by Leonard LehrmanFrom the Autumn 2013 issue of Jewish Currents
Discussed in this essay: Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman by Paul Avrich and Karen Avrich. Harvard University Press, 2012, 528 pages.
A brilliant writer and analyst trying to rally public opinion against the misuse of executive power and the senseless brutalities of war, he deliberately broke the law, was convicted under the 1917 Espionage Act, and suffered prison and exile from the United States in a Russia that tolerated him only warily. Bradley Manning? Edward Snowden? No, Alexander Berkman (November 21, 1870 – June 28, 1936), born Ovsei Osipovich Berkman to a fairly well-off Jewish family in Vilna, then part of Russia. (He took the name Alexander — diminutive, “Sasha” — after moving to St. Petersburg.)
After the deaths of his parents and the exile to Siberia of his beloved maternal uncle, Maxim Natanson, who was implicated in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, Berkman emigrated to New York City in 1888. There, first as a follower of the charismatic German anarchist Johann Most, then in consort with his cousin Modest (Modska) Aronstam and their mutual lover, Emma Goldman, Berkman became a leading member of the anarchist movement. He edited Mother Earth (founded by Goldman) and The Blast until his December 21, 1919 deportation with Goldman to Russia. At the sedition trial that proceeded their deportation, he trenchantly asked: “Are you going to suppress free speech and liberty in this country, and still pretend that you love liberty so much that you will fight for it five thousand miles away?”
Disillusioned after two years in Soviet Russia, especially after the government’s slaughter of the rebellious sailors at Kronstadt, Goldman and Berkman emigrated a second time in 1921. His The Bolshevik Myth appeared in 1925, and while living in France he wrote the classic Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism. Suffering from prostate cancer, he committed suicide in 1936. He was buried in Nice under the name Schmidt-Bergmann (one of his numerous aliases). Two decades ago, Helene Williams and I found the handwritten record in a cemetery archive there, but the grave itself had been reused, along with so many others, over time.
Berkman’s most renowned act was his attempt at age 21 to assassinate the steel magnate, Henry Clay Frick, on July 23, 1892. Berkman’s attack — which wounded but failed to kill Frick — was meant to protest the killing of strikers in Homestead, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh; Frick had locked the workers out of their steel mill jobs and imported 300 Pinkerton guards, who upon arrival were involved in a shoot-out with the strikers. There was quite a lot of popular sentiment against Frick and the Pinkertons; earlier that month, a Socialist Labor Party meeting had adopted a resolution that Frick and Robert and William Pinkerton “be executed as murderers.” To his great disappointment, however, Berkman’s “propaganda of the deed,” as he called his attack, was not well received by the strikers, who lost the public’s support, prompting the collapse of their union by November. Berkman received the maximum sentence for attempted murder, twenty-two years of imprisonment. He served fourteen, then another two for his anti-war efforts during World War I, much of the time in solitary confinement. His 1912 Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist is a classic must-read for anyone interested in the subject (it can be read online by clicking here.)
Berkman’s attack on Frick also became a central focus of Living My Life, Emma Goldman’s 1931 autobiography (the title was suggested by Sasha), in which Emma finally acknowledged her complicity in the assassination attempt, along with Sasha’s cousin, whom both of them called “Fedya.” (The name came from a character who ran off with a band of gypsies in The Living Corpse, a play by Leo Tolstoy.)
In July, 1992, admirers of Alexander Berkman honored him in Pittsburgh on the centennial of his action, but there has been no work of art or literature devoted entirely to him. He is, of course, featured in numerous works about Emma Goldman, including Carol Bolt’s 1974 play Red Emma and Gary Kulesha’s 1996 opera based on it; Howard Zinn’s 1976 play Emma (revised in 1987) and a 2005 opera of the same name by Elaine Fine; a 2012 rock opera, Love & Emma Goldman, by Sarah-Jane Moody and Jeremy Bleich; and my own 1987 E.G.: A Musical Portrait of Emma Goldman, written with Karen Ruoff Kramer (viewable in its entirety on YouTube from links at tinyurl.com/LJL-EG.)
The distinguished Queens College history professor Paul Avrich (1931-2006), attending a performance of E.G. in 1987, told me that he was working on something no one else had done, a monograph on Alexander Berkman. He also provided me with dozens of photographs that were used in most of the subsequent performances. Avrich’s writings, based on his extensive research and interviews with anarchists — many of whom trusted him and no one else with their first-hand recollections — included The Russian Anarchists (1967); Kronstadt, 1921 (1970); Russian Rebels, 1600-1800 (1972); The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution (1973); The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States (1980); The Haymarket Tragedy (1984); Anarchist Portraits (1988); Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (1991); and Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America (1995). Candace Falk, Director of the Emma Goldman Papers Project at Berkeley, observed to me that Avrich was the only scholar who purchased the archive’s 20,000-document microfilm edition for his own research. Sadly, he did not get to complete his Berkman monograph, which on his deathbed he entrusted to his daughter Karen, a New York writer and editor. In an e-mail to me this year, she described “seven years immersed in Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman — reading all of their available works and letters, scanning thousands of newspaper and journal articles, studying my father’s interviews, traveling across North America and Europe (to Chicago, San Francisco, Paris and St. Cloud, London, Amsterdam, Toronto, among other places), constructing and writing” the book, Sasha and Emma.
I asked her whether publishing her father’s book on Berkman as a joint biography of Berkman and Goldman might have resulted in denying Berkman the complete limelight he deserved. “To me,” she replied, “Sasha and Emma’s passion and friendship, their ideological and biographical similarities, their divergent yet intersecting paths, their unusual love and deep mutual respect, led organically to equal consideration in this biography.” On page 3, she refers to Emma as “the blazing sun to Sasha’s morose moon.”
There is much invaluable material in the new book, including information on and photos never before published of the young Modska Aronstam, who changed his name to Modest Stein as he pursued a career as a commercial artist, and later helped support both Emma and Sasha, while remaining in the background. Unanswered questions still remain, of course, about topics such as Haymarket and the Sacco-Vanzetti case on which Paul Avrich had copious notes and was one of the world’s leading scholars. Hopefully, Karen Avrich and other scholars will be able to have more to say on these after further study.
Leonard Lehrman is the composer of ten operas, six musicals, and 196 other works, to date. His antiwar feminist Khanike opera Hannah will receive its U.S. premiere on December 23, 2014 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, where he will be offering the first course in Jewish Opera. The New Improved SUPERSPY!: The S-e-c-r-e-t Musical, which he wrote with Joel Shatzky, will premiere at Medicine Show, 549 W. 52 St. in Manhattan on Friday evening, February 7, with further performances on Saturday, February 15 at 3 pm and Sunday, February 23 at 3 pm.