Note: This is not presented as a general overview of May Day history and the Haymarket Martyrs. For a general overview, please see my other diary on the topic. I'd also like to use this opportunity to announce a new group, Anarchism & Libertarian Socialism, which will explore anarchist history, theory, and anarchist literature and voices.The history of May Day has been obscured in many mainstream historical accounts, and the biographies of those who were central to the history, while available, are not very well known in contemporary America. For a fascinating account of just one example of how the history is revised, even by our own government and labor organizations, read this essay. Few know today of its connection to the Haymarket Tragedy, or know much about the life of Albert Parsons, one of the hanged men, or of his wife Lucy Parsons, or of August Spies, another of the eight men who stood trial, five of whom were sentenced to death by the Chicago court. And few know that it was due to the persecution of these labor activists, that May Day became, in addition to its pagan roots (click the link for the history leading up to modern times) the commemorative day of labor justice and worker's rights.
And yet, like Emma Goldman and so many others, had you been alive at the time of the trial, especially if you were interested in worker's rights and social justice, you would have followed the events as if it were the mesmerizing trial of the century. It cannot be over stated that the entire world was riveted to the story, and it was widely reported and discussed internationally. Albert Parsons, August Spies and the six others on trial were hot topics. Many high profile personalities called out for pardons of these men, and there was an international outcry against the corruption of justice.
But the state was determined to use the persecution of these men to deal a blow to the labor movement:
The authorities had believed at the time of the trial that such persecution would break the back of the labour movement. As Lucy Parsons, a participant of the events, noted 20 years later, the Haymarket trial “was a class trial — relentless, vindictive, savage and bloody. By that prosecution the capitalists sought to break the great strike for the eight-hour day which as being successfully inaugurated in Chicago, this city being the stormcentre of that great movement; and they also intended, by the savage manner in which they conducted the trial of these men, to frighten the working class back to their long hours of toil and low wages from which they were attempting to emerge. The capitalistic class imagined they could carry out their hellish plot by putting to an ignominious death the most progressive leaders among the working class of that day. In executing their bloody deed of judicial murder they succeeded, but in arresting the mighty onward movement of the class struggle they utterly failed.” [Lucy Parsons, Op. Cit., p. 128] In the words of August Spies when he addressed the court after he had been sentenced to die:
August Spies“If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labour movement ... the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in misery and want, expect salvation — if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread on a spark, but there and there, behind you — and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.” [quoted by Paul Avrich, Op. Cit., p. 287]
At the time and in the years to come, this defiance of the state and capitalism was to win thousands to anarchism, particularly in the US itself. Since the Haymarket event, anarchists have celebrated May Day (on the 1st of May — the reformist unions and labour parties moved its marches to the first Sunday of the month). We do so to show our solidarity with other working class people across the world, to celebrate past and present struggles, to show our power and remind the ruling class of their vulnerability.
As Nestor Makhno put it:
“That day those American workers attempted, by organising themselves, to give expression to their protest against the iniquitous order of the State and Capital of the propertied ...
“The workers of Chicago ... had gathered to resolve, in common, the problems of their lives and their struggles...
“Today too ... the toilers ... regard the first of May as the occasion of a get-together when they will concern themselves with their own affairs and consider the matter of their emancipation.” [The Struggle Against the State and Other Essays, pp. 59–60]
To understand why the state and business class were so determined to hang the Chicago Anarchists, it is necessary to realise they were considered the leaders of a massive radical union movement. In 1884, the Chicago Anarchists produced the world’s first daily anarchist newspaper, the Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeiting. This was written, read, owned and published by the German immigrant working class movement. The combined circulation of this daily plus a weekly (Vorbote) and a Sunday edition (Fackel) more than doubled, from 13,000 per issues in 1880 to 26,980 in 1886. Anarchist weekly papers existed for other ethnic groups as well (one English, one Bohemian and one Scandinavian).Haymarket Persecutions and the Impact on the Labor Movement
Anarchists were very active in the Central Labour Union (which included the eleven largest unions in the city) and aimed to make it, in the words of Albert Parsons (one of the Martyrs), “the embryonic group of the future ‘free society.’” The anarchists were also part of the International Working People’s Association (also called the “Black International”) which had representatives from 26 cities at its founding convention. The I.W.P.A. soon “made headway among trade unions, especially in the mid-west” and its ideas of “direct action of the rank and file” and of trade unions “serv[ing] as the instrument of the working class for the complete destruction of capitalism and the nucleus for the formation of a new society” became known as the “Chicago Idea” (an idea which later inspired the Industrial Workers of the World which was founded in Chicago in 1905). [“Editor’s Introduction,” The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs, p. 4]
That the Haymarket Affair and the persecution of activists had a profound impact on energizing the labor movement is an understatement. Thousands around the world were stirred to activism by the events. Emma Goldman describes the impact on her by the Haymarket tragedy in her autobiography, Living My Life (download ebook). At the time of the Haymarket Massacre, in 1886, Emma was a young teenager, just 17 years old, having turned 18 during the months of the trial in 1887, and she, like the entire world, had followed the trial blow by blow. Her account of the events provides a wonderful glimpse of the mood of those times among activists, and how the tragedy and the wrongful executions of the labor martyrs formed the catalyst that awakened her to her life's work as labor activist, feminist, anarchist (i.e., libertarian communist), writer, speaker, and organizer.
