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.
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.
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.
So I wrote a play about Emma Goldman, and I had to make a decision. Her life was so long and full, and there’s always in any work of art—I like to call what I do a work of art; everything I do is a work of art—a problem of what do you leave in and what do you leave out. And there’s so much to her life, so I started with her as an immigrant girl, a teenager living in Rochester, New York, and working in the factory. Her political awareness taking a leap in 1886 at the time of the Haymarket Affair. How many of you know about the Haymarket Affair? I always have to take little polls, to avoid telling people what they already know. Of course I don’t mind telling people what they already know—we all have to be reminded, right? Again and again. But the Haymarket Affair occurs in the midst of labor struggles all over the country for the eight- hour day. There’s a strike against International Harvester Company in Chicago. The police come. It’s the usual scene, police vs. strikers. But the police fire into the strikers and kill a number of them. At that time, Chicago was a great center for radical activity and anarchist groups. And the anarchists call a protest meeting in Haymarket Square. It’s a peaceful meeting, but the police barge into the meeting, a bomb explodes in the midst of the police, a terrorist attack. Nobody knows who threw the bomb. But you know, when a terrorist attack occurs, it doesn’t matter whether you know or don’t know. You’ve got to go after somebody. The police have to find somebody. The FBI has to find somebody. The army has to find somebody. So they find eight leading anarchists in Chicago.
Nobody can tie them to the throwing of the bomb, but they’re anarchists. We have conspiracy laws. Conspiracy laws are very interesting. With a conspiracy law, you can tie anybody to anything. You don’t have to do anything to become the defender in a political conspiracy trial. So they quickly find these eight anarchists guilty of conspiring to murder, and they are sentenced to death. Emma Goldman is aware of this. It goes up through the courts. The American judicial system is a wonderful system. Once gross errors have been made at a lower level, it’s very often hard to overcome that because the higher courts will limit themselves in what they can review. They’ll say, “Well, the jury and the judge considered the facts in this case, so all we have to deal with are the legal niceties, and we can’t go over the facts.” In any case, the Illinois Supreme Judicial Court approved the sentences.
The Haymarket Affair had become an international case. It was one of those cases that captured the imagination of caring people who see injustices. In our time, we’ve had so many such cases: the Rosenbergs, and Mumia Abu-Jamal, all these cases that become international causes. That was true of the Haymarket Affair. George Bernard Shaw sent a telegram to the Illinois Supreme Court, saying, “If the state of Illinois needs to lose eight of its citizens, it could better afford to lose the eight members of the Illinois Supreme Court.” It didn’t help. Four of them were hanged, and when the news came out and Emma Goldman heard about it, it excited her to the point of fury. She soon left Rochester, left her family, left a husband, almost an arranged marriage when she was so young. She went to New York and joined a little anarchist group. In New York she met Alexander Berkman, who became a comrade and then her lover. Then this little group of anarchists living in a collective in New York began putting out literature, handing it out, what these little left-wing groups do. Anybody who walks through Park Square or Harvard Square will encounter these people.
It’s important to pick up their information, pick up those leaflets, because they will tell you things, these crazy, radical people, that you will never hear anywhere else. Anyway, she’s part of this little group. And in 1892 there’s a strike that takes place in Homestead, Pennsylvania, against the Carnegie Steel Works, and another very dramatic incident, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which is a euphemism for strikebreakers, is hired by the Carnegie Corporation. Henry Clay Frick, whom you may know as an art patron, also a manager of steel works, employer of the Pinkerton strikebreakers. There’s a gun battle and strikers are killed. And that fires up this little anarchist group in New York. They decide that they are going to do what has not been done in the United States but has been done a number of times in Europe, and that is to carry out a symbolic act, to show that the perpetrators of violence can also be the victims of violence. They decide to kill Henry Clay Frick.
So they argue about it. You can imagine this little group; they are not very experienced at this sort of stuff. They’re discussing it all night. “How will we do this? Where will we get a gun?” Berkman volunteers to do it, and “We’ll have to get him a new suit of clothes.” If you’re going to kill someone, you have to look respectable. And so he goes with his new clothes and his gun to Pittsburgh, and barges into Frick’s office, and he’s a very poor shot. He’s an anarchist. What do you expect? He hadn’t practiced this stuff. He knows how to hand out leaflets. So he only wounds Frick.
