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International Socialist Review Issue 34, March–April 2004

EMMA GOLDMAN: A life of controversy

By Lance Selfa

Lance Selfa is a member of the ISR editorial board.

MORE THAN six decades after her death, the anarchist Emma Goldman still stirs passionate political debate. Goldman made headlines in January 2003 when University of California, Berkeley, officials refused to allow the university’s Emma Goldman Papers Project to send a fundraising appeal that quoted Goldman speaking out against war and for free speech. University officials said the appeal was too "political" to appear during the Bush administration’s ramp-up to war in Iraq. Researchers at the Papers Project, which houses Goldman’s personal and public papers, refused to concede in the face of university threats and organized protests against the university’s suppression of free speech that forced the university to back down.1

It was fitting that Goldman should be embroiled in controversy long after her death, because controversy filled her life. Born in 1869, Goldman’s life and career as a public figure spanned a period when anarchism claimed a following in the tens of thousands, including thousands of workers. Until she died in 1940, Goldman either lived through, or participated in, all of the major events that mark the anarchist calendar of that era–the Haymarket affair of 1886—87, the assassination attempt on Henry Clay Frick during the Homestead Steel strike of 1892, the Industrial Workers of the World free speech fights, anti-conscription organizing during the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and, finally, the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s.

For a generation after her death, she was forgotten. But in the 1960s, with the upsurge of the New Left and resurgence of radical history, a new generation of radicals embraced her. Sections of the women’s movement claimed her as their own. For someone who had a fearsome reputation–she once joked that the press made her out to be someone who ate little children and built bombs in her spare time2–historians have generally been kind to her. Howard Zinn wrote a play about her. Martin Duberman wrote a screenplay about her. E.L. Doctorow made her a central character in his novel Ragtime. Maureen Stapleton won an Oscar portraying her in the film Reds. And a number of feminist institutions have taken her name, such as the main women’s health clinic in Iowa City.

But like much discussion of romantic historical figures such as Goldman, a lot of what we think we know about her is myth, or at least selective memory. For example, she never said the quote that is most attributed to her–"If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution"–although she no doubt would have agreed with the sentiment. (Apparently, the real originator of the quote was an anarchist T-shirt seller who debuted it at a 1973 anti-Vietnam War rally in Central Park.3) Those who led the resurgence of interest in Emma Goldman in the 1960s and 1970s hold her up as the archetypical rebel–a free spirit who enjoyed art and sex–unlike those puritanical and authoritarian Marxists who always talked about economics and "building the party." But they ignore her own elitist politics that led her to agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson, that the masses "are crude, lame and pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered, but to be schooled."4 They hold her up as a feminist hero, but ignore that she opposed women’s suffrage. They consider her a pioneer in the fight to legalize birth control, but ignore that she argued that the poor shouldn’t have children.

Why would socialists take a look at Emma Goldman’s career more than sixty years after her death? Besides the fact that it’s important to understand the history of radical movements in the United States, it’s particularly useful to look at someone who was regarded through two generations as the country’s leading anarchist. Today, many people who become political are attracted to anarchism for all the reasons that Emma Goldman’s partisans hold her up. But as socialists, we have a different analysis of society and a strong critique of anarchism. And the best way to make this critique concrete is to evaluate the political career of the leading American anarchist of the post—Haymarket era. Anarchists and socialists fiercely debated Emma Goldman’s politics when she was alive. It’s entirely appropriate that we do so today as well.

Whether Emma Goldman was an interesting or sympathetic historical figure is not the focus of this essay. Neither will it recount tales of Emma Goldman’s many lovers or her personal quirks. Academic historians have already made a growth industry of those facets of Goldman’s life. Those so inclined can buy edited collections of her love letters.5 What interests us here is whether her politics, as reflected in her actions and her writings, should guide a new generation of radicals today. By looking at her ideas, we want to determine if the ideology she spent her whole life promoting–anarchism–provides a guide to action for people who want to change the world.

Goldman joins the anarchist movement

Emma Goldman was born in Kovno, Lithuania, in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the Tsarist Empire. Her parents ran an inn, and in her first sixteen years spent first in Lithuania and then in Königsberg and Petersburg, she was exposed to the ferment of the time. Her family lost its business and she was forced into factory work at the age of thirteen. It was during this time–between going to work and emigrating at age sixteen with a sister to join another sister in Rochester, New York–that she first learned of radical and revolutionary ideas in Russia. In particular, she learned of the work of the Nihilists, a group of activists who carried out plots to assassinate police and politicians–even the Tsar.

In the United States, she worked in a coat factory, and not long after she arrived, she married another Russian immigrant, Jacob Kershner. Kershner was a naturalized American citizen, so marrying him made Goldman a citizen. The marriage to Kershner didn’t work out and Goldman left him–first divorcing, then remarrying him–to move to New York City at the age of twenty.6 In New York, Goldman almost immediately came in contact with anarchists who organized in the Lower East Side Jewish ghetto. On one of the first days after she arrived, she met Alexander Berkman, already an anarchist militant, with whom she would develop a relationship of political collaboration that lasted the rest of their lives. In her autobiography, she traces her decision to join the movement to a meeting in Rochester, honoring the memory of the Haymarket Martyrs in Chicago, who were hanged almost two years earlier: "The next morning I woke as from a long illness…. 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 our martyred comrades."7

Emma Goldman’s life as an anarchist can be divided into three parts: her earliest incarnation as "Red Emma," the firebrand whom the press labeled as a crazed bomb thrower, which lasts until about 1906; Emma the Bohemian anarchist in progressive America, which roughly coincided with her editing of the magazine Mother Earth and lasted until the U.S. government deported her in the Palmer Raids in 1919; and finally, Emma in exile, whose main highlights are her experience in revolutionary Russia in 1920 and 1921 and her role as English-language spokesperson for the Spanish anarchists in the Spanish Revolution of 1936—39.

