It is hot and stuffy in the train. The air is oppressive with tobacco smoke; the boisterous talk of the men playing cards near by annoys me. I turn to the window. The gust of perfumed air, laden with the rich aroma of fresh-mown hay, is soothingly invigorating. Green woods and yellow fields circle in the distance, whirl nearer, close, then rush by, giving place to other circling fields and woods. The country looks young and alluring in the early morning sunshine. But my thoughts are busy with Homestead.
The great battle has been fought. Never before, in all its history, has American labor won such a signal victory. By force of arms the workers of Homestead have compelled three hundred Pinkerton invaders to surrender, to surrender most humbly, ignominiously. What humiliating defeat for the powers that be! Does not the Pinkerton janizary represent organized authority, forever crushing the toiler in the interest of the ex ploiters? Well may the enemies of the People be terrified at the unexpected awakening. But the People, the workers of America, have joyously acclaimed the rebellious manhood of Homestead. The steel-workers were not the aggressors. Resignedly they had toiled and suffered. out of their flesh and bone grew the great steel industry; on their blood fattened the powerful Carnegie Company. Yet patiently they had waited for the promised greater share of the wealth they were creating. Like a bolt from a clear sky came the blow: wages were to be reduced! Peremptorily the steel magnates refused to continue the sliding scale previously agreed upon as a guarantee of peace. The Carnegie firm challenged the Amalgamated Association by the submission of conditions which it knew the workers could not accept. Foreseeing refusal, it flaunted warlike preparations to crush the union under the iron heel. Perfidious Carnegie shrank from the task, having recently proclaimed the gospel of good will and harmony. “I would lay it down as a maxim,” he had declared, “that there is no excuse for a strike or a lockout until arbitration of differences has been offered by one party and refused by the other. The right of the workingmen to combine and to form trades-unions is no less sacred than the right of the manufacturer to enter into association and conference with his fellows, and it must sooner or later be conceded. Manufacturers should meet their men more than half-way.”
With smooth words the great philanthropist had persuaded the workers to endorse the high tariff. Every product of his mills protected, Andrew Carnegie secured a reduction in the duty on steel billets, in return for his generous contribution to the Republican campaign fund. In complete control of the billet market, the Carnegie firm engineered a depression of prices, as a seeming consequence of a lower duty. But the market price of billets was the sole standard of wages in the Homestead mills. The wages of the workers must be reduced! The offer of the Amalgamated Association to arbitrate the new scale met with contemptuous refusal: there was nothing to arbitrate; the men must submit unconditionally; the union was to be exterminated. And Carnegie selected Henry C. Frick, the bloody Frick of the coke regions, to carry the program into execution.
Must the oppressed forever submit? The manhood of Homestead rebelled: the millmen scorned the despotic ultimatum. Then Frick’s hand fell. The war was on! Indignation swept the country. Throughout the land the tyrannical attitude of the Carnegie Company was bitterly denounced, the ruthless brutality of Frick universally execrated.
I could no longer remain indifferent. The moment was urgent. The toilers of Homestead had defied the oppressor. They were awakening. But as yet the steel-workers were only blindly rebellious. The vision of Anarchism alone could imbue discontent with conscious revolutionary purpose; it alone could lend wings to the aspirations of labor. The dissemination of our ideas among the proletariat of Homestead would illumine the great struggle, help to clarify the issues, and point the way to complete ultimate emancipation.
My days were feverish with anxiety. The stirring call, “Labor, Awaken!” would fire the hearts of the disinherited, and inspire them to noble deeds. It would carry to the oppressed the message of the New Day, and prepare them for the approaching Social Revolution. Homestead might prove the first blush of the glorious Dawn. How I chafed at the obstacles my project encountered! Unexpected difficulties impeded every step. The efforts to get the leaflet translated into popular English proved unavailing. It would endanger me to distribute such a fiery appeal, my friend remonstrated. Impatiently I waived aside his objections. As if personal considerations could for an instant be weighed in the scale of the great Cause! But in vain I argued and pleaded. And all the while precious moments were being wasted, and new obstacles barred the way. I rushed frantically from printer to compositor, begging, imploring. None dared print the appeal. And time was fleeting. Suddenly flashed the news of the Pinkerton carnage. The world stood aghast.
