Anarchism, Atheism, and Emma Goldman

This lecture will discuss the impact of anarchism, atheism, and Emma Goldman (1869 – 1940) on United States culture and legal development from the Gilded Age up to America’s entry into the First World War in 1917. If you will recall from my earlier lecture on Ingersoll and the Golden Age of Freethought in the United States, the Gilded Age’s dates were approximately from the 1870’s to 1900. (Please see Ingersoll and the Golden Age of Freethought for a more developed view of the Gilded Age.)

Emma Goldman was a Jewish Lithuanian/Russian anarchist. She had immigrated to the United States in 1886, just four months before the infamous Haymarket Riot, in which 7 policemen and 4 citizens had been killed by a bomb and the ensuing gunfire.  Eight men, all of them anarchists, were arrested and found guilty. Seven of the defendants were sentenced to death for murder and the eighth man received a sentence of 15 years.  The Haymarket Riot and the Haymarket martyrs, as the condemned anarchists were called, were sources of great inspiration for Goldman.  She was called “Red Emma,” and she was part of the left wing of American politics, but she was not a Communist or a socialist.  She was an anarchist.

The Haymarket Riot also inspired Edward Bellamy’s famous 1887 novel, Looking Backward. The novel talks about America’s fear of a small band of anarchists. His book, according to Marian J. Morton, was a “powerful critique of the Gilded Age.” 

The waste and inefficiency of free enterprise capitalism, the growth of giant monopolies and great fortunes, the exploitation of industrial workers, the ugliness of American cities and the corruption of values was exposed in the volume.  Bellamy’s novel was utopian in nature; he is credited with making socialism respectable in America.

This talk will glance at the historical development of anarchism, its relationship to atheism and finally, its manifestation in the United States during the Gilded Age and after.  The lecture’s discussion of anarchism’s history will necessarily be attenuated. The philosophy had its original roots in Europe. As can be expected from such a loose and highly individualized life stance, anarchism appears in history, is wiped out or is discarded, then reappears in another country or another era. Just when it appears to be finished or forgotten, it has historically reappeared, gathered strength and suffered defeat at conservative hands.

Here is what Muriel Spark, the English novelist, had to say about anarchism. “Anarchism has no history, i.e. in the sense of continuity and development.  It is a spontaneous movement of people in particular times and circumstances.  A history of anarchism would not be in the nature of political history, it would be analogous to the history of a heart-beat.” Here are the words of Peter Kropotkin, one of the most important theorists and activists of anarchism in Europe, whose ideas had a significant influence on Emma Goldman and other American anarchists.” He stated: “Anarchism originated among the people and it will preserve its vitality and creative force so long only as it remains a movement of the people.”

I would like to discuss some basic tenets of anarchism, but it is important to keep in mind from the outset of this lecture, that anarchism is fiercely individualistic, and it can be difficult, and perhaps misleading, to present a fixed description of such a fluid life stance.

I am gratefully dependent on Daniel Guerin’s 1970’s work, Anarchism, for a list of anarchism’s basic principles. The word, anarchy, is derived from two ancient Greek words, av (an) and apxn (arche).  It may be loosely translated as meaning “without, or an absence of authority or government.”  Guerin maintains that “for millennia, the presumption has been accepted that man cannot dispense with either authority or government, so that anarchy has been understood in a pejorative sense, as a synonym for disorder, chaos and disorganization.”

Here are the five principles common to anarchism. Anarchy may first of all be described as a visceral revolt, and the anarchist as a man or a woman in revolt.  This is what the atheist/anarchist theoretician, Max Stirner, declared about anarchism. “The anarchist frees himself/herself of all that is sacred and carries out a vast operation of deconsecration.  Anarchists refuse to treat transcendent notions that give comfort and respite as necessary. They reject all official persons.” By official persons, Stirner meant such figures as philosophers, priests, magistrates, academicians, journalists, parliamentarians and so on.

(2) The anarchist sees that State as the most deadly of the preconceptions that have blinded men through the ages.  They see the State as an enemy and reproach people for imagining it as a dispenser of justice and protection for its citizens. Here are the thoughts of one of anarchism’s most important and influential theoreticians. “To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, evaluated, censored, commanded, all by creatures that have neither right nor wisdom nor virtue!”

(3) The anarchist detests bourgeois democracy even more bitterly than does the authoritarian socialist. Many anarchists, such as Stirner, saw the new democratic, nation-state as more to be feared than that of an absolute monarch. Guerin states that anarchists believe that the so-called sovereign people is in reality a “monkey-king.” The people rule but do not govern.  Universal suffrage gives them the delegation of their sovereignty. If the people were truly sovereign, there would be no reason for a state, which would disappear. Instead, universal suffrage, the anarchists claimed, is “a trick, a bait, and a mask” which “hides the really despotic power of the State based on the police, the banks and the army.”

The above theoretical position has often been violated. Sometimes certain important anarchists, such as Proudhon, supported anarchists running for office. But others have considered the use of the ballot as inexcusable and believed it doctrinal purity to abstain.  Malatesta (1853- 1932), the famous Italian anarchist, stated that anarchists who renounced taking part in conventional politics kept themselves pure and would win in the future because they had resisted the siren song of election.

(4) Guerin maintains that “the anarchists were unanimous in subjecting authoritarian socialism to a barrage of severe criticism.” Early anarchist critiques, from the time when socialism was not as developed as it came to be, seem prophetic in light of the state control later socialists attained, and in the view of many, misused.

