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Emma Goldman and the End of the First Libertarian Movement

[This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode “Emma Goldman.”]

The first American libertarian movement got underway in 1881, when Benjamin R. Tucker published the first issue of his fortnightly paper, Liberty. The movement might well be thought to have died in 1908, with the fire that ended the publication of Liberty after more than 25 years and forced the closure of Tucker’s Manhattan bookstore — Benj. R. Tucker’s Unique Book Shop. After all, the first American libertarian movement was largely Tucker’s personal creation, and it centered around his paper, Liberty, and his Unique Book Shop.

But there is actually a bit more to the story than that. For in fact the first American libertarian movement was not shut down by a fire or by Tucker’s early retirement; it was shut down by the US government, a little more than a decade after that fire and that decision to retire to France.

To understand why this is so, we must look back to the year 1869, when Benjamin R. Tucker was 15 years old and still living in his parents’ house in New Bedford, Massachusetts. On June 27th of that year, more than 4,000 miles northeast of New Bedford, in a small city of around 25,000 or 30,000 people in Lithuania, a girl was born.

She was the eldest child and only daughter of Abraham Goldman, a chronic financial failure who drifted between jobs as an innkeeper and as a manager of various retail enterprises, occasionally working as a low-level government bureaucrat. His daughter’s name was Emma Goldman.

She grew up in Lithuania, in St. Petersburg, and in Königsberg, Immanuel Kant’s adopted hometown in East Prussia. Then, at the age of 17 in 1886, she followed her two older half-sisters to America — to Rochester, New York. As she sailed past the newly installed Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, welcoming the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, Benjamin R. Tucker, now in Boston and aged 31, was in his eighth year on the staff of the Boston Globe and the fifth year of his editorship of Liberty.

Emma was already multilingual when she arrived on these shores; she spoke and wrote Yiddish, Lithuanian, Russian, and German. She had a talent for words and she meant to add English to her list just as quickly as she could manage it; but in the beginning she had to slake her unquenchable thirst to know and understand everything she could about her new country by relying on reports and commentary in the immigrant newspapers, written in languages with which she already felt comfortable.

The Haymarket anarchists were hanged not long after she arrived in upstate New York, and the immigrant papers were full of the unfolding story. Emma was perplexed by what she read. She gathered that the men who had been executed were immigrants like herself, working people like herself. What was this doctrine — anarchism — to which they were supposedly devoted and that had supposedly persuaded them to throw a bomb at the Chicago police in a crowded public square?

By the time she had moved to New York City in the late summer of 1889, at the age of 20, she had learned some English, though she still felt more comfortable with Yiddish, Russian, or German. She had also learned a bit more about anarchism, much of it from a German-language paper called Freiheit — German for “freedom” or “liberty” — which was edited by a German immigrant named Johann Most. Emma eagerly sought Most out on her very first day in Manhattan and quickly became one of his most devoted students and, more gradually, an important member of his inner circle.

Johann Most’s approach to anarchism stressed two main ideas: first, that it was necessary to abolish not only the state, but also the social institutions known as private property and the free market; second, that the intelligent anarchist must avail himself of what Most and many other anarchists of the time called “propaganda of the deed” — acts of violence that would inspire the masses and sweep them up in revolutionary fervor.

It was in an honest effort to put their mentor’s ideas into practice — an honest effort to advance their cause by propaganda of the deed — that the 23-year-old Emma and her 22-year-old friend, a young typographer and editorial assistant on Freiheit named Alexander Berkman, sat down early in 1892 and worked out a plan to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, the chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company. Frick had ordered that 300 armed strikebreakers (supplied by the Pinkerton Detective Agency) be sent to the company’s plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, just across the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh. Once they arrived, Frick set them upon striking members of the Amalgamated Iron and Steel Workers Union. Several of the strikers were killed.

Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, 1892, of Alexander Berkman attempting to assassinate Henry Clay Frick.

Emma planned the assassination with Berkman; she worked side by side with him in a crowded tenement, trying to build a bomb according to instructions provided by Johann Most; when the bomb wouldn’t detonate, she became a streetwalker for one night in an effort to raise the money to buy Berkman a pistol. The only reason she didn’t accompany Berkman to Pittsburgh was that their finances were already strained to the breaking point. The money simply wasn’t there. She remained behind in New York while Berkman went to Pittsburgh, failed in his attempt to kill Frick, and then learned to his horror that his efforts to do so had been contemptuously derided by the steelworkers they were meant to benefit.

It had been Berkman’s hope that the assassination would rouse the working-class strikers to unite and revolt against the capitalist system. Instead he was being reviled and ridiculed by members of the working class. Worse still, he was tried for attempted murder and sentenced to 22 years in prison.

