Alexander Berkman, 1892
|Born||Ovsei Osipovich Berkman
November 21, 1870
Vilnius, Russian Empire
|Died||June 28, 1936 (aged 65)
|Cause of death||Suicide|
Alexander Berkman (November 21, 1870 – June 28, 1936) was an anarchist known for his political activism and writing. He was a leading member of the anarchist movement in the early 20th century.
Berkman was born in Vilnius in the Russian Empire and immigrated to the United States in 1888. He lived in New York City, where he became involved in the anarchist movement. He was the lover and lifelong friend of anarchist Emma Goldman.
In 1892, Berkman attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick as an act of propaganda of the deed. Though Frick survived the attempt on his life, Berkman served 14 years in prison. His experience in prison was the basis for his first book, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist.
In 1917, Berkman and Goldman were sentenced to two years in jail for conspiracy against the newly instated draft. After their release from prison, they were arrested–along with hundreds of others–and deported to Russia. Initially supportive of that country's Bolshevik revolution, Berkman quickly voiced his opposition to the Soviet use of violence and the repression of independent voices. In 1925, he published a book about his experiences, The Bolshevik Myth.
While living in France, Berkman continued his work in support of the anarchist movement, producing the classic exposition of anarchist principles, Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism. Suffering from ill health, Berkman committed suicide in 1936.
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Berkman was born Ovsei Osipovich Berkman in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius (then part of the Russian Empire). He was the youngest of four children born into a well-off Jewish family. Berkman grew up in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where he adopted the more Russian name Alexander; he was known among his friends as Sasha, a diminutive for Alexander.
The Berkman family lived a comfortable life, with servants and a summer house. Berkman attended the gymnasium, where he received a classical education. As a youth, Berkman was influenced by the growing radicalism that was spreading among workers in the Russian capital. In 1881, Berkman's school lessons were interrupted when the bomb blast that killed Tsar Alexander II shook the building. At home that evening, while his parents spoke in hushed tones Berkman learned more about the assassination from his "Uncle Maxim", Narodnik Mark Natanson:
Father looked at mother severely, reproachfully, and Maxim was unusually silent, but his face seemed radiant, an unwonted brilliancy in his eye. At night, alone with me in the dormitory, he rushed to my bed, knelt at my side, and threw his arms around me and kissed me, and cried, and kissed me. His wildness frightened me. "What is it, Maximotchka?" I breathed softly. He ran up and down the room, kissing me and murmuring, "Glorious, glorious! Victory!"
Between sobs, solemnly pledging me to secrecy, he whispered mysterious, awe-inspiring words: Will of the People!–tyrant removed–Free Russia.
Soon after his arrival in New York City, Berkman became an anarchist through his involvement with groups that had formed to campaign to free the men convicted of the 1886 Haymarket bombing. He soon came under the influence of Johann Most, the best-known anarchist in the United States, and an advocate of propaganda of the deed–attentat, or violence carried out to encourage the masses to revolt. Berkman became a typesetter for Most's newspaper Die Freiheit.
In New York, Berkman met and began a romance with Emma Goldman, another Russian immigrant. They moved into a communal apartment with his cousin Modest "Fedya" Stein and Goldman's friend, Helen Minkin. Although their relationship had numerous difficulties, Berkman and Goldman would share a close bond for decades, united by their anarchist principles and commitment to personal equality.
Berkman eventually broke with Most and aligned himself with another publication, Die Autonomie, but he remained committed to the concept of violent action as a tool for inspiring revolutionary change.
Berkman and Goldman found their first opportunity for political action in the Homestead Strike. In June 1892, workers at a steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania were locked out when negotiations between the Carnegie Steel Company and the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers failed. Henry Clay Frick, the factory's manager, hired three hundred armed guards from the Pinkerton Detective Agency to break the union's picket lines. When the Pinkerton guards arrived at the factory on the morning of July 6, a gunfight broke out. Nine union workers and seven guards were killed during the fight, which lasted twelve hours.
Newspapers across the country defended the union workers, and Berkman and Goldman decided to assassinate Frick. Berkman believed the assassination would arouse the working class to unite and revolt against the capitalist system. Berkman's plan was to assassinate Frick and commit suicide afterward; Goldman's role was to explain Berkman's motives after his death. Berkman tried to make a bomb, but when that failed he went to Pittsburgh where he bought a handgun and a decent suit.
On July 23, Berkman went into Frick's office armed with a gun and a sharpened steel file. He shot Frick three times, then grappled with him and stabbed him in the leg. A group of nearby workers came to Frick's rescue and beat Berkman unconscious. He was convicted of attempted murder and given a twenty-two-year prison sentence. Worse, Berkman's attentat had failed in its objective of rousing the masses: workers and anarchists alike condemned the assassination attempt.
