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.”[1]

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” [2]. 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” [3] 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 ‘30s 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. [4] 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.” [5]

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.