Anarchism's Royal Couple

The lives and ideas of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.


Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, by Paul Avrich and Karen Avrich, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 528 pages, $35.

If anarchism had a royal couple (an unlikely idea, I know), it would be Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. Radicals adored them; immigrant Jews admired them; early civil libertarians, including American Civil Liberites Union founder Roger Baldwin, were influenced by them. Cops hated and harassed them, and they made future FBI director J. Edgar Hoover froth at the mouth. As special assistant to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, Hoover initiated a vicious campaign against Berkman and Goldman, leading to their deportation in 1919. This only added to their luster in the eyes of both American and European radicals.

Goldman and Berkman were the two most prominent anarcho-communists of late 19th and early 20th century America. (That is, they thought the state should be abolished but believed in communal ownership of the means of production.) Individualist libertarians may not agree with their economic views, nor their early interest in revolutionary violence. (Berkman himself attempted to assassinate the industrialist Henry Clay Frick, after the Homestead Steel Mill manager had Pinkerton detectives open fire on striking workers.) But their ideas about the importance of individual liberty, their suspicion of the state, and a great deal of their activism should resonate. During the early months of 1914, for example, the pair created the Anti-Militarist League of Greater New York. When the war actually broke out in August, Mother Earth, their journal, published an anti-war issue with a striking cover illustration by the famed surrealist Man Ray, proclaiming "Down with Militarism! Up with the Rights of Man!" Goldman's birth control activism with Margaret Sanger, future founder of Planned Parenthood, got her two weeks jail time for violating the Comstock Law. Under this legislation, any mention of birth control sent through the U.S. mail was legally "obscene."

They also were early foes of the Marxist dictatorship in Moscow. After their deportation in 1919, they returned to Russia, and at first they were enthralled with the fledging revolution. But as they toured the country, it didn't take long for their excitement to turn to dismay. As Paul and Karen Avrich report in Sasha and Emma, their new biography of the duo, "What they learned from trusted sources and observed firsthand did not match up with the idealistic vision they had nurtured while in the United States." The censorship and repression, the lack of food and medicine, and the ruling party's callous control assailed them. An aghast Emma was horrified, crying that she had seen "the best human values betrayed, the very spirit of the revolution daily crucified." The Kronstadt massacre, in which the Bolshevik government slaughtered rebelling sailors and soldiers, was the final blow. Goldman and Berkman began to plot their departure from Soviet Russia. Yet when they returned to Europe, giddy socialists enamored with the Soviet revolution didn't want to hear what they had to say. One European communist activist even suggested that Goldman be burned in effigy.

Much has been written by and about Goldman. Her emotionally candid two-volume memoir, Living My Life, is fascinating, and biographies of her proliferate. Some, such as Candice Falk's racy Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman or Alice Wexler's Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life, are excellent. Others, such as Vivian Gornick's recent Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, are less successful. Gornick doesn't understand Goldman's belief system, at one point declaring that anarchists don't really have theories.

Oddly, no full-length biography of Berkman has been written until now. But no one was better-equipped to take on this task than the late Paul Avrich. Avrich was the preeminent historian of anarchism, with more than 11 scholarly books on the subject to his credit. Though Avrich was not an anarchist himself, he once confided to me that he was sympathetic with the philosophy's ideals. This sympathy shines through in the way he treats his subject matter: He is always fair and never displays a hint of derogation.

The Berkman biography was to be Avrich's crowning achievement, and he worked on it for many years. He died in 2006, before the book was finished, but he was able to ask his daughter Karen to complete it. We are in her debt for doing so.

The decision to make the book a double biography was inspired. The duo's lives were so closely intertwined that it is difficult to discuss one without mentioning the other. Though starting in the duo's native Russia, the book picks up steam upon their arrivals in America. We see how Sasha and Emma meet, both drawn to the heady radical intellectual climate of the Lower East Side in New York. Though very different in temperament, they quickly became lovers, in a menage-a-trois that also included Sasha's cousin Modska (known as Fedya in Emma's autobiography). Their devotion to and love for each other was destined to last throughout their lives, even when they were no longer physically intimate.

But this is more than a love story. Berkman and Goldman were intellectual collaborators and partners in their activism for more than 30 years. The book details their work together, including their time co-editing Mother Earth from 1901 to 1915, the anti-draft activities that earned both of them prison sentences, their banishment to Russia and subsequent disillusionment, and, early on, Sasha's bumbling attempt to kill Frick. I have read many accounts of that attempted assassination, but none come close to the detail of this book. We not only learn about the rash idealism that made Sasha feel compelled to act out this attentat; we learn of the details of the planning, the failed attempts to make a bomb, who besides Goldman helped him, how the helpers covered their tracks, and much more. Berkman's rash act led to a 14-year prison sentence, where he mastered English, matured without giving up his principles, and learned to be more reflective. His Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, though written several years after his release, is done in the style of a first-person diary, but it is more of an emotional and intellectual coming of age account that shows not only the horrors of prison life but the development of Berkman's thought.

Since this is the first book-length biography of Berkman, the details of his life are especially welcome. We learn, for example, about his part in founding the Ferrer Association, named after a martyred Spanish anarchist educator whose ideas about how children learn were not unlike Maria Montessori's. We learn about Berkman's friendship with the anarchist feminist Voltairine de Cleyre, and how he benefited from her advice as he wrote Prison Memoirs. We learn that Jack London agreed to write the introduction to Prison Memoirs but that Berkman didn't like it because it was not sympathetic to Berkman's attempted attentat. No publisher would touch the book, so it was finally published by Mother Earth in 1912, with the prominent lawyer Gilbert Roe and the journalist Lincoln Steffens raising money to pay for the printing.

At the end, Goldman and Berkman finally relinquished their dream that anarchism would be achieved in their lifetime. But as Karen Avrich recently told an interviewer, they "were fortified by the hope that anarchism might someday be hailed as the one true path to human fulfillment." As the American government gallops down the path to social and economic tyranny, we can only hope that we will persevere as well as these two remarkable and admirable activists.