Ghosts of Anarchist Past: a review of Kenyon Zimmer’s Immigrants Against the State

Kenyon Zimmer’s Immigrants Against the State provides an illuminating look into militant working class communities of immigrants in the United States but ultimately fails when it it comes to providing an explanatory narrative for their demise. 

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Kenyon Zimmer’s Immigrants Against the State (2015) came out at the tail-end of a surge in radicalism during which many young people found anarchist ideas of increasing relevance (or frustration). Anarchism continues to fascinate radicalized youth and Zimmer’s book does much to show that the ideology had a significant historic existence in the United States. He demonstrates that anarchist ideals were deeply embedded in certain militant working class communities, communities often dominated by immigrants with a specifically ethnic character.

Zimmer’s book was also published relatively recently, during a continuing hysteria over immigration (a key fixture in the national dialogue). Fear of “radicalized” refugees from the Middle East bringing terrorism to the country is consistently used by righitist to drum up xenophobia and immigrants are also used as a scapegoat for economic difficulties. One of the key arguments in Immigrants Against the State is that immigrants didn’t bring “radicalism” to the USA, but rather developed a fidelity to radical ideologies such as anarchism in response to the conditions of exploitation, ethnic oppression and social alienation they experienced as industrial workers. Nor was left-wing radicalization the “natural” and inevitable response of immigrants to these conditions; as Zimmer points out many Italian Immigrants chose to embrace fascism as a way to affirm white citizenship as opposed to a militant rejection of state and capital while many Jewish immigrants turned to Zionism. Many immigrants came to the United States expecting a democratic “city on a hill” often found the opposite of democracy in the part that dominated their life, work. Some would pursue integration, which in many cases meant joining the middle class and seeking to influence state structures for civil rights. Conservative and religious community leaders were just as much a part of working class immigrant communities as were militant anarchists and socialists. Zimmer correctly points out there was no “straight line” between immigration and radicalization, but a variety of factors at play, bringing nuance to the broader topic of immigration.

The book itself is structured around an exploration of three key strongholds of anarchism in the United States: the Yiddish speaking Jewish anarchists communities in NYC, particularly the Lower East Side, the Italian-American community of anarchists in Paterson New Jersey, and the multi-ethnic but smaller groupings in San Francisco. After dissecting each community in a chapter, Zimmer looks at the trans-national character of anarchism during the period and breaks down how connections formed through immigration and familial networks created possibilities for internationalist collaboration. One example raised is the collaboration of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) with Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) in an attempted insurrection in Baja California, ultimately an unsuccessful putsch though somewhat admirable for its internationalist zeal. From here the book paints a picture of anarchism in decline, incapable of sustaining itself as a movement in face of authoritarian Soviet Communism and liberal capitalism. The overall timespan covered is from the late 19th century to around 1945.

The first half of the book is undoubtably the strongest. Zimmer’s exploration of these working class communities in a country where socialism supposedly “never happened” (according to the likes of Werner Sombart) gives the reader an insightful gaze into what militant working class communities dedicated to anarchist ideals looked like in the US during the first half of the 20th century. He also explores the roles that ethnic solidarities played in these communities, most specifically in Paterson and the Lower East Side. Zimmer points out that the kind of ethnic balkanization that marked the US anarchist (and broader labor movement) movement was not a matter of choice, but was imposed by the conditions workers found themselves in. In a situation where immigrant workers lived in close quarters (typically to be walking distance from their jobs) and spoke the same language while suffering discrimination in a xenophobic society, immigrant workers would develop a dual form of solidarity – one ethnic and one based on class.

This is exemplified by the entire culture of Yiddish speaking Jewish anarchists, a culture partially constructed by intelligentsia immigrant radicals who in the homeland saw Yiddish as primitive peasant talk. Yet to reach out to workers in Jewish communities one had to know Yiddish, causing these radial intelligentsia to embrace Yiddish in response and publish newspaper in that language. Yiddish anarchists were also bonded by a common experience of diaspora from pogroms in Eastern Europe, further creating a form of ethnic solidarity that went beyond a common language.

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Yiddish Anarchist newspaper Freie Arbeiter Stimme

Zimmer is also quick to point out that anarchist ideology was one which espoused a world without borders held together by a cosmopolitan brotherhood of man. Yet this ideal was not counter to ethnic and even national forms of solidarity and communalism for all anarchists, as Bakunin’s writings distinguish between a nation which is a natural collectivity of “a people”, and the state which is a centralized institution imposed on “a people” to form a false collectivity. Zimmer is fairly uncritical of Bakunin’s views regarding nationalism which in many ways aim to reconcile anti-statism and nationalism by positing an “organic nation” against an “inorganic state”. He quotes Bakunin in the introduction saying “the spontaneous and free union of the living forces of a nation has nothing in common with their artificial concentration at once mechanistic and forced in the political centralization of the unitary state.” This reveals that Bakunin’s fondness for decentralization and federalism can largely be seen as a way to leave a door open for nationalism within his ideal future society. Further, Bakunin prefigures reactionary integralist nationalism by positing a transhistoric “people” that exist beyond the institutional state. Lacking a critique of Bakunin’s weaknesses regarding nationalism is a major blindspot, as one of the major weaknesses of the workers movement in the 20th Century was a strategy of taking the path of least resistance with regards to nationalism. Anarchist ideology, as much as it proclaimed cosmopolitan and internationalist ideals, did not fully preclude that solidarities produced by national or ethnic ties were inherently in conflict to their vision.

