The Revolutionary Life and Legacy of Emma Goldman (1869-1940)

The Revolutionary Life and Legacy of Emma Goldman (1869-1940)

My recent exploration of radical philosophers has brought me to the work of Emma Goldman; the influential anarchist writer who inspired a generation of radicals to reject hierarchical economic and governmental power structures. This article examines her fascinating autobiography, alongside the controversial legacy she left behind.

Emma Goldman emigrated from Lithuania to the United States in 1885. Living with her sisters in Rochester, NY, she found a job in a clothing factory to generate initial income. She earned the usual $2.50 a week and worked ten and a half hours a day. Her only ally beside her sisters was Jacob Kershner, a fellow Jewish immigrant whom she agreed to marry to gain U.S. citizenship. The dysfunctional marriage failed to fulfill Emma Goldman and instead only made her feel more restrained and isolated. Emma Goldman, in her memoir Living My Life (1931), recalls being “saved from utter despair” in Rochester only by her fascination with the contemporary labor movement and the idea of moving to New York City to assist in the cause. Nobody knew it at the time, but this struggling woman would soon become one of the most iconic anarchists in the modern era.

A defining moment in Goldman’s early political development came upon the incident at the Chicago Haymarket Square in 1886. In response to the recent massacre of workers striking against the International Harvester Company (in which police fired upon the striking workers, killing eight), the city’s anarchists united for a peaceful protest in Haymarket Square. The demonstrations, like the strike the day before, were in the spirit of achieving the eight-hour workday. Predictably, as the police arrived at the protest, tensions began to escalate. Then, from the crowd of the policemen, a terrorist’s dynamite bomb ignited – killing seven police officers and wounding dozens more. The explosion was followed by chaos and violence, killing and injuring at least four more. In the aftermath, eight anarchists (without any ties to the bombing) were convicted of assisting in the creation of the weapon and sentenced the death. Four were hanged, one committed suicide and three served life in prison after sentence changes by Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby. The ordeal immediately received widespread national attention; however, it was met with drastically divided opinions and interpretations.

After hearing of the massacre, Goldman was deeply disturbed and further motivated to assist the anarchist cause. She soon left her husband and sisters in Rochester and moved to New York City. In Living My Life, she describes the extraordinary sensation of rebirth upon arriving in a new life;

“It was the 15th of August 1889, the day of my arrival in New York City. I was twenty years old. All that had happened in my life until that time was now left behind me, cast off like a worn-out garment. A new world was before me, strange and terrifying. But I had youth, good health, and a passionate ideal. Whatever the new held in store for me I was determined to meet unflinchingly.”

With nothing except five dollars, a handbag, and a sewing machine, an ambitious Goldman began her new life. She soon met established like-minded radicals such as Johann Most, who then introduced her to the vibrant scene of East Side New York radical culture. She utilized this community to participate in lectures and events which fueled her ambitions to learn and conduct change. In her autobiography, she recalls being a young woman obsessively captivated by the figures and experiences in East New York, particularly after a riveting speech on the Haymarket Affair by Johanna Greie one Sunday. By pursuing lectures such as these, Emma became more informed, inspired, and socially networked within the community. It was here that she met fellow anarchist Alexander Berkman, who would serve as her longtime mentor and lover. Goldman entered 1890 preparing for her first public lecture tour in January; she exited the year a prosperous and widely famed anarchist figure.

By 1892, Goldman was living with Berkman when a highly influential strike arises in Homestead, Pennsylvania against the Carnegie Steel Works. The Carnegie Corporation denied the demands of the strike and responded by the creation of a ten-foot wall around the mill, complete with sniper towers, barbed wire, and locks to keep the unionized workers out. Henry Clay Frick, operating on behalf of Andrew Carnegie and having no tolerance for unions, temporarily shut down the mill, banned unionized workers from entering and began advertising for new employees. Frick planned to resume work soon; however, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers was determined to keep the mill closed by patrolling the area and halting any strikebreakers or replacement workers from entering the mill. Frick, becoming increasingly irritated, then hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency (the most extensive private armed force in the country) to assist in protecting the new employees and strikebreakers. Upon the anticipated arrival of the Pinkertons, citizens and workers of the mill town took arms and prepared to fight against the incoming militia in a spectacular skirmish. After hours of battle and bloodshed, the Pinkerton forces finally surrendered, and the workers took control of the town and the mill. However, their occupation was short-lived as they were soon met by the Pennsylvania National Guard, sent by Governor Robert Emory Parrison at the request of Andrew Carnegie. The government forces quickly reclaimed the area and replacement workers continued business as usual in the steel mill. Most of those who participated in the uprising were killed or imprisoned.

