Emma Goldman

From New World Encyclopedia

Emma Goldman
Portrait Emma Goldman.jpg
June 27, 1869
Kaunas, Lithuania
May 14, 1940
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Emma Goldman, also known as “Red Emma,” was a Lithuanian-born anarchist known for her writings and speeches. She was lionized as an iconic "rebel woman" feminist by admirers, and derided as an advocate of politically motivated murder and violent revolution by her critics. Her advocacy of anarchism set her over and against those who value law and order. Her advocacy of women's rights, however, may have shocked some into realizing the moral imperative on which equality of women, and their inclusion in leadership, rests.

Goldman advocated free speech, birth control, women’s equality and independence, and union organizing. Her criticism of mandatory conscription of young men into the military during World War I led to a two-year imprisonment, followed by her deportation to Russia in 1919. There she witnessed the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and experienced first-hand its murderous terror. This turned her against the Bolsheviks at a time when many of her leftist friends were singing their praises. While she believed that open warfare against oppression, slavery and exploitation is justified, she came to question the morality of violence aimed at spreading an ideology, which merely leads to "counter-revolution and in turn itself becomes counter-revolutionary."


Birth and early years

Goldman grew up in a Jewish family in Kaunas, Lithuania (then under control of the Russian Empire), where her family ran a small inn. Her parents were Abraham Goldman and Taube Bienowitch. In the period of political repression after the assassination of Alexander II, the Jewish community suffered a wave of riots and the family moved to Saint Petersburg when Emma was 13. The severe economic hardship of the time meant that she had to leave school after six months in Saint Petersburg and work in a factory as a corset maker. It was in that workplace that Goldman was introduced to revolutionary ideas and the work of revolutionary anarchists, including the history of previous political assassinations in Czarist Russia and the concept of revolutionary violence as a tool for social change. Goldman secured a copy of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done, in which the heroine Vera is converted to nihilism and lives in a world of equality between sexes and co-operative work. The book offered an embryonic sketch of Goldman's later anarchism and also strengthened her determination to live her life in her own independent way.

Immigration to America

At 15 her father tried to marry her off but she refused. When Emma was 17 it was eventually agreed that the rebellious child should go to America with her elder half-sister, Helena. Goldman quickly realized that for a Jewish immigrant, America was not the land of opportunity that had been promised. America, for her, meant slums and sweatshops where she earned her living as a seamstress. She worked for several years in a textile factory, and, in 1887, married fellow factory worker and Russian immigrant Jacob Kershner, thereby gaining U.S. citizenship.

What initially drew Goldman to anarchism and turned her into a revolutionary at the age of 20 was the outcry that followed the Haymarket Riot in 1886 in Chicago. A bomb had been thrown into a crowd of police during a workers' rally for the eight-hour day. Eight anarchists were convicted and seven sentenced to death on the flimsiest evidence; the judge at the trial openly declared: "Not because you caused the Haymarket bomb, but because you are Anarchists, you are on trial." Four were ultimately hanged. Following the uproar over the hangings, Goldman left her husband and family and traveled to New Haven, Connecticut, and then to New York City. Goldman and Kershner soon divorced.

Here, Goldman befriended Johann Most, the editor of a German language anarchist paper. She was inspired by his fiery oratory and calls for violent struggle and became a confirmed believer in the concept of the Attentat, the use of targeted acts of violence—including assassinations of politically significant individuals—as a necessary tool to inspire political and social change.

Most quickly decided to make Goldman his protégé and sent her on a speaking tour. He instructed Goldman to condemn the inadequacy of a campaign for the eight-hour day. Instead it was necessary to demand the complete overthrow of capitalism. Campaigns for the eight hour day were merely a diversion. Goldman duly conveyed this message at her public meetings. However, in Buffalo, she was challenged by an old worker who asked what a man of his age was to do, as they were not likely to see the ultimate overthrow of the capitalist system.

From this encounter Goldman realized that specific efforts for improvement such as higher wages and shorter hours, far from being a diversion, were part of the revolutionary transformation of society.

Goldman began to distance herself from Most and became more interested in a rival German anarchist journal Die Autonomie. Here she was introduced to the writings of Peter Kropotkin. She sought to balance the inclination of human beings toward social ability and mutual aid stressed by Kropotkin with her own strong belief in the freedom of the individual.

