Immi­grants Against the State: Yid­dish and Ital­ian Anar­chism in America

Keny­on Zimmer
  • Review
By – May 31, 2016

Brack­et­ing Ital­ian and Jew­ish immi­gra­tion to Amer­i­ca has been a fruit­ful source of schol­ar­ly inves­ti­ga­tion by Amer­i­can his­to­ri­ans. The two groups arrived in the Unit­ed States at rough­ly the same time dur­ing the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, and they often set­tled togeth­er or in con­tigu­ous neigh­bor­hoods like New York City’s Low­er East Side. Kess­ner and oth­er his­to­ri­ans have empha­sized eco­nom­ic and social fac­tors, includ­ing the diverse rates of social and eco­nom­ic mobil­i­ty of Jews and Ital­ians and their dif­fer­ing occu­pa­tion­al profiles. 

Keny­on Zim­mer, an his­to­ri­an at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas in Arling­ton, has tak­en the study of Jew­ish and Ital­ian immi­grants into the polit­i­cal realm with this well-researched and elo­quent rework­ing of his 2010 doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pitts­burgh. He esti­mates that there were any­where from twen­ty to thir­ty thou­sand of both Jew­ish and Ital­ian anar­chists in Amer­i­ca by the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. This was a small per­cent­age of the total Jew­ish and Ital­ian immi­grant pop­u­la­tion. Nev­er­the­less, they, along with anar­chists from oth­er immi­grant groups and with home­grown Amer­i­can anar­chists, briefly made anar­chism more pop­u­lar than social­ism or syn­di­cal­ism with­in Amer­i­can rad­i­cal circles. 

The sub­ti­tle of Immi­grants Against the State is mis­lead­ing. What dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed Jew­ish anar­chists from oth­er anar­chists was not sim­ply lin­guis­tics but, rather, the eth­no-reli­gious cul­ture in which they had been raised and from which they sought to escape. Was the cul­tur­al bag­gage which Jews and Ital­ians car­ried to Amer­i­ca sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fer­ent? Did their employ­ment choic­es, fam­i­ly struc­ture, and atti­tudes toward the role of women and tra­di­tion­al reli­gion result in diverse polit­i­cal atti­tudes and prac­tices? Jews from Czarist Rus­sia, for exam­ple, had an under­stand­able fear of author­i­ty, and Jew­ish pol­i­tics in East­ern Europe were char­ac­ter­ized by an empha­sis on ide­o­log­i­cal puri­ty and utopi­an fan­tasies. Was there any­thing com­pa­ra­ble to this among Ital­ian immigrants? 

Jews, both in Europe and then in Amer­i­ca, grav­i­tat­ed to polit­i­cal ide­olo­gies such as anar­chism, social­ism, and syn­di­cal­ism, which held out the hope of a brave new world expunged of anti-Semi­tism and per­me­at­ed with eco­nom­ic and social injus­tice. Pol­i­tics for many Jews became their reli­gion. Tip O’Neill, the Speak­er of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, once com­plained in the 1980s that though he loved his Jew­ish con­stituents, they wrote too many let­ters. By con­trast, soci­ol­o­gists have empha­sized the amoral­is­tic, scep­ti­cal, and apa­thet­ic atti­tudes of Ital­ians and Ital­ian immi­grants towards pol­i­tics. Ital­ian immi­grants had a far low­er rate of nat­u­ral­iza­tion than their Jew­ish coun­ter­parts, and they were slow­er to learn Eng­lish. Even though Ital­ian immi­grants out­num­bered Jew­ish immi­grants, the Amer­i­can anar­chist peri­od­i­cal with the high­est cir­cu­la­tion was the Yid­dish Fraye Arbeter Shtime (Free Voice of Labor), and the most pop­u­lar Amer­i­can social­ist news­pa­per was the Yid­dish Forverts (The For­ward), which also had the largest cir­cu­la­tion of any Amer­i­can eth­nic daily. 

