Women of Valor

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The Use of Violence

Emma Goldman, 1869 - 1940

In 1892, Goldman and Berkman were horrified by the violent suppression of Pennsylvania steelworkers who had been locked out of their jobs for demanding better wages. They decided that they should assassinate Henry Clay Frick, the Carnegie Steel manager responsible for the bloodshed. With Goldman's assistance, Berkman obtained a pistol, traveled to Pennsylvania, and shot and wounded Frick.

Many anarchists believed that acts of violence designed for maximum symbolic impact could inspire workers to seize the means of production, overthrow conventional government, and begin to create a more just social order. Goldman and Berkman hoped that their attack on a prominent representative of capitalist oppression would demonstrate to the working classes that they need no longer accept the brutality of the prevailing economic system. Instead, their actions helped provoke a nationwide fear of anarchism. Although Goldman escaped indictment, Berkman received a 21-year prison sentence.

In 1901, claiming to be acting under Goldman's influence, Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley. Although she had not been involved and had met Czolgosz only briefly, Goldman was immediately arrested as an accomplice. Lack of evidence eventually forced the authorities to order her release, but anti-anarchist agitation in the press resulted in her demonization as the epitome of the violent anarchist.

Contrary to public perception, Goldman's primary form of political action was education, not violence. She preferred to use the spoken word to challenge the current political order and to prepare her audiences to embrace and participate in the hoped-for revolution. Yet although her faith in the effectiveness of violence as a political tool decreased over time, she did believe that violence was at times inevitable. She considered it justified against an inherently violent state, and she never ceased to sympathize with those—like Czolgosz—whose sensitivities drove them to violent extremes.

Notes: 
  1. Quotation beginning "I ceased to regard political acts" from Emma Goldman, Living My Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931), 190.
  2. Additional information from Goldman, Living My Life, passim; "Biographical Essay on Emma Goldman" on the website of the Emma Goldman Papers, accessed March 26, 2002, available at http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/goldman/Curricula/bioessay.html; Emma Goldman, "The Tragedy of Buffalo," in Hippolyte Havel, ed., The Revolutionary Almanac (New York: The Rabelais Press, 1914), microfilm edition of the Emma Goldman Papers, (Alexandria, VA: Chadwyck Healey, Inc., 1991), original obtained from the University of California, Berkeley.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Emma Goldman - The Use of Violence." (Viewed on April 16, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/goldman/use-of-violence>.