What is Anarchism? Paperback – Jul 1 2003
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About the Author
Alexander Berkman was a leading writer and participant in the 20th century Anarchist movement. The young, idealistic Berkman practiced propaganda by deed" attempting to assassinate Henry Clay Frick during the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892. While imprisoned, he wrote the classic tale of prison life Prison Memoirs of and Anarchist. After his release, Berkman edited Emma Goldman's Mother Earth and his own paper The Blast!. Deported from New York City to his native Russia in 1919, were he sawfirst hand the failure of the Bolshevik revolution and dedicated himself to writing the classic primer on Anarchism, What is Anarchism?.
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He pulled it off masterfully. Berkman takes a commonsense and conversational tone throughout the book, and he covers considerable ground. He explains to readers how the capitalism is basically a system of wage slavery and he discusses the other great social harms it produces. He differentiates left anarchism from western European socialism (a system of reformist capitalism) and from Marxist socialism. In fact, Berkman often discusses the Bolsheviks in the USSR, who imposed an oppressive system of, effectively, state-capitalism that he witnessed first hand. Other topics include trade unions, war, religion, violence, revolution and others. Berkman is particularly effective in discussing how an anarchist revolution would not be one given to wanton destruction, that it would try to preserve as much life and infrastructure as possible. And he sketches how an anarchist society would operate.
Those who are completely unfamiliar with anarchism will find this book worthwhile. Anarchists will also find this book helpful because Berkman shows how to explain anarchism on an intuitive level.
Of course, Goldman and Berkman were among the many hundreds of non-naturalized Americans who were deported during the Mitchell Palmer Red Scare of 1919 for actively speaking out against American participation in World War I. Berkman himself was a terribly reviled figure. He served prison time for attempting to murder Henry Clay Frick while the latter was killing strikers and successfully crushing the union movement at Andrew Carnegie's steel plants in Homestead Pennsylvania in 1892.In this book Berkman gives a history of some of the martyrs in the struggle for the dignity of labor in the United States. He notes the case of the militant union activist Tom Mooney. An investigator from the Department of Labor concluded that the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce had been actively trying to frame Mooney for a variety of crimes. Mooney kept getting arrested and released but during a preparedness day parade in San Francisco in 1916 a bomb went off and Mooney, along with Warren Billings, was charged with having personally set off the bomb. Berkman notes that after Mooney's conviction many police witnesses came forward ( they were backed in this by the sworn testimony of three police officials) and said that they had been bribed and threatened so that they would perjure themselves. However Mooney's death sentence was only commuted to life imprisonment and he remained in prison until 1938.
From reading Goldman's and Pateman's introductory notes to this book I thought that the book might be a little patronizing when it was said that it was intentionally constructed with the most simplicity possible in order that the general worker might comprehend anarchism. But it is anything but patronizing. In this book Berkman exhorts the worker to understand how foolish she is to believe that she has the same interests as her bosses and how workers are duped into fighting wars for imperialism and profit.
He exhorts the working class to understand that it is the laborers who create the wealth of society not the bosses who shuffle papers, speculate on the stock market and figure out how to squeeze more work out of laborers while maximizing profits. It is the workers who should manage business enterprises themselves. He outlines his industrial syndicalist method which he believes provides the best chance to bring this society about. Workers should form councils in their individual workplaces made up of workers of all skill levels and crafts. These councils especially need to attract professionals like engineers. Industries of course need managers trained in technical matters but these managers are merely administrators of the industrial plans laid out for them by the workers of an individual firm and offer advice but certainly do not have any authority over the workers. All the workers need to acquire the basic outline of the sciences and methods of operation required to run their industries according to Berkman. The worker's council in one firm federates with other worker's councils at the local, regional and national levels.
Berkman explains that incentives to workers are pretty irrelevant. When one sees a lazy worker it is evidence that they are being forced into a line of work that is not stimulating to them. Under anarchism everyone will have the ability to be educated and trained for a line of work of their own choosing, to explore the possibilities of their own intellects, unhindered by the need to survive by enrolling in wage slavery for some job you don't like.
