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An Oral History of Anarchism in America
By Paul Avrich
Reprinted by AK Press, 2005
Reviewed by Cardinal Cox


Paul Avrich - Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America
Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America available at

Write Dope on Pnuk part 69

Paul Avrich in this bulky book (with notes and bibliography it runs to over 540 pages) interviews people associated with the various Anarchist movements in America of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I say associated, because for the earliest dates he interviewed the children, and elsewhere he interviewed ‘fellow travellers’ (for instance a Russian Maximalist) that had come into contact with the Anarchists. As for the Anarchists Paul divides them into six approximate groups (there were overlaps outside the groups and factions within).

First there were mutualist anarchists inspired by Proudhon. Next collectivist anarchists inspired by Bakunin (who advocated a revolution lead by an elite) and Johann Most. Then communist anarchists inspired by Kropotkin (who believed in a popular revolution). The individualist anarchists espoused education and propaganda and were inspired by Max Stirner and Benjamin Tucker. The anarcho-syndicalists preached worker control of industry. Pacifist anarchists drew inspiration from Tolstoy and rejected revolution as it spawned violence and hatred. There is also the “anarchism without adjectives”, believing that first there must be personal freedom before any of the economic models can be tried out.

The interviews equally fell into six sections, the first of which covered the very earliest period and the responses to the Haymarket bombing in Chicago and the subsequent show trial in 1894. The second section focuses upon Emma Goldman who wrote and spoke out on such subjects as women’s rights, sexual freedom and contraception, labour rights, education, plus the avant garde arts emerging at the same time (Interestingly, while the people interviewed admired her, not everyone necessarily liked her). The third section dealt with popular movement that grew up following the trial of Vanzetti and Sacco, arrested in 1920 for robbery and murder, for which they were executed in 1927. Here even the people interviewed sometimes had differing views as to the innocence of the accused. The fourth section focused on the free school movement in America, and I found this interesting as my girlfriend had herself been to a school with an experimental outlook. From what I read and heard this needs a good teacher/pupil ratio (say 1:10) to make sure none get left out if they run into difficulties. While the more traditional system of following a syllabus works better at the more usual ratio as hopefully only a few will be running into problems. Most of the previous sections featured either Italian or Jewish interviewees, the fifth section covered activists from other ethnic backgrounds (as America attracted migrants from across the world) such as Russian, Spanish or Chinese. A repeated phrase here was that they wished that they had had more (or indeed any) contact with groups of other ethnic backgrounds in the past to strengthen the movement. The last section looked at the period of the 1920s and after and the responses (both within the movement and in the wider society) to the Russian revolution’s descent into Bolshevism and the Second World War.

This book then provides an interesting eyewitness (and therefore not necessarily accurate) account of the movements that laid the foundation for the nineteen-sixties protests and later counter-cultures.



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