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.
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.
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.
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.
“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