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Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar-The Memoirs of Five Young Anarchist Women of the 1870s

“I left by the back door.” Praskovia Ivanovskaia-a quote chosen for its simplicity and also for its symbolism

I have a soft spot for memoirs. While we may lose the intricacies of professional writing, a memoir more than makes up for it by its eye-witness accounts. This idea echoes throughout Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar–The Memoirs of Five Young Anarchist Women of the 1870s. The five women are Vera Figner, Vera Zasulich, Olga Liubatovich, Praskovia Ivanovskaia, and Elizaveta Kovalskaia. All five women left their homes and their families and became revolutionaries. These memoirs chart the lives of the women, why they became revolutionaries and how some of them turned to violence. The foreword, by Alix Kates Shulman explains that the women and their memoirs are largely forgotten and were “rescued from the Siberia of dusty library shelves where for years they have languished untranslated in obscure collections.” Translated by Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N. Rosenthal, these memoirs are “selections” (with the exception of the Liubatovich memoir), and the materials are “composites…assembled from autobiographical fragments written and published at various times.”  

The introduction sets forth the background to the atmosphere of the times, explaining Russian Populism (the ideology of agrarian revolution), the schools of thought created by Lavrov and Bakunin: both thinkers who had very different approaches to the idea of how exactly how to involve the peasantry in social change, the development of the Pan-Russian Social Revolutionary Movement, and the Land and Liberty Movement. The introduction also explains the importance of The Trial of the Fifty (1877) and the Trial of the Hundred and Ninety Three (1877), trials in which the defendants’ crime was “preaching socialism to the peasants.” In the latter trial:

“They had suffered as much as four years of pretrial imprisonment under the harshest conditions; dozens were lost to illness, death (sometimes by suicide), or madness. At the trial, many of the accused expressed their contempt for the tribunal by refusing to present any defense, and when one man did attempt to describe the conditions in prison and make a political statement, he was repeatedly silenced by the judges and finally dragged from the courtroom.”

Most of the defendants were acquitted or the length of their pre-trial imprisonment was taken into consideration for sentencing and they were released, tougher, bitter and “with the determination not to make the naive errors that made them easy targets for government repression.” Before this point, the revolutionaries could perhaps be more accurately described as reformers who had fairly transparent motives and goals. This transparency is largely due to the negative influence of Sergei Nechaev in the 1860s, and by the time the 1870s rolled around:

“In radical circles, the aversion to his [Nechaev’s] dictatorial, dishonest methods was so strong that for years to come, any attempt to create a centralized, hierarchical organization met with great suspicion.”

Nechaev is a curious and poisonous figure in Russian revolutionary history, and for those who’d like to read more, seek out a copy of Bakunin and Nechaev by Paul Avrich. (Nechaev’s story and behaviour poses questions of revolutionary morality–he murdered a fellow revolutionary and this crime formed the basis of Dostoevsky’s The Demons).

But these are preliminary issues that set the stage for the explosive 1870s, and it is during this period that revolutionaries shifted from the idea of social reform through peasant involvement to the assassination of the Tsar.

 The book’s introduction details the spilt within Land and Liberty–an extremely important event “in the history of the revolutionary populist movement” with two factions emerging: The People’s Will (advocates of regicide) and Black Repartition (committed to agrarian revolution and economic terror). The women whose memoirs make up the substance of Five Sisters found themselves on different sides of the fence when it came to the issue of violence and the assassination of the Tsar.

The stories of these women are remarkable, and if you’ve got any interest in either the subject matter or the times, then grab a copy of this book. As each of the 5 memoirs unfolds, the women make their choices and take definite irrevocable steps in their revolutionary lives, and while there are some underlying commonalities to each of the stories, they are all, at the same time, quite different.

Vera Figner describes how she was a student in Zürich, very much interested in the ideas of social revolution. At the time, women were not allowed to attend university in Russia and single women could not travel without permission, so Vera Figner married and travelled to Zürich in order to achieve her goal of becoming a doctor. In 1873, the Russian government “forbade women students to remain in Zürich any longer. If they proved obstinate, the government threatened to bar them from licensing examinations in Russia.” So in essence, if women tried to circumvent the Russian government’s refusal to allow them a Zürich education, then their attempts would be annihilated when and if they returned to Russian soil. While this only applied to Zürich, there was another problem. In order to apply pressure through the women students’ families, the government claimed that the Russian female students were engaging in “free love” and using “their medical knowledge to destroy the fruits of this love.”  This reminded me of Ronald Reagan’s speech in the 60s regarding the behaviour of Berkeley students, and in this speech, Reagan read a letter about the scandalous goings-on taking place at a party. Different century, different continent, same tactic.

But I digress….

Vera Figner did later abandon her medical studies to take up the revolutionary cause, and as part of Land and Liberty’s  plan to infiltrate and educate the peasantry, Figner became a paramedic, but quickly discovered that it was impossible to work freely amongst the peasants. At this point, Figner joined The People’s Will:

“My past experience had convinced me that the only way to change the existing order was by force. If any group had shown me a path other than violence, perhaps I would have followed it; at the very least, I would have tried it out. But, as you know, we don’t have a free press in our country, and so ideas cannot be spread by the written word. I saw no signs of protest–neither in the zemstovs, nor in the courts, nor in any of the other organized groups of our society; nor was literature producing changes in our social life. And so I concluded that violence was the only solution. I could not follow the peaceful path.”

