An interview with longtime anarchists Esther and Sam Dolgoff on the anarchist movement in the United States from the 1920s to the 1970s, published in the Spring 1975 edition of the journal Black Rose.
"To me, anarchism is a process," explains Sam Dolgoff. "There is no pure anarchism – there is only the application of anarchist principles to the realities of social living." With their 'credo' thus established, Sam and Esther Dolgoff go on in this interview to describe the American anarchist tradition of earlier in the century, and their experiences in that movement.
There is generally very little known and even less that is understood about this period of anarchist history. It is a history which has been highly distorted. The official re-scripting of anarchist events, for obvious political reasons, has been universal, almost a matter of course. This has been as consistently and thoroughly accomplished by the state 'communist' press as it has by the capitalist press. The Spanish revolution of 1936 is only the best-known instance of the historical mugging anarchism has characteristically received.
From about the 1880's to the 1920's there existed a North American anarchist movement that represented a significant social force. This period of anarchist activity in the United States is quite well-documented, as is the post-script event of that movement, the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Then, around the 1920's, it disappeared and we enter something of a Dark Ages for libertarian politics, with centralization and a presumed efficiency the obliterating trend. Corporate capitalism and state capitalism swept everything else out of the way. From this period of the early 1920's until the middle of the 1960's and the emergence of the new left, there is practically no mention of anarchism as a force in American society.
Even the best histories available, those that try to be honest, usually end about 1920. The classic analysis given for the decline of anarchism then is the old-age theory. This explanation assumes that anarchism is basically an anachronism today, an idea rooted in the past whose time has come to die. The tendency is to pay homage to anarchism in a sentimental way, suggesting that it was a nice idea in a simpler past, but woefully inadequate to the 'realities' of today's complex world.
As a result, nearly every history of American anarchism ends about 1920 with an artificially and comfortably (for historians) containerized movement, relegated to the proverbial dustbins.
This "anarchism is dead" theory, of course, eliminated the need to explain the abrupt decline of the earlier movement in any specific terms, and also precluded questions of continuity. There have been no attempts to trace the threads through to the present.
In this interview, Esther and Sam Dolgoff talk about the decline of the old movement and some of the activities that were carried on during the low ebb that followed. Their descriptions of the waning of traditional anarchism during the 20's and 30's offer real explanations for these events in terms of the specific nature of that movement and historical forces affecting it, and raise questions about ideological continuity and the relationship of that earlier anarchism to the anarchism of today. The parallels are often striking, though the times have certainly changed, and the two movements are separated not only by a gulf of time but also by the enormous social and material changes which have glutted those intervening years. And though there is much that is valuable in the experiences of that earlier movement, and there is much to learn from the past in general, we do not, of course, recommend emulating the past, nor are we interested in enshrining an anarchist "heritage" or creating individual heroes. Instead, the past must be de-mystified and understood, for the creative syntheses necessary for the future will require a serious analysis and thorough understanding of the developments of the past.
The Dolgoff's, both in their seventies, now live in New York City. Esther lectures occasionally and Sam, a house-painter by trade, is also the author of numerous pamphlets, labor articles, and two books – The Anarchist Collectives and Bakunin on Anarchy. This interview is from a series of oral-history interviews compiled by some members of the Black Rose magazine collective. The series covers various aspects of North American anarchism (such as the Italian movement, the Jewish movement, the decline of the 20's, etc.). For more information, contact the Black Rose Oral-History Project, P.O. Box 463, Cambridge, Mass. 02139.
Doug: We're going to talk about North American anarchism during the last fifty years or so, from the 1920's on up to the present. How did you two become involved in anarchism?
Sam: Well, I started out as a young Yipsle. You know, a Young People's Socialist League; they were social-democrats. And then, about the time of the Russian revolution, Morris Hillquit, the socialist running for office, he came out for better milk, babies, etc. – very reformist program, and so forth – and so we had a real knock-down, drag-out fight in there. I said that the social democrats were too reformistic, they were a movement without a soul, that they were trying to imitate the democrats and republicans, and I had a lot of disputes with them. you know. So they told me. "You don't belong here, you belong with the anarchists." And I said, "That's very interesting. Have you got their address?" So I went down and I got acquainted with a group, used to be called the "Road to Freedom." The editor was a fellow named Hippolyte Havel, and another friend of Emma Goldman's named Walter Starrett Van Valkenburgh. He had a wood leg – lost it in a railroad accident in Schenectedy. Well anyhow, when I got among the anarchists, they said, "You're not a good anarchist, you're really a Wobbly!" So I says, "What's their address?" Then I went down there and got acquainted with the Wobblies. And ever since then we've been arguing the point of who’s an anarchist and who isn't. And that’s fifty years ago or more! And we still haven't come to a conclusion on it.
