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Alexander Berkman, the son of a Jewish businessman, was born in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, on 21st November, 1870. At the time the territory was part of the Russian Empire. His father, a wholesaler in the shoe industry, was prosperous enough to be allowed to move to St. Petersburg.
Berkman grew up in comfortable surroundings, that including servants and a summer house. He attended a gymnasium reserved for the privileged elements of society.
On 1st March, 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. The bomb blast shattered the windows of his classroom. That evening, his older brother, who sympathized with the revolutionists, told him that he had been killed by the People's Will. As the author of Anarchist Portraits (1995), has pointed out, Berkman "was deeply moved by the martyrdom of the populists, five of whom were hanged for their part in the assassination. He was inspired by their idealism and courage, and from that time forward their example lingered in his thoughts."
His mother's brother, Mark Natanson, was a close friend of Peter Kropotkin, and was also involved in revolutionary activity. Berkman was later to write that Natanson was "my ideal of a noble and great man". At the age of fifteen he was already reading revolutionary literature and was expelled from school for "precocious godlessness, dangerous tendencies, and insubordination."
Berkman also became aware of the racism in Russia for when his father died, the family was deprived of the right to live in the capital and were forced to live in Kovno, a town in the Jewish Pale of Settlement. In 1887 his mother died and the following year he decided to move to the United States.
On his arrival in New York City Berkman joined the principal Jewish anarchist group, Pioneers of Liberty. Soon afterwards he began living with Emma Goldman, a Russian immigrant who was working in a clothing factory in Rochester. Berkman and Goldman both became involved in the campaign to free the men convicted of the Haymarket Bombing. They were also influenced by the anarchist writings of Johann Most.
In 1892 Berkman and Goldman started a small business in Worcester, Massachusetts, providing lunches for local workers. Later that year Amalgamated Iron and Steel Workers Union called out its members at the Steel Homestead plant owned by Henry Frick and Andrew Carnegie. Frick took the controversial decision to employ 300 strikebreakers from the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The men were brought in on armed barges down the Monongahela River. The strikers were waiting for them and a day long battle took place. Ten men were killed and 60 wounded before the governor obtained order by placing Homestead under martial law.
Berkman was appalled by Frick's behaviour and decided to make a dramatic gesture against capitalism. After gaining entry into his office, Berkman shot Henry Frick three times and stabbed him twice. However, Frick survived the attack and made a full-recovery. Found guilty of attempted murder, Berkman was sent to Western Penitentiary of Pennsylvania in Allegheny City.
After ten years in prison, Berkman wrote to Emma Goldman: "My youthful ideal of a free humanity in tile vague future, has become clarified and crystallized into the living truth of Anarchy, as the sustaining elemental force of my everyday existence." Berkman was released in 1906. He wrote that "I feel like one recovering from a long illness: very weak, but with a touch of joy in life."
After the death of Johann Most, Berkman and Emma Goldman became the leaders of the anarchist movement in the United States. They published the radical journal, Mother Earth and books such as Goldman's Anarchism and Other Essays (1910) and Berkman's Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (1912). They also helped organize the Ferrer School in New York City and industrial disputes such as the Lawrence Textile Strike.
On the outbreak of the First World War both Berkman and Emma Goldman became involved in the campaign to keep the United States out of the conflict. They also organized anti-militarist rallies in New York City and went on several lecture tours in an attempt to "arouse public opinion against the growing war hysteria".
Berkman moved to San Francisco and in January, 1916, started a new anarchist journal, Blast. When five months later a bomb went off killing six people in the city. The authorities suspected that the bomb had been planted by anti-war campaigners and Berkman was arrested but later released. Thomas Mooney, a local trade union leader was falsely convicted of the offence but spent the next twenty-three years in prison before being released.
After the USA declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, it was claimed that Berkman had violated the Espionage Act. Under this act it was an offence to publish material that undermined the war effort. Berkman was arrested, tried and sentenced to two years in Atlanta Federal Prison, seven months of which he spent in solitary confinement for protesting against officers beating fellow prisoners.
In 1919 Woodrow Wilson appointed A. Mitchell Palmer as his attorney general. Soon after taking office, a government list of 62 people believed to hold "dangerous, destructive and anarchistic sentiments" was leaked to the press. It was also revealed that these people had been under government surveillance for many years. Worried by the revolution that had taken place in Russia, Palmer became convinced that Communist agents were planning to overthrow the American government. Palmer recruited John Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and together they used the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) to launch a campaign against radicals and left-wing organizations.
A. Mitchell Palmer claimed that Communist agents from Russia were planning to overthrow the American government. On 7th November, 1919, the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects were held without trial for a long time. The vast majority were eventually released but Berkman, Emma Goldman, Mollie Steimer, and 245 other people, were deported to Russia.
Henry L. Mencken wrote that "Berkman was a transparently honest man yet we hunt him as if he were a mad dog - and finally kick him out of the country. And with him goes a shrewder head and a braver spirit than has been seen in public among us since the American Civil War."
In January 1920 Berkman and Goldman toured Russia collecting material for the Museum of the Revolution in Petrograd. However, Lenin was a strong opponent of anarchism. He told Nestor Makhno, the most important anarchist in Russia: "The majority of anarchists think and write about the future without understanding the present. That is what divides us Communists from them."
A pact with the anarchists for joint military action against General Anton Denikin and his White Army was signed in March 1919. However, the Bolsheviks did not trust the anarchists and two months later two Cheka agents sent to assassinate Nestor Makhno were caught and executed. Leon Trotsky, commander-in-chief of the Bolsheviks forces, ordered the arrest of Makhno and sent in troops to Hulyai-Pole dissolve the agricultural communes set up by the Makhnovists. With Makhno's power undermined, a few days later, Denikin forces arrived and completed the job, liquidating the local soviets as well. In September, 1919, the Red Army was able to force Denikin's army to retreat to the shores of the Black Sea.
Leon Trotsky now turned to dealing with the anarchists and outlawed the Makhnovists. According to the author of Anarchist Portraits (1995): "There ensued eight months of bitter struggle, with losses heavy on both sides. A severe typhus epidemic augmented the toll of victims. Badly outnumbered, Makhno's partisans avoided pitched battles and relied on the guerrilla tactics they had perfected in more than two years of civil war."
Berkman, who had already been appalled by the way that Lenin and Trotsky had dealt with the Kronstadt Uprising decided to leave Russia. "Grey are the passing days. One by one the embers of hope have died out. Terror and despotism have crushed the life born in October. The slogans of the Revolution are forsworn, its ideals stifled in the blood of the people. The breath of yesterday is dooming millions to death; the shadow of today hangs like a black pall over the country. Dictatorship is trampling the masses under foot. The Revolution is dead; its spirit cries in the wilderness.... I have decided to leave Russia."
