Review of Tom Goyens, ed., Radical Gotham: Anarchism in New York City (2017). Describes the essays on 19th-20th century anarchist groups at first by ethnicity and the newspapers they produced in NYC – Johann Most and the Germans; Saul Yanovsky and the Jews; Luigi Galleani and his Italian followers; and the Spanish circle around El Despertar. Also a chapter on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. Post-WWII, the essays discuss the Why? group of post-WWII anarchists; the Living Theatre; Black Mask/Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers; the artist Gordon Matta-Clark; the ABC No Rio cultural center; and finally anarchism in Occupy Wall Street.
A review of Tom Goyens, ed., Radical Gotham: Anarchism in New York City from Schwab's Saloon to Occupy Wall Street (University of Illinois Press, 2017)
This book answers some of my long-held questions. Specifically, what and where is the anarchist past of New York City? The city today seems so expensive, so brazenly inaccessible. It's hard to believe any traces remain of the persecuted, denigrated “movement that moves.” Now they are almost gone in the Lower East Side they once roamed, the Manhattan district I most loved when I lived there. [Disclosure: I have a chapter in this book – but the rest of it was new to me.] This review is more a precis of the book than a critique (except for the last).
Tom Goyens' anthology charts the ethnically based anarchisms of the late 19th early 20th centuries one by one. To understand anarchism demographically, as ethnically based – while at the same time transnational – is important. Ethnic bonds have always been the basis of political power in the USA, even those that don't vote.
Ideologically the collection is part of a broader historical project indicated by Paul Buhle, the reassessment of working-class anarchism as a “hidden text, awaiting the unraveling of the political knot bound up in the Russian Revolution and the generations of Cold War that have followed.” In other words, until the reds, fascists and neoliberals get out of the way, anarchism as a political possiblity can't really be seen. Don't hold your breath. At least the historians are excited, now that the statist Marxists are leaving the stage of academia.
The other project at work in the book as Goyens describes it is to understand anarchism as transnational, and NYC as an “Atlantic” city. This unruly ocean, so expensive to traverse, remains a formidable barrier to the transmission of ideas; European books, journals, and propaganda are still little seen in the USA, and vice versa. With the wholesale die-off of U.S. bookstores, including long term left venues, the situation today is even worse than a century ago.
It is inspiring to to learn how the anarchists of the past partied and loved together, studied in reading groups, wrote and published incessantly,. There's a lot of emphasis in all the book's first chapters on reconstructingthe skeletons of past anarchist organization. Most of the telling centers on the vicissitudes of the newspapers and journals. Such great names! The Free Voice of Labor, Freedom, Truth, Forward, The Hammer, The Future, The Call of the Refractories, The Cry of the Oppressed, Subversive Chronicle, The Awakening. They sound better in the original languages, which are various.
For some reason the texts they printed are almost never quoted. I missed some savor of actual anarchist thought amidst the recitations of technics of organization and bones of biography. Touches of color would enliven this book for the more casual reader.
In his introduction Goyens acknowledges the primacy of space – “radical space”, “the spatial dimension” – for meetings in saloons, halls, and the like, as well as the public space of streets and parks. The loss of space even for living to profiteering and speculation is the key dynamic of the neoliberal city. Henri Lefebvre's book “Production of Space” is now canonical. According to David Harvey, this dynamic is a new appropriation. We know it better as gentrification. And for all that the activities described in this book took place in NYC, today it seems a lost world entirely, as the city is largely unavailable to radical activism except among the highly transient and precarious middle class young, and rich kids touched by conscience.
The book is bracketed by Goyens' own account of Schwab's saloon of the 1870s on East 1st Street, close to the Catholic Worker Mary House and storefront of the 1960s, and not so far from ABC No Rio of our '80s and now. So, yes, some remnants exist.
Tom Goyens writes first of Johann Most, the charismatic German anarchist of the 1880s and '90s, and of Schwab's saloon on East 1st street where Nietzsche and Stirner were discussed, anarchist newspapers in German and Russian littered the tables, and no one was playing cards. Tied into bombings and assassination attempts only by his words – “unlawful assembly and inciting to riot,” Most thrice stood trial in NYC and served a year in jail. He was a key inspiration for Emma Goldman.