Red Emma

Goldman’s earliest years in the anarchist movement brought her into contact and collaboration with the leading anarchists of the post—Haymarket generation. The repression that followed the Haymarket affair drove much anarchist activity underground. The International Working Peoples’ Association, which claimed as many as 5,000 members nationwide before Haymarket, was reduced to a shadow of itself. But Haymarket had echoes that drew people such as Goldman to it. At the same time, immigrant anarchists from Europe and Russia–Italians, Spaniards, Jews, and Germans–sustained anarchist circles around different newspapers and other publications. This was the anarchist movement that Emma Goldman joined. Her first mentor was Johann Most, the co-author with Albert Parsons of the Pittsburgh Manifesto of 18838 and the leading anarchist of the day. Most promoted Goldman as a speaker. It was telling that the first speeches she gave, under Most’s influence, were "about the waste of energy and time the eight-hour struggle involved, scoffing at the stupidity of the workers who fought for such trifles."9 The fight for a shorter workday served "only to distract the masses from the real issue–the struggle against capitalism, against the wage system, for a new society."10 So early on, Goldman displayed a trademark of her politics throughout her life–a purist, ultraleft position on a number of the questions of the day.

Johann Most had been a member of the German Reichstag, but he had been expelled from the parliament, and then the country, for his increasing radicalism. He authored a tract entitled The Science of Revolutionary Warfare, which was an instruction manual for building bombs. At this time, Most was the leading proponent of the idea of using violence–including dynamite–to bring about revolutionary crises and to inspire the masses for revenge. This philosophy became known as the idea of "propaganda of the deed." As Goldman described, Most "constantly propagated the doctrine of individual acts; every one of his articles and speeches was a direct call to the Tat [attentat, or political assassination]."11

In Russia, the Populists, or Narodniks–middle-class activists and intellectuals who went to live among the peasants to organize them for revolutionary activity–lived by this creed. They succeeded in assassinating the Tsar in 1882, for which Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin’s brother, among others, was executed in the ensuing repression. The idea was that the heroic act of an individual would inspire the normally complacent masses to rise up and strike a blow against their oppressors.12 The anarchism that Goldman first subscribed to exalted this kind of individual act. So she and her "commune"–a small group of anarchist twentysomethings sharing a flat in the Lower East Side of Manhattan–resolved to carry one out in 1892.

In the summer of that year, during the general industrial depression of the time, the Carnegie Steel Trust cut the wages of its workers at the Homestead Works near Pittsburgh, sparking one of the greatest labor battles of the day. At first, Goldman and her circle responded with a leaflet that was "a flaming call to the men of Homestead to throw off the yoke of capitalism, to use their present struggle as a stepping-stone to the destruction of the wage system."13 This leaflet was to be a means for Goldman to attract Homestead workers to lectures on anarchism that she would give in Homestead. This plan didn’t get very far as events soon overtook it.

Pinkerton thugs and strikebreakers under the direction of the plant manager, Henry Clay Frick, opened fire on strikers, killing seven and wounding several others. Immediately, Goldman’s circle, with Berkman in the lead, decided that they had to strike a blow. They devised a plan to assassinate Frick–first building a bomb (in a crowded tenement) that didn’t work–and then buying a handgun and a ticket for Berkman to Pittsburgh. Berkman carried out the attempt on Frick’s life, but failed to kill him. Berkman ultimately served a fourteen-year sentence in a federal penitentiary for attempted murder. His attempt had a disastrous impact on the strike and the anarchist movement. The press associated the strike with "crazed" anarchists in the public mind–costing it whatever public sympathy it had. Hugh O’Donnell, the strike’s leader, said, "It would seem that the bullet from Berkman’s pistol, failing in its foul intent, went straight through the heart of the Homestead strike."14 The authorities used the assassination attempt as an excuse to arrest and imprison anarchists and radicals. They were never able to pin the assassination conspiracy on Goldman, though she admitted her collaboration after she was in exile.

Years later, Goldman publicly dropped her support for attentats. But in the immediate aftermath of Berkman’s arrest, Goldman defended him. In fact, that was part of her circle’s plan: Berkman would assassinate Frick and Goldman would justify it to the world. Still, the assassination attempt helped do the police’s work for them–associating anarchism in the public mind with individual acts of terror. It also caused rifts inside the anarchist movement. Johann Most publicly repudiated it, mocking Berkman in a public meeting with Goldman in the audience. This prompted Goldman to rise from her chair, pull a horsewhip from her cloak, and lash Most several times with it. To Goldman and her circle, Most had ceased to be a revolutionary. To Most, Goldman and her friends were young hotheads who didn’t understand American conditions.

Goldman may have made more out of the break with Most than really existed. Only four years after the horsewhipping, Most and Goldman collaborated on an article in Metropolitan magazine in which they wrote: "We believe Anarchy–which is freedom of each individual from harmful constraint by others, whether these others be individuals or an organized government–cannot be brought about without violence, and this violence is the same which won at [the ancient battles of] Thermopylae and Marathon."15 This seems to move away from the idea of individual acts of violence and toward the idea, more accepted by Marxists, that force plays an important role as the "midwife of history." But there’s little indication in her subsequent career that Goldman ever viewed the plot to assassinate Frick for the politically bankrupt act that it was. In a 1910 essay, for example, she compared anarchist assassins to Christ–willing to sacrifice their lives to redeem others.16

Moreover, Goldman never turned away from the idea that heroic individuals, not masses, make history. In her 1910 essay, "Minorities Versus Majorities," she wrote: "Always, at every period, the few were the banner bearers of a great idea, of liberating effort. Not so the mass, the leaden weight of which does not let it move." The majority "cares little for ideals or integrity. What it craves is display. It matters not whether that be a dog show, a prize fight, [or a]…lynching."17

Goldman and American socialism

Goldman’s attitude to the majority extended to the realm of working-class politics as well. Two strains of Goldman’s thought–elitism and utopianism–put her at odds with the first attempts to form the socialist party. In the last few years of the nineteenth century and first few years of the twentieth century, the American working-class movement was undergoing a regroupment of forces and a reevaluation of strategies. For the first time, leading working-class organizers–such as Eugene V. Debs–were breaking from the capitalist parties and attempting to assemble a socialist party that would reach a mass audience.

