Source type: magazine
Document type: article
Document title: “Anarchism at Close Quarters”
Author(s): Conant, R. Warren
Date of publication: October 1902
Volume number: 28
Issue number: 4
|Conant, R. Warren. “Anarchism at Close Quarters.” Arena Oct. 1902 v28n4: pp. 337-45.|
|anarchism (public response); anarchism (dealing with); anarchism (personal response); anarchism; assassinations; anarchism (Chicago, IL); Chicago Commons; anarchism (government response).|
|Alexander II; Antonio Cánovas del Castillo; Marie François Sadi Carnot; Leon Czolgosz; Robert W. de Forest [misspelled below]; Homer Folks; William Travers Jerome; Florence Kelley; Seth Low; William McKinley; James B. Reynolds; Graham Taylor; Lawrence Veiller.|
From magazine title page: R. Warren Conant, M.D., of the Chicago Bureau of Charities.
“R. Warren Conant, M.D.” (p. 345).
Anarchism at Close Quarters
AS one who has enjoyed special opportunities for observing the
gentle anarchist as he flourishes in the second largest city of the United States,
I have written out these results of my observations as likely to be of general
interest. It has also been my fortune to hear the lines of argument and persuasion
pursued by many of the advocates of law and order, both lay and clerical. Generally
speaking, it cannot be said that these lines have been chosen happily. In the
main the speakers have been highly conservative, either not knowing or ignoring
the wrongs of which anarchism complains, and of course having no remedies to
propose except some more of the same thing. Their usual prescription is the
power of the law, the education of the public school, and the religion of the
That none of these remedies can be depended on to cure anarchism is amply proved by past experience and by the nature of the disease. Education will not do it, for many of the anarchists are intelligent and educated. Even more powerless is the church, for anarchists generally regard it as the hypocritical ally of their arch-enemy capital, and hate and despise it accordingly.
The real remedy is one that receives little attention from these sociological doctors—the slum Settlement. It is a grand work, worthy of more than passing mention, that is being wrought by those centers of social health: like skin grafts  planted by the surgeon in the midst of sloughing ulcers, from which the healthy tissue gradually spreads until putrefaction and death are checked. No one can fully realize this without going into the thick of it and seeing eye to eye. The Boulevard knows nothing of it.
As stated at the outset, I have enjoyed special opportunities in this direction. The word “enjoyed” is used advisedly, for, to the student of sociology who cares to be more than a philanthropic dilettante, there is real pleasure in facing these ugly facts in their lurking-places and studying them at first hand. I have been present when the anarchists were out in force to wage wordy war for their doctrines; heard them vie with one another in raging against their “oppressors;” seen the deference and wild approval they gave to the widow of one of the “martyrs” of 1887 as she grew hysterical in denouncing her “wrongs” and theirs.
That is the way to study anarchy. Then you realize as never before the intense hatred of capital, and of every person and thing connected with capital, that is continually seething under the surface of the slums. Then you realize the terrible capacity for self-perversion of half-taught poverty; you see through their myopic eyes the tragedy of their narrow, grinding lot; and you can understand—even while you reprobate—their fierce hatred of every man who wears a good coat. Such first-hand study is an important part of a liberal education. Not that there is any danger of a Reign of Terror in the United States, but there is a certainty that outrages like the assassination of President McKinley will multiply.
In the twenty-one years since Alexander II. was shattered by the bomb of an anarchist, there have been fourteen political murders and attempts. Of these, eight were either avowedly the work of anarchists or inspired largely by their doctrines. But the significant fact is that the intervals between these outrages is shortening. After the death of Alexander II. a period of thirteen years elapsed before President Carnot, of France, was stabbed to the heart; then in only three years more Canovas, of Spain, was shot; and the very next year the beloved  Empress of Austria was murdered with a knife. Two years afterward came the shooting of the King of Italy and the attempt on the Prince of Wales; the next year President McKinley was sacrificed. Nineteen hundred and two has not yet claimed its victim, but anarchism is becoming a dangerous “annual,” which must be extirpated by digging up its roots.
But what are the roots, and how are they to be extirpated? Of course they are many, including ignorance, prejudice, covetousness, and pure “cussedness.” But the tap-root, the only really dangerous root, without which all the rest would be negligible, is the sense of wrong and injustice. No fair-minded man can listen, as I have, to Red talk without perceiving that in all their raving there is a large element of sincerity; and that is the dangerous element. Society can afford to smile pityingly at the frothings of men who are actuated merely by greed or viciousness and leave them to the police for treatment, but it cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to sincere men—to men who really believe, however wrongly, that they are oppressed. That is what Czolgosz meant in saying, “I did my duty.” There are scores just like him—I have seen them and heard them rave—being nurtured and strengthened at this very moment in a conviction of the oppression of the masses by the classes, of the futility and injustice of all government, of the sacredness of anarchy, and of the justification for violence against any and all representatives of government. And the worst of it is that there are so many ugly facts in our economic and political conditions that seem to sustain their contention.
