- Radical Gotham: Anarchism in New York City from Schwab's Saloon to Occupy Wall Street ed. by Tom Goyens
During a moment in which neo-fascism is entering mainstream U.S. politics under the banner of the "alt-Right," and direct opposition to it appears largely confined to the anarchist-influenced Antifa (anti-fascist) movement, Radical Gotham is a timely and helpful investigation of New York City as an incubator for American misfits—immigrants, pacifists, and artists—and their evolving plans for a freer and more just world.
The first four chapters in the collection explore anarchism among various immigrant groups in late 19th and early 20th century New York. Respectively, Tom Goyens, Kenyon Zimmer, Marcella Bencivenni, and Christopher J. Castañeda present the German, Yiddish, Italian, and Spanish anarchist traditions. Thanks to the careful work of editor Goyens, these chapters read almost as if written collectively. The authors frequently reference one another and their chapters overlap in terms of both chronology and subject. This cohesiveness, along with the maps included by Goyens and Castañeda (especially helpful for non-New Yorkers), gives these chapters the feel of a radical walking tour of the many, often surprising, venues in which schemes were hatched and ideas were debated at the turn of the last century – from Rough Mike's and Schwab's beer halls, to Spanish barber shops, to Albasi's grocery and the Vesuvio restaurant. Equally interesting are the ways in which anarchists not only shaped their neighborhoods, but also how they themselves were shaped by their experiences upon arrival. After being drawn to the U.S. by promises of opportunity and the rhetoric of freedom, many immigrants were radicalized by the contradictions between that vision and the harsh realities of New York City's sweatshops, tenements, and cigar factories. Though not an indepth study of anarchist thought, these chapters offer an engaging overview of many of the disagreements that anarchists had with one another, with other radicals, and with the ruling class of the day.
No less compelling are the next two essays, Anne Klejment's examination of the Catholic Worker movement and Andrew Cornell's chapter on the Why?/Resistance group. Together they tackle anarchist pacifism in the mid-20th century, which was controversial among Catholics as well as anarchists. Decades earlier, debates about the strategic value of violence ("propaganda by the deed" in anarchist discussions) had been both common and divisive. Anarchists had a reputation as [End Page 1477] "bomb-throwers" (a completely fair characterization at the time, though anarchists also hosted family picnics), but those acts of violence were not one-sided. Violence by the state and by the forces of capital was ubiquitous during the period. In a historical twist, anarchists of that earlier moment were criticized if they refused to renounce violence outright, but decades later, anarchists were imprisoned (or deported) if they refused to participate in U.S. wars. Public support for World War II in particular, across the political spectrum, made conscientious objectors—anarchist or otherwise—unpopular, but their principled resistance set the philosophical and organizational tone for much of the non-violent civil disobedience that then anchored 1950s and 1960s protest politics.
From there, Radical Gotham turns to anarchist threads in arts movements with essays by Allan Antliff on the Living Theatre, Caitlin Casey on the Motherfuckers, Erin Wallace on Gordon Matta-Clark, and Alan W. Moore on the ABC No Rio art gallery. In these chapters, anarchism is less a formal ideology than a tool to provoke the art world and the political Left—as well as to comment on the political and economic shifts of mid-to-late 20th century New York City: "urban renewal" and "slum clearance" policies, poverty, real estate speculation, and gentrification. These stories add important variety and depth to the collection by demonstrating the different ways that anarchist thought was applied to changing political and cultural realities. However, they do little to connect to one another or to the...