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Review of Sasha and Emma: by Paul Avrich & Karen Avrich

The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman

by ALAN WIEDER

“Every good person deep down is an anarchist,” said Paul Avrich, who died in 2006 after spending his academic life at Queens College and writing 10 books on anarchism that included The Haymarket Tragedy, Sacco and Vanzetti, and two oral histories – Anarchist Portraits and Anarchist Voices. Shortly before he died, Avrich requested that his daughter, the author and editor Karen Avrich, complete a manuscript that he had been working on for many, many years. Their collaboration is the book Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. True to the title, the book portrays the journey of the Berkman-Goldman friendship – their relationships with each other and with friends and comrades. Relationships I might add that included both the Red and Black. Sasha and Emma both began life in Lithuania. They met in New York and the odyssey included their lives as individuals and partners in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, Germany, and France before Emma Goldman ultimately moved to Canada after Sasha’s death.

Sasha and Emma is multi-layered and thus teaches us a great deal about the people, anarchism in the United States and throughout the World, oppression in both the capitalist west and the Soviet Union, and the economic, social, and political conflicts that are still very much with us today. For the novice, the book provides a great introduction to the breadth of anarchism through the lives of Berkman and Goldman. For all of us there is much to learn about Sasha, but for people who have read Living My Life, Emma’s memoir, or Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, or Candace Falk’s fine biography, Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman, there is less new stuff to ponder.

While both Goldman and Berkman were clearly politicized before they arrived in the United States, both people were greatly affected by what Paul Avrich called The Haymarket Tragedy. An event that occurred in Chicago on May 4, 1886, three months before Sasha arrived in the United States. Anarchists met at the Square to protest police brutality and when police invaded the protest, a bomb was thrown killing one person and injuring others. Police responded by firing into the crowd and civilians as well as police were injured and killed. While the bomber was never caught, eight anarchists were tried and four, Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer were hung. Sasha, wrote two books that you might want to read along with Emma’s books mentioned above, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist and Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism. In the latter he addressed the Haymarket Tragedy.

The trial of these men was the most hellish conspiracy of capital against labor in the history of America. Perjured evidence, bribed jurymen, and police revenge combined to bring about their doom. America was no less despotic than Russia.

Berkman also joined the Jewish anarchist organization, Pioneers of Liberty, the same group that held festive and rather rowdy irreverent Yom Kipper balls – quite the contrast to Sasha’s view of the revolutionary life. In Living My Life Emma wrote:

I devoured every line on anarchism, every word about the defendants, their lives their work. I read about their heroic stand while on trial and their marvelous defense. I saw a new world opening before me.

Sasha and Emma provides detailed accounts of the relationships that each person, both as individuals and as a couple, had with numerous comrades throughout their lives. Some portraits are minimal while others are detailed and except for one, Sasha’s relationship and marriage to Emmy Eckstein, they all provide insights into anarchist lives and actions throuSasha-and-Emma-The-Anarchist-Odyssey-of-Alexander-Berkman-and-Emma-Goldmanghout Berkman and Goldman’s lives. One relationship in particular, portrayed in a chapter entitled “The Trio,” and then in various other chapters as the book develops, is the friendship with Sasha’s cousin, Modska Aronstam, an artist who became quite well known and later changed his name to Modest Stein.

The three shared various flats and for a time both men were Emma’s lover. The book cites the many intimate relationships of Sasha and Emma, but does so within the context of freedom, individualism, and collectivism. Free love is not a distraction, but rather part of their lives and times. It is important to note that although Goldman and Berkman were committed lovers for a time, and friends and comrades forever, they were very different revolutionaries and the book does a great job in that portrayal. While Emma has been quoted as saying revolution cannot occur without dancing, Sasha viewed the same as wasteful behavior that obscured the revolutionary spirit. There are numerous examples throughout the book with a simple one presented in the context of the trio. When Sasha, Emma, and Modest lived together Stein would buy flowers for their flat – a practice that Emma loved and Sasha scorned as being unnecessary and bourgeois.

