Tag Archives: Memoirs

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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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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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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Granny Made Me An Anarchist: General Franco, The Angry Brigade and Me by Stuart Christie

“Anarchists don’t seek political power, only moral authority. Nor do they plot to bring down democratic governments through aimless acts of malicious, visceral hatred; but they do seek to sideline them as much as possible by empowering people through education, example, and by fashioning events wherever possible to promote the general principles of mutual aid and self-management.”

In the lively memoir, Granny Made Me an Anarchist: General Franco, The Angry Brigade and Me, author Stuart Christie deftly blends his intensely personal story against the background of the explosive politics and shifting culture of Britain in the 60s and 70s. Christie was born and raised in Scotland and heavily influenced by the female figures in his life–including his indomitable grandmother. After a brief flirtation with socialism, Christie landed squarely into anarchism, and as a teenager in the 60s, Christie was heavily involved in the anti-nuclear movement and in protests against the Vietnam War.

Moving to London, Christie met members of the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Group and soon became part of a plot to kill Franco. The plot was ill conceived, and non-Spanish speaking Christie–who acted as a courier transporting explosives–was apparently dogged the minute he entered Spain. The fact that Christie never got within arm’s length of his mission to hand over the explosives did not stop the Spanish courts from sentencing the 18 year old “kilted assassin” to twenty years in a Spanish prison. But Christie, who could have received the sentence of public garroting–a grisly practice still prevalent under Franco’s rule–was at least alive.

Christie recounts the trial, and while it’s a deadly serious situation with the possibility of a barbaric execution, nonetheless, Christie never loses his sense of humor. As the highly ceremonial trial conducted entirely in Spanish begins to assume surreal qualities, Christie asks the question: “How in the name of the wee man had I ended up here?”

Christie spent several years in prison, and during this time he learned Spanish and even managed to take his A-levels. When conditions inside prison improved, he felt like a “rare animal in a zoo conservation project.” Thanks in part to international political undercurrents and also increased tourism to Spain, Christie was released. He returned to a media circus in Britain, and refusing to be anyone’s pet monkey, he managed, instead, to alienate most of the press. After the media frenzy died down, and the exploitation of the tacky headlines ended, Christie settled down to a job converting coal gas appliances to North Sea gas. Christie’s time in jail served only to strengthen his anarchist beliefs. He maintained friendships with anarchists both in Britain and abroad–and for rather obvious reasons “revived” the Anarchist Black Cross–a “prisoner support organization” that originated in tsarist Russia in the late 1800s. But the story doesn’t end there….

With sharp insight, and biting commentary, Christie describes a troubled Britain in the late 60s and 70s–fraught with labor problems, social discontent, the horrifying revelations of My Lai, the tawdriness of the Profumo Affair, the French riots of 68, the actions of the First of May Group, and even details a bizarre plot organized by publisher Cecil King, Lord Mountbatten, and various Ministry of Defense officials to overthrow British Prime Minister Harold Wilson whose socialist tendencies were interpreted as a communist plot. And it is in this turmoil that the mysterious Angry Brigade emerged and began a bombing campaign targeting embassies, government buildings, and various Tory members of the British government.

Christie–already ludicrously labeled by the press as “Britain’s Number Two Anarchist” is–naturally–on the ‘watch list’ as a troublemaker, and he’s eventually hauled in on conspiracy charges in the Angry Brigade trial of the “Stoke Newington Eight.” Christie documents the published communiqués from the Angry Brigade–along with his analysis of their actions (he describes the Angry Brigade as libertarian socialist). The trial proves to be an infamous landmark in judicial history for many reasons. Christie describes the trial, and further jail time, but at least he was able to compare British jails to Spanish jails and emerge ‘not guilty.’

Christie, who founded Cienfuegos Press with Albert Meltzer, includes several philosophical comments on issues such as violence, and while he argues that as for the “anarchist position on violence all I can say is there is none,” he also notes: “One of the main planks of anarchism is the removal of violence and coercion from all human relations.” Emphasizing that “violence and direct action are techniques, not an ideology, or philosophy” he argues that the decision to use violence as a tool is fraught with problems: “Pursing moral and ethical objectives by violent means can be a very fine and dangerous line to walk.” And he notes that a “crippled conscience is as irretrievable as a lost life.” Rife with witty, sharp observations, Christie always maintains a sensitive, self-critical eye and analyzes his thought processes in every step he takes. In spite of the dire situations he finds himself in, he never loses his keen sense of humor. For example, right after he’s arrested in Spain, he notes that his copy of Candide is confiscated while he’s allowed to keep de Sade’s Justine. That gave me a good laugh. Granny Made Me an Anarchist is a marvelously well-written roller coaster ride through wild times, and for those of us who couldn’t be there, this book is the next best thing.

AK Press 10/07

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My People Shall Live: The Autobiography of a Revolutionary by Leila Khaled

“I understood the longing for one’s own country.”

