From: Alexander Berkman, Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism, New York: Vanguard Press, 1929.
What Is Communist Anarchism?
HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS
But take a closer look at it and see how the system 'works'.
Consider how life and its real meaning have become turned upside down and topsy-turvy. See how your own existence is poisoned and made miserable by the crazy arrangement.
Wherein is the purpose of your life, where the joy of it?
The earth is rich and beautiful, the bright sunshine should gladden your heart. Man's genius and labor have conquered the forces of nature and harnessed the lightning and the air to the service of humanity. Science and invention, human industry and toil have produced untold wealth. We've bridged the shoreless seas, the steam engine has annihilated distance, the electric spark and gasoline motor have unfettered man from the earth and chained even the atmosphere to do his bidding. We have triumphed over space, and the farthest corners of the globe have been brought close together. The human voice now circles the hemispheres, and through the azure there dart-fleet messengers, carrying man's greeting to all the peoples of the world.
Yet the people groan under heavy burdens, and there is no joy in their hearts. Their lives are full of misery, their souls cold with want and need. Poverty and crime fill every land; thousands are a prey to disease and insanity, war slaughters millions and brings to the living tyranny and oppression.
Why all this misery and murder in a world so rich and beautiful? Why all the pain and sorrow upon an earth so full of nature's bounty and sunshine? 'It's God's will,' says the church.
'People are bad, 'says the lawmaker.
'It must be so,' says the fool.
Is it true? Must it really be so?
You and I and each of us, we all want to live. We have but one life and we want to make the best of it - rightly so. We want some joy and sunshine while we live. What will happen to us when we are dead, we don't know. No one knows. The chances are that once dead we'll stay dead. But whether so or not, while we live our whole being hungers for joy and laughter, for sunshine and happiness. Nature has made us that way. Made you and me, and millions of others like us, to long for life and joy. Is it right and just that we should be deprived of it and forever remain the slaves of a handful of men who lord it over us and over life?
Can that be 'God's will', as the church tells you?
But if there be a God, he must be just. Would he permit us to be cheated and despoiled of life and its joys? If there be a God, he must be our father, and all men his children. Would a good father let some of his children go hungry and miserable while others have so much they don't know what to do with it? Would he suffer thousands, even millions, of his children to be killed and slaughtered, just for the glory of some king or the profit of the capitalist? Would he sanction injustice, outrage, and murder? No, my friend, you cannot believe that of a good father, of a just God. If people tell you that God wants such things they Just lie to you.
Maybe you say that God is good, but it is people who are bad, and that is why things are so wrong in the world.
But if people are bad, who made them so? Surely you don't believe that God made people bad, because in that case he himself would be responsible for it. Then it means that if people are bad, something else has made them so. That may well be. Let us look into it
Let us see how people are, what they are, and how they live. Let us see how you live.
From your earliest childhood it has been drilled into you that you must become successful, must 'make money'. Money means comfort security, power. It does not matter who you are, you are valued by what you are 'worth', by the size of your bank account. So you have been taught, and everybody else has been taught the same. Can you wonder that every one's life becomes a chase for money, for the dollar and your whole existence is turned into a struggle for possession, for wealth?
The money hunger grows on what it feeds. The poor man struggles for a living, for a bit of comfort. The well-to- do man wants greater riches to give him security and protect him against the fear of to-morrow. And when he becomes a big banker he must not relax his efforts, he must keep a sharp eye on his competitors, for fear of losing the race to some other man.
So every one is compelled to take part in the wild chase, and the hunger for possession gets ever stronger hold of man. It becomes the most important part of life; every thought is on money, all the energies are bent on getting rich, and presently the thirst for wealth becomes a mania, a madness that possesses those who have and those who have not.
Thus life has lost its sole true meaning of joy and beauty; existence has become an unreasoning, wild dance around the golden calf, a mad worship of God Mammon. In that dance and in that worship man has sacrificed all his finer qualities of heart and soul - kindness and justice honor and manhood, compassion and sympathy with his fellow-man.
