The Citadel



In his ninety-three years, Chimen Abramsky amassed a vast collection of socialist literature and Jewish history. Here, his grandson Sasha explores some of the rarities.

From the cover of The House of Twenty Thousand Books.

Much later in his life, Chimen turned his eye to cataloging his library. It was a task he stubbornly refused to finish, despite having cataloged many of the world’s most important Judaica libraries for Sotheby’s, despite having even compiled a catalog of catalogs that he would occasionally show to fellow bibliographers. “It takes the magic out of it. It becomes a thing to sell, not a real collection. Once you catalogue the book, it becomes a dead object almost,” was how the rare-books dealer Christopher Edwards, who knew Chimen decades later, interpreted this reluctance. Chimen loved being courted by would-be buyers; adored being taken out to restaurants and clubs, such as the Garrick in central London, where dealers could flatter him by talking about the importance of his collection. But when push came to shove, he did not want to admit that, apart from a few missing pieces (he bemoaned the fact that he did not have any original issues of Marx’s newspaper the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, published in Cologne during the revolutionary year of 1848 and into 1849), his collection—his life’s project—was complete. Even when his insurance agent, Will Burns, repeatedly wrote him letters requesting that he provide a catalog of his library, Chimen managed to find one excuse after another. He was too busy; he was traveling; he was ill; he would do it next month. “I had hoped to do it during the summer vacation,” he informed Burns in late October 1981, “but unfortunately, as Miriam had an accident in Israel, I was unable to do so. I hope to complete it towards the end of January.” He did not, and Burns wrote him several more letters on the matter before eventually giving up. The collection remained insured only as general contents; had disaster struck and the House of Books burned to the ground, Chimen would have found, to his horror, that his inability to provide a catalog was a costly oversight.

What Chimen did do, though, was pen a series of memoranda about how he had acquired some of his rarest prizes. He wrote, for example, about how, in the early 1950s, he had managed to buy William Morris’s complete collection of the Socialist League’s journal, The Commonweal, along with the wooden box, with a rexine cover dyed blue and lined with a white feltlike material, that Morris himself had constructed to house a 1539 Bible, and in which, ultimately, he kept his copies of the revolutionary newspaper. The pages of the publication—its words printed in double columns originally on a monthly basis, then later weekly, from 1886 until 1895, and filled with the revolutionary musings of Morris, Marx’s daughter Eleanor, and other radical luminaries of the late-Victorian years—had passed from Morris to his close friend, the typographer Emery Walker; from Walker to his daughter; and from her to a poet named Norman Hidden. Chimen eventually bought it from Hidden for £50. And there they stayed, in their Bible box, high on a wooden shelf in the upstairs hallway at 5 Hillway, for more than half a century.

Those pages were some of Chimen’s most treasured possessions, their crinkly texture and age-browned color conjuring images of the cultured, tea-drinking revolutionaries who had made up Morris’s coterie. I imagine that, in many ways, Chimen saw himself in their stories. The front-page manifesto in The Commonweal’s first issue, sold to readers for one penny in February 1886 and signed by the twenty-three founders of the Socialist League, put the mission simply: “We come before you as a body advocating the principles of Revolutionary International Socialism; that is, we seek a change in the basis of Society—a change which would destroy the distinctions of classes and nationalities.” On May Day the following year, the date on which it was announced that the paper would be published weekly, Morris and his friend Ernest Belfort Bax wrote an editorial: “We are but a few, as all those who stand by principles must be until inevitable necessity forces the world to practise those principles. We are few, and have our own work to do, which no one but ourselves can do, and every atom of intelligence and energy that there is amongst us will be needed for that work.”

In his lectures—at Oxford in the early 1960s; at Sussex University, where he delivered an epic series of talks in 1967 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia; and at the numerous other universities and clubs which, from the time he reached middle age, began asking him to speak—Chimen took audiences on panoramic journeys through the landscape of nineteenth and early twentieth-century European upheaval. He ranged from the early and mid-nineteenth-century writings of Nikolai Gogol and Alexander Herzen, and of the anarchist/terrorist Mikhail Bakunin—denizens of what Isaiah Berlin termed the “remarkable decade”—through to the later nineteenth-century revolutionaries such as the early Marxist Georgi Plekhanov, and into the twentieth century with the life and times of Lenin.

