Social Democratic trade unionism was a success in 20th-century America, materially and, as it were, gustatorially. Its successes were tasty and imaginative. It was especially a success in New York. Supremely it was a success for its original mass base, which was the Jewish working class in New York and in the faraway regions that used to be known within the needle-trades unions as “out of town.” Social Democratic trade unionism—the unionism of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the men’s apparel workers, the headgear workers, and on to still tinier labor organizations—brought order to the vast and turbulent garment industry, which, from its center in New York, made clothing for all of America.
Social Democratic unionism fended off the gangsters, if only partially, but sufficiently to maintain the “conquest of chaos,” in Benjamin Stolberg’s Kropotkinite phrase. And, having done all that, Social Democratic unionism was able to produce the kinds of paycheck improvements that allowed Alfred Kazin in later years to linger in pleasure over a favorite joke, to wit: “What is the difference between the ILGWU and the American Psychiatric Association?”—with the answer being, “One generation,” and the humor resting on the fact that it was true, and mobility out of the working class was the working class’ ultimate achievement.
The successes benefited the Italian garment workers, and other people, too, after a while—sometimes with a delay on the part of the Jewish union leaders in recognizing that anyone apart from Jewish workers actually existed. But the other people did exist, and the leaders came around to making the recognition. And, in the case of the ILGWU, the unions responded by taking the traditional workers-education program of the Jewish labor movement and (here were some of the gustatory successes) expanding it into programs directed not just to the Jews but to the Italians and the sundry “national” groups (to use the union language) known as colored or Negro, Spanish (meaning Spanish-speaking), and so forth.
The policy was multiculturalism avant la lettre (if I may borrow a term from the labor historian Daniel Katz, the author of a book about the ILGWU’s cultural policies called All Together Different). Trade-union multiculturalism, too, had its successes. It generated a quietly attractive working-class environment in New York in the 1930s and after, with a summer resort and a Broadway show (Pins and Needles) and organized activities of many sorts, together with substantial support for the civil rights movement, as well, which was far from typical of the broader American labor movement—even if it is also true that nothing is perfect, and the ILGWU fell into a protracted and uncharacteristic dispute with the NAACP in the 1960s.
And together with the various and imperfect successes came a program for constructing housing cooperatives, which grew naturally from community-building for workers’ education and culture. Here was a program with roots that were Social Democratic and anarchist both. The circle around Emma Goldman organized a cultural and educational program called the Francisco Ferrer Center, which began on the Lower East Side in 1911 and made its way uptown to East Harlem, where it expanded into a virtual university, with Robert Henri and the Ashcan School offering the finest of fine art classes. And the cultural center evolved, in turn, into an anarchist colony in Stelton, New Jersey, in commuting distance of Manhattan, with a progressive school, which lasted a few decades.
Additional colonies sprouted up on anarchist principles in Lake Mohegan, New York, north of the city, and, on a fairly large scale, at the Sunrise Farm near Saginaw, Michigan, with hundreds of colonists doing their best to make a living—which scraped by for a few years with guidance and inspiration from one of the editors of the Freie Arbeiter Stimme, together with a little help financially from the New Deal. I have to confess that reading about the colonies always seems a little dismal to me, given that sooner or later every colony turns out to be Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, and from romance to acrimony and nuttiness is but a turn of the page.
But the Social Democrats knew what to do about that particular problem. They made the decision, beginning in the 1920s, to leave aside the tiny scale and fanciful extremes of the anarchist experiments in favor of constructing something on a genuinely large scale in the middle of New York, with an eye to practicality and endurance, and with a commitment, even so, to at least some of the communitarian aspirations. Up went the cooperative apartment houses of the Bronx and Manhattan, designed to encourage cultural life and a sense of community, and designed to remain safely protected from the commercial real estate market, too: socialist housing, in the positive sense of that phrase. And there is, in fact, a positive sense, as nearly everyone who has lived in those places can tell you. They constitute the best housing for working people in New York.
There were a lot of those houses, too, with close to 40,000 units or apartments eventually, which would amount to a small city, scattered about the neighborhoods. They were constructed by all kinds of groups and even by the Communist Party—though the Communist coops, in the Bronx, did not last. But the main projects were pursued under a Social Democratic leadership of one kind or another, trade-unionist or Yiddishist or Labor Zionist. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the ILGWU provided the principal financing in some instances, and provided the political clout, too, sufficiently to get financial support from the state of New York—all of which was beyond the modest capacity of the anarchists.
