Anarchist Voices. An Oral History of Anarchism in America by Paul Avrich [Review]

This is a most welcome, unabridged, reprint of a volume first issued in 1995, issued as part of AK Press’s reprinting of the works of the well-known historian of anarchism, Paul Avrich who died in 2006. The book is based on the oral testimonies of participants in, or who had first hand knowledge of, the anarchist movements in north America during the period 1880 – 1970, the interviews being conducted during the period 1963 – 1991. It is arranged thematically covering, in turn, Pioneers, Emma Goldman, Sacco and Vanzetti, Schools and Colonies, Ethnic Anarchists, 1920s and after. Each selection is prefaced by an introduction in which the author summarises the salient background to the topic and illustrates the theme with some choice extracts from the interviews. Each of the 180 interviewees only appears in one of the sections, although it readily becomes apparent that many could be placed in several of them. Length of interview chosen for use varies from half a page to as many of 5 or 6, but simple maths shows an average of just under three pages each. The interviews are supplemented by copious notes which provide much valuable additional information on topics and personalities not otherwise covered, with some corrections of information provided in the interviews (something all oral historians have found – first hand testimony whilst valuable, most always be cross-checked for errors.)

The range of interviewees is very impressive, from those who are probably known to most contemporary anarchists such as Sam Dolgoff, Fred Woodworth, Fermin Rocker, Daniel Guerin, and Nellie Dick; those related to people many will have heard of, e.g. Alexandra Kropotkin, Laurence Labadie, John J. Most jnr, and Spencer Sacco; to a wide range of militants and activists known only to their own circles, such as the Russian Maximalist Clara Halpern, the Spanish CNT activist Federico Arcos, Chinese anarchist Dr. H.L. Wei, Polish jewish anarchist Branka Greenberg, Cuban anarchist and refugee from Castro’s regime, Gustavo Lopez and many others.

Although, for reviewing purposes, I read this straight through, I suspect it’s main use in future will be as a work of reference, giving important insights into how participants viewed those around them in the anarchist movement. It is quite revealing, for example, to see just how many viewed Emma Goldman as a dumpy sex-obsessed woman, devoted to “the cause”, said cause mainly being “Emma Goldman” - but equally she was also seen as a fine public speaker and one who could be relied on to help out those who needed help. Alexander Berkman also divided his contemporaries – some regarded him as an irresponsible terrorist, whilst others emphasised his positive personal qualities. Opinions too, are divided on Sacco and Vanzetti (two Italian anarchists almost certainly framed for murders they did not commit and subsequently judicially murdered) with most agreeing that they could not possibly have committed the acts they were accused of, but others hinting that maybe they weren’t so innocent after all.

What this volume emphasises is that, although many anarchists were immigrants and tended to organise amongst their own people, (hence the chapter on ethnic anarchists), one also gets the feeling that the movements were bound together in other ways. Whilst many anarchists co-operated on the main campaigns of the time (although both world wars produced significant splits) two other factors were important in the creation of a movement, those being the schools and colonies. These help bring people together on a daily basis and helped to educate the next generation of activists (or so it was hoped.) Whilst some of the colonists were what would today be described as “lifestylists” with vegetarianism and naturism much practiced, many of the colonists were also employed in the cities doing manual work where they’d be active in unions such as the ILGWU, whilst others were in the IWW.

The sense of an anarchist network may, however, also be a product of the methodology, as Paul Avrich followed up leads from people he had interviewed to those he may of heard off, but had no way of contacting. Equally though it can also show just how long-lasting the relationships were that were formed so many years earlier, the prime examples being the children who went to the free or modern schools and / or lived in the colonies, keeping in touch for 60 years or more.

Another aspect needs to mentioned, these are the survivors, the ones who stayed (or ended up in) North America, the ones who didn’t return to Russia or die in Spain, the ones who didn’t get drafted and died in the world wars, the ones who didn’t die in prison or through substance abuse. If you like they are the ones who managed to survive in the heartland of capitalism. And what many will find heartening is the fact that many people “kept the faith” even into their twilight years, whilst others regard anarchism as a youthful folly, at best a dream that never came true and others see it as a way of looking at the world, an orientation, which guided them through life without ever being realised. Most now see education as the way forward. (Although ironically, the children who were raised in the anarchist colonies or taught in the schools, often dropped the overt anarchism, but became rounded, intelligent and industrious people, often artistically talented or academically gifted. Of course one might see that as a vindication of the anarchist methodology, if not the politics.)

Inevitably given the number of participants and the fractious nature of anarchism, not to mention the inclusion of some who never were anarchist, there are still various grudges carried over, ill-feelings expressed, political differences as pronounced now as ever. What seems particularly alarming is the number of unreconstructed Stalinists interviewed. Also there’s an overwhelming sense of a movement that has passed into history, or at least one that had lost touch between the generations, a disconnect as much cultural as political.

Another important aspect of the book is that although it’s mainly about anarchism in north America, as many of the participants lived elsewhere for significant periods of their lives, one also gets a glimpse into anarchism in other countries as well. There’s considerable information buried in here on the movement in places such as Russia, Poland, Italy, Spain, France, Britain, China, and Germany, amongst others. Also there’s much information of interest bibliographically, with details of otherwise obscure publications, pseudonyms, printers and so forth. (The list of periodicals is very impressive.) The book is finished off with a list of further reading (sadly not updated) and a comprehensive index, which is particularly useful when following up all the (q.v.’s) in the text.

Overall, this is pretty much an essential purchase for anyone who is interested in the lives of the not-quite-so-famous anarchists, the ones who did most of the donkey-work, who arranged the meetings, who wrote the magazines, who taught in the schools or lived in the colonies, the union and anti-war activists and so forth. It prompts the question as who, if anyone, is out and about interviewing participants from the generation of the 1930 – 1960’s – many have already passed on, both in America and elsewhere.

Highly recommended


Richard Alexander

Avrich, Paul “Anarchist Voices. An Oral History of Anarchism in America”. 2005 (reprint of 1995 edition published by Princeton UP), AK Press, Oakland, CA and Edinburgh, Scotland. Pbk. xiii, 574pp, illus, notes, further reading, index. $28.00 (US) / £16.00 (UK) ISBN 1-904859-27-5