Forgotten Ideas: Emma Goldman on Anarchism, Gender, and Prison


By Peter Marshall

“Anarchism, then, really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the domination of religion; the liberation of the human body from the domination of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclination” (p. 35)

Content Warning: Minor reference to sexual abuse and harassment

“My goodness,” I am sure you thought to yourself, “I did enjoy that article about Robert Owen but I wonder if there will be anymore?” How kind of you to ask, let us celebrate because there is another one!  For those reading who do not know, I hope to introduce you to political thinkers who you are most likely not going to come across on your syllabus, and hopefully broaden your thought. I openly encourage others to do the same. This time I shall be exploring the 19th/20th century anarchist thinker Emma Goldman. I shall do this by briefly summarising her life before splitting her work into three sections. The first is anarchism, the second gender, and finally prison. I trust my reader’s ability to critique the work for themselves.


Goldman herself was born in the then Russian province of Kovno (it is in Lithuania today) in 1869. Being born to Jewish parents, her father was harassed by the Christians for his being Jewish and working for local governance. At 17 she worked in a Russian factory making corsets, before emigrating to America with her older sister Helene. Working in America, the foremen and bosses looked upon the young women not only as economic but sexual commodities. She moved to New York in 1889 after interacting with many socialists and anarchists and realising herself to be the latter. Over her life she was arrested several times for incitement to riot. She initially supported the 1917 October Revolution, but then denounced the Soviet Union as repressive of independent voices. She traveled to Spain during the Civil War to assist the anarchist republicans. She died in 1940 in Canada.



The aim of Goldman’s essay, titled Anarchism: What It Really Stands For, was to reject what she saw as lies against anarchism as well as create a positive definition for the term. Goldman sees three objections to anarchism 1) it is utopian 2) it stands for violence and destruction and thus must be stopped 3) it is against human nature. Goldman’s rejection of the first is much weaker than of the second and third. Practicality is conceptualised by Goldman as being that which can leave the old system and the limitations therein, building a new and sustainable life. One can imagine stronger defences and arguments for the practicality of anarchism, (albeit not ones I personally support) such as the state being socially constructed, and if it is not natural then it is possible to remove.


Regarding anarchism as violence and destruction, she argues it is the opposite of common perception. Anarchism fights the truly destructive forces of society, with anarchism destroying “not healthful tissue” but the parasitic in society. It is easier to condemn the actions of anarchists than to think of the damage done to society by the state and institutions of power. Anarchism is encouraging humanity to think and critique.


Goldman rejects the use of human nature, pondering what crimes have been committed in its name by the charlatans that use the argument. We, like animals in a zoo, are caged and imprisoned; we cannot know our true nature, she argues. It is only under true freedom and peace that we will be able to see true human nature.


What is anarchism then? For Goldman at least, it is a new social order based in liberty, with government resting on violence and therefore being wrong and harmful. Much like Marxism, Goldman’s anarchism bases itself in the material, agreeing that the primary evil is economic. However, the solution to this is through a consideration of “every phase” of life. Anarchism rejects the (primarily) Christian motif that man is nothing, with the powers (the state, the sovereign, God) being everything. This suggests that humanity under this Christian morality has the glories of earth, but is not conscious of themselves. Anarchism brings this consciousness to humanity. With God, the state, and society being non-existent, life can only be fulfilled in one-self, not through subordination. Anarchism is the unity of life, creating no conflict between the individual, social instincts, nature, and so on.


To achieve this unity, Goldman’s anarchism rejects religion, property, and government. Religion is seen to dominate humanity’s mind, making God everything and humanity nothing. It is God that legitimised the creation of despotic kingdoms. One imagines Goldman means organised religion in this regard, certainly much more so the older interpretations of religion. Property shares properties with religion in that is deified; one sacrifices and submits to property.  Goldman echoes Proudhon in seeing property as robbery, with the efforts of humanity become monopolised by the ruling classes/the bourgeoisie, excluding the rest of humanity from its “birthright”. Humanity produces more than enough for itself already, but people still starve because of the arrangements of property, with the wealthy simply desiring to accumulate more wealth. (Good thing University Vice-Chancellors don’t endlessly accumulate wealth, isn’t it?) The removal of this allows humanity to truly choose their mode, conditions, freedom of work.


The main goal of the state is to install qualities in the public which lead to it being obeyed and to have wealth itself. However, if such a thing were simply offered to humanity it would be rejected, hence why it has “corruptive, tyrannical, and oppressive methods” to continue itself (as it was initially instigated by force, it is not natural). The state has the main goal of maintaining private property and monopoly. Social solidarity cannot be borne from a structure that makes those within it submissive; the state further kills the submissive, which it does through both direct and indirect means.


