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(en) Paul Avrich 1931-2006: a historian who listened to anarchist voices

Date Thu, 2 Mar 2006 11:29:27 +0100 (CET)

All the collective members of the Kate Sharpley Library are all saddened
by the death of Paul Avrich. We offer this obituary not merely as a mark
of respect, but to attempt to place his huge contribution to the study of
the history of anarchism into context: "He allowed anarchist voices,
missing from history, to speak for themselves, with a minimal of authorial
judgement or intervention, and much of what we know about the history of
anarchism in America is due to the work of this one man."
* * * * * * * * * *
Paul Avrich 1931-2006.
The death of Paul Avrich has taken from anarchism its finest historian.
More than that the study of history has also lost one of its finest
proponents because Avrich was also a great historian. If his work brought
to life those who shared "the beautiful ideal" it was because he used his
considerable talents to treat his subjects with respect, thus avoiding the
glib condescension that characterized much of what constituted "anarchist
history" in the academy. Avrich's work reflected his skills as a linguist,
the absolute importance he placed on primary sources and his perseverance
in finding them, an ability to sustain long, and sometimes fruitless
periods of research and a writing style that enabled him to encapsulate
his findings in a readable and engaging manner. Central to all of this was
a consistent and rigorous insistence on accuracy. He went further, looked
deeper and reflected more pertinently than others. He allowed anarchist
voices, missing from history, to speak for themselves, with a minimal of
authorial judgement or intervention, and much of what we know about the
history of anarchism in America is due to the work of this one man. His
work on anarchism in Russia formed the first half of Avrich's published
career. His first book, "The Russian Anarchists" (1967) was a model of
what we would come to expect. Succinct, readable and yet packed with
information reflecting Avrich's use of primary sources, it brought to
English speaking minds a lost history. It also reflected, as much of his
work would do, one of the primary tensions in anarchism, between those who
search for organizational structure to support their anarchist ideas and
those who are far more wary of any organizational apparatus. He treated
the relationship of anarchism and violence with scrupulous fairness and
rigor, an approach that ran throughout all of his writing, and reflected
confidently the nuances and complexities of anarchism in Russia. He
clearly stressed the constructive qualities of anarchism in 1917 and
onwards, developing his earlier dissertation on " The Russian Revolution
and the Factory Committees". His work "Kronstadt 1921" (1970) destroyed
the Bolshevik myth of Kronstadt being a counter-revolutionary center whose
vibrant revolutionary movement had long been dissipated. On the contrary,
to Avrich, it was in effect a last ditch stand against the centralizing,
counter revolutionary excesses of Bolshevism. Again scrupulously
documented, the work brought what had long been known in anarchist circles
to a much wider audience.

His "Russian Rebels 1600-1800" (1972) continued his interest in the
revolutionary heritage in Russia and, again, was unflinching in its
examination of its subjects. His groundbreaking "Anarchists in the Russian
Revolution" (1973) completed what we may call the first phase of his work.
A collection of primary documents interspersed with appropriate editorial
commentary it allowed the reader to see and read, often for the first
time, the words of the Russian anarchists themselves. From the swirling
and tremulous words of the Anarcho-Futurists to the Petropavlovsk
Resolution of Kronstadt we see the reach and range of Russian anarchism.
In the preface to his "An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine De
Cleyre" (1978) a work in memory of Max Nettlau, himself a great historian
of anarchism, Avrich writes of abandoning his project of producing a
comprehensive history of American anarchism writing that "a fuller
examination of the materials at my disposal, together with the discovery
of new sources, aroused a growing sense of the complexity of the movement,
of the richness and diversity of its history." The rest of his life would
be spent exploring that complexity, richness and diversity. He also found
his methodology. He would explore the lives of those who played a role in
the movement because "From most existing accounts ?one gets little
understanding of the anarchists as human beings, still less of what
impelled them to embark on their unpopular and seemingly futile course.
Anarchism, as a result, has seemed a movement apart, unreal and quixotic,
divorced from American history and irrelevant to American life." His work
on De Cleyre was a brilliant introduction to this complex and anguished
woman. We quickly become aware of the fierce quicksilver mind she
possesses and realize, through Avrich's deftness, that we are in the
presence of some kind of greatness. Written nearly thirty years ago it
remains unsurpassed as a narrative of her life and an appreciation of the
multi- faceted nature of her ideas. Through the interactions that
constitute her life a history of anarchism also begins to emerge.

