Review: In the struggle for equality: the story of the Anarchist Red Cross by B. Yelensky

Sam Dolgoff's review of Boris Yelensky's book. Originally appeared in Views and Comments, n.31 (October 1958).

Submitted by Juan Conatz on December 26, 2010

Human beings make events and historians record them for the guidance of coming generations. Both are needed. The honest historian always tries to get information from original records, or if possible from the people who witnessed or took part in the events themselves. All too often the actors in the drama of history leave no written record of the parts they played. Significant pieces in the historical puzzle are lost forever and the missing parts are filled in by outright lies or unintentional distortions. In either case a false picture is projected.

Our fellow worker, Boris Yelensky, understood this and decided to set the record straight. With the help of his friends he has written a provocative little book - In The Struggle For Equality. The title is well chosen. It describes the struggle and the part he played in it. Yelensky tells about his fifty years of unceasing activity to help the victims of oppression and injustice. He dedicated his life and his book “to the Fighters for Freedom, Humanism and Justice, to those who endeavored to help these fighters by applying the principle of mutual aid.”

The book begins by sketching the history of the Russian Revolutionary movement and the part played by the Anarchists. Then Yelensky gives the history of the Anarchist Red Cross which was founded in 1905.

In telling why a special Anarchist Relief Organization became necessary he calls attention to a neglected aspect of revolutionary history - the sabotage and discrimination of many social-democrats against their fellow-prisoners and in the outside relief organizations. Of the vast sums collected all over the world, from Czarist times up to the present, very little reached the Anarchist prisoners. Yelensky quotes H. Weinstein who was jailed in Czarist times for radical activity:

“In July or August of 1906 I was placed under arrest in the city of Bialostock. When I arrived at the prison in that city, I met there, Jacob Krepleich and a friend of his, a Russian teacher; they likewise informed me that the organization which then existed in Russia, set up by the social-democrats to extend aid to all revolutionary captives regardless of political affiliation was refusing to help the Anarchists; and during the brief period that I remained in the Bialostock prison we received letters from the Grodno jail which gave confirmation of the truth of these statements.”

This discrimination still persists. As Yelensky points out in telling about the conduct of the social-democrat relief organization, The Jewish Labor Committee in the United States. It is not a pretty tale, but it had to be told.

The Anarchists have continued relief activities all this time. The bulk of this work is now carried on by the Alexander Berkman Aid Fund, which is not limited to Russian or Jewish prisoners. Aid is being sent to Spanish, Italian, Bulgarian and other prisoners all over the world. The fund also published a documentary history of Bolshevik terror against revolutionists, The Guillotine At Work, by G. P. Maximov.

In relating the relief activities, Yelensky gives us a picture of the great contribution made by the Eastern European Jews to the radical movement in this country. This book should be read not only for its factual contributions but also because it demonstrates that people of meager means in a strange country, against great obstacles, can carry on great work. It is the people who do the unglamorous but indispensable tasks, who are the true life's blood of every worthwhile movement.

This book was published by the Alexander Berkman Aid Fund, a non-profit organization and all proceeds from its sale “Innure to The Fund For Political Prisoners and Refugees”.

S.D.[Sam Dolgoff]

Taken from The Kate Sharpley Library



11 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by syndicalist on November 1, 2012

never saw this here before (tho read the original & have booklet)


7 years 9 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by syndicalist on July 10, 2016

This discrimination [against anarchists] still persists. As Yelensky points out in telling about the conduct of the social-democrat relief organization, The Jewish Labor Committee in the United States. It is not a pretty tale, but it had to be told.

The correspondence between Mollie Steimer, The Fund and the JLC is both very sad and revealing.
I am taking the liberty of extensively cutting and pasting directly from Yelensky's "In The Struggle For Equality". *


The first post war years brought in considerable sums of money, particularly through the yearly appeals sent out by the Alexander Berkman Aid Fund and affiliated groups of the Jewish Federation. But by the third and fourth years after the end of hostilities we began to notice that the financial response to our appeals was becoming progressively smaller. It is true that in some directions our needs had decreased. The German comrades, for instance, found that they were becoming more secure materially and decided to accept no further help from us. Some of the Spaniards in the French camps were placed in public institutions, and they too declined any more assistance. But we still had on our hands a large number of people who needed help urgently, and for them, with our reduced income, we could not provide even the minimum amount we had sent before.

