Review: Anarchy in the USA

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by Ron Jacobs
The Counterpunch
January 15, 2016

From the beginning of Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the 20th Century, Andrew Cornell situates US anarchism in the leftist milieu. The book begins with a look at the various anarchists and anarchist movements that existed before the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW); the reader is briefly introduced to early anarchist theoreticians Kropotkin and Bakunin and their split with Karl Marx and the communists at the First International. Naturally enough, it is somewhere in the discussion of these precursors to US anarchism and the popular success of the IWW that the reader is introduced to the two strains of anarchism that would define much of the movement in the Twentieth Century: the insurrectionists and the syndicalists. The former being those who consider individual or small group direct action to be the best way to move the struggle forward and the latter being those who believe organizing workers and others in a movement shaped around the destruction of the capitalist system and other authoritarian systems into the moment when the revolution erupts into the struggle ultimately creating the classless and anarchist organized society.

After the surge in anarchist participation in the workers’ and antiwar movements in the early 1900s came repression. In a scenario never exactly replicated on the same scale, the United States Department of Justice under Attorney General Palmer (with the eager assistance of a rising police star named J. Edgar Hoover) carried out a series of raids, imprisonments and deportations against anarchists and their fellow travelers. The repercussions from these police actions would ripple through the rest of the century. In essence, the anarchist movement in the United States has yet to recover the numerical strength it had before this repression. Cornell argues, however, that despite the decimation of the movement, its influence continued to be felt in the arts and politics in a manner well beyond its numbers.

It is this facet that Cornell spends a fair amount of his book discussing. In doing so, Unruly Equality not only makes a convincing case for the influence of anarchist philosophy on the US pacifist movement, it also illuminates its role in several Avant garde movements in the creative arts. Cornel’s stories of poets, writers, philosophers and activists mixing it up during the years of World War Two and the decade afterwards make this section of Unruly Equality uniquely interesting, both in terms of the text and the broader history of twentieth century United States.

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