At this time, small, predominantly immigrant groups carrying out propaganda or running local election campaigns or experiments in communes and collective living arrangements represented socialism in the United States. Debs’ Social Democratic Party (SDP) hosted representatives of other left political forces in 1898 to discuss the creation of a more coherent political vehicle for working-class politics. The SDP had supported the creation of a "cooperative commonwealth," a utopian commune that would be set up in a Western state as an example for socialism. However, in the last years of the nineteenth century, Debs and other working-class activists had increasingly become convinced that this utopian scheme was impractical. They concluded that political organization among workers–the building of a socialist party–was necessary. At the 1898 convention, the utopians and the politicals clashed. Supporters of the utopian vision invited Goldman to the conference. Although she was not a member of the party, she acted as a sort of informal adviser to the utopians, who managed to win over a majority of the conference. Because of illness, Debs missed the crucial debate over the direction of the party. When he heard the results of the conference, he joined with a breakaway group led by Morris Hillquit to launch another party that would focus on political action. This led to the formation of the Socialist Party in 1901.

Having helped sink the efforts to create a serious party, Goldman had little to do with the utopian-dominated SDP after the conference. In any case, the colonization scheme collapsed–and Goldman had bigger fish to fry. Over the next two decades, she became a vocal critic of the politicals in the Socialist Party and often debated socialists on platforms.

Much of what Goldman said about the Socialist Party was true. The left of the Socialist Party–which became the base of the Communist Party after the Russian Revolution–criticized the large number of middle-class members in the party, its lack of coherence, and its character–as the revolutionary socialist James P. Cannon called it–as "a socialist variety store."18 The left also slammed the decision of the party executive in 1912 to expel anyone who advocated "direct action" to take on the bosses–a move aimed against supporters of the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the party’s ranks. But where the left made these points to win wider layers of workers within the Socialist Party to its positions–and later to the necessity for forming an explicitly revolutionary party–Goldman used them to attack socialism in general. She argued that workers’ political action–that is, any participation in electoral activity–was a betrayal of ideals. In her attacks on socialism, she displayed the same elitist disdain for the masses she showed in other contexts:

In order to achieve these "revolutionary" measures, the elite in the Socialist ranks go down on their knees to the majority, holding out the palm leaf of compromise, catering to every superstition, every prejudice, every silly tradition. Even the Socialist politicians know that the voting majority is intellectually steeped in ignorance, that it does not know as much as the ABC of Socialism. One would therefore assume that the aim of these "scientific" Socialists would be to lift the mass up to its intellectual heights. But no such thing. That would hurt the feelings of the majority too much. Therefore the leaders must sink to the low level of their constituency, therefore they must cater to the ignorance and prejudice of the voters. And that is precisely what Socialism has been doing since it was caught in the political trap.19

Despite her best efforts, the Socialist Party grew to a membership of almost 120,000 in 1912, when Debs won just under a million votes for president. The Appeal to Reason, the party’s best-read newspaper, reached a circulation of 600,000. At the same time, anarchist political groupings probably represented a few thousand and Goldman’s magazine, Mother Earth, reached 10,000 readers at its height of circulation.

The relative influence of socialism and anarchism in the first decade of the twentieth century spoke to the degree to which the two sets of politics addressed the real questions that faced ordinary people at the time. The Socialist Party provided "the principal rallying center"20 for movements of social protest that erupted. Debs used his presidential campaigns as a means of mass education of workers about the class struggle and the necessity of socialism. As Howard Zinn explains, "Socialism moved out of the small circles of city immigrants–Jewish and German socialists–and became American."21 Lenin noted the Socialist Party’s growth: "In America and England, this aggravation [the struggle between the working class and the ruling class] manifests itself in the strengthening of the movement against the trusts, in the extraordinary growth of socialism and the attention of the wealthy classes to it, in the movements of workers’ organizations, sometimes purely economic, into the systematic and independent-proletarian, political struggle."22

While individual anarchists participated fully in trade union life and issue-oriented campaigns for free speech and the like, their philosophy impeded their ability to connect the immediate day-to-day issues with the struggle for an anarchist future. No national anarchist organization existed. As a result, anarchists tended to operate within a self-contained world that wanted to "live anarchism" by example. This was especially the case among the European immigrants who formed the great bulk of the anarchist rank and file. As the leading historian of anarchism, Paul Avrich, explained: "Within their circles and groups, within their cooperatives and colonies, [immigrant anarchists] created an alternative society which differed sharply from the regime they opposed. They formed, in effect, a network of anarchistic enclaves, which they hoped would quickly spread throughout the land."23 On the contrary, these organizations dwindled as their immigrant founders aged. This was the world that Goldman inhabited.

Just at the time the Socialist Party was getting off the ground, Goldman was withdrawing from politics. In 1901 she became associated with another assassination–that of President William McKinley at the hands of a self-proclaimed anarchist. The authorities arrested her and tried to tie her to the murder. Authorities claimed that the assassin, Leon Czolgosz, admitted he was an anarchist and had actually attended one of Goldman’s lectures in Cleveland. Goldman and the anarchists had nothing to do with Czolgosz’s killing of McKinley, and authorities released Goldman for lack of evidence. Czolgosz was a mentally disturbed individual–and perhaps even a police provocateur–not an anarchist. Still, the government and police departments around the country used the excuse of Czolgosz’s assassination to arrest and deport anarchists and to break up anarchist meetings.

Emma Goldman didn’t defend the assassination of the president. She even publicly offered to nurse McKinley on his deathbed. But she refused to condemn Czolgosz, arguing that he was a "sensitive soul" driven to his act by conditions of social inequality and oppression. As can be imagined, Goldman’s stand was not popular. For most of the next five years, she was forced out of the public eye, unable to hold public meetings. She passed the time in a variety of ways–working as a practical nurse under an assumed name; traveling to Europe, where she met leading anarchists and birth control advocates; and acting as a promoter for a Russian theater troupe.

