Freedom News

Book Review: Left of the Left — my memories of Sam Dolgoff

Left of the Left

by Anatole Dolgoff
ISBN: 978-1-84935-248-2
PP: 400
Publisher: AK Press, 2016

Sam Dolgoff was an American anarchist and wobbly (member of the Industrial Workers of the World). He’s an important figure, active for almost seven decades (including ones where anarchism was supposed to have ‘died out’!) Anatole Dolgoff is the youngest son of Sam and Esther Dolgoff, and Left of the Left is his insider’s account of his parents’ lives and world. He’s not hobbled by trying to be ‘objective’, nor by trying to please anybody else. His attention to the political movement they belonged to and his willingness to ask ‘what was really going on here?’ makes this more than a simple collection of family stories.

Of Sam in the 1930s he asks: ‘Where did he get the energy to live as he did? To feed us, he painted apartments for slumlords and conniving contractors. He carried out organizational work and soapbox duties for the Wobblies. He worked with Carlo Tresca and other Italian anarchists in fighting fascists in the streets. He was instrumental founding a sequence of anarchist publications, Vanguard being the most notable among them in the early to mid-1930s. He worked with the Jewish anarchists of Freie Arbeiter Stimme. Later came Spanish Revolution; the name of that publication speaks for itself.’ (p115) Esther appears throughout the book as partner (in both senses). I most enjoyed her rejoinder, from a feminist meeting at Vassar College [1978?]: ‘“Marx, Marx!” she interrupted, with a wave of the hand. “Who was Marx? He was a man who lived in the nineteenth century. He was a brilliant man, for sure. Some of the things he said are of value today; others not so much. Why do you feel the need to refer to him always? Why don’t you stand up, think for yourself, and say what it is you want to say?”’ (p370)

Other anarchists and wobblies come to life in shared stories, like Federico Arcos’ scorn for For whom the bell tolls – ‘“Can you imagine the Spanish anarchists (!) need a guy to come all the way from Montana to teach us how to use explosives!”’ (p180) And then there’s Anatole’s memories of old anarchist wobbly Bill Roth. Having knocked about with Joe Hill, Roth found the song ‘I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night’ too saintly: ‘Joe Hill was not a flower child.’ (p241)

Anatole Dolgoff has some interesting observations of his own. ‘The misconception that he [Sam] was unduly rigid stems from the fact that he refused to abandon the concept of the class struggle, and from his belief that democratic, revolutionary unions are the best instruments for confronting the capitalist system and the state. I’ll not get into the thick of the debate, except to say that I think many of Sam’s critics were college educated and middle class and lived in a period of rising opportunities for people like them. […] Capitalism remains a predatory system because, at its core, human beings are raw materials, commodities. […] Yes, work is evolving but the power relations remain unchanged.’ (p360-1)

Left of the Left has an old, grizzled Sam Dolgoff on the cover in full colour. And inside, the picture Anatole paints is not black and white either. Besides the politics, there is working, drinking and family dynamics that aren’t always pretty. Left of the Left is both sad and funny at times. Mainly it’s a wise and loving tribute, to his parents, but also to the movement that they helped to make and that helped make them.

This review first appeared in Issue 90 of the Kate Sharpley Library Bulletin

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