Alexander Berkman

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If your object is to secure liberty, you must learn to do without authority and compulsion. If you intend to live in peace and harmony with your fellow-men, you and they should cultivate brotherhood and respect for each other.

Alexander Berkman (November 21, 1870June 28, 1936) was a prominent Lithuanian Jewish anarchist, and a close associate of Emma Goldman. His adult life was largely spent in the United States, Germany and France.


"Man's inhumanity to man" is not the last word. The truth lies deeper. It is economic slavery, the savage struggle for a crumb, that has converted mankind into wolves and sheep.
  • It is the system, rather than individuals, that is the source of pollution and degradation. My prison-house environment is but another manifestation of the Midas-hand, whose cursed touch turns everything to the brutal service of Mammon.
    • Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (1912), Ch. 18: "The Solitary".
  • Liberty is an empty sound as long as you are kept in bondage economically. [...] Freedom means that you have the right to do a certain thing; but if you have no opportunity to do it, that right is sheer mockery. The opportunity lies in your economic condition, whatever the political situation may be. No political rights can be of the least use to the man who is compelled to slave all his life to keep himself and family from starvation.
  • If your object is to secure liberty, you must learn to do without authority and compulsion. If you intend to live in peace and harmony with your fellow-men, you and they should cultivate brotherhood and respect for each other. If you want to work together with them for your mutual benefit, you must practice cooperation. The social revolution means much more than the reorganization of conditions only: it means the establishment of new human values and social relationships, a changed attitude of man to man, as of one free and independent to his equal; it means a different spirit in individual and collective life, and that spirit cannot be born overnight. It is a spirit to be cultivated, to be nurtured and reared, as the most delicate flower it is, for indeed it is the flower of a new and beautiful existence.
  • Terrorism is tempting with its tremendous possibilities. It offers a mechanical solution, as it were, in hopeless situations. … the principles of terrorism unavoidably rebound to the fatal injury of liberty and revolution. Absolute power corrupts and defeats its partisans no less than its opponents. A people that knows not liberty becomes accustomed to dictatorship: fighting despotism and counter-revolution, terrorism itself becomes their efficient school. Once on the road of terrorism, the State necessarily becomes estranged from the people.
    • "The Bolshevik Myth" in Anarchism : A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Vol. 1 (2005) edited by Robert Graham, p. 312.

Quotes about Alexander Berkman

  • Neither his experiences in Russia nor the bitterness of his émigré life ever shook his great courage or his boundless devotion to his ideal. Perhaps it was the impossibility of serving as he had wished to, and was fitted to serve, the country which had symbolized his hopes that was the indirect cause of his voluntary and untimely end. His death was as brave as his life had been.
  • Shortly after my return to Kiev from Odessa I became involved in a situation which was to provide one of the most serious shocks to my Bolshevik illusions-the Pirro incident which Alexander Berkman later described at some length in his book, The Bolshevik Myth.
  • My visit with Edward Carpenter lasted the greater part of an afternoon in his modest cottage at Guildford. [...] I attempted to tell him how much his books had meant to me-Towards Democracy, Angel Wings, Walt Whitman. He stopped me, gently putting his hand over mine. Instead I should rather tell him about Alexander Berkman, he said. He had read his Prison Memoirs, "a profound study of man's inhumanity and prison psychology, and of his own martyrdom, portrayed with extraordinary simplicity."
  • Later, she [my mother] met Alexander Berkman, who was a great influence on her life and on my own.
  • Emma Goldman, fearless champion of human rights, in Madison Square Garden. Short-sleeved, her fists clenched, she vehemently opposes our entry into the world holocaust, and is threatened with arrest. "I defy the police, when the lives of millions are at stake!"... Alexander Berkman also speaks: "The men of this great land will never let themselves be led by the nose into an imperialist war!"
  • it is impossible to know the number of individuals whose political awakening-as with Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, long-time revolutionary stalwarts of the next generation came from the Haymarket Affair.