Bohemian in progressive America

The last of these jobs–as theater promoter–actually helped her to climb back into the public eye. To show their gratitude for her efforts, the troupe performed a benefit in 1906 to raise money to launch Mother Earth, a monthly magazine that became one of the leading anarchist magazines in the world. It published articles by leading anarchists and became a vehicle for Goldman–and Berkman when he got out of prison–to propagate their particular version of anarchism.

The period that Goldman edited Mother Earth, from 1906 to 1918, coincided with the height of her popularity. It is this period that most interests her present-day admirers. She crisscrossed the country, speaking before audiences in the hundreds and thousands, on anarchist theory, modern drama, women’s emancipation, and other issues.

Goldman’s popularity flourished at this time because, in general, it was a time in which liberal and radical ideas were in the ascendance. Both the Republicans and Democrats promoted progressive reform–rudimentary regulation of business, political reform (such as the direct election of senators), and some kinds of labor reforms. Culturally, experimentation in modern art and music was "in". The Socialist Party grew and the IWW engaged in its most important battles. Thus Goldman gained audiences because of the general spirit of the times. Goldman’s speeches and Mother Earth attempted to reach a wider audience, and consciously aimed to get outside the immigrant worker milieu and tap into the American-born middle class–what might be called "parlor liberals." Most of these people weren’t really committed to radical social change, but they wanted to rub elbows with those who were, especially those who were on the cutting edge of culture in New York’s Greenwich Village.

Other anarchists who were more oriented on the working class accused her of going too far to seek allies in the middle class. She often joked that her purpose in Mother Earth was "educating the bourgeoisie." When fellow anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre criticized the magazine’s seeming orientation to the Bohemian intelligentsia, Goldman shot back: "The men and women who first take up the banner of a new liberating idea generally emanate from the so-called respectable classes…. [T]o limit oneself to propaganda exclusively among the oppressed does not always bring the desired results."24 Although Goldman was a political anarchist, her idea of broadening her appeal was to appeal to the cultural Bohemia.

Goldman pledged that she would keep Mother Earth "untrammeled by party policies, free from sectarian favoritism and from every outside influence, however well-intentioned."25 Although she was a political anarchist, she operated throughout most of her public life as a political freelancer. Until her work during the Spanish Civil War, she didn’t speak as a representative of a particular anarchist organization (besides her magazine). While it’s true that local anarchist groups would sponsor her talks and that she contributed her speaking and organizing talents to defend the IWW in its free speech fights throughout this period, she did not attempt to build an anarchist organization in the way Debs’ speeches aimed to build the Socialist Party. Her speeches on modern drama were promoted as much or more than her speeches on explicitly political topics. Her pattern of freelancing was well established. As far back as 1890, she was elected to the executive board of the Anarchist Congress. But she quit shortly thereafter because she opposed what she called "German centralization." Decentralism may have been one of the principles that she upheld, but it made for an incoherent movement that operated as a collection of small groups.

Her speeches on birth control were the best attended of 1915 and 1916, but she was soon to become a pariah again. When the U.S. government prepared to enter the First World War, it passed repressive laws making it a crime to criticize the war effort, the president, and conscription. When Goldman and Berkman responded by forming the Non-Conscription League in 1917, their fate was sealed. The government arrested them, shut down Mother Earth, and, after a trial with a foregone conclusion, sentenced them to serve two years in prison. When they emerged at the end of 1919, the government had already decided to deport both of them to Russia. They left New York four days before Christmas in 1919.

Goldman’s exile from the United States. opened the final, and for the purposes of a discussion of the relationship between socialism and anarchism, the most important part of her political career. The time Goldman was politically active abroad was almost as long as time she was active inside the United States. Two revolutions–one avowedly socialist and one avowedly anarchist–dominate these last twenty-one years of her life. How she responded to the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Revolution defines not only her politics, but also places in sharp relief the differences between socialism and anarchism. In fact, the divide between socialism and anarchism that opened up because of these two events largely shape the differences that still exist between the two forces. And Emma Goldman was directly linked to the events that caused this split.

Emma in Red Russia

Before leaving the United States, Goldman had published a number of pro-Bolshevik articles and pamphlets. Goldman wrote a pamphlet, "In Defense of the Bolsheviks" and Berkman praised Trotsky for his diplomacy–making peace with Germany while calling on German workers to overthrow the Kaiser.26 When Goldman, Berkman, and other politicals arrived in Red Russia at the beginning of 1920, they were greeted as heroes. They met all the leading figures of the revolution–Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kollontai. And the revolutionary government was eager to enlist their help in the construction of the country. In fact, Lenin and Zinoviev offered them a variety of posts, from translating Communist International (Comintern) literature to organizing a processing center/sanitarium for arriving political prisoners. But this era of good feeling between the anarchists and the Bolshevik Revolution didn’t last long.

Unlike people such as Victor Serge or Bill Shatoff, Goldman and Bergman were unwilling to compromise their autonomy by identifying too closely with the government. When the Comintern asked Berkman to translate Lenin’s Left Wing Communism, he agreed until he read its contents, which was an attack on the ultraleft, antiparliamentary politics of people like him. He said he would continue if he could write a rebuttal. The Comintern thought better of that. Lenin enthusiastically endorsed Goldman’s proposal that she and Berkman head up a group called "Russian Friends of American Liberty" for political prisoners in the United States. But they refused to continue on the project after Lenin suggested that it be organized through the Comintern. They ended up accepting an assignment to travel by train through Russia, and then through the Ukraine, to collect artifacts for a Petrograd Museum of the Revolution. Just why this assignment didn’t compromise their principles of remaining autonomous from the government when the others did, they never really said. Goldman insisted they took the assignment to be closer to the masses, but most of the masses they saw were those peasants they observed from the windows of the train. They spent most of their time, especially in the Ukraine, relating to intellectuals.27

In her autobiography and her two books on her experiences in Russia–My Disillusionment in Russia and My Further Disillusionment in Russia–Goldman narrates an accumulation of little observations that make her uneasy: party workers receiving better rations than other members of the population, model schools for the few and bad schools for the majority, anarchists being forced to meet in semi-clandestine conditions, arrests of anarchists, and so on. She writes about how many anarchists tell her that these are small matters compared to defending the revolution against counterrevolution, and working with the revolution. She is initially willing to accept these explanations, until events make her unable to defend the Bolsheviks anymore. The 1921 suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion, which Goldman and Berkman observed from close range in Petrograd, was the last straw for them. So, in her books, she adopted the essential anarchist view of the Russian Revolution–with the Russian people in the revolution, against the Bolsheviks. To her, the civil war to defend the revolution is merely the excuse the Bolsheviks use to unmask their real agenda–or as she put it in the preface to My Disillusionment, "an insignificant minority bent on creating an absolute State is necessarily driven to oppression and terrorism."

