Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist- a review by Marius Mason

The new issue of the Fifth Estate has a review by Marius in it of Alexander Berkman’s classic, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist.  Marius really appreciates receiving books and likes to review them.  Please consider sending him a book from his wishlist or a book you love and believe he might enjoy.

Below is the edited article in Fifth Estate and Marius’ original review:


Some thoughts on Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist by Alexander Berkman by Marius Mason

“Thick clouds of smoke over cast the sky, shrouding the morning with somber gray. The air is heavy with soot and cinders; the smell is nauseating. In the distance, giant furnaces vomit pillars of fire, the lurid flashes accentuating a line of frame structures, dilapidated and miserable….The sight fills me with hatred of the perverse social order that turns the needs of mankind into an Inferno of brutalizing toil.. (that) grinds flesh and blood into iron and steel, transmutes human lives into gold, gold, countless gold.”


This vision could describe my old neighborhood near Zug Island in Detroit, the home of the Ford Rouge Plant and United Sates Steel in days of old. Instead, it is Alexander Berkamn’s impression of Pittsburgh in 1892, as he disembarks from a train from New York City.

At 21, he has already committed to perhaps ending his life in an extreme action to be taken on behalf of the striking workers at magnate Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Steel Works. He knows none of them personally, but knows from news papers that they are striking to get their jobs back at the. The local manager, Henry Clay Frick, has decided to bust the union and has locked out the workers and brought in 300 ruthless and dreaded Pinkerton detectives to break the strike (and a few heads).

Before Berkman arrives, there has already been a shoot-out, with several people killed on both sides of the picket line. This drama is over a hundred years old, and yet the same questions of what a union can or cannot do, what a business owner can or cannot do to maintain their profits is still up for debate, as recently as the last presidential election.

Alexander Berkman wrote his prison memoirs in the first two years after his release after serving 14 years of his original 22 year sentence. He was in prison long enough to witness both the old system of corruption, violence, and privilege, and the newer reforms that, though put into place, failed to change much of anything in how the day to day prison ran. The critical questions that Berkman raises about his experience and his rationale for both his action and his ideals, are still relevant today. The new edition of this memoir that includes material from his diaries and some letters, gives the book a different feel than the version that I read some 20 years ago. This one brings you closer to the history of the time, both for Berkman’s intimate circle and for the surrounding society.

When I first read Berkman’s memoir, I had never been to prison nor did I have any reason to believe that I ever would. Still, like most of my anarchist peers, we felt it was important to offer support and reading material to incarcerated comrades. Now, having spent eight years on the other side of those walls, I understand just how important those acts of support are, and so did Berkman.

Berkman writes, having received a letter from his friend Emma Goldman:

“The bars fade, the walls disappear, and the air grows sweet with the aroma of fresh air and flowers. I am again with you, walking in the July moonlight.”

In the book’s opening sections, Berkman explains his motivation for making the attentat (his attack on Frick) and his frustration at being misunderstood and having failed. But his words describing his relationship to Goldman (referred to as “the girl”) and his ever-increasing relationships in the prison use a different tone. As the revolutionary, he is strident and confident. As the human being, he questions and considers, he changes his mind and admits when his judgment was in error.

At one point early on, Berkman quotes a conversation he has with a comrade and refers to himself as a revolutionary first, and then a man. This perspective seems to suggest the syndrome that Jonathan Matthew Smucker coins in his book, Hegemony How-To (another excellent book by AKPress) that he called “the righteous few.” It plays a big role in the early feeling that it was not only appropriate, but necessary for a cadre of revolutionaries to act on behalf of the workers.” The small affinity group that Berkman, Goldman, and Modest Stein belonged to definitely took this perspective as a driving force in their lives.

Having only read a newspaper account of the strike, Berkman felt compelled to take this as an opportunity and even as a duty to go to Pittsburgh and respond. The idea being that the action would spur the workers into further resistance if they felt supported in their efforts by the anarchists taking on the local power broker, Henry Clay Frick, as the direct representative of the capitalist system boss, Andrew Carnegie.

But even contemporaries sympathetic to Berkman, his cause, and his Ideal were not persuaded by his arguments when they first read the manuscript. Voltairine De Cleyre, a friend of Berkman’s after his arrest, a long-time prison correspondent, and anarchist writer, poet, and organizer in her own right believed that the casual reader would find Berkman to be crazy. De Cleyre disagreed with the tactic and its explanation, but maintained her solid support for Berkman nonetheless both at the time of his arrest and after. Support was divided among the many well-known anarchist proponents of the time, with Johann Most condemning it (much to Berkman’s personal chagrin).