He’s arrested, quickly tried, and sentenced to twenty-two years in prison. He’s been Emma Goldman’s lover, and while he’s in prison, Emma Goldman becomes a nationally known figure, writer, lecturer, fierce woman. By the way, one of the great books about prison conditions and the whole issue of prisons is Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. It’s not easy to get. It’s a wonderful book. He spent fourteen years in prison, and by the time he came out, things had changed. He and Emma Goldman were no longer lovers. But very soon they founded an anarchist magazine together, Mother Earth, and were publishing things that nobody else would publish.
They had by this time changed their minds about the necessity for occasional acts of symbolic violence. I say that to get them off the hook, make it sound nice. But ... they pretty much had a rethinking about this is the kind of thing you have to do. They were organizers, and Emma Goldman was an organizer of garment workers in New York while she was speaking all over, and yes, her personal relationship with Alexander Berkman ended. But they were still comrades, publishers of Mother Earth. I guess if you go into the library, you can find old issues of Mother Earth—fascinating stuff to read that will give you a history of that time that you probably won’t get in traditional textbooks.
Then Emma Goldman took up with—that’s an interesting phrase, “took up with”—this man Ben Reitman. How many have heard of him? A few. Fascinating character. And Ben Reitman was a doctor, sort of. He was everything, sort of. But somehow he made his way through medical school by reading things on his own, listening to lectures, taking over for the lecturer, a famous physician, when the physician wasn’t there. Ben Reitman just goes up to the podium and delivers a lecture on the same subject. And he was a swashbuckling character wearing a cowboy hat. He ran a street clinic for women who needed help, gynecological advice, needed abortions. And he was a risk taker and devilish person, a very handsome devil who absolutely captivated Emma Goldman, this independent woman who’s not supposed to be captivated by anybody.
And this is one of the interesting things about her life: she was a strong woman, she insisted on the independence of women, but when she fell in with (another nice phrase) Ben Reitman, she became absolutely swallowed up in this very, very passionate ten-year-long affair. And when he became her manager, he traveled with her all over the country, a man with enormous ego, tremendous appetite for everything, and when their letters were discovered not long ago, people who read them had to hold themselves in their seats. They were the most erotic letters. I don’t know whether anybody writes such letters any more. There were biographies that came out that made use of those letters: one by Alice Wexler and another by Candace Falk. You ought to take a look at those biographies, just for the fun of reading those letters and pretending that you’re doing historical research.
Reitman was an anarchist among anarchists. Because the other anarchists distrusted him because he was a total individualist and wouldn’t go along with anything that anybody would do, insisted on doing everything his own way. They distrusted his relationship with Emma Goldman and feared for her—rightly—because she was so involved. But he had courage, too. They went out to San Diego, and there was a ferocious attack on them by all sorts of people in San Diego who saw anarchists as the devil. Ben Reitman was kidnapped, taken out into the countryside, tarred and feathered, and branded on his backside with the letters IWW—Industrial Workers of the World. He was the kind of guy who later, when they would appear on a platform, would suddenly turn his back to the audience and pull down his pants and show them what had been done to him, which horrified Emma Goldman. A lot of things horrified her, but it didn’t stop their relationship. What stopped it was politics, and World War I.
By then Emma Goldman had spent much time in prison. She had been imprisoned on Blackwell’s Island in New York for speaking out during the economic crisis in 1893. There was a fierce economic situation in New York in 1893, and all over the country really. Huge numbers of people were unemployed. They did not have enough food to take care of their families. Emma Goldman gets up in front of this huge crowd in Union Square and says, “If you don’t have food enough for your kids, go into the stores and take the food.” It’s called direct action. That’s what anarchists believe in. You don’t sign petitions. You don’t lobby. You don’t visit your legislator. You take direct action against the source of your problem. That’s what workers do when they take direct action against an employer, what women do when they take direct action against men, or against the source of their oppression. So she was in jail for that. Her jail record was a very long one. And the FBI always had people following her, and the police were reporting on her speeches. There was one of her speeches that they couldn’t record because, as the agent reported to his superiors, “Well, she spoke to this group of Jewish women on the Lower East Side, and I’m sorry I couldn’t take down what she said because she spoke in Yiddish.”
By the time WW I came on, they both had spent quite a bit of time in prison, she by now was a famous speaker, lecturer, and she began to speak against the war and against the draft. You may know, WW I was the occasion for a kind of hysteria that happens again and again in wartime, right? People who speak out against the war are looked on as a kind of traitor; the government induces an atmosphere of fear, and makes examples of a small number of people in order to intimidate everybody else. In this case, in WW I, they imprisoned about a thousand people for speaking out against the war. And when Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman spoke at a big rally in Harlem against the conscription act, they were arrested and sent to prison and not released until the war ended. And when the war ended, that’s when the Palmer raids took place, which some of you may know about.
