Murray Polner: Review of Paul and Karen Avrich’s "Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman" (Harvard, 2012)

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Murray Polner is a regular book reviewer for HNN.

Years ago Paul Avrich, my high school classmate and later a colleague in a college where he was a professor and I an adjunct, invited me to spend an evening with an aging group of Jewish anarchists. At the gathering a woman told me that other than Eleanor Roosevelt, the country’s most remarkable woman had been Emma Goldman. Ahrne Thorne agreed. He was the last editor of the anarchist “Freie Arbeiter Shtimme” (Free Worker’s Voice, it was closed in 1977 after 87 years of publication when it had 1,700 subscribers). He said he had met Alexander Berkman and knew Emma Goldman well. It was hard for me to imagine these elderly men and women as threats to the Republic. They were also despised by Communists because anarchists had the temerity to reject their Soviet paradise.

These old men and women had devoted their lives to an unachievable, impractical utopia where governments would play minimal roles and be supplanted by voluntary communes or, as an old anarchist tune went, “there is no supreme savior, neither god nor king nor leader.” On that long ago evening they reminisced about strikes, picket lines, prison terms and battles against an oppressive American state as well as Soviet Russia, which had betrayed their long sought for “revolution.” The names of Goldman and her occasional lover and lifelong friend Berkman, known as Sasha, were lovingly recalled. “Red” Emma as her critics called her, loved America but was deported and died in exile in Canada. Ironically, her family needed governmental permission for her body to be returned and buried in the same Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago as the executed late nineteenth-century Haymarket anarchists. Sasha, seriously ill, committed suicide in France and was buried there.

The lives of these two rebels and the saga of American anarchism is the subject of Sasha and Emma, an engrossing dual biography. We are fortunate that the historian Paul Avrich, our most eminent scholar of American anarchism -- who wrote histories of the Haymarket affair, Sacco and Vanzetti, and the invaluable “Anarchist Voices” and “Anarchist Portraits” interviewed a wide assortment of surviving anarchists. Before he died he handed his copious notes to his daughter Karen and asked her to complete this book, which can stand alongside Alice Wexler and Candace Falk’s biographies about Goldman. A special virtue of this book is that it deals as well with Berkman, whose life has never before been the subject of a full-scale biography.

Sasha was born in 1870 into a prosperous Jewish merchant family in Vilnius, Lithuania, then a part of the Russian Empire. Goldman, born in 1869 to a poor Jewish family in Kovno, also in Russian Lithuania, immigrated at sixteen to Rochester, New York, and worked as a seamstress in that city’s garment factories. They met in 1889 in a coffee shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and remained the closest of friends and allies for the remainder of their lives.

Americans have always feared and despised anarchists -- real and imagined -- and occasionally with good reason. Sasha Berkman, an early devotee of “propaganda by deed” -- assassination -- was indirectly influenced by the heavy hand of autocratic tsarist Russia and its anarchist and nihilist enemies who believed that Romanov despotism was best relieved by violence. Most famously, the Narodnya Volya (English: People’s Will) group murdered the "reformer” Tsar Alexander II in 1881 (he had abolished serfdom in 1861 and established the zemstvos or local self-governing councils). As luck would have it, his successor proved far harsher.

Sasha arrived in the U.S. at age eighteen. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a bitter era of class conflict between unions and corporations and their governmental defenders. Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills in Homestead, Pennsylvania, were managed by Henry Clay Frick, who battled the striking Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers with Pinkertons and the National Guard.

It was Sasha’s fury at what had happened in Homestead that moved him to enter Frick’s office in 1892 with a gun and dagger and try -- unsuccessfully -- to kill Frick. Many Homestead strikers rejected Berkman’s act as did many anarchists. Karen Avrich points to the MIT-educated anarchist Benjamin Tucker, editor of Liberty, who wrote, “The hope of humanity lies in the avoidance of that revolution by force which the Berkmans are trying to precipitate.” It was this resort to violence from which anarchism would never recover and became cautionary lessons for socialist and liberal reformers.

Berkman’s eighteen years in prison proved beneficial in one regard. After his release he wrote a trenchant revelation of prison life and the treatment of prisoners in Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, a biting description of the brutality and corruption of prison life rarely heard since Dorothea Dix, the great prison and mental health reformer of the nineteenth century had condemned conditions inside prisons and mental institutions.

All the same, sporadic individual and state violence never ceased. The assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 by Leon Czolgosz, the son of Polish immigrants and a mentally unstable anarchist acting on his own, alarmed and infuriated millions. It wasn’t the first or last murder of a president but it proved to be yet another devastating blow against anarchists, who were unfairly blamed for the killing. Many of their publications were shut down and their right to speak drastically curtailed, especially following the 1914 Ludlow massacre in Colorado, when the Rockefeller-owned Fuel and Iron Company fought the strikers. “Many of them [were] immigrants from Greece and Italy,” comments Karen Avrich, [who] “were demanding appropriate safety precautions, eight-hour workdays, cash wages rather than scrip, and the freedom to organize -- all rights to which they were entitled under existing Colorado law.” Disregarding the law, the company hired Pinkertons and brought in the National Guard, who ended up killing miner wives and children.

