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Study Notes

Emma Goldman (1869-1940)

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 30 Dec 2018

Born in the Tsarist Russian Empire, Emma Goldman became a prominent anarchist propagandist and revolutionary in the USA between 1890 and 1919. She was then deported to the Soviet Union and, later in 1936-37, participated in the Spanish civil war in an attempt to advance the anarchist cause there. Arguably the first anarcho-feminist, Goldman’s twin passions were politics and dancing. She once famously stated that ‘If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.’

Goldman defined anarchism as a social order which is based on liberty without legal restrictions and free from all forms of government control since the latter rests on violence. Drawing on the work of Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche, she argued that a free society can be achieved only through the liberation of the individual from external constraints, such as religion or private property. The church, for example, impedes human progress because its concepts (such as the meek will inherit the earth) encourage uncritical obedience.

Nevertheless, Goldman combined this belief in the sovereignty of the individual with the concept of social harmony. Like Kropotkin, she rejected private property and maintained that liberated work is possible only in a society of loosely-federated productive groups engaging in voluntary cooperation due to common interests. Consequently, for Goldman, unhindered individuality, mutual aid and voluntarism would be the basis of the future anarchist society. True freedom would only develop in a society where human beings exercise control over the work they perform. In these circumstances, people can unleash the creative energies within themselves and thereby benefit society as a whole.

According to Goldman, the state is ‘the greatest criminal, breaking every written and natural law, stealing in the form of taxes, [and] killing in the form of war and capital punishment.’ She argued that the state operates as an immoral ‘cold monster’ in three ways and should therefore be rejected.

First, at a general level, the operation of the state runs counter to human nature and development by constantly constraining personal liberty and preventing social harmony.

Second, in domestic terms, the state uses the legal system, the police and its potential capacity for violence to protect the interests of the ruling class and property owners. Through the same means, it controls and coerces the population, thereby suppressing individual autonomy and free expression.

Third, the state is also perpetually engaged in an external military competition with other states to extend its territory and power. To facilitate this, the state uses patriotism to manipulate the population into supporting its objectives, justify increased funding for the military, and encourage the growth of militarism. In her writings, Goldman criticises the majority for becoming dependent on leaders and subservient to authority. The mass ‘cling to its masters [and] loves the whip’ and this enables the state to protect its own power by exploiting the constraining influence of public opinion and social uniformity. Ultimately though, she believes that humans have the capacity to break free from such repression and reach their full potential

Goldman argued that the ‘modern fetish’ for participation in parliamentary politics was both reformist and corrupting, not liberating. Once women and working class men obtained the vote and parliamentary seats, they became reformist in outlook and corrupted by authority, leaving the political system intact. Any attempt to implement reform from within the political system is destined to fail because it would not remove oppressive hierarchical authority structures such as the state, organised religion, private property and traditional social and sexual norms.

For Goldman, only revolution or collective violence (such as class war, industrial sabotage and direct action) provide the means by which the state, capitalism and all other forms of authority can be overthrown and communal individuality (based on personal autonomy and voluntary cooperation) established. Some of her later work (reflecting Goldman’s disillusionment with the Bolsheviks’ use of terror in Russia in the early 1920s) called for a more gradual social transformation through libertarian education which aims to develop the individual by emphasising knowledge and free play, and abandoning the regulations, routines and uniformity of conventional schooling.

Undoubtedly, Goldman’s most important contribution was to link anarchism with feminism. She rejected the social double standard females are subjected to and condemned attitudes which regard women as sex objects, breeding machines and cheap labour. For Goldman, female emancipation had to come from and through women as an expression of their individuality. A woman can be liberated only ‘by asserting herself as a personality and not a sex commodity … by refusing the right to anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children unless she wants them; by refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family etc.’ Marriage is damaging because it enables the state to pry into people’s personal lives and turns women into the parasitic dependents of men. Instead, Goldman advocated ‘free love’ – an unforced and genuine attachment between two people who view legal and religious conventions as irrelevant.

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