After a brief and unhappy marriage, Emma Goldman left Rochester and eventually found her way to New York City. In New York, Goldman met and fell in love with another Russian anarchist, Alexander Berkman, and the two dove headlong into the anarchist cause. In 1892, after a bloody attack on striking steel workers orchestrated by Henry Clay Frick, Berkman shot Frick, though failed to kill him. He was arrested and sent to prison. Goldman was tried but acquitted. Her status, however, as an enemy of the state was cemented into place.
The arrest of Berkman did nothing to slow down Goldmanʼs dedication to the cause of anarchism. She began an aggressive speaking campaign, traveling around the country to rally people against the Gilded Age government and monopoly capitalism, which she felt were crushing the spirit of the people. Again, in 1901 violence erupted as an anarchist assassinated President William McKinley. When it came out that the assassin had attended Emma Goldmanʼs lecture in Cleveland earlier in the year, the police and press turned against her. While an investigation yielded no proof that Goldman had been involved in the assassination, few were convinced of her innocence. The Chicago Tribuneʼs headline on the events read, “Speech that Prompted Murderous Assault on the President,” and the article began, “An address delivered in this city on May 6 by Emma Goldman, the Anarchist, is believed largely responsible for the attempt on the life of President McKinley.”
Goldman was quickly becoming one of the most controversial women in the United States, perhaps the most controversial spokesperson for reform. Goldman, however, unlike the middle class progressives who advocated for piecemeal reform, wanted to see a remaking of the entire system of governance in the United States. As attacks on her grew louder and stronger, her voice broadened to take on many progressive issues of the day. Goldman began lecturing and writing about a wide-range of topics: womenʼs emancipation, birth control, free speech, sexual freedom, homosexuality, and of course, anarchism. She began a journal, Mother Earth, which appeared from 1906 until it was forced to shut down in 1917. There was no louder and more energetic dissident during these years than Emma Goldman. There was also, perhaps, no more hated figure in American political life than Emma Goldman.
Labor unrest was growing in the United States and Emma Goldman was in the middle of it. She did not lead any movement, but spent her days passionately speaking out against the abuses of governmental, business, and the police. In 1912, she and her lover Ben Reitman appeared in San Diego to lend their support to the IWWʼs campaign for recognition and representation in the west. Reitman was kidnapped by vigilantes, tortured, humiliated, and nearly killed. Again, Goldman perceived that violence was a tool on the side of power, not one often wielded by the dissidents.
As years passed, Goldman dedicated her considerable energy to a host of issues; birth control was a major one. Like other women during this time, Goldman saw in the issue of birth control a unification of many of her ideals. If women could have sex without the threat of getting pregnant, this would liberate their sexual expression. If women could choose when to get pregnant, this meant that they could better balance career choices and thus not be so dependent on a husband for money. If women could decide to limit the number of children they would have, this, too, meant freedom from the considerable burdens of pregnancies one on top of another, of medical complications, and of a decade or more of uniform domestic life.
When the United States entered the First World War, Goldman began an energetic campaign against it. She and her fellow anarchists believed that wars were fought for the benefit of business and the ruling class, and that wars were bad for workers, who were most often conscripted to fight. Mother Earth became running stories criticizing the war and U.S. involvement. Goldmanʼs speeches became fiery attacks on President Wilson and governmental power. Wilson decided to crack down, shutting down hundreds of dissident publications, including Goldmanʼs. Goldman, who preached against conscription, was arrested and convicted on charges that she was conspiring to undermine the draft. She served two years in prison. When she was released in 1919, following the war, Goldman went back to lecturing on anarchism and free-speech. A young J. Edgar Hoover, now head of the Justice Departmentʼs Intelligence Division, had Goldman arrested again. Hoover was intent on arresting and deporting “foreign-born radicals.” He took all measures to ensure that Goldman would not be able to claim United Statesʼ citizenship. In December, 1919, Goldman and over two hundred other dissidents were loaded on a ship and deported to the Soviet Union. Before her deportation, Goldman made a powerful final appeal, unambiguously renewing her dedication to her ideals:
Under the mask of the same Anti-Anarchist law every criticism of a corrupt administration, every attack on Governmental abuse, every manifestation of sympathy with the struggle of another country in the pangs of a new birth - in short, every free expression of untrammeled thought may be suppressed utterly, without even the semblance of an unprejudiced hearing or a fair trial. It is for these reasons, chiefly, that I strenuously protest against this despotic law and its star chamber methods of procedure. I protest against the whole spirit underlying it - the spirit of an irresponsible hysteria, the result of the terrible war and of the evil tendencies of bigotry and persecution and violence which are the epilogue of five years of bloodshed.
Her statement ended with a summation of her political philosophy:
With all the power and intensity of my being, I protest against the conspiracy of imperialist capitalism against the life and the liberty of the American people.
The Soviet Union had just come into existence under difficult circumstances. Both the Bolsheviksʼ aggressive style and the militaristic circumstances of the Soviet Unionʼs birth, created out of the revolutionary movement a strongly authoritarian government led by Vladimir Lenin. While left-leaning people in the west might have looked to the Bolsheviks as the model of a future society (and many did all the way into the 1950s, some beyond) Goldman saw firsthand that the new government was just as, if not more, oppressive than the previous tsarist state. Goldman, always challenging power, addressed questions to Lenin directly about his persecution of anarchists. Dissatisfied with Leninʼs responses and fearful of Bolshevik violence, Goldman left the Soviet Union in 1921. Two years later, her condemnation of the Bolsheviks appeared in print with a book called My Disillusionment in Russia. Goldman, whether in the United States or in Russia, continued to fight for her ideals of anarchism, her belief that the oppressive force of states and governments crushed the dignity of individual citizens. It is worth noting that it took leftists in the west decades longer to turn against the brutal Soviet regime.
Goldman left the Soviet Union and moved to London, where she became increasingly isolated. She longed to return to the United States to fight for rights there, but the U.S. government granted her but a single 90-day visitation during the remainder of her life, in 1934. In 1936, Goldman hurled herself into work for the anarchists during the Spanish Civil War as they fought against the fascist general Francisco Franco, who, backed by Hitler, was launching a campaign against republicans and anarchists alike. Francoʼs victory was a failure of the entire democratic world and yet another loss for Goldman. The last years of her life she spent in Canada and there died in 1940, at the beginning of the worst years of slaughter humankind had ever seen.
How to sum up such a dynamic life? We see in Goldman a powerful representative of the spirit of the age: a spirit that sought to improve ordinary peopleʼs lives by advocating for fundamental change. While progressives believed that change would come from the top, from government reform through new laws and new regulations, Goldman rejected this. For her, the real potential for liberation came from people casting off the power of government and corporation and taking control of their lives themselves. Real reform, for Goldman, was a repudiation of government, a strike against capitalist formations. In this way Goldman was a mirror of the progressive era. She shared many notions about improving lives, but had, in the end, much more ambitious goals that required inverting progressive strategies. Her critique of progressivism alienated most of her potential allies. It is fitting that the most powerful people of the era, like Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin, would find in Goldman what they considered a dangerous opponent. Goldmanʼs clarity on issues of power and abuse could tear down even the most elaborately constructed staging. She knew when governments were not giving the people a fair deal. She was not afraid to speak out in the strongest of terms.