In a footnote, Goyens points to a missing chapter – the French Society of the Refugees of the Commune and other groups of the 1870s and '80s “may have been the first revolutionary anarchists in the United States.”
Kenyon Zimmer's chapter on Yiddish anarchist Saul Yanovsky is again set on the Lower East Side. Zimmer describes the move to the popular language of Yiddish on the part of Russian intellectuals. (The language has had a recent revival as well.) Yanovsky was the founder of the Fraye Arbeter Shtime (Free Voice of Labor), which was backed by 32 anarchist and workers' groups. The paper published “sweatshop poets”, and became embroiled in controversy over “propaganda of the deed,” i.e., terrorist acts and assassinations.
Jews Without Money
Repression breeds resistance, and Gilded Age repression was more brazen than Trump. Many young people were radicalized by the 1886 conviction and death sentence of prominent Chicago radicals for the anonymous unsolved Haymarket bombing. After that, Jewish labor organizing began in earnest. The Shtime moved to endorse labor unions, economic cooperatives, and education. Later on, numerous prominent anarchists would enter politics and union bureaucracy and be lost to the movement.
Quick-witted and sarcastic, Yanovsky also worked for a time in London, in a cosmopolitan anarchist milieu. The NYC milieu of these activists generated such projects as the Workmens Circle (continuing today), the Ferrer Center where Man Ray learned art from Robert Henri and George Bellow, and the formidable ILGWU. (Today I bank at NYC's Amalgamated Bank, the creature of the ILGWU from those days.) The movement declined first with the abandonment of many radical Jews to the Soviet cause – (many of these optimists would finish their days before firing squads or in gulags) – and second with the choking off of Jewish immigration from Europe.
Marcella Bencivenni writes of Italian anarchists during the last decades of the 19th and first of the 20th centuries. She begins her chapter with the infamous wagon of Buda, a bomb in Wall Street that killed scores and injuried hundreds more. It was vengeance for Sacco and Vanzetti probably by a Galleanist insurgent “capable of anything.” Italian anarchists killed four European heads of state, three of them royals. These men were the purist hard core of the movement, passionate idealists and vigorous direct actionists, stringently repressed in their home country. Many of the thousands of Italian anarchists in NYC converted to anarchism faced with the hard edge of U.S. employer exploitation. They launched altogether a dazzling 80 anarchist newspapers nationally, 34 of them in NYC.
While the movement had famous male leaders, like Carlo Tresca,1 later himself shot down in the streets of NYC, women played an important role. Luigi Galleani, editor of Cronaca Sovversiva, was the uncompromising leader of a strong sect of anarchists, among them stone and marble cutters well accustomed to the use of explosives. At the same time, Italian women anarchists jumped hard into the feminist struggle long before suffrage.
“A Torch and an Axe”
Galleani 's aim – “to kindle in the minds of the proletariat the flame of the idea: to kindle in their hearts faith in liberty and justice: to give their anxiously stretched out arms a torch and an axe.” But it wasn't all bombs. The Italian anarchists had besides a vibrant culture of festivals, family occasions, orchestras and dramatic societies. Their newspapers serialized novels by famous authors like Tolstoy, Ibsen and Zola.
The anarchists' resistance to conscription during World War I drove many underground. The Red Scare and “deportation delirium” of 1919-20 further depopulated leadership. Galleanisti retaliated with an organized campaign of bombings, one at the home of the attorney general who gave his name to the era of Palmer raids.
With the defeat of the left in Italy and the rise of Mussolini's fascism, anarchists turned to antifascist work. They were in the front lines around the country, including at a rally in the Bronx where two fascists were killed. The indicted anarchists were cleared by famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, who proved that the Bronx police had conspired with the Fascist League to frame his clients. (This stuff sounds all too familiar today, as neo-fascist rallies around the U.S. are protected by police and counter-demonstrations attacked.)
Bencivenni concludes with a consideration of why Italian American anarchism disappeared so completely. She ascribes it in part to the fear of their children at the extreme repression and prejudice Italians endured, leading them to become stridently patriotic – in effect, to “become white.” Still, survival only takes one. The great anarchist poet and writer Diane di Prima [SP?] writes with great affection of her anarchist grandmother.
