Anarchists in Hard Times

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Anarchists in Hard Times

By Jno. Gilmer Speed

I have made some little study of the Anarchists in and about New York during the past few years. Since the beginning of the present business and industrial depression I have watched with peculiar interest these men and women who wish to reform social and governmental methods by abolishing all law. Whenever there has been any widespread disturbance owing to a conflict between workmen on the one side and capitalists on the other, the Anarchists have been particularly active and noisy in efforts to extend their incomprehensible ideas. At such times, when sides are usually angry and a trifle wrong-headed, the Anarchists have been listened to by the workingmen because the Anarchists have appeared to be on their side; and they have been feared by the employers because the doctrines preached tended toward strife, disorder, and the destruction of property. Whenever such difficulties have been adjusted, the Anarchists have dropped out of general public notice, and their very existence has almost been forgotten by both men and masters. As soon, however, as other disturbances occurred, the Anarchists would come excitedly to the front and harangue all who would listen to them in favor of a new chaos, out of which, in some inexplicable way, would grow peace and universal brotherhood. During the time between these labor outbreaks the Anarchists, as individuals and collectively, keep pretty quiet, for Anarchists, like other men, must live, and to live they must work. Many of them are skilled artisans and capable of earning good wages. But few of them work at all when the time seems ripe to begin the social revolution towards which all of them look with confident hope.

This summer and autumn has not been marked by any considerable differences between the employers and the employed, but a very large percentage of the latter have been and still are out of work. These are genuinely hard times, and every man in the country, not dependent on a salary that has remained undisturbed, has felt the stress to a greater or a less degree. The smaller the wage earned the greater has been the stress, for some wages are so small that to diminish them at all is to bring the earners and their families right next door to starvation itself. This, it would seem, would be a most favorable moment for the Anarchists to come to the front and push their propaganda for all that it is worth. Indeed, the critics of American democracy, from Macaulay down, have predicted that the Government would go to smash at such a time as that which we are now experiencing, and that the catastrophe would be caused by the poor and hungry following the bad advice and evil counsel of ignorant demagogues. If that be the danger, I am perfectly certain that the dangerous demagogues are not the Anarchists.

In the early part of last summer a few of these misguided followers of Proudhon—the originator of modern Anarchism—came to the front at labor meetings and made inflammatory and incendiary speeches, suggesting that the unemployed workingmen should pillage the town and wrest from the rich that which rightfully belonged to the people. These speeches did not really excite any one except the police and those whose brains were already addled by efforts to solve, unaided, the social problems which civilization has caused. The police acted with promptness, and, in consequence, there were arrests and there have been several convictions. But the working people themselves, the real sufferers when times are hard, were not interested in the least in the mad mouthings of these oratorical Anarchists. These working people were out of work because there was no work to do, and they knew that perfectly well. The conditions were so hard that mere theories could not excite them to believe that some other causes had produced the hard times. The Anarchists, therefore, instead of finding audiences ready to listen to them and willing to be persuaded into breaking the law and defying tile officers of the law, talked to deal ears, and, enthusiasts though they are, they realized that this was no time to spread their propaganda

The police and the prosecuting officers in New York believe that their promptness in arresting and convicting several leaders is the reason for the excessive quietness which now prevails among the Anarchists. There could be no greater mistake than this. To be sure, the conviction of two or three or even of forty or fifty—of these people would do no particular harm, but it does no good whatever except that by putting in jail one or two Anarchists there are one or two Anarchists less at large. It is necessary to understand what kind of men and women these Anarchists are before arriving at a conclusion as to what is best to be done with them. Not one per cent. of them are afraid of going to prison. Prison life is not harder than the life that the majority of them are accustomed to. To go to prison for an act done as an Anarchist is not looked upon as a disgrace, but, on the contrary, as an honor and a distinction. When Emma Goldman comes away from Blackwell's Island, she will have greater influence than ever before, and she will doubtless exert that influence to make weak-minded young men create disorder, and in their turn they will be sent to Blackwell's Island or Sing Sing Prison. These people believe in what they preach—they believe with the dreadful certainty of madness, They arc not, therefore, responsible, and it is as crazy people that they should be dealt with. There are not more than three or four hundred of them in New York, and it would not be a very severe strain upon our charity if we should put all of them in insane asylums, where they belong, and keep them there.