In this situation we were forced to think of means by which we could find additional funds, and at one of our meetings it was suggested that we should once again approach the Jewish Labor Committee in New York.35 Because of our past experience, many of us were opposed to this, but the majority thought there was nothing to be lost by making another effort. I was delegated to go to New York, and in preparation for my trip, a committee of the Alexander Berkman Aid Fund called upon the Chairman of the Chicago Jewish Labor Committee, J. Seigel. When we heard our case, Seigel agreed that I should go to New York, and he wrote a letter of recommendation to N. Chanin, the chairman of the J.L.C. Office Committee.

In February 1947, I arrived in New York and almost immediately went to see Chanin, presenting Siegel’s letter of recommendation and stating our case. When I finished, Chanin replied: “I don’t see any reason why your organization shouldn’t receive 35 [Yelensky’s note] I knew when I started to prepare this book that many of our Jewish comrades who are still taking part, for one reason or another, in the work of the Jewish Labor Committee would not be pleased by my bringing up this question. Recently a few of them approach me about it, and one in particular came to me with the argument that the Jewish Labor Committee did in fact help our comrades. To this friend, I would say that I know about the “help” in question, and later on I will give the relevant figures. At present, however, I want to remark that what the J.L.C. gave was no more than a sop to allay the growing volume of protest at its partisanship. This view was held by others than me, and in support of it I quote a letter from Alexander Shapiro, written in reply to a request of mine that he should represent the Alexander Berkman Aid Fund in an attempt to get some help from the J.L.C. “No Matter who your representative may be,” he said, “I can assure you that you will get from the Jewish Labor Committee something in the form of a bribe. I personally will not take part in this matter under any circumstances.”

help from us.” He had added that the best thing would be for a delegation representing the Alexander Berkman Aid Fund to meet the Office Committee of the J.L.C. When I heard this, I thought a miracle had happened, but I was soon to find how wrong my impression was.
After seeing Chanin I went to a meeting of the Jewish Federation in New York, and told them what happened. They decided to send a delegation, as Chanin had suggested, but, since I could stay no longer in New York, I was unable to be a member of it. A few weeks later, however, news reached Chicago from the Jewish Federation that the delegation had presented our case to the Office Committee of the Jewish Labor Committee, which had granted a sum of $2,500 for a group of our comrades in Poland to establish a printing shop. As regards the general question about funds for refugees, they promised to give early consideration to this matter.

We waited five months without receiving any news as to what the Jewish labor Committee had decided to do for our refugees, and in the end the Alexander Berkman Aid Fund asked its chairman, Irving S, Abrams, to write to the J.L.C. on the matter. He wrote to N. Chanin as follows on July 5th, 1947:

Dear Friend Chanin:

I am writing you at this time to bring to your attention a matter, which has been a source of irritation for some time and is making our situation very difficult.
Last February we delegated our Secretary, Comrade Boris Yelensky, to go to New York and solicit the Jewish Labor Committee to grant us assistance on behalf of our comrades in Europe, whose requests for assistance have been increasingly steadily.
Before Comrade Yelensky left for New York, we discussed the matter with Friend J. Siegel, and he advised us to take the matter up with you and gave Comrade Yelensky a letter of introduction to you. Comrade Yelensky reported to us that he discussed the matter with you and you suggested that a committee of our New York comrades appear before the Office Committee. We are referred the matter to the Jewish Anarchist Federation, and have been informed that a committee appeared before the Office Committee of the Jewish Labor Committee and requested assistance in our work in Poland and other European countries.

Á The Committee reports to us that the Office Committee advised them that the Jewish Labor Committee has made an allotment for Poland and would consider our request for other work. To date we have not received any word from the office of the Jewish labor Committee
A number of years ago we complained that our comrades were being slighted and engaged in considerable correspondence with New York. Nevertheless we have continued in our assistance and support of the Jewish Labor Committee.

We know that our comrades in Los Angeles, Detroit, New York and other cities have contributed liberally in work and money and the fact that I am chairman of the Workmen’s Circle Division this year indicates clearly our desire to cooperate and help in this work. However, if we did not assist in the work, our comrades in Europe would still be entitled to assistance, and I have been requested to write to you and ascertain if the Jewish Labor Committee intends to help us in our work. I am waiting your reply.

Fraternally your,

On July 14th, 1947, we received an answer from the Jewish Labor Committee. It did not come from Chanin himself, and, though we can only make conjectures about his reason for passing the task to someone else, it seems possible that he did not wish to offend Abrams, who had been very active in the work of the Jewish Labor Committee in Chicago, by a direct rebuff. The letter was actually signed by B. Tabachinsky, and I reproduce it below.

175 E. Broadway New York, New York

July 13, 1947.

Friend Irving Abrams Alexander Berkman Relief Fund Chicago, Illinois
Dear Friend Abrams:

I write you a reply, in replace of Chanin, concerning the matter about which inquire in your letter. I want to say in that connection that your people who informed you about the matter as to how we conduct our relief work for your friends in Europe, have truly not given the correct information.

Let us try to clarify the matter for you with the fact. The group of your people in France totals- according to my knowledge since I was there- at the maximum, 25-30 persons. In the course of the year we sent them in cash $3,000.00, which we have done for no other group- not even a third of that. We provided the funds in this manners: For the Cooperative, $2,000.00, and later an additional $1,000, just as we had promised your friends in California.
We have also reached an understanding with the Manager of Local 117 to provide them with five sewing machines. The machines are already here. We need only the possibility of transporting them, and that is not within our power. It is a fact, however, that the machines are already at their disposal. If it were within our power to bring the same help to the other groups, we would be happy to do so. We provided the five machines for your friends because I have made such a promise. To be sure, I thought at that time that we would be able to gather a larger number of sewing machines, but we are keeping our promise.

With regards to packages and other forms of assistance, that is being taken care of in the same degree as to our other friends.

For the foregoing you will be able to see that the information, which you have received, is not correct. I am pleased that I can rectify the matter by presenting the facts.
with cordial regards B. TABACHINSKY Executive Secretary

The true facts are that I did not go to see Chanin in New York in order to talk to him about the cooperative workshop in Paris. What we asked, and what Tabachinsky
significantly ignores in his letter, was help for the thousands of hungry, ill-clothed and sick individuals who were on our lists of refugees.

Furthermore, the Alexander Berkman Committee had nothing to do with the cooperative. What I talked about to Chanin about, and what the New York Committee of the Jewish Federation asked for, was help for all our comrades in Europe.

The final point to be emphasized in connection with Tabachinsky’s letter is that he tries to impress upon Abrams the smallness of our movement by saying, “the group of your people in France totals- according to my knowledge, since I was there- at a maximum, 25-30 persons.” In this way he seeks to create the impression of generosity on the part of the Jewish Labor Committee for having given so much to so few people.

In fact, in Paris alone the people under our care amounted, not 25-30, but to several hundreds. And even if we leave aside this deliberate misrepresentation of facts, other small groups received, in proportion, far more than the Anarchists in France. During the period when relief was being organized, the Jewish Labor Committee collected million of dollars, of which a considerable proportion came from groups containing strong libertarian elements. Out of this great sum the Anarchists in Europe received the following help; the figures are taken from a list, which Tabachinsky sent to Abrams with his letter:

To 3 persons to come to Mexico and U.S.A.....$ 1,050
To Frydman’s child.................................................5,000 fr. For a French paper in Paris...................................$ 500
For the cooperative in Paris..................................$ 3,000 For a printing shop in Poland................................$ 2,500
Total $ 7,050 and 5,000 francs.

During this period the J.L.C. also sent about 40 food parcels to our people and paid a small amount (unspecified) for clothing to the Paris J.L.C.

It will be seen that there is in fact no provision indicating in Tabachinsky’s figures for Anarchist refugees in general, and in reality all that the Jewish Labor Committee ever did for our comrades was to help a few isolated individuals when a particular pressures happened to be brought to bear upon them. As Alexander Shapiro suggested, what this so-called non-partisan organization gave to the libertarians was “in the form of a bribe” to avoid public protest.
Our experience with the Jewish Labor Committee showed that we could get very little positive help from organizations dominated by Socialists. Even worse was the fact that Socialist influences worked against us in connection with various non-political organizations which at one time or another gave their support to the work of the Alexander Berkman Aid Fund. To give one example, the large Jewish Fraternal organization known as the Workmen’s Circle for many years endorsed at its conventions our work in helping political prisoners in Russia, and gave an annual donation to our funds. In 1939, as usual we sent an appeal telegram to The Workmen’s Circle Convention, but that year we received no donation. We accordingly sent a note of inquiry, and received this answer:

Dear Friend Yelensky:

Our donation of $300 for the Russian Prisoners was sent to Mrs. Strunsky, the Treasurer of this Fund for the past two years.
Sincerely yours,

J. BASKIN, General Secretary Workmen’s Circle
Mrs.Strunsky, it should be explained, was the head of the committee, which helped the Socialist in Russian prisons; in this way the Anarchists were squeezed entirely out of the help given by the Workmen’s Circle conventions.

In 1944, for the sake of the record, the Alexander Berkman Aid Fund made a further attempt to gain endorsement of our work from the Workmen’s Circle, and also a donation, as in the past. This time we received the following letter:

175 East Broadway New York, N.Y.

January 10, 1944.

Alexander Berkman Aid Fund Committee 2422 North Halsted Street,
Chicago, Illinois

Dear Friends:
We are in receipt of your letter asking for an endorsement of you Committee to the Branches of the Workmen’s Circle and also for a direct contribution for purposes indicating in your letter.
We wish to inform you that since The Workmen’s Circle is an integral part of the Jewish Labor Committee and all our work for the aid of refugees is done through that Committee, we have therefore referred your request to them for consideration.
Fraternally yours,
Na tional Executive Committee Workmen’s Circle
J. BASKIN, General Secretary

Once again we had been passed over in favor of a Socialist-dominated organization- and that by The Workmen’s Circle, of whose rank-and-file membership at least 95 percent had no connection with social-democratic political parties.

Later on we had a similar experience with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Originally the Union was friendly, as can be seen from the following extract from the Proceedings of the 2 6th Convention of the Union in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1947:
Delegate Jacob Katz appeared before your Committee to ask for financial assistance to the Alexander Berkman Fund, an organization that is rendering assistance to individuals needy of the labor movement all over the world.

The record of our International indicates that this fund is listed among the many organizations who have heretofore received financial assistance. Your Committee, therefore, refers this matter to the incoming GEB for continued support.

The same decision applies to the request by the same delegate for assistance to the International Aid Fund. an associate organization of the Alexander Berkman Aid Fund.
(Upon motion this portion of the report was adopted)

Until t he Chicago Convention of the Union in 1953 we received donations from the ILGWU funds. At the Convention the financial assistance ceased, and, though we wrote several times to David Dubinsky, the President of the Union, he did not see fit to reply to our letter. In the days of bitter strike when the ILGWU was organized many members of our Jewish movement took an active part in its formation, and to this day there are a few old anarchists among its vice-presidents and its top-level executives. But now, when it comes to helping anarchists outside its ranks, the Union chooses to ignore our appeals.

If space allowed, I could bring out many more facts which would bear upon this matter of the exclusion of our activities form aid they had formerly gained from the organized labor movement, but I think what I have quoted is sufficient to show how people who formerly used our movement and its members are now glad to ignore it. The unfortunate thing is that so many of people, for one reason or another, still give their help to organizations which are hostile to libertarian ideals.

We were grateful for the help, but we still felt that Anarchists were not receiving their full share of the millions of relief money that had been collected, much of it with libertarian help. Perhaps this is a promise of the day when solidarity among radicals will be revived, and it will no longer be necessary to have their own relief program; it is evident to us that this day has not yet arrived.

Actually we are passing through a conservative period, which has made it difficult for all radicals. The general decline of our funds cannot have been due to lack of financial means, nor do we think that our efforts have been weaker, or the need less.
While we hope for a return to more favorable conditions, the time may have come for a rethinking of the needs and opportunities of the workers, and of our mission and tactics. May the decline of the program of the past make way for a new and united radicalism of greater vision, freedom, and strength.

In addition, by 1953 Ladies Garment Workers Unions (ILGWU) halting of funds to aid anarchists. The JLC, heavily dominated by the ILGWU and other needle trades unions

Yelensky further writes:

"Until t he Chicago Convention of the Union in 1953 we received donations from the ILGWU funds. At the Convention the financial assistance ceased, and, though we wrote several times to David Dubinsky, the President of the Union, he did not see fit to reply to our letter. In the days of bitter strike when the ILGWU was organized many members of our Jewish movement took an active part in its formation, and to this day there are a few old anarchists among its vice-presidents and its top-level executives. But now, when it comes to helping anarchists outside its ranks, the Union chooses to ignore our appeals."

* "The Struggle for Equality: The History of the Anarchist Red Cross" By Boris Yelensky

ABCF edition with intro comments by Matthew Hart ---