Home / General / This Day In Labor History: December 21, 1919

This Day In Labor History: December 21, 1919



On December 21, 1919, the anarchist Emma Goldman was deported from the United States to the Soviet Union as part of the larger crackdown against radicals under the Alien Act and other World War I laws that sought to suppress dissent. This shameful moment in American history is both an excellent time to examine Goldman’s life and to remember the historical suppression of free speech during a period where attacks on the free speech of leftists are rising again.

Born in what is today Lithuania in 1869, Goldman immigrated to the United States in 1885, at the age of 16. Already exposed to radical thoughts in Russia, she threw herself into politics when she entered the United States, especially after the Haymarket Riot and repression of anarchists that followed. She met her lover and fellow anarchist Alexander Berkman. They moved to Worcester, Massachusetts and ran an ice cream shop. Goldman came to public attention for the first time in 1892, when she helped Berkman plan the assassination of coal executive Henry Clay Frick after the plutocrat busted the Homestead Strike. The failure of Berkman to kill the unarmed Frick may tell us why we can’t trust anarchists to ever accomplish anything. But it also made Goldman famous. Police raided her apartment but did not find any evidence and she was not prosecuted for her involvement.

She built upon her fame from Homestead over the next nearly three decades, fighting for an array of social justice causes, especially women’s rights and especially women’s control over their own bodies. She was first prosecuted for inciting a riot in 1894, organizing citizens for economic justice in the aftermath of the Panic of 1893. She was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison. After serving 10 months, she was released to thousands of adoring followers at a post-release event in New York. She then went to Europe to study midwifery and meet with leading international anarchists. In 1901, Leon Czolgosz claimed he killed William McKinley in her name, an act which she distanced herself but did not denounce, causing a rift between her and fellow anarchists who were revolted by the assassin. She disappeared from public action for a couple of years before returning. In 1906, she and others started the radical journal Mother Earth, which Berkman edited after his release from prison in 1907. For the next decade, she traveled the nation giving radical lectures about both anarchism and birth control. In doing so, she drank fairly heavily (I saw a paper at a conference earlier this year which quoted her talking about much she liked California because the wine was “cheap and strong.”), fell in love with Ben Reitman who followed her on her speaking tours and openly cheated on her the entire time, and became a strong supporter of Margaret Sanger after the latter faced legal problems for her birth control advocacy. Goldman herself was arrested for violating the Comstock Laws as late as 1916, preferring to work at hard labor rather than the pay the fine.

Through these travels and experiences, Goldman developed a sophisticated ideology. Although an anarchist, she was close enough to the experiences of lived people to understand much about them. When challenged by an elderly worker about her talk of revolution and dismissal of incremental change because it was all he had to hold onto, she rethought her positions and accepted shorter hours and higher wages as steps toward a broader revolution that helped people in the present and laid a path for the future. Yet like most anarchists, she did not believe the state had any role to play in making a better future. The state was inherently a coercive force that needed to be destroyed, not seen as a tool that would ever help workers. But to be fair, Samuel Gompers basically believed the same thing, except that of course he completely rejected the anarchist solution to this problem. And given the open warfare the federal government is about to launch against workers’ organizations, it’s a position perhaps worth revisiting.

When the United States entered World War I, Goldman, like most radicals, was revolted, believing it a capitalist war to divide the world’s profits. In this, they were not exactly wrong. They began acting to resist the draft and the war. The Wilson administration, although the most sympathetic presidential administration to organized labor to date, had no tuck for radicalism. It pressed through Congress a raft of new anti-radical laws. The most famous is the Espionage Act. This is what led to the arrest and imprisonment of Eugene Debs for organizing draft resistance. Goldman was arrested under the Espionage Act on June 15, 1917. She was sentenced to two years in prison, during which she worked as a seamstress and met many other leftist activists sentenced to prison for the same crime. She was released in September 1919. But a very nice young man named J. Edgar Hoover was cutting his teeth in prosecuting radicals. While she was in prison, Congress passed and Wilson signed the Alien Act, which provided for the deportation of any immigrant who identified as an anarchist. Hoover had Goldman immediately rearrested under this law, writing of her and Berkman that they “are, beyond doubt, two of the most dangerous anarchists in this country and return to the community will result in undue harm.”

Goldman was an American citizen and thus stated that she did not qualify under this law. But for Hoover, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, and other anti-radicals, this did not matter. They were determined to cleanse the nation of scary people who talked about class conflict. She refused to fight what was a lost cause.

