An Anarchist in Evolution
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AN ANARCHIST IN EVOLUTION
By Harry Kelly.
LIFE teaches us that every emotion or experience must be lived over again and again. The emotion varies in intensity, no doubt, but we live it as truly years after as the first time. Retrospection is, therefore, not a privilege of age; rather is it kin to the adventuresome spirit. It was said of Mary Kingsley that she would meet with more adventures crossing an English moor, than another traveling around the world. Time is a marvelous thing, and it is small wonder that people can be found who worship at its shrine. It softens the asperities of other days and mellows the friendships that were; it also surrounds with a romantic tinge incidents that seemed commonplace when lived. Looking back at my life in London, it seems quite a wonderful experience. Perhaps it was not, but from this distance the sunsets had purple tints and the moon was encircled with golden rings. There were no great events, ‘tis true; no conspiracies and no hair-breadth escapes; just a round of meetings and a ceaseless flow of propaganda. But it was overflowing life, for all that. Meetings everywhere and under the most varied circumstances. Open-air meetings in Hyde Park and at street corners, in halls of all kinds and sizes; even in a prize ring.
Does it sound symbolic to talk of meetings to further the Russian Revolution, held in a prize ring ? Such they were. A hall that had once been a Jewish theatre in Whitechapel Road, had been transformed into a place for prize fights, and every Saturday night a number of fistic encounters were staged there. On other nights, the hall was rented for mass meetings, but as everything remained as it was, the speakers had to address the audience from the ring. It was rather a difficult feat, as the audience sat in a circle, and there were always some people at one’s back, even if the speaker had the forethought to turn around from time to time. A great many meetings were held in this place during the years i902-i904, and the speakers were generally the same: Tchaykovsky as chairman, Tcherkesov as Russian speaker, Kahn, Wess, Baron or Rocker, in Yiddish, and myself in English. The meetings were generally large, and always enthusiastic.
My association with the Freedom Group began soon after my arrival in England, and was maintained until my return to America. The members of this group were quite remarkable men and women. This leads me to say that each Anarchist propagandist has some special distinction, a fact easily verified by those anxious to know. To be a believer in the philosophy of Anarchism is not difficult; to be a propagandist is exceedingly so. It is not an uncommon thing, however, to meet an individual, who in the first flush of youth fancies himself a Siegfried and existing institutions the dragon, and who later in life becomes one of the most pitiable of men, a disillusioned radical. Having sold his ideals for a mess of pottage, he seeks to prove that radicals, and especially Anarchists, have insane tendencies, or, even worse in his eyes, are moral delinquents. It is natural enough for such men to try to justify their apostasy, and as no very serious harm comes of it, we can afford to ignore them.
Freedom celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary nearly two years ago, so it is quite an adult paper. Lacking a little in spriteliness, perhaps, it improves with age, like wine. Its influence has been deep rather than broad, and it is a pleasure to think of my association with the paper and the group that publishes it. It was in its pages that Tcherkesov first punctured the Marxian theory of the Concentration of Capital and the destruction of the middle class, long before Bernstein of Germany, Van der Velde of Belgium and others wrote about it. It was there that Syndicalism was taught and advocated, before the term was clarified and the Syndicalist movement became the conscious expression of the masses.
Notwithstanding that Freedom advocates the most modern of social theories, there is an old world atmosphere about the office and an artistic charm to the people who conduct the paper. A small two-story building situated in a back yard, in one of the poorest neighborhoods of London, houses it, and there the paper plods from year to year, trying to spread light and hope to all mankind. The type is pretty badly worn and the press must have been with Noah in the Ark. Tom Cantwell, broken in health from a term of imprisonment because of a speech at the opening of the Tower Bridge, was the compositor for years. When the forms were ready, the rest of us assembled to print the paper. The press was large enough to print four pages, but it had neither power nor automatic delivery, so it required three people to operate it. The hardest work was turning the crank, and this was done by Turner, Tcherkesov, Netlau and Marsh, according to the time at their disposal; sometimes a laborer was called from the street and paid eighteen cents an hour, six cents more than the Dockers “tanner” (six pence). A. D. did the taking off and I did the feeding. As a pressman, it naturally fell to me to prepare the form, and many a gray hair did it give me. None of the men were workingmen, in the sense of having done physical labor, and turning that crank was the hardest kind of labor.
Tcherkesov was a Caucasian prince who has been an Anarchist for over forty years, earning his living for many years as a literay man. Netlau, the Austrian, was a professor, devoting his time to literary work. Marsh was a musician, and Turner a shop assistant at that time, as he is now an organizer for his union. A. D. earned her living by writing and teaching. Cantwell and I were the only simon-pure workingmen in the group, and at that time I was not working at my trade. While working at the machine, we made rather a picturesque group. A. D. always wore a black hat with a black veil, and black gloves while working; with her face with its fresh color and her gray hair she looked the picture of an old master. I have lived over those days at the Freedom office many a time since, and always with the keenest regret that they are gone.