And yet, the whole idea of working people building their own housing, and doing it collectively, and not waiting for the state or a future revolution to do it, and doing it in ways that were intended to do more than put a roof over people’s heads—this idea was, after all, fundamental to the anarchist imagination. It was Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread, brought to life, not on the tiny scale of the fragile colonies but on a scale closer to what Kropotkin had imagined, back in the 1890s, suitable for society as a whole. Anarchism was precisely the inspiration for the chief organizer and presiding eminence of the cooperative housing movement in New York, Abraham Kazan, who constructed one major project after another on the Lower East Side, in midtown Manhattan, and in scattered corners of the Bronx. The anarchist inspiration figured particularly in one of the earliest and possibly the finest of those projects, which was Kazan’s romantically designed stone-wall Amalgamated Houses, in the West Bronx, beginning in 1927.
And the anarchists lived in those houses. I know this because, in the 1970s, when I was still in school, I found a refuge from the student political wars of those days by striking up friendships with a good many of the old-time New York anarchists, Jewish and Italian and whatnot, in their later years. And one after another of those people turned out to be inhabitants of the Social Democratic and labor coops, or played a role in their homey prosperity—my old friend Abe Bluestein notably, from a distinguished family background among the ILGWU anarchists (with a distinguished past of his own in the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s, as a deep-voiced English-language announcer for anarcho-syndicalist radio in Barcelona), who dedicated his professional career to managing the Amalgamated Houses and Coop City, where my mother lived, and I don’t know where else. Someone else lived in the redbrick Penn South coops in Chelsea (where the anarchists used to hold their meetings, courtesy of the Workmen’s Circle), and someone else in the high-rise coops along East Broadway on the Lower East Side: agreeable apartments, by and large.
I used to wonder why those people didn’t go all the way and declare their anarchism to be a branch of Social Democracy, in a version all their own, libertarian and imaginative. Or why not go further yet and claim a status as liberals, of an unusual sort? The anarchists’ Social Democratic allies in New York, some of them, did begin to attach a liberal adjective to themselves over the course of the 1940s and ’50s. The Social Democrats even fielded a New York state electoral party called the Liberal Party, which did well for a few years. In the anarchist movement around the world, any number of people over the decades had contemplated taking some such step, beginning with Kropotkin himself at the end of his life in the early 1920s, if I read him correctly—Kropotkin, who tried to persuade Lenin to mend the error of his ways and recognize the virtues of America. The Spanish anarchists gave some thought to conducting a reform of their own ideas. They decided against it. Emma Goldman herself, during her time in Spain, advised them not to do it.
In the United States, the grand theoretician of the Jewish or Yiddish-speaking anarchists, beginning in the 1930s, was Rudolf Rocker, who was a German exile and did not happen to be Jewish himself, though he dedicated his life to the cause of Yiddish-speaking anarchism. And Rocker, too, gave some thought to a major revision in the direction of liberalism, which he all but advocated in his book Anarcho-Syndicalism, and again in Pioneers of American Freedom. One of the editors of the Freie Arbeiter Stimme was Joseph J. Cohen, who was a leader in the anarchist colony movement—and perhaps Cohen did take the step. Cohen was some kind of uncle of the journalist I.F. Stone, but with a shrewder appreciation of foreign affairs, such that, in the period of the Korean War, when Stone found reasons to sympathize with North Korea, Cohen found reasons to declare himself a “firm supporter” of Adlai Stevenson, presidential candidate of the Democratic Party.
Among the anarchists in general, though, the major revision never took place. Doctrinal conservatism—though conservatism is a word that sits a little uneasily atop an anarchist’s head—turned out to be the nearly universal instinct. The anarchist labor movement in mid-20th-century New York ended up, as a result, looking a little odd, as if an oxcart wheel from darkest days of czarist oppression had been attached to a rubber bicycle wheel from New Deal America, and was rolling forward. There were people who found the doctrinal incongruities outrageous—Melech Epstein, for instance: Epstein, the Communist who defected to the Social Democrats (in a sign that he, at least, was willing to think new thoughts) and went on to write his magnum opus, which was Jewish Labor in U.S.A. Epstein was scathing about the aging Jewish anarchists, and he was scathing about some of their Social Democratic friends, as well, and their ideological pretensions. “Those who still call themselves socialists and anarchists are neither; they do it out of sheer habit.”
