Alexander Berkman: The Idea is the Thing

Here is a thoughtful piece on social change by Alexander Berkman. A version of this essay formed part of Berkman’s classic introduction to anarchism, Now and After: The ABC of Anarchist Communism. Informed by a lifetime of struggle and involvement in the international anarchist movement, and having witnessed the triumph of the Marxist dictatorship in Russia and the rise of fascism in Italy, Berkman was well situated to comment on the problem of achieving far-reaching social transformation in the face of reaction. I included material by Berkman on the Russian Revolution and other excerpts from Now and After in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

The Idea is the Thing

Did you ever ask yourself how it happens that government and capitalism continue to exist in spite of all the evil and trouble they are causing in the world?

If you did, then your answer must have been that it is because the people support those institutions, and that they support them because they believe in them.

That is the crux of the whole matter: present-day society rests on the belief of the people that it is good and useful. It is founded on the idea of authority and private ownership. It is ideas that maintain conditions. Government and capitalism are the forms in which the popular ideas express themselves. Ideas are the foundation; the institutions are the house built upon it.

A new social structure must have a new foundation, new ideas at its base. However you may change the form of an institution, its character and meaning will remain the same as the foundation on which it is built. Look closely at life and you will perceive the truth of this. There are all kinds and forms of government in the world, but their real nature is the same everywhere, as their effects are the same: it always means authority and obedience.

Now, what makes governments exist? The armies and navies? Yes, but only apparently so. What supports the armies and navies? It is the belief of the people, of the masses, that government is necessary; it is the generally accepted idea of the need of government. That is its real and solid foundation. Take the idea or belief away, and no government could last another day.

The same applies to private ownership. The idea that it is right and necessary is the pillar that supports it and gives it security.

Not a single institution exists to-day but is founded on the popular belief that it is good and beneficial.

Let us take an illustrations; the United States, for instance. Ask yourself why revolutionary propaganda has been of so little effect in that country in spite of fifty years of Socialist, I.W.W. and Anarchist effort. Is the American worker not exploited more intensely than labor in other countries? Is political corruption as rampant in any other land? Is the capitalist class in America not the most arbitrary and despotic in the world? True, the worker in the United States is better situated materially than in Europe, but is he not at the same time treated with the utmost brutality and terrorism the moment he shows the least dissatisfaction? Yet the American worker remains loyal to the government and is the first to defend it against criticism. He is still the most devoted champion of the “grand and noble institutions of the greatest country on earth”. Why? Because he believes that they are his institutions, that he, as sovereign and free citizen, is running them and that he could change them if he so wished. It is his faith in the existing order that constitutes its greatest security against revolution. His faith is stupid and unjustified, and some day it will break down and with it American capitalism and despotism. But as long as that faith persists, American plutocracy is safe against revolution.

As men’s minds broaden and develop, as they advance to new ideas and lose faith in their former beliefs, institutions begin to change and are ultimately done away with. The people grow to understand that their former views were false, that they were not truth but prejudice and superstition.

In this way many ideas, once held to be true, have come to be regarded as wrong and evil. Thus the ideas of the divine right of kings, of slavery and serfdom. There was a time when the whole world believed those institutions to be right, just, and unchangeable. In the measure that those superstitions and false beliefs were fought by advanced thinkers, they became discredited and lost their hold upon the people, and finally the institutions that incorporated those ideas were abolished. Highbrows will tell you that they had “outlived their usefulness” and that therefore they “died”. But how did they “outlive” their “usefulness?” To whom were they useful, and how did they “die”?

We know already that they were useful only to the master class, and that they were done away with by popular uprisings and revolutions.
Why did not old and effete institutions “disappear” and die off in a peaceful manner?

For two reasons: first, because some people think faster than others. So that it happens that a minority in a given place advance in their views quicker than the rest. The more that minority will become imbued with the new ideas, the more convinced of their truth, and the stronger they will feel themselves, the sooner they will try to realize their ideas; and that is usually before the majority have come to see the new light. So that the minority have to struggle against the majority who still cling to the old views and conditions.

Second, the resistance of those who hold power. It makes no difference whether it is the church, the king, or kaiser, a democratic government or a dictatorship, a republic or an autocracy — those in authority will fight desperately to retain it as long as they can hope for the least chance of success. And the more aid they get from the slower-thinking majority the better the fight they can put up. Hence the fury of revolt and revolution.

The desperation of the masses, their hatred of those responsible for their misery, and the determination of the lords of life to hold on to their privileges and rule combine to produce the violence of popular uprisings and rebellions.
But blind rebellion without definite object and purpose is not revolution. Revolution is rebellion become conscious of its aims. Revolution is social when it strives for a fundamental change. As the foundation of life is economics, the social revolution means the reorganization of the industrial, economic life of the country and consequently also of the entire structure of society.

But we have seen that the social structure rests on the basis of ideas, which implies that changing the structure presupposes changed ideas. In other words, social ideas must change first before a new social structure can be built.

The social revolution, therefore, is not an accident, not a sudden happening. There is nothing sudden about it, for ideas don’t change suddenly. They grow slowly, gradually, like the plant or flower. Hence the social revolution is a result, a development, which means that it is evolutionary. It develops to the point when considerable numbers of people have embraced the new ideas and are determined to put them into practice. When they attempt to do so and meet with opposition, then the slow, quiet, and peaceful social evolution becomes quick, militant, and violent. Evolution becomes revolution.

Bear in mind, then, that evolution and revolution are not two separate and different things. Still less are they opposites, as some people wrongly believe. Revolution is merely the boiling point of evolution.

Because revolution is evolution at its boiling point you cannot “make” a real revolution any more than you can hasten the boiling of a tea kettle. It is the fire underneath that makes it boil: how quickly it will come to the boiling point will depend on how strong the fire is.

The economic and political conditions of a country are the fire under the evolutionary pot. The worse the oppression, the greater the dissatisfaction of the people, the stronger the flame. This explains why the fires of social revolution swept Russia, the most tyrannous and backward country, instead of America where industrial development has almost reached its highest point — and that in spite of all the learned demonstrations of Karl Marx to the contrary.

We see, then, that revolutions, though they cannot be made, can be hastened by certain factors; namely, pressure from above: by more intense political and economical oppression; and by pressure from below: by greater enlightenment and agitation. These spread the ideas; they further evolution and thereby also the coming of revolution.
But pressure from above, though hastening revolution, may also cause its failure, because such revolution is apt to break out before the evolutionary process has been sufficiently advanced. Coming prematurely, as it were, it will fizzle out in mere rebellion; that is, without clear, conscious aim and purpose. At best, rebellion can secure only some temporary alleviation; the real causes of the strife, however, remain intact and continue to operate to the same effect, to cause further dissatisfaction and rebellion.

Summing up what I have said about revolution, we must come to the conclusion that:

1) a social revolution is one that entirely changes the foundation of society, its political, economic, and social character;

2) such a change must first take place in the ideas and opinions of the people, in the minds of men;

3) oppression and misery may hasten revolution, but may thereby also turn it into failure, because lack of evolutionary preparation will make real accomplishment impossible;

4) only that revolution can be fundamental, social and successful, which will be the expression of a basic change of ideas and opinions.

From this it obviously follows that the social revolution must be prepared. Prepared in the sense of furthering the evolutionary process, of enlightening the people about the evils of present-day society and convincing them of the desirability and possibility, of the justice and practicability of a social life based on liberty; prepared, moreover, by making the masses realize very clearly just what they need and how to bring it about.

Such preparation is not only an absolutely necessary preliminary step. Therein lies also the safety of the revolution, the only guarantee of its accomplishing its objects.

