EMMA GOLDMAN: Early Insights of an Anarchist

The triumph of the State meant the defeat of the [Russian] Revolution.
—Emma Goldman

And although Lenin, according to Goldman, did just the opposite and produced a massive, oppressive, centralized, state, he did say at one time:

While the State exists, there can be no freedom. When there is freedom there will be no State.

Emma Goldman was born in 1869, in the Russia Empire, but what is now known as Lithuania. She emigrated to the US in 1885 and became involved with the Anarchist movement, a passion brought to life by the criminal and tragic Haymarket affair.

Although not always exactly correct—who could be?—Emma Goldman was a stunningly insightful thinker, and often expressed her prescient outrage years before most everybody else.

Countless good-hearted, deeply courageous, worker-rights fighters/activists believed and put hope in the Soviet Union’s so-called Communism for way too long: through the Bolshevik’s undemocratic initial takeover; through Lenin’s summary executions, denial of free speech and smashing of trade unions in Petrograd and by military in Kronstadt (the sailor’s uprising) in 1921 (one would be a liar not to admit that the invasion of Russia by many foreign countries and the massive civil war didn’t exactly increase the potential for a softer revolution—if there ever was that potential). However, as Goldman said of the Bolshevik-run USSR at the time—and the oppression being committed: “To remain silent now is impossible, even criminal”; and after Lenin, in the extreme with Josef Stalin and his purges in the millions and utter dictatorship for decades; even after Khrushchev’s denouncements of Stalin in ’53, and the uprisings in Hungary in ’56 and Czechoslovakia in ’68 etc, the Left often remained in support of Russia. See, even, the generally wonderful and insightful Pete Seeger (his 1955 response to the fascist House Un-American Activities Committee is brilliant) and the endlessly-persecuted Paul Robeson.

PETE SEEGER before the very un-American unAmerican Committee:

I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in [telling you] who listened to them.

But Emma, despite intense abuse from the Left and Communists both in the USSR and the West , wrote in 1923—1923!:

The dominant, almost general, idea of revolution—particularly the Socialist idea—is that revolution is a violent change of social conditions through which one social class, the working class, becomes dominant over another class, the capitalist class. It is the conception of a purely physical change, and as such it involves only political scene shifting and institutional rearrangements. Bourgeois dictatorship is replaced by the “dictatorship of the proletariat”—or by that of its “advance guard,” the Communist Party. Lenin takes the seat of the Romanovs, the Imperial Cabinet is rechristened Soviet of People’s Commissars, Trotsky is appointed Minister of War, and a labourer becomes the Military Governor General of Moscow. That is, in essence, the Bolshevik conception of revolution, as translated into actual practice.

She is disgusted by the injustice, hypocrisy and totalitarian cruelty—the ends justifying the means—that she witnesses in the USSR. Despite knowing very little and having a privileged life, I’ve always felt a similar abhorrence, given their original ideas, to the idea of theVanguard of the Proletariat—in short, a dictatorial few (it always turns out) suppressing the masses who made the uprising possible, and were fighting for their own emancipation to be individuals, and live with dignity, instead of cogs in someone else’s tsarist/colonial/totalitarian/industrial plan.

From Goldman herself:

The STATE IDEA, the authoritarian principle, has been proven bankrupt by the experience of the Russian Revolution. If I were to sum up my whole argument in one sentence I should say: The inherent tendency of the State is to concentrate, to narrow, and monopolize all social activities; the nature of revolution is, on the contrary, to grow, to broaden, and disseminate itself in ever-wider circles. In other words, the State is institutional and static; revolution is fluent, dynamic. These two tendencies are incompatible and mutually destructive. The State idea killed the Russian Revolution and it must have the same result in all other revolutions, unless the libertarian idea prevail.

Being an anarchist, Emma had some distrust for Unions (see Wobblies! chapter3), but understood their absolute need, literally, as self-defense for the workers against totalitarian industrialism, and was certain that the IWW—the International Workers of the World, the Wobblies—arose to truly serve the rights of workers to have a decent life (and for doing so they were often massacred by the State, in all its forms—industrial militias, government troops, military, the police etc).

In 1934, returning to America on a 90 day visa after 15 years of forced exile, she was asked:

How about Hitler?

I don’t know him and don’t want to.

What is your opinion of Italy?

A beautiful country, minus Mussolini.

Recall, this is still five years before the outbreak of World War II, and four years before, say, the American car magnate and bastion of industrial capitalism and Union-hater Henry Ford would receive from Hitler, in 1938, the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, which was the highest award given to a foreigner by the Nazi regime. Hitler, for the record, in 1931 called Henry Ford his “inspiration.” Ford’s genius notwithstanding, think assembly lines, humans as cogs etc.

About Emma’s own deportation from America in 1919, she said:

I consider it an honour to be the first political agitator to be deported from the United States.

With the first really big Red Scare in the States, under the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Wilsonian government, Goldman was charged for being against America’s involvement in ‘the capitalist’ World War I—in short, charged with sedition. The same happened to the unstoppable Eugene Debs, countless other extraordinary fighters for free speech and human rights in general and, of course, the inimitable Wobblies. The Wobblies were the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), and some say this brutal, relentless, brutal persecution during World War I was really what eventually tore them apart.

Emma said things like the following—which some would say is perfect for today’s state of the world: with two million people in US prisons—one of the highest incarceration rates in the world—and what others would call illegal and brutal wars elsewhere in the world, among other things:

We say that if America has entered the war to make the world safe for democracy, she must first make democracy safe in America. How else is the world to take America seriously, when democracy at home is daily being outraged, free speech suppressed, peaceable assemblies broken up by overbearing and brutal gangsters in uniform; when free press is curtailed and every independent opinion gagged? Verily, poor as we are in democracy, how can we give of it to the world?

Emma Goldman had a lot to say, and often paid the price. After two strokes quite close together, Emma died in Canada in 1940.

And Emma on love:

Free love? As if love is anything but free! Man has bought brains, but all the millions in the world have failed to buy love. Man has subdued bodies, but all the power on earth has been unable to subdue love. Man has conquered whole nations, but all his armies could not conquer love. Man has chained and fettered the spirit, but he has been utterly helpless before love. High on a throne, with all the splendor and pomp his gold can command, man is yet poor and desolate, if love passes him by. And if it stays, the poorest hovel is radiant with warmth, with life and color. Thus love has the magic power to make of a beggar a king. Yes, love is free; it can dwell in no other atmosphere.

Here’s to freedom and love,



4 Responses to “EMMA GOLDMAN: Early Insights of an Anarchist”

  1. Erynn says:

    Emma Goldman was such an amazing woman.

  2. Indeed. I made a few changes and added links to what you would have read last night—which I wrote while rather exhausted and rushed!
    Love to you, hope you’re well,


  3. […] PS: For the record, two of the worst offenders of censorship remain China—or to quote Dambisa Moya: “I love the Chinese!”—and Cuba. Their health care system notwithstanding—not to mention survival despite decades of an economically crippling embargo by the US and many US assassination attempts—Cuba, to me, remains glorified by glib fools either ridiculously hypnotized by Che Guevera’s stencilled face on T-shirts or under the same spell that made western Communists shamefully, depressingly stick by the USSR and its inconceivable depravities for decades longer than make any sense given the accounts—whom many surely read—of, for example, anarchist Grigori Maximov or the inimitable Emma Goldman and others as early as the 1920s. […]

  4. […] and believe in what they fight for) which makes him, to me, not unlike like the despotic Bolsheviks as Emma Goldman described them: largely a replacement for the previous Tsarist regime of the despotic […]

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