The product of a broken family and the victim of a disfiguring operation that left his face permanently scarred, German-born Johann Most was a lonely child who regarded the world as a vast conspiracy of cruelty and oppression. He would grow up to become an anarchist firebrand, an influential figure whose beliefs were often misrepresented.
In one of the few fondly remembered experiences from Most's young adulthood, he encountered a group of socialist workingmen, who showed him the first true sympathy and friendship he had ever known. He embraced their doctrine like a zealot, and subsequently spent nearly seven years in European prisons for his socialist agitation before emigrating to America in 1882.
Freedom Through Violence
Most was a gifted writer and editor who combined socialism and anarchist ideas with wit, sarcasm, and poetry. The radical newspaper Freiheit ("Freedom"), a journal he launched in London and brought with him to America, became the most uninhibited paper of the day, preaching revolution and championing violence as a weapon of emancipation.
Most's ability to give voice to written rhetoric was astounding. He became one of the greatest revolutionary speakers of his time. "It is an understatement," recalled a Jewish comrade, "to say that Most had the ability to inspire an audience. He electrified and all but bewitched every listener, opponent as well as friend." No wonder the press hated him, said Voltairine de Cleyre after attending one of his lectures, "for his eloquence is so great that even German policemen against whom he thunders his anathemas, applaud him, using their clubs to pat the wall behind them so as not to be seen."
A Primitive Power
An inspiration to many, Most counted among his acolytes Emma Goldman, who herself would become a riveting speaker. She recalled her first impression of Most: "His speech was a scorching denunciation of American conditions, a biting satire on the injustice and brutality of the dominant powers, a passionate tirade against those responsible for the Haymarket tragedy. As if by magic, his disfigurement disappeared. He seemed transformed into some primitive power, radiating hatred and love, strength and inspiration. The rapid current of his speech, the music of his voice, and his sparkling wit, all combined to produce an effect almost overwhelming. He stirred me to my depths."
Tools of Terror
"Portrayed in the daily press a wild revolutionary fanatic, bent on chaos and destruction, he became the cartoonist's stereotype of the bewhiskered, foreign-looking anarchist, with a bomb in one hand and dagger or pistol in the other," wrote historian Paul Avrich. Most's best-known pamphlet, "The Science of Revolutionary Warfare: A Little Handbook of Instruction in the Use and Preparation of Nitroglycerine, Dynamite, Gun-Cotton, Fulminating Mercury, Bombs, Fuses, Poisons, etc." (1885) did little to diminish the stereotype of anarchists as fanatical bomb-throwers. Nevertheless, Most quickly established his preeminence over the revolutionary left during the late 1880s.
Most and Goldman
In 1889, Johann Most and Emma Goldman commenced a warm friendship. For a short period, he was her mentor and confidante. But the friendship would fall on hard times, especially after Alexander Berkman's attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick during the Homestead Steel Strike in 1892. One of Berkman's most outspoken critics was Johann Most, who had always, noted Goldman, "proclaimed acts of violence from the housetops." Yet in Freiheit, Most attacked both Goldman and Berkman, implying Berkman's act was designed to arouse sympathy for Frick. Most's motivations, suggested historian Alice Wexler, may have been inspired by jealousy of Berkman -- or possibly by his evolving attitude on the use of political assassination as a way of bringing about social change.
Goldman was enraged by Most's critique, and demanded he prove his insinuations. When he refused to reply, she carried a horsewhip to his next lecture. After he refused to speak to her, she lashed him across the face, then broke the whip over her knee and threw the pieces at him. She later regretted her theatrics, confiding to a friend, "At the age of twenty-three, one does not reason." Johann Most died in 1906, the year Alexander Berkman was released from prison.