After a brief stay in Stockholm, he lived in Berlin, where he published several pamphlets and books on the Bolshevik government, including The Bolshevik Myth (1925). In this book he wrote: "One by one the embers of hope have died out. Terror and despotism have crushed the life born in October, 1917. The breath of yesterday is dooming millions to death: the shadow of today hangs like a black pall over the country. The Revolution is dead; its spirit cries in the wilderness."
Berkman also edited the book on political persecution under the Bolsheviks, Letters from Russian Prisons (1925). Later that year he moved to Paris and joined several anarchists living in exile. This included Peter Arshinov, Vsevolod Volin, Emma Goldman, Nestor Makhno, Sébastien Faure and Rudolf Rocker.
In 1926 Nestor Makhno joined forces broke with Peter Arshinov to publish their controversial Organizational Platform, which called for a General Union of Anarchists. This was opposed by Berkman, Vsevolod Volin, Emma Goldman, Sébastien Faure and Rudolf Rocker, who argued that the idea of a central committee clashed with the basic anarchist principle of local organisation.
Berkman socialised with a group of radicals that lived in Paris. This included Emily Coleman, Douglas Garman, Edgell Rickword, Peggy Guggenheim, Laurence Vail, William Gerhardie and John Holms. Guggenheim later commented: "During that winter (of 1928) I met Emma Goldman and Alexander (Sasha) Berkman. They were glamorous revolutionary figures and one expected them to be quite different. They were frightfully human."
Victor Serge was one of those who greatly admired Goldman and Berkman: "The American background of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman estranged them from the Russians, and turned them into representatives of an idealistic generation that had completely vanished in Russia. They embodied the humanistic rebellion of the turn of the century: Emma Goldman with her organizing flair and practical disposition, her narrow but generous prejudices, and her self-importance, typical of American women devoted to social work."
Berkman concentrated on his writing and in 1929 published Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism. The author of Anarchist Portraits (1995) wrote: "Berkman was not an original theorist. His ideas were drawn largely from Kropotkin and other founding fathers of the movement. But he was a lucid and gifted writer with a firm and fluent command of his subject... The result was a classic, ranking with Kropotkin's Conquest of Bread as the clearest exposition of communist anarchism in English or any other language."
Berkman suffered from poor health and underwent two unsuccessful operations for a prostate condition. In constant pain and having to rely on the financial help of friends, Alexander Berkman committed suicide on 28th June, 1936. This was just three weeks before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, which, as Emma Goldman suggests, might have given him some hope for the future.
We are not going to say that it is an outrage. Why should the government not commit outrages? Invasion of personal liberty, suppression of free speech and free press, silencing non-conformists and protestants, shooting down rebellious workers - all this is of the very essence of government.
We don't complain. We understand Wilson's position. He must do hit master's bidding. This is the "sane policy." But we want to warn the weather cock in the White House that it may not prove safe. Suppressior of the voice of discontent leads to assassination. Vide Russia.
7th March, 1921: Distant rumbling reaches my ears as I cross the Nevsky. It sounds again, stronger and nearer, as if rolling toward me. All at once I realize the artillery is being fired. It is 6 p.m. Kronstadt has been attacked! My heart is numb with despair; something has died within me.
17th March, 1921: Kronstadt has fallen today. Thousands of sailors and workers lie dead in its streets. Summary execution of prisoners and hostages continues.
30th September, 1921: One by one the embers of hope have died out. Dictatorship is trampling the masses under the foot. The revolution is dead; its spirit cries in the wilderness. The Bolshevik myth must be destroyed. I have decided to leave Russia.
One by one the embers of hope have died out. The Revolution is dead; its spirit cries in the wilderness.
Grey are the passing days. I have decided to leave Russia.
With the death of Johann Most in 1906 (shortly before Berkman's release from prison), Berkman, together with Emma Goldman, became the leading figure in the American anarchist movement. Addressing meetings, organizing demonstrations, editing periodicals, and agitating among the workers and unemployed, he did more than any of his associates, apart from Goldman herself, to futher the libertarian cause. Under his editorship, Goldman's Mother Earth became the foremost anarchist journal in the United States and one of the best produced anywhere in the world. In view of his crushing imprisonment, Emma later recalled, he "surprised everybody by the vigour of his style and the clarity of his thoughts." In addition to his chores on her journal, he edited and corrected the proofs of Goldman's Anarchism and Other Essays (published by the Mother Earth press in 1910), as he was to do with all her future books, including her memorable autobiography, Living My Life.
Berkman, at the same time, was active in other areas of work. In 1910 and 1911 he helped organize the Ferrer School in New York, which encouraged a libertarian spirit among its students, and he served as one of its first teachers. During the next few years, moreover, he presided over demonstrations for the unemployed and agitated for such causes as the Lawrence textile strike of 1912 and the Ludlow, massacre of 1914. With the outbreak of the First World War, he organized anti-militarist rallies in New York and made extended lecture tours through the country, trying to arouse public opinion against the growing war hysteria.
The American background of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman estranged them from the Russians, and turned them into representatives of an idealistic generation that had completely vanished in Russia. They embodied the humanistic rebellion of the turn of the century.
Berkman with the inward tension that sprang from his idealism in years long past. His eighteen years in an American prison had frozen him in the attitudes of his youth when, as an act of solidarity with a strike, he had offered up his life by shooting at one of the steel barons. When his tension relaxed he became dejected, and I could not help thinking that he was often troubled by ideas of suicide. In fact, it was only much later that he was to end his life.
Library of Congress
"I consider anarchism the most rational and practical conception of a social life in freedom and harmony. I am convinced that its realization is a certainty in the course of human development." — Alexander Berkman, Now and After, The ABC of Anarchism
Alexander Berkman, known by the Russian diminutive "Sasha," was born in Russia in 1870 to a family of merchants with ties to the nihilists, a political group who rejected all established authority. He modeled himself after his uncle, the Russian revolutionary Mark Andreyevich Natanson. A brilliant student, Berkman attended a classical gymnasium in St. Petersburg. "One day. a bomb exploded outside," shattering the classroom windows, according to historian Richard Drinnon. "He and his classmates soon learned that Czar Alexander II had just been assassinated." Young Berkman, the child of a political family, saw the assassination in ideological terms.
By the time he was fifteen, Berkman was an avid reader of revolutionary literature. School authorities eventually expelled him, for an essay titled, "There Is No God." He became interested in anarchism after reading about the execution of Chicago's Haymarket anarchists in 1887, and immigrated to America in early 1888, at age 18. In New York, he frequented German and Jewish anarchist meetings while working as a typesetter for Johann Most's newspaper, Freiheit.
