Life of an Anarchist – Alexander Berkman

A collection of excerpts and works by Berkman: Memoirs of a Anarchist, BLAST articles, The Bolshevik Myth, Letters with Emma Goldman, and the ABCs of Anarchism.
The ABCs of Anarchism is an excellent and simple explanation of Anarchism.
  • General
    • The real despotism of republican institutions is far deeper, more insidious, because it rests on the popular delusion of self-government and independence. that is the subtle source of democratic tyranny, and, as such, it cannot be reached with a bullet.
      In modern capitalism, exploitation rather than oppression is the real enemy of the people.
  • Crime and punishment
    • Look at the courts! They don’t concern themselves with crime. They merely punish the criminal, absolutely indifferent to his antecedents and environment, and the predisposing causes.
    • the very idea of punishment precludes betterment. true reformation can emanate only from voluntary impulse, inspired and cultivated by intelligent advice and kind treatment. But reformation which is the result of fear, lacks the very essentials of its object and will vanish like smoke the moment fear abates.
    • Why does everyone think that he can be decent enough without the policeman, but that the club is needed for “the others?”
      “people would rob and murder each there if there were no government and no law,” you say.
      If they really would, why would they? would they do it just for the pleasure of it or because of certain reasons. maybe if we examine their reasons, we’d discover the cure for them.
    • Is it not rather true that with government we rob and murder? because government does not secure us in our rightful possession, but on the contrary takes them away for the benefit of those who have no right to them.
    • Crime can be eliminated only by doing away with the conditions that create it. Government cannot do it.
    • If you refuse to feed a man, for whatever cause, you drive him to theft and other crimes – and thus you yourself create the necessity for courts, lawyers, judges, jails, and orders, the upkeep of whom is far more burdensome than to feed the offenders. And these you have to feed, anyhow, even if you put them in prison.
    • Bear in mind that it is more important, and in the end more practical and useful, to do the square thing rather than to gain a seeming immediate advantage. That is, to do justice is more vital than to punish. For punishment is never just and always harmful to both sides, the punished and the punisher; harmful even more spiritually than physically, and there is no greater harm than that for it hardens and corrupts you. This is unqualifiedly true of your individual life and with the same force it applies to the collective social existence.
  • War
    • Defend your home! Very well – but first let us get one. Let the Landlord and the Real Estate sharks defend their property. We need not go to the foreign countries to grab homes from poor devils there, who at best possess very little. there are plenty of homes here: but those who built them my not use them. In every city-block there are dozens of “For Rent” signs, and homeless people galore.
      Prepare, you disinherited, to take possession of the homes right before your noes, and then defend them against any man who demands that you pay him tribute. The worker’s enemy is not some one in a foreign land. it is the parasite upon his back right here at home.
      Prepare not by making instruments to kill, but by refusing to make them.
      Build no battleship, make neither gun nor bayonet; let the grass grow over the fortress, and let the General go to work. Turn no night-stick for the policemen, but give him a guide book instead. Tether the man-eating district attorneys with the cows in a peaceful pasture.
      When that is done, open the jails; for then there will be no criminals, except perhaps a few harmless kings to be treated in an asylum.
    • Which is braver? The man who falls in line with the great majority or he that faces the wrath of millions for conscience sake?
      Do not confound us with the pacifists. we believe in fighting. Aye, we have been fighting all our lives – fighting injustice, oppression and tyranny. Almost single handed at that.
      We are not pacifists. But we want to know what we are fighting for, and we refuse to fight for the enemies and the exploiters of humanity.
    • Resist conscription. organize meetings. going our League. Send us money. Help us to give assistance to those who come in conflict with the government. help us to publish literature against militarism and against conscription.
      We consider this campaign of the utmost importance at the present time. amid hateful, cowardly silence, a powerful voice and an all-embracing love are necessary to make the living dead shiver.
    • America says we are going to fight Germany. Why? They say we are going to fight Germany because we want to give them liberty and democracy. if you believe that you can give people liberty and democracy from the outside, if you believe you can give people or a nation liberty at the end of a bayonet or with bullets, go ahead. we don’t object. we shall not interfere. But if you are so generous with liberty as to care it to Germany across the sea, why don’t you retail liberty right here in this country?
