ALEXANDER BERKMAN SIXTIETH BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION. NOVEMBER TWENTIETH, NINETEEN THIRTY. CENTRAL OPERA HOUSE, NEW YORK CITY.
E ARE CELEBRATING THE SIXTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF ALEXANDER BERKMAN, WHOM A MAN 80 little given to superlatives or unreasonable enthusiasm as Henry Mencken has characterized as one of the most intelligent and courageous men America has produced. The present period represents the nadir of radical and liberal activity in this country. There has been plenty of argument in radical circles as to why this should be so. But that radicalism is at low ebb none of those engaged in any attempts, however modest, to budge the powers in control from their entrenched positions of privilege will deny. For us, therefore, the era during which Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman flashed across the American firmament must seem almost an heroic, Homeric a age, scarcely possible of imitation under what may appear to us to be the more difficult conditions of the present epoch. Yet one wonders if the obstacles now facing us are a whit more insuperable than those faced by Berkman; one wonders whether the machinery of exploitation and oppression could have been so much more vulnerable to attack then than now. At any rate, the facts we have to face are that Goliath swaggers more impudently and with greater immunity now than ever before for want of a David such as Berkman to bring him low. The greatest tribute we must pay to Berkman is the tribute that more timid people, if they are quite honest, always must pay to undaunted courage facing all odds and all penalties on behalf of a good cause. He has spent his whole life lavishly In active rebellion to help the submerged and oppressed masses, without ever counting the cost to himself and the comparative hopelessness of succeeding. We know the price he, himself, has had to pay: sixteen years in American jails, perhaps the worst in the world, and, despite this sacrifice, final destruction, during a period of hysteria and black reaction, of all that he had labored to build up, ending in his own deportation and exile.
In considering a life such as Berkman's one is led to wonder whether his make-up differs in degree merely from that of the ordinary selfish human, or whether it is a difference, actually, in kind. How is it that he seems to react to none of the usual stimuli of fear, caution, selfishness, possessiveness, that animate you and me and the next man? At any rate one must admit that in men of his stamp there is a super-development in certain directions, in the direction of courageous altruism, that amounts to positive genius. It is the good fortune of mankind that, if there are Rockefellers, with an overdeveloped acquisitive sense, there are also men and women at the opposite pole, with an insatiable and inexhaustible and fearless devotion to their fellow men. In the realm of the imagination Shelley was of this latter category. In the realm of action, Berkman can be compared to him. No doubt the new school of psychology would seek to explain such a phenomenon as Berkman in its own peculiar jargon; but the average man needs no such explanation; he welcomes the Berkman phenomenon and would wish to imitate him, had he the strength. And he will accept Berkman easily as leader in the revolt against the superior odds on the side of the established order. Nevertheless, the miracle of this strange combination of atoms that goes to make up a Berkman, as distinguished from a Jones or a Smith, remains; in literature, art, music we call it genius. For the most part, men like Berkman, facing impossible odds, are doomed to failure. Now and then the times are with them, and revolutions carry them to success. In Berkman's case, owing to his peculiar temperament, this was not to be. Otherwise he would have closed his eyes and accepted the Soviet rule and found his consummation there. But men of his type can never make the compromises that success on a large scale demands. Their belief in liberty, freedom, justice, honor is too literal to permit them to compromise with the means on behalf of a visionary end. He had the supreme courage to turn his back on a career in Russia, after his exile from America, because he could not see freedom flowering out of despotism, even though that despotism masqueraded under the name of revolution.
Genius of the type that drove Berkman to great deeds manifests itself early in life. At an age when other boys are still at marbles and one-o'-cat, he had already become a rebel. Born in Kovno, Lithuania, he was a compatriot of Emma Goldman, whom he was not to know until they met in America. His parents were well-to-do middle-class people. The boy attended a gymnasium from which would open to him the possibility of a professional career. At the age of twelve Berkman had already written an essay entitled "There Is No God," beating Shelley's record by a number of years. At fifteen he refused to attend religious instruction in school, because, as he stated to the principal, "he didn't believe in God." He finds himself in disgrace. But the virus of rebellion has already gotten deep into his blood. Revolt is in his family: his uncle Maxime has fallen a victim to the dreaded Okhrana. Dark allusions in the family circle to this tragedy deeply move him and inspire him to emulation. Soon he comes in conflict with his mother, a woman apparently of strong will, because of her maltreatment of a servant. Perhaps this estrangement from his mother cost the young rebel more than any act of renunciation of his later life. It was perhaps the liberating act which set free finally all his rebellious energies. Later, when in America, he never could understand in others any weaknesses of the flesh when the cause was at issue. He rebukes a woman comrade for seeking to follow her husband to prison and so robbing the cause of her support. He is adamant against every form of self-indulgence. Can scarcely be induced to spend a few dollars on a suit for himself. Himself a man of the strongest passions, appetites and aesthetic desires, he could curb these passions and desires ruthlessly on behalf of the movement. In this he differed from his comrade, Emma Goldman, whose devotion was no less sincere and active, but who felt that she could not live without music, art, theatre, beauty.
