Excerpted from Chapter 9 ABC of Anarchism By Alexander Berkman
“Prepare for revolution!” exclaims your friend; “is that possible?
Yes. Not only is it possible but absolutely necessary.
“Do you refer to secret preparations, armed bands, and men to lead the fight?” you ask.
No, my friend, not that at all.
If the social revolution meant only street battles and barricades, then the preparations you have in mind would be the thing. But revolution does not signify that; at least the fighting phase of it is the smallest and least important part.
The truth is, in modern times revolution does not mean barricades any more. These belong to the past. The social revolution is a far different and more essential matter. It involves the reorganization of the entire life of society. You will agree that this is certainly not to be accomplished by mere fighting.
Of course, the obstacles in the path of the social reconstruction have to be removed. That is to say the means of that reconstruction must be secured by the masses. Those means are at present in the hands of government and capitalism, and these will resist every effort to deprive them of their power and possessions. That resistance will involve a fight. But remember that the fight is not the main thing, is not the object, not the revolution. It is only the preface, the preliminary to it.
It is very necessary that you get this straight. Most people have very confused notions about revolution. To them it means just fighting, smashing things, destroying. It is the same as if rolling up your sleeves for work should be considered as the work itself that you have to do. The fighting part of revolution is merely the rolling up of your sleeves. The real, actual task is ahead.
What is that task?
“The destruction of the existing conditions,” you reply.
True. But conditions are not destroyed by breaking and smashing things. You can’t destroy wage slavery by wrecking the machinery in mills and factories, can you? You won’t destroy government by setting fire to the White House.
To think of revolution in terms of violence and destruction is to misinterpret and falsify the whole idea of it. In practical application such a conception is bound to lead to disastrous results.
When a great thinker, like the famous Anarchist Bakunin, speaks of revolution as destruction, he has in mind the ideas of authority and obedience which are to be destroyed. It is for this reason that he said that destruction means construction, for to destroy a false belief is indeed most constructive work.
But the average man, and too often even the revolutionist, thoughtlessly talks of revolution as being exclusively destructive in the physical sense of the word. That is a wrong and dangerous view. The sooner we get rid of it the better.
Revolution, and particularly the social revolution, is not destruction but construction. This cannot be sufficiently emphasized, and unless we clearly realize it, revolution will remain only destructive and thereby always a failure. Naturally revolution is accompanied by violence, but you might as well say that building a new house in place of an old one is destructive because you have first to tear down the old one. Revolution is the culminating point of a certain evolutionary process: it begins with a violent upheaval. It is the rolling up of your sleeves preparatory to starting the actual work.
Indeed, consider what the social revolution is to do, what it is to accomplish, and you will perceive that it comes not to destroy but to build.
What, really, is there to destroy?
The wealth of the rich? Nay, that is something we want the whole of society to enjoy.
The land, the fields, the coal mines, the railroads, factories, mills, and shops? These we want not to destroy but to make useful to the entire people.
The telegraphs, telephones, the means of communication and distribution-do we want to destroy them? No, we want them to serve the needs of all.
What, then, is the social revolution to destroy? It is to take over things for the general benefit, not to destroy them. It is to reorganize conditions for the public welfare.
Not to destroy is the aim of the revolution, but to reconstruct and rebuild.
It is for this that preparation is needed, because the social revolution is not the Biblical his mission by simple edict or Messiah who is to accomplish order. Revolution works with the hands and brains of men. And these have to understand the objects of the revolution so as to be able to carry them out. They will have to know what they want and how to achieve it. The way to achieve it will be pointed by the objects to be attained. For the end determines the means, just as you have to sow a particular seed to grow the thing you need.
What, then, must the preparation for the social revolution be?
If your object is to secure liberty, you must learn to do without authority and compulsion. If you intend to live in peace and harmony with your fellow-men, you and they should cultivate brotherhood and respect for each other. If you want to work together with them for your mutual benefit, you must practice co-operation. The social revolution means much more than the reorganization of conditions only: it means the establishment of new human values and social relationships, a changed attitude of man to man, as of one free and independent to his equal; it means a different spirit in individual and collective life, and that spirit cannot be born overnight. It is a spirit to be cultivated, to be nurtured and reared, as the most delicate flower is, for indeed it is the flower of a new and beautiful existence.
Do not dupe yourself with the silly notion that “things will arrange themselves.” Nothing ever arranges itself, least of all in human relations. It is men who do the arranging, and they do it according to their attitude and understanding of things.
New situations and changed conditions make us feel, think, and act in a different manner. But the new conditions themselves come about only as a result of new feelings and ideas. The social revolution is such a new condition. We must learn to think differently before the revolution can come. That alone can bring the revolution.
We must learn to think differently about government and authority, for as long as we think and act as we do to-day, there will be intolerance, persecution, and oppression, even when organized government is abolished. We must learn to respect the humanity of our fellow-man, not to invade him or coerce him, to consider his liberty as sacred as our own; to respect his freedom and his personality, to forswear compulsion in any form: to understand that the cure for the evils of liberty is more liberty, that liberty is the mother of order.