It has been the fate of most revolutions — as a result of lack of preparation — to be sidetracked from their main purpose, to be misused and led into blind alleys. Russia is the best recent illustration of it. The February Revolution, which sought to do away with the autocracy, was entirely successful. The people knew exactly what they wanted; namely the abolition of Tsardom. All the machinations of politicians, all the oratory and schemes of the Lvovs and Milukovs — the “liberal” leaders of those days — could not save the Romanov Régime in the face of the intelligent and conscious will of the people. It was this clear understanding of its aims which made the February Revolution a complete success, with, mind you, almost no bloodshed.

Furthermore, neither appeals nor threats by the Provisional Government could avail against the determination of the people to end the war. The armies left the fronts and thus terminated the matter by their own direct action. The will of a people conscious of their objects always conquers.

It was the will of the people again, their resolute aim to get hold of the soil, which secured for the peasant the land he needed. Similarly the city workers, as repeatedly mentioned before, possessed themselves of the factories and of the machinery of production.

So far the Russian Revolution was a complete success. But at the point where the masses lacked the consciousness of definite purpose, defeat began. That is always the moment when politicians and political parties step in to exploit the revolution for their own uses or to experiment their theories upon it. This happened in Russia, as in many previous revolutions. The people fought the good fight — the political parties fought over the spoils to the detriment of the revolution and to the ruin of the people.

This is, then, what took place in Russia. The peasant, having secured the land, did not have the tools and machinery he needed. The worker, having taken possession of the machinery and factories, did not know how to handle them to accomplish his aims. In other words, he did not have the experience necessary to organize production and he could not manage the distribution of the things he was producing.

His own efforts — the worker’s, the peasant’s the soldier’s — had done away with Tsardom, paralyzed the Government, stopped the war, and abolished private ownership of land and machinery. For that he was prepared by years of revolutionary education and agitation. But for no more than that. And because he was prepared for no more, where his knowledge ceased and definite purpose was lacking, there stepped in the political party and took affairs out of the hands of the masses who had made the revolution. Politics replaced economic reconstruction and thereby sounded the death knell of the social revolution; for people live by bread, by economics, not by politics.

Food and supplies are not created by decree of party or government. Legislative edicts don’t till the soil; laws can’t turn the wheels of industry. Dissatisfaction, strife, and famine came upon the heels of government coercion and dictatorship. Again, as always, politics and authority proved the swamp in which the revolutionary fires became extinguished.

Let us learn this most vital lesson: thorough understanding by the masses of the true aims of revolution means success. Carrying out their conscious will by their own efforts guarantees the right development of the new life. On the other hand, lack of this understanding and of preparation means certain defeat, either at the hands of reaction or by the experimental theories of would-be political party friends. Let us prepare, then.

Alexander Berkman, 1927

Cover from Berkman’s paper, The Blast


The October Revolution and the Communist Party

Soviet poster

Soviet poster

It’s that time of year again – no, not Halloween, the World Series, or the return to “Standard Time” (in a regimented world, all time is “standard” time). It’s the anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, which ultimately led to the creation of a brutal dictatorship cloaked in the ideological mantle of Marxism (“our friends, the enemy,” as the anarchist historian Max Nettlau used to say). For some reason, my posts regarding the 1917 Russian Revolution generate some of the most traffic. I have posted some of Alexander Berkman’s writings on the Russian Revolution before, and also included his critique of the “Bolshevik Myth” in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Here is a piece by Berkman, written around 1922, on the counter-revolutionary role of the Communist Party (formerly, the Bolshevik party).


The Russian Revolution and the Communist Party

The October Revolution was not the legitimate offspring of traditional Marxism. Russia but little resembled a country in which, according to Marx, “the concentration of the means of production and the socialisation of the tools of labor reached the point where they can no longer be contained within their capitalistic shell. The shell bursts…”

In Russia, “the shell” burst unexpectedly. It burst at a stage of low technical and industrial development, when centralisation of the means of production had made little progress. Russia was a country with a badly organised system of transportation, with a weak bourgeoisie and weak proletariat, but with a numerically strong and socially important peasant population. In short, it was a country in which, apparently, there could be no talk of irreconcilable antagonism between the grown industrial labor forces and a fully ripened capitalist system.

But the combination of circumstances in 1917 involved, particularly for Russia, an exceptional state of affairs which. resulted in the catastrophic breakdown of her whole industrial system. “It was easy for Russia”, Lenin justly wrote at the time, “to begin the socialist revolution in the peculiarly unique situation of 1917.”

The specially favorable conditions for the beginning of the socialist revolution were:

  1. the possibility of blending the slogans of the Social Revolution with the popular demand for the termination of the imperialistic world war, which had produced great exhaustion and dissatisfaction among the masses;

  2. the possibility of remaining, at least for a certain period after quitting the war, outside the sphere of influence of the capitalistic European groups that continued the world war;

  3. the opportunity to begin, even during the short time of this respite, the work of internal organisation and to prepare the foundation for revolutionary reconstruction;

  4. the exceptionally favorable position of Russia, in case of possible new aggression on the part of West European imperialism, due to her vast territory and insufficient means of communication;

  5. the advantages of such a condition in the event of civil war; and

  6. the possibility of almost immediately satisfying the fundamental demands of the revolutionary peasantry, notwithstanding the fact that the essentially democratic viewpoint of the agricultural population was entirely different from the socialist program of the “party of the proletariat” which seized the reins of government.

Moreover, revolutionary Russia already had the benefit of a great experience — the experience of 1905, when the Tsarist autocracy succeeded in crushing the revolution for the very reason that the latter strove to be exclusively political and therefore could neither arouse the peasants nor inspire even a considerable part of the proletariat .

The world war, by exposing the complete bankruptcy of constitutional government, served to prepare and quicken the greatest movement of the people — a movement which, by virtue of its very essence, could develop only into a social revolution.

Anticipating the measures of the revolutionary government, often even in defiance of the latter, the revolutionary masses by their own initiative began, long before the October days, to put in practice their Social ideals. They took possession of the land, the factories, mines, mills, and the tools of production. They got rid of the more hated and dangerous representatives of government and authority. In their grand revolutionary outburst they destroyed every form of political and economic oppression. In the deeps of Russia the Social Revolution was raging, when the October change took place in the capitals of Petrograd and Moscow.

The Communist Party, which was aiming at the dictatorship, from the very beginning correctly judged the situation. Throwing overboard the democratic planks of its platform, it energetically proclaimed the slogans of the Social Revolution, in order to gain control of the movement of the masses. In the course of the development of the Revolution, the Bolsheviki gave concrete form to certain fundamental principles and methods of Anarchist Communism, as for instance: the negation of parliamentarism, expropriation of the bourgeoisie, tactics of direct action, seizure of the means of production, establishment of the system of Workers’ and Peasants’ Councils (Soviets), and so forth.

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, etc. This, as we shall see later, base demagoguery proved of tremendous psychological effect in hastening and intensifying the revolutionary process.

But if it was easy, as Lenin said, to begin the Revolution, its further development and strengthening were to take place amid difficult surroundings.

The external position of Russia, as characterised by Lenin about the middle of 1918, continued to be “unusually complicated and dangerous”, and “tempting for the neighboring imperialist States by its temporary weakness”’ The Socialist Soviet Republic was in an “extraordinarily unstable, very critical international position”.

And, indeed, the whole subsequent external history of Russia is full of difficulties in consequence of the necessity of fighting ceaselessly, often on several fronts at once, against the agents of world imperialism, and even against common adventurers. Only after the final defeat of the Wrangel forces was at last put an end to direct armed interference in the affairs of Russia.

No less difficult and complex, even chaotic, was the internal situation of the country.

