A short biography of Alexander Berkman, a Russian anarchist who lived for many years in the United States, where he was a leading member of the anarchist movement. He was closely associated with anarcha-feminist Emma Goldman.
Aka Sasha, born 21 November 1870, Vilnius, Lithuania, died 28 June 1936, Nice, France.
When Alexander Berkman’s tragic end was announced, many of the older comrades, who knew him personally, felt that his death had left a space which would never be filled. This was the logical fate of a man who, when a mere youth of twenty-two, was ready to take the life of another whose brutal egotism brought misery and suffering to thousands of people. At sixty-six, he brought his life to an end when he felt he could serve life no longer.
When Berkman started to avenge the Homestead strikers forty-four years ago he knew a deed like that could only be paid for by his death and he was ready to sacrifice his young life without hesitation for his outraged sense of justice. Berkman tried to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, steel mogul whose private detectives killed 10 of his striking employees. Alex shot Frick three times and then stabbed him with a curare-tipped dagger before he was overcome by his bodyguard. Unfortunately (and miraculously) Frick survived.
No matter how one evaluates his deed, none would doubt his sincerity if one only had the patience to delve into the complicated soul of humanity and guess its secrets. When a person, particularly a young man whose life still has everything to offer, is ready to risk his all without hope of return, he must not be evaluated by ordinary standards. This is a deed which can only be explained when its motives are appreciated. He who does not understand how one could give everything for a cause which bore for him the whole meaning of life, will never understand a person like Berkman. The average philistine who calculates his life by profit and loss, and whose hardened soul cannot understand any action which is not motivated by the desire for profit, will never see in people like Berkman other than brutal force who menace the existence of society. They will never comprehend that it was not crudeness of sentiment that made Berkman commit his deed, but that it was his love for humanity, his respect for human life, that impelled him to take a life. This rare trait was characteristic of Berkman to his very end and was the key to his personality.
It is not one’s political beliefs but the inner feelings which shape character. Berkman was everything but a man of force: he was a man of great kindliness, a sincere friend and a splendid comrade, one who lived through the happiness and sorrows of his fellow humans. His clear thinking, colored by a somewhat naive sentimentality, made everybody love him. In this lies the elementary greatness of his personality, the root of his moral influence. He was no sectarian and could tolerate any sincerely presented opinion, but he always knew how best to express his own ideas when the occasion arose.
Berkman came to America as a very young man in a period in which the young workers movement had one of its tragic moments. Like Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre, and so many others, he was drawn into the revolutionary movement as a result of the Haymarket tragedy in Chicago. It was the fiery agitative powers of Johann Most which attracted him to the printing shop of Mosts Freedom where he learned typesetting. At that time he carried with him the thought of returning to Russia to fight in the underground movement, but the bloody happenings in Homestead brought a sudden end to his plans. Berkman was sentenced to twenty-two years, a tremendous sentence which had been applied only by a merciless stretching of the law.
The failure of the attentat saved a precious life which in the terrible years of imprisonment matured to greatness. Berkmans Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist is one of those rare books which once read is never forgotten. In this book all the suffering and pain of a courageous spirit struggling against great odds is told in a background of drab prison life. Most of those upon whom fate has placed such trials break down under the pressure of personal sorrow. But a man who can survive the long years of hopeless imprisonment without swaying from his opinions, or being morally extinguished is a character of unconquerable integrity and inner strength. Berkman was such a man. In the gray, evil-foreboding days there was nothing to console him. He experienced things which the average man would hardly believe possible. Only very few realize how sadistically man can behave towards man.
For fourteen years he remained in that hell. Fourteen years! Very few can imagine what an accumulation of pain and sorrow are hidden beneath this dry number. On returning to life, he found everything changed. It was not easy to find a pathway in this new world. Notwithstanding, he found it and again distinguished himself in the fight for freedom.
Together with Emma Goldman he published Mother Earth. He worked principally in the ranks of organized labor and among the unemployed of the metropolis. Berkman had no illusions about the moral qualities of the worker. He knew that the majority of them shared the social prejudices of other classes. But he also recognized that the social position of the worker was the creative power in life, that it made him the most important factor in any social change and that this was the lever to be used to pry up the decaying social system.