It was in the aftermath of this tragedy, after seeing for herself both the futility of propaganda by the deed and its personal cost to the individuals directly involved, that Emma Goldman gave up her early belief in violence as a means to her political ends. Along with her belief in violence, she abandoned her three-year-old allegiance to Johann Most. She had been reading — she read more or less incessantly — and, based on her reading, she had already picked out Most’s successor, her new guru, Peter Kropotkin.

Kropotkin advocated what you might call an evolutionary theory of anarchism. Human society, as he saw it, was gradually evolving in a freer and ever freer direction. But there were humans and human institutions — the state, for example, and those who profited from its existence — who were, in effect, standing athwart that process of gradual evolution and yelling, “Stop!” They couldn’t stop it, of course, but they could slow it down, delay it, block the evolutionary process and prolong the status quo for periods of time.

Always, however, and inevitably, the energies that had been slowed down, delayed, and blocked came exploding out after a while in the form of revolutionary violence, and this led to brief periods of rapid social change in which, so to speak, the gradual evolutionary change that had been temporarily denied was brought up to date. Thus, while Kropotkin deplored violence personally and never recommended it as a political tactic, he regarded it as an inescapable part of the process of evolution in the direction of individual freedom. And that’s how Emma Goldman regarded it, too — beginning in 1892.

Her biographer, Richard Drinnon, points out that by adopting this doctrine of Kropotkin’s, Emma was contradicting her usual approach to social questions. “Generally,” he writes, “she believed that individuals could act on their own responsibility.… But when it came to acts of violence she argued that the individuals concerned were caught tight in a net of forces which finally made them lash out violently.” Emma believed, according to Drinnon, that it was people of “a supersensitive nature [who] cracked under heavy pressure” of this kind. “Other stronger individuals … could stand up under this pressure and still exercise their individual wills.”

When Emma switched her intellectual allegiance from Johann Most to Peter Kropotkin, she lost her commitment to violence but kept her commitment to communism. She still had that commitment to communism as late as 1919, when, at the age of 50, she wrote that she favored “anarchist-communism — voluntary economic cooperation of all towards the needs of each. A social arrangement based on the principle: To each according to his needs; from each according to his ability.”

But in the last 20 years of her life, during her 50s and 60s, Emma’s commitment to communism began to lose its edge, too. John Chalberg, whose nearly 20-year-old short biography, Emma Goldman: American Individualist, was recently republished in an expanded second edition, writes that “the more Goldman read … and the older she got, the less convinced she was that personal happiness could be achieved through communal living.” And let there be no mistake about this: Emma Goldman was firmly in favor of personal happiness. “A revolution without dancing,” she is widely quoted as having said, “is not a revolution worth having.” She took very seriously indeed Thomas Jefferson’s idea that human beings have a natural right to “the pursuit of happiness.”

For by this time, when she was in her 50s and 60s, Emma had been reading the American founding fathers for some years. When Johann Most had first recognized her extraordinary talent for public speaking and had helped her launch what became a lifelong career as a lecturer, she had addressed her audiences mainly in Yiddish and German. Beginning in around 1894, when she was 25 years old and had already been lecturing for three or four years, she felt confident enough to begin speaking publicly in English. And it was at around this time, too, that she began quoting and otherwise referring to the American founding fathers in her lectures and in her replies to questions addressed to her by her audiences. As Chalberg puts it, “she was increasingly anxious to establish herself as a direct intellectual descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine and Henry David Thoreau.”

Yet she never allied herself directly with Benjamin R. Tucker and the first libertarian movement — though Tucker certainly thought of himself and his fellow libertarians as intellectual descendants of Jefferson and Paine and Thoreau. It was not for nothing that Tucker described anarchists of his stripe as “simply unterrified Jeffersonian Democrats.” Emma knew Tucker from sometime early in the 1890s, visited his Unique Book Shop in Manhattan, and, at one point, appealed to him for help in getting Alexander Berkman out of prison — where, you’ll recall, he was serving a 22-year term for the attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick.

In writing about Berkman’s attempt on Frick’s life at the time it occurred, Tucker had called Berkman “a brave man” and said he was probably “a man with whom I have much in common.” He had written of Frick at the same time as “a conspicuous member of the brotherhood of thieves. When such a man falls, my tears refuse to follow. I am scarcely sorry that he is suffering; I shall be still less sorry if he dies.”WWI draft registration card

On the other hand, Tucker would not assist Emma in her efforts to free Berkman from imprisonment. “The strength of the Fricks rests on violence,” he argued, and “now it is

to violence that the Berkmans appeal.” As far as Tucker was concerned, “violence is the power of darkness. If the revolution comes by violence … the old struggle will have to be begun anew.” He had, therefore, “no pity for Frick” but also “no praise for Berkman.” To Emma this was merely one more bit of evidence that, as she put it, Tucker lacked a “large nature” — that is, he seemed ungenerous, unfriendly, even unfeeling.