    • Friends, young men, soldiers, i am not afraid. I am not afraid for all you can do is take my life – you can never take my ideals. neither the police nor the soldiers, nor the United States Government nor all the powers on earth will take my ideals. my ideals will live long after I am dead.
  • Protest
    • The man who ties a rope around your neck and accuses you of “disorder” if you attempt to undo the knot is a bully and a faker and unworthy of the slightest consideration. 
    • There is no record of any government or authority, of any group or class in power having given up its mastery voluntarily. In every instance it required the use of force, or at least the threat of it.
  • Anarchy
    • The Anarchists say: The products of Labor should belong to the producers. the industries should be carried on to minister to the needs of the people instead of for profit, as at present. Abolishing monopoly in land and in the sources of production, and making the opportunity for production accessible to all, would do away with capitalism and introduce free and equal distribution. That, in turn, would do away with laws and government, as there would be no need for them, government serving only to conserver the institutions of today and to protect the masters in their exploitation of the people. It would abolish war and crime, because the incentive to either would be lacking. it would be a society of real freedom, without coercion or violence, based on the voluntary communal arrangement of “to each according to his needs; from each according to his ability.”
    • Great moral explanation of Anarchism – Page 137
    • No one human being can solve all problems, nor are they solvable in a theoretic way. The most anyone can do is solve fundamental problems from which to build further. The rest must be solved by the need of the hour or moment – in fact, but life itself.
    • No, my friend, it is capitalism and government which stand for disorder and violence. Anarchism is the very reverse of it; it means order without government and peace without violence.
    • The word anarchy comes from the Greek, meaning without face, without violence or government, because government is the very fountainhead of violence, constraint and coercion.
      Anarchy, therefore, does not mean disorder and chaos, as you thought before. on the contrary, it is the very reverse of it; it means no government, which is freedom and liberty. disorder is the child of authority. liberty is the mother of order.
    • Anarchism teaches that we can live in a society where there is no compulsion of any kinds.
      a life without compulsion naturally means liberty, it means freedom from being forced or coerced, a chance to lead the life that suits you best.
      you cannot lead such a life unless you do away with the institutions that curtail your liberty and interfere with your life, the condition that compels you to act differently from the way you really would like to.
    • It is very likely, of course, that if you should then see people gorge themselves while you go hungry, you would demand a chance to eat, and you would be perfectly right in that. and so would everyone one else, which means that people would not start for any one hogging all the good things of life, they would want to share in them. it means further that the poor would refuse to stay poor while other wallow in luxury. It means that the worker will decline to give up his product to the boss who claims to “own” the factory and everything that is made there. It means that the farmer will not permit thousands of acres to lie idle while he has not enough soil to support himself and family. it means that no one will be permitted to monopolize the land or the machinery of production. It means that the private ownership of the sources of life will not be tolerated any more. It would be considered the greatest crime for some one to own more than they can use in a dozen lifetimes, while their neighbors have not enough bread for their children. It means that all men will share in the social wealth, and that all will help to produce that wealth.
    • It follows that when government is abolished, wage slavery and capitalism must also go with it, because they cannot exist without the support and protection of government.
    • Anarchism means voluntary cooperation instead of forced participation
    • The consciousness of peace and harmony; the feeling that comes with freedom from financial or material worries; the realization that you are in a friendly world with no envy or business rivalry to disturb your mind; in a world of brothers; in an atmosphere of liberty and general welfare.
    • There is organization that is painful because it is ill, and organization that is joyous because it means health and strength. An organization is ill or evil when it neglects or surpasses any of its organs or members. in the healthy organization all parts are equally valuable and none is discriminated against. the organization built on compulsion, which coerces and forces, is bad and unhealthy. The libertarian organization, formed voluntarily and in which every member is free and equal, is a sound body and can work well. Such an organization is a free union of equal parts. It is the kind of organization the anarchists believe in.
    • Violence
      • What about violence? you say. Don’t the Anarchists preach and practice violence and murder?
        They don’t. on the contrary, the Anarchists hold life as the most sacred thing. that’s why they want to change the present order of things where everyone’s hand is against his brother, and where war, wholesale slaughter in the pursuit of the dollar, bloodshed in the field, factory and workshop is the order of the day. the poverty, misery and bitter industrial warfare, the crimes, suicides and murder committed every day of the year in this country will convince any man of intelligence that in present society we have plenty of Law, but might little order or peace.
