SASHA AND EMMA by Paul and Karen Avrich

Each day Americans are bombarded with news sound bites dealing with the actions of the National Security Administration and their machinations to keep citizens safe from terrorist attacks. The concept of terrorism has been in existence for centuries and is nothing new, but the new book by Paul and Karen Avrich, SASAH AND EMMA presents a fresh approach by exploring the rise of anarchism in America in the late 19th century. Anarchism is defined as the abolition of all government and the organization of society on a voluntary basis without resorting to force. According to Emma Goldman it is defined “as a philosophy of a new social order based on liberty, unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary.” As anarchism developed in the United States part of the debate rested on whether to employ violence as a means to achieve goals, thereby using terrorism as a tactic for the overall good of humanity. In SASHA AND EMMA the reader is presented a dual biography of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman integrated into the context of the rise of anarchist thought and actions in turn-of-the-century America.

“Before his death in 2006, Paul Avrich, a distinguished historian of anarchism, asked his daughter Karen, a writer and editor, to complete this book. The result is an account, at once densely detailed and lively, that traces the pair from their births in what is now Lithuania to their deaths in exile in the shadow of World War II. With generous contemporary accounts and Paul Averich’s interviews with anarchists and their children, as well as Berkman’s and Goldman’s extensive writings, the book draws readers into the lives of its characters.” (New York Times, December 7, 2012, “Anarchy in the U.S.A. by Elsa Dixler) The turning point for Berkman and Goldman was the Homestead Strike in Pennsylvania in 1892 which destroyed unionization of the steel industry until 1936. Berkman, who went by the name Sasha, acted out of emotion and conviction in trying to assassinate Henry Ford Frick who operated the steel complex for Andrew Carnegie in order “to galvanize workers to revolt…..as Frick was seen as the embodiment of the capitalist class.” (57-58) For Sasha it was not an act of violence or terror, but an act to try and liberate the working class. What is apparent throughout Averich’s discussion of the Homestead Strike is how naïve Berkman was at this point in his intellectual development and some might say he was living in what Kurt Vonnegut might describe as “cloud cuckoo land!” Averich does an excellent job in describing in detail the prosecution and imprisonment of Berkman. The description of Berkman’s odyssey in prison reflects the horrendous treatment of prisoners and the utter contempt most prison officials had for their charges. In fact, there seems to have been much in common between American prisons and those of Tsarist Russia. When Berkman is released from prison fourteen years later he emerges as a “thirty-five year thoughtful adult” who has become an exceptional linguist and a master of literature and writing that he would put into good use. (183)

During the time of Berkman’s imprisonment Goldman traveled and became involved in a number of love affairs as she fine tuned her own ideology. In November, 1899 she left for Europe with the intent of attending medical school, but in the end she continued her various flirtations and grounded herself further in her anarchist beliefs. After returning to the United States Goldman was confronted with the assassination of President William McKinley. Avrich presents a thorough description of the assassination and goes on to discuss the prosecution of the “anarchist paranoia” that swept the United States. Of great importance is the author’s analysis was the developing schism that emerged within the anarchist movement as to whether the assassin, Leon Czolgosz’s actions benefited the movement or not. It is interesting to note that Goldman supported the attempt on McKinley’s life and Berkman, still in prison, opposed it. Following the assassination Goldman went by an alias as the government tried to tie her to Czolgosz actions through her writing and speeches. During this period Goldman became involved in a number of vocations apart from her propaganda work running a facial massage parlor, a restaurant, engaging in nursing as well as becoming the publisher of Mother Earth, an anarchist magazine. Goldman’s writing during the time of Berkman’s imprisonment also encompassed the literary world and you could characterize her as a true “renaissance woman!”

Avrich is on sound ground as she describes the affect prison had on Berkman. While incarcerated he had immersed himself in literature and foreign languages and “developed a feel for the written word and discovered his full potential as a writer.” (183) Berkman became the editor of Mother Earth upon his release and at the same timer wrote PRISON MEMOIRS OF AN ANARCHIST which Avrich correctly points out was remarkably successful as it “provided the stimulus for investigations into prisons and the penal system.” (212) The government would do its best to block dissemination of Berkman and Goldman’s work by using the postal system to impede sales of the book as well as Mother Earth. As World War I approached numerous stories of police brutality against labor, anarchists or anyone who spoke out against working conditions became the norm. This culminated in a plot to kill John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who owned a controlling interest in the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. Workers went on strike against the company in 1913, a labor action that led to the famous Ludlow Massacre as the Colorado governor called out the National Guard which after weeks of harassing the workers, opened fire on April 20, 1914 killing five miners and a boy. Rockefeller spoke out vehemently in support of the National Guard thus inciting anarchist even further. The ensuing assassination plot failed due to an accidental explosion, but for Berkman who was not directly involved it became the last straw in moving away from peaceful protest to employing violence. The period witnessed numerous explosions and plots across the United States and Berkman whether warranted or not was always implicated.