Emma Goldman was far from alone in seeing Tucker in this way. The anarchist historian Paul Avrich wrote in the early 1980s about “the impression of coldness or aloofness that [Tucker] left with so many.” And Tucker’s own daughter, Oriole, acknowledged late in her life that her father “had a reputation as a cold person.” She told Avrich in an interview in the early 1970s that her father “made no allowance for human feelings and frailties.… Mother, too, said he had no psychological understanding of people.”

Oriole Tucker’s mother was Pearl Johnson, a radical girl in turn-of-the-century New York who had gone to work for Benjamin R. Tucker as manager of his Unique Book Shop when she was 27 years old and he was 52. She wound up moving to Europe with him and living with him for the rest of his life as his live-in girlfriend or common law wife. Oriole Tucker remembered that when she was living with her mother and father in Nice in the 1920s, “there was no contact with Emma Goldman or Alexander Berkman, who were then living in southern France. Father disliked both of them. Mother had been friends with Emma Goldman in New York, and once she saw them on the street in Nice but decided not to approach them.”

The reason Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were living in southern France after World War I is that they had been deported from the United States. Emma had established Mother Earth magazine in 1906, two years before Benjamin R. Tucker’s early retirement. And, given her rapid drift in the direction of American libertarianism and away from the European anarchism that dominated the earlier part of her intellectual and radical life, it should come as no surprise that when Tucker did leave the country late in 1908, Emma and Mother Earth helped pick up a good deal of the slack. More than a few writers previously associated with Tucker’s Liberty found new homes in Mother Earth. One of these was Voltairine de Cleyre, whose essay on “Anarchism and American Traditions” appeared in Mother Earth in the winter of 1908–1909.

Emma wrote, she edited, and she published. Charles Madison reports, in his book Critics & Crusaders: A Century of American Protest, that “Mother Earth was not Emma Goldman’s sole publishing activity. A firm believer in the efficacy of educational propaganda, she printed and sold a long list of inexpensive tracts. Her table of literature became a prominent feature at all her meetings.” And those meetings were frequent, as Emma kept up an energetic schedule as a lecturer for at least two decades in the America of a hundred years ago.

Her lectures were both popular and unpopular. They drew huge crowds, but they also drew enormous official harassment. Madison writes that

no other woman in America ever had to suffer such persistent persecution. She was arrested innumerable times, beaten more than once, refused admission to halls where she was to speak. Often the police dispersed her audience. Intimidated owners frequently refused to rent her meeting places or cancelled contracts at the last minute. On various occasions she was met at the train and compelled by sheer force to proceed to the next stopping place.

Yet she persisted. And, depending upon how you define victory in a conflict like this one, you might even say she prevailed. She certainly achieved a full measure of fame. William O. Reichert calls Emma Goldman “the most famous of all American anarchists … who for almost thirty years personified the anarchist idea in the minds of Americans and served as the main force for keeping it alive.”

On the other hand, you could just as easily say that the US government prevailed in its nearly 30-year-long struggle against Emma Goldman. It was the US government, after all, that succeeded in locking her up in federal prison for two years (1918–1920) for her activities against the military draft during the years of US participation in World War I. And it was the US government that came up with the legal justification for having her deported as soon as she was out of prison. It was the US government that kept her out of the United States for the rest of her life, except for one brief visit and, later, a few weeks for an abbreviated US lecture tour.

When World War I broke out, just as, nearly 90 years later, when the 9/11 attacks took place, many libertarians came down with war fever. Peter Kropotkin announced his support for the Allied cause in the conflict. So did Benjamin R. Tucker. But Emma Goldman remained stalwart in her opposition to the war. She organized the No Conscription League to support those who refused the draft. She agitated indefatigably against the war and against US participation in it. She quickly ran afoul of the Wilson administration by doing these things and got herself thrown in the clink and then thrown out of the country.

When Mother Earth was suppressed, and its editor and publisher, a 51-year-old woman who had spent nearly 35 years — her entire adult life so far — in this country, was deported, the first American libertarian movement truly came to an end. In effect, the movement’s organizers had committed an important tactical error. Like the libertarians of our current movement, they had seen that a fully consistent libertarian must be an anarchist, but they had made the tactical mistake of frankly calling themselves by that name.

