Emma Goldman: Reflections on her 150th Birthday

Emma Goldman (June 27, 1869 – May 14, 1940) is easily one of the most influential anarchists of all time. This week marks her 150th birthday. In the spirit of acknowledging those who have come before us, we asked some of our favorite anarchist writers to share their thoughts on the influence Goldman has had on them, and the legacy she left for us.

Born in present-day Lithuania to a Jewish family, Goldman migrated to the U.S. in 1885 and became deeply engaged in anarchist organizing, the fight for abortion rights and birth control access, work in midwifery, the anti-war movement, and publishing a great deal of radical literature. She was arrested and imprisoned numerous times for “inciting to riot” and distributing literature in support of birth control. Goldman traveled and spoke extensively, and had a deep thirst for both practical and philosophical knowledge. She was deported from the U.S. to Russia during the Red Scare under the Anarchist Exclusion Act, where she became deeply disturbed by the treatment of radicals under the Soviet regime. After leaving Russia she found comradery with the anarcho-syndicalists fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War. In her seventieth and final year she received a message at her home in Canada from the former Secretary-General of the CNT-FAI, Mariano Vázquez, naming her as “our spiritual mother.” After her death, Goldman’s life and work received little attention until anarcho-feminists in the 1960’s revived interest in her writings and thus reignited her spirit of resistance. Anarcho-punks in the 1980’s and 1990’s and anti-capitalist activists of the new millennium kept Red Emma’s legacy alive, referencing her in song and counter-culture, naming infoshops and collective projects in her honor around the world. We hope the following words will convey just how influential she still is today and inspire you to learn more about her profoundly powerful struggle for freedom.

SHANE BURLEY / PATTRICE JONES / HILLARY LAZAR / NATASHA LENNARD /

BARRY PATEMAN / SPENCER SUNSHINE / KEVIN TUCKER

SHANE BURLEY

Emma Goldman made obvious something that we know intuitively, but forget in the bustle of incremental social change: revolutions are made by human beings who realize who they are and what they want. The struggle of people to find their connection with others through community, to realize who they can be in the face of tyrannical institutional suppression, and the power that can come when we bypass the mediated political systems that are offered and take our power back. To actually make a break with the past, not just evolve past its memory.

Bodily autonomy, from reproduction to the factory worker, were all centers of this power for Goldman, points of struggle where the system would crack if we were able to get what we need. She saw that when people realize their own strength then the entire complex web of capital would be totally unable to withstand, and that only came from reaching out to the people we live around to find that common cause.

We live in a time when our world is increasingly fragmented, from workplaces to autonomy to identity, yet there is a singular point of contact that Goldman’s work rests on. Her struggle was to constantly restate what is human, that people deserve freedom and equality, and that we can build the world we imagine in our hearts. We already have the world we want, it is spoken of in whispers and visible in moments of crisis when we shed the artifice of capitalism and hierarchy and build vibrant communities. All it takes is for us to commit to ourselves, and each other.

Shane Burley is a journalist and author of Fascism Today.

PATTRICE JONES

As a teen in the 1970s, I worked for what we then called “gay liberation” despite the disdain of leftists who considered that cause to be at best beside the point and at worst a bourgeois distraction from real problems. Today, I work for animal liberation despite the disdain of progressives with similarly dismissive attitudes. Along the way, I have been persistently inspired by the tenacity and integrity of Emma Goldman, who encountered homologous contempt when advocating for women’s liberation within anarchism. In her ability to see the interconnections among systems of oppression and in her determination to make a practical difference in people’s lives rather than remain in the realm of abstract theorizing, Emma Goldman embodied the feminist ethos of care.

Scattered throughout Emma Goldman’s writings are recollections of times that she changed her mind, whether in response to new information or ideas or as a result of self-critical reflection. In our current context of several escalating global catastrophes to which nobody actually knows how to adequately respond, this seems to me among Emma Goldman’s most important legacies: a model of how to be simultaneously steadfast and flexible, always aware that there may be something you haven’t considered yet. But perhaps what continues to be Emma Goldman’s most valuable legacy may be summed up in her famous quote about dancing, which implicitly celebrates diversity while recognizing the centrality of the pleasure principle in human motivation. If we want to counter the seductions of fascism in a world on fire, we’ll need to offer people a revolution they can dance to.

pattrice jones is a cofounder of VINE Sanctuary, an LGBTQ-led refuge for that works for social and environmental justice as well as animal liberation.

HILLARY LAZAR

As one of the members of Agency, I was particularly excited when we took on this project celebrating Emma Goldman’s 150th birthday. In many ways, she has played a deeply influential role in my own life path and politics, arguably, even leading to my eventual involvement with this group.

The truth is, I can’t actually recall when I first encountered Emma Goldman. It may have been sometime in college when my father—a book collector, always eager to encourage my interests—bought me a first edition of Anarchism and Other Essays. I remember gingerly flipping through the pages, in awe of this revolutionary thinker, who was so passionately and courageously pushing back against not only State domination, but capitalism, militarism, and above all, patriarchy. I wanted to understand who this person was and how she came to be such a force for social transformation. A few years later, I became a research assistant for the Emma Goldman Papers Project and had the chance to come to know Emma and her work in a far more profound and personally transformative way.

