Disorderly conduct

Anarchist Voices
January 5, 1996

There is properly no history," said Emerson, "only biography." This is forgotten by many historians, but not by Paul Avrich, distinguished professor of history at Queens College, New York. From the time of the revival of anarchism, in the 1960s, he has done more than anyone else to learn and tell the truth about the lives of anarchists of the past. He has produced a series of authoritative books, first on the Russian and then on the American movement, using not only the original documents but also the personal testimony of survivors. He has talked to thousands of anarchists (and a few nonanarchists) from many countries, and he formally interviewed hundreds of them in the United States, in a variety of languages, over a period of nearly 30 years. His latest book, containing some of the results of this research, is one of the most valuable records of anarchism ever published.

Avrich rightly considers this in many ways his most important book, because it provides "a unique oral history of the anarchist movement, preserving for posterity the story of the anarchists as they themselves have recalled it", and because the interviews "add a human dimension often lacking in scholarly monographs, not to mention the accounts of journalists, policemen, and officials, and of other, for the most part hostile observers". He is too polite to his own profession to mention that some of the worst offenders have been academic historians, among whom he is such a rare exception. On the other hand, he is well aware of the dangers of oral evidence, and has added introductions to each section, headnotes for each interview, and endnotes for obscure references. He provides the necessary background information, itself amounting to an outline history of the American movement during the early 20th century, and tactfully corrects the inevitable lapses of memory. But most of the time he keeps out of the way, takes care not to take sides, and lets his witnesses speak for themselves.

There are 180 interviews, grouped in six sometimes overlapping but sometimes quite distinct categories - the Pioneers, the Emma Goldman circle, the Sacco-Vanzetti circle, the Schools and Colonies, "Ethnic" (Jewish, Russian, German, Spanish, Chinese) anarchism, and a miscellany on the 1920s and after. The subjects do not include any of the major figures, who died too long ago, but they do include many of their relations, who tell revealing tales of the facts behind the myths. They include minor figures of all kinds, who give testimony of all kinds. There are nearly as many women as men, more Jews than Gentiles, natives and immigrants, militants and moderates, terrorists and pacifists, individualists and communists, optimists and pessimists. Most came from working-class backgrounds, and many were very poor, though several bettered themselves in one direction or other. Most were well educated, usually by themselves.

They tell all kinds of stories, long and short, interesting and boring, funny and sad, of heroism and villainy, struggle and suffering, loyalty and betrayal, horror and humour. They describe their activity in the labour movement and the peace movement, in education and communal life, in prison and in hiding, in demonstrations and strikes, learning and teaching, living and loving, speaking and writing, producing books and preparing bombs, fighting in various ways for a free society. The full flavour comes from reading right through the book, with all the repetitions and contradictions, changes of view and shifts of opinion; but a taste can be obtained by dipping into some of the anecdotes.

One of the best of these comes from the author himself. At a New York meeting he attended in 1969, a young man shouted that anarchism really meant "Up against the wall mother****er"; Israel Ostroff, born in Russia in 1892 and living in America since 1914, replied: "I've been an anarchist for 64 years, and for the first time I think maybe I made a mistake." At the other end of the time scale, Alexandra Kropotkin, no anarchist herself but the daughter of the greatest anarchist of all, tells how her father taught her fencing and she taught him English swear-words, and how her nurse, who belonged to the Salvation Army, taught her prayers. Lena Shlakman, born in 1872, concluded that the idea of anarchism would live but the practice would not come in her time. Anne McVey concluded more simply: "Government? I'm against it!" Nellie Dick, still alive at the age of 102, remembers running a secular Sunday school in the East End of London at the beginning of the century. Fred Woodworth, not yet 50, is producing his idiosyncratic paper The Match! in Tucson, Arizona, today. The cumulative effect is an astonishing kaleidoscope of policies and personalities unobtrusively revolved before our eyes.

There are a few regrets. The author does not give enough information about the protocols of his research - how he approached his subjects and how he interviewed them, whether they knew the results would be published and whether they were able to check their contributions. There are some sad omissions from the interviewees and a few minor errors in the editorial material, but they do not seriously affect the value of the book. It really is unique: although historians have been interviewing anarchists for more than a century, no one has put them together like this before. It is beautifully produced, but what a shame it is so expensive that those who would enjoy it most can afford it least.

A final verdict is that although almost everyone in the book rejected religion, taken as a whole it recalls the famous text from Ecclesiasticus: "And some there be, who have no memorial; who are perished as though they have never been I But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten I Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for ever more." Anarchist Voices is their memorial, and Avrich has made their names live for ever more.

Nicolas Walter has been a frequent writer in the anarchist press for more than 30 years.

Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America

Author - Paul Avrich
ISBN - 0 691 03412 5
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £60.00
Pages - 574

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