Vera Figner went on to help make the bombs that killed Tsar Alexander II in March 1881. Part of her memoir describes carrying dynamite, revolutionaries setting up at various safe houses, and frustration at failed assassination attempts.

The second memoir is from Vera Zasulich, an intriguing and significant figure. The day after the conclusion of the Trial of the One Hundred and Ninety Three, “the populist movement entered its terrorist stage” when on January 24, 1878, Vera Zasulich shot General Trepov in retaliation for his severe beating of a political prisoner who had refused to remove his hat. Rather miraculously, and this is a sign of the sympathies of the time, Vera Zasulich was later acquitted. But her action announced a wave of violence: assassinations, assassination attempts, and bombings. Interestingly enough, Vera Zusulich did not embrace propaganda of the deed wholeheartedly, and as the book describes, she spent the rest of her days feeling somehow responsible for the violent turn of events. One of the most interesting sections in her memoir recalls her meeting with the enigmatic Nechaev, and Vera Zusulich, very cannily smelled a rat about Nechaev’s approach.

The third memoir in the book is that of Praskovia Ivanovskaia, a revolutionary who along with Vera Figner, chose to follow the path of The People’s Will. Praskovia Ivanovskaia first worked in a rope factory and later on a farm as a sheepshearer in the Ukraine. The details of these experiences show the underlying problems members of the intelligensia/gentry encountered when they attempted to mingle with the peasantry, and also why this contact essentially failed as a revolutionary strategy.  After failing with the peasantry,  Praskovia Ivanovskaia returned to St. Petersburg. As a member of The People’s Will, she was later accused, tried and convicted for involvement in the assassination of the Tsar. Condemned to death, her sentence was commuted to “life at hard labour,” and some of her memoir describes the hellish conditions endured in prison.

The fourth memoir is from Olga Liubatovich (nicknamed ‘the shark’ for her appetite). Olga Liubatovich too had her early attempts to blend in with the workers–this time in a factory in Moscow where she was denounced and arrested. It took almost two years for the case to come to trial and then Liubatovich received a nine-year sentence. The sentence of hard labour was commuted to exile in Siberia, and she was shipped off. Amazingly, she faked her own suicide and managed to get back to St. Petersburg. This is Liubatovich on the failure to roust the peasantry:

“Yes, we had hoped to find a people conscious of the ‘rights of man’–that was to be the higher moral sanction of our politics. Instead, we found an amorphous mass, a slave-people who occasionally produced some powerful individuals, but on the whole were immersed in a deep, lethargic sleep. And so, to avenge that distortion of human nature, we revolutionaries had drawn our swords against the state. First idealism, then pained outrage–that is the entire psychology of the classical or heroic period of our revolutionary history.”

Olga Liubatovich goes on to discuss the split in Land and Liberty into Black Repartition and The People’s Will which she describes as “less the result of differences in principle than of differences in temperament.”

The fifth and final memoir, Elizaveta Kovalskaia is unique. She was born a serf (serf mother, landowner father), and as a child persuaded her father to make her and her mother into free citizens. Kovalskaia eventually inherited the estate and no doubt because of her early experiences maintained a sensitivity to the roles of the serfs and the peasantry. Politically conscious as a young girl, she makes this statement in her memoir:

Toward this time, a new judicial institution was introduced to Kharkov: the public trial. After we finished our schoolwork, our group would race to the court sessions, where we sometimes stayed until midnight. We saw social issues unfold before us, in scenes from real life. Among other things, we saw peasants who had been cheated of their land by the emancipation process being tried for rebellion; and we saw  women, who unable to bear their legally sanctioned slavery, had murdered their husbands.”

Elizaveta Kovalskaia worked primarily organising factory workers, and although she briefly joined Black Repartition, her involvement lasted just a few months. Thereafter she “shunned” revolutionary groups, and in one section of her memoirs, she very thoughtfully lays out her reasoning:

“You would have to try to make your actions conform to the organization’s statute–which in many cases had been developed in the libraries of people who were out of touch with real life. Then too, in revolutionary practice there were frequent conflicts between your own inner morality and the theoretical morality of the group, and you sometimes had to steer a course between them.”

This extract does go on to list the advantages of being part of an organization, but clearly Kovalskaia leaned towards following her own beliefs and working independently of a group construct.

Sometimes the stories of these women cross over and connect as they traverse the often lonely disconnected lives devoted to social and political change, sacrificing any notion of family life, home and even the self to the ultimate cause. The memoirs of these remarkable women should be read by anyone interested in trying to understand the atmosphere of the times and to place and make sense of, for example, Vera Zasulich’s acquittal for shooting General Trepov in those otherwise oppressive years. Zasulich’s acquittal–which reflects the sympathies of the times–reminds me, oddly enough, about the history of the animal liberation movement–a movement that enjoyed widespread public support in the 80s but rapidly degenerated into a dirty word after the Unilever Trial.

Since the translators of Five Sisters let the memoirs speak for themselves, I’m going to follow suit with a quote from Vera Figner. The quote is made early in her revolutionary career while she was still in Zürich and alight with the possibilities of change fermenting beneath the surface of Russian society. This is a naive question that she seems to ask rhetorically, but for which the answer appeared, suddenly in the violence and upheaval of 1917:

“But how would it be possible to do away with private property, or to abolish the rights of inheritance, when everyone wanted to keep what he had? Everyone would defend his property, and those who feasted at life’s table would never voluntarily agree to relinquish their privileges.” 

