|Thomas Jefferson Was a Punk: Anarchism in the USA
The result of our experiment will be, that man may be trusted to govern themselves without a master – Thomas Jefferson(“Jefferson”)
Anarchism represents American values more than any other philosophy and yet it is one of the most controversial and feared topics in “the land of the free”. American and anarchistic values in this case are defined as values that place emphasis on individualism and liberty, as these are the values on which America was founded and for which the Revolutionary War was fought. Anarchism, like the American ideal, aims for a fair society in that people can do whatever they want, so long as they do not impede on another’s ability to do the same. Some of the founding fathers, Jefferson most notably, were heavily influenced by the philosophy of anarchism. Anarchistic communes and social projects were established throughout the mid nineteenth century by the likes of Josiah Warren. Popular American authors such as Thoreau wrote about individualism in Civil Disobedience. The crusade for the eight hour work day, workers’ rights, and unions was spearheaded by the American anarchist Emma Goldman. The early twentieth century was an anarchist witch hunt as demonstrated by the trials of Sacco and Vanzetti as well as the “Haymarket Martyrs”. Anarchism in America is resurfacing with the popularity of Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and interest in the ideologies behind the punk movement of the 1980’s. In the land of the free there will always be those who want to be freer.
Perhaps it may seem presumptuous to call Thomas Jefferson an anarchist, but his anarchistic tendencies shine through in quotes like “ I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.” (“Jefferson”) Jefferson was by no means a complete anarchist as he helped institute the American government and even held the office of president and vice president. At the time, however, government was so small and so limited that the liberty of the average American was unrivaled throughout the world and the destruction of the state would be merely a formality. Jefferson had his own dream for America. His vision was an agrarian society composed of yeoman farmers that minded their own businesses. Today this vision of the future is that of the typical anarcho-primitivist. Benjamin Tucker once said that “anarchists are simply unterrified Jeffersonian Democrats.” (“Online”)
Jefferson’s belief in a small or non existent state, nearly unrestrained liberty, the destruction of tyrannical governments for the benefit of the people, and in individualism and personal responsibility make him the first real American anarchist, whether or not he himself believed that he was.
America has always attracted people looking for a new way to do things. Since the beginning has been somewhat of a social experiment, more so the first hundred years after the Revolution than any other time. These experiments compose the crux of the “American Dream”. Being able to do something a new way, and if it works, reaping the benefits. One such man, Josiah Warren, born in Boston 15 years after the end of the revolution began experimenting with the possibility of an Anarchistic society within the US as well as attempting a new economic system known as mutualism. Mutualism is the anarchistic answer for capitalism as it creates the division of labor, but also eliminates the need for bosses or hierarchies. His first venture in experimenting with the socioeconomic constructs of the day was establishing the Cincinnati Time Store that adhered to a new form of “pricing”. Warren believed that artificial prices and money were false representations of actual price. He believed that the true value of any good was equal to the amount of time it took to create said good. As soon as someone walked into Warren’s store a timer started. When he walked out this time would be added to the time cost of whatever goods were bought and all that time became time in labor that he owed Warren. This labor could be paid by either real labor or by trading an item or good that cost the same amount of time in labor. It was largely a success and other shops in the area began to change to the economic model of the Time Store. Prices were actually “lower” in the Time Store, and much fairer. The “fairness” came from the fact that one could only take as much as they gave in time. Competition was not reduced either, as more efficient means cost less time and were therefore more readily purchased(Forman). The Time Store was a successful experiment in anarchistic economics showing that, at least on a small scale, mutualism worked just as well as capitalism.
Warren eventually left the Time Store to work on experimental anarchist communities in Modern Times, New York and Utopia, Ohio. These communities were run on the principles of mutualism and individualist anarchism. All land in these communities was private property and the only rule was to “mind your own business”. Though the communities had no police force crime was nonexistent. Warren considered this proof that when an individual is given space to pursue their own interests that crime disappears(Forman). The counter argument to this was that since the communities were closed to the outside they did not represent a realistic application of these ideologies as the people living in the communities were only there because they adhered to the applied ideologies. This belief held some truth as when outsiders slowly trickled in both experimental communities conformed to the normal model of a town. Although they failed in the end, Warren’s communities proved that anarchism and mutualism were applicable, again, at least on a small scale.
Anarchism even found its way into the most influential authors of the Transcendental period in American literature. Henry David Thoreau, author of Civil Disobedience and most notably Walden, was a staunch individualist anarchist. He believed “That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are
prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have”(Thoreau). Civil Disobedience influenced revolutionaries, anarchists or not, from Gandhi to King to Goldman. In it he says that it is the peoples’ responsibility to be “civilly disobedient” when the government begins to infringe upon their rights. Although this is not a totally new idea, Jefferson stated it earlier when he said "Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness”(“Declaration”). The means to create this change, Thoreau proposed, should be nonviolent. This idea of nonviolent protest to support anarchism seems to be oxymoronic when presented in the modern day with the word anarchy stirring up images of bombs, riots, black bloc, and chaos. However the anarchist movements up until the late nineteenth century were largely nonviolent and peaceful.
