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Emma Goldman: A Life of Rebellion
Emma Goldman is, to a certain degree, a historical enigma. What caused her transformation from poor Lithuanian girl (Granquist) to “the most dangerous woman in America” (Gornick)? Was she simply a political and philosophical extremist (Cassedy)? A noble revolutionary (Mitgang)? A Communist disruptor (Dell)? A worthy feminist icon (Tuana)? A terrorist and traitor (Kamp)? Even today, without the panic of leftist uprisings during her controversial life, the lens of history is unable to simplify Goldman’s significant impact, starting from the day she became the figurehead of the Anarchist movement. But all agree that, in a time of political upheaval like the late 1880s, Emma Goldman suggested that humanity at its worst succumbs to social hierarchies, and at its best serves the liberated individual.
She was born in the perfect era for revolution. All over the globe, communities industrialized freely, with little to no government regulation. The economy boomed, but laborers of all ages suffered (Sinclair). As a response, two American rebel movements emerged to fight the immense inequalities of the 19th century: The Socialists and the Anarchists. Socialists were more prominent, proclaiming that the root cause of workplace injustice was insufficient regulation of big business, and that only through government intervention could the economy prosper and retain its morals (“Political and Economic Warfare”). Anarchism, the lesser-known ideology Emma would eventually adopt, argued that government was the problem, not the solution. Anarchists believed that authorities had no incentive to regulate businesses properly, as they, too, benefited from a strong (albeit immoral) economy. Their solution was a social overthrow, with the intention of constructing a new society founded entirely upon individual freedom (Tuana).
Goldman moved from mechanized Lithuania to the ultra-mechanized United States, just in time for the controversy-inciting Haymarket Affair (“Emma Goldman”). She was always rebellious, and Johann Most, Alexander Berkman, and other radicals in her community introduced her to leftist philosophies, in the hopes of converting her to Socialism (Robbins). But sometime after her arrival in the then-monopolized United States, she transitioned to the Anarchist mindset that made her famous. The question is, when?
As the relationship between the working class and powerful political and economic figures worsened, Goldman saw an opportunity to capitalize on growing Socialist ideologies. She and Alexander Berkman planned the murder of Henry Clay Frick, a ruthless businessman who symbolized the economic inequality leftists despised (“Progressive and Radical Women”).
Unfortunately for her, Berkman’s attempt failed, Frick gained sympathy from the public, and society further shunned and vilified Goldman’s belief system (“Labor Strikes and Riots”). So when Johann Most proposed the idea of publicizing their movement in a non-violent manner, Goldman was supportive (Mitgang). She became the symbol of the grassroots leftist movement, traveling throughout the United States, giving speeches and hosting discussions (“Emma Goldman”). It was at this time, some speculate, that her viewpoints began to change.
On journey after journey, speech after speech, from one American city to another, Emma Goldman spent much of her time reading, analyzing, and speechwriting (Robbins). She insisted on a new speech with every trip, often discussing the same topics, but never presenting them in the same way. This constant push of creativity opened Goldman’s mind to new ways of thought, and forced her to more deeply analyze social issues she had somewhat ignored before (Gornick). This transformative period awoke Goldman’s inner sense of individual liberty, as this mentality, not the view of economic equality, drove her to resist the political establishment (“Anarchism”). Johann Most had instructed Goldman to focus on the minimum wage, but upon seeing the crowds remain unmoved by these discussions, Goldman took her own path, instead endorsing radical new viewpoints such as same-sex marriage, gender equality, nihilism, and free love (“The Philosophy of Atheism”). Her statements were so unheard of, so shocking to the nation, that Goldman became a controversial overnight celebrity, a title Goldman held continuously for many years to come (Dell).
To be clear, Emma Goldman did not invent anarchism. Like many, she piggybacked from the ideas of those before her (“Introduction to Anarchist Terrorism”). But the Anarchist movement was so small and unknown in the time period that Goldman’s perception of its cause was a new idea in the eyes of the public. In this sense, Emma Goldman had created her own brand of revolutionary thinking (“Political and Economic Warfare”). The concept of completely unregulated economic freedoms was an American ideal, yes, but social freedoms? Her worldview was so startlingly different that most American newspapers, in an effort to understand and ultimately disprove her anti-capitalist idealism, printed her speeches, in their entirety, on a regular basis! As a result, a snowball of anarcho-syndicalist propaganda rolled through the streets of America, growing as it went (Sinclair). The public found Goldman’s bold statements, like the famous “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal” headline, more and more difficult to refute as time progressed (Dell).
Even her comrades, proud as they were of Goldman’s accomplishments, were shocked by her new mentality. Johann Most, in particular, rejected this new way of thinking, arguing it had distracted Socialists from their mission (Kamp). Goldman’s strongest, most die-hard supporters were the seemingly least likely group to become political extremists: White middle-class women (Gornick). Everything was changing.
Emma Goldman had always been a rebel, but her journey across America gave her a sense of independence, of individual identity outside of any political thought. This mental shift in Goldman’s worldview was the turning point that shaped an ideological revolution, one which created chaos and justice, violence and equality, turmoil and unity. Even today, the Democrats’ belief in social freedom from authoritarian oppression, and the Republicans’ in economic freedom from government regulation, stem from the establishment-vilifying nature of the philosophical anarcho-syndicalist movement. The political culture within the United States and around the world were never the same, all thanks to Emma Goldman’s constant struggle with the status quo.
1. Emma Goldman publicly whipped Johann Most when he attempted to claim onstage and refute her at a rally. This became the central image associated with Goldman in the media, symbolizing her persona as a fiery extremist (Gornick).
2. A working-class man, Leon Czolgosz, assassinated President William McKinley because he believed McKinley represented the inherent division of classes in American society. Upon capture, Czolgosz said Emma Goldman’s words had inspired him. He proudly proclaimed he was an Anarchist, and Goldman’s safety was at risk (“Introduction to Anarchist Terrorism”).
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Mitgang, Herbert. "Books of The Times; Emma Goldman, Queen of Causes." New York Times, 14 Oct. 1989. Student Resources in Context, Accessed 18 Jan. 2017.
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vol. 1: Almanac, UXL, 2003, pp. 109-130. Student Resources in Context, Accessed 18 Jan. 2017.
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Robbins, Timothy. "Emma Goldman Reading Walt Whitman: Aesthetics, Agitation, and the
Anarchist Ideal." Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 57, no. 1, 2015, p. 80+.
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Sinclair, Upton. "Concerning Emma Goldman." DISCovering Authors, Gale, 2003. Student Resources in Context, Accessed 11 Jan. 2017.
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