History’s Zimmer Examines Anarchism in the U.S.

Zimmer
Zimmer

Anarchism and immigrants meet at a volatile crossroads in Assistant Professor Kenyon Zimmer’s latest book.

The Department of History faculty member recently published Immigrants Against the State: Yiddish and Italian Anarchism in America with the University of Illinois Press. In the book, Zimmer explores why first and second generation immigrants from the 1880s to the 1940s turned to anarchism and how their adoption of its ideology shaped their identities, experiences and actions.

“During the late 19th century and early 20th century, there’s an anarchist movement in the U.S. that includes tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of whom are immigrants from Europe,” Zimmer said. “For these immigrants, not only are the streets in America not paved with gold, but they are facing corrupt businesses and local governments. They do not find the American dream as they had expected. So they are receptive to radical ideas like anarchism. Working 16-hour days and facing ethnic discrimination drove them to get involved with this political movement.”

hist_zimmer_book_cover_150pxZimmer’s book explores the growth of anarchism as a grassroots political movement, its role in the labor movement and its sporadic use of violence as a way to spur change or progress. During World War I, anarchists also led the anti-war effort.

“Anarchism is a very specific form of socialism,” Zimmer said. “They are anti-capitalist; they think capitalism is inherently evil and rewards the worst people. They are also anti-statists. They didn’t believe centralized power was a good thing.”

For the most part, that ideology did not transfer to the generations that followed these new immigrants, Zimmer said. By the 1940s and 1950s, the anarchist movement had all but died down, the new generation more fully embracing the spoils of World War II and a booming U.S. economy. But threads of anarchism made their way into the tactics of those addressing other social issues: echoes of those fighting corruption could be heard in the songs and chants of civil rights groups and the New Left during the 1960s.

“Anarchists believed in ‘direct action’ while civil rights groups might call it ‘non-violent civil disobedience,’” Zimmer said. “Deliberately breaking the law to force change is an anarchist notion.”

Zimmer said today’s anarchist movement is a shadow of its former self. Anarchy is not violence and chaos, he said, but rather an emphasis on an antiauthoritarian and socialist approach to living. Zimmer hopes Immigrants will make that distinction clear and encourage readers to study the impact of immigrant radicalism on today’s society.

Zimmer’s book is the latest from the Department of History faculty, which has published nearly a dozen works in the past year.

“Dr. Zimmer’s new book is an important contribution to the scholarship on anarchism and radical movements in the United States, and it reflects the high quality of research produced by the members of the Department of History,” said Associate Professor and Department Chair W. Marvin Dulaney.

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