Emma fumed at the Ludlow killings. “This is no time for theorizing,” she heatedly wrote in her magazine Mother Earth. “With machine guns trained upon the strikers, the best answer is -- dynamite.” Carlo Tresca, the Italian-born anarchist and IWW leader, who scorned the Mafia, Nazism, and Communism, joined the protest. (Tresca was assassinated in Manhattan in 1943, most likely by the Mafia but possibly by the NKVD). And while a scheme to assassinate Rockefeller was aborted, the memory of Ludlow left the tycoon the most hated man in the country, which he remedied a decade later by following the advice of a shrewd public relations man who convinced him to donate enormous sums to all Americans.

Berkman, like Goldman, a prolific writer, once tried to explain that anarchism was more than violence, a difficult stance given his past. “It is not bombs, disorder or chaos,” he wrote in his 1929 book What Is Communist Anarchism? (also titled in other editions Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism): “It is not robbery and murder. It is not a war of each against all.” What it is, he explained, is “you should be free to do the things you want to do; and that you should not be compelled to do what you don’t want to do,” sounding a good deal like many twenty-first-century Americans.

It was their article of faith. Mother Earth was founded in 1906 and Sasha began his own magazine in San Francisco, The Blast, where he led the fight to free Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, who had been falsely judged guilty for a 1916 bombing in San Francisco during the city’s Preparedness Parade, “a massive event staffed by the city of San Francisco to demonstrate America’s readiness for war.” Sasha’s magazine charged the effort to blame the attack on the two anarchists was nothing more than a replay of Haymarket when five anarchists were hung in 1887. after serving two weeks in jail for advocating birth control and distributing contraceptives Emma arrived in San Francisco delivered a public talk: “Preparedness : The Road to Universal Slaughter.” Sasha followed up in The Blast: “The enemy is athirst for blood.”

With American entry into World War I, Woodrow Wilson, no friend of domestic dissenters, signed the Espionage Act in 1917 (still in effect!) and jailed the socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs, calling him ”a traitor to his country” for daring to oppose the war and conscription. Sasha and Emma were both shocked when Prince Peter Kropotkin, the most revered anarcho-pacifist since Tolstoy, supported the Allied war effort. They did not, denouncing the war and the draft and were subsequently deported, along with 247 anarchists and IWW members. Mollie Steimer, a fellow anarchist and ally, was also jailed for opposing U.S. military intervention in the Russian Civil War and deported in 1923 to Soviet Russia, where she soon became disenchanted with Soviet-style communism, moving to Mexico where she spent the remainder of her life before dying in 1980.

In the new Russia, Emma and Sasha observed the Communists cracking down on critics (Trotsky called for an “end to factionalism” at the Communist Party’s 10th Party Congress and Lenin and Trotsky attacked and sought to punish Tolstoyan pacifists -- “those who were still alive, shrewdly notes Karen Avrich, "many of their brethren had been shot during the civil war for refusing to serve in the Red Army and were imprisoned or exiled.” The Communists killed some 10,000 Kronstadt sailors, who in 1921 had the effrontery to demand the right to elect their own representatives to the Kronstadt soviet. The two were shocked and appalled and just as Rosa Luxemburg, the memorable antiwar German left-wing socialist, had done, they denounced Communist rule.

Sasha, Karen Avrich writes, saw the carnage at Kronstadt as “the greatest crime committed by the Soviet government against the Revolution and Russia, symbolizing the beginning of a new tyranny.” In 1922 Emma’s book My Disillusionment in Russia appeared (She was unhappy with Doubleday, we are told, for eliminating her last chapters which, she angrily insisted, “was sure to convey to the reader that it was the Revolution that had disillusioned me rather than the pseudo-revolutionary methods of the Communist State.” Sasha also added his expose in The Bolshevik Myth.

Outside the U.S. the two survived the repressive Red Scare of the twenties and they both wrote extensively in support of Sacco and Vanzetti. Emma visited the anti-fascist and anarchist militias during the Spanish Civil War and spent time in England publicizing the anti-Franco cause. Karen Avrich, however, says little how the Communists -- answering to Moscow -- were eager to control a post-civil war Spain and battled the anarchists during the war. Sasha, meanwhile, began warning about the dangers of fascism and Nazism as well as the similarities between Hitler and Stalin.

To some extent anarchism has influenced people like Randolph Bourne, whose phrase “War is the Health of the State” became a truism among left-wing and libertarian antiwar activists: Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movemen, Howard Zinn, the Berrigan brothers, Paul Goodman, Murray Bookchin, Dwight McDonald, Karl Hess, and the young rebels of the 1960s and 1970s. Still, as Vivian Gornick astutely argues in her 2011 book Emma Goldman, anarchism at the beginning of the twentieth century, anarchism of the mid-twentieth century, and anarchism today are very, very different. Anarchism of the 1900s was “a serious element in a worldwide movement for political revolution.” Anarchism in the middle of the century -- and even among disparate groups today -- “was a posture, an attitude, a way of protesting the transgression of democracy that most rebels wanted to see made more perfect.”

While Sasha and Emma occasionally borders on hagiography and only slightly touches on their missteps, it is a clear-eyed and impressive demonstration how even the worthiest of goals cannot be achieved by tainted means. The true legacy of Sasha Berkman and Emma Goldman today is best epitomized by resistance to continuous wars, corporate dominance, religious authoritarianism, entrenched racism and the defense of freedom of expression and liberty, most notably their insistence that people are not mere automatons.


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