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Violence, Anarchy, and Alexander Berkman

Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist: Studies in the Libertarian and Utopian Tradition

by Alexander Berkman, with an Introduction by Kenneth Rexroth
Frontier Press, 512 pp., $3.50 (to be published in November) (paper)

Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist: Studies in the Libertarian and Utopian Tradition

by Alexander Berkman, with an Introductory Note by Hutchins Hapgood, a new Introduction by Paul Goodman
Schocken, 534 pp., $2.95 (paper)

On July 23, 1892, Alexander Berkman, an immigrant Russian Jew, idealist, and anarchist, forced his way into the Pittsburgh office of Henry Clay Frick in order to kill him. The assassination was, in the anarchist tradition, to be an attentat, a political deed of violence to awaken the consciousness of the people against their oppressors. Frick, manager of the Carnegie steel works while Andrew Carnegie was on vacation in Scotland, had crushed the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers in the infamous Homestead strike, which ended in a fatal battle between Pinkertons and strikers. Berkman was there to continue the struggle between the workers and their capitalist oppressors. He failed. He failed to kill Frick. He failed to arouse the workers. The outcome, instead, was a book, a classic in the literature of autobiography, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist.

Prison Memoirs is one of those great works which somehow get lost and wait for time to find again. First published in 1912 by Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth press, the book has had an underground reputation, but not many people know it. Why it may now find an audience is obvious enough. From Newsweek to I. F. Stone’s newsletter, one finds references to Narodniks and Nihilists and Anarchists in editorials on the arson and bombing and terrorism which afflict our daily lives. Inevitably, we have the customary American reflex, a plenitude of panels and commissions.

Violence is nothing new to American culture but, as Hugh Davis Graham has said, there has been a curious historical amnesia about the subject. The historical volume of the National Commission on Violence, of which Professor Graham was one of the editors, is the first major attempt to redress the balance and provoke our collective memory. At such a moment, one may guess that Berkman will find readers. He should. Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist allows us to experience violence from the inside, to identify with a man who idealistically accepts terrorism as a political instrument.

But more important, in his exploration of the human ambiguity and political complexity of the violence to which he commits himself, Berkman forces a question on us. Does the terrible violence which has characterized American culture throughout its history, along with our inability to understand it, derive from our best and noblest ideals about the meaning and the promise of American life? Is violence, rather than some mad aberration, an intrinsic and understandable part of America?

I

Berkman’s style is that of the naïve, direct, simple, and seemingly artless. He writes in the first person, in a continuing present tense, generally in simple declarative sentences, perhaps because he writes in English and not in his native language. He apostrophizes often in an embarrassing way. Some of the set pieces in Prison Memoirs seem to come straight from a sentimental novel. But the sometimes mawkish manner cannot conceal a remarkable self-scrutiny and a sure juxtaposition of scene and image which express a supple imagination and a penetrating psychology.

On the first page, Berkman plunges directly into the news of Homestead, the bloody battle between the workers and the Pinkertons, the crushing of the Amalgamated Association, the single largest and most powerful union of the time, and starts on his train trip to Pittsburgh to assassinate Henry Clay Frick. The journey starts him also on the trail of his own memories, back to his student days in Russia, to his own youthful rebellion and groping attempts to understand, to his violent estrangement from his mother and her death in his arms before they are reconciled, before he can tell her that he is full of compassion and love for her. As he bows his head over his dead mother, the doctor puts his hand on his shoulder; at that instant, a coarse and swarthy laborer in the seat behind in the train reaches forward to speak to him, and we are back with Berkman on his fateful trip.

A collage of news, visual impressions, youthful memories, and idealistic aspirations overlay and run one into another. The effect, however, is single: to define the abyss between Berkman’s ideal hopes for mankind and the grim reality of man’s condition. He came to America, hounded from Russia as a “wolf,” he says, because “there, beyond the ocean, was the land of noble achievement, a glorious free country, where men walked erect in the full stature of manhood—the very realization of my youthful dreams.” Like many native American writers, he renders the contrast between the dream and the reality through images of the landscape. Against the infernal present of Homestead with its stink and soot and cinders, Berkman places a vision of arcadian bliss, sunshine, “green woods and yellow fields.”

This is not to say that Alexander Berkman, Russian Jew, immigrant and anarchist, had somehow attached himself to a native American pastoral tradition. Quite the contrary. As Paul Avrich, in his fine book The Russian Anarchists, has pointed out, the anarchist tradition in Russia stretches back to the seventeenth-century peasant revolts of Stenka Razin (whom Berkman explicitly invokes), and the myth of a world of free, uncoerced mutuality derives from the dream of a lost Golden Age located in the “primitive bliss of Medieval Russia, when, supposedly, there was ‘neither Tsar nor state’ but only ‘land and liberty.’ ” One may find the same figurative pattern, with its theme made explicit and programmatic, in Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops (1898). But if Berkman carried his dream of idyllic freedom with him from Russia, the American myth of an Eden of natural harmony where men walked erect in freedom twisted that dream into nightmarish shape.