Emma immigrated to the U.S. From her native Russia at the age of 16, and was horrified to discover that the America she had envisioned in her dreams, one of freedom and democracy, was firmly in the throes of the horrors of the industrial revolution, and the terrible hardships imposed on the working class of those times, with poor worker conditions, low wages, exploitative practices, long hours, and hegemony of the owning class.
Emma gives several biographical anecdotes of her first exposure to America, this excerpt from her autobiography being typical:
One morning, as I looked up from my work, I discovered [Tanya] all huddled in a heap. She had fallen in a faint. I called to the foreman to help me carry her to the dressing-room, but the deafening noise of the machines drowned my voice. Several girls near by heard me and began to shout. They ceased working and rushed over to Tanya. The sudden stopping of the machines attracted the foreman's attention and he came over to us. Without even asking the reason for the commotion, he shouted: "Back to your machines! What do you mean stopping work now? Do you want to be fired? Get back at once!" When he spied the crumpled body of Tanya, he yelled: "What the hell is the matter with her?" "She has fainted," I replied, trying hard to control my voice. "Fainted, nothing," he sneered, "she's only shamming."Emma's background in working in the garment factories, where she was exposed to the exploitation, the hard work and low pay, and brutal treatment of workers, prepared her to be drawn to the labor movement. She describes her fascination with the Haymarket trial in her autobiography, Living My Life, which has entered public domain and is available online. Her account of the events begins in chapter one of her biography, beginning the night after she had first met Johann Most, the well known German-American anarchist and publisher/editor of the newspaper, Freiheit(freedom). Most had given a talk on Haymarket, and Emma was enraptured by his fiery spirit:"You are a liar and a brute!" I cried, no longer able to keep back my indignation.Young Emma Goldman, 1886
I bent over Tanya, loosened her waist, and squeezed the juice of an orange I had in my lunch basket into her half-opened mouth. Her face was white, a cold sweat on her forehead. She looked so ill that even the foreman realized she had not been shamming. He excused her for the day. "I will go with Tanya," I said; "you can deduct from my pay for the time." "You can go to hell, you wildcat!" he flung after me.
That night I could not sleep. Again I lived through the events of 1887. Twenty-one months had passed since the Black Friday of November 11, when the Chicago men had suffered their martyrdom, yet every detail stood out clear before my vision and affected me as if it had happened but yesterday. My sister Helena and I had become interested in the fate of the men during the period of their trial. The reports in the Rochester newspapers irritated, confused, and upset us by their evident prejudice. The violence of the press, the bitter denunciation of the accused, the attacks on all foreigners, turned our sympathies to the Haymarket victims.It's remarkable that the hall, a private facility, was "lined with police"! This underscores the tension of the times, when worker strikes and protests were common, with thousands taking to the streets, and the persecution of the worker's movement by the state and industry, which used beatings, murders, and the judiciary to suppress the movement. The largest strike undertaken by US labor had occurred in 1877, and it was a bloody episode in labor history.
We had learned of the existence in Rochester of a German socialist group that held sessions on Sunday in Germania Hall. We began to attend the meetings, my older sister, Helena, on a few occasions only, and I regularly. The gatherings were generally uninteresting, but they offered an escape from the grey dullness of my Rochester existence. There one heard, at least, something different from the everlasting talk about money and business, and one meet people of spirit and ideas.
