What Is Anarchism?: By Alexander Berkman, 237 pgs. By Todd Taylor

Aug 06, 2007

Although not an anarchist (or any “ist” for that matter), I have a lot of compassion for many anarchism’s basic principles and goals. Alexander Berkman, a “social physician,” who was Emma Goldman’s life-long confidant, was a deep thinker, a really lousy bomb maker, and a clumsy marksman. He botched murdering Henry Clay Frick, an industrialist who Berkman saw as the henchman accountable for the death of striking steelworkers. His point-blank bullet missed Fricke’s vital organs, he had his pistol wrested away from him, and he ended up serving fourteen years in prison. This book, completed in 1928, eight years before Berkman’s death, had been run in different formats in different magazines, and was ultimately compiled and titled The ABC of Communist Anarchism. The goal was admirable: to make a book on anarchism that would be accessible to the average reader. Berkman takes great pains in assuming that a reader, new to anarchism, won’t be completely lost, yet he peppers these chapters with an impressive array of information for those who are well versed in its principles. According to Berkman (and definitions of anarchism vary greatly from theoreticians, practitioners, and schools of thought), anarchism means “order without government and peace without violence.” It also requires “voluntary cooperation instead of forced participation. It means harmony and order in place of interference and disorder.” Berkman also realizes that anarchy is a fragile flower of a social experiment, that severe self-discipline, hard work, and constant diligence by millions of people are necessary for it to work. No small task. No small goal.

Although Berkman has accomplished his goal of writing a book that treats social problems in a “simple and intelligible manner,” I have to be completely honest; this book is tough to get through. I struggled through it for the better part of two months. I’d have to put it down and really mull over what he’s putting on the table. That said, I found it gratifying to get all the way to the end and really chew on the tough meat of anarchism’s successes and failures.

What’s truly compelling in this book are the “common sense” topics that haven’t been outdated in the eighty plus years since its release. Stuff like power corrupts, that the “consciousness that you possess power is itself the worst poison that corrodes the finest metal of man.” I can also see an overlap with Noam Chomsky, who echoes Berkman’s sentiment that the corporations and higher ups in government know that we’re still in a class war – they are acutely aware of the situation and use all of the forces at their command to defeat the lower workers – while workers are still confused on what to do, and rarely think of themselves as wage slaves. He provides example after example of this dynamic.

Further on in the book, Berkman goes into great detail of how the Bolsheviks, and later the Communist Party, were able to clothe themselves in anarchist rhetoric in order to hijack the Russian Revolution. Basically, for centuries, the Tsars (think, roughly, kings and queens and their aristocratic cronies) ruled all of Russia. Folks got pissed, and for one of the first documented times in human history, millions of people rose up and effectively took back their factories and fields, killing the Tsars and ending their rule. The problem was that there were several parties vying for power to fill the vacuum. Berkman posits that the Bolsheviks clothed themselves in many of anarchism’s principles (self-governorship, self-reliance) then slowly, and on the sly, installed a dictatorship more crushing than the Tsar rule.

It’s here where, for the first time in my life, that I realized that anarchism is like a spinning top. It’s weighted with a load of great ideas with just the tip of it scraping a mark on the world. However, with one deft push or interruption – such as Stalin’s iron fist – its course was disrupted, its initial intent, forever lost in Russia.

Berkman was aware of this, too. Instead of admitting final defeat, he continued aligning to his core belief in anarchism. “There is nothing more corrupting than compromise,” he states. “One step in that direction calls for another, makes it necessary and compelling, and soon it swamps you with the force of a rolling snowball becoming a landslide.”

So, there you have it in a nutshell. Anarchism is a beautiful, crushable ideal with a lot of great theories that have yet to be put into practice on any national level. Berkman provides a book, equal parts depressing, enlightening, and full of future hope. Worthy of a close read if anyone every grills you about anarchism or when a political band pleads you to “go read a book.” –Todd (AK Press, 674A 23rd St., Oakland, CA 94612; http://www.akpress.org/)

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