That fierce individualist, Max Stirner, argued that a worker in a communist system is not free, but remains under the control of other workers. For example, the German communist writer, Wilhelm Weitling (1808-1871), was emphatic that: “Faculties can be developed only so far as they do not disrupt the harmony of society.”

 Stirner’s reply to such thinking was most apropos: “Whether I were to be loyal to a tyrant or to Weitling’s “society”, I would suffer the same absence of rights.” Stirner’s fears were well-founded, for he understood that when there was a collective appropriation of the means of production, the State would have even greater power than it had at the present. Proudhon also disliked the prospect of the communist domination of the State. He argued: “Like an army that has captured the enemy guns, communism has simply turned property’s artillery against the army of property. The slave always apes his master.”

Bakunin was equally suspicious and negative about communism, or what some call authoritarian socialism. He was quite clear that he wanted to see the State abolished. He maintained that he was a collectivist and not a communist in the least. He saw very clearly that a supposedly interim state or dictatorship would merely lead to the “reconstruction of the State, its privileges, its inequalities, and all of its oppressions.”  We shall see in a few minutes, the struggle that developed between Bakunin and Marx concerning this issue.

The fifth belief of most anarchists was that revolutionary energy against the constraints and the hierarchies of authoritative socialism was to be found in the individual and in the spontaneity of the masses.  Max Stirner stood out for the supremacy of the individual against any totalitarian system. He said: “There is no judge but myself who can decide whether I am right or wrong.” “You have the right to be whatever you have the strength to be.”Stirner’s thinking was isolated for some time and considered eccentric. Only a small sect of individualists embraced his ideas.  Many thinkers on the left had been appalled by bourgeois egotism and instead tended to stress socialism, the antonym to individualism.  Most of the reformers of that era were decidedly anti-individualistic and Stirner’s writing was repellant to them.

Proudhon and Bakunin tried to reconcile the social needs of a State in order for it to function properly, with the exigencies of the individual.  There is no libertarian who does not value the individual above all, but to balance the needs of the collective and the needs of the individual is always very difficult.

The masses seemed to be the source of power for liberating revolutions. Anarchists found their greatest source of inspiration from the proletariat. The spontaneity of the masses provided a basis for hope in the future. Anarchists believed, and most continue to believe, that the masses, the people, if left to themselves and to their own instincts, would provide for themselves better than by the policy of leaders. But the anarchists, as well as their fellow enemies, the Marxists, realized that the masses are often inert and sluggish.  Many of the anarchist theorists struggled with the difficulties posed by the inferiority feelings of the masses, by the people’s desire for state authority, by their predilection for behaving with deference. How, then, might the people be stirred to throw off the chains of an oppressive state?

Most of the anarchist thinkers, including the influential Proudhon and Bakunin, concluded that a revolutionary minority must infiltrate the people and make them cognizant of their oppression and aware of their ability to throw off the authority of a repressive State. The difficulty was that given the necessity of the revolutionary minority to think out a revolution, how was such an elite to be prevented from imposing a new domination over the people? Most of the anarchist thinkers concluded that a compromise, which would be temporary, could be brought about. The elite should not do more than act as a sort of ‘midwife’ to the people, and only spread among them the ideas that corresponded to the mass instincts.

Rosa Luxemburg, (1871-1919) the Jewish naturalized German citizen, had similar ideas, even though she was an anarchist Marxist.  She believed that the difficulty of resolving the need for action by a conscious vanguard and keeping the libertarian spontaneity of the masses could be fully resolved when science and the working classes became fused.  She argued that when the masses became fully conscious, they would not need any more leaders but the leadership of their, as she phrased it, “conscious action.”

Anarchists would point out the leading role of the Communist Party after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and issue an unequivocal condemnation of it.  Several anarchists, who at the beginning supported the Soviet leadership in Russia, came to be disillusioned and dismayed by its authoritarian repression of the people.  The contradiction between the needs of the individual and the needs of state controls has yet to be resolved, neither in theory, nor in practice, anywhere in the world.

Although there are religious anarchists who embrace Christianity, Buddhism and other faiths, anarchists are non believers for the most part. They are also frequently anti-religion and anti-clerical. The standard rallying cry of anarchists remains: “Neither god or master!” Sometimes this is abbreviated to: “No god, no master.” The socialist, Auguste Blanqui, was said to have coined this slogan in 1880.  The IWW Union later changed the wording to “No gods, No Masters.”

William Godwin, (1756- 1836) possibly the first theorist to systematize anarchist thought, believed that the people must be freed from all political, social and religious authoritarianism. He was a British atheist, who in a work of so-called sermons, wrote: “God himself has no right to be a tyrant.”

Proudhon, the French anarchist, was determined to uproot the notion of god in human beings. He said: “The first duty of man, on becoming intelligent and free, is to continually hunt the idea of god out of his mind and conscience. For god, if he exists, is essentially hostile to our nature, and we do not depend at all on his authority.  We arrive at knowledge, in spite of him, at comfort in spite of him, every step we take in advance is a victory in which we crush Divinity.” He famously stated that god was evil and that man was free.

Bakunin, the Russian, undertook a thorough critique of religion. Time allows only a few of his most telling thoughts. “The first revolt is against the supreme tyranny of theologies of the phantom of god. As long as we have a master in heaven, we will be slaves on earth.” “This contradiction lies here: they wish god and they wish humanity. They persist in connecting two terms, which, once separated, can come together again only to destroy each other.” “Therefore, if god existed, only in one way could he serve human liberty- by ceasing to exist.” “People go to church for the same reason they go to a tavern: to stupefy themselves, to forget their misery, to imagine themselves, for a few minutes, anyway, free and happy.” Finally, he stated: “A boss in heaven is the best excuse for a boss on earth; therefore if god existed, he would have to be abolished.”

