Emma Goldman : a documentary history of the American years, Volume 1, Made for America, 1890-1901. Edited by Candace Falk, Barry Pateman and Jessica Moran [Review]

It's a curiosity of Anarchist history that much of the available material is biographical. Of course, biography is a necessary first step. But even general works recount the lives and writings of 'great thinkers' to represent all the varied activity of a social movement. (1) So, is another book on Emma Goldman, Famous Woman Anarchist to be welcomed?

Actually we owe this book to the existence of Emma Goldman, Famous Woman and the celebration of her life which began in the 1960s. To a generation of radicals in search of role models she was an understandable attractive choice. Goldman's life is one of constant activism; and activism on familiar issues: war, free speech and a concern for women's freedom more social than legalistic. One eventual outcome of this was the creation of an image of Emma Goldman the radical in which her anarchism and involvement in the anarchist movement fade to a strong but non-specific 'spirit', or go entirely unmentioned. (2) Not since Max Nettlau's attempt to collect every document relating to Bakunin has an anarchist been as heavily researched as this. So, is the work of the Emma Goldman Papers project worthwhile - or are we straying into the twilight world of the anarchaeologist, where mumbling academic clones protest 'The crucial factor is what colour underpants Kropotkin wore in 1893…'? (Warren 1980) Thankfully, this documentary edition gives us a much more accurate picture of Goldman's activity and attitudes. This is partly because of the range of primary sources it reproduces, and partly because it's not afraid to put her in her proper political context.

How do we know anything of Goldman's life and ideas? Her autobiography Living my Life is of course important, but as Falk point out, it is only a version and in writing it Goldman 'underplays the extent of her clandestine entanglements', choosing instead to 'foreground her inner drama'. (Falk 2003: 4) In the documents presented here, the reader will have to cope with the facts that Goldman often speaks differently to different audiences and that journalists often misunderstand her position completely: 'I thought that my personal friends would not believe anything said in the newspapers about me'. (3) but the extra effort required holds out the chance of a clearer and more detailed view of her beliefs.

The collection starts slowly: 1890 is represented by one newspaper article, 1891 has nothing - largely because of police seizures of Goldman's papers. After that no year has less than six entries, ranging from private letters, articles and essays in anarchist and capitalist papers to police reports. Especially valuable are the early pieces translated from German-language anarchist publications. Everything is footnoted, so a reader coming to the text at any point won't be wrong-footed by names, events or disputes which are no longer common knowledge.

Much of the early material deals with Alex Berkman, Goldman's lifelong comrade, imprisoned for attempting to assassinate Frick. That Goldman was involved in planning the attentat is known from Living my Life. Here, however, see her evolving attitude to political violence, not the 'authorised version'. Goldman first describes Berkman's act as 'The heroically brave attempt by Comrade Berkmann to liberate human society from a beast'. (4) Later, as Bresci, Angiolillo, Caserio and others strike down kings and prime ministers her response remains consistent: 'the philosophy of Anarchy is an absolute foe to violence, therefore I do not advocate violence. […] If I stand on the side of the rebel, or if I approve an act of violence, it is only because I know that organised force - government - leaves us no other method of propaganda - because we are the invaded, and not the invaders.' (5) Even in 1901, after the killing of McKinley she states 'It has taken all my time for the past fourteen years to deplore human misery in all its awful forms, so I have not a moment left to deplore the assassination of one, who has ignored all the rights of the people'. (6) Thus Goldman's position varies between active support and what you might call 'understanding the inevitable'. On occasion, we get the social forces which cause political violence compared to violent natural events, notably in 'The Tragedy at Buffalo' (Goldman 2003: p471-8). If we talk about these ideas of inevitability and the individual avenger as myths, it's not to suggest they're untrue. But they are also rhetorical devices, designed to frighten the bourgeoisie more than an 'International Anarchist Conspiracy' and to act as images of empowerment. I'd also suggest they're defensive, and limit the effects of repression on the most combative parts of the movement. Clearly these documents will be very useful for any intelligent study of 'propaganda by the deed'.

Support for Berkman is one of the chief concerns of Goldman's early activity and is well represented here. This leads to the exchange with Tucker, reprinted from Liberty. His (undelivered) appeal on Berkman's behalf is fascinatingly bad. 'They approach you as penitent sinners […] what they once regarded as a wise act of heroism they now regard as a foolish act of barbarism'. Not content with this, Tucker point out from the moral high ground that 'there is nothing for which I have occasion to apologize. […] since circumstances may arise when a policy of violence will seem advisable, I decline to surrender my liberty of choice.' (7)

Goldman's increasing prominence as a propagandist is also covered in depth, including important pieces like the 'Letters from a Tour', translated from Sturmvogel (8) We get both internal discussions and reports of the anarchist movement and journalistic pieces (which often seem as concerned with Goldman's clothes as her ideas). But her ideas are there and we see them evolving. Originally active with the German-language anarchist movement, Goldman soon felt the need to appeal to a much wider audience: 'To conduct the anarchist propaganda in the English language was and remains the most important issue; because only if the English-speaking element adopts our views is there hope for change in the situation in America.' (9)

Given the sheer volume of spoken propaganda that Goldman carried out it's no surprise to see that she often reflects on its usefulness: 'I will be content if I sow the seeds of discontent.' (10) More interesting are her doubts about its effectiveness. Writing to Nettlau she complains 'not one person has become an Anarchist or a revolutionary through lectures, while such is more likely to be the case through literary works'. (11) This is presumably a reflection of how she was influenced and not true of the whole movement.