Doug: Fortunately, there is no one to sit and pass judgment on these questions. How did you get involved with the anarchist movement, Esther?
Esther: Well, my father's nephew who was five years younger than himself because in the old country, you know. they had large families…
Doug: What country was this?
Esther: Russia-Poland; and the oldest daughter would be carrying at the same time that her mother was, because they married young and had large families. Anyway, my father’s nephew was an anarchist and he was in that movement where the students went to the people to teach them how to read.
Doug: The Narodniki?
Sam: No, the Narodnaya Volya (Will of the People), a later group.
Esther: And even before he came to America, my mother would tell me how he didn't care about himself, how she would get a hold of him and make him mend his clothes, and feed him up because he looked like he forgot to eat. And he and his wife staged a strike, and his wife became very ill, she caught the flu, and he was arrested and was going to be sent to Siberia. And during all this trouble his wife died of the flu, and according to Jewish law they have to bury the body before sundown, but his mother-in-law at a time like that was arranging to get him out to London through the sort of underground railroad that they had then. The people threw stones into the house she hadn't buried the body of her daughter.
Doug: So you had sort of a radical family history…
Esther: Yes, these were some of the sources.
Doug: Were you both around N.Y. City for most of your lives?
Sam: Well, I met Esther in the 30's during a speaking tour in Cleveland, and had become an anarchist in the 20’s, maybe ten years before.
But I want address myself to another question first – about being anarchist. To shed a little light on the situation in the movement. Anarchism is a big umbrella, and under that umbrella are many different anarchists. And the people around that group, called the Road to Freedom group, which I was connected with, was what we would call a corned-beef hash – an amalgam, you know. All sorts of people. And there were as many brands of anarchism as there were people there.
Doug: Were they all able to work together?
Sam: Well, that was the trouble with them. A great many of them did not believe in organization. Or didn’t believe in the class struggle. Or didn’t believe in immediate demands, like shorter hours. Or they didn’t believe that anarchism could be a movement of the people, but only a movement of the elite, and they complemented themselves that they were among the elite who were able to understand what was going on. No rational approach to the problem social. They were worse than utopians (and I don’t consider utopians so bad, by the way). But their anarchism began with their belly-button and ended with it. The sacred ego, and so forth. In other words, the most unsocial type of individualism, a type of bohemianism.
And, naturally, among themselves, it was all right. But for us young fellows, it was no good. They wouldn’t even tolerate a committee of relations between two groups. And they went in for the most esoteric cults, which they identified with anarchism, such as vegetarianism, nudism, etc. There were some semi-religious ones too: Rosicrucians, Tolstoyans, colonists who were going to set an example for the world, and so forth. Well, I was never happy with that, but I had no other answer, since I didn’t know anything about it. And I became very curious. I read Kropotkin, and I taught myself how to read a number of languages, so I could read the literature, the anarchist classics. And when I read the anarchist classics, and the history of the revolutionary movement, and all these things, I could no longer live with them. They were too much of a disparity. I was an anarcho-communist, you know, and an anarcho-syndicalist; that I knew. But not a Stirnerite, and what have you. And I got to the point where anarchism didn’t mean anything to me unless it had a hyphen. So that we should know where we stand and where we don’t stand. Now this was not an automatic process. I was very unclear, and I met a man by the name of Gregory Petrovich Maximoff, out in Chicago. You heard of him?
Sam: And I started to talk with him, and I start to give him the regulation anarchist blah, you know, and he looked at me and he says, "Boy, your education is sadly neglected." And he says, "You know, do you realize that you don't know what you're talking about? What you're telling me has absolutely nothing to do with anarchism, or the anarchist movement as a living force. And I see that you have been (and he used the equivalent of the word "brainwashed") by those numb-skulls out there in New York.”
Doug: That's an attitude that a lot of people in the Midwest share about New Yorkers!
Sam: Oh yes. And Maximoff gave me holy hell, and he took me under his wing. And with my reading and a lot of discussion, he helped me to clarify my ideas.
Doug: Was this in the twenties?
Sam: Sure, '23-'24, a long time ago. And, not that I agreed with everything he told me, by any means, but I got what I call a correct orientation. And, with me you have to specify what kind of anarchist.
Doug: I think that the significant tradition historically – both intellectually and in terms of social movements – is that of anarcho-communism, or libertarian socialism.
Sam: My anarchism is an organizational anarchism, part that of Proudhon, part of Kropotkin, of Bakunin, of Anselmo Lorenzo. To me, anarchism is a movement of the people, not only a standard of personal conduct. I am interested in anarchism as a social movement. It's not for me a religious faith or the equivalent thereof. Therefore, you have to consider me a sectarian, if you want to. I am an anarcho-communist, an anarcho-syndicalist, and an anarcho-individualist-pluralist! Because all of these things go into my social anarchism. I'm not a strict anarcho-communist, or a strict syndicalist; I'm a social anarchist who appreciates the importance of the individual in a social context.
