The Jewish anarchists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sometimes thought of themselves as dipping into the well of their most ancient traditions to discover something already there. As a girl, Emma Goldman “used to dream of becoming a Judith,” she confesses in her epic autobiography, Living My Life, “and visioned myself in the act cutting off Holofernes' head to avenge the wrongs of my people.” Others had a more complicated relationship with Jewish tradition. If you search for Lazare’s name on the web, you’ll find it quoted with alarming, but unsurprising frequency on the websites of antisemitic organizations: “The general causes of antisemitism have always resided in Israel itself, and not in those who antagonized it . . . everywhere up to our own days the Jew was an unsociable being. Why was he unsociable? Because he was exclusive," he wrote in the first half of his magnum opus, Antisemitism: Its History And Its Causes (1896).
The Nazi types who gloat over this, however, are not quite as excited by the second half of the book, written after an enlightening interregnum, in which Lazare repudiates the false racial “science” of Jew-haters like Edouard Drumont, and immersed himself in the words of the prophets, those excellent malcontents. Now Lazare wrote that antisemitism was “one of the last, though most long lived, manifestations of that old spirit of reaction and narrow conservatism, which is vainly attempting to arrest the onward movement of the Revolution.” Conversely, Lazare discovers a “revolutionary spirit” in Judaism itself, a tendency implicit in the this-worldly character of the tradition. Since, Lazare argues, “the Jew does not believe in the Beyond,” Jews “cannot accept unhappiness and injustice in earthly life in the name of a future reward” and have therefore continually “sought justice” in the here and now. (No opiate of the masses for us, thanks.) Indeed, Lazare believed, “anarchy” was implicit in the First Commandment: if we are to have no other master before God, “What authority can, then, prevail by the side of the divine authority? All government, whatever it be, is evil since it tends to take the place of the government of God; it must be fought against."
Still, there was a strong anti-traditional streak among Jewish anarchists, as in the tradition of the anarchist Yom Kippur Ball. In the late 1880s, “The Pioneers of Freedom,” a Jewish anarchist club based in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, passed out mock Avinu Malkenus written in Yiddish and partied through Kol Nidre. In 1889, they invited all Jewish workers to join the party – party with a lower-case “p” – in the Clarendon Hall, causing a “near-riot” when the proprietor tried to call it off at the last minute. In 1890, in Brooklyn, they threw a “Grand Yom Kippur Ball with theater” on Yom Kippur, advertising their celebration as “Arranged with the consent of all new rabbis of Liberty . . . Kol Nidre, music, dancing, buffet; Marseillaise and other hymns.” This spectacle, which more than once provoked actual street skirmishes between believers and non-believers, was duplicated in London and in Philadelphia. Some tales even tell that in the heyday of the anarchist kibbutzim, a group held a Yom Kippur march to the Wailing Wall to eat ham sandwiches.
The rabbinic establishment fought back. For example, in 1888, the religious leaders of London’s Jewish community declared war on the Yiddish-language anarchist newspaper, the Arbeter Fraint. According to William J. Fishman’s exquisite history, East End Jewish Radicals, 1875-1914, “the back page of every issue carried the appeal in heavy type: ‘Workers, do your duty. Spread the Arbeter Fraint!’” But someone aligned with the rabbinic authorities bribed the typesetter, and issue number 26 appeared with the wording of the ad slightly changed: “Workers, do your duty. Destroy the Arbeter Fraint!” The typesetter promptly disappeared, fleeing the wrath of the editors; then, after that, they bribed the printer. Anarchists were as active in their reaction as in their provocation. When the Arbeter Fraint started up again, it featured a full-bore attack on orthodox Judaism, including parodies of the Passover seder and Lamentations for good measure.
(Truces were sometimes declared, though; on at least one occasion, in 1890, the Russian-Jewish anarchists of Philadelphia actually called off their Yom Kippur Ball – which was to feature “pork-eating” – out of respect for the role played by the city’s orthodox rabbi, Sabato Morais, in mediating a crucial strike of cloakmakers that year.)
