The Russian Revolution was fought in the streets of New York, and, like broken bones that badly heal, the injuries from those long-ago events became incorporated permanently into the life of the city, and into the American labor movement, and into the culture of the American Jews. The center of the fighting was, of course, in Moscow. The starting point was Lenin’s decision to destroy all of the parties of the Russian left, except his own party. And, because Lenin’s movement was both international and centralized, his followers in every country around the world set out to pursue the same program in local adaptations, as best they could. They were open about it, too—as in the amazing book Toward Soviet America, by William Z. Foster, one of the classic leaders of the American Communist Party, in which he announced his goal of liquidating not only the Republicans and Democrats, together with the Elks, Odd Fellows, Knights of Columbus, Rotary Clubs, YMCA, and so on, all of which lay beyond his power to do, but also the Socialist Party of America—whose destruction was, in fact, within his power, at least potentially.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia with only minimal support from the Jews, but, after a few years, a Jewish trend in Russia began to lean in Bolshevik directions. And a parallel development took place in the United States. The American Communist Party in its earliest years—it was called the Workers Party, at first—attracted a substantial number of Russian immigrants from various ethnic and national groups, but not too many Jews. After a while, though, a substantial number of Jewish immigrants, or their offspring, younger people especially, overcame their initial indifference, and began to look with interest on the Communists, drawn by a belief that something was romantic in the Communist Party, or drawn by a belief that Communism represented the golden future. Or perhaps the younger Jews were drawn to the Communist Party by a peculiar ambivalence toward their own Jewish world and its institutions—a “deep ambivalence,” in Irving Howe’s judgment in World of Our Fathers, which found agreeable expression in Yiddish.
In any case, a substantial number of younger Jews enlisted in the party. And right away they did their duty by launching a takeover campaign against the various labor institutions in New York and other towns that were affiliated in some way with the Socialist Party of America. Those were Jewish institutions, in many cases—the big trade unions of the garment industry, plus the smaller unions, together with Jewish unions in a variety of other industries, plus a smattering of lesser organizations, together with the large and explicitly Jewish fraternal mutual-aid society, the Workmen’s Circle, or Arbeiter Ring, all of which added up to the principal institutions of the American Jewish working class.
The takeover campaign produced a “civil war in the garment center,” in Howe’s phrase, though it was hardly confined to Seventh Avenue or even to New York. The civil war was massively destructive. It got started in a small way in the early 1920s, broke out into open debate in 1922, conflict in 1924, violence in 1926, continued until 1928 at full pitch, and then, having more or less officially come to an end, continued, even so, through the 1930s, sometimes in proxy versions among other populations (for instance, the auto workers), sometimes in a pure New York version, such that, by the late 1940s, the civil war was still going on in certain of the garment-worker union locals; and persisted at least to 1950 in Los Angeles union politics; and engraved itself in New York city politics, normally through front groups of one party or the other.
The civil war was a big event for the broader American labor movement, given how large and energetic were the needle-trades unions, and how large were their treasuries, and how central was New York for national labor affairs. And it was a big event for the American Jews, given that Jewish life in America was mostly working class in the 1920s and remained that way into the ’30s and beyond, even if less so by the day. The civil war was a Yiddish-speaking event at its core, with the two sides known—even among people who preferred to speak English—as the Linke and the Recht, meaning the “Left-Wing Movement” (who were the Communist Party and its allies and everyone who sympathized with the Soviet Union), and the “Right-Wing Movement” (who were the Socialist Party and especially its Old Guard wing of trade-union Social Democrats, and their own allies).
The Linke came very close to winning, which is something to consider. For a little while in the mid-1920s, the Linke all but took over the largest and most dynamic and historically most important of the needle-trades unions, which was the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, or ILGWU, with something like 100,000 members at the start of the ’20s, most of them Jewish, plus an Italian minority. The Linke took over a series of activist branches of the Workmen’s Circle and came close to securing a solid domination over the Workmen’s Circle as a whole. The Linke did take over the furriers’ union. When the Linke held a rally, it rented the Metropolitan Opera House, and when it held what used to be called a monster rally, it rented Yankee Stadium, which suggests the scale of these events.
Scores of thousands of people were swept up into the fighting on one side and the other, and some of those people never did figure out what was going on. There was a blur of controversy over labor contracts, trade-union structures and matters of intra-union democracy, which made it possible for some people to deceive themselves or be deceived into thinking that nothing larger was in dispute. Some of the Orthodox apparel workers, swept along by the lesser issues, ended up siding with the Communist Party. Still, most people understood at least vaguely that control of the American Jewish working class and its institutions was at stake, and their understanding guaranteed a level of violence in everything that happened. Out came the knives and the blackjacks. A number of people were injured and maimed, a number were killed. The institutions themselves were badly damaged.