A chapter on Spanish anarchists around the turn of the last century by Christopher Castañeda focusses on the journal El Despertar (The Awakening) as a transnational publication linking the U.S., Europe and South America. The backbone of its support was cigar workers, the skilled pickers, rollers and graders of the Wall Street banker's stereotypically favorite chupa, and the paper attended most closely to that sector's labor struggles. Its writers were closely involved in events in Spain, as well as the struggle to free Cuba, with connections in Tampa, Key West, Havana and Barcelona.
The Spanish maintained close ties with their Anglophone colleagues, naming their key support group Grupo Parsons for Albert Parsons, the printer framed and killed for the Haymarket bombing.
Conflict and divergent perspectives between Cuban and Spanish-born cigar workers came to a head with the uprising of '95 and the subsequent Spanish-American war. Despite its anarchism, El Despertar was seen as colonialist for its failure to pay much attention to the liberation movement, then the heroic stand and death of José Martí. This neglect cost them solidarity in their unionizing efforts.
Consequences of McKinley Assassination
The eyes of the paper were focussed on Spain, where the movement was being ruthlessly suppressed. The assassination of President McKinley by an anarchist in 1901 brought repression down on the movement in the U.S. The police undertook a vendetta against El Despertar, targeting their offices and printing plant. Deaths depopulated the leadership, and the project petered out.
The legacy of the cigar workers, anarchists and others, is certainly much more clearly to be seen in cities other than NYC. The era of literate workers who hired readers to inform and entertain them as they worked with their hands is still fondly recalled in Tampa, for example. That city still has a few grand structures, not only the old cigar factories but the meeting halls built by the workers of differing ethnicities. The florid Italians' hall today is a key venue for alternative culture.
The chapter on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement is well handled by Anne Klement. This phase of the anarchist movement is usually overlooked by anarchists who tend to be atheists, anti-clericalists, or come from Protestant or Jewish backgrounds. Even in their era, when she heard of the Catholic Workers Emma Goldman was “amazed and perplexed.” Day has been proposed for canonization, which makes it even more weird.
Day worked in and around various left publications, including communist as an “advocacy journalist,” covering events like suffragist pickets in Washington D.C., and pacifist demonstrations against U.S. entry into World War I, which were met with violence by police and mobs. She had personal ties with draft resisters and key anarchists like Hippolyte Havel, and worked for The Masses, the voice of the bohemian left then centered in Greenwich Village. She was jailed and joined in prison reform advocacy. This activity led her to write a successful novel. With the proceeds she bought a cottage in Staten Island. (Part of the Spanish Camp of radical emigres, this was razed some years ago by a mini-mansion developer.) There she was converted to Catholicism.
A “Dangerous Goodness”
She continued as a reporter, working for the Catholic press, presenting a nuanced image of communist-organized demonstrations during the Great Depression. As Day told it, the communists, demonized by mainstream press, addressed “social needs ignored by the government, the churches, and complacent Christians.” The communists practiced a “dangerous goodness” which would inspire workers to embrace their “godless heresy” unless Catholics responded. She soon launched the Catholic Worker movement.
French-born tramp preacher Peter Maurin assisted her in launching the Catholic Worker newspaper, which, like the movement she founded, continues vigorous to this day. Two of its members recently claimed proud responsibility for sabotaging tar sands oil pipelines in the central U.S.
The paper appeared to “cheers and jeers,” and was hawked in the same crowds and assemblies as other organs of the left. Day practiced a strange adherence to and independent from the Church itself. In turn, her work was “tolerated” by the hierarchy.
She opened houses of hospitality, kitchens and apartments during the Depression. Everything was managed by volunteer labor and small donations in the practice of what Day called “Christian communism” (Klement doesn't mention this oft-published phrase). While it ran on a shoestring with an ethic of poverty, still I'd be curious to know how often Church funds came into the operation. CW houses were supplemented by farms, including a large one in Pennsylvania, and a “dry out” farm on Staten Island for alcoholics. Today Mary Houses are spread across the country. It is no small network.
Throughout her life Dorothy Day supported the trade union movement, reporting on the Flint, Michigan sitdown strike and the farm workers' struggles in California. The Catholic Worker movement is militantly pacifist, the fountainhead for influential radical pacifism of Catholics like the Berrigan brothers and their followers.
