in Freedom, Vol. 35, No. 3 (January 17, 1973): p. 3.

Berkman's Uncle

Paul Avrich

It is seldom easy to explain why a person becomes a revolutionist. The reasons are often complex and sometimes quite impenetrable. Frequently, however, the influence of a friend or relative plays a part -- at times a decisisive part -- especially during the impressionable years of childhood and adolescence. Such was the case with Alexander Berkman. In his Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist Berkman speaks with great emotion about "my favourite uncle Maxim", his mother's youngest brother, whose banishment to Siberia for revolutionary activities helped to set young Sasha on a similar path. Berkman took his uncle as a model of revolutionary courage and dedication, "my ideal of a noble and great man," he called him many years later, when his own revolutionary career was drawing to a close .

Who then was "Uncle Maxim"? A letter in Berkman's archives in the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam reveals his full identity, which had not (to the best of my knowledge) been brought to light until I briefly noted it in my introduction to the Dover edition of Berkman's What Is Communist Anarchism? (New York, 1972). In 1932, four years before his death, Berkman received a request for biographical information from a correspondent for the Associated Press named Hudson Hawley. In his reply (dated June 12, 1932) Berkman identifies his uncle as "Maxim" /Mark/ Nathanson, one of the leading figures in the Russian revolutionary movement, whose long career, spanning half a century from the heyday of Populism through the 1917 Revolution, strikingly paralleled his own.

Max Nathanson -- or Mark Andreevich Natanson, to give the Russian form of his name -- was born in 1849 of a well-to-do Jewish family in Vilna province. As a medical student in St. Petersburg at the end of the 1860s, he organized a revolutionary commune whose members, above all Natanson himself, opposed the immoralism of Sergei Nechaev, for whom every crime and treachery was justified in order to overthrow the tsarist order. (See my essay on "Bakunin and Nechaev", serialized in Freedom in November and December 1973). Instead, Natanson sought a "revolutionary ethic" based on libertarian rather than authoritarian methods. Inspired by the decentralist socialism of Fourier and Owen, his brand of Populism was strongly tinged with anarchist sympathies; and he was admired by his comrades for his clear-headedness, organizing ability, integrity, and self-sacrifice, traits which his nephew was to exhibit in equal measure.

In 1869 Natanson took an active part in student disorders in the capital, and the following year he was arrested and briefly imprisoned in the notorious Peter and Paul fortress. In 1871 he was expelled from the medical academy for distributing radical literature. Undaunted, he threw his energies into organizing the so-called Chaikovsky circle, of which Kropotkin and Stepniak were among his fellow members. Arrested in November 1871, he was deported a few months later to Archangel province, but after being moved to Voronezh and to Finland, he escaped in 1875 and returned to St. Petersburg where he led a precarious underground existence.

By this time the Chaikovsky Circle had been riddled by arrests. Kropotkin, for one, was locked up in the prison of St. Petersburg Military Hospita after spending nearly two years of solitary confinement in the dungeons of Peter and Paul. It was Natanson, interestingly enough, who organized Kropotkin's sensational escape on June 30, 1876, and who drove the coach which spirited his comrade to safety.

Natanson next turned his organizational talents to the formation of Land and Liberty, the largest revolutionary society in Russia during the 1870s. To establish connections and gain recruits he travelled from city to city -- Moscow, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa -- rallying the scattered Populist groups under the common banner of overthrowing the autocracy and emancipating the people. He also journeyed abroad to confer with Lavrov and other expatriates (though he did not see Bakunin, who died the same year, on July 1, 1876). Returning to St. Petersburg, he organized a network for smuggling revolutionary literature from abroad and also took part in the famous demonstration of December 6, 1876 in front of the Kazan Cathedral, in which George Plekhanov, the "father of Russian Marxism" (though then a follower of Bakunin), was another participant.

Natanson was arrested again in 1877 and, after two years in the Peter and Paul fortress, was exiled to Siberia where he remained for the next ten years. When he returned to St. Petersburg he took up where he had formed a link between Land and Liberty and the future Socialist Revolutionaries. In April 1894, however, he was once again arrested and banished to Siberia until the beginning of the new century.

In 1905 Natanson joined the Socialist Revolutionaries and soon became a member of their executive committee. Always on the extreme left wing of the party (and therefore quite close to the anarchists), he was -- like his nephew -- a staunch anti-militarist during the First World War, taking part in the famous Zimmerwald Conference of September 1915, where he called for the transformation of the war into a social revolution. With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 he returned to Petrograd as one of the oldest and most respected veterans of the revolutionary movement.

After the October Revolution Natanson was, with Maria Spiridonova, I. N. Steinberg, and Boris Kamkov, a founder of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, who formed a temporary coalition with the Bolsheviks in the Soviet government. But he soon became disillusioned with the new dictatorship. With the anarchists he criticized the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, the growing centralization of power, and the persecution of other revolutionary croups. In 1918 he finally emigrated to Switzerland, a deeply disappointed man, and died in Bern (the burial place of Bakunin) on July 29, 1919.