        Anarchism means OPPOSITION to violence, by whomever commits it, even if it be by the government. the government has no more right to murder than the individual. Anarchism is therefore opposition to violence as well as to government forcibly imposed on man.
      • I feel violence in whatever form never has and probably never will bring constructive results. but my mind and my knowledge of life tell me that changes will always be violent. At least I want to eliminate as much as possible the need for violence. I want the revolution to be understood as a process of reconstruction rather than what we believed it to be until now, a process of destruction. But no matter how much we try, the change is bound to be violent and [we] will need to be ready for defense.
      • “If the revolution cannot solve the need of violence and terror, then I am against revolution.” – Emma G
      • The conscience of the world does not feel outraged by tyrannicide
      • Anarchists have no monopoly of political violence. The number of such acts by anarchists is infinitesimal as compared with those committed by persons of other political persuasions.
      • If we speak honestly, we must admit that every one believes in violence, and practices it, however he may condemn it in others. in fact, all of the institution we support and the entire life of present society are based on violence
        What is the thing we call government? is it anything else but organized violence? The law orders you to do this or not do that, and if you fail to obey, it will compel you by force. We are not discussing just now whether it is right or wrong, whether it should or should not be so. Just now we are interested in the fact that it is so – that all government, all law and authority finally rests on force and violence, on punishment or fear of punishment.
      • Fear of punishment has been made into duty and is call obedience.
        In this atmosphere of force and violence, of authority and obedience, of study, fear and punishment we all grow up; we breathe it through our lives. we are so steeped in the spirit of violence that we never stop to ask whether violence is right or wrong. we only ask if it is legal, whether the law permits it.
    • Revolution
      • you must set your face sternly against the very idea of prisons: the whole revolution would be utterly futile, if such terrible institutions as prisons, institutions which have proven a failure in the system we want to get rid of, are again established.
      • If we agree that revolution must essential be a process of reconstruction, destroying as little as possible – nothing at all in fact except such industries that make for war and disease – if we can realize and boldly declare that the only purpose of resolution must be transformation, then terror must go with the rest and prisons and other evil things of today just go with the rest.
      • Unlimited free speech even in the revolutionary period is a thousand times less harmful than thoughts driven to secrecy.
    • Labor
      • Value of Labor (p. 291, or ABC Part 5)
      • Shall we punish the man whom nature has not endowed as generously as his stronger and more talented neighbor? shall we add injustice to the handicap nature has put upon him? all we can reasonably expect from any man is that he do his best – can any one do more? and if John’s best is not as good as hi brother Jim’s, it is his misfortune, but in no case a fault to be punished.
        There is nothing more dangerous than discrimination. the moment you begin discriminating against the less capable you establish conditions that breed dissatisfaction and resentment: you invite envy, discord, and strife. You would think it brutal to withhold from the less capable the air or water they need. Should not the same principle apply to the other wants of man? After all, the matter of food, clothing, and shelter is the smallest item in the world’s economy.
        The surest way to get one to do his best is not by discriminating against him, but by treating him on equal footing with others. That is the most effective encouragement and stimulus. it is just and human.
      • A sensible society – under anarchist conditions – would have entirely different standards of judging such matters. People will then be appreciated according to their willingness to be socially useful.
      • No, there will be no buying or selling. The revolution abolishes private ownership of the means of production and distribution, and with it goes capitalistic business. Personally possession remains only in the things you use.
        Thus, your watch is your own, but the watch factory belongs to the people, land, machinery, and all other public utilities will be collective property, neither to be bought nor sold. Actual use will be considered the only title – not to ownership but to possession. the organization of the coal miners, for example will be in charge of the coal mines, not as owners but as the operating agency. similarly will the railroad brotherhoods run the railroads, and so on. Collective possession, co-operativly managed in the interests of the community, will take the place of personal ownership privately conducted for profit.
  • Bolsheviks
    • (talking with Lenin) To my contention that popular initiative and active interest are essential to the success of the Revolution, he replied that only the Community Party could lead Russia out of chaos of conflicting tendencies and interests. Liberty, he said, is a luxury to to be permitted at the present stage of development. When the Revolution is out of danger, external and domestic, then free speech might be indulged in.
    • “But the Bolsheviki gave you the land.”