While this kind of faith-based radicalism remains out of sight to most in the U.S. left, anarchists included, it is important now to remember that movement groups like Catholic Worker, Moral Monday, PICO and the Unitarian Church, for example constitute key nodes of resistance to a resurgent neo-fascism that presumes to base itself on “religious conservatism.” In much of the country, those groups are almost all there is.
By the time of World War II, the traditional immigrant-based anarchist movement had been almost completely wiped out. (We can thank not only the widely felt necessity to resist global fascism, but also the U.S. labor movement and Stalin as well for this.) From that moment Radical Gotham takes a new turn, focussing on a movement that was turning away from labor's struggles, from working class organizing, and dissolving into cultural strategies.
Why? – Are Things So Fucked Up?
Andrew Cornell writes his chapter on the Why? group, organized by Jewish anarchists in the common room of a cooperative apartment in the Bronx. After some years of discussions, the group launched their eponymous journal in 1942. They took an unpopular anti-war position, following the Italian “antiorganizational” anarchists who rejected the war as a “statist” conflict, and unions as inherently corrupt. For the war, they called for independent resistance to fascism – like the Resistance in Europe – and organization at the local level and in action groups.
The Why? group soon contacted Holley Cantine of Retort, an anarchopacifist publishing a roster of soon-to-be-influential writers and thinkers. In the 1940s their circle widened. During the war they met poet Jackson Mac Low – (and likely John Cage, who self-identified as anarchist) – and Paul Goodman. Goodman was then into the sexual politics of Wilhelm Reich. He later wrote Growing Up Absurd in the 1960s, a book that influenced a generation of campus radicals.
Members of the Why? circle resisted the wartime draft, and supported the resisters. Jailed in Danbury, Connecticut, Why? resisters met other COs (conscientious objectors), and formed new alliances. They launched a successful strike against racial segregation in the jail. Postwar, under the name Resistance, the journal continued campaigning against Jim Crow segregation. Shocked by the use of nuclear bombs in Japan, they intensified their militant pacifism.
The group made key connections with the circle of artists, poets, and former COs in San Francisco. Some moved there to live. They also studied Reich's sexual politics, a critique of the male-dominated nuclear family as the building block of the capitalist state. Reading Reich and Freud brought them to realizations of the sexual and psychological aspects of power, lines of thought at variance with classical Marxism. (The line of a synthesis of Marx and Freud was the path Herbert Marcuse of the Frankfurt School was to take in his influential thought of the 1960s.) The group experimented with variant sexuality and open relationships. In the countryside, they visited the intentional community called the School for Living, as well as Cantine's house where he lived a “Thoreauvian life.”
Concern for psychological conditioning, the politics of the family and communal living all became part of a platform that recognized that the postwar USA was uninterested in revolution. Anarchists, they maintained, should concentrate on winning “concrete victories” in a struggle for reform, and concentrate on education. At the same time the movement itself should be a “sphere of freedom.”
The Missing Link
In the 1950s, members of the group who stayed in San Francisco were active in forming Pacifica radio, a vital nationwide network of information that continues today. Others formed the Berkeley Walden school. Finally, Cornell concludes, the Why? group is the “missing link” that helps explain the change in the anarchist movement from the 19th and early 20th century movements' direct concerns with the working class. Instead the group built an anarchist culture that closely analyzed power and oppression, and tried to live anarchist lives. They were mostly college educated, and isolated politically during the “golden age” of U.S. Fordism. Because they shared familial and collegial roots with an earlier generation of anarchists, they had “some amount of authority to redefine and refocus anarchism.”
Allan Antliff's analysis of the “poetic politics” of the Living Theatre, the 1947 creation of Judith Malina and Julian Beck, begins with a recap of the turn to “militant pacifism” undertaken by the Why? group and others in the postwar NYC anarchist milieu. Like the editors of Why?, the leaders of what would come to be called “Le Living” also engaged closely with Paul Goodman's ideas, both in print and in person. They eventually produced his plays. Confronted by the threat of nuclear war, they analyzed the role of violence in contemporary life, which Goodman saw as necessary. Eventually, Antliff writes, “they enacted a politics of 'ardor' intent on triggering affective responses” that would awaken people to the unnaturalness of the social system.
The Living Theatre bounced around New York from place to place in the 1950s and '60s, plagued mainly by lack of funds, but also by fire inspectors who closed their venues. They were committed to the anarchist ideal of an economy outside of monetary exchange, a pointedly non-commercial attitude that also made life as a theater difficult. When they turned from a principally poetic theater to one based in politics, however, their troubles really began.
For seven years New York State held compulsory “civil defense” drills, forcing people into bomb shelters when, without warning, the sirens would wail. (I remember these in Los Angeles as a child in the '60s; but by then we could ignore them.) The Becks protested, together with the War Resisters League and others, and were arrested. A judge committed Judith to an asylum. This experience was formative: “The whole world is a prison,” she wrote. “Having been to prison you know this and are never again free.”
Making Audiences Squirm
In a new more stable venue, prepared with the help of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, the Living Theatre produced a play by an unknown San Francisco writer, Jack Gelber. The Connection deals with the lives of heroin junkies, waiting “in agony” for the man (“the connection” of the title) to get their fix. They rehearse a play that is actually about their situation, as a jazz combo plays, and documentary filmmakers film. The actors were in fact mostly junkies, including musicians who had lost their performance licenses due to heroin convictions. (NYC was long notorious for its strict cabaret laws.) The actors panhandle the audience. Then they shoot up. The play concludes with an overdose, and efforts to handle that.
The play was a hit, of a very particular sort. The Connection was brutally real, a fusion of an agonized real existence with the extreme discomfort of the audience .As they worked on the play, the Becks read Artaud. They were deeply affected by his notion of a “theatre of cruelty,” The 'connection' was drawn between a society which criminalizes while enacting far more and more profound criminalities daily.
They followed this with The Brig, a play enacting a day in a Marine Corps prison with its arbitrary rules and brutality. This difficult-to-watch production was also a success, but the government was closing in. The Becks were sued for tax evasion and their theater seized. They occupied it and performed The Brig. The cast was arrested, charged, sentenced. After serving their time, the Becks decamped for Europe for more or less the rest of the decade.
Their career thereafter is legenday, climaxing with the epochal Paradise Now, participation in the occupations of May '68 in Paris, and a return to NYC for decades more of work. But Antliff concludes his chapter with their 1963 de facto expatriation. He asserts that the social effect the Living Theatre had resided in the radicalization of their own troupe, and the people who rallied to support them. Their contribution to anarchist aesthetics resides in the discoveries of those two great plays – that, as Beck wrote, “horror is not in what we imagine but is in what is real.” Bradley/Chelsea Manning would agree.
Caitlin Casey picks up the tale of NYC's anarchist '60s with the Black Mask/Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers group, “a street gang with an analysis.” Although this group, based on the Lower East Side, existed for a very short time, they had an outsized influence on both hippie culture and the New Left of SDS. Casey leans on the autobiography of Osha Neumann, the maybe-son of Herbert Marcuse, who was a key member of the group. Dirty, scuzzy, loud and hairy, the Motherfuckers were “flower children with thorns” or “weed children,” in the words of the Yippie Stew Alpert.
Ben Morea, their de facto leader was a street smart NYCer with a rough past. (The second name of the group comes from what the police say when they arrest you.) Ben was influenced by Judith Malina and Julian Beck of the Living Theatre. He also hung out with Murray Bookchin, and sought out anarchist veterans of the Spanish Civil War who were still around in NYC.
The Motherfuckers expected revolution at any moment, and acted as if it were already underway. They did things that the Diggers also did, like organize free stores, a coffee shop and crash pads for the hippie kids who poured into the East Village. (Emmet Grogan of the Diggers was also a native lumpen NYCer; he tells his story in Ringolevio.) Both groups were “community anarchists” serving an ever-growing population of mostly young people who had run away from home to join the flower children.
The group began with a classic anarchist zine, Black Mask. One of their covers depicts their march through Wall Street dressed as skeletons. Later their manifestos and propaganda art were regularly published in the influential East Village Other underground newspaper, and also in another, the Rat. Many MFers were college educated and well read. They understood anarchism not so much as philosophy, but as “something to be lived through deeds.”
