What is Anarchism? by Alexander Berkman [A Review]

I expect many readers will already have (or read) at least part of this book, as parts of it have previously been issued by Dover, Freedom Press and Phoenix Press, amongst others, in various editions over the years, since its first publication in 1927. This version is a republication of the 1937 edition originally entitled “What is Communist Anarchism?” complete with the introduction by Emma Goldman together with a new intro by Barry Pateman.

Alexander Berkman is one of anarchism’s better known “heroes”, having attempted the assassination of a murderous US capitalist, done time for anti-war activities in the USA, then been deported to Russia in time to document the destruction of the revolution by the Bolsheviks and then live out his remaining years as an exile before finally committing suicide in 1936 rather than become a burden on his colleagues due to his failing health. Oh and he was Emma Goldman’s partner for a while too and helped on Mother Earth and then issued his own paper The Blast! Berkman was a totally committed anarchist all his adult life and this book can be seen as a summation of his ideas of what anarchism (and more particularly communist anarchism – he dismisses other variants such as collectivism and individualism as unworkable) was all about; the critique of the state, capitalism and organised religion; and what an anarchist revolution meant and how an anarchist society could work.

I doubt if anyone would claim Berkman as an “original thinker” on the subject. He was, rather, representing the mainstream of anarchist communism as it then was. He had experience of “propaganda by deed” and “revolution by dictatorship” and he was firmly opposed to both in any shape or form. His critique of the state and capital are fairly basic – but then this book was intended for the ordinary workingman (and such sexist language has been retained throughout although it is clear that Berkman obviously intended the term to refer to all workers, male and female) rather than an intellectual audience and the text is written in the form of a discussion with an interested outsider.

It is to be expected that the language and historical examples that Berkman uses now look pretty dated. The ideas in many respects, of course, remain valid, but the book no longer functions as it was originally intended. It is a classic text and one that hopefully will serve more as an inspiration for a similar text for the 21st Century. Where Berkman scores heavily, for me, is in his description in the later chapters on the Russian Revolution and how it was defeated by the political party that claimed to embody it, the Bolsheviks. His first-hand experience and bitterness shows all too clearly that the Bolshevik road is the road to disaster for any social revolution.

As he clearly states on page 185:

If your object is to secure liberty, you must first learn to do without authority and compulsion. If you intend to live in peace and harmony with your fellow men, you and they should cultivate brotherhood and respect for each other. If you want to work together with them for your mutual benefit, you must practice co-operation. The social revolution means much more than the reorganisation of conditions only; it means the establishment of new human values and social relationships, a changed attitude of man to man, as of one free and independent to his equal; it means a different spirit in individual and collective life, and that spirit cannot be born overnight. It is a spirit to be cultivated, to be nurtured and reared, as the most delicate flower of a new and beautiful existence.”

In short, the means will determine the ends and if one wants a society based and equality, mutual aid and liberty, one has to start practicing it before the revolution actually happens, during the revolution and after. It will not happen all by itself, it has to be done by the people concerned.

As for the actuality of a social revolution, Berkman didn’t claim to be clairvoyant, but drew some fairly common sense conclusions from the Russian experience and from the logic of the situation. Quite simply, any successful revolution will need to keep people fed, clothed, sheltered and engaged in essential productive work from the start. It will need to be organised from the base on a federal basis, with the emphasis on as much self-sufficiency as possible, especially if the revolution takes place in a restricted geographical area.

Whilst one has to agree with this, one does now wonder just how practicable this would turn out to be. With the internationalisation of production (and services) with the corresponding destruction and/ or removal of previously existing productive capacity, not to mention the uneven and unequal distribution of natural resources, one wonders just how far a country such as Britain could be self-sufficient in the event of a revolution. Whilst it is true that a certain amount of productive capacity could be reassigned to essentials, so much of the raw materials and food supplies, not to mention energy resources, are imported, a revolution would be hard pressed to meet the basic needs of people here without rapidly arranging some forms of overseas trade or barter. (And what exactly would be able to export?)

However, that wasn’t the situation when Berkman was writing this book, primarily for an (Anglo-Saxon) American audience and one can’t really fault the book for that. It does however mean that present day readers may find his faith in the “toiling masses” ability to overcome all such problems somewhat difficult to believe.

That said this is definitely one book that deserves the title of “classic”, and one that hopefully will inspire a new generation of activists to write their own updated version. As for this text, the lay-out and printing are excellent, with only a couple of typos (doubtless left in for people with nothing to do but pick nits) with one glaring error in Barry Pateman’s introduction where, on page viii, he states that Alexander Berkman “died on 28 June 1926, three weeks before the Spanish revolution broke out”. How that howler got through I don’t know!

So, even if you’ve got a previous edition of Berkman’s book do yourself a favour and get a copy of this and give it another read and then start thinking about how you’d go about writing a better and more up-to-date version.

Recommended (with a caveat that the language is dated).


Richard Alexander

Berkman, Alexander “What is Anarchism?” AK Press, Edinburgh, Scotland and Oakland, CA. 2003. Pbk, xxiii, 236pp. ISBN 9-781902-593708 £10.00 / $13.95