The ILGWU was nearly destroyed. A fungus of miserable sweatshops sprang back to life, with the unions no longer capable of suppressing them. And, amid the destruction, a cloud of political hatred floated above the disputes and brawls—a hatred expressed by the leaders and the newspapers on either side (chiefly the massive Forverts for the Recht, and the smaller but more vitriolic Freiheit for the Linke); a hatred expressed by the rank and file; a hatred that became a neighborhood hatred; a searing emotion; a hatred that came to define the political atmosphere on the New York left, and came to define the atmosphere among the New York intellectuals, too, in Yiddish at first, but soon enough in English, and in Italian, and doubtless in other languages.
It was a hatred that came from the recognition that civil war in the garment center was ultimately an event whose larger meaning was not going to be found on Seventh Avenue or in the Bronx, but in the labor camps and prisons of the Soviet Union, where the Communist Party of Russia had sent the non-Communist left to die. It was a hatred, then, for everything connected to the Soviet Union and its mass liquidations, and a hatred for everyone who served the cause of totalitarian liquidation—or, seen from the other side, a hatred for everyone who stood in the way of Lenin and Stalin and their leadership of mankind. Then again, as in all wars, it was a hatred that lost sight of larger issues and even of smaller issues in a tizzy of loathing for whoever was fighting on the other side.
The crucial moment came in 1926, when the Linke was at its height. The Horowitz & Dorfman dress company on 26th Street called in the Legs Diamond mob to terrorize strike pickets. The insurgent Communist leaders in the ILGWU called in the Little Augie gang, after which they called in Arnold Rothstein, the gangster king of New York. Rothstein demonstrated his power by arranging for the New York Police Department to deploy at Madison Square Garden on behalf of the Communist Party, against the Socialists. Murder, Inc. ended up in control of garment-center trucking, and it struck deals with some of the Socialists, too. The gangsters were a fungus of their own, harder to get rid of than sweatshops. Irving Howe in World of Our Fathers: “In the whole immigrant Jewish experience there was probably nothing to match the civil war in the garment center for sheer ugliness.”
Howe treated the civil war only briefly. You can find a few more details in studies by subsequent historians—Stanley Nadel, for instance, “Reds versus Pinks,” in New York History, back in 1985, with an interpretation different from Howe’s. But the chief historian of those events even now was one of the main participants, who was Melech Epstein, the editor of the principal Communist newspaper in the United States, the morning Freiheit, bigger and more influential than the Daily Worker, which made him a top leader of the Linke—Melech Epstein, a thoughtful man, who, after a while, defected to the Recht. Epstein wrote about the civil war in his two-volume history of the Jewish workers’ movement, the marvelously titled (because of its Russian distaste for the definite article) Jewish Labor in U.S.A., and in a further volume, The Jew and Communism (he had a way with titles). He observed that, over the course of those years, something indefinable but large took place in the world of the American Jews, which turned out to be permanent.
The Jewish labor movement was 30 or 35 years old at the start of the civil war in the garment center. The unions had gotten started under an inspiration from anarchists like Kropotkin and fantasists with a Marxist bent, and the utopian aspirations and militant hopes of the early days had persisted over the decades, even after the anarchists in the unions were pushed aside by the cannier Socialists. A large number of Jewish workers, Epstein explained (in 1953, when he brought out Volume II of Jewish Labor in U.S.A.), had been “instilled with the spirit that their unions were but a part of a wider movement that would eventually do away with the present system and usher in the ideal society.” The Jewish workers, a great mass of them, were sincere, earnest, faithful, dedicated, generous, and hopeful—even if, as he admitted, it was hard to get those people to pay an extra nickel in union dues. They enjoyed participating in debates, though. And, over the course of the civil war of the 1920s and into the ’30s, the misty simplicity and idealism quietly evaporated.
I will sum up the reasons for this in my own words, drawing on Epstein but without trying to remain faithful to his every shade and nuance. The sincere and simple belief in the coming social revolution and the ideal society faded away because everybody, on the Linke and on the Recht, was paying attention to developments in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet events broke their hearts. Some of the people on the Linke continued to affirm a simple faith in the Soviet Union and its governing party and its brilliant future—and the simplicity of their belief was terrifying to everyone else, and gave idealism a sinister reputation.