Complete breakdown of the whole industrial fabric; failure of the national economy; disorganisation of the transportation system, hunger, unemployment; relative lack of organisation among the workers; unusually complex and contradictory conditions of peasant life; the psychology of the “petty proprietor”, inimical to the new Soviet regime; sabotage of Soviet work by the technical intelligentsia; the great lack in the Party of trained workers familiar with local conditions, and the practical inefficiency of the Party heads; finally, according to the frank admission of the acknowledged leader of the Bolsheviki, “the greatest hatred, by the masses, and distrust of everything governmental” — that was the situation in which the first and most difficult steps of the Revolution had to be made.

It must also be mentioned that there were still other specific problems with which the revolutionary government. had to deal. Namely, the deep-seated contradictions and even antagonisms between the interests and aspirations of the various social groups of the country. The most important of these were:

  1. the most advanced, and in industrial centers the most influential, group of factory proletarians. Notwithstanding their relative cultural and technical backwardness, these elements favored the application of true communist methods;

  2. the numerically powerful peasant population, whose economic attitude was decisive, particularly at a time of industrial prostration and blockade. This class looked with distrust and even hatred upon all attempts of the Communist government to play the guardian and control their economic activities;

  3. the very large and psychologically influential group (in the sense of forming public opinion, even if of a panicky character) of the common citizenry: the residue of the upper bourgeoisie, technical specialists, small dealers, petty bosses, commercial agents of every kind — a numerous group, in which were also to be found functionaries of the old regime who adapted themselves and were serving the Soviet government, now and then sabotaging; elements tempted by the opportunities of the new order of things and seeking to make a career; and, finally, persons torn out of their habitual modes of life and literally starving. This class was approximately estimated at 70% of the employees of Soviet institutions.

Naturally, each of these groups looked upon the Revolution with their own eyes, judged its further possibilities from their own point of view, and in their own peculiar manner reacted on the measures of the revolutionary government.

All these antagonisms rending the country and, frequently clashing in bloody strife, inevitably tended to nourish counter-revolution — not mere conspiracy or rebellion, but the terrific convulsion of a country experiencing two world cataclysms at once: war and social revolution.

Thus the political party that assumed the role of dictator was faced by problems of unprecedented difficulty. The Communist Party did not shrink from their solution, and in that is its immortal historic merit.

Notwithstanding the many deep antagonisms, in spite of the apparent absence of the conditions necessary for a social revolution, it was too late to discuss about driving back the uninvited guest, and await a new, more favorable opportunity. Only blind, dogmatic or positively reactionary elements could imagine that the Revolution could have been “made differently”. The Revolution was not and could not be a mechanical product of the abstract human will. It was an organic process burst with elemental force from the very needs of the people, from the complex combination of circumstances that determined their existence.

To return to tile old political and economical regime, that of industrial feudalism, was out of the question. It was impossible, and first of all because it were the denial of the greatest conquest of the Revolution: the right of every worker to a decent human life. It was also impossible because of the fundamental principles of the new national economy: the old regime was inherently inimical to the developement of free social relationship — it had no room for labor initiative.

It was apparent that the only right and wholesome solution — which could save the Revolution from its external enemies, free it from the inner strife which rent the country, broaden and deepen the Revolution itself — lay in the direct, creative initiative of the toiling masses. Only they who had for centuries borne the heaviest burdens could through conscious systematic effort find the road to a new, regenerated society. And that was to be the fitting culmination of their unexampled revolutionary zeal.

Lenin himself, replying in one of his works to the question, “How is the discipline of the revolutionary party of the proletariat to be maintained, how to be strengthened?” clearly and definitely replied: “By knowing how to meet, to combine, to some extent even to merge, if you will, with the broad masses of the toilers, mainly with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian laboring masses”.

However, this thought was and still remains, on the whole, in irreconcilable conflict, with the spirit of Marxism in its official Bolshevik interpretation, and particularly with Lenin’s authoritative view of it.

For years trained in their peculiar “underground” social philosophy, in which fervent faith in the Social Revolution was in some odd manner blended with their no less fanatical faith in State centralisation, the Bolsheviki devised an entirely new science of tactics. It is to the effect that the preparation and consummation of the Social Revolution necessitates the organisation of a special conspirative staff, consisting exclusively of the theoreticians of the movement, vested with dictatorial powers for the purpose of clarifying and perfecting beforehand, by their own conspirative means, the class-consciousness of the proletariat.

Thus the fundamental characteristic of Bolshevik psychology was distrust of the masses, of the proletariat. Left to themselves, the masses — according to Bolshevik conviction — could rise only to the consciousness of the petty reformer.

The road that leads to the direct creativeness of the masses was thus forsaken.

According to Bolshevik conception, the masses are “dark”, mentally crippled by ages of slavery. They are multi-colored: besides the revolutionary advance-guard they comprise great numbers of the indifferent and many self-seekers. The masses, according to the old but still correct maxim of Rousseau, must be made free by force. To educate them to liberty one must not hesitate to use compulsion and violence.

“Proletarian compulsion in all its forms”, writes Bukharin, one of the foremost Communist theoreticians, “beginning with summary execution and ending with compulsory labor is, however paradoxical it may sound, a method of reworking the human material of the capitalistic epoch into Communist humanity”.

This cynical doctrinairism, this fanatical quasi-philosophy flavored with Communist pedagogic sauce and aided by the pressure of “canonized officials” (expression of the prominent Communist and labor leader Shliapnikov) represent the actual methods of the Party dictatorship, which retains the trade mark of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” merely for gala affairs at home and for advertisement abroad. Already in the first days of the Revolution, early in 1918, when Lenin first announced to the world his socio-economic program in its minutest details, the roles of the people and of the Party in the revolutionary reconstruction were strictly separated and definitely assigned. On the one hand, an absolutely submissive socialist herd, a dumb people; on the other, the omniscient, all-controlling Political Party. What is inscrutable to all, is an open book to It. In the land there may be only one indisputable source of truth — the State. But the Communist State is, in essence and practice, the dictatorship of the Party only, or — more correctly — the dictatorship of its Central Committee. Each and every citizen must be, first and foremost, the servant of the State, its obedient functionary, unquestioningly executing the will of his master — if not as a matter of conscience, then out of fear. All free initiative, of the individual as well as of the collectivity, is eliminated from the vision of the State. The people’s Soviets are transformed into sections of the Ruling Party; the Soviet institutions become soulless offices, mere transmitters of the will of the center to the periphery. All expressions of State activity must be stamped with the approving seal of Communism as interpreted by the faction in power. Everything else is considered superfluous, useless and dangerous.

This system of barrack absolutism, supported by bullet and bayonet, has subjugated every phase of life, stopping neither before the destruction of the best cultural values, nor before the most stupendous squandering of human life and energy.

Alexander Berkman


The Transvaluation of Values and Communitarian Anarchism


After a short hiatus, here is the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” my overview of the origins and development of anarchist ideas, from ancient China to the present day, which forms the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. In this section, I discuss Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman’s critiques of the Russian Revolution, and connect their ethical anarchism to the communitarian anarchism of people like Gustav Landauer, and later anarchist writers, such as Paul Goodman and Murray Bookchin, who sought to create a “community of communities,” based on freedom and equality. Emma Goldman derived the concept of the “transvaluation of values” from the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.


The Transvaluation of Values

When Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman arrived in Russia in 1919, they were sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, whom they regarded as sincere revolutionaries. They began to take a more critical stance after making contact with those anarchists who still remained at liberty. Eventually they realized that the Bolsheviks were establishing their own dictatorship under the guise of fighting counter-revolution. Berkman noted how the “civil war really helped the Bolsheviki. It served to keep alive popular enthusiasm and nurtured the hope that, with the end of war, the ruling Party will make effective the new revolutionary principles and secure the people in the enjoyment of the fruits of the Revolution.” Instead, the end of the Civil War led to the consolidation of a despotic Party dictatorship characterized by the “exploitation of labour, the enslavement of the worker and peasant, the cancellation of the citizen as a human being… and his transformation into a microscopic part of the universal economic mechanism owned by the government; the creation of privileged groups favoured by the State; [and] the system of compulsory labour service and its punitive organs” (Volume One, Selection 88).