To begin with, I’d been hanging out in squats and peripherally involved with groups like Anti-Racist Action and Love and Rage since I was 15, but I still struggled terribly with activist imposter syndrome. I didn’t really “look the part” (read, I was pretty “normy” in appearance) and was a fairly bookish type, easily intimidated in most activist spaces. So, even though I desperately wanted to get involved, I wasn’t quite sure how to fully find my own place and role in “the scene” or movement building more generally. Working with the Emma Goldman Papers helped me to see that, yes, the Revolution, had a place for nerds like me too. We could help to tell the stories and uncover critical lessons for our movements that might otherwise be lost. There is plenty to be done in the struggle to end domination. And what I discovered then is that if you keep looking, you’ll eventually find a way to jump in.

Even more than this, however, I learned something else that’s been critical in shaping my politics. In short, people are complex, messy, and often contradictory, and unlearning the norms, attitudes, and practices we’re socialized to internalize is an ongoing and lifelong practice. In reading through her letters, writings, and autobiographical accounts, yes, I discovered the fierce, inspiring woman from my treasured first edition. But I also discovered that this “high priestess of anarchy” and champion of free love was someone who struggled with insecurities, doubts, jealousies, and her own shortcomings. She was more than the myth; she was human, and like the rest of us, working through it all.

I also learned that she couldn’t have accomplished such important work alone. Yes, of course, I had known about her lifelong comrade, Alexander Berkman. It wasn’t just him though, it was a whole network and community of people supporting her in the mission to advance issues such an end to conscription, access to birth control, and what we now think of as anarcha-feminism.

This includes any number of individuals who have been lost—or who would be without the anarchist librarians and historians of the world—like Mary Eleanor “Fitzi” Fitzgerald, who was effectively Emma’s righthand and made it possible for her to make the fiery speaking tours she became so famous for. Fitzi also supported Emma when she was in jail, helped to raise critical funds for her, was a key player in publishing Mother Earth, and did innumerable other less glamorous tasks that kept the Emma Goldman revolution going—as did other lesser known anarchists.

So, on her 150th birthday, I want to recognize all those out there who have helped to keep Emma’s story alive and to tell it more honestly, replete with its many contradictions. I want to celebrate the unsung accomplices in her work and the countless others who have been inspired by her since. And I want to honor the role that she has played in helping me to find my own path. Through Emma Goldman I learned that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to being revolutionary; that revolution is something we practice daily—and it’s certainly not always easy; and that we can’t do it alone, but must rely on each other in this messy, challenging, rewarding, and vital work of creating a more liberatory society for all.

Hillary Lazar is on the advisory board for Agency: An Anarchist PR Project, an instructor the Institute for Advanced Troublemaking, and part of the efforts to organize academic workers. Her writing has been published in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, and she has contributed to several books including Anarchism: A Conceptual Approach and Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years.

NATASHA LENNARD

I hope very much that Emma Goldman is turning 150 this June 27. By which I do not mean that she would have been turning 150 on this, her birthday. Because we still need Emma Goldman’s presence in the present, marked as it is by the very patriarchal, oppressive, carceral state against which she fought. Every time the struggle for love’s liberation is limited to the state’s recognition of a marriage, we need Emma over our shoulders, reminding us: “If the world is ever to give birth to true companionship and oneness, not marriage, but love will be the parent.”

We need Emma’s living ghost to haunt even those on the left who would see borders closed. “Patriotism,” she would whisper, “is a superstition artificially created and maintained through a network of lies and falsehoods.” Against those who call for civility in the face of fascism, we conjure Emma, “Give us what belongs to us in peace, and if you don’t give it to us in peace, we will take it by force.” In her 1914 essay, Love and Marriage, Goldman names Mrs. Alving, a character from Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, as the “ideal mother… because she had broken her chains, and set her spirit free.”

It is Mrs. Alving who utters the lines, “I am half inclined to think we are all ghosts … it is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that exists again in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and all kinds of old dead beliefs and things of that kind. They are not actually alive in us; but there they are dormant all the same, and we can never be rid of them.” All too many bad, dead ideas make ghosts of us. Emma, at 150, is the spirit we need instead, reminding us to dance.

Natasha Lennard is a columnist for The Intercept and her work has appeared regularly in The Nation, Esquire, The New York Times and The New Inquiry, among others. She teaches critical journalism at the New School For Social Research. She is the author of  Violence: Humans in Dark Times (with Brad Evans, City Lights 2018) and Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life (Verso Books 2019).

