Sam Dolgoff: Russian Emigre and American Anarchist Activist

1902 — 1990

Revolt Library People Sam Dolgoff

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1902 — 1990


He rode the rails for the Wobblies, sometimes as a gandy dancer (or maintenance man), or else hopping boxcars, and he always looked for the chance to stand in front of a crowd and, in that broken cello of a voice.

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"The increasing complexity of society is making anarchism MORE and NOT LESS relevant to modern life. It is precisely this complexity and diversity, above all their overriding concern for freedom and human values that led the anarchist thinkers to base their ideas on the principles of diffusion of power, self-management and federalism."

From : "The Relevance of Anarchy to Modern Society," by Sam Dolgoff

"Society without order (as the word 'society' implies) is inconceivable. But the organization of order is not the exclusive monopoly of the State. For, if the State authority is the sole guarantee of order, who will watch the watchmen?"

From : "The Relevance of Anarchy to Modern Society," by Sam Dolgoff

"The very fact that autonomy, decentralization and federalism are more practical alternatives to centralism and statism already presupposes that these vast organizational networks now performing the functions of society are prepared to replace the old bankrupt hyper-centralized administrations."

From : "The Relevance of Anarchy to Modern Society," by Sam Dolgoff


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About Sam Dolgoff

 Sam Dolgoff 1

Sam Dolgoff 1

Sam Dolgoff - The Left of the Left of the Left

By Paul Berman - Village Voice, November 13, 1990

Sam Dolgoff, my old friend who died last week, spoke from sidewalk soapboxes and in union meeting halls for more than 60 years, and during all that time, what caught everyone's attention was his tough cocky style, half New York, half Joe Hill. Flames of mockery and indignation danced above his head. The man identified with the downtrodden workers, and he shouted "It's a cryin' shame!" And the way those words bellowed from his mouth, the gruff rumble of his laughter, the thrust of his bulldog face and his workman's hands spread in a gesture of sweet reason--every single trait said, in effect: Sam Dolgoff is [not] for the working class. He is the working class. And the rest of you goddamned bastards can say anything you please, but your opinion will not sway him one solitary inch.

He was born in 1902 in Russia, where his uncle later became a well-known novelist (and died in a Stalinist concentration camp). But most of his childhood was spent on the Lower East Side and in the Bronx and a brief childhood it was, because at age 11 or 12 he went into his father's trade house painting, and stayed there until he retired. He dipped his foot into the Young People's Socialist League. But Socialism was tepid. So he went over to the Road to Freedom anarchist group and to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the Wobblies, and that was home and school.

He rode the rails for the Wobblies, sometimes as a gandy dancer (or maintenance man), or else hopping boxcars, and he always looked for the chance to stand in front of a crowd and, in that broken cello of a voice. pop off, as he liked to say, on the rights of labor. He and a couple of Wobblies drove from Kansas City to Chicago in a hearse bearing a big sign--JUSTICE IS DEAD IN CALIFORNIA! FREE TOM MOONEY!--to drum up crowds. The message never seems to have varied much. He was for grassroots democratic unions and militant direct action. For absolute equality, tolerance, and liberty--"the equal right to be different,. as he once said. For the abolition of all authoritarian social relations, beginning with the state. For the emancipation of humanity. And when the golden sun of the revolutionary future dawned, he expected the militant rank and file labor organizations to form One Big Union and take over industry and administer society in the light of reason. Anarcho-syndicalism--trade unionism with a libertarian socialist goal in other words--was the name of this doctrine.

At any time, Dolgoff could probably have moved up to a more comfortable life, either as a painting contractor or as a staffer in the unions. His talents were obvious. He devoured works of political theory in half a dozen languages, and he turned himself over the years into an authentic political intellectual, the author of books and pamphlets on American labor, the Spanish Civil War, Third World revolution, and the theories of M. A. Bakunin, the Russian anarchist. But his notion of egalitarianism would never let him use these talents to rise above the ranks. He was happy to move up with the working class, but not from it, to borrow a phrase from Eugene Debs. One of his Wobbly tours took him to Cleveland where he met his life companion, Esther, standing among the crowd, and after that, with a family to bring up, he was in no position to roam the rails. So it was back to house painting, with rabble-rousing on the side--and no question of a different or more remunerative trade. If the unions in New York put up cooperative housing for workers, which they did, he was content to sign up for a good apartment, and in that way live in a better style. But not in any other way.

