Academic journal article Anarchist Studies

Herald of the Future? Emma Goldman, Friedrich Nietzsche and the Anarchist as Superman

Academic journal article Anarchist Studies

Herald of the Future? Emma Goldman, Friedrich Nietzsche and the Anarchist as Superman

Article excerpt


This article focuses on the life and work of Emma Goldman as an exemplar of wider issues and currents in the revolutionary left in the twentieth century, notably the tensions between libertarianism and communism. The focus is on Goldman's fascination with and appropriation of elements of Nietzsche's iconoclastic philosophy at a time when anarchism was travelling in the opposite direction towards revolutionary trade unionism and ultimately anarcho-syndicalism. Finally Goldman offers an anarchist alternative to syndicalism but an alternative that has its dark side.

Keywords: Goldman, Nietzsche, social anarchism, individual anarchism, propaganda by deed, Mother Earth

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 wete 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 rhe charismatic individual. As Goldman remarked on serving a prison sentence for alleged incitement to riot, rhe 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 rhe afflicted in the removal of these sufferings. Anarchism, in her own time and for the foreseeable future, was necessarily rhe 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'. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.