All of this may sound credible to someone picking up her books for the first time. But it ignores the most important point that anyone who wants to understand this period must know–that it takes place two years into a civil war that has devastated industrial production, and in which the workers’ government is fighting for its survival. The government desperately tried to hold out against the indigenous counterrevolutionaries and fourteen foreign armies, hoping that a revolution in Europe would come to its aid. And while there is no doubt that these conditions led to a degeneration of the revolution, committed communists felt the only possibility of reinvigorating the revolution lay in its defense against the counterrevolution. Victor Serge, an anarchist who joined the revolution, wrote to his anarchist comrades, "It is vital to respond to this necessity for revolutionary defense, as to the necessity for terror and dictatorship, on pain of death. For the grim reality of revolutions is that half-measures and half-defeats are not possible, and that victory means life, defeat means death."28 Serge was far from an apologist for the Bolsheviks, and certainly no Stalinist. He later became a Trotskyist, opposed to Stalin’s dictatorship. But he, like most anarchists in Russia who joined the Communist Party, recognized that only victory against the counterrevolution would create the possibility for anything the anarchists said they stood for.

Goldman wrote that the government imprisoned anarchists for their ideas. But most of the anarchists who fell victim to the Cheka police were those who took action against the revolutionary state. They emerged along with the Left Social Revolutionaries (SRs)–the descendants of the Narodniks–as the main "left" critics of Bolshevik policies. They opposed the 1918 Brest-Litovsk Treaty that signed away a huge chunk of Russia to the German Empire. The Bolsheviks felt the Brest-Litovsk Treaty was like swallowing poison, but they argued they had to make good on their pledge of peace–to get out of the First World War.

Anarchists didn’t confine their criticism of the government to words. In fact, they engaged in terrorism against the regime and bank robberies to finance their movement. Moscow anarchists organized Black Guards, which criminal elements infiltrated, to carry out these actions. The Left SR Fanny Kaplan tried to assassinate Lenin in 1918. And in September 1919, shortly before Goldman arrived in Russia, anarchists and Left SRs actually bombed the Moscow Communist Party headquarters, killing twelve and injuring fifty-five. Even with these outrages, the repression meted out against the anarchists was far more inconsistent than Goldman made it out to be. Anarchists arrested one week were released the next. Most who promised not to take up arms against the government were released. Anarchist bookstores remained open throughout the 1920s, and in 1921 the state organized a funeral for the death of anarchist leader Peter Kropotkin at which Goldman spoke.29

Even the government suppression of the rebellion of sailors at the Kronstadt garrison in 1921–which become the central article in the anarchist case against the Russian Revolution–can be defended. If the anarchist-influenced sailors had succeeded in their uprising against the government, the counterrevolutionary Whites would have had a breach that they would have exploited to roll back the revolution. And instead of having "Soviets without Bolsheviks," as the Kronstadt anarchists demanded, they’d get the elimination of the soviets, the return of pogroms, and a right-wing dictatorship. Even the main anarchist historian of the rebellion, Paul Avrich, wrote "the historian can sympathize with the rebels and still concede that the Bolsheviks were justified in subduing them."30 By Goldman and Berkman’s telling, this was the last straw for their support for the Russian government. They organized a group of anarchists, including Serge, to monitor events. Goldman and Berkman offered to lead an anarchist delegation to persuade the sailors to surrender, but the government never responded. Goldman and Berkman’s proposal "may have had some effect," because the Petrograd Soviet wired the sailors with a proposal that they meet with a delegation from the Soviet, including communists and non-party comrades. The sailors rejected this, proposing no more than 15 percent Communist Party members in any such delegation. Negotiations between the sides thus ended.31

When the government suppressed the uprising, Goldman and Berkman issued a protest in the name of three anarcho-syndicalist groups, a protest that Serge refused to sign. Goldman accused him of cowardice and being in bed with the Bolsheviks, but as Serge’s testimony above shows, he had principled political reasons for his stand. Even though the Bolsheviks suppressed the uprising, they realized it signified the growing opposition of the peasantry, from which most of the Kronstadt sailors were drawn, to the forced requisition of grain under the extreme measures of "war communism." The government immediately began to implement the New Economic Policy, which reintroduced market relations. This had the effect of increasing the production of food and winning back some support from the peasants, but Goldman immediately denounced it as "a reversal of communism itself."32

While the government repressed the anarchists who destabilized the regime during the civil war, it accepted into its ranks many other Russian anarchists and foreign anarchist exiles. These "Sovietsky" anarchists, like Serge and Shatoff–Shatoff was Goldman and Bergman’s old American comrade–realized not only the necessity of defending the revolution, but the necessity of participating in the construction of the new society. Worldwide, the best of the anarchists–the anarcho-syndicalists–whose libertarian ideas were most connected to workers’ struggles, joined the Communist Parties. In the United States, people like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Lucy Parsons, Big Bill Haywood, and thousands of rank-and-file IWW members joined the Communist Party. These were the people that Trotsky talked about when he contrasted them with the so-called socialists, like the German Social Democrat Scheidemann, who had supported their own governments’ entry into the First World War.

