Blast from the Past

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Review of 'Life of an Anarchist', editor Gene Fellner, Seven Stories Press, £10.99

As Howard Zinn points out in his brief introduction to this volume, Alexander Berkman is one of the 'lost heroes of American radicalism'. The history of the US is a history of brutal class rule and imperialism, but also the history of those who fought back.

In 1892 Berkman, a Russian-born immigrant, shot Henry Frick who was responsible for killing 11 strikers. Frick undoubtedly had it coming, and the first criticism of Berkman is that he didn't shoot straight enough to kill. For this he got 15 years in jail, and the first part of this book gives a vivid account of the cruelty and degradation he endured in prison. What is most interesting is his own development. To begin with he showed much of the elitism which often characterises anarchism - he despised his fellow prisoners because they were only interested in themselves and not in 'the cause'. As time went by he developed a sense of solidarity shown in his organising a clandestine prison magazine. He also rethought his attitude to terrorism: while not repenting his act, he realised bullets could not substitute for class struggle.

The most exciting part of the book deals with his activities after release. He edited Mother Earth, the paper of his lifelong friend Emma Goldman, and then in 1916 he launched The Blast. It campaigned for press freedom and birth control, and above all against American entry into the First World War. At an anti-war meeting in 1917 he declared, 'America says we are going to fight Germany because we want to give them liberty and democracy. If you believe that you can give a people liberty and democracy from the outside, if you believe you can give a people or a nation liberty at the end of a bayonet or with bullets, go ahead. But if you are so generous with liberty as to carry it to Germany across the sea, why don't you retail liberty right here in this country?' - words that could well be reprinted today.

Berkman and Goldman were deported to Russia. Despite his hostility to Marxism, Berkman insisted that the revolution was not a Bolshevik coup but a massive social revolt involving millions of workers and peasants. He met Lenin (who was anxious to draw in anarchist support) and clearly felt some sympathy for the Bolshevik leader.

His account of life during the bitter civil war period is deeply critical but contains some interesting insights. He tells of meeting a peasant who liked the Bolsheviks but hated the Communists: that is, he supported the ideals of the revolution, but resented the authoritarianism of the new regime. His account of the Cheka as being both corrupt and incompetent is undoubtedly valid - but he gives no suggestion as to how a revolutionary society threatened by counter-revolutionaries on all sides could have protected itself.

For Berkman the Bolsheviks' great mistake was not to have abolished the state immediately in 1917. For him all government was the enemy. And sometimes he tried to have it both ways. He criticised the Bolsheviks for failing to introduce complete equality immediately, yet also condemned the brutality with which the former privileged classes were stripped of their possessions.

Berkman spent his remaining years of life as a stateless exile. He continued to propagandise for anarchism. His pamphlet The ABC of Anarchism, which forms the final part of this book, shows both the strengths and weaknesses of anarchism. He gives a splendid picture of how a world based on human cooperation might operate. But he insists that 'every human being who is not devoid of feeling and common sense is inclined to anarchism'. This simply evades the problem of how the new world will be made by those warped by the old. And he admits that the achievement of anarchism will be 'gradual' and 'far in the future' - yet he had condemned the Bolsheviks for not doing everything immediately.

As the story of a rebel who fought and suffered for his beliefs this book is often inspiring. As an account of how we might actually change the world it has little to offer.