Berkman's Prison Memoirs [Review]

I first read ‘Prison memoirs of an Anarchist’ twenty years ago while serving time in Maidstone prison for possession of explosives. Having attempted to obtain a copy many times since then, I was thrilled when a good comrade recently sent me one.

Berkman’s tale begins with an account of the background to his attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick, and of the act itself. It then chronicles the 14 long years he spent in prison as the State exacted its revenge.

Berkman commences his imprisonment as a ‘fresh fish’ beached on an utterly alien shore, abandoned by the Anarchist movement, contemplating suicide, and isolated from his fellow prisoners. The prison environment is so harsh that like many prisoners before and since Berkman is incredulous of living for mere days in such conditions, let alone for years.

But Berkman survives, growing as the story progresses, learning the prison slang and protocol, and meeting plenty of colourful characters along the way. As Berkman grows and matures, and they come to know him, he gains the respect of his fellow prisoners, and they his. While these men are unversed in the principles of Anarchism, most are victims of the rotten system Berkman despises, and many become like comrades, dear friends who will risk their all for him and vice-versa.

Despite the initial antagonism of the Anarchist movement (only Emma Goldman and a few others rally behind him), Berkman wins solid support from a new generation of comrades ‘outside’, people who are willing to risk their liberty, and even their lives, to end his nightmare. Unfortunately the daring escape attempt that results is no more successful than Berkman’s bid to kill Frick.

There are plenty of episodes of tragedy and human suffering in the book, of incalculable cruelty, and of daily grinding injustice. Yet above all it is an intensely inspiring read, a story of great heroism and courage. Berkman’s tale shows us that these qualities survive, indeed flourish, even in the face of the most forbidding adversity, and among those whom society condemns as the lowest of the low. Against insurmountable odds the unvanquishable human spirit triumphs, and resistance to tyranny still endures.

While Berkman leaves prison a very different person to the one he was when he entered, he remains unbroken and unbowed, still tirelessly devoted to his Anarchist principles. His sentence completed he is anxious to renew his links with the movement, yet its changed nature at first leaves him disorientated and depressed. Then he hears that the Police have broken up an Anarchist meeting, clubbed the audience, and arrested a dozen comrades under the new ‘Criminal Anarchy Law’. The attack immediately rouses Berkman from his depression, “The news electrifies me. I feel transported into the past, the days of struggle and persecution… The enemy is challenging, the struggle is going on!” Berkman finds his ‘resurrection’.

Any prisoner reading the book will, for better or worse, find much to identify with, and even separated by time and space, feel almost ‘at home’ [See ‘prison slang’ below]. For the revolutionary, whether inside or outside prison, there is much to be inspired by, and much that the modern Anarchist movement could learn about prisoner solidarity.

Written at a time before prison memoirs were ten a penny, Berkman’s book is still for me the best of the genre. That such a towering classic of Anarchist and prison literature has been in print so rarely is as inexplicable as it is tragic.

Mark Barnsley 22 June 2000 Woodhill Prison