About six months after his mother's death he left Russia, after a bitter quarrel with his rich uncle, and, already a fullfledged rebel, nourished on Nihilist literature, he arrived in America hoping to find there the paradise of freedom and equality and opportunity he had not found in Russia. Needless to say, America bitterly disappointed him. He found the great mass of the workers oppressed by the weight and power of the possessing classes, here as there. Fortunately, or unfortunately, for him, it depends on the point of view, he was plunged at once into a milieu of radicalism and revolt. He, himself, had to face extreme poverty and the hardships arising from poverty. He worked endless hours in a factory, when he had work, and when he hadn't he had to go without many of the necessaries of life, often without the shelter of a roof. Those of us who have been brought up in middle-class conditions in America have had their childhood and early youth deceived by the stucco facades erected to hide the brutal facts of actual conditions. We learned and believed the propaganda of the Declaration of In. dependence and the Gettysburg Address. It took most of us years before we had broken through the plaster facade into the dark manifests itself early in life. At an age when other boys are still at marbles and one-o'-cat, he had already become a rebel. Born in Kovno, Lithuania, he was a compatriot of Emma Goldman, whom he was not to know until they met in America. His parents were well-to-do middle-class people. The boy attended a gymnasium from which would open to him the possibility of a professional career. At the age of twelve Berkman had already written an essay entitled "There Is No God," beating Shelley's record by a number of years. At fifteen he refused to attend religious instruction in school, because, as he stated to the principal, "he didn't believe in God." He finds himself in disgrace. But the virus of rebellion has already gotten deep into his blood. Revolt is in his family: his uncle Maxime has fallen a victim to the dreaded Okhrana. Dark allusions in the family circle to this tragedy deeply move him and inspire him to emulation. Soon he comes in conflict with his mother, a woman apparently of strong will, because of her maltreatment of a servant. Perhaps this estrangement from his mother cost the young rebel more than any act of renunciation of his later life. It was perhaps the liberating act which set free finally all his rebellious energies. Later, when in America, he never could understand in others any weaknesses of the flesh when the cause was at issue. He rebukes a woman comrade for seeking to follow her husband to prison and so robbing the cause of her support. He is adamant against every form of self-indulgence. Can scarcely be induced to spend a few dollars on a suit for himself. Himself a man of the strongest passions, appetites and aesthetic desires, he could curb these passions and desires ruthlessly on behalf of the movement. In this he differed from his comrade, Emma Goldman, whose devotion was no less sincere and active, but who felt that she could not live without music, art, theatre, beauty. chamber of industrial oppression that is the real America for millions. Berkman, at any rate, started at the very bottom, in the deep shadow of proletarian misery, and had to waste no time on ripping up and destroying shams.
He came to America during the period immediately following the judicial murder of the Chicago anarchists (1887). This crime affected radical youth of that day as the execution. of Sacco and Vanzetti has affected the youth of ours. A deep bitterness was engendered in the souls of young radicals, of whom the anarchists constituted an influential element. Berkman joined this wing of the rebellion, in a group that called itself "Pioneers of Liberty." Johann Most at this time was the inspiration of radicalism throughout the country. Now came the meeting with Emma Goldman, in the summer of 1889, a meeting that ripened into a friendship and comradeship lasting over forty years. In those early days, Emma Goldman was the disciple, Berkman the guide and mentor who inducted her into the anarchist movement, introduced her to Most and the group gathered about the Freiheit (the newspaper edited by Most). Both were working in clothing factories as much as eighteen hours a day, but their youthful energies found plenty of time for their revolutionary activities. About this time Kennan came back from Russia with his terrible story of the suffering of the political exiles in Siberia. The two young revolutionaries now planned to return to Russia to help the movement there. Berkman apprenticed himself in a printing shop to learn the printer's trade so that he could be more effective in the spread of underground propaganda in Russia. Emma, Berkman and another comrade finally went to Worcester, Massachusetts, and opened a little shop there which was to earn them the money for the Russian venture. It is strange by what a narrow margin the destinies of human beings are decided. It was quite within the range of possibility that Berkman and Goldman might have become Russian revolutionaries and earned the applause of that liberal American middle class which later persecuted them unmercifully and finally hounded them through prison to exile.