The time for speech was past. Throughout the land the toilers echoed the defiance of the men of Homestead. The steelworkers had rallied bravely to the defense; the murderous Pinkertons were driven from the city. But loudly called the blood of Mammon’s victims on the banks of the Monongahela. Loudly it calls. It is the People calling. Ah, the People! The grand, mysterious, yet so near and real, People....
In my mind I see myself back in the little Russian college town, amid the circle of Petersburg students, home for their vacation, surrounded by the halo of that vague and wonderful something we called “Nihilist.” The rushing train, Homestead, the five years passed in America, all turn into a mist, hazy with the distance of unreality, of centuries; and again I sit among superior beings, reverently listening to the impassioned discussion of dimly understood high themes, with the oft-recurring refrain of “Bazarov, Hegel, Liberty, Chernishevsky, v narod.” To the People! To the beautiful, simple People, so noble in spite of centuries of brutalizing suffering! Like a clarion call the note rings in my ears, amidst the din of contending views and obscure phraseology. The People! My Greek mythology moods have often pictured HIM to me as the mighty Atlas, supporting on his shoulders the weight of the world, his back bent, his face the mirror of unutterable misery, in his eye the look of hopeless anguish, the dumb, pitiful appeal for help. Ah, to help this helplessly suffering giant, to lighten his burden! The way is obscure, the means uncertain, but in the heated student debate the note rings clear: To the People, become one of them, share their joys and sorrows, and thus you will teach them. Yes, that is the solution! But what is that red-headed Misha from Odessa saying? “It is all good and well about going to the People, but the energetic men of the deed, the Rakhmetovs, blaze the path of popular revolution by individual acts of revolt against”
“Ticket, please!” A heavy hand is on my shoulder. With an effort I realize the situation. The card-players are exchanging angry words. With a deft movement the conductor unhooks the board, and calmly walks away with it under his arm. A roar of laughter greets the players. Twitted by the other passengers, they soon subside, and presently the car grows quiet.
I have difficulty in keeping myself from falling back into reverie. I must form a definite plan of action. My purpose is quite clear to me. A tremendous struggle is taking place at Homestead: the People are manifesting the right spirit in resisting tyranny and invasion. My heart exults. This is, at last, what I have always hoped for from the American workingman: once aroused, he will brook no interference; he will fight all obstacles, and conquer even more than his original demands. It is the spirit of the heroic past reincarnated in the steel-workers of Homestead, Pennsylvania. What supreme joy to aid in this work! That is my natural mission. I feel the strength of a great undertaking. No shadow of doubt crosses my mind. The People — the toilers of the world, the producers — comprise, to me, the universe. They alone count. The rest are parasites, who have no right to exist. But to the People belongs the earth — by right, if not in fact. To make it so in fact, all means are justifiable; nay, advisable, even to the point of taking life. The question of moral right in such matters often agitated the revolutionary circles I used to frequent. I had always taken the extreme view. The more radical the treatment, I held, the quicker the cure. Society is a patient; sick constitutionally and functionally. Surgical treatment is often imperative. The removal of a tyrant is not merely justifiable; it is the highest duty of every true revolutionist. Human life is, indeed, sacred and inviolate. But the killing of a tyrant, of an enemy of the People, is in no way to be considered as the taking of a life. A revolutionist would rather perish a thousand times than be guilty of what is ordinarily called murder. In truth, murder and Attentat’ are to me opposite terms. To remove a tyrant is an act of liberation, the giving of life and opportunity to an oppressed people. True, the Cause often calls upon the revolutionist to commit an unpleasant act; but it is the test of a true revolutionist — nay, more, his pride — to sacrifice all merely human feeling at the call of the People’s Cause. if the latter demand his life, so much the better.
Could anything be nobler than to die for a grand, a sublime Cause? Why, the very life of a true revolutionist has no other purpose, no significance whatever, save to sacrifice it on the altar of the beloved People And what could be higher in life than to be a true revolutionist? It is to be a man, a complete MAN. A being who has neither personal interests nor desires above the necessities of the Cause; one who has emancipated himself from being merely human, and has risen above that, even to the height of conviction which excludes all doubt, all regret; in short, one who in the very inmost of his soul feels himself revolutionist first, human afterwards.
