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.

Why Is There Money in Politics? Marxist Political Theory Offers an Answer

In recent years, “money in politics” has become an increasingly hot issue in political culture. During the 2016 American presidential election, the corrupting role of lobbying in government became not only an issue on the Democratic side with Bernie Sanders indicting Hillary Clinton of having ties to the financial sector of the economy but on the Republican side also with Donald Trump who claimed to be “self-funded” in comparison with other candidates. Two years earlier in 2014, a Princeton study concluded that the US was not a democracy.1 Progressives are right to expose the role of money in politics as a huge area of concern for any country that claims to be a democracy, but mainstream progressivism has had a significant lack of discussion in more philosophical or scientific terms of exactly why modern democratic republics suffer from lobbying from corporations and other wealthy private interests. With this in mind, Marxist political theory can offer comprehensive answers to the question, and the implication of accepting such comprehensive explanations is that from them can follow equally comprehensive solutions, solutions that are much more radical than anything conventionally prescribed by mainstream progressivism. The following article will explain just that.

It is surprising for many to learn that the existence of organized religion, marriage, social classes, and hierarchy in general is a very recent phenomenon relative to the history of humanity. In this list is also included the state – a social construct where some people have greater power than other people, and rule over the population as part of an institution composed of flags, emblems, laws, militaries, kings, queens, emperors, presidents, prime ministers, and so on. In the 19th century, philosopher, social scientist, and seminal figure of Marxism, Friedrich Engels realized and explained this in his treatise The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) after being inspired by Lewis H. Morgan, an anthropologist. Prior to these hierarchical social constructs, humanity, for most of its history on the planet, generally lived under a system that Engels called “primitive communism,” a system absent of social classes, slavery, political hierarchies, states, etc. The great and transformative change that ushered in these constructs was the Neolithic Revolution – the transition away from small tribes of primitive communism to agriculture and larger population. Specifically, one group of people claimed personal and private ownership over the agriculture needed to sustain the population, proclaimed themselves to be in power, and hired armed men to guard over this property which marked the first version of the state.


States, despite being so involved in our history books and everyday lives, have only existed for a fraction of our history. (Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill during the Tehran Conference, 1943)

Marxism, which is heavily influenced by this social science, is what then officially defines the state as the “organ of class rule” as Vladimir Lenin explained in his work The State and Revolution, a seminal text of Marxist political theory. Directly connected to the socio-economic system, the state is necessarily that institution controlled by the class of people who hold ownership of the means of production in society, which is essentially another term for workplaces – workplaces where people come together to provide products or services for others like farms, factories, restaurants, corporations, hospitals, and anything else you could imagine. In a capitalist economy, where workers sell their labor in exchange for wages and the owners of enterprises are the ones that collect profit, it is the capitalist owners of those enterprises that are the ones who possess the core influence over the state, and the ones who are in control of the “organ of class rule.” Lenin spent a bit of time analyzing democratic republics under capitalism, and while he noticed that they are indeed democratic in one specific sense, they are also very deceiving in another because of the economics that they run under:

In capitalist society, providing it develops under the most favourable conditions, we have a more or less complete democracy in the democratic republic. But this democracy is always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in effect, a democracy for the minority, only for the propertied classes, only for the rich. Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics: freedom for the slave-owners. Owing to the conditions of capitalist exploitation, the modern wage slaves are so crushed by want and poverty that “they cannot be bothered with democracy”, “cannot be bothered with politics”; in the ordinary, peaceful course of events, the majority of the population is debarred from participation in public and political life.

In fact, Lenin in quoting Engels argued that a democratic republic is the ideal form of government under capitalism in the sense of the potency it has in defending that economic status quo and system:

In a democratic republic, Engels continues, “wealth exercises its power indirectly, but all the more surely”, first, by means of the “direct corruption of officials” (America); secondly, by means of an “alliance of the government and the Stock Exchange” (France and America)


Another reason why the omnipotence of “wealth” is more certain in a democratic republic is that it does not depend on defects in the political machinery or on the faulty political shell of capitalism. A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell (through the Palchinskys, Chernovs, Tseretelis and Co.), it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it.

