The Spirit of Fanaticism

The Universalist Club on the Tverskaya was in great commotion. Anarchists, Left Social Revolutionists, and Maximalists, with a considerable sprinkling of factory workers and soldiers, filled the lecture room and were excitedly discussing something. As I entered, a tall, well-built young man in a naval blouse separated himself from the crowd and approached me. It was my friend G⁠⸺, the Anarchist sailor.

“What do you say now, Berkman?” he demanded, his strong face expressive of deep indignation. “Do you still think the Bolsheviki revolutionary?”

I learned that forty-five Anarchists in the Butirki prison (Moscow) had been subjected to such unbearable conditions of existence that they at last resorted to the desperate protest of a hunger strike. All of them have been in prison for many months, ever since the Leontievsky affair,21 without charges being preferred against them. They are kept under a most rigid regime, deprived of exercise and visitors, and the food served them is so insufficient and unwholesome that almost all of the prisoners are ill with scurvy. The hunger strikers demand to be tried or released, and their action is considered so justifiable by the other prisoners that the entire Butirki population of over 1,500 have joined the strikers. They have sent a collective protest to the Central Executive of the Communist Party, copies of which have also been forwarded to Lenin, the Moscow Soviet, the Labor Unions, and other official bodies. In view of the urgency of the situation the Universalists have elected a Committee to call on the Secretary of the Communist Party, and it has been suggested that I also join the Committee.

“Will you help?” my sailor friend asked, “or have you entirely deserted us?”

“Perhaps you’ll soon be in the Party,” another remarked bitterly, “you’re a Bolshevik now, a Sovietsky Anarchist.”

In the hope that a reapproachment may still be established between the Communists and the Left elements, I consented.

Returning home that evening, I reflected on the failure of my previous efforts to bring about a better understanding between the warring revolutionary factions. I recalled my visits to Lenin and Krestinsky, my talks with Zinoviev, Chicherin, and other leading Bolsheviki. Lenin had promised to have the Central Committee consider the matter, but his reply⁠—in the form of a resolution of the Party⁠—merely repeated that “ideini Anarchists22 are not persecuted,” but emphasized that “agitation against the Soviet Government cannot be tolerated.” The question of legalizing Anarchist educational work, which I discussed with Krestinsky several weeks ago, has not been acted upon and has evidently been ignored. Persecution of the Left elements continues, and the prisons are filled with revolutionists. Many of them have been outlawed and compelled to “go underground.” Maria Spiridonova23 has for a long time been imprisoned in the Kremlin, and her friends are being hunted as in the days of the Tsar.

A sense of discouragement comes over me as I witness the bitter animosity of the Communists toward the other revolutionary elements. They are even more ruthless in suppressing the Left opposition than that of the Right. Lenin, Chicherin, and Zinoviev assured me that Spiridonova and her circle are dangerous enemies of the Revolution. The Government pretended to consider Maria insane and had placed her in a sanitarium, from which she recently escaped. But I had an opportunity to visit the young woman, who is again hiding as in the Romanov times. I found her perfectly well-balanced, a most sincere idealist passionately devoted to the peasantry and the best interests of the Revolution. The other members of her circle⁠—Kamkov, Trutovsky, Izmailovitch⁠—are persons of high intelligence and integrity. The Bolsheviki, they believe, have betrayed the Revolution; but they do not advocate armed resistance to the Soviet Government, demanding only freedom of expression. They consider the Brest peace as the most fatal Communist step, the beginning of their reactionary policies and of the persecution of the Left elements. In protest against it and against the presence of the representative of German imperialism in Soviet Russia, they caused the death of Count Mirbach in 1918.

The Communists have grown Jesuitical in their attitude to other viewpoints. Yet most of them I find sincere and hardworking men, devoted to their cause and serving it to the point of self-abnegation. Very illuminating was my experience with Bakaiev, the head of the Petrograd Cheka, with whom I interceded in behalf of three Anarchists arrested recently. A simple and unassuming man, I found him in a small unpretentious room in the Astoria, at dinner with his brother. They sat before a meager meal of thin soup and rice dessert; there was no meat and only a few slices of black bread. I could not help noticing that both men remained hungry.

Introduced by a personal note from Zinoviev, I appealed to Bakaiev for the prisoners, informing him that I knew them personally and considered their arrest unjustifiable.

“They are true revolutionists,” I urged. “Why do you keep them in prison?”

“In the room of Tch⁠⸺,” Bakaiev replied, “we found certain apparatus.”

“Tch⁠⸺ is a chemist,” I explained.

