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  • Immigrants against the State: Yiddish and Italian Anarchism in America by Kenyon Zimmer
  • Rachel I. Buff
Immigrants against the State: Yiddish and Italian Anarchism in America by, Kenyon Zimmer. Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 2015. 280 pp. $95.00 US (cloth), $30.00 US (paper), $27.00 US (e-book).

This is a beautiful, exceptionally well-researched work of transnational history. In it, Kenyon Zimmer delineates the story of twentieth century immigrant anarchism as it crisscrossed both Atlantic and Pacific oceans, constituting and being shaped by twentieth century political upheavals along the way.

This is no small task. As Zimmer explains in the introduction, "Anarchism was a movement in movement. It was also a movement of movements, worldwide in scale but composed of overlapping groups and networks loosely demarcated by characteristics such as location, language and nationality" (2). Investigating this multi-stranded story entails laborious research in archives compiled in many languages throughout the United States and Europe. The author relies heavily on vivacious but often short-lived movement periodicals, as well as the papers of individuals and organizations. This research is ably supplemented by his indexical grasp of European and US twentieth social movements. [End Page 569]

The dazzling synthesis that emerges illuminates the formation of transnational migrant communities on west and east coasts of the United States as well as the political debates and federal repression that fractured them. Throughout the book, Zimmer traces the emergence of what he calls "radical cosmopolitanism in action" (183) in anarchist thought and organizing. He is most interested in the places where anarchist organizing leads activists to reimagine or cross national, community, or conceptual boundaries; a salutary and original contribution. As the author himself points out, of course anarchist statelessness was a matter of both their own doctrine and the tendency of national governments to deport or otherwise repress these movements.

Parts of this story have been widely told: anarchist participation in the Haymarket Uprising of 1886; international furor over the execution of Italian American anarchists Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti; the formation of important organizations, such as the Workmen's Circle, the Industrial Workers of the World (iww) and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ilgwu). Zimmer's dazzling, transnational archival labours inventively frames these well-known stories through the lens of an ongoing, radical cosmopolitanism. Readers of this book also encounter lesser-known tales, such as the formation of the anarchist Pacific Coast Hindi Association, or Ghadar Party in 1913, and the short-lived, multi-racial, binational anarchist occupation in Baja, Mexico coordinated by Ricardo Flores Magón (1874–1922). Similarly, the book expands the familiar pantheon of anarchist heroes such as Emma Goldman (1869–1940) and Carlo Tresca (1879–1943) to include vivid and interesting figures such as self-taught Yiddishist newspaper editor Saul Yanovsky (1864–1939) and Japanese American anarchist leader Shusui Kotoku (1871–1911).

Zimmer deploys his "radical cosmopolitanism" frame to advantage in analyzing immigrant anarchist movements. The chapter on Jewish anarchism reveals that many migrants adopted Yiddish strategically, so that the language "created a diasporic imagined community united through the secular written word" (28). Their "fusion of Yidishkayt and anarchism" (210) created a radical, secular identity in Jewish migrant communities. Created primarily in New York, anarchist Yidishkayt travelled to other cities in the United States and Europe.

Prophetically, most early twentieth century Yiddish anarchists opposed Zionism as a senseless nationalism that could only lead to oppressions at the hands of the state. At the same time, Zimmer argues that their adoption of Yiddish as a movement lingua franca led Jewish immigrants to be isolated from collaboration with other radicals. While Yiddish anarchism infused the formation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, it also created a radical culture bounded by language. Zimmer notes that [End Page 570] connections between Yiddish anarchists and African American workers were rare on the east coast.

Just as Yidishkayt constituted a non-territorial homeland, Zimmer argues that migrants from Italy created a common Italian identity using the labour anarchism that emerged from factories. A common Italianness emerged among anarchists in places like North Beach in San Francisco and Patterson, New Jersey. At the same time, on both east...


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pp. 569-571
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