I recently came across a copy of Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman. It, along with Living my Life, her two-volume autobiography, is a book that has been on my reading backlog for far too long. Originally published in 1910, this collection of writings is a wonderful introduction to the philosophy and ideas of a woman who was once one of the most polarizing and magnetic figures in America.
Emma Goldman (1869-1940) was a famous anarchist, activist, lecturer, writer, and philosopher. During the latter years of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century, she was a well-known public figure, constantly giving fiery speeches to hundreds or thousands of people, speaking out against the greed and excesses of the capitalist system. She encouraged the burgeoning worker class in America to fight for its rights, using the tools and tactics of direct action, namely strikes and protests.
Emma Goldman’s name is connected to many of the major events in American history during this period: the assassination of President McKinley by Leon Czolgosz, the Selective Service and Espionage Acts during World War I, the woman’s rights movement and the Spanish Civil War.
Reading the essays, I was struck by how modern they sound. Emma Goldman was way ahead of her time on every important social and political issue. Not surprisingly, she was relentlessly attacked (and imprisoned) by the government and vilified by the corporate press. Somewhat surprisingly, she was also often attacked or abandoned by those who had been her allies, those activists within the anarchist movement who could not, or would not, go along with her when she became ‘too radical.’
As a true anarchist, Goldman never believed that humanity’s condition could be improved through any system of big government:
“It may be claimed that men of integrity would not become corrupt in the political grinding mill. Perhaps not; but such men would be absolutely helpless to exert the slightest influence on behalf of labor, as has indeed been shown in numerous instances. The State is the economic master of its servants. Good men, if such there be, would either remain true to their political faith and lose their economic support, or they would cling to their economic master and be utterly unable to do the slightest good. The political arena leaves one no alternative, one must either be a dunce or a rogue.”
In the chapter titled “Minorities versus Majorities”, she wrote, “Our entire life- production , politics, and education- rests on quantity, on numbers. The worker who once took pride in the thoroughness and quality of his work, has been replaced by brainless, incompetent automatons, who turn out enormous quantities of things, valueless to themselves, and generally injurious to the rest of mankind. Thus quantity, instead of adding to life’s comforts and peace, has merely increased man’s burden.”
Does that sound like our modern world? Indeed it does, and such prescience is found throughout her writings. A staunch individualist, Goldman celebrated the free and independent spirit, in contrast to the stultifying conformity and group-think of the masses. She wrote, “Today, as then, public opinion is the omnipresent tyrant. Today, as then, the majority represents a mass of cowards, willing to accept him who mirrors its own soul and mind poverty.”
In the chapter titled “The Psychology of Political Violence”, she wrote , “I would say that resistance to tyranny is man’s highest ideal. So long as tyranny exists, in whatever form, man’s deepest aspiration must resist it as inevitably as man must breathe.”
In the following chapter, “Patriotism”, she dissected the ruling classes’ ability to instill the concept of national patriotism into unwitting children’s minds. Goldman lamented the swelling military budget not only of the United States, but also of all the major Western powers. At the time, the United States was spending the huge sum of $400 million on ‘defense.’ She clearly saw a worrying trend there. In 2011, the United States spent $718 billion on military spending, more than all other countries of the world combined. She was writing this in the years preceding America’s entry in World War I. President Wilson, who was re-elected on a platform of keeping us out of the war, not only got America into WWI, but also set about to vigorously hunt down and prosecute those who tried to avoid the draft or speak out against it.
The chapters on ‘Woman Suffrage’ and ‘The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation’ are eye-opening. While the vast majority of progressive women thinkers of the day were rallying for the right of women to vote, Goldman stood virtually alone in agitating against it. Her reasoning, which must have sounded perplexing to progressives, was sound nonetheless. Because she stood rooted in such a firm foundation of anarchist thought, Goldman was not about to throw away her core principles for the temporary and illusory victory of woman suffrage. She understood, rightly, that giving women the right to vote and to gain political office would do nothing to change the nature of politics and government. Women, she wrote, do not have supernatural powers and their entrance into the political arena would not be able to cleanse and purify that bastion of corruption and expediency. (See Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Madeline Albright, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, et al.) Indeed, she encouraged women to achieve their emancipation in other, more effective and original means.
As for women gaining the right to enter the workplace, she thought this would be merely trading one form of slavery (property of her husband) for another (property of the factory owner). Working for 12 to 16 hours a day for slave wages and the ruination of the body and mind was not something that Emma Goldman saw as ‘progress.’
Emma Goldman is a writer and thinker whose ideas still resonate in today’s world, remarkably so. The fact that the feminist movement of the 1970s and the anarchist movement in the present century resurrected her memory and ideas is proof of that. Likewise, the descendants of those who slandered her during her life are alive and well today, and continue the slander and misrepresentation. Just recently, I read an article where the writer lamented how America started going downhill in the late 19th century when people like “Red Emma” and other agitators started entering the country en masse from Europe.
Perhaps she will always be a polarizing figure. But for those who seek the liberation of the human mind, body, and soul, Emma Goldman’s writings stand out as a clarion call to humanity.