This dramatic episode was widely publicized, almost as much as the Homestead Strike and, when word reached Emma Goldman’s anarchist collective in New York, they felt compelled to act. At the time, Goldman had been heavily influenced by colleague Johann Most’s “Propaganda by Deed,” which validated murder as a tool of the cause. In this spirit, Goldman, Berkman, and their small anarchist group collaborated to assassinate Henry Clay Frick in retaliation for his violent suppression of the Homestead Strike. Berkman volunteered to travel to Pittsburg and execute the assassination while Emma gathered support at home – neither part of this plan comes to fruition. Berkman, being a rather lousy shot, only injures Frick and the attack is met with heavily divided opinion within the anarchist community. Even Most condemned the attack and reversed his philosophy in “Propaganda by Deed.” Emma Goldman felt betrayed. Not only has she lost her lover and mentor (who was quickly sentenced to twenty-two years in prison), but also her trust in the anarchist community as well.

As Berkman served time in jail, Goldman’s reputation continued to grow and, predictably, captured the attention of authorities. In 1893, she was charged with conspiracy and spent the following year in prison before rejoining the anarchist cause in the late 1890s. By this time, Emma has become a nationally known figure, writer, and lecturer. Her notoriety only grew at the end of the century after inadvertently advising the man who later murdered President McKinley. She was held for a short time by authorities over this scandal but was ultimately released over a lack of evidence. This destroyed Emma Goldman’s career for a surprisingly short yet devastating period.

Despite these obstacles, Goldman continued with her work by creating the radical newspaper, Mother Earth, with her recently released ally, Alexander Berkman, in 1907. By this time, they had claimed to have reversed their opinions on political violence and sought to spread revolution by raising awareness of political repression, worker’s rights, and restrictions of homosexuality and birth control. Goldman and Berkman worked closely throughout the short lifespan of Mother Earth; however, they did not continue the romance they once enjoyed.

This is because Goldman had fallen for another man at this point – outgoing political activist Ben Reitman. However, she did not only take a liking to him; she fell deeper in love than anyone would expect of the bold, independent woman. She found herself, a renounced feminist who was known for her strong, independent spirit, helplessly at the emotional mercy of Ben Reitman. Goldman, who famously championed the idea of free love, soon found herself obsessively jealous of Reitman’s many suitors. He, a colorful character with an enormous ego, held countless affairs with several women throughout his ten-year relationship with Goldman. He was an adventurous individualist who wouldn’t comply with anyone’s wishes but his own. For this, the New York anarchist community was distrustful of Reitman and feared for the safety of Emma for being so involved in his work and personal life.

Reitman soon became a manager for Goldman, and together they toured the nation for eight years, giving speeches on birth control, free speech, and anarchism. During a 1913 protest in San Diego, Reitman was kidnapped, tarred and feathered, and got the letters IWW branded on his backside. Against all the odds, Reitman survived and he, being the outgoing character he was, later publicly exposed his bare bottom to show what has been done. This horrified Emma but did not stop her from being with him for another three years before both being arrested under the Comstock laws for advocating birth control. Reitman served six months in prison while, unknowingly to Emma, another one of Reitman’s lovers was pregnant. Goldman and Reitman ended their relationship as soon as he exited prison and married his pregnant lover. Emma was left devastated but took comfort in continuing her political work, despite being under constant public scrutiny and FBI surveillance.

World War I brought with it the typical war-time hysteria and government crack-down on dissent. As Congress passed the Espionage Act in 1917, Goldman and Berkman began calling for men to avoid conscription in the army through their Mother Earth publications. After speaking at a massive rally against the conscription act in Harlem, Goldman and Berkman were arrested and imprisoned for the duration of World War I. They were released amid the Red Scare and were soon both deported to their homeland by the infamous Palmer Raids. Although Goldman saw her deportation in 1920 to be, in many ways a tragedy, she was also optimistic of the workers’ state and eager to participate in the newly formed Soviet Union. Throughout the years she had placed trust in Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, and she was eager to see the communist state for herself.

