Emma Goldman, the daughter of Jewish parents, was born in Kovno, Russia on 27th June, 1869. Goldman emigrated to the United States in 1885 and worked in a clothing factory in Rochester before moving to New York City in 1889.
Goldman heard Johann Most lecture on anarchism in 1889: "My first impression of Most was one of revulsion. He was of medium height, with a large head crowned with greyish bushy hair: but his face was twisted out of form by an apparent dislocation of the left jaw. Only his eyes were soothing; they were blue and sympathetic." They soon began a close relationship: "Most took me to the Grand Central in a cab. On the way he moved close to me. Something mysterious stirred me. It was infinite tenderness for the great man-child at my side. As he sat there, he suggested a rugged tree bent by winds and storm, making one supreme last effort to stretch itself toward the sun. The fighter next to me had already given all for the cause. But who had given all for him? He was hungry for affection, for understanding. I would give him both."
Most and Goldman travelled the country making speeches on politics. They also co-authored the book Anarchy Defended by Anarchists (1896).Working closely with another anarchist, Alexander Berkman, Goldman became active in the trade union movement.
In 1892 Goldman and Berkman started a small business in Worcester, Massachusetts, providing lunches for local workers. Later that year Amalgamated Iron and Steel Workers Union called out its members at the Steel Homestead plant owned by Henry Frick and Andrew Carnegie. Frick took the controversial decision to employ 300 strikebreakers from the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The men were brought in on armed barges down the Monongahela River. The strikers were waiting for them and a day long battle took place. Ten men were killed and 60 wounded before the governor obtained order by placing Homestead under martial law.
Alexander Berkman was so appalled by Frick's behaviour and decided to make a dramatic gesture against capitalism. After gaining entry into his office, Berkman shot Henry Frick three times and stabbed him twice. However, Frick survived the attack and made a full-recovery. Found guilty of attempted murder, Berkman was sent to Western Penitentiary of Pennsylvania in Allegheny City. Goldman was also imprisoned the following year when she was accused of urging the unemployed to steal the food they needed.
After she was released from prison Goldman became involved in the campaign for women's suffrage and birth control information. She was in the news again in 1901 when Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President William McKinley, claimed he had been influenced by the speeches of Goldman.
After ten years in prison, Alexander Berkman wrote to Goldman : "My youthful ideal of a free humanity in tile vague future, has become clarified and crystallized into the living truth of Anarchy, as the sustaining elemental force of my everyday existence." Berkman was released in 1906. He wrote that "I feel like one recovering from a long illness: very weak, but with a touch of joy in life."
After the death of Johann Most, Berkman and Emma Goldman became the leaders of the anarchist movement in the United States. They published the radical journal, Mother Earth and books such as Goldman's Anarchism and Other Essays (1910) and and The Social Significance of the Modern Drama (1914). They also helped organize the Ferrer School in New York City and industrial disputes such as the Lawrence Textile Strike.
On the outbreak of the First World War both Goldman and Alexander Berkman became involved in the campaign to keep the United States out of the conflict. Berkman moved to San Francisco and in January, 1916, started a new anarchist journal, Blast. When five months later a bomb went off killing six people in the city. The authorities suspected that the bomb had been planted by anti-war campaigners and Berkman was arrested but later released. Thomas Mooney, a local trade union leader was falsely convicted of the offence but spent the next twenty-three years in prison before being released.
After the USA declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, it was claimed that Berkman had violated the Espionage Act. Under this act it was an offence to publish material that undermined the war effort. Berkman was arrested, tried and sentenced to two years in Atlanta Federal Prison, seven months of which he spent in solitary confinement for protesting against officers beating fellow prisoners.
In 1919 Woodrow Wilson appointed A. Mitchell Palmer as his attorney general. Soon after taking office, a government list of 62 people believed to hold "dangerous, destructive and anarchistic sentiments" was leaked to the press. It was also revealed that these people had been under government surveillance for many years. Worried by the revolution that had taken place in Russia, Palmer became convinced that Communist agents were planning to overthrow the American government. Palmer recruited John Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and together they used the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) to launch a campaign against radicals and left-wing organizations.
A. Mitchell Palmer claimed that Communist agents from Russia were planning to overthrow the American government. On 7th November, 1919, the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects were held without trial for a long time. The vast majority were eventually released but Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Mollie Steimer, and 245 other people, were deported to Russia.
As Agnes Smedley pointed out: "Much that we read of Russia is imagination and desire only. And no person is safe from intrigues and the danger of prison. The prisons are jammed with anarchists and syndicalists who fought in the revolution. Emma Goldman and Berkman are out only because of their international reputations. And they are under house arrest; they expect to go to prison any day, and may be there now for all I know. Any Communist who excuses such things is a scoundrel and a blaggard. Yet they do excuse it - and defend it. If I'm not expelled or locked up or something, I'll raise a small-sized hell. Everybody calls everybody a spy, secretly, in Russia, and everybody is under surveillance. You never feel safe."
