Culture is an essential element of human existence. Not only does it encourage the creation and development of community, it also provides a common understanding in terms of what defines art, literature and music. In turn, these phenomena determine a community’s values regarding their fellow humans and the nature of their society. In a capitalist society like the United States, the dominant culture is one that encourages individuals over the community, money over compassion, and war over peaceful resolution. Of course, this situation does not mean that all those living in a capitalist society participate in that culture. Indeed, the very nature of that culture ensures that there will be cultures that reject and even resist it.
The first examples which come to mind for many of those who think about such things would probably be bohemian subcultures such as the Beats, the so-called hippies, and the bohemian milieu of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the United States. These cultures, while nominally political, were located more in the realms of art, music, and literature. They were often informed by sexual freedom and the use of various mind-altering substances ranging from marijuana to opiates, alcohol and LSD. Their primary political involvement came in response to repression by religious and civil authorities claiming to be appalled by their licentiousness.
There are attempts to create intentionally political subcultures in the United States. Perhaps the best known and most popular are the efforts in the African-American community by the Black Panther Party and the tremendous efforts by the Communist Party USA to develop an entire radical proletarian cultural program in its heyday. Both of these efforts continue to ripple through certain elements of the US population. Another, less discussed attempt at creating and developing a political alternative culture was undertaken by different US anarchist groups in the early twentieth century. Like the cultural programs of the Communists, the Black Panthers and other leftist organizations, the anarchist efforts were intentionally and purposefully political and radical.
One of these efforts is the subject of a recently published text by Richard Lenzi. Titled Facing Toward the Dawn: The Italian Anarchists of New London, Lenzi’s history is an examination of the twentieth century anarchist movement in New England (with a focus on New London, CT.), The text describes the community of anarchists in that town attempting to integrate an anarchist and proletarian culture with a political and economic program geared towards an eventual anarchist society. In his telling, Lenzi necessarily discusses the repression the organizers and fellow believers faced from authorities and businessmen working together to destroy anarchists and others opposed to the capitalists’ exploitation of the town’s residents. Primarily Italian immigrants from a particularly radical district in Italy, the anarchists’ development of their community and culture was a blend of traditions from their place of origin and the addition of ideas and responses to their new surroundings; surroundings that provided more freedoms while also being more restrictive than the Italian regions they hailed from.
While weaving this tale of conflict between capitalism and the anarchists, Lenzi delves into the divisions within the anarchist movement and the conflicts between anarchists, socialists and communists. The result is a history that is both detailed, factual and considerably more than a story of a historical curiosity. Indeed, while examining the history of this New London community, Facing Toward the Dawn also describes a community which ultimately was a microcosm of the greater world of international anarchism. Conflicts between those anarchists who eschewed mass organizing in favor of individual acts of terror are presented as are various differences over political and economic philosophy. According to Lenzi, it was the former who were the dominant force in the New London community, although during certain work actions and in the face of state repression, those differences tended to fade the background in face of the common enemy. Likewise, the creation of an anarchist culture tended to diminish these otherwise intensely divisive political differences.
Lenzi’s cultural and political history of the New London anarchists is a valuable addition to the history of US radicalism. Simultaneously local and international in its scope, Facing Toward the Dawn broadens the reader’s understanding of early twentieth century immigrant life in the United States while adding some important context to the popular history of resistance to American capitalism.