New York City and the Homestead Strike

In New York City, Goldman met and lived with Alexander Berkman, who was an important figure of the anarchist movement in the United States at the time. The two remained close friends until his death in 1936. With the influence of anarchist writers such as Johann Most, Berkman and Goldman became convinced that direct action, including the use of violence, was necessary to effect revolutionary change.

Goldman and Berkman were consumed by the Homestead strike, where the strikers had seized the Homestead plant and locked out management. After Pinkerton detectives attempted to take back the factory and expel the strikers, a riot broke out, causing the deaths of several men. Berkman, with the support of Goldman, decided to take violent action in support of the strikers by assassinating the factory manager, Henry Clay Frick, in retaliation for his role in hiring Pinkerton detectives to retake the factory. Berkman entered Frick's offices and shot at Frick three times, hitting him twice in the neck, then grappled with Frick and stabbed him four times in the leg. Berkman was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Goldman was widely believed by the authorities to have been involved in the planning stages of the Frick assassination attempt, but Berkman and the other conspirators refused to give evidence against her, and she was not charged in the indictment. Her defense of Berkman after the attempted assassination and her later attempts to win his early parole made her a marked woman and highly unpopular with the authorities who regularly disrupted her lectures. Berkman was released on parole after 14 years in 1906.

While Berkman and Goldman had believed they were following Johann Most's precepts for revolutionary change, they were soon disillusioned by their former mentor. One of Berkman's most outspoken critics after the assassination attempt was none other than Most, who had always, noted Goldman, "proclaimed acts of violence from the housetops." Yet in Freiheit, Most attacked both Goldman and Berkman, implying Berkman's act was designed to arouse sympathy for Frick. According to the historian Alice Wexler, Most's motivations, may have been inspired by jealousy of Berkman, or possibly by his changing attitudes towards the effectiveness of political assassination as tool to force revolutionary change.

In 1893, Goldman became friends with Hippolyte Havel, and began to travel widely, giving speeches on behalf of the libertarian socialist movement, often funded by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).


Goldman was imprisoned in 1893 at Blackwell's Island penitentiary for publicly urging unemployed workers that they should "Ask for work. If they do not give you work, ask for bread. If they do not give you work or bread, take bread" (the statement is a summary of the principle of expropriation advocated by anarchists like Peter Kropotkin). She was convicted of "inciting a riot" by a criminal court of New York, despite the testimony of 12 witnesses in her defense. The jury based their verdict on the testimony of one individual, a Detective Jacobs. Voltairine de Cleyre gave the lecture In Defense of Emma Goldman as a response to this imprisonment. While serving her one-year sentence, Goldman developed a keen interest in nursing, which she put to use in the tenements of the Lower East Side.

Assassination of President McKinley

Leon Czolgosz, an insurrectionary anarchist, shot President McKinley on September 6, 1901, as McKinley attempted to shake Czolgosz's hand. On September 10 the authorities arrested Goldman and nine other anarchists, including Abe and Mary Isaak, for suspicion of conspiracy in a plot with Czolgosz. Goldman had met Czolgosz briefly several weeks before, where he had asked Goldman's advice on a course of study in anarchist ideas.

The assassination of McKinley and the rapidly-escalating use of violence by other immigrant anarchists stained the cause of Anarchism and discredited it in American popular opinion, making its association a slur. Consequently, causes which anarchists had championed (such as the labor movement) sought afterward to disassociate themselves from self-identifying anarchists. Goldman was released on September 24 after authorities were unable to connect her and the others directly to Czolgosz's crime. Czolgosz was found guilty of murder and executed.

Mother Earth

In 1906, Goldman published Mother Earth with Berkman, a monthly journal in which she covered current affairs from an anarcha-feminist perspective, and reprinted essays by writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and the Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy, who were both major influences on her thinking. On the former she said, "Nietzsche was not a social theorist, but a poet, a rebel, and innovator. His aristocracy was neither of birth nor of purse; it was the spirit. In that respect Nietzsche was an anarchist, and all true anarchists were aristocrats."

