Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Jewish Anarchists

From the August 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

It makes a refreshing change to find a TV programme dealing with radical ideas in a serious and sympathetic manner. The Free Voice of Labour: The Jewish Anarchists (Channel 4, June 26), was the fourth programme in an excellent series on American labour. The film, using interviews, snippets of rare films, newsreels, stills and song, told the story of the Yiddish anarchist paper, Freie Arbeiter Stimme, established on 4 July 1896. Although the aim of the paper was to spread ideas about a society without government, coercion and wars, it also provided a medium for Yiddish culture, theatre, poetry and literature.

The historian Paul Avrich, author of several books on anarchism, explained how Jewish immigrants escaping from Eastern Europe were disappointed with life in capitalist America. The so-called land of liberty, promise and opportunity, was brutal and oppresive. The conditions of labour in the sweatshops and factories of Boston and New York were miserable, the wages low. Some of these experiences are reflected in the folksong, Mayn Rue Plats, (My Place of Rest).

Don't look for me where the myrtles grow
You won't find me there, my love.
Where lives wither at machines, that is my resting place
Don't look for me where birds sing.
You won't find me there, my love.
I am a slave, and where my chains ring,
That is my resting place.

The Jewish immigrants worked mainly in the needle trades and it was here that anarchists and radicals became involved in the struggle, often violent, to establish trade unions and the eight hour day. This story is captured in the Yiddish feature film, Uncle Moses (1932) and in the folksong, Makhnes Geyen (Masses Marching):

How long, oh how long
Will you remain enslaved
Bearing the shameful shackles?
How long can you create magnificent riches
For him who robs you of your bread?
How long will you stand stopped back,
Down trodden, homeless, in pain?
It's dawn, already! Wake up!
Open your eyes!
Recognise your strength of steel!

The Jewish anarchist movement was at its height between 1880 and 1920, and during this short period of time it helped to influence the development of the American labour movement. In the 1920s and 1930s anarchist ideas were kept alive by Italian and Spanish immigrants. Several reasons were given for the decline of the Jewish anarchists. Firstly, the overthrow of Tsarism in Russia by the Bolsheviks, who used slogans such as "All Power to the Soviets", attracted many young and active anarchists, who formed the backbone of the American Communist Party. Secondly, America's entry into the First World War led to an increase in patriotic fervour and a crackdown on all "subversive organisations". Anarchists and Wobblies were attacked for making anti-war speeches. The Palmer raids led to persecution and imprisonment for radicals. Under the Espionage Act, anarchists such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were deported. Finally, Jewish anarchism can be seen as partly a response to the experience of being an immigrant in a strange and hostile country. Future generations were rapidly assimilated into mainstream American life. With the decline of Yiddish language and culture went the decline of the Freie Arbeiter Stimme. It ceased publication on the 25 November 1977, with a circulation of 1,700.

Many of the ideas discussed in this fascinating programme have been consistently advocated by the Socialist Party (The World Socialist Movement) - the abolition of the state, opposition to all capitalist wars, and rejection of the state-capitalist system found in Russia and other so-called socialist societies.

Having watched this programme and sung along with Hey, Hey, Daloy Polltsey (Down with the Police), I somehow couldn't face the next programme, Their Lordship House.
Steve Coleman

You can now view the film online at the following website.

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