The Political Philosophy of Emma Goldman

With the crowds of thousands that her speeches drew, Emma Goldman established a strong following and historical prestige among anarchists, socialists, and leftists of many tendencies. Her radical thoughts on free speech, imperialism, politics, economics, culture, and many other issues represented a tremendous challenge to the establishment of late 19th and early 20th century America, often leading to her arrest. Goldman was unique as a leftist because she did not only upset conservatives through her progressive views, but many leftists also by critiquing leftist views. Goldman espoused a logically consistent political philosophy that offered her a lens to view the injustices and inequalities of her American time period. Accordingly, her social theories did not exist in a vacuum independent of historical forces; they were directly connected and influenced by those forces. This essay will thus explain the political philosophy of Goldman but also connect those beliefs with the historical events that influenced them, connections which are vital to understanding Goldman on a complete level.

A standard definition of anarchism, which Goldman espoused, is the view that all illegitimate hierarchies in society should be abolished, whether the hierarchies exist in culture, politics, economics, or elsewhere. While this radical philosophy encapsulates all of Goldman’s views on many different topics, her views also shifted and developed through different periods in her life. In John C. Chalberg’s biography of her, Emma Goldman: American Individualist, we learn of Goldman’s earliest connections to anarchism with the Haymarket affair of 1886. During a labor protest in Haymarket Square in Chicago, a bomb was thrown which led to the deaths of seven police officers followed by the conviction of eight anarchists despite no evidence that they were the perpetrators. Haymarket was a pivotal moment in anarchist and socialist history as it had further radicalized the American left due to the spurious convictions, and this radicalization also affected Goldman. While Goldman had already seen herself as an anarchist, the event had “forced her to stop and think and feel – and convert” and see anarchism as a “new vision of a just society.”1

Protesters sought an eight-hour work day in Haymarket.

Protesters sought an eight-hour work day in Haymarket.

Since anarchism calls for ending hierarchy and replacing it with democracy, it overlaps with socialism in the sense that both systems advocate for the end of capitalism, a hierarchical system of work, and replacing it with socialism where workers democratically own and manage their workplaces. Many socialists however disagree with anarchists regarding the role of the state and believe the state could have beneficial purposes, a belief which Goldman criticized socialists for. While labor leader and socialist Eugene V. Debs was heralded as a champion of the working class, Goldman criticized him for these views and for the fact that Debs was a running candidate for the presidency of the US, a position overseeing a hierarchical government. Despite their honest intents, Goldman believed that such politicians were incapable of providing radical enough change to transform America, and that non-political solutions were instead necessary.1 She was unsatisfied with Debs’ state socialism and desired it to be only a stepping stone to full anarchism, a lack of satisfaction which would also later return in her critiques of Bolshevism.

In culture, anarchism has a long history of espousing free love, which is the view that all voluntary romantic and sexual acts are permissible and should not be tied to the illegitimate institution of marriage. Goldman argued for this position with a strong conviction, and her 1914 essay “Marriage and Love” was very radical for its time when Goldman argued that “while it is true that some marriages are based on love, and while it is equally true that in some cases love continues in married life, I maintain that it does so regardless of marriage, and not because of it.”2 In the essay, she views marriage as “primarily an economic arrangement” and that women are relegated to a position of “dependency” and “parasitism” when marrying men, a view that was particularly relevant for her time period when a significant financial inequality existed between men and women. Goldman’s social beliefs on the subject roughly matched her personal life, as she had many different lovers without marrying a single one. Two of her lovers included Alexander Berkman and Ben Reitman, men which were also important figures in the history of the anarchist movement.

First-wave feminism was another movement that was of particular importance to the progressive forces of Goldman’s time, and while supporting parts of it, Goldman was radical in that she also saw many limitations that did not allow for true women’s emancipation. For example, while she supported suffrage and job opportunities, she also argued that voting won’t allow women to truly reform politics, and that replacing the home with the factory was another form of “confinement.”1 Goldman’s views were thus in line with the views of many anarchists and socialists who saw the advances of early feminism as a double-edged sword which simultaneously made positive gains for women while also pushing them further into the capitalist system. Goldman also forged a partnership with Margaret Sanger and the beginnings of the birth control movement, which caused Goldman’s arrest when she included discussions of birth control in her lectures. To Goldman, birth control was vital because large families were a “millstone” around the necks of American workers.1

Despite bitter disagreements over the role of the state and other theoretical issues between anarchists and socialists, all members of the radical left agreed that Western imperialism and colonialism were extremely negative systems that needed to be vanquished. Vladimir Lenin’s 1917 treatise Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism became seminal in socialist history for scientifically connecting the colonization and plunder of lands by Western nations to their socio-economic system of capitalism. Goldman also shared this view, and so when US entry into World War I began, she became a passionate critic of the decision calling the war a “capitalist war” and believing that it would have ended “long ago” had “American financiers been prevented from investing billions in war loans.”1 Arrest followed Goldman’s vocal opposition to the draft in June 1917, but despite the setback she and her lover Berkman ran the No Conscription League for some time which was focused on organizing anti-conscription efforts. Not all anarchists supported Goldman’s unwavering opposition of WW1, such as Peter Kropotkin who despite being one of the most important figures in anarchist philosophy supported the Allies out of the fear of a “Prussianized” Europe.1

Momčilo Gavrić

Momčilo Gavrić, a Serbian soldier, joined the Serbian army at the age of 8 and fought in World War I.

The fierce debate between anarchists and Marxists concerning the role of the state, a debate which continues today, reached a climax with the Russian Revolution when the Marxist Bolsheviks triumphed. The Russian Revolution became a beacon for leftists worldwide for initially championing socialism and democracy instead of capitalism and oligarchy, which explains Goldman’s initial support of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. When Goldman herself was exiled to Russia, her initial support of the USSR eventually transformed to full blown opposition upon seeing the lifelessness of Petrograd, the country’s view that free speech was a “bourgeois superstition,” and privileges that Communist Party members had over citizens regarding food distribution. Goldman was disappointed when meeting Lenin himself, as Lenin argued to her that “there can be no free speech in a revolutionary period” in defense of his persecution of anarchists.1 Anarchists had a difficult relationship with Bolsheviks, such as with the anarchist Kronstadt rebellion against the USSR which Goldman acted as an official mediator during. Goldman’s view that Kronstadt symbolized everything that went wrong with the Russian Revolution caused her to leave the country in 1921.

Vladimir Lenin and other Soviet leaders celebrating the second anniversary of the October Revolution in Red Square, Moscow, 1919

Vladimir Lenin and other Soviet leaders celebrating the second anniversary of the October Revolution in Red Square, Moscow, 1919

Goldman eventually returned to the US after a more left-wing climate came about with Roosevelt and the New Deal that was also less persecuting of leftists. She then later moved to Canada to work on raising money in defense of persecuted anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti, her final country and place of death in Toronto, 1940. Goldman’s life and anarchist philosophy was thus unique for being simultaneously subversive against both the right-wing establishment which represented exploitation and hierarchy and also against progressive forces for being inadequate like with the Bolsheviks and early feminists. She remains a leftist figure worthy of attention and importance for 21st century socialist movements, both for her critique of the capitalist establishment and her critique of certain leftist solutions which did not bring about sufficient change.

– Dino Mehic (Moontouch)


  1. Chalberg, John C. Emma Goldman: American Individualist. Pearson, 2008. Print.

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