They used the word “libertarian” in describing themselves, too, but the main term of self-description they used was “anarchist.” They thought of their movement, not as the libertarian movement, but as the anarchist movement. And since, like libertarians of today, they were a tiny minority in the population, they sought to make common cause with other unconventional thinkers who seemed to share many or even most of their goals. The members of the first libertarian movement, regarding themselves as anarchists, made common cause with other anarchists — most of whom were European immigrants with rather different ideas from those of Benjamin R. Tucker and his associates when it came to matters like economics and political violence.

Inevitably, when certain of their more numerous anarchist allies got the wrong sort of publicity, that bad publicity rubbed off on Tucker and his associates. In the last years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century, after the Haymarket affair, the attempt on Frick’s life, and the assassination of President McKinley by a self-proclaimed anarchist, there came to be widespread public prejudice against anarchists. Leading public figures made statements like this one, offered in 1901:

The man who advocates anarchy directly or indirectly, in any shape or fashion, or the man who apologizes for anarchists and their deeds, makes himself morally accessory to murder before the fact. The anarchist is a criminal whose perverted instincts lead him to prefer confusion and chaos to the most beneficent form of social order.… The anarchist is everywhere not merely the enemy of system and of progress, but the deadly foe of liberty.

That was President Theodore Roosevelt, addressing Congress in 1901. The president added, “No man or body of men preaching anarchistic doctrines should be allowed at large any more than if preaching the murder of some specified private individual. Anarchistic speeches, writings, and meetings are essentially seditious and treasonable.”

The president’s remedy for the anarchist menace was a simple and direct one. “They and those like them should be kept out of this country,” he told the assembled Congressmen, “and if found here they should be promptly deported to the country whence they came; and far-reaching provision should be made for the punishment of those who stay. No matter calls more urgently for the wisest thought of the Congress.”

Today’s libertarians have allies who vastly outnumber them, just as the libertarians of 1901 did. But we contemporary libertarians have taken the path Benjamin Tucker and his associates avoided. Our allies are what Tucker and his associates would have called “liberals” — we call them “minarchists” or “limited-government libertarians” — and sometimes their behavior is embarrassing to us, just as Tucker and his associates were sometimes embarrassed by the behavior of their anarchist allies a hundred years ago.

There is a key difference, however. Tucker’s allies embarrassed him by attempting and sometimes carrying out assassinations — murders. Our allies embarrass us by lending their moral support to state-sponsored murder — as when they support the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — or by nominating a conservative like Bob Barr to represent the Libertarian Party in the 2008 election.

Ironically, it was during the 20 years of her exile from the United States, when she was living in the South of France and in Canada, that Emma Goldman formulated and refined the most American of the various versions of anarchism to which she had committed herself over a lifetime of activism. According to her biographer, Richard Drinnon, in putting together this final version of her anarchism, “she drew … on [such] figures in the American background [as] Emerson, Whitman, and, especially, Thoreau.” Their influence is evident in one of her last essays, “The Individual, Society, & the State,” published in 1940. “What is civilization in the true sense?” she asked in that essay. “All progress,” she answered, “has been essentially an enlargement of the liberties of the individual.”

She continued with her rhetorical questions: “What role did authority or government play in human endeavor for betterment, in invention and discovery?” she asked. “None whatever,” she answered,

or at least none that was helpful. It has always been the individual that has accomplished every miracle in that sphere, usually in spite of the prohibition, persecution and interference by authority, human and divine. Similarly, in the political sphere, the road of progress lay in getting away more and more from the authority of the tribal chief or of the clan, of prince and king, of government, of the State.

Emma wrote that

the individual is the true reality in life. A cosmos in himself, he does not exist for the State, nor for that abstraction called “society,” or the “nation,” which is only a collection of individuals. Man, the individual, has always been and, necessarily is the sole source and motive power of evolution and progress. Civilization has been a continuous struggle of the individual or of groups of individuals against the State and even against “society,” that is, against the majority subdued and hypnotized by the State and State worship.

So far as Emma was concerned,

the interests of the State and those of the individual differ fundamentally and are antagonistic. The State and the political and economic institutions it supports can exist only by fashioning the individual to their particular purpose; training him to respect “law and order;” teaching him obedience, submission and unquestioning faith in the wisdom and justice of government; above all, loyal service and complete self-sacrifice when the State commands it, as in war.

Emma Goldman died in 1940, in Toronto, at the age of 70, having contributed immeasurably to the libertarian tradition.

This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode “Emma Goldman (1869–1940).


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