The Freie Arbeiter Stimme had become, Epstein said, “as anarchistic as The New York Times and, in foreign policy, less liberal” (though he added that Yanovsky, the editor, published good poetry). By the 1960s, the Jewish labor anarchists, in their old age, had come to think well of Lyndon B. Johnson! The author of Jewish Labor in U.S.A. was beside himself.
Still, my view is the other way around. In the case of the Social Democrats, I admire them for having veered into liberalism; and in the case of the anarchists, I admire them for having veered into Social Democracy. If the Social Democrats and especially the anarchists made a mistake in any of this in their later years, it was only in not gathering up the courage to admit to themselves and the world how radically they had evolved, and what were their reasons for doing so. The best thing that an older political generation can do for the generations that follow is to offer explanations of that sort, instead of allowing the younger people to suppose, as younger people like to do, that change is shameful, and only the infirmities of age can alone explain why anyone with left-wing opinions would entertain a new thought. In the case of the old anarchists, an admission did seem to be halfway formed on their lips, as if they only needed the right provocation to say it out loud.
Sometime in the middle 1970s I found myself at one of the congenial meetings of the old-time anarchists—they ran a lecture series under the rubric of the Libertarian Book Club, their traditional organization—where the name of Eleanor Roosevelt happened to be mentioned. And I was taken aback to see a room crowded with elderly Jewish ladies who read the Freie Arbeiter Stimme or helped put it out, together with possibly a white-haired Italian ex-terrorist or two, or maybe a grizzled veteran of the St. Petersburg uprisings of 1917, and a number of tough-guy harbor Wobblies and I don’t know who else, burst into spontaneous applause. Eleanor Roosevelt, hooray! Such was the spirit of working-class anarchism in New York, among its hard-bitten surviving militants, in their retirement days. Well, not all of them, but enough to make a resounding applause.
And the Jewish aspect of the old-time Jewish anarchists? I think that, for a certain number of people right now—for the several hundred enthusiasts who attended YIVO’s anarchist conference a few months ago—a main purpose of inquiring into the Jewish anarchism of yore is to look precisely into its Jewish side, in the hope of resolving a personal problem of our own time. This is the problem of younger Jews who have come to recognize all too keenly that, in their own world of the colleges and the graduate schools and the hipster districts, people like themselves have fallen under suspicion. And they wish to find an honorable way of separating themselves from everything that arouses the suspicion—a way of repudiating whatever is shameful, without repudiating Jewishness itself. Or, more acutely, it is a problem experienced by young people who, regardless of what anyone around them may say, wish to express a moral revulsion for Israel and for Zionism—Israel as a world center of oppression, Zionism as a philosophy of oppression—and wish, at the same time, to reveal themselves as impeccably Jewish.
So they gaze in the direction of their immigrant ancestors, and they wonder if, in the history of the Yiddish-speaking anarchists, they mightn’t be able to stumble across an occasional political or cultural inspiration to rescue them from their predicament. This does not seem to me a foolish idea. A glance at the anarchist history might, in fact, have something to offer. That is because, in the decades on either side of the year 1900, a great many people in the Jewish world understood rather well that prospects for the Jews were not looking good, and new paths did have to be found, and it was time to be imaginative. Anarchists were good at being imaginative.
Some of their ideas took a Palestinian turn. There were anarchist proposals to build libertarian socialist communities or kibbutzim in Palestine, not necessarily as part of a Zionist or Jewish nationalist project, but simply because Palestine was a place where Jews from czarist Russia and other benighted places were discovering they could go. There were anarchist proposals that did figure as a Zionist project—the libertarian socialist and Zionist ideas of Gustav Landauer in Germany, for instance, and of Abba Gordin in Russia, which he brought to New York and then to Israel. There were anarchist influences on the left Zionists, in the belief that Kropotkin’s theories of a good community could fit nicely into the larger Zionist project.