“To forget ethical values,” wrote Berkman, “to introduce practices and methods inconsistent with or opposed to the high moral purposes of the revolution means to invite counter-revolution and disaster… Where the masses are conscious that the revolution and all its activities are in their own hands, that they themselves are managing things and are free to change their methods when they consider it necessary, counter-revolution can find no support and is harmless… the cure for evil and disorder is more liberty, not suppression” (Volume One, Selection 117).

Emma Goldman drew similar lessons from the Russian Revolution, arguing that “to divest one’s methods of ethical concepts means to sink into the depths of utter demoralization… No revolution can ever succeed as a factor of liberation unless the MEANS used to further it be identical in spirit and tendency with the PURPOSES to be achieved.” For Goldman, the essence of revolution cannot be “a violent change of social conditions through which one social class, the working class, becomes dominant over another class,” as in the Marxist conception. For the social revolution to succeed, there must be “a fundamental transvaluation of values… ushering in a transformation of the basic relations of man to man, and of man to society,” establishing “the sanctity of human life, the dignity of man, the right of every human being to liberty and well-being” (Volume One, Selection 89).

Nietzsche on the State

Nietzsche on the State

In conceiving the social revolution as “the mental and spiritual regenerator” of human values and relationships, Goldman was adopting a position close to that of Gustav Landauer, the anarchist socialist martyred during the short-lived Bavarian Revolution in 1919. Before the war, he criticized those revolutionaries who regard the state as a physical “thing—akin to a fetish—that one can smash in order to destroy.” Rather, the “state is a relationship between human beings, a way by which people relate to one another… one destroys it by entering into other relationships, by behaving differently to one another.” If the state is a kind of social relationship, then “we are the state” and remain so “as long as we are not otherwise, as long as we have not created the institutions that constitute a genuine community and society of human beings” (Volume One, Selection 49).

This positive conception of social revolution as the creation of egalitarian communities was later expanded upon by Landauer’s friend, the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber (1878-1965). Consciously seeking to build upon Landauer’s legacy, Buber called for the creation of “a community of communities,” a federation of village communes “where communal living is based on the amalgamation of production and consumption, production being understood… as the organic union of agriculture with industry and the handicrafts as well” (Volume Two, Selection 16). Such a vision drew upon both Landauer and Kropotkin, particularly the latter’s Fields, Factories and Workshops (Volume One, Selection 34). This vision was shared by some of the early pioneers of the kibbutz movement in Palestine (Horrox, 2009), and by Gandhi and his followers in India (Volume Two, Selection 32). It received renewed impetus after the Second World War, with the development of communitarian and ecological conceptions of anarchism by people like Paul Goodman (Volume Two, Selections 17 & 70) and Murray Bookchin (Volume Two, Selections 48 & 74).

Robert Graham

goldman on freedom and equality

War, Remembrance and Propaganda


November 11 is a date commemorated by many people for many different reasons. In England and many of its former colonies, including Canada, November 11 is a national holiday to “honour” the countless soldiers who have died in the “service” of their countries. November 11 was chosen because that is the date in 1918 that the Armistice was signed in Europe putting an end to the First World War, an unnecessary mass slaughter of millions of people, civilians and soldiers. In the United States, November 11 is “Veterans’ Day.”  With the October Revolution in Russia the previous fall taking Russia out of the conflict and instilling fears in the other European ruling classes that their turn would be next, with mutinies and revolts spreading in Germany, the powers that be decided it was time to put an end to the conflict, lest they be consumed by it like the millions of their lowly subjects and now the Czar of Russia.

The October Revolution in Russia

The October Revolution in Russia

For anarchists, November 11 is the anniversary of the judicial murder of the Haymarket Martyrs, five anarchist revolutionaries condemned for their radical ideas and actions, for having had the audacity and the impertinence to challenge the violent rule of the state and its minions, the police, the army and the courts, and to call for the workers to fight back and reclaim their freedom and dignity.

The Haymarket Martyrs

The Haymarket Martyrs

In Canada, England and New Zealand, red plastic poppies are distributed by veterans’ groups every November to raise money and to commemorate the soldiers who died fighting other soldiers in other people’s wars. To counter these state-sponsored attempts to maintain patriotic loyalty by venerating those forced to commit violence against others, various groups have for decades distributed white poppies as symbols of peace.


The Conservative government in Canada is now waging a propaganda campaign against the white poppy, denouncing anyone for wearing one for trying to “politicize” Remembrance Day, as if Remembrance Day is anything but political. The architect of this campaign is Julian Fantino, the Minister of Veterans Affairs and the former head of the Toronto police and the Ontario Provincial Police. When head of the OPP, Fantino took an aggressive approach to protests by First Nations people, and was responsible for overseeing security at the G8 summit in Huntsville, Ontario in 2010. The Conservative government is big on “law and order,” bringing in more mandatory prison sentences, outlawing the wearing of masks at public demonstrations, and continuing the unsuccessful “war” against drugs. As with other right wing parties, the Conservatives are also waging a war against organized labour, banning strikes in various industries, imposing onerous reporting requirements to which corporations are not subject, and threatening to bring in “right to work” legislation.


In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a short piece by the Russian novelist, pacifist and anti-authoritarian, Leo Tolstoy, against war and militarism, “Compulsory Military Service” (Selection 75), taken from his book, The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894). Here I present an alternate translation of part of that selection, published by Alexander Berkman in his paper, The Blast, in May 1916, during the ultimately successful “Preparedness” propaganda campaign to involve the United States in the war in Europe.


Leo Tolstoy: The Workers and Patriotism

To keep the majority of men in submission, the minority in power employs the military caste.

Every government needs the army, first of all to keep its own subjects in submission, and secondly, to safeguard the exploitation of their labour. But there is not only one government, there are many of them which all rule by violence and are ever ready to filch their neighbour’s wealth created by subjects already reduced to slavery. That is why every government needs an army not only to keep in power at home, but also to defend its booty against greedy neighbours. The States are forced to compete in increasing their arms. The example set is contagious, as Montesquieu noticed 150 years ago.

Every increase in the fighting force by one State directed against its subjects causes uneasiness to the neighbouring State and compels it to increase its army, too. If the armies today run into millions of men it is not only because of the fact that one State threatens another, it is also due above all to the desire to crush labour unrest at home. One is the result of the others: the despotism of the governments grows with their power and their successes abroad, and their aggressive disposition keeps pace with their despotism at home.

This rivalry in armaments has brought the European governments to the necessity of establishing compulsory military service, which alone procures the greatest number of men with the least expenditure. Germany was the first to adopt conscription, and other nations followed suit. Thus all citizens have been called to arms to maintain the iniquities perpetrated upon themselves, so that the citizens of a State have become the supporters of their tyrants.

What is the motive power used by governments to induce peaceful nations to commit violence and murder? It is called patriotism. It is the art of proving that one group of population separated by a conditional imaginary line, called a frontier, is far superior and preferable in every way to another group of population which lives on the other side of this imaginary line. The most friendly relations, identity of religion, of language, of instruction, of common stock and most intimate friendship, do not prevent these two groups, at a given signal, from rushing at each other and cutting each other’s throats, after the fashion of the most ferocious beasts. And the cause for this signal to kill is often a trifling misunderstanding on the part of the rulers of these two groups of people. These peaceful, good, friendly, labouring people throw themselves upon one another in such a case to destroy one another, invoking to their aid a God who, no doubt, must be a fierce Moloch, and both sides express the same blasphemies in the name of God and civilization.

