By Alecia Giombolini ::
How a Short-Lived Portland Anarchist Newspaper Jumpstarted a National Movement
The Firebrand was an anarchist-communist newspaper published in Portland, Oregon. The first issue was released on January 27, 1895 and would continue to be published weekly until September 1897 when the newspaper’s three principle publishers were arrested and convicted for “sending obscene materials through the mail.” While the paper was not even in circulation for two full years, it would play a central role in the development of an Americanized, English language anarchist movement.
The newspaper was published by a small group of Portland anarchists who felt that that they had been ostracized from the local radical community for their anarchist beliefs and sought to create a platform free from censorship in which radical ideas could be openly discussed. These Portland anarchists were a diverse group and included men and women like Mary Squires who was a corset maker by trade, Herman Eich a Jewish “ragpicker poet,” and Abraham Isaak a Russian immigrant and former Mennonite, all of whom were united in their commitment to publish a newspaper that encouraged the open discussion of radical subjects. In their first issue, The Firebrand’s publishing committee declared their commitment to this principle, stating: “The Firebrand has not even an editor, in the ordinary sense. No person is vested with the power to exclude those ideas which do [not] agree with his own. We do not believe in censorship. We have aimed to establish an untrammeled press.” While those involved in the publication of The Firebrand in Portland would contribute the most articles and determined what would be included in each issue, they tried to stay true to their original vision by publishing original articles and responses sent to them by their readers. This format allowed English-speaking anarchists from across the United States and Canada, and occasionally even from Europe, to engage with each other in an open discussion, helping to build a cohesive transcontinental movement.
In its earliest issues of The Firebrand, many of the articles were written by Portlanders and focused on local issues. The Firebrander’s spoke candidly about the issues facing their community and its local radical community, providing an important counter-cultural perspective of Portland life in the Gilded Age. The newspaper lodged attack after attack on the city’s elite leadership, calling into question the actions of esteemed politicians and business leaders like Henry Corbett, Joe Simon and Henry Failing. Today many of these same men are celebrated for the role they played in Portland’s early development but The Firebrand often highlighted the darker side of these men’s careers.
In the summer of 1895, The Firebrand began to shift its focus away from local issues as the newspaper’s national readership began to grow. The Portland anarchists began to repurpose the paper and use it to introduce American, English-speaking radicals to the ideas of anarchist-communism, which was the newest formation of anarchist thought that had developed in Europe during the previous two decades. Before the publication of The Firebrand, most Americans, even those who considered themselves radicals, had little to no exposure to the ideas of anarchist-communism. Anarchist-communism had gained some support amongst the German and Jewish immigrant anarchist communities of New York and Chicago, where the communities produced their own anarchist newspapers in their native languages, but very few people had yet to try and communicate this philosophy to English speaking, American-born citizens. By presenting the ideas of Europe’s great anarchist philosophers in terms that were amenable to American culture and history, The Firebrand was able to make inroads into the American, English-speaking radical community.
One of the more interesting characteristics of the Firebrand that set it apart from other anarchist-communist newspapers was its interest in social and cultural topics. Most notable was the Firebrand’s frequent discussion of Free Love and women’s rights. Interestingly enough, it was the discussion of these subjects, not anarchism and revolution, that most infuriated the censors and led to the arrest and conviction of the paper’s three principle publishers in September 1897.
While the conviction meant the end of The Firebrand, other English language anarchist-communist newspapers would follow in its footsteps. One of these anarchist newspapers was Free Society, which was published by the former Firebrand publisher Abraham Isaak and would remain at the center of the american anarchist movement until its collapse in 1904. Despite its humble beginnings, The Firebrand had helped facilitate the creation of an American anarchist-communist movement that would remain active well into the twentieth century.
Want to Learn More? Check Out:
- A near complete collection of The Firebrand can be found at The Oregon Historical Society Research Library, with several individual issues available online at the Libertarian Labyrinth
- William Cornett, “The Firebrand,” Oregon Encyclopedia
- Michael Munk, “Firebrand,” in The Portland Red Guide (Ooligan Press, 2011)
- Peter Kropotkin “Communism and Anarchism,” The Anarchist Library.
“Feasting on the Flowers” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers
Alecia Giombolini, Project Manager
Tanya Monthey, Fact Checker and Editor