More typically, the anarchists, together with the Bund and a large part of the rest of the classic Jewish left, disapproved of the Zionist project in all of its versions, including the versions that did not call themselves Zionist. There was a philosophical disapproval on grounds of hostility to every kind of nationalism (even if Kropotkin and some of the other anarchists saw a virtue in the nationalism of other small nations, the ones that already had a territory). There were anarchists who regarded nationalism as fascism, and therefore Zionism as fascism. There were people who disapproved of Zionism on practical grounds, in the belief that millions of European Jews were never going to emigrate to the deserts of the Middle East, and the entire project was a will-o’-the-wisp.
Or they disapproved on geographical grounds, in the belief that, even if millions of people did emigrate, the aridity of the soil would never support such a population, regardless of the advanced and wonderful ideas in a book like Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops. Or they disapproved on grounds that used to be known, in the anarchist movement, as anti-theologism, in the belief, which Kropotkin held, that a Zionist project would eventually fall into the hands of the rabbis, and theocracy would crush the libertarianism, and it would be dreadful. Or they disapproved in the belief that Zionism was going to end up as a bourgeois exploitation of the Arab workers. Or they disapproved because they were champions of the Yiddish language, and Zionism favored the Hebrew language.
Mostly the anarchists, like the Bund and a great many other people on the Jewish left, disapproved of Zionism because they did not share the radical pessimism that lurked, normally unspoken, behind a good half of the Zionist logic. They shared the simplicity and optimism of the 19th-century workers’ movement—shared the belief that social oppression has a single source, which is capitalism–shared the logical conclusion that, if only the single source could be abolished, oppressions of every sort would disappear. They shared the belief that science and technology and the cunning of history had created an inexorable force of progress. And they shared the belief that, in coming days, the social revolution was going to break out in the Old World and everywhere else, and the problems of the Jewish masses would shortly be over, along with the problems of all the other persecuted peoples. In the 1890s or in the 1910s, the broad Jewish left wanted to send the radical and adventurous Jews into the Russian revolutionary organizations, where the grandest of goals seemed reachable, and did not want to send them into the Palestinian desert, where the grandest of Zionism’s goals seemed tiny, or contemptible.
They imagined that, once the revolution had taken place, the Jews were going to disappear into the unvariegated mass of mankind (which was the universalist idea, in its primitive version, and was pretty much shared at the Freie Arbeiter Stimme, in its earliest years). Or they imagined that Jews were going to take their place within the universal embrace of the new revolutionary society, except with a degree of cultural autonomy based on the Yiddish language (which was a Bundist idea, open to anarchist variation).
Or they imagined that Jews were going to take their place in society by establishing a province of their own, as a territory within the universal socialist society, in order to practice agriculture, as a normal people ought to do (which was the socialist territorialist position). They imagined, in any case, that Jews, after the revolution, were going to participate in the universal new society, which was something that Jews in the past had never been allowed to do in the old societies of the past. To join, to participate, to be welcomed—that was their dearest aspiration, and not to separate or to secede.
Those were anti-Zionist ideas. At the YIVO anarchist conference a few months ago, a good many young people wanted to linger over those ideas, as part of their search for an attractive Jewish sensibility of today. And yet, I have bad news for those people, and bad news for anyone today who is seriously contemplating a revival of the old anti-Zionist instinct in one of its anarchist or socialist forms. The debate over the Jews and how to rescue them by creating a better society was stimulating and vigorous a century ago, and is wonderful to read about today—in Kenyon Zimmer’s Immigrants Against the State, for instance, or especially in Tony Michels’ A Fire in Their Hearts, where he takes up the arguments and evolution of Chaim Zhitlovsky, the grand philosopher of these particular questions.
Only, the historic debate over those questions, having allowed every possible school of thought to have its say, and perhaps a few other schools, as well, eventually discovered that one more participant insisted on speaking up, which turned out to be History itself, with a capital H. History brought the discussion to an end. Down came the gavel. The gavel consisted of enormous masses of terrorized Jewish refugees in Europe with no place to go, together with, soon enough, enormous masses of terrorized Jewish refugees in the Arab world. History admonished everyone to accept reality and rise to the occasion.
