Few radical revolutionaries live long lives, and even fewer live long enough to reflect upon their revolutions. Max Nomad (1881-1973), born Max Nacht, was a rare exception. The radical anarchist from Poland and Austria who immigrated to the United States following the Bolshevik Revolution became well known in anarchist circles as an influential theorist and a biographer. Nomad was a prolific writer, establishing himself with works such as Apostles of Revolution (1939), Rebels and Renegades (1932), Aspects of Revolt (1959, 1961) Political Heretics, From Plato to Mao Tse-Tung (1963), The Anarchist Tradition and Other Essays (1967), and Footnotes to History; Reflections of a Radical Dissenter (1970). Brandeis University’s collection of Max Nomad papers includes manuscript drafts, reviews, and notes pertaining to his theories. The vast majority of these materials date from later in Nomad’s life, in the 1960s and 1970s, as he sought to preserve his legacy.
Starting out as a writer of short articles and pamphlets for a variety of publications, Nomad did not write books until later in life, well after his revolutionary experience. Deeply influenced by the likes of Karl Marx, Jan Waclaw Machajski, and Mikhail Bakunin, Max Nomad developed his own theories on the causes of social inequality and the revolutionary response needed to address it. In his younger days, he espoused a program of radical anarchism that was deeply rooted in socialism, yet he identified with libertarian movements around the world as readily as with Marxist movements. Named a Guggenheim fellow in 1937, Nomad taught at New York University, The New School, and other New York institutions. Based on the documents in the collection at Brandeis, he chose to recant his position to a less extreme view later in life (accepting a more libertarian view, with a contradictory splash of socialism involved), possibly leading to conflict within the movement. In a coordinated attempt to spread his ideas, in the last years of his life Nomad spent more time sending copies of his works than creating new ones, largely due to a protracted illness; his own collected works did not initially do well financially, however. He remained in communication with some of the most well-known anarchist/libertarian scholars throughout his life, discussing the finer points of historical events in a great back-and-forth of letters. By the time he died, he was one of the few figures left from the early-twentieth-century revolutions.
Over the course of his ninety-two-year life, it is perhaps not surprising that Max Nomad changed his views on many subjects. Nomad (then Nacht) was educated at the University of Vienna, where he quickly became familiar with the increasingly radical responses to Karl Marx through his older brother, Siegfried Nacht. Along with Siegfried, he wrote a militant anarchist journal titled Der Weckruf from 1903-1907. However, he soon turned from a militant anarchist to a pro-Soviet mentality.
Nomad’s views on revolution may have tempered with age, but he maintained a deep-seated belief that social and economic inequality is the root of injustice and political strife. In a note dated February 7, 1973, Nomad wrote, “The record of the human race is a mess of lies called history and of butcheries called wars and revolutions with a permanently changing predatory minority using its cunning for dominating the majority.” A dedicated believer with deep concern over the relationship between the majority and the minority, he was a constant advocate for the downtrodden rising up to claim what is rightfully theirs. “It seems that practically every underdog is ready to grant as much justice to those more unfortunate than he is as the world is ready to grant him. Thus the World is not only an equilibrium of injustice. Which should satisfy the sense of justice of every sensitive person (born as a member of a prosperous family).” (Notes, January 24th, 1973). Allegations that Max Nomad was on the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials (the Dewey Commission) came in the form of a letter to Brandeis, asking for more information on him. Nomad, pro-Soviet but anti-Stalin, claimed he did not remember, as it was nearly forty years later, although he conceded that he could easily have been involved.
Max Nomad is difficult to trace throughout the years, as he changed his name frequently. A political activist under his birth name, he switched to the appropriate Max Nomad following his emigration to the United States, although for a brief period he used the name Max Norton. His frequent name changes caused confusion for scholars, with several different last names printed on his works. Although by the 1960s he appears to have felt safe from any unwanted repercussions (both in the United States and in his home country), he changed his legal name to Max Nomad, most likely in recognition of his relative fame under that pseudonym. Doubtless, he had enemies around the world due to his radicalism.
Max Nomad stands as a rare example of a radical revolutionary who was active in his revolutionary movement but survived long past his experience to discuss the events and their impact. Although he was involved in a fringe element of the extreme, he showed remorse for his youth in his later writings. “An anarchist romantic who dreamed of dying in a ‘splendor of glory’, may possibly get a flattering obituary, but this won’t help his cause. For the non-romantic masses will vote for the more realistic socialists or communists who promise them material advantage” ("Reflections of a Pessimist," folder 26). Nomad’s surrender in the face of political realities seems a shocking reversal. The above excerpt, taken from an unpublished manuscript titled “Reflections of a Pessimist,” is certainly later in his life, during a period when he rejected anarchism as a viable program. Nomad eventually passed away early in 1973 following a long illness, leaving a variety of projects unfinished. The big project at the end of his life, the spread of his writings, was still in progress by the time he died. In addition to Brandeis’s records, Max Nomad sent papers to New York University, Columbia University, The International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, and other academic institutions. Knowing that anarchism was becoming increasingly unpopular, Nomad changed his views and adopted a softer view of socialism, rather than the radical anachro-socialism he had professed as a young man. A cursory examination of his work, especially his notes, shows that until his dying day, his heart burned with the beliefs of his younger days, but tempered by the harsh realities of revolution that he struggled against as a radical.
Description by Ben Schmidt, undergraduate history intern in Archives & Special Collections
For a list of contents in the Max Nomad collection, including letters and manuscript drafts, please contact the Archives & Special Collections Department at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 781-736-4686 to make an appointment.