A review of Andrew Cornell’s “For a World Without Oppressors”: U.S. Anarchism from the Palmer Raids to the Sixties, New York University, USA, 2011.
As an African who came of age as an anarchist within the periphery of the post-colonial Anglophone world, my early studies of and engagements with the anarchist movement abroad lead me to quickly realise that most of the Anglophone part of that movement – largely in the UK, Ireland, Canada, the USA, South Africa, Nigeria, Australia and New Zealand – suffered from an impoverished sense of its own ideological lineage compared to, say, the Francophone or Hispanophone movements.
And it also became clear that this ignorance was not merely expressed in a lack among English speakers of historical knowledge of their own region’s anarchist movement continuities, disjunctions, bifurcations, triumphs and failures, but it also meant that their militants had a slender grasp of well-established debates on strategies, tactics, politics and praxis that were far more readily accessible to our Latin American and continental European comrades.
Anecdotally, when I toured Canada in 2010 promoting Lucien van der Walt and my overhaul of anarchist politics, Black Flame, it was immediately apparent that the quality of French-language reading material in an anarchist bookstore in Montreal was superior to that of a comparable English-language store in Ottawa. And this, call it intellectual, imbalance had little to do with the selections those stores made, but rather much to do with the relatively poor quality of materials available in English.
To make the point another way, when I was a young anarchist in the late 1980s, I was enamoured of The Angry Brigade, an anarcho-insurrectionary outfit that conducted a slew of sabotage and propaganda bombings across the UK, but there was only one book then available about them, Jean Weir’s The Angry Brigade, 1967-1984 – and it provided very little context to the Brigade’s actions and political evolution.
Then in the 1990s, I was in constant correspondence with the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation (L&R RAF) in the USA; founded in 1989 and dissolved in 1998, it was in then the country’s only nationwide anarchist organisation, with sections in Mexico too – but was astounded that almost no members had any knowledge of US anarchism after the eclipse of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the post-World War 1 oppression visited on the left.
Yet my research over the past 16 years into the ideological and organisational lineages of the global anarchist movement had shown me that the L&R RAF had predecessors such as the Libertarian League (covered by Cornell’s work), established in New York in 1954 as a support organisation for the Cuban struggle against the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship: it was the closest thing to a regional anarchist organisation in the United States over the next decade, growing to embrace groups in New York City, Detroit and San Francisco.
While, as Cornell shows, the 1960s were marked by the failure of the anarchists to consolidate a coherent libertarian left caucus to challenge authoritarian left dominance within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at their own plenary at Black River, Wisconsin, in 1969, three years later – and this is beyond the timeline of his dissertation – they finally got their act together and established the synthesist Social Revolutionary Anarchist Federation (SRAF), which networked groups across the USA.
The SRAF was not a very coherent organisation, but it proved to be a vital seed-bed of organised anarchism in a disorganised time.
In 1978, an anarchist-communist tendency split from the SRAF and founded the Anarchist Communist Federation of North America (ACF), which rapidly grew to embrace 11 collectives from the east and west coasts of the US and the plains of the US and Canada.
The ACF was the first North American transnational anarchist-communist organisation since 1939; one of its affiliates split away in 1981 becoming in 1984 the anarcho-syndicalist Workers’ Solidarity Alliance (WSA) which still operates today, while the ACF itself folded in 1982. The SRAF folded in 1989, but its place was taken by the more militant L&R RAF.
Cornell’s dissertation ends with the 1960s so he does not discuss these latterday movements in his dissertation (though he does sketch most in the last chapter of the book that evolved out of it), but his aims are essentially the same as mine: to restore to the US (and more broadly, the North American) movement knowledge of the roots and evolution of its ideological debates and organisational practices.
And though he doesn’t discuss in depth today’s US movement peculiarities, he does anticipate many of the themes of today’s self-described anarchist movement in earlier eras: for example the rise of deviations laying claim to the label of anarchist such as individualism in the 1920s, or primitivism in the 1930s; but also of legitimate influences integrated into anarchism such as feminism, ecology, gay rights, and black liberation.
Cornell is careful to emphasise women articulators of the movement such as Audrey Goodfriend (1920-2013) – while avoiding the usual overweening stress on Emma Goldman (1869-1940) – in focusing primarily on the bulk of what most historians call the “short 20th Century,” that is, from 1914-1989, or the First World War to the fall of the Berlin Wall, though a useful appendix covers the early movement in the late 19th Century.
His closer examination of the US movement in the 1900s and 1910s prior to the state’s repressive “Red and Black Scare” of 1917-1924 is wonderfully grounded and has now been integrated into our global anarchist history which will be the companion volume to Black Flame.
To Cornell’s credit, he is not merely concerned with the organisational or industrial expressions of the movement, but also its social and cultural, including artistic, engagements, and here he excels in delineating how the movement shifted from being a decisive influence on the avant-garde arts in the 1920s, retreated into a homely crafts approach in the mid-century, and then resurged to become a defining feature of the 1960s counter-culture, especially by drawing on non-Western ethics such as Buddhism.