Thoreau’s most famous novel Walden is about his social anarchist venture into the wilderness in an attempt to be self sufficient and an outlier of society. Thoreau’s almost religious love of nature is also a key to the understanding of anarchism. Thoreau, like Jefferson, idealized an agricultural society that was close to nature. Thoreau was also, on and off, a vegetarian who supported animal rights(Forman). This was a very progressive and strange set of beliefs for the time, even amongst anarchists, but is fairly common amongst modern anarchist groups.
These three, Jefferson, Warren, and Thoreau, laid the foundation for the main American anarchist movements that took place in the late nineteenth century. The most well known period of anarchistic American history is this time period of Unions and riots. This time period is where the belief that anarchists were essentially terrorists began to foster in the average American mind. This was due to the rejection of Thoreau’s passive resistance in favor of Jefferson’s active resistance. This use of violence to spark interest and possibly a revolution was known as “propaganda of the deed” and called the masses to “water the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants”(“Jefferson”), to revolt against the government. However, what held the revolutionary anarchists back during this time period was the lack of public support and the sheer size of their enemy. The small steps forward during the time were met with a later witch hunt and demonization of the entire ideology.
“Red” Emma Goldman was an anarchist Russian immigrant who was outspoken about anarchism, striking, union building, atheism, gay rights, and anti militarization(Forman). She began her “political” career following in the footsteps of Tolstoy and Thoreau, by being a passive resister and civil disobedient. She led strikes for women to get better working conditions and fought for the eight hour day. These tactics of striking were not working, as strike busting squads (most notably “Pinkerton”) fired upon the strikers causing fear and death. She decided that open rebellion and “propaganda of the deed” were the only routes that could lead to progress. She and her husband hatched a scheme to assassinate the chairman of the Carnegie Steel Corporation, Henry Clay Frick, the man who had hired Pinkerton to “strike bust”. After borrowing money from her sister she went out and bought a gun for her husband, Alexander Berkman, to set the plan in motion(Forman). This deed through which she hoped the revolution would rise from, failed miserably. Frick was indeed shot, but survived. Berkman was imprisoned and a rift in the anarchist movement was made, one side advocating propaganda of/by the deed and the other renouncing it.
Goldman continued to write and speak publicly. She changed her mind constantly about active resistance. One day after claiming in a speech that killing a tyrant was not crime a man in the crowd killed President McKinley. He said that she was a large influence on his act and she was tried for conspiracy. She was found innocent, but her public image was utterly destroyed. She continued to write under an alias until her deportation during the first Red Scare. Although she was nicknamed “Red” Emma and deported during the Red Scare she was not a communist at all. When she returned to Russia and she became disenchanted by the communist revolution, seeing it as an enforcement of the state at the expense of liberty, and moved to Spain to take part in another revolution(Tuchman). This first rejection of well known anarchists would lead to the utter rejection of any discussion of anarchism.
If McKinley’s assassination did not turn the public favor as far away from Anarchism as it could, the Hay Market “Massacre” and Trial certainly did. Workers across the United States were striking during the first week of May 1886. They were striking for their Unions and for the eight hour work day. The men and women striking were not all anarchists, in fact, most were just angry workers who wanted more pay, better conditions, and a shorter work day. The only way for these workers to see their demands answered was to collectively bargain and create Unions that would use the power of their numbers to get what they wanted or the establishment would risk losing all of their workers and thus their profits. As previously stated it was not uncommon for the factory owners and members of the establishment to hire strike breakers to break up the Unions. Because of the threat of these strike breakers and even police officers that were not on the side of the workers, many came to demonstrations armed. Some underground newspapers encouraged this practice, others denounced it(Tuchman). Unfortunately because of this practice Anarchism, Union, workers’ rights, and the like would get a bad reputation for decades as it is easier for the people who would benefit least from the implementation of these ideas to paint the activists as terrorists and dangerous.
May 4th 1886, Haymarket Square, Chicago. Workers across the nation were striking and holding demonstrations. It was no different in Chicago. The demonstration at Haymarket Square asked Albert Parsons and August Spies, two outspoken anarchists, to give speeches at the demonstration. They accepted, gave their speeches, and returned to the crowd. During Michael Schwab’s speech shots were fired and a bomb was thrown and detonated. Many were injured and eight police officers were killed in the gunfight and explosion. Seven men were arrested under suspicion of being involved in the “murder” of these policemen. They were Parsons, Spies, Schwab, George Engel, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, and Samuel Fielden.(Fireside)
The “trial” of these seven was a horror show. The local and worldwide media swayed popular opinion into the direction that they were guilty before the trial even started, the jury consisted of locals, personal enemies of some of the men on trial, family members of the killed police officers, and civilians that were outright biased against the seven. The Judge favored the prosecution by using and allowing loaded phrases as well as “evidence” that had nothing to do with the crime. The Judge also impeded the defense’s ability of doing its job. The worst part of the “trial” was the fact that these men were never found guilty of actually killing the police officers or having anything to do with their deaths. They were tried for holding a different political stance than was “acceptable”. Three of the men, Engel, Neebe, and Lingg, were never at the Haymarket that night. Parsons was not there when the bombs went off, neither was Fischer. The defense even proved that all the shots that were fired came from the police as there were no bullet markings behind where the police stood, and many opposite where they were standing. The only “evidence” against the seven was that they were in possession of bombs and bomb making materials. Bomb making was legal during the time and it was not uncommon for people to have them.
