Fighting the “monster of ignorance” [Book review]

Letterpress Revolution: The Politics of Anarchist Print Culture by Kathy E. Ferguson

Printers were crucial in the anarchist challenge to what Jay Fox called the “monster of ignorance” (p52) Their skills and perseverance would enable anarchist thought to enter the written world in the form of fliers, pamphlets and newspapers and offer some challenge to the economic and emotional brutalities of capitalism. This work by Kathy Ferguson offers us a path into both the lives of some of these printers – past and present – and a clear explanation of their skills. Through her we understand what just printing a text means as well as what that text is doing.

Ferguson is a Professor of Political Science at University of Hawaii at Manoa and is the author of Emma Goldman: Political Thinking in the Streets. (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011) as well as a host of articles exploring the relationship between anarchist history and political theory. As you might expect then, from this writer, Letterpress Revolution is meticulously researched drawing extensively on primary sources. The section on “Printers and Presses” is a tour de force as she introduces us to anarchists known and less known. We see how physically demanding printing was and we can only be impressed by the hard work of those around the newspaper Firebrand, for instance, who after a full day’s work at their full-time jobs would set the next edition of the paper. Hard work is reflected in the efforts of the eccentric but determined English anarchist Dan Chatterton using abandoned type to produce his broadsheets on tissue like paper that had a short life span, to say the least. Women printers are highlighted and given long overdue recognition as they developed their skills often facing arrant sexism within anarchist circles. Ferguson tells the story of Georgia Replogle co-printer and editor of the paper Egoism, who in 1891, addressed Benjamin Tucker’s charges that women printers were incompetent in her own paper using type she had set by her own hand!!! We also learn more information about people we thought we knew well. Who knew that Alexander Berkman could set type in four languages or that Sarah Elizabeth Holmes set type for Liberty and The Science of Society?

It isn’t always about the reliable and steady production of texts though. Yes, there are some beautiful creations from the typesetting of anarchists but there is a harsher reality that Ferguson doesn’t shy away from. In 1901 Free Society had its type and press destroyed by police after the assassination of McKinley. The London based paper Freedom was raided four times over the course of the First World War with essential type and machinery being taken by the authorities. We might add to this the astonishing efforts of anarchists to keep their presses alive in a time of deadly oppression. From 1928 onwards Severino di Giovanni was on the run from the Buenos Aires police. Over the three years until his arrest in 1931 he somehow managed to print material – including two volumes of Social Writings by Elisee Reclus (di Giovanni was planning 6!) We should also recognize the efforts to keep alive the Spanish anarchist paper Solidaridad Obrera under the most repressive of conditions. What editions they could print after the Francoist victory in 1939 were produced in clandestinity with death awaiting the printers if they were discovered. There are countless other examples that reflect the courage of printers and editors

There is a problematic aspect side of anarchist printing too which we shouldn’t shy away from. Put simply it could be argued that those who possessed a press and the skills to print were powerful figures within anarchism. They owned the means of production and this question of ownership could cause tension in anarchist ranks. The 1945 split in British anarchism was driven, at times, by whether a certain group or the movement owned the press. A similar situation in Argentina occurred during the nineteen twenties. The newspaper La Protesta had a printing press and this was an important source of tension, together with growing political differences, between that paper and another anarchist paper La Antorcha. Unfortunately for anarchism these are not isolated occurrences.

Ferguson’s work on analyzing the two American newspapers Firebrand, and Free Society as well as the London based Freedom is empathetic and shrewd. Letterpress Revolution has already shown her skill and sensitivity in reading correspondence between anarchists in the section Epistolarity and these skills are re-enforced as she analyses certain tendencies in the content of the papers relating to what they were trying to achieve. Her work reflects a close reading and gives us some cause for thought as she shows how these newspapers attempted to challenge the passive “We write you read” approach to the expression of anarchist ideas. Her explorations should also encourage us to consider how people became anarchists. What journeys did they take to reach that end? What role did the reading of newspapers and books have in that journey? We might also consider the role of the humble flier or leaflet in anarchist propaganda. Freedom before 1914 was adept at producing fliers to address a certain current event or topic – a miner’s strike, unemployment or elections for example. The list of books advertised in the papers are fascinating and often reflect the importance of related movements and ideas such as freethought for many anarchists of this period.

Letterpress Revolution ends with a final section on anarchist theory and how it can develop, seeing the adoption of intersectionality as an exciting and hopeful way forward. Many practices are essentially anarchist without anarchists necessarily being involved. There is hope and there is contemporary practice we can all take heart from. Such ideas are important as we consider how to defeat the sinewy power and cruelty of capitalism as did the printers and writers who appear in this volume and anarchists have always done.

The book also includes three valuable appendices the first being a thorough and wide-ranging list of anarchist printers that is unique and essential for any further study. Ferguson also offers detailed biographical files on some who appear in the text. Finally there are details of her interviews with current printers, bits of which appear throughout the book. There is an exhaustive bibliography which repays careful perusal.

Letterpress Revolution then is essential reading. It is a result of exhaustive and detailed research that clarifies instead of obscures. Ferguson’s work brings back into our history some anarchists who until now had disappeared as well as adding knowledge about those anarchists we thought we knew everything there was to know about. This work opens up many paths for militants, researchers and writers to follow in trying understand anarchism and anarchists and their relation to anarchy. It enriches anarchist history allowing us to appreciate the nuances and bravery of people as well as their complexities.

Barry Pateman

Letterpress Revolution: The Politics of Anarchist Print Culture by Kathy E. Ferguson. Duke University Press, 2023