Kropotkin wrote: “The history of human thought recalls the swinging of the pendulum which takes centuries to swing.  After a long period of slumber comes a moment of awakening. Then thought frees herself from the chains with which those interested- rulers, lawyers, clerics- have carefully enwound her.” He believed in a natural moral sense. The natural sense that people possessed was perverted, Kropotkin thought, by the “superstitions surrounding law, religion, and authority, deliberately cultivated by conquerors, exploiters and priests for their benefit.”

We shall be discussing Emma Goldman at some length in a few minutes.  Here are some of her ideas concerning god. “I do not believe in god because I believe in man.” “Anarchism is the only philosophy which brings to man the consciousness of himself, which maintains that god, the state and society are non-existent, that their promises are null and void, since they can only be fulfilled through man’s subordination.” She asserted: “There are however, some potentates I would kill by any and all means possible.  They are Ignorance, Superstition and Bigotry- the most sinister and tyrannical rulers on earth.”

Here is the inimitable Max Stirner on religion and god. “Everything sacred is a lie, a fetter.” “God sinks into dust before man.” “The habit of the religious way of thinking has biased our mind so grievously that we are terrified at ourselves in our nakedness and naturalness; it has degraded us so that we deem ourselves depraved by nature, born devils.”

Here is Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912), a contemporary of Goldman’s.  She was an American anarchist and pro-feminist activist. “From the birth of the Church, out of the womb of fear and the fatherhood of ignorance, it has taught the inferiority of women. From the days of Adam until now, the Christian Church, with which we live specially to deal, has made Woman the excuse, the scapegoat, for the evil deeds of man.”

Here is Wendy McElray, in the “Culture of Individualistic Anarchists in Late-nineteenth Century America.” “In the United States freethought was a basically anti-Christian, anti-clerical movement, whose purpose was to make the individual politically and spiritually free to decide for himself on religious matters. A number of contributors to Liberty, a magazine, were prominent figures in both freethought and anarchism.  The individualist anarchist, George MacDonald, was a co-editor of Freethought, and for a time, The Truth Seeker. E.C. Walker was co-editor of the excellent freethought, free love journal, Lucifer the Lightbearer. The Church was viewed as a common ally of the State and a repressive force in and of itself.”  MacDonald was more of a freethinker rather than an anarchist, though, in my own opinion.

I have already stated in my last month’s lecture on Robert G. Ingersoll that anarchism had its roots in Europe. I have quoted some of its more important theorists on their rejection of religion and god.  Now I would like to take a few minutes to glance at the thinkers who many scholars agree were anarchism’s most important theorists. Then I shall turn to anarchism in the United States and to Emma Goldman, one of the best known, most admired and most loathed anarchists of the Gilded Age. (For a more complete discussion of the Gilded Age, please remember to see Robert G. Ingersoll and Freethought’s Golden Age at

William Godwin (1756-1836) was inspired by the French Revolution to write The Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793. It was the first book to state “in quite definite form the economic and political principles of anarchism.” Godwin saw society as a natural phenomenon that had originated in the natural world.  He was fully convinced that government was both unnecessary and harmful for people, that they were quite capable of forming a decentralized, egalitarian society with a voluntary exchange of material wealth.  He desired the dissolution of political government.  Godwin believed that government was responsible for most of society’s ills and that if it were removed, people’s minds would develop firm principles of reason, justice and truth. Although he stated the individual was supreme, Godwin also wrote: I am bound to employ my talents, my understanding, my strength and my time for the production of the greatest quantity of the general good.”

Anarchism did not emerge as a systematic, coherent theory with a program or methodology until the late 19th Century. The following four thinkers were responsible for a cogent system of anarchism.

Pierre Proudhon ((1806-1856) wrote What Is Property? in 1840.  Marx described the work as penetrating, the first decisive, vigorous and scientific examination of the subject.  Proudhon viewed possessions, such as ownership of items for personal use, as quite distinct from property.  He saw property, by which he meant factories, tools, land, raw materials and so on, as the means by which profits are made. He considered the process of generating profits as exploitation of the workers, or in other words, theft.

Proudhon believed the earth’s resources should belong to no one. He disliked communism as well, stating that it ignored the needs of the individual for independence. In the fall of 1848, there was a famous insurrection of France’s working class.  Proudhon joined it, beginning a newspaper, The People’s Representative, which was banned. When it reopened, its headline said: “What is the Capitalist? Everything. What should he be? Nothing.” Proudhon was jailed, released, fled to Belgium and finally returned to France with an amnesty.  He produced four more great theoretical works. He died soon after he received the joyful news that the International Workingmen’s Association had been formed. An immense procession of the working classes accompanied his funeral.  Proudhon had helped “ensure the emergence of anarchism as a major force in modern history and provided a lasting basis for later anarchists to build their theory upon.”

Max Stirner (1806-1856) was an individual law unto himself. He was first a student of philosophy, then a teacher. He was part of a dissolute group of student bohemians in Germany, among them the young Marx and Engels.  He met a wealthy young woman there and in 1843, they married. Financially secure, with employment and his wife’s income, he devoted himself to his master work.

When “The Ego and Its Own” came out in 1845 (although it was dated 1844 to confuse the censors), it threw intellectual Berlin into an uproar. He stated: “Nothing is more to me than myself.” He maintained that the free individual “must turn his back on any ideas of state, society, religion, nation, morality, duty and obligation.” Stirner believed that individuals should live only for themselves, and that there should be “a union of egotists,” thus assuring the freedom of the individual.  Even though most anarchists remained interested in a stateless society, based on cooperation and mutuality of people, Stirner’s cry for individualism has had a significant influence on anarchism over the years.  Artists, particularly, have found his ideas attractive, as they need freedom to express themselves in creative activity.

Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) was born into Russian aristocracy, but soon left Russia to study philosophy in Berlin.  He believed in a complete negation against all authority by the whole of humanity.  He met Marx and Engels in Paris in 1844, but they differed from him at that time because of his enthusiasm for national independence movements which they did not share. In 1848, he became a member of the International Workingmen’s Association.

 In 1849, Bakunin joined, and became a leader of, the May Insurrection in Dresden, Germany.  Wagner, the famous opera composer and director, joined him. He described Bakunin as “…colossal, full of primitive exuberance and strength.” Bakunin was arrested in Saxony, and Austria sentenced him to death. He was sentenced to death in Saxony as well.  Instead, Russia had him extradited and he served six years in prison there, which ruined his health. 

In 1861, he made a spectacular escape and Europe read the news of his journey to London. Bakunin took part in many nationalist liberation movements during this time. 

The International Workingmen’s Association was dominated by an authoritarian socialist faction that Marx headed.  Marx believed workers should form a political party, seize State power, and establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Marx’s theories were anathema to Bakunin.  He decided that such a social arrangement would only benefit the radical intelligentsia who would dominate the masses.  He believed Marx was selling the working classes into perpetual slavery with his mumbo-jumbo of a new paradise set in a sometime future.

Proudhon and Bakunin’s theories of collectivism were the more popular in that era; Bakunin and the Marxists clashed and vied for power continuously.  In 1876, Bakunin died.  His reputation was that of a heroic figure.  His ideas inspired the mass movements in France and the Revolution in Spain in 1936.  But his most important contribution was a cogent and prophetic critique of communism.  His warnings about its theories all came true.

It is impossible to do justice to Peter Kropotkin (1842- 1921) in the limited time of this lecture. He was born a Russian prince, but dedicated himself to scientific study and liberal reform. In 1871, he was offered the prestigious post of secretary to the Russian Geographical Society, but decided that such intellectual work was undertaken at the expense of the starving workers.  His ideas of anarchism developed even as he was routinely being jailed in the various countries he visited.

Most anarchist historians believe Bakunin was more concerned with the questions of how to overthrow the existing order and Kropotkin with how to replace that order with just organizational reforms. He believed there should be resistance to forming a “new revolutionary government.”

He desired an international system of voluntary cooperation, such as the international post office system already possessed. His book, Mutual Aid from 1902, stated Kropotkin’s belief that man’s struggle was against natural circumstances, such as climate, food supply and so on and not between individual animals of the same species. He stated that such animals form mutual societies and aid each other. He maintained that the shared social life of humans gave rise to language experience, knowledge and culture.

Guerin maintains that “Kropotkin’s greatest contribution was to place anarchist theory on a scientific basis and to provide a vision of great optimism and hope for the future.”  Emma Goldman heard him lecture when she was in Europe and was influenced by his ideas.  They became fast friends.

Kropotkin’s final years were unsuccessful. He supported the First World War, unlike most anarchists, because he believed Germany was more authoritarian than its foes.  When he returned to Russia in 1917, he was hailed as a great revolutionary, but he soon became disillusioned with Lenin and the Bolsheviks, calling for a genuine revolution.  When he died, his coffin was followed by 5,000 people. The anarchists among the crowd bore black banners, on which were written these words in red: “Where there is authority, there is no freedom.”

Now that we have discussed anarchism, its principles and its major theoreticians, we shall move to the United States and scrutinize the struggle for liberation that took place in our own country during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  This time frame was when many anarchists arrived in the United States.  The theories of those revolutionaries and the isolated acts of violence committed by some of them struck fear into the heart of the American establishment.

I am gratefully dependent on Marian J. Morton’s Emma Goldman and the American Left, 1992, for the following discussion of Goldman’s life and social action. Before I begin, I would like to mention three types of anarchism prevalent in the United States during the Gilded Age up to the First World War.  Even though anarchism had its roots in Europe, there was an American-born group of anarchists who denounced state and church, but clung to the concept of private property. This type of anarchism was exemplified by Voltairine de Cleyre and Benjamin Tucker.  Then there were anarchists who embraced the ideas of Bakunin and Kropotkin, who believed that private property should be communally owned and that the people’s communes and collectives should deliver to each according to his needs. They were what came to be known as communal anarchists.  Finally, there were the anarcho-syndicalists, who also rejected private property but believed that trade unions for workers’ organizations should lead the first anarchist revolution, and then run the economy. In the United States, the IWW, The Industrial Workers of the World, nicknamed The Wobblies, was an example of the third type of anarchism.  Emma Goldman cooperated with the IWW union many times.

Emma Goldman (1869-1940) was a Jewish young woman from Lithuania, which was part of Russia at that time.  She was financially poor and had immigrated to the United States with her sister in December, 1885.  The rest of her family soon followed, but she had many disagreements with them, particularly her father.  In Rochester, New York, she worked in a sweatshop, making her living at the sewing machine and other such employment. Harassed by her father on account of her independence and spirit, she became somewhat alienated from her family.  She then married another immigrant, Jacob Kersner, and found herself in a loveless marriage.

However, she was never a person to remain trapped for very long, and she soon left her husband, moving to New York City.  She immersed herself in the cause of the aforementioned Haymarket Martyrs, whose plight had had such a powerful effect on her four months after her American arrival.

