Robert P. Helms is a Philadelphia-based radical historian who has extensively researched the anarchist movement of the early 20th century. He is especially interested in the legendary Philadelphia anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre and her friends and associates, and has written biographies of many of them.
Hems recently edited the translation of the autobiography of Chaim Leib Weinberg, entitled Forty Years in the Struggle: The Memoirs of a Jewish Anarchist (Litwin Books, 2009.) He also conducts radical history walking tours in Philadelphia. I recently had a chance to chat with Helms about his work.
Souciant: Do you feel like activists need historical role models?
Robert Helms: The more you get older, the more you get into your own little niche, and discover more about yourself, the more you need someone who is like you. When I was a little kid, the kids on my block were my friends. The only thing that made them my friends was because they lived on my block. But now there’s a million ways in which a person has to be who I’m looking for, and have something in common with, before I can really share anything with them.
I’m an anarchist, I’m living in Philadelphia, I’m a union organizer sometimes, now I’m 55 years old. Who is there that went through all the same things that I’ve gone through in the time of my life, since I became involved with anarchism, with activism in general? For some reason I started to pick up on and be drawn to that information. Like, who did these things here in Philadelphia? And it was triggered by Paul Avrich’s biography of Voltairine de Cleyre. I just started to find the same addresses, and started to find information about the same people who are mentioned in the book, but very quickly it became clear that there’s this huge number of people I was able to trace that Paul never mentioned.
Voltairine tended to know poor immigrants and identified with poor people. She knew some well off people; I was very fascinated to notice that a couple of the people came from very rich families.
Souciant: That still happens today.
Robert Helms: It does. And that’s another thing: the little quarrels, the little issues that came up, all these things were just like being in a meeting here and now.
Souciant: What do activists get out of historical research and knowledge that someone who is interested in, say, an ethnic history might not?
Robert Helms: Historical figures can seem like they’re walking with you. They’re there for you to remember, they make you stronger when you’re an activist and you think you’re the only one that gets it.
Souciant: How did you get involved in doing research on anarchists?
Robert Helms: How did I become an anarchist? The 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel. I follow it chapter and verse in the mainstream media. I lived on Long Island. I’m watching Nightline with Ted Koppel, reading the New York Times and sometimes the Wall Street Journal. So I think that I’m going for the better sources. At the time I had no politics, no lefty background at all. So I followed the war, it came and went, and years go by and I’m studying languages in college. Because of the way my curriculum is lined out, I had to do a little bit of linguistics and I learn who Noam Chomsky was. And people mention along the way that he has these weird politics. I never knew what they were talking about because I never went to radical bookstores. But then in Lame Duck Books, which existed on 45th Street [in Philadelphia], I got a used copy of The Fateful Triangle and read that and I was glued to the pages because I know exactly what he’s talking about – the story is clear – but he’s telling it in a completely different way.
I’m realizing all of the things that I believed about that war is just like a comic strip: it’s cheap nonsense fed to me so I wouldn’t think about it in a serious way relating to the truth. I was 31 years old. So I’m thinking: “I’m an adult. I have a regular life. And I fell for that shit?” And I didn’t just fall for that shit. That shit was fed to me and the whole world and the whole American public – not everybody, but by in large the whole American public – bit the same hook and ate the same worm. I thought I was an adult participating in this society, but I was really just a child. So I started looking for books by Noam Chomsky that have little to do with linguistics. And I start hanging out at Wooden Shoe Books and finding people to discuss things with.
Souciant: I think that what’s important about radical history is that these struggles remain ongoing. The collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh a few days ago is just like the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory a hundred years ago. The anarchists you research were working on prison reform at around the same time and they’re doing the same today. Do you think of it as depressing or uplifting that what happened so long ago is very similar to the same struggles of current times?
Robert Helms: It strengthens the respect I have for the whole validity of the cause of prisoner support and the fight against abuses in prisons and the fight against prisons themselves. That whole scene, I was very involved with it for a long time, [and] it can burn you out. There seems to be no end to it. You walk in and you start battling the octopus and the octopus always has more arms than you.
Souciant: I feel like that’s the very nature of activism. It’s not always a rosy picture and it won’t always be a positive outcome. What role does history play in helping to deal with this?
Robert Helms: Say you’re getting totally burned out with activism. Everybody does, eventually, if they stick with it for a long time. Reading Voltairine’s letters from that period [in her life] where she says, “People want me to come and do a talk. I can’t do it. The only thing I can talk about right now is the Mexican Revolution, cause it makes me hopeful. These speeches I made five years ago, I couldn’t get them across my lips. I’m just dead inside.” She was really depressed about things [and] totally burned out. This was in the last year and a half year of her life.
Souciant: Knowing that other people have gone through the same things as you is very important, especially when you’re trying to do something to change the world. Relating to being able to access that information, do you feel that the Internet has affected the popularity of the anarchist movement?
Robert Helms: Yes, I think so. The information flow changes everything. I think that it gives this much deeper and wider view of reality. Now if a person is interested in a subject and is hopelessly and permanently ignorant about that subject in spite of all this information that’s available it’s really their own fault, they’re really on a mission to be ignorant. I’m not sure if that was true before.
[In regards to anarchism] there has to be this break with authority in your mind. Your psychology has to feel comfortable with not obeying and not having the instinct to obey. Something changes and you have to know it happened and be comfortable with it and go forward not just blindly obeying and believing what they tell you.
Souciant: Doing historical research can be very academic. However, when you mix it with activism, with radicalism, with anarchism, it takes on a cultural importance as well. Knowing these stories and that these people existed and are doing similar things is very important to what I’m currently doing. You can’t do activism in a vacuum. You have to have this history there, or else there’s no point.
Robert Helms: The more you dive into history, the more you don’t just find big characters that you can admire and fantasize slightly about what it would be like to do what they did, But you sometimes find people who are just like you and their personality is just like yours. Their situations, the seasons of their life, just went the same as yours.
Souciant: I feel like the anarchist movement, much more than any other political ideation, has situated itself wholeheartedly and enthusiastically in reality, even when things aren’t going well. Why do you think that is?
Robert Helms: The best quality of the anarchist movement is that it’s very typical of anarchists to just laugh at the whole movement. To be able to laugh at it like you would laugh at life. And that’s a [positive] quality because the more serious and hard-nosed you become, the more you might get into holding onto power and all the things we don’t want anarchism to be.
Photographs courtesy of rian bean and Robert Helms. Published under a Creative Commons license.