And furthermore we must learn that equality means equal opportunity, that monopoly is the denial of it, and that only brotherhood secures equality. We can learn this only by freeing ourselves from the false ideas of capitalism and of property, of mine and shine, of the narrow conception of ownership.
By learning this we shall grow into the spirit of true liberty and solidarity, and know that free association is the soul of every achievement. We shall then realize that the social revolution is the work of co-operation, of solidaric purpose, of mutual effort.
Maybe you think this too slow a process, a work that will take too long. Yes, I must admit that it is a difficult task. But ask yourself if it is better to build your new house quickly and badly and have it break down over your head, rather than to do it efficiently, even if it requires longer and harder work.
Remember that the social revolution represents the liberty and welfare of the whole of mankind, that the complete and final emancipation of labour depends upon it. Consider also that if the work is badly done, all the effort and suffering involved in it will be for nothing and perhaps even worse than for nothing, because making a botch job of revolution means putting a new tyranny in place of the old, and new tyrannies, because they are new, have a new lease on life. It means forging new chains which are stronger than the old.
Consider also that the social revolution we have in mind is to accomplish the work that many generations of men have been labouring to achieve, for the whole history of man has been a struggle of liberty against servitude, of social well-being against poverty and wretchedness, of justice against iniquity. What we call progress has been a painful but continuous march in the direction of limiting authority and the power of government and increasing the rights and liberties of the individual, of the masses. It has been a struggle that has taken thousands of years. The reason that it took such a long time-and is not ended yet-is because people did not know what the real trouble was: they fought against this and for that, they changed kings and formed new governments, they put out one ruler only to set up another, they drove away a “foreign” oppressor only to suffer the yoke of a native one, they abolished one form of tyranny, such as the Tsars, and submitted to that of a party dictatorship, and always and ever they shed their blood and heroically sacrificed their lives in the hope of securing liberty and welfare.
But they secured only new masters, because however desperately and nobly they fought, they never touched the real source of trouble, the principle of authority and government. They did not know that that was the fountainhead of enslavement and oppression, and therefore they never succeeded in gaining liberty.
But now we understand that true liberty is not a matter of changing kings or rulers. We know that the whole system of master and slave must go, that the entire social scheme is wrong, that government and compulsion must be abolished, that the very foundations of authority and monopoly must be uprooted. Do you still think any kind of preparation for such a great task can be too difficult?
Let us, then, fully realize how important it is to prepare for the social revolution, and to prepare for it in the right way.
“But what is the right way?” you demand. “And who is to prepare?”
Who is to prepare? First of all, you and I-those who are interested in the success of the revolution, those who want to help bring it about. And you and I means every man and woman; at least every decent man and woman, every one who hates oppression and loves liberty, every one who cannot endure the misery and injustice which fill the world to-day.
And above all it is those who suffer most from existing conditions, from wage slavery, subjection, and indignity.
“The workers, of course,” you say.
Yes, the workers. As the worst victims of present institutions, it is to their own interest to abolish them. It has been truly said that “the emancipation of the workers must be accomplished by the workers themselves,” for no other social class will do it for them. Yet labour’s emancipation means at the same time the redemption of the whole of society, and that is why some people speak of labour’s “historic mission” to bring about the better day.
But “mission” is the wrong word. It suggests a duty or task imposed on one from the outside, by some external power. It is a false and misleading conception, essentially a religious, metaphysical sentiment. Indeed, if the emancipation of labour is a “historic mission,” then history will see to it that it is carried out no matter what we may think, feel, or do about it. This attitude makes human effort unnecessary, superfluous; because “what must be will be.” Such a fatalistic notion is destructive to all initiative and the exercise of one’s mind and will.
It is a dangerous and harmful idea. There is no power outside of man which can free him, none which can charge him with any “mission.” Neither heaven nor history can do it. History is the story of what has happened. It can teach a lesson but not impose a task. It is not the “mission” but the interest of the proletariat to emancipate itself from bondage. If labour does not consciously and actively strive for it, it will never “happen.” It is necessary to free ourselves from the stupid and false notion of “historic missions.” It is only by growing to a true realization of their present position, by visualizing their possibilities and powers, by learning unity and co-operation, and practicing them, that the masses can attain freedom. In achieving that they will also have liberated the rest of mankind.
Because of this the proletarian struggle is the concern of every one, and all sincere men and women should therefore be at the service of labour in its great task. Indeed, though only the toilers can accomplish the work of emancipation they need the aid of other social groups. For you must remember that the revolution faces the difficult problem of reorganizing the world and building a new civilization-a work that will require the greatest revolutionary integrity and the intelligent co-operation of all well-meaning and liberty-loving elements. We already know that the social revolution is not a matter of abolishing capitalism only. We might turn out capitalism, as feudalism was got rid of, and still remain slaves as before. Instead of being, as now, the bondmen of private monopoly we might become the servants of State capitalism, as has happened to the people in Russia, for instance, and as conditions are developing in Italy and other lands.
The social revolution, it must never be forgotten, is not to alter one form of subjection for another, but is to do away with everything that can enslave and oppress you.