Goldman and 248 radical immigrants were deported on December 21, 1919 and sent to the Soviet Union. Goldman was initially optimistic about finding a better society there. But like many foreign radicals, she soon became disillusioned over the lack of free speech in the revolutionary state. She supported the Kronstadt Rebellion in 1921 and when the Soviet government cracked down, Goldman and Berkman, no longer a couple but still close friends, decided to leave. They first went to Riga and then lived in Berlin for a few years. They were not accepted in Berlin because time had passed them by. With leftists turning to communism as the hope for the future, Goldman’s anti-Soviet message was rejected, while the city’s liberals hated them for being too radical. She left Berkman in Berlin and traveled to London. A local radical married her to stabilize her life and allow her to have a British passport to avoid deportation. Based on this, she traveled to Paris and then settled in Toronto, where she died in 1940.

This is the 203rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Steve LaBonne

    Thank you for this post. I have to shamefacedly confess that I had no idea she had lived as late as 1940, still less that she ended up in Toronto.

  • LeeEsq

    Completely frivolous but I’m always fascinated by deliberately posed photographs of very famous people from the past. The above photo of Emma Goldman is a definite let me try to look like an intense intellectual and activist for the photographer pose. You can find many other photographs like that.

    • gorillagogo

      Back in her day, was there any other type of photo other than deliberately posed? Sitting for a photograph was akin to sitting for a portrait painting — you didn’t smile for the camera the way we do now

      • rea

        Baby pictures back in 1869, maybe–later in her life cameras were not so primitive. By 1900, you could buy a Kodak Brownie.

        • Jean-Michel

          This is true, but in the early 1910s (when this picture was taken) studio portrait photography—and I’m assuming that’s what this is—still primarily used gelatin dry plates, which had exposure times in the seconds.

      • The Dark God of Time

        There’s a picture of a young Frank Sinatra taking a picture of his reflection in what seems to be a public restroom mirror. It is probably one of the earliest selfies not taken by a professional.

        The Empress Dowager had her court photographer take pictures of her impersonating Guan Yin in famous scenes involving this Bodhisattva. This undoubtly was part and parcel of her delusional belief that the Boxers had magical abilities that would help them overcome the white devil’s bullets. The police chief of Peking offered to execute a Boxer to convince her otherwise, but the demonstration was refused.l


      • LeeEsq

        It depends on what you mean by posed. There are pictures of people from that time being completely silly on camera. Being silly is a pose of sort but more spontaneous than the trying to look meaningful or thoughtful or just stay in place long enough.

        Also, that photo was probably taken after Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lived. How the Other Half Lived involved the newly invented flash photography that allowed for non-posed photographs. That’s what made the book so powerful.

        • Hogan

          Being silly is a pose of sort but more spontaneous than the trying to look meaningful or thoughtful or just stay in place long enough.

          Charlie Chaplin begs to differ.

        • Posing as an intellectual when you are a foreign born, jewish, revolutionary is a god damned revolutionary act. Not an affectation.

    • Thom

      Not frivolous at all–many historians put a great deal of time into deciphering the meaning of such poses.

      • LeeEsq

        It means that Emma Goldman was well aware of the need for brand marketing.

    • The Dark God of Time

      She’s wearing a pince-nez, which would explain the thinigie on her dress:

      Women often used a special brooch-like device pinned to the clothing, which would automatically retract the line to which the glasses were attached when they were not in use.


      • Kinda like a keychain for glasses?

        • BigHank53

          Exactly like one of those self-retracting keychains or badge-holders. Of course, we should remember that women’s clothing of the period was made without any pockets, as women obviously did not need to carry keys, money, glasses, a watch, etc.

          • cpinva

            which is how the lady’s handbag came into being. need to have something to cart around all those things ladies didn’t need to cart around with them. this tradition (of pocketless lady’s outer garments) continues today. very few dresses (especially high fashion ones) have pockets, so a bag is kind of a necessity. when with a male companion (one’s husband, for example) at an event, the clutch will do, as the male companion is expected to attend to carrying around one’s things.

          • Origami Isopod

            Well, you see, pockets and things going into pockets would “spoil the line” of the woman’s dress. Because how she appeared to others was more important than her convenience or even necessity.

            This mentality is still with us, in many fashion designers.

      • Keaaukane

        The glasses made me think the picture was of Woodrow Wilson in drag.

  • Bruce Vail

    Emma Goldman would return to America in death.

    According to her wishes, her body was interred at Forest Home Cemetery, just outside of Chicago. She wanted to be buried in the same cemetery with the Haymarket Martyrs, whom she credited with inspiring her life-long radicalism.