A Kindred Spirit
Berkman met Emma Goldman in 1889 at Sach's Café on Suffolk Street, the unofficial headquarters of young Yiddish-speaking anarchists in New York City's Lower east Side. Goldman remembered him as having the "neck and chest of a giant. His face was almost severe. A determined youngster." "Their love and attraction would become the emotional center of both their lives," wrote historian Candace Falk. Though their romantic episodes were fleeting, they would remain lifelong comrades.
Fourteen Years in Prison
In July 1892 in response to the Homestead steel strike and attending violence, Berkman made an unsuccessful attempt to murder Henry Clay Frick, general manager of the Homestead steel plant. Berkman held Frick responsible for the killing of seven locked-out workers by the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Sentenced to 22 years in prison, Berkman served fourteen years behind bars. In prison he helped edit a secret journal, Prison Blossoms, a prelude, perhaps, to his classic account of prison life -- Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist -- published in 1912.
Editor, Teacher, Organizer
In 1906, Berkman was released from prison. He soon suffered a minor breakdown, but by March 1907 he had become editor of Emma Goldman's magazine Mother Earth, a position at which he excelled. Together with Goldman, Berkman helped form the Ferrer School (Modern School) in 1910, becoming an inspirational figure to some of the children who studied there. He was also a key organizer of New York's unemployed during the bleak winter of 1913-1914, working closely with the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.). Berkman felt a sense of accomplishment, perhaps some degree of happiness, in these post-prison years. But then came Ludlow.
An Outrage Against Labor
In 1914, federal agents set fire to a tent colony of miners on strike against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in Ludlow, Colorado. Cries for vengeance filled the anarchist press. Margaret Sanger's magazine, The Woman Rebel, called on all radicals to "Remember Ludlow."
Berkman's anger overflowed. He vowed to organize a demonstration outside the house of the man who had controlling interest in Colorado Fuel and Iron, John D. Rockefeller. "Ludlow, with its Pinkertons and militia and killing of workers, was a repetition of Homestead, and Rockefeller another Frick," wrote historian Paul Avrich. "Although twenty-two years had elapsed, all the indignation came rushing back. The idea of carrying the protest to Rockefeller's back yard originated with Alexander Berkman."
Propaganda of the Deed
Evidence also suggests that Berkman was the main organizer of a planned bomb attack on Rockefeller. An anarchist concept of the era, "propaganda of the deed, " held that a violent terrorist act could become a catalyst, awakening others to take action against perceived injustice. In this case, the bomb exploded prematurely at a tenement building on Lexington Avenue in New York City, killing three anarchists and a sympathizer. Berkman published an emotional outpouring for the "martyrs" of the explosion in the July issue of Mother Earth. Goldman, who disapproved of the use of terror, was outraged.
Differences with Goldman caused Berkman to leave Mother Earth and New York a month later. He moved to San Francisco and started a publication of his own, a magazine he named The Blast.
During World War I, Berkman signed the International Anarchist Manifesto, an anti-war document issued from London. He helped found the No-Conscription League, speaking publicly against the war and the new draft law. Federal authorities arrested him and Goldman in June 1917. Found guilty of conspiring to violate draft laws, Berkman was sentenced to two years in the Atlanta Federal Prison.
During the infamous Red Scare in December 1919, the U.S. government deported Berkman from America to Russia together with Goldman and more than 200 other people. Before he and Goldman left the country, they co-wrote the pamphlet Deportation: Its Meaning and Menace. Berkman would never return to America -- nor did he want to.
Return to Russia
On January 19, 1920, after crossing snow-blanketed Finland in sealed railroad cars, Goldman, Berkman, and the other deportees reached Soviet Russia. Berkman felt he had returned home. "The revolutionary hymn, played by the military Red Band, greeted us as we crossed the frontier," Berkman later wrote. "The hurrahs of the red-capped soldiers, mixed with the cheers of the deportees, echoed through the woods, rolling into the distance like a challenge of joy and defiance. A feeling of solemnity, of awe overwhelmed me."
International Institute of Social History
Berkman's awe was not to last. In March 1921 the Bolsheviks ruthlessly suppressed a revolt of the Kronstadt sailors who had helped bring them to power in 1917. After trying to comprehend the repression they had witnessed growing in Russia, this was the final straw. Berkman and Goldman left the country in December 1921. Alexander Berkman wrote his eloquent response to events in Russia in two pamphlets, The Kronstadt Rebellion and The Russian Tragedy (both 1922), and in a pair of books published in 1925, The Bolshevik Myth and The Anti-Climax.
In 1925, Berkman moved to France, where he lived for the rest of his life in difficult circumstances. After his expulsion from the U.S., he could never get citizenship papers. He found occasional work typing manuscripts, editing and translating. He translated Eugene O'Neill's Lazarus Laughed into Russian, for example, and provided assistance to Isadora Duncan on her autobiography, and to Emma Goldman on hers ("The manuscript, after I correct it, looks worse than an ordinary battlefield. I hope she'll never write another book. No such luck," Berkman said of Goldman's book.) Still, he was often dependent on donations from American comrades just to survive.
Berkman's life was further complicated by threats of expulsion by the French government. Relying on a galaxy of friends, writers and intellectuals, including Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, John Dewey and Bertrand Russell, he barely managed to hold sway. His one anchor in exile was Emma Goldman, with whom he kept in almost daily correspondence. Several hundred of their letters were collected and published by Richard and Anna Maria Drinnon in Nowhere At Home: Letters from Exile of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.
Overwhelmed by Pain
In 1929 Berkman published Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism. Written in a conversational style, the book soon became a classic of anarchist thought. In 1936 he underwent two serious operations. On June 28 of that year he shot himself, a result of the pain he could no longer tolerate, and because he was unable to support himself financially and refused to live off the support of others.
What Did Anarchist Alexander Berkman Want?
"No, the revolutionist owes no duty to capitalist morality. He is the soldier of humanity. He has consecrated his life to the People in their great struggle. It is a bitter war. The revolutionist cannot shrink from the service it imposes upon him. Aye, even the duty of death. Cheerfully and joyfully he would die a thousand times to hasten the triumph of liberty. His life belongs to the People. He has no right to live or enjoy while others suffer."
The ramblings of a modern day fanatic? Hardly. These are the words of Alexander Berkman in his Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist referring to his failed attempt to shoot and kill Henry Clay Frick, manager of the Carnegie steel works, on July 23, 1892.
The sentiments may sound familiar, though the magnitude and consequences of acts of terror in the contemporary world are so much greater. But over a century ago, Berkman, a Jewish immigrant from Russia boarded a train in New York City, his final destination, Pittsburgh. His goal, simple and clear-cut, to kill Frick in an attempt, described by John William Ward in a 1970 essay on Berkman's memoirs as"a political deed of violence to awaken the consciousness of the people against their oppressors."
