THE ABC OF ANARCHISM by Alexander Berkman. eBook £1.50 (see eBookshelf)

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THE ABC of ANARCHISM was first published in 1929, by the Vanguard Press of New York, under the title What is Communist Anarchism? It comprised three parts: “Now”, “Anarchism”, and The Social Revolution”. It was re-issued in 1936, by Frei Arbeiter Stimme of New York, with the new title of Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism. Freedom Press first published it in Britain, this time as The ABC of Anarchism, in May 1942, but without part one. The ABC of Anarchism is now an historic document. Indeed, George Woodcock (for whatever his opinion is worth!) has called it a minor classic of libertarian literature. That however is not the reason for its republication. The reason is that it still remains one of the best introductions to the ideas of anarchism, written from the communist-anarchist viewpoint, in the English language. Its author, Alexander Berkman, was no mere theoretician or “intellectual”. He had been a militant activist for much of his life.

Alexander Berkman was born just over a hundred years ago in November, 1870, at Wilno (Vilnius), which was then in part of the imperial Russian Empire, had been the capital of the, old Duchy of Lithuania and is now just within the borders of the Lithuanian Soviet “Socialist” Republic. At the time that Alexander Berkman was born, Russia was going through one of its blackest periods of reaction. Moreover, there had been a significant change within the anti-Czarist and revolutionary movement. The largely aristocratic Nihilists, who spent most of their time agitating among the peasants, had become increasingly disillusioned. Activity became more concentrated on the towns and cities. The 1870s also saw the rise of terrorism against Czarism and its officials. More workers and artisans, some of whom were Jewish, became involved. By 1880, the Czar had assumed almost total power, and many thousands of revolutionaries had been banged, jailed or banished to Siberia. Young Alexander was strongly influenced by the idealism and self-sacrifice of the revolutionaries’ struggles, not least by those of his uncle Maxim, who was exiled to Siberia. By the time he was fifteen, Berkman joined a group engaged in the study of revolutionary writings — itself a treasonable activity. He was expelled from school and was given what was called a “wolf’s passport”, which in effect closed almost all professions or trades to him. At sixteen, he was compelled to leave Russia. Alexander Berkman arrived in the United States early in 1888. America, however, was not the paradise that so many immigrants and would-be immigrants expected it to be.

In 1882 the German advocate of revolutionary violence, Johann Most, arrived in New York. He immediately began a speaking tour in all American cities where anarchist and revolutionary socialist groups existed. Of all American cities, Chicago was the most fertile for revolutionary propaganda. In 1883 that city could claim at least 3,000 anarchists, with one German language daily, two German weeklies. a Bohemian weekly and an English fortnightly. A Central Labour Union was founded in 1883, and by 1886 was largely supported by the organised workers in the city. The demand for an Eight-Hour then began in the spring, and by the beginning of May almost 70,000 workers were either on strike or had been locked out by their employers. At the centre of the struggle was the McCormick Harvester Works, which had locked out its men and hired scabs and blacklegs with 300 Pinkerton gunmen to protect them. The police regularly broke up meetings, and on May 3 they opened fire on the crowd and killed a number of people. Next day, a protest meeting was held in Haymarket Square, but as it began raining and the crowd was drifting away 200 police marched into the square. At that moment a bomb was thrown towards the police from a side street. The police started firing into the crowd — and at each other! — and a few of the crowd shot back at the police. Seven cops were killed or died later, and between 20 and 30 workers were also killed by the police. Following the incident, many Chicago anarchists were rounded-up and eight prominent revolutionaries, including Parsons and Spies, were put on trial for murder. The prosecution, however, never attempted to prove that any of them had thrown the bomb. They just concentrated on their anarchist beliefs and the violent statements of some of them. Seven were condemned to death; and on November 11, 1887, four of them were hanged. The others were jailed and, some years later, after an inquiry had looked into the case and found no evidence that any of the accused anarchists were involved, they were released. Parsons, Spies and their two comrades had been judicially murdered by the State. The young Berkman arrived in America a few months after.

Under the influence of Johann Most, Alexander Berkman soon joined the revolutionary anarchist movement, first in the Yiddish-speaking group, the Pioneers of Liberty. He also became friendly with another dynamic anarchist, Emma Goldman, who had arrived in the United States just after the Chicago tragedy. Later they became lovers. But it was the Homestead Steel strike that really aroused Berkman to action. Emma Goldman describes the terrible sequence of events thus:

It was in the year 1892, at the time of the Homestead Steel strike —the first and greatest life-and-death struggle of the steelworkers of the State of Pennsylvania against their feudal lord, Andrew Carnegie. It aroused the whole country of the slavery and exploitation in the steel industry. That great struggle, powerfully described by Alexander Berkman in his Prison Memoirs, was accompanied by the importation of Pinkerton thugs (the favourite detective and police defenders of the American plutocracy of fifty years ago) who killed eleven strikers, among them a child of ten. The person responsible for that crime was Henry C. Frick, the representative and business partner of Carnegie. The brutal attitude of Frick towards the strikers, his public declaration that he would rather see every striker killed than concede a single demand, and the final murder on July 6, 1892, of eleven unarmed working-men, roused America to indignation. Even the conservative Press denounced Frick in the sharpest terms. Throughout America, the workers gave vent to their feelings in protest meetings. But there was only one man who translated the wrath of the toilers into a heroic act. That man was Alexander Berkman. On July 22, 1892 he entered the office of H. C. Frick and attempted his life. Three bullets lodged in Frick’s body, but he survived. Berkman received a prison sentence of 22 years, although his act according to the laws of the State of Pennsylvania-called for only seven years. To give our comrade such a cruel sentence, six charges were framed up against him: because he dared to strike at the very heart of the American industrial plutocracy.’

Emma Goldman omits to mention that she also assisted in the preparation of the assassination attempt on Frick. Alexander Berkman actually spent fourteen years in the Allegheny Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, of which over twelve months were in solitary confinement. Richard Drinnon comments that his capacity to resist the authorities’ attempts to break his will was nothing short of heroic. After his release, Berkman wrote his famous Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. He then, once again, threw himself into the revolutionary’ struggle. He began lecture tours, and helped organise the free, Ferrer, school in New York. He was one of its first teachers.

At one time, Berkman edited, with Emma Goldman, the anarchist monthly, Mother Earth. In 1914 the so-called Great War broke out in Europe. In the United States Berkman began an anti-militarist campaign that soon spread throughout the American continent. Together with Emma Goldman, he founded the No Conscription League. In 1915 he moved to San Francisco where he started the anarchist paper, Blast, which continued until July 1916. Soon after the outbreak of the war in Europe a number of “socialist” and “anarchist’ renegades blamed Germany for starting the war, and came out in support of the Entente. But the vast majority of anarchists, including Goldman, Malatesta, Faure, Rocker and Berkman remained true to their internationalist and anti-militarist principles. Berkman saw the war as a capitalist struggle for profit, trade routes and power with the masses serving as cannon fodder. Nevertheless. America entered that struggle in 1916; and during a Preparedness Parade a bomb was thrown. The anarchist militants Mooney and Billings were framed. The now-super-patriotic “socialists” and Labourites refused to have anything to do with the matter and left them to their fate—but not the anarchists. Berkman organised meetings in their defence all over the States, but to no avail. Berkman’s anti-war and anti-conscription campaign, however, was beginning to worry the authorities: it was recognised as a serious danger. Berkman and Goldman would have to be taught a lesson! By 1917, the No Conscription League was suppressed. Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman and many other anarchists were arrested in New York. Alexander and Emma both got two years’ imprisonment, a 10.000-dollars’ fine and deportation on release. At the same time, the San Francisco authorities indicted Berkman for alleged complicity in the Preparedness bombing. The New York authorities intended to hand him over to San Francisco. But they, and the Federal Government in Washington, had second thoughts. The Trade Unions sent various delegations to the Governor of the State of New York to protest against his extradition to California: but, even more important, anarchist workers in Petrograd and the sailors at Kronstadt organised large demonstrations and threatened the life of the American Ambassador to Russia. The American Government took fright, and Berkman served his two years in Atlanta jail, Georgia, of which seven months were in solitary. Moreover, Berkman informed the notorious J. Edgar Hoover that, whatever the laws might be, he would follow the dictates of his conscience. On release, Berkman and Emma Goldman were deported, and at the end of December 1919, arrived in Russia. They were welcomed as heroes. But all was not well in “Soviet” Russia.