Having always been fortunate in my friends, time serves merely to beautify my relations with those of the Freedom Group. Association with such people makes for a group morality, and striving for such a cause as Anarchism creates a bond of friendship that makes conventional relationship pale in comparison. Earning a living was a painful necessity, but the real life was in the movement and intercourse with one’s comrades. The latter compensated me for the drudgery of my daily life. Happy is the man who can choose his work and then throw himself into it, for then he lives a full life. As this has been denied me, the struggle for a newer and larger life has made for balance and prevented me from going into melancholia.
In addition to my work in the Anarchist movement, I joined the union of my trade, and soon became active there. Methods are different in England, and it required some time to become adapted to them. The average trade union meets once every three months, and in the interval the business is carried on by an Executive Committee of twelve members. A year or two after my arrival, an election occurred, and the members elected me to represent them on the London Trades Council. Our union was small and only entitled to one delegate, and my delegateship lasted for about two years. These things are mentioned because they bear upon my development, that being the burden of these articles. The Anarchist movement, at that time, was not directly connected with the labor movement, as it is to a large extent to-day.
The bulk of men and women who attended our meetings were workingmen and workingwomen, but the movement itself was outside and not a direct part of it. It has been my impression for some years now that Kropotkin, Tcherkesov, Tchaykovsky, Malatesta and others, themselves not of the working class, idealize the latter too much, the reason being that they have not worked with them day in, day out, in their unions and workshops. Possibly, this theory is wrong, and it is my earnest hope that it may be so, but I cannot help feeling that they are mistaken. It has always been my impression that the Russian peasant has been credited, by Russian writers and revolutionists, with far more virtues than he possesses. The one peasant I knew agreed with me in this theory. Aladin, who played such a prominent role in the first Russian Duma, and who afterward visited this country with Tchaykovsky, was a peasant, and as is well known, was elected leader and spokesman of the Group of Toil in the first Duma. He assured me that the peasants were subject to the same vices and shortcomings as the men and women he had met in other walks of life. He had studied and lived in France, Belgium and England, and was a civil engineer, so he had about as much knowledge as the others, if he lacked their depth.
This has been my experience with workingmen here and in England. Shortly after my connection with the union in London, the Secretary was discovered to have falsified the accounts and to have spent over £60 of the union’s money. He was probably the best educated man in the union, and—as it appeared to me—had slipped up through his association with other labor leaders, who earned more money than he. His salary was only two guineas a week, about ten dollars; not mvr’n for a man with time on his hands and among friends earning more. The members were bitter against hiw as well they might be, the minimum wage for that craft being 25 shillings a week, and thirty was pretty high. They wanted to send him to prison, but I fought the proposition. My position in the union was favorable, owing to my being a stranger and holding a position outside the union that paid me considerably more money. This enabled me to fight for the man without being suspected of beeing too friendly with him. It was not so with the others, and even those who were inclined to agree with me that prosecution was merely vengeance and would not restore the money, dared not assist me. After a four-hour battle in which all parliamentary rules were disregarded, it was decided not to prosecute, by a majority of four or five.
The president of the union, who was a much inferior man intellectually and not a salaried one, was elected to the position of secretary. He accepted the position with a few glib remarks and promises for the future. Sad to relate, in nine months he got away with no less than one hundred and twenty pounds, or double what had previously been taken. The members were furious, and my own feelings can better be imagined than described. My first impulse was to leave him to his fate, but Anarchistic principles finally triumphed, and I set to work to save him like his predecessor. The first one had been discovered through a sprained ankle, and he was absent when his case was considered. The second attended the meeting to hear his fate, and made a plea for mercy with a promise to restore the money. As he could only promise five shillings a week, it was pointed out to him that it would take something like twelve years to pay back the money he had taken. The offerseemed to infuriate the members, rather than placate them. Again we had a four or five-hour discussion, and it may be interesting at this point to relate that the discussion took place in the little chapel where Newton, the great astronomer, had delivered some of his most famous lectures. After a long and bitter fight, we won out again, and punishment was, as in the first case, limited to expulsion from the union. A week after the meeting new facts came to light. Evidence was discovered that the man had not only taken the money from his poverty-striken comrades, but that his wife had loaned it out to poor neighbors at a penny interest on the shilling per week. The Executive Committee, acting without authority, had the man sent to prison for three months’ hard labor. By the time the union met again, he had almost served his sentence. The committee really voiced the sentiments of the membership, and was applauded for its action. I met the man shortly after his release from prison, and while my feelings were more or less bitter against him for his betrayal of his comrades, he looked so miserable it was impossible to repulse him. He had lost a child, while in prison, and in the few weeks he had been out had been discharged from several places because members of the union refused to work with him. His future was dark, as he did not seem to have energy enough to leave London, where he had been born and raised.
These, and other incidents, together with my activity in the general Anarchist movement, caused me to drop out of the union, and in this way my direct connection with the Labor movement was severed. I learned later that the secretary elected to succeed the one sent to prison also embezzled some seventy or eighty pounds, so that our poor union had its own troubles.
Harry Kelly, “An Anarchist in Evolution,” Mother Earth 8, no. 3 (May 1913): 90-96.