II

Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist is divided into three unequal parts. The first short section gives us quickly the attentat, the attempted political assassination of Henry Clay Frick, the “Caesar” of American capitalism, a tyrant to be killed in order to awaken the oppressed, the glorious and beloved People. The last short section gives us Berkman’s return to life, his deep despondency which brings him to the verge of suicide, before he finds “work” to do and achieves his resurrection from the living death of fourteen years in a Pennsylvania state penitentiary. Most of the book deals with the experience of prison. The continuous present tense gives Prison Memoirs the air of a continuing diary of Berkman’s efforts to survive physically and mentally the brutal and degrading conditions of those long years. But we know, especially from Emma Goldman’s account in Living My Life, that Berkman wrote his story after prison, looking back over the terrible years.

As bizarre as the circumstances of Berkman’s life may be, Prison Memoirs belongs to the genre, if one cares to classify it, of the Bildungsroman, the story of the formation of a young man, his coming to maturity. The “I” of the story undergoes change and development; as he writes, Berkman leads us toward his altered conception of himself as he re-creates the experience which led to change. That change involves two major themes in the book: first, a change in Berkman’s relation to other human beings, a change in his assumptions about human nature; second, a change in his understanding of the political meaning of the deed of violence.

At the outset, Berkman draws the conventional anarchist distinction between murder and political assassination:

Human life is, indeed, sacred and inviolate. But the killing of a tyrant, of an enemy of the People, is in no way to be considered as the taking of a life…. True, the Cause often calls upon the revolutionist to commit an unpleasant act; but it is the test of the true revolutionist—nay, more, his pride—to sacrifice all merely human feeling at the call of the People’s cause.

Could anything be nobler than to die for a grand, a sublime Cause? Why, the very life of a true revolutionist has no other purpose, no significance whatever, save to sacrifice it on the altar of the beloved People. And what could be higher in life than to be a true revolutionist? It is to be a man, a complete MAN. A being who has neither personal interests nor desires above the necessities of the Cause; one who has emancipated himself from being merely human, and has risen above that, even to the height of conviction which excludes all doubt, all regret; in short, one who in the very inmost of his soul feels himself revolutionist first, human afterwards.

In Pittsburgh, Berkman adopts a pseudonym, Rakhmetov, taking the name from the arch-revolutionist in Chernyshevsky’s novel, What Is To Be Done? But he rejects the need to prepare himself, as did his namesake, to withstand pain. He finds it a “sign of weakness. Does a real revolutionist need to prepare himself, to steel his nerves and harden his body? I feel it almost a personal insult, this suggestion of the revolutionist’s mere human clay.”

Berkman’s celebration of the ideal revolutionary hero glorifies the man who, through commitment to a noble cause, transcends the limitations of being “merely human.” Devoted to the cause of humanity, one transcends the human condition, is beyond good and evil, beyond the fear of death and the claims of mortality. The ideal is put to the test when Berkman shoots Frick. Fearful that Frick may be wearing an armored vest, Berkman shoots at Frick’s head, hits him but fails to kill. Struggling free of the grasp of another man in Frick’s office, he fires and hits the wounded Frick again. He is overpowered for a moment, but shakes himself free; his pistol misfires, and he crawls toward Frick and stabs him with a homemade dagger in the leg and thigh. Finally, clubbed with a hammer by a carpenter, Berkman is overcome:

An officer pulls my head back by the hair, and my eyes meet Frick’s. He stands in front of me, supported by several men. His face is ashen gray; the black beard is streaked with red, and blood is oozing from his neck. For an instant a strange feeling, as of shame, comes over me; but the next moment I am filled with anger at the sentiment, so unworthy of a revolutionist.

That fleeting moment when Berkman sees Frick’s bloodied face before him and hesitates, almost surrenders to the feeling of shame, that fleeting moment is intensely important because it illuminates the special kind of violence possible only to man, the human animal. The object of attack, in this instance, Frick, is deprived of his individuality and his humanity because Berkman has turned him into an object, a symbol of the repressive forces of capitalism. It is not Frick, the man, but Frick, the symbol, there before Berkman. Berkman must do the same to himself. He must deny his own humanity, his own feeling, and turn himself into an instrument of a cause, a symbol of a revolutionary ideology.

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