Jared Davidson, Sewing Freedom: Philip Josephs, Transnationalism and Early New Zealand Anarchism.

Author:van der Walt, Lucien
Position:Book review

Jared Davidson, Sewing Freedom: Philip Josephs, Transnationalism and Early New Zealand Anarchism

Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2014; 174pp; ISBN 978-1849351324

In this gem of a biography, Jared Davidson recovers the life and achievements of one of the often-forgotten tens of thousands of activists who built the global anarchist and syndicalist movement of the 1880s to the 1940s: Philip Josephs, immigrant advocate of interracial, internationalist class struggle, libertarian communism and syndicalist unionism (pp 17-19, 56-63, 67-68, 114).

Much anarchist and syndicalist history has been written in the form of national narratives of, for example, 'Spanish anarchism' and 'British syndicalism'. This framing is very valuable, and often unavoidable, but struggles to capture the dynamics of a movement that was resolutely internationalist, and deeply embedded in transnational and global processes. Migration (whether for exile, refuge or work), the worldwide circulation of a radical press, and cross-country networks, were among the mechanisms underpinning what Constance Bantman calls the movement's 'informal internationalism'. (1)

Davidson is keenly aware of this: stressing that the anarchist and syndicalist movement was globally constituted, he highlights Josephs' role as a carrier of 'mental dynamite' and 'transnational connections' (pp 19-21, 36). He is thus able to tell both the story of one man, and of the movement, local and global, that he helped build.

Born Feival Ben Yacov in Latvia in 1876, Josephs was among the Jewish millions that migrated from the east--in his case first to red, anarchist Glasgow, Scotland in 1897, then, with a growing family, to colonial Wellington, New Zealand in 1903. Here, pioneering social democratic reforms co-existed with marked inequality and severe restrictions on unions (pp 39-43, 65, 67-68), a situation that radicals worldwide highlighted as evidence of the fallacies of 'state socialism' (pp 108-111, 118).

Unsurprisingly, New Zealand was also the site of a substantial 'working-class counter-culture', into which the now-anarchist Josephs plunged (pp 53-54, 103). Active within the contested NZ Socialist Party, he also engaged the syndicalist-influenced Federation of Labour and the syndicalist Industrial...

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