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Synthesis/Regeneration 26   (Fall 2001)

Thinking Politically

Daniel A. Colemanís The Anarchist

reviewed by Joel Sipress, Duluth Area Green Party

Open virtually any US History textbook and one will see the rich tradition of American anarchism reduced to a few spectacular episodes: the tragic 1927 execution of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti on trumped murder charges, Alexander Berkmanís failed attempt on the life of Henry Clay Frick (Andrew Carnegieís chief henchman), and of course the 1901 slaying of President William McKinley at the hands of the mysterious Leon Czolgosz, a ďfanaticalĒ anarchist who shot the president at point-blank range during the Pan-American exposition in Buffalo, New York. In the dry repetition of these violent incidents, the bold anarchist vision of a classless and stateless world vanishes, as does the ability of that vision to inspire the most passionate hopes of some and the deepest fears of others.

In The Anarchist, Daniel A. Coleman (author of Eco-Politics: Building a Green Society) asks us to engage the anarchist tradition through the medium of historical fiction. The Anarchist, centers on the fictional Jonathan Parker, a young medical intern with an interest in criminal psychology, who conducts a series of interviews with the condemned Czolgosz just before his execution. Parker pursues the interviews in hopes of gaining insight into the workings of the criminal mind. Instead, his encounters with the assassin launch him on a journey of personal introspection and social engagement. Face-to-face with the notorious Czolgosz, he finds himself unable to dismiss the assassin as the deranged lunatic that had been portrayed in the press. As Parker begins to probe the social origins of Czolgoszís hatred of authority, the intern begins to question his own faith in the triumphal industrial order that the slain president symbolized.

From todayís perspective, the anarchist vision of a cooperative utopia may seem hopelessly naÔve. At the turn of the century, however, industrial capitalism and the modern state were themselves the novelties. It was, in fact, the very newness of centralized economic and political power that allowed anarchists to dream their dream of a classless and stateless world. In The Anarchist, Coleman brings to life a turn-of-the-century America in which rapid technological change offered the promise of a better tomorrow even as millions toiled under the most desperate of material conditions. He offers a glimpse of how socialists, anarchists, and feminists, acting in the shadows of a smug and self-satisfied elite culture, produced among the most vibrant bodies of radical political thought in American history.

The Anarchist incorporates many of the elements we would expect of historical fiction, including the obligatory love interest. (In the midst of his encounter with Czolgosz, Parker finds himself falling for young feminist Lucy Gerin, the daughter of his internship director.) Nevertheless, Colemanís work is fundamentally about political ideas. For Coleman, the anarchist tradition is a mirror held up to society, revealing its most basic injustices and hypocrisies. Without the slightest hint of preachiness, and without revealing his own intellectual stance, Coleman asks us to confront the anarchist tradition. Indeed, if Colemanís response to the anarchist challenge remains ambiguous, that is because he understands that the issues of equality, justice, and power to which the anarchists spoke continue to defy easy and simple solutions.

Joel Sipress is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

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