Mostly the Avrich’s book takes us on an itemized journey through Goldman and Berkman’s work to bring about an anarchist revolution in the United States and throughout the world. And the book breathes life into ideas, events, and actions. For example, there is great detail presented on Anarchist schisms. More specifically the battles between Johann Most and the autonomists, a more radical, activist group that included Emma and Sasha. There is also an in depth portrayal of Berkman’s attempt to assassinate Andrew Carnegie’s high priced lackey, Henry Clay Frick, for his abusive and murderous treatment of Carnegie Steel Workers in Homestead just outside of Pittsburgh. Emma’s constant speaking tours are presented and included in the book is the oppressive reactions of some communities and authorities, but also her energizing of many of the people who came to hear her speak. And of course both reactions make sense considering the words that she spoke challenging capitalism and government repression. Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman provides an example quoting from Emma’s memoir:

Do you not realize that the state is the worst enemy you have. It is a machine that crushes you in order to sustain the ruling class, your masters. They have not only stolen your bread, but they are sapping your blood. They will go on robbing you, your children, your children’s children, unless you wake up, unless you become daring enough to demand your rights. Well then, demonstrate before the palaces of the rich. Demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread. It is your sacred right.

Besides the speeches and other activities cited above, Sasha and Emma’s activism is documented through their work at Mother Earth, the journal Emma founded and Sasha edited, their connection to the Home Colony, something of an Anarchist collective in the Puget Sound, and their involvement in the Modern School Movement through the Ferrer school, first in New York city and then in New Jersey. This topic is especially interesting to me as the Ferrer movement, a combination anarchist and free thinkers project, despite Paul Avrich’s book, The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States, is a seldom mentioned and little known part of educational history in this country.

Sasha and Emma, of course, covers the assassination of President Mckinley and the government’s attempt to connect both Goldman and Berkman to the crime. It addresses the Anti-anarchist Exclusion Act and Sasha and Emma’s connection to the Free Speech League, a forerunner of the American Civil Liberties Union. And finally in terms of the United States, there is a portrayal of their deportations in 1919.

The book then vividly highlights Sasha and Emma’s return to the Soviet Union and the disappointment that they quickly developed for the authoritarian country they found. Interesting for those of us in Portland, they reignited a friendship at the time with Louise Bryant and John Reed, and the book talks of Emma’s care for Bryant after John Reed died.

But for Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, the Soviet Union was short-lived. They saw friends carted off to Siberia and others killed, and they escaped the country to Germany where Alexander remained rather quiet about the Soviet Union, but Emma spoke and wrote loudly about what she viewed as the atrocities of the Soviet state. Their lives in Germany and then France include a continuing of the struggle that they fought for their entire lives against capitalism and oppressive, authoritarian, government.

While Paul and Karen Avrich describe much more of each persons story through Sasha’s death and Emma’s move to Canada, what stands out is that the book, Sasha and Emma, does two things very, very well. Through the book, and in their lives, Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman are breathing, living and committed human beings, as is the struggle they fought. Emma Goldman becoming something of a posthumous rock star in the sixties and seventies was not a bad thing and a bit more of a re-re-birth of her popularity might help the struggle today. This book portraying Berkman and Goldman’s lives is also important if it can help us continue their conversation by connecting Anarchism and Socialism to the present time. The oppression that Sasha and Emma fought is still very much with us today. Obama views the United States as the keeper of the world and in our name, or if we follow Sasha and Emma, not in our name, the present administration, like those that preceded it, continues through our military to kill people in attempts to control resources because somehow that is still our right. Domestically, and clearly connected to global policy, we are still controlled by corporations and Wall Street. Portlander Michael Munk is correct to keep referring to the President as the “lesser evil.” The ideas and actions of both Sasha and Emma are just as relevant today as they were during their lifetime. No, we cannot follow Alexander Berkman’s lead and attempt to kill all the present Fricks of the World, but we can keep up the pressure through voice and action – an extension of parts of the Occupy Movement – through the paths of Sasha and Emma.

ALAN WIEDER is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.