Goldman was still forced to work in sweatshops, but in 1889 began to visit a café which was popular with anarchists.  It was there she met Alexander Berkman (1870-1936), who was a dedicated anarchist.  Goldman and Sasha, as he was called, became immediate friends, then lovers.  He introduced her to other anarchists and more left wing ideas.  Despite Goldman’s many love affairs, her friendship and political affiliation with Berkman was profound and lifelong.

The first pilgrimage they made together was to hear Johann Most, out of prison and visiting America to give fiery lectures on anarchism. He had arrived in the United States after serving his fifth jail sentence in London; he had written in praise of the assassination of Alexander, the Russian czar. In the United States, he urged workers to rise against the State.  He also published a pamphlet, “The Science of Revolutionizing Warfare: A Manual of Instruction in the Use of Preparation of Nitroglycerin, Dynamite, Gun-Cotton, Fulminating Mercury, Bombs, Fuses, Poisons, etc.,etc.” He was an eloquent advocate of political violence. 

Goldman was influenced by Most and became his lover.  But Most wanted to marry her and wanted her to become his housewife and mother to his children.  She favored Berkman, who was living with another woman and Goldman in the same apartment, because he would never ask her to marry and abandon her revolutionary activity. Berkman did not object when Emma and the woman had a brief affair.  Emma did not disdain cooking and cleaning, however, and voluntarily took care of the shared apartment. She was an excellent cook. 

 She had been diagnosed with what was then called “an inverted uterus,” and would have needed an operation to correct it in order to have children.  She never had the operation, later claiming she had a frustrated desire for bearing biological children that she sacrificed to the revolution.  But the reality was that she was dedicated to her political work.

Johann Most, however, helped her in the anarchist cause.  He not only had money to take her out to dinner and indulge her love of opera, he also helped her cultivate her talents as an orator.  Goldman was already speaking publicly, addressing groups on topics such as the eight hour day for workers.  She was a very powerful speaker and a persuasive one, and the anarchist cause needed her.  She also demonstrated significant skill and tireless energy as a labor organizer.

At that time, many anarchists believed in what was called “an act of propaganda by deed”, which was a violent act to call attention to the plight of the workers.  Goldman and Berkman became caught up in the 1892 workers’ strike at Homestead, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh.  A craft union, The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, was directing a strike against the Carnegie Steel Company, demanding union recognition.  The ruthless chairman of the company, Henry Clay Frick, was a union buster.  He locked the workers out, bringing in strikebreakers, and hired Pinkerton Agency detectives to guard them. Goldman and Berkman decided an act of violence would draw the attention of the whole world to the situation at Homestead and strike terror into the heart of the workers’ enemies by making them realize that the downtrodden had avengers.

Their plans were amateurish, neither well thought out or well organized. It was unfortunate that they had been influenced so greatly by Johann Most’s speeches and writings. 

Their attempts to get money to purchase a gun would have been comical had their purpose not been so deadly. Emma finally had to borrow money from her sister.  Then they only had enough money for one train ticket to Homestead.  They had already decided that Emma would raise the money for the weapon, and that Berkman would travel to Pittsburgh and shoot Frick.  The armed Berkman managed to reach Pittsburgh, and posing as a journalist, forced his way into Frick’s office.  He fired three shots, but only managed to wound the plant’s president. Then Berkman tried to kill Frick with a knife, but carpenters working near the scene overpowered the would-be assassin. When he was jailed, Berkman tried to commit suicide by swallowing nitroglycerine, but the prison guards stopped his attempt.  Frick survived the attack.  Berkman received twenty-two years in prison, of which he served fourteen.  A lot of his prison time was served in solitary.  He read deeply during this time of incarceration and softened his views on violence somewhat.  His Prison Memoirs of An Anarchist, published in 1912, is an excellent book and still sells copies.

This act, although Goldman did not admit her complicity until the publication of her autobiography, Living My Life in 1931, hounded both conspirators for the rest of their lives.  The entire left wing suffered from their attempt at political violence, as Americans became persuaded that all political radicals were terrorists.  Johann Most distanced himself from their act, even though his writing and talks had been a significant influence on both Goldman and Berkman.  Most even suggested that Berkman had not used a real pistol.  When Goldman could not get Most to retract his derisive statement, she leapt up on a stage where he was speaking and soundly horsewhipped him.

With Berkman temporarily out of the picture, Emma threw herself into her political organizing.

 It was not long before she, too, was arrested.  During a speech, she told workers to “demand bread,” and if they were refused, “to take it.” For this incendiary statement, she served one year at Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary.  The matron there asked her religion, and Goldman stated: “Atheist,” and refused to attend church while in prison.  She was quite popular with the women inmates and worked in the prison hospital.  On her release, she went to nursing school in Vienna. On route to Vienna, she stopped off in London, and met many important leftists and anarchists, including the theoretical anarchist, Kropotkin.  As I mentioned earlier, they became life-long friends, even though they disagreed politically at times.  In Vienna, she became acquainted with Freudian theory, which shows up in her autobiography.

Even though Goldman worked as a nurse and a midwife for a while after her return to New York in 1896, her left wing beliefs and passions drew her back into the political fray. A man named Leon Czolgosz showed up at one of her 1901 speeches in Cleveland, Ohio.  There is some disagreement as to whether or not Goldman met him or had further contact with him. She was struck by his handsome, sensitive face and Morton believes that Czolgosz arranged to meet Goldman some weeks later in Chicago, where he used the name, “Nieman.”  It is known that the Chicago anarchists were uneasy about “Nieman.” Many of them distanced themselves from him and distrusted him.  The editor of Free Society warned in his paper that “Nieman” might be an agent provocateur.

