From: Alexander Berkman, Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism, New York: Vanguard Press, 1929.
What Is Communist Anarchism?
THE FEBRUARY REVOLUTION
IN Russia the Bolsheviki, known as the Communist Party, are in control of the government. The Revolution of October,1917, put them in power.*
That Revolution was the most important event in the world since the French Revolution in 1789- 1793. It was even greater than the latter, because it went much deeper to the rock bottom of society. The French Revolution sought to establish political freedom and equality, believing that it would thereby also secure brotherhood and welfare for all. It was a mighty step in advance on the road of progress and it ultimately changed the entire political face of Europe. It abolished the monarchy in France, established a republic, and gave the death blow to feudalism, to the absolute rule of the church and the nobility. It influenced every country on the Continent along progressive lines, and helped to further democratic sentiment throughout Europe.
But fundamentally it altered nothing. It was a political revolution, to secure political rights and liberties. It did secure them. France is a "democracy" to-day and the motto, "Liberty, Brotherhood, Equality," is written even on every prison building. But it did not free man from exploitation and oppression; and that is, after all, the thing which is needed most.
The French Revolution put the middle classes, the bourgeoisie, into the government, in place of the aristocracy and nobility. It gave certain constitutional rights to the farmer and worker, who until then were mere serfs. But the power of the bourgeoisie, its industrial mastery, made the farmer its abject dependent and turned the city worker into a wage slave.
It could not be otherwise, because liberty is an empty sound as long as you are kept in bondage economically. As I have pointed out before, freedom means that you have the right to do a certain thing; but if you have no opportunity to do it, that right is sheer mockery. The opportunity lies in your economic condition, whatever the political situation may be. No political rights can be of the least use to the man who is compelled to slave all his life to keep himself and family from starvation.
Great as the French Revolution was as a step toward emancipation from the despotism of king and noble, it could accomplish nothing for the real freedom of man because it did not secure for him economic opportunity and independence.
It is for that reason that the Russian Revolution was a far more significant event than all the previous upheavals. It not only abolished the Tsar and his absolute sway; it did something more important: it destroyed theeconomic power of the possessing classes, of the land barons and industrial kings. For that reason it is the greatest happening in all history, the first and only time that such a thing has been tried.
This could not have been done by the French Revolution, because the people then still believed that political emancipation would be enough to make men free and equal. They did not realize that the basis of all liberty is economic. But that is by no means to the discredit of the French Revolution; the times were not ripe for a fundamental economic change.
Coming a hundred and twenty-eight years later, the Russian Revolution was more enlightened. It went to the root of the trouble. It knew that no political freedom would do .any good unless the peasants got the soil and the workers the factories in their possession, so. that they should not remain at the mercy of the land monopolists and the capitalistic owners of the industries.
Of course, the Russian Revolution did not accomplish this great work over night. Revolutions, like everything else, grow: they begin small, accumulate strength. develop, and broaden.
It was during the war that the Russian Revolution started, because of the dissatisfaction of the people at home and the army at the front. The country was tired of fighting; it was worn out by hunger and misery. The soldiers had had enough of slaughter; they began to ask why they must kill or be killed-and when soldiers begin asking questions, no war can continue much longer.
The despotism and corruption of the Tsarist government added oil to the fire. The court had become a public scandal, with the priest Rasputin debauching the Empress and through his influence over her and the Tsar controlling the affairs of State. Intrigues, bribery, and every form of venality were rampant. The army funds were stolen by high officials, and the soldiers were often forced to go into battle without enough ammunition and supplies. Their boots were paper-soled, and many had no footgear at all. Some regiments revolted; others refused to fight. More and more frequently the soldiers fraternized with the "enemy"---young men like themselves. who had the misfortune of being born in a different country; and who, like the Russians. had been ordered to war without knowing why they must shoot or be shot. Great numbers dropped their guns and returned home. There they told the folks about the fearful conditions at the front, the useless carnage, the wretchedness, and disaster. That helped to increase the discontent of the masses, and presently voices began to be beard against the Tsar and his régime.
Day by day this sentiment grew; it was fanned into flame by increased taxes and great want, by the shortage of food and provisions.
In February, 1917, the Revolution broke out. As usual in such cases, the powers that be were stricken with blindness.
The autocrat and his ministers, the aristocrats and their advisers all believed that it was just a matter of some street disorders, of strikes, and bread riots. They imagined themselves safe in the saddle. But the "disorder" continued. spreading over the entire country, and presently the Tsar saw himself forced to quit the throne. Before long the once mighty monarch was arrested and exiled to Siberia, where he himself had formerly sent thousands to their death, and where he and his whole family later met their doom.* The Russian autocracy was abolished. The February Revolution against the most powerful government in Europe was accomplished almost without firing a gun.*Executed by the Bolsheviki in Ekaterinburg, Siberia, in 1918.
"How could it be done so easily?" you wonder.
