Propaganda of the Deed

Steve Fraser

  • Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years Vol I: Made for America, 1890-1901 edited by Candace Falk
    Illinois, 659 pp, $35.00, August 2008, ISBN 978 0 252 07541 4
  • Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years Vol. II: Making Speech Free, 1902-1909 edited by Candace Falk
    Illinois, 641 pp, £35.00, August 2008, ISBN 978 0 252 07543 8

From the 1870s, when members of a secret organisation of Irish coalminers, the Molly Maguires, were executed for allegedly assassinating Pennsylvania mine owners and their henchmen, to the summer’s day in 1920 when an Italian anarchist called Mario Buda ignited his dynamite-laden horse-drawn wagon outside the Morgan bank on Wall Street, killing more than 30 bystanders, America was wracked by extraordinary political and civil violence, most of it initiated by the country’s new industrial overlords and their political allies. All the confrontations that gave the period an atmosphere of impending civil war – the coast-to-coast railroad strikes of 1877, the Haymarket bombing of 1886, the Homestead Strike against the Carnegie Steel Company in 1892, the Pullman strike of 1894 – ended in bloodshed. Between 1877 and 1903 federal troops and state militias were called up more than 500 times to put down strikes across the industrial heartland. Captains of industry retained Pinkerton goons, spies, agents provocateurs and industrial armies. Vigilantes roamed the South terrorising and lynching uppity African Americans. Massive urban fortresses, public armouries that were often financed by robber barons and equipped with Gatling guns and modern munitions, were designed to deal ruthlessly with incipient insurrections.

Responding in kind, armed worker militias paraded in the streets of major American cities to convey the message that they were prepared to shoot back. Strikes often turned into mass revolts, with whole neighbourhoods and communities burning company property, assailing the police, defying court injunctions and hurling makeshift weapons at advancing militiamen from behind barricades. George Pullman was so sure that labour insurgents would desecrate his corpse that he left instructions for his lead-lined casket to be covered with tar paper and asphalt and deposited in a vault made of concrete and reinforced steel. Small conspiratorial groups, most of them connected to one or another sub-species of anarchism (usually found in the ghettos and hobohemias of German, Italian or Jewish immigrants), proclaimed dynamite to be the people’s weapon – cheap, readily available and easy to conceal – and plotted to use it along with violent other means to inspire popular uprisings. Sometimes they followed through: the anarchist Alexander Berkman severely wounded Henry Clay Frick, Carnegie’s chairman and the man who, together with Carnegie, had presided over the bloodshed at Homestead; Leon Czolgosz shot and killed President William McKinley in 1901; and an anarchist’s bomb exploded at the San Francisco Preparedness Day rally in 1916. In working-class anarchist circles such acts were known as the ‘propaganda of the deed’.

American industrialisation from the Civil War to the First World War happened with stunning speed. But it was a brutal process, generating an immense amount of what those in high places now call ‘collateral damage’. This harshness had its roots in the country’s violent frontier culture; in the legacies of slavery and the nativism that treated every immigrant group, beginning with the Irish, with fear and loathing, and in memories of the Civil War which were refreshed with every outbreak of class warfare. But it expressed, above all, how poorly prepared the country’s new business elite was to deal with the social unrest that accompanied capitalist upheaval. Faced with dissent, discontent and resistance, it responded with naked force.

No wonder an atmosphere of apocalyptic dread enveloped the US in the last third of the 19th century, particularly during the great depression of 1893-97, when a credit crisis led to the failure of tens of thousands of businesses and hundreds of banks, and one in six American men lost his job. The mood was captured by the populist writer Ignatius Donnelly in his bestselling dystopian novel of 1890, Caesar’s Column. Its denouement was the construction by the ‘Brotherhood of Destruction’ of a macabre memorial to the savagery of the ancien régime, a column consisting of thousands of corpses of the old ruling class and its minions, cemented together and rigged to explode should anyone try to dismantle it.