The contradictory nature of this vision comes out clearly in the parts of Zimmer’s book that discuss “anarcho-zionism” and the desires of some Jewish anarchists to combine nationalism with their vision of anarchism. While Yiddish speaking Jewish anarchists had developed whole subcultures around mocking Jewish religious practices they were still victims of Anti-Semitism, making an embrace of Jewish nationalism tempting for some. One Jewish anarchist who embraced nationalism was Hillel Solotaroff, who devised an ideology of “territorialism” while proclaiming that the purist internationalism that many Jewish anarchists embraced would lead to the destruction of their people (see pages 38-40 of Zimmers book for details of Solotaroff and territorialism). Territorialism was not understood by Solotaroff as a state-building ideology but rather a “federation of self-administered communes”. This was coupled with writings that endorsed outright chauvinism against Palestinians with claims that the presence of Jewish settlers would lead to the “primitive” society of Palestine benefitting from Jewish settlement and their “superior” culture. While still proclaiming adherence to anti-statism and internationalism, Solotaroff was heavily criticized by fellow Jewish anarchists, one of whom posed the question of whether he was a “nationalistic anarchist or anarchistic nationalist” in the Yiddish anarchist newspaper Fraye Arbeter Shtime. While only winning over a small following before his death in 1921, Solotaroff would foreshadow the shift towards Zionism that Jewish anarchists increasingly made after the Holocaust.

Of exceptional interest in this book is Zimmer’s chapter on Paterson, which was a heavily Italian-American proletarian community of silk workers where anarchist ideals became a way of life during the early 20th century. Zimmer notes that in Biella, a community which many of these workers came from, it was common to own a small plot to help sustain subsistence. In Paterson no such option was possible and Italian-American immigrants (many of whom without citizenship) had no stake in the political machine. Anarchism, especially in syndicalist variants, was a sensible alternative to electoral or partyist socialism offered by the Socialist Party USA or Socialist Labor Party. Syndicalism’s emphasis on workers self-management also harkened back to a sense of control over the labor process that was lost through the processes of proletarianization and immigration. This meant the IWW would have a strong organizational presence and would be instrumental in mobilizing workers during the tumultuous wave of garment and textile strikes that would take hold from 1909 -1913. Beyond the mere organizational presence of the IWW was a presence of an anarchist culture that thrived on translational networks with other militants where anarchism became a way of life. The chapter on Paterson demonstrates that mass strikes don’t appear out of nowhere. For workers to see themselves as part of a class and strike in solidarity they have to be socialized in such a way as to do so. The presence of a strong culture of working class collectivity manifested through organization building in Paterson and the militancy of the cities strike wave was no coincidence.

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IWW leader Bill Haywood and his squad in the streets of Paterson during the mass strike of 1913, a 6 month strike that ended in failure.

Not all anarchists in Paterson accepted organization building, with a trend of anti-organizational anarchists also existing in Paterson. The anti-organizationalists, while proclaiming the end goal of a federalist anarcho-communist society, argued that mass scale organization was inherently oppressive and that direct action by small groups (including but not limited to assassinations and bombings) would incite a spontaneous uprising of the masses that would abolish the state and capitalism immediately and inevitably spread worldwide. These political splits mirror those within the Marxist left as well, with the anti-organizationalist trends preceding the “councilist” tendency of ultra-left Marxism that places the spontaneous actions of workers at the point of production as the only authentic manifestation of legitimate working class organizations. By relying on a religious-like faith in spontaneity and hostility to organization both tendencies found similar fates of having little political importance, existing mostly as historical curiosities.

This brings to fore one of the main questions of revolutionary politics: how can organizations build up an existence within capitalism and gain influence without capitulating to the pressures of capitalist society and losing their revolutionary potential? Anarchists saw organization as either being the solution to this problem or the enemy itself. The anti-organizationalists put all their faith in the spontaneous action of the masses which would be sparked by the actions of the clandestine anarchist elite. On the other hand, the organizationalists tended toward syndicalism and believed that by only organizing unions they could keep “pure” by circumventing the political process and attract workers through their ability to win bread-and-butter demands, building up organizational strength to the point where a general strike could be called to shut down the city and transfer industry into the hands of the workers. Yet this strategy would also rely on a faith in mass spontaneity, as it is assumed and that the power vacuum created by a general strike would simply be left alone with an anarchist society freely arising in its wake. This ignores the political (as well as technical) complexities that come with organizing society in a revolutionary period, circumventing political power rather than grappling with its realities. How will people be won to an anti-capitalist programme for change? How will petty bourgeois specialists and civil servants whose needs are key to running society to be dealt with? Neither the organizationalists nor anti-organizationalists would be able to address, nonetheless answer, key political or practical questions and instead left their solution up to a faith spontaneity and the inherent goodness of mankind.