One Sunday it was announced that a famous socialist speaker from New York, Johanna Greie, would lecture on the case then being tried in Chicago. On the appointed day I was the first in the hall. The huge place was crowded from top to bottom by eager men and women, while the walls were lined with police. I had never before been at such a large meeting. I had seen gendarmes in St. Petersburg disperse small student gatherings. But that in the country which guaranteed free speech, officers armed with long clubs should invade an orderly assembly filled me with consternation and protest.
Soon the chairman announced the speaker. She was a woman in her thirties, pale and ascetic-looking, with large luminous eyes. She spoke with great earnestness, in a voice vibrating with intensity. Her manner engrossed me. I forgot the police, the audience, and every thing else about me. I was aware only of the frail woman in black crying out her passionate indictment against the forces that were about to destroy eight human lives.
Emma Continues with a Brief Account of the Haymarket Affair:
The entire speech concerned the stirring events in Chicago. She began by relating the historical background of the case. She told of the labour strikes that broke out throughout the country in 1886, for the demand of an eight-hour workday. The center of the movement was Chicago, and there the struggle between the toilers and their bosses became intense and bitter. A meeting of the striking employees of the McCormick Harvester Company in that city was attacked by police; men and women were beaten and several persons killed. To protest against the outrage a mass meeting was called in Haymarket Square on May 4. It was addressed by Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, and others, and was quiet and orderly. This was attested to by Carter Harrison, Mayor of Chicago, who had attended the meeting to see what was going on. The Mayor left, satisfied that everything was all right, and he informed the captain of the district to that effect. It was getting cloudy, a light rain began to fall, and the people started to disperse, only a few remaining while one of the last speakers was addressing the audience. Then Captain Ward, accompanied by a strong force of police, suddenly appeared on the square. He ordered the meeting to disperse forthwith. "This is an orderly assembly," the chairman replied, whereupon the police fell upon the people, clubbing them unmercifully. Then something flashed through the air and exploded, killing a number of police officers and wounding a score of others. It was never ascertained who the actual culprit was, and the authorities apparently made little effort to discover him. Instead orders were immediately issued for the arrest of all the speakers at the Haymarket meeting and other prominent anarchists. The entire press and bourgeoisie of Chicago and of the whole country began shouting for the blood of the prisoners. A veritable campaign of terror was carried on by the police, who were given moral and financial encouragement by the Citizens' Association to further their murderous plan to get the anarchists out of the way. The public mind was so inflamed by the atrocious stories circulated by the press against the leaders of the strike that a fair trial for them became an impossibility. In fact, the trial proved the worst frame-up in the history of the United States. The jury was picked for conviction; the District Attorney announced in open court that it was not only the arrested men who were the accused, but that "anarchy was on trial" and that it was to be exterminated. The judge repeatedly denounced the prisoners from the bench, influencing the jury against them. The witnesses were terrorized or bribed, with the result that eight men, innocent of the crime and in no way connected with it, were convicted. The incited state of the public mind, and the general prejudice against anarchists, coupled with the employers' bitter opposition to the eight-hour movement, constituted the atmosphere that favoured the judicial murder of the Chicago anarchists. Five of them ---Albert Parsons, August Spies, Louis Lingg, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel --- were sentenced to die by hanging; Michael Schwab and Samuel Fielden were doomed to life imprisonment; Neebe received fifteen years' sentence. The innocent blood of the Haymarket martyrs was calling for revenge.Young Emma, at age 18, learns about Socialism, but wonders, "What is anarchism?"
