Memoirs of a Revolutionist: Part Four, Ch. 8
This text was taken from the 1st edition of Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1899.




    THE next year, early in the spring, I made my first journey to Western Europe. In crossing the Russian frontier, I experienced what every Russian feels on leaving his mother country. So long as the train runs on Russian ground, through the thinly populated northwestern provinces, one has the feeling of crossing a desert. Hundreds of miles are covered with low growths which hardly deserve the name of forests. Here and there the eye discovers a small, miserably poor village buried in the snow, or an impracticable, muddy, narrow, and winding village road. Then everything -- scenery and surroundings -- changes all of a sudden, as soon as the train enters Prussia, with its clean looking villages and farms, its gardens, and its paved roads; and the sense of contrast grows stronger and stronger as one penetrates further into Germany. Even dull Berlin seemed animated, after our Russian towns.

    And the contrast of climate ! Two days before, I had left St. Petersburg thickly covered with snow, and now, in middle Germany, I walked without an overcoat along the railway platform, in warm sunshine, admiring the budding flowers. Then came the Rhine, and further on Switzerland bathed in the rays of a bright sun, with its small, clean hotels, where breakfast was served out of doors, in view of the snow-clad mountains. I never before had realized so vividly what Russia's northern position meant, and how the history of the Russian nation had been influenced by the fact that the main centre of its life had to develop in high latitudes, as far north as the shores of the Gulf of Finland. Only then I fully understood the uncontrollable attraction which southern lands have exercised on the Russians, the colossal efforts which they have made to reach the Black Sea, and the steady pressure of the Siberian colonists southward, further into Manchuria.

    At that time Zürich was full of Russian students' both women and men. The famous Oberstrass, near the Polytechnic, was a corner of Russia, where the Russian language prevailed over all others. The students lived as most Russian students do, especially the women; that is, upon very little. Tea and bread, some milk, and a thin slice of meat cooked over a spirit lamp, amidst animated discussions of the latest news from the socialistic world or the last book read, --- that was their regular fare. Those who had more money than was needed for such a mode of living gave it for the common cause, --- the library, the Russian review which was going to be published, the support of the Swiss labor papers. As to their dress, the most parsimonious economy reigned in that direction. Pushkin has written in a well-known verse, "What hat may not suit a girl of sixteen?" Our girls at Zürich seemed defiantly to throw this question at the population of the old Zwinglian city: "Can there be a simplicity in dress which does not become a girl, when she is young, intelligent, and full of energy?"

    With all this, the busy little community worked harder than any other students have ever worked since there were universities in existence, and the Zürich professors were never tired of showing the progress accomplished by the women at the university, as an example to the male students.

    For many years I had longed to learn all about the International Workingmen's Association. Russian papers mentioned it pretty frequently in their columns, but they were not allowed to speak of its principles or of what it was doing. I felt that it must be a great movement, full of consequences, but I could not grasp its aims and tendencies. Now that I was in Switzerland, I determined to satisfy my

    The association was then at the height of its development. Great hopes had been awakened in the years 1840~ 48 in the hearts of European workers. Only now we begin to realize what a formidable amount of socialist literature was circulated in those years by socialists of all denominations, -- Christian socialists, state socialists, Fourierists, Saint-Simonists, Owenites, and so on; and only now we begin to understand the depth of this movement, as we discover how much of what our generation has considered the product of contemporary thought was already developed and said -- often with great penetration -- during those years. The republicans understood then under the name of "republic" a quite different thing from the democratic organization of capitalist rule which now goes under that name. When they spoke of the United States of Europe, they transformed into tools, and those tools used by all members of society for the benefit of all, -- "the iron returned to the laborer," as Pierre Dupont said in one of his songs. They meant not only the reign of equality as regards criminal law and political rights, but particularly economic equality. The nationalists themselves saw in their dreams Young Italy, Young Germany, and Young Hungary taking the lead in far-reaching agrarian and economic reforms.

    The defeat of the June insurrection at Paris, of Hungary by the armies of Nicholas I., and of Italy by the French and the Austrians, and the fearful reaction, political and intellectual, which followed everywhere in Europe, totally destroyed that movement. Its literature, its achievements, its very principles of economic revolution and universal brotherhood, were simply forgotten, lost, during the next twenty years.