In January 1920 Berkman and Goldman toured Russia collecting material for the Museum of the Revolution in Petrograd. However, Lenin was a strong opponent of anarchism. He told Nestor Makhno, the most important anarchist in Russia: "The majority of anarchists think and write about the future without understanding the present. That is what divides us Communists from them."
A pact with the anarchists for joint military action against General Anton Denikin and his White Army was signed in March 1919. However, the Bolsheviks did not trust the anarchists and two months later two Cheka agents sent to assassinate Nestor Makhno were caught and executed. Leon Trotsky, commander-in-chief of the Bolsheviks forces, ordered the arrest of Makhno and sent in troops to Hulyai-Pole dissolve the agricultural communes set up by the Makhnovists. With Makhno's power undermined, a few days later, Denikin forces arrived and completed the job, liquidating the local soviets as well. In September, 1919, the Red Army was able to force Denikin's army to retreat to the shores of the Black Sea.
Leon Trotsky now turned to dealing with the anarchists and outlawed the Makhnovists. According to the author of Anarchist Portraits (1995): "There ensued eight months of bitter struggle, with losses heavy on both sides. A severe typhus epidemic augmented the toll of victims. Badly outnumbered, Makhno's partisans avoided pitched battles and relied on the guerrilla tactics they had perfected in more than two years of civil war."
Goldman and Berkman, who had already been appalled by the way that Lenin and Trotsky had dealt with the Kronstadt Uprising decided to leave Russia. Berkman wrote: "Grey are the passing days. One by one the embers of hope have died out. Terror and despotism have crushed the life born in October. The slogans of the Revolution are forsworn, its ideals stifled in the blood of the people. The breath of yesterday is dooming millions to death; the shadow of today hangs like a black pall over the country. Dictatorship is trampling the masses under foot. The Revolution is dead; its spirit cries in the wilderness.... I have decided to leave Russia." After a brief stay in Stockholm, he lived in Berlin, where he published several pamphlets and books on the Bolshevik government, including The Bolshevik Myth (1925).
After marrying a Welsh miner she managed to obtain British citizenship. Her books, My Disillusionment in Russia (1923) and My Further Disillusionment in Russia (1924) helped to turn a large number of socialists against the Bolshevik government. Lincoln Steffens, who had famously said on arriving back from Russia after the revolution: "I have been over into the future, and it works." He admitted that "it was harder on the real reds than it was on us liberals. Emma Goldman, the anarchist who was deported to that socialist heaven, came out and said it was hell. And the socialists, the American, English, the European socialists, they did not recognize their own heaven. As some will put it, the trouble with them was that they were waiting at a station for a local train, and an express tore by and left them there. My summary of all our experiences was that it showed that heaven and hell are one place, and we all go there. To those who are prepared, it is heaven; to those who are not fit and ready, it is hell."
In 1926 Nestor Makhno joined forces broke with Peter Arshinov to publish their controversial Organizational Platform, which called for a General Union of Anarchists. This was opposed by Goldman, Vsevolod Volin, Alexander Berkman, Sébastien Faure and Rudolf Rocker, who argued that the idea of a central committee clashed with the basic anarchist principle of local organisation.
Goldman settled in Paris and joined a group of radicals that included Emily Coleman, Douglas Garman, Edgell Rickword, Peggy Guggenheim, Laurence Vail, William Gerhardie and John Holms. Guggenheim later commented: "During that winter (of 1928) I met Emma Goldman and Alexander (Sasha) Berkman. They were glamorous revolutionary figures and one expected them to be quite different. They were frightfully human."
Victor Serge was one of those who greatly admired Goldman and Berkman: "The American background of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman estranged them from the Russians, and turned them into representatives of an idealistic generation that had completely vanished in Russia. They embodied the humanistic rebellion of the turn of the century: Emma Goldman with her organizing flair and practical disposition, her narrow but generous prejudices, and her self-importance, typical of American women devoted to social work."
Peggy Guggenheim eventually left her husband, Laurence Vail, in order to live with John Holms. Emma Goldman disapproved and said in January 1929: "The main trouble is that John (Holms) is weak and ineffectual, a drifter unable to make one single decisive step. He wants to eat the pie and keep it at the same time." Goldman's autobiography, Living My Life, appeared in 1931. This upset Guggenheim and in her memoirs she wrote: "Emma was very vain and it took me years to see through her. First I worshiped her and when later I was disillusioned she did not like it and she revenged herself by leaving me out of her memoirs."
Goldman visited Spain in September 1936 to observe the Spanish Civil War. After meeting leading figures in the National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT) and Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) she went to London and opened a FAI-CNT propaganda office. She also joined with Rebecca West, Sybil Thorndyke, Fenner Brockway and C. E. M. Joad to establish the Committee to Aid Homeless Spanish Women and Children. Goldman visited Spain in September 1937 and in the autumn in 1938.