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)

Alexander Berkman
Alexander Berkman; drawing by David Levine

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?


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…

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