- Immigrants against the State: Yiddish and Italian Anarchism in America by Kenyon Zimmer
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015
x + 300 pp., $95.00 (cloth); $30.00 (paper)
The current revival of scholarship on the history of international anarchism is quietly rewriting many aspects of the social and cultural history of the Left. The study of American anarchism has remained on the margins for too long even with the impact of the new social history. The more we learn about the anarchist movement the more enduring its seemingly modest footprint turns out to be, a process of discovery set in motion by the late Paul Avrich, the pioneer historian of the field. Kenyon Zimmer's Immigrants against the State embodies and extends Avrich's legacy by investigating anarchist history within the fields of labor and migration history. Zimmer asks, "How and why did thousands of immigrants become anarchists?" (2). In answering this question, Zimmer's excellent narrative does three important things of which labor and immigration historians do well to take notice.
First, by grounding his study in migration history, Zimmer challenges a number of assumptions about immigrants and their political identity. A century-old view that anarchism was a foreign commodity brought into an exceptional American republic is on the whole inaccurate. Zimmer shows that the majority of Jewish and Italian immigrants radicalized after their arrival in America, as Tony Michels also revealed in A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005). American conditions such as the systemic violence of industrial capitalism led thousands of newcomers to embrace anarchism (and other Left ideologies). Rather than quietly absorb the pressures of Americanization, Zimmer shows, immigrant radicals exhibited a remarkable agility in cultivating a diasporic, cosmopolitan identity. His findings are consistent with other recent studies that reveal previously invisible radical identities of immigrants: Jennifer Guglielmo's Living the Revolution: Italian Women's Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880–1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010) and Marcella Bencivenni's Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890–1940 (New York: New York University Press, 2011). Cosmopolitan statelessness complicates standard immigration narratives to some degree. In line with other findings of the new anarchist scholarship, Zimmer documents a vibrant transnational sensibility among radicals who returned and remigrated and, in some cases, transferred anarchist ideas from the New to the Old World.
Another fascinating aspect Zimmer brings to light is the uneven ways the US government attempted to exclude and persecute anarchists and other Left radicals. This persecution was very real and had a marked effect on the anarchist movement during the war and postwar years, but it was hardly an airtight system. Zimmer traces individuals and groups beyond the Red Scare years only to find that some reentered or helped to revive the movement once again. These are not simply evocative vignettes; rather, they [End Page 156] attest to the seemingly indestructible anarchist idea of cosmopolitanism in the face of state repression and against the drumbeat of totalitarianism in the 1930s and 1940s. As those government efforts perhaps suggest, the anarchists were by no means a piddling movement. Zimmer confirms the relative strength of anarchism as a political ideology during the decades before the First World War by including two graphs showing circulation totals of the anarchist press. This simple visualization is based on the most thorough analysis of US anarchist periodical circulation to date, with figures hovering around 40,000 with peaks of nearly 120,000.
Second, Immigrants against the State advances our knowledge of immigrant anarchism in a number of critical areas, not least because of the author's impressive use of non-English sources, a virtual job requirement for the historian of anarchism. Zimmer devotes an entire chapter to anarchist activism during the First World War, a topic long neglected by historians of American anarchism. The war caused a painful rupture in the movement, with some taking sides and others repudiating the war altogether. Even Avrich barely covered the war years in his seminal essay on...