The Blast, Vol. 1, No. 13

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Alexander Berkman: Creating Freedom and Equality

Berkman ABC

Recently, I posted some excerpts from Alexander Berkman’s Now and After: The ABC of Anarchist Communism, in which he argues that for a free society to be achieved, the economy must be completely reorganized on the principles of workers’ self-management and the decentralization of industry. Here he goes on to argue that a free society can only be maintained on the basis of both freedom and equality for all. I included further excerpts from Berkman’s book in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, available from AK Press.

Anarchist Social Revolution in Spain

Anarchist Social Revolution in Spain

Social Revolution

Russia strikingly illustrates how imperative economic independence is, particularly to the social revolution. For years following the October upheaval the Bolshevik Government concentrated its efforts on currying favour with bourgeois governments for “recognition” and inviting foreign capitalists to help exploit the resources of Russia. But capital, afraid to make large investments under the insecure conditions of the dictatorship, failed to respond with any degree of enthusiasm. Meanwhile Russia was approaching economic breakdown. The situation finally compelled the Bolsheviks to understand that the country must depend on her own efforts for maintenance. Russia began to look around for means to help herself; and thereby she acquired greater confidence in her own abilities, learned to exercise self-reliance and initiative, and started to develop her own industries a slow and painful process, but a wholesome necessity which will ultimately make Russia economically self-supporting and independent.

The social revolution in any given country must from the very first determine to make itself self-supporting. It must help itself. This principle of self-help is not to be understood as a lack of solidarity with other lands. On the contrary, mutual aid and cooperation between countries, as among individuals, can exist only on the basis of equality, among equals. Dependence is the very reverse of it.

Should the social revolution take place in several countries at the same time—in France and Germany, for instance—then joint effort would be a matter of course and would make the task of revolutionary re-organization much easier.

Fortunately the workers are learning to understand that their cause is international: the organization of labour is now developing beyond national boundaries. It is to be hoped that the time is not far away when the entire proletariat of Europe may combine in a general strike, which is to be the prelude to the social revolution. That is emphatically a consummation to be striven for with the greatest earnestness. But at the same time the probability is not to be discounted that the revolution may break out in one country sooner than in another—let us say in France earlier than in Germany—and in such a case it would become imperative for France not to wait for possible aid from outside, but immediately to exert all her energies to help herself, to supply the most essential needs of her people by her own efforts.

Every country in revolution must seek to achieve agricultural independence no less than political, industrial self-help no less than agricultural. This process is going on to a certain extent even under capitalism. It should be one of the main objects of the social revolution. Modern methods make it possible. The manufacture of watches and clocks, for example, which was formerly a monopoly of Switzerland, is now carried on in every country. Production of silk, previously limited to France, is among the great industries of various countries today. Italy, without sources of coal or iron, constructs steel-clad ships. Switzerland, no richer, also makes them.

field factories etc


Decentralization will cure society of many evils of the centralized principle. Politically decentralization means freedom; industrially, material independence; socially, it implies security and well-being for the small communities; individually it results in manhood and liberty.

Equally important to the social revolution as independence from foreign lands is decentralization within the country itself. Internal decentralization means making the larger regions, even every community, as far as possible, self-supporting. In his very illuminating and suggestive work, Fields, Factories and Workshops, Peter Kropotkin has convincingly shown how a city like Paris even, now almost exclusively commercial, could raise enough food in its own environs to support its population abundantly. By using modern agricultural machinery and intensive cultivation London and New York could subsist upon the products raised in their own immediate vicinity. It is a fact that “our means of obtaining from the soil whatever we want under any climate and upon any soil, have lately been improved at such a rate that we cannot foresee yet what is the limit of productivity of a few acres of land. The limit vanishes in proportion to our better study of the subject, and every year makes it vanish further and further from our sight.”

When the social revolution begins in any land, its foreign commerce stops: the importation of raw materials and finished products is suspended. The country may even be blockaded by the bourgeois governments, as was the case with Russia. Thus the revolution is compelled to become self-supporting and provide for its own wants. Even various parts of the same country may have to face such an eventuality. They would have to produce what they need within their own area, by their own efforts. Only decentralization could solve this problem. The country would have to re-organize its activities in such a manner as to be able to feed itself. It would have to resort to production on a small scale, to home industry, and to intensive agriculture and horticulture. Man’s initiative freed by the revolution and his wits sharpened by necessity will rise to the situation.

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Small Scale Industry

It must therefore be clearly understood that it would be disastrous to the interests of the revolution to suppress or interfere with the small scale industries which are even now practiced to such a great extent in various European countries. Numerous articles of every day use are produced by the peasants of Continental Europe during their leisure winter hours. These home manufactures total up tremendous figures to fill a great need. It would be most harmful to the revolution to destroy them, as Russia so foolishly did in her mad Bolshevik passion for centralization. When a country in revolution is attacked by foreign governments, when it is blockaded and deprived of imports, when its large-scale industries threaten to break down or the railways actually do break down, then it is just the small home industries which become the vital nerve of economic life; they alone can feed and save the revolution.

Moreover, such home industries are not only a potent economic factor; they are also of the greatest social value. They serve to cultivate friendly intercourse between the farm and the city, bringing the two into closer and more solidaric contact. In fact, the home industries are themselves an expression of a most wholesome social spirit which from earliest times has manifested itself in village gatherings, in communal efforts, in folk dance and song. This normal and healthy tendency, in its various aspects, should be encouraged and stimulated by the revolution for the greater weal of the community.

The role of industrial decentralization in the revolution is unfortunately too little appreciated. Even in progressive labour ranks there is a dangerous tendency to ignore or minimize its importance. Most people are still in the thraldom of the Marxian dogma that centralization is “more efficient and economical.” They close their eyes to the fact that the alleged “economy” is achieved at the cost of the worker’s limb and life, that the “efficiency” degrades him to a mere industrial cog, deadens his soul, and kills his body. Further more, in a system of centralization the administration of industry becomes constantly merged in fewer hands, producing a powerful bureaucracy of industrial overlords. It would indeed be the sheerest irony if the revolution were to aim at such a result. It would mean the creation of a new master class.

The revolution can accomplish the emancipation of labour only by gradual decentralization, by developing the individual worker into a more conscious and determining factor in the process of industry, by making him the impulse whence proceeds all industrial and social activity. The deep significance of the social revolution lies in the abolition of the mastery of man over man, putting in its place the management of things. Only thus can be achieved industrial and social freedom.


Free Communism

“Are you sure it would work?” you demand.

I am sure of this: if that will not work, nothing else will. The plan I have outlined is a free communism, a life of voluntary co-operation and equal sharing. There is no other way of securing economic equality, which alone is liberty. Any other system must lead to capitalism.

It is likely, of course, that a country in social revolution may try various economic experiments. A limited capitalism might be introduced in one part of the land or collectivism in another. But collectivism is only another form of the wage system and it would speedily tend to become the capitalism of the present day. For collectivism begins by abolishing private ownership of the means of production and immediately reverses itself by returning to the system of remuneration according to work performed; which means the re-introduction of inequality.

Man learns by doing. The social revolution in different countries and regions will probably try out various methods, and by practical experience learn the best way. The revolution is at the same time the opportunity and justification for it. I am not attempting to prophesy what this or that country is going to do, what particular course it will follow. Nor do I presume to dictate to the future, to prescribe its mode of conduct. My purpose is to suggest, in broad outline, the principles which must animate the revolution, the general lines of action it should follow if it is to accomplish its aim—the reconstruction of society on a foundation of freedom and equality.

