Tales of the Jewish Working Class: The Ancient Dream of the Jewish Left

  • Posted on: 14 June 2019
  • By: thecollective

This is an excerpt from the first of three articles in a series entitled The Anarchists and the Jews from Tablet - you can find the whole piece here

I have always found something appealing, though, in the anarchist inspiration from the early years, and something still more appealing in the inspiration as it evolved in later decades, when the anarchists were no longer the vanguard of the vanguard. It is not so much their proposed utopia—the grassroots self-government, the libertarian and communalized economy, and everything else that you can read about in Kropotkin’s tract, The Conquest of Bread, from 1892, the greatest of the anarchist books—but something deeper, which was assumed more than articulated. This was their idea of who was going to populate and animate the utopian institutions.

It was going to be an artisan worker—someone manually or technically skillful, with an independent streak, economically productive, inventive, altruistic, generous, intellectually curious, free-thinking, instinctively egalitarian, and scientifically minded. And the anarchists conceived of an attractive ideal personality for themselves, as well, the militants of the revolutionary cause, even before any new institutions could be brought into existence. This personality, the ideal anarchist, was someone who chooses to behave as if the new institutions already existed, and who treats everyone accordingly. Maybe a Russian flavor ran through the idea, hinting of the grandeurs of the old 19th-century Russian intelligentsia with its scruples and high-culture sophistication, and its faintly (or, in Kropotkin’s case, explicitly) aristocratic indifference to material pressures and enticements.

Sometimes the anarchists evinced a sympathetic interest in the adventures of the artistic avant-garde, which was unusual for a political movement. Anarchists in the decades around 1900 were sharper than Socialists in this regard, and less sentimental. Symbolist poetry, the avant-garde theater, the experiments in painting—the anarchists went for all of it. Or, at least, they did in Paris, which was the world center of anarchist thinking in those years. And sometimes they did in other places—in Buenos Aires, or in St. Petersburg in later years. A few rays from the faraway Parisian sun sometimes penetrated even into the dingy tenements of the Lower East Side and similar districts in the United States. The immigrant toilers may not have been in a position to work up a refined and sophisticated appreciation of the artistic outer reaches (which was a compassionate observation of Irving Howe’s in World of Our Fathers), and yet, sprinkled among them was a small class of educated people, transplanted from Russia or from other places (which was an autobiographical observation of Emma Goldman’s), who were keen on the avant-garde illuminations.

Poetry in the Freie Arbeiter Stimme is said to have been rather distinguished, from Mani Leib to Jacob Glatstein (though it is odd to read in Zimmer’s Immigrants Against the State that, in order to break into the paper, where the editor preferred women poets, the young Glatstein had to sign his poems “Clara Blum”). And the literature spoke of something more than literature. The Symbolist movement in poetry was a protest against the narrowness of mere science and logical calculations, in favor of a more-than-science that was going to vault upward into a spiritual upper ether, which the poets conjured as the capital-letter Ideal.

Emma Goldman on a streetcar, with Alexander Berkman, far left, in white hat, 1917. (Photo: Library of Congress)

And the Ideal blossomed, as well, among the anarchists, some of them—blossomed in the writings of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman—blossomed as an inexpressible yearning that was poetic and political at the same time—blossomed into the belief that a life dedicated to the Ideal could be lived, if only as a continual and aesthetically shaped protest against the world, or perhaps as a morbid self-sacrifice. Those were religious notions, very nearly—notions about how, under the buoyant and not necessarily benign guidance of the ethereal Ideal, you should feel and think and what kinds of things you should do.

It was just that, however imaginative or moving those several ideas tended to be, the anarchists were never able to come up with plausible theories of how to get from here to there—from the oppressive society of the present to the beckoning Ideal of the future. They contributed to their trade unions and built a variety of rural colonies and cultural enterprises, and they trusted to time and the future to come up with larger possibilities. But reform legislation was beyond their ken, given their dogmatic insistence that government action is bad by definition. Nor could they campaign for better judges in the courts, given that courts seemed to them tyrannical by definition.

A variety of anarchists, not just the perpetually rebellious Goldman, were natural feminists, who appeared to have wandered into American life from the pages of N.G. Chernyshevsky’s St. Petersburg novels, where the women characters stroll about Nevsky Prospect and shock everyone with their modern and independent ways. But the anarchists could not get behind the campaign for women’s suffrage, given their view that voting, too, was bad by definition. Nor were the anarchists especially eager to look for areas in which workers and employers might collaborate for the greater good, given that, from a class-war perspective, the greater good required war to the death.