Anarchist Women, 1870-1920 by Margaret S Marsh (1981)

  • In the United States Communist-anarchism appealed mostly to working-class immigrants or their children, who felt cheated by false promises of the American dream. Although some declassé intellectuals and American craftworkers joined the communists, the majority of the movement was composed of Eastern European Jews who worked in the sweatshops of New York's garment district, of Italian factory workers, and other immigrants with few skills and little hope of advancement. The two most important figures among them were Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Originally followers of Johann Most, they emerged from his shadow in the early nineties to become the foremost advocates of revolutionary anarchism.
  • Goldman's chief collaborator in her work as publicist, publisher, and agitator was Alexander Berkman.
  • While Goldman took the anarchist message to middle-class audiences, Berkman retained his faith in the revolutionary potential of the working class.
  • Berkman and Goldman personified anarchism to Americans who read accounts of their speeches in the press or followed the news of their trials. The police persecution that they faced, the fear that they aroused, the relief with which the nation greeted their deportation-all testify to the sense of power and fierce determination that the two conveyed. And yet, during the first and second decades of the twentieth century, when the anarchists' notoriety was at a peak, their influence among American radicals was actually on the wane. Socialism, not anarchism, had become the dominant radical ideology.
  • Alexander Berkman, “Sasha” to his friends, was a rebel from early childhood. He protested against injustice wherever he saw it...After Berkman was released from prison he continued to devote his life to the revolutionary cause, a convinced anarchist. He worked with all his energies and dedication for the movement, for freedom, and wound up a political refugee in the various countries where he was permitted to live. He was one of the finest, most generous people I ever knew. Although he had very few material possessions, he was always ready to give everything away to others and had to be reminded not to deny himself his urgent personal needs. Berkman made every possible effort to understand and help people...He radiated warmth and comfort, like the rays of the sun...I first met Berkman in New York City in the late Fall, 1919, at the home of Stella Ballantine, Emma Goldman’s niece. We discussed the Russian Revolution and the need to expose the atrocities of the Bolsheviks against the anarchists, socialists and all who dared to criticize their new dictatorial regime in Moscow...Sasha argued that the Bolsheviks should be given a chance, that it was too early to start an organized opposition because the revolution was surrounded by enemies...Our second meeting with Sasha and Emma took place in Berlin four years later, November, 1923, where they had been living for two years, since January, 1922. They had left Soviet Russia greatly disillusioned with the Bolshevik regime. Sasha and Emma were each writing about their experiences in Russia. In addition, Sasha was active organizing help for the anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists and other political Opponents held in prison by the Bolsheviks. He appealed for funds, issued a bulletin in English, translated the letters from men and women prisoners in Russia. He assembled and translated all the material that was published in the book, Letters From Russian Prisons.
  • Life was difficult for everyone in Germany after World War I and particularly so for the political refugees. Many of us felt that we had to leave Germany. A number of us went to France, including Sasha and Emma.
  • “No audience is too small for me to talk to,” Sasha used to say.
  • Emma Goldman and Sasha worked together harmoniously. When guests and reporters came to the house, or even friends of friends, Sasha would welcome them in a warm, friendly manner. He filled the house with a joyful spirit and his discussions were marked with authoritative facts and information...Everyone who knew or talked about Emma and Sasha could not speak of one without mentioning the other. Although they lived their own separate lives, they were inseparable emotionally and spiritually. Neither of them ever wrote a major article or a book without consulting the other. They knew and shared every event in their lives; there were no secrets between them. Their friendship and companionship were the finest. Those of us who were privileged to know them will never forget them...A great part of Emma’s life was lost to her with Sasha’s death.
  • The acute physical pain of his prostate gland, his economic difficulties, his precarious status as a political refugee, all combined to cause our warm, genial comrade, who had always been so full of life, to end his sufferings and commit suicide.
  • His name will live as long as there are and will continue to be rebels who struggle for genuine, true liberty.
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