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Anarchy in the USA


From the beginning of Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the 20th Century, Andrew Cornell situates US anarchism in the leftist milieu. The book begins with a look at the various anarchists and anarchist movements that existed before the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW); the reader is briefly introduced to early anarchist theoreticians Kropotkin and Bakunin and their split with Karl Marx and the communists at the First International. Naturally enough, it is somewhere in the discussion of these precursors to US anarchism and the popular success of the IWW that the reader is introduced to the two strains of anarchism that would define much of the movement in the Twentieth Century: the insurrectionists and the syndicalists. The former being those who consider individual or small group direct action to be the best way to move the struggle forward and the latter being those who believe organizing workers and others in a movement shaped around the destruction of the capitalist system and other authoritarian systems into the moment when the revolution erupts into the struggle ultimately creating the classless and anarchist organized society.

After the surge in anarchist participation in the workers’ and antiwar movements in the early 1900s came repression. In a scenario never exactly replicated on the same scale, the United States Department of Justice under Attorney General Palmer (with the eager assistance of a rising police star named J. Edgar Hoover) carried out a series of raids, imprisonments and deportations against anarchists and their fellow travelers. The repercussions from these police actions would ripple through the rest of the century. In essence, the anarchist movement in the United States has yet to recover the numerical strength it had before this repression. Cornell argues, however, that despite the decimation of the movement, its influence continued to be felt in the arts and politics in a manner well beyond its numbers.51HkH0tSzEL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

It is this facet that Cornell spends a fair amount of his book discussing. In doing so, Unruly Equality not only makes a convincing case for the influence of anarchist philosophy on the US pacifist movement, it also illuminates its role in several Avant garde movements in the creative arts. Cornel’s stories of poets, writers, philosophers and activists mixing it up during the years of World War Two and the decade afterwards make this section of Unruly Equality uniquely interesting, both in terms of the text and the broader history of twentieth century United States. Furthermore, they describe a shift in the movement’s focus that placed considerably more emphasis on the role of culture in movements of radical change. This transition was precipitated by creative artists now legendary in certain circles: poets Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan and Philip Lamantia, actors and playwrights Julian Beck and Judith Malina foremost among them. In later years they would also include various poets tied to the Beat movement and certain African- Americans.Of course, the artists and poets were but one part of the anarchist milieu.

The transition from the fairly hardcore political movement in the early part of the century was succeeded by at least two decades of mass participation by working Americans in anarchist causes. Foremost among these causes was the struggle to save fellow anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti from execution by the state. This movement incorporated millions of people around the world and was enjoined by other leftist organizations, including the newly formed Communist Party. Simultaneously in the Soviet Union, anarchists were being persecuted by the state as the revolutionary government struggled with a military intervention from the capitalist states and internal struggle from its class enemies and those to its left opposed to the authoritarian turn it was taking. This led anarchists in Europe and the United States to distance themselves from communists and socialists (and place them on equal par to most capitalists on their enemies’ list) while also raising money for their fellows being imprisoned in the Soviet Union.

These differences would ultimately contribute to a further shrinking in the numbers of US anarchists over the next decades. As the Great Depression hit the United States after the 1929 stock market crash, the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) was considerably more successful in organizing the suffering workers, including the increasing numbers of them who were out of work. Meanwhile, in Spain, the Spanish anarchists were fighting the fascists and the Stalinists. Elsewhere in Europe, Nazis and Italian fascists were consolidating their power. When the Second World War broke out, left and anarchist organizations around the world debated what position to take. Anarchists are by definition opposed to wars between governments. However, the nature of the fascist threat ultimately convinced many US anarchists to begrudgingly support the US war effort. Others chose to object to the draft and the war and were imprisoned for the duration of the war, mostly in detention camps set up specifically for that purpose. These men used this opportunity to, among other things; organize against racial segregation in the camp lunchrooms. Many of the connections made during these detentions would become even more important after the war when the men were once again on the outside. Underlying the transformations taking place in the U.S. anarchist movement meant a shift away from its earlier focus on the working class. This was partially related to the changes in the US working class’s fate after the New Deal, but it was also tied to anarchism’s greater appeal to poets and artists. This trend would intensify over the years.

Then there is David Dellinger. One of the aforementioned war resisters, Dellinger would, along with A.J. Muste and J. Philip Randolph, be a major influence on the antiracist and antiwar movements of the 1950s and, especially, the 1960s. Cornell tells the story of these men during those decades, but more importantly, he describes the anarchist elements and influences of those movements and the roles these men played. Like the rest of this wondrous history, this section reveals new information and provides a new perspective on those most important struggles. In the postscript to the century, Cornell briefly discusses anarchism’s continuing popularity with various subcultures in the United States and its presence in the Occupy movement of 2011.

Unruly Equality fills an important space in the library of United States history. More specifically, it furnishes us with an important addition to the anarchist histories already in existence. These histories, where they exist, seem to be mostly about individual groups, acts or individuals; there does not appear to be a survey like this one. Cornell’s text is broad yet detailed in its sweep, incorporating agitators and artists, propagandists and poets, and organizers and bombers into a remarkable and compelling history. It brings together the political individual and the artist, poets and writers into a well-told history of a philosophy whose influence in the 20th century is only somewhat recognized, even among those of us who should know better. The writing is descriptive and accessible, with a story both fascinating and important in its scope.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at:

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