By Anatole Dolgoff

AK Press. 391 pages. £17/$22. ISBN 978-1-84935-248-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

When Anatole Dolgoff was a small boy his father, Sam Dolgoff, used to take him to what was referred to as the Five-Ten Hall in New York. It was not located at a smart address, and is described as a second-floor loft which was “a simple spare rectangle, coloured white”. It was plainly furnished with some tables and chairs, a leather couch, and a bookcase. What caught Anatole’s eye, however, was a ship’s steering wheel, in the centre of which was a sign:

                                                         Industrial Workers of the World

                                                                           I* W* W*

                                                             Marine Transport Workers

                                                                             IU 510

In 1944, the IWW (the famed Wobblies) was largely a spent force, its glory days long past, and its membership reduced to a few thousand, mostly elderly men. It had been formed in 1905 by “revolutionary unionists and progressive activists,” and had for some years been a major force in American labour circles. And, as Anatole Dolgoff makes clear, it was an organisation “born of the American experience”. But, he says that the Five-Ten Hall in 1944 was “little more than a social club” for ageing Wobblies and those merchant seamen who still carried an IWW card. The conversations could be lively, and he points out that “seafaring Wobblies were generally far better educated than mainstream college folk. They took advantage of their years of confinement on the high seas to read, read, read”.

Anatole’s father had joined the IWW in the early 1920s. Born in 1902, he had been involved with the  Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), but had found their reformist programme far too restrictive for his liking. And too many of the people he observed “were young men in search of a career. They regarded the Socialist Party as a vehicle of opportunity that enabled them to run for office, to find sinecures in government agencies and union bureaucracies, and only incidentally to improve the lives of those who voted for them”.

The Wobblies, though showing signs of a decline in their influence as the Communist Party began to take on greater importance, seemed to Sam to offer better prospects for a young firebrand. He was never going to ally himself with the communists. His politics, insofar as they were formed at that stage in his life, naturally inclined towards anarchism of the kind that is usually termed anarcho-syndicalism.

Sam was to remain a member of the IWW until he died in 1990, just as he was to work as a housepainter all his life until he retired. He never aspired to any kind of leadership role in the organisation, any more than he wanted promotion in his job. He did eventually become something of a role model (I’m sure he would have rejected that description) for younger people when, during the 1960s and after, there was a revival of interest in the Wobblies and membership of the union increased. They were keen to meet and listen to a man who had stuck with the Wobblies since the 1920s, and had known some of its leading lights. Likewise with newcomers to anarchism who came across references to Sam and his writings, or the obscure magazines (Road to Freedom) he’d been connected with, and the small groups (The Libertarian League) he’d had links to.

Left of the Left is not a book that anyone interested in theoretical issues relating to anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, or the IWW, will find instructive. But if, like me, you tend to the view that people are usually more interesting than theories, there is a great deal to be gained from it. Sam had met and known many of those who came and went, and sometimes stayed, on the radical scene. When he joined the IWW in the 1920s he encountered Hippolyte Havel, a man with a revolutionary past, though by that time “he was pretty much incapable of doing anything”, and was remembered by Sam as “an ill-tempered abusive alcoholic; a paranoiac who regarded even the slightest difference of opinion as a personal affront”.

Havel appears, in fictional form, as Hugo Kalmar in Eugene O’Neill’s great play, The Iceman Cometh, and Sam, who knew O’Neill, recognised the characterisation at once. His having known so many people from the old Ameican Left, could cause problems at times. There is an amusing story of a visit by Anatole and Sam to the cinema to see Reds, the “romanticised but fundamentally accurate depiction of the brilliant American journalist, John Reed (played by Warren Beatty)”. Sam was quite elderly and going deaf, and as they sat near the front he kept up a running commentary on the various people in the film and the realism, or otherwise, of their depictions. They were eventually asked to leave the cinema when others in the audience complained.

Sam’s views on other personalities from the American Left are scattered throughout the book. He had a low opinion of Ben Reitman, Emma Goldman’s one-time lover, but a higher one of Ralph Chaplin, who was given a stiff prison sentence, as were many others at the 1919 Chicago trial of a hundred members of the IWW. It was Ben Fletcher, a black Wobbly, who dryly remarked that the Judge was guilty of bad grammar – his sentences were too long. Anatole speaks well of Ralph Chaplin, and refers to his book, Bars and Shadows: The Prison Poems. Somewhere along the line I obtained a copy of it, and the poems, though they would likely be looked down on as sentimental by many university-educated readers today, still have something to say at their best.

