American Anarchy

The Epic Struggle between Immigrant Radicals and the US Government at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century


By Michael Willrich

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 31, 2023. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.


A "lively, fast-paced history" (Adam Hochschild, bestselling author of American Midnight) of America’s anarchist movement and the government’s tireless efforts to destroy it

In the early twentieth century, anarchists like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman championed a radical vision of a world without states, laws, or private property. Militant and sometimes violent, anarchists were heroes to many working-class immigrants. But to many others, anarchism was a terrifyingly foreign ideology. Determined to crush it, government officials launched a decades-long “war on anarchy,” a brutal program of spying, censorship, and deportation that set the foundations of the modern surveillance state. The lawyers who came to the anarchists’ defense advanced groundbreaking arguments for free speech and due process, inspiring the emergence of the civil liberties movement.

American Anarchy tells the gripping tale of the anarchists, their allies, and their enemies, showing how their battles over freedom and power still shape our public life.
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  • “A riveting and beautifully written story of how anarchists and their lawyers remade American law, with profound implications for modern jurisprudence, and prompting serious reflection on the meaning and limits of democracy.”
    Pulitzer Prize jury
  • “Excellent.”
    Wall Street Journal
  • “American anarchism’s paradoxical mixture of idealism and violence is all there in Michael Willrich’s lively, fast-paced history. His colorful, character-driven account is a reminder, not only of how large anarchists once loomed on the American political landscape, but of how at least some of the goals they fought for are things we take for granted today.”
    Adam Hochschild, bestselling author of American Midnight and King Leopold’s Ghost
  • "In American Anarchy, Michael Willrich recaptures the high drama and ultimate tragedy of the anarchist movement in the United States. A century ago, Emma Goldman and her comrades were household names, inspirations for both liberatory promise and deep, abiding fear. With their challenges to the social order—sometimes through spectacular violence and terrorism—they upended assumptions about safety, liberty, and capitalism itself. In the process, they remade American law, for both better and worse. Willrich's book provides a compelling account of the cases and conflicts that once preoccupied the nation."
    Beverly Gage, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of G-Man
  • "In American Anarchy, Michael Willrich takes us back to a time of anti-immigrant hysteria that sadly seems not so different from our own era. By following the durably fascinating figures of Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and their staunch civil liberties attorney Harry Weinberger, Willrich examines a host of profound issues concerning free speech and the power of the state, issues that remain as relevant—and as incendiary—today as they were in the time of the young J. Edgar Hoover’s war on anarchist radicals. Whether you’re an advocate of big government, small government, or no government at all, this is engaging, page-turning social history."
    Hampton Sides, New York Times–bestselling author of In the Kingdom of Ice
  • "Michael Willrich's genius is to bring to life vitally important but little-known struggles in U.S. history. In American Anarchy, he explains why some late nineteenth-century Americans rejected a rule of law they believed privileged the wealthy, and shows how the government's attempt to silence them gave rise to the protections of civil liberties. Brilliantly written and deeply engaging; every page illuminates today's America."
    Heather Cox Richardson, author of How the South Won the Civil War
  • "This is an important, crucial purchase. Readers interested in the U.S. legal system, civil rights, and the history of American radical movements should definitely check out this title."
    Library Journal (starred review)
  • "Drawing heavily on primary sources, including court records and correspondence, Willrich combines a riveting legal narrative with an astute analysis of American political history. It’s a revealing study of an overlooked foundation of American notions of liberty."
    Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • "Vigorous history of the anarchist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries...A memorable portrait of an era of official lawlessness in the name of law and order, one with echoes to this day."
  • "A captivating work." 
    Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
  • “An eloquent survey of the anarchist movement in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century America...A distinguished legal historian, Willrich uses the rich story of anarchism to explore an important chapter in the ongoing tension between two American ideals—the liberty of the individual and the rule of democratic law. ”
  • “A researcher’s tour-de-force.”
    Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies

On Sale
Oct 31, 2023
Page Count
480 pages
Basic Books

Michael Willrich

About the Author

Michael Willrich is the Leff Families Professor of History at Brandeis University and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow. He is the author of two award-winning books, City of Courts and Pox: An American History, and his writing has been published in the New York Times, the New Republic, and Mother Jones. He lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts. 

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