We know that previous revolutions for the most part failed of their objects, they degenerated into dictatorship and despotism, and thus re-established the old institutions of oppression and exploitation. We know it from past and recent history. We therefore draw the conclusion that the old way will not do. A new way must be tried in the coming social revolution. What new way? The only one so far known to man: the way of liberty and equality, the way of free communism, of anarchy.

Alexander Berkman, 1927

abolish state

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

The Russian Tragedy: Alexander Berkman on the Russian Revolution

Berkman in Russia

I concluded the chapter on the Russian Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas with reflections on the Russian Revolution by Voline, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Berkman’s assessment of the Russian Revolution was taken from the post-script to his exposé of the counter-revolutionary role of the Bolsheviks under Lenin, The Bolshevik Myth. Earlier, Berkman had published a pamphlet setting forth his preliminary views on the Russian Revolution, The Russian Tragedy, from which the following excerpts have been taken.

The Russian Tragedy

We live at a time when two civilizations are struggling for their existence. Present society is at death grips with the New Ideal. The Russian Revolution was but the first serious combat of the two forces, whose struggle must continue till the final triumph of the one or of the other.

The Russian Revolution has failed – failed of its ultimate purpose. But that failure is a temporary one. In the point of revolutionizing the thought and feeling of the masses of Russia and of the world, in undermining the fundamental concepts of existing society, and lighting the torch of faith and hope for the Better Day, the Russian Revolution has been of incalculable educational and inspirational value to mankind.

Though the Russian Revolution failed to achieve its true goal, it will forever remain a most magnificent historic event. And yet – tremendous as it is – it is but an incident in the gigantic war of the two worlds.

That war will go on, is going on. In that war capitalism is already facing its doom. Yet more: with capitalism, centralized political government, the STATE, is also doomed, – and that is the most significant lesson of the Russian Revolution as I see it…

It is generally admitted that the Russian Revolution is the most important historic event since the Great French Revolution. I am even inclined to think that, in point of its potential consequences, the Revolution of 1917 is the most significant fact in the whole known history of mankind. It is the only Revolution which aimed, de facto, at social world revolution; it is the only one which actually abolished the capitalist system on a country-wide scale, and fundamentally altered all social relationships existing till then. An event of such human and historic magnitude must not be judged from the narrow viewpoint of partisanship…

The October Revolution

It has been asserted by some writers that Bolshevik accession to power in Russia was due to a coup de main, and doubt has been expressed regarding the social nature of the October change.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of historic fact, the great event known as the October Revolution was in the profoundest sense a social revolution. It was characterized by all the essentials of such a fundamental change. It was accomplished, not by any political party, but by the people themselves, in a manner that radically transformed all the heretofore existing economic, political and social relations. But it did not take place in October. That month witnessed only the formal “legal sanction” of the revolutionary events that had preceded it.

For weeks and months prior to it, the actual Revolution had been going on all over Russia: the city proletariat was taking possession of the shops and factories, while the peasants expropriated the big estates and turned the land to their own use. At the same time workers’ committees, peasant committees and Soviets sprang up all over the country, and there began the gradual transfer of power from the provisional government to the Soviets. That took place, first in Petrograd, then in Moscow, and quickly spread to the Volga region, the Ural district, and to Siberia. The popular will found expression in the slogan, “All power to the Soviets”, and it went sweeping through the length and breadth of the land. The people had risen, the actual Revolution was on. The keynote of the situation was struck by the Congress of the Soviets of the North, proclaiming: “The provisional government of Kerensky must go; the Soviets are the sole power!”

That was on October 10th [1917]. Practically all the real power was already with the Soviets. In July the Petrograd uprising against Kerensky was crushed, but in August the influence of the revolutionary workers and of the garrison was strong enough to enable them to prevent the attack planned by Korniloff. The Petrograd Soviet gained strength from day to day. On October 16th it organized its own Revolutionary Military Committee, an act of defiance of and open challenge to the government. The Soviet, through its Revolutionary Military Committee, prepared to defend Petrograd against the coalition government of Kerensky and the possible attack of General Kaledin and his counter-revolutionary Cossacks. On October 22nd the whole proletarian population of Petrograd, solidarically supported by the garrison, demonstrated throughout the city against the government and in favour of “All power to the Soviets”.

The Petrograd Soviet

The All-Russian Congress of Soviets was to open on October 25th. The provisional government, knowing its very existence in imminent peril, resorted to drastic action. On October 23rd the Petrograd Soviet ordered the Kerensky Cabinet to withdraw within 48 hours. Driven to desperation, Kerensky undertook – on October 24th – to suppress the revolutionary press, arrest the most prominent revolutionists of Petrograd, and remove the active Commissars of the Soviet. The government relied on the “faithful” troops and on the young yunkers of the military student schools. But it was too late: the attempt to sustain the government failed. During the night of October 24-25 [November 6-7 on the non-Russian calendar] the Kerensky government was dissolved – peacefully, without bloodshed – and the exclusive supremacy of the Soviets was established. The Communist Party stepped into power. It was the political culmination of the Russian Revolution.

Various factors contributed to the success of the Revolution. To begin with, it met with almost no active opposition: the Russian bourgeoisie was unorganized, weak and not of a militant disposition. But the main reasons lay in the all-absorbing enthusiasm with which the revolutionary slogans had fired the whole people. “Down with the war!”, “Immediate peace!”, “The land to the peasant, the factory to the workers!”, “All power to the Soviets!” – these were expressive of the passionate soul cry and deepest needs of the great masses. No power could withstand their miraculous effect.

Another very potent factor was the unity of the various revolutionary elements in their opposition to the Kerensky government. Bolsheviki, Anarchists, the left faction of the Social Revolutionist party, the numerous politicals freed from prison and Siberian exile, and the hundreds of returned revolutionary emigrants, had all worked during the February-October months toward a common goal.

But if “it was easy to begin” the Revolution, as Lenin had said in one of his speeches, to develop it, to carry it to its logical conclusion was another and more difficult matter. Two conditions were essential to such a consummation: continued unity of all the revolutionary forces, and the application of the country’s goodwill, initiative and best energies to the important work of the new social construction. It must always be remembered – and remembered well – that revolution does not mean destruction only. It means destruction plus construction, with the greatest emphasis on the plus. Most unfortunately, Bolshevik principles and methods were soon fated to prove a handicap, a drawback upon the creative activities of the masses.

The Bolshevik Counter-Revolution

Dictatorship Over the Proletariat

The Bolsheviki are Marxists. Though in the October days they had accepted and proclaimed anarchist watchwords (direct action by the people, expropriation, free Soviets, and so forth), it was not their social philosophy that dictated this attitude. They had felt the popular pulse – the rising waves of the Revolution had carried them far beyond their theories. But they remained Marxists. At heart they had no faith in the people and their creative initiative. As social-democrats they distrusted the peasantry, counting rather upon the support of the small revolutionary minority among the industrial element.

They had advocated the Constituent Assembly, and only when they were convinced that they would not have a majority there, and therefore not be able to take State power into their own hands, they suddenly decided upon the dissolution of the Assembly, though the step was a refutation and a denial of fundamental Marxist principles…

As Marxists, the Bolsheviki insisted on the nationalization of the land: ownership, distribution and control to be in the hands of the State. They were in principle opposed to socialization, and only the pressure of the Left faction of the Social Revolutionists (the Spiridonova-Kamkov wing) whose influence among the peasantry was traditional, forced the Bolsheviki to “swallow the agrarian program of the Socialist-Revolutionists whole”, as Lenin afterwards put it.

