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Alexander Berkman's "The Blast"

This work appears in Anarchy Archives with the permission of the author and is available from AK Press.

The Blast


By Barry Pateman

      In the late winter and early spring of 1914 waves of militancy surged through the city of New York, as unemployment grew. Clashes between police and demonstrators were brutal, and tension and anger festered on both sides. During that winter Alexander Berkman had been continually working with the unemployed movement in New York, supporting the occupation of churches by groups of the unemployed who demanded that the churches provide food and shelter for the cold and hungry, as well as attempting to bring the various organizations supporting and representing the unemployed together. Eight years out of prison his organizational skills were impressive; his commitment to anarchism as strong as ever and his influence on a new generation of young New York anarchists was present for all to see. Indeed his life had, much to his bemusement one senses, made him almost a mythic allure in the eyes of some.

      Then on 20 April 1914 striking miners and family members were machine-gunned, burnt and beaten in their tent colonies in Ludlow, Colorado by a detachment of the National Guard. Twenty-two people were killed. The strikers, on strike against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (controlled by John D. Rockefeller) won immediate support from militants across America. In New York Berkman announced the formation of the Anti-Militarist League to the press on 23 April. Based at the Mother Earth office, the League, with Berkman as its treasurer-secretary, urged "insurrection rather than war," and Berkman promised to raise funds to send "men, arms, and ammunition" to Colorado. The League was, he argued, not only dedicated to the fight against war and militarism, especially the impending threat of war with Mexico, but also to fomenting domestic insurrection.

     At this same time, Rockefeller was living, (and seemingly refusing to express any words of regret) in his family's country estate in Tarrytown, 30 miles north of New York. Berkman, the Anti-Militarist League, Italian anarchist groups and other radicals took the fight to Rockefeller. Demonstration after demonstration took place first outside Standard Oil in New York City, and later outside Rockefe1ler's residence in Tarrytown. Violence regularly broke out between demonstrators, police and Tarrytown residents - many of whom resented the presence of the demonstrators. The demonstration on 22 June was particularly violent with demonstrators being attacked both by residents and the police.

     As demonstrations against Rockefeller continued, a bomb exploded at 1626 Lexington Avenue around 9 AM on 4 July. Three anarchists, Charles Berg, Arthur Caron and Carl Hanson died In the blast. Their friend, Marte Chavez, was also killed. The three men had taken part in New York's unemployed movement, in the demonstrations at Tarrytown and were members of the Unemployed section of the IWW. Considerable evidence suggests that Berkman, the dead men and others had planned to plant the bomb near Rockefeller's house. Immediately the dead men were seen as heroes and martyrs. The July 1914 edition of Mother Earth carried on its front cover an illustration of a sculpture designed by Adolf Wolff with the names of the dead anarchists prominently displayed. Reports of the speeches at a huge memorial rally for the dead in Union Square filled the magazine. Some explicitly argued for violent reprisal and praised the use of dynamite. Emma Goldman, away on a speaking tour, sent a telegram "we honor the memory of our dead comrades, the victims of the capitalist system and the martyrs of labor."

      Meanwhile, in May 1914 the Mother Earth Publishing Association had published Voltalrine de Cleyre's Selected Works, edited by Berkman, a project he had been working on throughout 1913. The book is a sensitive and telling introduction to de Cleyre's work and evidence of Berkman's understanding of, and respect for, the writer and the nuances of her thoughts and talents. However all this physical and intellectual work on Berkman's part could not hide the tensions that were building up in the community centered around Mother Earth magazine. Begun by Emma Goldman and Max Baginski in March 1906, Berkman had edited the magazine from March 1907. His name appears for the last time as editor in March 1915 although he had left the job some months before that. The causes of his departure appear to be the usual mix of the personal and the political that is such a regular feature of splits in the anarchist movement, although just what happened is still unclear. We do know that Emma Goldman appears to have been manifestly uneasy with the New York activities or at least Berkman's involvement in them. There appears to have been tensions in and around the Mother Earth household at 20 East 125th St. where Berkman and others lived. We also know that in a September 1914 letter to Goldman couched in his typical style of cutting honesty and affection for her, he wrote. "Now as to ME - yes dear, we both feel a change must be made...the first thing needed is to get someone else as editor for ME." The two close comrades and friends had moved away from each other.