Marx’s titanic battles during the 1860s and ’70s with Bakunin (whom he had accused, in print, of being a tsarist agent provocateur as early as 1848—the year Europe teetered on the brink of wholesale revolution) for the soul of the First International acquired form in Chimen’s lectures. One could imagine the two patriarchs of revolution frothing at the mouth with rage, spittle flecking their copious beards, hands clutching their large brows, as each made his gambit for the loyalties of Europe’s awakened working classes. The extraordinary drama of Russia’s changing position in revolutionary thought also came alive: It moved from being the lodestar of reaction, the great bear that had crushed Central Europe’s revolutions in 1848, and a country that Europe’s revolutionaries ardently believed had to be brought low before a more general revolution was possible, to becoming the beacon for an international revolutionary movement. “To quote Pushkin,” Chimen told the Sussex students at the tail end of 1967’s summer of love—trying to flatten his Russian accent and making it sound, in the process, almost Dutch—“Russia was lying in wait for a spark to light the flame.” His words were precise, clipped; in listening to the recordings, all these decades later, I can visualize him desperately forcing himself to slow down, to enunciate each syllable, each word correctly.

In Chimen’s library the great dramas of generations of revolutionary struggle were tucked away. Enter into this secluded suburban household and a diorama of revolutionary images—from Russian peasant communes and revolutionary committees, to the more sedate imagery of Victorian English radicals—was there for the viewing. Take, for example, the small purple book, surprisingly heavy for its size, titled The Revolution and Siege of Paris, With the Elections and Entry of the Prussians, in 1870–71, by an anonymous author referred to simply as “An Eye Witness” (but subsequently identified as Percival J. Brine, a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge), which my brother chose for himself after Chimen’s death. Detailing the Prussian occupation of Paris that followed the Franco-Prussian War, Brine noted that “The streets were only too tristes. The fortifications were entirely deserted in those parts of the city allotted to the Prussians. The houses, shops, cafes, hermetically closed all day and night, not a soul at the windows, not a thing to be bought for love or money; in fact, it was like a city of the plague, that the people had deserted.”

Or ponder the little book, with the dull red cover, that occupied shelf space nearby. Embossed with the gold-lettered title Paris During the Commune, 1871, it was a blow-by-blow eyewitness account, by a now-forgotten Victorian Methodist minister named William Gibson, of the great revolutionary upheaval that, for a few weeks during the heady spring of 1871, delivered Paris to a workers’ revolutionary committee after the French military defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and which, quickly and brutally, was obliterated by the army. “This day (Saturday),” he wrote in one of the letters to the Watchman and Wesleyan Advertiser that was collected in this volume, “has been a day of great excitement in Paris. Having occasion to go to the Northern Railway Station at six o’clock this morning, I heard the National Guards in all directions being [sic] the rappel, and knew something must be brewing.” Gibson matter-of-factly reported that there were bodies lying in the street, and that the injured were being dragged away by their comrades. “11 p.m.,” the letter concludes, “we hear the roll of cannon, but hope, nevertheless, to sleep in peace.”

The frontispiece to the 1893 Kelmscott Press edition of William Morris’s News from Nowhere

In the vellum-bound author’s manuscript of Morris’s News from Nowhere, its handcrafted, thick, cream-colored pages made visible by a loosening of the gold ribbon that bound them, one could see the artistry of Morris’s woodblock illustrations. This was a book, set in a utopian, postrevolutionary future, in the year 2102, intended to fire up not just the mental faculties but the senses as well. It was a detailed description of an imagined society after years of violent upheaval and revolution, following which the state had realized Marx and Engel’s prediction and magically “withered away,” a world where “people live and act according to the measure of their own faculties.”

In this future, private property and money did not exist. People worked not because they had to but for the intrinsic satisfaction of a job well done—like-minded workers voluntarily joined together not in factories but in “banded-workshops.” There were no schools, but learning was universal. Prisons were no more, their echo but a distant memory from barbaric and, thankfully, long-gone days. Formal marriages, and by extension divorces, were relics from a benighted past. Perhaps most important, since everyone lived in harmony there was no need for politics or legislatures, no need for the old charade in which, on the one hand, elected representatives strove “to see that the interests of the Upper Classes took no hurt,” and on the other they worked “to delude the people into supposing that they had some share in the management of their own affairs.” Parliament was, Morris wrote, now a “dung market,” a magnificent building housing not politicians but manure for the fields of a newly pastoral London. It was the sort of aside that Chimen would have particularly appreciated.

Reading Morris’s own manuscript of News from Nowhere, holding it, feeling it, was a deeply visual and tactile experience. Its protagonist’s house, “the old house by the Thames,” which was modeled on Morris’s home at Kelmscott Manor, came alive in these pages. It was a house outside of time, in spirit not too dissimilar to Hillway.

This essay is excerpted from The House of Twenty Thousand Books, out now from New York Review Books. Reprinted with permission.

Sasha Abramsky is a journalist and author whose work has appeared in The Nation, American Prospect, The New Yorker online, and many other publications. His most recent book is The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives. He lives in Sacramento, California.