    • TroubleMaker13

      I visited her grave years ago. I knew the name of the cemetery and tracked it down, but had no idea where she was on the grounds. I walked into the office to ask, expecting them to not know who she was and have to look her up on a chart or something, but when the guy asked me the name and I said “Emma Goldman”, he shot me a look like “Oh, you’re one of those people” and handed me a pamphlet of “famous graves in Forest Home”.

      She’s just a few yards away from the Haymarket monument and her tombstone was covered in graffiti a la Jim Morrison.

      • Matty

        I’ve still never been to Forest Home, despite living here for years. I think a trip may be advisable in the spring.

  • Bruce Vail

    A good writer, too.

    Her autobiography, Living My Life, has an honored place on my bookshelf.

    • Steve LaBonne

      That’s going on my reading list. Thanks for the tip.

    • witlesschum

      I see there are both two volume and one volume abridged versions. Which should people read, in your opinion?

      • Bruce Vail

        I didn’t even know there was an abridged version.

        I have a Two Volume set that is an unabridged republication of the original 1931 version (Alfred Knopf).

        • witlesschum


    • TopsyJane

      Favorite heading (from memory): “I Horsewhip Most.”

      Goldman has a major supporting role in “Reds” in which she was played by Maureen Stapleton.

      Also, the Emma Goldman Clinic in Iowa can always use your support.

    • wengler

      My Disillusionment in Russia is also very well written and one of the better sources of come across for early Soviet Russia(in English). Lenin basically gave her a train to travel throughout the country so she could tell the world of how great the new workers’ revolution was doing and she wrote a whole book about how awful it was. Goldman was no one’s tool.

  • liberal

    OT: This is funny as hell:

    “Any of those could prompt a legal challenge,” said Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western in Cleveland. “If the Trump administration tries to exert broad executive authority, I’m guardedly optimistic the courts will stand behind the relevant precedents.”

    [Emphasis added]


    Adler, a libertarian, often worked along side conservatives to criticize Obama’s use of executive orders. Now he expects to be joined by liberal lawyers sounding the same theme.

    “There are reasons to be concerned. Donald Trump has not had political or government experience, and he’s not demonstrated an understanding of what the chief executive can and cannot do,” he said. “So I hope my worst fears don’t come to pass, and we can have less partisan debate over the scope of executive power.”

  • Matt_L

    Hurrah for Emma Goldman!

  • Karen24

    Off-topic, but someone needs to ridicule this, the Platonic Ideal of posts from The Federalist.

    • liberal

      It’s self-ridiculing.

      What kind of fucking moron would write something like Elon Musk Is a Counterweight to Mike Pence? And that’s just a minor problem with that post.

    • BigHank53

      I don’t even need to read the fuckin’ thing. It’s hosted on The Federalist, that pallid bastard offspring of the Tea Party and the Prosperity Gospel, a simpering all-white self-affirmation for upper-middle-class suburbanites that want to enjoy the fruits of liberalism without paying for them.

    • philip.koop

      You call that off-topic?! This is off-topic: a completely different Goldman to ridicule:

      Goldman traders bid, offered, and executed transactions of swap spreads, U.S. Treasuries, and Eurodollar futures contracts at the critical 11:00 a.m. fixing time with the intent to affect the “print,” i.e., the reference rates captured at 11:00 a.m. and sent to submitting banks, and thereby to affect the published USD ISDAFIX. As captured in emails and audio recordings, when Goldman had derivatives positions settling or pricing against USD ISDAFIX, Goldman traders discussed their intent to move USD ISDAFIX in whichever direction benefitted their positions. Goldman traders stated their manipulative goals in plain language, such as directing their swap broker to “spend what you need, but make SURE we get the print,” and even objected when their attempts to manipulate were not performed as inexpensively as possible, such as when the former head of Goldman’s swap trading desk complained, “I should control the screen without having to given [sic] some loser another [trade].”

      Source http://www.cftc.gov/PressRoom/PressReleases/pr7505-16.

      • liberal

        Banksters will keep pulling that shit until the probability of getting caught*expected fine is >> increased revenue from behavior.

        Alternatively, we could just execute them when they pull this shit.

        • Ahuitzotl

          it has to be either/or ?

  • pluky

    “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square”

  • Crusty

    This one was pretty interesting. Well done.

  • witlesschum

    Come back Emma Goldman
    Rise up old Joe Hill

  • My paternal grandmother (b. 1902) was named for Emma Goldman who was a family friend of my paternal great-grandfather who was a well known anarchist of the period. She was not a friend of my paternal great-grandmother who did not want to share great grandfather with E.G. in a free love marathon.

    • Karen24

      What a fun story! (Well, maybe rather less fun for your great-grandmother, but fun for us.)

