Andrew Cornell, Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the Twentieth Century

(Berkeley: University of California Press), 2016, 416 pp., $29.95

Thanks no doubt to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the growing sense that social movements are likely to spring up almost of their own accord, and then fall away, scholarship on anarchism has been growing. Today’s writers seem mostly the 1990s generation of undergraduates, now transforming their scholarly efforts into book form. Kenyon Zimmer’s Immigrant Against the State: Yiddish and Italian Anarchism in America (2015) was a hearty sign of more to come. Andrew Cornell’s impressive volume is a major contribution.

The heroic era of anarchism had, sadly, already passed when Cornell takes up his main focus, 1915-72, and the fine points of that earlier period remain locked into a variety of ethnic language sources – Russian to Hungarian and Finnish – that have yet to be tapped. Still, the smaller milieu of mostly English-language egalitarians, which experienced several prominent bursts after World War II, in the late 1960s, and again around the most recent turn of centuries, have a unique story to be told, and no one has told it better than Cornell.

We should say quickly that Cornell necessarily misses Chicago, known as “Little Paris” in the 1880s, with a massive movement calling itself “Revolutionary Socialist” but actually anarchist in all but name. They were successfully repressed, a story to be repeated in one way or another all the way to Occupy and beyond. By the 1890s, at any rate, newer Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe filled the ranks of anarchism, producing poets as well as strikers, and coming to a fateful decision that would shape large parts of anarchism to come. Pressed by the sectarian leadership of the Socialist Labor Party of Daniel DeLeon, they leaped into the arms of Samuel Gompers–an outspoken racist, contemptuous of most unskilled workers as unworthy of unionization, also a brilliant maneuverer of AFL internal politics, and anti-socialist to the core. Here is an insight into a core dilemma: to preserve the vision of an anarchist utopia ahead, they defended the labor bureaucracy with vigor, and in return got subsidies. A generation later, the Fraya Arbeter Shtimme (FAS, longest lasting of all anarchist newspapers, 1890-1976) supported the First World War, and its editors passed on to jobs in the same labor bureaucracy.

Cornell notes that during the 1910s, Spanish language anarchist activity increased, thanks in part to the Mexican Revolution. He might have mentioned that the anarchist hotbed of Ybor City, Florida, owed itself to a different origin: the hopes for a Cuban revolution by those tobacco workers who had passed from Spain onward to Cuba and thence to Florida. Likewise Italian anarchism, after experiencing an early repression, grew strong, and overlapped with the radicalized union mainstream of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, as strikes boomed and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), soon to be repressed by Woodrow Wilson’s administration, lost some of its aura. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party had been rent by the Communist-maneuvered split in 1919, and, as the final editor of the FAS told me, Communists seemed to take over the young people, even borrowing anarchist newspaper names (the Yiddish Frayhayt = Freedom, an esteemed anarchist title). Conservative Yiddish-language unionists described the Communists around them as “gilgul DeLeonists,” i.e., a spiritual or ghostly return of deceased SLP leader and IWW visionary Daniel De Leon.

In the largest sense, the American Left never really recovered its optimism, verve and sense of humor. Why not? Because before 1920, the arrival of socialism was considered a Sure Thing. But the European socialist parties (even some erstwhile leaders of anarcho-syndicalist unions) capitulated to their respective countries’ war efforts. The Russian Revolution was a consolation: not everything had been lost. It took over the field of the Left, although Socialists still held onto political office in some heavily Germanic American cities. When an articulated opposition arose from the further Left toward Communist policies, it was mostly Trotskyist, even more Leninist than the Communist regulars. The anarchists were out of luck.

A considerable chunk of Cornell’s book is, then, an account of scattered intellectuals, some of them would-be utopian colonists from New Jersey to Oregon, and their supporters. Notably in New Jersey, their Ferrer Schools, similar to the Montessori Schools that still flourish, were rooted in pedagogical efforts aimed at freeing children to learn in their own ways. Newer periodicals sprang up, ever more individualistic and bohemian in character, which is to say distant not only from Marxism but also from working-class life. The rise of the New Deal and the Popular Front saw Communist allies across large swaths of the labor and artistic communities, from WPA theater to folk music, further isolating the anarchists. They did have a Cause of the day, defending anarchists within the anti-Franco forces in the Spanish Civil War, but Franco’s victory left only victims behind.

