In 1892, Alexander Berkman burst into the office of Henry Frick, an overseer at Carnegie's steelworks, and attempted to gun him down to foment a revolutionary uprising. Frick survived. Berkman went to jail. Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist is Berkman's account, not only of the revolutionary ardor which drove him to assault Frick, but also of the horrors of incarceration and the transformation of his own thinking while behind bars.
We get plenty of revolutionary and anarchist theory from Berkman. He opens a door into the thoughts and feelings of people struggling for economic and social justice 100 years ago. More than that, he opens a door into the mindset of a fanatic, one which may help us understand the motivations of those who flew their planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11/2001:
"Could anything be nobler than to die for a grand, a sublime Cause? 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." (p. 12)
"My own individuality is entirely in the background; aye, I am not conscious of any personality in matters pertaining to the Cause. I am simply a revolutionist; a terrorist by conviction, an instrument for furthering the cause of humanity." (p. 13)
"True, the Cause often calls upon the revolutionist to commit an unpleasant act; but it is the test of a true revolutionist-nay, more, his pride-to sacrifice all merely human feeling at the call of the People's Cause." (p. 12)
Berkman, the purist, disdains his fellow prisoners. He sees himself as better than they are, a Servant of Humanity, not a petty criminal, a predator on the poor. But, life in prison, although it does not shake his revolutionary and anarchist convictions, does bring him down from his ivory tower. Berkman begins to see that:
"The individual, in certain cases, is of more direct and immediate consequence than humanity. What is the latter but the aggregate of individual existences-and shall these, the best of them, forever be sacrificed for the metaphysical collectivity?" (p. 403)
His revolutionary understanding also shifts. He begins to differentiate between the autocratic despotism of Europe and the despotism of republican institutions:
"The despotism of republican institutions is far deeper, more insidious, because it rests on the popular delusion of self-government and independence. That is the subtle source of democratic tyranny, and, as such, it cannot be reached with a bullet. In modern capitalism, exploitation rather than oppression is the real enemy of the people ... the battle is to be waged in the economic rather than the political field." (p. 424)
This is not, however, a political manifesto (for that, one can read Berkman's ABCs of Anarchism). Berkman reveals his inner processes during fourteen years of incarceration. We discover, not only the horrors and corruption of the prison system, but also wander intimately through Berkman's mind. We visit his childhood, soften at unexpected gentlenesses behind bars, and begin to appreciate something as simple as the sunrise.
Although Berkman did not write the memoir until after he left prison, it has a sense of surreal immediacy. He wrote in the present tense, but that alone does not account for the way his text grips, and drags the reader into the maelstrom of his experience. We run with him through childhood memories, daily brutality, fantasies of escape and suicide, and the ideals that keep him sane. His longing for Emma Goldman shines through the text. He enthrones her almost as the guardian of his sanity through the years. Little can compare with the poignancy of his fantasy of mailing himself to his beloved Emma, escaping prison and finding himself with her again. (p. 135-137)
Five stars. Absolutely brilliant work, as relevant today as it was nearly 100 years ago. In her autobiography, Living my Life, Emma Goldman recounted how Berkman saved his sanity and his life by writing this memoir. The deep introspection, the flights of fancy, the accounting of prison life-all deeply illumine the best and the worst of human nature. This book is required reading for anybody who wishes to understand the fanatical, terrorist mindset, for Berkman describes that aptly. Far more importantly, he shares the experience of survival and transformation. He, who entered prison a fanatic, left those iron gates more committed than ever to his cause, but no longer a fanatic. His story tells of graduating from terrorist to humanist, from monomaniacal fanatic to a deeply committed human being. If you read nothing else this year, read this book.
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