Such a revolutionist I feel myself to be. Indeed, far more so than even the extreme radicals of my own circle. My mind reverts to a characteristic incident in connection with the poet Edelstadt. It was in New York, about the year 1890. Edelstadt, one of the tenderest of souls, was beloved by every one in our circle, the Pioneers of Liberty, the first Jewish Anarchist organization on American soil. One evening the closer personal friends of Edelstadt met to consider plans for aiding the sick poet. It was decided to send our comrade to Denver, some one suggesting that money be drawn for the purpose from the revolutionary treasury. I objected. Though a dear, personal friend of Edelstadt, and his former roommate, I could not allow — I argued — that funds belonging to the movement be devoted to private purposes, however good and even necessary those might be. The strong disapproval of my sentiments I met with this challenge: “Do you mean to help Edelstadt, the poet and man, or Edelstadt the revolutionist? Do you consider him a true, active revolutionist? His poetry is beautiful, indeed, and may indirectly even prove of some propagandistic value. Aid our friend with your private funds, if you will; but no money from the movement can be given, except for direct revolutionary activity.”
“Do you mean that the poet is less to you than the revolutionist?” I was asked by Tikhon, a young medical student, whom we playfully dubbed “Lingg,” because of his rather successful affectation of the celebrated revolutionist’s physical appearance.
“I am revolutionist first, man afterwards,” I replied, with conviction.
“You are either a knave or a hero,” he retorted.
“Lingg” was quite right. He could not know me. To his bourgeois mind, for all his imitation of the Chicago martyr, my words must have sounded knavish. Well, some day he may know which I am, knave or revolutionist. I do not think in the term “hero,” for though the type of revolutionist I feel myself to be might popularly be so called, the word has no significance for me. It merely means a revolutionist who does his duty. There is no heroism in that: it is neither more nor less than a revolutionist should do. Rakhmetov did more, too much. In spite of my great admiration for Chernishevsky, who had so strongly influenced the Russian youth of my time, I can not suppress the touch of resentment I feel because the author of “What’s To Be Done?” represented his arch-revolutionist Rakhmetov as going through a system of unspeakable, selfinflicted torture to prepare himself for future exigencies. It was a sign of weakness. Does a real revolutionist need to prepare himself, to steel his nerves and harden his body? I feel it almost a personal insult, this suggestion of the revolutionist’s mere human clay.
No, the thorough revolutionist needs no such self-doubting preparations. For I know I do not need them. The feeling is quite impersonal, strange as it may seem. My own individuality is entirely in the background; aye, I am not conscious of any personality in matters pertaining to the Cause. I am simply a revolutionist, a terrorist by conviction, an instrument for furthering the cause of humanity; in short, a Rakhmetov. Indeed, I shall assume that name upon my arrival in Pittsburgh.
The piercing shrieks of the locomotive awake me with a start. My first thought is of my wallet, containing important addresses of Allegheny comrades, which I was trying to memorize when I must have fallen asleep. The wallet is gone! For a moment I am overwhelmed with terror. What if it is lost? Suddenly my foot touches something soft. I pick it up, feeling tremendously relieved to find all the contents safe: the precious addresses, a small newspaper lithograph of Frick, and a dollar bill. My joy at recovering the wallet is not a whit dampened by the meagerness of my funds. The dollar will do to get a room in a hotel for the first night, and in the morning I’ll look up Nold or Bauer. They will find a place for me to stay a day or two. “I won’t remain there long,” 1 think, with an inward smile.
We are nearing Washington, D.C. The train is to make a sixhour stop there. I curse the stupidity of the delay: something may be happening in Pittsburgh or Homestead. Besides, no time is to be lost in striking a telling blow, while public sentiment is aroused at the atrocities of the Carnegie Company, the brutality of Frick.
