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.