RADICAL GOTHAM : ANARCHISM IN
Edited by Tom Goyens
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
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
It wasn’t just communists who pursued and persecuted anarchists.
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
Johann Most, who had arrived in
Most died in 1906, and by that time German-speaking anarchists had
lost their primary place in the pecking order of
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
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
There were links to the
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
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.