     Publicly no mention of this political and personal split occurred. Instead in the October 1914 Mother Earth Berkman jokingly announced that in celebration of his flrst visit to Pittsburgh (and his attempt to kill Frick) in 1892 and in honor of his fourteen year stay tn the Western Penitentiary there as a result of his actions, he planned a celebratory tour that would begin in this, for him, most symbolic of places. "Afterward I shall go further west." The November 1914 Mother Earth announced a string of cities where he would be throughout November and December. His aims during this tour would be to "organize anti-militarist Leagues and to help strengthen and federate existing Anarchist groups." The January 1915 Mother Earth featured his first tour report, detailing his arrest in New York on the eve of his departure (after a farewell party there was a skirmish with the police!!) and the eventual commencement of his tour on 10 November. The next travel report ("An Innocent Abroad 2") in February 1915 Mother Earth is less upbeat. He finds Kansas City depressing and adds a postscript - a postscript that reflects the constant tension in Berkman during this period of his life. A tension between writing and action as to which was the best form of propaganda. "lt is cold and snowing outside, scantily clad, weak figures shuffle past my window. If words could thaw out their frozen misery and send the burning love of their suffering flowing through the heart of a callous world - l would write and write..."

     It is hard to determine quite what Berkman intended to do at the end of his tour. One senses it was brought about by a desire to get away rather than to arrive. Everything, though, changed for him in February 1915 with the arrest of the anarchists Mathew Schmidt and David Caplan for involvement in the bombing of the Los Angeles Times Building ln October 1910. Both men had been living semi-underground since the explosion: Schmidt primarily in New York, Caplan in Bainbridge Island, near Seattle with friends and comrades supporting them. There was a bitter edge to their arrest for Goldman and Berkman. The two men had been betrayed by Donald Vose, who not only had been living in Goldman's house, but more painfully, was the son of anarchist Gertie Vose, a friend of Goldman's since 1899. Schmidt and Caplan were taken back to Los Angeles to stand trial.

     Berkman had arrived in California in the spring of 1915 and had spoken both in Los Angeles and in San Francisco. Mathew Schmidt was the first one scheduled for trial and Berkman quickly became involved in his defense campaign. There appears to have been disagreements about how best to defend Schmidt. (Many of these disagreements stemmed from the earlier unsuccessful defense of the McNamera brothers for the bombing which had ended when the brothers surprisingly pleaded guilty, and sections of the labor movement felt betrayed, either for believing that the brothers were innocent, or because their guilty plea had hurt the cause of organized labor throughout the country.) Berkman argued for a nation wide campaign of agitation to save Schmidt and Caplan. After all they were prisoners in the social war. The two men's immediate defense teams appeared to favor a more moderate, legalistic approach. Some type of compromise appears to have been made. Berkman was given a roving brief which, conveniently moved the convicted anarchist and would be assassin away from the legal eye of the storm in Los Angeles. In the August 1915 Mother Earth, Berkman wrote. "I have been selected by the Caplan-Schmidt Defense League of Los Angeles to help organize the solidaric forces of all the elements friendly to this fight." Initially Berkman was wary of approaching labor unions. In a 30 June 1915 bulletin of the Caplan-Schmidt Defense League he claimed, "it is up to the true revolutionsits to get out of the clutches of the enemy. It will not do to rely too much on trade union assistance. The conservatism of their leaders makes them lukewarm toward men with our ideas." Berkman crossed the country, Denver, Kansas City, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York -- retracing his earlier steps. Both he and Goldman spoke at a large meeting at New York's Harlem Casino on the 16 September 1916. Over this period of time, Berkman also found the militant labor unions, local branches, and local officals that would support the imprisoned men. Labor was awakening and would help energize and increase the social war.