In May, 1892, all thoughts of return to Russia were swept away by the more pressing situation in America. The strike in the Carnegie steel mills enlisted all the sympathies and energies of Berkman's group. Then came the slaughter of mill workers by Pinkerton detectives at the order of Frick. Berkman and Goldman decided that the time for an attentat to help the workers had come. There is not money enough for both to go to Pittsburgh. After a long struggle between the two as to which is to do the deed, Berkman goes, taking with him the last available funds. On July 23rd, 1892, he shoots and stabs Frick.
The rest of this tale, the story of his trial, his refusal of counsel, and unfair treatment by the court, the terrible and probably illegal sentence of twenty-one years to the state penitentiary, his sufferings and maltreatment in jail, his growth,intellectual and spiritual, while serving his sentence, his final release after fourteen years, wrecked in health but not broken in spirit, in fact stronger spiritually than ever, lie, himself, has told in his remarkable book, regarded now almost as a classic, "Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist." It is characteristic of his indomitable resilience and unbelievable courage, that these, the most terrible years of his life, should have flowered in this masterpiece. He has always, throughout his career, had the power and vitality and the optimism to transmute his personal sufferings into the form of creative art. Many years later his "Bolshevik Myth" was a similar product of his struggles and disappointments in Soviet Russia after his deportation from America. He is perhaps fortunate in having this outlet for his emotions, this creative outlet. But at the time when he first arrived in New York after his release from the Western Penitentiary of Pennsylvania, a physical wreck, it hardly seemed likely that he could ever find the courage to relive those terrible years again. At that time we know he actually contemplated suicide. But his indomitable will and life-force and the care and encouragement offered by Emma Goldman and his friends won him gradually back to activity in the movement and the writing of this book. After a terrible struggle he finally completed "The Memoirs," and, because no publisher was found to publish it, Mother Earth, Emma Goldman's publication, brought it out. The book created a sensation. It won not only admiration as a literary masterpiece but also served to stimulate a wide investigation of prisons and the penal system of the country.
It is apparent that by now Berkman has regained his feet in the radical world, that the shadow of prison walls no longer lies across his soul. From now on we find him taking part in practically all of labor's struggles; he figures in all the labor causes cébres that punctuate the class conflicts of the period. In those days the anarchists were the leaders in the fight of the masses against the possessing classes; although mostly of foreign extraction they also led in the fight for the old so-called "Anglo-Saxon freedoms": freedom of speech, assembly, press, and their corollaries: freedom to strike, to picket and to agitate on behalf of strikers. In the long period that elapsed between his release from his first imprisonment and his deportation, a period of more than thirteen years, we see Berkman continuing his revolutionary fight, risking prison time and again, as if the nightmare of the Western Penitentiary had never been. Here we can mention only a few of the high spots: the fight for the MacNamaras, the struggle on behalf of the Lawrence strikers and Ettor and Giovanitti, the fight for Rangel and Kline and the Magons involved in the Mexican revolution, the fight against the Rockefellers, owners of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, which culminated in the Ludlow massacre, the struggle to aid the Messaba Iron Range strikers. In fact, a history of Berkman's activities of this period would probably come near to being a history of the chief events in the struggle of the American workers against their industrial masters. Perhaps one of his most sensational activities was his organization of the unemployed. The years 1913-14-15 recorded an unemployment situation not unlike that of today, and Berkman was the organizer of huge mass meetings and demonstrations and parades on be. half of these victims of an inefficient economic system. To the middle-class his name throughout the country became anathema. In their anarchist publications, Mother Earth, published in New York, and The Blast, published in San Francisco, he and Emma Goldman spread through the printed word the same propaganda that they hurled at capitalism from lecture platforms and by mass demonstrations. Their activity at this period was prodigious. They launched upon an intensive antimilitarist campaign as early as 1913. And when the war broke out, foreseeing that America would probably be dragged into Armageddon, they increased their efforts to spread anti-militarist propaganda. Now came the explosion of the bomb in the preparedness parade held in San Francisco, and the railroading of Mooney and Billings to jail on the allegation that they were involved in the crime. Berkman was one of the first to assert that these men were innocent; he initiated a nationwide campaign on their behalf at greatest risk to himself. The feeling against him among the California authorities was so strong that a determined effort was made to have him extradited from New York (where he was at the time) on a trumped-up charge that he was an accomplice of the persons who exploded the bomb. Protests from labor unions and from the workers in Russia, now on the high tide of revolution, saved Berkman, doubtless from a judicial lynching in California.
