Beer and Revolution

Review: English on Goyens

Tom Goyens. Beer and Revolution: The German Anarchist Movement in New York City, 1880-1914. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007. 263 pp. Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-03175-5.

Reviewed for H-SHGAPE by Beth English, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University
Published by [mailto][/mailto] (May, 2008)

Anarchism Uncovered
In late February 2008, authorities found an unknown substance in a Las Vegas hotel room--with a comatose man, guns, and an "anarchist-type textbook"--that tests later confirmed was the deadly poison ricin. A week later, New York investigators announced that the bomb-throwing cyclist who damaged a Times Square military recruiting office likely had ties to a New York anarchist group. These recent events garnering national headlines and the rapt attention of 24-hour news junkies only served to reinforce the popular perception of anarchism as a shadowy, dangerous movement. This view of anarchism is anything but new, but as Tom Goyens illustrates in his book, Beer and Revolution: The German Anarchist Movement in New York City, 1880-1914, it is also anything but complete. Goyens takes the reader to turn-of-the-century New York beerhalls, saloons, and public parks where anarchism was not just an alternative, anti-institutionalist, and anti-authoritarian political ideology, but a culture consciously crafted and practiced. By analyzing the intersections of political thought and social spaces, of abstract ideas and lived experiences among German anarchists, Goyens contributes in a meaningful way to a broader understanding of radicalism in urban America.

Goyens's focus on German anarchists in New York City brings a largely overlooked group of Gilded Age radicals into view. His skillful biographical sketches of German anarchist leaders and discussions of ideological debates and infighting that occurred within the movement highlight the contributions New Yorkers made to the evolution of anarchist political thought in America, and of the importance of personalities in the development of social movements, radical or otherwise. Though his narrative bogs down at times with lengthy descriptions of ideological nuances and differences between various anarchist factions, Goyens does succeed in making the bigger point that anarchism, when analyzed from within rather than in comparison to the mainstream, was not a universal, monolithic radical movement. The German anarchist community in New York itself was not "homogeneous, single-minded, well-oiled" but "fractured" and "loosely connected" (p. 112).

New York's German anarchists never gained a significant level of visibility. Unlike anarchists in Chicago and the associated agitation of the International Working People's Association there, New York anarchists did not connect in a meaningful way with or make a palpable impact on the labor movement in the industrial corridor of greater New York City. German anarchists did not lead spectacular strikes nor did they organize a political party or leave a legacy of legislative success. These factors partly explain the absence of the New York anarchists from the historiography of radicalism. But as Goyens points out, political activism and labor agitation were not the focus of New York's German anarchists. In fact, it was the New Yorkers' opposition to utilizing electoral politics and trade unionism as vehicles for change that fueled antagonisms between them and their Chicago counterparts.
Still, Goyens contends that the New York anarchists' lack of public visibility and measurable successes does not mean that they should be ignored, but rather understood as a subgroup of American radicals and as a part of the social, cultural, and political milieu that was turn-of-the-century New York. [...]