Frick, loyal manager for Andrew Carnegie, was responsible for crushing the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers in the Homestead Strike, culminating in the fatal confrontation between Pinkertons and strikers. Berkman's hope was that the assassination of Frick would awaken the oppressed, inspiring them to rise up and throw off the oppressive shackles imposed by the capitalist order.
A major miscalculation. There was no uprising. In fact, Berkman was surprised and confused when his fellow prisoners assumed that his violent act against Frick must be due to a personal quarrel or a business misunderstanding. Either that, or Berkman was simply crazy.
One cannot help but wonder if Osama bin Laden and his megalomaniac calls for Moslem Jihad against the infidel is meeting the same fate. Religious fanaticism ignoring the realities of tribal loyalties and nationalism, as well as civilization, above such twisted, idealistic goals.
In his day, Pittsburgh, to Berkman, was similar to what the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center symbolized for bin Laden. The industrial center, rising powerfully and majestically above while the people suffered in the shadow of so-called progress. To destroy it, or its human embodiment, Frick, was the start, the spark, which would hopefully destroy and bring the entire capitalist structure down in the name of the beloved and noble people.
Describing his arrival, Berkman wrote,"This is Pittsburgh, the heart of American industrialism,whose spirit molds the life of the great Nation. The spirit of Pittsburgh, the Iron City! Cold as steel, hard as iron, its products. These are the keynote of the great Republic, formulating all other chords, sacrificing harmony to noise, beauty to bulk. Its torch of liberty is a furnace fire, consuming, destroying, devastating: a country-wide furnace, in which the bones and marrow of the producers, their limbs and bodies, their health and blood, are cast into Besamer steel, rolled into armor plate, and converted into engines of murder to be consecrated to Mammon by his high priests, the Carnegies, the Fricks."
It's difficult to picture Berkman being receptive to an opposing point of view of a cable news talk show, as if anybody is. His outlook and belief system, however, was pretty clear--us against them. How does one respond to Berkman? Especially when he writes,"All means are justified in the war of humanity against its enemies. Indeed, the more repugnant the means, the stronger the test of one's nobility and devotion."
His appearance on the train caused no suspicion, why should it? The train first went to Washington, stopping for six hours before continuing on to Pittsburgh. Berkman went to a hotel, registering under a different name, the name of the main character in Chernysvsky's What is to be Done?, the classic work so influential for Lenin.
Berkman, an anarchist, a terrorist, walking among the American people, no different, no more discernible than the immigrant baker, who was later falsely taken into custody as an accomplice to Berkman's crime, though subsequently released when an embarrassed police chief realized that the baker was completely innocent.
Berkman's resolve was firm, committed. He stated in Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist,"The People could not fail to realize the depth of the love that will give his own life for their cause. To give a young life, full of health and vitality to give all, without a thought of self, to give all, voluntarily, cheerfully, nay, enthusiastically--could any one fail to understand such a love?"
Bursting into Frick's office, Berkman draws a revolver, aiming at the intended victim's head and firing. Success. Wounded, Frick drops to his knees and Berkman moves forward to finish him off but is suddenly grabbed from behind. His second shot misses. A third shot misfires. Then a blunt instrument strikes the back of his head. Piercing pain, but Berkman pulls a dagger out of his pocket and crawls toward Frick slashing wildly at his legs before he is restrained for good.
What is to be learned from terrorist acts and violence across the American landscape in the past? Quite simply, that it has always been there. Violence has always been part of the fabric of the United States experience, but never before the attack on Sept. 11th had the threat been delivered from outside the borders with such devastating consequences.
In his essay, Ward argues that in the United States"violence which has marked our history has rarely been directed against the state." Later, Ward continues,"violence has been used again and again to support the structure of authority in American society. We are only puzzled when violence is used to attack that structure."
But, regardless, as uncertainty continues, and intensifies, one can never discount the random acts of terror which have occurred in the past, and undoubtedly will happen again in the future, the rational not as important as the consequences of the deed.
Alexander Berkman and American Anarchism
Alexander Berkman is perhaps best-known for being the lover of famed anarchist and radical feminist Emma Goldman. But Berkman was an important figure in his own right–he was a leading theoretician and writer on the principles of anarchism, whose books include The ABC of Communist Anarchism and The Bolshevik Myth. He also served jail time for attempting to kill the Carnegie Steel executive Henry Frick.
Alexander Berkman, at the time of his deportation to Russia
Ovsei Osipovich Berkman was born in 1870 in the city of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. His father was a well-off Jewish shoemaker. Like all Jews at that time in the Russian Empire, the Berkman family was restricted to living in a ghetto called “The Pale”, but in 1877, Osip Berkman’s social position was high enough that the Tsar’s authorities granted his family permission to move to St Petersburg. While there, his son Ovsei changed his name to the more Russian-sounding “Alexander”.
Alexander Berkman was sent to an elite “gymnasium” for a classical education, where he proved to be a brilliant student. But as an idealistic young teenager, Berkman was soon caught up in politics. By 1880, a wave of radicalism had swept across Russia, as resentment grew against the Tsarist regime and the crushing economic poverty in the countryside. On March 1, 1881, a student revolutionary group called the Narodnaya Volya (“The People’s Will”) blew up Tsar Alexander II as his car passed Berkman’s school—the explosion shattered the windows of his classroom. Five student members of the Narodnaya Volya were arrested and executed. Young Berkman was inspired by their idealism and dedication, and was drawn into the radical student movement. He was particularly influenced by his uncle Mark Natanson. Natanson had already been arrested three times by the Tsarist secret police and had been exiled to Siberia, but escaped, returned to St Petersburg, and helped form the student revolutionary group Zemya y Volya (“Land and Freedom”). Natanson would be arrested and sent to Siberia twice more before leaving for Europe.
In 1882, Osip Berkman died, the family shoe business was sold, and the Berkman family was ordered by Tsarist authorities to move to the Jewish ghetto in Kovno. Soon afterwards, Alexander began distributing smuggled radical pamphlets to his fellow students at the new school. In 1885, at age 15, Berkman was expelled from school after submitting an essay entitled “There is No God”. In 1887, Berkman’s mother died, and in 1888, at the age of 18, he decided to emigrate to the United States. He was already a committed anarchist.
In New York City, Berkman joined several anarchist groups, and worked as a typesetter for the anarchist newspaper Freiheit (“Freedom”), run by German radical Johann Most, who advocated the use of dynamite in “revolutionary attacks” on police, robber barons, and government officials. In 1889, Berkman met Emma Goldman, a fellow anarchist immigrant from Russia. They moved in together and became inseparable partners for the rest of their lives.