The anarchists weren’t bad on civil rights in the United States. Zimmer tells us that, in 1911, the Freie Arbeiter Stimme published an essay by W.E.B. Du Bois in Yiddish translation. But the civil-rights campaign was always a legal struggle, directed at judges and their rulings; and the anarchists were not legally inclined. So they inveighed against every possible social and cultural and economic yoke that hung across the neck of mankind, and meanwhile they fashioned a yoke of their own, consisting of their doctrines about the permissible and the impermissible in politics, and they slung it across their own necks, and slowly they lumbered forward.

Sometimes they sank into millenarian inebriations, and the inebriations took a sinister turn. Anarchism became an authentically popular movement in some of the Italian-immigrant neighborhoods during those same years, which Zimmer has described in his Immigrants Against the State. And sometimes the inebriates in those neighborhoods—the antiorganizzatori, who stood opposed to organizations as a whole (because any organization at all can only be a source of oppression)—drifted into a cult of violence, in the belief that a well-aimed bullet or a randomly placed bomb might detonate the revolutionary event.

Or, even if violence turned out to be less than politically useful, there was a chilling belief that violent acts might serve an aesthetic or artistic purpose. Ideas of that sort made life in Paterson, New Jersey, hell in the years around 1900. The greedy mill owners were heartless, and the aesthetic anarchists, murderous. A few dozen random passers-by around the country were killed. Someone from Paterson returned to Italy and assassinated King Umberto I in 1900, and the assassination aroused an applause in various branches of the anarchist movement in America and around the world, which led to the copy-cat assassination of President William McKinley, in 1901. It was one pointless murder after another, celebrated sometimes with a gush of florid and ghoulish apologetics from people who had seceded from society and conventional morality: assassination as operatic performance, chiefly in Italian.

And, with those winds blowing about, a handful of Jewish anarchists, too, drifted in the aesthetic direction. There was Alexander Berkman (a curious case, whose attempt to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, the steel-industry tyrant, in 1892, led to 14 years in prison) and his circle, plus an occasional other person, and now and then someone who got caught up in the sinister glamour of the Italian antiorganizzatori. Still, the Jewish anarchists tended to be immune to the allure of violence. In Russia, the revolutionary movement had its armed wings, and some of the militants were Jewish, who fought in 1905; and, in America, someone was always raising funds for the Russian comrades.

But this may only have made it easier for the Jewish anarchists in America to draw a lucid distinction between czarist conditions and even the worst of American conditions. The Freie Arbeiter Stimme was coy about terrorist action in the early 1890s, and not averse to printing defiant speeches by European terrorists. But the editors and the mass of their readers eventually arrived at a resolute decision not to be at war with civilization, or society, or morality, or organizations. They did not wish to secede from society, they wished to join. And it has to be said that society—the Yiddish-speaking corners of American society, that is, which eventually amounted to a public of several million people—did not reject them, even in the years when the anarchists were no longer at the forefront of the Jewish labor movement.

Zimmer tells us that, by 1910, the circulation of the Freie Arbeiter Stimme had reached 15,000 to 20,000 a week, which wasn’t bad, when you figure that a typical copy might have passed from one set of hands to another. That was a third of the circulation of the daily Forverts in those days. By 1914, circulation was up to 30,000, which, according to Zimmer, was more than double the size of the combined memberships of all the Zionist organizations of America, in clear demonstration that labor anarchism was still a going concern; and Zionism, not yet. And the Jewish anarchists prospered outside of the Yiddish-speaking zone. Emma Goldman presented herself to the world in English as a bohemian voice for the artists and social reformers, and, on that basis, she ran her cultural center in East Harlem and went on lecture tours around the country.

Berkman, too, found a general American public, once he had gotten out of jail. He composed his Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, in 1912, in English, and the book enjoyed a degree of mainstream success. He published a labor magazine that was insanely called The Blast, as if in weekly testimony to the depth and authenticity of America’s forbearing commitment to free speech, and people do seem to have read it. He was a charismatic man. He led crowds of protesters on marches through the streets. He and Goldman both were anything but shunned or marginal—though, of course, they did have their enemies, especially in the federal government, which eventually concluded that, in regard to free speech, enough was enough. The two of them were jailed for their agitations against American participation in the First World War. But there was worse for the anarchists.

Alexander Berkman addresses the crowd at an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) rally in Union Square, New York City, on April 11, 1914. (Photo: Library of Congress/Flickr Commons project, 2010 and New York Times, April 12, 1914)

The ultimate catastrophe was the revolution—not the proposed revolution, but the revolution for real—that broke out in the Old Country in 1917. Lenin and the Bolsheviks announced a new phase of world history, which was plainly not going to have much room for anarchists and their theories. The new phase of history got underway. A gloom of defeat and irrelevance descended over the anarchist cause. And yet—this is striking—the Jewish anarchists in America over the next years, the Yiddish-speakers especially with their newspaper and their trade union factions, managed to survive and even to retain a bit of their public, and they did this by demonstrating that something in their original inspiration was more insightful than even the most sympathetic of their critics may have noticed.

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