Everything he did was opposed by powerful people. There were racketeers in the painters. union, and still are. His revolutionary efforts in the town of New Brunswick, New Jersey, led him to describe that benighted place as, in his inflection, "a bunch a bastards." The New York Red Squad infiltrated his meetings at the old Labor Temple on 14th Street. And the Communist Party, USA, was still another bunch a bastards. The Wobblies and anarchists climbed on their soapboxes to do their public service--and Communist toughs shouted them down and beat them, too, if they could get away with it. Even Ralph Chaplin, the Wobbly poet who wrote the anthem of the American labor movement, "Solidarity Forever," got shouted down by the commies. When that Kansas City hearse reached Chicago, it was the Communists, not the police, who tried to steal it away.

News from the old country didn't favor the Communists, either. In the 1920s and '30s, the Wobblies and anarchists had underground ties throughout the Soviet Union, and they knew that their own comrades, not to mention millions of other people, were getting shipped to the prison camps. The very first detailed accounts of the Soviet gulag to reach the United States came from Dolgoff's circle of comrades, notably from his own personal mentor, the venerable Russian revolutionary-in-exile, G. P. Maximoff.

So the battle against communism took its place in Dolgoff's agitational work. As early as 1929, he toured the soft-coke mines of Illinois organizing the Progressive Miners Union for the IWW and warning the miners against Bolshevism. During the '30s he set himself up as the American representative of Spain's largest antifascist organization, the National Confederation of Labor, anarcho-syndicalist in orientation, and again reported on Communist as well as Fascist atrocities. And of these, several campaigns, possibly the noblest, certainly the loneliest, was the one he took up early in the 1960s on behalf of the persecuted libertarian leftists and trade unionists of Cuba.

Who, after all, has given a damn during these last 30 years for the anti-Communist left in Cuba? Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 and sent his own allies among the libertarians and democrats to "the wall" or to jail or into exile, more or less as in the Soviet Union--and in middle-class progressive circles around the world, not many people noticed that Fidelista firing squads were murdering the good guys along with the bad. The tiny, aging networks of the anarcho-syndicalist movement in the United States did notice. They happened to have underground contacts in Cuba. too, and these contacts smuggled out the news. As far back as 1961, Dolgoff and his comrades in New York--the hardy souls at the Libertarian League, the Freie Arbeiter Stimme group of Jewish labor anarchists the Cultura Proletaria group of antifascist Spanish exiles--began putting out the word. They raised money for the prisoners in Cuban jails and for the ragged exiles fleeing to Miami.

The campaign for Cuban labor radicals was not the ticket to left-wing popularity in the 1960s and '70s. But what the hell, the rest of you bastards can say anything you please. Sam Dolgoff wasn't in it for the applause. One of the most beloved leaders of the New Left during the 1960s, Dave Dellinger, who called himself a libertarian, returned from Cuba and reported that socialism was alive and free in Castro's hands. And Dolgoff, furious, organized a few Good Rebels (to use the Wobbly honorific) to stand outside a meeting of Dellinger's and picket and pop off about the rights of Cuban labor. Middle-class radicals looked at the old housepainter and called him--him!--a reactionary. What a joke. Justice Is Dead in Cuba!

Yet--this was his achievement--in his old age, he did pick up a following, at least in the anti authoritarian wing of the radical movement. People knocked on Dolgoff s door and for a moment, maybe, given his crustiness, they had to squint to get him into view. He answered my own knock, back in my student days, wearing boxer shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt and clutching a copy of the Yiddish organ of the Jewish Anarchist Federation of Argentina in his hand. What a first impression! But the image cleared. He was a man of perfect consistency. He was the spirit of freedom in its left-wing form. He was the beating heart of the truest American radicalism, the Wobbly ideal. And the young people and some of the downtown avant-garde flocked to. him--even if, on cultural issues, he wasn't exactly hip. Sam Dolgoff and Julian Beck of the Living Theater--there was an odd couple! (But the avant-garde always did have an affinity for the IWW.)

