City Paper is not for tourists
Anarchy. Explosions on Wall Street, mounted police swinging clubs at demonstrators, would-be assassin Alexander Berkman lurching forward to stab steel baron Henry Frick. Turn-of-the-century terror, bombs, riots. From such incidents sprung the notion that all anarchists are terrorists, bent on destroying society and creating chaos.
Paul Avrich doesn’t deny these historical events, but he stresses that not all anarchists are violent militants. In Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America, he speaks with the activists themselves, and succeeds in dispelling anarchist stereotypes. Through some 200 interviews conducted over a 30-year period, the Queens College professor lends a sympathetic ear to aging rebels and their icons, including Benjamin Tucker, Rudolf Rocker, and Peter Kropotkin.
Avrich conducts and organizes his research in classic anarchist fashion: He lets his now-elderly subjects speak for themselves. The anarchist movement, by definition anti-hierarchical, could never (and would never strive to) come up with a party line. No single speaker or act could describe the entire movement’s ideals and dreams. Taken together, the individuals here represent a diverse movement: Violent Galleanistas stand with the Home Colony farmers; Wobblies, anti-Fascists, and Modern Schoolers alike have their say.
For the historian, Voices is a glimpse into the life of a community usually described only by itsbloody actions. Yet this is not a primer on American anarchism for the uninitiated. It assumes a knowledge of factional squabbles some 80 years past, and although a careful reading unravels the details of some major events—the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, for instance—it is not the author’s intent to restate textbook history. Instead, Avrich goes beyondthe fiery rhetoric to meet a group of political rebels united by agenerous, humanitarian philosophy.
Some patience is advised for the opening chapter, “Pioneers.” Here, Avrich’s sources reminisce about the founding fathers (and mothers) of anarchism. Later, “Pioneers” provides a useful reference section, explaining how individuals and schools of thought are interrelated. Initially, though, it overwhelms with unfamiliar names and seemingly technical distinctions between shades of anarchism. Fortunately, Avrich’s second chapter, “Emma Goldman,” dives right into the personal and politicalinfighting of a fledgling movement.
Voices‘ main strength lies in its first-person recollections of revolutionary fervor. The book’s occasional failing, unsurprisingly, is the weakness of some of its subjects—important people like Sasha Kropotkin have little of interest to say. Some interviewees, rather than recounting their own experiences of radical life, catalog the famous anarchists who slept on their couches or kissed their wives. They lack the perspective to recognize their own roles in a vibrant political struggle. Avrich, whether out of respect for their historical significance or out of debt to them for their input, does the reader no favor by collecting these few aimless memories.
Luckily, Voices more often re- animates a distant political past. Its subjects, most still faithful to the cause, give insight into a community whose philosophy and actions brought them much persecution and little success. Their stories, distilled by the passage of years, are not those generally heard around the dining table at nursing homes—and documenting them is Avrich’s gift to the movement. For instance, Attilio Bortolotti reminisces about breaking up a meeting of Italian fascists in Detroit: On being challenged from the podium, he says, “I got up as fast as I could, andin five seconds I was there. I told the consul what they were—a bunch of killers, liars, and the rest. At my shoulder was a picture of the king. I tore it off the wall, crumpled it in my hands, and threw it in the face of the consul. That started a melee.” Stories like these drop the reader into the middle of a sometimes turbulent struggle.
To Avrich’s credit, he also reveals the rich philosophy behind the political goals. “For me,” says Valerio Isca, “anarchism is mainly a question of education….When a man realizes it is immoral to exploit another man and immoral to oppress another man, and when he refuses to do so, that man has become an anarchist.” Few consider their lives to have been wasted simply because the State failed to wither. For Alberico Pirani, anarchism gave a shape to life. “Anarchism is a part of me,” he rattles. “You take away my anarchist idea and you take away my life! Oh, yes, I still feel that way. As much as ever! I hate the state! I hate religion! I want to be cremated when I die. Meanwhile I go to lectures and send money to the anarchist papers. Here’s twenty five dollars for Freedom.” Segments like these are the life of the book.
Yet for all its vividly recalled moments, Voices is a melancholy portrait of men and women who dedicated their lives to an unrealized ideal. Avrich and his subjects do not gloss over the tragedies that visited the movement. Hundreds of activists were deported, including orator Emma Goldman, who returned only once to the country she considered home before dying of a stroke in Toronto. The police murdered a few, like Andrea Salsedo, who “fell” from a window after being interrogated about the 1919 attempt on the life of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. And the fragile cracked under the strain of public hatred and police harassment. Maurice Hollod remembers Jack Denenberg, an anarchist grocer: “One evening…I saw him at someone’s house and he looked unusually cheerful, as if some heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders,” Hollod says. “He was smiling, talking animatedly, but would often rub his neck with his fingers. That bothered me, so when I was ready to leave, I went up to him and said, “It’s good to see you in such good spirits, Jack, but why did you keep rubbing your throat?’ At that his eyes opened wide, he reared back, and fled from the house. He hanged himself in his grocery the following morning.”
Ultimately, however, readers are left not with regret or bitterness, but with nostalgia for the passing of an age of true idealism—of faith in the perfectibility of humankind. When two former comrades meet at an anarchist lecture in late 1972, Avrich writes, “Afterwards we drove to the senior citizens’ residence where Seltzer lived and bid him good night. Bortolotti gently embraced the old man, as if for the last time. [Seltzer] died in his sleep on February 21, 1973, at the age of 92.” Those brash young firebrands, full of rhetoric and revolution, have become frail men and women, saying farewell to old friends.
Nearly all of them died before Voices‘ publication. Yet Avrich ensures that their dreams survive.