By 1892, Berkman and Goldman had moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, where they made a living by selling lunches to local workers. That year, the Homestead Strike broke out in Pennsylvania against the Carnegie Steel Company. The Steel Company’s manager, Henry Frick, hired strikebreakers from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and gunfights broke out between strikers and strikebreakers. Nine strikers and seven Pinkertons were killed. Berkman, inspired by Most and his idea of “propaganda of the deed”, decided to make a dramatic gesture which he hoped would provoke the working class into revolutionary action. Berkman traveled to Pittsburgh, where, on July 23, he burst into Frick’s office and shot him twice. Frick survived, and Berkman was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Berkman’s attack on Frick resulted in a massive police crackdown on anarchists, all over the country. It also provoked a political split, between anarchists who supported violent actions and those who did not. One of Berkman’s fellow prisoners, who had been a Homestead striker, told Berkman that he was an outsider and his action had accomplished nothing. Even Johann Most, who had advocated “propaganda of the deed” for years, now wrote that it was a “total failure”, and did nothing more than bring police repression and popular resentment against the anarchist movement. By the time Berkman got out of jail in 1905, after having served 14 years of his sentence, his views had matured. He was, he said, no longer interested in symbolic violence to “inspire” the workers–now he realized that only organization and solidarity could bring about a revolution.
After writing an account of his years in jail (published in 1912 as Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist), Berkman became an editor for Emma Goldman’s anarchist newspaper Mother Earth. Then, in April 1914, striking workers at a Rockefeller-owned coal mine in Ludlow, Colorado, were attacked by a group of Pinkertons, state militia, and hired strikebreakers, who fired on the striker’s camp with machine guns and then set it afire. Thirteen strikers were killed. Outraged by the Ludlow Massacre, Berkman joined with a number of local anarchists to organize a mass demonstration outside Rockefeller’s house in New York City. At some point, a plan was hatched to bomb the Rockefeller house, which went awry when the bomb exploded prematurely and killed the people who were making it. Berkman’s apparent involvement in the plot led to a split with Goldman. Berkman left Mother Earth, moved to San Francisco, and founded a new anarchist journal of his own, called The Blast.
But when the US entered the First World War in 1917, Berkman and Goldman reconciled and began traveling together making speeches against the war, against the military draft, and against the draconian new Espionage Act, which made it illegal to criticize the US government or to speak out against the war. In 1917, both Berkman and Goldman were arrested. Over the next two years, waves of mass arrests, known as the “Palmer Raids”, rounded up over 100,000 Americans—members of the anarchist movement, the IWW, labor unions, the newly-formed Communist Party, and the Socialist Party (including elected Socialists who were serving in Congress and in state legislatures)—and charged them with “sedition”. Many of those arrested were jailed, many more were deported. Berkman was sentenced to two years in jail, and upon his release in 1920, was ordered deported. He and Emma Goldman, also ordered deported, were both placed on board the old transport ship Buford and sent to Russia.
Russia, of course, had just undergone the 1917 Revolution, and political radicals of all stripes were flocking to the new “Soviet Union”. Berkman and Goldman both arrived together in the USSR full of enthusiasm and anxious to see the new social order being constructed. Within a year, however, both were disillusioned. Instead of a socialist system of political and economic democracy, they found a police state where the government ruled by terror and where Party bureaucrats grew fat by siphoning wealth from the urban and rural workers. Both Berkman and Goldman left the USSR in 1921 and wrote books detailing their experiences in Russia (Berkman’sThe Bolshevik Myth was published in 1925).
Berkman settled first in Berlin and then in Paris. After writing an introduction to anarchist ideology (published in 1929 as The ABC of Communist Anarchism), Berkman faced declining health from prostate cancer. On June 28, 1936, unable to bear the pain of his medical condition any longer, he killed himself with a handgun.
The Lesson of 11 th Nov. 1887
But not merely to honor their memory. They are dead and the loving one cannot be recalled to life but the living may profit by the experience of the past.
And this is the great curse of humanity that we seldom, very seldom profit by the experience of the years behind.
And yet, the lesson of the past is very simple if it teaches us anything it is the persistence of the idea.
Persecution — the prison and scaffold, and tortures and fire and the cross were used to strangle the idea — in vain even persecution but goes to nourishing the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. It gathers strength and becomes more powerful than the combined powers of darkness — it prevails and blesses humanity.
Had our governors learned this great lesson, the Tragedy of 1887 were not impossible.
Again it was the new, the liberating idea that was to be strangled. Anarchy was on Trial. To be sure, our murdered comrades were charged with this and that and conspiracy. And the public ? ? ?. But did reaction ever have sufficient ? to hold back the hands of progress?
But 2 decades have passed the world has moved on and is opening its eyes and now we clearly see that there was indeed a conspiracy. The old conspiracy of the masters to keep their slaves in subjection, the old conspiracy of all unwritten history, the struggle of the producers against their exploiters.
But the struggle of 1887 stands out more prominently in recent history, for there the giant war of the classes found its clearest and most self-conscious expression in the struggle for an 8 hour day.
Indeed the rulers realized the danger of such a movement, the danger of united efforts ? They conspired to strangle the aspirations of labor by ? their most intelligent, devoted and energetic ?. The public previously inflamed the Haymarket bomb but the excuse to strangle the prophetic voices. There was danger, but not from ?, rather from the class conscious efforts of united labor. But in vain — today the voices from the grave speak louder in death than in life, and the aspirations of labor have not been killed.
But the rulers did not learn the lesson again as the ? of labor rose they attempted another tragedy-- Haywood. Mayer, and Pettibone. An analogous case — a louder conspiracy.
But this time history did not repeat itself. We have marched along the Road of Progress labor has learned the power of united effort and they won.
Let the 11 th Nov. and the more recent Boise case ever be before our eyes reminding us of the conspiracy of Capital to crush labor.
And let us truly honor the memory of our great dead and all those mute martyrs of humanity by holding dear the cause of humanity, to win the earth and the futures thereof to those who create all wealth and thus we shall both honor and avenge the memory of our illustrious dead by the final triumph of liberty and humanity.
A Blast from the past: the life and writings of Alexander Berkman
Alexander Berkman (1870-1936) was an anarchist, writer and many things besides: assassin (unsuccessful), prisoner, agitator, editor, teacher, refugee. He wrote of class struggle and revolutionary upheavals not as a bystander or theorist but as an active participant in the movement for social change. Berkman is best known as the lover and comrade of Emma Goldman, and her “Living my Life” was long the best study of his life. While there is still no full-length biography of Berkman, in 1992 “Life of an Anarchist: The Alexander Berkman Reader” appeared. In 2006 a second edition will be published.
