Paul Avrich, a leading historian of anarchism, collected stories about Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman for decades. When he died in 2006, he left his unfinished manuscript on the pair in the hands of his daughter, Karen Avrich. Below, she describes Berkman and Goldman, and the story she and her father tell in Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman.
Q: Your father, Paul Avrich, wrote extensively on the history of the anarchist movement in both Russia and the U.S. How and when did he first become fascinated with the story of Sasha Berkman and Emma Goldman?
My father once said, “I’ve always wanted, even as a scholar, to write about individuals and understand what was on their minds.” Indeed, throughout Paul Avrich’s career, compelling characters animated his work. He first developed an interest in Russia as a student, and was attracted to the radical underpinnings of the country’s history. In 1960, while a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, he traveled to Moscow and Leningrad when Soviet libraries were opened to Western students. As a professor, he devoted his early books to Russian anarchism, which he thought was perhaps the purest, most uncompromising political philosophy.
In the 1970s, my father became acquainted with a number of American anarchists whose youths were spent in the thick of the action, from the meeting halls on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to the utopian colonies on Puget Sound. Many went on to lead more conventional lives as academics, scientists, artists, and lawyers, yet they nevertheless retained the dangerous sparkle of the true revolutionary. My father was enchanted by their electrifying tales and audacious spirits, and interviewed them extensively. They all were brimming with stories about the brave, brilliant Alexander Berkman.
Sasha’s comrades equally admired his famous friend, the charismatic and formidable Emma Goldman. Emma achieved renown (and notoriety) as a leading radical activist while Sasha was locked away in prison, but their friendship sustained, and they remained the closest of companions their whole lives. Comrades later told my father about that unbreakable bond and deep love, a love that infuses Sasha and Emma from beginning to end.
Q: What was it like taking over this project after your father passed away?
When my father became ill, it was clear he would not be able to complete the book. I began working on the manuscript at my father’s request several months before his death. In that first difficult year, as I sorted through his notes and interviews, I was conscious of his voice and style, the strength of his professional legacy. Yet as I was drawn further into the story of Sasha and Emma and grew to understand them as people, their voices also guided my work. I read their published essays and private letters, studied their memoirs and journals, and learned about their comrades. I now realize that some of the older ladies and gentlemen who visited our home when I was a child, to whom I served tea sandwiches, lent their firsthand insights to Sasha and Emma. One wizened fellow, who brought me a box of fancy Belgian chocolates when I was five, fought alongside Emma Goldman in the Spanish Civil War.
As Paul Avrich’s daughter, anarchism was a component of my life, but one that remained on the periphery of my personal experience. As I worked on Sasha and Emma, the anarchists in the book became as vital to me as they were to my father—fascinating and complicated, estimable yet censurable, hugely influential but often overlooked. I am thrilled that this story of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman will be told, and I feel honored to have experienced my father’s life work in this manner.
Q: Sasha and Emma dedicated their lives to fighting social injustice, sometimes taking drastic measures; most famously, the assassination attempt on industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Could you say a little about how their embrace of violence shaped their vision?
Both Berkman and Goldman were raised in nineteenth century tsarist Russia, where dissent was possible only through dramatic protest, typically followed by imprisonment, exile, or execution. Awed by the brave sacrifice of the radical Russian populists who challenged the tsar at their own peril, Sasha and Emma brought with them to America a spiky awareness of injustice, eager to raise their voices against oppression. In the United States, Sasha and Emma found conditions for immigrants harsh and demeaning, and they quickly grew dismayed at the capitalist culture of their adopted country. They joined a militant anarchist group in New York, and began to plan for fundamental governmental change.
Berkman, in particular, was keen to emulate the Russian radical heroes of his youth and commit the ultimate act of protest, targeting the industrialist Henry Clay Frick for assassination. He considered Frick to be the embodiment of capitalist evil and believed his assassination would inspire American workers to revolt. Sasha was profoundly disappointed when his deed was viewed as the meaningless crime of a disgruntled foreigner, and he was packed off to prison without ceremony, let alone societal upheaval. While his crushing fourteen-year prison experience left him weak and unsettled, he remained an advocate of violence as an important tool in the social struggle.
It is impossible to consider Berkman and Goldman without weighing their aggressive impulses and actions—misguided, imprudent, and brutal. Yet in the end, it was not their hostile pursuits but their eloquent commentary, steadfast idealism, and sincere desire for social justice that made a lasting impact on contemporary America.
Q: How do you think Sasha and Emma’s conception of anarchism is perceived today? How have their ideas shaped other social movements?
In recent years, the media has tended to portray anarchism as synonymous with angry youths and aimless hooligans. Yet the initial anarchist philosophy called for a utopian society of equality, compassion, and peace. To be sure, a number of its early adherents advocated violence and unruly demonstration as necessary evils to bring about social change, but many clung to the view that inherent kindness and reason would eventually lead to a harmonious society, free of the constraints of class, race, government, and wealth.
Although in their later years, Emma and Sasha both acknowledged the fundamental impracticalities of their ideology, and relinquished the expectation that they would witness sweeping change in their lifetime, they were fortified by the hope that anarchism might someday be hailed as the one true path to human fulfillment. Strains of their ideology have been present in many contemporary movements, often those instigated by the young. In September 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement was launched in Zuccotti Park, just a few blocks away from where Sasha and Emma once helped assemble crowds on Wall Street to protest crimes against labor, with masses gathered silently to influence public thought solely by their presence.
Today, the Occupy Wall Street protesters echo Emma and Sasha’s ideals, declaring, “We are the 99%,” a slogan the pair surely would endorse. Still, the success of such modern uprisings would no doubt be bittersweet for Sasha and Emma, eliciting a wistful reflection that their ultimate vision remains elusive.