushering in a transformation of the basic relations of man to man, and of man to society… It is the mental and spiritual regenerator”. (13)
This liberating revolutionary vitality which pulsated through the anarchist philosophy and movement at the time was in stark contrast to the impression she gained of Marxist socialism as “colourless and mechanistic”. (14)
This poor opinion of Marxism was confirmed by her experiences with the Bolshevik regime in Russia. She went back to her native country, alongside lifelong friend and lover Alexander Berkman, full of hope for the dawning of a new age, only to witness “the best human values betrayed, the very spirit of revolution daily crucified”. (15)
But Goldman also encountered signs of a stagnating of the vital spirit in the ranks of her own anarchist comrades, complaining that they thought Mother Earth was “not revolutionary enough”, because “it treated anarchism less as a dogma than a liberating ideal”. (16)
And it was a young male anarchist who prompted Goldman’s famous comments about dancing, often paraphrased as “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution”.
After watching her enjoying herself, he took it upon himself to tell her that she shouldn’t dance “with such reckless abandon”.
Commented Goldman: “I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful idea, 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. If it meant that, I did not want it. ‘I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant, things’.
“Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world – prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal”. (17)
Goldman lived the way she advocated we should all live – from the heart – and was not embarrassed to describe the physical power of her anarchist ideals when they were awoken in her as a teenager by the execution of the anarchist Haymarket martyrs in Chicago in 1887.
She recalled how a woman visiting her father’s house had declared that it was a good thing that the four defendants had been hanged: “With one leap I was at the woman’s throat. Then I felt myself torn back. Someone said: ‘The child has gone crazy’. I wrenched myself free, grabbed a pitcher of water from a table, and threw it into the woman’s face. ‘Out, out,’ I cried, ‘or I will kill you!’
“The terrified woman made for the door and I dropped to the ground in a fit of crying. I was put to bed, and soon I feel into a deep sleep. The next morning I woke as from a long illness, but free from the numbness and the depression of those harrowing weeks of waiting, ending with the final shock.
“I had a distinct sensation that something new and wonderful had been born in my soul. A great ideal, a burning faith, a determination to dedicate myself to the memory of my martyred comrades, to make their cause my own, to make known to the world their beautiful lives and heroic deaths”. (18)
1. Emma Goldman, Living My Life, Vol I, (London: Duckworth, 1932) p. 239.
2. Goldman, Living My Life, Vol II, p. 681.
3. Goldman, Living My Life, Vol I, p. 172.
4. Goldman, Living My Life, Vol I, p. 194.
5.Goldman, Living My Life, Vol II, p. 695.
6. Goldman, Living My Life, Vol II, p. 709.
7. Goldman, Living My Life, Vol II, p. 946.
8. Emma Goldman and Max Baginski, Mother Earth, Vol.1, March 1906, p. 1.
9. Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays, p. 8. https://www.wwnorton.com/college/history/america-essential-learning/docs/EGoldman-Anarchism-1917.pdf
10. Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays, p. 5.
11. Goldman, Living My Life, Vol I, pp. 402-03.
12. Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays, p. 4.
13. Emma Goldman, My Further Disillusionment With Russia (1924), The Anarchist Reader, ed. by George Woodcock, (Glasgow: Fontana, 1986) p. 161.
14. Goldman, Living My Life, Vol I, p. 9.
15. Goldman, Living My Life, Vol II, p. 757.
16. Goldman, Living My Life, Vol I, p. 395.
17. Goldman, Living My Life, Vol I, p. 56.
18. Goldman, Living My Life, Vol I, p. 10.