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The Haymarket frame-up and the origins of May Day

 April 10th, 2014    Featured, History, May DayPrint Print

We are republishing here a series of articles that originally appeared in April 1986 under the title “One hundred years since the Haymarket frame-up.” The articles were published in the Bulletin, the newspaper of the Workers League, forerunner of the Socialist Equality Party in the US. Part I, Part II, Part III.

Part I

On the night of May 4, 1886, a crowd of several thousand workers gathered for a public rally at Haymarket Square in Chicago. Because the crowd was smaller than expected, it was moved to a different location a short distance away, to Desplaines Street and Crane’s Alley behind the Crane Brothers metal products factory.

The rally had been called by the International Workingmen’s Party of America and its two leading organs in Chicago, the Alarm and the German-language Arbeiter-Zeitung.

A day earlier, at least two workers had been killed in a violent confrontation with police at the McCormick Reaper Works on Blue Island Avenue. The workers had been locked out since February by the owner, Cyrus H. McCormick, Jr., scion of the famous inventor, who had brought in 300 Pinkertons to escort the scabs. These were, in turn, reinforced by hundreds of police.

On May 1, the first May Day, more than 300,000 workers nationwide, including 40,000 in Chicago, walked off the job in support of the demand for an eight-hour day.

On May 1, the first May Day, more than 300,000 workers nationwide, including 40,000 in Chicago, walked off the job in support of the demand for an eight-hour day. While the Eight-Hour Day Movement was led officially by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the US and Canada, the immediate forerunner of the American Federation of Labor in Chicago, it was under the leadership of the anarchists, in particular, those associated with the Alarm and Arbeiter-Zeitung.

The rally at Haymarket was called in response to the police violence the previous day at the reaper works and was proceeding peacefully, despite the buildup of tensions fueled by a vicious campaign in the capitalist press designed to provoke violence against the leaders of the movement in Chicago. The most prominent and popular of these leaders were the anarchists Albert Parsons and August Spies.

Despite the turmoil surrounding the eight-hour struggle in Chicago, it appeared as though the evening rally would end without incident. Samuel Fielden, another prominent anarchist, was addressing the crowd, which had dwindled to less than 1,000.

Fielden was finishing his remarks when police began advancing without warning on the remaining workers. As the workers began to disperse, a bomb exploded in the midst of the police, seriously injuring a number of them. One of the officers, Mathias J. Degan, died moments later from his wounds, and six more were to die over the next two weeks.

The police, led by the notorious Inspector John Bonfield, retaliated furiously, firing indiscriminately into the crowd, killing as many as eight workers and injuring many more. Later, a total of 67 casualties killed or wounded were counted.

What followed the bombing was the first great political witch hunt and frame-up trial involving working class fighters in the United States.

Eighteen months later, on November 11, 1887, four leading anarchists—Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and George Engel—were executed by hanging at Cook County Jail. Another defendant, Louis Lingg, committed suicide the day before his scheduled execution. These men were the Haymarket Martyrs, and they occupy an honored place in the history of the class struggle both in the United States and internationally.

Two more anarchists, Michael Schwab and Samuel Fielden, were also convicted of murder in the death of Officer Degan. Also sentenced to death, they received a last-minute commutation from Governor Richard J. Oglesby. An eighth defendant in the trial, Oscar Neebe, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Neebe, along with Fielden and Schwab, were later pardoned by Oglesby’s successor, Governor John Peter Altgeld.

May 4,1986, marks the 100th anniversary of the Haymarket incident. What followed the bombing was the first great political witch hunt and frame-up trial involving working class fighters in the United States. It matched, in terms of the ferocity of the class hatred exhibited by the ruling class, the notorious Palmer Raids in 1919 and the frame-up and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in the 1920s.

The centenary of Haymarket has produced a large number of publications, both articles and books. Among the most valuable is The Haymarket Tragedy, by Paul Avrich, Princeton University Press, which not only vividly details the Haymarket incident and the subsequent execution of four working class fighters, but also brings to life this formative period in the history of the American proletariat.

US capitalism after the Civil War

The post-Civil War period witnessed the explosive development of American capitalism and the emergence of the working class. Having vanquished the Confederacy, Northern industrial capitalism could now expand westward unhindered. This geographical movement, combined with enormous advances in the productive forces, put an end to the predominance of the small manufacturer and individual craftsman.

Between 1860 and 1894 the United States moved from fourth place to first worldwide in the production of industrial goods. By 1894 this productive capacity accounted for one third of the world’s output.