BARRY PATEMAN

I first read parts of Living My Life in a workers’ study group in 1967. We had just read Memoirs of A Revolutionary by Victor Serge and I remember having some difficulty with Goldman’s style. I am not sure I appreciated what she was trying to do in her autobiography for another twenty years or so. By then I had read nearly all of Goldman’s work that was available in the UK and was tremendously impressed by My Disillusionment in Russia (not her chosen title, by the way, but the publishers!!). I instinctively saw the nobility of that work. For her, as for many other anarchists, the Russian revolution had been the hope of the world; a chance for Russia to become a country predicated on mutual aid and the ideas of anarchist communism. It was the beginning of the world turned upside down and everything seemed possible. The book conveys, so powerfully, her despair at the growing totalitarianism on the part of the Bolsheviks (including the imprisonment and execution of left critics) and their supporters. I have always been impressed by her honesty during this period and she taught me to realize that we are all capable of mis-reading situations and circumstances. That, though, isn’t all that impressed me about her at this time in her life. From somewhere deep in her soul she finds the strength to re-assert her belief in the possibility of the world she desires after all the tragedy and hopelessness she experienced in Russia. She carried on. In comparison I think that the writing she did for the London based anarchist paper Spain and the World, covering the remarkable achievements of the Spanish people in the Spanish revolution in arranging their own lives and drawing out the rich abilities within themselves during 1936/37, are celebratory and infused with possibility. They act as a counterpoint to her earlier book and are essential reading.

I lived closely with her memory and work for thirteen years, helping to put out three volumes of her letters and writings. As I grow older it pains me to see how she has been treated by anarchists and historians alike. Many of them have filleted her ideas to find those they find prescient and relevant today ignoring anything that doesn’t fit their own particular predetermined ideas or needs. Such an approach demeans the wonderful complexity of her ideas and the way she saw them inter-relating. So often people ignore how anarchist communism was the dominant and underlying philosophy of her life; the platform that all her struggles were built on. She never gave up fighting against the economic and mental cruelties engendered by capitalism and state communism no matter the emotional and physical cost to herself. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath, step back and realize that it is her life, not ours. The least we can do is agree that she lived her life on her terms and accept this remarkable woman for who she was and not for who we would like her to be.

Barry Pateman has worked with ABC, edited numerous papers and journals, and has taken part in support groups for labour strikes, tenants groups activities and rent strikes. He is a member of Kate Sharpley Library collective.

SPENCER SUNSHINE

I first read Emma Goldman’s writing when I was sixteen. I had borrowed a copy of Living my Life from an older activist who I had met through an anti-Nazi group. I had been making fanzines and playing in punk bands, and had heard Goldman’s name thrown around. I don’t remember the book’s cover, but the paper smelled like tobacco—my friend was a heavy smoker—and, despite my best efforts, the shoddily glued binding split. I don’t remember my exact impression, only bits and pieces. The language did not have the antique feel that so many texts from the 1930s still had; Goldman was a close reader of the literary modernists and she incorporated ideas from Freud and Nietzsche. Her anarchism was also strongly individualistic, which appealed to me. (Unlike many, I was not a “liberal” before I became a leftist—I was more of a social libertarian.) Her stalwart anti-Communism helped as well.

Lastly—and although the importance of this went by me at the time—her non-reductionist approach to hierarchy was crucial. Unlike the workerists, Goldman’s anarchism was against all hierarchies. This made her radicalism social and cultural, as much as political and economic: she attacked gender roles and religion with the same fury that she aimed against the state and capitalism. Together these things allowed her voice, first forged in the crucible of the Tsarist Russia, to reach out and connect with my Generation X counterculturalism in the United States. I read her just as the Soviet Union was crumbling and as a new generation of decentralized radicals was rising. To us—“the kids” as we called ourselves, for we were almost exclusively teenage and early twenty-somethings throughout the 1990s—anarchism was our ideological loadstar. This was similar to what Marxism had been to the New Left: even those who did not agree with its fine print ended up in its gravitational pull. And Emma Goldman was our patron saint, the anarchist who we held closest to our hearts.

Spencer Sunshine writes about U.S. fascist and other Far Right movements.

KEVIN TUCKER

I first came across Emma Goldman when I was 13, and it was a life changing moment. Anarchism and Other Essays was a formative book for me. Even though I’ve gone radically different directions with anarchism than Emma did, there’s no question that this is where it all began. I have strong disagreements in her takes, her early support of the Russian Revolution makes me wonder if the subsequent 79 years since her death till now might have changed her opinions, formed in a world prior to WWII. I suppose we won’t know, but it’s also why history and context matters.

There’s a given about Emma’s iconography: her famous arrest photo, pictures of her standing out and lecturing crowds. She figures so large that it’s hard to comprehend that she wasn’t even five feet tall. But she was loud and clear. This is the woman who whipped Johann Most in public for denouncing the failed assassination attempt on Henry Clay Frick. Here’s this storied anarchist theorist, but never a question that it always meant being on the frontlines. That, to me, remains utterly inspirational. I may not agree with most of her work, but the underlying principle has been there all along: stand strong, be fierce.

Kevin Tucker founded Black and Green Press in 2000, was the editor of Species Traitor journal, hosts the Primal Anarchy Podcast, and is the founding editor of Wild Resistance (formerly Black and Green Review). His books include Gathered Remains and For Wildness and Anarchy

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