Abraham Isaak (October 4, 1856 – December 10, 1937) was a newspaper editor and Russian anarchist. He was raised in the Mennonite village of Rosenthal, part of the Chortitza Colony, but later settled in the U.S.
Isaak worked in a bookstore in Odessa, Ukraine, where he reportedly became a Nihilist. He fled Czarist police for Rio de Janeiro in about 1889. In 1890 he moved to the U.S. and lived in San Francisco before relocating to Portland, Oregon. In Portland Isaak became a member of the Socialist Labor Party and in 1895 founded the anarchist weekly, the Firebrand, with American-born Quaker Abner Pope and Henry Addis. Isaak would embrace anarchism after its followers were expelled following the formation of the Second International in 1889.
Isaak was best known for his editing and publishing the American anarchist weeklies the Firebrand (1895–1897) and Free Society (1897–1904), Isaak was less a theorist than an activist. His acquaintances and friends included the Russian Anarchists Peter Kropotkin and Emma Goldman, along with American attorney Clarence Darrow, Settlement House founder, Jane Addams, and economist Thorsten Veblen.
In 1897, authorities closed the Firebrand and arrested Isaak after its publication of Walt Whitman’s poem, “A Woman Waits for Me,” along with several other articles which authorities deemed “obscene.” Isaak was arrested. Later, awaiting trial and out on bond, the Isaak family moved to San Francisco, where they founded Free Society. The Portland court later dismissed the charges against Isaak, Pope, and Addis.
The Isaaks left San Francisco for Chicago in early 1901 leaving Pete in San Francisco. Seven months later, Isaak was propelled into national headlines after Leon Czolgosz, with no reported anarchist connections, shot U.S. President William McKinley in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901. Coincidentally Isaak had met the would-be assassin days earlier in Chicago. Czolgosz’s espousals of violence had aroused the suspicions of Abraham that he was a spy, and prompting Free Society to publish a warning against associating with Czolgosz. Following the shooting the Isaak family and anarchists across the country were arrested and jailed. The Isaaks were released later that September.
Isaak came to regret his move to New York in 1904 where Free Society faced financial problems that forced its closure in November of that year. Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth, which first appeared in 1906, was an attempt to fill the anarchists’ subsequent literary void.
Political and ethical beliefs
“I was born and raised in a community of Mennonites in Russia. These people settled in South Russia after the land had been taken by conquest from the Turks and obtained the privilege from the Russian to manage their own affairs, and as their religion was against civil laws they lived for about 70 years without laws or officers. (I must mention here that these people had been persecuted, executed, burned at the stake, etc. in western Europe and were considered as the lawless, just as the anarchists are today.) There were no beggars, tramps nor thieves among them, and there was never a murder committed, although there were far over 100,000. There were no drunkards yet they had a distillery in their midst and everybody had access to the “brand.” There was a so-called magistrate elected by the communities `to look after the conduct and welfare of the communities,’ as the government expresses it, but in the eyes of the members he was nothing but a mediator between them and the government. These people were all prosperous and happy as long as commercialism did not effect (sic) these communities. They formerly had only produced for their own use as neither cereal nor cattle were saleable. But when wheat raising became profitable, accumulation began; then some invested their money in factories and the “rich and the poor” became distinct–government stepped in, and to-day (sic) there are beggars, thieves and drunkards among them, but I have not heard of a murder yet.”
Although Isaak was an ex-Mennonite, he continued to espouse many traditional Anabaptist principles such as pacifism, mutual aid and socio-economic equality that Anarchist theorists have promoted and that Isaak believed represented the best of his own Mennonite tradition.
In 1879, Abraham (or Abe) married Maria Dyck (1861–1934) and had three children: Pete (1880-?), Abe Jr. (1883–1953); and Mary (1885 to 1974). Descendants now live in Vermont and California. He was the second of 12 children born to Abraham Isaak (1832–1898) and Helena Wiebe (1835–1882).