Yet my irritation is strangely dispelled by the beautiful picture that greets my eye as I step from the train. The sun has risen, a large ball of deep red, pouring a flood of gold upon the Capitol. The cupola rears its proud head majestically above the pile of stone and marble. Like a living thing the light palpitates, trembling with passion to kiss the uppermost peak, striking it with blinding brilliancy, and then spreading in a broadening embrace down the shoulders of the towering giant. The amber waves entwine its flanks with soft caresses, and then rush on, to right and left, wider and lower, flashing upon the stately trees, dallying amid leaves and branches, finally unfolding themselves over the broad avenue, and ever growing more golden and generous as they scatter. And cupola-headed giant, stately trees, and broad avenue quiver with new-born ecstasy, all nature heaves the contented sigh of bliss, and nestles closer to the golden giver of life.
At this moment I realize, as perhaps never before, the great joy, the surpassing gladness, of being. But in a trice the picture changes. Before my eyes rises the Monongahela river, carrying barges filled with armed men. And I hear a shot. A boy falls to the gangplank. The blood gushes from the center of his forehead. The hole plowed by the bullet yawns black on the crimson face. Cries and wailing ring in my ears. I see men running toward the river, and women kneeling by the side of the dead.
The horrible vision revives in my mind a similar incident, lived through in imagination before. It was the sight of an executed Nihilist. The Nihilists! How much of their precious blood has been shed, how many thousands of them line the road of Russia’s suffering! Inexpressibly near and soul-kin I feel to those men and women, the adored, mysterious ones of my youth, who had left wealthy homes and high station to “go to the People,” to become one with them, though despised by all whom they held dear, persecuted and ridiculed even by the benighted objects of their great sacrifice.
Clearly there flashes out upon my memory my first impression of Nihilist Russia. I had just passed my second year’s gymnasium examinations. Overflowing with blissful excitement, I rushed into the house to tell mother the joyful news. How happy it will make her! Next week will be my twelfth birthday, but mother need give me no present. I have one for her, instead. “Mamma, mammal” I called, when suddenly I caught her voice, raised in anger. Something has happened, I thought; mother never speaks so loudly. Something very peculiar, I felt, noticing the door leading from the broad hallway to the diningroom closed, contrary to custom. In perturbation I hesitated at the door. “Shame on you, Nathan,” I heard my mother’s voice, “to condemn your own brother because he is a Nihilist. You are no better than” — her voice fell to a whisper, but my straining ear distinctly caught the dread word, uttered with hatred and fear — “a palatch.”
I was struck with terror. Mother’s tone, my rich uncle Nathan’s unwonted presence at our house, the fearful word palatch — something awful must have happened. I tiptoed out of the hallway, and ran to my room. Trembling with fear, I threw myself on the bed. What has the palatch done? I moaned. “Your brother,” she had said to uncle. Her own youngest brother, my favorite uncle Maxim. Oh, what has happened to him? My excited imagination conjured up horrible visions. There stood the powerful figure of the giant palatch, all in black, his right arm bare to the shoulder, in his hand the uplifted ax. I could see the glimmer of the sharp steel as it began to descend, slowly, so torturingly slowly, while my heart ceased beating and my feverish eyes followed, bewitched, the glowing black coals in the palatch’s head. Suddenly the two fiery eyes fused into a large ball of flaming red; the figure of the fearful one-eyed cyclop grew taller and stretched higher and higher, and everywhere was the giant — on all sides of me was he — then a sudden flash of steel, and in his monster hand I saw raised a head, cut close to the neck, its eyes incessantly blinking, the dark-red blood gushing from mouth and ears and throat. Something looked ghastly familiar about that head with the broad white forehead and expressive mouth, so sweet and sad. “Oh, Maxim, Maxim!” I cried, terrorstricken: the next moment a flood of passionate hatred of the palatch seized me, and I rushed, head bent, toward the oneeyed monster. Nearer and nearer I came, — another quick rush, and then the violent impact of my body struck him in the very center, and he fell, forward and heavy, right upon me, and I felt his fearful weight crushing my arms, my chest, my head....
“Sasha! Sashenka! What is the matter, golubchik?” I recognize the sweet, tender voice of my mother, sounding far away and strange, then coming closer and growing more soothing. I open my eyes. Mother is kneeling by the bed, her beautiful black eyes bathed in tears. Passionately she showers kisses upon my face and hands, entreating: “Golubchik, what is it?”
