Berkeley Digital Library

A Curriculum for Middle and High School Students

On Becoming an Anarchist

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The Goldman family
in St. Petersburg, 1882:
Emma, Helena,
Morris (in Helena's lap),
Taube, Herman, and Abraham.
(New York Public Library)
CONTEXT: On June 27, 1869, Goldman's life began in a small imperial Russian city, now in the Republic of Lithuania. Her family, living in Jewish ghettos and moving often in search of employment, suffered the anti­Semitism of the times. At age twelve Goldman was exposed to the growing revolution in Russia with its promise to end the tremendous inequities of the old order under the Czar.

Goldman's formal schooling ended when her father put her to work full time in a corset factory. He wanted her to marry a man of his choosing, which was the custom of the time. Fifteen­year­old Goldman rejected his demands, protesting that above all, she wanted an opportunity to study. Angrily, her father told her, "Girls do not have to learn much, only how to prepare minced fish, cut noodles fine, and give the man plenty of children!"

Determined to escape her father's authority, she and her half­sister Helena set sail for America in 1885. In her article "Was My Life Worth Living?" written in 1934 after her brief tour of the United States, she reflects upon her life in Russia and her first years as an immigrant in the United States.

Excerpt from "Was My Life Worth Living?" by Emma Goldman.

Since my earliest recollection of my youth in Russia I have rebelled against orthodoxy in every form. I could never bear to witness harshness whether on the part of our parents to us or in their dealings with the servants. I was outraged over the official brutality practiced on the peasants in our neighborhood. I wept bitter tears when the young men were conscripted into the army and torn from homes and hearths. I resented the treatment of our servants, who did the hardest work and yet had to put up with wretched sleeping quarters and the leavings of our table. I was indignant when I discovered that love between young people of Jewish and Gentile origin was considered the crime of crimes, and the birth of an illegitimate child the most depraved immorality.

On coming to America I had the same hopes as have most European immigrants and the same disillusionment, though the latter affected me more keenly and more deeply. The immigrant without money and without connections is not permitted to cherish the comforting illusion that America is a benevolent uncle who assumes a tender and impartial guardianship of nephews and nieces. I soon learned that in a republic there are myriad ways by which the strong, the cunning, the rich can seize power and hold it. I saw the many work for small wages which kept them always on the borderline of want for the few who made huge profits. I saw the courts, the halls of legislation, the press, and the schools--in fact every avenue of education and protection--effectively used as an instrument for the safeguarding of a minority, while the masses were denied every right. I found that the politicians knew how to befog every issue, how to control public opinion and manipulate votes to their own advantage and to that of their financial and industrial allies. This was the picture of democracy I soon discovered on my arrival in the United States. Fundamentally there have been few changes since that time.

"The Anarchists of Chicago,"
memorial drawing
by Walter Crane, 1894
(Haymarket Scrapbook)
This situation, which was a matter of daily experience, was brought home to me with a force that tore away shams and made reality stand out vividly and clearly by an event which occurred shortly after my coming to America. It was the so­called Haymarket riot, which resulted in the trial and conviction of eight men, among them five Anarchists. Their crime was an all­embracing love for their fellow­men and their determination to emancipate the oppressed and disinherited masses. In no way had the State of Illinois succeeded in proving their connection with the bomb that had been thrown at an open­air meeting in Haymarket Square in Chicago. It was their Anarchism which resulted in their conviction and execution on the 11th of November, 1887. This judicial crime left an indelible mark on my mind and heart and sent me forth to acquaint myself with the ideal for which these men had died so heroically. I dedicated myself to their cause.

Published in Harper's Monthly Magazine, December 1934, pp. 52­58.

Questions On Becoming an Anarchist:
  1. What did Goldman rebel against?

  2. Do you think that Goldman's decision to immigrate was common for single women in her day? Would you have made the same choice?

  3. What picture of democracy did immigrants from Europe have?

  4. What disillusioned Goldman about America?

General Questions on this Exhibit:

  1. What dreams might immigrants coming to America have today? What disillusionment might they experience?

  2. Do you see any differences in social and economic conditions for immigrants today compared to Goldman's day?

  3. Do you think that male and female immigrants face different problems in adjusting to American Society? Explain.

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