His scope is rightly broad, and he focuses on educational initiatives such as the Modern Schools, which he argues, beyond a few individuals, signally failed to produce a new generation of anarchist militants, and the commune movement, which was ultimately a retreat from the challenges of the Depression and a rather unqualified failure as a social experiment.
He stresses the long-lived influence of language in somewhat ethnically compartmentalising the movement, though by the late 1950s, most long-lived “ethnic” titles were extinct, except for the Yiddish-language Freie Arbiter Shtimme, founded in New York City in 1890 which was remarkably maintained by a group of increasingly ageing Jewish anarchists until 1977.
Cornell is fascinated about how an immigrant worker movement morphed into a middle-class subcultural movement. And this social sea-change, with the dying off of first-generation immigrant anarchists, aided and abetted by a raft of anti-immigration laws in the 1920s, helps sate his curiosity, seeing the movement initially become more socially ghettoised and isolated, and later struggle, then manage to establish an English-language presence, which opened its potential appeal to the broader Anglicised community – albeit then as a minority political movement within an entirely different social class.
Cornell is commendable in taking a transnational approach, particularly regarding the US South-West and West, and the organisational presence there of the revolutionary anarchist Mexican Liberal Party (PLM) and of its resilient press, but also regarding the international solidarity between US anarchists and the movements in countries such as Russia, Italy, Spain, and France – though he does neglect to look laterally north to examine linkages with the movement in littoral Canada, especially the IWW-styled One Big Union.
Conceptually and politically, Cornell draws directly on Black Flame in distinguishing two broad currents in the movement, the mass anarchists and the insurrectionists, teasing out these distinctions as they played out between the syndicalists of the multiethnic IWW, the Union of Russian Workers, and the strongly Jewish International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) on the one hand, and the largely Italian, Russian and Lettish insurgent movement on the other.
Cornell more than adequately discusses the devastating role of the interwar anti-left repression in gutting the movement of its most able leadership – militants were jailed for up to 20 years under laws that criminalised merely holding anarchist or syndicalist views – but is strangely silent on how the attempts by the Communist Party of the USA to hijack the IWW, and the complex tensions between, very roughly, centralist and decentralist tendencies within the IWW, lead to its fatal split into two organisations in 1924, from which it never recovered. Also, the Depression, perhaps an even more serious challenge to – and opportunity to re-establish – anarchist and syndicalist legitimacy, is unfortunately merely glossed over.
The unintended result is that while Cornell is rightly concerned with tracking changes in the movement’s fixations and priorities (often distracted by the threats of Fascism, Nazism and Communism abroad, he argues), he too often follows the defectors down their rabbit holes, as with the commune movement, rather than examining the rearguard actions of those who stuck to their guns in the IWW, as with its honourable stand in defending even Communist labour leaders against McCarthyism in the 1950s.
He does, however, note that the IWW’s General HQ in Chicago provided the locale for a new generation of syndicalists who emerged around the journal Rebel Worker, published there from 1964.
Unfortunately, Cornell admits he had no linguistic access to Russian-language materials, so entirely missing in his account is the influential Федерация Aнархо-Kоммунистов в Северной Америке и Канаде (Federation of Anarcho-Communists in North America and Canada), founded in 1919, splitting in 1924 between anti-organisationist svobodniki and pro-organsationist burevestniki; the latter rebuilt the Federation after the split, the tendencies merged in 1939 and the Federation was active until at least 1950.
It is however likely (though I am unsure), that outfits like Boris Yelensky’s Free Society Group, active in Chicago over 1923-1957, that Cornell discusses, were affiliated to this Russian-language Federation. Being a key articulator of the “classic” interwar movement with the post-war era, and a transmitter of intergenerational ideas in North America, the absence of the Federation is a critical loss to Cornell’s attempt to reconstruct the connecting tissue between the eras.
Although this review is of Cornell’s original varsity dissertation and not the book that resulted from it, Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the Twentieth Century, University of California Press, Berkley, USA, 2016 – which has an epilogue on the period from the 1970s until today which does discuss the SRAF (but not the ACF), the L&R RAF and more recent federations – a scan through its index suggests the book also has no reference to the Federation.
Thanks to Cornell, while I am reconfirmed in my distaste for the US’s anarcho-flavoured dilettantism of the 1960s – the deleterious aftereffects of which still poison the movement today – I now have a new appreciation for some of the tendencies of the immediate post-war era, especially the brave stand of the anarcho-pacifists against global war and its genocidal nuclear expression, and of the pro-organisational tendencies such as those around David Thoreau Wieck who tackled desegregation seriously and directly in the South, anticipating the Civil Rights Movement.
Cornell has, with this valuable dissertation, and it seems, in the subsequent book, achieved in one stroke what I have attempted to over 16 years of (as yet unpublished) research. It is the only work to my knowledge that makes a bold attempt to trace US anarchist ideological and organisational lineages across most of the short 20th Century, so is well worth the read, especially for those in the Anglophone movement who take so many of their cues from US anarchism.