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Alexander Berkman

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Alexander Berkman (November 21 1870 – June 28 1936) was a Russian-American writer and a leading member of the anarchist movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. He was the lover and close associate of Emma Goldman, a Lithuanian-born anarchist with whom he collaborated frequently and organized civil rights and anti-war campaigns. In 1892, he attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick in retaliation for his involvement with the Homestead Strike: Berkman subsequently served a fourteen-year sentence. During World War I he was deported along with Goldman and other foreign-born American anarchists as a result of the Anarchist Exclusion Act. Continuing to write and speak abroad, Berkman died in France in 1936.

Early years[edit]

Berkman was born Ovsei Osipovich Berkman in Vilnius, Lithuania, the son of a wealthy Jewish businessman. He grew up in St Petersburg, Russia where he became known by Alexander, a name more common in that country; later he was generally known among his friends as Sasha (a diminutive Russian name for Alexander). Both his parents died when he was young, and at the age of seventeen he emigrated to the United States.[1]

Soon after arriving in the US, Berkman became involved with political activism and became interested in anarchism through his involvement in the campaign to free the men convicted of the 1886 Haymarket bombing.[2] Berkman was a typesetter for Johann Most's radical newspaper Die Freiheit,[3] and was inspired by Most's fiery political agitation for revolutionary action, and the concept of propaganda by deed. In New York City, Berkman met and had a romance with Emma Goldman, another Russian immigrant who was working in a clothing factory. Goldman had been pursued romantically by Johann Most, but she soon left him for Berkman. Berkman and Goldman soon became intricately involved in the anarchist movement. They remained close friends and colleagues for the rest of their lives.

The Attentat[edit]

Although Berkman gradually began to distance himself from Johann Most, he remained fixated on the concept of violent action as a tool for inspiring revolutionary change. In 1892, at age 22, Berkman – convinced that a violent act was needed to electrify the anarchist movement, attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick,[4] a wealthy industrialist involved in a bitter dispute with steelworkers in Homestead, Pennsylvania. The Amalgamated Iron and Steel Workers Union had called on its members to strike the Homestead steel plant owned by Frick and Andrew Carnegie. The strikers occupied the factory and locked out the owners. Frick took the controversial decision to hire three hundred strikebreakers from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, brought in on armed barges to expel the strikers and retake control of the factory. Upon landing, the strikers were waiting for them and a day-long battle took place. Ten men were killed and sixty wounded before the governor declared martial law.

Berkman, with the knowledge of his lover Emma Goldman and the assistance of other conspirators, plotted to murder Frick in an Attentat, or assassination, in retaliation for his role in attempting to break the strike. After gaining entrance to Frick's office, Berkman shot Frick twice in the neck, missing the third shot only after his arm was grabbed by Frick's assistant. Frick and Berkman then grappled on the floor, and Berkman drew a sharpened steel file, stabbing Frick four times in the leg.

File:Berkman with Frick (1892).jpg
A drawing of the assassination attempt.

Although seriously wounded, Frick survived the attack. Berkman was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to twenty-two years' imprisonment, of which he served fourteen years, many of them in solitary confinement. Though Emma Goldman was aware of the plot and was widely believed to have assisted in its planning stages, the other conspirators refused to give evidence against her, and she was not charged in the indictment for lack of evidence. Berkman's decision to assassinate Frick was criticized by none other than his old mentor Johann Most, who implied that Berkman's act was not only counterproductive but even designed to elicit sympathy for Frick himself. Goldman was enraged at this charge, and famously horsewhipped Most after a lecture at which he refused to recant or apologize. Berkman was released from prison in May 1906.

Upon regaining his freedom, Berkman – shattered and physically broken – joined Goldman as one of the leading figures of the anarchist movement in the US. Berkman later wrote an account of his prison years in his book Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, which he claimed helped him recover from the experience of being a prisoner.

From 1908 to 1915, Berkman contributed to Goldman's paper Mother Earth, and founded the Ferrer Center in 1910,[5] named for the Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer and widely known as a meeting place for anarchists. Berkman was infuriated by John D. Rockefeller and his continuing dispute with the United Mine Workers over violent labor strikes in the Colorado mines. Berkman and other anarchists led several protests throughout May and June against John D. Rockefeller Jr., protests that moved from New York City to Rockefeller's home in Tarrytown, New York, and which resulted in the beatings, arrests, and imprisonments of a number of anarchists. The strong police response to the Tarrytown protests led to a plot to bomb Rockefeller.

