Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman was an anarcho-revolutionary for whom violence was a legitimate means for change. How did this Russian émigré end up gravitating towards anarchism? What were her beliefs, and how were they informed? We'll tackle all of these questions as we explore Emma Goldman's life, ideology, and some of her most influential works.     

Emma Goldman Emma Goldman

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    Emma Goldman Biography

    Emma Goldman was an influential anarchist revolutionary born in Russia in 1869. The child of Jewish parents, Goldman migrated to the United States at the age of 16 due to growing antisemitism in Russia.

    Once in New York City, Goldman quickly became involved in politics, taking a particular interest in anarchism. Her anarchist views were influenced by Johann Most, a radical anarchist who supported and promoted revolutionary violence. Most introduced her to the ideas of key thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin, whose work helped convince Goldman of the anarchist vision.

    Anarchism is a political ideology that rejects all aspects of the state and all institutions that exert - and justify the use of - authority over citizens.

    Goldman is widely viewed as the founder of anarcha-feminism even though she never labelled herself a feminist. In fact, during her life, she sought to distance herself from the first-wave feminism movement altogether.

    As a political ideology, anarchism is often wrongly associated with violence, chaos, and disorder. Anarchism in itself is not a violent ideology and many anarchist thinkers are, in fact, opposed to the use of violence. However, Emma Goldman belonged to that school of anarchist thought that advocated the use of violence to bring about revolutionary change. We will explore Goldman's views on violence later in this article.

    Emma Goldman's beliefs

    The rejection of the state is the central idea of anarchist thought. Anarchists believe that state and government place morally unjustifiable restrictions on individual freedoms, as the state is founded on hierarchy and a coercive relationship between the ruler and the ruled. In her writings, Goldman argued that the state was a 'cold monster' and called it immoral.

    Emma Goldman Emma Goldman StudySmarterFig. 1 Emma Goldman

    Goldman believed the way the state was organised stood in opposition to the needs of human nature. She also believed that the existence of the state prevented humans from exercising individual liberty and undermined social harmony.

    In Goldman's view, the state uses its authority to protect the ruling classes and those who own property. In Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty (1908), Goldman argues that the state manipulates its population by encouraging patriotism, which in turn helps the state engage in military operations with other nations to expand its territories. For Goldman, the state creates conflict and war.

    In her work, she outlined her rejection of capitalism and the influence that anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin had on her beliefs. Kropotkin argued that mutual aid and cooperation within species were the defining factors of evolution. He also embraced the idea that mutual aid and altruism are natural morality traits that exist biologically in humans. According to Kropotkin because humans were naturally altruistic, the state, and in particular the capitalist state, was an unnecessary protector of order.

    In line with her views on the role of the state, Emma Goldman saw capitalism as incompatible with human needs. This was because capitalism aims to maximise profit and power and to this, it dehumanises the workers. This perspective, as well as her calling for a revolution, conforms with the thinking of anarcho-communism.

    Anarcho-communism is a political philosophy that merges principles of anarchism with some of communism's core beliefs. Like communism, it rejects capitalism, the ruling class and private property.

    It differs from communism as it's strictly non-hierarchical, it advocates direct democracy, and it's based on individualism rather than collectivism. While communism prioritises common ownership, anarcho-communism welcomes common ownership but also sees a place for personal property.

    Individuals who align themselves with anarcho-communism, see it as the best way to balance the needs of the collective (or the state) and the needs of the individual.

    Direct democracy: a form of democracy in which people are directly involved in the decision-making process, rather than electing representatives who will make decisions on behalf of the people.

    Collectivism: is the school of thought that prioritises the needs of the collective over the needs of the individual.

    Individualism: is a school of thought that prioritises the needs of the individual over the needs of the collective.

    In her work The Hypocrisy of Puritanism (1917), Goldman argued that religion and the church are used to coerce people. Her criticism of religion was in line with the anarchist rejection of all forms of coercive relationships. Goldman, who was an atheist, believed that religion leveraged concepts of hell and heaven to force people into obedience against their own will.

    She also argued that religion helped to uphold class inequality, as it kept the poor and working-class disillusioned, maintaining their belief that despite their struggles on earth, they would receive their reward in heaven. For Goldman, it was this disillusion that stopped people from realising the truly coercive nature of religion and rising up against it.

    Emma Goldman and revolutionary violence

    Whilst many anarchists oppose violence, Goldman was a supporter of the use of violence to bring about revolution and even participated in the Spanish Civil War to advance anarchism in Spain.

    Goldman’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War came after her exile to Europe from the US. She was exiled due to the increased concerns over the spread of anarchist ideologies in the US. These concerns were exacerbated by the assassination of the 25th President of the United States, William McKinley, by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901. As a result, subsequent governments sought to crack down on anarchism.

