Emma Goldman: Voice of a Rebel

Against the Current, No. 141, July/August 2009

Rebecca Hill

Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years.
Volume 1 Made for America 1890-1901.
Volume 2, Making Speech Free, 1902-1909.
Candace Falk, editor
University of California Press, 2003 & 2004.
Each volume $60 hardcover. Paperback edition University of Illinois Press, 2008. Each volume $35.

EMMA GOLDMAN’S NAME for many is synonymous with Anarchism. Indeed, as we can see in the first two volumes of the Documentary History of the American Years from the Emma Goldman Papers Project, now out in a welcome paperback edition, she did much to define anarchism to Americans.

Nonetheless, there are nearly as many anarchisms as there are anarchists. Anarchism has no single text or set of beliefs that form its center. Instead, those who call themselves anarchists are sprinkled across the spectrum from left to right, united only by a general “anti-authoritarian” principle — and they all define anti-authoritarian in different ways.

There are right-wing anarchist-individualists, like Max Stirner, against whose work The Ego and His Own Marx in the 1840s wrote his brilliant diatribe “St. Max.”  Stirner’s philosophy would become a formative ingredient in Italian fascism. There are left-wing anarchists, such as Peter Kropotkin and the internationally best-known Mikhail Bakunin, the first translator of Marx’s Capital into Russian, at once the closest anarchist to and the bitterest anarchist rival of Marxism.

Emma Goldman and her comrade Alexander Berkman were central to the development of anarchist-communism in the 20th-century United States. They were not simply “American Bakuninists” or “Kropotkinites.” Goldman drew from those writers, but also from many other sources.  As Candace Falk puts it in her introduction to the second volume, which shows Goldman’s work as an avowed anarchist theorist, she “created a patchwork of ideas that were at once derivative and original.” (v. 2, 46)

Goldman resembled other anarchists in this “patchwork” style. The anarchists’ own militating against a commonly defined center has always led to idiosyncracy and eclecticism. Generally, the sources of American anarchism are twofold: the anti-authoritarian tradition of non-resistant abolitionism, and the immigrant labor movement.

The early inspirations for Emma Goldman’s circle of turn-of-the-century immigrant anarchists were the Haymarket martyrs, who were called “anarchists” at a time when the term was nearly synonymous with “revolutionary socialist.” These men were all members of unions, active in the eight-hour-day campaign, and did not seem to care too much about ideological differences between Bakunin and Marx. They borrowed from both, as well as from William Morris and Victor Hugo.

That tradition of mixing diverse economic theories, free-thinking philosophy, and the experiential school of labor union activism continued for some time in the American socialist left and is evident in the wide range of correspondents and organizations that appear in these volumes. It took some time for American “anarchists” to become distinguished from revolutionary socialists, and Emma Goldman was central to the sharpening distinctions between the two trends.

Goldman’s Journey

In these volumes, we can see not only Goldman herself, but the identity of American anarchism transformed from its early place in workers’ struggles into an increasingly defined ideology, as we see Goldman’s development from a labor movement activist who called herself an “anarchist” to a speaker whose primary work was to define and defend anarchism, the philosophy.

Candace Falk’s Emma Goldman Papers Project is therefore not merely a catalogue of the work of a “great woman,” but a major contribution to the history of anarchism and its place in the broader left. Since 1980, the project has assembled enough writings by and about Goldman to fill 69 reels of microfilm.

Despite their heft, the large volumes are actually quite selective. Each volume contains some 400 pages of heavily annotated documents, along with nearly 100 pages of introductory essay and more than 100 pages each worth of indexes, chronologies and biographical guides. They contain a broad sampling of such diverse materials as Goldman’s published writings from numerous English, German and Italian-language publications, some translated into English for the first time; her private correspondence with Alexander Berkman, Max Nettlau, Augustine Hamon, Peter Kropotkin, Ben Reitman and many others; excerpts of transcripts of court cases, police surveillance reports about her; and “mainstream” newspaper accounts of speeches (which are annotated to include excerpts of other newspaper accounts of the same speeches).

Reading these collections nearly recreates the experience of going to the library and jumping headfirst into archival research — that is, if you were sitting with an expert guide who was whispering into your ear about every reference to any person, place or political organization that appeared in each document. They move through Goldman’s life chronologically, so that one reads about her in 1892, then 1893 and so on.