Some of the most moving passages of the memoir are not the high-flying rhetoric of the young and idealistic Berkman, but can be found in the many conversations between him and individual strikers and prisoners that he records in what is meant to be colloquial language.

Berkman writes about his disappointment when the strikers are confused as to his reasons for attacking Frick, and even phentermine concerned that the repercussions will be severe for them. Berkman tries to explain his own history with the Nihilist movement in Russia, the young students who resisted the Tsar and were imprisoned and executed, but the real people that he meets do not match his mythology of the Worker Hero.

Over many years, Berkman gets to know much more thoroughly the actual circumstances and people that make up the U. S. poor, working, and criminalized classes. To his credit, this does not harden his heart at all, though he documents some betrayals and acts of cowardice amongst the prison population. Still, the time in this community seems to instead increase his love and understanding of his fellow human beings, and erases many of the distinctions he had made before about class and revolutionary cadre.

Berkman takes note of how some officers and prisoners look for opportunities to exploit or indulge in senseless cruelty to another, when those actions are tolerated. It is with high hopes that the prisoners see a new Warden come into the system, a reformer, reputedly. But very soon after the change, there is a backsliding into the old practices of using beatings and time in the dungeon for social control.

It’s painful to read about the incidents that Berkman witnesses, the sound of clubs on human bodies, the screams and cries for medical aid that does not come, the constant begging for medicines that don’t leave their patients sicker than before. It would be good to note here that things are better now than in Berkman’s time and yet a cursory read of the Prison Legal News will tell you that these things go on today. Every year, prisoners die from lack of proper treatment and from abuse. I am glad to say that in my time in the Federal system, I have not personally experienced or witnessed such egregious violence – but have heard from others who have in other places in the system.

More than the infrequent, but terrifying violence, Berkman talks about the desolation of the human spirit that comes with isolation in the solitary units, that comes from years away from sweethearts and family, that separates a prisoner form the free expression of their affectionate or sexual nature. He talks about the ways this twists the prisoner’s responses, sometimes permanently. Berkman treats the subject of both consensual and exploitive sexuality in the prison with sensitivity and care. For its time, it must have been unusually positive towards homosexuality, a practice that staff at the prisons took care to deny existed at all on the inside.

Finally, Berkman dismisses the idea that prisons can be useful and states clearly that they are toxic to any healthy society, calling them “veritable schools of crime and vice. The blackjack and the dungeon are surely not the proper means of reclamation, no matter what the social causes of crime.” He goes on to say ” . . .there is no doubt that the law is an absolute failure in dealing with crime. The criminal belongs to the sphere of therapeutics.”

Berkman continues his memoir with his release from prison and his re-entry into society. He is overwhelmed and unhappy, not able to converse with his comrades and feeling more comfortable with his old prisoner friends. He commiserates with them in their complaints that society does not allow them to play it straight; they can’t stay hired when the word comes around they had been in prison. Berkman notes how different it is for him having the support of a community and resolves to pay this back by writing his story and also in doing a lecture series .

But he has a complete break-down and flakes instead of going to one of the arranged speeches in what sounds like a PTSD kind of fugue. He recovers, feels terrible and finally talks with his closest friends about how prison has damaged him and how he feels like he is still in prison in his mind.

Berkman feels like the only reason that he survived his time in prison (the book alludes to at least one possible suicide attempt), is that he was sustained in his suffering in solitary and in the dungeon by his beliefs. He writes:

“It was the vision of an ideal, the consciousness that I suffered for a great Cause. . .The very exaggeration of my self-estimate was a source of strength: I looked upon myself as a representative of a world movement, it was my duty to exemplify the spirit and dignity of the ideas it embodied. I was not a prisoner, merely; I was an Anarchist”.

Despite what was painful months adjusting to free life again, both in the country and in the city , Berkman becomes able to enjoy again walks in the woods and conversations with political allies, without the shroud of prison cutting him off from others. He even falls in love. The diaries tell us this part of his life as a free man, and they are written with a funny and irreverent perspective, whereas the memoir is much more didactic.

The comments on the constant nature of jealousy, even among the proponents of polyamory and free love, are written with a wry and warm insider’s view. Reading these writings in comparison with earlier work, one is able to see Berkman as just as much a man as a revolutionary. It is this balance that makes his story more accessible and poignant to those of us reading his words in this century.

More than anything, this story of survival and recovery, of reconnection and responsibility to one’s beliefs is a morality tale for us here and now. Prison experience changes who you are fundamentally and haunts you. I will always carry the prison around in my mind for the rest of my life. But I am encouraged that perhaps, even so, like Alexander Berkman, I will continue to find the strength, direction, and purpose of my Cause in my life both here and in whatever future free life I might have. This fills me with courage and peace.

There’s not a lot of books out there that can do that for you.