Just because I know that the party is indispensable, and am well aware of the value of the party, and just because I see Scheidemann on the one side, and on the other, American or Spanish or French syndicalists who not only wish to fight against the bourgeoisie but who, unlike Scheidemann, really want to tear its head off–for this reason I say that I prefer to discuss with these Spanish, American and French comrades in order to prove to them that the party is indispensable for the fulfillment of the historical mission which is placed upon them–the destruction of the bourgeoisie.33

Trotsky went on to say "I felt myself a comrade among comrades in the company of [the French anarcho-syndicalists] Comrades Monatte, Rosmer and others with an anarchistic past."34 He would not have said the same about Emma Goldman. As a lifelong opponent of Marxism and socialism, Goldman’s two years of praise for the Bolsheviks in 1917—18 were the exception, not the rule. That’s why it was somewhat disingenuous of her to characterize her experience in Russia as "disillusionment," since she wasn’t a supporter of socialism. But this made no difference to the capitalist press that trumpeted her denunciations of the Bolsheviks throughout the 1920s as evidence that one of "them" had realized the error of her ways. Against the advice of comrades, she published denunciations of the Bolsheviks in Pulitzer’s New York World.

When Goldman wrote in 1918 that "The Russian Revolution…demonstrates every day how insignificant all theories are in comparison with the actuality of the revolutionary awakening of the people," she could have been describing anarchism as one of those theories. Serge criticized the anarchists for being unable to offer anything other than criticism and opposition to the regime. He said that those who failed to "adopt a clear and distinct position…if they do not unhesitatingly and everywhere align themselves with the revolution…then they will be worthless." Noting the dwindling of their influence, Serge wrote that anarchists would find themselves either "trailing behind the more determined Communists" or "following in the footsteps of reaction."35 In public, Berkman denounced the government. But in private, he considered the criticisms of comrades like Serge. He wrote in his diary in December 1920,"Many vital problems find no adequate answer in our books and theories. Result–the tragedy of the Anarchists in the midst of the revolution and unable to find their place or activity?" He wrote that it wasn’t good enough just to oppose the "‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Have we anything to offer in its place?"36

Emma and the Spanish Revolution

The possibility of answering Berkman’s question arose fifteen years after Goldman and Berkman left Russia in 1921. In 1936, Spanish generals, led by the fascist Francisco Franco, launched an uprising against the Republican Popular Front coalition government of socialists and liberals that governed the country. Throughout Spain, workers rose up to drive the fascists back–against efforts by the Republican government to urge "calm." In Catalonia, workers took over workplaces, and in the countryside, peasants formed communes from the large landed estates. The National Workers Confederation (CNT), the anarchist trade union organization, controlled much of anti-fascist republican Spain. It remained allied to the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI), the umbrella group of Spanish anarchists formed in 1926. Knowing that it had lost support to the anarchists in the streets, the Catalonian Popular Front governor Luis Companys called in the CNT-FAI and told them as much. You have the support of the masses, he told them: you can decide whether I stay on or go. The choice was stark: the CNT-FAI could overthrow the existing government and set up a revolutionary workers’ government or it could leave the bourgeois government in power. The Catalonian CNT debated it and resolved to leave Companys in power because to take power in a revolutionary government would mean a compromise of anarchist principles–a compromise with the state. So they let an opportunity to take power pass them by.37

The following year, as its popularity faded, the Popular Front government tried to regain legitimacy by incorporating more left-wing forces. Francisco Largo Caballero, the president of the main reformist trade union federation and a leader in the Socialist Party, became prime minister. Caballero offered places in the national government to the CNT. The CNT initially refused, but then determined that they could not be indifferent to the composition of the government even though it was a bourgeois one. The influence of the Communist Party, now fully in tow behind Stalinist Russia, increased as Soviet aid flowed to the Republic. The communists, who gave full backing to the idea of holding off workers’ and peasants demands in the interests of maintaining a "broad front" with the bourgeoisie against fascism, used their ministries in the government to support their fighting forces and to undermine the anarchists.

From refusing to overthrow the state in Catalonia, the anarchists decided to join the government at the national level. They took four seats in the government alonside the liberals, socialists and Stalinists they had once denounced.

This caused quite a scandal in anarchist ranks around the world. But even the critics conceded that they really had no alternative to offer their comrades in Spain. The CNT could have maintained its principles and abstained from the government, but they didn’t have a positive alternative to offer. That alternative would have meant building a Bolshevik-type organization that would campaign for workers’ power–for a workers’ solution to the crisis (i.e. doing exactly what they had refused to do in Catalonia when power was within reach). A group of anarchists who began to draw these conclusions, the Friends of Durruti, broke from anarchism and moved toward revolutionary Marxism. For this decision, the CNT expelled them.

Worse betrayals were to follow. Later in Catalonia, the government, led by the Socialist and Communist Parties, attacked the telephone-exchange that anarchist workers had held and operated since the first uprising. The Popular Front government appealed to the CNT-FAI leaders to get the workers to surrender–and they obliged. With this final betrayal, much popular force went out of the movement. The government, which had argued that there could not be a revolution lest it provoke the right and the middle class, actually ended up cutting the legs out from under the fight against fascism. So when Barcelona fell to Franco in 1938, there was virtually no defense of the city.

Emma Goldman was closely connected to all of this because she spent these years as the CNT-FAI’s chief English language spokesperson. After feeling politically adrift and depressed over Berkman’s suicide in 1936, she threw her energy into building support for the anarchist revolution. She traveled to Spain to see the revolution up close. She toured agricultural cooperatives and worker-run workplaces. It seemed as if the anarchist dream had come true. But it wasn’t to be. Her experiences over those three years illustrated all the limitations and problems with anarchism, especially when faced with a revolution.