But not far off from what is going on now, with the treatment of immigrants and noncitizens—a wholesale roundup of people who are noncitizens; no due process, no trial, no hearing, and you put them on a boat and you deport them. And Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were deported, ironically enough back to Russia, where they had been born. That was Czarist Russia and now it was Soviet Russia in 1919. But they were still anarchists. And even though they had first welcomed the overthrow of the czarist regime, they soon found themselves in Russia at odds with the new Bolshevik regime because they were anarchists. They were antiauthoritarian, antistate. Maxim Gorky was putting out a little dissident newspaper and it didn’t last long because they were rounding up dissidents. So as opponents of the regime, they soon left the Soviet Union, settled in Western Europe. They picked a warm spot, the Mediterranean coast of France, and lived in very modest way there, separately, but still friends and still involved in things happening here. Berkman became sick and died in 1936. Emma Goldman died in fact when she was making a rare visit to the US in 1940. She died actually up in Canada.
I said I wanted to talk about something else, and that is about war and the present situation. Because wherever I go now, I have to talk about the war, and that’s what’s happening and what people are thinking about. People talk about terrorism, people are talking about war, and I have to talk about that or I’m not doing my duty to myself, that is to move from history in the past, into the present. And Emma Goldman was an absolutely incorrigible fighter against war, and spoke out against the Spanish-American War, against WW I, and anarchists in general, being antiauthoritarian and not trusting governments, I can’t imagine why they don’t trust governments, but they are instinctively antiwar.
It’s clear that people all over the country have been bombarded with the notion that we must support the war, support the president, we must have unity, we mustn’t dissent, you’re either for us or against us, if you raise questions about American foreign policy, the retort is “Oh, you’re justifying the attacks on the Twin Towers.” Or if you say that there are alternatives to war—and you probably know that people have been visited by the FBI for criticizing the war and the president. The incidents have been multiplied, multiplied around the country.
A retired worker out in the West who made a remark critical of Bush at his sports club was visited by the FBI and asked, “Are you a member of the sports club? Did you make this remark about the president?” A young woman was visited by the FBI, who said, “We hear you have a poster on your wall with a picture of Bush in a very unflattering way,” meaning: we must flatter Bush. This is scary. This is totalitarian.
They passed the Patriot Act, in which terrorism is defined in such a way to enable them to pick up anybody for anything they say. You don’t even have to do anything. We’re at a time when it becomes even more important to dissent from the establishment and the president, when everybody’s crying “We must unite behind the president”—it’s exactly such a time when we need dissenting voices. And the irony is that it’s exactly in times of war, that is when you’re dealing with life-and-death matters, that you’re not supposed to speak. So you have freedom of speech for trivial matters but not for life-and-death matters. That’s a nice working definition of democracy, isn’t it? But it shouldn’t be that way. This is exactly when we need the most lively discussion, so wherever I go these days I try to contribute to that discussion.
I spoke recently at North High School in Newton, just outside of Boston. I spoke to about five hundred students about the war, and afterward about four or five parents reacted angrily, showed up at a school committee meeting in Newton, saying, “Why did they invite him?” “Why would you let him speak?” I say this only to indicate that apparently to raise questions about the war is to engender a kind of ferocity that goes against democracy. So yes, I speak against the war, I’m writing against the war. I’ve written for The Progressive about the war.
On both pragmatic and moral grounds, I’m opposed to the war. Because pragmatic is simply. Is this very effective in doing something about terrorism? Because it seems to me very clear. We’ve carried on a war for four months, the president is asking for $50 billion more for the military budget, $45 billion more for home defense. It seems that people are still worried about terrorism. Have you noticed that people’s fears about terrorism have diminished because of the war? Since the war? I don’t see that. If anything, excitement is growing. And the measures taken presumably to guard us—Star Wars—from a pragmatic point of view, what are we doing against terrorism?
We set out to say, “Well here are these terrorists. We’re going to find Osama bin Laden.” Well, we didn’t, and even if we did, would that be dealing with terrorism? Well, we found this group, that group, we bombed the caves in Afghanistan, they said there were thousands of fighters in the caves. Well, they came up with a handful of people. Where are the others? As we learn from the government itself, there are terrorist networks in other countries—maybe forty, fifty—it changes from day to day, like the numbers of communists in McCarthy’s State Department used to change from day to day, because the truth is that they don’t know. So if you don’t know, what are you doing bombing Afghanistan?
