From: Alexander Berkman, Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism, New York: Vanguard Press, 1929.
What Is Communist Anarchism?
BETWEEN FEBRUARY AND OCTOBER
I REMEMBER attending a very large mass-meeting in Madison Square Garden, New York, called to celebrate the dethronement of the Tsar. The huge hall was crowded with twenty thousand people wrought up to the highest pitch of enthusiasm. "Russia is free!" the leading speaker began. A veritable hurricane of applause, shouts, and hurrahs greeted the declaration. It continued for many minutes, breaking out again and again. But when the audience became quiet and the orator was about to proceed, there came a voice from the crowd:
"Free for what?"
There was no reply. The speaker continued his harangue.
The Russians are a simple and naive people. Never having had any constitutional rights, they had no interest in politics and were not corrupted by it. They knew little of congresses and parliaments, and cared less about them.
"Free for what?" they wondered.
"You are free from the Tsar and his tyranny," they were told.
That was very fine, they thought. "But how about the war?" the soldier asked. "How about the land?" the peasant demanded. "How about a decent existence?" the proletarian urged. You see, my friend, those Russians were so "uneducated"they were not satisfied just to be free from something; they wanted to be free for something, free to do what they wanted. And what they wanted was a chance to live, to work and enjoy the fruits of their labor. That is, they wanted access to the land, so they could raise food for themselves; access to the mines, shops, and factories, so as to produce what they needed. But under the Provisional Government, just as under the Romanoys, those things belonged to the wealthy; they remained "private property."
As I say, the simple Russian knew nothing about politics, but he knew exactly what he wanted. He lost no time in making his wants known, and he was determined to get them. The soldiers and sailors chose spokesmen from their own midst to present to the Provisional Government their demand to terminate the war. Their representatives organized themselves as soldiers' councils, called soviets in Russia. The peasants and the city workers did the same. In this manner every branch of the army and navy, every agricultural and industrial district, every factory even, established its own soviets. In the course of time the various soviets formed the All-Russian Soviet of Workers', Soldiers', and Peasants' Deputies, which held its sessions in Petrograd.
Through the Soviets the people presently began to voice their demands.
The Provisional Government, the new "liberal" regime under the leadership of Miliukov, paid no attention. It is characteristic of all political. parties alike that, once in power, they turn a deaf ear to the needs and wants of the masses. The Provisional Government was no different in this than the Tsarist autocracy. It failed to understand the spirit of the time, and it stupidly believed that a few minor reforms would satisfy the country. It kept busy talking and discussing, proposing new bills and enacting more legislation. But it was not laws the people wanted. They wanted peace, while the government insisted on continuing the war. They cried for land and bread, but what they got was more laws.
If history teaches anything at all its clearest lesson is that you can't defy or resist the will of a whole people. You can suppress it for a while, stem the tide of popular protest, but the more violently will the storm rage when it comes. Then it will break down every obstacle, sweep away all opposition, and its momentum will carry it even further than its original intention.
That has been the story of every great conflict, of every revolution.
Recall the American War for Independence, for instance. The rebellion of the colonies against Great Britain began with the refusal to pay the tea tax exacted by the Government of George III. The comparatively unimportant objection to "taxation without representation," meeting with the King's opposition, resulted in war and ended in completely freeing the American colonies from English rule. Thus was born the Republic of the United States.
The French Revolution similarly began with the demand for small improvements and reforms. The refusal of Louis XVI to lend ear to the popular voice cost him not only his throne but also his head, and brought about the destruction of the entire feudal system in France.
Just so did Tsar Nicholas II believe that a few insignificant concessions would stop the revolution. He also paid for his stupidity with his crown and life. The same fate overtook the Provisional Government. That is why a wise man said that "history repeats itself." It always does with government.
The Provisional Government consisted mostly of conservative men who did not understand the people and who were far removed from their needs. The masses demanded peace first of all. The Provisional Government, under the leadership of Miliukov and later under Kerensky, was determined to continue the war even in the face of the general dissatisfaction and the serious breakdown of the industrial and economic life of the country. The rising waves of the Revolution were soon to sweep it away: the Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies was preparing to take matters into its own hands.
Meanwhile the people did not wait. The soldiers at the front had already themselves decided to quit the war as unnecessary and useless slaughter. By the hundred thousands they were leaving the fields of battle and returning home to their farms and factories. There they began carrying into effect the real objects of the Revolution. For to them the Revolution did not mean printed constitutions and paper rights, but the land and the workshop. Between June and October, 1917, while the Provisional Government kept on endlessly discussing "reforms," the peasants started confiscating the estates of the large landholders and the workers took possession of the industries.
This was called expropriating the capitalist class: that is, depriving the masters of the things they had no right to monopolize, the things they had appropriated from the laboring classes, from the people.
In this manner the soil was expropriated from the landlords, the mines and mills from their "owners," the warehouses from the speculators. The workers and farmers took everything in charge through their labor unions and agrarian organizations.
The "liberal" Government of Miliukov had insisted on keeping up the war because the Allies wanted it. The "revolutionary" Government of Kerensky also remained deaf to the popular demands. It passed drastic laws against the "unauthorized" taking of land by the peasantry. Kerensky did everything in his power to keep the army at the front and even reintroduced the death penalty for "desertion." But the people now ignored the government.
