Skip to main content

Thank the anarchists for your freedom

Mike Matejka
Social share icons

American Anarchy

By Michael Willrich

Basic Books, 2023

“Anarchy” is a challenging word.  It can mean total chaos.  There are political anarchists whose worldview is zero government, each individual negotiating their own situation, human beings coming together in peace and harmony through mutually recognized needs.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century “anarchy” and “anarchists” were regular newspaper fodder. A small yet very vocal movement, which included some union supporters, loudly proclaimed their beliefs in no government, workers controlling enterprises, free love and multiple other causes.  An anarchist minority within the minority believed in overthrowing the government and viewed dynamite as a handy tool.  The anarchists found their following in immigrant communities. People came to the U.S. for those proverbial streets of gold, instead finding themselves in miserable sweatshops and unsafe, deadly workplaces.  Their American dream became a nightmare and anarchism an attractive philosophy to counter a wealthy, uncaring elite.  Being immigrants, they were regularly excoriated by the media as European lowlifes infecting pristine America.

Though disproportionately exaggerated by the press, Americans today owe the anarchists thanks.  The 1791 Bill of Rights legislated freedom of speech, the press, assembly and religion.  Yet those rights were routinely suppressed.  Union members found their organizing frequently thwarted by police and private, corporate guards.  The anarchists routinely found their publications suppressed, their meetings under heavy police surveillance or forcibly closed, their speech ending in a jail cell.  Although they did not believe in government, they found the courts a public place for defending their beliefs, resulting in cases defend basic freedoms.

The violent anarchists created social fear; the May 4, 1886, bomb thrown in police ranks during an eight-hour day protest in Chicago, President William McKinley’s September 6, 1901 assassination by American-born, self-proclaimed anarchist Leon Czolgosz and bombs sent through the mail or left on door step meant law enforcement constantly monitored and frequently arrested anarchists for their speech and publications.

This book centers around three people; immigrants Emma Goldman (1869-1940), Alexander Berkman (1870-1936) and their U.S. born New York lawyer, Harry Weinberger (1886-1944).  As a young Russian immigrant Goldman worked in sweatshops; the anarchists denouncing capitalism and exploitation attracted her.  “Red Emma” would draw an audience and police surveillance wherever she went, expounding on worker rights, birth control and free love.  She and Berkman conspired in 1892 and he shot steel magnate Henry Clay Frick during the Homestead steel strike. Frick survived and Berkman spent fourteen years in prison.

These outspoken anarchists found that expounding their beliefs in a courtroom attracted even more publicity.   Weinberger waged often losing battles to defend their rights to speech and assembly.   Anyone criticizing U.S. involvement in World War I was subject to arrest and hundreds were imprisoned.  A young federal bureaucrat, J. Edgar Hoover, began systematically tracking these war opponents and anarchists, laying the foundation for his years as FBI director.

Berkman and Goldman were among 249 immigrants deported to Russia in December 1918 for their anti-war rhetoric.  Weinberger won an important precedent in his Supreme Court appeal for deportee Jacob Abrams.  The 1919 case in Abrams v. United States was lost but Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis wrote an eloquent dissent defending free speech.  In later cases the “free market of ideas” became the ruling standard.

Anarchism as a political philosophy persists through many permeations as do multiple other ideas.  The gift these outspoken immigrant radicals left was a gradual shift in attitudes, allowing divergent, even repulsive, opinions, to a public hearing.

The only criticism this reviewer has is the book title, American Anarchy.  The book centers around New York City, though anarchist beliefs had many national permutations, including the 1905 Industrial Workers of the World and active outposts across the globe.  New York City Anarchy is a more appropriate title.  Within this book, Goldman, Berkman and their adherents’ fascinating lives is well told, along with a night school lawyer whose free speech defense was foundational for changing U.S. laws.