Despite the total lack of evidence proving the guilt of any of the seven, they were all condemned to death. Two, Schwab and Fieldman, got their punishment replaced for a life sentence in prison. One, Lingg, killed himself in his cell. The remaining men were hanged on November 11 1887. Spies last words were “the day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today”(“Address”). The Haymarket Martyrs as they were called by their fellow anarchists were commemorated outside the US every year by holding demonstrations and striking. This became known as May Day and is still celebrated every year(Fireside). Most recently the May Day riots in Greece took the world spotlight, so perhaps Spies was right.
The Haymarket Trials were not the last example of the American public’s backlash against anarchists. On April 15th 1920 in South Braintree, Massachusetts a shoe factory was robbed as the paymaster and guard carried out the cashbox. There was a scuffle and both men were killed by gunfire. Before dying, the paymaster described the two men who attacked him as “short and dark” and the other “thin”. Nicola Sacco, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were identified as these two men. The evidence against Vanzetti was that his gun matched the gun model that was used during the robbery and murder. The ballistic evidence that “proved” this was very questionable as it was common practice at the time to fake such evidence. Perhaps Vanzetti was in fact guilty of the robbery, but there was literally no real evidence against Sacco. The prosecution made up for evidence with emphasis on the fact that Sacco and Vanzetti were immigrants, anarchists, and draft dodgers. This prejudiced the jury against them. The judge, Webster Thayer, is known to have said “Did you see what I did with those anarchist bastards?” The trial was held up in courts for six years, but in the end, despite constant support from intellectuals across the country, both were found guilty and sentenced to death. Sacco’s last words were “Long live anarchy!” but for a while, that was the last mention of it to mainstream America.(Forman)
During the Great Depression the majority of Americans supported an increase in government power as evident by the New Deal and the entire FDR administration. The anarchist dream of no government was not heard by the working class as they were enjoying the temporary benefits of the government’s new powers. Anarchism essentially died out in America and with the last mentions of it in the form of the Haymarket Trial and the Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, America had a bad taste in its mouth. The anarchists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century found themselves in a catch 22. Had they not acted nothing would have happened and since they had, they were ostracized from the political spectrum during World War II. Even the socialists and communists that fought alongside anarchists for workers rights abandoned them and eventually died out due to the misconception that Russia was the ideal institution of their principles. The Cold War environment of hatred and fear of any ideology that was not the “American” way put the nails in the coffin of the more radical ideologies on the liberal spectrum (Forman).
Or so it seemed. Anarchism experienced a rebirth and resurgence during the late seventies and eighties during the Vietnam War and the slew of Republican presidents. The punk scene that started in the streets of New York with The Velvet Underground grew and manifested itself into the DIY angry bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash. The slogan “Anarchy in the UK” found its way into American pop culture and the youth began to research the anarchist ideology. The anarcho-punk scene grew out of these new recruits and anarchism found its way into the modern political spectrum once more (“Some”).
To say that modern anarchism is an ideology only for punks would be ignorant. Many highly respected intellectuals of the modern era hold anarchistic principles or are in fact actual anarchists. Noam Chomsky, for example, is a widely known political commentator who is an anarcho-syndicalist (he believes in a mutualistic anarchistic society). The appeal of anarchism in today’s world, as well as the explanation for its growth, is that it has so far been a relatively untested political ideology. Socialism and Communism are no longer unexplored frontiers, but anarchism is.
The American Dream has always been about individualism and liberty. The first American flag, the Gadsden flag, read “don’t tread on me”, this is the essential concept of anarchism. Jefferson believed in a small government, if any at all, and dreamed of America as the self sufficient land of individuals that could swing their fists as much as they wanted so long as they did not hit someone else’s face. Thoreau and Warren experimented with anarchism, proving that it could potentially work in America. Goldman and the workers fought for anarchism and though they lost, they were on the side of the people. All these great Americans fought for the founding principle of America, liberty, and yet they go largely unmentioned in the dialogue of history. Anarchism is so very American that it is shocking when people use it as a synonym for chaos and evil. Anarchism does not mean bloodshed; it does not mean robbery, arson, etc. These monstrosities are, on the contrary, the characteristic features of capitalism. Anarchism means peace and tranquility to all – August Spies(”Address”). If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he would be dressed in black bloc, blasting punk rock, and fighting for freedom.
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