Increasingly, the different branches of production were combined in huge monopolies or trusts. From the mining of natural resources, to the smelting of basic metals, to the manufacture of finished products, vast amounts of wealth were being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Under conditions of the explosive ascendancy of American capitalism, the “Age of the Robber Barons” dawned.

In every American city of the 1870s and 1880s obscene extravagance coexisted with levels of poverty hitherto unknown in the United States. In no city were the class divisions more starkly juxtaposed than in Chicago.

Their wealth was obtained from the most brutal exploitation of the working class. In every American city of the 1870s and 1880s obscene extravagance coexisted with levels of poverty hitherto unknown in the United States. In no city were the class divisions more starkly juxtaposed than in Chicago.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, far from wiping the city off the map, served to accelerate its growth into the major manufacturing, transportation and financial center of the Midwest, and the country’s third largest city. Among the leading capitalists of the day in Chicago were Marshall Field, George Pullman, Phillip D. Armour and the already-mentioned Cyrus McCormick, Jr.

The explosive growth of American capitalism brought with it the first crisis of overproduction. The panic of 1873, followed by a depression which lasted until 1879, while not the first, was by far the worst economic crisis the country had yet experienced.

In The Haymarket Tragedy, author Paul Avrich describes the devastating impact of the slump on the working class:

“Tens of thousands went hungry. Cities like Chicago recorded a rising number of deaths from starvation, not only of single individuals, but of whole families. Homeless men and women wandered the streets, seeking shelter in hallways, sleeping on park benches and lining up daily before the soup kitchens established in working-class neighborhoods.

“Year after year the depression worsened. By 1877, according to some accounts, the number of unemployed had risen to nearly three million—in a nation of forty-five million people. As many as fifteen million, moreover, were living at the poverty level. Legions of tramps, for whom the Chicago Tribune prescribed ‘a little strychnine or arsenic,’ drifted across the country in search of work and shelter.” (Page 16, The Haymarket Tragedy by Paul Avrich; Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1984)

The unemployed demonstrated in Chicago—the capitalist papers calling their protests “bread riots.” The depression gave enormous impetus to the class struggle, and there was a profound radicalization of the working class. Already, in 1869, the Knights of Labor under Terence Powderly had been founded. But now, with the ever-mounting influx of European immigrants, particularly from Germany, more radical ideas—socialism, Marxism and anarchism—were finding a greater audience in the working class.

This radicalization reached its high point in Chicago under the leadership of the anarchists of the International Workingmen’s Party of America. The most important leaders of this party in Chicago, and probably nationwide, were Albert Parsons and August Spies.

Albert Parsons

Albert Parsons was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on June 20, 1848. His father Samuel, a native of Portland, Maine, had moved to Montgomery, where he established a shoe and leather factory. The Parsons were quintessentially “American.” They could trace their lineage back to the Mayflower and had an ancestor who served at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolutionary War.

Albert Parsons

Albert Parsons

By the age of five, Parsons was orphaned. He was sent to live with his older brother in Tyler, Texas. William Henry Parsons was an attorney and the proprietor of the Telegraph, a local Democratic paper. Through his brother’s influence, the younger Parsons became an apprentice for the Galveston News.

Parsons was raised a Southerner, so when the Civil War broke out he enlisted with the Army of the Confederacy. He was very young at the time, being only 17 when he was discharged. After the war, Parsons became a passionate defender of Reconstruction and a member of the Radical Republicans.

He started his own newspaper, the Spectator, in Waco, Texas. The publication was short-lived, however, as he increasingly drew the hatred of racist elements opposed to Reconstruction. They branded Parson a “scalawag” and forced him to leave Waco. Moving to Houston, where he worked for his brother, now the publisher of the Houston Telegraph, Parsons met his future wife and political collaborator, Lucy Del Gather.

In 1873, the Democrats regained control of the Texas legislature, ending the Reconstruction government in that state. This development, along with the increasing difficulties Parsons encountered due to his anti-racist views, finalized his decision to leave Texas.

Albert and Lucy Parsons arrived in Chicago in late 1873 and were immediately struck by the extreme poverty and exploitation of the working class. Parsons compared the conditions to the chattel slavery that had dominated the South. 

Albert and Lucy Parsons arrived in Chicago in late 1873 and were immediately struck by the extreme poverty and exploitation of the working class. Parsons compared the conditions to the chattel slavery that had dominated the South. The “substance,” Parsons wrote, “remains the same: the capitalist in the former system owned the laborer, and hence his product, while under the latter, he owns the labor product and hence the person of the wage laborer.”

