No God, No Master
Directed and Written by: Terry Green
Well, I didn’t have high hopes.
Our protagonist detective is none other than William J. Flynn, who in real life was considered the US’s foremost expert on anarchists — from a repressing-us point of view — and headed the Bureau of Investigation after the events of the film.
This dichotomy between good anarchists and bad anarchists is central to the themes of the movie, which seems to want to sanitize and liberalize anarchism.
It’s actually the film’s earnestness that is its undoing. Not in the way I’ve read other critics complain about — I’m fine with the acting, and the simple love story is understated and thereby more compelling than cliche. But this film tries so damn hard to make us think that it’s a simple, earnest retelling of history that it might convince the viewer that what they’re seeing has meaningful or useful things to say about anarchism, class violence, or really anything at all.
Frankly, it doesn’t.
The filmmaker’s viewpoint is very, very plain. Powerful men, including industrialist capitalists and the governments they own, are bad. Anarchist terrorism is also bad. Good anarchists are well-meaning and respectable but ultimately their struggles are futile (oh and if they aren’t pacifist, then they’re the bad kinds of anarchists anyway.)
At the risk of ad hominem, I wonder if the filmmaker might be emphasizing the noble futility of these brave working class unionists in order to assuage his own guilt for his complicity in — or at least non-resistance to — the oppressive systems that continue to this day.
There’s this conceit in the film that our protagonist, the good cop, is really on the same side as the working class anarchists. Everyone in the film seems to even just go along with this rather strange presumption. Flynn helps carry wounded anarchists to safety. He tries again and again to wield his authority to prevent the police from beating up anarchists or deporting everyone they can get their hands on. He goes to anarchist meetings only half-undercover, because the IWW representative invited him.
He wants to be our noble savior, and is frustrated at every turn by the big bad federal government and its close ties to industrialists. The film goes through great care to show the noble suffering of the working class. In one scene, radical immigrants are waiting for deportation, and it shows them in their dirty rags. This is a strange contrast to the reasonably famous photo showing the anarchists awaiting deportation—who all look quite dapper, it might said. Why else would the filmmaker emphasize our filth and poverty but to reinforce our impotence and need of enlightened rescue?
Oh, I suppose I should get some of the stranger misrepresentations of historical anarchism out of the way. First, the IWW representative in the film claims that all the IWW wants is: “a proper wage for the worker… this is the mission of the IWW. Not this suicide. Violence. Somebody always build a bigger gun.” This is incorrect, and either betrays the filmmaker’s desire to change history to suit their own reformist goals or is indicative of a level of ignorance you wouldn’t expect from someone making such a film. The Industrial Workers of the World very explicitly oppose the existence of wage labor. They were also far from pacifist.
Here’s the second damn paragraph from the preamble to the IWW constitution: “Between [the working class and the employing class] a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.”
Secondly, while there were and are indeed divisions in anarchism between pacifists and revolutionists — and between revolutionists and terrorists — the idea that Emma Goldman espoused pacifism is laughable. Specifically, I sort of doubt she can be accurately quoted, as she is in the film, as saying “violence doesn’t solve anything, it just creates more violence.”
For an actual Emma Goldman quote, try this, from 1909: “As a matter of fact the Anarchists don’t propagate violence. They only struggle against what already exists, and it is necessary to fight existing violence with violence. That is the only way that a new peace can dawn.” Or, for a more nuanced and still nowhere-near-pacifist view, here’s another quote, from well after her deportation: “Black slavery might still be a legalized institution in the United States but for the militant spirit of the John Browns. I have never denied that violence is inevitable, nor do I gainsay it now. Yet it is one thing to employ violence in combat, as a means of defense. It is quite another thing to make a principle of terrorism, to institutionalize it, to assign it the most vital place in the social struggle. Such terrorism begets counter-revolution and in turn itself becomes counter-revolutionary.”
This isn’t me quibbling over minor details. This dichotomy between good anarchists and bad anarchists is central to the themes of the movie, which seems to want to sanitize and liberalize anarchism.
All this is almost funny for me to write, because I actually agree with one of the major conceits of the film: I think Galleani was probably a fucking monster and a murderer. I think Mario Buda (if it was, indeed, Buda who was responsible for the Wall Street bombing of 1920 that left 38 bystanders dead) was a fucking monster and a murderer. My anarchism is absolutely one in which the ends are incapable of justifying the means, and the killing of bystanders is maybe one of the most authoritarian means I could possibly imagine. Furthermore, as far as I can tell, Galleani was a puppet-master, content to pull strings but building no bombs himself. Even his bomb-making manual, referenced in this film, included a reasonably critical mistake that left a number of his followers dead. If he’d ever built a bomb himself, I suspect he’d found this error the hard way (and, hopefully, died). Yet it serves only the filmmaker’s ethical narrative to contend that Galleani was in the employ of a coalition of plutocrats — I could find no such allegations anywhere in history.
I want to be clear in that I’m not condemning revolutionary violence or self-defense, nor property destruction. I’m condemning the indiscriminate use of violence. Galleanists, while ostensibly aiming for high profile targets, had this habit of blowing up servants rather than masters. And the Wall Street bombing that closes the film killed primarily young pages and other low-level workers.
But while bomb plots that kill bystanders might not be the stuff of anarchist revolution, neither is pacifism — or worse, trying to change the system through words alone. The only good anarchist, in the view of this film, is an impotent one. Literally, at one point, the protagonist, on the verge of tears, tells anarchists fighting police to give up and go home. Because, you know, fighting back is useless.
It irritates me when people twist our history to suit their reformist ends. It also irritates me when people conflate a disavowal of terrorism as a wholehearted endorsement for pacifism. I honestly would have enjoyed this movie better if our cop protagonist had just seen us all as evil, mustache-twirling villains. At least villains have some damn agency in their lives and fight for what they believe in.