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Anarchism's Royal Couple

They also were early foes of the Marxist dictatorship in Moscow. After their deportation in 1919, they returned to Russia, and at first they were enthralled with the fledging revolution. But as they toured the country, it didn't take long for their excitement to turn to dismay. As Paul and Karen Avrich report in Sasha and Emma, their new biography of the duo, "What they learned from trusted sources and observed firsthand did not match up with the idealistic vision they had nurtured while in the United States." The censorship and repression, the lack of food and medicine, and the ruling party's callous control assailed them.

Anarchism's Royal Couple

by Sharon Presley
Reason

They also were early foes of the Marxist dictatorship in Moscow. After their deportation in 1919, they returned to Russia, and at first they were enthralled with the fledging revolution. But as they toured the country, it didn't take long for their excitement to turn to dismay. As Paul and Karen Avrich report in Sasha and Emma, their new biography of the duo, "What they learned from trusted sources and observed firsthand did not match up with the idealistic vision they had nurtured while in the United States." The censorship and repression, the lack of food and medicine, and the ruling party's callous control assailed them. An aghast Emma was horrified, crying that she had seen "the best human values betrayed, the very spirit of the revolution daily crucified." The Kronstadt massacre, in which the Bolshevik government slaughtered rebelling sailors and soldiers, was the final blow. Goldman and Berkman began to plot their departure from Soviet Russia. Yet when they returned to Europe, giddy socialists enamored with the Soviet revolution didn't want to hear what they had to say. One European communist activist even suggested that Goldman be burned in effigy.

Much has been written by and about Goldman. Her emotionally candid two-volume memoir, Living My Life, is fascinating, and biographies of her proliferate. Some, such as Candice Falk's racy Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman or Alice Wexler's Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life, are excellent. Others, such as Vivian Gornick's recent Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, are less successful. Gornick doesn't understand Goldman's belief system, at one point declaring that anarchists don't really have theories.

Oddly, no full-length biography of Berkman has been written until now. But no one was better-equipped to take on this task than the late Paul Avrich. Avrich was the preeminent historian of anarchism, with more than 11 scholarly books on the subject to his credit. Though Avrich was not an anarchist himself, he once confided to me that he was sympathetic with the philosophy's ideals. This sympathy shines through in the way he treats his subject matter: He is always fair and never displays a hint of derogation.

The Berkman biography was to be Avrich's crowning achievement, and he worked on it for many years. He died in 2006, before the book was finished, but he was able to ask his daughter Karen to complete it. We are in her debt for doing so.

The decision to make the book a double biography was inspired. The duo's lives were so closely intertwined that it is difficult to discuss one without mentioning the other. Though starting in the duo's native Russia, the book picks up steam upon their arrivals in America. We see how Sasha and Emma meet, both drawn to the heady radical intellectual climate of the Lower East Side in New York. Though very different in temperament, they quickly became lovers, in a menage-a-trois that also included Sasha's cousin Modska (known as Fedya in Emma's autobiography). Their devotion to and love for each other was destined to last throughout their lives, even when they were no longer physically intimate.

But this is more than a love story. Berkman and Goldman were intellectual collaborators and partners in their activism for more than 30 years. The book details their work together, including their time co-editing Mother Earth from 1901 to 1915, the anti-draft activities that earned both of them prison sentences, their banishment to Russia and subsequent disillusionment, and, early on, Sasha's bumbling attempt to kill Frick. I have read many accounts of that attempted assassination, but none come close to the detail of this book. We not only learn about the rash idealism that made Sasha feel compelled to act out this attentat; we learn of the details of the planning, the failed attempts to make a bomb, who besides Goldman helped him, how the helpers covered their tracks, and much more. Berkman's rash act led to a 14-year prison sentence, where he mastered English, matured without giving up his principles, and learned to be more reflective. His Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, though written several years after his release, is done in the style of a first-person diary, but it is more of an emotional and intellectual coming of age account that shows not only the horrors of prison life but the development of Berkman's thought.

Since this is the first book-length biography of Berkman, the details of his life are especially welcome. We learn, for example, about his part in founding the Ferrer Association, named after a martyred Spanish anarchist educator whose ideas about how children learn were not unlike Maria Montessori's. We learn about Berkman's friendship with the anarchist feminist Voltairine de Cleyre, and how he benefited from her advice as he wrote Prison Memoirs. We learn that Jack London agreed to write the introduction to Prison Memoirs but that Berkman didn't like it because it was not sympathetic to Berkman's attempted attentat. No publisher would touch the book, so it was finally published by Mother Earth in 1912, with the prominent lawyer Gilbert Roe and the journalist Lincoln Steffens raising money to pay for the printing.

At the end, Goldman and Berkman finally relinquished their dream that anarchism would be achieved in their lifetime. But as Karen Avrich recently told an interviewer, they "were fortified by the hope that anarchism might someday be hailed as the one true path to human fulfillment." As the American government gallops down the path to social and economic tyranny, we can only hope that we will persevere as well as these two remarkable and admirable activists.

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Anarchism's Royal Couple | 2 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Anarchism's Royal Couple
Authored by: roberte711 on Tuesday, November 27 2012 @ 06:21 PM CST

 Wonderful book by 2 great scholars. Not only does it cover important material, but does so in an enjoyable and exciting narrative. I was fortunate enough to have been a student of Paul Avrich's many years ago where I was introduced to the beautiful ideal that is anarchism. His duaghter Karen did a spectacular job in finishing this fascinating work.

Anarchism's Royal Couple
Authored by: ISHI on Wednesday, November 28 2012 @ 01:20 AM CST

i have no problem with posting this article---i read everything.  ('omnivore').   but yeah----its in 'reason magazine'----dont forget that.   the comments on the reason site are quite amusing. they don't like reason mag running articles like this---they'd prefer i guess hayek, milton friedman, von mises, ayn rand, etc.

also, as an aside i'm not sure how relevant emma g and berkman are today.  i mean isnt history bunk, except say ghengis kahn or alexander the great or the philosophical-cosmological theories of the neanderthals (collected works, volumes 1-4). as an aside 2, i find it tough to see why calling oneself anything makes much sense (eg the author of this work was sympathetic to, but not an anarchist.)  i for one, am a united states citizen    (and fairly recently got an id to prove it---a 'sell out' or 'pragmatic' move) as a fact.  beyond that i am part of the landscape (which i guess for those into superstring theory has an at least a countably infinite number of permutations).