The Page 99 Test

Andrew Cornell was asked to apply The Page 99 Test to Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the Twentieth Century.

Turning to page 99 of Unruly Equality, we find a mild-mannered, mustachioed anarchist named Harry Kelly recounting the birth of the Mohegan Colony – a leafy planned community along the Hudson River, one hour north of New York City, developed by anti-capitalist radicals in 1923.

Our purpose,” Kelly explained, “was to establish another children’s school, to be conducted along libertarian lines, to build a community wherein a larger measure of individual and social life could be realized.

Although the page is devoted to describing a particular initiative, it does hint at the themes and questions animating the book as a whole. Many people assume anarchism – a political movement opposed to all forms of social and political domination – died out in the United States after the notorious Emma Goldman was deported during the First World War. In fact, Unruly Equality traces an unbroken line of anarchist activism and thought up through present-day phenomena such as Occupy Wall Street. It is true, however, that the face and focus of anarchism changed remarkably over the 20th century.

Prior to WWI, most U.S. anarchists were immigrant wage-laborers hailing from eastern and southern Europe. Some worked to organize radical unions while others practiced “propaganda of the deed,” such as the assassination of business-owners and politicians. Following a wave of wartime repression, however, many anarchists turned their energies to raising “free,” ethically-minded children and other gradualist methods wherein they attempted to “prefigure,” or model, an ideal world in their own lives. Anarchist “colonies,” such as Mohegan, were meant to contribute to this strategy, but their achievements proved disappointing. On page 99, I argue:

The colonists’ initial desire to create social change through libertarian education, was, by 1923, compounded by a plan to collectivize the process of social mobility. Anarchist colonies offered their residents more pleasant surroundings and greater freedom of expression in daily life, but also distanced them from opportunities to organize fellow workers and from the direct conflicts with authorities that characterized the lives of prewar urban anarchists.

This change of scenery signaled broader shifts in the anarchist movement towards middle-class constituencies and concerns. In the 1940s, anarchists allied with radical pacifists and avant-garde poets, laying the foundation for the Beat Generation and 1960s counter-culture. In the process, however, they ceded their connections to working-class life and the influence they once had within organized labor.