My next post on Substack: Berkman, Goldman and the correct method of revolution

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Alexander Berkman was an anarchist who passionately detested the widespread exploitation and abuse of workers in industrial America of the late nineteenth century.  An immigrant from Russia, he was influenced by anarchist thinkers and groups in New York City, where he became a close friend of the famous anarchist Emma Goldman.  As retailed by Goldman in her autobiography, My Life, and Berkman in his, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, both were deeply affected by the Haymarket affair or massacre,.

On 4 May 1886, at the Haymarket Square in Chicago, at a rally in support of striking workers, an unknown person threw a bomb at police as they dispersed the gathering.  The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of civilians.  In the trial that followed, eight anarchists were tried for murder despite paltry evidence against them.  Four were put to death, and one committed suicide in prison.  The judge declared, “Not because you have caused the Haymarket bomb, but because you are Anarchists, you are on trial”.  To this day, debate continues about the true identity of the bomber.

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It is clear from both Goldman’s and Berkman’s memoirs that they were radicalised by what they saw as a profound injustice.  Both came to believe that only dramatic, and if necessary violent, acts – the attentat – would galvanise the working population to rise up against a deeply unjust system.   The opportunity for such an act was soon to present itself.

In June 1892, workers at a steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, were locked out after pay negotiations failed between the Carnegie Steel Company and the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers.  The result was one of the first organised strikes in American labour history.  Andrew Carnegie had placed his factories, and indeed later his industrial empire, under the control of Henry Clay Frick.  Carnegie publicly supported the rights of workers to join unions and employ collective bargaining.  Privately, however, he encouraged Frick to break the strike, and with it, the union.

Frick locked the union workers out and placed barbed wire fences, searchlights and watchtowers around the factory.  He hired non-union workers to take the strikers’ jobs and get the factory going again, but they were unable to break through the union’s picket lines.  So Frick hired three hundred armed guards from the Pinkerton Detective Agency to break the picket lines. When the Pinkerton guards arrived at the factory on the morning of 6 July, a gunfight broke out.  Nine union workers and seven guards were killed during the fight, which lasted twelve hours.

There was widespread outrage at Frick’s actions and the violent attack of the “Pinkertons”.  Berkman and Goldman decided to assassinate Frick. This was the opportunity for the violent attentat to rouse the working class to revolt.  There was no viler capitalist than Frick: for a while he was known as “America’s most hated man”.  In his memoir, Berkman recounts his romantic fascination with the extreme act:

“Could anything be nobler than to die for a grand, a sublime Cause (sic)? Why, the very life of a true revolutionist has no other purpose, no significance whatever, save to sacrifice it on the altar of the beloved People.”

Berkman’s execution of the plan however was amateurish.  His plan was to assassinate Frick and commit suicide afterward; Goldman’s rôle was to explain Berkman’s motives after his death.  First, Berkman tried to make a bomb, but he failed.  Berkman and Goldman then pooled their meagre savings to buy a handgun, and a suit for Berkman to wear for the assassination attempt.

On 23 July 1892, Berkman entered Frick’s office armed with the gun and a sharpened steel file.  Frick dived under a chair and began to yell.  Berkman shot Frick three times, then grappled with him and stabbed him in the leg.  Others in the office came to Frick’s rescue and beat Berkman unconscious.  He was convicted of attempted murder and given a twenty-two-year prison sentence.   Frick survived the attack.

As he later related in his prison memoir, Berkman encountered a Homestead striker soon after his imprisonment.  Berkman immediately romanticises the man as the embodiment of the workers’ struggle.  He is enthralled to meet an actual striker, a true-blooded member of the working classes.  Here at last Berkman would find his vindication.  But the meeting produces nothing but bitter disappointment.  The striker decries Berkman’s assassination attempt.  “We are law-abiding people”, he says, adding that the workers don’t want anything to do with the “anachrists” as he misnames them.

Other workers on whose behalf Berkman attempted the attentat were not impressed either.  There was no worker uprising as a result of Berkman’s effort; his attack was widely condemned, including by unions, workers and even other anarchists.  Negative publicity from the attempted assassination resulted in the collapse of the Homestead strike.  2,500 men lost their jobs, and most of the workers who stayed had their wages halved.

In 1910, Frick purchased an entire city block in New York at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street to construct a huge mansion, to serve as his home and to house his enormous collection of art and artefacts.  A heavy, stone building, built to a massive size, “the Frick”, as it is widely known, contains many magnificent objects and paintings.  One of them is Holbein’s exquisite portrait of Sir Thomas More, who is famed for his principled refusal to recant his Catholic faith after the English monarch, King Henry VIII, had broken with Rome, and established the Church of England, in order to divorce his wife.  More is also known as the author of Utopia, the fictional depiction of a perfect society. 

There is no memorial to Alexander Berkman.

This is an extract from my book The Leaderless Revolution. On reflection, I think it’s too scathing about Berkman and Goldman, both of whom made enormous contributions to developing anarchist thought and practice (and of whom we will hear more in future). The bloody violence of nineteenth century capitalism was epitomised in the breaking of the Homestead strike but was also an everyday occurence in the brutal factories and workshops of the era, where hundreds were killed every year by machines and industrial poisons. In that context, violence makes more sense as a response. However, the main point stands: violence didn’t work. And, setting aside moral questions (which one shouldn’t), I don’t believe it would work today. Instead, the maxim should be Gandhi’s: the means are the ends. The ends you seek – equality, peace etc – should be manifested in the actions you take. More on this in future.