'Each for himself and the devil take the hindmost' - that must perforce become the principle and urge of most people under such conditions. Is it any wonder that in this mad money chase are developed the worst traits of man - greed, envy, hatred, and the basest passions? Man grows corrupt and evil; he becomes mean and unjust; he resorts to deceit, theft, and murder.
Look closer about you and see how many wrongs and crimes are perpetrated in your city, in your country, in the world at large, for money, for property, for possession. See how full the world is of poverty and misery, see the thousands falling a prey to disease and insanity, to folly and outrage, to suicide and murder - all because of the inhuman and brutalizing conditions we live under.
Truly has the wise man said that money is the root of all evil. Wherever you look you will see the corroding and degrading effect of money, of possession, of the mania to have and to hold. Every one is wild to get, to grab by hook or crook, to accumulate as much as he can, so that he may enjoy to-day and secure himself for to-morrow.
But can you therefore say that man is bad? Is he not compelled to take part in this money chase by the conditions of existence, by the crazy system we live in? For you have no choice - you must get into the race or go under.
Is it your fault, then, that life forces you to be and act like that? Is it the fault of your brother or your neighbor or of any one? Is it not rather that we are all born into this mad scheme of things and that we have to fall into line?
But is not the scheme itself wrong that makes us act like that? Think it over and you will see that at heart you are not bad at all, but that conditions often compel you to do things that you know are wrong. You would rather not do them. When you can afford it, your urge is to be kind and helpful to others. But if you should follow your inclinations in this direction, you would neglect your own interests and you would soon be in want yourself.
So the conditions of existence suppress and stifle the instincts of kindness and humanity in us, and harden us against the need and misery of our fellow-man.
You will see this in every phase of existence, in all the relations of men, all through our social life. Of course, if our interests were the same, there would be no need of any one taking advantage of another. Because what would be good for Jack would also be good for Jim. To be sure, as human beings, as children of one humanity, we really do have the same interests. But as members of a foolish and criminal social arrangement, our present-day capitalist system, our interests are not at all the same. In fact, the interests of the different classes in society are opposed to each other; they are inimical and antagonistic, as I have pointed out in preceding chapters.
That is why you see men taking advantage of each other when they can profit by it, when their interests dictate it. In business, in commerce, in the relations between employer and employee - everywhere you will find this principle at work. Every one is trying to get ahead of the other fellow Competition becomes the soul of capitalistic life, beginning with the billionaire banker, the great manufacturer and lord of industry, all through the social and financial scale, down to the last worker in the factory. For even the workers are compelled to compete with each other for jobs and better pay.
In this way our whole life becomes a struggle of man against man, of class against class. In that struggle every method is used to achieve success, to down your competitor, to raise yourself above him by every means possible.
It is clear that such conditions will develop and cultivate the worst qualities of man. It is just as clear that the law will protect those who have power and influence, the rich and the wealthy, however they got their riches. The poor man must inevitably get the worst of it under such circumstances. He will try to do the same as the rich man does. But as he has not the same opportunity to advance his interests under the protection of the law, he will often attempt it outside of the law and he will fall into its meshes. Though he did nothing more than the rich man - took advantage of some one, cheated some one - he did it 'illegally', and you call him a criminal.
Look at that poor boy, for instance, on the street corner there. He is ragged, pale, and half-starved. He sees another boy, the son of wealthy parents, and that boy wears nice clothes, he is well fed, and he does not even deign to play with the poor kid. The ragged boy is angry at him he resents and hates the rich boy. And everywhere the poor boy goes he experiences the same thing: he is ignored and scorned, often kicked about - he feels people don't think him as good as the rich boy, to whom every one is respectful and attentive. The poor boy gets embittered. And when he grows up, he again sees the same thing: the rich are admired and respected, the poor are kicked about and looked down upon. So the poor boy gets to hate his poverty, and he thinks of how e might become rich, get money, and he tries to get it in any way he an, by taking advantage of others, as others have always taken advantage of him, by cheating and lying, and sometimes even by committing crime.