Since Lenin made this argument almost exactly 100 years ago, it seems as if there might be concerns of its relevance. However the only premise that this and a contemporary Marxist framework works under is that there need only be private ownership of the means of production to automatically lead to lobbying and corruption of officials, a system of ownership which remains today. This capitalist system of ownership intrinsically leads to significant inequality of wealth and allows the wealthy to steer a republic’s policies to their interests. The viral 2014 Princeton study, which does not even work from this framework, had one of its authors conclude that “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States,” and that “government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of […] economic elites and of organized interests.”2 The study worked by examining the political desires of people of various income levels and correlating them with what happened with actual policy. The result was that the changes that the majority population desired did not happen, and instead the policy was in effect aligned with the wishes of a very small and financially well-off elite. Some of these desires that the majority had were financial reform, higher minimum wage, more education spending, and more support for the unemployed.

Since the Marxist premise is that the root of the issue is the socio-economic system in place, specifically the pattern of ownership of workplaces that intrinsically leads to inequality of wealth and the corruption of the political system, then a handful of proposed and popular solutions today will not work or be sufficient if we accept this premise. The first for example is voting in capitalists like Trump into political office under the meaningless view that they are “self-funded.” Trump is not only a large owner of capitalist arrangement of workplaces but cannot stop the rising inequality of wealth or money in politics as the issue is connected to the greater economic system. Bernie Sanders, while not being a capitalist like Trump and admirably pursuing policy changes like the overturning of Citizens United (a court ruling which deregulated lobbying) is again only one individual and does not support the elimination of private ownership of the means of production in the US economy nor could he accomplish this by himself. Generally, since there is no foreseeable path for a president to change the structure of property ownership in the economy, it is highly unlikely that presidential politics will lead to a solution to the problem of the kind described in this article.

The most truly sweeping, radical, and permanent solution to eliminate the power of financial elites in lobbying a state and to create genuine democracy that represents the majority population must involve a change in the ownership and management of the means of production. If the majority working class is in possession of the means of production, then the state as the organ of class rule becomes the organ of the working class, and consequently the state acts democratically and accordingly with the population. This article does not profess to have a specific list of steps that will lead to this politico-economic change. There would be great futility in immediately attempting to draw up such a list since we cannot have a cure if we as a people do not even agree on the diagnosis. Accordingly, the first and most important task then is to come to the consensus that the diagnosis for the present problems is capitalism, a system that is preventing us from having the democracy that we have been yearning for.

– Dino Mehic (Moontouch)



We Can Do Better Than Markets: A Philosophical Critique

Imagine that you decide to go on a camping trip with a group of friends. Each member of the group is tasked with bringing some items that are essential for the group to use for the camping trip to be a success, and each member does exactly this. During the camping trip, some fish while others cook, and some prepare tents for sleeping while others tend to the fire. One day during the trip, Amy, a member of the group, finds a wild apple tree full of luscious apples and decides to claim it for herself as private property. When the rest of the group members reach the tree, Amy decides she will not allow any of her group to have access to the tree, but instead she will sell the apples for a personal gain. In a different scenario, imagine that John, another member of the group, also decides that he will charge other members of the group an hourly rate to use his knife.

Most of us will instantly recognize that intuitively there is something ethically wrong there, and that the group members breached a presumed egalitarian moral code where much of the property, tools, and personal assignments are democratically and collectively managed to maximize the interests of all group members instead of one over another. This paraphrased hypothetical was drawn up as a thought experiment by philosopher G. A. Cohen as a critique against capitalism/markets, and John and Amy’s thinking form the central behavioral schema of how markets work in our capitalist society. The point of the thought experiment is not necessarily to imply that all of society should function like a camping trip, but rather that the egoistic exchanges which John and Amy offered, exchanges of the kind that dominate everyday markets, do not present a moral ideal for us, and that we have moral inconsistencies about how we think people ought to behave in regards to property.

A camping trip signifies something more than just what people like to do for fun. It is a social arrangement where people temporarily have very different moral outlooks on property.

A camping trip signifies something more than just what people like to do for fun. It is a social arrangement where people temporarily have very different moral outlooks on property.

This consequently brings us to our first possible critique of markets, and that is that they intrinsically function as selfish or egoistic exchanges. Consider the common tug of war between a car salesman and the typical buyer, a tug of war that will always remains as such, with neither party considering the interests of the other. In this market exchange, the salesman desires to sell the car at the highest possible price, while the buyer wants the exact opposite. The salesman would sell the car at ten times the average price if he could or even completely empty the pockets of the buyer if there was a way to persuade the buyer to accept such an expensive deal. At the opposite end, the buyer desires a car for the cheapest price possible, and would not mind buying the car for $10 if the salesman offered such a hot deal. The nature of this market exchange, connected more deeply to the profit maximization behavior of capitalism, ensures that there is always a behavior of extreme self-interest in both parties, causing them to care only for themselves and never for one another, a self-interest just like that of John’s and Amy’s in the camping trip thought experiment.