Parsons became active in the workers’ movement. He joined International Typographical Union Local 16, which is today one of the three unions on strike at the Chicago Tribune. One hundred years ago, this same Tribune was the official mouthpiece of the Chicago robber barons. As the Depression of the 1870s deepened and the protests grew, the Tribune was the principal source of the crudest anti-communism.

An 1875 Tribune editorial stated, in an ominous foreshadowing of the frame-up to come:

“If the communists in this country are counting on the looseness of our police system and the tendency to proceed against criminals by due process of law…they have ignored some of the most significant episodes of American history…. Judge Lynch is an American by birth and character. The Vigilance Committee is a peculiarly American institution…. Every lamp post in Chicago will be decorated with a communistic carcass if necessary to prevent wholesale incendiarism or prevent any attempt at it.”

During this period, Parsons was undergoing a profound political radicalization, and, for the first time, came into contact with the socialist movement. Parsons read what socialist literature was available, including the Communist Manifesto and other works dealing with economics and historical materialism.

He joined the Working Men’s Party, an organization which was at that time divided between two wings, a Marxist wing, favoring the organizing of trade unions and action to achieve economic gains, and the Lasalleans, who favored political action through the ballot box and opposed the fight for economic gains.

Railroad strike of 1877

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and its aftermath would open up these differences even further. The strike was sparked by the announcement of a 10 percent pay cut on July 17, 1877, by the Baltimore & Ohio Co. Already driven to the brink by the depression, workers rebelled and the strike spread like wildfire.

Avrich, in The Haymarket Tragedy, writes:

“Never before had America witnessed a nationwide uprising of workers, an uprising so obstinate and bitter that it was crushed only after much bloodshed. Local police and state militias alone could not restore order. For the first time, federal troops had to be called out during peacetime to suppress a domestic disturbance. In the process, more than a hundred workmen were killed and several hundred wounded.

“For a full week the strike dominated the front pages of American newspapers. A new reality had entered American economic life. The first great collision between capital and labor, it was a harbinger of things to come.” (Page 26, The Haymarket Tragedy by Paul Avrich; Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1984)

The strike lasted for two weeks and spread to 17 states. In Chicago, the Working Men’s Party was receiving a hearing in the working class, much to the chagrin of the capitalist press. Parsons, who had for years been honing his oratorical skills, addressed thousands of workers. He was arrested during the strike, browbeaten and threatened with death by the police.

US infantry units were brought in and roving bands of Civil War veterans and armed vigilantes organized by the “Law and Order League,” headed by industrialist George Pullman, roamed the streets, attacking groups of workers. A number of workers were shot down by the troops, and the strike was broken.

Yet despite the strike’s defeat, the enormity and power of the first major struggle of the American working class pushed forward its development even more rapidly. Chicago became the strongest center of the Working Men’s Party, which changed its name to the Socialistic Labor Party (SLP) in December of 1877.

The Great Strike was largely an indigenous movement of the American working class, although immigrant workers certainly played a role. The capitalist press, however, reflecting the terror of the bourgeoisie at the first volcanic eruption of the working class, and its effort to maintain illusions in American exceptionalism, quickly attributed the uprising to “aliens” and their ideology.

A central political problem of the workers’ movement of that time was precisely the separation between the development of Marxism on American soil and the movement of the class struggle itself.

A central political problem of the workers’ movement of that time was precisely the separation between the development of Marxism on American soil and the movement of the class struggle itself. Frederick Engels was particularly critical of the German-American Marxists, who tended to view Marxism as a credo rather than as a guide to action. Engels was adamant that the Germans had to “doff every remnant of foreign garb…and become out and out American.”

In the aftermath of the railroad strike, divisions within the SLP emerged over whether or not the party should continue to run candidates, and on the question of the armed struggle. In Chicago, a number of workers’ defense groups were formed. These included Lehr-und-Wehr Verein (Education and Defense Society), Bohemian Sharpshooters, Jaeger Verein and the Irish Labor Guards.

But it was over the question of the so-called “political” struggle, meaning the running of candidates, or socialism by the ballot vs. revolutionary action, that the split in the SLP would emerge.

During this period, Parsons and others in the leadership of the movement in Chicago and elsewhere were moving sharply to the left. One of the ablest of these leaders was August Spies.

