Kristian Williams: Anarchism’s Mid-Century Turn

Anarchism’s Mid-Century Turn
Kristian Williams, Toward Freedom, May 3, 2016

Review & Response: Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the Twentieth Century, By Andrew Cornell, University of California Press, 2016, 300 pages.

Part One


No matter how one feels about it, the current state of anarchism has represented something of a mystery: What was once a mass movement based mainly in working class immigrant communities is now an archipelago of subcultural scenes inhabited largely by disaffected young people from the white middle class.

Andrew Cornell’s Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the Twentieth Century supplies the first convincing account of that transition. Beginning in 1916, just before the Red Scare, and closing in 1972, just as our present movement was taking shape, the book serves as “a prehistory of contemporary anarchism.” Giving particular attention to the middle decades when anarchism seemed to disappear, Cornell uncovers a missing history and finds “a clear line of continuity rather than a defined break.” The line he traces is continuous, but it is not straight. There may not be a gap, but there was most certainly a turn.

In the early part of the century, from 1905 to 1917, American anarchism was predominantly, but by no means exclusively, syndicalist. The IWW was of singular import. The Red Scare of 1917­–1920 all but destroyed the organization, and the movement. What remained of syndicalism was occupied primarily with legal defense, and other anarchists came to a focus more on education and creating counterinstitutions, rather than mass organizing or immediate insurrection. Hence, anarchists were on the sidelines during the upheavals of the thirties. Then, during the Second World War, the remaining movement split over the question of militarism, with pacifists coming to the fore. At the same time, increasingly much of anarchist activity was in the cultural sphere, and the movement became wedded to the emerging counterculture. “[R]eadings, performances, and exclusive parties moved to the center of anarchist praxis,” Cornell writes. “In the 1940s Bay Area scene, participating in such revelatory events became the primary activity expected of an anarchist. Indeed, we might interpret this as the time and place where an anarchist ‘scene’ emerged — exciting and socially rewarding to participants, but easily perceived as insular and exclusionary to those less connected.”

Anarchism came to comprise a set of cultural practices rather than a coherent movement or body of thought. Thus anarchist ideas, but not organizations, were ubiquitous in their influence on the movement of the sixties. By the end of the decade, as Cornell observes, “anarchism had never meant more things to more people. What emerged in the early 1970s was not a unified anarchist movement as such but an array of small groups excited by communism, syndicalism, situationism, libertarian socialism, ultraleftism, revolutionary nonviolence, anarcha-feminism, and social ecology.”

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