Berkman combined writing and radicalism from an early age: he was punished at school in Imperial Russia for an essay ‘There is no God’ he wrote when he was twelve. After he emigrated to America in 1888 he joined the anarchist movement, then expanding in the wake of the Haymarket Tragedy and the judicial killing of four Chicago anarchists.
Berkman himself nearly suffered the same fate. Following the Civil War, the United States was convulsed by a series of violent strikes and labour wars as wage slavery was enforced and contested. On 23 July 1892 Berkman attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, manager of the Carnegie steel works in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in response to the earlier killing of striking workers. Fully prepared to sacrifice his own life (in the Russian populist tradition) he instead served fourteen years in prison.
Imprisoned from the age of 21 to 35, he lost neither his integrity nor his revolutionary beliefs. Though burdened with depression which he never completely escaped, he emerged with a more mature feeling for humanity and an appreciation of the scale of the revolutionary task. His “Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist” is a classic both of prison literature and brutally honest autobiography.
On his release, having honed his skills on letters and clandestine prison texts, Berkman continued to both write and edit. But this was not a retreat from rebellion. Berkman found most relief from despair in throwing himself back into the anarchist movement. Throughout his years in America Berkman was one of the driving forces of the anarchist movement there. In his biographical sketch Paul Avrich credits him with ‘organizing abilities, clear-headedness, and self-sacrifice’. (1) Paul Avrich, ‘Alexander Berkman: A Biographical Sketch’ in Anarchist Portraits p201
These abilities he deployed as editor of Goldman’s famous anarchist journal “Mother Earth“, followed by his own revolutionary newspaper the “Blast “(1916-17). The “Blast” encouraged both the labour struggle against capitalism and solidarity in the face of mounting repression. To Berkman and the “Blast” belongs most of the credit for preventing the execution of Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, labour activists framed for the San Francisco Preparedness Day bombing of 22 July 1916.
Opposition to the First World War cost both Goldman and Berkman eighteen months of imprisonment and deportation to Russia during the post war repression of the ‘Palmer raids’ and ‘red scare’. Enthused by the revolution in his homeland, Berkman was originally prepared to accept the Bolshevik claim to represent the popular urge for liberation. He was eventually pushed into disagreement by the reality of increasing repression - both of non-Bolshevik revolutionaries like the anarchists and of popular participation, as the soviets were turned from organs of popular control into enforcers of Bolshevik rule. The final break came with the Bolshevik onslaught against the revolutionary sailors of the Kronstadt naval base, who mutinied against the one party state in March 1921.
After leaving Russia, both Berkman and Goldman found themselves not only exiled but isolated from the bulk of progressives and left-wingers who could not distinguish the Communist Party from the revolution. From Berlin in 1922 Berkman issued three pamphlets attacking the Bolshevik seizure of power and diversion of the revolution into shoring up their own rule. “The Russian Revolution and the Communist Party” (translated by Berkman), “The Kronstadt Rebellion” and “The Russian Tragedy” have been collected under the last title. In 1925 “The Bolshevik Myth”, based on the diary of his two years in Russia, was published.
From 1925 Berkman lived in France. He was menaced by destitution, the threat of deportation and prey to depression. Under these circumstances, and barred from political activism, he began work on a popular explanation of the aims and principles of anarchism. He took up the challenge to revitalise the anarchist movement with new propaganda and refine its ideas in the light of the failure of the Russian revolution to create a free society. “Now and After: the ABC of Communist Anarchism” was first published in 1929 and has had a lively publishing history of reprintings, retitlings and abridgements until its return in full as “What is Anarchism?” in 2003. Rather like the work of Errico Malatesta at the same time it represents a determination to push anarchist theory away from easy answers towards a practical but principled engagement with the world as it is. It also represents an affirmation of the anarchist ideal of freedom just as the cult of the state was reaching its strongest point.
“ Now and After” was Berkman’s last book and his political testament. Yet it was followed by a greater achievement. From 1928 Berkman aided and encouraged Emma Goldman to write “Living My Life“. It’s possibly not everyone who would relish editing the autobiography of an ex-lover, yet Berkman did so gladly, for Goldman was his closest comrade. Not that they held identical ideas and attitudes. He had none of her longing to return to America, nor so much faith in the intelligentsia in the struggle for freedom. Yet he had been alongside her for much of the story: from the early days in New York, via “Mother Earth“, to deportation from revolutionary Russia to exile in France. His friendship, experience and skills as an editor meant there was no-one better suited to the job. It was not an easy process, but as Richard Drinnon records in his “Rebel in Paradise” ‘although the conflict was hard on them both at the time, the upshot was a meaningful collaboration.’ (2)
After years of poverty, wracked with ill-health and unwilling to live on charity, Berkman committed suicide on 28 June 1936. He had previously written a just-in-case goodbye letter before an operation which sums up his attitude: ‘I have lived my life and I am really of the opinion that when one has neither health nor means and cannot work for his ideas, it is time to clear out.’ (3) Less than a month after his death, in response to a military coup, Spanish anarchists and workers unleashed a social revolution which remains one of the best examples of anarchism in action.
Berkman was a natural rebel and wanted nothing more than to be in the thick of the struggle. However, he often ended up in a position where the pen was the only weapon available. Out of his fourteen-year confinement came the “Prison memoirs of an anarchist“. In the nineteen-twenties Berkman began a new battle of ideas against the supposed success of Bolshevism. Even before executions and repression became the rule inside the Party, the popular liberation movement of 1917 had been subordinated to the needs of the new ruling class by the very same methods. Berkman worked long and hard both to offer practical support to the anarchist and socialist victims of that repression, but also to destroy the myth that this subordination was revolutionary.
Berkman still awaits his biographer, but his writings abound with insights for those who want to change the world as well as those who want to understand it. They still have something to say on the nature of tyranny, opposition and revolution, and about the way in which principles and realities interact. If another world is possible, Berkman deserves our attention for a life spent struggling to make it real.
1 Paul Avrich, ‘Alexander Berkman: A Biographical Sketch’ in Anarchist Portraits p201
2 Richard Drinnon Rebel in Paradise p268
3 Richard Drinnon Rebel in Paradise p299
The Blast AK Press, 2005. ISBN 1904859089, £15.
Life of an Anarchist The Alexander Berkman Reader. Edited by Gene Fellner, new foreword by Howard Zinn.
Seven Stories Press, 2005. ISBN 1583226621, £10.99.
Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist The New York Review of Books, 2001. ISBN : 094032234X, £8.99.
What is Anarchism? AK Press, 2003. ISBN 1902593707, £10.
Anarchy! An anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth. Counterpoint, 2001. ISBN 1582430403
The Bolshevik myth. Pluto Press, 1989. ISBN 1853050326
Letters from Russian prisons. Boni, 1925.