In March 1917, revolution broke out in Russia. It was a popular revolt in which soldiers ordered out against the workers and peasants sided with them. There were mutinies at the Front, and hundreds of thousands deserted the army and made their way homewards. Throughout the summer, workers took control of their factories and the peasants expropriated the landowners. The liberal-labour government, first of Prince Lvov and then of Alexander Kerensky, attempted to continue the war. By October (November), the government had become completely discredited. Furthermore, the Bolsheviks, or Communists as they called themselves after 1918, had got control of a number of key Soviets, and in particular the Petrograd Soviet. On October 25 (November 7 by the new calendar), the Bolshevik-controlled Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet staged a coup d’état in the capital. This was followed by coups in Moscow and elsewhere. The Bolsheviks established a Council of People’s Commissars. They had become the government! The anarchists had supported, and where at liberty had taken part in. the first revolution. They had also advocated and taken part in the expropriation of the landowners and in the factory occupations. Members of the Moscow Anarchist Federation had also participated in the October insurrection in that city: but the anarchists did not support the Bolsheviks when they formed a government. Relations between the anarchists and the Bolsheviks soon became strained. Within months, anarchists and social revolutionaries were being arrested and sometimes shot by the Cheka the Communist “secret” police. Following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and the subsequent intervention by the imperialist powers, some anarchists gave conditional support to the regime, and some even joined the Red Army. But relations between the Bolsheviks on the one hand and the anarchists and social revolutionaries on the other went from bad to worse. In the Ukraine, Nestor Makhno and his partisan army were engaged in battle first with the Austro-Germans, then the White armies of Denikin and, after a very shaky agreement with the Red Army, with the Bolsheviks, themselves. Production, both in industry and agriculture, was almost at a standstill, and millions were dying of starvation. This was the situation that Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman found when they arrived. Though an opponent of government and the state, Berkman — mainly owing to his lack of knowledge of the situation — was rather more sympathetic towards the Bolsheviks than those anarchists who had been in the revolution and in Russia during the first two years of Communist rule. He was, of course, opposed to the interventionists and the Whites. At first, he and Emma Goldman tried to work with the Bolsheviks. They soon found this was impossible.

Bolshevik harassment of the anarchists had been mounting ever since the Cheka launched its first raids against the Moscow Federation in April 1918. By the summer of 1920, thousands of anarchists, Mensheviks and social revolutionaries were in prison, concentration camps or exile in Siberia. And during the summer, both Emma Goldman and Berkman vehemently protested at the harassment of their comrades to the Second Congress of the Communist International, then meeting in Moscow. Lenin attempted to reassure them by asserting that no anarchists would be persecuted for their beliefs, and that only “bandits’ and Makhno’s anarchist insurrectionists were being suppressed. But the final crunch came early in 1921. The White armies of Kolchak, Denikin and Wrangle, together with the interventionists, had all been defeated. The Bolsheviks had concluded an armistice with Poland, and the Red Army had put the Menshevik government of Georgia to flight. But throughout 1920, there had been numerous peasant rebellions. By February 1921, after the government had announced that the very meagre bread ration was to be cut by a third, strikes and spontaneous meetings broke out in Petrograd and Moscow. ‘The government attempted to break the strikes by concentrating large numbers of troops in Petrograd, and by denying the workers their rations if they did not go back to work. The situation was being watched by the sailors of the Baltic Fleet stationed at the naval base of Kronstadt. On February 24 they rebelled and demanded the reintroduction of free Soviets, freedom of speech and press to all workers, peasants, anarchists and left socialists. The Bolshevik government—and particularly Trotsky and Zinoviev—replied by bombarding the naval base and then attacking it with units of the Red Army and the Cheka. Emma Goldman, Berkman and Ferkus, the secretary of the Russian Workers’ Union of the United States, tried to mediate. The statement, which they sent to President Zinoviev, was deliberately conciliatory. They wrote —

“To keep silent now is impossible and even criminal. The events that have just occurred oblige to as anarchists to speak frankly and set forth our attitude towards the present situation.

The spirit of discontent and unrest among the workers and sailors is the result of facts that require the most serious attention. Cold and hunger have given rise to discontent; the absence of the least possibility of discussion and criticism has forced the workers and sailors to declare their grievances formally.

The White-Guardist bands would like to and could exploit this discontent for their own interests. Hiding behind the sailors, they call for the Constituent Assembly, free trading and other similar advantages. We anarchists have long exposed the fundamental error in these demands, and we declare before everyone that we will fight, arms in hand, against any counter-revolutionary attempt, together with all the friends of the Social Revolution, and even at the side of the Bolsheviks.

We are of the opinion that the conflict between the Soviet government and the workers and sailors should be liquidated, not by arms, but by means of a revolutionary, fraternal, agreement in a spirit of comradeship. For the Soviet government to have to recourse to bloodshed in the present situation will neither intimidate nor pacify the workers; on the contrary, it will only serve to increase the crisis and reinforce the work of the Allies and the counter-revolutionaries.

What is more important, the use of force by the Workers & Peasants Government against the workers and peasants will provoke a disastrous repercussion on the international revolutionary movement. It will result in incalculable injury to the Social Revolution Comrade Bolsheviks, reflect before it is too late! You are about to take a decisive step.

We submit to you the following proposal: to elect a commission of five members including anarchists. This commission will go to Kronstadt to resolve the conflict by peaceful means. In the present situation, it is the most radical solution. It will have international revolutionary importance.”

