Key thinker: Emma Goldman (1869-1940)

Emma Goldman (1869-1940)


Emma Goldman was born in Kovno, Russia (now Kaunas, Lithuania) to Orthodox Jewish parents. She spent her youth in Königsberg (Kaliningrad) and Saint Petersburg, where she first became aware of politics after the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 ( Despite her limited education, Goldman studied independently and was radicalized by the radical student circles she frequented in the city ( As an adolescent, Goldman resisted her father’s wishes to marry and start a family ( Instead, she left tsarist Russia for the United States in 1885, initially settling in Rochester, New York, where she worked at a clothing factory.

The Haymarket bombing at a labour demonstration in Chicago in 1886, and the widely-publicized trial of eight anarchists that followed, pushed Goldman further towards the anti-authoritarian political philosophy of anarchism (see 26.2.1. Radicalisation: Haymarket). She eventually divorced her husband, whom she had married in 1887, and moved from Rochester to New York City. In New York, Goldman met fellow anarchists Alexander Berkman (see Key thinker: Alexander Berkman, 1870-1936) and Johann Most, both proponents of ‘propaganda of the deed’—the use of targeted violence and assassinations to engender political change.

Goldman continued to travel around the United States and Europe, lecturing on anarchism and engaging in political activism. In 1917, Berkman and Goldman were arrested and deported to Russia for agitating against conscription after the outbreak of the First World War. In Russia, the October Revolution was under way. Goldman initially supported the Bolshevik government, but changed her position following the violent suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion. Disillusioned with the Bolshevik project, she left the Soviet Union in 1923 and published a famously critical assessment of the revolution, My Disillusionment in Russia (1923). 

Goldman spent the rest of her life travelling between Sweden, England, France, and Canada. She also made three trips to Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) (see Key Concept: The Spanish Revolution, 1936-1939) and continued to rally for international support for the anti-fascist struggle until her death. Emma Goldman died in Toronto, Canada on May 14, 1940. She was 70 years old.


Goldman’s anarchism (see 26.2. Goldman’s Anarchism) balances individualist and collectivist impulses in the Anglophone anarchist movement of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Individual anarchists like Max Stirner argued that their primary aim was to ensure the liberty of individuals and to protect them from coercion by the state and other oppressive institutions (see Key Concept: Individualism and Communism). But collectivists like Mikhail Bakunin insisted that individuals were interdependent and could only exercise sovereignty in social contexts. Individualist anarchists also disagreed with collectivists over the role of private property. While collectivists pushed for the common ownership of property to prevent the accumulation of private property, individualists argued that equal rights to property should be defended to prevent corporate monopolies.

For Goldman, however, these two positions were not as incompatible as they might seem. Communism, she argued, was indeed incompatible with the kind of individualism of American capitalism that allows people to do as they choose. But it was not incompatible with the extreme individualism of anarchists like Stirner. Goldman sought to establish a state of society in which social, economic, or sexual domination was impossible (see 26.3.2. Power). Following her mentor Peter Kropotkin (see 26.2.3. The Spirit of Revolt), she envisioned a society governed by the cooperation of independent producers and communities, who existed in relations of voluntary mutualism. She promoted this vision of society through Mother Earth, the anarchist journal and publishing house she founded in 1906. Her influential collection Anarchism and other essays was published by the house in 1910.

In My Disillusionment in Russia (1923) Goldman reflects on her experiences in the Soviet Union in the wake of the October Revolution. When she first arrived in Russia, she praised the brilliance of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. But after first-hand experience of the centralising tendencies of the Bolsheviks, who had concentrated all power in the party, Goldman changed her views. Like Bakunin, Goldman argued that the state was the antithesis of liberty, and that the exercise of power through the state only further legitimized exploitation (see 26.3.1. Social Structure). She criticized Marxism’s totalitarian tendencies (see also chapter 13 on Karl Marx), arguing that the parliamentary strategies of the Communist Party would only lead to a further centralization of power. After her break with Bolshevism, Goldman described herself as a ‘free communist’ and insisted that the Bolsheviks had crushed the libertarian revolution. Goldman’s break with Marxism was final: in the 1930s, she even argued that Nazism and Stalinism were products of the same totalitarian logic (see 26.1. Introduction).