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Nestor Makhno–Anarchy’s Cossack: The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine 1917-1921

“Let us be dauntless to the point of madness.”

Was Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno an out-of-control bandit as Trotsky claimed, or was he a major significant force against both the White Russians and later the Bolsheviks? The phenomenal book Nestor Makhno-Anarchy’s Cossack: The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine 1917-1921 by Alexandre Skirda examines Makhno’s extraordinary–seemingly buried and forgotten–life and his role in Russian history.

In this incredibly well researched book, Skirda traces Makhno’s humble beginnings as a Ukrainian peasant of Zaporog Cossack stock and his valiant attempts to create a social revolution in Russia in the early tumultuous years of the 20th Century. In 1906, Makhno joined an anarchist group in his hometown of Gulyai-Polye and became involved in militant activities against state oppression. By the time he was 18, Makhno was imprisoned on a variety of charges, and several members of the anarchist group were executed. Makhno, however, began a prison sentence and served nine years until he was released in March 1917 following the ousting of the Tsar. During these nine years, Makhno’s health was severely compromised, but he used the time to access the prison’s extensive library. He also learned that “intellectual and political bigwigs” were granted preferential treatment in the prison system and maneuvered themselves into positions as “masters and governors.”

makhnoUpon his release, Makhno quickly became involved with the organization of the Gulyai-Polye Peasants’ Union. Makhno’s goal, to establish Free Soviets (soviet=council) included the elimination of prisons, the establishment of a free press, and the creation of communal life through the “collectivization of the land, factories and workshops.” Makhno envisioned a life “without masters or slaves, with neither rich nor poor.” The region moved towards social revolution when land was reclaimed from wealthy landowners, but soon German-Austrian troops occupied the Ukraine, and found sympathizers with the disenfranchised bourgeoisie and feudalists. As a result, Makhno became a high-profile insurgent wanted by the authorities. And so began Makhno’s amazingly bold guerilla life.

By late 1917, as the situation in Russia unraveled, the country was on the brink of a civil war. White Russians occupied the Ukraine. As a witness to the incredible, mind-boggling brutality and excesses of the White Russian army, Makhno recognized the need to rid the Ukraine of the Whites, and organized the Makhnovist Army–a “vast insurgent movement.” Swallowing the idea that the Bolsheviks could be trusted, he “placed the revolution’s interests above ideological differences” and joined forces with the Bolsheviks against the White Russian army. Makhno had not yet grasped the “monstrous amorality … of Bolshevik politics.”

Skirda follows the treachery of the Bolsheviks–who, fearing Makhno’s power and refusal to bend to Bolshevik ideology, practically stopped the civil war several times in order to shift to the elimination of Makhno. This is a portrait of an incredible man–a methodical, strategic thinker, and a fierce warrior. The master of the surprise attack, Makhno grasped how to turn the odds (small numbers of men who were vastly outnumbered) into an advantage. On one occasion, he even dressed as a woman, and once when wounded, he was scooped up by two of his men on horseback. The two men held their rifles to each other–forming a cross, and the wounded Makhno, crouching on the crossed rifles escaped from the enemy.flag

For anyone interested in the Russian Revolution, this book is a fantastic, unforgettable read. The author wisely includes sections on the history of the Ukraine and the Cossacks, maps, analyses of major battles, Makhnovist documents and several black and white photographs. Each chapter is followed with notes on the text. Packed with incredible details of the major battles, Skirda presents nothing less than an exciting history of a man who seized his moment in time. Skirda also clarifies several points–for example, he explains the origins of the term “White Russian”–the volunteer army under General Kornilov sported white ribbons to distinguish themselves from the enemy. Skirda also emphasizes that the anti-monarchist White Russian, General Kornilov, was the man who ordered the arrest of the Tsar and his family, and thus it’s clearly understood that the term “White Russian” does not automatically mean monarchist. Major figures from the Russian Revolution appear throughout the text–General Denikin (Kornilov’s successor), Baron-General Wrangel, Lenin, and Trotsky. Entire Red divisions deserted the Bolsheviks and defected to Makhno’s cause, and Skirda details it all–the slaughter, the treachery, the shameful history, and the ensuing myths as history is cleaned up for the classroom. Masterfully and smoothly translated by Paul Sharkey.

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To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936 by Murray Bookchin

To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936 by Murray Bookchin is a slim volume that contains two essays. In the first essay, An Overview of the Spanish Libertarian Movement, the author argues that many misconceptions still reign about the Spanish revolution that lasted from July 1936 to March 1939 and “claimed an estimated million lives.” He stresses the fact that the “so-called Spanish civil war” was not a “political conflict between a liberal democracy and a fascist military corps, but a deeply socio-economic conflict between the workers and peasants” and their “class enemies” and followed over sixty years of “anarchist agitation and activity.” The author examines the split between the Marxists and the Bakuninists at the Hague Congress of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA-or First International) in September 1872, and notes that while Marxism held its appeal for the some, anarchism appealed especially to the Catalans and the Andulasians. The essay also examines agrarian collectives, and their organizational forms, and debunks the myth that agrarian anarchism was antitechnolgical. This was a rich period for anarchist culture with the production of literally 100s of anarchist periodicals. The organization of both the CNT and FAI is also examined–along with the fundamental differences and flaws in each.

The second essay, After Fifty Years: The Spanish Civil War gives an overview of Spain’s internal political background before the run-up to the Spanish revolution. The formation of the Popular Front is examined as well as Franco’s use of Moroccan troops, and Stalin’s meddling. While Stalin and the Soviet Union ostensibly ‘aided’ revolutionary forces, in reality, treacherous communist-led counterrevolutionary forces executed and betrayed anarchists.

To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936  is by no means a comprehensive analysis–rather, it is the author’s intention to provide an overview of the period while debunking myths. Acknowledging that the Spanish revolution was a “profound” social revolution, the author also soberly notes that an American or European equivalent is “no longer conceivable.” But that instead “capitalist institutions must be hollowed out by a molecular historical process of disengagement and disloyalty.”


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A Call to Manhood by Guy Aldred

“There are opposite views of duty.”

If I had to sum up the extraordinary life of tenacious Glasgow anarchist, founder of Strickland Press, Guy Aldred in one sentence, it would be that he could not tolerate injustice. In the collection of 26 essays, A Call to Manhood, and other Studies in Social Struggle, Aldred tackles a wide range of topics that cover many subjects–some obscure, and some infamous, but in all of the essays Aldred’s passionate rhetoric is evident.

The 26 essays are written between the years 1906 and 1943, and many exhibit Aldred’s philosophy towards conscription. Aldred, a fervent anti-militarist, lived through both WWI and WWII, believed war to be a social and moral evil and refused to wear a uniform or carry arms–for these beliefs he was court-martialed four times and served several prison sentences of hard labour for being a Conscientious Objector. Aldred describes standing up for his principles of peace, and steadfastly refusing to succumb to the demands of the military officers while bearing intense pressure. In the title essay, A Call to Manhood written in 1914, Aldred admonishes his readers to “decide then your destiny” and to follow one’s conscience in the matter of war. To Aldred, the “enemy” was but a “fellow victim of a monstrous conspiracy.” He realized from personal experience that becoming a Conscientious Objector labeled him as a “creature of anti-social tendency” but he saw the governments of the world as exploiters of the common people.

In the essay, Once Called a Hero dated August 1939, Aldred details instances of abominable neglect suffered by soldiers who served in WWI. Deemed heroes and awarded the appropriate medals, these soldiers were then thrown back to fend for themselves in civilian life with horrible injuries or suffering from a range of psychological disorders.

In the essay War Time Patriotism, written in October 1939, Aldred examines the manner in which British companies profited by trading with the enemy during WWI while the government turned a blind eye to these practices. In the essay, So Horribly Unthinkable, written in June 1939, Aldred examines the growth of militarism in America by tracking the increased expenditure between the years 1921-1938 and asks “what is this but contemplation of, and preparation for the horribly unthinkable?” Also in this essay, Aldred lists the monetary damages awarded to soldiers for each disabling injury. For example, a WWI soldier who lost a right arm received 36 shillings dole a week–whereas the financial “honours list” of the upper classes exposes the large cash awards to persons of title and rank who were not injured (for example–Viscount Byng was awarded 30,000 pounds sterling).

For those interested in Guy Aldred and his ideas, then this 112-page collection of essays is a treasure trove. For further reading, I can also recommend, Come Dungeons Dark the biography of Guy Aldred by John Taylor Caldwell.

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With Fates Conspire by John Taylor Caldwell

“Mr. Aldred called the Labour Party a crowd of crooks and the Tories a bag of tricksters. He said he had spent his life trying to sweep away the rubbish of capitalism.”

With Fates Conspire: Memoirs of a Glasgow Seafarer and Anarchist is the second volume in John Taylor Caldwell’s 2-part memoir, and this volume picks up where the first left off. John Taylor Caldwell is sixteen years old, poverty-stricken and living in Glasgow. In With Fates Conspire, Caldwell describes his life on the cruise ships, and the appalling work conditions he suffered. Employed as a bellboy, Caldwell worked incredibly long days, mostly on an empty stomach, and was subject to the rigorous hierarchal system established by the cruise line employees. Not even given utensils with which to eat meals, Caldwell and his fellow bellboys were the lowest beings in the ship’s pecking order. Working an average of 16 hours or more a day, seven days a week, Caldwell spent years on various cruise ships, ever mindful of the fate of the bellboys on the Titanic. His voyages took him far away from home, to New York, Barbados and Havana. And on some of his trips, he haunted the bookshops, even spending a little of his paltry wages on books.

Caldwell’s time between voyages was problematic. His family’s unstable home life was horrific, and his irresponsible father had a tendency to sell his son’s belongings the minute he left on another sea voyage. Caldwell is, then, rather rootless and solitary when he finally meets anarchist Guy Aldred. In 1934, Caldwell joined the United Socialist Movement and soon he became part of the circle surrounding Aldred.

Apart from the odd sea voyage, between 1936 and Aldred’s death in 1963, Caldwell worked consistently in Glasgow assisting Aldred. After reading With Fates Conspire, it’s clear that Caldwell admired Aldred, and it’s also quite clear that this was not reciprocated. Caldwell doesn’t complain about how he was treated by Guy Aldred, Guy’s companion Jenny Patrick and Guy’s close friend Ethel MacDonald, but after reading the book, my impression is that in the Aldred circle, Caldwell was not treated as an equal. While Ethel MacDonald apparently treated Caldwell quite well (he lived in her home for some time when she went to Spain as a journalist to cover the Civil War), the same cannot be said of Jenny Patrick. There’s one rather distressing episode in the book when Caldwell finally has a public speaking engagement and Jenny Patrick is horribly rude (she makes noises and picks at her teeth while Caldwell speaks). Now since this is one of the few visions of Jenny Patrick we have, it certainly doesn’t give a good impression.