When workers have a direct ability to manage their own affairs in voluntary cooperation with their fellows, it exercises their intellects and gives them self-respect. It is quite the opposite in capitalism of course where the worker is directed and bullied and squeezed by the boss day in and day out.. It was this idea that inspired the Russian revolution, Berkman observes. The Bolsheviks on the contrary believed in a hierarchal one party dictatorship but in the several months before November 1917 they embraced anarchist ideas and rode to power on them. However within six months the soviets (workers councils) of the Russian soldiers, workers and peasants were emasculated, becoming only tools of a centralized dictatorship. The spirit of voluntarism and sacrifice evaporated which had motivated many poor and miserable Russians to defend their cities against the White armies and help get the factories and farms moving again. The philosophy of the Bolsheviks, as Berkman quotes Bukharin, was to make socialists out of Russians by making them undergo compulsory labor and executing anyone who objected. Having no say in how their country was governed, Russian workers and peasants lost enthusiasm for work. Workers started to desert their factors for rural areas. Bolshevik hoodlums came around to villages and terrorized people and requisitioned entire villages' agricultural produce. Then famine came along. Bolshevik commissars received the best rations of all and lived in decent comfort while the rest of the population starved. No one gave more fuel to the fire of counterrevolution than the Bolsheviks' own policies.
Berkman was a very courageous man. He could have been a good soldier and kept quiet about what was going on in Russia and hoped that things would get better. The refuge he and Emma Goldman found in Russia after 1919 was now closed to them and for the rest of his life he lived in France on a very precarious passport, deported a number of times but always managing to get some strings pulled to get back in. He committed suicide in 1936, too soon for him to see the anarchist revolution in Spain.
His discussion of the bourgeois criminal justice system and the proper treatment of counterrevolutionaries is interesting and thoughtful.
Regardless of what you call it, Berkman's summation progresses logically. The first chapters tackle the desires of the common people he addresses to shake free their dependence on capitalism and wage slavery. He raises the flaws of law, government, the system we labor under now as then, lack of work, war, church and school as indoctrinating us to accept the powers that be, the need for justice, the shortcomings of the Socialist parties who call for reform within the system rather than its replacement, the similar drawbacks of unions (unless the IWW), and the pros and cons of socialism.
The next section takes us to the USSR. Berkman in five chapters narrates the good and bad of the Bolshevik rise. He critiques it for using the anarchist goals to manipulate the beliefs of the Russians, and he condemns it as the Party cracked down on dissidents, and claimed to act on behalf of the people. His look at the dictatorship, by the end of the 1920s, is certainly prescient, and already, he fears the coming of a greater war, a decade before it transpired. While this subject might have benefited from the first-person perspective his partner Emma Goldman provides in her works, Berkman prefers to let the theory talk, and he steps away from self-aggrandizement, staying transparent.
The final section returns to the vexed debate over violence. He admits that it may play a role, for the anarchist may feel more deeply the injustice he or she fights against. He disagrees with other anarchists, the individualists and the mutualists, but this chapter is too brief to convince those from those positions, and Berkman includes this material almost as an aside. He focuses on the communist version, which avoids crediting a worker for what he or she produces in the form of wages or even barter. He passes over the latter as insufficient rapidly, and this alternative needed more attention in his counter-argument. Likewise, he glosses over the relevant question of how opposition to anarchism will fare in his future, and he reasons that gradually it will be accepted as preferable, for how can the anarchists, logically, resist the bombs and armies of capitalists? The only solution? Change the ideas.
That is, get people to think differently. A political revolution alone as in the Soviet Union will fail. Unless people take in the liberty and equality inherent in anarchism as achievable on a small level and then a larger one, adopting it into a social revolution, it will not succeed. He compares this evolution to a tea pot, on the boil. It needs the fire underneath to warm up. Similarly, the fire comes from the people, who unite to allow both their individual talents to take root and their collective organization to build the new structures in the shell of the old. Idealistic, sure, and this can be a continued shortcoming of such utopian ideals. But readers willing to give Berkman a chance will find much in this thoughtful, accessible overview to open up their actions to left-libertarian possibilities.
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