Berkman served 14 years of his sentence and was released from prison on May 18, 1906. Goldman met him on the Detroit train platform, but she found herself "seized by terror and pity" at his gaunt appearance. During his prison term, he had become Americanized, but Berkman struggled to readjust to life as a free man. A lecture tour produced anxiety and stress, and he purchased a handgun in Cleveland with the intention of killing himself. Instead, he returned to New York, where he learned that Goldman and other activists had been arrested at a meeting concerning Leon Czolgosz. This violation of freedom of assembly moved him to action, and he declared "My resurrection ... I have found work to do" as he worked to secure their release.
Soon Berkman joined Goldman as one of the leading figures of the anarchist movement in the U.S. With Goldman's encouragement, Berkman wrote an account of his prison years, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, which he said helped him recover from the experience of being a prisoner.
From 1907 to 1915, Berkman was editor of Goldman's journal Mother Earth, and under his stewardship it became the leading anarchist publication in the U.S. Editing the magazine was a revitalizing experience for Berkman; his relationship with Goldman faltered, however, and he had an affair with a fifteen-year-old anarchist named Becky Edelsohn.
Berkman helped establish the Ferrer Center in New York during 1910 and 1911, and served as one of its teachers. The Ferrer Center, named in honor of Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer, included a school that encouraged independent thinking among its students. The Ferrer Center also served as a community center for adults.
In September 1913, the United Mine Workers called a strike against coal-mining companies in Ludlow, Colorado. The largest mining company was the Rockefeller family-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Company. On April 20, 1914, the Colorado National Guard attacked a tent colony of striking miners and their families and, during a day-long fight, 26 people were killed.
During the strike, Berkman organized demonstrations in New York in support of the miners. In May and June, he and other anarchists led several protests against John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The protests eventually moved from New York City to Rockefeller's home in Tarrytown, New York, and resulted in the beatings, arrests, and imprisonments of a number of anarchists. The strong police response to the Tarrytown protests led to a bomb plot by several Ferrer Center anarchists.
In July, three associates of Berkman–Charles Berg, Arthur Caron, and Carl Hanson–began collecting dynamite and storing it at the apartment of another conspirator, Louise Berger. Some sources, including Charles Plunkett, one of the surviving conspirators, say that Berkman was the chief conspirator, the oldest and most experienced member of the group. Berkman later denied any involvement or knowledge of the plan.
At 9 a.m. on July 4, Berger left her apartment for the Mother Earth offices. Fifteen minutes later a deadly explosion took place. The bomb had exploded prematurely, shaking the sixth story of Berger's tenement building, wrecking the three upper floors and killing Berg, Caron, Hanson, and a woman, Marie Chavez, who apparently was not involved in the conspiracy. Berkman arranged the dead men's funerals.
In late 1915, Berkman left New York and went to California. In San Francisco the following year he started his own anarchist journal, The Blast. While it was published for just 18 months, The Blast was considered second only to Mother Earth in its influence among U.S. anarchists.
On July 22, 1916, a bomb exploded during the San Francisco Preparedness Day Parade, killing ten people and wounding 40. Police suspected Berkman, although there was no evidence, and ultimately their investigation focused on two local labor activists, Thomas Mooney and Warren Billings. Although neither Mooney nor Billings were anarchists Berkman came to their aid, raising a defense fund, hiring lawyers, and beginning a national campaign on their behalf. Mooney and Billings were convicted, with Mooney sentenced to death and Billings to life imprisonment. Berkman arranged for Russian anarchists to protest outside the American embassy in Petrograd during the Russian Revolution, which led U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to ask California's governor to commute Mooney's death sentence. When the governor reluctantly did so, he said that "the propaganda in [Mooney's] behalf following the plan outlined by Berkman has been so effective as to become world-wide".
In 1917 the U.S. entered World War I and Congress enacted the Selective Service Act of 1917, which required all men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for military conscription. Berkman moved back to New York, where he and Goldman organized the No Conscription League of New York, which proclaimed: "We oppose conscription because we are internationalists, anti-militarists, and opposed to all wars waged by capitalistic governments." The organization was at the forefront of anti-draft activism, and chapters were established in other cities. The No Conscription League changed its focus from public meetings to disseminating pamphlets after police started disrupting the group's public events in search of young men who had not registered for the draft.
Berkman and Goldman were arrested during a raid of their offices on June 15, 1917, during which police seized "a wagon load of anarchist records and propaganda material". The pair were charged under Espionage Act of 1917 with "conspiracy to induce persons not to register", and were held on $25,000 bail each.
Berkman and Goldman defended themselves during their trial. Berkman invoked the First Amendment, asking how the government could claim to fight for "liberty and democracy" in Europe while suppressing free speech at home:
Will you proclaim to the world that you who carry liberty and democracy to Europe have no liberty here, that you who are fighting for democracy in Germany, suppress democracy right here in New York, in the United States? Are you going to suppress free speech and liberty in this country, and still pretend that you love liberty so much that you will fight for it five thousand miles away?
The jury found them guilty and Judge Julius Marshuetz Mayer imposed the maximum sentence: two years' imprisonment, a $10,000 fine, and the possibility of deportation after their release from prison. Berkman served his sentence in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, seven months of which were in solitary confinement for protesting the beating of other inmates. When he was released on October 1, 1919, Berkman looked "haggard and pale"; according to Goldman, the 21 months Berkman served in Atlanta took a greater toll on him than his fourteen-year incarceration in Pennsylvania.