Goldman's persistent championing of anarchist and radical causes caused her to come under increased scrutiny from federal officials. In 1908, her U.S. citizenship was revoked. In 1914, along with Alexander Berkman, she participated in anarchist protests against John D. Rockefeller which were brutally dispersed by police. Berkman is alleged to have participated with four other anarchists to bomb Rockefeller's Tarrytown, New York mansion. On July 4, 1914, one of the plotters left her apartment where the bomb was being constructed to visit Berkman at the Mother Earth offices. Fifteen minutes later, the bomb exploded inside the apartment, killing everyone in the apartment (including the remaining members of the plot), and severely wounding another person. Berkman denied all knowledge of the plot. It is not known whether Goldman knew of the bomb plot, but after speaking at the funerals of the anarchists, Berkman returned to work at Mother Earth for another year before leaving for San Francisco to found his own revolutionary journal, The Blast.

Second Imprisonment

On February 11, 1916, Goldman was arrested and imprisoned again for her distribution of birth control literature. She, like many contemporary feminists, saw abortion as a tragic consequence of social conditions, and birth control as a positive alternative. In 1911, Goldman had written in Mother Earth:

The custom of procuring abortions has reached such appalling proportions in America as to be beyond belief…. So great is the misery of the working classes that seventeen abortions are committed in every one hundred pregnancies.

While in prison, Goldman met and became friends with Gabriella Segata Antolini, an anarchist and follower of Luigi Galleani, whom she would later meet in person. Antolini had been arrested transporting a satchel filled with dynamite on a Chicago-bound train. She absolutely refused to cooperate with the authorities or supply them with any information, and was sent to prison, eventually serving 14 months before being released.

World War I

Goldman in 1917

During this period, Goldman continued to travel extensively, giving speeches against the war, and meeting other members of the radical left in America. After her release from jail, Berkman returned from San Francisco to work with Goldman and write once more for Mother Earth. While in Barre, Vermont, she met Luigi Galleani, a self-described subversive, associate of various anarchist communist groups, and editor of the anarchist journal Cronaca Sovversiva as well as an explicit bomb-making manual covertly titled La Salute é in Voi (The Health is Within You), widely disseminated by anarchists. As an insurrectionary anarchist, Galleani was a confirmed believer in the violent overthrow of the government, a fact of which Goldman was well aware. This meeting and brief association would later come back to haunt her.

Third Imprisonment

Goldman's third imprisonment was in 1917, this time for conspiring to obstruct the draft. Berkman and Goldman were both involved in forming No conscription Leagues and organizing rallies against World War I. She believed that militarism needed to be defeated to achieve freedom, writing in Anarchism and Other Essays, "The greatest bulwark of capitalism is militarism. The very moment the latter is undermined, capitalism will totter."

On June 15, 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act. The law set punishments for acts of interference in foreign policy and for espionage. The Act authorized stiff fines and prison terms of up to 20 years for anyone who obstructed the military draft or encouraged "disloyalty" against the U.S. government.

After both Berkman and Goldman continued to call on citizens to refuse conscription or registry for the draft—both in speeches and in print—Federal authorities decided to take action. Goldman's offices at Mother Earth were thoroughly searched, and volumes of files and subscription lists were seized. As a Justice Department news release reported:

A wagon load of anarchist records and propaganda material was seized, and included in the lot is what is believed to be a complete registry of anarchy's friends in the United States. A splendidly kept card index was found, which the Federal agents believe will greatly simplify their task of identifying persons mentioned in the various record books and papers. The subscription lists of Mother Earth and The Blast, which contain 10,000 names, were also seized.

Goldman was convicted of violating federal law, and was imprisoned for two years.

Deportation to Russia

In 1919, along with thousands of other radicals arrested in the Palmer raids, Goldman faced a deportation hearing. Ironically, Goldman's detailed files and subscription lists she kept at Mother Earth may have contributed as much to the apprehension of other radicals as anything the government learned through wiretaps or warrantless searches. Many of the radicals on her subscription lists who were not U.S. citizens soon joined her on her road to deportation.

Under U.S. laws of the time, since Goldman's U.S. citizenship had been revoked, she could be deported as an undesirable resident alien under the Sedition and Anarchist Acts, as well as a resident alien convicted two times or more for crimes. At the hearing, her association with known advocates of violence was used against her, including her meeting with Luigi Galleani. The government's representative at the hearing was J. Edgar Hoover, who called her "one of the most dangerous anarchists in America." She was ordered deported together with Berkman, and the two went on a whirlwind tour of anarchist dinners and receptions around the country in the days prior to her deportation.

