For a movement doomed to come to absolutely nothing, anarchism had a surprisingly long run in the United States.
An exhibit at the Central Branch of the Queens Library, cleverly titled "Gilded Rage: Anarchy in the New America," shows that the movement's heyday lasted from 1886 - the year of the Haymarket riot where four strikers will killed by Chicago police - until around 1919. The exhibit features pamphlets, photographs, books and other memorabilia recounting many of the movement's heroes and pivotal moments.
Anarchism arose around the same time as the emergence of the robber barons who made fortunes and lived in great gilded monstrosities, and the underclass, made up largely of immigrants, whom they liked to exploit. The anarchists focused on the immigrants' poor working conditions, and on unemployment, education, women's liberation, birth control and the draft.
They believed that government was unnecessary and that people were essentially self-regulating and could do without it. Alas, a minority of them were violent, like Leon Czolgosz, the Polish immigrant who assassinated President McKinley, and it was this group of folk that over the years caused anarchism to lose a lot of its cachet.
Some of the first photos in the exhibit show the ghastly living and working conditions of the underclass - you can experience the near-darkness, you can almost feel the lice and fleas and smell the fetid air. Some of these photos were taken by Jacob Riis, the famed author of "How the Other Half Lives."
Another photo shows Alexander Berkman speaking at Union Square surrounded by a sea of men in boater hats - the only man who's hatless seems to be Berkman. On the other side of the park a photographer, also in a boater, has climbed up on a ladder and aims a clunky box camera at the orator.
Berkman's career began early when he was tossed out of school for submitting an essay called "There is No God." Though his family was well-off he emigrated from Lithuania in 1888, and later met Emma Goldman. He believed in "propaganda by deed," ( Perhaps today we would call it armed struggle).
During the Homestead Strike, when Andrew Carnegie's workers struck and were oppressed by his henchman Henry Clay Frick, Berkman arranged to have Frick blown up. But Frick was only wounded and Berkman spent 14 years in jail.
In 1916 he moved to San Francisco and published a journal called, not surprisingly, "The Blast." One of the covers shows a scene straight out of Fuseli: A demon called Government squats atop a young woman called Free Press, and stabs her in the neck. Beneath them are the words, "You and I cannot live in the same land." Eventually, Berkman and Goldman were tossed out of the country altogether.
Johann Most was a social orator in Austria and Germany in the 1860s and '70s and elected to the German Reichstag in 1874, only to be soon kicked out of both Germany and Austria for his beliefs. He contended that force was the only way to destroy the existing government and no one seemed to be able to stand him but Emma Goldman, and she was only able to stand him for a few years before they fell out. A photo shows him as one of those intense chaps with an abundance of aristocratic facial hair. Nearby are cartoons from the magazine Puck that lampooned him brilliantly. One by Joseph Keppler has Most as Siegfried The Fearless in the Political Dismal Swamp about to slay the dragon of war tariff with the sword of sound policy. All around him are carrion eaters and other nasty beasts with the faces of some of his fellow anarchists.
There's even on display a Remington typewriter with English and German characters, the kind Most probably used. In the same display case is another typewriter with English and Hebrew characters for his Jewish comrades.
Another gentleman profiled was Benjamin R. Tucker, who took up the cause in 1872. A picture shows a melon-headed chap with a shaving-brush mustache and starched collar who might have been the sort of robber baron he railed against. He published the journal "Liberty" for 27 years, and published books such as the English translation of "What is Property?" and "God and the State." Beside him are photos of three men who really look like anarchists, with great untamable beards and unkempt hair: Mr. Bakunin, Mr. Kropotkin and Count Tolstoy. Kropotkin has a nice Santa Claus twinkle in his eye, but the other two look a touch crazy, especially Tolstoy.
One half of another room is dedicated to the mother of all anarchists, Emma Goldman, whose relentlessly grim expression makes her look like W.B. Yeats in drag. She came to America at 16, where she was inspired by the Haymarket riot. Unfortunately she was caught up in the red scare that came shortly after McKinley's assassination and kept being arrested, which didn't stop her from publishing or speechifying, until she and Berkman were finally deported to Russia. She only came back once, in 1934, for a 90-day lecture tour.
When she died in 1940 her body was returned to the States and buried beside the Haymarket martyrs. Curiously, the exhibit has a photo of her hands, which seem swollen, as if from edema, with heavily freckled wrists. Also on display is a photo of the trashed offices of the Industrial Workers of the World, which Goldman supported, her pamphlets, schedules of her lectures, and editions of her journal "Mother Earth."
An "ethnic map" of Manhattan from 1920 is also on view, and we read that this map has less to do with ethnicity than the location of subversive groups. There's also a video called the "Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists." The Jewish anarchists helped to build the labor movement through their Modern Schools, where children made up the curriculum, did not receive grades and called teachers by their first names - yes, they did manage to learn something - and the publication" Freite Arbieter Stimme." Photos of the anarchist Stelton school show children happily making music and running around naked in fresh air and sunshine
By the way, Emma Goldman's dourness aside, the anarchists did manage to have some fun, staging anarchist balls and anarchist picnics. But it begs the question: How on earth do you organize an anarchist picnic?
Gilded Rage will be at the Central Branch, 89-11 Merrick Blvd., through June 16.
Reach Qguide writer Arlene McKanic by e-mail at email@example.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.
©2001 Community News Group
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