This was the world Emma Goldman entered as a 16-year-old, arriving in Roch-ester, New York in 1885, from Kovno in Lithuania. Her emergence as her adoptive country’s most notorious anarchist – a career richly displayed in these two volumes of documentary history – closely tracked the ascending arc of the anarchist obsession with ‘the deed’. The Haymarket bombing in Chicago left an indelible impression on her: she described Louis Lingg, the youngest of the convicted anarchists, who killed himself in jail by exploding a small bomb in his mouth rather than be executed by a government he held in contempt, as a ‘sublime hero’. She plotted with her lover Berkman to assassinate Frick, even offering to prostitute herself to raise the money for a gun. When the financial panic of 1893 struck, Goldman addressed a rally of unemployed workers in Union Square, urging them to demand food from the authorities and, if necessary, to take it by force. She was arrested a week later in Philadelphia for ‘inciting to riot’ by Detective-Sergeant Charles Jacobs, who, on the train back to New York, offered to drop the charges if she informed on her comrades; she threw a glass of cold water in his face. The judge described her as a ‘dangerous woman’ and sentenced her to a year at Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary, where she spent her time studying medicine and reading the works of Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau. When she was released ten months later, a crowd of three thousand people welcomed her at the Thalia Theatre in New York.

The revolutionary anarchism espoused by Goldman grew up alongside revolutionary Marxism, and shared its opposition to capitalism. But the anarchists rejected the dictatorship of the proletariat and indeed anything that smacked of state coercion. And where Marxists pursued the slow task of organising trade unions and educating workers about the ills of capitalism and the virtues of socialism, anarchists believed that dramatic, violent acts by small groups – the propaganda of the deed – would spur workers to revolt. These differences over principles and tactics were at the heart of the feud between Marx and Bakunin, which led to the expulsion of Bakunin and his supporters from the First International in 1872 – and to the formation of the first anarchist international in Europe. Anarchism never achieved a following comparable to socialism in the ranks of the workers’ movement, but its incendiary acts of inspirational violence won it considerable notoriety at the turn of the century. The first of these volumes opens and closes with two such acts: Berkman’s assault on Frick and Czolgosz’s shooting of McKinley, a deed for which he was quickly executed and for which Goldman long defended him, at great peril to the anarchist movement. In the seven years that preceded McKinley’s assassination, anarchists managed to murder the president of France, the king of Italy, an empress of Austria and the prime minister of Spain.

Goldman’s loyalty to Berkman and what he’d done never wavered. On the fifth anniversary of McKinley’s death, the magazine of political and cultural criticism she founded, Mother Earth, included a paean to Czolgosz – he had acted out of love for the world and possessed ‘the beautiful soul of a child’ – which resulted in the cancellation of numerous speaking engagements, brief stays in prison, threats on her life and endless harassment. Yet in spite of her commitment to revolutionary action and her own involvement in violent insurrection, Goldman was seen by many as an apostle of peace and freedom. She did not romanticise revolutionary violence, seeing it at best as a necessary evil in the struggle to create a non-violent social order. Indeed in many of her letters, interviews, speeches and articles, Goldman emphasises that anarchism’s hostility to the state derives from its opposition to violence and coercion. She never quite advocates violent revolution, and dodges the issue of whether she believes in the ‘attentat’, or propaganda of the deed (a piece of deliberate mystification according to her biographer and the editor of these volumes, Candace Falk). In a letter included here, Berkman tells Goldman he is moved by her remark that she would have nursed the wounded McKinley ‘faithfully’, had he needed her services (she earned her living as a nurse), though she believed that Czolgosz, ‘condemned and deserted by all’, deserved her ‘sympathy and aid more than the president’.

Goldman was a fervent champion of free speech and Jeffersonian populism, and repeatedly cited Jefferson, along with Tom Paine, Thoreau and Emerson, as indigenous sources of American anarchism. Yet she voiced her disdain for the people in terms that would shock any populist. She denounced English workers, for example, for supporting the Boer War, including ‘ignorant, whisky-saturated, patriotism-maddened workers’ alongside ‘the mental wage slaves: clerks, bookkeepers, cashiers, typewriters, commercial travellers and other flunkies to money and titles’. ‘The brutality of the people,’ she said, ‘is simply beyond any comprehension.’ She had even less tolerance for the credulousness of the American worker and his pathetic faith in democracy: ‘He believes himself free, whereas the chains of slavery make his limbs bleed . . . he boasts of his right to choose his own master, not knowing that he thereby forfeits his right to be his own master.’ Indeed, the American worker was particularly galling to Goldman since, unlike his European counterpart, he was born free but chose to make no use of his freedom. What Berkman called ‘democratic tyranny’ caused her great frustration. In Russia, Berkman noted in a letter to Goldman, ‘the autocrat is visible and tangible’ and ‘political oppression is popularly felt,’ but ‘the real despotism of republican institutions is far deeper, more insidious, because it rests on the popular delusion of self-government and independence.’