The situation again proved that the real power of a country lies in the hands of the masses, of those who fight, toil, and produce, and not in any parliament or government. Kerensky at one time was the adored idol of Russia, more powerful than any Tsar. Yet his authority was lost) his government fell, and he himself had to flee for his life when the people realized that he was not serving their cause. While he was still the head of the Provisional Government, the actual power began to go over to the Petrograd Soviet, most of whose members were revolutionary workers, peasants, and soldiers.
Various and even opposing views were represented in the Soviet, as is inevitable in bodies composed of different classes of the population with their particular interests. But the greatest influence under such circumstances is always exerted by those who voice the deepest feelings and needs of the People. Therefore, the more revolutionary elements in the Soviet gradually gained the mastery, for they expressed the true wants and aspirations of the masses.
There were those in the Soviet who held that a constitution, something like that of the United States, was all that Russia needed to attain freedom and well-being. They asserted that capitalism was all right: there must be masters and servants, rich and poor; the people should be satisfied with the rights and liberties which a democratic government would grant them. These were the Constitutional Democrats, called for short Cadets in Russia. They quickly lost their influence, because the "naive" Russian workers and peasants knew that it was not rights and liberties on paper they wanted, but a chance to work and enjoy the fruits of their labor. They pointed to America with its Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and said that they did not care for the injustice, corruption, and wage slavery which constitutionally existed in that country.
The next more liberal element were the Social Democrats, known as Mensheviki. As Socialists they believed in the abolition of capitalism, but they declared that the Revolution was not the time to do it. Why not? Because it was not a proletarian revolution, they claimed, even if it looked like one. They maintained that it could not be a social revolution and therefore it should not alter the fundamental economic conditions of the country. According to them it was only a bourgeois revolution, a political one, and as such it should make only political changes. It could not be anything more than a bourgeois revolution, the Mensheviki argued, because had not the great Karl Marx taught that a proletarian revolution could take place only in a country where capitalism had reached its highest stage of development? Russia was very backward industrially, and therefore it would be against the teachings of Marx to consider the Revolution proletarian. For that reason capitalism must remain in Russia and be given a chance to ripen before the people could think of abolishing wage slavery.
The Social Democrats had a large following among the workers of Russia, many labor unions being Menshevik. But the argument that the Revolution was not proletarian only because Marx had fifty years before said that it couldn't be, did not appeal to the toilers. They had made the Revolution. they had fought and bled for it. They had driven out the Tsar and his clique, and they were now driving out their industrial masters, thus abolishing wage slavery and capitalism. They could not see why they could not do what they were actually doing only because some one who was dead long ago had believed that it couldn't be done. The reasoning of the Socialist leaders was too "scientific" for them. Their common sense told them that it was pure nonsense, and the Mensheviki lost most of their following among the workers.
Another political party was called Socialists Revolutionists. To this party belonged many of the terrorists who had been active against Tsardom in the past. The Socialists Revolutionists had numerous adherents, mainly among the farming population. But they alienated them by taking a stand for the continuation of the war when the country was against it. This attitude also caused a split in the party, the conservative element becoming known as the Right Socialists Revolutionists, while the more revolutionary faction called itself Left Socialists Revolutionists. The latter, led by Maria Spiridonova, who had suffered many years of Siberian imprisonment under the Tsar, advocated the termination of the war and secured a very considerable following, particularly among the poorer agricultural classes.
The most radical element in Russia were the Anarchists, who demanded immediate peace, free land for the peasant, and the socialization of the means of production and distribution. They wanted the abolition of capitalism and wage slavery, equal rights for all and special privileges to none. The land, the factories and mills, the machinery of production and the means of distribution were to become the possession of the whole people. Each able person was to work according to his ability and receive according to his needs. There was to be full liberty for every one and joint use on the basis of mutual interests. The Anarchists warned the proletariat against delegating power to any government or placing a political party in authority. Government of any kind, they said, would stifle the Revolution and rob the workers of the results already achieved. The life and welfare of a country depended on economics, not on politics, they argued. That is, what people want is to live, to work and satisfy their needs. For this, sensible management of industry is necessary, not politics. Politics, they insisted, is a game to rule and govern men, not to help them live. In short, the Anarchists advised the toilers to permit no one to become their master again, to abolish political government, and to manage their agrarian, industrial, and social affairs for the good of all instead of for the benefit of rulers and exploiters. They called upon the masses to stand by their Soviets and look after their interests by means of their own organizations.
The Anarchists were, however, comparatively small in numbers. As the most advanced and revolutionary element they had been persecuted by the Tsarist regime even worse than the Socialists. Many of them had been executed, others imprisoned and their organizations suppressed as illegal. It was most dangerous to belong to the Anarchists, and their work of education was exceedingly difficult. Therefore, the Anarchists were not strong and could not exert much influence upon the people at large in a vast country of 120 Millions of population.
But they had a great advantage in that their idea appealed to the healthy instincts and sound sense of the masses. To the extent of their ability and limited power the Anarchists encouraged the demand for peace, land, and bread, and actively helped carry out those demands by direct expropriation and the formation of a free communal life.
There was another political party in Russia which was far more numerous and better organized than the Anarchists. That party realized the value of the Anarchist ideas and set to work to carry them out.
It was the Bolsheviki.
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