Other people on the Linke came to suspect, along with their newspaper editor, that in favoring the Soviet Union they had made a colossal political mistake, which was unnerving. People on both sides, Linke and Recht, came away from the fighting with the kind of cynicism that made it plausible to enlist gangsters in the struggle—which had not been unknown in previous decades, but had never been the province of people who waxed eloquent on the glories of the working class. Or it may be that, over the course of those years, a great mass of the Jewish workers in America acquired a more sophisticated understanding of business and democracy and America, which left them a little jaded. That was Melech Epstein’s belief. “Youthful fires were burning low in many hearts.” It was the end of something, then—the end, at least, of the Lower East Side as the national capital of a certain kind of Yiddish-language grandiosity.
And the entire episode proved to be excruciating for the third and smallest and oldest faction in the Jewish labor movement, after the Old Guard Social Democrats on the Recht and the Communists on the Linke—namely, the anarchists. The anarchists’ experience was confusing in the extreme in those years. Their first instinct, back in 1917, was to line up in support of the Bolsheviks in faraway Russia, exactly as the anarchists in Russia itself were doing. The anarchists in America admired their fellow immigrants who returned to Russia and enlisted in the Revolution. They admired the new Communist Party in the United States. Some of them joined. They allowed their newspaper, the Freie Arbeiter Stimme, to fall into Communist hands, for a moment. Letters from old friends and family in Russia began to arrive, however, and the letters were read aloud at meetings—and the anarchists in the United States, Jewish and otherwise, woke up to reality.
They regained control of their own newspaper. And, in 1922, a main group of the anarchists at the Freie Arbeiter Stimme and among the militants within the ILGWU made the logical decision, in the face of Communism’s progress abroad and at home, which was to abandon their ancient enmity for the Social Democrats and, in a sober spirit, to strike up a Social Democratic alliance. The logical decision was difficult to make, emotionally speaking, given how long the enmity between anarchists and Social Democrats had gone on. And the decision was difficult to make, philosophically speaking.
Everyone could see that, from one day to the next, the Social Democrats were losing their revolutionary zeal, precisely in the way that Melech Epstein described. In striking up an alliance, the anarchists were obliged to recognize, implicitly or explicitly, that in some fashion they, too, were setting aside their revolutionary expectations, which had always looked for a proletarian revolution in the United States, and they were setting aside their expectations for the rest of the world, as well—except in Spain, where the anarcho-syndicalist trade union confederation was sufficiently enormous to make revolutionary expectations seem reasonable. And the decision to strike up an alliance with the Social Democrats was not easy to make, physically speaking. In the past, the anarchists in the United States had always had to cope with violent attacks from the political right and with the terrors of police and the jails. But now it was the toughs of the Communist Party, which meant their own neighbors, who administered the beatings.
The anarchists seethed over those beatings, they remembered, and they continued to seethe (as I know because I heard some of those people, in their elderly years, recount more than once their experiences, half a century or more later). But mostly they seethed over the news from Russia—the news about one or another comrade of theirs, some old friend from the anarchist movement, who had departed for Russia and the revolution, and had been shot, or was expiring in prison, or had disappeared.
The upset over the fates of Fanya and Aron Baron, beloved comrades from Chicago who had made their way to Russia, became a major issue all by itself among the anarchists, with the news eventually emerging that Fanya had been shot, and, many years later, that Aron, too, had been shot (and a flickering ember of those angers has never expired, such that, in 2010, a group calling itself The Alexander Berkman Social Club published a volume of anarchist prisoner-aid documents called The Tragic Procession, with a portrait of Aron Baron as the cover illustration; and, in 2017, a group calling itself The Friends of Aron Baron brought out a volume of left-wing anti-Communist documents, from the anarchist publisher AK Press, under the unforgiving title Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution).
Then again, the anarchists in the United States—the Jewish anarchists and some of their friends—may have given as good as they got. The alliance with the Social Democrats conferred on them a degree of institutional power, and they were not reluctant to use it. Morris Sigman was a clothing presser and an anarchist from a Wobbly background, with a reputation as a hero of the cloakmakers’ strike of 1910—and, in 1923, precisely at the moment when the ILGWU was beginning to fall under Communist domination, Sigman and the Socialists in the union came to an understanding. The Socialists allowed the anarchist to take over the presidency of the union. And it was President Sigman, the anarchist, who led the counterattack, urged onward by the anarchist faction, who appear to have been the ultramilitants in what now began to happen. A labor journalist named Benjamin Stolberg wrote a marvelous book about the ILGWU called Tailor’s Progress, in 1944, which ought to be reprinted (but won’t be because Stolberg’s jocular tone about the female majority in the apparel unions is revolting to read)—in which he described Morris Sigman as “tough, though not hard-boiled, utterly honest and fanatically logical, unbending and proletarian both in his habits and his outlook.”