      “No, the land we took ourselves”
  • Social Revolution
    • There are revolutions and revolutions. Some revolutions change only the governmental form by putting in a new set of rulers in place of the old. these are political revolutions, and as such they often meet with little resistance. But a revolution that aims to abolish the entire system of wage slavery must also do away with the power of one class to oppress another. That is, it is not any more a mere change of rules, of government, not a political revolution, but one that seeks to alter the whole character of society. That would be a social revolution. As such it would have to fight not only government and capitalism, but it would also meet with the opposition of popular ignorance and prejudice, of those who believe in government and capitalism.
    • The American worker remains loyal to the government and is the first to defend it against criticism. He is still the most devoted champion of the “grand and noble institutions of the greatest country on earth.” Why? Because he believes that they are his institutions, that he, as sovereign and free citizen, is running them and that he could change them if he so wished. It is his faith in the existing order that constitutes its greatest security against revolution. His faith is stupid and unjustified, and some day it will break down and with it American capitalism and despotism. But as long as that faith persists, American plutocracy is safe against revolution.
    • Many ideas, once held to be true, have come to be regarded as wrong and evil. Thus the idea of the divine right of kings, of slavery and serfdom. There was a time when the whole world believed those institutions to be right, just, and unchangeable.
    • The social revolution, therefore is not an accident, not a sudden happening. There is nothing sudden about it, for ideas don’t change suddenly. they grow slowly, gradually, like the plant or flower. Hence the social revolution is a result, a development, which means that it is revolutionary. It develops to the point when considerable numbers of people have embraced the new ideas and are determined to put them into practice. When they attempt to do so and meet with opposition, then the slow, quiet and peaceful social evolution becomes quick, militant, and violent. Evolution becomes revolution.
    • Because revolution is evolution at its boiling point you cannot “make” a real revolution any more than you can hasten the boiling of a tea kettle. It is the fire underneath that makes it boil: how quickly it will come to the boiling point will depend on how strong the fire is. 
    • Social Revolution
      • 1) a social revolution is one that entirely changes the foundation of society, its political, economic, and social character;
      • 2) such a changes must first take place in the ideas and opinions of the people, in the minds of men;
      • 3) oppression and misery may hasten revolution, but may thereby also turn it into failure, because lack of evolutionary preparation will make real accomplishment impossible;
      • 4) only that revolution can be fundamental, social, and successful which will be the expression of a basic change of ideas and opinions.
    • Conditions are not destroyed by breaking and smashing things. You can’t destroy wage slavery by wrecking the machinery in the mills and factories, can you? You won’t destroy government by setting fire to the White House.
    • [Anti-monarchists] secured only new masters, because however desperately and nobly they fought, they never touched the real source of trouble, the principle of authority and government. They did not know that that was the fountain-head of enslavement and oppression, and therefore they never succeeded in gaining liberty.
    • In the face of a hostile majority the social revolution is doomed to failure from its very beginning. It means, then, that the first preparatory work of the revolution consists in winning over the masses at large in favor of the revolution and its objects, winning them over, at least, to the extent of neutralizing them, of turning them from active enemies to passive sympathizers, so that they may not fight against the revolution even if they do not fight for it.
    • Capitalism thrives not so much on division of work as on division of the workers. It seeks to incite race against race, the factory hand against the farmer, the laborer against the skilled man, the workers of one country against those of another. The strength of the exploiting class lies in dis-united, divided labor. But the social revolution requires the unity of toiling masses, and first of all the co-operatoin of the factory proletarian with his brother in the field.
    • The actual situation is that whomever has to sell his labour is an employee, a salaried dependent, a wage earner, and as such his true interests are those of employees and he belongs to the working class.
    • You can shoot people to death, but you can’t shoot people to work.
    • It is more important that we realize that the General Strike is the only possibility of social revolution.
    • Your daily struggles for better conditions would quickly assume a different character if you were organized in such a manner that when your factory or mine goes on strike, the whole industry should quick work; not gradually but at once, all at the same time. Then the employer would be at your mercy, for what could he do when not a wheel turns in the whole industry?
    • A new society is not born suddenly, any more than a child is. New social life gestates in the body of the old just as new individual life does in the mother’s womb. Time and certain processes are required to develop it till it becomes a complete organism capable of functioning. When that stage has been reached birth takes place in agony and pain, socially as individually. Revolution, to use a trite but expressive saying, is the midwife of the new social being.