Friday, January 3, 2014

Free Comrades. Anarchism and Homosexuality in the United States 1895-1917 by Terence Kissack.

Free Comrades is Terence Kissack’s well-documented history of pre-World War I, anarchist advocacy for lesbians and gays in the US. Until 1924, when the Society for Human Rights was formed in Chicago, there was no other organized effort to combat their oppression. There are some linguistic peculiarities to address: Kissack employs terms and concepts that were used by these early advocates. Archaic words like "homogenic," "invert" and "manly love," appear in place of "gay," "lesbian" and "bi-sexual.” Transgender Americans, a group not publicly conceptualized during the books focus period, are not covered. I’m sure that there are individuals within the LGBT community whom these exclusions and word usages will rub the wrong way. But putting the web of our current views and vernacular aside for a moment, most modern LGBT supporters are sophisticated enough to recognize that the movement in its infancy was not as advanced in as we are in the 21st Century. The intent of pre-WWI activists can still be appreciated for what was, in the late 18th Century, radically open-minded and supportive.

By 1895, Free-Love Anarchists, or Sex Radicals, had subdued the voices of prejudice within their own community enough to focus on public sphere activism in a significant way. Philosophically, anarchists opposed government interference in people’s private lives, and favored personal freedom. This made them natural allies to men and women facing state and individual oppression based on sexual difference from accepted norms. Anarchist support consisted mostly of lecturing, writing and networking with Sex Radicals in Europe. Unlike the US, Europe contained a number of sex-positive thinkers, reformers and organizations, that were not anarchist. There were no US efforts to reform “anti-sodomy” laws, since revolution was the anarchist answer to oppression.

Anarchist advocacy for lesbian/gay freedom, which they couched in terms of “the right to complete liberty of action,” became a major cause during and after the trial of Oscar Wilde. The playwright’s anarchist and socialist sympathies helped to garner support from the left.  But his conviction for private sexual activity which harmed no one, united anarchists and advocates of sexual freedom on both sides of the Atlantic. Regardless of how individuals may have felt about Wilde’s sexuality, this flagrant abuse of state power made lesbian/gay rights a permanent part of the “individual freedoms” discussion until government campaigns destroyed anarchist organizational infrastructure during the First World War.

Kissack’s chronology depicts a number of radicals and publications. Highlighted among the plethora of verbiage they produced are Emma Goldman’s enlightened speeches, Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, and lesbian/gay-positive periodicals like the eponymous “Free Comrades.” Anarchist writers, most notably Leonard Abbott, J.W. Lloyd and Benjamin Tucker, kept the national conversation going. After the post-WWI government-led purges, a quieter, more community-building attitude settled-in among both anarchist and LGBT circles.

A significant flaw of Free Comrades is its failure to address anarchist violence during the same period that lesbian/gay advocacy was occurring. Defenders might argue that this book concerns Free Love Anarchists addressing the private sphere; not public sphere anarchists responding to state repression. But one of Kissack’s main points is that the State was punishing private, harmless behavior, which was a public sphere issue that drew-in anti-State anarchists. One might argue that this is a book about anarchist ideas, not actions. But the author himself repeatedly mentions various acts of violence without qualifications. Among the more salient acts of violence mentioned are Berkman’s attempted assassination of Henry Clay Fricke (Kissack, p. 101), the Preparedness Day Bombing for which Tom Mooney was framed (Kissack, p. 69), and the post-WWI “wave of bombings including a spectacular explosion on Wall Street [which] seemed to usher in a radical assault” (Kissack, p. 155). One could say that apologetics are not the purpose of this book. However, when anarchist J.W. Lloyd uses the word “savage” to describe Native Americans, the author is quick to note that “’savage’ has a jarring quality for contemporary readers” but “Lloyd used it in an ironic sense” (Kissack, p. 64). The author will even condemn socially conservative anarchists, as he does with Johann Most when he rightfully characterizes him as a misogynist (Kissack, p. 26). No such speedy prowess is forthcoming from Kissack’s pen regarding anarchist violence. Perhaps brutality is too indefensible for modern anarchists. But violence in Anarchist History is as difficult to avoid as ice in the Arctic Circle. At some point we need to discuss the melting glacier in the room. As much as I love Emma Goldman’s uncontained spirit, inspiring speeches and pro-liberation sexual politics, one cannot fully understand her without considering her verbose defenses of political assassinations. Inexplicably, Kissack avoids the conversation. I empathize with the notion that there was a war perpetrated by the wealthy against the poor. The legal assassination of Joe Hill, the use of Pinkerton Detectives as brutal strike-breakers, the attempts to criminalize unions, all illustrate efforts by the powerful to subjugate workers. However, responding with violence only caused suffering, created fear, expanded the class war, gave negative press to the movement and compounded the ethical wrongs. This view is shared by the current Anarcho-Pacifist wing of the movement who see violence as clouding their message.

The concluding chapter of Free Comrades opens with a late 1960s college course entitled “Contemporary Ideologies.” As a demonstration of anarchism’s improved status at that time, Kissack presents a class vote where 90 of the 160 students define themselves as anarchists (Kissack, p. 181). This is undeniably a better opinion of anarchism than a post-WWI classroom would have voiced. But how many of the 90 saw themselves as anarchists a decade after graduation? In my Hampshire College “State and Society” class of 1980, anarchist professor Lester Mazor stated that ten years from “now” most of the students present would have mainstream jobs, privileged lives and little or no dedication to social change. So how much was this 1960s wave of anarchism a fashion? Ask the baby boomers today how many of them are still anarchists.

The rest of the conclusion is fairly spot-on. Focusing on the legacy of pre-WWI anarchists, Kissack states that LGBT historians credit these early advocates for their work. But these accounts appear in books dedicated to an independent LGBT movement. The author makes this separation between movements and ideologies even more clear: “With few exceptions, today’s gay and lesbian activists seek inclusion within the boundaries of American culture, rather than the fundamental restructuring of that culture. They may find inspiration in the spirit of freedom expressed by the anarchists, but they are not revolutionaries” (Kissack, p. 186).

Nonetheless, anarchist's brave contribution to the freedom of today’s LGBT community deserves praise. In his summation of their efforts, Kissack is entirely right and deserves the last word of this review:

“They were nearly alone in their defense of people’s right to express their erotic feelings…When Oscar Wilde was thrown in prison…the anarchists rose to his defense, while others cheered his fall…Almost alone among their contemporaries, the anarchist sex radicals addressed the issue of homosexuality within the context of their larger political goals…the work of the anarchist sex radicals was unique and valuable. It is time we acknowledge and honor their accomplishments” (Kissack, p. 188).

Kissack, Terence. Free Comrades: Anarchism and Homosexuality in the United States, 1895-1917. Oakland: AK Press, 2008.

For review of a book on gay male culture in New York from 1890 to 1940, see:

For review of another politically radical history, see:

For a discussion encompassing "Marxist History vs Marxist Politics," see: