Kenyon Zimmer is an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington. He answered some questions about his book Immigrants against the State: Yiddish and Italian Anarchism in America.
Q: Is there a popular conceit that the immigrant anarchists you write about brought this political ideology with them to the United States?
Kenyon Zimmer: The mistaken view that American anarchism was a “foreign import” is almost as old as the anarchist movement itself, and has resurfaced in many different guises over the decades. When immigrant anarchists first garnered national attention in the 1880s, nativists claimed that their ideas were alien to the United States and were, as Theodore Roosevelt put it, not a product of “American conditions.” This thinking also guided the government’s response to anarchism following the assassination of President William McKinley, which was to legally ban anarchists from immigrating beginning in 1903. During the First Red Scare that followed World War I, newspapers, cartoonists, and federal authorizes again invoked the dangerous, unassimilable foreign anarchist as a national threat, and hundreds were deported between 1919 and 1921. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, social historians and New Left scholars more sympathetic to the anarchists recast them as radical immigrants resisting Americanization and exploitation—or, less charitably, as “primitive rebels”—but still assumed that anarchism was an Old World form of protest brought. Most recently, interest in transnational and global history has drawn scholars to examine anarchism as a transnational phenomenon linked to networks of migrant workers and activists. However, most of these studies take it as a given that these migrants began as anarchists in their countries of origin.
Yet the overwhelming weight of the evidence contradicts these assumptions. As Immigrants against the State shows, a majority of these foreign-born radicals only embraced anarchism after living in the United States for a number of years. This was true of almost all of the defendants in the Haymarket Trial of 1886-87, two of whom were actually American-born, as was McKinley’s assassin, anarchist Leon Czolgosz. The same goes for the most well-known Jewish and Italian anarchists, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, and most of their lesser-known comrades. Reading through the life histories of hundreds of such immigrant radicals makes it quite clear that it was, in fact, “American conditions” that made tens of thousands of ordinary European immigrants receptive to the handful of migrant and native-born propagators of anarchism in their midst.
Q: What was it about anarchism that appealed to these ethnic immigrant communities?
Zimmer: Eastern European Jews and Italians—the largest two groups of immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century—had many experiences in common after arriving in America. Migration upended traditional community structures of authority, and led to declining religious belief and practices in the bustling New World. Members of both groups entered the urban American workplace near the bottom rung, and faced prejudice and discrimination based on their ethnic, religious, and foreign backgrounds. Finally, a few radicals began to translate anarchist ideas and practices into the languages and cultural forms with which their fellow immigrants were familiar, finding thousands of recruits who had no interest in radicalism in the Old World. For those disillusioned with both their native countries and the American Dream, anarchism offered a third option: a tight-knight community of like-minded individuals struggling together in pursuit of a world in which capitalist exploitation, state persecution, and racial and national jealousies would be replaced with cooperation, autonomy, and cosmopolitanism.
Q: Was the embrace of anarchism more of a rejection or assertion of the cultures from which these immigrants originated?
Zimmer: Anarchists were rather unique amongst their fellow immigrants insofar as they rejected both tradition and Americanization. However, their radical conception of cosmopolitanism allowed for, and even celebrated, ethnic and cultural diversity. Most therefore saw no contradiction between their anarchist ideas and claiming Jewish or Italian nationality, but they defined such identities not as being tied to a particular nation-state, or even necessarily to a particular geographical territory, but rather to language and culture. Immigrants against the State therefore includes numerous examples of multilingual activists who were active multiple “ethnic” anarchist movements, in panethnic “Latin” groups that brought together speakers of Italian, Spanish, and French, or in multiethnic “international” groups that utilized English as their common lingua franca. So while these immigrants strongly resisted assimilation, they also radically transformed their own cultures and categories of belonging in the process.
Q: How did the New Deal programs of the 1930s affect American anarchism?
Zimmer: They certainly didn’t help the anarchist movement! The formation of the immensely popular and much-needed federal aid programs of the New Deal convinced many immigrant workers that government could be an ally and protector, rather than an enemy as the anarchists preached. In fact, everywhere one looked in the 30s state power and strong government were being offered up as solutions to the problems of workers and ethnic minorities: not just the American welfare state, but the growing Communist Party, Italian fascism, and the rising Zionist movement all competed for immigrants’ loyalties. Anarchists recognized that the New Deal was a desperate effort to revive the very capitalist system that they abhorred, but their diminished movement could offer little in the way of concrete alternatives. Many held their noses and took jobs in New Deal programs or voted for Roosevelt rather than face the even more unpleasant alternatives. The only bright spot for anarchism came from abroad, in the form of the brief-lived accomplishments of Spain’s anarchists in the midst of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. If anything, American anarchists spent more time and effort analyzing the Spanish situation, with some travelling to observe Spain’s anarchist-run collectives and more than a hundred journeying to take up arms against the forces of Francisco Franco. Franco’s victory and Roosevelt’s capture of immigrant working-class loyalties, however, merely accelerated the decline of America’s Yiddish and Italian anarchist movements, which had already suffered from government repression and, more importantly, stringent immigration restrictions of the 1920s that cut them off from potential new recruits and accelerated the process of Americanization. Mass migration made American anarchism, and in its absence the movement withered.