There was also the flamboyant Carlo Tresca, the anarchist who, in the words of a book about him, “made all the right enemies”, and was gunned down in New York in 1943, the victim of a Mafia hit. There were suggestions that It may have been commissioned by Fascist sympathisers in New York because Tresca frequently spoke out against Mussolini; or by an agent of the Comintern, Tresca often attacking communism; or by Mafia bosses because he highlighted their criminal activities. It’s interesting that the longest chapter in Left of the Left is about Tresca, who seems to have been what Sam wasn’t, a man who perhaps was so larger-than-life that he inevitably became almost a celebrity. It wasn’t that Sam lacked personality, but rather that he chose not to deliberately emphasise it.

I suppose it’s inevitable that any book dealing with characters on the Left will concern itself with accounts of disputes and disagreements about ideas and policies. When Sam was involved with the Vanguard Group in the 1930s he was friendly with Mark Schmidt, an older man who had participated in events in Russia in 1917, but had broken with the Bolsheviks over their methods and moved to the USA and aligned himself with the anarchists. According to Anatole, Sam looked up to Schmidt, but as the years passed Schmidt reverted to his belief in communism and became an admirer of Stalin. When he referred to anarchists in Russia as “renegades”, it was too much for Sam and the friendship ended.

Anatole was born in 1937, so had no direct experience of the politics of that era. But in a short chapter he does refer to his parents being typical of “the Jewish anarchists that formed the core of a lively movement in the 1930s”. And he goes on to say that, though they often lacked any lengthy formal schooling, “they were well educated – incredibly so – and creative”. Add to them the “flood of anarchist refugees from the Bolshevik regime, fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and other places”, the Wobblies who were still around, and writers “on the fringes – John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, Paul Goodman, Dwight Macdonald, Kenneth Rexroth, and the like…….and you had the recipe for a small, but potent radical/intellectual tendency in American life”.

Sam’s work as a housepainter was never going to bring in a lot of money, and the fact that he left the painters’ union at one point because communists were active in its leadership meant that he missed out on the kind of higher-paid contract work that the union controlled. As a consequence, the family lived in low-rent areas and rarely had money to spare for more than the basics in food and clothing. Anatole is caustic about the way that the Lower East Side of New York, where poor Jews congregated, is now looked on with a “polyurethane coating of nostalgia”, and tourists are taken around a “meticulously preserved nineteenth-century tenement”. But, as he says, “Not many people have read Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money which presents a bitter, astringent picture of immigrant life – in other words, the way things were”. Gold’s book, written before he completely succumbed to the lure of communism, and chose to toe the party line, is certainly something that gives an honest picture of life on the Lower East Side before the First World War.

The post-1945 period brought the Cold War and the rise of what became known as McCarthyism. The IWW was on a list of proscribed organisations, though the fact of its near-irrelevance in terms of influence on industrial or political issues probably meant that it never became the subject of major surveillance. Sam was questioned once by FBI agents, who let it be known that they were aware of his activities, but he doesn’t seem to have been bothered beyond that. More and more radicals were drifting away from their old haunts and often their old friends. Some had died. And as things got better for many working-class people, in terms of them being able to afford houses, holidays, and cars, and consumerism became rampant, the flames of militancy were dampened down.

The 1960s did bring a revival of activity, especially in relation to the war in Vietnam, though when military action was scaled back, and the threat of conscription no longer hung over the heads of young men, the protests faded away. Some younger people did take a renewed interest in politics, but someone like Sam, with a lifetime’s dedication to the cause, often viewed them with a degree of suspicion. Too many of them perhaps saw anarchism as a lifestyle choice. They were likely to move on when fashions changed. Sam got to know performers like Tuli Kupferberg and Dave Van Ronk, though he usually managed to disagree with them about their aims and objectives. He also disliked the 1960s cult of youth and people like Paul Goodman and Murray Bookchin who helped propagate it. He used to tease Goodman by asking if his book, Growing Up Absurd (recently re-issued by the New York Review of Books, incidentally) was an autobiography.

There is so much more encompassed by Left of the Left. Sam had many contacts with Spanish anarchists and was critical of what the communists had got up to during the Civil War. One of his contacts derided Hemingway’s highly-praised For Whom the Bell Tolls, and laughed at the idea that the Spaniards would have needed an American to teach them how to handle explosives. When Castro took over Cuba it didn’t surprise Sam that the country soon became a dictatorship with any signs of dissension brutally suppressed. And though he was Jewish, he refused to countenance the Israeli takeover of Arab land.

Anatole Dolgoff’s briskly written story of his father’s life, and of that of his mother, too, who believed in what Sam stood for and bravely supported him through good times and bad, doesn’t try to hide the problems that occasionally occurred. Sam went through a phase when heavy drinking almost got on top of him. And he could be cantankerous, which caused him to fall out with many people on the Left as well as the Right. Left of the Left is a warmly-written book about a man described by his son as “in the tradition of a nearly dead breed: the working-class intellectual”. It deserves to be placed alongside Sam Dolgoff’s Fragments: A Memoir (Refract Publications, 1986), and his contribution to Paul Avrich’s Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America (Princeton University Press, 1995).