Rockefeller bombing[edit]

File:Alexander Berkman speaking in Union Square 1.png
Berkman addressing a May Day rally in New York's Union Square, 1914.

In July 1914, three associates of Berkman – Charles Berg, Carl Hanson, and I.W.W. member Arthur Caron – began collecting dynamite they had obtained from Russia, storing it at the apartment of another conspirator, Louise Berger. Several meetings were held at the Ferrer Center, where they devised a plan in which Caron, Berg, and Hanson were to plant a bomb at Rockefeller's home in Tarrytown. According to later accounts, the three men, along with Alexander Berkman met at the Ferrer Center at least twice to discuss the plot. According to some sources, Berkman was the chief conspirator and the only one of the five who had experience in such an act.[6] According to Charles Plunkett, a party to the conspiracy, Berkman chose to remain behind the scenes rather than take an active role in the bombing due to his probation for the Homestead assassination attempt.[7] Berkman later denied any involvement or knowledge of the plan.

At 9 a.m. on July 4th, Berger left her apartment and headed over to the Mother Earth offices on 119th Street. Fifteen minutes later, the deadly explosion that would later become known as the Lexington Avenue bombing took place. A bomb blast shook the sixth story of Berger's tenement building at 1626 Lexington Avenue, between 103rd Street and 104th Street in the thickly populated area of Harlem, only a few blocks away from the Ferrer Center. Passers-by witnessed a shower of debris and rubble fall into the street. The three upper floors of the tenement building were wrecked from the explosion, while debris showered rooftops and the streets below. Large pieces of furniture were thrown hundreds of feet in the air due to the power of the blast. The bomb intended for Rockefeller had exploded prematurely at Berger's apartment, killing Carl Hanson, Charles Berg, Arthur Caron and Marie Chavez, who had apparently not been involved in the conspiracy but had merely rented a room in the apartment. The blast threw Caron's body onto the mangled and twisted fire escape. The mutilated bodies of Marie Chavez and Hanson were found inside of the apartment. The blast had torn the body of Charles Berg into pieces, which were seen by spectators being thrown through the air onto the streets. In total, twenty other people were injured, seven of them severely enough to be hospitalized. Berkman attended the men's funerals.

From 1916 to 1917, Berkman briefly published his own anarchist journal in San Francisco, The Blast. Later, he left for San Francisco for a year to publish his own revolutionary journal, The Blast. During Berkman's time in San Francisco, the Preparedness Day bombing took place, killing 10 and wounding forty others.[8]. After the Preparedness Day bombing, Berkman returned to New York, rejoining Goldman to work on the Mother Earth Bulletin. The San Francisco District Attorney attempted to have Berkman extradited back to San Francisco on conspiracy allegations related to the bombing, but was unsuccessful. During this time, Berkman also lectured and taught, helped organize labor movements, agitated against the ruling class, campaigned for civil rights, and continued to meet with other radical anarchists.

War opposition[edit]

File:Alexander Berkman 2.png
Berkman in 1919, on the eve of his deportation.

From 1914, Berkman and Goldman opposed the First World War, and from 1917, when the US entered, they campaigned against conscription, which got Berkman a two-year sentence in prison for violation of the Espionage Act.[9]

Berkman and Goldman were later targeted for their extensive association with radical anarchists, and antiwar statements during the Palmer Raids of 1919. They were deported, ostensibly for violation of anti-anarchist sections of the Alien Act of 1918,[10] along with hundreds of other leftists of Russian origin, to the Soviet Union.

Henry Clay Frick died on December 2, 1919 in Pittsburgh, at the age of seventy. That evening, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were attending a farewell banquet in Chicago, their last whirlwind tour before being expelled from the country by federal authorities. At a dinner given in honor of the anarchist movement, a reporter approached Alexander Berkman with news of Frick's death and asked him what he had to say about the man. Referring to his own impending deportation from the U.S., Berkman casually replied that Frick had been "deported by God... I'm glad he left the country before me."[11][12]

Both Goldman and Berkman supported the Bolsheviks when they came to power in Russia after the October Revolution of 1917, doing work collecting material for a Museum of the Revolution.[13] During the two years they spent there, they gradually became disillusioned as the Communist regime became increasingly repressive. The suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion in March 1921 was the final straw, and Berkman and Goldman moved to Germany.

