No Gods, no bosses, no husbands: the other half of anarchy

This article appears in Italian in Corriere della Sera’s La ventisettesima ora

Fifteen “rebellious women” of the twentieth century – But who are their heirs? by 

Fifteen fascinating and scandalous women , fifteen women rebels… largely forgotten by history. Educated women, aristocratic or workers, publishers, poets, journalists, writers, activists, who from Italy to Japan, Russia to England, Spain to Argentina choose a rough path of autonomy , siding always on with the weak and exposing the same oppression of fascism, Nazism and Communism. Denounced, arrested, imprisoned, exiled, sometimes victims of violence, in one case killed: their stories are told for the first time by Lorenzo Pezzica, historian and archivist of Milan, who, with her book Anarchists: Rebel women of the twentieth century (Shake editions, 2013) fills a void in the history of anarchism, reserved so far only for men.

Forget therefore Bakunin and Kropotkin, Malatesta and Pisacane. Here are red Emma, the Lithuanian Goldman, the only internationally known, called “the most dangerous woman in America”, pioneering feminist and champion of free love, despite being tormented by jealousy. And Virginia Bolten who only twenty years old, 1 May 1890, is the first woman speaker of the nascent labor movement in the city of Rosario, and wrote “Ni Dios, ni patron ni marido”.

Or Dora Marsden, petite and daring suffragette arrested in London in 1909, believing that it is high time for women to take control of their lives. She joined , the first feminist magazine of the 1900s, but would eventually break from movement, denouncing its hierarchical organization too . And again, Lucía Sánchez Saornil, declared lesbian, forced to go underground in Franco’s Spain, who throughout her life will try to reformulate the identity of “those who do not count.” Then, Nancy Cunard, depicted on the cover of the book, provocative dark lady and convinced anti-racist, who? rejects the English aristocracy from which committed all his energies in the Spanish revolutionary cause, and will pay its unconventional choices with loneliness and cultural existential…

Among the best stories is that of May Picqueray , French and pacifist anarcho-syndicalist, independent woman who lived by the tragedies of the twentieth century, raising her three children alone had three different companions… Not to mention, finally, the Italian: Maria Luisa Berneri, a tireless opponent of all wars in its short existence marked by the tragic death of her father Camillo, who was killed in 1937 in Barcelona by the assassins of the Comintern. And Luce Fabbri, a life spent in exile in Uruguay, recalling that totalitarian nightmare of Orwell, a  machinery of power increasingly sophisticated and oppressive that, although experienced as a painful wound, never translates [for these women] into a sense of helplessness…

Beyond their ideas, shared or not, I am struck by the determination and courage of these women perpetually wandering, uncomfortable and insubordinate, here and now they want to accomplish their dream of a better life. Women, as  Ida Fare writes in the introduction , linked by a network that truly embodies the words of the song anarchist “Our homeland is the whole world, our law is freedom.”

But who today could represent an ideal continuity with their thinking, with their willingness to transgression is difficult to find examples of disruptive approved in the current world, where it quickly becomes polluted every thrust antagonist.

The article nominates  Aliokhina Maria, the youngest member of Pussy Riot, serving two years in prison for the anti-Putin punk prayer in the Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow. Or the fierce Inna Shevchenko, leader of Femen, the movement that was born in Kiev with its clamorous protest topless which spread to, among others, the Tunisian blogger Amina.  Or Nawal El Saadawi, Egyptian activist and renowned psychiatrist, or Vandana Shiva , the Indian environmentalist, champion of biodiversity.
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New York Yiddish anarchists in Mexico

I have been been reading lately about Jack Abrams. His basic life story is told by Nick Heath at Libcom, and he is a minor character in The Gentle General: Rose Pesotta Anarchist and Labor Organizer by Elaine Leeder. He was born in Russia in 1883, went to America in 1906, worked (like many key anarchist activists of the period) as a bookbinder, became a trade union militant and anarcho-syndicalist.  With about a group which included his partner Mary Abrams and Mollie Steimer, he edited the underground newspaper Frayhayt (Freedom), from an apartment at 5 East 104th Street in East Harlem. The most dramatic and well-known part of his story came in 1918, as told here by Nick Heath:

He was the author of two leaflets calling for a general strike against the US intervention of spring –summer 1918 against the Russian Revolution. These called for a social revolution in the United States. The paper was folded up tightly and posted in mailboxes around New York and the leaflets each had a print run of 5,000. The federal and local authorities began to be on the lookout for the authors of this propaganda. He was arrested on the 24th August 1918 along with Jacob Schwartz. The two were beaten with fists and blackjacks on the way to the police station. There further beatings were dished out. The arrest of the Frayhayt group signaled the start of massive repression of the anarchist movement in the United States. The Abrams case as it became known was a was a landmark in the suppression of civil liberties in the USA. Schwartz died in October due to the severe beatings he had received, although the authorities put it down to Spanish influenza…

On October 25th 1918 Jack , together with Sam Lipman and Hyman Lachowsky, was sentenced to 20 years hard labor and fined $ 1000 on charges of “anti-American activities.”, whilst Mollie Steimer received fifteen years and a $500 fine… In mid-1919 was filed an appeal, and in the meantime Jack and the others were released.

Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas was one of the people active in the campaign that led to this release. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction, but was notable for the dissenting opinion of Oliver Wendell Holmes (joined by  Louis Brandeis):

we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threatened immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.

The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. “That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.

Anyway, the group tried to escape to Mexico but got waylaid and some went to Russia, where (ironically, considering the defence of the revolution had got them locked up) they witnessed the deepening repression of the Bolshevik state, and before long were deported from there too. Eventually, in 1926, Mary and Jack Abrams wound up in Mexico, in Cuernavaca, not far from Mexico City, where he joined a group of Spanish anarchist exiles, Tierra y Libertad (Land and Freedom).

Creative Commons License. Photo from the Triangle Fire Open Archive. Contributed by David Bellel. Circa 1930s. Photo shows Mary Abrams, a shirtwaist fire survivor, with her husband Jack Abrams, Rose Pesotta, Senya Fleshin and Mollie Steimer. The picture was taken in Mexico in the late 1930s where the group lived in exile (except for Pesotta) as a result of the Palmer Raids of 1919. At that time Mary was part of the anarchist Frayhayt group. Mary passed away in 1978. Source: Jewish Women’s Archive.

Steimer’s route to Mexico was even more complex, also via Russia, where she was imprisoned by the GPU (forerunner of the KGB), to Berlin, from which she fled when Hitler came to power, to France, where she was again interned in  Camp Gurs as a German. (She must have been there, May-June 1940, at the same time as Hannah Arendt. I wonder if they met?) Then to Vichy – according to Wikipedia “Steimer was aided principally by May Picqueray (1893-1983), the militant anarchist editor of Le Refractaire, who had previously assisted the couple by protesting their imprisonment in Russia by the Bolsheviks in 1923.”

And finally to Mexico City, where her and Fleshin had a photo studio, SEMOHere‘s two of their 1952 photo of the opera singer Maria Callas:

 

And here’s Fleshin at his trade:

Senya Fleshin

They retired to Cuernavaca in 1963.

Ron Radosh, the red diaper baby turned anti-Communist, was a nephew of Jack Abrams, and in his memoir Commies he writes:

My first remembrance of the many visits we made to Mexico City is from 1945, when I was nine. As others were gathering in Times Square to celebrate the end of World War II, we saw the giant parade that wound through downtown Mexico City. Abrams took me to the major sites and to children’s films, willingly spending hours with me while my parents went off to experience Mexico’s revolutionary culture. In a later visit, either 1949 or 1950, Abrams, who had learned from my parents that I had already begun to circulate in the orbit of New York’s young Communist movement, did his best to warn me about the ethics and true nature of Stalin’s regime.

As we all walked through the streets of beautiful Cuernavaca (now a famous tourist resort), my parents spotted the painter David Alfaro Siqueras, one of the founders of the Mexican muralist school. The famed artist approached Abrams to say hello, and much to my shock, Abrams refused to shake his hand and exchange greetings. “I don’t talk to murderers,” he shouted at Siqueras, and turned and walked away. When he had calmed down, Abrams told me about Siqueras’s role in the attempted murder of Leon Trotsky at his estate in the Coyocan suburb of Mexico City, when the painter led a group of machine-gun-toting raiders in a failed effort to kill the exiled Bolshevik.

Abrams often socialized and became friends with other exiles, despite occasionally severe political differences. He was a regular guest at Trotsky’s walled-in compound, where the two played chess and argued about Bolshevism. After his death, Trotsky’s widow presented Abrams a set of Trotsky’s favorite Mexican-made dishware as a remembrance of their solidarity and friendship—a gift which Abrams later passed on to my parents. Often in later years, I would serve cake to my Stalinist friends on these plates, and after they admired the beauty of the design and craftsmanship, I would tell them whose dishes they were eating from, and watch them turn pale.

Abrams also befriended the great painter Diego Rivera, who spent his years moving from Bolshevism to Trotskyism and back to official Soviet Communism. Despite these twists and turns, and probably because at critical moments Rivera had opposed Stalin, Abrams maintained the relationship. Once, he took me to meet the artist and watch him paint the murals—some of the last he was to create—in the Del Prado Hotel in the main part of the city. In later years, the hotel would cover the murals with curtains because of embarrassment about their anti-Catholic and revolutionary themes. Rivera gave Abrams some of his paintings, one of which Abrams gave to my parents. My mother kept it in her New York City apartment.

Abrams gave the twelve year old Radosh a copy of Franz Borkenau‘s The Spanish Cockpit, presenting the anti-Stalinist view of the Spanish revolution and civil war.

Further reading: Abrams, Jack. J. Aybrams-bukh dos lebn un shafn fun an eygnartike perzenlikhkayt. [Jack Abrams Book, The Life And Works Of A Peculiar Personality] Mexico City: Centro Cultural Israelita de Mexico, 1956. 329pp [via YAB] If anyone has this, and wants to write a guest post based on it, please get in touch!