A Blast from the past: the life and writings of Alexander Berkman

If another world is possible, Berkman deserves our attention for a life spent struggling to make it real.”

Alexander Berkman is one of the lost heroes of American radicalism” - Howard Zinn

Alexander Berkman (1870-1936) was an anarchist, writer and many things besides: assassin (unsuccessful), prisoner, agitator, editor, teacher, refugee. He wrote of class struggle and revolutionary upheavals not as a bystander or theorist but as an active participant in the movement for social change. Berkman is best known as the lover and comrade of Emma Goldman, and her “Living my Life” was long the best study of his life. While there is still no full-length biography of Berkman, in 1992 “Life of an Anarchist: The Alexander Berkman Reader” appeared. In 2006 a second edition will be published.

Berkman combined writing and radicalism from an early age: he was punished at school in Imperial Russia for an essay ‘There is no God’ he wrote when he was twelve. After he emigrated to America in 1888 he joined the anarchist movement, then expanding in the wake of the Haymarket Tragedy and the judicial killing of four Chicago anarchists.

Berkman himself nearly suffered the same fate. Following the Civil War, the United States was convulsed by a series of violent strikes and labour wars as wage slavery was enforced and contested. On 23 July 1892 Berkman attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, manager of the Carnegie steel works in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in response to the earlier killing of striking workers. Fully prepared to sacrifice his own life (in the Russian populist tradition) he instead served fourteen years in prison.

Imprisoned from the age of 21 to 35, he lost neither his integrity nor his revolutionary beliefs. Though burdened with depression which he never completely escaped, he emerged with a more mature feeling for humanity and an appreciation of the scale of the revolutionary task. His “Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist” is a classic both of prison literature and brutally honest autobiography.

On his release, having honed his skills on letters and clandestine prison texts, Berkman continued to both write and edit. But this was not a retreat from rebellion. Berkman found most relief from despair in throwing himself back into the anarchist movement. Throughout his years in America Berkman was one of the driving forces of the anarchist movement there. In his biographical sketch Paul Avrich credits him with ‘organizing abilities, clear-headedness, and self-sacrifice’. (1)Paul Avrich, ‘Alexander Berkman: A Biographical Sketch’ in Anarchist Portraits p201

These abilities he deployed as editor of Goldman’s famous anarchist journal “Mother Earth“, followed by his own revolutionary newspaper the “Blast “(1916-17). The “Blast” encouraged both the labour struggle against capitalism and solidarity in the face of mounting repression. To Berkman and the “Blast” belongs most of the credit for preventing the execution of Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, labour activists framed for the San Francisco Preparedness Day bombing of 22 July 1916.

Opposition to the First World War cost both Goldman and Berkman eighteen months of imprisonment and deportation to Russia during the post war repression of the ‘Palmer raids’ and ‘red scare’. Enthused by the revolution in his homeland, Berkman was originally prepared to accept the Bolshevik claim to represent the popular urge for liberation. He was eventually pushed into disagreement by the reality of increasing repression - both of non-Bolshevik revolutionaries like the anarchists and of popular participation, as the soviets were turned from organs of popular control into enforcers of Bolshevik rule. The final break came with the Bolshevik onslaught against the revolutionary sailors of the Kronstadt naval base, who mutinied against the one party state in March 1921.

After leaving Russia, both Berkman and Goldman found themselves not only exiled but isolated from the bulk of progressives and left-wingers who could not distinguish the Communist Party from the revolution. From Berlin in 1922 Berkman issued three pamphlets attacking the Bolshevik seizure of power and diversion of the revolution into shoring up their own rule. “The Russian Revolution and the Communist Party” (translated by Berkman), “The Kronstadt Rebellion” and “The Russian Tragedy” have been collected under the last title. In 1925 “The Bolshevik Myth”, based on the diary of his two years in Russia, was published.

