THE RUSSIAN TRAGEDY, Alexander Berkman. ISBN 978-0-904564-11-2. Edited, introduced and compiled by William G. Nowlin Jnr. First published as three separate pamphlets in 1922 by Der Syndikalist, Berlin. Compilation first published 1976 by Cienfuegos Press Ltd., Over The Water, Sanday, Orkney. Cover illustration by Flavio Costantini and cover design by Simon Stern. This e-Book edition published 2013 by ChristieBooks.
THE THREE PAMPHLETS, ISSUED HERE in book form for the ﬁrst time (‘The Russian Tragedy’, ‘The Russian Revolution and the Communist Party’, and ‘The Kronstadt Rebellion‘), are Alexander Berkman’s ﬁrst writings after leaving Russia in December of 1921. He had entered Russia just two years earlier, ﬁlled with devotion to the ideals of the Russian revolution and anxious to contribute his share to the revolutionary process. It was a return home for him, as he had lived his ﬁrst 17 years in Russia and had grown up among the revolutionaries of that era. Now he was welcomed back as an important revolutionary exile from his adopted United States.
Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, and 247 other “politicals” had been deported from the United States on December 21, 1919. Berkman and Goldman, the two most active anarchists in America since the turn of the century, had only recently each completed two year prison sentences for active opposition to the World War I draft (as founders and organisers of the No-Conscription League) and, though resentful of being so abruptly forced to terminate their organising in America, looked forward to enthusiastic participation in the revolutionary experiment in their native land, Russia.
Among the reasons for their deportation was, in fact, their active propagandising in support of the Russian Revolution within the United States, Berkman writes:
“Without exaggeration I may say that the happiest day of my existence was passed in a prison cell — the day when the ﬁrst news of the October Revolution and the victory of the Bolsheviki reached me in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.”1
As anarchists, both had reservations about the Marxist Bolsheviks, though Berkman said:
“I placed the Revolution above theories, and it seemed to me that the Bolsheviki did the same. Though Marxists, they had been instrumental in bringing about a Revolution that was entirely un-Marxian; that was indeed in deﬁance of Marxian dogma and prophecy. Ardent advocates of parliamentarism, they repudiated it in their acts. Throwing overboard the democratic planks of its programme, it proclaimed the slogans of the Social Revolution in order to gain control of the movement of the masses . . . Furthermore, the Communist Party exploited all the popular demands of the hour: termination of the war, all power to the revolutionary proletariat, the land for the peasants. This attitude of the Bolsheviki was of tremendous psychological effect in hastening and stimulating the Revolution . . . In short, the Bolsheviki appeared in practice a thoroughly revolutionary party whose sole aim was the success of the Revolution; a party possessing the moral courage and integrity to subordinate its theories to the common welfare.”
Alexander Berkman, a Lithuanian Jew born in 1870, emigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 1888 where he soon became deeply involved in labour and anarchist circles. During the bitter Homestead Strike against the Carnegie Steel Co., he shot Henry Clay Frick, Carnegie’s manager for which he was arrested and served fourteen years in prison.
On his release he immediately threw himself into the anarchist struggle once more editing Mother Earth and The Blast, working in strikes, with the unemployed, agitating for birth control and libertarian education, and untiring in his work helping to organise prisoners’ defence committees. As joint founders of the No Conscription League to oppose U.S. participation in World War 1 both Berkman and Emma Goldman were given prison sentences of two years, and then, soon after the revolution deported to Russia.
Two years in his native Russia, travelling widely for the Museum of the Revolution of which he was Chairman, provided both the background material for this analysis of the revolution and its betrayal by the Communists. Berkman left Russia, disappointed and angry, towards the end of 1921 and spent the remaining 14 years of his life in exile, welcome in no country, attempting to counter the myth of Bolshevism. He shot himself on June 28, 1936, just three weeks before the Spanish Revolution/Civil War.