“We know it,” he retorted; “but anti-Soviet handbills had been found in the factories, and my men thought they might have some connection with Tch⁠⸺’s laboratory. But he stubbornly refused to answer questions.”

“Well, that’s an old practice of arrested revolutionists,” I reminded him.

Bakaiev grew indignant. “That is why I’m holding him,” he declared. “Such tactics were justified against the bourgeois regime, but it is an insult to treat us so. Tch⁠⸺ acts as if we were gendarmes.”

“Do you think it matters by whom one is kept in jail?”

“Well, don’t let us discuss it, Berkman,” he said. “You don’t know for whom you are interceding.”

“And the other two men?”

“They were found with Tch⁠⸺,” he replied. “We are not persecuting Anarchists, believe me; but these men are not safe at liberty.”

I appealed to Ravitch, the Commissar of Internal Affairs for the Petrograd District, a young woman with the impress of tragic revolutionary experience on her comely face. She regretted that she could do nothing, the Cheka having exclusive authority in such matters, and referred me to Zinoviev. The latter had not been informed of the arrests, but he assured me I need not be anxious about my friends.

“You know, Berkman, we do not arrest ideini Anarchists,” he said; “but those people are not your kind. Anyhow, rest easy; Bakaiev knows what he is about.”

He slapped me cheerfully on the shoulder and invited me to join him in the Imperial loge at the ballet that evening.

Later I learned that Bakaiev was suspended and exiled to the Caucasus for his too zealous use of summary execution.

⁠—This morning, on the fifth day of the Burtiki hunger strike, I called at the offices of the Central Committee of the Party, on Mokhovaia Street. As on my previous visit the anterooms were crowded with callers; numerous clerks, mostly young girls in abbreviated skirts and high-heeled lacquered shoes, flitted about with arms full of documents; others sat at desks writing and sorting large piles of reports and dokladi. I felt in the whirl of a huge machine, its wheels unceasingly revolving above the beehive on the street and grinding out slips of paper, endless paper for the guidance of the millions of Russia.

Preobrazhensky, formerly Commissar of Finance and now in Krestinsky’s place, received me somewhat coldly. He had read the protest of the hunger strikers, he said, but what of it? “What is it you come for?” he demanded.

I stated my mission. The politicals have been kept in prison for nine months, some of them even for two years, without trial or charges, and now they demand some action in their cases.

“They are within their rights,” Preobrazhensky replied, “but if your friends think they can influence us by a hunger strike, they are mistaken. They may starve as long as they want.” He paused and a hard expression came into his eyes. “If they die,” he added thoughtfully, “perhaps it would be best.”

“I have come to you as a comrade,” I said indignantly, “but if you take such an attitude⁠—”

“I have no time to discuss it,” he interrupted. “The matter will be considered this evening by the Central Committee.”

Later in the day I learned that ten of the imprisoned Anarchists, including Gordin⁠—the founder of the Universalist group⁠—were released by order of the Cheka, in the hope of breaking the hunger strike. This development was independent of any action of the Central Committee. It also became known that some of the Butirki politicals were condemned to five years’ prison, without having received hearing or trial, while others were sentenced to concentration camps “till the end of civil war.”

I was in a room in the Hotel National translating for the British Labor Mission various resolutions, articles, and Losovsky’s brochure on the history of Russian unionism, when I received a message from Radek asking me to call on a matter of great urgency. Wondering, I entered the automobile he had sent for me and was driven at a fast clip through the city till we reached the former quarters of the German Legation, now occupied by the Third International. The elegant reception hall was filled with callers and foreign delegates, some of whom were curiously examining the bullet marks in the mosaic floor and walls⁠—reminders of the violent death Mirbach had met in this room at the hands of Left Social Revolutionists opposed to the Brest peace.

I was conscious of the disapproving looks directed at me when, out of my turn, I was requested to follow the attendant to the private office of the Secretary of the Communist International. Radek received me very cordially, inquired about my health, and thanked me for so promptly responding to his call. Then, handing me a thick manuscript, he said:

“Ilyitch24 has just finished this work and he is anxious to have you render it into English for the British Mission. You will do us a great service.”

It was the manuscript of The Infantile Sickness of Leftism. I had already heard about the forthcoming work and knew it to be an attack on the Left revolutionary tendencies critical of Leninism. I turned over some pages, with their profusely underscored lines corrected in Lenin’s small but legible handwriting. “Petty bourgeois ideology of Anarchism,” I read; “the infantile stupidity of Leftism,” “the ultrarevolutionists suffocating in the fervor of their childish enthusiasm.” The pale faces of the Butirki hunger strikers rose before me. I saw their burning eyes peering accusingly at me through the iron bars. “Have you forsaken us?” I heard them whisper.