For the first time in half a century, Goldman worked under a certain amount of political discipline, answering to the CNT-FAI. As English language spokesperson for the CNT-FAI, she managed to organize some successful meetings and rallies for the Spanish Revolution in Britain. But she also ran into conflict with CNT-FAI leaders whose role as collaborators in the bourgeois government led them increasingly to toe the government line. To contribute to the government’s strategy of currying favors with foreign governments, the CNT-FAI stressed the revolution’s moderation. It refrained from criticizing the communists whose patron in Russia was sending aid to the republic. And it slapped down anarchists outside of Spain who saw in the CNT-FAI’s dealings betrayals of anarchism. Goldman was thus pulled in two directions, as her biographer Alice Wexler notes:

She pursued a confused and contradictory course, now ardently defending the Spanish comrades, now criticizing their "naivete" (even in the New York Times, which needed no convincing), now minimizing the evils of the Republic in comparison with the potential catastrophe of a Nationalist victory, now denouncing the Republic as a Stalinist dictatorship. At one moment, she argued that "democracy" was only another name for fascism; at another moment she insisted that fascism was much the worse, that one could at least "breathe" in a democratic republic. She would concede the necessity of common action with the Communists, and then denounce collaboration with the Communists as a betrayal. To those who criticized CNT-FAI strategy, she offered a passionate defense; to those who defended them, she offered criticism.38

Yet when push came to shove, she rose to the defense of the CNT-FAI and, in fact, repeated most of the same defenses for the Spanish Republican policy that the Stalinists raised. She clashed with British anarchist support groups for the revolution when their anarcho-syndicalist members criticized the CNT-FAI.39 And in a famous speech to the international anarchist organization, the International Working People’s Association, in Paris in 1937, she put her prestige on the line to argue the CNT-FAI’s position in front of skeptical comrades.

Goldman’s speech was a confession of impotence on the part of Spanish and international anarchism. First, she noted that the Spanish Revolution was even more isolated than the Russian Revolution had been, as only in Spain and Sweden did organized anarchist movements exist. Second, against those who criticized the anarchists’ support for the professionalization of the republican army–and the militarization of the revolution–she contended that this was necessitated by the need to combat stronger fascist forces. These actions "were not of their making or choosing. They were imposed upon them by the development of the struggle."40 In other words, she was repeating the same arguments that people such as Victor Serge had made about the Russian Revolution–which she of course dismissed. And at least Serge’s arguments were in the service of maintaining a revolutionary workers’ government in the face of attack–not a justification for joining a capitalist government. CNT-FAI participation in the government was a "lesser evil" to fascism. Finally, she pleaded for "unity" on the grounds that the CNT-FAI were in a "burning house." She conceded that "they have gone far afield from their and our ideology" but that to criticize them would be like "pouring acid" on their burned flesh.

In this one speech, Goldman encapsulated all of the problems of anarchism when faced with revolution. They could remain irrelevant to the struggle and true to their principles, or they could junk their principles to become relevant. However uneasy she was about this, she defended the Spanish anarchists’ abandoning of principle. But Emma never reflected on whether her principles had failed in Spain. After the defeat, she wrote to a friend, offering her tried-and-true explanation of other setbacks: "In a measure we are paying for our belief that the masses as such can bring about fundamental change. There never was a more proletarian revolution than the Spanish one, but there was a terrible poverty in great minds and strength of character. That was the real tragedy of Spain."41 She lived only about another year after the Spanish defeat, dying in Toronto at the age of 70.


When Emma Goldman died, the movement for which she had worked for most of her life was on its deathbed as well. In the last years of their lives, Berkman and Goldman often confided questions to friends and their diaries about whether their lives had amounted to much of anything.

They were too harsh. There is no doubt that Goldman was courageous. She spoke out and organized around many of the most important issues of her time. Many of her speeches are full of inspiring rhetoric and incisive jabs at bourgeois hypocrisy. She did pay a price for standing up for her beliefs. But on many of these scores, she was not different from other radicals. Arrests, harassment, prison time, and exile were the common lot of all radicals of her generation. But to honestly evaluate her contributions to the radical movements of her day and the usefulness of her politics today, one has to go beyond an assessment of her personal attributes.

Unfortunately most of Goldman’s acolytes and biographers don’t take Goldman’s politics beyond her personal idiosyncrasies. In fact, to many of them, Goldman’s "free-spiritedness," Bohemianism, and her constant "tilting at windmills" are positively attractive. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, as Goldman found her resurrection during the heyday of the New Left, whose starting point was a rejection of Old Left politics and the working class.

Although she called herself a small-c communist, she was above all else, an individualist who believed that the enlightened few made social change. For her, the masses were an abstraction, or often, a curse. Trotsky caught this essence of Emma Goldman’s politics in his Diary in Exile in 1936, when he compared her essays to the Autobiography of Mother Jones:

Lying in the open air, I looked through a collection of articles by the anarchist Emma Goldman with a short accompanying biography, and am now reading the autobiography of "Mother Jones." They both came from the ranks of American working women. But what a difference! Goldman is an individualist, with a small "heroic" philosophy concocted from the ideas of Kropotkin, Nietzsche and Ibsen. Jones is a heroic American proletarian, without doubts or rhetoric, but also without a philosophy. Goldman sets herself revolutionary aims, but tries to achieve them by completely unrevolutionary means. Mother Jones always sets herself the most moderate aims: more pay and less hours, and tries to achieve them both by bold and revolutionary means. They both reflect America, each in her own way: Goldman by her primitive rationalism, Jones by her no less primitive empiricism. But Jones represents a splendid landmark in the history of her class, while Goldman signifies a departure from her class into individualistic nonexistence. I could not stomach the Goldman articles: lifeless moralizing which smacks of rhetoric, despite all its sincerity. I am reading the Jones autobiography with delight.42

Goldman was, as her biographer Richard Drinnon put it, "essentially a rebel rather than a revolutionist."43 She, like many other anarchists, never really articulated a strategy of getting from here to the society she desired. Nor did she really build an organization of anarchists that could carry that vision forward. Except for her stint as representative of CNT-FAI, she almost always struck the pose of sideline critic, holding to anarchist ideals even when the struggle demanded answers that were practical and concrete. That was the main political reason why the Socialist and Communist Parties eclipsed anarchists in the early part of the last century.

In a period when real world, revolutionary events put anarchist theories to the test, the theories came up short. That was why one group of anarchists whose libertarian ideas were most connected to workers’ struggles–people like Victor Serge, Alfred Rosmer, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Lucy Parsons, and Big Bill Haywood–actually left the ranks of anarchists and joined the Communist Parties. They, like thousands of rank-and-file IWW members, came to the conclusion that only collective, mass struggle could attain socialism and that only a revolutionary party could organize that struggle. These are the anarchists that the socialist tradition can embrace. We can’t say the same about Emma Goldman.