From the first days of their accession to political power the Marxist tendencies of the Bolsheviki began to manifest themselves, to the detriment of the Revolution. Social-Democratic distrust of the peasantry influenced their methods and measures. At the All-Russian Conferences the peasants did not receive equal representation with the industrial workers. Not only the village speculator and exploiter, but the agrarian population as a whole was branded by the Bolsheviki as “petty bosses” and “bourgeois”, “unable to keep step with the proletariat on the road to socialism”. The Bolshevik government discriminated against the peasant representatives in the Soviets and at the National Conferences, sought to handicap their independent efforts, and systematically narrowed the scope and activities of the Land Commissariat, then by far the most vital factor in the reconstruction of Russia. (The Commissariat was then presided over by a Left Social Revolutionist).

Russian Peasants

Inevitably this attitude led to much dissatisfaction on the part of the great peasant masses. The Russian muzhik [peasant] is simple and naive, but with the instinct of the primitive man he quickly senses a wrong: no fine dialectics can budge his once settled conviction. The very cornerstone of the Marxian credo, the dictatorship of the proletariat, served as an affront and an injury to the peasantry. They demanded an equal share in the organization and administration of the affairs of the country. Had they not been enslaved, oppressed and ignored long enough? The dictatorship of the proletariat the peasant resented as discrimination against himself. “If dictatorship must be”, he argued, “why not of all who labour, of the town worker and of the peasant, together?”

Brest-Litovsk Treaty

Then came the Brest-Litovsk peace. In its far-reaching results it proved the death blow to the Revolution. Two months previously, in December, 1917, Trotsky had refused, with a fine gesture of noble indignation, the peace offered by Germany on conditions much more favourable to Russia. “We wage no war, we sign no peace!” he had said, and revolutionary Russia applauded him. “No compromise with German imperialism, no concessions”, echoed through the length and breadth of the country, and the people stood ready to defend their Revolution to the very death. But now Lenin demanded the ratification of a peace that meant the most mean-spirited betrayal of the greater part of Russia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, White Russia, Bessarabia – all were to be turned over to the oppression and exploitation of the German invader and of their own bourgeoisie. It was a monstrous thing – the sacrifice at once of the principles of the Revolution and of its interests as well.

Lenin insisted on ratification, on the ground that the Revolution needed a “breathing spell”, that Russia was exhausted, and that peace would enable the “revolutionary oasis” to gather strength for new effort. Radek denounced acceptance of Brest-Litvosk conditions as betrayal of the October Revolution. Trotsky disagreed with Lenin. The revolutionary forces split. The Left Social Revolutionists, most of the Anarchists and many of the nonpartisan revolutionary elements were bitterly opposed to making peace with imperialism, especially on the terms dictated then by Germany. They declared that such a peace would be fatal to the Revolution; that the principle of “peace without annexations” must not be sacrificed; that the German conditions involved the basest treachery to the workers and peasants of the provinces demanded by the Prussians; that the peace would subject the whole of Russia to economic and political dependence upon German Imperialism, that the invaders would possess themselves of the Ukrainan bread and the Don coal, and drive Russia to industrial ruin.

But Lenin’s influence was potent. He prevailed. The Brest-Litvosk treaty was ratified by the 4th Soviet Congress.

Leon Trotsky

It was Trotsky who first asserted in refusing the German peace terms offered in December, 1917, that the workers and peasants, inspired and armed by the Revolution, could by guerilla warfare overcome any army of invasion. The Left Social Revolutionists now called for peasant uprisings to oppose the Germans, confident that no army could conquer the revolutionary ardor of a people fighting for the fruits of their great Revolution. Workers and peasants, responding, rushed to the aid of Ukraine and White Russia, then valiantly struggling against the German invaders. Trotsky ordered the Russian army to pursue and suppress these partisan units.

The killing of Mirbach [the German ambassador] followed. It was the protest of the Left Social Revolutionist Party against, and the defiance of, Prussian imperialism within Russia. The Bolshevik government initiated repressive measures: it now felt itself, as it were, under obligations to Germany. Dzerzhinsky, head of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission [the Bolshevik secret police], demanded the delivery of the terrorist. It was a situation unique in revolutionary annals: a revolutionary party in power demanding of another revolutionary party, with which it had till then cooperated, the arrest and punishment of a revolutionist for executing the representative of an imperialist government! The Brest-Litvosk peace had put the Bolsheviki in the anomalous position of a gendarme for the Kaiser. The Left Social Revolutionists replied to Dzerzhinsky’ demand by arresting the latter. This act, and the armed skirmishes which followed it (though insignificant in themselves) were thoroughly exploited by the Bolsheviki politically. They declared that it was an attempt of the Left Social Revolutionist Party to seize the reins of government. They announced that party outlawed, and their extermination began.

Social Revolutionist Campaign Poster

These Bolshevik methods and tactics were not accidental. Soon it became evident that it is the settled policy of the Communist State to crush every form of expression not in accord with the government. After the ratification of the Brest-Litvosk peace the Left Social Revolutionist Party withdrew its representative in the Soviet of People’s Commissars. The Bolsheviki thus remained in exclusive control of the government. Under one pretext and another there followed most arbitrary and cruel suppression of all the other political parties and movements. The Mensheviki and the Right Social Revolutionists had been “liquidated” long before, together with the Russian bourgeoisie. Now was the turn of the revolutionary elements – the Left Social Revolutionists, the Anarchists, the non-partisan revolutionists.

But the “liquidation” of these involved much more than the suppression of small political groups. These revolutionary elements had strong followings, the Left Social-Revolutionists among the peasantry, the Anarchists mainly among the city proletariat. The new Bolshevik tactics encompassed systematic eradication of every sign of dissatisfaction, stifling all criticism and crushing independent opinion or effort. With this phase the Bolsheviki enter upon the dictatorship over the proletariat, as it is popularly characterized in Russia. The government’s attitude to the peasantry is now that of open hostility. More increasingly is violence resorted to. Labour unions are dissolved, frequently by force, when their loyalty to the Communist Party is suspected. The cooperatives are attacked. This great organization, the fraternal bond between city and country, whose economic functions were so vital to the interests of Russia and of the Revolution, is hindered in its important work of production, exchange and distribution of the necessaries of life, is disorganized, and finally completely abolished.

The Cheka

Arrests, night searches, zassada (house blockade), executions, are the order of the day. The Extraordinary Commissions (the Cheka), originally organized to fight counter-revolution and speculation, is becoming the terror of every worker and peasant. Its secret agents are everywhere, always unearthing “plots”, signifying the razstrel (shooting) of hundreds without hearing, trial or appeal. From the intended defence of the Revolution the Cheka becomes the most dreaded organization, whose injustice and cruelty spread terror over the whole country. All-powerful, owing no one responsibility, the Cheka is a law unto itself, possesses its own army, assumes police, judicial, administrative and executive powers, and makes its own laws that supersede those of the official State. The prisons and concentration camps are filled with alleged counter-revolutionists and speculators, 95 per cent of whom are starved workers, simple peasants, and even children of 10 to 14 years of age… Communism becomes synonymous in the popular mind with Chekism, the latter the epitome of all that is vile and brutal. The seed of counter-revolutionary feeling is sown broadcast.

The other policies of the “revolutionary government” keep step with these developments. Mechanical centralization, run mad, is paralyzing the industrial and economic activities of the country. Initiative is frowned upon, free effort systematically discouraged. The great masses are deprived of the opportunity to shape the policies of the Revolution, or take part in the administration of the affairs of the country. The government is monopolizing every avenue of life: the Revolution is divorced from the people. A bureaucratic machine is created that is appalling in its parasitism, inefficiency and corruption. In Moscow alone this new class of sovburs (Soviet bureaucrats) exceeds, in 1920, the total of office holders throughout the whole of Russia under the Tsar in 1914… The Bolshevik economic policies, effectively aided by this bureaucracy, completely disorganize the already crippled industrial life of the country. Lenin, Zinoviev, and other Communist leaders thunder philippics against the new Soviet bourgeoisie — and issue ever new decrees that strengthen and augment its numbers and influence.