Final years[edit]

In subsequent years, Goldman and Berkman led the libertarian critique of the Soviet Communist Party, denouncing what they saw as the betrayal of the revolution. While they helped persuade the main organizations of the international anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movement not to participate in the Third International controlled by the Bolsheviks, their impact on the wider world was only partially successful. Producing a constant stream of articles, they tried to get this material published by the left-wing press, but the mainstream socialist and liberal papers and publishers refused to publish anything that would shake confidence in the left-wing Russian government.[unverified] As part of this campaign, Berkman published The Bolshevik Myth in 1925, an account of his time in post-revolutionary Russia and his gradual disillusionment with the Bolsheviks. The book is admired both for its literary qualities as well as its documentary value.

Berkman spent his last years in France, eking out a precarious living as an editor and translator. He was not well-received by the French government which, aware of his past, frequently served him with expulsion orders. His main work during this period was Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism, published in 1929. This book was later published under the name What is Communist Anarchism? and finally shortened to What is Anarchism?. What is Anarchism? has become one of the best-known introductions to anarchism in print.

Suffering from poor health, Berkman underwent two unsuccessful operations for a prostate condition. In constant pain, forced to rely on the financial help of friends, and reliant on the care of his companion Emmy Eckstein, Berkman decided to commit suicide. In the early hours of 28 June 1936, unable to endure the physical pain of his ailment, Berkman shot himself with a handgun, but he failed to make a clean job of it. The bullet lodged in his spinal column, paralyzing him. Emma Goldman rushed to Nice to be at his side. He sank into a coma in the afternoon, and died at 10 o'clock that night. Berkman died weeks before the start of the Spanish Revolution, modern history's clearest example of an anarcho-syndicalist revolution. In July 1937, Goldman wrote that seeing his principles in practice in Spain "would have rejuvenated [Berkman] and given him new strength, new hope. If only he had lived a little longer!"[14]


Books by Berkman[edit]

Edited collections[edit]

  • Life of an Anarchist: The Alexander Berkman Reader. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1992. ISBN 0941423786.
  • The Blast: Complete Collection of the Incendiary San Francisco Bi-Monthly Anarchist Newspaper. Oakland: AK Press, 2005. ISBN 1904859089.


  1. Berkman, p.iii
  2. Berkman, p.iii
  3. Berkman, p.iii
  4. Avrich (1988), p.200
  5. Sanger, p.132
  6. Avrich, Paul, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1996)ISBN 0691044945
  7. Avrich, Paul (2005). The Modern School Movement, p. 219, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  8. Avrich, Paul, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1996), p.35
  9. Zinn, p.292
  10. Zinn p.292
  11. Avrich (1996), p.47
  12. Goldman, p.709
  13. Avrich (1988), p.205
  14. Goldman (1937)


  • Avrich, Paul (1980). The Modern School Movement. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Avrich, Paul (1988). Anarchist Portraits. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691006091.
  • Avrich, Paul (1996). Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691044945.
  • Berkman, Alexander (2003). What Is Anarchism?. Oakland: AK Press. ISBN 1902593707.
  • Goldman, Emma [1931] (1970). Living My Life. New York: Dover Publications. ISBN 0486225437.
  • Goldman, Emma (1937). "Preface" to Alexander Berkman's Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism. 2nd ed. New York: Freie Arbeiter Stimme. OCLC 4089944


Further reading[edit]

  • Avrich, Paul (1988). "Alexander Berkman: A Sketch" Anarchist Portraits, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Drinnon, Richard and Anna Maria, eds. (1975). Nowhere At Home: Letters from Exile of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, New York: Schocken Books.
  • Glassgold, Peter, ed. (2001). Anarchy! An Anthology of Emma Goldman's Mother Earth, Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint.
  • Goldman, Emma [1931] (1970). Living My Life, New York: Dover Publications.

External links[edit]

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