In the opinion of other people, though, Sigman’s proletarianism was entirely hard-boiled, such that even the daily Forverts, which was generally hard-boiled itself on the topic of the Soviet Union and its supporters, advised him to lighten up, for the sake of unionism and the working class. He was promiscuous with expulsion decrees. He dispatched his people to seize offices. Hard-boiled or not, it was Sigman and his peremptory decisions who crushed the takeover effort. He was, of course, a man of ideals. He used to give away his salary to down-at-heels members of the union, not that it was much of a salary.
Rose Pesotta’s style was the same, except in a feminine and cultured version. She was a dress operator from the Ukraine, who spoke up against the Soviet Union as early as 1922 at an ILGWU convention (you can read a few lines of transcript in Andrew Cornell’s history of the anarchists, Unruly Equality) and again in 1924 in a major speech on political prisoners, which is said to have marked a turning point in the war between the Recht and the Linke—Rose Pesotta, who ascended to a vice presidency of the union and became probably the most influential woman trade unionist in America during the heroic era of the labor movement: an organizer of Chinese and Mexican apparel workers in California, and of apparel workers in Puerto Rico; a leader in the battle to organize the auto industry and the rubber industry. And Pesotta, who was altogether hardline against the Linke, pushed for a still harder line on these matters in her advice to the best known of Sigman’s successors as president of the union, David Dubinsky, a hardliner himself from the cutters local.
She, too, made a display of fidelity to anarchist principle. She gave up her vice presidency after a few years and returned to the dressmaking shop, in rebuke of trade union bureaucrats everywhere—Rose Pesotta, who, with her two volumes of autobiography and a commendable biography of her by a scholar named Elaine Leeder, ought to be a legend on the American left and in the labor movement and among the American Jews, but is, for some reason, known only to the cognoscenti.
There was something sweet tempered about those people, the Jewish labor anarchists of the 1920s and ’30s. You can see it in Pesotta’s autobiography—in her account of her young girl’s life in the Ukraine, and her old-school father and the danger of an arranged marriage (which, as much as czarism and the pogroms, led her to flee to America). That is what Stolberg, the journalist, saw in Morris Sigman, the non-hard-boiled union strongman. But there was no reason why sweetness and ferocity couldn’t go together. I wonder if, in the Jewish labor movement, anybody was tougher than the anarchists. Anyway, in their sweet-tempered way, they racked up some very fine achievements over the next years.
They racked up achievements because, from one decade to the next, most of them remained faithful to their alliance with the trade-union Social Democrats of the Socialist Old Guard; and, during the 1930s, the Old Guard underwent a creative evolution of its own, which did the anarchists a bit of good. The Old Guard grew exasperated with the political leaders of their own Socialist Party, Norman Thomas and other people, who seemed to them insufficiently anti-Soviet, and insufficiently pro-Franklin Roosevelt. And, having had enough, the Old Guard gathered up the sundry institutions of the Jewish working class at their disposal, the big unions, the little unions, the Forverts and its radio station, and various lesser institutions, and extricated the whole lot of them from the Socialist Party, which gutted the party. And, now as independent Social Democrats—as members and friends of what they called the Social-Democratic Federation—they conducted a series of maneuvers designed to put the whole constellation of institutions at the service of President Roosevelt and the New Deal.
That was not a small development in American politics. It strengthened Roosevelt. It conferred on American liberalism some of the qualities of a European Social Democratic movement, which was something new in America. But it also converted the trade-union Social Democrats into liberals themselves, in a style all their own. And this development posed a question for their allies among the Jewish anarchists, who had to decide whether to come along for the ride, or hop out.
The anarchists, most of them, came along—the Yiddish-speaking anarchists, that is. They remained loyal to their partisan organization, the Jewish Anarchist Federation, which mobilized to keep the Freie Arbeiter Stimme alive (and to run a vegetarian diner at the anarchist center on Second Avenue), but they also remained loyal to the Social Democratic alliance. Their loyalty was sometimes direct—with Saul Yanovsky of the Freie Arbeiter Stimme going on to edit the ILGWU publication, Justice, for a while in the years after the Russian Revolution—and sometimes less than direct. There was a cluster of anarchist officers of ILGWU locals, and the officers and their supporters struck up a collaboration with a Marxist minifaction in something called the Progressive Caucus, which allowed them to go on supporting the Social Democratic leaders and, at the same time, to retain a degree of autonomy.