To rise to the occasion was not always easy to do, if only because the fog of debate from the preceding decades sometimes made it difficult to see what was going on. Still, people did rise. In the Jewish labor movement in the United States, the first people with any influence at all to do so were leaders of little organizations, and not big ones—Max Pine at the United Hebrew Trades, which was a remnant organization from the 19th century, followed by the leaders of one of the tiny apparel unions, the Hat, Cap, and Millinery Workers, who were Max Zaritsky and Alex Rose. Those people launched an ambitious campaign, beginning in the 1920s, to support the Jewish labor federation Histadrut and its marvelously socialist projects in Palestine.
Zaritsky and his fellow thinkers had allies from the start at the American Federation of Labor, who were not at all Jewish—and, then again, enemies from the start, who were the entirely Jewish Bundists in the big garment unions: a convoluted tale recounted by Adam M. Howard in a book from 2017 called Sewing the Fabric of Statehood: Garment Unions, American Labor, and the Establishment of the State of Israel. Zaritsky and the headgear workers’ union insisted. The Bundists resisted. Zaritsky and his fellow thinkers introduced a sophisticated argument. They were in favor of the Jewish labor movement in Palestine—but not necessarily in favor of Jewish nationalism: a key distinction. In favor of a Jewish labor movement because they were in favor of labor movements everywhere, and because the Jewish labor movement would avoid exploiting its Arab neighbors, and because the Jewish labor movement might inspire similar labor movements to arise in the Arab countries, which might bring prosperity to the Arab masses, and democracy to the Arab world.
Or so contended Max Zaritsky and his fellow thinkers. And between the inspirational force of the socialist argument, and the reality of the Jewish refugee crisis, the positions of the Hat, Cap, and Millinery Workers began to prevail in other corners of the Jewish labor movement in New York. More: exerted pressures on President Harry Truman, by means of the New York Liberal Party. But it was a more complicated affair than you might imagine—ideologically murky, a matter of trade union maneuvers and New York City politics.
And the anarchist history in those years meandered along pretty much the same paths, even if anarchism’s power could scarcely be compared to that of the mighty Hat, Cap, and Millinery Workers. Already in the 1930s the anarchists’ Vanguard group in New York found themselves on both sides of the Zionist question—sympathetic to the Jews in Palestine in the face of an Arab pogrom, and worried, even so, that Zionism was fascism. The advent of the Second World War deepened the anarchist confusion, given that, from a conventional anarchist standpoint, the very notion of supporting a war conducted by national states was out of the question. And, to be sure, some of the Jewish anarchists, impeccably dogmatic, declined to support even the war against Nazism.
In 1939 and ’40, Emma Goldman, at age 70 or 71, was living in Toronto, in faltering health, and was adamant against the war. My old friend Ahrne Thorne, from Poland, had made his way to Toronto, where he stood by her loyally during her last months, and, as he explained to me, he tried to talk her into a reassessment. She said to him, “You sound like Kropotkin,” which was a dismissive remark because, back during the First World War, Kropotkin had shocked almost everybody in the anarchist movement by coming out in favor of the Allies.
Thorne replied, “But look at the Germans today! Maybe Kropotkin was right.” Among the anarchists, a number of people did begin to think that Kropotkin was right—Rudolf Rocker, for instance. But whether or not Kropotkin was right, most of the Jewish anarchists came around to supporting the second war. They were different from most of their comrades in the rest of the anarchist movement, in that respect. They saw realities that other anarchists failed to see. And History dictated their next step, as well.
Rose Pesotta was a follower of Emma Goldman’s, or, at least, a huge admirer, and, even so, she took both of those steps. She came out for American participation in the war, which, as she explained, was difficult for her to do. And then, in the period after the war, she took the second step. She accepted a job as an organizer for the United States campaign of the Histadrut. Rose Pesotta was the American labor leader who spoke to Walter Reuther and Jimmy Hoffa, her fellow labor leaders, on the Histadrut’s behalf. The Freie Arbeiter Stimme went through the same evolution. From Zimmer, the historian, I learn that, in 1951, one of the editors of the Freie Arbeiter Stimme was thrown out of the paper for insisting on his antipathy to Israel.