Lenin directing the workers

The system of yedinolitchiye is introduced: management by one person. Lenin himself is its originator and chief advocate. Henceforth the shop and factory committees are to be abolished, stripped of all power. Every mill, mine, and factory, the railroads and all the other industries are to be managed by a single head, a “specialist” — and the old Tsarist bourgeoisie is invited to step in. The former bankers, bourse operators, mill owners and factory bosses become the managers, in full control of the industries, with absolute power over the workers. They are vested with authority to hire, employ and discharge the “hands”, to give or deprive them of the payok (food ration), even to punish them and turn them over to the Cheka.

The workers, who had fought and bled for the Revolution and were willing to suffer, freeze and starve in its defence, resent this unheard of imposition. They regard it as the worst betrayal. They refuse to be dominated by the very owners and foremen whom they had driven, in the days of the Revolution, out of the factories and who had been so lordly and brutal to them. They have no interest in such a reconstruction. The “new system”, heralded by Lenin as the saviour of the industries, results in the complete paralysis of the economic life of Russia, drives the workers en masse from the factories, and fills them with bitterness and hatred of everything “socialistic”. The principles and tactics of Marxian mechanization of the Revolution are sealing its doom.

The fanatical delusion that a little conspiratorial group, as it were, could achieve a fundamental social transformation proved the Frankenstein of the Bolsheviki. It led them to incredible depths of infamy and barbarism. The methods of such a theory, its inevitable means, are twofold: decrees and terror. Neither of these did the Bolsheviki spare. As Bukharin, the foremost ideologue of the militant Communists taught, terrorism is the method by which capitalistic human nature is to be transformed into fit Bolshevik citizenship. Freedom is “a bourgeois prejudice” (Lenin’s favourite expression), liberty of speech and of the press unnecessary, harmful. The central government is the depository of all knowledge and wisdom. It will do everything. The sole duty of the citizen is obedience. The will of the State is supreme.

The Bolshevik Central Committee

Stripped of fine phrases, intended mostly for Western consumption, this was and is the practical attitude of the Bolshevik government. This government, the real and only actual government of Russia, consists of five persons, members of the inner circle of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Russia. These “Big Five” are omnipotent. This group, in its true essence conspiratorial, has been controlling the fortunes of Russia and of the Revolution since the Brest-Litvosk peace. What has happened in Russia since has been in strict accord with the Bolshevik interpretation of Marxism. That Marxism, reflected through the Communist inner circle’s megalomania of omniscience and omnipotence, has achieved the present debacle of Russia.

In consonance with their theory, the social fundamentals of the October Revolution have been deliberately destroyed. The ultimate object being a powerfully centralized State, with the Communist Party in absolute control, the popular initiative and the revolutionary creative forces of the masses had to be eliminated. The elective system was abolished, first in the army and navy, then in the industries. The Soviets of peasants and worker’s were castrated and transformed into obedient Communist committees, with the dreaded sword of the Cheka ever hanging over them. The labour unions governmentalized, their proper activities suppressed, they were turned into mere transmitters of the orders of the State.

Universal military service, coupled with the death penalty for conscientious objectors; enforced labour, with a vast officialdom for the apprehension and punishment of “deserters”; agrarian and industrial conscription of the peasantry; military Communism in the cities and the system of requisitioning in the country, characterized by Radek as simply grain plundering… the suppression of workers’ protests by the use of the military; the crushing of peasant dissatisfaction with an iron hand, even to the extent of whipping the peasants and razing their villages with artillery – (in the Ural, Volga and Kuban districts, in Siberia and Ukraine) – this characterized the attitude of the Communist State toward the people, this comprised the “constructive social and economic policies” of the Bolsheviki.

Anarchists protest the Bolshevik dictatorship

Still the Russian peasants and workers, prizing the Revolution for which they had suffered so much, kept bravely fighting on numerous military fronts. They were defending the Revolution, as they thought. They starved, froze, and died by the thousands, in the fond hope that the terrible things the Communists did would soon cease. The Bolshevik horrors were, somehow – the simple Russian thought – the inevitable result of the powerful enemies “from abroad” attacking their beloved country. But when the wars will at last be over – the people naively echoed the official press – the Bolsheviki will surely return to the revolutionary path they entered in October 1917, the path the wars had forced them temporarily to forsake.

The masses hoped and endured. And then, at last, the wars were ended. Russia drew an almost audible sigh of relief, relief palpitating with deep hope. It was the crucial moment: the great test had come. The soul of a nation was aquiver. To be or not to be? And then full realization came. The people stood aghast. Repressions continued, even grew worse. The piratical razvyorstka [compulsory food requisitioning], the punitive expeditions against the peasants, did not abate their murderous work. The Cheka was unearthing more “conspiracies”, executions were taking place as before. Terrorism was rampant. The new Bolshevik bourgeoisie lorded itself over the workers and the peasants, official corruption was vast and open, huge food supplies were rotting through Bolshevik inefficiency and centralized State monopoly — and the people were starving.

Kronstadt Sailor

The Petrograd workers, always in the forefront of the revolutionary effort, were the first to voice their dissatisfaction and protest. The Kronstadt sailors, upon investigation of the demands of the Petrograd proletariat, declared themselves [in solidarity] with the workers. In their turn they announced their stand for free Soviets, Soviets free from Communist coercion, Soviets that should in reality represent the revolutionary masses and voice their needs. In the middle provinces of Russia, in Ukraine, on the Caucasus, in Siberia, everywhere the people made known their wants, voiced their grievances, informed the government of their demands. The Bolshevik State replied with its usual argument: the Kronstadt sailors were decimated, the “bandits” of Ukraine massacred, the “rebels” of the East laid low with machine guns.

This done, Lenin announced at the 10th Congress of the Communist Party of Russia (March 1921) that his former policies were all wrong. The razvyorstka, the requisition of food, was pure robbery. Military violence against the peasantry a “serious mistake”. The workers must receive some consideration. The Soviet bureaucracy is corrupt and criminal, a huge parasite. “The methods we have been using have failed.” The people, especially the rural population, are not yet up to the level of Communist principles. Private ownership must be re-introduced, free trade established. Henceforth the best Communist is he who can drive the best bargain (Lenin’s expression).

The present situation in Russia is most anomalous. Economically it is a combination of State and private capitalism. Politically it remains the “dictatorship of the proletariat” or, more correctly, the dictatorship of the inner circle of the Communist Party…

The Bolshevik government still strives to uphold the dangerous delusion that the “revolution is progressing”, that Russia is “ruled by proletarian soviets”, that the Communist Party and its State are identical with the people. It is still speaking in the name of the “proletariat”. It is seeking to dupe the people with a new chimera…

Till now the State has been the mortal enemy of labour syndicalism within Russia, though encouraging it in other countries. At the 10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (March, 1921) Lenin declared merciless warfare against the faintest symptom of syndicalist tendencies, and even the discussion of syndicalist theories was forbidden the Communists, on pain of exclusion from the Party… A number of the Labour Opposition were arrested and imprisoned…

Must tortured humanity ever tread the same vicious circle?

Or will the workers at last learn the great lesson Of the Russian Revolution, that every government, whatever its fine name and nice promises is by its inherent nature, as a government, destructive of the very purposes of the social revolution? It is the mission of government to govern, to subject, to strengthen and perpetuate itself. It is high time the workers learn that only their own organized, creative efforts, free from Political and State interference, can make their age-long struggle for emancipation a lasting success.

Alexander Berkman, May, 1922