I am in agreement with Kropotkin and Bakunin and the rest of them – I consider anarchism to be the truest expression of socialism. I don't even like the term anarchism. I'm a heretic in that respect. If I had my way, I would call myself a "free socialist."
And one more thing. The word anarchism is of comparatively recent origin. The earlier anarchists did not call themselves anarchists.
Doug: It's probably the establishment of authoritarian parties and state-capitalist governments which label themselves as "socialist" that has brought about the use of distinguishing terms.
Sam: I consider that anarchism is the equivalent of free socialism. There can be no anarchism without socialism. I'm not an individualist in the sense of Stirner.
Doug: There’s also been some confusion introduced by these “laissez faire” capitalists who have called themselves anarchists. "Anarchism" has come to have almost as many connotations as socialism.
Sam: This is precisely why I'm of the opinion that an organization of individuals should have a set of fundamental principles which clearly says what they are about. Another thing, I don't believe in this idea that all the anarchists can work together. They can work together for certain specific things where their interests are in common – maybe a protest against oppression, or jail, to raise money, or in a protest movement, something like that – but as a working relationship, no. If people who do not agree with each other on fundamentals try to work together, they split up anyhow. And they confuse themselves, and what's worse any people who might be interested. So it is best for each one to do their own thing, as they say now, and to get together when they have something in common. I believe in autonomy, diversity, and people getting together when they want to get together.
Esther: I want to say something about the individualist anarchists. We have to put ourselves back in time to understand them, when people lived under extremely repressive societies. For instance, Stirner was a kind of reaffirmation of the ego of the person which the repressive society was trying to smother. And you could see where this kind of emphasis on the individual would come from.
Doug: A sort of reclaiming of part of your own soul, you mean?
Esther: Yes. We can't look back from our position today and glibly judge societies. We have to place ourselves as much as we can in that condition. And that explains why certain things arise.
Sam: I want to clarify yet another point. I know you’re not asking me, but I want to you my slant on what I consider to be anarchism. I'm an anarchist who is willing to settle for something less than the millennium. Which will never come.
Doug: People have to eat today.
Sam: I wrote an article a long time ago, and I'm going to read to you that which I want to tell you, which I expressed in a better way here:
"There is no pure anarchism. There is only the application of anarchist principles to the realities of social living. The aim of anarchism is to stimulate forces that propel society in a libertarian direction. And it is only from this standpoint that the relevance of anarchism to modern society can be properly assessed."
To me, anarchism is a process.
Doug: What I would like to do now is talk some about the concrete forms that process has taken in this country. You know, what organizational ways, what types of educational and cultural programs, what sorts of labor activities, etc.
Sam: Well, from the organizational point of view, once I got myself straightened out about what I considered to be my credo (social anarchism), it led me and others in two directions. First of all, it led to ideologically distinguishing ourselves from tendencies in anarchism which ran counter to our concepts.
Doug: How did you do that?
Sam: Simply by forming a group of our own. And ourselves an anarchist-communist group. And putting out a paper, a journal called the Vanguard, which was one of the best papers of the 30's and latter part of the 20's.
Doug: How long did that paper come out?
Sam: About 8 years or so. It can be found in the Greenwood Reprints. But before that we were active in other things. We had a group called Friends of Freedom, and so forth, but all went along that line. First, we constituted ourselves as an anarchist-communist group. Secondly, there was no antagonism with us between anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-communism, which are two facets of the same concept. And we put out a propaganda paper. And we joined the IWW, since it was, as far as we were concerned, the most likely to be receptive to our ideas, and was closer, not identical, but closer to what we considered a labor movement should be. And wherever we worked, at the point of production where we were, we endeavored to advance our ideas. Not merely by preaching, but by acting.
Doug: What kind of work were you doing then?
Sam: I've been a house painter all my life. That's one thing. Then we had street meetings. We organized a federation.
Doug: A federation in N.Y. City?
Sam: In the United States.
Doug: What was it called?
Sam: The Anarchist-Communist Federation. In the early thirties.
Doug: How many people were involved?
Sam: Well, not very many. It sounded big, but it didn’t amount to too much. We had a chain of groups and individuals.
Doug: Was Emma Goldman involved in that?
Sam: She used to correspond with us all the time. About Emma I'll talk some more some other time. And then we engaged the other groups in debate. We used to argue with the Trotskyites and with the Communists and with the socialists. We used to debate them, accuse them of being impractical, that they weren't socialists at all. And so, we educated a lot of people. From us came a whole generation of rebels.
Doug: Were people like Chomsky and Bookchin around N.Y.C. then? Were they part of that new generation of rebels?
Sam: They did not come out of that tradition, no. Bookchin came from more or less the Communist camp. He from the dissident Communist camp, and evolved toward our ideas. I never was in that camp.
So, that was pretty much how we operated.
Doug: You had small groups throughout the thirties, then?
Sam: We had small groups then, right.
Esther: For instance, in Cleveland where I come from, everyone was all excited about the Communists and the Russian revolution. And they were reading all the Russian literature, and so forth. That's when I met Sam, you know. And we tried to put out anarchist and libertarian literature for them to read, but all the talk during that period was about Centralization, how "efficient" centralization was. Centralization and Efficiency were their big words. The government was the Alpha and Omega to them, and that's where I differed from my Communist friends in Cleveland. But we put out a mimeographed sheet, and also tried to get the student groups to read other literature.
Sam: I was on a speaking tour for the anarchists and the Wobblies then, and in those days nobody paid expenses. I was on a box-car tour! And I came to Cleveland and debated a Communist about Russia.
Esther: "Is Russia Going Toward Communism?" was the topic of the debate.
Sam: The issue is this, see. During the Thirties when the New Deal developed and all these things – we were against those. We took a position that they were going to statify society. And we wouldn't jump on the bandwagon – the AFL, CIO, New Deal, etc. And our paper always had a big column "On the Class War Front," where we analyzed the labor situation.
Doug: Were the anarchists very active in the union organizing?
Sam: When you come down to it, we had a lot of disputes with other anarchists about labor organizing. Quite a few anarchists became euphoric with the New Deal. And, their anarchism was never very well grounded, you see, and that comes from being so god-damned self-centered, you know. And instead of interpreting events from the anarchist point of view, they were actually helping the state to grow. It was a sad situation.
What we did was to take part and be active in mass meetings. We tried to offer practical alternatives.
Doug: Such as?
Sam: Well, take for example a strike situation. We were against the union bureaucracy settling the strike, or being the ones to call them. And we were continually with the rank-and-file wildcatters, or the equivalent there-of, and against the bureaucracy.
Esther: Not all anarchists were, though.
Sam: No, our group. I'm not talking about the others. And we did a lot of things like that. We organized what they called an unemployed union. During the relief days during the thirties, they’d come and dispossess somebody and move them downstairs. We'd come and move them back in again.
Doug: Flying squads?
Sam: Yeah. If somebody would be getting the run-around for relief money, we would storm the office. We'd raise so much hell, that they'd do anything to get rid of us.
Esther: We formed unemployed counseling groups, too, to help people deal with the authorities.
Sam: We picketed places where people worked, demanding shorter hours, and we told them to quit at 2:00 in the afternoon so there would be more work for those who were unemployed. And we did these kind of things. And whenever we saw a grass-roots movement along those lines, we helped. In other words, dissident groups and people who were lonely, that is, couldn't get help from anybody, they'd come to us, and we'd help them. We'd help them to picket. we would run off their leaflets, etc.
Esther: If some fellow couldn't get his wages in a restaurant, he'd tell us about it and we would go and picket the place and see that he got his due.
Sam: We would do all these things. see. and the people who came didn't have to be anarchists, you know. Whenever other people were trying to do these things, we would he there to help them.
Esther: We had a strike against the employment
Sam:Yeah, they used to charge people money to get a job! So we went out there and picketed it and told people not to patronize it, and we publicized what was going on. Sometimes it didn't do much good, but the point is that we were always there; we were an identifiable current among the people. We were not an elite up there in the sky.
Doug: Do you think that that identity all through the last 40 years has in some ways helped carry over anarchism from the times when it was a powerful social force (earlier in the century) to the present day?
Sam: Well, unfortunately, you see, there is a dark side to all this. Unfortunately, our groups were about as welcome in the anarchist ranks as a toothache.
Doug: Did your group work with the Freie Arbeiter Stimme people?
Sam: To a certain extent we did, but then we had a big fight with them.
Doug: Your group did – the Vanguard group.
Esther: We were the youth group then. You know how they look upon the youth.
Sam: Most of the anarchists in the country were of that gaseous type, you know. Indeterminate, unclear, etc. And they comprised most of the movement. We were only a very small group.
Doug: Was your group mostly Russian immigrants?
Sam: No, we had all kinds of people.
Doug: Were you born in Russia, too, Sam?
Sam: Yeah, but I didn't know Russian. I came as a very small boy. I don’t remember it.
Doug: Were the ethnic groups in N.Y.C. pretty divided among themselves, through the 30's and 40's?
Sam: Well, yes and no. Here in N.Y. and other places, we had what they called a "Centro Libertario." We hired a big hall and the Italians, the Spaniards, and the English-speaking, and Portuguese, etc., we all got together and hired this hall and kept it going by having socials and contributions. They ran a lunch bar there, they had wine…
Doug: Were there classes going on there too?
Esther: The Wobblies had a school here, you know. They had a school in N.Y.C. and also in the Midwest, in Duluth, Minn.
Sam: Yeah, all the various groups were doing all sorts of things there. And the Jews had another hall… Only certain groups got the one central hall, others kept their own hall. But there'd always he an exchange. Wandering in and about, all interpenetrating. The Jews had a hall on Second Avenue, called the Jewish-anarchist Cultural Center.
Doug: Has all that died out now?
Sam: There is practically no more.
Doug: What years were these things going on, Sam?
Sam: In the thirties. My period was the middle twenties and the thirties.
Doug: That was a period when the anarchist movement declined significantly, and the Communist movement grew. Why do you think that was?
Sam: The Communist movement grew by leaps and bounds.
Sam: Well, it was the aura of the Russian revolution, for one thing.
Esther: They had money, too.
Sam: They had good organizations, too. I have to come back to this whole swing toward centralization and statism that was taking place then. See, we had really an uphill fight. And we were also pretty disjointed; there was really no organic connection, as far as a common program of action was concerned. And the language groups, well, you know the language groups died out. The immigration was stopped. And they were very sectarian.
Doug: The language groups were sectarian, you mean?
Sam: They didn't think so, but they were.
Doug: Was there much actual antagonism between them?
Sam: Some of the Italian groups were carrying on real feuds, between a Tresca group and this group and that group.
Doug: Feuds with other ethnic anarchist groups, or among themselves?
Sam: No, among themselves, with other Italians. The Italian group represented a brand of anarchism of the kind I talked about earlier, you know, very moralistic, didn't believe in organization, didn't believe in a chairman at meetings, etc. But, when it came to acting, they had a mysterious unanimity.
Doug: Yeah, they were pretty well coordinated when it came to acting.
Sam: Well, I'm convinced that a lot of them never got over their provincial Catholicism. Their vehemence was something else. They were good people, though. And the Spaniards. We had two kinds of Spanish groups. The Spanish group who lived in North America and tried to do something here, besides talking Spanish. And the Spanish group who still lived in Spain, even though they were physically here.
Doug: How did all these ethnic groups relate to the English-speaking groups?
Sam: Well. I'll tell you what it was. Strange as it may seem, we had a lot of solidarity from these groups. For all their differences, there was one thing the ethnic groups wanted – they loved to see an English-speaking anarchist group. They would help anybody who would start an English-speaking group, no matter what their differences. And there is no native anarchist movement in this country. In all the years that I've been around, there was never a native, real American anarchist movement. There would be a few people who would start an English-speaking group. And they would be helped the foreign-language groups.
Esther: What I wanted to say, going back a little bit, to the growth of the Communist movement. You found such a strange thing happening, because there used to be, in the American psyche or idea, an emphasis on individualism. But during the twenties and thirties you found that a change was taking place and the emphasis was not on the individual anymore. There was a party-line or a corporate policy that had to be followed. They made the individual feel "What do you know?" There is an elite to tell you what to do, you'd better get in line and march.
Sam: See, we were really swimming against the current. The current was running so strong for the "bogus socialists" as I call them, and they had money and people – the intellectuals, etc. They didn't come to us, they went to them. It's only lately that we've had a little bit of a renaissance.
Doug: Why do you think that has happened?
Sam: Well... first of all it was the Communists getting together with the Nazis. And with the unfoldment of the bankruptcy of the Russian revolution, the aura was gone. It took years for it to percolate.
Esther: The weight of bureaucracy began to tell everywhere.
Sam: The evils became so manifest that there developed a reassessment of the socialist movement. And in reaction to the bogus socialism, our ideas became current. The events made people receptive. Whereas the intellectuals had gone to the Communists before, they come to us now.
Doug:It appears that it has simply taken 40 or 50 years for the influence of the Russian revolution to wear off, and for the mistakes of that experience to become clear to people.
Sam: That's right. A sort of generation gap. It took world wars, the rise of fascism, the betrayal of the Spanish revolution, the crushing of the Hungarian revolution, you see, all of these things were percolating. And it took all this to make people see that the totalitarian solution was no solution to the social problem. It took two generations before they got over it, they are still not over it.
Esther: The Age of Belief, in the party, in the state, in the leader… people don't recognize it with the facts right in front of their noses.
Sam:People finally came to the conclusion that the authoritarian Communist parties and those ideas were bankrupt, with Stalin and everything else, and they start to look for new ways. Disappointment came and a reassessment took place. This is what made people receptive to other ideas, and an interest in anarchism has flared up. And it will continue to grow if we are in a position to offer viable alternatives to the problems social. In other words, we have got to make anarchism relevant to modern society, complex society.
Doug: Murray Bookchin has made some attempts in that direction, talking about decentralized technologies. etc.
Sam: I have a bone to pick with him too, although he's a very good friend of mine. I am not an abundantist. Their foundation is an assumed unlimited progress and plenty for the whole world. And my point is, if the realization of the socialist ideal is dependent on affluence and abundance, then we are finish¬ed. No such thing is gonna take place within the foreseeable future. And therefore, the realization of socialism, or anarchism, which to me are synonymous, will not depend on that factor. It will depend on human factors. Therefore there is no such thing as post-scarcity anarchism. There might be a scarcity of brains; there might be a scarcity of mutual aid. If we can't learn to live together in a condition of scarcity, we're sunk. And basically, that whole idea of post-scarcity and abundance is an authoritarian Marxist idea. That the economic situation is bound to do this, that, and the other thing.
Doug: Well, ‘progress’ is certainly not inevitable.
Sam: That's right, progress is not inevitable. Inevitability is tied to fatalism, and fatalism is fatal to anarchism.
Doug: Did the Spanish revolution do much to rejuvenate North American anarchism?
Sam: During the revolution itself, sure. We started lots of things. But the Communists, they were in the forefront. They had money, newspapers, everything. And they tried to monopolize the whole question of Spain. We could not match their resources. We couldn't compete with them in the thirties. In order to counteract their propaganda and tell people about the revolution, we organized a United Libertarian Organization. All the libertarians of every persuasion, that were interested, joined in one organization, to raise money for Spain; and we put out a paper, The Spanish Revolution. And we collected money and sent it there, and we put out propaganda, a lot of propaganda.
Esther: And some people went to the front.
Doug: Did the anarchists who went to Spain from here fight in the International Brigades?
Sam: Well, the Spanish anarchists from here who went there, they didn't go in any brigade. They just went to Barcelona and that was it. Some of the anarchists in the Wobblies, they were in the Lincoln Brigade or the Debs Brigade. The Communists killed them.
Doug: That treachery in Spain is pretty well documented now. Were there any similar problems with the CPUSA and American anarchists? What was that relationship? Did they ever attempt to interfere much with your activities?
Sam: Oh yeah. They'd raid meetings, try to break up meetings. Not debate, physical interference. We used to fight with them. We used to take a lead pipe wrapped in a Daily Worker, and konk 'em.
Esther: We had to. They'd break up the meetings.
Sam: Yeah, we had pitched battles. We exposed them for what they were. Tell him about the "North American Committee."
Esther: Oh yes, we lived in Stelton, N.J., at that time. My oldest son went to the Ferrer School there. So everything centered around the school there. And when Sam came there to speak, the parents complained to us that the youth were going over to the Communists. So we decided to put out a paper, called Looking Forward, in which all of the anarchist youth wrote. Some wrote the poems, others wrote about the school, and of course the question of Spain came up. since this was during the Spanish revolution. And the Communists then were saying how they were the revolution itself, how the money was collected for an ambulance and it saved the life of one of the Communist fellows that went over to fight in Spain, and all kinds of the regular propaganda stuff. And then they had the North American Committee. That was supposed to be the Communist committee to collect funds, and they collected money for Spain like they did for the Sacco-Vanzetti case. They collected a lot of money, and then there was a big scandal when they were supposed to report on how much money was collected, and how much was used in the U.S. and how much went to the cause for which it was collected. Well it so happened that with both the fascists and the North American Committee, most of it remained in the U.S. and very little of it got over to Spain.
Doug: The fascists were collecting money in the U.S. for Spain at that time too?
Esther: Yes, there were all kinds of organizations collecting money for Spain. And, about the North American Committee,you can verify this, the reports were listed in the New York Times. Look it up. And so we publicized this. They had been lording over us so. And then, also, we got young people back – Wobblies and anarchists who had fought on the front and came back and told how the Communists were maneuvering even with the drinking water! And with the arms. And all the tricks that were played. The whole secret police apparatus from the Stalinist purges that were going on in Russia at that time was carried over into Spain.
Doug: What about relations between the anarchists and the Trotskyists?
Sam: Mortal enemies.
Doug: The anarchists and the Trotskyists have sometimes found themselves fighting together, as in Spain for in¬stance…
Sam: Oh, you mean the POUM?
Doug: Yeah. Did that affect their relations in this country?
Esther: Well, not really, because the POUM was not a real Trotskyist group, but rather a dissident group that the C.P. had branded as Trotskyist. And they went along with the C.N.T. because the C.N.T. sort of gave them protection.
Sam:Yeah, they wouldn't have lasted ten minutes without the C.N.T. The people who started the POUM were two anarchists. Andres Nin and Joaquin Maurin. They were both members of the C.N.T. and then both fell victim to the euphoria of the Russian revolution. Nin and Maurin went to Moscow to represent the C.N.T. and ended up becoming Communists. But they couldn't get along with the regulation Communists, so they formed a splinter group, and that was the POUM. And after a certain point, the anarchists and the POUM worked together,but by no means as much as most people think. There were some very deep-seated disagreements.
Here, take a look at this. This is a picture of me with the Free Society Group in Chicago in 1925. (Photo including Rudolf and Millie Rocker, Maximoff, and Sam Dolgoff, all grinning shyly.)
Esther: We had an open forum here for many, many years.
Sam: Yeah, we ran a school, had forums.
Doug: Tell me more about the school. Where was that?
Sam: In New York.
Esther: It was like a free school. We gave courses in public speaking, in journalism. We had several professionals who would volunteer their time.
Doug: What about the Ferrer School?
Sam: That was in Stelton, N.J., near New Brunswick. I consider that to be one of the most over-rated things going; they got myths like barnacles on them.
Doug: Your son went there, right?
Sam: Yeah, but what of it? I'll tell you; between me, you, and the lamp-post, it ain't worth two whoops in hell. It was a miserable flop. They produced nothing, except cabbages which they grew once in a while.
Esther: Well, you're being a little too extreme.
Sam: I know, I know, I'm given to a bit of hyperbole now and then.
Doug: How long did the school go on?
Sam: Oh man, that went on from about the 20's and I think it expired shortly after World War II.
Esther: You see, we came near the tail end of it. It was in decline then. We went through a bad experience with it.
Doug: What was the attitude of anarchists toward WWII?
Sam: Well, we had a big dispute. There were anarchists who said, "We're against the war, and that's the end of it. We don't give a damn, it is an imperialist war." There were others, like Maximoff, Rocker and the rest, who were adamantly against WWI and went to jail about it, but who felt that in WWII we should defeat the Nazis. And I was one of them. And if this be treason, all right, and all that. In fact, my biggest fear was that they'd make peace with the Nazis and they would get together, you know.
But we took the position that we're not going to have any wage freeze during the war, and that there shouldn't be any profits made out of the war, and that all the rich should go to war too.
Esther: We fought fascism wherever it was, and that included the United States, too.
Doug: What forms did fighting fascism take?
Esther: Well, we had strikes if we had to, it didn't matter if the war was going on.
Sam: We didn't stop the class struggle and the struggle against the state on account of the war; that was our position. We carried on our propaganda, we didn't fly no flag, we didn't adjourn the class struggle. We remained militant, but we also wanted to get rid of Hitler.
About 90% of the anarchists were in favor of the war, with a lot of reservations, and in varying degrees. At this time there was not much abrogation of civil liberties, but in WWI it was unbearable.
Doug: Was anti-semitism ever a factor within the anarchist movement?
Sam: No, never.
Esther: In Europe there was some, but not here.
Doug: What about the relationship of anarchism to feminism'? Were the anarchists involved in spreading birth control information?
Esther: Oh yes, we were pioneers in that. Emma Goldman was active in that; she went to jail for it. But I want to tell you, though, that in the question of birth control, we didn't take it from the Malthusian point of view. We were interested in the human question – that the woman wasn't an incubator.
Doug: Have you found that the anarchist movement has been very open to women and to women's initiative?
Esther: Well, you can’t imagine what it was like then for women. If you weren't a very conservative "good girl," you were considered to be beyond the pale. Women's status in society was very precarious.
Doug: Emma Goldman was definitely beyond the pale in that respect. Was she sort of an exception among anarchist women would you say, in terms of her lifestyle?
Esther: Well, in order to buck this thing you had to he exceptional. Someone said to me that she was "disturbed." Well I should say she was disturbed. In order to get up such a fire within you, you can't be sweet and "normal" and passive. You have to have a very big fire! Women today do not have an understanding of what it was to be a woman in those days. You were chaperoned all the time. If you were pregnant you weren't supposed to look here or look there, because the child would be born a horse if you looked at a horse, for instance. The fears and superstition that you lived under. They kept young women in perpetual fear. If you sneezed, pull your left ear, etc. Imagine living in the whole body of these fears. Of course, certain girls were different.
And no one realizes what the union movement did, really, to break down those barriers. Working together in the unions. And the Jewish woman was comparatively very free as compared to the woman coming from the Mediterranean countries, Italy and Greece, etc. And working in the unions did very much to liberate her from this kind of slavery.
Doug: Were you involved much with union organizing?
Esther: No, I was involved more with the propaganda. Though our house then, during the depression, was often used as a union meeting place.