And the editors, having made their decision, remained firm. I know this because, a couple of decades later, the Freie Arbeiter Stimme, indestructible, was still clinging to life. The Freie Arbeiter Stimme was the oldest Yiddish publication anywhere in the world by then. You could see it for sale on a single remaining newsstand on 42nd Street, in front of the library, as if dangling from its dried-out stem, a last withered leaf from the 1890s. Ahrne Thorne had become the editor, and, although I do not have any Yiddish, he recruited me to contribute, with an offer to translate anything I gave him into Yiddish, and a further offer, because he wanted to keep up appearances, to present my contributions as the work of a new Yiddish writer. I accepted, of course. And he was by no means hostile to Israel.
In 1977, Thorne and his board made the decision to close the paper, at last. The leaf tumbled to the ground. But he was still not ready to abandon the cause, and he took on a new responsibility as a New York editor of Abba Gordin’s Yiddish Problemen, in Tel Aviv. He invited his old writers to go on contributing, too—though, in my case, I never did.
Nor was this particular urge—the urge among the Jewish anarchists to affirm a link to the Israelis—confined to the not-so-radical anarchists. You can see the same impulse in the autobiography that my friend Sam Dolgoff, the Wobbly, published under the title Fragments, in 1978—Dolgoff, a militant of the Vanguard group and a disciple of Maximoff’s, who always stood adamantly to the left of the Freie Arbeiter Stimme and would have snorted in contempt at a miserable word like “liberal.” About the Freie Arbeiter Stimme, Dolgoff used to complain that, if David Dubinsky sneezed, the Freie Arbeiter Stimme would run a headline saying, “Gezundheit.” And yet, he did come around to seeing a justification for a Jewish state. Dolgoff, the house painter, and Dubinsky, the man of power, were not so different, in that respect. It was a human matter, and not a doctrinal matter. Dolgoff visited Israel, and he made a point of saying so to his readers. And, in the circles of Jewish labor anarchism, this was not at all controversial.
At some point in the later 1970s, one of the leading anarchist-sympathizing writers in France, Daniel Guérin (the author of Anarchism: From Theory to Practice, introduction by Noam Chomsky, an influential book, back in New Left times) visited New York and gave a talk to the by-then elderly anarchists, Jewish and otherwise. The issue on Guérin’s mind was gay liberation and his own homosexuality, which he had only recently revealed to the world, not always with approbation from the old-school working-class left in France. He was in a testy mood, then. He wanted to goad the old-time New York anarchists—wanted to oblige the old comrades to accept him for who he was, regardless of how dismayed or disturbed they may have been.
Only, a generous libertarian tolerance really did count for something among the old anarchists. They declined to get legally married (or they were apologetic for having done so, and would blame it on the demands of Social Security, or some such excuse) because they did not want the state to interfere in the mysteries of love, and they did not want the rabbis or priests to interfere; and they certainly were not going to interfere themselves. About Guérin’s personal life they were never going to say a word in criticism or even think a thought. I wonder what he made of it. But when he happened to mutter two or three words in condemnation of Israel—then his audience erupted, with not a soul coming to his defense, aghast to discover that Daniel Guérin, who appeared to be such an idealistic man, with such a fine intellect, whose reputation was so excellent, could possibly be so terribly lacking in human sympathies.
Something of that same anarchist instinct came up at the YIVO conference a few months ago, though only subtly, such that most of the audience may have missed it. The final and keynote speaker at the conference was Sam Dolgoff’s son, Anatole Dolgoff, born in 1937 and the beneficiary of a pure upbringing in the New York anarchist scene, mid-20th-century version. Anatole has described that scene in tender detail in a memoir of his father, Left of the Left: My Memories of Sam Dolgoff, which is a savory book, rich in its working-class New Yorkiness, published a couple of years ago by AK Press, the anarchist house. It is a classic memoir of the American left. And, at YIVO, Anatole recounted a few stories of the kind that he tells in his book.
He wandered away from the podium and stood at the center of the stage with his mic, as if wanting to have nothing to do with the pomposities and social hierarchies of a podium, and he recalled to the audience one person after another whom he had known in childhood, or had known about. Those were the grandees of the anarchist movement. He spoke about Carlo Tresca, a friend of his father’s. He conjured the anarchist geography of Manhattan in midcentury—the offices on Lower Fifth Avenue, around the corner from YIVO, of one libertarian labor group after another. The offices on Lower Broadway. The headquarters of the Italians and the Spanish. The sidewalk where Tresca was assassinated. The downtown Wobbly hall. An anarchist’s candy shop on Seventh Avenue.