At the end of Greie's speech I knew what I had surmised all along: the Chicago men were innocent. They were to be put to death for their ideal. But what was their ideal? Johanna Greic spoke of Parsons, Spies, Lingg, and the others as socialists, but I was ignorant of the real meaning of socialism. What I had heard from the local speakers had impressed me as colourless and mechanistic. On the other hand, the papers called these men anarchists, bomb-throwers. What was anarchism? It was all very puzzling. But I had no time for further contemplation. The people were filing out, and I got up to leave. Greie, the chairman, and a group of friends were still on the platform. As I turned towards them, I saw Greie motioning to me. I was startled, my heart beat violently, and my feet felt leaden. When I approached her, she took me by the hand and said: "I never saw a face that reflected such a tumult of emotions as yours. You must be feeling the impending tragedy intensely. Do you know the men?" In a trembling voice I replied: "Unfortunately not, but I do feel the case with every fibre, and when I heard you speak, it seemed to me as if I knew them." She put her hand on my shoulder. "I have a feeling that you will know them better as you learn their ideal, and that you will make their cause your own."Had you been alive in 1887, you would likely have known that the accused men were anarchists, and since anarchism had a larger following in that era, you would likely have had some idea that they were socialists, and that anarchism is one of two major strains of socialism, the other being Marxism. During the cold war years, and the Soviet Union, anarchism was overshadowed by Marxist-Leninism, and only began to rise in popularity again after the Soviet Union collapsed. Anarchism, since the 1999 Seattle WTO direct action events coordinated by the Global Justice Movement to shut down the World Trade Organization conference, has begun to have an influence again, aided as well by the Occupy uprising. Young people taking a new look at the increasingly horrific effects of capitalism, and not raised during the era of cold war anti-communist propaganda, are seeing socialism with new eyes, and anarchism, as it really is, rather than the scary image it was made out to be, is once again an item of interest and exploration.
Its interesting to note that Emma implies Greie described the Chicago men as “socialists”, which of course they were, but they were advocates of a specific strain of socialism. Many anarchists and anarchist-influenced historical events were and still are often obscured this way. One reason for this is Marxists often felt they were in rivalry with anarchists, stemming largely from Marx and Engels, who wanted to dominate the socialist movement of the 19th century, and thus in their writings often attacked and mischaracterized anarchist theory and its movement spokespersons. Many contemporary accounts found online still refrain from identifying the Haymarket labor martyrs as anarchists, some accounts even leaving out that they were socialists, preferring to call them “labor activists”, which of course, they were. Parsons, in particular, and Spies, as well, were prominent labor activists, socialists and anarchists in the years leading up to their false arrests and executions. Parsons worked against racism, classism, and agitated for labor rights and equality from the time he was 19 years old.
Back to Emma's story, where she reveals what impassioned her to begin her life's work:
I walked home in a dream. Sister Helena was already asleep, but I had to share my experience with her. I woke her up and recited to her the whole story, giving almost a verbatim account of the speech. I must have been very dramatic, because Helena exclaimed: "The next thing I'll hear about my little sister is that she, too, is a dangerous anarchist."
Some weeks later I had occasion to visit a German family I knew. I found them very much excited. Somebody from New York had sent them a German paper, Die Freiheit, edited by Johann Most. It was filled with news about the events in Chicago. The language fairly took my breath away, it was so different from what I had heard at the socialist meetings and even from Johanna Greie's talk. It seemed lava shooting forth flames of ridicule, scorn, and defiance; it breathed deep hatred of the powers that were preparing the crime in Chicago. I began to read, Die Freiheit regularly. I sent for the literature advertised in the paper and I devoured every line on anarchism I could get, every word about the men, their lives, their work. I read about their heroic stand while on trial and their marvellous defence. I saw a new world opening before me.
The terrible thing everyone feared, yet hoped would not happen, actually occurred. Extra editions of the Rochester papers carried the news: the Chicago anarchists had been hanged!
We were crushed, Helena and I. The shock completely unnerved my sister; she could only wring her hands and weep silently. I was in a stupor; a feeling of numbness came over me, something too horrible even for tears. In the evening we went to our father's house. Everybody talked about the Chicago events. I was entirely absorbed in what I felt as my own loss. Then I heard the coarse laugh of a woman. In a shrill voice she sneered: "What's all this lament about? The men were murderers. It is well they were hanged." With one leap I was at the woman's throat. Then I felt myself torn back. Someone said: "The child has gone crazy." I wrenched myself free, grabbed a pitcher of water from a table, and threw it with all my force into the woman's face. "Out, out," I cried, "or I will kill you!" The terrified woman made for the door and I dropped to the ground in a fit of crying. I was put to bed, and soon I fell into a deep sleep.
The next morning I woke as from a long illness, but free from the numbness and the depression of those harrowing weeks of waiting, ending with the final shock. I had a distinct sensation that something new and wonderful had been born in my soul. A great ideal, a burning faith, a determination to dedicate myself to the memory of my martyred comrades, to make their cause my own, to make known to the world their beautiful lives and heroic deaths. Johanna Greie was more prophetic than she had probably realized.Linked Articles to Explore Below the Fold