Personal details about Caldwell are startling absent from this volume. At the conclusion of With Fates Conspire, we have no idea if Caldwell had any sort of relationships outside of the Aldred circle, or if he ever loved. After the details of life on the cruise ships, the book concentrates squarely on Caldwell’s life with Aldred. Caldwell describes Aldred’s troubled relations with Emma Goldman, division within the Glasgow anarchist scene, and Aldred’s problematic relationships with Walter Strickland and the Duke of Bedford.

Caldwell also describes Aldred as an “avid anti parliamentarian” who “took part in postwar parliamentary elections six times.” Now no self-respecting anarchist would be seen near a ballot box, let alone run for election. According to Caldwell, Aldred used the ballot box to “expose the farcical and false nature of parliamentarism,” and on the slim chance that Aldred was elected, he promised that he would not take his seat. Although it’s obvious that Caldwell did not approve of Aldred’s political activities, for this section of the book, Caldwell acts as an apologist of sorts for Aldred’s political involvement as he attempts to explain and justify it for the reader. For this reader, at least, Aldred’s political activity remains problematic. The Aldred group, in my opinion, spent too much energy and too much money (and let’s face it, they didn’t have it to waste) on this so-called “propaganda device.”

Caldwell died in January 2007, and with his death, we see the passing of an age. We should not judge Aldred too harshly; so much has changed since Aldred’s time. We should read Caldwell to remind ourselves of a vital episode in anarchist history and also to remember that we are best served by forging bonds between anarchist groups rather than severing connections due to ideological differences.

Finally, my copy of With Fates Conspire has a copyright date of 1999, but its content stops in the early 70s (although the final chapter does describe working on Come Dungeons Dark, the biography of Aldred in the 80s and 90s).  Aldred died in 1963, but With Fates Conspire, in spite of the fact that it’s ostensibly Caldwell’s memoirs, doesn’t explore the post Aldred years. I know, no let me rephrase that, I’d like to think that Caldwell led an interesting, rich and full life post-Aldred. But if he did, there’s no trace of it here. This modest author instead hardly even mentions the final 4 decades of his life.

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Severely Dealt With–Growing Up in Belfast and Glasgow by John Taylor Caldwell

“Dissidents would be severely dealt with.” 

 Severely Dealt With is the first volume in Glasgow anarchist John Taylor Caldwell’s two-part memoir. Perhaps best known for his biography of Guy Aldred, Come Dungeons Dark Caldwell was, at first, reluctant to write his memoirs as he claimed,  “he had no story to tell.” Far from it. Caldwell’s death on January 12, 2007 signifies the passing of an age, and as such his memoirs are an integral part and vital episode of anarchist history.  

Severely Dealt With covers Caldwell’s birth in 1911 until his sixteenth year in 1927. Born in Glasgow, the third of six children, his childhood was plagued with crushing poverty. Caldwell’s father, a tailor, moved to Belfast in 1914, and the rest of the family joined him there in 1915. The family remained in Belfast until 1925, when the explosive political situation between catholics and protestants led to a severe decline in fortunes and eventually forced the family’s relocation back to Scotland.  

The growing Caldwell family had a rocky start when they first arrived in Belfast. Then followed a ten-year period of relative prosperity, continued employment, and a house with an inside toilet. The children were ritually dragged off to church on Sundays, and Caldwell tries to make sense of his changing world, exhibiting curiosity and a sunny disposition. Caldwell relates many instances of children beaten by sadistic schoolmasters who abused their ‘authority.’ These descriptions of undeserved beatings remind us that not everything in this world has changed for the worse. And it’s in this environment that Caldwell’s loathing of violence gels. To him, school is a training ground for the acceptance of authority: 

“These social outcasts were herded into classroom, not just to be educated, but to be disciplined; to be tamed. Hence order, silence, unquestioned obedience, were powerful ingredients in their instruction. They should be made to fear authority. To “know your place”, and not to “talk back to your betters” were common expressions on the lips of adults when I was young. All respectable people approved on this prescription, and the dictum went forth that dissidents would be “severely dealt with.”

Caldwell describes his family’s tenuous, yet desperate hold on middle-class status (his mother reluctantly admits “lower middle class”). This is a highly stratified society, so much so, that Caldwell was quite aware of even the subtlest of class distinctions at an incredibly early age.  At one point he describes Belfast: 

“Immediately outside the city were the mansions of the gentry, at the end of long drives guarded by iron gates, beside which stood the lodge-keeper’s cottage. Nearer the town were fine villas and semi-detached houses. Down the social scale, but still with the middle-class, were spacious Victorian terraces. Then we come to the lesser terraces in the city itself, cheek by jowl with the cobbled side streets of the labouring classes. We lived in a lesser terrace because our father was a master tailor, with his own little factory of six treadle machines and a fitting room, high above Royal Avenue…. We were especially careful of our respectability in the lower terraces because only the tramlines and a sliver of good fortune separated us from the cobbled domains of the lower orders.”

Caldwell lived through some remarkable times. He recalls WWI, the Armistice, men who refused to fight, and soldiers who never returned. There’s also a good summary of the unrest in Ireland included here. Caldwell notes that there was no conscription in Ireland during WWI, and that the Irish had been promised Home Rule “before the war, but suspended till six months after the war.” He notes that the call for Home Rule became “obsolete” and instead it became a cry for “Independence and Republicanism.” And he describes the division of Ireland as a situation that pleased neither side. The Troubles altered the Caldwell family’s life, and certainly hampered Caldwell’s father’s ability to earn a living. Then began the family’s rapid slide into extreme poverty and squalor.  