Then came the period when he edited the Blast on the Pacific coast. In connection with this, it should be remembered that Berkman was the first to come to the aid of Mooney and Billings. He traveled all over the country, spoke at innumerable meetings and moved heaven and earth to arouse the workers to protest. At this time none dreamed of using the case for party propaganda. In their dedication articles Berkman’s name is not mentioned. Perhaps someone felt that this man who had suffered fourteen years imprisonment for his principles was too exalted to be turned to the uses of narrow political interests which stood to profit by the misfortune of others.
Then came the years of the World War when Berkman and his friends tried their best to stir up public opinion against the prevailing hysteria. But the untiring efforts of this small minority could not conquer the overwhelming tide of misdirected human passion, and it was not long before Emma Goldman, Berkman and so many others were sent to prison for their anti-conscription campaign. Followed two terrible years at Atlanta penitentiary. Berkman mentioned many times later that his two years in that prison were worse than those he had spent in the gaol at Pittsburgh. It was because our brave comrade could not tolerate the injustices done to others that he suffered so much during this incarceration. It was his temerity in championing the cause of oppressed Negro prisoners in a lynch state like Georgia that led to his disfavor with the prison authorities. But he took every slap of fate with stoic resignation.
Under the blows of the enraged masses, Czarism broke its terrible hold on Russia. The heart of Berkman beat with hope when he with Emma Goldman and the rest of his comrades were deported from America and started the trip to his native home on that renowned death ship. They all wanted to cooperate in the building of a new world, of socialism and freedom. But the experiences of our comrade in Russia were the greatest disappointment of his unselfish life. He saw the dictatorship of the proletariat grow into the dictatorship of a party over the proletariat and all Russian peoples. Long he fought against the suspicions which stirred within him. He sought to understand, to rationalize, to comprehend and explain these happenings which were in conflict with his free spirit. Finally the cold-blooded slaughter of the sailors of Kronstadt put an end to all his doubts. His place could not be on the side which ruthlessly killed the pioneers of the Russian Revolution, as did the French bourgeoisie the 35,000 men, women and children of the Paris Commune. His book The Bolshevik Myth renders his inner conflicts in an expressive and striking portrayal. It was a terrible shock to Berkman.
When Emma Goldman and Berkman came to Europe from Russia, they found themselves in a new world fundamentally different from that which they had known in America. The terrible ravages of the war were everywhere manifest and all of the countries were shaken with revolutionary convulsions. It is not easy to live in strange surroundings but here again Berkman did the best he could. After a short stay in Sweden, he went to Germany and contacted the young Anarcho-Syndicalist movement there. His works, The Russian Tragedy, The Kronstadt Rebellion, The Russian Revolution and the Communist Party, and his Prison memoirs were all translated into German. Together with Emma Goldman he participated in the Congress of Anarcho-Syndicalists in Erfurt and established close relations with his comrades. Most of his work at this time was for the imprisoned comrades in Russia. He organized the International Aid Fund and edited the Bulletin in behalf of the Anarcho-Syndicalists in the prisons of the Soviet Union.
Finally he went to France but the revolutionary situation in that country precluded his doing open work forcing him to resign his position as secretary of the Russian Aid Fund. He was deported from France and only the help of influential friends made possible his return. It was a tortured existence. Even the most beautiful surroundings of the French Riviera lost all their glamour for him, living as he was, like a prisoner at the mercy of the slothful bureaucracy which might at any moment chase him across the border. Yet, he wrote ABC of Anarchist-Communism and conducted a prodigious correspondence with his friends in Europe and America. Then came illness and the constant fight for material existence. A few months ago he was recuperating from a painful and dangerous operation, he had a sudden relapse and felt that the best thing he could do was to make his adieu to the world. We must emphasize here his unwavering friendship with Emma Goldman who lost in him her best and oldest friend. What that means can only be understood by those who know that wounds exist that never can be healed.
A rare person has left us, a great and noble character, a real man. We bow quietly before his grave and swear to work for the ideal which he served faithfully for so many years.
Vanguard Volume 3, No 3 Aug-Sept 1936
(Ed. note: this brief but vivid account of the life and work of Alexander Berkman was written for the Vanguard by one of Berkman’s intimate friends who prefers to remain anonymous.)