1 Dean E. Murphy, "Old Words on War Stirring a New Dispute at Berkeley," New York Times, January 14, 2003.

2 See Emma Goldman, "What I Believe," first published in the New York World, July 19, 1908. Available online at the Anarchy Archives or in Alix Kates Shulman, ed. Red Emma Speaks, Third Edition (Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 1998), 48—60. Hereafter referred to as RES.

3 Alix Kates Shulman, "Dances With Feminists" Women’s Review of Books, Vol. IX, no. 3 (December 1991). Available online at

4 "Minorities Versus Majorities," RES, 85—86.

5 See Candace Serena Falk, Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990).

6 These details about Kershner are important because the U.S. government later stripped Kershner of his citizenship, laying the groundwork for stripping Goldman of her citizenship to deport her in 1919.

7 Goldman, Living My Life (Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., 1982), 10. Hereafter referred to as LML.

8 The Pittsburgh Manifesto was the 1883 declaration of principles of the International Working Peoples’ Association, the main social revolutionary organization in the United States. A committee of five, including Most and Haymarket martyrs Albert Parsons and August Spies, drafted it, "an amalgam of socialist, anarchist, and other ideas." See Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), 74—78.

9 LML, Chapter Five, available online at

10 Ibid.

11 LML, 89.

12 Thought not pacifists, Marxists have always opposed this idea. In Russia, the Marxist movement defined itself against the politics, tactics, and orientation of the Populists. Trotsky’s pamphlet "Against Individual Terrorism" outlines this case against "propaganda by the deed" quite well: first, it doesn’t work, as the system can merely replace one assassinated politician or capitalist with another; second, it doesn’t organize the masses. Instead it makes them look to the heroic assassins as their saviors. And third, it usually gives the state an excuse to repress social protest and to restrict civil liberties–creating exactly the opposite conditions that its practitioners intend. See Leon Trotsky, "Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism," available online at

13 LML, 86.

14 William Serrin, Homestead (New York: Times Books, 1992), 88.

15 John Most and Emma Goldman, "Anarchy Defended by Anarchists," Metropolitan Magazine, vol. IV, No. 3; October 1896.

16 See "The Psychology of Political Violence," RES, 257.

17 "Minorities Versus Majorities," in RES, 83, 82.

18 James P. Cannon, "Eugene V. Debs: The Socialist Movement of His Time, And Its Meaning Today" in Jean P. Tussey, ed., Eugene V. Debs Speaks (New York: Pathfinder Books, 1972), 21. Membership and subscription figures on pages 23—24.

19 "Socialism: Caught in A Political Trap," in RES, 104—05.

20 Cannon, 23.

21 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 340.

22 Lenin quoted in Philip Foner, The Industrial Workers of the World (New York: International Publishers, 1965), 170.

23 Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995), 319.

24 Goldman quoted in Marion J. Morton, Emma Goldman and the American Left (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992), 47.

25 Quoted in Peter Glassgold, ed. "Introduction: The Life and Death of Mother Earth," in Anarchy! An Anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001), xvi.

26 Emma Goldman, "The Truth About the Bolsheviki," originally published in 1918, available online at; Alexander Berkman, "The Trotsky Idea," (originally published in Mother Earth Bulletin 1 (4), January 1918), in Glassgold, 409—10.

27 For a discussion of Berkman’s troubles with the Comintern, see Drinnon, 235. For a description of the meeting with Lenin, see LML, 764—7. On Goldman and Berkman’s travels in the Ukraine, see Alice Wexler, Emma Goldman in Exile (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), 40.

28 Victor Serge, "The Anarchists and the Experience of the Russian Revolution," in Revolution in Danger (London: Redwords, 1997), 94.

29 See Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (London: Merlin Press, 1975), 251—7.

30 Paul Avrich, Kronstadt 1921 (New York: Norton, 1970), 6.

31 Wexler, 47. The judgment that Goldman and Berkman’s proposal may have influenced the government is Wexler’s.

32 "Afterword to My Disillusionment in Russia," RES, 387.

33 "Speech on Comrade Zinoviev’s Report on the Role of the Party," in Leon Trotsky, First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 1, (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), 98.

34 Ibid.

35 Serge, 117.

36 Wexler, 48.

37 To read more on the Spanish Revolution and the anarchists’ role in it, see Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution, 1931—1939 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973); Felix Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974). Also see Geoff Bailey, "The Test of Revolution: Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War," International Socialist Review 24, 55—66.

38 Wexler, 220.

39 In 1938, British anarchist Guy A. Aldred, charged Goldman with "[setting] to work to destroy the anti-parliamentary movement [in Britain] and to establish a controlled, dictated anarchist bureau, defended by capitalists and on all fours with the Stalinist bureaus of murder apology." See "Anarchism in Spain: A Debate" in Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, et. al., Marxism Versus Anarchism (Chippendale, Australia: Resistance Books, 2001), 195.

40 Goldman, "Address to the International Working Men’s Association Congress" Emma Goldman Papers, Manuscripts, and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations, available online at

41 Goldman letter to Milly Rocker, April 1939, quoted in Wexler, 231.

42 From Trotsky’s Diary In Exile, Elena Zarudnaya, trans., (New York: Atheneum, 1974), 151.

43 Richard Drinnon, Rebel in Paradise (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1976), 310. In support of this judgment, Drinnon quotes a letter from Goldman to a friend in which Goldman pledged (in Drinnon’s words) to "rebel against the revolution itself" had the Spanish Revolution triumphed. Goldman wrote to her friend: "One thing you can rest assured–that if the C.N.T.-F.A.I. were really to conquer–were really to become the sole economic and spiritual force and were then to attempt repression, I would be the first to sever my connection with them." Yet she defended their participation in a government that did "attempt repression," in the name of repblican unity, against the workers of Spain.

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