Zim­mer does not exam­ine in depth the rela­tion­ship between the pol­i­tics of Jew­ish and Ital­ian immi­grants and cul­ture, even though he claims his book offers a social his­to­ry of pol­i­tics.” He asserts that one of his goals was explain­ing why thou­sands of Jew­ish and Ital­ian immi­grants became anar­chists in the first place, but he does not pro­vide any answers to this impor­tant ques­tion. Instead, he has pro­duced a detailed his­to­ry of the fac­tion­al strug­gle among Jew­ish anar­chists in New York City and Ital­ian anar­chists in an Ital­ian neigh­bor­hood in Pater­son, New Jer­sey and the heav­i­ly Ital­ian North Beach sec­tion of San Fran­cis­co, the home of Joe DiMag­gio. His book also con­tains inter­est­ing dis­cus­sions of the Amer­i­can anar­chists’ respons­es to World War I, the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion of 1917, the post­war Red Scare, Zion­ism, and the Span­ish Civ­il War. 

Immi­grants Against the State will be use­ful to schol­ars inter­est­ed in the minu­ti­ae of rad­i­cal Amer­i­can pol­i­tics dur­ing the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies, but it has less val­ue to oth­er his­to­ri­ans because of its nar­row focus. In addi­tion, some of Zimmer’s argu­ments are prob­lem­at­ic. He claims, for exam­ple, that his sub­jects became anar­chists while in Amer­i­ca and not in Europe, even though rel­a­tive­ly few Amer­i­can-born Jews and Ital­ians ever became anar­chists, and he fre­quent­ly uses loaded words like exploita­tion” in explain­ing why his sub­jects were attract­ed to anar­chism. Most Amer­i­cans a cen­tu­ry ago were poor by the stan­dards of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, but the eco­nom­ic and social con­di­tions here were far bet­ter than those in Europe — and the poten­tial for upward mobil­i­ty was much high­er. This explains why immi­grants con­tin­ued to cross the Atlantic in ever increas­ing num­bers. Life in Amer­i­ca was, as Zim­mer quotes one Ital­ian anar­chist liv­ing in Pater­son, incom­pa­ra­bly bet­ter than in Italy; you’re paid more, you dress bet­ter, even the fac­to­ry girls wear bonnets.” 

The his­to­ry of Amer­i­can anar­chists, as Zim­mer admits, was one of utter fail­ure. Their hope of a state­less world, he writes, was egre­gious­ly out of step with the major polit­i­cal devel­op­ments of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Their refusal to make peace with cap­i­tal­ism, com­mu­nism, or Amer­i­can­ism” ren­dered them anachro­nisms, espe­cial­ly as many Third World’ anti­colo­nial move­ments … turned to com­mu­nism or author­i­tar­i­an lead­ers for sal­va­tion.” They had lit­tle impact on local, nation­al, and inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics, and they were unable, except for a few notable excep­tions, to pass their polit­i­cal pas­sions on to their chil­dren. Fail­ure has also been the fate of oth­er rad­i­cal move­ments in Amer­i­ca, and the major his­tor­i­cal prob­lem for his­to­ri­ans of Amer­i­can rad­i­cal­ism has been to explain why this was so. Zimmer’s attrib­ut­es the col­lapse of Amer­i­can anar­chism in part to the end of the mass immi­gra­tion from Europe after World War I. But if anar­chism depend­ed on a con­tin­u­al infu­sion of blood from Europe, then its prospects were bleak indeed. The accul­tur­a­tion of the immi­grants and their chil­dren, their rise into the mid­dle class, and their move out of the old immi­grant neigh­bor­hoods inex­orably lead them away from polit­i­cal move­ments seen to be for­eign and un-American. 

Zim­mer, nev­er­the­less, believes that the anar­chists’ vision of a cos­mopoli­tan and lib­er­tar­i­an social­ist future remains rel­e­vant. Inso­far as anar­chists con­tributed to expand­ing free­dom in their own day, and inso­far as their lega­cy and influ­ence con­tin­ue to do so,” he says, they may be judged as suc­cess­ful.… the anar­chists’ dream of a patria with­out bor­ders still stands as a tan­ta­liz­ing alter­na­tive.” The con­tem­po­rary influ­ence of anar­chism, how­ev­er, is faint, and there is lit­tle to indi­cate that its future will be any different. 

Relat­ed Content:

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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