Casey roots their formation in the January 1967 Angry Arts Week protests and the Newark riot/uprising in the summer of the same year. They connected early on with SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), a more normative hierarchical political organization. But the MFers embraced violence as an attitude and an option for direct action, prefiguring the Weathermen of the 1970s. Although the group was mostly white, they emulated the style of the Black Panthers. (A hierarchical Marxist-Leninist organization, the Panthers later undertook the occupation of the Lower East Side's biggest squat, the Christodora building in 1969.) The MFers slogan in the context of a mostly pacifist counterculture was “Armed Love.”
They participated in the 1967 anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon, famously chronicled in Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night. Their contribution was a briefly successful rush at the doors of the U.S. military's high command. Their final action was cutting the fences at the Woodstock concert in 1969 to let in crowds for free. Casey also details their conflict with Bill Graham, the rock promoter who opened a Fillmore East concert hall.
Exploits like this and others form the basis of the Motherfuckers' legend. Casey does not mention that the group participated in some of the most militant occupations of buildings at Columbia University, and closed the Museum of Modern Art simply by threatening to do so – this according to Ben Morea's own account. He was also tried and acquitted of the murder of a hippie-basher in Boston during a defense mission there. Ben surfaced from the underground in the early '00s, and has had some visibility in the art world, including a recreation of a work he did with Aldo Tambelini and projects with members of the 16 Beaver Group.
The MFer group quickly “ran out of gas,” and by 1970 they were gone. But, like the Diggers and the Yippies, they demonstrated what was possible, actualizing whole parts of a ragtag utopian vision of common good and community self-defense.
Crimes of the Architects
The main focus of my research has been art, so I was happy to read Erin Wallace's essay on Gordon Matta-Clark. She sounds an important note to study on this influential Soho artist who died too young by enlarging the key political dimension of his work. It's an exciting corrective to the too dry and hyper-intellectualized writing on Matta-Clark that followed his death. Wallace draws on more social and political scholarship recently published to point out clearly the obvious politics of much of Matta-Clark's works.
Wallace discusses the notorious “Window Blowout”, a work performed at an architecture exhibition. Matta-Clark was invited by Peter Eisenman to the show in the institute he directed. Matta-Clark shot out the windows of one room in what has been seen as a protest against architecture and urban planning. Eisenman ordered the work to be – um, 'destroyed' is the wrong word!, but undone and uncompleted; deinstalled and the windows repaired before the show opened. Wallace writes that Matta-Clark would have completed it by placing photos of defenestrated South Bronx buildings in the windows he had broken at the institute. This specifies the action as one of solidarity with the residents of the zone famously destroyed by uber-planner Robert Moses. She links the “Blowout” to the work Matta-Clark was doing in the South Bronx – the cuts in buildings for which he became well know, documenting graffiti, and more. “Blowout” was a kind of corporal punishment inflicted on account of architectural crimes, principally abandonment.
Wallace writes about La Plaza Cultural, a large garden on the Lower East Side used for community events. She ascribes the design of the rough-hewn banked earth amphitheater to Matta-Clark. This city-owned land, like most of the other community gardens in the LES district, was squatted. Long struggles over the ensuing four decades have preserved many of these for commuinty use. Matta-Clark's own final uncompleted project was to be done in collaboration with the Charas group of Puerto Rican activists (as was his most famous work, the cut-up pier called “Day's End,” 1972). A year after his death, in 1979, the Charas activists squatted the abandoned public school across the street from La Plaza. The place they called El Bohio existed as a center for activist culture for 20 years until Mayor Giuliani sold it to a developer. Matta-Clark was familiar with what could be done by squatters since he'd met them in Milan, on the site of one of the first social centers to be occupied in that city.2 Most of those projects were made by militants of the Autonomia movement of autonomous communists. The best-known of these Milan squatting projects, Leoncavallo, exists today as a model of a self-organized multi-use political and cultural center run by assembly.
Wallace tracks Matta-Clark's aesthetics through Artaud,3 a key relation for Beck and Malina as well. The question of violence is a dark strain throughout Artaud's writing. Le Living manifested it in their theatrical works as did Matta-Clark, as an index, hopefully an eye-opener, to the structural and institutional violence that exists in plenitude at all levels of society. Most of this – in prisons and slums – is comfortably out of sight of the bourgeoisie.
Radical Art & Culture Center
My own chapter is on the cultural center ABC No Rio, founded in 1980 after the occupation of a city-owned building. ABC has had significant engagement with anarchists, and is administered by Steven Englander, a former anarchist activist. Re-reading it for this review I see that my chapter lacks an overall context for the anarchist movements of the neoliberal period that began in earnest for the U.S. with Reagan's election in 1980. That's simply because I don't know about that. The story I tell is of a fractionated congerie of diversely motivated individuals, united mainly by an interest in art and music. But that can also be how it was during the '80s and '90s as anarchist ideas filtered into the subcultural streams.
From my point of view as participant and researcher in NYC art history proper, ABC No Rio came out of a long-term welter of DIY initiatives in music and publishing that shares terrain with artists books and comics. Whole parts of this culture and many of its practitioners were sucked inexorably into both the mainstream gallery artworld and the world of corporate culture as well. Avowed anarchists intersected with this highly mixed 'culture of resistance' only occasionally.
Even Andrew Cornell, in his recent sorely needed survey of U.S. anarchism Unruly Equality does not provide an overview of anarchism in the neoliberal era in his brief afterword on the 1980s and '90s. Unlike earlier chaptes in Radical Gotham?, the “immigrant” base of ABC No Rio was heterogeneous both ethnically and sexually. It was more demographic – the in-migration of suburban young people anxious individually to pursue artistic careers and collectively to recreate bohemia. (Artists Peter Halley and Penny Arcade have both spoken about this.) My academic researches focused more on post-'68 collectivity among artists in NYC, much of which was political in various colorations. I did not encounter so much the kinds of dense collectivity of study groups and communal houses described in Cornell's chapter on the '40s and '50s. The closest would have to be Art & Language New York in the '70s, and PADD in the '80s. Both were groups of mostly Marxist inclined artists. PADD ran important series of encounters and study groups during the 1980s, some of which turned into action cells. (Gregory Sholette has written on this.) Today it seems, despite the high profile of individual authors like Chomsky and Graeber, the descriptor “anarchist” is not publicly claimed by many artists or academics. The Crimethinc publishing collective, and the newer It's Going Down media platform of course, are neither.
Heather Gautney's chapter on the influence of anarchism in Occupy Wall Street disappointed me. For what it is, it's good. But this text hasn't a great deal to do with anarchists.
As I followed it, OWS proceeded out of and after most of the action in what's been called the Movement of the Squares – Tunis, Cairo, Athens, Istanbul, Madrid. In Greece anarchists played a very prominent role in the streets, and for years after have been leaders in developing community infrastructure as the government fails to provide it. I was told that anarchists supported and sustained the initial camp of the 15M movement in Madrid, where I live. They played a key role in Barcelona as well, as is told in the pamphlet The Rose of Fire Has Returned (authored by Peter Gelderloos?). In the States, the clearest anarchist presence was in Oakland, with the Oakland Commune in Oscar Grant Park, the attempted seizure of a vacant city-owned property on “Move In Day” violently repulsed by police, and other actions. (She doesn't name these for some reason, focussing on the mayor instead.)
A good deal of comment on the relation between OWS and anarchists was posted on the Crimethinc website, a prominent e-publication for U.S. anarchism. The ragtag remnnants of the Lower East Side's anarchist squatters held key early pre-meetings in Tompkins Square Park, and several participated in the more crusty direct actions around OWS. Somehow she does not mention any of this. Her focus is on the macro, the view from on high... in the ivory tower. We are far from Cornell's explication of anarchists with “authority” based on their relation with their predecessors. Even so, I'm glad I didn't have to write this chapter!
Anarchist Tactics in OWS
Gautney tracks the role of “anarchism” in the “organization and character” of OWS. (This road was also trodden by Nathan Schneider in his Thank You Anarchy, an early book on the movement; there has been a flood of them.) Gautney's route is to examine the movement in light of “anarchist principles” – “prefiguration, anti-authoritarianism, and anticapitalism.” Prefiguration she explains via Andrej Grubacic (a Serbian emigre) as “life despite capitalism”; anti-authoritarianism via Bakunin, and his break with the International; and anti-capitalism via Kropotkin's mutual aid. She enlarges this by linking it to the notion of the commons, a conception which has enjoyed a strong spotlight in recent years. Anarchists, however, are hardly in the lead on this; a number of NGOs work on commons. The concept, which Peter Linebaugh has written of extensively, is in the forefront of legal theory. In Italy, for example, a renowned jurist Ugo Mattei has launched a push for a constitutional amendment.
