Book Review – The Tragic Procession: Alexander Berkman and Russian Prisoner Aid, 1923-1931 (KSL/ABSC, 2010)

Every recruit to the SWP (if they still get recruits) should read this book before they pay their membership fees. It demolishes the illusion that the “Bolshevist Leninism” advocated in exile by Trotsky was somehow different from the murderous totalitarianism practised by Stalin.

Aptly titled, The Tragic Procession is a fascinating and heartbreaking chronicle of the repression meted out to revolutionaries in Russia by the Bolshevik government, refracted through the pages of the Bulletin edited in exile by Alexander Berkman - issued first by his own Joint Committee for the Defense of Revolutionists Imprisoned in Russia, and from 1926 by the IWMA’s Relief Fund for Anarchists and Anarcho-Syndicalists Imprisoned or Exiled in Russia.

Between February 1917 and the spring of 1918, Russian Anarchism enjoyed a legal existence for the first, and only, time in its history (prior to the collapse of the USSR). Though split on the question of support for the Bolsheviks, anarchists of all tendencies had taken part in the overthrow of Kerensky. They worked enthusiastically in the Soviets, and were represented in the All Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK). Many of them were captivated by Lenin’s writings after April, 1917, particularly his famous work “The State and Revolution”, which had re-examined Marx’s theory of the state and concluded that the existing bourgeois state must be abolished (along with the standing army, police and courts) and replaced with a society modelled on the Paris Commune. Believing the Bolsheviks to be sincerely dedicated to this task, Soviet Anarchists were even prepared to temporarily bend their anti-statist principles, in the cause of seeing the revolution triumph, by supporting the dictatorship of the proletariat.

As the Soviet state grew stronger, the contradictions between Bolshevik and anarchist aims became more irreconcilable. On the night of 12 April, 1918, Lenin’s Cheka supported by Latvian riflemen, launched an offensive against the Moscow anarchists, with raids against twenty-six anarchist centres in the city, and closed down the printing presses of the Moscow Anarchist Federation and its paper “Anarkhiya”. Caught by surprise, some of the anarchists were captured without a shot being fired, or put up only a token resistance. Elsewhere, the well armed Black Guard detachments were only overcome by full-scale military assault. Those who still dreamed of seeing Anarchy in their lifetime pinned their hopes on a “third revolution” against Communist dictatorship, based on the Makhnovist insurgency in Ukraine and the Kronstadt revolt of 1921, but by the end of the 1920s the anarchist movement in Russia was completely outlawed.

Alexander Berkman arrived in Russia with Emma Goldman in 1919, after being deported from the USA. At first they were inclined to give Lenin the benefit of the doubt. But the massacre at Kronstadt finally convinced them of the true nature of Lenin’s new autocracy. They were expelled to Germany in 1922, among the last of the Russian anarchists allowed to leave. From then on anarchists in Russia were subject to a continual cycle of repression, imprisonment and exile to remote provinces, where they were forced to survive as best they could. Berkman dedicated the remainder of his life to bringing practical aid and solidarity to the comrades he left behind. This book stands as testimony to his efforts.

It would be difficult to do justice to the wealth of detailed information which the Bulletin published about persecuted Russian revolutionists (not only anarchists) – please, read the book yourself - while fellow-travelling intellectuals outside Russia were so besotted with the fatal attraction of Leninism. But a few gems beg to be mentioned in passing, if only because they are news to me. I didn’t know for instance (despite having written a book about Latvian anarchists) that the Latvian anarchist group in New York remained active, sending contributions to Berkman, as late as the end of 1930. Or that the London branch of the Anarchist Red Cross (Secretary E. Michaels) was still supporting Berkman’s work until at least 1931. An honourable mention (page 77) as another contributor, also in 1931, goes to Leah Feldman – a veteran of the anarchist underground in Russia and the Makhno movement in Ukraine, who in 1936 passed on the flame to our own Albert Meltzer (co-founder of the Anarchist Black Cross), and was still supporting anarchist action groups (First of May Group, Murray Defence Campaign) well into the 1960s and 70s. And it’s interesting to note that Nestor Makhno himself is listed (page 27) as receiving financial support ($76) from Berkman’s fund in 1926.

In November and December 1930 the Bulletin printed reports of a new generation of “politicals” appearing in the prisons: ‘mostly young persons… who we, the “old guard”, do not know. Many of them call themselves Anarchists, and one wonders in what manner they have learned of our ideas. For you must consider that there is no Anarchist literature in Russia, none that the average person can get hold of. And there are but few organizations or groups of our comrades, and all underground, at that. Often this new element is merely a rebellious contingent, whom the GPU simply designates as Anarchists. In prison, fortunately, some of them actually become enlightened Anarchists, with a clear and intelligent conception of our ideals. Thus at a certain transfer point I came upon a young man who belonged to a student organization of Anarchists-Syndicalists. He seemed a man of an entirely new type that is growing in Russia. Not an Anarchist by temperament, but one whom actual conditions and an independent and critical mind have led to new conceptions of life and society. […] their militant spirit was not the determining factor in their Anarchist viewpoint. On the contrary… social conditions of dictatorship have developed in them a clear and logical tendency to seek for other, more practical and rational ways of making and living the Revolution.’ (p. 62)

Thus it was, inside and outside of the Gulag system, that against all odds anarchists survived in Russia until emerging in 1989 – not just despite, but in part precisely because of the repression of all who questioned the moral authority of a dictatorial state. The Tragic Procession of Russian Anarchism after 1918 was ultimately vindicated (thanks in no small part to people like Alexander Berkman) by outliving the dictatorship which sought to consign it, as Trotsky claimed, to the “dustbin of history”.

Philip Ruff

[Philip Ruff is the author of Pa stavu liesmu debesis : Nenotverama latviešu anarhista Petera Maldera laiks un dzive [A towering flame : the life & times of ‘Peter the painter’] which was reviewed in our last issue.

The Tragic Procession: Alexander Berkman and Russian Prisoner Aid. Published by The Alexander Berkman Social Club and Kate Sharpley Library: 2010. 9781873605905 $12/£8