The first volume’s most significant events are Alexander Berkman’s attempted assassination shooting of the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick during the Homestead strike (1892), Goldman’s ten months in prison in 1893-4 for incitement to riot, her speaking tours, and the McKinkley presidential assassination. Most of the second volume is given over to Goldman’s speeches in defense of anarchist philosophy against social democracy and protests against the police and courts for suppressing such speeches, whether by herself or other anarchists.

This collection is clearly partisan; it’s hard to imagine spending more than 20 years studying and collecting documents connected to one person without a strong bias in her favor. That partisanship may be reflected in document selection: An early article on the McKinley assassination, in which Goldman used a racist description of Ben Parker, a Black waiter who attacked Leon Czolgosz immediately after he shot McKinley, does not appear here.

The editors do include Goldman’s short-sighted analysis of the Boer War. While in England, she remarked “the Boers are great people, such a wonderful group, and the way they are rocking the boat is fantastic, simply marvelous!” (v.1, 383)

There will be some surprises for both socialists and anarchists here. In a letter to Max Metzkow, an anarchist and the publisher of the Buffalo Arbeiter Zeitung, in 1896, she reveals that she believes that the anarchists themselves would be incapable of success in helping the imprisoned Alexander Berkman, writing “It is a question of winning the organized workers for this.” (v.1, 251. Berkman served 14 years of a 22-year sentence and was pardoned in 1906 after a broad campaign for his release.)

Her debates with other anarchists about the meaning of the “attentat,” the propaganda of the deed, show the diversity of opinion among anarchists about the act, and take up a considerable amount of space in both volumes.

Feminists who see Goldman as a model may also find some of her early writing surprising. She says that the American working-class girl is “frivolous“ and only “wants to amuse herself,” in answer to a reporter’s question of why anarchist women tended to be older.

Like other socialists of her day, she criticized women’s suffrage activists as “rav[ing] against men and exalt[ing] women, continuing that “when men find a woman does not abuse them and howl for her rights and theirs too, when she meets them on logical ground, is rational, fair and able, they welcome her generously.” (v. 1, 430)

Only in later writings, such as her previously anthologized essay on Women’s Emancipation, did Goldman offer such insightful commentaries as this: “the greatest shortcoming of the emancipation of the present day lies in its artificial stiffness and its narrow respectabilities which produce an emptiness in a woman’s soul that will not let her drink from the fountain of life.” (v. 2, 184)

It is this attitude of joyfulness and Goldman’s desire to incorporate pleasure into politics that continue to make her an attractive figure to so many today.  Goldman’s most important contribution to the left may be her insistence on sexual freedom as a value within socialism, and her activism on that issue is well documented in the second volume.

Goldman on Labor

Revealing from another point of view, and probably of most interest to labor organizers, are Goldman’s changing views of the American labor movement. While Goldman herself rose from the ranks of the working-class and was active in the labor movement in her youth, her writings reveal a growing distance between herself and active workers.

Goldman describes a Chicago workers convention of June 27, 1897, as a “ridiculous, insignificant, meaningless affair” dominated by American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers and by “politicians and vote catchers of all shades” who discussed such political reforms of the day as the “single tax” and the “free coinage of silver.” Disappointed with Eugene Debs for calling back union delegates who wanted to challenge Gompers in the AFL, she described him as someone who “collapses like a fly in the slightest gust of wind.”

While Goldman’s criticism of Gompers was justified, that of Debs was not. She dismisses him all too easily, while finding it convenient to compromise her own ideals when socializing with the liberal audiences and philanthropists who became part of her audience and funders. Her disengagement is magnified by the editorial choice not to include Goldman’s comments on the Haywood, Moyer and Pettibone trial, which is mentioned in the introduction but appears only briefly in one document in the book. Unfortunately, during the years of greatest significance for anarchist involvement in the labor movement itself, when the IWW was first forming, we do not see Goldman’s responses to major events here.