In her 1911 speech ‘Anarchism: What it Really Stands For’, Goldman argued that feminist calls for inclusion in the dominant social and political order undermined more radical socialist-feminist struggles. Her support for birth control and sex before marriage was grounded in ideals of sexual radicalism, not women’s rights as was commonly understood. Women’s oppression, she argued, was rooted in a double standard which recognized virility as a desirable trait in men but not in women. Men were encouraged to be promiscuous while women were told to be loyal to their husbands. But oppression was also linked to economic and material issues. Because women received pittance wages in the labour market, they were forced to depend entirely on men. In ‘Marriage and Love’ (1914), Goldman wrote that the ‘institution of marriage makes a parasite’ of women who are trapped in situations of domestic slavery. Both the repression of women’s sexuality and their exploitation in the domestic sphere prevented them from becoming revolutionary subjects.

Goldman thought that modern women had become too unfeminine and were therefore no longer able to truly enjoy important aspects of women’s lives such as sex, love, and having children ( Women's liberation could only be achieved through ‘free motherhood’ and ‘free love’ (non-monogamous relationships) (see 26.3.3. Class, Sex, ‘Race’ and Representation) which would enable the emergence of a new, fully human race. This aspect of Goldman’s writing draws on the ‘sex-radical’ work of Moses Herman (see Key thinker: Moses Herman, 1830-1910), whom she described as ‘the courageous champion of free motherhood and woman’s economic and sexual emancipation’. By placing love over duty in the realm of childbirth, Goldman wanted to show that children could be nurtured as units of society by free mothers. But this eugenicist and heteronormative conception of women’s liberation presented free motherhood as the only alternative to marriage, effectively excluding queer people.

Throughout her life, Goldman maintained a deep attachment to the idea of the United States as the ‘promised land’ (see 26.2.2. Love with Open Eyes). Goldman pointed to a disconnect between American values and the country’s governing institutions; she blamed the latter for corrupting the revolutionary principles on which the republic had been founded (see 26.4.1. Slavery and Slavishness). Yet her sympathies for the ideals of American republicanism often led her to overlook historical experiences of oppression such as the genocide and dispossession of Indigenous people or the horrors of slavery, which had been built into Jeffersonian ideas of democracy from the very beginning. As Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued, Goldman did not fully appreciate the severity of racism in the United States (Appiah, 1990), and only focused on race as a barrier to socialist cross-racial solidarity.

Goldman uses of the concept of ‘slavishness’ (see 26.2. Slavishness and Rights) to point to the condition of ‘enslaved’ Americans who hold onto revolutionary ideals while remaining impervious to the realities of a failing democracy. This, she argues, leads them to comply with institutional norms instead of engaging in political resistance (see 26.5. Conclusion). But this analogy somewhat trivializes enslaved people’s actual experiences of racialized chattel slavery in the US South (Hemmings, 2018). Despite its many conflicts and contradictions, Goldman’s life and work have been the subject of many biographical and academic studies (Gornick, 2013; Hemmings, 2018), which have argued for her continued relevance to anarchist and feminist political thought. Goldman’s own account of her life, the two-volume, Living My Life (1931, 1934), remains an indispensable document of anarchism in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Further reading

Falk, Candice (2008). Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years: Making Speech Free, 1902-1909, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 

Falk, Candice (2008). Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years: Made for America, 1890-1901, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 

Kinna, Ruth (2019). The Government of No One. London: Pelican.

Gornick, Vivian (2013). Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hemmings, Clare (2018), Considering Emma Goldman. Feminist Political Ambivalence and the Imaginative Archive, Durham and London: Duke University Press. 

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