Published by EH.Net (May 2024).

Michael Willrich. American Anarchy: The Epic Struggle between Immigrant Radicals and the US Government at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic Books, 2023. 480 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1541697379.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Anthony Gregory, Rhode Island School of Design.


Michael Willrich has written a remarkable book. As Professor of History at Brandeis University, he boasts a body of important research on those formative years for American law and politics spanning from the Gilded Age to the interwar period. His newest, American Anarchy, told largely through the biographies of Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and other key characters, strikes many of the recognizable notes in such tales. And yet Willrich delivers something fresh, bringing new clarity to questions often beneath the surface, while avoiding the sort of reductive analysis that would deprive the era of its complexity and color.

In those socially and politically tumultuous decades, often better understood in their particulars than through master narrative, anarchists stood uneasily athwart the modernizing state, with its legal and imperial power. By fully embracing the strangeness of this distinctively American story, Willrich allows his anarchist heroes to explain these years as only they can. Substantially based on the radicals’ personal papers and the archives of the US security state, the book adeptly explores how these forces opposed and shaped each other. Economic historians might especially appreciate grappling with the implications for political economy, as the currents in favor of both a social state and commercial capitalism overtook the anarchist dream.

In each chapter the book tracks a familiar story while offering new insights. Willrich moves from Chicago’s Haymarket Riot to New York’s Lower East Side, which along with its anarchist inhabitants “was going through an ethnic transition in the 1880s and 1890s” (p. 62). Readers learn how the McKinley assassination directed the Secret Service’s attention toward Goldman and how anarchists allied with the Wobblies for free speech and with Margaret Sanger for birth control (p. 127). Willrich gives extended attention to pacifist Harry Weinberger, who litigated on behalf of dissidents in World War I, and to Goldman and Berkman’s wartime struggles against conscription, sedition, and criminal conspiracy law. The final chapters discuss the Red Scare including the “Soviet Ark” deportations, the Palmer Raids, and its loss of public support amidst embarrassments and controversy in 1920.

Throughout these dramatic episodes, anarchists were determined to oppose authority. That opposition to this day renders them a curiosity for scholars and activists who admire their posture against capitalism, empire, border control, and judicial conservatism, even as they were also the most violently obstinate obstacles to the rising progressive state. When forced into comforting fables of labor vs. capital, feminism vs. patriarchy, or immigrants vs. nativists, America’s anarchists are often depicted as fellow travelers, along with laboring socialists and middle-class reformers, in the construction of an ultimately social democratic vision. And yet they were in a sense the most dedicated adherents of a distinctively anti-state Americanism that distinguished them from welfare progressives, communists, and even other anarchists abroad. Willrich reconciles this puzzle by showcasing the anarchists’ role in political development without downplaying the recalcitrance they shared with the modern social state’s other antagonists.

The paradox is sharpened by the relationship between anarchists’ historical opposition to authority as such and to the centralizing state in particular, and how exceptional America’s anarchists were in the balance between these animosities. Standing as the mirror image of this anarchist paradox is the American state itself, whose peculiar founding creed in anti-statism has henceforth driven political contradictions as it has both reinforced and undercut other forms of social power. As Willrich helpfully notes, the common ground among anarchists was the “shared” skepticism or opposition to the assumed “institutions of modern Western civilization: nation-states, sovereignty, borders, laws, religions, prisons, and private property” (p. 4). Prioritizing these points of opposition could help explain why from the Paris Commune of 1871 to the Great Depression, anarchists “differed on ideas, goals, and tactics”— “there were ‘mutualist’ anarchists, ‘individualist’ anarchists, ‘communist’ anarchists, and ‘syndicalist’ anarchists”—and some were pacifists, others violent agitators. Goldman and Berkman dabbled in all of it (p. 23).

While opposition to religious tradition and capitalism provided anarchists common cause with other radical leftists, opposition to the modernizing state, including its regulatory and progressive excursions, put the anarchists in the tradition of populist American liberalism. Goldman thought “there can be no real liberty under any form of government” (p. 10). American anarchists tended toward an “individualistic, radically libertarian” worldview that in some cases even tolerated “private property, at least when it resulted from individual labor” (p. 32). And even the more “Collectivist anarchists. . . found common ground with American individualism, whether in the anti-institutional writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the anti-statism of the Jacksonian Democrats, or the laissez-faire predilections of Gilded Age liberals” (p. 32). Benjamin Tucker, the great mutualist anarchist who appears libertarian or socialistic depending on how you squint, once called anarchists merely “unterrified Jeffersonian Democrats” (Tucker 1888).

The anarchists were not the only ones with flamboyant ideas, and Willrich produces a compelling picture of the general ideological strangeness of post–Reconstruction America. The industrial liberals, largely hostile to the anarchists, also became radicalized in their own anti-state individualism over this period, at times rejecting a conciliation with the working class that it had at first entertained, a story told well in Nancy Cohen’s Reconstruction of American Liberalism (2002). Meanwhile, these were years when all brands of political thought skeptical of modern capitalism—socialist, anarchist, populist, progressive—embraced the largely libertarian writings of Henry George, even as most of the libertarian classical liberals did not. George’s funeral, Willrich reminds us, was attended by 50,000. While George believed “property rights legitimately extended no further than what an individual acquired by mixing his labor with ‘the bounty of the creator’” (p. 170), this would be enough individualist allowance for inspiring such future “Old Right” figures as Frank Chodorov and Albert Jay Nock, founding fathers of modern conservatism.