The Romanov regime was an absolutism; Russia under the Tsars was the most enslaved country in Europe. The people practically had no rights. The whim of the autocrat was supreme, the order of the police the highest law. The masses lived in poverty and suffered the greatest oppression. They longed for freedom.
For over a hundred years libertarians and revolutionists in Russia worked to undermine the regime of tyranny, to enlighten the people and rouse them to rebellion against their subjection. The history of that movement is replete with the consecration and devotion of the finest men and women. Thousands, even hundreds of thousands of them, lined the road of Golgotha, filling the prisons, tortured and done to death in the frozen wilds of Siberia. Beginning with the Decembrist attempt to secure a constitution, over a hundred years ago, all through the century, the fires of liberty were kept burning by the heroic self-sacrifice of the nihilists and revolutionists. The story of that great martyrdom has no equal in the annals of man.
Apparently it was a losing struggle, for the complete denial of freedom made it practically impossible for the pioneers of liberty to reach the people, to enlighten the masses. Tsardom was well protected by its numerous police and secret service, as well as by the official church, press, and school which trained the people in abject servility to the Tsar and unquestioning obedience to "law and order." Dire punishment was visited upon anyone daring to voice a liberal sentiment; the most severe laws punished even the attempt to teach the peasants to read and write. The government, the nobility, the clergy, and the bourgeoisie all combined, as usual, to stamp out and crush the least effort to enlighten the masses. Deprived of every means of spreading their ideas, the liberal elements in Russia were driven to the necessity of employing violence against the barbarous tyranny, of resorting to acts of terror in order by such means to mitigate, even to a small extent, the rule of despotism, and at the same time to compel the attention of their country and of the world at large to the unbearable conditions. It was this tragic necessity that gave rise in Russia to terroristic activities, turning idealists. to whom human life was sacred, into executioners of tyrants. Nature's noblemen they were, those men and women who willingly, even eagerly, gave their lives to lift the fearful yoke from the people. Like bright stars on the firmament of the age-long warfare between oppression and liberty stand out the names of Sophie Perovskaya, Kibaltchitch, Grinevitsky, Sasonov, and countless other martyrs, known and unknown, of darkest Russia.
It was a most uneven struggle, apparently a hopeless fight. For the revolutionists were but a handful as against the almost limitless power of Tsardom with its large armies, numerous police, special bureaus of political spies, its notorious Third Department, the secret Okhrana, its universal system of house janitors as police aids, and with all the other great resources of a vast country of over a hundred million population.
A losing fight. And yet, the splendid idealism of the Russian youth-particularly of the student element-their unquenchable enthusiasm and devotion to liberty were not in vain. The people came out the victor, as they ultimately always do in the struggle of light against darkness. What a lesson to the world, what encouragement to the weak in spirit, what hope it holds for the further never-ceasing advance of mankind in spite of all tyranny and persecution!
In 1905 broke out the first revolution in Russia. Still strong was the autocracy, and the uprising of the masses was crushed. though not without its having compelled the Tsar to grant certain constitutional rights. But fearfully did the government avenge even those small concessions. Hundreds of revolutionists paid for them with their lives, thousands were imprisoned, and many other thousands doomed to Siberia.
Again despotism drew a fresh breath and felt itself secure against the people. But not for long. The hunger for liberty may he suppressed for a time; yet never exterminated. Man's natural instinct is for freedom, and no power on earth can succeed in crushing it for very long.
Twelve years later--a very short time in the life of a people-came another revolution, that of February, 1917. It proved that the spirit of 1905 was not dead, that the price paid for it in human lives had not been in vain. Truly has it been said that the blood of the martyrs nourishes the tree of liberty. The work and self-sacrifice of the revolutionists had borne fruit. Russia had learned much from past experience, as succeeding events proved.
The people had learned. In 1905 they had demanded only some mitigation of the despotism, some small political liberties; now they demanded the complete abolition of the tyrannical rule.
The February Revolution sounded the death-knell of Tsardom. It was the least bloody revolution in all history. As I have explained before, the power of even the strongest government evaporates like smoke the moment the people refuse to acknowledge its authority, to bow to it, and withhold their support. The Romanov regime was conquered almost without a fight,--naturally enough, since the entire people had become tired of its rule and had decided that it was harmful and unnecessary, and that the country would be better off without it. The ceaseless agitation and educational work carried on by the revolutionary elements (the Socialists of various groups, including the Anarchists) had taught the masses to understand that Tsardom must be done away with. So widespread had this sentiment become that even the army -the most unenlightened group in Russia, as in every land had lost faith in the existing conditions. The people had outgrown the despotism, had freed themselves in mind and spirit from it, and thereby gained the strength and possibility of freeing themselves actually, physically.
That is why the all-powerful autocrat could find no more support in Russia; no, not even a single regiment to protect him. The mightiest government in Europe broke down like a house of cards.
A temporary, Provisional Government, took the place of the Tsar. Russia was free.
*According to the old Russian calendar, in November.
To Next Chapter
Return to Table of Contents
Return to Anarchy Archives