He was a little rigid, truth be known. The greatest of the anarcho-syndicalist theoreticians in this century were Rudolf Rocker, Augustin Souchy, and Diego Abad de Santillan, who were, as Dolgoff happily acknowledged, his own masters--all of whom came out, after the Second World War, for democratic reform. They concluded that libertarian goals could fit within a liberal social democracy. The Guangara Libertaria Miami Cubans and the Freie Arbeirer Stimme circle in New York reached a similar conclusion. But not Dolgoff. Purple haired punkers overran his own organizations and conferences--and even so he clung to the syndicalism of 1910, unbudgeable, except in lesser ways.

Still, the gist of those old principles, once he'd hammered them into someone's head. had a way of staying put. In my own case. I reported for the Voice this past year on Sandinista Nicaragua and on revolutionary Czechoslovakia, and both times I came back with stories about small groups of workers organizing to defend themselves and control their own product and resist oppression. Nicaraguan shoemakers or Czech musicians--the themes were Dolgoff an either way. He himself recognized my debt to him, once the articles came out in print. For the gist was this: it doesn't matter whether a society calls itself capitalist or communist, liberal or conservative. The measure of progress in all modern societies is the degree to which working people have the right and the opportunity to fight for their own improvement.

Sam met a group of us over on St. Marks Place one time. The discussion turned to questions of success and failure, a delicate issue. you might suppose, with someone who had devoted himself to building an IWW that has mostly disappeared. The wine flowed, he drank his fill, and made a little statement. It summed up his life: "You always need a left. And within the left, you need a left. And within the left of the left, you need a left. And in that left, you need a left. And that left is me!. Salud, Good Rebel. No one ever fulfilled his own destiny more loyally and bravely than you.

From : "Sam Dolgoff - The Left of the Left of the Left," by Paul Berman, Village Vocie, November 13, 1990, reprinted by the IWW,


This person has authored 44 documents, with 195,474 words or 1,320,612 characters.