By 1909, Abraham and Maria Isaak founded the anarchist-inspired Aurora Colony near Lincoln, California, having acquired a 150-acre (0.61 km2) farm with monies Maria inherited from her family. Isaak, whose obituary in a local paper described him as a “colonization representative of Russian citizens living in Chicago and New York,” sold 25 parcels of land to about 19 different families whose lack of farming experience and infighting led to the colony’s demise. The Isaaks and several other families continued to live on their parcels.
Nothing suggests Isaak resumed newspaper work. In fact, he became involved in such establishment organizations as the Farm Bureau and other civic organizations. Maria Isaak died of pneumonia on April 17, 1934; Isaak, according to his death certificate, died of acute pancreatitis on December 10, 1937. Four years before his death Isaak wrote to his friend, Harry Kelly: “First, the railroads took our pears and plums and $70 to boot; the good Lord took our citrus fruit (by frost), and two weeks ago the Bank of Lincoln closed its doors, where we had our last savings….” He concluded: “Some 30 years ago Thorsten Veblen told me in Chicago that the machine would break capitalism sooner than the efforts of revolutionists, and it seems his prediction is coming true.”
Further reading about Isaak
- Avrich, Paul. Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America. Princeton University Press. 1995
- Davis, Allen F. American Heroin: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams. New York: Oxford University Press. 1973
- Everett, Marshall. Complete Life of William McKinley and the Story of His Assassination. Memorial Edition. 1901
- Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. Vol 1. New York: De Capo Press. 1970
- Reichert, William O. Partisans of Freedom: A Study in American Anarchism. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press. 1971. PP. 261–277
- Schwantes, Carlos A. “Free Love and Free Speech on the Pacific Northwest Frontier.” Oregon Historical Quarterly, 82. (1981), 271-293
- Smith, Steven Kent. “Research Note: Further Notes on Abraham Isaak, Mennonite Anarchist.” Mennonite Quarterly Review. 80 (January 2006)
- Tuchman, Barbara: The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War. 1890-1914. New York: MacMillan: 1966. Chapter 2. (Brief mention of Free Society but not Isaak).
Recommended readings on anarchism
- Avrich, Paul. Anarchist Portraits. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1988;
- Joll, James. The Anarchists. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1964; Sonn, Richard David. Anarchism. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International. 1992; Woodcock, George. Anarchism: A History of *Libertarian Ideas and Movements. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1962.
Recommended readings on Anabaptist history
- Goertz, Hans-Juergen Goertz, The Anabaptists. London: Routledge, 1996; Stayer, James M. Anabaptists and the Sword. Lawrence: Coronado Press, 1976; Urry, James. None But Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia, 1789-1889. Hyperion Press, 1990.
- For a history of the Firebrand and its contribution to anarchist thought, see Carlos A. Schwantes, "Free Love and Free Speech on the Pacific Northwest Frontier," Oregon Historical Quarterly, 82 (1981), 271-293.
- See especially Emma Goldman, Living My Life, Vol. 1, New York: De Capo Press. 1970., Pg. 225.
- See Peter Glassgold, ed., Anarchy! An Anthology of Emma Goldman's Mother Earth, Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001.
- See, respectively, the Firebrand, March 8, 1896 (microfilm reproduction) and Free Society, March 20, 1898, pg. 5.
- https://books.google.com/books?id=8z8mdUYp-6gC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Anarchist+voices:+an+oral+history+of+anarchism+in+America&hl=en&ei=bMWPTMj9D8uRswa027CgDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false Paul Avrich, Anarchist voices: an oral history of anarchism in America, page 23
- For a solid history of the Anabaptist movement (of which the Mennonites belonged) see Hans-Juergen Goertz, The Anabaptists, London: Routledge, 1996.
- For more information about Isaak's genealogy, see Steven Kent Smith, "Further Notes on Abraham Isaak, Mennonite Anarchist, Mennonite Quarterly Review, 80 (January 2006).
- Printed in Freedom, February 25, 1933, pg. 3.