Then you say that he is 'bad'. But don't you see what made him bad? Don't you see that the conditions of his whole life have made him what he is? And don't you see that the system which keeps up such conditions is a greater criminal than the petty thief? The law will step in and punish him, but is it not the same law that permits those bad conditions to exist and upholds the system that makes criminals?
Think it over and see if it is not the law itself, the government which really creates crime by compelling people to live in conditions hat make them bad. See how law and government uphold and protect he biggest crime of all, the mother of all crimes, the capitalistic wage system, and then proceeds to punish the poor criminal.
Consider: does it make any difference whether you do wrong protected by the law, or whether you do it unlawfully? The thing is the same and the effects are the same. Worse even: legal wrongdoing is the greater evil because it causes more misery and injustice than illegal wrong. Lawful crime goes on all the time; it is not punishable and it is made easy, while unlawful crime is not so frequent and is more limited in its scope and effect.
Who causes more misery: the rich manufacturer reducing the wages of thousands of workers to swell his profits, or the jobless man stealing something to keep from starving?
Who commits the greater wrong: the wife of the industrial magnate spending a thousand dollars for a silver collar for her lapdog, or the underpaid girl in the magnate's department store unable to withstand temptation and appropriating some trinket?
Who is the greater criminal: the speculator cornering the wheat market and making a million-dollar profit by raising the price of the poor man's bread, or the homeless tramp committing some theft?
Who is the greater enemy of man: the greedy coal baron responsible for the sacrifice of human lives in his badly ventilated and dangerous mines, or the desperate man guilty of assault and robbery?
It is not the wrongs and crimes punishable by law that cause the greatest evil in the world. It is the lawful wrongs and unpunishable crimes, justified and protected by law and government, that fill the earth with misery and want, with strife and conflict, with class struggles, slaughter, and destruction.
We hear much about crime and criminals, about burglary and robbery, about offenses against person and property. The columns of the daily press are filled with such reports. It is considered the 'news' of the
But do you hear much about the crimes of capitalistic industry and business? Do the papers tell you anything about the constant robbery and theft represented by low wages and high prices? Do they write much about the widespread misery caused by market speculation, by adulterating food, by the thousand and one other forms of fraud, extortion, and usury on which business and trade thrive? Do they tell you of the wrong and evils, of the poverty, of the broken hearts and blasted hearths of disease and premature death, of desperation and suicide that follow in constant and regular procession in the wake of the capitalist system?
Do they tell you of the woe and worry of the thousands thrown out of work, no one caring whether they live or die? Do they tell you about the starvation wages paid to women and girls in our industries, pittances, that directly compel many of them to prostitute their bodies to help eke out a living? Do they tell you of the army of unemployed that capitalism holds ready to take the bread from your mouth when you go on strike for better pay? Do they tell you that unemployment, with all its heartache, suffering, and misery is due directly to the system of capitalism? Do they tell you how the wage slave's toil and sweat are coined into profits for the capitalist? How the worker's health, his mind and body are sacrificed to the greed of the lords of industry? How labor and lives are wasted in stupid capitalist competition and planless production?
Indeed, they tell you a lot about crimes and criminals, about the 'badness' and 'evil' of man, especially of the 'lower' classes, of the workers. But they don't tell you that capitalist conditions produce most of our evils and crime, and that capitalism itself is the greatest crime of all; that it devours more lives in a single day than all the murderers put together. The destruction of life and property caused by criminals throughout the world since human life began is mere child's play when compared with the ten millions killed and twenty millions wounded and the incalculable havoc and misery wrought by a single capitalist event, the recent World War. That stupendous holocaust was the legitimate child of capitalism, as all wars of conquest and gain are the result of the conflicting financial and commercial interests of the international bourgeoisie. It was a war for profits, as later admitted even by Woodrow Wilson and his class.
Profits again, as you see. Coining human flesh and blood into profits in the name of patriotism.
'Patriotism!' you protest; 'why, that is a noble cause!'
'And unemployment,' inquires your friend, 'is capitalism responsible for that, too? Is it the fault of my boss that he has no work for me?'
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