I think that, at YIVO, Anatole’s anecdotes and geographical details left the audience a tad puzzled, given that, at scholarly conferences, the speakers generally try to advance a well-honed thesis, and the distinguished Anatole Dolgoff appeared, instead, to be ruminating idly over his own memories. Still, a purpose in the ruminations began to emerge, which turned out to be something that could only be honed, as it were, anecdotally. This was to tell his audience what cannot be found in libraries or archives, which is what the anarchists of times gone by were like, as human beings—not their doctrines, or their organizations, or their practical successes and failures, but their souls. The vibration of the air around them.
The old anarchists, then, from the days when anarchism was still a normal and authentic current of the American labor movement: the graduate-student look was not theirs. Nor did they go in for extravagances of personal style. Theirs was a workers’ cause, and not an identity cause. They were not, by and large, an intellectual faction. Even the intellectuals among them were blue-collar workers, and self-educated—Anatole’s father, notably, whose lungs were bad because of the fumes of house painting. Some of them had undergone serious persecution. Anatole recalled the Wobblies who spent many years in Leavenworth. Among the Jewish anarchists (and among the Italians, too, and all the ethnic groups), nearly everybody was a refugee, or the offspring of refugees, or the friend or companion of refugees. Everyone had known a life of political discouragement or, at least, difficulty, and, in some cases, catastrophe.
They were people who nonetheless stuck to their principles, which came so naturally to them as scarcely to be principles, but were, instead, traits, without a hint of posturing or theatrics. Their greatest trait of all was to do things—not to waste their lives in meetings, but to go out and undertake some kind of action, generally on the simplest of grounds, which was solidarity with someone else who stood in need. It may be that action in the name of solidarity was ultimately, for them, the capital-I Ideal, which some people might have chosen to present in a mystical-sounding way, or with a literary flourish, but mostly needed no presentation at all.
Anatole’s final example was a man named Franz Fleigler (or, alternatively spelled, Flagler), who was a seaman and a Wobbly and a great friend of Anatole’s father. From my seat in the audience, I was delighted to hear the name. I knew Franz Fleigler in his later years. I found him intimidating, not just at first. One day when I was barely out of school, I was invited to give a lecture to the old anarchists at the Workmen’s Circle meeting room on a theme of my choice, and I chose to speak about the novels of B. Traven, the author of The Death Ship and other books. It was going to be a talk on the literature of maritime labor. Paul Avrich, the historian, opened the meeting, and, just as I was about to begin, he whispered in my ear that Franz Fleigler and a couple of his Wobbly fellow workers were in the audience—people who seemed to me more like characters from The Death Ship than audience members for a literary lecture. The Wobblies were polite, though. No one lectured the lecturer.
Franz Fleigler did have his intellectual side. A decaying copy of the Freie Arbeiter Stimme sits in my bookshelves, and, in glancing at it just now, I notice that he was listed on the masthead as secretary of the publishing association. He must have been one of the people who approved or assented to my contributions. He spent his working years alternating between bouts at sea, and bouts in New York putting out one or another anarchist journal with his friends.
He was a founder of Why? magazine, he and Sam Dolgoff and a few other people. But he did not have the look of a man who founded magazines. He was about 5’2” and looked like a capstan. You could knot a cable around him and yank, and he would be immovable. Anatole told the audience, “He was like a steak—not the juicy part.” Every word out of his lips seemed to be a snarl, accompanied by an ambiguous smile that dared you to call him a wise guy. He must have been reliable, though. And he, too, did things, which was Anatole’s point.
On the auditorium stage, Anatole recalled—this was the closing note of YIVO’s anarchist conference—that Fleigler and a group of other seamen got hold of a ship in 1946 and put the ship to use in smuggling Jews from Europe into Palestine, past the British naval blockade. Sometimes the people in need of solidarity turn out to be Jews. Here were the anarchists in action. Anatole shrugged as he recounted the anecdote, as if apologizing for any upset he might be causing to anyone. How did the audience at YIVO respond to this story? In my case, it made me pensive.
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.