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Life of An Anarchist: The Alexander Berkman Reader

Life of an Anarchist: The Alexander Berkman Reader
edited by Gene Fellner. 288 pp. New York, NY: Four Walls, Eight Windows, 1993. $16.95 paper.
Alexander Berkman is known in American history as having perpetrated the first anarchist "attentat" in this country as an act of propaganda of the deed. In 1892, at the time of the Homestead Steel Strike, he attempted to kill Henry Clay Frick, the manager of the Carnegie Steel Company. He failed and was sentenced to 22 years of prison. After his release, he edited Emma Goldman's Mother Earth, contributed in organizing the Ferrer School in New York, then published his own magazine, The Blast, on the West Coast. His efforts certainly played a great role in preventing the execution of Thomas Mooney, falsely accused of throwing a bomb into the July 22, 1916 preparedness parade. When World War I broke out, he set up a number of antiwar demonstrations. His remarkable activism made the headlines of the San Francisco Chronicle. With Emma Goldman, his former lover, and a number of other radicals, he was deported to the Soviet Union in 1919.

In Russia, he confronted Lenin and Trotsky, unsuccessfully tried to mediate in the Kronstadt uprising, and finally left the country deeply disillusioned. Now an exile, he lived in France, contributing by his writings to what was his lifelong love —anarchism. Suffering from chronic pain, he committed suicide in 1936, three weeks before the Spanish Revolution.

Hardly known today out of the circles of American historians and anarchists, Berkman remains to be discovered. This man, who barely knew any English when he was sent to prison, wrote one of the most compelling autobiographies of his century. As wrote Thomas P. Doherty,

Berkman's use of language to delineate character, his facile manipulation of symbol and metaphor, and his adroit handling of a variety of literary styles and techniques is of a caliber generally found only in the most finely wrought fiction. As literature alone it compares favorably with anything published at the turn of the century. As an autobiography of an ideologue, it is well-nigh unparalleled. This is no pro forma bow to esthetics: in considering the ideology of the book, Berkman's authorial control should never be underestimated. 'Näive revelation' not withstanding, Prison Memoirs is as carefully constructed a personal-political statement one is likely to come across.[1]

In fact, Berkman corrected and edited the more famous Emma Goldman's Living My Life and Isadora Duncan's Memoirs.

The manuscript of the Prison Memoirs was rejected by all publishers: one would have suppressed any reference to anar- chism, another to homosexuality, a third one would have wished to see Berkman's name removed. Finally, the anarchists raised the funds and published the book. Yet, even then, its interpretation has often been limited. Some readers only saw in it a "human document," others a study of life in prison, and so on.

Unfortunately, the present Alexander Berkman Reader has also made its own selection. Although the editor has carefully summarized the chapters missing, the work now looks like a piece of anarchist propaganda. To give but one example, gone is the chapter where Berkman fancies that he is hidden in the letter he has mailed from prison to Emma Goldman. Even the title, "Life of an Anarchist," would have required some explanation. Indeed, Berkman thought of himself as an anarchist, but in fact, in his early years at least, and at the time when he tried to assassinate Frick, he was mostly influenced by Russian populism and a nihilism that seems very close to Nechaev. He slowly moved from the abstract and religious notion of the People, with a capital "P," despising and excluding in a very racist manner whoever did not share his ideal, and slowly discovered what real people were: "Yet I feel that the individual, in certain cases, is of more direct and immediate consequence than humanity. What is the latter but the aggregate of individual existences—and shall these, the best of them, forever be sacrificed for the metaphysical collectivity?"[2] Dogmatic attitudes gradually change into rigorous reasoning that openly weighs the pros and cons of each opinion. Unfortunately, such passages as this one are missing in the Reader.

One may also regret the absence of comments about the situation at the time. For instance, the expectation of a coming revolution may seem bizarre today; yet, at least from the 1880s and up to World War I, it was widely held in most of the European and American Left. This was no illusion; not only the Commune of Paris in 1871 was an inspiration, but a series of important revolutions would occur: the Russian Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, the Workers Movement in Italy, the Weimar Republic in Germany, the Popular Front in France and, last but not least, the Spanish Revolution. Some historians have even wondered if World War I was not an effort to divert the strong social movement of the period.

Activists believed that times could be improved, and hope, albeit sometimes fashioned in an apocalyptic mood, induced them to devote their entire lives to a Cause. By contrast, the hedonistic behavior of the present age may signal the end of the cynical faith in consumerism and the beginning of a quiet despair. Reading Berkman may help us realize how far we are today from yesterday's beliefs and how anarchists themselves, and their doctrines, may have changed.

In the other parts of the book, Gene Fellner has done a very useful job, offering the reader some Berkman texts which may be found only in some university libraries; parts of "What Is Communist Anarchism," articles from The Blast, the manifesto of the No Conscription League, and some letters exchanged with Emma Goldman. Berkman also kept a diary—which Goldman used for her Living My Life —which helped him write The Bolshevik Myth and The Kronstadt Rebellion. Excerpts from these works are also presented, as well as the entire Russian Tragedy.

Again, some historical background is indispensable to replace each text within its context. For instance, Fellner reminds the reader that Berkman started the No Conscription League on May 6, 1916 and that the meetings attracted crowds by the thousands. On one occasion, "there were fully 35,000 that tried to gain admission," wrote Berkman. Indeed, President Wilson, elected on the promise that he would keep America out of the war, was actively preparing the country to enter the European conflict.

What Is Communist Anarchism was a reprint of Now and After: The A.B.C. of Communist Anarchism. That document would also have required some introduction. It was written at the invitation of the New York Jewish Anarchist Federation, in 1927. The appeal of anarchism was at its lowest in America as well as in Europe, while communism picked up steam. Berkman felt that it was necessary to write a primer of anarchism, but also to reexamine the anarchist position in the light of the Russian Revolution. He now realized that "authoritarian methods cannot lead to liberty, methods and acts are in essence and effects identical." That was a long way from the time when, in the beginning of his Prison Memoirs, he justified any means provided they were useful for the Cause.

Gene Fellner is an artist who has also designed the cover of the book. One may hope that his work will renew interest in one of America's foremost dissenters and the debate on anarchism as an ever developing process of thought and action.


1. Thomas P. Doherty, "American Autobiography and Ideology," in Albert E. Stone, The American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981), p.99. I very strongly recommend reading the whole article for a better understanding of the dialectics of A.B. See also Stone's comments in A. E. Stone, Autobiographical Occasions and Original Acts: Versions of American Identity from Henry Adams to Nate Shaw (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981) and particularly his remarkable chap. 5, "Cato's Mirror: The Face of Violence in the Autobiographies of Alexander Berkman and Conrad Aiken," pp.149-189.

2. Alexander Berkman, Prison Memoirs of An Anarchist. Introduction by Hutchins Hapgood. With a new introduction by Paul Goodman. (New York: Schocken Books, 1970) p.399.