Unfortunately for Berkman, the Bolsheviks ignored his plea. Looking back in retrospect, perhaps he and Emma were being just a little too naive, and too conciliatory. Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev were all tough politicians who had no intention of losing power if they could help it. Berkman, on the other hand, was, in the words of Victor Serge, a representative of an idealistic generation that had completely vanished in Russia. Berkman, he said, manifested an inner tension that sprang from the idealism of his youth; but when his tension relaxed he became dejected. On March 7, a full-scale artillery duel was under way. “Days of anguish and cannonading,’ he wrote in his diary. “My heart is numb with despair; something has died within me. The people on the street look bowed with grief, bewildered. No one trusts himself to speak. The thunder of heavy guns rends the air,” The suppression of Kronstadt had a shattering effect on Berkman. And he wandered helplessly through the streets of Petrograd. The Russian anarchists made one last attempt to alert the world in general and the international labour movement in particular to the situation in Soviet Russia. Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman added their names to a statement by the League of Anarchist Propaganda, the Anarcho-syndicalist League (Golos Truda) and the Russian Confederation of Anarcho-syndicalists, which was sent to Lenin, the Communist Party, and the Communist International, the All-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions and other organisations, in July 1921. It was a lengthy document enumerating the persecution of anarchists by the Bolshevik government. This also had no effect.

“Grey are the passing days,” Berkman noted in his diary. “One by one the embers of hope have died out. Terror and despotism have crushed the life born in October. The slogans of the Revolution are foresworn, its ideals stilled in the blood of the people. The breath of yesterday is dooming millions to death; the shadow of today hangs like a black pall over the country. Dictatorship is trampling the masses underfoot. The Revolution is dead; its spirit cries in the wilderness . . .. I have decided to leave Russia.” Truly was Trotsky able to boast, “at last the Soviet Government, with an iron broom, has rid Russia of anarchism”. The Communists had forced Alexander Berkman out of Russia. He and Emma were saves their passports to attend the Anarchist Congress of 1921-22 in Germany.

The German government, however, refused them admission. But the Swedish authorities allowed them entry for a period of three months. Berkman then entered Germany illegally and remained there for a year or two, while he wrote his pamphlets on Russia and the Kronstadt rebellion. After that he went to France. During this period, he helped organise committees to aid anarchists and libertarian socialists imprisoned in Russia. Unlike Emma Goldman he was not allowed to return to the United States. He settled in Paris. In 1925, his The Bolshevik Myth (Diary 1920-1922) was published in New York. Berkman also became involved in a controversy with Peter Arshinov and Nester Makhno regarding anarchist organisation. Arshinov had, like Berkman, Goldman. Makhno and others gone abroad, and on reaching Berlin in 1922 had founded the Group of Russian Anarchist-Communists Abroad, which later that year moved to Paris. Arshinov largely attributed the downfall of Russian anarchism to its perpetual state of disarray, which resulted in its inability to stand up to the better-organised Communists. Its only hope for revival, he said in 1926 when he set up his “Organisational Platform”, lay in the formation of a General Union of Anarchists with a strong central committee to co-ordinate action and policy. Makhno supported him. But Alexander Berkman, together with Emma Goldman, Volin and others, opposed them. Berkman accused them of advocating an Anarchist-Communist Party. “The trouble with most of our people,” he said, “is that they will not see that Bolshevik methods cannot lead to liberty. That methods and issues are in essence and effects identical.”

It was about this time that both Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman had second thoughts about terrorism and violence. “I am in general now not in favour of terroristic tactics except in very exceptional circumstances.” he wrote to Emma in November 1928. She replied that “acts of violence except as demonstrations of a sensitive human soul have proved utterly useless … I feel that violence in whatever form never has, and probably never will, bring constructive results”. Neither she nor Berkman, however, became absolute pacifists. In ABC of Anarchism Berkman devotes a whole chapter (“Is Anarchism Violence?”) to the subject violence. He returns to it in the last chapter, “Defence of the Revolution”. In 1929, when he was working on that chapter, he wrote to Emma: “There are moments when I feel that the revolution cannot work on anarchist principles. But once the old methods are followed, they never lead to anarchism.” Berkman was now just on 60, and was already a sick man. In a fit of depression, he wrote to Pierre Ramus in August, 1935: “The old guard is passing away and there are almost none of the younger generation to take its place, or at least to do the work that must be done if the world is ever to see a better day.” At the beginning of 1936 he underwent a serious prostate operation, and in March be had a second. Both were unsuccessful. He was left with the prospect of slowly dying in great pain. On June 28, 1936, he took his revolver and shot himself. He died just three weeks before Durruti and the Spanish anarchists took up the challenge against Franco and the Fascist reaction. Had he lived a little longer he may not have been quite so despondent about the younger generation. There will always be a new generation to take the place of the old. Of Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman wrote: –

“If only he had lived a little longer, But the many years in exile, the unbelievable humiliations to which he was subjected, having to beg the right to breathe from creepy officials, the enervating and exhausting struggle for existence, and his severe illness combined to make its intolerable. Alexander hated dependence; he hated to become a burden to those he loved, and he did what he had always said he would do, he hastened his end by his own hand.”

Peter E. Newell, December, 1970