    • Bruce Vail

      Oh, tell us more, What is the family legend? Did great-grandmother have good reason to be jealous? Or was the involvement with Emma solely an intellectual attraction?

  • Bruce Vail

    FYI – Espionage Act was also aimed at the foreign-language press in the United States, particularly the German press. There were hundreds of daily and weekly German-language newspapers being published in 1917 and a lot of them were sympathetic to the German government position on the Great War. Many, many of these were silenced by our government.

    It was even used to silence some Irish nationalist publications, because they were so fiercely opposed to anything that looked like support for the British Empire.

    • DrDick

      There were still about a dozen German-language newspapers in St. Louis when my father was growing up in the 20s-30s. Hitler and WWII spelled their death.

      • The Dark God of Time

        The family legend, so far unsupported by any research, is that we date back to the early 1700s as refugees from the Palatinate region of Germany:


        The Palatine settlements did not prove to be viable in the long term, except for those settled in County Limerick and County Wexford in Ireland and in the colony of New York in British North America. In Ireland, less than 200 families remained after the original settlement in 1709. Nevertheless, they maintained their distinctive culture until well into the nineteenth century and Palatine surnames are now diffused across the country.[1] The largest concentration of descendants of Irish Palatine residents lives around Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

        The English transported nearly 3,000 German Palatines in ten ships to New York in 1710. Many of them were first assigned to work camps along the Hudson River to work off their passage. Close to 850 families settled in the Hudson River Valley, primarily in what are now Germantown and Saugerties, New York. In 1723 100 heads of families from the work camps were the first Europeans to acquire land west of Little Falls, New York, in present-day Herkimer County on both the north and south sides along the Mohawk River. Later additional Palatine Germans settled along the Mohawk River for several miles, founding towns such as Palatine Bridge, and in the Schoharie Valley.

  • Bruce Vail

    Goldman was, of course, a huge supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an object of constant derision and contempt from Erik.

    • That’s not an accurate depiction of my view of the IWW. I simply don’t romanticize the IWW, which sets me apart from most labor radicals today.

      • Bruce Vail

        Oh, I’m pleased to hear that.

        My recollection is you have made numerous statements that IWW didn’t accomplish anything. (Which I agree to be true, as long as we define accomplishment as building an institutional structure that will represent workers and improve their lives into the future.) My recollection is also that you have described admirers of the IWW as silly romantics who don’t understand the nature of workers’ struggle.

        So, please, correct my errors…

        • The Dark God of Time

          RAH, in Stranger in a Strange Land, makes a favorable reference to the Wobblies, IIRC.

        • Hob

          I’m not sure what you think you’re accomplishing (other than reminding everyone that you dislike Erik) by offering such extreme, reductive caricatures of his very extensive posts about the IWW.

          It takes about two seconds to look them all up and understand how ridiculous it is to dismiss them as “constant derision and contempt.” If you didn’t bother to look them up, but just relied on your recollection– when your recollection was telling you something as implausible as “the person you’re mad at has written many thousands of words on the history of the IWW and its contemporaries in the labor movement, but actually he doesn’t take them seriously in any way, and he thinks literally all of their supporters were always fools”– I find that a little surprising for a journalist. Following up with a sarcastic “please, correct my errors”, rather than making the slightest attempt to cite anything or provide any context, is similarly bizarre.

          By acting as if a conclusion of (paraphrase) “on balance they weren’t successful because of [an exhaustive discussion of historical facts], therefore people who praise them without taking those things into account are not being serious” is the equivalent of just writing “IWW droolz”, you are coming across like exactly the kind of non-serious admirer he mentioned in that one post.

          • Bruce Vail

            You are absolutely wrong that I ‘dislike’ Erik. Quite the opposite, in fact. I keep coming back to this blog precisely because I like Erik and his work.

            My respect and affection for Erik doesn’t mean I need to endorse every single one of his utterances. At least that is the way I see it.

        • Hob

          I mean, for instance, here is the post where he talked about people romanticizing the IWW. First off, that’s obviously just an introduction to a whole big series of posts that is about 90% neutral exposition of the history and 10% commentary… but let’s say you had to deduce Erik’s entire position on the IWW from this one post. Does he describe people as being “silly” or not understanding workers’ struggle? No: he uses such terms of derision and contempt as “well researched and well written”, and then says that he thinks their point of view is incomplete, specifically in the context of what activists today can/should apply from this history. Nothing to do with whether we’re supposed to disapprove of Emma Goldman for having been a fan.

          Having written that, I must now retract part of my previous comment: you are not coming across like the people he’s criticizing in that post, but rather, worse. Those people are at least trying to say something about something important.

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