The author does an exceptional job in detailing Berkman and Goldman’s movements and work throughout World War I. Both spoke out against the war and hoped to convince Washington not to enter the fighting. As the United States entered the war in April 1917 the pair continued to speak out against the fighting and were arrested and charged with violating the 1917 Espionage Act for actions taken to block conscription. Both were tried and convicted and immediately imprisoned. Soon Washington began the process that would result in their deportation. Avrich is correct in arguing that the deportation proceedings against Berkman and Goldman, as well as many others, reflected the violation of civil rights that was endemic to the Wilson presidency both during and after the war. The author provides details to support this conclusion presenting strong evidence in discussing the Palmer Raids and other aspects of the Justice Department’s persecution of those who opposed them.
Avrich’s narrative continues as she does a superb job describing their voyage to the Soviet Union and their travels throughout the country. The author goes on to explore Berkman and Goldman’s views of Bolshevik ideology and the reality of Communist repression. At the outset of their stay in the Soviet Union the pair was willing to make excuses for Bolshevik excesses in the hope of future revolution. This reflected Berkman and Goldman’s idealism, or just plain naiveté when it came to the reality of revolution in their home country for which over the years they maintained a romantic view. After four months in the Soviet Union both became disillusioned as Goldman wrote “there is no health in it….. [The State] has taken away even the little freedom the man has under capitalism and has made him entirely subjected to the whims of the bureaucracy which excuses its tyranny on the ground that all is done for the welfare of the workers.” (305) Goldman was shocked by the treatment of people as they were imprisoned for their ideas. As the pair grew more aware of the torture and murder of political prisoners they turned against the revolution. The Bolshevik massacre and arrests following the Kronstadt Rebellion saw the pair witnessing the purge of anarchists, many of whom were their closest friends. Berkman wrote in his diary, “The Bolshevik myth must be destroyed. I have decided to leave Russia,” (313) they would leave Russia shortly after the rebellion and would begin a period of wandering around Europe and Canada to find a home for the remainder of their lives.

The area that Avrich excels at is her discussion of the relationship between Berkman and Goldman. Throughout the book she describes their feelings for each other on an emotional and intellectual level that shows that no one could replace either no matter where their other relationships took them. Even when apart the poignancy of their bond and the fidelity to their cause is always apparent. Throughout the 1920s into the 1930s they lived apart both their feelings for each remained as strong as ever.

Throughout the book Avrich takes the reader on an intellectual journey as she follows Berkman and Goldman as they try to justify their own beliefs and fit them into contemporary social and political events they were exposed to. This is very apparent during the next phase of their lives as they continued to speak out and write about conditions in Russia. Goldman wrote for the public press, i.e.; The New York World and anarchist publications, while Berkman worked on a book that resulted in what can be considered the first expose of the Gulag Archipelago (the title of Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn’s three volume work published in 1973-1975 made the world aware of the camps) entitled LETTERS FROM RUSSIAN PRISONS. The next blow for that struck the core of Berkman and Goldman’s beliefs set was the trial, conviction, and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in the United States. “Nicola Sacco, a shoe worker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fish peddler, both Italian immigrants and anarchists” were charged with the murder of two men during a robbery at a shoe factory in Massachusetts. (341) To this day the guilt or innocence of the two is open to question, but for Goldman and Berkman it fostered the realization that after years of work they were helpless in preventing the death of their compatriots. It brought back memories of Chicago and Haymarket and left them increasingly depressed.

The last part of the book follows Goldman as she tried to gain entrance into the United States. She still saw America as her home and missed it terribly. She was allowed a speaking tour in February 1934, but the US government refused to extend her visa. Later, she became involved in supporting the communist/anarchist cause during the Spanish Civil War until the Franco emerged victorious. Before her death in 1940 she was able to write her autobiography. Berkman would remain in Europe during the same period but grew increasingly ill after numerous surgeries and he would commit suicide in 1936. Karen Averich has done an amazing job in telling the story Sasha and Emma. She has integrated her father’s work and research into a cogent and personal story which at times reads as a novel. For any reader interested in the odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, their relationship, their comrades, and the time period in which they lived this book offers a fresh interpretation that should foster a large readership.

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