Doug: Were there attempts to form alternate economic institutions then? For instance, now there are food coops, etc.
Esther: Yes. The Spanish anarchists always had their apartments cooperatively. They’d rent a big apartment and live cooperatively there. And they had different arrangements about food, etc. And in California, some old Jewish anarchists who had known each other in their youth, have for their old age formed a cooperative and they lie together and are able to support each other. They are very old but they still make a home for each other. There were lots of things like that. There was a lot of self-help. The day-nursery, for instance. People always think that the day-nursery started with the government, you know. But they were started by workers. I remember when I was in the hospital, we left my children in the day-nursery which was supported by the workers and didn’t get any government funds. We had a lot of self-help organizations like that, out of necessity. The woman who was with the day-nursery here was a friend of Emma Goldman’s.
Doug: Were you around New York when Emma was here?
Esther: I just met her once, when she came back from Europe, and she was a very old lady then. And I hear her speak once, and she had a powerful voice, very clear. They had no microphones then. Her repartee, her answers after a speech were brilliant.
But a lot of the women who knew her personally did not like her. I heard that over and over again. She was inclined to be intolerant of others less able than herself, and also, though she mellowed later in life, I can see how some of her early writings would have been very abrasive to the average married woman.
Doug: You said the anarchists had day care for children. Did they also organize any medical self-help services?
Esther: They used to put on a lot of plays with social import, you know, with social ideas involved. I remember one dramatic group that was around the Vanguard, for instance, that would translate the Jewish plays that dealt with the proletarian Jewish life here in N.Y.C. I remember one play they did, telling about a worker who went to work when he was ill and he took sick while he was at work, and he was afraid throughout that he would lose his job and all, and it was very effective.
Doug: That sounds interesting. Now let’s talk some more about labor, and then wrap things up. What trades were the anarchists especially strong in?
Sam: Among the Jews, it was mostly the needle trades. With the Italians it was a lot of construction workers. The cigar-makers were also very anarchistic. And among the Russians we had quite a few house wreckers. The house wrecker’s union was once dominated by Russian anarchists, after WWI and in the 1920’s. Among the Spaniards there were quite a few seamen, and an awful lot of them worked in coal mines and steel mills.
Doug: How did the anarchists get along with the U.M.W. and Lewis?
Sam: Well, most of the anarchists were in opposition to the Lewis machine. Most of the anarchist miners were foreigners; Spaniards, Italians, Bohemians. They were very good militants.
Doug: Did the IWW really have much influence in the labor struggles of the 30’s and 40’s?
Sam: In the 30’s, it was significant in the metal-machine industry in and around the Midwest. To some extent they were influential in the maritime industry. And they had strength in the mines in Colorado.
Doug: How anarchistic was the IWW?
Sam: The IWW is not really an anarcho-syndicalist organization. That’s one of the misconceptions always made. It’s a peculiar kind of an organization, not really anarcho-syndicalist. It so happens that in the course of their development, and so forth, they developed forms of action and a certain emphasis on spontaneity, which are similar to anarcho-syndicalist ideas. Which is proof of the vitality of the anarcho-syndicalist ideology, in that they evolved toward it through their own experience. But they came to it only to a very limited extent. So the Wobblies were not influenced so much by the anarchist’s propaganda or theories but rather have developed on their own some of the same ideas.
Doug: You wrote a lot of labor articles under the pseudonym of Sam Weiner. Where were you able to publish those?
Sam: Well, I had a lot of articles in the various papers that we were connected with. In the Road to Freedom, in the Vanguard, in a little paper called Friends of Freedom, in the paper called Why, for a while in The Resistance. Then I had a lot of articles in the IWW paper, The Industrial Worker. A lot of articles for them. And I wrote pamphlets for them, one called “Ethics of American Unionism.”
Doug: Was there any reason that you used the pseudonym?
Sam: Somebody tacked it on me. When I was young, we were connected with one or two older comrades who had the “bull hollers,” you know. They thought that nobody should ever go under their own names, and all that. One of them gave us names, and my name happened to be Weiner, because it was a common Jewish name. So I didn’t think anything of it, but then the goddamn name stuck. But then it became unstuck when I wrote the book on Bakunin. The editor said I might as well use the name Dolgoff. It’s the Russian name and all. So the minute they stuck my real name on there, that was it. No more Sam Weiner.
Doug: So, Sam, would you like to sum up the major factors that you think influenced the decline of the anarchists in the earlier part of this century?
Sam: Well, I ascribe the decline in general to two factors; first, the effect of the Russian revolution, which in the 20's had not yet really unfolded itself so that people could see what was really happening. The euphoria of the Russian revolution. And the second reason was the failure of the anarchist movement to participate fully in social life and to become a mass movement, a real movement of the people.