As the family’s fortunes declined, Caldwell’s childhood disappeared.  He describes his bleak home life with the occasional bright, joyful moment of play. They lived in a series of crude structures, and at age 11, Caldwell began working 36 hours a week. But the little money the children were able to scrape together through their various jobs was not enough to pull the family from its dire straits. Caldwell’s father, always a problematic figure at the best of times, sinks to some of his worst behaviour during this period, and when forced to endure the harshness of unrelenting poverty, his brutal, selfish nature explodes, beating his children, and abusing his wife to the point of contributing to her death.

After the death of his beloved mother, Caldwell’s home life worsened considerably, and it becomes glaringly obvious that his mother both shielded the children from their father and absorbed a great deal of his nastiness. The family’s return to Scotland allows optimism to reign briefly, but it soon becomes obvious that Caldwell has few prospects in his impending adulthood. Yet the book manages to end on an optimistic note. Severely Dealt With really is a remarkable account, and a solid, good read. I was a little perturbed at first by the references to god, and then I realised that Caldwell’s wry humour is at play here. His character shines through the pages, and in spite of the tremendous hardships Caldwell suffered, in true anarchist fashion, he never whines or complains; he deals with it.

One of the things I find fascinating is what causes people to become anarchists. Is it a single event? Is a slow dawning process? Or to quote from Stuart Christie’s book Granny Made Me an Anarchist: “the only way you can become an anarchist is to wake up one morning and find you are one.” Although this first volume concludes before Caldwell ‘finds’ anarchism, these pages leave clues to Caldwell’s decision; his feet are solidly on the path to discovery. In the last few pages of the book, Caldwell exhibits a growing curiosity about the corrupt state of political affairs, and, in spite of a childhood seeped in conditioning to accept authority administered (of course) by his “betters,” he’s set to question his fate in life. The second volume reveals Caldwell’s introduction to anarchism and his lifelong involvement in the Glasgow scene (amongst other things). 

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The Russian Anarchists by Paul Avrich

“Such a world is called anarchy.”

In the book, The Russian Anarchists retired Professor of History, Paul Avrich takes a comprehensive look at the emergence of anarchism in Russia, its role in the political struggle during the revolutionary period, the persecution of anarchists in the subsequent Bolshevik counter-revolution, and the eventual downfall of Russian anarchism. Avrich sets the stage by examining the social discontent of the period–including the Tsar’s ill-advised Russification programme. Horrendous conditions and famines in the peasant community led to uprisings that were early “danger signals” largely ignored once they’d been squashed. Similarly, students, who were hardly a privileged group in Tsarist Russia, suffered after protesting against rigid university statutes. The book examines the political assassination of the Minister of Education, Bogolepov, by an expelled student and other, subsequent assassinations. Another oppressed group were the Jews who were shoved into ghettos and subject to strict quotas in educational institutions. The situation in Russia was “highly inflammable,” and some sought reforms through various political avenues.

The book describes the political scene at the time and the two major socialist parties–the Marxian Social Democrats (the SD party promptly split into the Menshevik and Bolshevik parties) and the neo-Populist Socialist Revolutionaries. Avrich explains why these parties failed to satisfy the social vision of the anarchists (worker control of production, and the creation of free communes), and how anarchists began to form their own groups. One chapter discusses anarchist principals Kropotkin and Bakunin, and the major anarchist groups-Chernoe Znamia (The Black Banner) and Beznachalie (Without Authority), their actions, their members, and their beliefs. In direct opposition to these two groups use of “motiveless terror” is Tolstoy’s non-violent approach of Christian anarchism. Various schools of anarchist thought began to emerge–Anarchist-Individualism, Anarchist-Communism, and the “severest critics of terrorist tactics”–the Anarcho-Syndicalists.

With such divergence of beliefs, it’s no wonder that the Russian anarchist movement was “plagued by … internal disputes over doctrine and tactics,” and of course, that brings us to the final chapters and the failed Organizational Platform. Ukrainian peasant anarchist Nestor Makhno’s role in the Bolshevik counter-revolution is indicative of the divisive situation at the time–Whites were viewed as the greater evil when compared to the Bolshevists. Avrich discusses the Kronstadt uprising, the persecution of anarchists in Bolshevik controlled Russia, and finally the emigre anarchist community in Paris. This is an intensely detailed book, and the author wisely includes a chronology of principal events, an extensive bibliography, and index. For those interested in the background of the Russian Revolution, Nestor Makhno or early anarchist history, this book is an excellent resource.

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The Bonnot Gang by Richard Parry

“To counter the threat of armed working class bandits, many bourgeois began to arm themselves; from dawn to dusk they queued up to buy guns and learn how to use them, while car-owners, feeling particularly threatened, offered their vehicles to the police until such time as the bandits were caught. Cars were not yet widespread, and the idea that workers could not only have access to them, but make this particular use of them was very worrying.”

The Bonnot Gang: The Story of the French Illegalists by Richard Parry is an excellent, highly detailed account of the notorious French anarchist gang–  “auto-bandits” who were the first group to use getaway cars during the course of robberies.