This was already 1917, after America had become involved in the war. By this time both Berkman and Goldman had come into conflict with the authorities on a much larger issue, opposition to our participation in the war and to conscription. Now it was truly a case of David attacking Goliath, but without the slightest chance of David's emerging victor. Neither Berkman nor Goldman had the slightest illusion as to the odds.' Both knew that active opposition meant jail and probably deportation. Nevertheless they persisted in their fight. The number of the company that backed them up is ridiculously small, in comparison with the country's vast population. Most radicals caught the war fever or, in any event, remained discreetly silent. The role of honor of those that stood by their convictions is not long, but the names figuring in this role of honor will not be forgotten. Berkman and Goldman were the leaders of this gallant little band and took the brunt of the fight and the penalties on their own shoulders. Finally, in June, 1917, they were arrested, tried, and found guilty, and sentenced to prison. Berkman's experiences this time in the federal jail at Atlanta proved a terrible duplication of his former prison experience. He met with unheard-of severity and maltreatment; conditions at Atlanta were even worse than they had been in the Pennsylvania penitentiary, after the lapse of more than a decade. Because of his protest against the murder of a negro prisoner by one of the guards he was condemned to an underground dungeon for months. After their release, he and Goldman were deported to Russia.
Both Emma Goldman and Berkman had greeted the first Russian revolution with joy and jubilation. To them the October revolution, however, was the real social revolution. Berkman heard the news of it while he was in jail, and it was one of the happiest moments of his life. The two of them went to Russia with joyful anticipation. Both have described their disillusionment in books they have written. Berkman, it is my guess, hesitated longer in coming to a final resolution to have done with any notion that the Bolshevik regime could accomplish what he, personally, had hoped for. With him it was not until the massacre of the revolutionary sailors at Kronstadt, in March, 1921, that the complete intellectual and spiritual break came. But even long before this he had refused to take part in the Soviet dictatorship in any way. He might have had opportunities for important work, honors and distinctions, had he been willing to forget his conscientious scruples and accept Bolshevik methods. Other anarchists from America found they could do this. Some of them have prospered. Of these, Shatov is one. Some have met disaster. Krasnotchokov is a prominent example of the latter category. Berkman chose to remain captain of his soul at all costs. He refused to be deceived by labels and facade, or to be seduced by rewards. For him the dictatorship of a ruling class in Russia, leading to a suppression of the voice of the mass, was intolerable. Bolshevik Russia was not the free community of his Utopian dreams. He could not vision freedom growing out of despotism. So he went again into exile. It is an honorable exile of a man whose courage and inflexible honesty have caused him to choose exile rather than prosperity.
The record speaks for itself. In the annals of human revolt it stands out as almost unique; certainly it is unique in the annals of America.
We print a few of the many letters received by the Committee. Lack of space prevents printing more.
"I look as a privilege for me to be able to participate in spirit to your festival of the next 20th of November, in honor of our Comrade Alexander Berkman.
"I know Berkman as one of the best strugglers (fighter) for our cause, that is to say, for the cause of liberty, justice and well-being of humanity-and I would be very glad indeed if we had more men of his spirit and temper.
ERRICO MALATESTA." Rome, Italy, Sept. 29, 1930.
THE NEWS OF ALEXANDER BERKMAN'S sixtieth birthday gave me a peculiar feeling. He is, to me, one of those men who are always in the front ranks of our great cause, especially since 1892. 1 hope he will be there as long as I live and for a good spell afterwards.
To me, Berkman is a personality who represents the best of the past and hope of the future. He is a comfort to the old and a joy to the young, keeping up his high level of intellectual efficiency and spiritual energy throughout all the stormy days of his sufferings and martyrdom.
Age does not tell on him. In his spirit he is as young as ever.
I did not think for a moment, when the news flashed all over the world of his attempt on the life of Henry C. Frick, that Berkman should have jeopardized his precious life in exchange for that callous and unworthy one. But I always considered his attentat as one which could not but stir up great sympathy and inspiration in the hearts of people everywhere. I recall it even touched the heart of a soldier, private lams, who called for cheers for Berkman from the ranks of the militia sent to crush the Homestead strikers, a fact which at that time made the round of the entire world. You will recall that this soldier, lams, was dismissed from the ranks, after having been hung up by his thumbs for a considerable time.
