Alexander Berkman: Social Reconstruction

Alexander Berkman

Alexander Berkman

Alexander Berkman was a dedicated anarchist revolutionary who well appreciated the difficulties people would face during revolutionary upheavals. Deported from the United States to Russia in 1919, he witnessed firsthand how the dictatorial methods of the Bolsheviks were strangling the revolution and creating economic misery. In this excerpt from his book, Now and After: The ABC of Anarchist Communism, other portions of which are included in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Berkman emphasizes the importance of immediately implementing workers’ self-management in order to ensure that people have enough to satisfy not only their basic needs, but also their wants and desires.

From the General Strike to the Social Revolution

From the General Strike to the Social Revolution

Making the Revolution

The first effect of the revolution is reduced production. The general strike, which I have forecast as the starting point of the social revolution, itself constitutes a suspension of industry. The workers lay down their tools, demonstrate in the streets, and thus temporarily stop production.

But life goes on. The essential needs of the people must be satisfied. In that stage the revolution lives on the supplies already on hand. But to exhaust those supplies would be disastrous. The situation rests in the hands of labour: the immediate resumption of industry is imperative. The organized agricultural and industrial proletariat takes possession of the land, factories, shops, mines and mills. Most energetic application is now the order of the day.

It should be clearly understood that the social revolution necessitates more intensive production than under capitalism in order to supply the needs of the large masses who till then had lived in penury. This greater production can be achieved only by the workers having previously prepared themselves for the new situation. Familiarity with the processes of industry, knowledge of the sources of supply, and determination to succeed will accomplish the task. The enthusiasm generated by the revolution, the energies liberated, and the inventiveness stimulated by it must be given full freedom and scope to find creative channels. Revolution always wakens a high degree of responsibility. Together with the new atmosphere of liberty and brotherhood it creates the realization that hard work and severe self-discipline are necessary to bring production up to the requirements of consumption.

On the other hand, the new situation will greatly simplify the present very complex problems of industry. For you must consider that capitalism, because of its competitive character and contradictory financial and commercial interest, involves many intricate and perplexing issues which would be entirely eliminated by the abolition of the conditions of today. Questions of wage scales and selling prices; the requirements of the existing markets and the hunt for new ones; the scarcity of capital for large operations and the heavy interest to be paid on it; new investments, the effect of speculation and monopoly, and a score of related problems which worry the capitalist and make industry such a difficult and cumbersome network today would all disappear. At present these require divers departments of study and highly trained men to keep unravelling the tangled skein of plutocratic cross purposes, many specialists to calculate the actualities and possibilities of profit and loss, and a large force of aids to help steer the industrial ship between the perilous rocks which beset the chaotic course of capitalist competition, national and international.

All this would be automatically done away with by the socialization of industry and the termination of the competitive system; and thereby the problems of production will be immensely lightened. The knotted complexity of capitalist industry need therefore inspire no undue fear for the future. Those who talk of labour not being equal to manage “modern” industry fail to take into account the factors referred to above. The industrial labyrinth will turn out to be far less formidable on the day of the social reconstruction.

In passing it may be mentioned that all the other phases of life would also be very much simplified as a result of the indicated changes: various present-day habits, customs, compulsory and unwholesome modes of living will naturally fall into disuse.

Furthermore it must be considered that the task of increased production would be enormously facilitated by the addition to the ranks of labour of vast numbers whom the altered economic conditions will liberate for work.

Useless work

Recent statistics show that in 1920 there were in the United States over 41 million persons of both sexes engaged in gainful occupations out of a total population of over 105 million. Out of those 41 million only 26 million were actually employed in the industries, including transportation and agriculture, the balance of 15 million consisting mostly of persons engaged in trade, of commercial travellers, advertisers, and various other middlemen of the present system. In other words, 15 million persons would be released for useful work by a revolution in the United States. A similar situation, proportionate to population, would develop in other countries

The greater production necessitated by the social revolution would therefore have an additional army of many million persons at its disposal. The systematic incorporation of those millions into industry and agriculture, aided by modern scientific methods of organization and production, will go a long way toward helping to solve the problems of supply.

Capitalist production is for profit; more labour is used today to sell things than to produce them. The social revolution re-organizes the industries on the basis of the needs of the populace. Essential needs come first, naturally. Food, clothing, shelter—these are the primal requirements of man. The first step in this direction is the ascertaining of the available supply of provisions and other commodities. The labour associations in every city and community take this work in hand for the purpose of equitable distribution. Workers’ committees in every street and district assume charge, co-operating with similar committees in the city and state, and federating their efforts throughout the country by means of general councils of producers and consumers.

Great events and upheavals bring to the fore the most active and energetic elements. The social revolution will crystalise the class- conscious labour ranks. By whatever name they will be known—as industrial unions, revolutionary syndicalist bodies, co-operative associations, leagues of producers and consumers—they will represent the most enlightened and advanced part of labour, the organized workers aware of their aims and how to attain them. It is they who will be the moving spirit of the revolution.


With the aid of industrial machinery and by scientific cultivation of the land freed from monopoly, the revolution must first of all supply the elemental wants of society. In farming and gardening intensive cultivation and modern methods have made us practically independent of natural soil quality and climate. To a very considerable extent man now makes his own soil and his own climate, thanks to the achievements of chemistry. Exotic fruits can be raised in the north to be supplied to the warm south, as is being done in France. Science is the wizard who enables man to master all difficulties and overcome all obstacles. The future, liberated from the incubus of the profit system and enriched by the work of the millions of non-producers of today, holds the greatest welfare for society. That future must be the objective point of the social revolution; its motto: bread and well-being for all. First bread, then well-being and luxury. Even luxury, for luxury is a deep-felt need of man, a need of his physical as of his spiritual being.

Intense application to this purpose must be the continuous effort of the revolution: not something to be postponed for a distant day but of immediate practice. The revolution must strive to enable every community to sustain itself, to become materially independent. No country should have to rely on outside help to exploit colonies for its support. That is the way of capitalism. The aim of anarchism, on the contrary, is material independence, not only for the individual, but for every community.

This means gradual decentralization instead of centralization.

Even under capitalism we see the decentralization tendency manifest itself in spite of the essentially centralistic character of the present day industrial system. Countries which were before entirely dependent on foreign manufactures, as Germany in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, later Italy and Japan, and now Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc., are gradually emancipating themselves industrially, working their own natural resources, building their own factories and mills, and attaining economic independence from other lands. International finance does not welcome this development and tries its utmost to retard its progress, because it is more profitable for the Morgans and Rockefellers to keep such countries as Mexico, China, India, Ireland, or Egypt industrially backward, in order to exploit their natural resources, and at the same time be assured of foreign markets for “over-production” at home. The governments of the great financiers and lords of industry help them to secure those foreign natural resources and markets, even at the point of the bayonet. Thus Great Britain by force of arms compels China to permit English opium to poison the Chinese, at a good profit, and exploits every means to dispose in that country of the greater part of its textile products. For the same reason Egypt, India, Ireland, and other dependencies and colonies are not permitted to develop their home industries.

In short, capitalism seeks centralization. But a free country needs decentralization, independence not only political but also industrial and economic.

Berkman quote

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Were more people engaged in non-productive work in 1920s? i wonder if that’s true. He cites a study but doesn’t identify it. Certainly capitalism keeps large numbers out of the workforce, but a majority?

  2. [...] Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas: Alexander Berkman: Social Reconstruction we can [...]

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