    Revolutionary violence and murder

    Whilst Emma Goldman was not directly responsible for the assassination of US President William McKinley, the man who pulled the trigger - Leon Czolgosz – claimed under interrogation that he was inspired by Emma Goldman’s teachings.

    Goldman and her partner Alexander Berkman were involved in a failed assassination plot to kill industrialist Henry Frick. Both Goldman and Berkman believed this assassination would inspire the working classes to unite and rise up and reject the capitalist state. Berkman, however, was arrested for his attempted assassination, while Goldman avoided arrest.

    Anarchism and Other Essays

    In 1910, Emma Goldman published a series of essays that outlined her relationship with anarchism, titled Anarchism and Other Essays. The collection of essays consisted of 12 works that use an anarchist framework to discuss a variety of issues, including violence and nationalism.

    Emma Goldman and patriotism

    One of the essays Goldman wrote was titled Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty, in which Goldman outlined her views on patriotism. In the essay, Goldman criticises America's use of patriotism, arguing that patriotism is used as a tool to justify the murder of people through militarism.

    Goldman heavily criticised the US use of patriotism and how patriotism breeds ideals that make the people view themselves as superior to other nations. She argued that people are therefore willing to defend their nation from imagined threats by mobilising the military to commit acts of murder and violence.

    Militarism: the idea that a nation should have a strong military arsenal and should be prepared to use it to advance or defend national interests.

    Emma Goldman and women's rights

    Emma Goldman was heavily concerned with the way women were perceived and treated in society. The use of anarchist perspectives to interpret and examine women's issues has been referred to as anarcho-feminism.

    Emma Goldman The symbol for anarcha-feminism StudySmarterrFig. 2 The symbol for anarcha-feminism

    Emma Goldman and Anarcho-feminism

    Emma Goldman’s most distinguished contribution to anarchism was arguably how she linked it with feminism. Goldman viewed the patriarchy as a coercive hierarchy. Because anarchists oppose all forms of coercive relationships, Goldman not only challenged institutions such as the state, but she challenged the patriarchy too.

    Challenging both of these institutions is something that the majority of anarchist thinkers had previously overlooked.

    Although some refer to Goldman as an anarcha-feminist, Goldman sought to distance herself from the first-wave feminist current of her time. This is because first-wave feminism's main aim was the achievement of women's suffrage. As an anarchist, Goldman did not seek for the state to grant women the right to vote, but rather sought the abolition of the state itself.

    As mentioned previously, in Goldman’s The Hypocrisy of Puritanism, she criticises the church and likens marriage to prostitution. In her view, those within the church condemn prostitution while upholding the idea of marriage, even though in both scenarios women are circulated and sold. Goldman was also a staunch critic of the double standards placed on women, male sexuality, and sexual freedom.

    Emma Goldman's quotes

    Here you can read some of Goldman's most famous quotes on anarchism and patriotism.

    To the moralist, prostitution does not consist so much of the fact that the woman sells her body, but rather that she sells it out of wedlock.1

    Patriotism... is a superstition artificially created and maintained through a network of lies and falsehoods; a superstition that robs man of his self-respect and dignity, and increases his arrogance and conceit.2

    Ask for work. If they don't give you work, ask for bread. If they do not give you work or bread, then take bread.3

    Emma Goldman - Key takeaways

    • Emma Goldman's use of anarchist perspectives to interpret and examine women's issues is the reason she is considered one of the main contributors to anarcha-feminism.
    • Goldman was greatly influenced by the works of anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin.
    • Unlike many other anarchists, Goldman encouraged revolutionary violence.
    • Emma Goldman argued that the state was a cruel monster and rejected the state due to its coercive nature.
    • Emma Goldman was an atheist and viewed religion and the church as a form of control and dominance.
    • Although Goldman should be considered a feminist during her time, she rejected the motives of first-wave feminism due to its relationship with the state and authority.


    1 Goldman, Emma The Traffic in Women and Other Essays, 1970, p.20

    2 Goldman, Emma “Patriotism, a Menace to Liberty” (Essay), 1911

    3 Goldman Emma, Speech Given at Union Square, New York, 21 August 1893


    1. Fig. 2 The symbol of anarcha-feminism (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Radical_feminism_sign.png) by LillianSims13 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:LillianSims13&action=edit&redlink=1) licenced by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (https://spdx.org/licenses/CC-BY-SA-4.0.html) on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Emma Goldman

    Who is Emma Goldman?

    Emma Goldman was an anarchist revolutionary.

    What did Emma Goldman accomplish?

    Emma Goldman founded anarcha-feminism.

    What did Emma Goldman fight for?

    Emma Goldman fought for the rejection of the state and encouraged the use of revolutionary violence to achieve this. 

    What nationality was Emma Goldman?

    Emma Goldman was a Russian Jew. 

    Who said 'if I can't dance I don't want your revolution'?

    It is a quote attributed to Emma Goldman. 

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