Chapter 9 Anarchism in America

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 10, 2018

ANYONE WHO DESIRES to enter the United States of America must sign a statement certifying that he is not an anarchist. Similarly, it was under laws against “Criminal Anarchy” that the working class organisations were attacked in the early years of the present century. These facts reflect the fear and hatred of the American ruling class towards the anarchist movement, and are in fact a tribute to the lead that anarchists have taken in American revolutionary action since the early 1880’s.

The Anarchism against which the great State persecutions were instituted was not the mild and idealistic individualist anarchism of the native social critics, such as Thoreau, Josiah Warren (who advocated a form of mutuality similar to that of Proudhon and attempted to set up libertarian phalansteries) and Benjamin Tucker, the gentleman anarchist who believed in property and said that he would support the vigilantes against strikers who “unanarchistically” attempted to apply coercion to their employers! Sincere as most of these men were in their own way, profound as some of them (such as Thoreau) were in certain directions of social criticism, their attack on the American state remained almost completely intellectual and individual, and none of them induced, or even attempted to induce a mass feeling against the State or to initiate the class struggle for the destruction of property and government. The ruling class had nothing to fear from them and they were content to regard them as the harmless Liberal gentlemen they really were.

It was from outside, carried in the minds of immigrants fleeing from the regimented lands of Europe, that the dreaded form of Anarchism, revolutionary anarchism, deriving from Bakunin, reached America and terrorised its rulers.

Anarchism appeared in America as a vital force among the working class in the early 1880’s, and the most significant event in its early history was probably the arrival of Johann Most, a former German socialist deputy turned anarchist, who fled from an unfriendly Europe in 1882 and, having been welcomed by the German immigrant population, set up in New York his Anarchist weekly Freiheit. Most was an orator of great eloquence and an extremely capable and industrious journalist, and his influence was a great contributory factor in the spread of anarchist ideas during the ensuing years.

The new revolutionary doctrine appealed more to the immigrant worker, with his insecure social and economic status, than it did to the native craftsmen, who had already built up their unions and established some kind of security without being forced to adopt a revolutionary method. The great depressions of the 1870’s hit the immigrants much harder than the native workers, and did much to radicalise the Central European elements of the population, particularly in such centres of industry as Chicago and Pittsburgh.
The moderate socialist groups began to lose their militant membership, and in 1881 the malcontents formed a Revolutionary Socialist Party, predominantly German in membership, ‘but containing some native Americans, such as Albert Parsons, later to play a tragic part in anarchist history.

Most’s arrival, the establishment of Freiheit in its new setting, and his propaganda tours of the large towns of the East and the Middle West, gave a great stimulus to the revolutionary movement; and in October, 1883, at a Conference held in Pittsburgh, an American federation of the International Working Men’s Association was formed for the prosecution of the anarchist struggle. By 1885 this organisation had eighty constituent groups and eight thousand members; and produced a German daily paper and an English weekly (Alarm - edited by Parsons) in Chicago, and Most’s weekly, Freiheit; in New York.

In 1886 the Anarchists were very active in the great American campaign for the eight-hour day. Most himself did not support the campaign, as he held that it had no revolutionary significance and would gain no important benefit for the workers. The Anarchists of Chicago, on the other hand, while agreeing with Most that the eighthour agitation in itself had no revolutionary importance, believed that it might commence a great rising of American labour against the State and capitalism. For this reason they devoted all their energies to the eight-hour campaign. Five of them gave their lives as well.

The campaign was inaugurated by a general strike which commenced on May 1st, 1886. On May 4th the police attacked a peaceable demonstration outside the McCormick Harvester factory and killed and wounded many workers. Two days later a meeting was held in -the Haymarket Square to protest against the outrage. The Mayor of Chicago, Harrison, was there and declared the assembly to be peaceable. He instructed the police captain, Bonfield, that no interference would be necessary. Bonfield, however, marched out 180 armed policemen to disperse the crowd. As the police were about to attack the demonstrators, a bomb was thrown by a person whose identity has remained unknown to this day. Six policemen died, and, in retaliation, the state demanded the prosecution of eight Anarchist militants, who were tried for inciting the perpetrator of the bombing. The eight men were condemned, and five of them - August Spies, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg and Albert Parsons were judicially murdered for an act of terrorism in which they had no hand. Their innocence was proved seven years later by Governor John Altgeld. They had been tried by a packed jury and a partisan judge, in a court that allowed faked evidence for the prosecution and prevented the calling of witnesses for the defence. The crime for which they really died was their opposition to the state and capitalism in the name of the freedom of the workers.

This was the first great frame-up trial of the American class struggle. Many more were to occur in the bitter struggle of the ensuing decades, and some, such as the trials of Mooney and Billings in 1916 and Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927, with their savage sentences against innocent men for no greater crime than defiance of the state, aroused indignation in a world where the American ruling class had not yet been beaten at their own game by such apt pupils as Stalin and Hitler.

After the Chicago events there was a marked increase in the persecution of the revolutionary elements in the United States, and, under threats to deport foreign agitators, many of the immigrants became respectable and left the anarchist ranks. But the revolutionary work continued, and the anarchists took an active part in the workers’ struggle for better conditions.

Most, becoming doubtful of the revolutionary effectiveness of the small, loose groups into which the anarchists of the time formed themselves, was advancing towards the conception of an anarchist mass movement, and anticipated syndicalism, by declaring that the trade unions might be used for revolutionary ends, and that, in the formation of the anarchist society, they might become the basis of economic organisation. In this contention he was bringing forward ideas which Bakunin had voiced twenty years before and which, in the next century, were to assume concrete form in America itself.

Meanwhile in 1901, President McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz, a worker of Polish extraction who claimed to be an Anarchist, but whose connection with the movement remains extremely obscure. This act resulted in a renewed persecution of the Anarchist movement. The law was passed to forbid the immigration of people with anarchist sympathies, Most was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment for a violent article that appeared in Freiheit on the day of the murder, and it seemed as if an attempt would be made to suppress all Anarchist activities. The threat did not, however, materialise, and the Anarchist Movement continued, until, after 1905, its militants began to devote their activities to the new revolutionary organisation of the Industrial Workers of the World.

The I.W.W., known popularly as the “Wobblies”, was the American counterpart of the syndicalist movement that had already established itself in Europe. It did not call itself Syndicalist, but the Industrial Union of the I.W.W. was in form very similar to the European syndicates and was designed to perform the same revolutionary function. It arose out of the needs of the unorganised mass of unskilled workers for whom the old craft unionism of the A.F. of L. offered no means of obtaining better conditions. The I.W.W., with its organisation by industry as against organisation by craft, and its advocacy of revolutionary direct action and the general strike for the overthrow of the capitalist state, had much in common with the French syndicalist movement. It was, however, a much more assorted movement than the French and contained among its leading figures representatives of almost every American radical trend.

The I.W.W. conducted many important strikes in the United States, and took an important part in the struggle for civil liberties in the Western States. Its actions aroused the bitter hostility of the reactionary elements, and the persecutions of its members were extreme and violent. Some, like Joe Hill, author of “Pie in the Sky” were executed after frame-up trials, others were lynched or tarred and feathered by their enemies, and thousands went to prison in the violent attacks that followed their militant opposition to the 1914-1918 War.

After the war the I.W.W. followed the example of the syndicalists of Europe by refusing to co-operate with the Third International and since that time their organisation, somewhat diminished in size since the earlier days of the century, has remained the most important revolutionary organisation in the U.S.A. and has supported the militant action of the workers wherever it has arisen.