Don’t even think about skipping the preface to the book because this is an essential part in understanding how the members of the so-called Bonnot Gang were a symptom of the times. The term ‘Bonnot Gang’ by the way, was the name given by the French press to a loosely connected group of French anarchists–some were friends and some only had the barest acquaintance with the others. The author points out that they “were not a close-knit criminal band in the classical style, but rather a union of egoists associated for a common purpose.”

Tracing the ideas and influence of Max Stirner and his book The Ego and Its Own, Parry credits Stirner as a powerful influence on anarchist-individualism and spends the marvelous first chapter describing the anarchist scene in France and the growth of anarchist-individualism. Following the debacle of the 1871 Paris Commune, the French government cracked down, and with “revolutionary organizations outlawed, and all forms of working class political activity banned, anarchists and trade-unionists were forced to operate in ways that were clandestine and outrightly illegal.” But in spite of this (or perhaps because of this), by the 1880s “there were an estimated forty anarchist groups in France with two thousand five hundred active members.”

The bitter aftermath of the Paris Commune “left a rich legacy of class-hatred” and Parry explains, “all anarchist activity and propaganda was centered on the class struggle which was especially bitter and violent up to the mid 1890s.” Since these were active times, a plethora of newspapers sprang up, and a number of anarchist groups emerged. One of the most prominent papers to emerge was L’Anarchie–considered the mouthpiece of anarchist-individualism–the paper “positively promoted crime and the theory of illegalism.” Co-founded in 1905 by Libertad, the paper’s position was that “there were not two opposed classes, bourgeois and proletarian, but only individuals.” Libertad seems to be a rather explosive character who quarreled with Syndicalists and was largely unwelcome–except in his own circle, and even then he managed to alienate friends and lovers.

Parry explains how Illegalism grew out of anarchist-individualism and points out that “almost all the Illegalists who were associated with the Bonnot Gang were born in the late 1880s or early 90s.” During this period, Parry argues, “the anarchist desire for the abolition of the state was translated onto an immediate practical level through individual acts of assassination and bombing.” Furthermore the idea of expropriation was reduced to individual acts of  ” re-appropriation through the theory of La Reprise Individuelle.” Parry stresses the point that Illegalism differed from La Reprise Individuelle as the “illegalists stole not simply for the advancement of the cause, but for their own advancement.” And it was during these times that some infamous French anarchist criminals existed: Clement Duval, Marius Jacob and Ravachol. There’s a brief overview of their careers included.

Gangs began to emerge, and proceeds from burglaries and thefts were donated to the Cause, and naturally some donated more than others. Meanwhile an intellectual argument raged between anarchists regarding Illegalism and its moral justification, and eventually a split formed. While Illegalists argued that so-called “honest citizens, believers in the State and Authority” were part of the problem, others argued against Illegalism and the use of violence and force against ordinary citizens. Again Parry goes into some detail about this split–those pro and those con Illegalism, the major proponents and detractors, and their arguments for their beliefs.

There’s a clear sense of the social pressures of the time that helped create Illegalism. With mandatory military service, there were thousands of deserters roaming around France, unable to work, and even for those who could find work, often an eighteen-hour day of the most horrendous working conditions barely managed to put food on the table. (According to the book, in the early 1900s, there were approximately 70,000 deserters and draft dodgers.) One of the gang members, anarchist and draft dodger Octave Garnier was trying to make a living at age 13, but turned to crime. Working a “sixteen or eighteen hour day, seven days a week” on forged documents barely allowed survival. Garnier became increasingly disillusioned and frustrated with his situation and gradually came to loathe the system. Into this difficult social environment, Illegalism was born, and the Bonnot Gang became a major part of it.

Parry goes into significant detail describing the members of the gang–their relationships, their teetotalism and vegetarianism. The book details the “legendary” violent crimes the Bonnot Gang committed, the subsequent hysteria that swept through France, how the gang members were caught, the trials, executions and exiles. As the net tightens on the Bonnot Gang, there’s the sense that this is only going to go one way, and certainly most of the Bonnot Gang exited this life as spectacularly as they lived it. There’s quite an extensive list of characters, so it’s advisable to take notes. You may need them.

It always seems a little unfortunate when anarchists fight amongst themselves, and yet at the same time, criticism of anarchists by other anarchists is invaluable. The aftermath of the Bonnot Gang left many anarchists scrambling to explain their philosophical positions on Illegalism. Parry goes into some depth on the sticky role Victor Serge (Victor Kibalchich) played in the trial. While as the editor of L’Anarchie, Serge promoted Illegalism, he backtracked and waffled during the trial and later called Illegalism a form of “collective suicide.” Other anarchists at the time expressed the notion that the Bonnot Gang went off the deep end. Some felt that Illegalists were not anarchists at all but were “pseudo-anarchists who dishonour the anarchist ideal” and others resented the post-Bonnot Gang crackdown on the anarchist community. The story of the Bonnot Gang is an integral part of anarchist history and it’s a story that raises some intriguing questions and deserves attention. But apart from all that, the book is an excellent read.

The book includes a bibliography, index and many black and white photos.

189 pages
Rebel Press


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Memoirs of a Revolutionist by Kropotkin

“This was the first spark of anarchism.”

Peter Kropotkin was an extraordinary individual whose life spanned a remarkable period of history. Born in 1842 to an aristocratic Russian family, he carved a career as a scientist and a geographer, but above all else, Kropotkin was an anarchist. Like many young people of his time, he rejected the inequities of Russian society and sought alternatives.

