From: Alexander Berkman, Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism, New York: Vanguard Press, 1929.
What Is Communist Anarchism?
I: What Do You Want Out Of Life?
What is it that every one wants most in life? What do you want most?
After all, we are all the same under our skins. Whoever you be - man or woman, rich or poor, aristocrat or tramp, white, yellow, red or black, of whatever land, nationality, or religion - we are all alike in feeling cold and hunger, love and hate; we all fear disaster and disease, and try to keep away from harm and death.
What you most want out of life, what you fear most, that also is true, in the main, of your neighbor.
Learned men have written big books, many of them, on sociology, psychology, and many other 'ologies', to tell you what you want, but no two of those books ever agree. And yet I think that you know very well without them what you want.
They have studied and written and speculated so much about this, for them so difficult a question, that you, the individual, have become entirely lost in their philosophies. And they have at last come to the conclusion that you, my friend, don't count at all. What's important, they say, is not you, but 'the whole', all the people together. This 'whole' they call 'society', 'the commonwealth', or 'the State', and the wiseacres have actually decided that it makes no difference if you, the individual, are miserable so long as 'society' is all right. Somehow they forget to explain how 'society' or 'the whole' can be all right if the single members of it are wretched.
So they go on spinning their philosophic webs and producing thick volumes to find out where you really enter in the scheme of things called life, and what you really want.
But you yourself know very well what you want, and so does your neighbor.
You want to be well and healthy; you want to be free, to serve no master, to crawl and humiliate yourself before no man; you want to have well-being for yourself, your family, and those near and dear to you. And not to be harassed and worried by the fear of to-morrow.
You may feel sure that every one else wants the same. So the whole matter seems to stand this way:
You want health, liberty, and well-being. Every one is like yourself in this respect.
Therefore we all seek the same thing in life.
Then why should we not all seek it together, by joint effort, helping each other in it?
Why should we cheat and rob, kill and murder each other, if we all seek the same thing? Aren't you entitled to the things you want as well as the next man?
Or is it that we can secure our health, liberty, and well-being better by fighting and slaughtering each other?
Or because there is no other way?
Let us look into this.
Does it not stand to reason that if we all want the same thing in life, if we have the same aim, then our interests must also be the same? In that case we should live like brothers, in peace and friendship; we should be good to each other, and help each other all we can.
But you know that it is not at all that way in life. You know that we do not live like brothers. You know that the world is full of strife and war, of misery, injustice, and wrong, of crime, poverty, and oppression.
Why is it that way then?
It is because, though we all have the same aim in life, our interests are different. It is this that makes all the trouble in the world. Just think it over yourself.
Suppose you want to get a pair of shoes or a hat. You go into the store and you try to buy what you need as reasonably and cheaply as you can. That is your interest. But the store-keeper's interest is to sell it to you as dearly as he can, because then his profit will be greater. That is because everything in the life we live is built on making a profit, one way or another. We live in a system of profit-making.
Now, it is plain that if we have to make profits out of each other, then our interests cannot be the same. They must be different and often even opposed to each other.
In every country you will find people who live by making a profit out of others. Those who make the biggest profits are rich. Those who cannot make profits are poor. The only people who cannot make any profits are the workers. You can therefore understand that the interests of the workers cannot be the same as the interests of the other people. That is why you will find in every country several classes of people with entirely different interests. Everywhere you will find:
(1) a comparatively small class of persons who make big profits and who are very rich, such as bankers, great manufacturers and land owners - people who have much capital and who are therefore called capitalists. These belong to the capitalist class;
(2) a class of more or less well-to-do people, consisting of business men and their agents, real estate men, speculators, and professional men, such as doctors, lawyers, inventors, and so on. This is the middle class or the bourgeoisie.
(3) great numbers of workingmen employed in various industries- in mills and mines, in factories and shops, in transport and on the land. This is the working class, also called the proletariat.
The bourgeoisie and the capitalists really belong to the same capitalistic class, because they have about the same interests, and therefore the people of the bourgeoisie also generally side with the capitalist class as against the working class.
You will find that the working class is always the poorest class, in every country. Maybe you yourself belong to the workers, to the proletariat. Then you know that your wages will never make you rich.
Why are the workers the poorest class? Surely they labor more than the other classes, and harder. Is it because the workers are not very important in the life of society? Perhaps we can even do without them?
Let us see. What do we need to live? We need food, clothing, and shelter; schools for our children; street cars and trains for travel, and a thousand and one other things.
Can you look about you and point out a single thing that was made without labor? Why, the shoes you stand in, and the streets you walk on, are the result of labor. Without labor there would be nothing but the bare earth, and human life would be entirely impossible.
So it means that labor has created everything we have - all the wealth of the world. It is all the product of labor applied to the earth and its natural resources.
But if all the wealth is the product of labor, then why does it not belong to labor? That is, to those who have worked with their hands or with their heads to create it - the manual worker and the brain worker.
Everybody agrees that a person has a right to own the thing that he himself has made.
But no one person has made or can make anything all by himself. It takes many men, of different trades and professions, to create something. The carpenter, for instance, cannot make a simple chair or bench all by himself; not even if he should cut down a tree and prepare the lumber himself. He needs a saw and a hammer, nails and tools, which he cannot make himself. And even if he should make these himself, he would first have to have the raw materials - steel and iron - which other men would have to supply.
Or take another example - let us say a civil engineer. He could do nothing without paper and pencil and measuring tools, and these things other people have to make for him. Not to mention that first he has to learn his profession and spend many years in study, while others enable him to live in the meantime. This applies to every human being in the world to- day.
You can see then that no person can by his own efforts alone make the things he needs to exist. In early times the primitive man who lived in a cave could hammer a hatchet out of stone or make himself a bow and arrow, and live by that. But those days are gone. To-day no man can live by his own work: he must be helped by the labor of others. Therefore all that we have, all wealth, is the product of the labor of many people, even of many generations. That is to say: all labor and the products of labor are social, made by society as a whole.
But if all the wealth we have is social, then it stands to reason that it should belong to society, to the people as a whole. How does it happen, then, that the wealth of the world is owned by some individuals and not by the people? Why does it not belong to those who have toiled to create it - the masses who work with hand or brain, the working class as a whole?
You know very well that it is the capitalistic class which owns the greatest part of the world's wealth. Must we therefore not conclude that the working people have lost the wealth they created, or that somehow it was taken away from them?
They did not lose it, for they never owned it. Then it must be that it was taken away from them.
This is beginning to look serious. Because if you say that the wealth they created has been taken away from the people who created it, then it means that it has been stolen from them, that they have been robbed, for surely no one has ever willingly consented to have his wealth taken away from him.
It is a terrible charge, but it is true. The wealth the workers have created, as a class, has indeed been stolen from them. And they are being robbed in the same way every day of their lives, even at this very moment. That is why one of the greatest thinkers, the French philosopher Proudhon, said that the possessions of the rich are stolen property.
You can readily understand how important it is that every honest man should know about this. And you may be sure that if the workers knew about it, they would not stand for it.
Let us see then how they are robbed and by whom.
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