However much she yearned to see the anarchist movement grow out of its enfeebling isolation, she refused to violate her principles by engaging in the political process. ‘Universal suffrage,’ Proudhon had said, ‘is the Counter-Revolution.’ The People’s Will movement in Russia, which Goldman admired, believed in the notion of exemplary action by an enlightened elite. Dedicated to ‘the complete material and psychological regeneration of human individuality’, she would never recognise ‘the right of the majority to dictate to or coerce the minority’.

Goldman’s connection to the feminist movement was deeply contentious. As an anarchist she had no interest in the right to vote, and found suffragists humourless, self-righteous and susceptible to the self-congratulatory, essentialist myth of woman’s inherent virtue. In a widely discussed essay in Mother Earth, ‘The Tragedy of Women’s Emancipation’, she criticised the feminist movement for its stunted vision of woman’s liberation, arguing that unencumbered access to the rights and privileges of market society still made for a stultifying life, fit only for ‘professional automatons’. While acknowledging the great advance formal equality represented, Goldman chastised middle-class feminists, claiming that their ‘grandmothers had more blood in their veins, far more humour and wit, and certainly a greater amount of naturalness, kind-heartedness and simplicity than the majority of our emancipated professional women who fill our colleges, halls of learning and various offices.’

Yet ‘Red Emma’ is remembered today as an early and courageous champion of sexual liberation, which she was. Her sexual adventurousness was part of a broader vision of anarchist revolution as erotic release, as a gift of beauty and pleasure for all mankind, a revolution you could dance at. Her defence of ‘free love’ and birth control probably got her into as much legal trouble as anything else she did, with the exception of her opposition to conscription during the First World War, which led to the suppression of Mother Earth, landed her in jail and got her (and Berkman) deported in 1919 to the Soviet Union. Though she continued to defend the Russian Revolution, she was appalled by the authoritarianism of the Bolsheviks and by their repression of Russian anarchists; two years after her arrival she and Berkman left the Soviet Union for Latvia, then Berlin.

Subsequent volumes will doubtless document these journeys, but Falk’s first two end in 1909, at the height of Goldman’s fame in the US, when she was being heard by perhaps 75,000 people a year and read, or read about, by many more. Her reception in mainstream America was strikingly ambivalent. Police affidavits at the time of her first arrest describe ‘one Emma Goldman being an evil disposed and pernicious person and of turbulent disposition’. Newspapers portrayed her as the ‘Priestess of Anarchism’, presiding over ‘savage reds’, ‘hard-faced, half-clad men’ gathered in an ‘anarchist drinking den’. More than twenty years after the Paris Commune, she was still described as a pétroleuse when she addressed a demonstration of the unemployed in Union Square. Because Czolgosz had attended an anarchist rally at which Goldman spoke not long before he shot McKinley, the media called for her head, the Chicago Tribune describing her as a ‘wrinkled, ugly Russian woman, who owns no god, has no religion, would kill all rulers, overthrow all laws, and who inspired McKinley’s assassination’. As an immigrant, a woman, an anarchist and a Jew, Goldman’s very person seemed to signal the end of civilisation as the bourgeoisie understood it.