“Mamma, what happened to Uncle Maxim?” I ask, breathlessly watching her face.
Her sudden change of expression chills my heart with fear. She turns ghostly white, large drops of perspiration stand on her forehead, and her eyes grow large and round with terror. “Mamma!” I cry, throwing my arms around her. Her lips move, and I feel her warm breath on my cheek; but, without uttering a word, she bursts into vehement weeping.
“Who-told-you? You-know?” she whispers between sobs.
The pall of death seems to have descended upon our home. The house is oppressively silent. Everybody walks about in slippers, and the piano is kept locked. Only monosyllables, in undertone, are exchanged at the dinner-table. Mother’s seat remains vacant. She is very ill, the nurse informs us; no one is to see her.
The situation bewilders me. I keep wondering what has happened to Maxim. Was my vision of the palatch a presentiment, or the echo of an accomplished tragedy? Vaguely I feel guilty of mother’s illness. The shock of my question may be responsible for her condition, Yet there must be more to it, I try to persuade my troubled spirit. One afternoon, finding my eldest brother Maxim, named after mother’s favorite brother, in a very cheerful mood, I call him aside and ask, in a boldly assumed confidential manner: “Maximushka, tell me, what is a Nihilist?”
“Go to the devil, molokossoss you!” he cries, angrily. With a show of violence, quite inexplicable to me, Maxim throws his paper on the floor, jumps from his seat, upsetting the chair, and leaves the room.
The fate of Uncle Maxim remains a mystery, the question of Nihilism unsolved. I am absorbed in my studies. Yet a deep interest, curiosity about the mysterious and forbidden, slumbers in my consciousness, when quite unexpectedly it is roused into keen activity by a school incident. I am fifteen now, in the fourth grade of the classic gymnasium at Kovno. By direction of the Ministry of Education, compulsory religious instruction is being introduced in the State schools. Special classes have been opened at the gymnasium for the religious instruction of Jewish pupils. The parents of the latter resent the innovation; almost every Jewish child receives religious training at home or in cheidar. But the school authorities have ordered the gymnasiasts of Jewish faith to attend classes in religion.
The roll-call at the first session finds me missing. Summoned before the Director for an explanation, I state that I failed to attend because I have a private Jewish tutor at home, and, anyway, I do not believe in religion. The prim Director looks inexpressibly shocked.
“Young man,” he addresses me in the artificial guttural voice he affects on solemn occasions. “Young man, when, permit me to ask, did you reach so profound a conclusion?”
His manner disconcerts me; but the sarcasm of his words and the offensive tone rouse my resentment. Impulsively, defiantly, I discover my cherished secret. “Since I wrote the essay, There Is No God,” I reply, with secret exultation. But the next instant I realize the recklessness of my confession. I have a fleeting sense of coming trouble, at school and at home. Yet somehow I feel I have acted like a man. Uncle Maxim, the Nihilist, would act so in my position. I know his reputation for uncompromising candor, and love him for his bold, frank ways.
“Oh, that is interesting,” I hear, as in a dream, the unpleasant guttural voice of the Director. “When did you write it?”
“Three years ago.”
“How old were you then?”
“Have you the essay?”
“Bring it to me to-morrow. Without fail, remember.”
His voice grows stern. The words fall upon my cars with the harsh metallic sound of my sister’s piano that memorable evening of our musicale when, in a spirit of mischief, I hid a piece of gas pipe in the instrument tuned for the occasion.
“To-morrow, then. You are dismissed.”
The Educational Board, in conclave assembled, reads the essay. My disquisition is unanimously condemned. Exemplary punishment is to be visited upon me for “precocious godlessness, dangerous tendencies, and insubordination.), am publicly reprimanded, and reduced to the third class. The peculiar sentence robs me of a year, and forces me to associate with the “children” my senior class looks down upon with undisguised contempt. I feel disgraced, humiliated.
Thus vision chases vision, memory succeeds memory, while the interminable hours creep towards the afternoon, and the station clock drones like an endless old woman.