Edited by Tom Goyens

University of Illinois Press. 270 pages. $28.  ISBN 978-0-252-08254-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

A problem with writing about anarchism is that it’s difficult to pin down precisely what it is. Or what it wants to be. There are various strands of what often seems a loose (as perhaps befits anarchism) grouping of sometimes not too clearly-defined ideas. Anarchist-communism, anarcho-syndicalism, individualist anarchism. If you can grasp the different main themes you can then move on to the ways of putting them into practice: anarchism by the deed, pacifist-anarchism…….and so on.

An individualist anarchist might have wanted to throw a bomb or assassinate a politician. An anarcho-syndicalist might have seen the way forward through mass-action like a general strike. A pacifist-anarchist might have considered that a refusal to conform, if carried out by enough people, could destroy the authority of the state. And there were (are?) anarchists who believed that the right results could be achieved through artistic activities. I suppose philosophical-anarchist might fit those who wrote and painted and performed with an anarchist impulse. Or would bohemian-anarchist be a better description? Philosophical anarchist might suggest to some people that you don’t have to do anything, just sit and think. The writers, actors, artists, political activists, poets, journalists, and others who gathered at Schwab’s Saloon in New York in the late-nineteenth century were precursors of the colourful characters who, in later years, always seemed to be prevalent in anarchist circles.

I’m conscious of having, in the preceding paragraph, tended to use the past tense when describing at least some anarchists, and that’s because anarchism as a viable idea in terms of attracting any form of mass support is, and has been for many years, at a low ebb. Yes, there are still individuals who are devoted to anarchist ideals, and scattered publications which publicise them, but they hardly make the news, unless there’s a demonstration which turns into a riot in which “anarchists” are said to have attacked the police and damaged property. But the real thing never completely goes away. As George Woodcock put it: “As a doctrine it changes constantly; as a movement it grows and disintegrates, in constant fluctuations, but it never vanishes”. 

Tom Goyen says that anarchism was never a “monolithic bloc”, and “is distinct from socialism and communism though all three have DNA in common”. But he stresses that: “Anarchism’s most sacred tenet is anti-authoritarianism, and they accordingly defend individual autonomy against any form of coercive authority”. Anarchists working within the emerging 19th century labour movement believed that “the emancipation of the working-class – indeed, of all of society – should proceed from the bottom up, without the formation of revolutionary parties or governments”.

It’s easy to see how such notions clashed with those of the socialists and communists, and Goyen proposes that: “The vilification of anarchists as schemers and nihilists date from this time, and Marx and his allies are to a great extent responsible for it”. Move on to the twentieth century and, despite them supposedly fighting a common enemy, the communists were quick to round up anarchists following the revolution in Russia. And the same was true in Spain during the Civil War when communist energies were often seemingly directed more to eliminating anarchists than effectively opposing Franco.

It wasn’t just communists who pursued and persecuted anarchists. Governments throughout Europe rounded them up, imprisoned them, and in some cases, condemned them to death. The late nineteenth century saw the proponents of anarchism by the deed resorting to bombings and shootings and stabbings as methods of following their beliefs and doing something practical to draw attention to them. That their activities were usually counter-productive was not a consideration they cared to take into account. But not many people, including those of a radical frame-of-mind, thought that hurling a bomb into a crowded theatre or restaurant, or shooting a politician, did anything useful in terms of improving social conditions or reducing the power of the state. In fact, it could precipitate increased surveillance and restrictions on legitimate political and trade union activity. The terrorists may have assumed that this could lead to the working-class rebelling in reaction to what was perceived as state tyranny. They seem to have misjudged circumstances.

The pressures that radicals, anarchists among them, felt in Russia, Spain, Italy, and other countries, led to many moving to Paris, London, and New York. It was the American city that probably attracted most of them as the mass immigration policies of the late nineteenth century offered the promises of freedom from oppression and the opportunities to build new lives and prosper. That it didn’t always work out that way may have had much to do with why and how a variety of political philosophies, anarchism among them, took root in areas like the Lower East Side where large numbers of impoverished Jewish lived in conditions of low-paid and exhausting work, poor housing, and a lack of adequate medical and hygiene facilities. It has sometimes been assumed that the Jews brought anarchist ideas and organisations from the Old World, but it’s more likely that they discovered and developed them in the New World. Kenyon Zimmer, writing about Jewish anarchists quotes Leon Moisseiff as saying, “Anarchism as a popular movement was alien to us”, and he  “read the works of Mikhail Bakunin and other anarchists only after coming to America in 1891”.

Johann Most, who had arrived in New York in 1882, found that there was a small, but active group of German anarchists in the city. Most who, by all accounts, was a particularly effective orator, had a great influence for a time. There was never any evidence of him committing a crime in the “anarchism by the deed” category in America, but he certainly appears to have had an effect on other people in terms of persuading them that their actions in that line were justified. He seems to have changed his mind about terrorism after the Haymarket tragedy when a bomb was thrown into a crowd of policemen, killing several, and the police opened fire on demonstrators, causing more deaths. Anarchists in Chicago were rounded up and put on trial, and several condemned to hang even though it’s unlikely that they had anything to do with either the making of the bomb or its use.

Most died in 1906, and by that time German-speaking anarchists had lost their primary place in the pecking order of New York anarchism. Yiddish-speaking anarchists, often with a firm base in the unions slowly being formed to represent workers in the garment industry, were moving to the fore. As Kenyon Zimmer points out: “More than two million Eastern European Jews migrated to the United States, and more than half of them made their home in New York City”. Among them was Saul Yanofsky, who moved to America from London in 1885. and edited the weekly Fraye Arbeter Shtime (Free Voice of Labour) for twenty years. It was a time when, in Zimmer’s words, “Sweatshops and tenements were crucibles in which declassed intellectuals and needleworkers came together to forge Jewish radicalism”. 

Not all of the radicalism was anarchist in inspiration or practice, and within the garment unions there was a struggle for control between the social democrats of the Socialist Labour Party and the anarchists who, for a time at least, appeared to have been a major driving force in Jewish labour circles. Rival unions were started and there were “several years of bitter infighting, boycotts of rival newspapers. mutual slanders and recriminations and fistfights that drove garment union membership down to between a few dozen and a few hundred”. It was another classic example of how the Left so often spends more time fighting among itself than coming together to form a united front to oppose management or government. Membership of unions did pick up, but later there were internal struggles in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) between communists and the anarchists and socialists. And in the early 1920s many Jewish workers, who may have listened to the anarchists and socialists at one time, moved to join the Communist Party. Jewish anarchists didn’t disappear, but they became marginal to the main activities of the unions and the wider political situation. With regard to unions, it occurs to me to wonder how far anarchist ideas ever touched most  union members. I think it’s true to say that the majority of people join unions for practical reasons relating to pay and conditions rather than for ideological reasons. 

Italian anarchists were also a presence in New York radical circles. Marcella Bencivenni says that they “shared many characteristics of the city’s anarchist milieu, but three distinctive elements set them apart: their large numbers vis-a-vis the socialists, the persistence of anarchist ideas, and their extreme devotion to their beloved “Ideal”, as they commonly referred to anarchy”. They were among some of the more- militant anarchists in the United States, but charting their activities, Bencivenni notes that “Italian American anarchists were far from united. Functioning as a loose network of tiny enclaves of propaganda and action, the movement was irremediably divided by internecine personal rivalries and doctrinal disputes, many of which had originated in Italy and continued through the movement’s demise”. It was a shadow of its former self by the end of the 1920s and the Spanish Civil War was “the last rallying cry of Italian anarchists”.

It’s a fact that, by the time of the Second World War, anarchists as a force in the unions, or generally in presenting their ideas for consideration as practical policies, had declined in numbers and in influence. What happened next was that what might be called new strands appeared which focused more on cultural activities. This isn’t to suggest that poetry, plays, and other matters hadn’t been relevant to the lives earlier anarchists. But the new activists gave them greater emphasis. The Why?Resistance Group “served as connective tissue between the pre-war American anarchist movement rooted in working-class immigrant communities and the circles of younger artists, writers, and intellectuals that carried anarchist ideas and practices into the New Left of the 1960s”.However, it is a fact that younger anarchists no longer saw the working-class as “a collective agency of revolution”.

Holley Cantine published Retort, “a quarterly journal of Anarchism, art, and reviews” between 1942 and 1951, and included articles on such topics as “Can Anarchism Progress?”, “Conscription and the State”, “Towards a Revolutionary Morality”, and “Art and Play”. Contributors included Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Paul Goodman, Kenneth Patchen, and Kenneth Rexroth.  There was also an article by Cantine, in which he wrote about attending a party in Greenwich Village, and I can’t help relating it to the party described in Dachine Rainer’s novel, The Uncomfortable Inn. Rainer was Cantine’s companion for a time. It probably wasn’t the same party, but it’s fun to think it might have been.

There were links to the San Francisco Libertarian Circle, which included Rexroth, Robert Duncan, and Philip Lamantia. Other poets like Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Stuart Perkoff, cropped up in magazines and groups with anarchist links. And it all eventually led to Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s Living Theatre which provided some exciting theatrical experiences in the late-1950s and early-1960s with plays like Jack Gelber’s The Connection and Kenneth Brown’s The Brig. Malina and Beck also had the inevitable tussles with the police and other arms of the state. You have the feeling that behind it all was the idea if they can’t get you to conform with regard to politics and social behaviour, they’ll get you in another way (taxes, building regulations, etc.).

I’ve necessarily skipped over some of the essays in Radical Gotham. There is a good piece on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement which might seem surprising with its connections to anarchist ideas. Day herself had an interesting history in terms of her various involvements over the years, and she had been an admirer of the aims of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the anarcho-syndicalist union that, for a few years, played a dynamic part in the history of American radicalism. Day liked their slogan about building the new within the shell of the old.

There are also useful essays on Spanish anarchists in New York between 1890 and 1905, and on “The Influence of Anarchism on Occupy Wall Street”. Not everyone involved in the events in Wall Street was an anarchist, but some were and their ideas filtered through into the wider activities, as they did when the Occupy Wall Street theories spread to other cities. Heather Gautney’s interesting essay points to certain of the problems of disorganisation and disorder that sadly characterised some of the protest camps that sprang up in various locations. Those with idealistic intentions have always had to cope with others joining in who may not think the same way. When the Catholic Workers attempted to establish a “farming commune” in the 1930s “friction developed between those who worked and those who philosophised about it”. 

Radical Gotham is an excellent, well-written collection of stimulating essays which manage to mix both the historical record of anarchism in New York (it’s packed with information about obscure publications and the people behind them), with some suggestions regarding the advocacy and practice of it in relation to more-recent events. But I have to admit to sometimes nursing the subversive thought that anarchists are more interesting than anarchism.