Nowhere at home : letters from exile of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Schocken Books, 1975. ISBN 080523537X
‘Red Emma’: Once the most dangerous woman in the U.S.
Mug shot taken in 1901 when Goldman was implicated in the assassination of President McKinley.
Library of Congress, Russia Beyond
&ldquoDemonstrate before the palaces of the rich demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread,&rdquo Goldman feverishly once proclaimed at a New York workers&rsquo demonstration in 1893. For &lsquoRed Emma&rsquo, one of the most recognizable leaders of the early 20th century anarchist movement, no method of pursuing social justice was off the table.
Her turbulent activism, directed at the American regime of the time, turned her into an enemy of the state. The first Director of the FBI, John Edgar Hoover, once referred to Goldman as &ldquothe most dangerous woman in America&rdquo.
Fighting the power
Emma Goldman standing in car speaks about birth control at Union Square Park in 1916.
Emma Goldman was born into a Jewish family on the western outskirts of the Russian Empire, but at 17, she relocated to the U.S., where she immediately joined the local anarchist movement.
Goldman soon became an outspoken opponent of traditional power and religious institutions, campaigning for gender equality and opposing marriage, which she claimed limited women&rsquos rights.
&ldquoI want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody&rsquos right to beautiful, radiant things. Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world &mdash prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades, I would live my beautiful ideal,&rdquo she wrote in her 1931 autobiography, &lsquoLiving My Life&rsquo.
Berkman's attempt to assassinate Frick, as illustrated by W. P. Snyder for Harper's Weekly in 1892.
In 1892, she helped her lover and ally, Aleksandr Berkman, to carry out an attempt on the life of the &ldquomost hated man in America&rdquo, Henry Clay Frick - a vicious industrialist and the trade unions&rsquo worst nightmare. The mission was a failure, with Berkman sentenced to 14 years in prison. Goldman herself had managed to avoid a prison term, but faced numerous subsequent arrests for inciting riots, distributing banned literature, as well as also attempting to assassinate President William McKinley (although her complicity was never proven).
Goldman was stripped of U.S. citizenship as far back as 1908, but had continued to live in the United States, fighting for her ideals. Nevertheless, the government did eventually manage to find a way to get rid of its &ldquoworst enemy&rdquo.
The Soviet Ark
Emma Goldman with Attorney Harry Weinberger on the way to Ellis Island for departure.
In June 1919, a series of terrorist attacks took place in several U.S. cities, carried out by followers of Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani as a show of opposition to judges and district attorneys. Despite there being no casualties, the resulting panic had the whole country on edge. The period became known as &lsquoThe First Red Scare&rsquo.
Unprecedented emergency measures were enforced, leading to the so-called Palmer Raids, taking their name from their organizer, Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer. A total of 249 leftist radicals and anarchists were detained. Most of them Russian immigrants without U.S. citizenship. Goldman was among their ranks: she was accused of inciting a riot - a charge compounded by her previous run-ins with the law. She and her cohorts were swiftly put on the USAT Buford and shipped off to Soviet Russia. The ship became known in the media as the &lsquoSoviet Ark&rsquo. Hoover - then Special Assistant to the Attorney General - was a key voice in the campaign to dispose of &lsquoRed Emma&rsquo.
Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.
Despite the fact that Goldman&rsquos anarchism had long parted ways with Marxism (an ideology she referred to as &ldquoa cold, mechanistic, enslaving formula&rdquo), she still harbored great hopes in &ldquothe land of victorious socialism&rdquo. It wasn&rsquot long, however, before those hopes would also be dashed.
&lsquoRed Emma&rsquo was not at all pleased with the Bolshevik campaign of intimidation against their comrade-anarchists, especially the unwieldy bureaucratic apparatus the Bolsheviks had created. In the course of her meeting with Vladimir Lenin - the &lsquofather&rsquo of the Russian Revolution - she became completely disenchanted by the &ldquoshrewd Asiatic&rsquos&rdquo position on freedom of speech as something that could be sacrificed in view of extenuating circumstances.
The quelling of the Kronstadt sailor rebellion of 1921 became the last straw for Goldman, even though she herself was not above using violent means to achieve political ends: &ldquoOne cannot be too extreme in dealing with social ills besides, the extreme thing is usually the true thing,&rdquo she once wrote. Despite that position, the violence at Kronstadt was too much for her: &ldquoI saw before me the Bolshevik State, formidable, crushing every constructive revolutionary effort, suppressing, debasing, and disintegrating everything,&rdquo she wrote in another essay titled &lsquoMy Disillusionment in Russia&rsquo.
Goldman and Berkman, having traversed that difficult path together, finally left Russia to never return. What lay ahead were years of roaming foreign countries in search of a new home.
Most of Goldman&rsquos followers turned away from her, due to her refusal to side with the Bolshevik rule. However, this did not result in &lsquoRed Emma&rsquo abandoning her ideas about Soviet Russia.
Emma Goldman passed away on May 14, 1940, in Toronto. The U.S. government made subsequent peace with its old enemy and gave permission for her remains to be laid to rest on American soil. Engraved on her final resting place in Forest-Park, Illinois, is one of her famous quotes: &ldquoLiberty will not descend to a people, a people must raise themselves to Liberty.&rdquo
If using any of Russia Beyond's content, partly or in full, always provide an active hyperlink to the original material.
Some thoughts on Alexander Berkman
In 2006 we said “The death of Paul Avrich has taken from anarchism its finest historian. … Central to [his work] was a consistent and rigorous insistence on accuracy. … He allowed anarchist voices, missing from history, to speak for themselves, with a minimum of authorial judgement or intervention.”
Paul Avrich worked for years on a biography of Alexander Berkman. Some of the groundwork can be seen in The Modern School movement : anarchism and education in the United States (1980) and Anarchist voices (1995). Before his death he asked his daughter Karen to finish the work – a lot to ask and a brave thing to attempt. Sasha and Emma : the anarchist odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman is certainly readable, in particular the material on Homestead. That shows what Paul Avrich could do: you get a lot of information in a small space. Yet the work on the whole is a much bumpier ride, and with unfortunate gaps.
