What is Anarchism? by Alexander Berkman

“This whole game of politics is rotten.”

“What is Anarchism?”  by Alexander Berkman is a primer of Anarchist theory. Berkman was a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania who came to America in 1888. Berkman soon joined a group of American Anarchists, worked on various Anarchist newspapers, and was initially involved in labour activities. While in prison for attempted murder, and following his release, Berkman remained a leading American Anarchist. After his conviction “for conspiracy to violate the selective service act,” he was imprisoned again and finally deported in 1919 to Russia. Anarchist suppression in Russia led to Berkman’s departure for France–and here he remained until his death in 1926.

In the book, Anarchist theory is explained through an analysis of the class system of society–(the capitalist, bourgeoisie, and proletariat classes). Other chapters analyze the wage system, the society power systems that keep the proletariat behaving, unemployment, war, and explains how Anarchism differs from Socialism, the Bolsheviks, and Communism. There’s even an explanation of different types of Anarchists. Berkman debunks the myths and propaganda surrounding Anarchism, and explains the meaning of Anarchism and how Anarchy would ‘work.’

“What is Anarchism?”  is written in a deliberately simple style in which Berkman attempts to explain Anarchism as if he were chatting rather than lecturing. Berkman addresses the reader as “my friend” and this I found somewhat annoying. There are also references to the execution of Chicago Anarchists Nicola Sacco, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Several pages were spent berating their death sentences but contain no explanation of what they accused and convicted of. This was frustrating.

“What is Anarchism?”  was completed in the 1920s. In some ways the world has changed a great deal, but in others ways it’s still the same. As a consequence, some of Berkman’s statements seem archaic, but in others ways, uncannily, he is still right on target. When discussing labour, Berkman’s statements are dated (at least for the Western world), but the chapters on war and imprisonment could have been written yesterday. When discussing war, Berkman is clear that it is the poor who are slaughtered while “the munitions manufacturers, the speculators of food and other supplies, the warship manufacturers, … the great lords of finance, industry and commerce” benefit. He emphatically states: “It is not for your country that you fight when you go to war. It’s for your governors, your rulers, your capitalistic masters.” Bottom line … “when soldiers begin asking questions, no war can continue much longer.” Similarly when discussing prisons, Berkman is emphatic: “it is a profitable business, this law-making.” One shudders to think how Berkman would react to the staggering numbers of those imprisoned in the 21st century. Overall, this is still a remarkably pertinent book, and an excellent intro for anyone wishing to learn more about Anarchism.

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