    However, one idea had survived, -- the idea of an international brotherhood of all workers, which a few French emigrants continued to preach in the United States, and the followers of Robert Owen in England. The understanding which was reached by some English workers and a few French workers' delegates to the London International Exhibition of 1862 became the starting-point for a formidable movement, which soon spread all over Europe, and included several million workers. The hopes which had been dormant for twenty years were awakened once more, when the workers were called upon to unite, "without distinction of creed, sex, nationality, race, or color," to proclaim that "the emancipation of the workers must be their own work," and to throw the weight of a strong, united, international organization into the evolution of mankind, -- not in the name of love and charity, but in the name of justice, of the force that belongs to a body of men moved by a reasoned consciousness of their own aims and aspirations.

    Two strikes at Paris, in 1868 and 1869, more or less helped by small contributions sent from abroad, especially from England, insignificant though they were in themselves, and the prosecutions which the French imperial government directed against the International, became the origin of an immense movement in which the solidarity of the workers of all nations was proclaimed in the face of the rivalries of the states. The idea of an international union of all trades, and of a struggle against capital with the aid of international support, carried away the most indifferent of the workers. The movement spread like wildfire in France, Italy, and Spain, bringing to the front a great number of intelligent, active, and devoted workers, and attracting to it a few decidedly superior men and women from the wealthier educated classes. A force, never before suspected to exist, grew stronger every day in Europe; and if the movement had not been arrested in its growth by the Franco-German war, great things would probably have happened in Europe, deeply modifying the aspects of our civilization, and undoubtedly accelerating human progress; but the Germans brought about abnormal conditions; for a quarter of a century the normal development and threw all Europe into the period of militarism living at the present time.

    All sorts of partial solutions of the great social question had currency at that time among the workers: coöperation, productive associations supported by the state, people's banks, gratuitous credit, and so on. Each of these solutions was brought before the "sections" of the association, and then before the local, regional, national, and international congresses, and eagerly discussed. Every annual congress of the association marked a new step in advance, in the development of ideas about the great social problem which stands before our generation and calls for a solution. The amount of intelligent things which were said at these congresses, and of scientifically correct, deeply thought over ideas which were circulated, -- all being the results of the collective thought of the workers, -- has never yet been sufficiently appreciated; but there is no exaggeration in saying that all schemes of social reconstruction which are now in vogue under the name of "scientific socialism" or "anarchism" had their origin in the discussions and reports of the different congresses of the International Association. The few educated men who joined the movement have only put into a theoretical shape the criticisms and the aspirations which were expressed in the sections, and subsequently in the congresses, by the workers themselves.

    The war of 1870-71 had hampered the development of the association, but had not stopped it. In all the industrial centres of Switzerland numerous and animated sections of the International existed, and thousands of workers flocked to their meetings, at which war was declared upon the existing system of private ownership of land and factories, and the near end of the capitalist system was proclaimed. Local congresses were held in various parts of the country, and at each of these gatherings the most arduous and difficult problems of the present social organization were discussed, with a knowledge of the matter and a depth of conception which alarmed the middle classes even more than did the numbers of adherents who joined the sections, or groups, of the International. The jealousies and prejudices which had hitherto existed in Switzerland between the privileged trades (the watchmakers and the jewelers) and the rougher trades (weavers, and so on), and which had prevented joint action in labor disputes, were disappearing. The workers asserted with increasing emphasis that, of all the divisions which exist in modern society, by far the most important is that between the owners of capital and those who come into the world penniless, and are doomed to remain producers of wealth for the favored few.

    Italy, especially middle and northern Italy, was honey combed with groups and sections of the International and in these the Italian unity so long struggled for was declared a mere illusion. The workers were called upon to make their own revolution, -- to take the land for the peasants and the factories for the workers themselves, and to abolish the oppressive centralized organization of the state, whose historical mission always was to protect and to maintain the exploitation of man by man.

    In Spain, similar organizations covered Catalonia, Valencia, and Andalusia; they with, the powerful labor were supported by and united with unions of Barcelona, which had already introduced the eight hours' day in the building trades. The International had no less than eighty thousand regularly paying Spanish members; it embodied all the active and thinking elements of the population; and by its distinct refusal to meddle with the political intrigues during 1871-72 it had drawn to itself in a very high degree the sympathies of the masses. The proceedings of its provincial and national congresses, and the manifestoes which they issued, were models of a severe logical criticism of the existing conditions, as well as admirably lucid statements of the workers' ideals.

