Herald of the future? Emma Goldman, Friedrich Nietzsche and the anarchist as superman.

Author:Morgan, Kevin
Position:Critical essay

In the early twentieth-century heyday of American anarchism, Emma Goldman more than anybody personified the movement for a wider public. Journalists described her as its 'red queen' or 'high priestess'. A sometime collaborator complained of her 'cult of personality'. (1) Twice, in 1892 and 1901, Goldman was linked in the public mind with the attentats or attempted assassinations that were anarchy's greatest advertisement and cause of notoriety. Already reaching wide audiences through her journalism and lecture tours, Goldman cemented her reputation with her book Anarchism and Other Essays, published in 1910. This began with a biographical essay by 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. (2) Refusing embodiment in party rules and structures, anarchy thus achieved symbolic representation through the force of the charismatic individual. As Goldman remarked on serving a prison sentence for alleged incitement to riot, the prosecution's target was not 'little Emma Goldman' but the spirit and principles of anarchy itself. (3)

The present article explores a relatively neglected aspect of the spirit and principles thus exemplified by Goldman. Its point of departure is the quality of 'egotism' with which Goldman seemed at once to reconcile and confuse the commitments to individualism and unforced mutuality coexisting within anarchism. An early newspaper interview registered this perfectly:

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. (4) Goldman is sometimes categorised as an anarchist communist. That she was moved by human suffering, and by its terminable causes in structures of oppression, was to be powerfully attested throughout her career. What remained ambiguous was the agency of the afflicted in the removal of these sufferings. Anarchism, in her own time and for the foreseeable future, was necessarily the movement of a minority. What was nevertheless unclear was whether its demonstrative forms, from assassination to the temporary occupation of public spaces, were intended as a catalyst or as a surrogate for wider mobilisations; or whether indeed they primarily served an expressive function in respect of anarchists' own collective egotism. Despite obvious differences in rhetoric and value-systems, similar tensions have characterised disparate minority movements for social transformation; especially those whose minority status was linked with perceived limitations of popular consciousness. It was on these grounds, not just those of conspiracy, that Lenin in the same period justified his notion of the vanguard party. (5) Though Goldman's and Lenin's names are rarely linked except as contraries, hers too was expressly a movement of the 'avant-garde', upholding a better future against the tenacity of the past in the actually existing present. (6) In her explicit legitimation of such minorities, Goldman even spoke, as the Bolsheviks later acted, against the 'compact, immobile, drowsy mass, of the Russian peasant'. (7) Anything but a Leninist, her brief and ill-starred support for the Bolsheviks suggests if nothing else that they may have shared a common instinct of revolutionary voluntarism.

Such considerations offer fresh ways of conceptualising the tensions commonly recognised as existing within anarchism. Standard accounts, like those of Daniel Guerin and David Miller, recognise a basic tension between what Guerin describes as 'social' and 'individual' anarchism. (8) Although Guerin notes that the differences between these approaches have been overstated, anarchists themselves devoted considerable effort to discussing the differences between Stirnerite individualism and the anarcho-communism most identified with Peter Kropotkin. (9) The same tension has also served to locate anarchism somewhere between, or else transcending, socialism and liberalism. In their History of Economic Doctrines, Charles Gide and Charles Rist described it as 'a curious fusion of Liberal and socialist doctrines'. (10) So did the anarchist Rudolf Rocker in his Anarcho-Syndicalism. (11) Michael Freeden, employing the same reference points, has more recently described anarchism as an umbrella term covering distinct, perhaps incompatible tendencies. (12) Given the modern predicament of reconciling principles of liberty and equality, a maximalist recognition of both--'complete liberty', wrote Malatesta, 'with complete solidarity'--is an attractive and defensible position, if open to criticism on grounds of rigour and immediate practicability. (13) Precisely the refusal to compromise on essentials, at the cost of imprisonment, exile or political ostracisation, is the outstanding characteristic brought out by Goldman's several biographers.

Without calling into question her qualities of moral and political courage, I want to propose a less innocent reading of her anarchism. Goldman was not, it is true, primarily a thinker but an animator. According to one recent biography, her life provides not 'intellectual solution' but a personal exemplar of 'unfailing effort towards liberation'. (14) The slipperiness of such a notion, however, lies in imprecision as to who was to be liberated, by whom and from what. In affirming a sort of absolute value of human emancipation, against oppressions identified with the existence of government itself, anarchists at first sight avoided if they did not entirely resolve such dilemmas. An unfailing vocabulary of liberation, however, disguised some quite basic transitions. With the ebb and flow of the movement with which she identified, what Goldman sometimes depicted as the liberation of the many was also reconfigured as liberation from the many. As Alice Wexler observes, despite the seeming consistency of her anarchist commitments, Goldman swung 'between extremes of faith in and contempt for the masses, between belief in revolution and despair'. (15) This sense of election may not have been inherent in anarchism itself. It does, however, suggest the need to historicise both the movement and its ideas. Goldman's deep ambivalence towards the masses may thus be located more specifically within the contemporary literary culture to which she was at least as receptive as to specifically anarchist texts.

The fault-line here does not lie between socialism and liberalism, but between respectively elitist and popular or 'democratic' conceptions of social change. Goldman's rejection of democracy, like Lenin's, reflected scepticism as to structures of oppression which the claimed authority of the people merely dissimulated. That their real authority offered any immediate alternative to this deception was in both cases unclear. In Freeden's terms of logical or cultural adjacency, the 'core' anarchist concept of freedom might rather be advanced at the expense of the masses who, through docility, complicity or active persecution, threatened this quality of freedom. The same quality was embodied, not so much in particular moral or legal practices, as in the free and implicitly superior individual. In Political Parties Robert Michels assimilated this to his notion of an irrepressible tendency to oligarchy, but in older forms than that of the mass party. 'These', he wrote, 'are the means utilized by the apostle and the orator: the flaming power of thought, greatness of self-sacrifice, profundity of conviction. Their dominion is exercised, not over the organization, but over minds; it is the outcome, not of technical indispensability, but of intellectual ascendancy and moral superiority.' (16)

In exploring these issues, particular attention is given here to the fascination felt by Goldman for the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Though Nietzsche's contempt for the masses was extended with some vehemence to anarchists and other political radicals, Goldman was hardly alone among these in deriving inspiration from his writings. As a movement which in most of Europe and North America lacked any immediately plausible conception of popular social agency, it may be that anarchism was especially susceptible to such influences. Nevertheless, these again are suggestive of a wider historical moment in which the prospect of a new and higher humanity captured radical imaginations without as yet having revealed its catastrophic darker side. As it did so, in the militarism of the Great War and in the authoritarian regimes which followed, Nietzschean ideas of the superman became discredited. For the anarchist who upheld them, like Herbert Read, a quality of 'aloofness' was now advanced at the expense of a more messianic role. (17) The dilemma to which this then gave rise, of sustaining the refusal of existing structures of oppression in spite of scepticism as to the promise of epochal transformation, is one that remains. Goldman once more offers illumination; for as one of Bolshevism's most persistent left-wing critics in the 1920s, she was among the first to register what had previously seemed unimaginable: that the revolution itself might fall victim to the tyranny of the masses.


At the root of Goldman's anarchism lay the notion of propaganda by the deed. In the years in which she first embraced its precepts, anarchy was identified in the public mind with a series of sensational attentats symbolising its rejection of established authority and affirmation of a state of open social war. Removed in this way were heads of state or government in Italy, France and Spain, and others who were simply bystanders in the imposition of authority. The resulting publicity and political...

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