Berkman and Goldman were released at the height of the first U.S. Red Scare; the Russian Revolution of 1917, led by the Bolsheviks, combined with anxiety about the war produce a climate of anti-radical and anti-foreign sentiment. The U.S. Department of Justice's General Intelligence Division, headed by J. Edgar Hoover and under the direction of Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer, initiated a series of raids to arrest leftists. While they were in prison, Hoover wrote: "Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman are, beyond doubt, two of the most dangerous anarchists in this country and if permitted to return to the community will result in undue harm." Under the 1918 Anarchist Exclusion Act, the government deported Berkman, who had never applied for U.S. citizenship, along with Goldman and over two hundred others, to Russia.
At a farewell banquet in Chicago, Berkman and Goldman were told the news of the death of Henry Clay Frick, whom Berkman had tried to kill more than 25 years earlier. Asked for a comment by a reporter, Berkman said Frick had been "deported by God".
Berkman's initial reaction to the Bolshevik revolution was enthusiastic. When he first heard of their coup, he exclaimed "this is the happiest moment of my life", and he wrote that the Bolsheviks were the "expression of the most fundamental longing of the human soul". Arrival in Russia stirred great emotions in Berkman, and he described it as "the most sublime day in my life", surpassing even his release after 14 years in prison.
Berkman and Goldman spent much of 1920 traveling through Russia collecting material for a proposed Museum of the Revolution. As the pair traveled around the country, they found repression, mismanagement, and corruption instead of the equality and worker empowerment they had dreamed of. Those who questioned the government were demonized as counter-revolutionaries, and workers labored under severe conditions. They met with Vladimir Lenin, who assured them that government suppression of press liberties was justified. "When the Revolution is out of danger," he told them, "then free speech might be indulged in".
Strikes broke out in Petrograd in March 1921 when workers demonstrated for better food rations and more autonomy for their unions. Berkman and Goldman supported the strikers, writing: "To remain silent now is impossible, even criminal." The unrest spread to the port of Kronstadt, where Trotsky ordered a military response. In the battle that ensued, 600 sailors were killed; 2,000 more were arrested; and 500 to 1500 Soviet troops died. In the wake of these events, Berkman and Goldman decided there was no future in the country for them. Berkman wrote in his diary:
Gray are the passing days. One by one the embers of hope have died out. Terror and despotism have crushed the life born in October. ... Dictatorship is trampling the masses under foot. The Revolution is dead; its spirit cries in the wilderness. ...
I have decided to leave Russia.
Berkman and Goldman left the country in December 1921 and moved to Berlin for a few years. Almost immediately, Berkman began to write a series of pamphlets about the Russian Revolution. "The Russian Tragedy", "The Russian Revolution and the Communist Party", and "The Kronstadt Rebellion" were published during the summer of 1922.
Berkman planned to write a book about his experience in Russia, but he postponed it while he assisted Goldman as she wrote a similar book, using as sources material he had collected. Work on Goldman's book, My Two Years in Russia, was completed in December 1922, and the book was published in two parts with titles not of her choosing: My Disillusionment in Russia (1923) and My Further Disillusionment in Russia (1924). Berkman worked on his book, The Bolshevik Myth, throughout 1923 and it was published in January 1925.
Berkman moved to France in 1925. He organized a fund for aging anarchists including Sbastien Faure, Errico Malatesta, and Max Nettlau. He continued to fight on behalf of anarchist prisoners in the Soviet Union, and arranged the publication of Letters from Russian Prisons, detailing their persecution.
In 1926, the Jewish Anarchist Federation of New York asked Berkman to write an introduction to anarchism intended for the general public. By presenting the principles of anarchism in plain language, the New York anarchists hoped that readers might be swayed to support the movement or, at a minimum, that the book might improve the image of anarchism and anarchists in the public's eyes. Berkman produced Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism, first published in 1929 and reprinted many times since (often under the title What Is Communist Anarchism? or What Is Anarchism?). Anarchist historian Paul Avrich described Now and After as "the clearest exposition of communist anarchism in English or any other language".
Berkman spent his last years eking out a precarious living as an editor and translator. In the 1930s his health began to deteriorate, and Berkman underwent two unsuccessful operations for a prostate condition in early 1936. In constant pain, forced to rely on the financial help of friends, and reliant on the care of his companion Emmy Eckstein, Berkman decided to commit suicide. In the early hours of June 28, 1936, unable to endure the physical pain of his ailment, Berkman shot himself with a handgun, but he failed to make a clean job of it. The bullet lodged in his spinal column, paralyzing him. Goldman rushed to Nice to be at his side. He sank into a coma in the afternoon, and died at 10 o'clock that night.
Berkman died weeks before the start of the Spanish Revolution, modern history's clearest example of an anarcho-syndicalist revolution. In July 1937, Goldman wrote that seeing his principles in practice in Spain "would have rejuvenated [Berkman] and given him new strength, new hope. If only he had lived a little longer!"
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