The Blast, edited by Alexander Berkman, Introduction by Barry Pateman [Review]

I have a golden rule that I normally keep to when reviewing books, and that is I never write the review until I have read the whole book. However , in the case of this book, I’m going to have to break my own rule as this book isn’t really something you can “read” in the same way as a narrative text. And that’s because it’s a reprint of every issue of the anarchist newspaper “The Blast” published first in San Fransisco and later in New York between January 1916 and June 1917. All 29 of them, each 8 pages in length.

Unlike it’s contemporary, “Mother Earth”, this was an attempt at a street-level weapon for the working class in the class war. It was written by people who were directly involved in (or knew those who were) many of the most important episodes in this period, when the American people were being steered towards involvement in the mass slaughter that was happening in Europe and where any differences in interest between capital and labour was not only bad for business, it was totally unpatriotic. Not a time when it was easy being a revolutionary – but a time when the anti-state /anti-capital / anti-war message couldn’t have been more necessary.

Hence the paper covered at some length such events as the trials of radicals and labour activists such as Warren Billings and Tom Mooney, showing outrage but little surprise at the way the cases against the men were presented and the men convicted with little evidence against them. The paper covered stories highlighting labour struggles including the IWW at Everett, Washington and more mundane labour disputes throughout the USA. The paper was also internationalist in its coverage with constant reflections on what was happening in France, and the the inevitable fate of many of those who would be conscripted and forced to fight should the USA get drawn into the war. The paper also had coverage of events in Mexico and the Magon brothers. Another issue that concerned the paper was birth control and reports were made of Margaret Sanger’s court cases and Sanger herself was given space in the paper. There’s also a piece from the Indian National Party on “The Growth of Revolution in India” and in the last few issues reports and comments on the initial revolution in Russia.

Alongside these reports there were more general pieces, with, amongst others, Alexander Berkman discussing “Anarchism and Violence”, a reprint of Nietzsche on “Science: God’s mortal terror” (Nietzsche was evidently a favourite of both Berkman and Emma Goldman – and as a fund-raising offer readers were offered a 20 volume set of Nietzsche’s works as prize in a raffle), Josiah Warren on “The Crimes of Government” and Edward Carpenter on “The Cry of the Nations” to pick a fairly random sample.

The paper also carried the staples of any newspaper – there’s small ads for businesses, a regular letters column, appeals for funds, lists of donations, some fairly dire poetry, a column for the young folk, public meetings and lectures, books and pamphlets available from the bookshop (many will be familiar to anyone who has visited Freedom Bookshop in the past 40 years i suspect!) and assortments of news items and quotes.

Throughout its existence the paper had problems with the US mail service, apparently this state monopoly objected to having to deliver anti-state propaganda and the forces of law and order made regular visits to the offices in their campaign of harassment against it, taking subscription’s lists and correspondence (so unlike modern times !) The paper was finally closed down in June 1917 when Berkman was arrested (with Emma Goldman) on charges of inducing people to refuse to register for the draft for the war, which the USA had finally joined in April 1917.

So there you have a glimpse into what the book contains. There is, unsurprisingly, no index, which is a shame but understandable – (there’s a project for someone with time and inclination!) The reproduction is very clear and Barry Pateman’s introduction does a good job of situating the paper in both Berkman’s own life and within the wider political, social and economic context. As I mentioned this isn’t something you’ll want to sit down and read right through, rather you can dip into it and then if a particular story grabs you, you can follow that through the issues, seeing how it developed. Overall a fine reproduction of the complete run of the paper, something you’ll otherwise never have been able to read unless you had access to wherever the original versions of the copies of the paper were located (surely some sort of acknowledgment would have been in order?)

Anyway, job well done by AK Press, reasonably priced and well worth getting if you’re interested in this period of anarchist history.


Richard Alexander

Review: “The Blast.” (edited by Alexander Berkman). Introduction by Barry Pateman.

AK Press, Edinburgh and Oakland, CA. Pbk. 242pp. Illus. 1-904859-08-9. £15.00 / $21.95.