American Anarchy: Intense Photos Of The Early 1900s Reign Of Radicalism In The U.S.

Published September 12, 2017
Updated January 17, 2020

Since the Civil War, no other period in the history of American politics may have been quite so violently divisive.

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Leon Czolgosz Mug Shot
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American Anarchy: Intense Photos Of The Early 1900s Reign Of Radicalism In The U.S.
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As the political climate in modern America becomes more radicalized, it may seem as though these new movements on the far left and the far right could tear the country apart. Of course, however, these movements and all other radical political ideologies like them are, at least in spirit, hardly new at all.

Most any political ideology has been considered, and likely gained traction, at some point in American history. Nearly a century ago, for example, ideologies like socialism, communism, and even anarchism — ideologies that still draw followers today — were powerful forces in the American political landscape.

At the turn of the century, the American labor movement began to form in response to the horrible working conditions inside factories. Workers had little to no rights and began organizing and striking in order to gain better conditions in terms of pay, benefits, safety, and child labor laws.

The government and employers' violent responses to these protests only drove demonstrators into increasingly radical ideologies.

Prominent figures in the labor movement like Daniel De Leon and Alexander Berkman, for example, began subscribing to and propagating communist and anarchist beliefs. This movement gained traction among many disaffected workers across America, but especially in the industrialized cities of the East Coast.

This, in turn, led to the popularity of the Socialist Party of America, a party that in 1912, at its height, secured six percent of the presidential vote with their candidate Eugene V. Debs.

Meanwhile, anarchists like Emma Goldman, who believed in the destruction of social and economic hierarchies, also rose to prominence within the movement.

And the beliefs of this movement sometimes led to violence. In 1901, President John McKinley was assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz while he was shaking hands with the public. This was followed by an anarchist bombing in 1908 at a labor demonstration in Union Square in New York City.

In the late 1910s, this escalating violence, along with the fear of revolution following the communist uprising in Russia, caused a backlash against these radical groups in America. Police rounded up and deported a vast number of foreign-born people associated with leftist groups, including Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman.

Nationalists and nativists in the U.S. accused immigrants from eastern and southern European countries of being behind this leftist movement, initiating a "red scare" among an American public now terrified of a revolution. This fear spurred discrimination against new immigration and led to the expulsion of the five socialist members of the New York State Assembly.

Then, during the lead-up to May Day 1920, the attorney general claimed that there would be a communist uprising, but when the day passed without incident, it became clear that socialist revolution in the U.S. was not likely to happen.

At this point, the extreme backlash towards the leftists died down, and even the 1920 Wall Street bombing, in which an anarchist bomb killed 38 and wounded 143, was not able to fully revive this fear of the communist and anarchist threat.

As the 1920s came to a close, many of these radical leftist movements died down, and many activists became more involved in moderate political action. The reforms initiated by these activists led to greater freedom of collective bargaining and basic workers' rights, including the prohibition of child labor.

By the early 1930s, most of the more radical leftist groups of recent years past had either come under the umbrella of the New Deal Democrats, led by President Roosevelt, or had lost their influence.

This radical period may be long over with, but many of the radical organizations on both the left and the right today can trace their ideological lineage back to the political organizations of the early 20th century.

And as today's radicalized groups grow in voice and influence, we must reflect on the period in which radicalism truly flourished in the U.S. and hopefully learn from both the triumphs and mistakes of the past.

Next, to learn more about the communities from which much of this leftist activism sprang, check out these photos of immigrant life in early 20th century America. Then, see some intense photos from the worst riots in American history.

Gabe Paoletti
Gabe Paoletti is a New York City-based writer and a former Editorial Intern at All That's Interesting. He holds a Bachelor's in English from Fordham University.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.