The collaboration of anarchists and Marxists may have looked a little odd, at times. The leader of the Marxist minifaction was Jay Lovestone, one of the “City College boys” of the Communist Party, who had risen to become general secretary of the party—only to be expelled, together with his immediate circle, when Stalin took over the worldwide Communist movement. And Lovestone and his circle responded by organizing their minifaction and defecting from the Linke to the Recht, which they did with a vengeance. They did not confine themselves to New York union politics. Their ambitions were global. They earned a reputation for ruthless conspiracies. Lovestone himself was a Mephistopheles of the American labor movement. Still, the Lovestone group included some bright personalities—Will Herberg, for instance, who became educational director of the ILGWU, a major job (because the Social Democratic union regarded adult education as a major cause), before taking up a new career as Jewish theologian. And the Lovestone group established contacts around the world. In Spain, they maintained a fraternal comradeship with the Marxist party known as the POUM, George Orwell’s party in the Spanish Civil War—who were comrades, in turn, of the anarcho-syndicalists. A Marxist-anarchist collaboration in New York made sense, in that respect.
Naturally, not everybody among the New York anarchists looked upon those developments with joy and delight. Some of the younger people regarded the Social Democrats as class-collaborationist sellouts, and took offense at the Freie Arbeiter Stimme and its tergiversations, and took offense at the idea that proletarian revolution was a thing of the past, except in Spain, and had no wish to go sliding in liberal directions. In 1932 the younger people established a center for themselves as the Vanguard Group, and did so in English, too, with a journal, Vanguard: An Anarchist Youth Publication, which became Vanguard: An Anarchist Communist Journal (“Anarchist Communist” meaning the doctrine of Kropotkin, not to be confused with Lenin’s Communism)—which published some intelligent commentary on European and Spanish events.
Vanguard became an English-language outlet for Emma Goldman, in her European exile. It never acquired the strength or the institutional support of the Freie Arbeiter Stimme, though. I notice that, in any case, the younger English-preferring radicals at Vanguard and their older, more influential comrades at the Freie Arbeiter Stimme and in the ILGWU managed to stay on friendly terms, quite as if the liberalizing slide, which was welcome to some of the anarchists, had become at least tolerable to some of the others—even if there was always a handful of still other people, the readers of yet another magazine, Man!, whose notion of anarchism was dreamier, more poetic, and not entirely political.
Even Alexander Berkman, the radical of radicals, showed something of the liberalizing trend—Berkman, who, having been deported to Russia, and having fled for his life to Western Europe, spent the remainder of his years, through the 1920s and into the ’30s, in peripatetic exile, scraping by as a translator (he knew Russian, German, Greek, Latin, English, Yiddish, French, and Italian) and proofreader. But he survived also because he kept up his American connections, not just with the radical and powerless Vanguard in the ’30s but with a couple of prosperous comrades who were happy to help him out, and with the not-so-radical Jewish Anarchist Federation and the Freie Arbeiter Stimme. He applied himself, he and his comrades in Berlin and Paris, to prisoner-aid work for the anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist prisoners in the Soviet Union. He tried to help whoever managed to escape. He helped smuggle Nestor Makhno, the Ukrainian anarchist, out of the Soviet Union. Berkman was a traditionalist of the revolutionary cause, and those efforts expressed his fidelity to the most august of solidarity traditions from czarist times.
But, as part of that work, he also renewed transatlantically his old alliance with Roger Baldwin, the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Berkman put together a volume of Letters from Russian Prisons, translated by himself, I would presume. And, in 1925, Baldwin published it in New York and London under the name of the International Committee for Political Prisoners, with endorsements from “celebrated intellectuals” such as Albert Einstein (“All serious people should be under obligation to the editor of these documents,” meaning Berkman) and Bertrand Russell, who was a great admirer of Berkman’s, and other eminences. In this way, Berkman and Baldwin, the two of them, gave a start to a human-rights protest campaign on the part of intellectuals and liberals in the West that may have seemed hopeless for a long while, but did not come to an end, and ultimately turned out to be, of course, one of liberalism’s greatest triumphs: a miracle of the 1980s.
Whether the Berkman-and-Baldwin campaign did any good for the Soviet prisoners in the short term, I do not know. Berkman could only have regarded the campaign as one more failure in a life of political failure. But then, he may have taken the view that failure does not exist. It was a matter, I think, of his personal philosophy and the cult of what he called the Ideal, by which he meant the contemplation of the perfect society to come, once the revolution had taken place. He got through his own prison years in America—the Pittsburgh years from 1892 to 1906, the Atlanta years from 1917 to 1919—by contemplating the Ideal, which conferred on him a steely invulnerability. And the same discipline surely got him through the hardships of exile in Western Europe.