From 1925 Berkman lived in France. He was menaced by destitution, the threat of deportation and prey to depression. Under these circumstances, and barred from political activism, he began work on a popular explanation of the aims and principles of anarchism. He took up the challenge to revitalise the anarchist movement with new propaganda and refine its ideas in the light of the failure of the Russian revolution to create a free society. “Now and After: the ABC of Communist Anarchism” was first published in 1929 and has had a lively publishing history of reprintings, retitlings and abridgements until its return in full as “What is Anarchism?” in 2003. Rather like the work of Errico Malatesta at the same time it represents a determination to push anarchist theory away from easy answers towards a practical but principled engagement with the world as it is. It also represents an affirmation of the anarchist ideal of freedom just as the cult of the state was reaching its strongest point.

Now and After” was Berkman’s last book and his political testament. Yet it was followed by a greater achievement. From 1928 Berkman aided and encouraged Emma Goldman to write “Living My Life“. It’s possibly not everyone who would relish editing the autobiography of an ex-lover, yet Berkman did so gladly, for Goldman was his closest comrade. Not that they held identical ideas and attitudes. He had none of her longing to return to America, nor so much faith in the intelligentsia in the struggle for freedom. Yet he had been alongside her for much of the story: from the early days in New York, via “Mother Earth“, to deportation; from revolutionary Russia to exile in France. His friendship, experience and skills as an editor meant there was no-one better suited to the job. It was not an easy process, but as Richard Drinnon records in his “Rebel in Paradise” ‘although the conflict was hard on them both at the time, the upshot was a meaningful collaboration.’ (2)

After years of poverty, wracked with ill-health and unwilling to live on charity, Berkman committed suicide on 28 June 1936. He had previously written a just-in-case goodbye letter before an operation which sums up his attitude: ‘I have lived my life and I am really of the opinion that when one has neither health nor means and cannot work for his ideas, it is time to clear out.’ (3) Less than a month after his death, in response to a military coup, Spanish anarchists and workers unleashed a social revolution which remains one of the best examples of anarchism in action.

Berkman was a natural rebel and wanted nothing more than to be in the thick of the struggle. However, he often ended up in a position where the pen was the only weapon available. Out of his fourteen-year confinement came the “Prison memoirs of an anarchist“. In the nineteen-twenties Berkman began a new battle of ideas against the supposed success of Bolshevism. Even before executions and repression became the rule inside the Party, the popular liberation movement of 1917 had been subordinated to the needs of the new ruling class by the very same methods. Berkman worked long and hard both to offer practical support to the anarchist and socialist victims of that repression, but also to destroy the myth that this subordination was revolutionary.

Berkman still awaits his biographer, but his writings abound with insights for those who want to change the world as well as those who want to understand it. They still have something to say on the nature of tyranny, opposition and revolution, and about the way in which principles and realities interact. If another world is possible, Berkman deserves our attention for a life spent struggling to make it real.


1 Paul Avrich, ‘Alexander Berkman: A Biographical Sketch’ in Anarchist Portraits p201

2 Richard Drinnon Rebel in Paradise p268

3 Richard Drinnon Rebel in Paradise p299

The Blast AK Press, 2005. ISBN 1904859089, £15.

Life of an Anarchist The Alexander Berkman Reader. Edited by Gene Fellner, new foreword by Howard Zinn.

Seven Stories Press, 2005. ISBN 1583226621, £10.99.

Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist The New York Review of Books, 2001. ISBN: 094032234X, £8.99.

What is Anarchism? AK Press, 2003. ISBN 1902593707, £10.

see also

Anarchy! An anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth. Counterpoint, 2001. ISBN 1582430403

The Bolshevik myth. Pluto Press, 1989. ISBN 1853050326

Letters from Russian prisons. Boni, 1925.

Nowhere at home : letters from exile of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Schocken Books, 1975. ISBN 080523537X

The Russian Tragedy. Phoenix Press, 1986. ISBN 0948984007