    In Belgium, Holland, and even in Portugal, the same movement was spreading, and it had already brought into the association the great mass and the best elements of the Belgian coal miners and weavers. In England, the always conservative trade unions had also joined the movement, at least in principle, and, without committing themselves to socialism, were ready to support their Continental brethren in direct struggles against capital, especially in strikes. In Germany, the socialists had concluded a union with the rather numerous followers of La Salle, and the first foundations of a social democratic party had been laid. Austria and Hungary followed in the same track; and although no international organization was possible at that time in France, after the defeat of the Commune and the reaction which followed (Draconic laws having been enacted against the adherents of the association), every one was persuaded, nevertheless, that this period of reaction would not last, and that France would soon join the association again and take the lead in it.

    When I came to Zürich, I joined one of the local sections of the International Workingmen's Association. I also asked my Russian friends where I could learn more about the great movement which was going on in other countries. "Read," was their reply, and my sister-in-law, who was then studying at Zürich, brought me large numbers of books and collections of newspapers for the last two years. I spent days and nights in reading, and received a deep impression which nothing will efface; the flood of new thoughts awakened is associated in my mind with a tiny clean room in the Oberstrass, commanding from a window a view of the blue lake, with the mountains beyond it, where the Swiss fought for their independence, and the high spires of the old town, -- that scene of so many religious struggles.

    Socialistic literature has never been rich in books. It is written for workers, for whom one penny is money, and its main force lies in its small pamphlets and its newspapers. Moreover, he who seeks for information about socialism finds in books little of what he requires most. They contain the theories or the scientific arguments in favor of socialist aspirations, but they give no idea how the workers accept socialist ideals, and how the latter could be put into practice. There remains nothing but to take collections of papers and read them all through, -- the news as well as the leading articles, the former perhaps even more than the latter. Quite a new world of social relations and methods of thought and action is revealed by this reading, which gives an insight into what cannot be found anywhere else, -- namely, the depth and the moral force of the movement the degree to which men are imbued with the new theories, their readiness to carry them out in their daily life and to suffer for them. All discussions about the impracticability of socialism and the necessary slowness of evolution are of little value, because the speed of evolution can only be judged from a close knowledge of the human beings of whose evolution we are speaking. What estimate of a sum can be made without knowing its components?

    The more I read, the more I saw that there was before me a new world, unknown to me, and totally unknown to the learned makers of sociological theories, -- a world that I could know only by living in the Workingmen's Association and by meeting the workers in their every-day life. I decided, accordingly, to spend a couple of months in such a life. My Russian friends encouraged me, and after a few days' stay at Zürich I left for Geneva, which was then a great centre of the international movement.

    The place where the Geneva sections used to meet was the spacious Masonic Temple Unique. More than two thousand men could come together in its large hall, at the general meetings, while every evening all sorts of committee and section meetings took place in the side rooms, or classes in history, physics, engineering, and so on were held. Free instruction was given there to the workers by the few, very few, middle-class men who had joined the movement, mainly French refugees of the Paris Commune. It was a people's university as well as a people's forum.

    One of the chief leaders of the movement at the Temple Unique was a Russian, Nicholas Ootin, -- a bright, clever, and active man; and the real soul of it was a most sympathetic Russian lady, who was known far and wide amongst the workers as Madame Olga. She was the working force in all the committees. Both Ootin and Madame Olga received me cordially, made me acquainted with all the men of mark in the sections of the different trades, and invited me to be present at the committee meetings. So I went, but I preferred being with the workers themselves. Taking a glass of sour wine at one of the tables in the hall, I used to sit there every evening amid the workers, and soon became friendly with several of them, especially with a stone-mason from Alsace, who had left France after the insurrection of the Commune. He had children, just about the age of the two whom my brother had so suddenly lost a few months before, and through the children I was soon on good terms with the family and their friends. I could thus follow the movement from the inside, and know the workers' view of it.

    The workers had built all their hopes on the international movement. Young and old flocked to the Temple Unique after their long day's work, to get hold of the scraps of instruction which they could obtain there, or to listen to the speakers who promised them a grand future, based upon the common possession of all that man requires for the production of wealth, and upon a brotherhood of men, without distinction of caste, race, or nationality. All hoped that a great social revolution, peaceful or not, would soon come and totally change the economic conditions. No one desired class war, but all said that if the ruling classes rendered it unavoidable through their blind obstinacy, the war must be fought, provided it would bring with it well-being and liberty to the downtrodden masses.

    One must have lived among the workers at that time to realize the effect which the sudden growth of the association had upon their minds, -- the trust they put in it, the love with which they spoke of it, the sacrifices they made for it. Every day, week after week and year after year, thousands of workers gave their time and their money, even went hungry, in order to support the life of each group, to secure the appearance of the papers, to defray the expenses of the congresses, to support the comrades who had suffered for the association, -- nay, even to be present at the meetings and the manifestations. Another thing that impressed me deeply was the elevating influence which the International exercised. Most of the Paris Internationalists were almost total abstainers from drink, and all had abandoned smoking. "Why should I nurture in myself that weakness?" they said. The mean, the trivial disappeared to leave room for the grand, the elevating inspirations.