Memoirs of a Revolutionist begins with Kropotkin’s childhood, his mother’s early death and his father’s subsequent remarriage. After Tsar Nicholas I decreed that all sons of the aristocracy must have a military career, Kropotkin was a student in the Corps of Pages and eventually a page in the Winter Palace. Kropotkin was slated for a brilliant military career enjoyed by only the highest echelons of Russian society. Why then did the young Kropotkin turn his back on St. Petersburg and the favours of the Tsar in order to purse his military career in Siberia? The idealistic Kropotkin saw Siberia as an “immense field for the application of the great reforms” and yet after joining a mounted Cossack unit, he saw his suggested reforms fall victim to the Reactionary wave that swept through Russia.

Kropotkin charts his interest in radical and forbidden books, the brutality of the Corps of Pages, his initial faith in Tsar Alexander II’s reforms, exactly how and why the Emancipation of the Serfs failed, and the subsequent turbulent Reactionary Period. His vivid detailed descriptions of serfdom go far beyond anything I’ve ever read on the subject, and it’s clear that in spite of the fact that Kropotkin was Russian nobility, his empathy for the serfs began in early childhood. A considerable part of the book is spent detailing exactly how the serfs or “souls” were treated–in essence they were seen as rather like farm animals–except for the tributes they were supposed to conjure up for their ‘masters.’ The medieval system of serfdom, and the nobility’s lifestyle dependency on free labour paints Russian society as tragically doomed to self-destruct. Kropotkin was quite aware of Russian society’s path towards imminent self-destruction, and he hoped–futilely–that reforms would circumvent Russia’s doom.

Kropotkin’s Winter Palace years provide an intimate look at Alexander II and explain the ruler’s dichotomy of actions–on one hand a desire for reform, but on the other hand a blind acceptance of Reactionary decisions. Kropotkin describes his “great admiration for Alexander II, the liberator of Serfs,” but then his attitude shifts as Alexander enacts the suppression of insurrections, and delivers crushing, brutal and unjust punishments towards any shred of defiance to his dictates. Finally, Kropotkin accepts and acknowledges that Alexander is a “despot.”

Memoirs of a Revolutionist charts Kropotkin’s development as one of the world’s greatest revolutionaries, and details exactly why he turned his back on own privileged aristocratic class. It’s quite evident that while the aristocracy controlled the serfs–and later the peasant class–even the uppermost levels of Russian society were subject to the Tsar’s brutal, unjust dictates and whims. The seeds of Kropotkin’s independent thought processes are found in his earliest childhood, but it was when Kropotkin attended the Corps of Pages that he realised the “power of collective action.” He notes that he attended the school as it entered a “transition period” and that shortly before he arrived a “revolution had taken place” in the school, which had begun to subvert the brutal, established hierarchy. The memoir also details Kroptokin’s imprisonment, his daring escape from Russia, his European exile, his involvement with the anarchists of the Jura Federation and the influence of Bakunin. Kropotkin’s gentle, intelligent style flows remarkably clearly through these well-written pages, and ultimately he emerges as a reasonable, thoughtful man who hoped to stave off a global disaster.

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Bakunin and Nechaev by Paul Avrich

“The question of revolutionary ethics.”

The slim volume Bakunin & Nechaev by Paul Avrich focuses on a fascinating, and almost forgotten, slice of Russian anarchist history. Although only just over 30 pages long, this well-written little book presents a gripping truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale.

Author Avrich does not attempt to present full-scale biographies of either of his two subjects–Bakunin and Sergei Nechaev–instead he traces the bizarre revolutionary beginnings of Nechaev, and the ultimately difficult relationship the two men shared. After escaping from a sentence of life imprisonment in Siberia, Bakunin was living as an exile in Switzerland when Nechaev showed up. 22-year-old Nechaev arrived with a self-created cloak of mythological revolutionary activities. By creating “an aura of mystery” which involved a fabricated escape from the Peter and Paul fortress, he “cast himself into the role of the revolutionary prototype.” Once he arrived in Geneva, Nechaev visited Bakunin “claiming to represent a powerful revolutionary organization.”

In 1869, Bakunin and Nechaev collaborated on the production of a number of political pamphlets and manifestos. The most infamous of the documents was The Catechism of the Revolutionary. It was divided into two parts–the first section contained rules and regulations for revolutionary organizations. The second part discussed The Rules of Conduct of Revolutionaries. This second section basically presented an ends justifies the means approach to revolutionary ethics. According to The Catechism, nothing was unacceptable as long as the revolutionary furthered his goal.

Exactly who authored The Catechism became the “subject of prolonged and bitter dispute.” And this dispute became particularly relevant after Nechaev returned to Russia. Nechaev deliberately set out on a campaign to incriminate friends and then used blackmail to rope them into his organization. His manipulations ended in the murder of one of his followers. Avrich argues that the relationship between Bakunin and Nechaev “illuminates the question of revolutionary ethics–of the relationship between means and ends–which revolutionists everywhere have continued to face.”

Arvich covers early Russian revolutionary activity, including the Ishutin Circle and its beliefs. He also explores the authorship of The Catechism, and Nechaev’s final fate. The book’s conclusion includes a nice analysis of revolutionary ethics,  the role of a revolutionary organization, and how The Catechism influenced later groups. The author also notes that Nechaev proved to be the inspiration for the character of Verkhovensky in Dostoevsky’s novel The Demons.

Finally, the author wisely includes a bibliography for further reading. Bakunin and Nechaev is a well-crafted small package that packs a powerful philosophical punch, and Avrich’s style makes this a pleasure to read.

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