Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman

  • Paul Avrich and Karen Avrich
  • Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
  • 490 pp.

This dual biography by a scholar of anarchism resurrects the forgotten lives of the infamous pair who never made the leap from revolutionaries to reformers.

Reviewed by Eugene L. Meyer

Sasha and Emma, an engaging dual biography of Alexander “Sasha” Berkman and Emma Goldman, traces the relationship of two anarchist figures about whom much was made from the 1890s into the mid-20th century but who are now largely forgotten footnotes from a bygone era.

The biography is the final work of Paul Avrich, a leading scholar of the anarchist movement who did not live to see it published, and his daughter, Karen Avrich, who at her dying father’s request finished the work he had started.

Raised in upper-middle-class families in Eastern Europe, Sasha and Emma came separately to America. They met in a Lower East Side coffee shop and were sometime lovers, longtime companions and intellectual soul mates, offering each other unwavering encouragement, even during intermittent prison spells, separations and deportation.

But it was Sasha’s attempted assassination of Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1892 that underpinned their long-term association —and the dramatic hinge on which the story turns. Emma was part of the plot but never got caught. Sasha served 14 years of a 22-year sentence and upon his release was met by Emma.

Berkman claimed this was “the first terrorist act in America,” but that seems like spurious self-promotion.  Some may recall John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859, an act that was preceded by his massacre of slave-owning families at Pottawattamie Creek, Kansas, three years before.

Like Brown, who believed the Harpers Ferry raid would inspire a slave rebellion, Sasha thought his assassination of Frick would trigger a workers’ revolt.  Instead, the workers, who had been striking against Frick’s steel company, condemned Berkman’s action.

While Sasha proudly proclaimed his guilt — as a sole would-be assassin — Emma, who had given him money for a gun and clothes, was later associated, unfairly, with the assassination of President McKinley, whose murderer claimed he was inspired to commit the act after hearing her speak. Indeed, Emma was outspoken on many subjects dear to progressives, such as birth control, women’s rights and workers’ rights. She advocated free love, atheism, prison reform and tolerance for homosexuality. But as an anarchist, she did not join in the crusade for women’s suffrage, since she didn’t believe in government, any government.

After his release from prison, Sasha edited Mother Earth, a magazine that Emma founded, and was a passionate speaker against the perceived injustices of capitalism, either separately or alongside Emma, who delivered speeches to thousands in cities across the continent. Their incendiary public addresses crossed the accepted line of a turn-of-the-century America terrified of, well, terrorists. For exercising their rights to free speech, they were in and out of jails. Finally, their radical speeches during and after the First World War — against the draft and the war itself and then simply on behalf of anarchy — led to their deportation to Russia.

“Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman,” J. Edgar Hoover wrote while they were in prison awaiting deportation hearings, “are, beyond doubt, two of the most dangerous anarchists in this country and return to the community will result in undue harm.”

In exile, Emma and Sasha journeyed to the new Soviet Union, where as anarchists they saw not a utopia but a repressive authoritarian state. Their criticisms of the Communist country shocked and dismayed many on the left.

Berkman spent his last years in France. With his health in decline, he attempted suicide but botched that as well. (He had planned but failed to commit suicide while in prison for the Frick attack.) He lingered for days before succumbing to his self-inflicted wounds. Emma was with him when he died in 1936.

Abroad, Emma continued to lecture, living in London and then in Toronto, where she died in 1940 at the age of 70. She was buried in Waldheim Cemetery, in Chicago, where many other anarchists of her era are also interred.

While rich in detail and personalities, Sasha and Emma suffers at times from too many characters and too many details. Sasha’s day-to-day reports on his failing health, for example, seem excessive.

But as I read on, I found myself increasingly absorbed not only by Sasha’s and Emma’s revolutionary and romantic associations but also by their times, and by parallels — not stated but implicit — to our own.  For example, Berkman was among the hordes of protesters at Rockefeller’s Standard Oil building in New York expressing solidarity with the 1914 workers striking against John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado mines. Rockefeller had claimed the unions were depriving citizens of “the right to work.” A National Guard “massacre” of miners at Ludlow, Col., resulted in many deaths.

I was struck, too, by actions and consequences of anarchists a century ago and of the Weather Underground during the 1960s, the most prominent recent violent anarchist group in America and subject of a recent failed play by renowned playwright David Mamet. Both groups claimed virtue in killing. Both saw the bombs they were making accidentally explode before their time, killing some of their own.

I thought, too, of Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, members of the Weather Underground and fugitives for 11 years before turning themselves in to authorities. Ayers, married to Dohrn, became a leading figure in Chicago’s educational reform scene and a footnote to the 2008 presidential campaign when his association with Barack Obama was raised. Dohrn founded and directed a Northwestern University legal institute dedicated to the cause of juvenile justice. She once told me that she also coached her son’s Little League team.

Sasha and Emma never made the jump from revolutionaries to reformers. Their story is one for their times but perhaps not for ours. Nonetheless, who says history has to be relentlessly relevant? It is perhaps enough to know that there are always causes, however far-fetched or futile they may seem, for which men and women, foolishly or courageously, live and die.

Eugene L. Meyer is an author, magazine editor and former Washington Post reporter and editor who covered antiwar activists — radical and mainstream — in the 1960s and early 1970s.

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