It was strange, then, that the same newspapers should also see her as an exotic celebrity with all sorts of appealing qualities. Interviews and profiles praised her intelligence and her learning in fields apparently far removed from her political interests – the theatre, for example. They remarked on her courage, her skills as a debater, polemicist and agitator. They marvelled at her boldness, her sincerity, and what they saw as an odd combination of petite femininity and revolutionary energy: ‘a forceful woman with brains and experience, under the influence of a great enthusiasm’. This kind of coverage grew as Goldman’s identity fused with the women’s movement, as her audiences became more middle-class, and as her anarchism, thanks to the unremitting efforts to shut her up, was harder to separate from the struggle to defend free speech. When Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World gave her space in 1908 to write about ‘What I Believe’, she used it to talk about everything from anarchist views about private property and government to free speech and militarism.

There was perhaps something about Goldman’s anarchism that accounted for this attraction. To be sure, she shared the hatred of capitalism and vision of class emancipation that defined working-class radicalism, and ardently supported every strike. Yet she repeatedly rested her case on grounds of liberal individualism. Her references to Jefferson, Paine, Thoreau and the abolitionist Wendell Phillips as the godfathers of American anarchism were heartfelt. She admired their fearless championing of liberty and shared their distrust of government. She insisted that economic conditions, no matter how oppressive, were not the root cause of evil, but that the world’s woes originated in ‘a lack of responsibility in the individual man’. This scourge of the bourgeois order had this to say about private property:

Some people will tell you that the anarchists want to destroy all property rights and divide up everything equally. Nothing was ever more erroneous than this. I myself do not want any such division. You do not want it either. What we anarchists demand is this: each man is entitled to, and should be protected in the enjoyment of the fruits of his own individual labours – no more, and no less. If one man by his greater ability accumulates greater possessions than another – well and good – there is nothing objectionable in that to the anarchists. But when a man reaches out his hand in greed to grasp the profits and earnings of his fellow men, and appropriates to his own use the results of the labour of another . . . the anarchist is aroused to action.

Trotsky called anarchism liberalism minus the police. The exigencies of the civil war and the Bolsheviks’ battle with the Social Revolutionary Party gave him his own reasons for taking that view. But from her earliest days in America, Goldman seemed torn between individualism and collectivism. She told an interviewer that ‘the true conception of society is one of the interdependence of solidarity . . . the happiness of each is based upon the happiness of all.’ But she was well aware that the individualism she cherished was precisely what the socialists, with whom she was constantly jousting, considered capitalism’s evil flaw. But she was steadfast: ‘All I want is freedom, perfect, unrestricted liberty for myself and others.’

In anarchists’ eyes there was no conflict between individualism and the collectivist instinct, or not a fatal one. Most of the movement’s principal theoreticians (particularly Proudhon and Kropotkin, Goldman’s mentor) envisioned a voluntary mutualism of independent producers. George Woodcock, the intellectual historian of anarchism, noted that it tended to appeal to those excluded for one reason or another from the development of modern capitalism and the state. They sought an alternative fashioned out of the remnants of agrarian free-holding, handicraft production and village communalism, which would ensure moral if not material progress. This vision had great appeal for beleaguered American farmers, artisans and skilled workers, as well as a whole new world of middle-class reformers and bohemian intellectuals alienated by bureaucratic hierarchies and uniformity of corporate capitalism. This didn’t make them anarchists, however. In America the movement remained tiny, and never came close to realising Goldman’s dreams.

The Knights of Labor and the Populist Party shared her vision of a co-operative commonwealth, while the leader of American socialism, Eugene Debs, with whom Goldman had an on-again, off-again testy relationship, conceived a scheme to establish a model co-operative commonwealth in a western state. Goldman found the notion not unappealing, in contrast to her contempt for those in the infant Socialist Party who wanted to build their influence within the labour movement and work the political system for immediate piecemeal reforms.

Debs’s colony came at the end of a long line of anarcho-utopian communities, experimental industrial and agricultural co-operatives, and mass political and cultural movements stretching back to antebellum America. They drew on the energies, anxieties and anger of the dispossessed and disaffected. Like Goldman, they harked back to an imagined time when a rough egalitarian individualism had reigned in America, a time done away with, in Goldman’s eyes, by the counter-revolution of the armed state and the corporation. This reconciliation of the individual and the collective was perhaps never more than the vaguest chimera, but Goldman’s appeal, her ability to mesmerise as well as terrify, may have had something to do with that elusive dream.