The left’s uneasiness was not imaginary.  On September 6, 1901, Czolgosz shot and killed William McKinley, the popular United States President, at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. It took McKinley eight days to die and the press immediately blamed Goldman for the assassination. The headlines screamed: “Assassin of President McKinley an Anarchist. Confesses to having been Incited by Emma Goldman.” Czolgosz insisted that he had acted alone, at no one’s urging, but Goldman publicly defended him and this defense cost her dearly.  She was the target of a nationwide manhunt and incarcerated once again.  However, there was no real proof against her and she was released. The left wing was again blamed for terrorism and mainstream Americans became incensed by the violence they had witnessed. The left wing scrambled to disassociate itself from anarchists and anarchism and  many anarchists were harassed and arrested in the assassination’s aftermath.

Goldman spent more time in jail as she began to enlarge her association and activities with the American left. She became better acquainted with home grown anarchists, like Voltairine de Cleyre, although the two women disliked each other personally. Nevertheless, at the times when one or the other was grievously attacked in the press, they would each come to the other’s defense. Emma Goldman was very important and very active for a time in the American birth control Movement, in sex radicalism, and in women’s suffrage. She was an important ally of Margaret Sanger for many years.  Sanger is the woman credited with getting birth control legalized in the United States.  Goldman first became interested in the Birth Control question when she attended a Neo-Malthusian Conference in Paris in 1900. Neo-Malthusians were not only advocates of population control, but unlike Malthus, the founder of the population control movement in the late 1790’s, believed in birth control techniques to control population increase.  Malthus, a minister, believed “moral” restraint was one of the solutions for overpopulation. 

Goldman, as an anarchist, detested the Comstock Laws which made the dispersion of birth control literature through the United States postal system illegal.  As an advocate of free love, which she believed was a key factor in women’s emancipation, she was aware that free love was meaningless if women did not have access to birth control.

Her lectures on birth control drew large crowds, and she was able to distribute anarchist pamphlets to the crowd, a few of whom gathered at these talks in the anticipation of someone being arrested.

 We need to keep in mind that Goldman, during her entire life and activities, reiterated her atheism many times and in many places.  In Detroit, Michigan, she famously said: “I do not believe in god because I believe in man. Whatever his mistakes, man has been working for thousands of years to undo the botched job your god has made.”

Goldman was known for her fiery, inspiring speeches, but she was a fine writer, as well.  Morton states that Goldman’s 1931 autobiography, Living My Life, not only received very favorable reviews and garnered many readers, but remains a popular volume in the present day. After Berkman’s release, Goldman, he and a few friends began Mother Earth, a much read monthly magazine by the American left wing.  Their magazine contained editorials, poetry, news of labor struggles and radical movements all over the world, as well as philosophical essays about anarchism and against religion.  It lasted about eleven years, 1907-1917, and was one of the most important anarchist publications in United States history. Because of its anti-war diatribes, the United States Government shut it down and seized the names of subscribing anarchists before the United States entered the First World War.

American authorities had wanted to deport Goldman, Berkman and other anarchists they deemed dangerous ever since Berkman had shot Frisk, and their desire increased when President McKinley was assassinated.  There were cultural changes that contributed to the exacerbation of the establishment, as well. The left wing in America was growing.  For examples, Eugene V. Debs, a native born American, decided the craft unions were too exclusive and founded The American Railway Union in 1894. 

His union was destroyed by federal intervention during a strike that year and Debs was imprisoned in the Cook County Jail in Chicago.  At the same time, the press screamed: “Treason, murder,” and so on. One lawyer refused to defend Debs, explaining he would likely be hanged like the Haymarket anarchists.  But times had changed, and Debs was released.  He had become a socialist during his prison stay, however.  Goldman was acquainted with Debs and approved of him, even though she found his thinking fuzzy.

In 1901, Debs and other activists got together and formed the Socialist Party in America.  Debs actually ran for President of the United States five times.  In 1912, Americans put 1200 socialists into local offices and Debs received 6% of the popular vote. The political success and the isolated violence from the left was becoming increasingly threatening to the American establishment. But developments such as these by workers’ unions, socialist parties and the growing rebellion from America’s working classes would not be tolerated for long.  In a few minutes, we shall see the ruin of the more radical workers’ unions, from Haymarket to the IWW by the beginning of the United States entry into World War I.

Berkman had made himself more unpopular with his defense of Tom Mooney.  Mooney was a left-wing organizer who was sometimes associated with the IWW. He, his wife and some friends were at a San Francisco Preparedness Day Parade in 1916. These “Preparedness” rallies were anti-war events. A bomb went off and several people were killed.  Mooney was arrested, tried and found guilty.  Goldman had been in San Francisco that day and had postponed her own “Preparedness” lecture because of the parade.  But the headlines from the American Press accused her once again. “Anarchist Bomb” was a typical headline from the newspapers.  In addition, a letter from Goldman was found in the possession of one of the other people charged with the bombing.  The police immediately suspected Goldman and Berkman of being involved.

Berkman was very effective in trying to aid Mooney.  He found an able lawyer, money from the International Workers Union and some Jewish unions.  Even the AFL affiliated unions contributed because the case was an obvious frame-up.  United States President Wilson urged a new trial because of the irregularities from the first one and the growing negative international publicity. California’s governor denied the request.  Mooney was sentenced to be hanged, but in 1918, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.  He was released in 1939.