The ordinary forms of insanity are not, I believe, contagious. This is, and it is therefore more remarkable that it does not spread when many men are idle and there is great suffering in every crowded community. But it does not spread. On the contrary, I am persuaded that many who have the disease only in a mild form recover when face to face with hard conditions, and not merely perplexed by theories that they do not comprehend. Last summer, a year ago, there was plenty of work for all who cared for employment. There were, to be sure, labor disturbances here and there. These disturbances, however, were caused by a difference of opinion about wages and the authority of trades-unions. Times were not hard, but, on the contrary, everything appeared to be very prosperous. At that time I spent a week or so among the Anarchists in New York. There was much excitement among them, and they were as happy as they are capable of being, for they felt that the social revolution was near at hand. They sang songs of celebration, and drank great quantities of beer. They talked nonsense and rubbish in as high-sounding phrases as they could construct; they moved about town mysteriously, each one persuading himself that he was followed by at least one city detective and one Russian spy. Peukert, the leader of the Autonomist group, told me that his comings and goings were watched by at least a dozen spies, and that he was followed wherever he went. This was said to me in the saloon of "Tough Mike," in Fifth Street, just off the Bowery. Peukert was there something like eighteen hours a day at that time, and I was constantly in the neighborhood. I tried to get a glimpse of some one who looked like a spy, but always failed. Fifth Street seemed deserted of all but the dirty children playing in the roadway. Peukert flattered himself. In a general way these Anarchists are kept under police surveillance, because they are looked upon as dangerous to society, but not nearly tile attention is given to them that they think.

Just now they are in anything but high feather. The only thing that they have to encourage them is that several of their number have been convicted of disturbing the

peace and inciting others to disorder. But even this is not potent to make them enthusiastically happy. They are actually suffering for food and drink. Without food men do not have high spirits, and when they have not the money with which to pay for drink, their usual meeting-places are not open to them. The keepers of the saloons where the Anarchists gather are merely cool men of business— Anarchists for revenue only. One of these men, by the way, Gusts Schwab, has made a neat little fortune by catering to Anarchists; while preaching that there was no such thing as right in property, he has acquired property which probably he would defend with more valor than he would expend upon the defense of his theories.

In the talks I have had with professed Anarchists, I have found two kinds of men. The majority are weak-headed people, of nervous temperament, incapable of correct thinking. I They have become Anarchists because they happened to be thrown under the influence of stronger men who were Anarchists. We find men similar to these in all political parties and also in all churches. They have not the faintest conception why they are so zealous, but they are, and that is all there is about it. They belong to that great body that Carlyle, with angry impatience, was fond of calling fools. This class of Anarchists would not be dangerous in themselves, but the zeal of a fool will go very far when directed by a madman with a purpose. l he other and smaller class is composed of men who have pondered much on problems too hard for them, until their brains have become addled. Take an uneducated man without much mental force and let him try to think out, unaided, a theory of government through which all suffering, all crime, all unhappiness, all injustice, would be eliminated, and he is sure to make a mess of it. He knows next to nothing of the history of nations and peoples and men, and of the experiences of the past. He has nothing to guide him except his own crude notions. But with this sorry equipment he formulates a theory that is to regenerate the world. The effort makes a madman of him, and the unwillingness on the part of society to accept his ideas confirms him in his insanity. He meets some of the incapables just alluded to, and in a little while there is a new group of Anarchists. By some peculiar attraction these men of addled minds come in contact with each other, and there is a bond of sympathy which unites them in opposition to all constituted authority. As a matter of fact, each group differs from every other as much as all of them differ from the established governments. If by any chance they should ever be able to overturn society, they would surely then turn upon one another with the same mad ferocity which is their present characteristic in common, but which is now directed against accepted law.

These people live in tenement-houses usually, and frequently there are little colonies of them. But the fact that they attach much more importance to their doings than any one else does induces many of them to make a mystery of their living-places. Pretty nearly all of them are foreigners—indeed, I have never happened to meet one who was not. I am not alluding to any of the various kinds of Socialists, but to the Anarchists who believe that society should be overturned by force. Many of the Socialists—even American Socialists—sympathize, to an extent at least, with these Anarchists, though they say that they believe the Anarchists are entirely wrong in the methods which they propose to use. No one could see much of these misguided people without feeling profoundly sorry for them. They are not the wild beasts that they are frequently represented to be, unless a man no longer entirely sane is a wild beast. The strong among them are merely mad; the weak are merely misguided fools. No political crime could he greater than to pander to this madness; no social crime could be more cruel than to condemn these people as responsible criminals. Enlightened charity has created and supports the insane asylums for just such unfortunates as these. In these days of distress, these men and women not enjoying a full equipment of intelligence are the worst sufferers in the community. They are powerless to influence the sane and honest poor, who live closer to them than others and understand them better, and their condition to day is one worthy to excite only the pity of those upon whom the Anarchists look as their enemies and the enemies of society.

  • Jno. Gilmer Speed, “Anarchists in Hard Times,” The Outlook 48, no. 20 (November 11, 1893): 840-841.