Her speaking engagement often developed into free speech fights, which are a pretty constant theme of this volume. But free speech was not an 'issue' Goldman chose to adopt - the alternative was to submit spoken and written propaganda to the veto of the police, capitalists and 'moralists'. Inevitably these struggles were 'tied to a virulent critique not only of police repression but of capitalism itself.' (Falk 2003: p.28-9) But they did encourage her to expand her audience to middle-class Americans as well as workers, and Liberals as well as Anarchists and Socialists. That this strategy was steamrollered by the repression of 1917-19 is obvious. Still, any political biography of Goldman should address it - alongside the contradiction that those willing to listen to revolutionary propaganda are not always those with the incentive to change society.

The notoriety Goldman gained from these battles - as well as being publicly linked with both Berkman Czolgosz, the assassin of McKinley - gave her yet another platform: the mainstream press. As well as caricature and vilification, she was interviewed and used the opportunity - with all its limitations - to put her views across. The benefit of having someone willing to do this is clear, but it's not unproblematic. Goldman seems to have had no regrets that she earned a celebrity she was unable to resign, but no doubt not all Anarchists were happy with the position of the their 'high priestess'.

Those in search of quotes will find some good material, and I wouldn't be surprised to find some of the resurrected essays and reports being reissued as pamphlets. However, the real strength of this volume is that it's more than the sum of its parts. It has an index, which you'd expect, but an effective one which doesn't ignore concepts in favour of easy entries like names and places. The chronology is comprehensive and, reconstructing (as far as possible) the location and subjects of all Goldman's lectures, as well as signposting virtually every other relevant event. The best features are the directories of individuals, periodicals and organizations. These make sure the reader knows the history and significance of people Goldman mentions or corresponds with. but they also form an encyclopedia of the Anarchist movement for these years - a feat which makes collecting the original documents seem ridiculously easy.

Volume two, Making Speech Free covering 1902-09 will be published in December 2004. It will be interesting to see what light it shines on the birth of Mother Earth and the Modern School movement. That said, I find it strange that this documentary history is scheduled only to cover the years to 1919. Does Goldman's political significance end once she's deported? Are American historians reluctant to study the Russian and Spanish revolutions, since they have a perfectly good one of their own? Hopefully this oversight will be corrected - and it's more likely it will if these volumes do as well as they should. Any institution where Anarchism is mentioned in any course should have a copy. Any individual interested in anarchism will find themself referring to it more often that you'd think.

It's tempting to be journalistic and say that this books shows us 'The Emma Goldman no-one knows'. Certainly, people who only know her as a Feminist (or Anarchist) icon will be surprised. But this book's real achievement is that alongside the rich and detailed picture of Goldman's life and ideas we are given a much clearer view of her comrades and the movement they built.

John Patten




1 Eltzbacher 'selected the representatives not upon the basis of any objective criteria, but rather examined the thought of those whom (informed) public opinion of the time regarded as the principal exponents of anarchism.' (Fleming 1979, p.19)

2 'Selecting these two themes [Free speech and reproductive rights] tied Goldman's legacy to the political sensibilities of the day. […] The exhibition's brochure smoothed over the thornier edges of Goldman's revolutionary creed by highlighting her role as an "educator".' (Frankel 1996, 932)

3 An open letter, Free Society, 17 February 1901 (Goldman 2003: 434) I've footnoted each quotation from the documents, mainly to preserve the identity of each separate item.

4 Attention! Der Anarchist, 13 August 1892 (Goldman 2003: 123)

5 An open letter, Free Society, 17 February 1901 (Goldman 2003: 434-5)

6 Emma Goldman defines her position, Lucifer, the Lightbearer, 11 November 1901 (Goldman 2003: 479)

7 An undelivered speech, Liberty, January 1899 (Goldman 2003: 350-1)

8 Letters from a Tour, Sturmvogel, 15 December1897 - 15 February 1898 (Goldman 2003: 300-17)

9 Letters from a Tour, Sturmvogel, 15 Feb 1898 (Goldman 2003: p317)

10 Emma Goldman Has Her Say, Chicago Tribune, 30 September 1897 (Goldman 2003: 288)

11 [Letter] to Max Nettlau, 31 June 1900 (Goldman 2003: 412)



Falk, Candace 2003. Introduction in Goldman, Emma 2003. Emma Goldman : a documentary history of the American years, Volume 1 (see below)

Fleming, Marie 1979. The Anarchist way to Socialism : Elisée Reclus and nineteenth-century European Anarchism. London, Croom Helm.

Frankel, Oz 1996. Whatever happened to "Red Emma"?: Emma Goldman, from alien rebel to American icon. Journal of American history (December 1996): 903-942.

Goldman, Emma 2003. Emma Goldman : a documentary history of the American years, Volume 1, Made for America, 1890-1901. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Warren, Richard 1980. Cartoon, Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review 5: 97.

Emma Goldman : a documentary history of the American years, Volume 1, Made for America, 1890-1901. Edited by Candace Falk, Barry Pateman and Jessica Moran

University of California Press, 2003 ISBN 0-250-08670-8 $60/ £38.95


From: Anarchist Studies, Vol. 13, n.2 (2005), pages 173-177..