There may be a network in the Philippines, in Syria, in Somalia in Africa, who knows where? Well clearly, we’re bombing and bombing but we haven’t done anything about terrorism. It’s as if a crime had been committed, a mass murder, and you’re looking for the perpetrators, and you hear that they are hiding out in Cambridge. Bomb Cambridge! Or the criminals in this neighborhood—you bomb the neighborhood! On the chance that this might result in killing the criminal. This is what we’ve been doing in Afghanistan—it’s absurd, just from a pragmatic point of view. Then on the moral point of view—that rests on how many innocent civilians have we killed with our bombing? That’s what my article in the current Nation is about.
Those of you reading the New York Times, there is this page every day, with photos of the victims from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—little photos and biographical sketches—it’s very moving. They’ll tell you about who these people were, what they did, what they cared about, what their hobbies were, who their families were—it’s very moving. Suddenly the numbers—three thousand or whatever it was—become not numbers but human beings. And I thought, “Well, we haven’t done the same thing to our victims in Afghanistan.” They are just numbers, just as the victims in the Twin Towers were just numbers to whoever planned those attacks in New York and Washington.
And I like to think, not specifically of the perpetrators of the attacks, but a significant number of people around the world who were sad about the attacks—“well, that’s too bad”—but they weren’t excited, they weren’t repelled by it. I wonder if those people who didn’t feel repelled by the attacks were deluded by the fact that they only knew about numbers—the people in the Twin Towers were just numbers to them. That if they had encountered them, seen their faces, talked to their families, a lot of these people would for the first time begin to recognize what had been done here in New York. And conversely, if American people could know, really know up close, and see the pictures and meet the families, and visit the hospitals of the victims of our bombing in Afghanistan, would the American people continue to support the bombing?
I suspect that the reason the American people support the bombing is because they believe Rumsfeld, because we have no one else talking to us. You turn on the TV, there he is. You turn off the TV, and there he is. You can’t escape him. And he is very calm and blithe. If there are questions about civilian casualties, he says, “Oh, well, we try our best. We don’t really mean to kill any civilians. These things happen. Collateral damage, right?” Remember Timothy McVeigh, when he was asked about the Oklahoma bombing (he’d learned this during the Gulf War, because this was a phrase used by the US during that war to describe what happened to civilians in Iraq), Timothy McVeigh said of the children: “Collateral damage.” So this is Rumsfeld. Collateral damage, an accident, unintentional. Or “They’re deliberately putting civilians in military targets.” That always gets to me. A village is destroyed. You mean they populated this village with ordinary people so that then it would become a propaganda weapon against the US, created a Hollywood set? No, there’s something wrong with that. I remember back to the Gulf War. And here, history is important. When you’re dealing with an event like this, what’s happening in Afghanistan, if you don’t have any history to American wars or American foreign policy, it’s as if you were born yesterday.
And then whatever people in authority tell you, you have no way of checking up on it. And it’s important to remember the lies that were told to the people of this country during the war in Vietnam. Lies about “Oh, we’re only bombing military targets”—and a million civilians die in Vietnam. I was in North Vietnam in 1968 and 1972 and saw the villages, a hundred miles away from a military target (as if there are that many military targets in Vietnam)—the village is totally destroyed by attacking jet planes. With some of that history, you know that the government lies all the time. These things are not accidents. When I say that, I don’t mean that the government goes out to deliberately kill civilians. I mean that they don’t care. Because it’s inevitable.
When something is neither deliberate nor an accident, and there’s something in between, the something in between is inevitable. And so when you do the bombing on this scale, it’s inevitable that you’ll kill large numbers of civilians. And the numbers of civilians killed in Afghanistan, nobody knows. The Pentagon doesn’t know, or won’t tell, and some of their responses are “Well, we’re not there on the ground; we don’t know.” And you can’t believe the Taliban; you can’t believe the Pentagon. But if you put together the dispatches in American newspapers and scattered on the back pages of the Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune, and you read Reuters and Agence France Presse, and you read in England The Guardian, The Independent, and The Times of London and put those scattered pieces together, you come up with a horrifying picture of the human damage that we have done in Afghanistan. And that is a moral disaster. We’ve met terrorism with terrorism.
So I’m arguing it from both a pragmatic and a moral point of view that war is indefensible. And people ought to speak out and defy the admonitions to be patriotic, using a very distorted definition of patriotism, and create a discussion about what is going on, or else we become victims, as people all over the world have become victims to their governments, and have allowed wars to go on endlessly, one after the other.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Howard Zinn Speaks, published by Haymarket Books, 2012.