Anarchism in America (1983)

“I’m a man of peace, and that’s why I’m an anarchist.”

This DVD includes two documentaries–the title film, Anarchism in America and The Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists. In the first film, the filmmakers take the thesis that some aspects of the American temperament are compatible with aspects of anarchism. The filmmakers take to the road and interview various individuals with this thesis in mind. A variety of individuals–both anarchist and non-anarchist are interviewed–including a truck driver, and workers from a worker-owned sewing company. The decisions these individuals have made in their lives are examined in light of anarchist beliefs. The film also includes a segment featuring Ed Headman from the No More Nukes Programme in which he explains how the non-hierarchal aspects of the anarchists can also be found in No Nuke protests.

Additional segments from this 75-minute film include a brief clip of the Dead Kennedys in performance, followed by an interview with the band members. Archival footage of Emma Goldman is included, and the intensely practical Murray Bookchin also describes his movement towards anarchism following his disappointment with Communism.

The second film, The Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists is 55 minutes long, and it’s the stronger of the two films. The film examines the massive immigration to America in the late 1800s–a movement that brought with it a number of Jewish anarchists from Russia. They “replaced American culture with a counter culture” and established an “anarchist milieu.” These anarchist communities were devoted to fighting for better labour conditions in the sweatshop conditions prevalent in America at the time. The film also examines the Yiddish anarchist newspaper Freie Arbeiter Stimme–a newspaper that survived from 1890 until 1977. Many of those involved with the paper are interviewed, and with their words, they recreate the atmosphere of the times and the philosophical and ethical framework behind anarchism. In one particularly delightful scene, the caretaker of the Haymarket memorial remembers that during WWI, with anti-German feelings running high, the mayor of New York insisted on calling sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” (makes you think of those freedom fries….). The film also examines the strong antiwar sentiment amongst anarchists who are largely “pacifist by conviction…refusing to pick up arms”–and in particular describes the anti-conscription efforts of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman who were ironically deported to Russia for their activism.

The interviewees describe a rich, vital, and well-organised anarchist society that included lectures, dances and the establishment of the Anarchist Red Cross–an organization devoted to aid for prisoners in Czarist Russia. Historian Paul Avrich appears to discuss the role of anarchists in the Labor movement in America–and various highlights in the movement are mentioned–including the Haymarket tragedy, the Ferrer Modern School, and the persecution of anarchists that resulted in the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Of the two films, I preferred  The Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists. Anarchism in America is a bit too shapeless for my tastes.  From directors Steven Fischler and Joel Sucher.

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Filed under Documentary, Political/social films

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