Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman were determined to create a government-free paradise on Earth. As their biographers, Paul and Karen Avrich, demonstrate, they didn't much care how many people they had to kill to achieve their dream.
Fortunately for every country where they temporarily set down roots, neither had the planning skills or, more importantly, the basic mechanical ability to carry out their utopian dreams.
Berkman in 1892 originally had thought to use dynamite to kill Henry Clay Frick, the head of Carnegie Steel. He spent several days building two bombs. When the first one failed to go off during a test, he decided to switch to a handgun. "A week's preparation had been lost and forty dollars wasted," the Avriches write.
"SASHA AND EMMA: THE ANARCHIST ODYSSEY OF ALEXANDER BERKMAN AND EMMA GOLDMAN"
By Paul Avrich & Karen Avrich
Belknap/Harvard University Press ($35).
Paul Avrich, a scholar of Russian and anarchist history, had worked for many years on a book about the personal and political relationship between Berkman and Goldman. After his death in 2006, his daughter, Karen, augmented her father's draft, notes and interviews with her own research to produce "Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman." The resulting book provides an in-depth look at a lesser-known chapter of American and world history: the decades-long war that anarchists waged on governments around the world.
While their weapons more often consisted of speeches, pamphlets and rallies, they augmented those tools with bombs, bullets and blades. Their unlikely victims included the liberal Russian Czar Alexander II, reformist French President Marie-Francois Sadi Carnot, the inoffensive Empress Elisabeth of Austria and U.S. President William McKinley.
Anarchists also sought to blow up the mansion at Pocantico Hills, outside New York City, owned by oil baron John D. Rockefeller. The Avriches find plenty of evidence that Berkman helped with the planning, but the conspirators wisely kept him away from the actual bomb making. That didn't help. Three of the plotters accidentally blew themselves up in a Manhattan apartment building on July 3, 1914. The massive explosion injured 20 people and killed a fourth woman unconnected to the dead anarchists' plot.
Berkman, who dodged both the explosion and arrest afterward, praised the dead men at a memorial service. "I want to go on record as saying that I hope our comrades were manufacturing the bomb that caused their death and that they hoped to use it against our enemies," he told mourners.
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Berkman is best known in Western Pennsylvania as the man who shot and stabbed Henry Clay Frick at his office in Downtown Pittsburgh during the Homestead Steel Strike. Although badly hurt, Frick survived, and Berkman was jailed in Western Penitentiary for the next 14 years.
The Avriches describe that episode especially well, providing you-are-there details about both the assassination attempt and the trial that followed.
Throughout his life, Berkman had a singular ability to start with lemons and transform them into an undrinkable, noxious witches' brew. Berkman's attack on Frick received near universal condemnation, turning the ruthless steel magnate from a social pariah into a hero. The anarchist's critics included the Homestead workers. Berkman's "attentat" -- a violent act with political purpose -- "went straight through the heart of the Homestead strike," one labor leader said.
Berkman and Goldman both were born not far from each other into middle-class Jewish families in the Lithuanian portion of the Russian Empire. Both left Europe as teenagers for the United States. When both discovered that the streets of America were not paved with gold and that U.S. justice was imperfect, they turned to the most radical forms of protest: seeking to overthrow the government by violent means.
The tone of the Avriches' book generally is admiring, especially of Goldman, a prolific writer and indefatigable speaker. Many readers may be put off by the authors' sympathetic portrayal of the pair.
Certainly in the dog-eat-dog world of late 19th- and early 20th-century capitalism, Berkman and Goldman found much to protest. Working conditions were appalling, union organizing efforts were met with violence, and management had the uncritical backing of police and courts. But both lost sight of the ability of the American system to change, albeit often slowly, for the better.
Initially the two had great hopes for Soviet-style communism. To their credit, they quickly learned the error of their ways. Deported to Russia after World War I, they recognized and fled the terrors of Lenin's and Stalin's police state. They ended up in the south of France, where an ill and depressed Berkman killed himself in 1936. Goldman died four years later in Canada.
The pair provided good newspaper copy all their lives, and the Avriches include many anecdotes illustrating that point.
Henry Clay Frick died of a heart attack on Dec. 2, 1919, just days before Goldman and Berkman were sent out of the country. The man who tried to kill Frick 27 years earlier was asked for a comment:
"Deported by God," Berkman replied. "I'm glad he left the country before me."
Len Barcousky: email@example.com or 412-263-1159.