“We are in a great hurry about this translation.” Radek was saying, and I felt impatience in his voice. “We want it done within three days.”

“It will require at least a week,” I replied. “Besides, I have other work on hand, already promised.”

“I know, Losovsky’s,” he remarked with a disparaging tilt of the head; “that’s all right. Lenin’s takes precedence. You can drop everything else, on my responsibility.”

“I will undertake it if I may add a preface.”

“This is no joking matter, Berkman.” Radek was frankly displeased.

“I speak seriously. This pamphlet misrepresents and besmirches all my ideals. I cannot agree to translate it without adding a few words in defense.”

“Otherwise you decline?”

“I do.”

Radek’s manner lacked warmth as I took my departure.

A subtle change has taken place in the attitude of the Communists toward me. I notice coldness in their greeting, a touch of resentment even. My refusal to translate Lenin’s brochure has become known, and I am made to feel guilty of lèse majesté.

I have been accompanying the British Mission on its visits to mills, theaters, and schools, and everywhere I was aware of the scrutinizing gaze of the Chekamen attending the delegates as guides and interpreters. In the Delovoi Dvor the clerk has suddenly begun to demand my propusk and to ask my “business,” though he knows that I live there and am helping the delegates with translations.

I have decided to give up my room in the Dvor and to accept the hospitality of a friend in the National. It is contrary to the rules of the Soviet Houses, no visitor being permitted to remain after midnight. At that hour the day’s propuski, with the names of the callers and the persons visited, are turned over to the Cheka. Not being an official guest of the Hotel, I am not entitled to meals and am compelled to commit another breach of Communist order by resorting to the markets, officially abolished but practically in operation. The situation is growing intolerable, and I am preparing to leave for Petrograd.

“You have become persona non grata,” Augustine Souchy, the delegate of the German Syndicalist Union, remarked as we were sitting in the Delovoi translating the resolutions submitted by Losovsky to the labor representatives of Sweden, Norway, and Germany.

“In both camps,” I laughed. “My friends of the Left call me a Bolshevik, while the Communists look askance at me.”

“Many of us are in the same boat,” Souchy replied.

Bertrand Russell passed by and called me aside. “I think nothing will come of our proposed visit to Peter Kropotkin,” he said. “For five days they have been promising a machine. It’s always ‘in a moment it will be here,’ and the days pass in vain waiting.”

A curly-headed little Communist, one of the English-speaking guides assigned to the Mission, sauntered by, as if inadvertently.

“Is the machine ready?” Russell asked. “It was to be here at ten this morning; it’s 2 p.m. now.”

“The Commissar just told me that the machine unfortunately got out of order,” the guide replied.

Russell smiled. “They are sabotaging our visit,” he said; “we’ll have to drop it.” Then he added sadly: “I feel like a prisoner, every step watched. Already in Petrograd I became aware of this annoying surveillance. It’s rather stupid of them.”

I listened to some of the British delegates discussing the printers’ meeting from which they had just returned. Melnitchansky and other Bolsheviki had addressed the gathering, eulogizing the Soviet regime and the Communist dictatorship. Suddenly a man wearing a long black beard appeared on the platform. Before anyone realized his identity, he launched an attack on the Bolsheviki. He branded them as the corrupters of the Revolution and denounced their tyranny as worse than the Tsar’s. His fiery oratory kept the audience spellbound. Then someone shouted: “Who are you? Your name!”

“I am Chernov, Victor Chernov,” the man replied in bold, defiant voice.

The Bolsheviki on the platform jumped to their feet in rage.

“Hurrah! Long live Chernov, brave Chernov!” the audience shouted, and a wild ovation was tendered the Social Revolutionary leader and former President of the Constituent Assembly.

“Arrest him! Hold the traitor!” came from the Communists. There was a rush to the platform, but Chernov had disappeared.

Some of the Britishers expressed admiration for the daring of the man whom the Cheka has been so assiduously searching for a long time. “It was rather exciting,” someone remarked.

“I shudder to think what will happen to him if he’s caught,” said another.

“Deucedly clever, his escape.”

“The printers will pay for it.”

“I hear the leaders of the Third Soviet bakery are under arrest and the men locked out for demanding more bread.”

“It’s different at home,” a delegate sighed. “But I believe we all agree that the blockade must be raised.”