    Outsiders never realize the sacrifices which are made by the workers in order to keep their labor movements alive. No small amount of moral courage was required to join openly a section of the International Association, and to face the discontent of the master and a probable dismissal at the opportunity, with the long month out of work which usually followed. But even under the best circumstances, belonging to a trade union, or to any advanced party, requires a series of uninterrupted sacrifices. Even a few pence given for the common cause represent a burden on the meagre budget of the European worker, and many pence had to be disbursed every week. Frequent attendance at the meetings means a sacrifice, too. For us it may be a pleasure to spend a couple of hours at a meeting, but for men whose working day begins at five or six in the morning those hours have to be stolen from necessary rest.

    I felt this devotion as a standing reproach. I saw how eager the workers were to gain instruction, and despairingly few were those who volunteered to aid them. I saw how much the toiling masses needed to be helped by men possessed of education and leisure, in their endeavors to spread and to develop the organization; but few were those who came to assist without the intention of making political capital out of this very helplessness of the people ! More and more I began to feel that I was bound to cast in my lot with them. Stepniák says, in his "Career of a Nihilist," that every revolutionist has had a moment in his life when some circumstance, maybe unimportant in itself, has brought him to pronounce his oath of giving himself to the cause of revolution. I know that moment; I lived through it after one of the meetings at the Temple Unique, when I felt more acutely than ever before how cowardly are the educated men who hesitate to put their education, their knowledge, their energy, at the service of those who are so much in need of that education and that energy. "Here are men," I said to myself, "who are conscious of their servitude, who work to get rid of it; but where are the helpers? Where are those who will come to serve the masses -- not to utilize them for their own ambitions?"

    Gradually, however, some doubts began to creep into my mind about the soundness of the agitation which was carried on at the Temple Unique. One night, a well-known Geneva lawyer, Monsieur A., came to the meeting, and stated that if he had not hitherto joined the association, it was because he had first to settle his own business affairs having now succeeded in that direction, he came to join the labor movement. I felt shocked at this cynical avowal, and when I communicated my reflections to my stone-mason friend, he explained to me that this gentleman, having been defeated at the previous election, when he sought the support of the radical party, now hoped to be elected by the support of the labor vote. "We accept their services for the present," my friend concluded, "but when the revolution comes, our first move will be to throw all of them overboard."

    Then came a great meeting, hastily convoked, to protest, as it was said, against "the calumnies" of the "Journal de Genève." This organ of the moneyed classes of Geneva had ventured to suggest that mischief was brewing at the Temple Unique, and that the building trades were going once more to make a general strike, such as they had made in 1869. The leaders at the Temple Unique called the meeting. Thousands of workers filled the hall, and Ootin asked them to pass a resolution, the wording of which seemed to me very strange, -- an indignant protest was expressed in it against the inoffensive suggestion that the workers were going to strike. "Why should this suggestion be described as a calumny?" I asked myself. "Is it then a crime to strike?" Ootin concluded a hurried speech with the words, "If you agree, citizens, to this resolution, I will send it at once to the press." He was going to leave the platform, when somebody in the hall suggested that discussion would not be out of place, and then the representatives of all branches of the building trades stood up in succession, saying that the wages had lately been so low that they could hardly live upon them; that with the opening of the spring there was plenty of work in view, of which they intended to take advantage to increase their wages; and that if an increase were refused they intended to begin a general strike.

    I was furious, and next day hotly reproached Ootin for his behavior. "As a leader," I told him, "you were bound to know that a strike had really been spoken of." In my innocence I did not suspect the real motives of the leaders, and it was Ootin himself who made me understand that a strike at that time would be disastrous for the election of the lawyer, Monsieur A.

     I could not reconcile this wire-pulling by the leaders with the burning speeches I had heard them pronounce from the platform. I felt disheartened, and spoke to Ootin of my intention to make myself acquainted with the other section of the International Association at Geneva, which was known as the Bakúnists; the name "anarchist" was not much in use then. Ootin gave me at once a word of introduction to another Russian, Nicholas Joukóvsky, who belonged to that section, and, looking straight into my face, he added, with a sigh, "Well, you won't return to us; you will remain with them." He had guessed right.

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