The Bolshevik Myth by Alexander Berkman is an interesting primary source which sheds an insider's look at the earliest phase of Communism in Russia. Berkman was a long-time anarchist who was deported in 1920 from the United States to Russia. The deportation was part of a mass deportation of leftist foreign radicals after the original "Red Scare" and "Palmer Raids" of the post-World War I period. Berkman and other well-known foreign born leftists, including Emma Goldman, as well as other, less well-known revolutionaries, were put on the transport ship, the USAT Buford, and sent to Revolutionary Russia.
Berkman captures the excitement of leftist revolutionaries who are like Moses looking at the Promised Land. Berkman and his fellow Buford group look at Revolutionary Russia as the great end to which they have been striving their entire lives. All had been imprisoned for their leftists beliefs and many had been beaten for those beliefs and most had surrendered anything resembling a normal life for the sake of The Revolution. Russia would be the consummation of the dreams of their lives.
The scales fall of their eyes quickly. Even though many of them are competent tradesmen, they cannot find work because of the incompetence and inefficiencies of the Bolshevik system. They spend months with no work, receiving a minimal "pyock" (ration) and are reduced to selling their American goods into the black-market to survive, even though the Bolsheviks have outlawed private trading on penalty of imprisonment. Over the course of the book, Berkman recounts at various times how this Buford deportee had been sent to Siberia and that Buford deportee had been shot without due process by the Tcheka. The Eschaton that the leftist Revolutionaries awaited was not the one they had spent years in exile waiting for.
Berkman's work is priceless for his ability to tell a story that spans the gap between the average, forgotten Russian and the upper reaches of Bolshevik society. Bekman meets and interacts with Lenin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev. He meets Peter Kropotkin and Bertrand Russell, who was visiting Russia as part of a delegation of Labor representatives who visited Russia in order to get information in order to promote the lifting of the Allied blockade. Berkman also attends the funeral of John Reed (who was the hero of Warren Beatty's hagiographic "Reds," which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture in 1981.)
The Russia that Berkman entered was still in the throes of the Russian Civil War. White generals were still fighting in the Ukraine and in the North. The Allies were still enforcing a blockade against the Communists. Berkman is there when the Civil War ends and the long-suffering people of Russia expect the Bolsheviks to finally back off their war time measures, only to be disappointed when the Bolsheviks decide to promote what they feel is a return to the master they had thought they had gotten rid of with the Revolution. Berkman writes:
Almost every otvetstvenny (responsible) Communist is gone to Moscow to attend the Ninth Congress of the Party. Grave questions are at issue, and Lenin and Trotsky have sounded the keynote --- militarization of labor. The papers are filled with the discussion of the proposed introduction of yedinolitchiye (one-man industrial management) to take the place of the present collegiate form. "We must learn from the bourgeoisie," Lenin says, "and use them for our purposes."
Among the labor elements there is strong opposition to the new plan, but Trotsky contends that the unions have failed in the management of industry: the proposed system is to organize production more efficiently. The labor men, on the contrary, say that the workers had not been given the opportunity, extreme State centralization having taken over the functions of the unions. yedinolitchiye, they claim, means complete charge of factory and shop by one. "Yedinolitchiye, they claim, means complete charge of factory and shop by one man, the socalled spets (specialists), to the exclusion of the workers from management.
"Step by step we are losing everything we've gained by the Revolution," a shop committee-man said to me. "The new plan means the return of the former master. The spets is the old bourzhooi, and now he is coming back to whip us to work again. But last year Lenin himself denounced the plan as counter-revolutionary, when the Mensheviki advocated it. They are still in prison for it."
Berkman, Alexander (2010-02-22). The Bolshevik Myth (Kindle Locations 1326-1329). MacMay. Kindle Edition.
Berkman also describes the corruption of the Bolsheviks and the terror reign imposed by the Tcheka. The Bolsheviks routinely kicked workers out of their residences so as to acquire them for themselves. Berkman describes a luxurious party given for the British Labor delegation, complete with servants, while Russians were starving:
"Delovoi Dvor, the Soviet Hotel assigned to the British guests, has been entirely renovated, and looks clean and fresh. The large dining room is tastefully decorated with crimson banners and mottoes of welcome. Socialist legends of the solidarity of the workers of the world and the triumph of the Revolution through the dictatorship of the proletariat speak from the walls in various tongues. Potted plants lend the spacious room warmth and color.
Covers were set for a large number, including the delegates, the official representatives of the Soviet Government, some members of the Third International, and the invited spokesmen of labor. Russian caviar, soup, white bread, two kinds of meat and a variety of vegetables were on the menu. When fried chicken was served, I saw some of the Britishers exchange wondering glances.
"A jolly good meal for starving Russia," a delegate at my side remarked to his neighbor in the lull of clattering dishes and laughter.
"Rather. Natty wench," the other replied with a suggestive wink at the winsome young waitress serving him.
"Thought the Bolsheviks had done away with servants."
Angelica Balabanova, sitting opposite me, looked perturbed.
Berkman, Alexander (2010-02-22). The Bolshevik Myth (Kindle Locations 1574-1582). MacMay. Kindle Edition.
The Bolsheviks also did not do away with the death penalty, prisons or the secret police. They outdid the Tsar by eliminating due process and re-instituting forced labor. Berkman describes a scene where a black market he visits is raided. Later he meets some of the marketeers who tell them that they were released by the Tcheka through the simple expedient of handing over their money. Given the Communist history for declaring dissidents insane, this observation from Berkman is chilling:
"The Government pretended to consider Maria insane and had placed her in a sanitarium, from which she recently escaped."
Berkman, Alexander (2010-02-22). The Bolshevik Myth (Kindle Locations 1629-1630). MacMay. Kindle Edition.
Berkman was an Anarchist, and not a Communist. The reader does not get much insight into the politics that set off the different leftist groups, but the plethora of groups is dizzying. There were the Social Revolutionaries and the Social Democrats, which split to become the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. There were the Anarchists and Berkman mentions Maximalists and other groups. Clearly, one of the shocking things for Berkman was that the sense of leftist revolutionary solidarity that he had experienced in the West was betrayed by the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks oppressed the other leftists parties as badly - and more effectively - than had the capitalists.
""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 régime, 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."
Berkman, Alexander (2010-02-22). The Bolshevik Myth (Kindle Locations 1643-1649). MacMay. Kindle Edition.
Berkman was there for the final betrayal of the Revolution. The sailors at Konigsburg protested the starvation of the Petrograd workers by the Bolsheviks. The rebellion by those sailors had triggered the revolution against the Tsar. The sailors had been operating through a communal system. Rather than deal with the sailors, however, the Bolsheviks brought in troops and crushed the sailors' rebellion. For an anarchist, like Berkman this was the last straw.
After approximately one year in "paradise," Berkman realized that the Bolsheviks were corrupt and dictatorial, and he decided to leave Russia to spread the truth about the workers paradise.
To a certain extent, we can feel a bit of schadenfreude for the fate of Berkman, but we ought to give him credit. There were a lot of Westerners who going to Russia and being taken in by the Potemkin villages of Communism. Many came back and uttered fatuous nonsense like Lincoln Steffens who said "I have seen the future and it works" and John Reed who became the hero of Warren Beatty's hagiography. Those people were either fools or they knew what Berkman knew and lied. Berkman, at least, had the honesty to part company from the "party line" in writing this interesting work of eyewitness history.