Thursday, January 7, 2010
"Life of An Anarchist," by Alexander Berkman
“What we call progress has been a painful but continuous march in the direction of limited authority and the power of government and increasing the rights and liberties of the individual, of the masses."
Alexander Berkman, “The ABC of Anarchism”
Alexander Berkman burned life-long for his idea.
Berkman was an anarchist born at the turn of the 20th century. Early on he befriended the famed rabble-rouser Emma Goldman and forged a revolutionary bond that would endure until his final letter to her; contained in this exciting collection of writings entitled, "Life of an Anarchist."
Born in Russia and suckled on the idea of deposing the Czar, Berkman’s writings reveal a precocious and brilliant young mind antagonized by the injustice he saw everywhere in the world, but mostly in the work warrens sprouted everywhere by the Industrial Revolution.
So convinced were he, Goldman, and other immigrant libertarians, that the social revolution was just around the corner - for science held it to be so - that the twenty-one year Berkman injected himself into the Homestead strike of anthracite miners in Pennsylvania.
Although atheist, there is nothing hangdog about the original anarchists. Gerald Brennan, in his “The Spanish Labyrinth,” notes that they are “uncompromising moralists.”
Brennan recounts, “I was standing on a hill watching the smoke and flames of some two hundred houses in Malaga mount into the sky. An old anarchist of my acquaintance was standing beside me. ‘What do you think of that?’ he asked.
“I said, ‘They are burning down Malaga.’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘they are burning it down. And I tell you - not one stone will be left on another stone - no, not a plant nor even a cabbage will grow there, so that there may be no more wickedness in the world.’
“It was the voice of Amos or Isaiah (though the old man had never read either) or of an English sectarian of the seventeenth century.”
For Brennan, the anger of the Spanish anarchists against the Catholic church, “is the anger of an intensely religious people who feel they have been deserted and deceived.”
At Homestead, the mine owners had hired the notorious Henry Frick to break the strike with his special brand of violence and industrial espionage. Workers were shot and killed. And so the brave young crazy man took it upon himself to kill Frick. Berkman shot him, but unfortunately did not kill him and ended up with 14 years of jail time for his futile efforts.
Incarcerated, he ran into a striker whom did not jibe with his anarchist’s vision of the revolutionary worker; a common experience for the free communist looking to unions as the vehicle by which the “new day” will be obtained.
Berkman was a very good writer, and this tome edited by Gene Fellner and published by Seven Stories Press, also enjoys the blessings of excellent translation.
What the scribe is trying to say is that “Life of An Anarchist,” makes for good novel-style reading.
Berkman’s account of his time in jail is truly harrowing and makes the case for a society without, as he liked to put it, “compulsion.”
Something of an anti-celebrity at the time, the young rebel was singled out for brutal attentions to which he commonly responded with more energy and defiance than the average fellow might be able to muster under such dire circumstances.
It makes for a gripping narrative as the prison dramas, personal travails, and even an attempt at escape with help from his tunnel-digging Italian anarchist friends, make for real-life human drama.
Reading an intelligent writer’s sentiments upon his release into a great, wide world that no longer knows him, nor he it, is also worth the effort.
Anarchists played for keeps in those days and an associated of Berkman’s and Goldman’s murdered President McKinley. So that when one of the periodic red scares gripped American by the throat, both found themselves arrested (more prison stories) and shipped-off to the new promised land, Russia.
It’s not a pretty chapter, the one on Russia. Arriving with a song in his heart, Berkman comes to know first hand the repression and death dealt in by the Bolsheviks - the people that ruined socialism.
He relates experiences and conversations with characters from a Russia gone by, honest and authentic folk, nearly incandescent with the promise of emancipation, often paying the cruel price of their own lives at the hands of a power crazy clan.
Berkman does a wonderful rendering of the grim face-off in Petrograd with the communist government. There the Kronstadt sailors, loyal sons of the October Revolution, made a stand in the name of democracy betrayed, proclaiming “all power to the workers soviets.”
Their massacre at the hands of Mr. Trotsky, who always enjoys the hip left’s support, what with his theory of “permanent revolution” and all, makes for sad reading; a Russian “Les Miserables,” that concludes with Berkman’s declaring the revolution dead.
The account is detailed, blow by blow. Actually, it’s journalism, clean and mean, featuring a terse narrative that lets the actual documents, declarations and decrees from both sides speak the best parts.
The last part of the book is taken up with Berkman’s “The ABC of Anarchism.”
Admittedly highwayscribery, run by a bourgeois poet maintaining a traditional family, does things with its anarchistic tongue in its syndicalist cheek. It’s a way of not taking things too seriously, but the “ABC” is a delightful primer that takes the scribe back to a hopeful youth.
A simple manual for the application of a free and communal social order, the manifesto is infused with the joy only a true black-flagger carries around, infused with the euphoria an abiding faith in human potential lights within.
He starts from square one, holding the reader’s hand while heading down the black-bricked path, formulating a Socratic dialogue:
“Anarchy, therefore, does not mean disorder and chaos, as you thought before,” Berkman writes, “On the contrary, it is the very reverse of it; it means no government, which is freedom and liberty. Disorder is the child of authority and compulsion. Liberty is the mother of order.”
He makes convincing and reasoned arguments about the social salve in taking the competition out of life, of neutering the marketplace, of eliminating discrimination. Better people, he asserts, will come from better treatment. The sky is the limit.
“Imperatives and taboos will disappear, and man will begin to be himself, to develop and express his individual tendencies and uniqueness. Instead of ‘though shall not,’ the public conscience will say ‘though mayest, taking full responsibility.’ that will be a training in human dignity and self-reliance, beginning at home and in school, which will produce a new race with a new attitude in life.
“The man of the coming day will see and feel existence on an entirely different plane. Living to him will be an art and a joy. He will cease to consider it as a race where everyone must try to become as good a runner as the fastest. He will regard leisure as more important than work, and work will fall into its proper, subordinate place as the means to leisure, to the enjoyment of life.”
This from a guy who spent his life on the run, in and out of prison, a man welcome nowhere.
In our perverse civilization, he points out, the value of things is placed on a monetary standards.
“From the viewpoint of social usefulness the street cleaners is the professional colleague of the doctor: the latter treats us when we are well, but the former helps us to keep well. Yet the physician is looked up to and respected, while the street cleaner is slighted. Why? Is it because the street cleaner’s work is dirty? But the surgeon often has much ‘dirtier’ jobs to perform. Then why is the street cleaner scorned? Because he earns little.”
Under anarchy, the wage scale will no longer be speak to the worth of the person, only their willingness to be socially useful.
Berkman’s theorizing can be applied to the very book under the glass here. Purchased at Labyrinth Books, for a paltry $2.98, its value outpaces so much of the drub that hits your face upon entering a Barnes & Nobel, (for example).
Of course. the relationship between the “industrial proletarian” and “peasant farmer” is no longer a crucial question. And Berkman’s wide-eyed view of science and all it will do for us would be somewhat tempered had he the same points of reference (Chernobyl, the declining oceans, Hiroshima, global warming) we do today.
But his hope for a society organized around the loose principles of mutual responsibility, human kindness, and equality still sounds better than anything the scribe pulled from the “New York Times” this morning (or the morning before that).
Long live anarchy!