In London in the 1890s, Rudolf Rocker – a German gentile who had fallen in love with a young Jewish labor militant, taught himself Yiddish, and eventually found himself editor of the Arbeter Fraint, the de facto political leader of the East End Jewish working class – was asked to comment on the habit of some Jewish anarchists of demonstrating “provocative behaviour” in front of the Brick Lane synagogue on Shabbat. He answered that “the place for believers was the house of worship, and the place for non-believers was the radical meeting.” This, if you think about it, is a peculiarly rabbinical sort of exchange – it’s just the sort of question young men used to ask rabbis to answer: Rabbi, are the comrades right to demonstrate in front of the synagogue on the Sabbath? And indeed, Rocker functioned as a kind of rabbi, preaching revolutionary ardor and connecting with individuals in the movement. If Marxism was all about systems – economic mechanisms, stages of history, dialectical laws – anarchism was more prophetic in nature: it came from moral indignation, not sociological analysis. As a result, anarchism differed from Marxism in its regard for the individual. From Marx to Trotsky, the prescription had always been the same: assimilation into one grand, generic working-class identity and participation in the one grand, generic workers’ revolution. But Lazare despaired of “the ending of . . . all differences in the world." He wrote, “I am happy about every imponderable and ineffable thing that brings about exclusive bonds, unities, and also differentiations within humanity."
Anarchists also differed from Marxists on the question of ends and means. For anarchists, the question of ethics, of how one ought to live, was not something to be postponed until “after the revolution,” the Marxist equivalent of the Christian afterlife; it had to be addressed here and now, in the very process of creating a revolution. “There is no greater fallacy than the belief that aims and purposes are one thing, while methods and tactics are another,” wrote Goldman in the wake of her expulsion from Russia. “To divest one's methods of ethical concepts means to sink into the depths of utter demoralization.”
Anarchist tactics – bombings, sabotage, assassinations -- today seem redolent of terrorism. But this is more image than substance. True, as hot-blooded young militants, Goldman and Berkman plotted an attempt on the life of steel magnate Henry Clay Frick on behalf of the striking workers murdered by his Pinkerton goons at Homestead, Pennsylvania. It didn’t work: Frick lived, and Berkman went to prison. Other anarchists practicing “propaganda by the deed” were more successful than Berkman – Schwartzbard’s slaying of Petliura was only one of many examples (incredibly, the jury acquitted him out of sympathy!) – but this period of bombings and stabbings largely exhausted itself by 1894, when anarchists woke up and realized that all these sporadic, individual acts of violence weren’t accomplishing anything and only made the State stronger in the ensuing waves of judicial crackdowns and police reprisals. In fact, a favorite tactic of the powers that be, then and now, has been to manufacture “anarchist” bombs, bomb-plots, and even bombers, to terrify ordinary people. (Goldman’s comrades suspected that Leon Czolgosz, the self-proclaimed anarchist who shot President McKinley in 1901, was a police spy.) Even Berkman, in his later years, declared that he was no longer generally “in favor of terroristic tactics, except under very exceptional circumstances” – Nazi Germany being one of those circumstances.
Consequently, from 1894 on, anarchists emphasized positive, constructive activism, organizing clubs, neighborhoods, workers’ cooperatives, experimental schools, collective farms, mutual-aid societies, and anarcho-syndicalist labor unions. Far from being allergic to organization, anarchists advocated a kind of organization “from below,” in the words of Voline. They sought to replace coercive institutions with cooperative ones, to find ways of building a working society in a democratic, egalitarian, and decentralized fashion, using frequent face-to-face meetings of small groups to make decisions – rather like a kibbutz.
Neurotic Visionaries & Paranoid Jews
April 7, 2005
Jews on Stage
Out of Bounds
Messianic Troublemakers: Jewish Anarchism
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From previous issues:
The Gifts of the German Jews
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