Note: This article, from the book "Fragments: a memoir", by Sam Dolgoff (Refract Publications, 1986) recounts a trip to Israel by Sam and his wife Esther, to meet the anarchists there. In the mid-1970s Esther and I embarked on a two-week tour of Israel, not merely to see the sights, but to contact our anarchist comrades publishing their organ Problemen. We also wanted to contact Israeli settlers whom we already knew at home. We felt that the trip was all the more necessary because altogether too many comrades did not even know that there were a few anarchist groups in Israel, much less an anarchist publication there. We immediately contacted the editor of Problemen, Joseph Ludin, a prolific writer, himself an anarchis... (From :
CONTROVERSY: ANARCHISTS IN THE SPANISH REVOLUTION by Sam Dolgoff In 1974, or early 1975, I reviewed in the English anarchist paper Freedom a book by Carlos Semprun Maura, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Catalonia (French edition). In my review I criticized both Semprun Maura and Vernon Richards' book Lessons of the Spanish Revolution for presenting a distorted, over-simplified interpretation of events- a scenario. This provoked a heated rejoinder from Richards (three or four articles in Freedom). Over forty years after the tragic defeat of the Spanish Revolution - 1936 to 1939 - the question of anarchist participation in the Republican government and the role of anarchists in a revolution is a fundamental prob... (From :
As pointed out in my introduction to Bakunin on Anarchy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), the clash of personalities between Marx and Bakunin was not the essential element in their running controversy during the congresses of the International. The debates transcend petty personal squabbles' and embody two diametrically opposed tendencies in the theory and tactics of socialism, the authoritarian and libertarian schools respectively, the two main lines of thought that helped shape the character of the modern labor and socialist movements. Unfortunately, Ulli Diemer's articles Anarchism vs. Marxism and Bakunin vs. Marx (Red Menace, Spring 1978) really do not deal with the main issues involved in the debates. A discussion of these issues is beyo... (From :
In this little essay our esteemed comrade Frank Fernandez traces the influence of anarchist ideas on the Cuban people, the development of the Cuban labor movement traces back to at least the middle of the 19th Century, Anarchism was not a small and isolated sect. It was a real people's mass movement. The anarchist movement and the labor movement were inseparable. They grew up together. A history of the Cuban people is not worth reading If it does not include the history of anarchist struggles for the free society. Although brief, this essay reveals information which I did not have in my book about the Cuban Revolution ['The Cuban Revolution' by Sam Dolgoff (200 pages), not yet available in electronic form, but it can be ordered from ... (From :
PRELIMINARY REMARKS Fears, tensions and insecurity are sapping our vitality; they are beclouding and twisting our lives. There is a growing realization that nuclear war may soon annihilate us all. This colossal waste of the earth’s riches, this criminal perversion of human life and human labor, violate the deepest, noblest feelings of humanity. Millions of men and women everywhere are today questioning the sanity of the social systems that make such catastrophes possible. Those who had hoped that Russia might lead the way to a better and freer world have been bitterly disappointed. Khrushchev’s “exposures” of Stalin have not deterred him from following the same general course. The revolts in Eastern Eur... (From :
Ann Allen: Why don't you start and say a little about where you came from and first started working and how you got into the labor movement? Sam Dolgoff: When I was about fourteen or fifteen, I lived in the Bronx in New York. And the Socialist Labor Party, the Socialist Party, used to have street meetings around the neighborhood. And I became very enthusiastic; they appealed to me very strongly. They popularized everything. They explained all about Karl Marx and the economic question, surplus value. I think that was the time when Morris Hillquit was running for mayor or he was running for the assembly. There were five socialists, socialist party members, who went to the assembly. And I remember; when they went to the assembly, they w... (From :
The cry for a Labor Party in the United States is again being heard from various sides. Some of the Socialist Party people are agitating for it. The Trotskyists are currently in favor of it, and Meany, President of the AFL-CIO, climbs on and off of the bandwagon as the spirit moves him or as policy considerations of the moment appear to dictate. Agitation for a Labor Party is almost as old as the labor movement itself. Numerous beginnings in this direction have at times been made. In 1829, the “Workingmens Party” in New York received 6,000 out of 21,000 votes, a higher proportion than any other independent movement has since achieved. At times the sentiment for a Labor Party has been confined to small radical and l... (From :
Anarchism Is Not Absolute Anti-social Individualism Anarchism does not connote absolute, irresponsible, anti-social individual freedom which violates the rights of others and rejects every form of organization and self-discipline. Absolute individual freedom can be attained only in isolation- if at all: “What really takes away liberty and makes initiative impossible is the isolation which renders one powerless.” (Errico Malatesta, Life and Ideas, Freedom Press, p. 87) Anarchism is synonymous with the term “free socialism” or “social anarchism.” As the term “social” itself implies, anarchism is the free association of people living together and cooperating in free communities. The... (From :
In their polemics with the Marxists the anarchists argued that the state subjects the economy to its own ends. An economic system once viewed as the prerequisite for the realization of socialism now serves to reinforce the domination of the ruling classes. The very technology that could now open new roads to freedom has also armed states with unimaginably frightful weapons for the extinction of all life on this planet. Only the social revolution can overcome the obstacles to the introduction of the free society. Yet the movement for emancipation is threatened by the far more formidable political, economic and social power and brain-washing techniques of the ruling classes. To forge a revolutionary movement, inspired by anarchist idea... (From :
This pamphlet is the second printing of an expanded version of an article that appeared in a 1970 issue of "Libertarian Analysis". It is the first pamphlet published by "Soil of Liberty". A second pamphlet, "A Critique of Marxism", also by Sam Dolgoff, is also available ($0.55). Bulk rates are available for both. Sam has been active in the anarchist movement since the 1920s and is a re- tired house painter living in New York City. "Soil of Liberty" offers a literature service through the magazine and a partial listing is available. Magazine subscriptions are $3 - $4 per year. Soil of Liberty POB 7056 Powderhorn Station Minneapolis, MN 55407 First Printing - August 1977 Second Printing - September 1979 NOTE: ABOVE LISTED PRICE... (From :
This work concerns the political, economic and social institutions set up after World War II in economically underdeveloped “Third World” states, dealing primarily (for space reasons) with African states. Without in the least endorsing the imperialist policies of either the American or Russian power blocs or trying, in any way whatsoever, to justify their crimes, the widespread notion the “Third World” is a satisfactory alternative must be dispelled. The pattern of events was already foreshadowed by the anarchist Rudolf Rocker before World War II, in this prophetic passage: “...the same nationalities which before World War I, never ceased to revolt against the foreign oppressor, reveal themsel... (From :


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