Emma arrived in the Soviet Union still optimistic about Soviet leadership. However, as she attended anarchist gatherings in Eastern Europe, she was consistently met with criticism of the Bolsheviks and her support them. She could not withhold her concern any longer when she and Berkman travel to Moscow in early 1920 to meet with Bolshevik leaders and express the importance of press freedom and free speech. Lenin, whom they met with personally, seemed to dismiss their concerns. Emma spent the rest of the year traveling across the Soviet Republics to witness starvation, poverty, and incarceration as a result of Bolshevik mismanagement. She was appalled yet maintained a shred of hope in the Bolsheviks for the remainder of the year.

The 7th of March 1921 was the day which Emma Goldman became officially disillusioned with the Bolshevik Party. Since the beginning of March, anarchist-inspired sailors and workers in Kronstadt naval base had been protesting the brutal Bolshevik suppression of Petrograd strikes and had created a list of fifteen demands to democratize their nation. Such demands included;

  • New elections to the Soviets
  • Freedom of speech and the press for workers and peasants, for the Anarchists, and the Left Socialist parties
  • The right of assembly, and freedom for trade union and peasant associations
  • The liberation of all political prisoners of the Socialist parties, and of all imprisoned workers and peasants, soldiers and sailors belonging to working class and peasant organizations.
  • The granting to the peasants of freedom of actions on their own soil, and of the right to own cattle, provided they look after them themselves and do not employ hired labor.

On the 7th of March 1921, Trotsky ordered the bombardment of Kronstadt and the mobilization of 60,000 troops to the area. There were roughly 1,000-2,000 casualties during the two days of battle before the Red Army officially suppressed the rebellion on the 17th. Emma Goldman was appalled and returned to Moscow with Berkman, determined to leave the Soviet Union and cut all ties with the Bolsheviks. They secured visas to leave the USSR at the end of 1921, when Goldman and Berkman then arrived in Latvia before skipping around Europe on temporary visas; speaking, writing and meeting with fellow radicals. During this time in Europe, Emma Goldman wrote of her experience in the Soviet Union for New York World in an essay series which would later be published as My Disillusionment in Russia (1923). For years, she continued writing about the brutality of the Bolshevik regime, as well as the toxic inequality under capitalism. Emma Goldman’s memoir (Living My Life) was released eight years later in 1931 and it recounts her extraordinary story in great detail.

Today, Emma Goldman is a symbol for social deviance, proud feminism, and rejection of the status quo. Socialist historians such as Howard Zinn (famous for his A People’s History of the United States, 1980), celebrate Emma Goldman as a powerful, independent spirit who challenged the countless injustices around her. Zinn’s first play, titled Emma (1976), dramatizes the life of Emma Goldman as she transitions from struggling immigrant to an established (though notorious) political figure. Zinn spoke at Radcliffe College (1/29/02) and discussed why he chose Emma as the subject of his first play;

“Here was this magnificent woman, this anarchist, this feminist, fierce, life-loving person … At a certain point, I decided to require it for a class … And will they really connect with this early twentieth-century woman … They loved it. And they found in her what I found in her: free spirit, bold, speaking out against all authority, unafraid, and as the title of her book suggests, living her life, as she wanted to live it, not as the rules and regulations and authorities were telling her how to live it.”

Indeed, this interpretation is shared among many on the left, however certainly not without dissent. Like all activists and radicals, many perceive her to be too extremist to spread her message effectively. Both views hold legitimacy and, luckily, we have Emma Goldman’s detailed autobiography to study how. I recommend you explore for yourself here and, if you’re looking to learn even more, checking this out too. Although it may seem that I described her life in detail, there is so much I have left out of Emma Goldman’s complex and inspiring story. I strongly suggest studying both her life and the work she left behind.

Works Cited

Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. Pluto, 1931.

Zinn, Howard. Howard Zinn Speaks. Haymarket Books, 2012.

“Emma Goldman Extended Timeline.”, 8 Feb. 2016,

Drinnon, Richard. Rebel in Paradise: A Biography of Emma Goldman. University of Chicago Press, 1982.

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