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What Is Communist Anarchism?

(May 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.59, June 1973, pp.25-26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

What Is Communist Anarchism?
Alexander Berkman
Dover/Constable, £1.50

Alexander Berkman, of Russian origin, first became known in 1892 for his attempt to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, a steel magnate responsible for the shooting of strikers. For this he spent 14 years in jail, recording his experience in Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. On his release he became, with Emma Goldman, a leading figure in the American anarchist movement until, in 1919, they were both deported to Soviet Russia. Berkman opposed the desperate measures taken by the Bolsheviks to deal with the counter-revolution and economic ruin, and soon decided to leave Russia. For 15 years he continued his work as an anarchist until as a result of depression, fatigue and chronic illness he committed suicide in 1936.

What is Communist Anarchism? was first published in 1929 under the title Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism. The aim of the book was to set out the author’s ideas, drawn largely from Kropotkin, as comprehensively and simply as possible for the English reader. In this the book was an unqualified success; but it succeeds in exposing with equal clarity the weakness of those ideas.

The theoretical basis of Berkman’s anarchism is unashamed idealism. ‘Government and capitalism are the forms in which the popular ideas express themselves. Ideas are the foundation; the institutions are the house upon it’ (p.233). From this follows an amazingly simplistic view of revolution. Capitalism survives because people believe in it. Once their eyes are opened and they stop believing in it they will abolish capitalism. The capitalists will probably not change their ideas, so a struggle is likely; but it will be a very gentlemanly affair. ‘The revolution will offer its enemies an opportunity to settle in some part of the country and there establish the form of social life that will suit them best.’ (p.296). As Engels once said: ‘Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is.’

Perhaps the most telling criticism of this book, even in its own terms, is that someone convinced by its arguments is given no clear guide to action. Important tactical questions such as the validity of individual terrorism, or work in the trade unions, are raised but not clearly answered. The chapter on Preparation is the weakest in the book. Berkman has absolutely nothing concrete to say on the subject. But this is of course no accident. It is one of the basic reasons why anarchism is, and will remain, more a vague expression of a mood than a coherent political movement.

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