Abe Bluestein: an anarchist life - Rebecca Dewitt

An obituary of Abe Bluestein, a Russian-American anarchist who was involved in a number of radical publications and groups in New York City during the 20th Century.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on May 3, 2015

Abe Bluestein, a lifelong anarchist, passed away on December 3, 1997, at the age of 88. We should remember him as someone who fought to embody anarchist principles all his life, and celebrate the inspired example he offers to the present generation.

Like many anarchists born in the early 20th century, Abe came from a radical, immigrant family. His Russian parents, Mendel and Esther Bluestein, were active in the anarchist group in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and also became part of the Modern School of Stelton, NJ, which Abe attended until junior high. Abe was strongly influenced by his family life:

"I was brought up in an anarchist milieu, and was an anarchist already as a child. I had many lengthy discussions with my father - even before I was in my teens - over whether society could exist without government or laws…Our house was filled with anarchist literature, and Kropotkin’s works - especially the Conquest of Bread, Mutual Aid, and Appeal to the Young - made the strongest impressions on me...my father, the Modern School, and Kropotkin’s writings - combined to shape my anarchist upbringing."

When Abe left Stelton for public school he became valedictorian of his junior high class like so many Stelton students before him. His family then left for New York City, eventually moving into the Amalgamated co-ops (a housing development) in the Bronx. After graduating from City College, Abe encountered the Libertarian Center and participated in the Vanguard Group, a prominent anarchist group during the thirties. Within this forum Abe began to grow into his own as an anarchist and test the political currents.

As a young, questioning anarchist, he confronted the established beliefs of the older generation. He described himself as having "the arrogance of youth and …criticized the more utopian aspects of anarchism and of libertarian education." Yet, Abe was responding to the need for anarchism to be critical of the present and not just rely on the past. However, Abe did not give up anarchism, but immersed himself in the movement and its controversies.

Abe was an editor of the anarchist magazines Vanguard and Challenger, and recalled how the anarchists "conducted forums, lectures and made soapbox speeches on street corners, getting into fights with the Communists all the time, protected by the Wobblies with iron pipes wrapped with handkerchiefs." However, the highlight of Abe’s anarchist activities was the Spanish Civil War, as it was for many anarchists who yearned to practice anarchist principles.

In May, 1937, Abe and his life-long partner Selma Cohen, a fine-artist and radical herself, traveled to Spain and took part in the revolution. He conducted radio broadcasts and sent out weekly bulletins to U.S. and British publications and, informally, worked as an information officer for the CNT. A year later they returned to America and Abe translated Augustin Souchy’s With the Peasants of Aragon (a book on the peasant collectives in Aragon, Spain), among many other works.

Abe found himself caught in the dilemma that tore apart the anarchist movement: WWII. He was a pacifist and could not bring himself to support the war. The standoff between the pacifists and those who supported WWII in order to fight fascism caused many groups, including Abe’s, to fall apart. The controversy led to massive inactivity among the anarchists, and Abe became less and less involved.

During the post-WWII political era, Abe worked as a reporter for the Jewish Daily Forward and the American Labor Union. In the 70’s, Abe helped edit News from Libertarian Spain and worked with the Libertarian Book Club. At this time, Abe mostly made his living in the social services and, for a while, managed the United Housing Foundation, an organization that included the Amalgamated co-ops where he had lived as a teenager.

Though he became less active as he grew older, his constant passion for the spirit and ideals of anarchism stayed with him throughout his life, and he sought to instill them wherever he could. Abe, when interviewed in 1972, said: "the answer lies primarily in education – ‘freedom through education’, as Elizabeth Ferm (one of the founders of the Stelton School) put it. All my life I have put my faith in trade unions, cooperatives, and education as constructive channels. Is this inconsistent with anarchism?"

Note: Abe Bluestein’s comments are taken from Paul Avrich’s Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America (Princeton, 1995)

Originally appeared in Perspectives On Anarchist Theory (Vol. 2 - No. 1, Spring 1998)