The American state’s own paradoxes multiplied from the end of Reconstruction up through the New Deal when the nation state was consolidating its jurisdictional reach and pursuing free-labor liberalism. Out of the Gilded Age, the increasingly capitalist judiciary embraced the radical skepticism of state regulation and contractual understandings of freedom as outlined by Christopher Tiedeman’s 1886 A Treatise on the Limitations of the Police Power, which Willrich adeptly weaves into his narrative (pp. 33–34). Sometimes the judiciary relied on constitutional federalism to thwart even piecemeal reforms feared as moving toward socialism or anarchism—and sometimes it expanded federal power to impose laissez faire against the will of local and state jurisdictions. Willrich pays heed to the period’s quirky constitutionalism that built the government—the fact that criminal justice power, including against anarchists, was still mostly reserved to the states, even as federal power was strongest at the “edges of the nation-state” (p. 101). Willrich highlights that national sedition laws were a novelty of the progressive era, and were essentially absent from 1798 until World War I (p. 193). Up through World War I, a domestic surveillance state was “cobbled. . . together by putting public power in the hands of private civilian operatives, harnessing local police to national purposes, and drawing upon surveillance technologies developed both in the US ruled-Philippines and in the internal immigrant ‘colonies’ of New York and other American cities” (p. 259).

American Anarchism integrates into this story of modernizing government the people fighting the power. Willrich shows how critical anarchists could be toward public education (p. 125). He uncovers the once-venerated tradition of internationalist pacifism. “As radical libertarians and self-proclaimed ‘citizens of the world,’ anarchists opposed war on principle” (p. 202). This tradition might seem remote in recent years when foreign intervention was associated with globalism and war skepticism with nationalist isolationism. Yet anarchists did, perhaps indirectly, help build the state both in their opposition and their social agenda. The story here is thus dialectical but not at all teleological. Far from being a product of two sides moving toward some cosmically coherent approximation of a morality tale, the “making of the modern American state was an uncertain and contested historical process—one in which Goldman herself played no small role” (p. 52). This role would find support in the dance between reactionary lawlessness and the law, both of which threatened anarchists. Willrich stresses the theme: “Lawless acts of police brutality are never solely about investigative imperatives. Very often they are about power—power exercised at will by state actors over marginalized people” (p. 274). As the coercive and social elements of state power became together refined in the twentieth century, the most consistent anarchists recognized the process as a consolidation of vigilante violence and ad hoc hierarchies that they rejected at every step. Willrich reveals the importance of anti-anarchism in modernizing criminal justice institutions, immigration law, and surveillance apparatuses—all of which were also important in the eventual building of the modern New Deal government rather than the messy progressive one.

In a strange way, the anarchists also contributed to a more individualist future, even one lorded over by the state they dreaded. Willrich notes the associationalist thrust of radical American individualism: “That individualism was expressed in American cities in the proliferation of innumerable small leagues, societies, theater troupes, salons, and small-circulation magazines dedicated to free thought” (p. 176) This raises questions about the extraordinary connection between American individualism and associations, and associations and the modern state, a theme explored in Brian Balogh’s The Associational State (2015). Emboldened through intermediary associations, both the state and anti-statists once again had something in common. Toward the end of the era Willrich covers, the peculiar divide of American anti-statism across left and right also produced the twists in the modernizing of civil liberties. As Laura Weinrib shows in Taming of Free Speech, at first the most reflexively anti-state free-speech activists were also the most devoted to collectivist notions of class war (2016). The state-building role of the anarchists adds another wrinkle to the ironic rise of a modern leviathan dedicated to a more class-neutral stance on civil liberties.

Of course, Willrich cannot address everything and the book leaves open some questions for further exploration. In his 2003 book City of Courts: Socializing Justice in Progressive Era Chicago, Willrich grappled with the paradoxes of the 1920s, in which the “Institutions, laws, professions, personal commitments, public investments, scientific discoveries” and other social legacies from the Progressive era continued alongside a “conservative cultural reaction” in the years following World War I (2003, pp. 281–282). I am curious if the way Willrich’s earlier legal history reconciles the conservatism and liberalism of the interwar period, which culminates in the New Deal’s modernization of carceral institutions, would be approached differently in light of the politically orthogonal influence of the anarchists. Willrich’s latest also makes me want to know more about the individualist anarchists, especially Voltairine de Cleyre, whose story might further demonstrate the fraught relationship between anti-state liberalism, radicalism, and feminism. Called by Goldman the “most gifted and brilliant anarchist woman America ever produced,” de Cleyre moved from mutualism to social anarchism to anarchist ecumenicism, which might attract the attention of historians seeking deeper understanding of what was particularly American about the nation’s radicals (Goldman, 1932).  

Finally, while epilogues that discuss the author’s own time are generally the least rigorous pieces of historical monographs, I actually crave some presentist reflection by Willrich. I wonder how he sees the anarchist legacies branch out after the interwar period and into the late twentieth century. It would appear that along with their progressive and conservative counterparts, the anarchists, however unwittingly, have left their mark in underappreciated ways on the modern left and right and on the modern democratic state itself. In any event, those intrigued by the puzzling way American political identity was formed a century ago by its most determined dissidents will find the details here invaluable.


Balogh, Brian. (2015). The Associational State: American Governance in the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Cohen, Nancy. (2002). The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Goldman, Emma. (1932). “Voltairine De Cleyre.” Berkeley Heights, New Jersey: The Oriole Press.

Tucker, Benjamin Ricketson. (1911 [1888]). State Socialism and Anarchism: How Far They Agree & Wherein They Differ. London: AC Fifield.

Weinrib, Laura. (2016). The Taming of Free Speech: America’s Civil Liberties Compromise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Willrich, Michael. (2003).  City of Courts: Socializing Justice in Progressive Era Chicago.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Anthony Gregory is an assistant professor in residence at Rhode Island School of Design, where he teaches American history. He is the author of The Power of Habeas Corpus in America (2013), American Surveillance (2016), and the forthcoming New Deal Law and Order: How the War on Crime Built the Modern Liberal State.

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