Now, what are we going to do about it? Laws and bayonets are powerless against so insidious a foe. There is but one way: straighten these men’s crooked ideas and redress their real grievances; reason with them, and give them justice. This cannot be done by schools or churches or tracts or missions—only by following in the steps of Him who “went about doing good.” That is the method of the slum Settlement—to get next to the people; and it is the only hope for the slum or for the staying of anarchism.
Among the many excellent Settlements in Chicago there is  one—the Chicago Commons—in which the problem of anarchism is being worked out along the most practical lines. The Commons stands in the midst of a Red neighborhood, like an outpost of order and civilization on a semi-barbarous frontier. Among its many praiseworthy features not one is more admirable than the so-called “Free Floor,” which meets every Tuesday evening at eight o’clock—a free-for-all gathering in the large assembly hall; and whosoever will, let him come.
The order of procedure is simple and effective. A speaker is invited beforehand by Professor Graham Taylor, director of the Commons, to deliver an address on some economic or political subject of general interest. After he has finished, the chairman of the meeting invites the audience to ask questions, which the speaker may answer or not as he chooses. As the address is usually quite conservative, while the audience is composed largely of anarchists, socialists, and various other stripes and breeds of “ists,” it may readily be conceived that the invitation for questions is often the signal for pandemonium to break loose. The questions come thick and fast, many of them keen and searching, finding the vulnerable places in the speaker’s logic, and he must have quick wits and a ready tongue to meet them all promptly and squarely. The chairman has a gavel, which he is obliged to wield vigorously in deciding questions of precedence and in maintaining order and decorum. Often it is necessary for him to hold questioners to the question. They start in to make wild speeches, but are promptly required to confine themselves to one question and nothing else—an excellent discipline. The fellow who has been accustomed to hear his vaporings received by saloon audiences with howls of delight and encouragement learns at the Free Floor what it is to be called to order, and to be compelled to speak to the question or sit down.
When the chairman thinks that enough questions have been asked and answered, he may throw the meeting open to short speeches, not to exceed three minutes each and not to wander widely from the subject of the evening. This is a much-prized opportunity. In such a crowd there are always would-be  orators eager to air their theories and notions, and they spring to their feet gesticulating wildly to catch the chairman’s eye. It is a comical sight. The one who gets the floor evidently feels that remorseless three-minute rule hanging over him like a Damocles’ sword, threatening to descend and cut short the flow of his eloquence; but he does not know how to select and condense, so he is usually in full career when the pitiless gavel falls, and he must sit down swelling with unspoken speeches. It is hard, but it is the best of discipline.
As a rule the audience is in good humor, but sometimes there is wild commotion; faces scowl, fists clench, voices clash, and a riot seems imminent. Then the chairman rises and pounds for order, and as soon as he can make himself heard he smoothes [sic] the boisterous waves with the oil of a little humor, and the incident passes off with a laugh all around.
Some of these anarchist orators speak pretty well, and even the well-informed visitor can catch bits of information from them that he will not be likely to pick up anywhere else. But far more valuable is the glimpse he gets here of modern social conditions from the workingman’s point of view; and if he is of an open mind he will be surprised to perceive how partial and one-sided some of his own views have been. Even from the poor speakers a valuable lesson is to be learned—from the poor, stammering, stumbling fellows who pour forth a wild jumble of broken logic and broken facts in broken English. Often they become quite incoherent in their ravings against capital and in the recital of their “wrongs.” The audience partly applauds, partly laughs at them, but really it is too pitiful to be amusing.
What a mental chaos, scarcely distinguishable from insanity! While abhorring their sentiments, the hearer is filled with pity at the sight of human souls groping in such mental and moral darkness. Yet these men are fellow-citizens and voters. Such a one was Czolgosz. Perhaps, if he could have had the benefit of the instruction, discipline, and good-fellowship of the Free Floor, President McKinley might be alive to-day.
There has been some criticism of this feature of the Chicago Commons by people who were either ill informed or prejudiced.  They jumped to the conclusion that “Free Floor” spelled anarchy, without taking the trouble to ascertain the truth of the matter. All Red talk is strictly forbidden; no one is allowed to abuse the freedom of the meeting by advocating either murder or robbery in any form. Think what all this signifies for the anarchists! They come to the Free Floor to receive, as they suppose, entertainment only; really they are being taught the first principles of good citizenship—principles that they would not accept in any other form. In the first place, they hear the truth of economic and political questions, presented without the distortions of the anarchistic press and platform. They learn to listen to distasteful doctrines in silence; to take their turn in speaking, both giving and receiving respectful attention; to speak to the point; to clothe their vague ideas in concrete form; to restrict their speech—selecting, condensing, and differentiating; to give and receive hard knocks without getting angry; to keep order and submit to authority. What an unconscious schooling in the lessons that are most fatal to the spirit of anarchy!
Again, the Free Floor fulfils [sic] a valuable function as a safety-valve for the discontent of the neighborhood. It is a prime mistake to suppose that the slums do not think. The common people are continually discussing and pondering the intricate subjects of labor and capital and wages, of rights and wrongs and remedies—at home, in the street, in the saloon, and in the shop. The little knowledge that they have is a dangerous thing, even if it were not doubly distorted by the cheap politician and the flash newspaper. Is it any wonder that they go astray? It is far better that men and women bitter with a sense of many wrongs, some imaginary, others real, should vent their bitterness at the Free Floor under reasonable restrictions, and then be answered straight to the point by a well-informed and logical speaker, than that they should gather in a filthy saloon to be inflamed by the unrestrained, beer-inspired mouthings of ignorance or demagoguery.
The above gives some idea of the grand opportunity for reaching the very root of anarchism that is offered by the slum  Settlement. No other place or method is to be compared with it. Here no machinery is necessary; the expense is nominal; and here the apostles of disorder will reason with the apostles of order with less feeling of antagonism than anywhere else: for do they not know by indisputable evidence the pure and unselfish spirit of the Settlement, whose only object is to be a helpful neighbor to them and to their children?
There is only one difficulty, probably the last that the reader suspects. It is easy to catch your audience, but not your speaker. It is a rare man or woman who can face and answer effectively such a crowd, fanatic and shrewd, having no respect for God, man, or devil. I have seen speakers, who could make very impressive addresses from pulpit or platform to a well-dressed, well-fed audience that was already convinced, go all to pieces before a Commons audience. Reverend gentlemen, who have been accustomed to deliver themselves with unction to hearers who would never think of being so rude as to dispute them, are unpleasantly jarred by an audience that does not hesitate to tell the speaker that he does not know what he is talking about, disputes his facts, and denies his most sacred premises. Under this baiting speakers act variously, according to their temperaments; they may wax indignant and sarcastic, or, after a feeble defense, throw up their hands and admit that they may be wrong after all and the anarchists may be right!
On the other hand, a strong man or woman, of self-control and quick wits, who understands that audience beforehand, can give them shot for shot good-humoredly, knock over their delusions and sophistries with the truth, command their respect and liking, and do them great good. No man can do this who stands up before an anarchistic crowd saying in his heart, “These are violent fools whom I am here to instruct;” he will end by being taught some things that he did not know before. The speaker who is to do such people any good must come to them in a sympathetic spirit, prepared to admit that the present social order contains much wrong that should be righted; prepared to de-class himself sufficiently to look at the economic situation through their eyes and to sympathize frankly with their real  grievances; prepared to waive any preconception whenever it comes in conflict with elemental truth; and helpful in pointing out the practical and immediate remedies. In short, he must be a straightforward, fearless man, if he is to lead perverted minds and hearts to see that peace is better than violence, saving better than wasting, ballots better than bullets. Here is the golden opportunity for patriotic men and women of the right stamp in all communities where anarchism has struck root. One of the most effective speakers before the Free Floor last winter was a woman—Mrs. Florence Kelley, secretary of the National Consumers’ League.
The man who can see but one side of a question will never do an anarchistic audience any good. He must never try to blink facts. They know, even better than he, what the sweat-shop means; for many of them sew the lives of themselves and of their wives and children into clothing for a mere pittance; they know that 20,000 children work in the factories of Illinois, an increase of 39 per cent. in one year, many of them under fourteen years of age, and working more than ten hours; they know that at the “happy Christmas time” of “peace, good-will to men” hundreds of children worked all night in Chicago that their employers might heap up dirty dollars; they know that the conditions of child labor in the factories of some of the Southern States are infinitely worse, a disgrace to American civilization. Of what use for any speaker, however eloquent, to talk to such men of the beauties of “education” and “love”—as I have heard them do—while shutting their eyes to the real grievances that are the tap-root of anarchism?
It is one of the cheering signs of the times that these matters are being agitated, though it is little to our credit that the poor and ignorant must be the pioneers of economic reforms. If the death of such a man as William McKinley was necessary to wake us up to the study of the conditions that produced a Czolgosz, then the sacrifice was not in vain. Let slum Settlements be multiplied; but while we reason with the anarchist let us leave no wrong unremedied of which he can justly complain. 
New York City, also, is finding the right answer to anarchism. Mayor Low has chosen for his private secretary Mr. J. B. Reynolds, for eight years head of the University Settlement, a man who has got next to the people by identifying himself with the life of the slum. For tenement-house commissioner Mayor Low has appointed Mr. R. W. De Forest, president of the Charity Organization Society; and as deputy commissioner, Mr. Lawrence Veiller, an expert on tenement-house conditions. The new commissioner of charities is Mr. Homer Folks, head of the State Charities Association. District-Attorney Jerome has made good his ante-election promises by renting a house on the lower east side for his own residence. There he has located the District-Attorney’s sub-office, kept open evenings for the express benefit of him that hath no helper.
But Massachusetts leads all the States in finding the answer to anarchism. Her admirable factory legislation cuts much of the ground from under the feet of the anarchistic agitator, and she will do even better. The other States are too far behind—many of them have not even started. The anarchists claim that they are the real reformers of economic conditions for Labor. The best answer to that claim would be to leave no wrong unrighted to which they could point. Until that is done we cannot excuse ourselves by asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”