Comrade Merlino, who died recently, was in the U. S. of America at that time, helping to start our English and Italian organs "SOLIDARITY" and "GRIDO de gli OPPRESSI" (Cry of the Oppressed). We all know how valiantly he stood up for Comrade Alexander Berkman and his noble act.
With indomitable perseverance, and by keeping his head clear, Berkman passed through the ordeal of all those cruel prison years, and managed to come out, not only alive, but alert and determined to carry on the great work of his rich life. A spirit like that of Berkman's is not easily broken. We know that every possible means was resorted to to destroy him, but all the agony and anguish of soul that he went through only served to intensify his contempt for the State and its satraps, and to strengthen his boundless idealism and absolute faith in the future of Anarchism.
Undaunted, our dear Comrade was again ready to throw himself into the lion's den. Together with Emma Goldman and others, he plunged into the rebellion against your country's entry into the war, followed by conscription.
Again prison, hard labor, dungeons for two horrible years in Atlanta, and the cruel deportation to Russia, a country for which he, together with the other deportees, cherished the most hearty sympathy and the greatest of hopes. Alas! The alleged regeneration of Soviet Russia had failed wretchedly. Berkman's book "THE BOLSHEVIK MYTH," records his impressions of 1920-1922 most accurately.
"THE ANTI-CLIMAX"-in my opinion the finest of Berkman's writing-like the concluding chapters of Emma Goldman's "DISILLUSIONMENT," shows how true Anarchists look at the wonderful chances Russia had for a really free social life and how outrageously these chances were destroyed by dictatorship and authoritarianism.
Alexander Berkman has been driven ever since, from pillar to post, but has never failed to work indefatigably for all the victims of oppression, white and red, victims for no reason other than their daring to give expression to their non-conformism why don't they keep their mouths shut forever as all good slaves should?
Men like Alexander Berkman never grow old. Mens sana in corpore sano is indeed applicable to all Anarchists. They have the highest ideal to live and strive for.
To me, who have seen him at intervals from 1922 to 1930, he has always been the incarnation of good cheer, courage and kindness of heart.
May he live long and continue his great work for the cause of humanity: Liberty and Solidarity; i.e., ANARCHY.
MAX NETTLAU. Vienna, October 7, 1930.
ALEXANDER BERKMAN Was forced to leave his native Russia because he loved Liberty;
Alexander Berkman was forced to leave his adopted America because he loved Liberty;
Alexander Berkman was hunted down, persecuted, driven from pillar to post in many countries because of his love for Liberty.
But Alexander Berkman not only loves Liberty; Liberty also loves him.
His home is in the hearts of all the peoples everywhere, although he is not persona grata with the rulers and governors of the States.
Every human who loves Liberty loves him.
We celebrate Alexander Berkman's sixtieth birthday because we are the comrades of his ideology and the admirers of his work and his great soul.
There will come a time when humanity will celebrate this brave man, Alexander Berkman, as the pioneer and great champion of its happiness;
A time in which all mankind will come to admire and love him.
That time will be when Liberty has become Truth, the time of Anarchy.
ERICH MUHSAM. Berlin, Germany.
I WAS VERY GLAD to hear that you Will Meet on the occasion of the 60th birthday of our common friend Alexander Berkman, to testify to his efforts in the struggle for freedom.
Not only in New York, but also here in Berlin and in other parts of the world, our comrades will think of him and wish him many happy returns of the day.
The name of Alexander Berkman is known and honored in the social movement all over the world for his actions and his writings for the propagation of Anarchist ideas.
Alexander Berkman has also been significant in the development of my own ideas towards Anarchism. I came to the Anarchist movement some time after Alexander Berkman's release from prison. The Anarchist and Socialist press of all countries wrote of the act of the young idealist and his long captivity, and this made a deep and lasting impression on me. A similar impression is made on the younger generation of our day when reading the book written by our friend of his life and sufferings during sixteen years' imprisonment. Alexander Berkman gives us all an example of devoted idealism, of determination and heroism.
We trust that our friend and comrade may continue for many years to be active for our movement.
AUGUSTIN SOUCHY. Berlin, Germany.
I AM VERY CLAD to learn that American Liberals and Radicals are joining to honor Alexander Berkman on the occasion of his sixtieth anniversary. He is a man of rare single-mindedness and consistency; one of those whom it is a happiness to have known. I would wish that there were more men who, like Berkman, are opposed to tyranny as such and do not become friends of tyranny as soon as the tyranny is exercised by their friends.