His two greatest works now lay ahead of him. "The Modern School",
dedicated to anarchist librarian Agnes Inglis, (1980) is a jewel of a
book. It describes a moment in American anarchist history where culture
and militancy meet. Nearly every line drips with original research; the
narrative is clear and precise, linking complex and apparently
contradictory themes and helping the reader decipher them. If the work on
De Cleyre has not convinced us, his work here makes it crystal clear that
American anarchism was much more than Benjamin Tucker, Emma Goldman, and
Alexander Berkman. "The Modern School" rightfully re-establishes many
lives previously lost to the historian as critical players in the attempt
to create anarchy in America. Avrich is re-defining our knowledge, our
expectations and our appreciations. It is a book to read and re-read and
like all great works each re-reading teaches us something new. So too with
his next major work "The Haymarket Tragedy" (1984), dedicated to Joseph
Labadie, which continued the standard he had set himself. Using original
sources he creates an unforgettable picture of anarchist practice and
culture. The heroism and tragedy of the whole affair are presented to us
in a highly readable narrative. People are presented to us as fully
rounded with their flaws as equally obvious as their strengths. A seminal
event in American radical history is presented to us clearly yet
passionately. It is the book on Haymarket, the book on late nineteenth
century class struggle anarchism and culture and a volume to treasure.
"Anarchist Portraits" (1988) dedicated to Arne Thorne (a profound
influence on Avrich) was a collection of essays on a wide range of
subjects. All reflect Avrich's customary elegance. He is at ease writing
about the Australian anarchist "Chummy" Fleming as he is discussing
Kropotkin's Ethical Anarchism. His essay on Jewish anarchism in the United
States is essential reading while his sketch of Alexander Berkman's life
remains a most valuable template. His essay on "Sacco and Vanzetti: The
Italian Anarchist background" was the forerunner of his "Sacco and
Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background" (1991). Here again he looks at a
critical event in the history of the left in America and through his
biographical style brings individuals and their ideas to life. The
remarkable human qualities of many of the anarchists are clearly drawn as
well as their inconsistencies and flaws. The violence that runs through
this period of history is portrayed straightforwardly without any attempt
to judge or moralise. As a result Sacco and Vanzetti, and all the others
who were in their affinity groups, are presented in their richness and
complexity. A richness and complexity no one else had been able to
reflect. A by-product of his biographical approach is that we are guided
through the history of anti-organizational and insurrectionary Italian
class struggle anarchism of the period, in a manner that brings life and
meaning to its theory and actions.

Finally "Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism In America"
(1996). Many of Avrich's interviews with anarchist activists from the
early twentieth century onwards are recorded here. It is essential
reading. Of course memories will play tricks and Avrich's footnotes gently
corrects errors. Yet this volume reminds us that anarchism is not just
what we read in anarchist papers or in the pamphlets and books regularly
circulated. Anarchism is also those, who, by their actions, make up the
movement. They sat and listened to Goldman speak. They went to the Modern
School. They helped sell papers, financed comrades on the run, lived in
the colonies, became jaundiced or never gave up. They put the stamps on
the papers when they were mailed out. They gave life to words. How
refreshing to hear these voices at last and how exciting to see our
understanding of anarchism so broadened and enriched.

Much remains to be done to complete the work started by Paul Avrich (It is
to be hoped that his long worked on life of Alexander Berkman will see the
light of day) and we should finish by making some final comments on his
legacy. Firstly he implicity realized that we were still at the discovery
stage. There is still much to learn and tease out about the history of
anarchism. Much spade work and slog still need to be done to discover
anarchist history. We can, though, learn from Avrich's refusal to
condescend to the people that made up his histories. He did not have a
clever theory and try to prove it, a methodology that treats its subjects
like chess pieces rather than people. Instead he preferred to let the
facts and events guide him to any conclusions he might make. He did not
judge and he did not try to explain actions that took place a hundred
years ago with the reasonings of today. For him the discovery and telling
of the story was the most important thing and how well we and his subjects
benefitted from that approach.

In person he was lovely and enormously helpful to all who came to him with
questions. Students and activists and fellow scholars all benefitted from
his knowledge. He must have known he was the gold standard ("what does
Avrich say?") yet there was no arrogance, just a desire to share and help.
He was spare with his criticism preferring to remain silent than chastise.
If he offered praise and encouragement it meant the world to the
recipient. One could ask for no finer praise from any source. When he
began his studies Avrich was chastised by his tutor for studying those who
had "lost." It is an interesting thought that his honest and thorough
approach grounded in primary sources may well have given anarchists,
should they choose to read him, some of the tools to succeed.

KSL Collective

A pdf file of this obituary is posted at www.katesharpleylibrary.net

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