I picture him waking up every morning in those years galvanized by the realization that, in the Soviet prisons and camps, his own comrades were undergoing the most excruciating of agonies, and his duty as an anarchist and an ex-con was to bang on the prison gates, and to go on doing so forever, regardless of whether anything useful was going to come of it. Alexander Berkman was a great man, in those ways. Some of his contemporaries did think so, even if they worried about his crazy streak (which continued, by the way, such that, through the 1920s and into the ’30s, he went on wondering if a well-chosen attentat or violent act of revenge might not usefully address some grievous wrong—the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, perhaps, or the rise of the Nazis. The man was incorrigible. Roger Baldwin found it puzzling).
He committed suicide in France in 1936 because of a grave downturn in his health, but the work he had pursued for those many years continued among his comrades. And, in 1940, a circle of those people in Chicago, Boris Yelensky and his friends, who called themselves the Chicago Section of the Alexander Berkman Fund, brought out the results. This was an enormous work of analysis and documentation of the Bolshevik Revolution and the liquidation of the Russian anarchist movement, together with documentation of the fate of people from the other left-wing parties. It was written by a Russian exile in Chicago named G.P. Maximoff, who himself had seen the insides of a Bolshevik prison—Maximoff, who had worked with Berkman on the arrangements for Kropotkin’s funeral in Moscow. And it was published in English translation under the title The Guillotine at Work, Vols. I and II, with photographs.
The Guillotine at Work was the most extensive presentation of oppression in the Soviet Union ever written in the United States, and the most eloquent—or such is my impression. In my view, it was and is a masterwork—though it qualifies as a virtually unknown masterwork, given that even the historians of anarchism have written about it only in passing, and no one else writes about it at all. It was the first large-scale documentary account of a 20th-century campaign of totalitarian extermination—“the full annihilation,” in Maximoff’s phrase, of entire political movements, with hundreds of pages of specifics from one prison to the next about mass shootings, cell conditions, and medical horrors.
It was a picture of one of the largest events of world history from the standpoint of its prisons and camps, and, in this respect, it was a harbinger of the incarceratory literature of totalitarianism to come: the literature of the Nazi camps, followed by the further literature of the Soviet prisons and camps, with a Soviet culmination in the 1970s in Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, in multiple volumes. The Guillotine at Work took note of Lenin’s use of famine as a tool of social policy. It proposed a horrifying analysis. It was powerfully written. It was well translated. One of the people who worked on the book and presumably on its translation was Ralph Chaplin, the Wobbly poet, otherwise known for composing the lyrics to the hymn of the American labor movement, “Solidarity Forever.”
Then again, the Chicago Section of the Alexander Berkman Fund was not well placed in the world of American book publishing. Maximoff himself made his living as a wallpaper hanger, and none of the people who brought out the book seems to have known how to promote it in the American press. The Guillotine at Work made no impression at all on mainstream journalists in the United States, nor on the intellectuals, which is odd. American intellectuals in 1940 were keen on discussing Soviet Communism and its prospects. But they appear never to have seen the book.
Edmund Wilson’s study of Marxism and the Russian Revolution, To the Finland Station, came out the same year, but there is no indication that Wilson, who read everything, read The Guillotine at Work, which is too bad. Nor did The Guillotine at Work find any readers, to my knowledge (though I am not someone who would know), in the world of Russian literature and politics. Solzhenitsyn composed his own study of the prisons and camps without any awareness that G. P. Maximoff, who had preceded him in the Bolshevik prisons, had also preceded him in composing such a study. In these respects, The Guillotine at Work has to be judged a failure, compared to the successes of Berkman’s Letters from Russian Prisons, back in 1925. If only Berkman had lived, he would have known how to promote the book.
There is reason to suppose that, even so, The Guillotine at Work enjoyed a degree of success in the corner of American life that was occupied by the labor movement, and this can be seen in the book itself. With its two volumes and its translators and photographs, The Guillotine at Work was an expensive work to produce, and it required a serious fundraising campaign. The Chicago Section of the Alexander Berkman Fund claimed the IWW building in Chicago as its address, and, in the publisher’s preface, it thanked the Wobblies for their support, which might not seem like much, given that, by 1940, the Wobblies were a fairly small group. Still, the Wobblies and their poet, Chaplin, occupied a place in the mythology of the American labor movement. The acknowledgements cited 27 other organizations in the United States that appear to have been anarchist, identified as Russian-language and Spanish-language as well as English-language—though, for some reason (was there a quarrel?), not the Jewish Anarchist Federation or the Freie Arbeiter Stimme. The anarchist labor movement in the United States still commanded something of a popular following in 1940, and The Guillotine at Work was its collective project—perhaps its greatest project of all, yet also, as it happened, its final project, after which the movement shriveled and dispersed.
