From 1915-1916, the apartments at 569 Delores Street were the home and offices of celebrated anarchist Alexander Berkman. From these rooms Berkman published his classic radical labor magazine, The Blast!
Born in 1877 to an upper-middle-class Jewish merchant
family, Ovsei Osipovich Berkman was the youngest of four children. Due to his
family’s wealth, they were granted the right to move from a restricted Jewish
settlement to Saint Petersburg where his father had business. While there, the
Berkman family assimilated into the mainstream Russian middle class and Ovsei took
the very Russian name of Alexander. He attended the gymnasium, where he received
a classical education alongside Saint Petersburg’s elite. Berkman was entranced
by the radical philosophies of populism and nihilism, and was very upset when
his favorite uncle was sentenced to death for his revolutionary activities.
The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 brought an
end to the middle class privileges of the Berkman family, as Tsar Alexander III ‘s
public policy was autocratic and anti-Semitic. His father
died when he was twelve, thursting the family into poverty and forcing them to move to the Jewish
settlement of Kovno where his mother’s family lived. During this time, young Alexander’s
grades began to falter as he spent more and more time reading the novels of
Ivan Turgenev, as well as Nikolay Cheryshevsky’s 'What Is to Be Done?' (The anarcho-socialist
sensibilities of the latter work particularly inspired Berkman his life). Berkman became actively involved in promoting radical literature and ideas at
school, and eventually was expelled for stealing exams and bribing a handyman.
In 1888, Berkman made his escape to New York City.
Berkman’s work on the Pioneers of Liberty’s campaign to free
the anarchists convicted of the Haymarket bombing brought him into the anarchist
fold. As the association was primarily Jewish, the Pioneers regularly
participated in labor strikes in Jewish-staffed sweatshops and organized some of the garment
industry’s first unions. It was during this time that Berkman met comrade
anarchist Emma Goldman, who would become his on-again, off-again lover and
lifelong friend. Both Berkman and
Goldman eventually fell into the orbit of Johann Most, America’s foremost
anarchist and proponent of attentat, or, “propaganda of the deed,” which are acts of violence
against counter-revolutionary parties as a means to bring attention to the
cause. Although Berkman eventually distanced himself from Most because he felt that no one person should have so much power within
the anarchist movement, Berkman retained his commitment to the philosophy of attentat.
Berkman’s opportunity to express attentat came in the summer
of 1892 following the Homestead Strike, in which nine workers and seven
Pinkerton guards were killed due to a work stoppage caused by the failure of
Carnegie Steel Company to come to terms with the Amalgamated Association of
Iron and Steel Workers. Berkman, Goldman, and their comrade Fedya Aronstam,
decided that plant manager Henry Clay Frick was the perfect candidate for attentat. The
murder was to be a suicide mission, but Berkman’s first attempt, a bomb, failed
due to poor design, and his second attempt, a shooting/stabbing, also failed.
His attempt to blow up the subsequent police interrogation by chewing on a
capsule of dynamite, thus killing himself and the police, failed as well. He was
tried and found guilty on six counts, and was sentenced to 21 years in
Pennsylvania’s Western Penitentiary. Upon his release, Berkman continued his anarchist lecture
tours and writing, eventually serving as editor for Emma Goldman’s anarchist
journal, Mother Earth. After finding himself implicated in New York’s Lexington Avenue Bombing, Berkman left New
York for San Francisco.
In San Francisco, Berkman started his own periodical,
The Blast journal. Unlike Mother Earth, The Blast was narrowly focused on
radical labor issues, organizing, strikes, and national labor news. Although it
was published for a mere 18 months, The Blast was second only to Mother Earth
in its influence on American anarchists. Berkman’s tenure in San Francisco drew
to a close with the July 22 Preparedness Day parade bombing in 1916. Berkman
was investigated but ultimately dismissed as a suspect in the event, and he subsequently
ran the defense fund for the labor organizers, Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, who
were convicted but eventually pardoned. By December of 1917, Berkman had
relocated himself and The Blast to New York.
Shortly after returning to New York, Berkman and Goldman
began agitating against military conscription in the war effort, and questioned
the right of the state to make war. These activities resulted in their imprisonment
and subsequent deportation under charges outlined in
the 1917 Espionage Act. Finding himself disillusioned with the Russian
revolution and the totalitarian dictatorship of Lenin, Berkman made his way to
France, where he wrote the anarchist classic Now and After: The ABC of
Communist Anarchism in 1929. Berkman settled in Nice with his partner Emily
Eckstein, and worked as a translator and editor to support himself. The agony
of a health condition drove Berkman to attempt suicide a final time in 1936. He
shot himself, but the bullet lodged in his spinal columnn, which paralyzed but did not kill him.
Goldman rushed to his side, and Berkman succumbed the night after her arrival. Alexander
Berkman passed away on July 23, 1936.