Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America Paul Avrich (AK Press, 2005) [Review]

Mourn not the dead

Mourn not the dead that in the cool earth lie -
Dust unto dust -
The calm sweet earth that mothers all who die
As all men must;

Mourn not your captive comrades who must dwell -
Too strong to strive -
Within each steel bound coffin of a cell,
Buried alive;

But rather mourn the apathetic throng -
The cowed and the meek -
Who see the world's great anguish and its wrong
And dare not speak!

Ralph Chaplin

This weighty book is very reminiscent of another book I much enjoyed called 'Solidarity Forever' from which the above verse was taken, and was an oral history of the Wobblies/ IWW, whereas this book is far larger, lacks the photographs, but takes in the far wider anarchist movement. Another minor difference is that some of those whose words grace the pages of this vast book were not/ are not anarchists themselves - just people who happened to have known or been related to them, and those accounts are still a valid and interesting read.

What did strike me, particularly in the beginning, was the amount of disillusionment expressed, although perhaps this should not surprise me as I'm not much of an optimist myself, but it did at times become more depressing than inspiring - not that the purpose of this book is to inspire - but to remember our history before it slips from reclamation all together.

Having said that, it is not all depressing, as the words of Alberico Pirani, spoken to a reporter at the 50th anniversary of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti attest:

    "I'm international," Pirani said. "I ain't got no country. When you mention country and religion, wash your mouth out. That's the way you kill millions of people, for God and country and flag. Look at America - seventy three Gods, two hundred twenty six religions."
    Made me chuckle when I read it anyway.

As an interesting slice of social history, and in keeping alive in memory an account of these people and events, the book is a thoroughly interesting read and well worth the time spent on it. However, if you are looking for a coherent expression of anarchist ideology you will not find it here - merely the reminiscences of some of those who dared to speak, and all the more worthwhile for that.

Now I'll have to go back and read 'Solidarity Forever' again. I'll end this review with the words of Hugo Rolland, and his definition of what being an anarchist meant to him:

  • To be a useful and responsible member of the society in which I was born.
  • To be honest and decent with all persons with whom I come into contact.
  • To help whoever was in need, the best I could.
  • To respect everyone's ideas and beliefs, provided it is on the basis of reciprocity.
  • To strive to correct and eliminate ills and social injustices.
  • To oppose and fight - with arms if need be - all attempts to suppress freedom.
  • To never hide the truth, never be hypocritical or resort to falsehood.
  • There are some of us who could learn a lot from the above - myself included.
MJR (September 2006)

[Note: this is not a light read, nor equally engrossing throughout, but essential groundwork for anyone looking at American, or even Italian or Russian anarchism (or the Anarchist Red Cross, or…). There are footnotes here which tell you more than some books (look at no. 495 on Louise Olivereau, anarchist and feminist poet for instance). It is a milestone which will inspire both anarchists and historians of the anarchist movement. Ed.]