Another Perspective

Radical Disillusionment

It's as old as progressive time.

By 3.27.07

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Emma Goldman, a young shopkeeper in 1892, was serving a customer in her ice cream parlor in Worcester, Mass., when she got the latest news about a labor strike in Pittsburgh.

As she explains in her autobiography, Living My Life:

One afternoon a customer came in for an ice cream while I was alone in the store. As I set the dish down before him, I caught the large headlines of his paper: "LATEST DEVELOPMENTS IN HOMESTEAD -- FAMILIES OF STRIKERS EVICTED FROM THE COMPANY HOUSES -- WOMAN IN CONFINEMENT CARRIED OUT INTO STREET BY SHERIFFS." I read over the man's shoulder Frick's dictum to the workers: He would rather see them dead than concede to their demands, and he threatened to import Pinkerton detectives. The brutal bluntness of the account, the inhumanity of Frick toward the evicted mother, inflamed my mind. Indignation swept my whole being. I heard the man at the table ask: "Are you sick, young lady? Can I do anything for you?" "Yes, you can let me have your paper," I blurted out. "You won't have to pay me for the ice cream. But I must ask you to leave. I must close the store." The man looked at me as if I had gone crazy.

Goldman closed her store that day, permanently. Standing in revolutionary solidarity with the working class against Henry Clay Frick, chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, was more important than making sundaes.

"It was Homestead, not Russia; I knew it now," wrote Goldman, a Lithuanian-born anarchist, seeing the battle in Pittsburgh as the spark that could ignite a worldwide firestorm of revolt against hierarchy and subjugation.

The first task was to arouse America's insufficiently radical masses by printing a manifesto and taking it to Pittsburgh, she explained, "a flaming call to the men of Homestead to throw off the yoke of capitalism, to use their present struggle as a steppingstone to the destruction of the wage system, and to continue toward social revolution and anarchism."

Rather than negotiate a union contract, Frick ordered the construction of a solid board fence topped with barbed wire around the Homestead mill. Striking workers dubbed the fortified property "Fort Frick."

"Not a strike, but a lockout," Frick announced. "It was," wrote Goldman, "an open declaration of war."

On July 6, 1892, a 13-hour battle between strikers and 300 Pinkerton detectives, hired by Frick to protect the nonunion workers he planned to employ, left 10 dead and 65 wounded.

"I will kill Frick," proclaimed Alexander Berkman, Goldman's lover and close political associate, and, like Goldman, a Lithuanian-born anarchist. Gaining entry to Frick's office, Berkman shot Frick twice in the neck and stabbed him four times in the leg. Frick survived and Berkman was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

"A blow aimed at Frick," theorized Goldman, would "strike terror in the enemy's ranks and make them realize that the proletariat of America had its avengers."

Nearly three decades after the assassination attempt on Frick (and after being imprisoned three times -- for inciting a riot, distributing birth-control information, and conspiring to obstruct the military draft), Goldman was deported to the Soviet Union, along with Berkman, in 1919.

Greeted as heroes, Goldman and Berkman met all the leading figures of the Russian Revolution of 1917 -- Vladimir Lenin, Gregory Zinoviev, Alexandra Kollontai and Leon Trotsky. Lenin readily accepted Goldman's proposal that she and Berkman develop a group called "Russian Friends of American Liberty" to advance the rights of political prisoners in the United States.

Instead, what Goldman witnessed firsthand in Russia from 1920 to 1921 was worse than Homestead. "I saw before me the Bolshevik State, formidable, crushing every constructive revolutionary effort, suppressing, debasing and disintegrating everything," she wrote in her book, My Disillusionment In Russia, published in 1923.

From close range, Goldman observed the slaughter of workers who went on strike in several Petrograd factories. "The 'conquest' of the city was characterized by ruthless savagery," a "bloodbath" of those classified by the government as "counter-revolutionaries," she reported. "They had dared to raise their voice in protest against the new rulers of Russia."

Goldman's conclusion, after witnessing the concentration camps, the destruction of trade unions, the persecution of independent thought, the rampant corruption raging throughout the Soviet government, and the forced labor inflicted upon the masses (and the wholesale arrest of Russia's anarchists): "The centralized political State was Lenin's deity, to which everything else was to be sacrificed."

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.