Anarchism might have died away into insignificant currents except for the impulses toward pacifism set loose by the arrival of World War II. Anarchists were the most clear-minded “CO” or Conscientious Objector prisoners, set to practical tasks by their jailers, even amidst the war on Fascism. Once again, Cornell does a good job tracing the new-born peacenik movement that, astonishingly, emerged from the literal Holocaust with an artistic, poetic, communicative spirit along with an opposition to The Bomb and the emerging cold war colossus. The Beat Generation grew here, even if some of its savants (Jack Kerouac, for instance) were more likely political conservatives with a talent for experimental writing. Figures like Diane Di Prima, granddaughter of an Italian-American anarchist, helped forge an arts movement that outlasted the first bursts of energy. Other anarchists created Bay Area radio station KPFA, famed for its progressive politics, poetry and jazz. San Francisco was by this time the epicenter, with the founding of City Lights Books one of the great and lasting achievements.

Cornell has difficulty navigating the new left, most obviously the Students for a Democratic Society with its ideology of “student syndicalism,” the closest thing to the old IWW and to something like anarchist sympathies. The energy of the Movement faded fast, and worse, SDS split into Leninist factions in 1969, only seven years after the Port Huron Statement had spoken for a generation. Tom Hayden, its principal author, was no anarchist or Marxist. For what it’s worth, the Weathermen, questioned closely before they went underground, were most often the ones to call themselves anarchists: they had given up on the workers and hoped for a global uprising of the wretched, although Mao also got their attention and love.

I am happy to see Fredy Perlman, a famed anarchist (and total democrat) of the time recalled in these pages, and also surrealist leader Franklin Rosemont. Ben Morea’s direct action group in New York, staging demonstrations against elite art institutions and exhibits, was briefly wider and certainly fresher than the following enjoyed by ecologist Murray Bookchin, more in this case of a personality cult. The Yippies, led by Abbie Hoffman, were still more important and more dependent upon publicity of the dramatic event, as well as the well-turned phrase. But then, despite a certain revival of Emma Goldman’s aura, and a vague if mutual attraction of the women’s and gay liberation movements to anarchist tradition, anarchism seemed once more to lose its following. Anarchy Comics, published in San Francisco for a few years, reflected the wry tone of those who saw defeat ahead but could ridicule the claims of the System to citizen participation and democracy.

Let it be noted that anarchists, except for the Yippies, had no impact on the vast struggle against the US invasion of Vietnam. Too troubled by the Communists of that nation to give credence to the armed struggle of an invaded people, they nonetheless left behind a vision or verve that would serve future mass movements better. The 1990s rediscovered anarchism, creating new niches for their activity among new generations. The “Teamsters and Turtles” demonstrations in Seattle in 1999 seemed to offer great promise and then….fell away, with little anarchist collectives like “Love and Rage,” with their own sporadic press, leaving uncertain legacies.

Cornell devotes most of his Afterword, post-1972, to an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the anarchist tradition, ending with the disturbing observation that the surges forward, soon disappearing, raise the difficulty of anarchists or anyone else to reach beyond “limited constituencies to build movements that have the resources, longevity and strategy needed” to challenge the powerful (308). Good questions without answers, at least so far, and arguably more pressing after the 2016 election than before.

A recent volume by L.A. Kauffman, Direct Action, offers us another sort of glimpse, although even the word “anarchist” is hardly employed. Kauffman, an important and experienced organizer, senses in Occupy, Black Lives Matter and perhaps even the Bernie Sanders campaign new political oxygen, locally-based movements that cannot be effectively controlled or easily squashed, although Occupy could not survive police assaults apparently directed from Washington, and Bernie pointed followers back toward the Democratic Party. Still, there’s a lot here that evades the usual categories, and anarchism has played its part.

It would have been pleasing to see more on social media, presumably an anarchist-friendly space, and. on my own account, something on the refounding of SDS in 2006-07, yet another project that emerged with great hope and dissipated rapidly. Cornell closes on the note that “it remains to be seen” what the accumulation of anarchist experience across the twentieth century tells us. Indeed: all we can say is, We Shall See.

Reviewed by Paul Buhle
Madison, Wisconsin


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