Howard Zinn Speaks on Emma Goldman, Anarchism and War Resistance

Author, playwright and historian Howard Zinn saw Emma Goldman as a magnificent woman, anarchist, feminist, and a fierce, life-loving person. In this Cambridge speech, Zinn uses her as a shining example of anarchism and war resistance.


| April 2013



Howard Zinn Speaks book cover

“Howard Zinn Speaks” is a collection of Zinn’s speeches on protest movements, racism and war from 1963 to 2009. Zinn’s words illuminate our history like no other U.S. historian for the new generations of students who continue to discover his work.

Cover Courtesy Haymarket Books

Howard Zinn was a historian, playwright and activist who grew up in Brooklyn in a working-class, immigrant household. Howard Zinn Speaks (Haymarket Books, 2012) edited by Anthony Arnove is the collection of his speeches from 1963 to 2009—an invaluable resource for the millions of people he moved and informed in his lifetime. In this speech excerpted from the book, Zinn’s interest in the life and politics of Emma Goldman led him to write not only a play about her, Emma, but a screenplay that he hoped might one day be turned into a movie. Zinn saw in Goldman someone who defied convention and orthodoxy to live her life fully, passionately, and imaginatively. 

Emma Goldman, Anarchism, and War Resistance

Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 29, 2002 

I’ll start with Emma Goldman and then move into other things. Because I can never stay with history. I can never stay with the past. For me, I became a historian, and went into the past, really for the purpose of trying to understand and do something about what was going on in the present. So I never wanted to be a historian who goes into the archives and you never hear from him or her again. So my work on Emma Goldman was always connected with the things I was involved in, and active in, in the world. I had vaguely been aware of Emma Goldman. It was interesting—here I was a PhD in history, and what could be higher than that? Who could be better informed than a PhD in history? But here I was with a doctorate from Columbia, and Emma Goldman had never been mentioned in any of my classes, and none of her writings had ever appeared on my reading lists, and it’s just that I vaguely remembered reading a chapter about her in a old book called Critics and Crusaders. There’s a chapter on Emma Goldman. So I had this vague notion about Emma Goldman, but I didn’t know anything about her.

Then I was at some conference in Pennsylvania and sometimes at conferences you run into interesting people. I ran into this guy, Richard Drinnon, a remarkable historian. I recommend a book of his that is not well known—but it’s the not well-known books that you need to know about. He wrote a book called Facing West, a brilliant literary, political discussion of American expansionism into the far west, and the Philippines, and Vietnam. (You’re going to find a lot of digressions in my talk, a lot of parenthetical remarks. Occasionally I’ll come back to my topic.) But Drinnon told me he had written a biography of Emma Goldman: Rebel in Paradise. So I went to it, and read it, and it just astonished me. It made me angry about the fact that I had not been told anything about Emma Goldman in my long education.

Here was this magnificent woman, this anarchist, this feminist, fierce, life-loving person. Of course, that led me to her autobiography, Living My Life, which, if you have not read, you should read. At a certain point, I decided to require it for a class—I had this class of four hundred students. At first I thought, “Living My Life—it’s a big book. And will they really connect with this early twentieth-century woman, and here we are in the 60s?” They loved it. And they found in her what I found in her: free spirit, bold, speaking out against all authority, unafraid, and as the title of her book suggests, living her life, as she wanted to live it, not as the rules and regulations and authorities were telling her how to live it. So that got me interested in Emma Goldman, reading her, using her stuff in my classes.

I had always been interested in theater. My wife had acted, my daughter had acted, my son was in the theater and still is—I had always been interested in the theater and never done anything with it, always too involved in the South, and in the Vietnam War movement—and then came 1975 and I had a breathing spell.

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12/26/2013 1:14:30 AM

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