Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Alexander Berkman

Alexander Berkman discovered firsthand the truth of the incomprehensibility to Americans of the act of political violence. In 1892, he attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick in response to Frick's role in the massacre of workers during the Homestead Strike. Berkman was young and Anarchist and believed in the "propaganda of the deed"--he had a grand idea that his action (which, in the event, failed) would incite the general public to revolution. No such luck. Upon arriving in jail, and later prison, where he spent 14 years, he discovered that no one understood why he had done it and didn't believe him when he told them his reasons. He had to have had a personal beef with Frick, other inmates assumed; any political intent of Berkman's was laughed away.

Berkman came to the United States from Tsarist Russia, where the form of oppression was a bit more obvious. Writing from prison soon after the assassination of President McKinley, he described the difference in a letter to Emma Goldman that appears late in his Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist:
In Russia, where political oppression is popularly felt, such a deed would be of great value. But the scheme of political subjection is more subtle in America. And though McKinley was the chief representative of our modern slavery, he could not be considered in the light of a direct and immediate enemy of the people; while in an absolutism, the autocrat is visible and tangible. The real 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. (p. 424)
Far from the people rising up in the wake of this assassination (or indeed Berkman's own attempt on Frick), instead, by the time Berkman emerged from prison, much had happened to solidify the power and reach of the enemy. With the Spanish-American War, the United States' role as an imperial country truly began. And there was the so-called "Progressive Era"--the beginnings of the regulatory apparatus and Theodore Roosevelt's much-ballyhooed (and widely misunderstood) "trust-busting". (This period is better seen, I think, as the "The Triumph of Conservatism", in Gabriel Kolko's phrase.)

Upon his release from prison, Berkman found that he did not know how to be with his comrades, feeling as if he no longer belonged in the struggle. He finally snapped out of it after learning of an Anarchist meeting that was broken up, with several people arrested, likely facing lengthy prison terms under the provisions of a new law. He realized anew that the struggle continues and that he had a job to do. Part of that job consisted of writing these Prison Memoirs.

Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist is divided into four sections. In the first section, Berkman recounts his decision to kill Frick, his train ride to Pittsburgh, the attempt itself, his arrest, jail-time, and trial. This section is often almost unreadable. Berkman's enthusiastic sloganeering is naive and hard to bear:
The time for speech was past. Throughout the land the toilers echoed the defiance of the men of Homestead. The steelworkers had rallied bravely to the defense; the murderous Pinkertons were driven from the city. But loudly called the blood of Mammon's victims on the banks of the Monongahela. Loudly it calls. It is the People calling. Ah, the People! The grand, mysterious, yet so near and real, People. . . . (p. 9)
But for Berkman at this point, "the People" were little more than an abstraction. Anyone who conflicted with his ideal notion of the noble worker was not worth thinking about. And his own personal needs, he argued, were nothing in the face of the Cause:
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. And what could be higher in life than to be a true revolutionist? It is to be a man, a complete MAN. A being who has neither personal interests nor desires above the necessities of the Cause; one who has emancipated himself from being merely human, and has risen above that, even to the height of conviction which excludes all doubt, all regret; in short, one who in the very inmost of his soul feels himself revolutionist first, human afterwards. (p.11)
Unable or unwilling in his youthful fervor to admit the importance of his own humanity, it is not surprising that Berkman is unable, at first, to see beyond the abstraction of "the People" or grant the humanity of the "common criminal", who he sees as scum, not worthy of his attention or concern.

In this first section, there is a lot of such tiresome speechifying. Yet it is interesting to observe Berkman having to face that, as mentioned, his act is not understood, will not be understood. He sees it as self-evident that he was striking "at the many-headed hydra whose visible representative was Frick". But he is unable to make anyone understand. He plans to explain everything at his trial--to speak directly to "the People". But he is prevented from doing so (he is surprised!) and sentenced to 22 years in the Pennsylvania State Penitentiary.

Berkman's account of his time in the state penitentiary makes up the bulk of the book--nearly 400 pages--and it's worth reading. His prose, while still a bit overwritten, is much better, and largely free of the cant from the first section. As an avowed Anarchist, he is suspected of involvement in any number of "troubles" that occur; as a result, he spent the bulk of his time in solitary confinement. Even so, there are periods of relative freedom. Over time, he learns much about the running of the prison, the guards, the warden, the politics, the attempts to cover up unhealthy conditions. Here he describes the guards:
The personnel of the guards is of very inferior character. I find their average intelligence considerably lower than that of the inmates. Especially does the element recruited from the police and the detective service lack sympathy with the unfortunates in their charge. They are mostly men discharged from city employment because of habitual drunkenness, or flagrant brutality and corruption. Their attitude toward the prisoners is summed up in coercion and suppression. They look upon the men as will-less objects of iron-handed discipline, exact unquestioning obedience and absolute submissiveness to peremptory whims, and harbor personal animosity toward the less pliant. The more intelligent among the officers scorn inferior duties, and crave advancement. the authority and remuneration of a Deputy Wardenship is alluring to them, and every keeper considers himself the fittest for the vacancy. But the coveted prize is awarded to the guard most feared by the inmates, and most subservient to the Warden,--a direct incitement to brutality, on the one hand, to sycophancy, on the other. (pp. 270-271)
And the monotony:
Daily I behold the machinery at work, grinding and pulverizing, brutalizing the officers, dehumanizing the inmates. Far removed from the strife and struggle of the larger world, I yet witness its miniature replica, more agonizing and merciless within the walls. A perfected model it is, this prison life, with its apparent uniformity and dull passivity. (pp. 272-273)
As implied in this passage, Berkman begins to understand more, to realize the basic humanity of the "common criminal", just as he is witness to acts of depravity and occasional flashes of decency. The conditions in the prison are horrific. Inmates are withheld food and exercise, pressed into illegal slave labor, subjected to indifferent medical treatment or worse (at one point, the nurse on duty in the infirmary, a favorite of the warden's, was a convicted murderer), repeatedly beaten by guards, forced to withstand lengthy sessions of solitary confinement in the filthiest of conditions. He recounts the details of rousing political discussions, the subsequent creation of forbidden inmate magazines--the urgency of the written word. He relates the particulars of several friendships that develop, the unexpected intimacies.

After publishing Prison Memoirs, Berkman continued to be active politically, including being imprisoned multiple times for opposition to the First World War. Deported, along with Emma Goldman, to the Soviet Union, he was an early supporter of the Bolsheviks, before becoming quickly disillusioned. I have previously read his What Is Anarchism?, which is a short, excellent introduction to these ideas, as well as being a fascinating critique of the Russian Revolution, which he continued to see as having been betrayed by the repressive reality of the Soviet Union. Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist is more interesting for its vivid depiction of prison life (where it seems not much has changed in the last 100 years) than for any explication of radical thought, except for the extent to which Dostoevsky was right when he wrote: "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."

1 comment:

Andrew said...

If only people, such as possibly well-intentioned revolutionaries, could understand the simple reality that means determine ends. If I mix yellow and green, I'm not going to end uo with orange no matter how fervently I desire it.