Zimmer’s politics certainly show in this work, which is in itself not a bad thing. Political partisanship is never reason itself to dismiss the value of a work. The fact that Zimmer has a strong affinity to anarchist ideology means his research is inspired to a certain extent by political passion and not entirely cynical careerism. Passion is no substitute for rigor however. Yet when it comes to constructing a narrative of the decline of anarchism in the US (and worldwide) Zimmer’s political leanings act as a blindspot. This is most apparent in the last chapter and conclusion of Immigrants Against the State, where Zimmer looks at the decline of US anarchism and its international counter-parts. However when it comes to producing a narratives that explains this decline Zimmer continues a flawed explanation that continues to haunt anarchist historians.

In Immigrants Against the State the blame for anarchism’s decline in the USA is ultimately put on Bolshevism and Stalinism (with little distinguish of course), whose rise to prominence meant one was stuck in a world where you either were in support of US imperialism or the USSR. Anarchists, victims of multiple betrayals from the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Stalinists in Spain, were therefore tragic victims of authoritarian forces which prevented the flourishing of anarchist libertarianism. This doesn’t mean Zimmer puts all the blame on anarchism’s Marxist rivals. Concerning the US Zimmer begins with the domestic repression of radicals in the period following the US’ entrance into WWI, the rise of Bolshevism and its factor in dividing the anarchist movement. The effects of domestic repression are not to be ignored; acts like the Anarchist Exclusion Act of 1918 banned anarchist immigrants and allowed naturalized radicals to be stripped of citizenship and then deported. In 1920 the Palmer Raids crippled the IWW and a budding Communist Party already torn apart by factional struggle. Zimmer is also willing to portray the Bolshevik Revolution as an energizing force in the United States, creating a vision of “soviet power” that many workers aimed (and attempted) to create. Yet the influence of Bolshevism on anarchism in the US is portrayed mostly as a negative one that divided the anarchist movement and sapped it of its energy.

Beyond the United States, anarchists were repressed in the USSR (though some still held office until Stalinist purges in the 1930s) and the CNT-FAI’s potential for leading a revolution in alliance with dissident Marxists was strangled by Stalinist repression and fascist defeat. Anarchist internationalism was in ruins at this point, ultimately having lost out to Stalinism and Liberalism as a dominating world ideologies post-WWII. Wherever anarchists had movements that threatened the prevailing authorities they certainly faced repression from the state, but this is to be expected. Repression alone cannot explain why movements fail.

No sane Marxist would argue that the failure of the USSR was due solely to external pressures from US imperialism and that the state had no internal flaws of its own that played a role in its demise. Yet Zimmer’s history of anarchism presents a narrative where anarchism has no internal flaws, only external failings due to the tragedies of state repression. This is a consistent theme in anarchist literature, echoed in the works like Sam Dolgoff’s The Anarchist Collectives or Ian Mackay’s collaborative Anarchist FAQ document. Rather than trying to understand the internal problems and flaws that may have led to the decline of anarchism, Zimmer places all of the blame on external authoritarians. This is of course reflected in Zimmer’s own ideology as a committed anarchist; if humans are simply left free of the state then they will be naturally inclined to act with good will and cooperate with “mutual aid”.

Marxists do not deny that human nature exists, but also understand that human nature is something that is historically constructed through an ensemble of social relations that develop historically, often through conflict. Anarchist ideology generally fails to see this and instead envisions an eternal instinct to freedom. Yes, the human is corrupted by institutions, but once such institutions are swept away humanity will return to a “natural state” of freedom says the anarchist. Yet Marxists realize that social relations must be transformed for human nature to be transformed, which means grasping with political, strategic and transitional questions.

Zimmer’s work shows the most positive aspects of historical anarchism: its ties to working class communities and its ability to fuel militant actions against capital and the state. His work is also a good starting place for those interested in immigrant anarchism in the United States as well as labor militancy in general. While anarchist history as a rule of thumb is far more interesting than anarchist theory, those unfamiliar with the theories behind anarchism and how they connect to practice will learn something from reading this book.

Where Immigrants Against the State falls short is explaining why the historical movement of anarchism has faded away, a question of importance to anyone who is a political partisan. If one accepts that external repression isn’t a sufficient answer on its own, then Zimmer fails to really add anything new when it comes to answering critical questions and instead simply paints a vibrant picture of a world long gone, where anarchists are tragic heroes in a corrupt world set against them. Its a history of “bad guys who are authoritarian” vs. “good guys who believe in freedom”, ideological but not critical. It aims to ignore rather than grapple with questions like political decision-making, authority, and developing mass constituency. This isn’t to say Zimmer is blind to any of the unsavory aspects of anarchism, with this critique of their backwards gender views regarding the “virile syndicalism” of the IWW as well as his willingness to discuss the connections between anarchism and Zionism. Yet like so much anarchist writing, Zimmer’s book sets out to prove that anarchism is more than bomb throwers and rebellious denials of authority. In doing so, it is more of the same in a long line of attempts to prove that anarchism is relevant- not the kind of serious attempt to explain and understand anarchism as a historical phenomena that we need.