Goldman and Berkman became increasingly involved in anti-war activities. There was a very strong anti-war movement and most Americans were against entry into the First World War.  As I have mentioned, Goldman’s Mother Earth fulminated against the entrance of the United States into that unpopular war.  She had decided the only way to avoid war was for the workers to refuse to cooperate. She urged workers to adopt the slogan: “I will not kill, nor will I lend myself to be killed.”  Just two months later, in March 1917, while Congress debated Conscription, or the Selective Service Act, she and Berkman organized the No-Conscription League.

The League’s first meeting was held at the Harlem River Casino on May 18, which was the twelfth anniversary of Berkman’s release from prison. There was a crowd of nearly 10,000 who heard speeches from several left-wing points of view that denounced conscription. Goldman and Berkman did not have a stenographer there, but the government did and the transcript of the meeting would send the two to jail. That very evening, the Selective Service Act was passed, which required men between the ages of twenty and thirty to register for military service in June.  The cover of the June 17 Mother Earth had black borders around the words: “In Memoriam: American Democracy.” The No-Conscription League spread. Some men did not register, some draft lists were stolen, other men requested exemptions and so on. 

Some young men distributing anti draft bills were arrested, and even though Goldman and Berkman tried to take responsibility, the young men received heavy fines and jail time.

At a June 4 meeting, while officials of the Department of U.S. Justice looked on, sailors and soldiers tried to rush the platform where Berkman stood. Chaos ensued, but Goldman grabbed the microphone and calmed the crowd.  At another meeting ten days later, any man in the audience without a draft card was arrested. Berkman and Goldman decided to move their cause exclusively to print, but it was too late.  On June 15, they were both arrested. Morton states: “Although the two seasoned revolutionaries were obviously not responsible for the draft evasion and resistance that was occurring nationwide, they were always visible, vulnerable and easy targets for the Federal Government.”

Even though the evidence was flimsy, they were put on trial, and charged with conspiracy to prevent draft registration. Although they eloquently argued their own cases, the jury only took thirty-nine minutes to find them guilty. They each received two years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Both were taken to prison immediately.

The Espionage Act of 1917, revised and made more draconian in 1918, made it illegal to make so-called “false statements” to interfere with the military or the draft, and later, to obstruct military efforts or use “disloyal, scurrilous or abusive language about the United States government, flag or Constitution.” Such vague language created great latitude for legally harassing the left wing on false pretenses.  John Reed, Flloyd Dell, Eugene V. Debs and many others were arrested. Several IWW leaders were lynched.

For a while, Goldman and Berkman were in and out of prison, on bail, on appeal and so on.

After a long legal fight, the two, along with 249 others were marched aboard the ship, Buford, and deported to Russia on December 21, 1919.  None of them were given notice.

Goldman and Berkman quickly became disillusioned with the realities of the Bolshevik regime in Russia and neither of these old and still fervent revolutionaries was able to remain quiet.  As soon as they had left Russia in 1921, they both wrote books and articles charging that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had ruined the Russian Revolution. Emma married James Colton in order to have a British passport, after which she traveled to Germany and saw the dangers of Fascism there. She warned large audiences about the precarious situation in Germany.

Goldman made a final tour of the United States in 1934, spent time with Berkman in France, and finally settled in Canada. Berkman, under virtual house arrest in Nice, in poor health and low in funds, committed suicide in 1936, which devastated Goldman.  Nevertheless, she joined the cause of the Spanish anarchists who were fighting against the Fascists, although most of her work for the freedom fighters was done from Canada.  She visited Spain several times during this period.  She returned to Canada permanently in 1938 and died in Toronto in 1940.  The United States government gave permission for her body to be buried in Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery, next to the Haymarket Monument.

Whatever one thinks of Emma Goldman’s political affiliations, she was a person who fought for justice, for emancipation from gods and masters all her life.  She fought for women’s suffrage, the right to birth control and free love.  Her desire for liberty from oppression meant more to her than her own life.  She fought to free people from the shams of government, culture and religion.  She wrote: “Mankind has been punished long and heavily for having created its gods; nothing but pain and persecution have been man’s lot since the gods began. 

There is but one way out of this blunder.  Man must break his fetters which have chained him to the gates of heaven and hell, so that he can begin to fashion out of his reawakened and illumined consciousness a new world upon earth.”

I would like to add an epilogue to this lecture about anarchism, which concerns the deadly war conducted by anarchists against the state, and the state’s violent attempts to eliminate anarchists, anarchist movements and labor unions.  For some twenty years, anarchists struck out with bomb, pistol or dagger at any king, minister or millionaire they could reach.  In 1878, an anarchist killed the head of the Russian Secret Police. From 1878 to about 1906, there were attempts on the King of Italy, the murder of the French President, the Spanish minister, the Austrian Empress and acid thrown at French stockbrokers. People understandingly became terrified of anarchists and began to believe all of them were terrorists.

The notorious Haymarket Affair in 1886 was an example of the hunting down of innocent anarchists.  The first May Day Parade of 80,000 workers took place in Chicago, Illinois on Michigan Avenue. At the same time, thirty four thousand workers across the country in twelve thousand factories struck. They called for an eight hour work day.  One of the reasons they demanded an eight hour day was to spread work out among the thousands of people who had become unemployed by new labor-saving machines. On May 2, Chicago anarchists led six thousand lumber workers to help strikers at a large factory and were attacked by police, who killed and wounded several strikers.  This was not the first time police had attacked them.

The anarchists called for a protest meeting at Haymarket.  They did urge workers to come armed, but the meeting was peaceful and rain sent many people away. 