But the publisher’s preface also acknowledged a number of organizations within the respectable mainstream of the labor movement—notably, 51 branches of the Workmen’s Circle, from all over the United States. Who were the members of those 51 branches? They must have been, in a general way, the allies of the Social Democrats in the Yiddish-speaking world, but more particularly they must have been the old-time anarchists, and their sympathizers. A lot of effort must have gone into getting 51 branches to chip in. Here was a project of the Jewish working class. Finally the ILGWU was thanked, in its Locals 62 and 66, together with “miscellaneous Local Joint Boards,” which I take to have been the anarchist strongholds.
What strikes me is the sheer number of groups, the tiny and the not tiny, together with portions of the ILGWU, which, by then, was a union with hundreds of thousands of members and a solid place in American society. Here, it seems to me, is a piece of evidence to help solve a mystery that has puzzled many people over the years. It is a matter of the American labor movement in the 20th century and its evolution in regard to foreign affairs—the evolution that took the AFL and later the expanded AFL-CIO from the customary isolationism, more or less, of the pure-and-simple trade unions at the start of the 1930s to a seriously internationalist politics, and still further into active interventions around the world. That was an extraordinary development, and it can seem hard to explain. But I think that, if you pause to reflect on a book like Maximoff’s Guillotine at Work and the long list of organizations that cooperated to bring it into print, the explanation becomes obvious.
When people speak about the internationalism of the American labor movement, what they actually mean, after all, is a handful of unions, and the most dynamic and active of those unions was the ILGWU, under David Dubinsky. He and his immediate allies were at the heart of one foreign-policy initiative after another, together with George Meany in the national labor leadership. A vigorous internationalism required no evolution at all for a Social Democratic union, philosophically speaking. Nor did internationalism require an institutional evolution. The Social Democrats of New York were formally affiliated with the Socialist, Social Democratic, and Labor parties of Europe, and with their own unions.
By 1934, with the Nazi triumph in Austria, it was obvious that fascism in its several variations was likely to triumph everywhere in Europe. And, in New York, the Social Democrats at the ILGWU and a few other unions decided to put their internationalism into effect. They sent money to the Italian Socialists, to help out in the struggle against Mussolini. And they established the Jewish Labor Committee in New York, which quietly sent agents to Europe. The agents put together an underground network in the occupied countries, consisting in some degree of the exiled remnants of the Jewish General Workers Bund—which makes for a fairly amazing story, not too well known (though you can read about it in an old article in Labor’s Heritage magazine by the labor librarian Gail Malmgreen, who ended up in charge of the archival records).
And, in doing all this, the Social Democrats of New York were miles ahead of the United States government. The United States finally left its war-time neutrality behind at the end of 1941 and entered the war, but did so without having made any preparations at all for the kind of underground work that was obviously going to be needed in Europe. Nor did anyone know what to do. The Social Democratic committees in New York, however—they knew what to do. The Social Democrats offered a bit of guidance, and the Office of Strategic Services, once it had come into existence, which was in 1942, appears to have been appreciative. And why did the Social Democrats do that? Or rather, what allowed them to do it? They were able to do it because the trade unions were full of people who wanted them to do it—who wanted to maintain the ties of labor solidarity (and not just ethnic solidarity) to people in Europe, and were willing to spend money and take risks in doing so. That is what you can see in the publisher’s acknowledgments in Maximoff’s Guillotine at Work, directed against the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union in that instance, but, as the publishers explained, with an eye to totalitarianism of every kind and the Nazis in particular.
I do not mean to suggest that any of the anarchists themselves played a role in advising the agencies of the American government. Or rather, only one of them did so. That was the very glamorous Carlo Tresca, the Wobbly, America’s best-known anarchist of all by the 1940s, a much-admired man in some circles—Tresca, who was the leader of the sane wing of Italian American labor anarchism and was the earliest champion, too, of Italian American anti-fascism. Tresca was quite open about sharing his information on Mussolini’s Italian American supporters with the FBI, which might seem inappropriate from an anarchist, except that he was a serious man, and he did want to defeat the fascists. And he was similarly voluble in his advice to the Office of War Information, which was the federal government, on the need to keep America’s policymaking for Italy free of any input from Mussolini’s supporters, and from Stalin’s Italian American supporters, as well—which are details that I take from the biography of Tresca by Nunzio Pernicone.
