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By Alexander Berkman.
I am happy, inexpressibly happy to be in your midst again, after an absence of fourteen long years, passed amid the horrors and darkness of my Pennsylvania nightmare. * * * Methinks the days of miracles are not past. They say that nineteen hundred years ago a man was raised from the dead after having been buried for three days. They call it a great miracle. But I think the resurrection from the peaceful slumber of a three days’ grave is not nearly so miraculous as the actual coming back to life from a living death of fourteen years duration;—’tis the twentieth century resurrection, not based on ignorant credulity, nor assisted by any Oriental jugglery. No travelers ever return, the poets say, from the Land of Shades beyond the river Styx—and may be it is a good thing for them that they don’t—but you can see that there is an occasional exception even to that rule, for I have just returned from a hell, the like of which, for human brutality and fiendish barbarity, is not to be found even in the fire-and-brimstone creeds of our loving Christians.
It was a moment of supreme joy when I felt the heavy chains, that had bound me so long, give way with the final clang of the iron doors behind me and I suddenly found myself transported, as it were, from the dreary night of my prison-existence into the warm sunshine of the living day; and then, as I breathed the free air of the beautiful May morning—my first breath of freedom in fourteen years—it seemed to me as if a beautiful nature had waved her magic wand and marshalled her most alluring charms to welcome me into the world again; the sun, bathed in a sea of sapphire, seemed to shed his golden-winged caresses upon me; beautiful birds were intoning a sweet paean of joyful welcome; green-clad trees on the banks of the Allegheny were stretching out to me a hundred emerald arms, and every little blade of grass seemed to lift its head and nod to me, and all Nature whispered sweetly “Welcome Home!” It was Nature’s beautiful Springtime, the reawakening of Life, and Joy, and Hope, and the spirit of Springtime dwelt in my heart.
I had been told before I left the prison that the world had changed so much during my long confinement that I would practically come back into a new and different world. I hoped it were true. For at the time when I retired from the world, or rather when I was retired from the world—that was a hundred years ago, for it happened in the nineteenth century—at that time, I say, the footsteps of the world were faltering under the heavy cross of oppression, injustice and misery, and I could hear the anguish-cry of the suffering multitudes, even above the clanking of my own heavy chains. * * * But all that is different now—I thought as I left the prison—for have I not been told that the world had changed, changed so much that, as they put it, “its own mother wouldn’t know it again.” And that thought made me doubly happy: happy at the recovery of my own liberty, and happy in the fond hope that I should find my own great joy mirrored in, and heightened by the happiness of my fellow-men.
Then I began to look around, and indeed, I found the world changed; so changed, in fact, that I am now afraid to cross the street, lest lightning, in the shape of a horseless car, overtake me and strike me down; I also found a new race of beings, a race of red devils—automobiles you call them—and I have been told about the winged children of thought flying above our heads—talking through the air, you know, and sometimes also through the hat, perhaps—and here in New York you can ride on the ground, overground, above ground, underground, and without any ground at all.
These and a thousand and one other inventions and discoveries have considerably changed the face of the world. But alas! its face only. For as I looked further, past the outer trappings, down into the heart of the world, I beheld the old, familiar, yet no less revolting sight of Mammon, enthroned upon a dais of bleeding hearts, and I saw the ruthless wheels of the social Juggernaut slowly crushing the beautiful form of liberty lying prostrate on the ground. * * * I saw men, women and children, without number, sacrificed on the altar of the capitalistic Moloch, and I beheld a race of pitiful creatures, stricken with the modern St. Vitus’s dance at the shrine of the Golden Calf.
With an aching heart I realized what I had been told in prison about the changed condition of the world was but a miserable myth, and my fond hope of returning into a new, regenerated world lay shattered at my feet....
No, the world has not changed during my absence; I can find no improvement in the twentieth-century society over that of the nineteenth, and in truth, it is not capable of any real improvement, for this society is the product of a civilization so self-contradictory in its essential qualities, so stupendously absurd in its results, that the more we advance in this would-be civilization the less rational, the less human we become. Your twentieth-century civilization is fitly characterized by the fact that, paradoxical as it may seem, the more we produce, the less we have, and the richer we get, the poorer we are. Your pseudo-civilization is of that quality which defeats its own ends, so that notwithstanding the prodigious mechanical aids we possess in the production of all forms of wealth, the struggle for existence is more savage, more ferocious to-day than it has been ever since the dawn of our civilization.
But what is the cause of all this, what is wrong with our society and our civilization?
Simply this:—a lie can not prosper. Our whole social fabric, our boasted civilization rests on the foundations of a lie, a most gigantic lie—the religious, political and economic lie, a triune lie, from whose fertile womb has issued a world of corruption, evils, shams and unnameable crimes. There, denuded of its tinsel trappings, your civilization stands revealed in all the evil reality of its unadorned shame; and ‘tis a ghastly sight, a mass of corruption, an ever-spreading cancer. Your false civilization is a disease, and capitalism is its most malignant form; ‘tis the acute stage which is breeding into the world a race of cowards, weaklings and imbeciles; a race of mannikins, lacking the physical courage and mental initiative to think the thought and do the deed not inscribed in the book of practice; a race of pigmies, slaves to tradition and superstition, lacking all force of individuality and rushing, like wild maniacs, toward the treacherous eddies of that social cataclysm which has swallowed the far mightier and greater nations of the ancient world.
It is because of these things that I address myself to you, fellow-men. Society has not changed during my absence, and yet, to be saved, it needs to be changed. It needs, above all, real men, men and women of originality and individuality; men and women, not afraid to brave the scornful contempt of the conventional mob, men and women brave enough to break from the ranks of custom and lead into new paths, men and women strong enough to smash the fatal social lock-step and lead us into new and happier ways.
And because society has not changed, neither will I. Though the bloodthirsty hyena of the law has, in its wild revenge, despoiled me of the fourteen most precious blossoms in the garden of my life, yet I will, henceforth as heretofore, consecrate what days are left to me in the service of that grand ideal, the wonderful power of which has sustained me through those years of torture; and I will devote all my energies and whatever ability I may have to that noblest of all causes of a new, regenerated and free humanity; and it shall be more than my sufficient reward to know that I have added, if ever so little, in breaking the shackles of superstition, ignorance and tradition, and helped to turn the tide of society from the narrow lane of its blind selfishness and self-sufficient arrogance into the broad, open road leading toward a true civilization, to the new and brighter day of Freedom in Brotherhood.
Alexander Berkman, “A Greeting,” Mother Earth 1, no. 4 (June 1906): 3-6.