My People Shall Live is the autobiography of Palestinian terrorist/revolutionary Leila Khaled. Khaled begins her story when she is four years old, and her family is forced to leave Haifa forever. They leave behind their home, their possessions, and the family business and are forced to become refugees in Lebanon. As refugees, life is extremely difficult. The family members live in one room, and getting enough money to buy food is a problem. Khaled grows up in Lebanon in poverty–but she never, ever forgets her stolen homeland–Palestine–and she never deviates from her desire to return there one day in triumph.

By the time Khaled is a teenager, she is devoted to the Palestinian cause. She joins the Palestinian Popular Front as a guerrilla and is trained to hijack airplanes. Khaled does manage to successfully hijack one plane, but the attempted hijacking of an EL-AL jet ends in bloodshed.

Khaled’s story is packed with emotion, especially her description of seeing her homeland of Palestine for the first time since her exile. After the first hijacking, Khaled’s name and face were plastered all over the world’s newspapers. As a result of this, she undergoes plastic surgery without anesthesia to change her features so that she would be unrecognizable (otherwise her effectiveness in the cause was questionable). It’s a bit peculiar that she states her notoriety is the result of ‘Zionist hysteria’ and not the result of her hijacking planes….

My People Shall Live is most interesting when Khaled meets people who she is forced to examine closely. During the events covered by the book, she meets a black American teacher, Mrs. McNight and a young American student, Judy. She has already established that she hates all Americans, but knowing Judy and McNight causes Khaled to question herself and her hatred. Meeting and respecting individuals causes Khaled to question how they fit into her paradigm of revenge and hate. Similarly when held in Britain, she tends to take each police questioning as an opportunity to present her cause. Gradually, however, when treated humanely and with respect, she begins to see the humanity of others, and she develops an uneasy relationship with a few individuals. Khaled admires Gandhi, and is quite frankly confused by anarchists. She feels pleasure when observing fear in those she hi-jacks, and yet does not examine too closely the notion that she may have to kill children while on one of her missions. Her reactions are always interesting to decipher, and she is fully cognizant of the process of rationalization of using the tactic of violence within a revenge-based paradigm.

The book was written in the 70s, so some of the political statements are dated. For example, Khaled told her story when the Cold War was still a reality, so she frequently discusses Palestine in terms of the US and Soviet Union axis. In addition, the book is full of historical information regarding the gradual literal and figurative ‘shrinking’ of Palestine.

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The Confessions of Wanda von Sacher-Masoch by Wanda von Sacher-Masoch

“Be my faithful loving wife and also my severe mistress.”

After reading Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, I turned my attention to The Confessions of Wanda von Sacher-Masoch. Venus in Furs is the account of the sadomasochistic relationship between the author, Sacher-Masoch and his idealized, fictional mistress. The Confessions of Wanda von Sacher-Masoch is her version of ten years of miserable married life spent with the author. Considered an early Feminist heroine, Wanda is powerless, financially dependant, and trapped in a loveless marriage. Early in their relationship, Wanda had a modest success with a career as a fledgling writer–a career she maintains she sacrificed. Wanda’s plight is not uncommon. What is uncommon about the story is that she’s married to Sacher-Masoch.

If you are expecting a salacious memoir of life with Sacher-Masoch, think again. Sacher-Masoch–so famous for his kinky tastes, that masochism was actually named after him–was–according to his wife–a bit of a bore. If Wanda’s tale is to be believed, Leopold was a dreadful husband. I was expecting a memoir with at least some naughtiness; but Wanda is the epitome of the long-suffering wife. After marrying Sacher-Masoch, she is subject to a one-track mind loaded with boring whims. The man’s obsessed with making her take lovers, and his unflagging determination leads him to pester every man in sight. Sacher-Masoch’s determination to enlist Wanda’s participation in his fantasies even results in demanding she dress in furs and whip him while he’s having his tooth extracted. Wanda makes a habit of either giving into his demands or delicately avoiding his more embarrassing expectations.

According to the foreword of Venus in Furs, Wanda (whose real name was Aurora Rumelin) was a crazed fan of Sacher-Masoch’s book who threw herself at the author’s feet. She even adopted the name of the book’s heroine–Wanda. In her Confessions Wanda has an entirely different account of the beginnings of their relationship (and I’ll admit I find her account of their meeting a bit fishy). Which version is true or partially true is a matter for the reader to decide.

The contrast between Sacher-Masoch’s fevered fantasies, and his wife’s long-suffering complaints is amusing. Wanda’s account is written in a straightforward, plain manner–without any particular artistic skill. The account of their married life concentrates on frequent financial dilemmas, Sacher-Masoch’s recruitment of lovers for his wife, and the friends who visited their home. Wanda’s Confessions don’t make exciting reading. She’s a person acted upon, and not a heroine who takes charge of her life (this is where the long-suffering stuff comes in). But for anyone who read and enjoyed Venus in Furs, Confessions is of interest. It illustrates von Sacher-Masoch’s inherent dilemma–craving discipline, he proceeds to demand it, and then renders the woman who is the disciplinarian completely powerless.


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