As May Day nears, let’s remember Alexander Berkman, the Russian-Jewish anarchist who Howard Zinn once called “one of the lost heroes of American radicalism, a rare pure voice of rebellion.” Berkman committed, in his words, “the first terrorist act” on American soil with his attempted assassination of steel tycoon Henry Clay Frick in 1892. As an assassin Berkman wasn’t tops (Frick lived), but he was a prominent and eloquent spokesperson and writer in the international anarchist community, a close and intimate companion of Emma Goldman throughout his life.
Berkman’s attack on Frick was the apogee of a period of labor unrest in Homestead, Pennsylvania, where Andrew Carnegie had locked workers out of his steel mills. By the time of Homestead’s escalation, workers all across the country were rising up against the sudden wage reductions and job losses that resulted from the wild flucutations in market prices for their output. Governors in several states had recently called out their National Guard, but the unrest in Tennessee, Idaho, New York, and Louisiana couldn’t match the well-organized Homestead strike.
When Frick declared that he’d rather see strikers dead than yield to their demands, it was, for Berkman, the last galvanizing straw. Berkman, who was steeped in the anarchist theory of Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin, planned to kill Frick as an attentat, a form of “propaganda by deed.” Among European anarchists there was a theory that through an act of violence, class vengeance could be brought upon the oppressor, and the crumbling base on which the powerful stood could be exposed for all its vulnerability.
We remember Berkman not for his act of violence, though, but for what came after. He was arrested and convicted, as were two German anarchists, Henry Bauer and Carl Nold, who had in fact had no involvement in the plot. The three were held in the Western Pennsylvania Penitentiary, where through the sort of ingenious delivery system that often springs up among people confined, they got access to paper and began to pass writing among themselves. Before long other inmates were also reading and contributing. Berkman, Bauer, and Nold fashioned these odd scraps of paper into a tiny “magazine,” just three inches by five, written in German and English. They called the booklets Zuchthausblüthen, which translates literally to “Prison Blossoms.” A striking phrase, for the way it conjures little shoots of clean beauty in the most unlikely context.
The men in that prison wrote in these Prison Blossoms about politics, capitalism, and economic exploitation. But they also told stories, wrote allegories, and recorded the overheard conversations of prison life. They used these communiqués to strengthen their resolve through their incarceration, to hold tight to their hopefulness. Many of the Prison Blossoms have been lost to history, but others survived the cell searches, police raids, and later itinerancy of their principal authors. Twenty five of an original corpus of sixty booklets are housed now in the archive of the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. They were included in a collection of Emma Goldman’s papers that came to the Institute after her death in 1940.
We’ve just published the text of these surviving Prison Blossoms in their entirety for the first time, in a John Harvard Library volume titled Prison Blossoms: Anarchist Voices from the American Past. Along with the text of the Blossoms, the book includes an introductory essay by Miriam Brody, who edited the volume along with Bonnie Buettner. The essay outlines Berkman’s life, and the context of the labor struggles of his era. It also functions as a really concise introduction to Anarchism, succinctly explaining its principles, and its difference from Communism and other political belief systems. Brody also recreates life in prison for Berkman, Bauer, and Nold, to show us how they managed to publish this amazing body of writing through cleverly clandestine measures.
While in prison Berkman also wrote his legendary Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, which is available in print from New York Review Books. Later in his life Berkman would grow away from his support of the attenat strategy, and would work to dispel the stereotype of the mad, bomb-throwing anarchist that his act had helped to create. “Anarchism is not bombs, disorder, or chaos,” he wrote in 1926. “I consider Anarchism the most rational and practical conception of a social life in freedom and harmony. I am convinced that its realization is a certainty in the course of human development.”