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Anarchism in America (?) (1983)

This documentary from independent filmmakers Steven Fischler and Joel Sucher aims to identify the nature and role of anarchist thought in American history and whether or not it continues to have currency in the then present-day of the early 1980s.

The opening titles illustrate the dilemma facing the producers. “Anarchism in America” is followed by the addition of a question mark to read “Anarchism in America?” A sequence of clips of politicians using the term anarchist in a somewhat derogatory context in connection with riots and disorder is followed by people being asked in the street how they would define it with one gentleman rather improbably naming Ayatollah Khomeini as an anarchist! Even some of the attendees filmed at the First International Symposium on Anarchism in Portland, Oregon, in 1980 did not seem united in their view of it.

Fischler and Sucher first encountered anarchism in the radical and anti-war student movement of the late 1960s. Their desire to have a deeper understanding of the philosophy lead them to study the history of anarchism from Civil War-era Spain to the largely Russian and Italian immigrant anarchist movement that flourished in America around the same period. This documentary revolves around the road trip that they took in 1980 in order to meet individuals from the past and present who either identify as being anarchists or hold views that might be classed as being similar. Along the way we meet amongst others: Murray Bookchin who journeyed from Stalinism to Trotskyism to anarchism and at the time of filming was involved with the Libertarian Party, Karl Hess a former Republican speechwriter who became a follower of the works of the famous Russian American anarchist Emma Goldman, (he even likens her ideas to Ayn Rand’s without the solipsism), Mollie Steimer and colleagues in Mexico who were once friends and supporters of Emma Goldman, and punk band Dead Kennedys.

So what of anarchism in 1980’s America? Murray Bookchin told of the decline of the once powerful US workers’ movement post World War 2 and identifies the cause as its failure to address fundamental issues of domination and hierarchy and that contrary to the teachings of Marx, factories regimented workers rather than mobilised them and instill class consciousness. In his opinion, anarchism addresses issues not only of class but also of hierarchy and domination. By 1980 both he and Karl Hess had become more aligned to a libertarian position and Hess spoke of the solution to the dilemma that many patriots face of the tie between government and country being that you can preserve the country without preserving the state. Has anarchism morphed into libertarianism and does it have much in common with the American spirit of rugged individualism? Certainly both combine ideas of de-centralism and self-management, as the film points out, but it’s hard to reconcile the self-described anarchists of modern-day urban America with the homesteaders, tax protesters and those who campaign for smaller government through vehicles such as the Libertarian Party.

At nearly forty years old, Anarchism in America? is as much an interesting period piece in that it records the voices and opinions of political figures who have since passed away and has some good footage of the time as well as some rarely seen archive film. It has to be said that it poses as many questions as it answers and this reviewer found that it sent him away to look-up the events, people and writings cited in the film, (a lot easier to do in 2020 with the internet than back in 1983 when the film came out). The viewer will not come away with a fundamental understanding of anarchism, though I do not believe that this was the intention of the filmmakers anyway, but it definitely provides pointers and starting points for further research and education on this most elusive of political theories.

Reviewed by Andrew Hunter


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