This is Gautney's problem. As the long minoritarian purview of anarchism has enlarged in this neoliberal era of excess – with Trump's aesthetic habits making the idea of a return of the “Gilded Age” a historical fart joke – so much of what anarchists have been about has been, and is being mainstreamed. U.S. media, of course, continues to position its heavy ass over any appearance of the powerful voices of this left, although OWS showed a crack as David Graeber made rare TV appearances. (David Harvey did also, although he's a statist Marxist.)
The chapter lays out the tactical history of OWS, at least noting that it was national – although not that the repression was federally coordinated – shades of Palmer! She has a section on NYC's impossible real estate situation. She describes the Zucotti Park camp and its amenities and its troubles and triumphs. (Yates McGee's book Strike Art devotes considerable attention to the follow-along project of Occupy Sandy, people's direct action hurricane response, although his focus is on activist artists, not anarchists.) There's a precis of the “cyber-life” of OWS, which was monstrous (and collected by major U.S. libraries and academic institutions), and spin-off campaigns that took the Occupy name, including the important Bank Transfer Action. (McGee's book explicates the equally important subsequent Strike Debt campaign in detail.)
Her section on the OWS General Assembly (Graeber claimed that he and Spanish comrades made this happen initially) is good. She relates it to Latin American developments around popular power, which need to be much better known up north. She describes as well the conflicts that arose throughout the structure of OWS, although I'll guess that almost none of these had to do with anarchists, who were already out of that. That stuff tends to be about aggregating power, demonstrating competency and making careers.
Gautney does discuss Oakland, and the FBI entrapment project which targeted anarchists. Again, it's not NYC... but attentive readers of this volume can see the pattern in both deceptive police practice and demonizing journalistic discourse. Her section on Chris Hedges' very divisive “cancer in Occupy” article and the subsequent dust-up is good. Although I was baffled why she didn't mention that a key Crimethinc person came out of collective cover to debate Chris Hedges in a public forum in Gautney's home institution, the CUNY Graduate Center. (The debate is also on line.) As a prominent voice of the U.S. left, Hedges did (and does; he continues) lasting damage to left solidarity, that is, to any notion that anarchists might be recognized as legitimate actors in a U.S. political context.
Her conclusion wraps her threads up nicely. But her hope for continued resistance to the revanchist city of the rich that is New York today is going to have to find its anarchists in the universities.
Busting a Move Now
In the Trump era, anarchists are stepping up nationwide in ways that befuddled liberals are not. The IWW General Defense Committee is active around the country in anti-fascist work, with groups like Redneck Revolt forming in the south. A new website, Its Going Down, has added itself to the slicker anarchist self-presentation long characteristic of Crimethinc. IGD is open source-ish, like Indymedia. Black Lives Matter has a significant presence of anarchist people of color A keystone of municipalist organizing in the U.S. (which is, admittedly, electoral) is the Jackson Rising movement in Mississippi. This is a long-term project, fronted for years by Chokwe Lumumba, a lawyer for the Black Panthers. The basis of their strategy is libertarian municipalism, most fully theorized by Murray Bookchin.
So there's a lot for historians to talk about. There are many antecedents and trends to wash out and bring to light. Everything like that, all that kind of historical work, that is done now is useful now. Folks in the States are up against it – not like never before (recalling Red Scare and Palmer Raids), but in a really unnervingly close echo..
- 1See Iain McKay's review of Nunzio Pernicone's biography of Carlo Tresca, on libcom.org here: http://libcom.org/library/review-carlo-tresca-portrait-rebel
- 2Matta-Clark made a proposal for this squat. What little I found out about this is in my essay, “Real green jobs lie in the past” in Arts for living: public architecture and architectural education (Common Books, NYC and Brussel, 2013)
- 3Many of the relations she mentions briefly, like the Black Mountain connection, are explored in more depth (albeit apolitically) in the exhibition and catalogue for Specters of Artaud: language and the arts in the 1950s, Museo Reina Sofia, 2013. Ambling the Paris cafes just after the war, the electro-shocked and prophetic Artaud had an outsized influence on the post-war avant garde.