By Kevin Morgan
In its heyday around the turn of the twentieth century, Emma Goldman more than anybody personified anarchism for the American public. Journalists described her as
anarchy’s ‘red queen’ or ‘high priestess’. At least one anarchist critic was heard to mutter of a ‘cult of personality’. Twice, in 1892 and 1901, Goldman was linked in the public mind with the attentats or attempted assassinations that were the movement’s greatest advertisement. The resulting notoriety helped Goldman reach wide audiences through her journalism and lecture tours, and in 1911 she cemented her reputation with her first book Anarchism and Other Essays. The book began with a biographical essay by her comrade Hippolyte Havel expounding what by now was the Goldman legend of the ‘pure and simple’ anarchist moulding hearts and minds by sheer eloquence and energy. Refusing embodiment in party rules and structures, anarchy thus achieved symbolic representation through the force of the charismatic individual.
Some years earlier, after serving a ten-month prison sentence for alleged incitment to riot, Goldman commented that the target of the prosecution was not ‘little Emma Goldman’ but the spirit and principles of Anarchy itself. These principles, conversely, could no more be abstracted from such individuals than, as anarchists themselves would have insisted, the higher ideals of social democracy could be extricated from the state and party structures through which in theory they were to be realised. With this as its rationale, the present article explores some relatively neglected aspects of anarchism’s spirit and principles through their exemplification by Goldman herself. Its point of departure is the quality of ‘egotism’ with which Goldman seemed at once to reconcile and confuse the commitments to individual freedom and unforced mutuality that were at the heart of anarchism’s more basic ambiguity. She registered this perfectly in her first extended newspaper interview.
There are some that, if asked why they are Anarchists, will say, ‘for the good of the people’. It is not true, and I do not say it. I am an Anarchist because I am an egotist. It pains me to see others suffer. … So, because what others suffer makes me suffer, I am an Anarchist and give my life to the cause, for only through it can be ended all suffering and want and unhappiness.
Goldman’s outrage at human suffering, and at its terminable causes in structures of oppression, was to be demonstrated throughout her political life. What remained ambiguous, and not just in this interview, was the agency of the afflicted in the removal of these sufferings. Anarchism, in Goldman’s time and for the foreseeable future, was necessarily the movement of a minority.