When the crowd was down to about two hundred participants, many experts agree that it was the police who attacked.  In the confusion, someone threw a bomb. As I mentioned earlier, the bomb and the ensuing gunfire killed seven policemen and four citizens.  The police also fired on the crowd. Eight workers were arrested, six of whom had not been at Haymarket, and two who were clearly innocent.

A trial followed, replete with perjured testimony, a packed jury, a biased judge, and a hysterical press.  Robert G. Ingersoll decided not to openly defend any of the anarchists as he was afraid his reputation of godlessness would work up even more antagonism against them. He privately attempted to get the case against the men dropped, but after a second trial all of the defendants were found guilty. Ingersoll tried to get them exonerated, but all efforts on their behalf failed.  Four of the men were hanged, and one committed suicide.  After six years, the government released the survivors, and admitted there had been no evidence linking them to the bomb.  The union, The Knights of Labor, was effectively ruined.  Business and government used the Haymarket Riot as an excuse to oppress labor and identified the labor movement as being made up of dangerous foreigners and bomb-throwing anarchists. 

In 1905, some 200 workers’ representatives met in Chicago to form the I.W.W., the Industrial Workers of the World, or the Wobblies.  This union was on a mission to destroy Capitalism. The leaders hoped to engage all the unions in the United States into “one big strike,” which would be the initial ushering in of an anarchist society.  They first worked with migrant farm workers and Western lumberjacks. Then the union turned to Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana.  The workers in those areas were extremely exploited and ready for violence.  In 1912, the IWW reached out to the Italian mill workers of St. Lawrence.  Twenty-five thousand workers joined a bloody strike and won. 

The IWW then proceeded to Patterson, New Jersey, which had a reputation as a hot bed of anarchism, and twenty-five thousand workers went out on strike there.  In Detroit, Michigan, Henry Ford raised his workers’ wages to avoid a strike.  By 1917, the Wobblies had over one thousand members and had spread to six European nations.

The United States government seized its chance when the IWW strongly opposed the United States entrance into the First World War.  The organizers of the IWW were treated to a systematic campaign of terror, torture, jailing, lynching and being shot.  The government raided the IWW’s office, then destroyed it. Funds and records were confiscated.  In two years, the IWW was broken.

During the “Red Scare,” in the United States, the government paid special attention to the strong anarchist movement in the Italian immigrant communities.  There were massive police raids that swept up twenty thousand people over time.  In one raid, twenty-five hundred people were arrested.  One Italian anarchist fell to his death while in police custody on May 3, 1920.  Two days later, Nicola Sacco, a cobbler, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fish peddler, were arrested and charged with murder and robbery. There is still some speculation if one of them was somewhat involved and if one of them was innocent, but the facts were not clear and there was no positive proof that either of them had committed the crime they were accused of. In 1927, despite a lack of evidence, they were sentenced to death. There were massive protests in the United States and around the world. The United States experienced large scale riots.  The two anarchists were executed on August 23, 1927.  There was worldwide outrage. Many artists and painters depicted the story in their work and authors wrote about the case and its injustice.  Some fifty years later, the Governor of Massachusetts pardoned Sacco and Vanzetti, saying they had been innocent of any crime.

Anarchism’s ideals seem quaint and unworkable to most modern thinkers.  It is difficult to separate the fact of the movement’s violence from its aspirations.  But anarchism in the United States influenced some of the free love movement, as well as the birth control movement and the women’s suffrage cause. It helped spread the revolutions in Spain and other oppressed nations. It influenced many art and literary movements, such as DADA, an anti-establishment art group.  Anarchism also helped to give rise to the International Situationists. Here is a quotation from that group: “People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explictitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouths.”

 Some of the anarchist charges against the mainstream were true. Government and religion often work in tandem and place unreasonable constraints on people.  Religion is one of the largest and most difficult to eradicate oppressors of the modern world. Its advocates would like to lead us back, back to the time when people were under the church’s sway and lived in fear of the past, the present and the future.  Let us move past them, with their dead faith, dead verities, and antiquated notions. We, even though we are likely to reject the anarchists’ political ideals, may be inspired by their courage to imitate both their affirmation of their atheism and their intransigence when they fought for their convictions. The future beckons to our secular community.  We have only to walk forward to meet it.

Video of Lecture: Anarchism, Atheism, and Emma Goldman

Lecture: Anarchism, Atheism, and Emma Goldman

Video of Discussion: Anarchism, Atheism, and Emma Goldman

Discussion: Anarchism, Atheism, and Emma Goldman


Crowder, George. Classical Anarchism: The Political Thought of Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

De Cleyre, Voltairine. “Nameless.” Justice (Philadelphia), January 27, 1889.

Eltzbacker, Paul. Anarchism: Exponents of the Anarchist Philosophy. Trans. Stephen T. Byington. New York: Benjamin Tucker, 1908.

Gaylor, A.L. Women Without Superstition: “No Gods- No Masters.” Madison, WI: Freedom from Religion Foundation, 1997.

Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. New York: Knopf, 1931.

___________. “The Philosophy of Atheism.” Mother Earth, 10, no. 12 (February 1916).

Guerin, Daniel. Anarchism: From Theory to Practice. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970.

Harper, Clifford. Anarchy. London: Camden Press, Ltd., 1987.

Helms, Robert H. “Anarchism and Unbelief.” In Tom Flynn, Ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 53-56.

Herrada, Julie. “Emma Goldman.” In Tom Flynn, Ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 367-368.

Madison, Charles A.  Emma Goldman: A Tribute. New York: Libertarian Book Club, 1960.

Morton, Marian J. Emma Goldman and the American Left: Nowhere at Home. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.