Forty Years in the Struggle
The "Old City" neighborhood of Philadelphia is renowned for its many historic sites related to the "founding fathers" and the U.S. colonial era. Yet very few know about this same neighborhood’s significant anarchist history. Since 1997, local historian Robert Helms has led an "Anarchist Historical Walking Tour" that presents this history of resistance from the poor and working classes, who viewed the rhetoric about American democracy as a fraud and organized themselves to challenge the power of the ruling class. Helms is the editor of the just-released English translation of Chaim Leib Weinberg’s (1869-1939) autobiography Forty Years in the Struggle: The Memoirs of a Jewish Anarchist.
Weinberg’s autobiography was originally in Yiddish and was released in 1952. Written by Marcus Graham, it is based on Graham’s four weeks of conversations with Weinberg in 1930. Described by fellow anarchist Emma Goldman as "an eloquent Yiddish agitator," Weinberg never wrote or published a word, but gave thousands of speeches—all in Yiddish. Helms writes in the book’s introduction that Weinberg "was an incredible orator and story teller: these were the talents that set him apart from most of his contemporaries." Helms notes that "during Weinberg’s heyday, Jews accounted for the majority of Philadelphia’s anarchists," and the book "presents a side of Philadelphia’s Jewish life and social movements that has, until now, been unavailable in English."
Weinberg was born in Tshekhanovtse, Grodne Province in Russia. He left and moved to London when he was 18, following his mother’s death. He returned several years later, but at 21 he moved to the United States where he struggled to support himself as a peddler. He returned to Russia nine months later where his father arranged a marriage for him, but Weinberg says that the "matchmaking proved to be worse than my suffering in England and America." Subsequently, he moved back to the U.S. and learned cigar-making, a job he continued throughout his life. He first worked in North Carolina where he soon became involved in organizing a union, got a taste of public speaking, and was introduced to the writings of the German anarchist Johan Most, whose work influenced him greatly.
Weinberg then moved to New York City where he got a job at a union shop making cigars for ten dollars a week. He then moved to Philadelphia where he continued cigar-making and helped organize the city’s first Jewish bakers and the first Jewish cigar-makers union. Weinberg became involved in public debates and helped to form a new group founded by workers called the Knights of Liberty, with which, Weinberg writes, "The history of the Jewish anarchist movement in Philadelphia truly began." Weekly public forums were organized and speakers were brought from New York and elsewhere. Weinberg also became involved in organizing the first Jewish cooperative organization in the U.S., called the Workers Cooperative Society, which was a "non-partisan workers movement, where workers from all political persuasions and directions would be able to take part." They started a cooperative shoe and hat store that was so successful that they quickly opened a cooperative bank as well. But their success soon made them the target of established storekeepers, who worked to discredit them by spreading rumors that "gradually began to accomplish their goal." Eventually these projects, as well as a cooperative bakery, failed, breaking the hearts of Weinberg and others. He also became involved in several housing cooperative experiments that eventually failed due mostly to infighting among the participants.
Alongside editor Helms’s 205 new annotations supplementing Weinberg’s original memoirs are several essays written by those who knew him, including one from 1939 by Samuel Polinow, who describes Weinberg’s speaking style: "Rather than to illustrate by scientific facts the functioning of an anarchist society as laid down by authors of anarchist philosophy, he employed a most unique and simple method to convince his listeners of its possibility. He spoke to them as man to man [sic]. To a group of bakers he would say ‘Do you think a senator is as useful to society as any one of you bakers?’ And to the needle workers: ‘Do you think a governor could make as good a pair of pants as you can?’ And to others: ‘Do you need a policeman to tell you when to go to sleep?’"
Another supplemental essay written by Abraham Frumkin in 1940 is reprinted from In the Spring of Jewish Socialism. In 1897, Frumkin and other anarchist organizers brought Weinberg to London for a speaking tour that began at a large hall "in the middle of London’s Jewish quarter" that was packed with 600 people. At first sight, Frumkin writes that the crowd was not impressed by "his gait, his figure, and perhaps also his smooth, bald head," but after he "got up from his chair and started to address the audience, all eyes were fixed on him, as if they suddenly saw another person entirely…. I sat and thought: Here I am hearing for the first time someone who is not speaking from a book and repeating ideas gotten from newspapers, pamphlets and books."
The memoir’s conclusion spotlights Weinberg’s philosophical side where he writes: "I am certain that the anarchist ideology will become a reality in the very near future. This is not because anarchism has become a dogma for me, but rather this comes from my observations of human behavior…there is an innate instinct for freedom." He argues that "government and the state arose" to maintain "economic inequality" and will be unnecessary in a society with economic justice. "Since we know from science that nothing is permanent—from the fact, for example, that slavery ended—therefore the era of economic slavery must come to an end." He argues that the anarchist movement must "build up our whole philosophy on the voluntary uniting of workers. This is not a utopia, because we see that tens of millions of people are organized into unions, lodges, and other associations—without prisons, soldiers, barracks, police, judges, and so forth…. The same thing can happen, in a greater measure, in all phases of social and political life, and this is my social ideal.
"How do we come to the realization of anarchism? We must organize the worker as a producer through the unions, and as a consumer through cooperatives…. The anarchist-communist doctrine is an international doctrine. It is not just for one race or one nation, so our message must be brought wherever oppressed people are found…. We anarchists should bring the ideology of a future anarchist society to the masses. And these very masses, together under our influence, will initiate the worldwide social revolution and begin building the new society."