     It was from this mixture, then, of militant anarchist activity and labor organization that The Blast was born. To Berkman's mind the paper would be a mouthpiece for the "Social rebels" who are "tired of the endless fruitless discussion of theories and philosophies" and the rank of the workers that "chafes at the cushion and antiquated methods" ("An Intimate Word to the Social Rebels of America", Mother Earth, December 1915). The paper would close the gap between writing and action. it would, he argues in the same article, "gather together the forces of rebellion throughout the country, give the militant spirit clear expression and help It form itself into action." The Blast would be based in San Francisco. All in all, The Blast, ran from 15 January 1916 - June 1917. Initially the paper was a weekly (its header announced it was a "Revolutionary Labor Weekly") but it became semi-monthly in March 1916, more erratic from September 1916, moving to New York in May 1917. There were twenty-nine issues ln total. It appeared when the war between capital and labor intensified, when the European war was slaughtering hundreds of thousands and preparation for war was sweeping America. Speakers and writers were imprisoned for advocating birth control, free speech was at a premium and a palpable sense of threat, of danger, was ln the alr. The first issue was put together by Berkman, Margaret Eleanor Fitzgerald ("Fitzie" Berkman's companion who had accompanied him from New York on his various tours) and Eric Morton, a San Francisco anarchist and labor organizer (who in 1899 had attempted to tunnel Berkman out of prison). This premiere issue of 15 January 1916 asserted its Bakuninist legacy, "nothing is more important than to destroy. Thus will The Blast be destructive, thus will The Blast be constructive." A time of change was now possible, social rebels must give blind rebellion, "a spark of hope," a "light of vision." With Robert Minor's cover illustration of the fat capitallst gloating on the scales, balanced by the dead bodies of workers, this opening statement set the tone for the paper. It would be fierce, uncompromising and implacably at odds with capitalism in all its shades and structures. There could never be any compromise. Its title was deliberate. There ls, then, a sense of expectancy, of tension that runs through the paper. Partly because it reflected the many tensions in San Francisco (for Berkman centered around labor and capital) and partly because of Berkman and the editorial team's sense that some type of upheaval, some type of change was lmminently possible. Yes there were defeats - Schmidt was sentenced to life imprisonment on 12 January 1916 - but some type of victory, some type of social change was tantalizlngly near. Topics running through The Blast included Ireland, Mexico and the anarchist PLM, Birth Control, the situation in Russia, Indian Nationalism, Caplan and Schmidt, various labor disputes and the Anti-War movement (Berkman, Goldman and other American anarchists had signed the International Anarchist Manifesto On the War in 1915). The attempts of the Preparedness Movement (especially cultivated in the Hearst press and adopted enthusiastically by San Franclsco's anti-union Chamber of Commerce) to improve the natlon's defenses were a particular target of the paper's wrath.

     Contributors to the paper included Margaret Sanger, Charles Erskine Scott Wood, Sara Bard Field, Tom Mooney, and interesting reprints from Tolstoy, Josiah Warren and Nietzsche. Articles tended to be less reflective; it was after all an agitational paper. Wood's early work on labor for instance, were very much grounded in experience. Running through each issue was a conscious note of defiance that became an in your face aggression often introduced by the viciously satirical cartoons that were on the front cover of most issues (many by Robert Minor) and continued by many of the articles that Berkman, especially, wrote. Attempts to censor the paper by halting its distribution in the mails were mocked and challenged. "We hereby declare our independence of the Autocrat of the Post Office and of his governmental and plutocratlc chlefs...We defy them to do their worst" ("To Hell With Government", 1 May 1916). There is a sense in the paper that it has had enough of these old tired and corrupt values and will ignore them. Anarchism has its own ideals and we will llve by them is the message clearly signaled ln each issue. Goldman and Berkman had read Nietzsche avidly and he was a real presence here. Not just in the raffle of a set of his works to make money for the paper but also in its note of angry defiance and its willingness to challenge all values and what they represented.

     This is not really the occasion to go over all the complexities, confusion, horror and nuances around the San Francisco Preparedness Day explosion. To summarize and explain the conflict between labor and capital in San Francisco, its history and personalities would take too long. All we can do is to present it from the perspective of those around The Blast. We do know that on the evening of I9 July, Warren Billings and Tom Mooney met at the office of the paper, allegedly to discuss a $5,000 bribe offered to Bllllngs by corporate detective Martin Swanson to implicate Mooney in explosions carried out against United Railroads. Anti-Preparedness rallies and meetings took place the week before the Preparedness Day march and, as luck would have it, Emma Goldman was speaking in the city also, using her visit as an opportunity to bulld bridges with Berkman. The Parade took place on Saturday 22 July. As it wound down Market Street a bomb exploded on Steuart St., near its intersection with Market. Eight people died immediately and two more died during the subsequent months. Forty more were injured. By l August five people had been arrested and charged with murder; Tom and Rena Mooney, Warren Billings, Ed Nolan and Israel Weinberg. All were well-known labor supporters and radicals. The offices of The Blast were raided on 29th July without a search warrant. No evidence was collected, no arrests were made.

     Reading the mainstream papers of the time gives us some clue to the anger, revulsion and fear that swept over the city. The defendants were presumed to be guilty and were abandoned by many of their former friends and acquaintances. Many simply lay low and said nothing. How remarkable then that in this atmosphere of fear and intimidation the 1 September issue of The Blast pledged unconditional support for the defendants, and linked their plight to the ongoing struggle of labor against capital. It requested that all money for their defense be sent to the newly organized International Workers Defense League ln care of Robert Minor, secretary-treasurer. From this small beginning Berkman put all of his energies into their defense. Billings was sentenced to life imprisonment on 7 October, but by early November Berkman was in New York drumming up unlon support and talking to the large United Hebrew Trades. They pledged assistance. He spread the word wherever he went. He argued, persuaded and cajoled union after union to support the men. He secured a good and thorough lawyer in W. Bourke Cockran to defend Mooney. On 31 December 1916 The Blast was raided again. Subscrlptlon llsts and correspondence were taken. Still the paper came out: still it rallied around the prisoners, arguing their case, bringing those initially intimidated back into the fold. By May of 1917, after appearing rather sporadically, The Blast had moved to New York. Its 1 May 1917 Issue argued that although Billings and Mooney were imprisoned, other papers such as the San Francisco Bulletin were exposing the conspiracy against the men. "The Blast reserves for itself the rigrt of being where there ls the greatest need and the greatest danger. Therefore we came to New York to devote most of our time and energv to anti-mllltanst work." Only two issues were printed In New York. On 7 June The Blast was excluded from the mails. On 15 June Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were arrested, he in The Blast's office above the office of Mother Earth, she in the Mother Earth office, both hard at work. Both of them had fought vociferously against conscrlptlon and, with Fitzie and others, had helped form the No Conscrtption League. Both were charged with conspiracy to induce persons to refuse to register under the Draft Act (Selective Service Act). Found guilty on 9 July 1917 they were both sentenced to two years imprlsonment and a fine. They began serving their sentences on 2 February 1918.

     The publishers of this facsimile edition are to be congratulated on their efforts. If for nothing else they are giving us a chance to see what Berkman and others sald, rather than what people tell us they said. All too olten the history of anarchism has been based on clever interpretation rather than actual reality. It's a wonderful pleasure to have primary sources like this accessible. The paper shows us the power of visual imagery. It reminds us that agitational papers can have depth and ironlc, wry humor. The Blast though refuses to preach to the converted. It tries to go beyond its natural community of social rebels and reach out in a clear, straightforward way to the unpolitical, the non-militant. Its use of clear and straightforward language, its consistency of tone are clear indlcations of that strategy. This is not a paper that rails angrily against the world like steam coming out of a safety valve. It's a paper that is angry and determined and urges its readers to thlnk, and then fight back. For Berkman every day is an insurrection against the prevailing culture of capitalism. Fight back when you can and where you can. Never give up.

     The publication of The Blast was in Berkman's eyes, the continuation of an intensified battle with the state. It reflected social war, a social war for Berkman that temporarily ended only with Caplan and Schmidt, Tom Mooney and Warren Bllllngs, and thousands of others languishing ln American prisons, and for Emma Goldman and himself sailing out of New York harbor on the SS Buford during that cold, cold early morning on 21 December 1919 towards the Bolshevik Revolution and a life of permanent exile.

Barry Pateman

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