Goldman was deported at the end of 1919, and placed with other resident aliens of Russian origin on a ship bound for the Soviet Union. Her deportation, along with thousands of other radicals rounded up in the Palmer raids, meant that Goldman, with Berkman, was able to witness the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution first-hand.

On her arrival in Russia, she was prepared to support the Bolsheviks despite the split between anarchists and statist communists at the First International. But seeing the political repression and forced labor in Russia offended her anarchist sensibilities. In 1921, repression by the Red Army (under the direct leadership of Leon Trotsky) against the striking Kronstadt sailors left Goldman and other anarchists keenly disillusioned with the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks, however, argued that the Kronstadt sailors had conspired with the White Army and French monarchists, thus representing a significant counter-revolutionary force. This led Goldman to write My Disillusionment in Russia and My Further Disillusionment in Russia.

She was also devastated by the massive destruction and death resulting from the Russian Civil War, in which counter-revolutionary elements, aided by foreign governments such as the United States and Japan, attempted to throttle the young communist state before it could spread its subversive ideology to other lands. Goldman was friends with American communists John Reed and Louise Bryant, both of whom were also in Russia at this time when it was impossible to leave the country; they may even have shared an apartment.

England and France

After two years, Goldman and Berkman left Russia, having witnessed the full results of the Bolshevik rise to power. Her time there led her to reassess her earlier belief that the end justifies the means. Goldman accepted violence as a necessary evil in the process of social transformation. However, her experience in Russia forced a distinction. She wrote:

I know that in the past every great political and social change, necessitated violence…. Yet it is one thing to employ violence in combat as a means of defense. It is quite another thing to make a principle of terrorism, to institutionalize it to assign it the most vital place in the social struggle. Such terrorism begets counter-revolution and in turn itself becomes counter-revolutionary.

These views were unpopular among radicals as most still wanted to believe that the Russian Revolution was a success. When Goldman moved to Britain in 1921, where she stayed with old friends, she was virtually alone on the left in condemning the Bolsheviks and her lectures were poorly attended. On hearing that she might be deported in 1925, a Welsh miner, James Colton, offered to marry her in order to give her British nationality. Thus, she was able to travel to France and Canada. She was even permitted to reenter the United States for a lecture tour in 1934 on condition that she refrain from public discussion of politics.

Goldman also spent some time in France, where Peggy Guggenheim raised funds for a cottage in Saint-Tropez on the Cote d'Azur. They called her house Bon esprit ("good spirit"). There she could write and receive correspondence, but was isolated. In 1936 Berkman shot himself due to his poor health, months before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Goldman rushed to his deathbed in Nice.

Spanish Civil War

At the age of 67 Goldman went to Spain to support the Spanish Republic in its struggle against General Francisco Franco's fascist insurgency. This fitted with her belief that freedom came from opposing oppression, as she wrote in Anarchism and Other Essays:

Politically the human race would still be in the most absolute slavery were it not for the John Balls, the Wat Tylers, the William Tells, the innumerable individual giants who fought inch by inch against the power of kings and tyrants.

At a rally of libertarian youth she said: "Your revolution will destroy forever the notion that anarchism stands for chaos." She disagreed with the participation of the CNT-FAI in the coalition government of 1937 and the concessions they made to the increasingly powerful communists for the sake of the war effort. However she refused to condemn the anarchists for joining the government and accepting militarization as she felt the alternative at the time would be a communist dictatorship.

Death and burial

Goldman died of a stroke in Toronto on May 14, 1940, at the age of 70. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service allowed her body to be brought back to the United States, and she was buried in German Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, close to where the executed Haymarket Riot defendants are interred. Her tombstone reads: "Liberty will not descend to a people, a people must raise themselves to Liberty."

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. [1931] reprint ed. New York: Dover Publications, 1970. ISBN 978-0486225432
  • Goldman, Emma. My Disillusionment In Russia. [1923] reprint ed. Williamson Press, 2007.

ISBN 1406739529.

  • Goldman, Emma. My Further Disillusionment In Russia. [1924] reprint ed. Wren Press, 2007. ISBN 140673957X
  • Watson, Martha. Emma Goldman. (Twayne's United States Authors Series.) Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987. ISBN 978-0805774948
  • Wexler, Alice. Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. ISBN 978-0394529752


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.