ALEXANDER BERKMAN, ANARCHIST — Life, Work, Ideas, Bill Nowlin ISBN 978-1-873976-69-2
As a young student in Russia, Alexander Berkman claims to have heard the bomb explode which killed Tsar Alexander II in 1881. He emigrated to America and, inspired by the Haymarket martyrs, became active in Jewish anarchist circles. When Henry Clay Frick of Carnegie Steel sent in armed Pinkertons who killed strikers at Homestead Steel, Berkman traveled to Pittsburg and shot Frick in an assassination attempt of his own, hoping to inspire a workers’ revolt. He spent 14 years in prison, then rejoined his comrade Emma Goldman and was active in the free speech movement, in setting up free schools, in the beginnings of the birth control movement, and in defending numerous activists charged by prosecutors. He and Goldman organized against military conscription during World War I and were deported to Russia, arriving shortly after the Revolution. There, as anarchists, they also ran afoul of the Communist Party authorities who were intent on consolidating political power. They had to leave Russia as well, and then to leave Germany, finally landing in exile in France. Throughout, Berkman was a skilled organizer and both edited and wrote numerous publications. His life, his work, and his ideas are explored in this book. The way Berkman lived his life, maturing in his thought but remaining true to his principles, has been an inspiration to those who have known of him.
Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman are prominent figures in any consideration of American anarchism. From roughly 1892 to 1919 they were at the forefront of the American anarchist movement and deeply involved in the international movement for yet another decade and a half. Since their deportation to Bolshevik Russia in 1919, there has been a dearth of explicitly anarchist writing and organization in the United States which earned any sizable or responsive audience. Neither Goldman nor Berkman were original political theorists of the first order, but both dealt with the great questions of political thought, and they can be said to have advanced anarchist theory in the light of the first modern socialist revolution. Although virtually inseparable as comrades in thought, action and life, there were differences of opinion between them. This study intends to focus specifically on Berkman’s social and political thought.
Although Berkman’s anarchism followed very closely the thought of Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, his distinctive contribution was to have advanced and adjusted anarchist thought following the Russian Revolution. More than anything else, the lessons of the revolution confirmed, in anarchist theory, the Bakuninist critique of Marxian socialism. Bakunin himself had, of course, died some forty years before the Revolution. Kropotkin died shortly after the Revolution, but was preoccupied with the attempt to finish his Ethics. Apart from a few fragments of comment in letters and conversation, he was unable to develop a full response and critique. It was Berkman’s historic fortune, if it may be called that, to have been one of the very first to have taken the Leninist adaptation of Marxism to task — from a revolutionary perspective.
A half-century later, the Leninist model remains perhaps the primary model of modern revolution, albeit with variations in China and elsewhere. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, sensitive and committed revolutionists around the world began a renewed search for alternative models. A new consensus began to develop which admits that the Russian Revolution failed to introduce true socialism; the debate centers around when the failure (or betrayal) took place: 1917, 1921, 1927, 1953, 1957, or whenever, and why.
A revival of interest in the anarchist critique is one product of this discussion, and the sort of analysis that Berkman initiated in 1922 begins to provoke more serious consideration well beyond the ranks of the anarchist movement.
Berkman, who had spent two years in Russia during the revolutionary period and had traveled widely, able to converse fluently with the people of his native land, charged that Leninism was fundamentally counter-revolutionary. The remainder of Berkman’s life was devoted to attempts to puncture the “Bolshevik myth” which threatened to tarnish irreparably the attractiveness of revolutionary ideals for generations to come. Berkman himself remained a committed communist anarchist.
A study of Berkman’s life and thought affords many interesting opportunities. Of greatest interest is his critique of Bolshevism (Marxism-Leninism) and the opportunity to reassess its relevance to changing concepts of modern revolutionary theory. One thereby also joins in the contemporary reappraisal of anarchist political theory. Berkman’s thought combines a systematic presentation of anarchism with a very trenchant analysis of the failures of movements for revolutionary social change.