America in the 18th and 19th centuries was a place of major upheavals. The 18th century Industrial Revolution led to massive changes not only in the economic and social superstructure but also in the political superstructure of the United States. The Industrial Revolution pushed America into a capitalist state and inculcated the concept of nationalism and patriotism in the hearts of Americans. The amalgamation of both capitalism and nationalism resulted in massive changes in America characterized by class struggles, economic upheavals, and political pressures. Amidst all the happenings of the 18th and 19th century America one Russian immigrant Emma Goldman stood up to voice her disgust with the capitalist system and all its underpinnings. Emma Goldman heavily altered and shaped the course of American socio-economic and politico future and the effects of her agitations are still felt to date.
After years of trial and error inventors, James Watt and Mathew Boulton finally unveiled the steam engine in 1775. This was a major invention that generated steam power without reliance on human labor and promised to revolutionize the manufacturing world. The invention was a major success and by 1800 it was behind the Industrial Revolution that revolutionized production and manufacturing. The steam engine’s ability to generate power from coal-generated steam made production efficient, timely and cheap and therefore informed the shift from traditional methods of production and manufacturing to the modern reliance on industries (Capital and Labor). The industries still required human labor to run and the poor peasants, children, and emigrants were quickly hired as laborers. The laborers were a pittance and generally subjected to poor working conditions though the industries made huge revenues. As a matter of fact, industrialization made child labor rife as children were easily controlled and poorly paid (Capital and Labor). The shift to industrialization soon created a capitalist class who was extremely wealthy and powerful (Capital and Labor). Capitalism brought with it numerous challenges such as class struggle, economic upheavals and political pressures that negatively affected the poor.
In the midst of the numerous upheavals and boisterous furor in the United States, a young Emma Goldman decided to immigrate to America. Emma Goldman was born in 1869 in Knovo, present-day Lithuania and immigrated to America in 1885 (Chalberg 16). Emma Goldman got recruited as a laborer in a clothes factory as a seamstress. Here she experienced the brutality of capitalism first hand as she was paid peanuts after a full day of work and subjected to inhumane working conditions. Emma Goldman in 1886 witnessed the Haymarket executions where hundreds of demonstrating workers were bombed, shot at and beaten. The Haymarket executions made Emma Goldman politically conscious and opened her eyes to the inner workings of the politico-economic superstructure termed capitalism (Chalberg 78). Goldman took to studies and deeply read the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. From her readings and personal experiences as a worker in capitalist America, she became an anarchist political activist. She detested and agitated against the workings of Capitalism, government, religion and challenges the contemporary views on sexuality.
Goldman’s political consciousness was further heightened when his long term boyfriend, Alexander Berkman, was sentenced to more than twenty years for the attempted murder of industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Goldman developed her anarchist political philosophy and became massively involved in the planning of labor protests and strikes and this led to her several arrests (Chalberg 143). She also agitated for the publication of information concerning birth control and was involved in the issuing of pro-birth control lectures and dissemination of relevant articles. Goldman got arrested for her actions of disseminating pro-birth control information and was subsequently incarcerated.
In 1890, America suffered an economic depression that resulted in a major uproar from the majority poor. The economic depression was caused by the capitalist class producing more than the majority could consume therefore leading to a surplus. Prices of basic commodities depreciated and led to the massive retrenching of factory workers. This instigated a class war between the working class and the capitalist class (Zinn 23). The class war led created a political crisis in America making Theodore Roosevelt’s government rethink the Monroe doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine was a United States foreign policy that espoused the notion of non-interference in foreign matters. Theodore Roosevelt to avert disaster arising from the brewing class conflict between the capitalist and working classes came up with an interference foreign policy doctrine that allowed the United States to interfere in foreign matters. The American economy was in dire need of foreign markets to reverse the economic depression of 1890 and therefore the change in the foreign policy was gladly welcomed (Zinn 32). Through an overriding blend of the concepts of capitalism, nationalism, and patriotism the American people rallied behind the policy of intervention. America quickly swooped in Latin America and intervened in the affairs of Argentina, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Chile, and Cuba. In the early 19th century America revised its foreign affairs policy to include imperialism. Imperialism enabled the United States to be involved in the economic exploitation of the foreign nations it occupied such as Japan, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Liberia.
Goldman was a big critic of the U.S. government’s foreign policy of imperialism. She organized lectures and wrote articles dissecting the concept of imperialism and highlighting the plight of the exploited countries (Graham 218). During the course of the Second World War in 1917, she advocated against the conscription of men into the army (Zinn 356). She argued that the war was only being fought for the interest of a few influential people in government and was costly to the American people. She argued that the cost of the war was being paid by ordinary American households through the taxation of basic commodities. Her anti-conscription stand put her at odds with the government and she was arrested and sentenced to two years in jail (Chalberg 187). The American government on technical grounds deported her back to Russia her country of origin. The Bolshevik government of Russia denied Goldman access and she later settled in France. She carried on with her anarchist agitation and traveled to Spain in 1936 to support the anarchist revolution during the Spanish Civil War.
Emma Goldman was heavily involved in the socioeconomic and politico upheavals of the United States during the 19th century. She raised her voice where many remained silent and criticized the government’s policies which she deemed harmful to the interest of not only Americans but also other nationals. Her agitation against imperialism inspired many more people to stand up and call for an end to imperialism as the foreign policy of America. Goldman also stood up for the rights of women as is depicted by her struggle against the birth control act of 19th century America that criminalized the use of contraceptives among women.
“Capital and Labor.” Annenberg Learner, www.learner.org/series/a-biography-of-america/capital-and-labor/
Chalberg, John. Emma Goldman: American Individualist. Harper Collins, 1991.
Graham, Robert. “Emma Goldman: The American Years.” 2006: 217-225, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25149716
Zinn, Howard. “The Socialist Challenge.” A Peoples History of the United States, New York, NY: Harper & Row, 2017.