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  • "Dreaming (Un)American Dreams"Anarchists and the Struggle to Define Americanism
  • Alice Béja


Why would an anarchist defend Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence? Why would an anarchist appeal a conviction to the Supreme Court of the United States? Or lecture in English to an audience of liberal East Coast intellectuals? Such actions might seem at odds with a set of political beliefs resting on internationalism, the refusal of organized government, and an audience which is mainly composed of foreign born workers. Yet these are precisely the tactics some anarchists, first among them Emma Goldman, resorted to in their reaction to the laws and police repression targeting them at the turn of the twentieth century. For while authorities sought to brand anarchists as "un-American" expounders of a foreign creed, Goldman and others attempted to counter patriotic discourse by re-appropriating parts of U.S.–American national mythology in order to forge new alliances, expand the range of the anarchist message, and construct tools of resistance to state repression. [End Page 1]

Recent scholarship has stressed the need to reevaluate national frameworks in the study of anarchism, to explore the various scales of analysis (local, national, global) in their interactions rather than in isolation from each other.1 I address here two aspects of this reintroduction of the national scale: in the wake of studies on the repression of anarchism, I analyze how the state as a purveyor both of laws and of normative discourse framed anarchist activities and ideas as "foreign" to U.S. national identity at the turn of the century.2 While the concrete results of legislation like the 1903 Immigration Act were disappointing to authorities responsible for implementing them,3 the framing of anarchism as a foreign creed spurred a wave of mobilization in anarchist ranks; Goldman, through her participation in the Free Speech League, sought to Americanize anarchism and to widen the coalition of its defenders under the banner of free speech.4 In doing so, she and other anarchist activists (Claus Timmermann, Alexander Berkman) used references to U.S.–American history and traditions of dissent, fostering what Davide Turcato has called "an inclusive idea of nation."5 The nation, as opposed to the state, could therefore appear as a framework within which to reinscribe the anarchist ideal without betraying internationalism. Goldman used the idea of America as a political and rhetorical strategy to counter state repression and broaden the reach of her message at a time when politicians were seeking to crystallize American identity around political and ethnic norms that excluded anarchists.6

The reframing of anarchist rhetoric in the United States echoed similar strategies of anarchist movements in Europe, where, after the split with the socialists and the wave of political assassinations that branded all anarchists as terrorists, the movement in France and Switzerland looked to broader coalitions to destigmatize anarchism as a political creed while maintaining its revolutionary objectives.7 Activists and writers therefore resorted to what Nino Kühnis has called "nationalist recuperation," a term which perfectly reflects what Goldman and Max Baginsky did in the pages of Mother Earth, contributing to a strain of radical discourse that sought to frame ideas perceived as "un-American" in a U.S. tradition of political freedom and individual agency while unmasking the political hypocrisy of American democracy as it was defended by those in power.8

In claiming the right to "dream Un-American dreams,"9 anarchists in the United States, most of them foreign-born, contributed to weaving a network [End Page 2] of discourses and mobilizations around the topic of national identity and nationalism, unsettled notions which coalesced during and after World War I into a restrictive vision of what it means to be an American both ethnically and politically, a vision from which anarchists—as well as socialists and Communists—were to be excluded. They experimented with tools of resistance later to be used by generations of radicals also facing oppression because of their political beliefs. The figure of Goldman loomed large upon those discussions; although she was not alone in believing in the need for propaganda in English in order to win over U.S.-born...


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