Not only do markets promote a culture of selfishness, they also promote a culture of distorted and illusory values where a commodity is socially valued only from the fact that it exists within this logic of market exchange, our second critique. This second argument is part of Karl Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, a theory he first expounded in his influential work Capital. The illusion that commodity fetishism creates is that the commodity becomes the driving force behind the social relations we have in society, relations formed not of our own volition, but rather from the market transactions occurring. This creates the almost supernatural impression that commodities control human beings. The immeasurably large amount of money spent globally each year on advertising acts as a powerful influencing force on morality, values, traditions, customs, and other aspects of culture that we do not realize exist only because of commodity fetishism and not because we freely and collectively decided to value these things. From Capital, Marx explains his theory of commodity fetishism by arguing how the values we attribute to commodities do not actually come from the physical nature of the commodities themselves:

As against this, the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

A good contemporary example of commodity fetishism is the diamond. A lesser known fact about diamonds is that their expensiveness is not because they are inherently rare, but because diamond corporations artificially control the supply of diamonds in the market thereby dramatically raising their prices.1 The critical question is then raised of how truly and objectively valuable a diamond is, and where comes the value and urge to jump in to save a diamond ring when it accidentally falls into a body of water. Additionally, the most interesting fact about diamond rings is that the tradition of buying them as a necessary part of marriage was almost entirely concocted in the 1930s by the advertising of the company De Beers, a company which held a very long monopoly on the diamond supply throughout the 20th century. The historical tradition of diamonds being something possessed and worn only by wealthy ruling classes changed with the advertising campaigns of De Beers which successfully rebranded them as something valuable, desirable, and obtainable by the working class, a prime example of commodity fetishism.

From their high prices to involvement in social traditions, much of the aspects surrounding diamonds were created only by advertising.

From their high prices to involvement in social traditions, much of the aspects surrounding diamonds were created only by diamond corporations.

One of the primary philosophical arguments in defense of markets by capitalism apologists is that markets embody freedom and individual choice since persons freely consent to market exchanges, thus meaning that each exchange fulfills the interests of each individual. The problem with this view is that its premise of valid consent stands poorly since an individual has no choice but to participate in markets or else face the risk of starvation, homelessness, and other ills resulting from refusing to purchase or sell something. This is similarly why the supposedly “voluntary” employment between laborers and sweatshop owners in the Third World is not truly voluntary and consensual, as both markets and sweatshops represent the status quo, and individuals cannot feasibly and practically escape this status quo. One is thus born into a market society and through conditioning and lifelong practice is molded to think about goods and services as being inseparable from markets, and so markets cannot reasonably embody freedom and individualism through consent, but rather embody the status quo.

Since markets involve money, they are also one of the mechanisms that maintain inequality in our society, such as inequalities of wealth and class, which is our third and final critique. In explaining how “economic thinking and market reasoning have reached into spheres of life far beyond the domain of material goods,” philosopher Michael J. Sandel mentions how Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, seriously proposed that the public debate over immigration could be solved by selling or auctioning off the right to immigrate.2 The immediately visible problem with such proposals is that in an extremely unequal world where 85 of its richest people own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world, this would end up not only maintaining inequality between citizens in a nation but between nations themselves, as only the financially privileged could afford the right to immigration.3 This proposal and many others, which reject ethics, illustrates the morally degenerate premises that mainstream economics often functions by and how markets can be instrumental in maintaining inequality. As another example, world hunger exists not because there is insufficient production of food to feed the entire world, but because we do not have an adequate system of distribution for this production leading to the tragedy of people starving in front of food because they cannot make a market purchase.4

If we accept these criticisms and conclude that markets are morally non-ideal, then we pave the way for subsequent discussions of economic replacements for markets, as markets are simply one possible system for the distribution of goods and services in a society. The notion that markets could be replaced in our society with an alternate system of distribution may seem initially radical, but such a change allows us to answer to long respected and uncontroversial moral virtues and principles like cooperation and to negate other vices like selfishness. This would allow for a society that exhibits significantly more consistency in its moral views, and which improves its practice in regards to handling goods and services. A philosophical and moral critique of markets should thus be included as an important part of a wider critique of capitalism and the status quo, a critique that is vital to establishing justice in the economic sphere of life.

– Dino Mehic (Moontouch)