The Magazine

Disloyal Opposition

Anarchists are finally organized—between two covers.

Jul 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 42 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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Consider, for example, his comments on the United States, hardly central to his story, but the locale for several anarchist adventures, since a number of believers either visited the country on speaking tours, spent time in exile here, or participated in the anarchist movement, most notably Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. (America was also the site of probably the largest number of utopian communities, many influenced by anarchist visions, in the world.) Butterworth mentions that veterans of the Commune were not welcomed in the United States, because a “brutal and ugly system .  .  . the monstrous, accelerating engine of unregulated capitalism” so feared the message of social revolution. If one of the earliest Russian anarchists, living in a utopian community in Kansas, had “known in full the miserable terms of their [U.S. workers’] employment, half starved and lacking legal protection of any kind, he might have thought the freed serfs of Russia almost fortunate by comparison.” 

Few historians would describe working conditions in the United States in the late 1800s as particularly good, but even fewer would credit a description that left them worse off than Russian serfs, either economically or politically. Apart from the wild exaggeration, Butterworth is prone to suggesting that various anarchist acts of violence might have been acts of provocation, implying without evidence that police agents threw the bomb in Haymarket Square, Chicago, in 1886 that killed a number of policemen and sparked a fierce attack on anarchists. Discussing Leon Czolgosz, anarchist assassin of President William McKinley, he seems to hint that since he was a “lone wolf” it was somehow unfair for the public to blame anarchist organizations for his actions, without recognizing that justifications of violence by people like Johann Most, Goldman, and Berkman could inspire bitter and ignorant men to lash out.

In fact, as many of the stories Butterworth tells make clear, the gentle souls of anarchism often found it hard to repudiate their more violent brethren. Goldman refused to condemn Czolgosz, and when Most criticized Berkman for his failed assassination attempt against the industrialist Henry Frick, Goldman leaped onto the stage where he was lecturing and attacked him with a bullwhip. European anarchists rushed to the defense of killers, reluctant to lend support to authority of any kind.

One of the subtexts of this book is the fierce conflict between Marxists and anarchists. Given the bloody legacy of Marxism and its frequent descent into authoritarianism, it is tempting to admire the anarchists’ suspicion of their penchant for centralization and control. Although often appealing to similar values and goals, Marxists and anarchists became bitter enemies as early as the 1870s, when Karl Marx moved the headquarters of the First International to the United States and helped destroy it rather than see it captured by adherents of Bakunin, the fiery Russian anarchist. While both looked forward to a world without government and its legacy of oppression, the anarchists’ resistance to centralization and their defense of individual revolutionary violence left them prey to just the sort of irrational and counterproductive violence that Butterworth catalogues. Marxists, at least, paid lip service to majority rule, while anarchists often refused to countenance any limit to individual self-expression.

Another peculiar tic of one segment of anarchism was its flirtation with anti-Semitism. To many anarchists, Marx was not only a tool of Otto von Bismarck’s centralizing regime in Germany but a Jew to boot. Ironically, Marx frequently expressed his own hatred of Jews, explaining that capitalism was simply the triumph of Judaism and its greediness. Marx’s own anti-Semitism did not deter many Jews from being attracted to his movement; particularly in Russia, the repression and pogroms of the czarist regime proved effective recruiting tools. And despite the prominence of Goldman and Berkman, far fewer Jews were attracted to anarchism. While Marxists dreamed of an industrialized society run by workers, anarchist yearnings often harked back to a preindustrial order populated by independent artisans, a Europe where Jews were largely invisible. 

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