The way to achieve this is not set in stone, for this would rather contradict the message of a rejection of enforcing propositions. The methods of rejection must be acclimatised to the period it is in. In this respect, it is much more nuanced than the teleological approach some Marxists (and arguably Marx) takes. Voting, alas, does not truly change anything substantial. Even with relatively progressive laws in place, capitalism will still exploit. In Goldman’s time saw child exploitation even in States with Child Labour Laws. It is direct action that Goldman sees as the most effective way to change, with its eventual leading to a revolution and thus a great social change.


Gender and Suffrage

Goldman has four essays on gender in her collection of essays; The Traffic in Women, Woman Suffrage, The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation, and Marriage and Love.  Whilst going over all of them would be ideal, I shall focus on Woman Suffrage due to Royal Holloway’s connection with the suffrage movement and it being the centenary of some women getting the vote, but I encourage you to read the others if you have the time.


Woman Suffrage rejects the deification of Universal Suffrage. This rejection comes from her ambivalence towards the tendency of women to worship deities more than men do. Despite, for example, the Christian religion having condemned women to the life of an inferior, women are seen by Goldman to worship it more than men. Similar fetishes include war and the home. In both cases, they are detrimental to women but they are clung to. Suffrage is seen in the same way for Goldman. It is not a rejection of the ideals behind suffrage, a desire for equal rights in all areas of society, for Goldman. She does not see women as lesser able to vote than men, rather the failure of men shall not be redeemed by women getting the vote. The inclusion of women into the system of voting does not fix the problems with voting. At the time of her writing, where Australia and New Zealand had the vote and the UK and the US did not, she asks if there was truly a greater happiness in the former two. The double standards of morality still existed, perilous labour laws still existed. The woman was still seen by and large as a person to live in the private and not the public. The rejection of female suffrage is not out of a belief it is itself bad, rather it changes very little regarding social structure.



In her essay on prisons (A Social Crime and Failure), Goldman sees the prison as a torturous device that only “protects” society from the demons it creates. From this poison, the poison is replicated. Crimes increased in America, despite the increase in spending against crime. Why is this? Goldman answers that it is in the nature of crime that we find the answer. Borrowing from Havelock Ellis, she says that crime is divided fourfold. The first is the political, which is where a despotic government criminalises a person who rejects its despotism. The second is the “passional”, a criminal who is affected by the injustice of society and attempts to form a type of justice for themselves. The essential principle is that self-justice (in Goldman’s example becoming drunk, but one can imagine retribution against the system in other ways) is criminalised. The third is the insane, where crime cannot be attributed to the perpetrator due to their mental state. Goldman notes that for some, the rich, their mental state is taken into account when their criminality is taken into account. One can see parallels to this regarding terror attacks with mental health problems being stigmatised for the actions of Christian and white supremacist terrorists. The fourth is the occasional, the criminal who becomes such based on society’s economic make-up. The occasional is the criminal who cannot afford to live without crime, thus the occasional criminal is closely linked to property crime. This typology is not rejecting “biologic, physiologic, or psychologic factors” that creates crime, rather emphasising the social and economic influences, which are the most powerful of the forces.


The position that the state and prison diminishes crime is hypocritical and untrue for Goldman. First of all, they break (natural and written) laws such as taxation as theft, killing in war, and capital punishment. Secondly, crime is misunderstood Goldman argues– it is redirected energy. Crime exists because those who commit crimes have no choice but to. Goldman notes the irony in the persecution of property crime, for example, citing a story from an Italian prisoner who stole half a dozen eggs, whilst Ministers “rob millions”. The prison system is based on the impulse of primitive humanity to strike back, which Goldman rejects. Not only is it uncivilised, it does not work. Crime multiplies while prisoners are tortured to be made good.


Whilst anarchism is currently understood in modern discourse as the masked protestors who destroy windows, Goldman (and a host of other thinkers such as Proudhon, Kropotkin, etc.) is an interesting window into the very often unexplored philosophy of anarchism. Goldman’s prose is certainly not as complicated as Hegel, and is certainly more accessible than someone like Marx. In short, whilst I have some very fundamental disagreements with her theory (regarding anarchism’s utopianism and the suffrage movement to name but two) there are certainly very helpful paving stones to understand and change society for the better.



Adams, R. (2017, Nov 19) ‘Calls for Bath University vice-chancellor to resign over further pay rise’ [Online] The Guardian,


Goldman, E. (2014) Anarchism and Other Essays, USA: CreateSpace Independent



Havel, H. (2014 [1910]) Biographic Sketch in Goldman, E. (2014) Anarchism and Other Essays, USA: CreateSpace Independent



Mechanic, J. (2017, Nov 6) ‘It’s Terrorism If You’re Brown And Mental Health If You’re White’ [Online] Huffington Post,

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