Posts Tagged ‘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.”
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” . 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”  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.  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.” 
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.
From KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 74-75, August 2013 [Double issue] http://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/1893zr
Book Review – The Tragic Procession: Alexander Berkman and Russian Prisoner Aid, 1923-1931 (KSL/ABSC, 2010) by Philip Ruff
Every recruit to the SWP (if they still get recruits) should read this book before they pay their membership fees. It demolishes the illusion that the “Bolshevist Leninism” advocated in exile by Trotsky was somehow different from the murderous totalitarianism practised by Stalin.
Aptly titled, The Tragic Procession is a fascinating and heartbreaking chronicle of the repression meted out to revolutionaries in Russia by the Bolshevik government, refracted through the pages of the Bulletin edited in exile by Alexander Berkman – issued first by his own Joint Committee for the Defense of Revolutionists Imprisoned in Russia, and from 1926 by the IWMA’s Relief Fund for Anarchists and Anarcho-Syndicalists Imprisoned or Exiled in Russia.
Between February 1917 and the spring of 1918, Russian Anarchism enjoyed a legal existence for the first, and only, time in its history (prior to the collapse of the USSR). Though split on the question of support for the Bolsheviks, anarchists of all tendencies had taken part in the overthrow of Kerensky. They worked enthusiastically in the Soviets, and were represented in the All Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK). Many of them were captivated by Lenin’s writings after April, 1917, particularly his famous work “The State and Revolution”, which had re-examined Marx’s theory of the state and concluded that the existing bourgeois state must be abolished (along with the standing army, police and courts) and replaced with a society modelled on the Paris Commune. Believing the Bolsheviks to be sincerely dedicated to this task, Soviet Anarchists were even prepared to temporarily bend their anti-statist principles, in the cause of seeing the revolution triumph, by supporting the dictatorship of the proletariat.
As the Soviet state grew stronger, the contradictions between Bolshevik and anarchist aims became more irreconcilable. On the night of 12 April, 1918, Lenin’s Cheka supported by Latvian riflemen, launched an offensive against the Moscow anarchists, with raids against twenty-six anarchist centres in the city, and closed down the printing presses of the Moscow Anarchist Federation and its paper “Anarkhiya”. Caught by surprise, some of the anarchists were captured without a shot being fired, or put up only a token resistance. Elsewhere, the well armed Black Guard detachments were only overcome by full-scale military assault. Those who still dreamed of seeing Anarchy in their lifetime pinned their hopes on a “third revolution” against Communist dictatorship, based on the Makhnovist insurgency in Ukraine and the Kronstadt revolt of 1921, but by the end of the 1920s the anarchist movement in Russia was completely outlawed.
Alexander Berkman arrived in Russia with Emma Goldman in 1919, after being deported from the USA. At first they were inclined to give Lenin the benefit of the doubt. But the massacre at Kronstadt finally convinced them of the true nature of Lenin’s new autocracy. They were expelled to Germany in 1922, among the last of the Russian anarchists allowed to leave. From then on anarchists in Russia were subject to a continual cycle of repression, imprisonment and exile to remote provinces, where they were forced to survive as best they could. Berkman dedicated the remainder of his life to bringing practical aid and solidarity to the comrades he left behind. This book stands as testimony to his efforts.
It would be difficult to do justice to the wealth of detailed information which the Bulletin published about persecuted Russian revolutionists (not only anarchists) – please, read the book yourself – while fellow-travelling intellectuals outside Russia were so besotted with the fatal attraction of Leninism. But a few gems beg to be mentioned in passing, if only because they are news to me. I didn’t know for instance (despite having written a book about Latvian anarchists) that the Latvian anarchist group in New York remained active, sending contributions to Berkman, as late as the end of 1930. Or that the London branch of the Anarchist Red Cross (Secretary E. Michaels) was still supporting Berkman’s work until at least 1931. An honourable mention (page 77) as another contributor, also in 1931, goes to Leah Feldman – a veteran of the anarchist underground in Russia and the Makhno movement in Ukraine, who in 1936 passed on the flame to our own Albert Meltzer (co-founder of the Anarchist Black Cross), and was still supporting anarchist action groups (First of May Group, Murray Defence Campaign) well into the 1960s and 70s. And it’s interesting to note that Nestor Makhno himself is listed (page 27) as receiving financial support ($76) from Berkman’s fund in 1926.
In November and December 1930 the Bulletin printed reports of a new generation of “politicals” appearing in the prisons: ‘mostly young persons… who we, the “old guard”, do not know. Many of them call themselves Anarchists, and one wonders in what manner they have learned of our ideas. For you must consider that there is no Anarchist literature in Russia, none that the average person can get hold of. And there are but few organizations or groups of our comrades, and all underground, at that. Often this new element is merely a rebellious contingent, whom the GPU simply designates as Anarchists. In prison, fortunately, some of them actually become enlightened Anarchists, with a clear and intelligent conception of our ideals. Thus at a certain transfer point I came upon a young man who belonged to a student organization of Anarchists-Syndicalists. He seemed a man of an entirely new type that is growing in Russia. Not an Anarchist by temperament, but one whom actual conditions and an independent and critical mind have led to new conceptions of life and society. […] their militant spirit was not the determining factor in their Anarchist viewpoint. On the contrary… social conditions of dictatorship have developed in them a clear and logical tendency to seek for other, more practical and rational ways of making and living the Revolution.’ (p. 62)
Thus it was, inside and outside of the Gulag system, that against all odds anarchists survived in Russia until emerging in 1989 – not just despite, but in part precisely because of the repression of all who questioned the moral authority of a dictatorial state. The Tragic Procession of Russian Anarchism after 1918 was ultimately vindicated (thanks in no small part to people like Alexander Berkman) by outliving the dictatorship which sought to consign it, as Trotsky claimed, to the “dustbin of history”.
[Philip Ruff is the author of Pa stavu liesmu debesis : Nenotverama latviešu anarhista Petera Maldera laiks un dzive [A towering flame : the life & times of ‘Peter the painter’] which was reviewed in our last issue.
The Tragic Procession: Alexander Berkman and Russian Prisoner Aid. Published by The Alexander Berkman Social Club and Kate Sharpley Library: 2010. 9781873605905 $12/£8