I have always found that Goldman’s anarchism, more so than Alexander Berkman’s, was elitest, adopting some of the worst elements of Bakunin’s anti-mass movement analysis. That aspect of her politics appears in the collection as well. Following a trip to Western Pennsylvania in 1898, she wrote that workers too beaten down by low wages “do not revolt and never will,” for they are like “animals — dumb, stupid, indifferent, ready to lick the hand that lashes them,” in contrast to workers who earned more and could walk with pride. (v. 1, 338)

Sounding not unlike that later liberal Hannah Arendt, she continued, “men with empty stomachs do not fight for freedom, they fight for bread,” and according to an interview a few years later, she maintained that belief, arguing against “the mob” as the agent of revolution, and for the “middle-class and the professional people.” (v.1, 443)

It is through Alexander Berkman’s letters that we hear the collectivist critique of Goldman, rather than through the book’s editors. Following his time in prison, he remained much more connected to organized labor than Goldman, and wrote to her in 1905 that “Touring is quite useless and a waste of money and effort where there are no groups or where the latter are inactive; in such a case the tourist-speaker must also be the organiser, for it is not at all sufficient to make a speech; after the speech, those interested must be organized into a group….” (v.2, 152)

Ultimately, Goldman sympathized with workers and could speak passionately about both exploitation and oppression, but she did not have much insight into the practicalities of organizing. As an observer of the labor movement, Goldman strikes me here, as she did in her autobiography, as someone who quickly became swept up in the events and ideas surrounding her, but was prone more to react than to reflect deeply.

Defining a Philosophy

The second volume shows Goldman’s — and anarchism’s — increasing preoccupation with self-definition. Goldman’s report on the International Anarchist Congress of 1907, in which Malatesta, Goldman, and Monette (of the Confederation du Travail) debated the merits of individualism, organization and the role of the labor movement, is a fascinating window into early debates between trade unionists and individualists. (v. 2, 234-245)

Another exposition of anarchist theory is Goldman’s debate with Kasper Bauer of the Socialist party on the differences between anarchism and socialism in Los Angeles in 1908 (v. 2, 317), originally published in the LA Socialist party journal Common Sense. Still another is Goldman’s pamphlet, “What I Believe” which outlines her beliefs on property, the church, marriage and love, and violence. (v. 2, 339-348)

The introductions, notes, and directories are encyclopedic. Candace Falk’s tireless and meticulous work as Goldman’s biographer and archivist are evident on every page. Biographical accounts precede each volume and contextualize the documents in the anarchist and socialist movements in the United States and internationally through a chronological narrative that mirrors the structure of the documents that follow.

The analysis of socialist politics and the broader labor movement is weaker. The division drawn between Goldman and “socialism” — mostly described in both volumes as synonymous with social democratic political action — is reductive, limited perhaps by Goldman’s own perceptions. Nonetheless, the two volumes succeed in revealing the rich context in which Goldman developed her ideas and are an excellent introductory “immersion” program for those wishing to learn more not only about Goldman, but about communist-anarchism in general.

ATC 141, July/August 2009


  1. Just a rather belated note of appreciation for your fine review of our volumes–a labor of love and of many, many years in the making. All the good that we have done has been the work of many hands over 30 (!) years. The volumes build on that work and add critical contextual information to make it truly accessible. The volumes associate and assistant editors- Barry Pateman and Jessica Moran of the last ten years–brought together an amazing array of material for those biographical/organizational/periodical/ and funding directories, and worked with others on the annotations and chronology, and more. Thus, the Emma Goldman Papers volumes are the product of generations of collaboration and commitment. I have been challenged with the task of
    creating analytical introductions that offer context, narrative, and raise important political questions — about Emma Goldman, her times, and ours.
    Thank you for your fine work, and for Rebecca Hill’s meticulous reading of our complex books–very confirming in these days of low funding for our work–to know that it makes a difference as a contribution to our long, and often hidden, history of those who went against the grain for a more equitable world.

  2. What was the racist name Emma Goldman used to describe James Ben Parker, the waiter who wrestled McKinley’s shooter to the ground. You noted it was kept out of the papers. I am doing research on that era and would love to know what word she said? Thank

  3. Hi,
    I’m in the midst of moving and all my own papers are in disarray so I can’t find the reference for you at the moment, but I remember seeing her description of him in Mother Earth.

  4. yes, i also am interested in finding out more about emma’s comment about ben parker.

    important review.

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