No one among the Jewish anarchists did anything even remotely similar. Nor did anyone in America contribute to the anarchist underground in Europe, such as it was in that period. Then again, the Jewish anarchists did more than enough merely by keeping up their alliance with Dubinsky and the Social Democrats. Dubinsky was, after all, a man with a revolutionary background of his own—someone who had spent 18 months in the czarist prisons, which meant that, in matters of underground activity, he was not in need of advice. He only needed support. By 1939, when the United States was still neutral—when the American Communist Party, worse than neutral, was promoting the Hitler-Stalin pact—when the American Communist Party was actively opposed to the Jewish Labor Committee’s boycott of German goods!—Dubinsky, a man of lucid thought, was already fielding not one, but two clandestine networks in Europe. The Jewish Labor Committee’s underground was the first of those networks, with himself as treasurer. But he was also presiding over a second network, which was run by Mephistopheles, or Jay Lovestone, the anarchists’ collaborator in the Progressive Caucus, whom Dubinsky had adopted as a full-time operative.
Dubinsky put together a foreign-policy committee with the marvelous letterhead name, half-bland and half-hysterical (as was suitable for 1939), “League for Human Rights, Freedom and Democracy sponsored by organized labor for the preservation and extension of democracy as the American way of life.” He appointed Mephistopheles as executive secretary—which are details that I pick up from a book from a few years ago called American Labor’s Global Ambassadors, in a contribution by Geert van Goethem. By 1940, Lovestone was writing to the Roosevelt administration to inform it of his ability to mobilize his own underground network in occupied Europe. And it was Lovestone who went on to run the principal foreign policy of the AFL and eventually of the unified AFL-CIO in the years to come: Lovestone, who cut a strange and sometimes appalling figure on the world stage, a man of the workers’ movement and a man of the shadows and of the CIA, together with his European operative Irving Brown (“the scarlet pumpernickel”) and his comrades from the ILGWU, Serafino Romualdi (who had supplied Carlo Tresca with union funds), and Maida Springer Kemp, and a few other people.
Did Lovestone and his people achieve very much that was democratic and useful, in their worldwide projects over the next many years? Apart from the “League for Human Rights, Freedom and Democracy sponsored by organized labor for the preservation and extension,” etc., they put together something called the Free Trade Union Committee, which represented the American Federation of Labor (and later the AFL-CIO). The Free Trade Union Committee promoted a hardline policy against the Soviet Union and its trade-union supporters around the world—a harder line, by all accounts, than everyone else’s in the labor movement. Here were the hatreds of the New York labor movement—the hatreds of Moscow and its purges and liquidations—projected across the globe. Then again, the Free Trade Union Committee promoted authentic trade unions, and it promoted the cause of anti-colonialism.
It is difficult to judge the results, except to remark a variation from one continent to the next—an impressive record, on the part of the Lovestone group, of anti-colonial activity in Africa, and a mixed and sometimes deplorable record in much of Latin America, and a complicated record in Europe, anti-totalitarian and unscrupulous at the same time. But no one can doubt that, at minimum, the Free Trade Union Committee published some first-rate documents. It published one of the famous pamphlets of the Cold War, Slave Labor in the Soviet World, in 1951, which offered a picture of the Soviet Union as a series of prisons and labor camps, with serious documentation and a celebrated map, much admired by Solzhenitsyn many years later, when he had the opportunity to examine it. And what was Slave Labor in the Soviet World? It was the anarchists’ Guillotine at Work, by G. P. Maximoff, from 1940, updated for 1951, improved with a map, and presented to the United Nations and the world in a popular format by the anarchists’ slightly scary comrades from the Progressive Caucus of the ILGWU.
I think it is fair to say that, in these ways, the old-time anarchists made their contribution to the anti-totalitarian cause. Their contribution was not as great as the Social Democrats’, and it dwindled to almost nothing, after 1940. It did count for something, though. It was a display of working-class solidarity, sharpened by the solidarity of the super-oppressed—the solidarity of the persecuted for the persecuted. It was heroic. It served as a model. I wonder if anything in the history of those achievements will endear the old-time labor anarchists to the anarchist-revival punkdom subculture of our own moment. I am skeptical. Punkdom admires anti-fascism but cringes at the Cold War.
Will any of this history endear the old-time anarchists to the trade unions, instead? It is a reasonable question. The old-time anarchists were something of a counterculture, but the labor movement, which is not a counterculture, was ultimately their home, and that was true from the outset. It is touching to learn from the historians that, in the 1890s, Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor, had a soft spot for Alexander Berkman, in spite of everything, and pushed his federation to petition the authorities to show a little clemency for poor Berkman in his Pittsburgh cell.
But there are additional reasons why people have lately been glancing back with sympathetic curiosity on the Jewish anarchists of yore—questions of how to live, and questions of Zionism and anti-Zionism—and, in a final essay, I will touch on those points.
This is the second part of an extended history of the anarchists and the Jews.
Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.