It’s hard to imagine Paul Avrich describing the Paris Commune, that hugely significant revolt, as “so named after a band of French activists seized control of Paris for seventy-two days in 1871.” (p25) You don’t expect factual errors in one of his books, nor quite so much weight given to Goldman’s Living my life (an influential book but not a reliable one). There is less respect for Berkman and a more judgmental tone to the book. Paul Avrich would hardly have used epithets like “hotheaded” and “criminal” so freely. Karen Avrich seems less interested in anarchism or the anarchist movement, which makes Berkman a rather static figure. Sasha and Emma is so busy lamenting Berkman’s militancy that it misses how his ideas evolve and his significance in the anarchist movement. For example, in the campaign for Caplan and Schmidt, Berkman originally felt “it will not do to rely too much on trade union assistance. The conservatism of their leaders makes them lukewarm towards men with our ideas” . But that would change as Berkman made links with union militants. Even as an account of a friendship there are some strange omissions. There is no mention, for example, of Goldman’s exploitation of Berkman’s research for The Bolshevik Myth: “In this incident she exhibited a certain moral insensitivity”  Several other insights from Drinnon’s Rebel in Paradise would have made this a more complicated and truthful picture.
Events after the deportation to Russia in 1919 are covered rather briefly. Apparently, after deportation, Berkman “languished abroad” (p.3), as if there was no life outside America. We should not minimise the difficulties he faced. But he did not float about, waiting for death. In Russia Berkman and Goldman are dropped into a situation they do not fully understand and their allegiance is fought over. Inevitably there’s a tension between these newly-arrived and well-known militants and the Russian anarchists who expect a condemnation of the Bolshevik state much sooner. But Sasha and Emma has no mention of the anarchist movement in Russia, except as victims at Kronstadt.
Berkman spent about the same length of time stateless in western Europe that he was imprisoned in Pennsylvania. Those years were just as hard: poverty and persecution instead of bars and brutality. Perhaps they were worse. In 1900 he had friends to dig a tunnel in the 1920s and s the way out was less obvious. Capitalist crisis only fed rampant authoritarianism. The anarchist movement was depleted. The very idea of society without the state was overshadowed by the supposed success of the bolsheviks.
Yet these were possibly Berkman’s most important years. He was a major figure in practical support for anarchists in Russia, and elsewhere. He performed the exhausting role of peacemaker, attempting to overcome the bitter divisions of exile politics. And he wrote. Berkman’s writing is mentioned, but some of its significance is missed. He was central to challenging the Bolshevik myth, which, as a defensive measure, kept the idea of socialism without the state alive. But Berkman was also intent on critically examining anarchism, as well as its enemies. Now and after : the ABC of Communist Anarchism (1929) was an attempt to refocus the efforts of the anarchist movement. It aimed to reconnect it with a wider public by explaining anarchism clearly and accessibly, and dealing directly with issues of the day.
So, why is there no biography of Alexander Berkman? The closest thing is Gene Fellner’s documentary collection Life of an anarchist of 1992. Had Berkman died in 1892, there would be no Prison memoirs of an anarchist. It’s a recognised classic, but perhaps that has put people off attempting to write the whole (or the rest) of Berkman’s life. Berkman himself considered the task, but never got beyond titles and outlines. The most evocative title was I had to leave but he was always too busy struggling, both politically and economically, to write it. His extensive editorial work on Goldman’s Living my life contributed to its success. It also made his own autobiography less likely to be written, or published. Perhaps it’s significant that he did write the introduction to anarchism and not the autobiography: his own story was less important to him than the movement.
Berkman is important as a survivor from the era of “propaganda by the deed”, linking that generation to the anarchist movement’s response to the challenges of the twentieth century. He was a widely respected figure in the movement. Not just because of his long years in prison, but because of his continuing commitment. This is why the anarchist aid fund was renamed in his honour after his death. After he left Russia, much of his activity was behind the scenes, partly to avoid deportation but also through personal inclination. One talent Berkman did not possess was self-promotion.
The years inside damaged Berkman. But he was not “redeemed” to obedience and never repented. The surviving texts of Prison blossoms, the secret magazine written by Berkman, Henry Bauer, Carl Nold and other prisoners in the Western Penitentiary have recently been republished.  His reading then, and the experience of writing Prison memoirs with the support of Voltairine de Cleyre (see p.208) laid the foundations of his skill as a writer. It was never something that came easily to him, but we should remember the power of Berkman’s pen. He is never writing to impress anyone, but to convince. It is some of the strongest writing that anarchism has produced. As Barry Pateman says “agitational papers can have depth and ironic, wry humor. The Blast though refuses to preach to the converted. It tries to go beyond its natural community of social rebels and reach out in a clear, straightforward way to the unpolitical, the non-militant. Its use of clear and straightforward language, its consistency of tone are clear indications of that strategy. This is not a paper that rails angrily against the world like steam coming out of a safety valve. It’s a paper that is angry and determined and urges its readers to think, and then fight back.” 
It is impossible to write about Berkman without dealing with the difficult topics of violence and capitalism. His life cannot be understood without thinking about solidarity and struggle, not only in the immediate campaigns he fought. He also, in the worst of conditions, was thinking about making the struggle for anarchy popular and successful.
Sasha and Emma contain gems like Berkman’s prison advice to Ammon Henacy: “don’t tell a lie don’t be a stoolie draw your line about what you will do, and don’t budge, even if they kill you never crawl or you will always be crawling if a guard hits you don’t hit back, for if one can’t beat you up for good then two or ten will do it” (paraphrased on p.283). It is certainly worth reading. But it does not fully reflect the life of Alexander Berkman, or his importance. Still, writing history is an ongoing, many-handed affair. Paul Avrich in his books has left us a huge amount of information and insight, and also an example of what the very best historical writing can do. We should learn from his approach, both honest and understanding. There is an awful lot of history still to write.
1, “Paul Avrich 1931-2006: a historian who listened to anarchist voices” by the KSL collective in KSL : Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library 46-7, July 2006.
2, 30 June 1915 bulletin of the Caplan-Schmidt Defense League, quoted p4 “Introduction” by Barry Pateman, The Blast edited by Alexander Berkman ( AK Press facsimile edition, 2005).
3, Rebel in Paradise : a biography of Emma Goldman Richard Drinnon (1961), p245.
4, Prison Blossoms : Anarchist voices from the American past edited by Miriam Brody and Bonnie Buettner.
5, “Introduction” by Barry Pateman, p7, The Blast
Sasha and Emma : the anarchist odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman is published by Harvard University Press, ISBN 9780674065987.
Alexander Berkman -The Only Hope of Ireland (1916)
The Blast was a San Francisco based newspaper published by Alexander Berkman in 1916-1917. It’s main focus was on the trade union movement in California, as well as covering national labour events, and educating its readers about anarchism.
It also covered a broad range of topics such as Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, the trial of trade unionists Tom Mooney and Warren Billings for the Preparedness Day bombing, and the growing ferment in Europe. Margaret Sanger, on trial for giving out information about birth-control, wrote on women’s rights and family planning.
The paper’s anti-militarism was not ignored by the authorities and the paper was shut down in June 1917 when Berkman was jailed for “inducing persons not to register” for the draft.
This was written in the aftermath of 1916 rising, just three days after the execution of James Connolly.