'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist 

Alexander Berkman is a forgotten figure of American history, exiled to the periphery like many other radicals who do not fit comfortably within the traditional narrative. He lived during a time in which labor and capital were engaged in a seemingly perpetual violent conflict as the country industrialized during the late 19th and early 20th Century. Capitalists like Carnegie and Rockefeller brutally shattered the efforts of workers to challenge horrible working conditions in the mines, factories and railyards.

Berkman emigrated to the US from Russia, and he brought with him the paradoxical values of individual violent action on behalf of the working class, commonly known as propaganda by the deed, the recourse to physical violence against political enemies, frequently industrialists, police officers or prosecutors, as a way of inspiring the masses to make the revolution. In 1892, enraged by the breaking of the Homestead strike, Berkman attempted to assasinate Henry Clay Frick, a business partner of Carnegie who hired Pinkertons to attack the steel workers who had seized the Homestead Works when it became apparent that Frick wanted to break the union.

In today's postmodern world, a world in which consumerism and popular culture have pushed class conflict to the margins, a world in which life or death decisions are antiseptically implemented by spreadsheet, the notion of propaganda by the deed strikes one, at best, as romantically antiquated, at worst, an immoral violation of the pacifist ethos that so dominates left activism globally. But upon beginning to read Berkman's Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, his account of the attempted assassination of Frick and his subsequent imprisonment, it becomes abundantly clear that it was a much different world in 1892.

Unlike today, the enemies of the working class appeared readily identifiable and accessible. In the first section of the book, Berkman describes how he was emotionally affected by the forcible suppression of the Homestead strike, a strike that he and his close associates, like Emma Goldman, believed, quite mistakenly, represented the ignition of a worker rebellion against the US capitalist system. Having persuaded himself that he was part of the revolutionary vanguard, he decided that he must kill Frick to inspire the workers to rededicate themselves to an even greater resistance. Berkman personifies the radical paradox: a man who intensely identifies with the suffering of peasants and workers, and yet presumes to act violently on their behalf without seeking their approval.

Upon being imprisoned, Berkman discovers that he had been quite misguided. The other inmates cannot understand why he did what he did, although he is respected by some because he superficially recognizes how they have been mistreated by the criminal justice system. However, even here, he suffered from a hyperideological, arrogant impersonal perspective, tending to initially perceive many of the other inmates as parasitic figures with no place in the workers' utopia that he envisions.

It was only with the passage of time and the shared experience of struggling to survive in the face of the medieval conditions within the prison that Berkman began to respect them and perceive them as equals. Through a spare, direct use of English, he describes encounters with inmates that grow slowly into enduring relationships. He speaks with an unpretentious voice that is clear, compassionate and candid. The prospect of dying within the facility haunts everyone. As he serves his long sentence, many of his friends die, one by one, from solitary confinement, disease, inadequate to non-existence medical care, madness and physical assaults perpetrated by guards.

The industrialization of America was creating an enormous population of impoverished people that invariably found themselves incarcerated. Berkman memorializes them through his recollection of their life within the prison, especially his accounts of the most mundane and intimate details of their daily activities. He is even capable of distinguishing amongst the guards, recognizing those who sought to make the lives of the prisoners more tolerable. In letters sent to Goldman, reproduced within the book, he began to understand that the violence of the American capitalist system was more sophisticated, and, hence, more effective than the feudal forms of social control practiced in the Czarist Russia from whence he came.

To Goldman's surprise, Berkman did not fully endorse the assassination of McKinley as consistent with anarchist ideals: In Russia, where political oppression is popularly felt, such a deed would be of great value. But the scheme of political subjugation is more subtle in America. And though McKinley was the chief representative of our modern slavery, he could not be considered in the light of a direct and immediate enemy of the people, while in absolutism, the autocrat is visible and tangible. The real despotism of republican institutions is far deeper, more insidious, because it rests upon the popular delusion of self-governance and independence. That is the subtle source of democratic tyranny, and, as such, it cannot be reached with a bullet.

Berkman, it seems, never found a way to politically overcome the violence so effectively interwoven into the American social system. Having rejected assassination in 1901, he apparently returned to it in 1914, when he purportedly participated in a plot to kill Rockefeller after the harsh suppression of strikes in the Colorado mines. For him, the violence of American capitalism could only be overcome through the violence of the workers.

It is easy to dismiss Berkman in an age where the non-violence of Gandhi and King is ascendant. But as one looks around, he remains relevant for his honest engagement with the problem even if he has disappeared into the mists of history. After all, the non-violence of the global left hasn't prevented the predations of the invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation. Nor has it slowed the relentless process of primative accumulation by global finance capital in sweatshops throughout the lesser developed world. It has been left to the Iraqis themselves to resist through the killing of US troops and their local collaborators, actions condemned by many of the same liberal pacifists who are powerless to protect them, and even the Zapatistas, adored by many on the left, responded to the prospect of cultural genocide by launching attacks throughout Chiapas on January 1, 1994.

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