August Spies

August Spies

August Spies

Spies was born in Landeck in southwest Germany, the son of a government forester. After his father’s death, Spies emigrated to the United States and moved to Chicago in 1873, where he became a small tradesman in the upholstery business.

Like Parsons, Spies became radicalized under the impact of the depression and the Great Strike, becoming a leader among the German-American socialists in Chicago. After the strike, he joined both the Socialistic Labor Party and Lehr-und-Wehr Verein.

Spies was both a man of action and an intellectual, fluent in both German and English. Among the books he read was Marx’s Capital and Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society. While both he and Parsons became anarchists, Paul Avrich points out that they owed their political development to Marx as well as Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin.

Spies and Parsons owed their political development to Marx as well as Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin.

In October of 1880, Spies, Oscar Neebe and others were expelled from the SLP for opposing the party’s policy of running candidates in elections. Spies had become disillusioned after an SLP candidate, who won a place on the Chicago City Council, was fraudulently denied his seat. The final emancipation of labor, Spies wrote, would come about “through an economic struggle only, not through politics.”

Both Spies and Parsons were moving in the direction of anarchism and attended the Pittsburgh Congress in October of 1883. The Congress’s principal organizer was the German anarchist Johann Most.

Most was an uncompromising anarchist who advocated the violent overthrow of capitalism, and, as a follower of Bakunin, was sharply criticized by Marx and Engels. He was, nonetheless, a compelling orator and became a prominent leader of the growing anarchist movement in the United States.

Marx had fully supported the Paris Commune of 1871, analyzing it as the first attempt by the working class to seize power in its own right. The experience of the Commune, Marx concluded, demonstrated that the old state machinery had to be smashed and replaced by a new state democratically controlled by the workers—the dictatorship of the proletariat.

He was completely opposed to the anarchist formula of  “abolishing the state,” a petty-bourgeois and utopian slogan which made no distinction between the class character of different states—feudal, bourgeois and proletarian—and therefore held the working class back from the political struggle to establish its own state power.

Engels explained the necessity for the dictatorship of the proletariat in an article, “On the Occasion of Karl Marx’s Death,” published in 1883:

“[W]e have always held that…the proletarian class will first have to possess itself of the organized political force of the State and with this aid stamp out the resistance of the Capitalist class and reorganize society. This is stated already in the Communist Manifesto of 1847, end of Chapter II.

“The Anarchists reverse the matter. They say that the Proletarian revolution has to begin by abolishing the political organization of the State. But after the victory of the Proletariat, the only organization the victorious working class finds ready-made for use is that of the State.

“It may require adaptation to the new functions. But to destroy it at such a moment would be to destroy the only organism by means of which the victorious working class can exert its newly conquered power, keep down its capitalist enemies and carry out that economic revolution of society without which the whole victory must end in a defeat and in a massacre of the working class like that after the Paris Commune.”

In the case of Parsons and Spies, their differences with Most were not over the question of the state, but of the necessity for union organization. They had already penetrated deeply into the workers’ movement and were ardent supporters of the trade unions.

While they agreed with Most on the need for armed insurrection to overthrow capitalism, they opposed his hostility to trade unionism. The two leaders from Chicago put forward what became known as the “Chicago Idea.”

End of Part I

Part II

The political outlook advanced in the “Chicago Idea” and championed by Albert Parsons and August Spies at the Pittsburgh Conference of 1883, anticipated the later development of anarcho-syndicalism.It was their conception that the trade unions could serve only as organizations of revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of capitalism, and not for the acquisition of piecemeal economic concessions. The “Chicago Idea” carried the majority of the conference, despite the opposition of Johann Most, who was hostile to the unions.

Johann Most

Johann Most

Both Parsons and Spies were soon to discover, however, that in practice they could not hold to this position and hope to win significant support for their revolutionary policies in the growing labor movement in the United States. This fact would become glaringly apparent with the emergence of the Eight-Hour Day Movement.

The major result of the Pittsburgh Congress was the setting up of a national anarchist organization which became known as the International Working People’s Association (IWPA). The IWPA was not a revolutionary party, but an association of more or less autonomous groups which carried out independent activities in the different major cities or areas where they had forces.

Between 1883 and 1886, under the impact of a resurgence of depression conditions, the IWPA underwent a rapid expansion, with Chicago becoming its major center. In cities where the IWPA experienced considerable growth, coordinating committees were set up. In Chicago, the General Committee included four of the eight Haymarket defendants: Parsons, Spies, Michael Schwab and Oscar Neebe.

Michael Schwab

Michael Schwab

Schwab was the associate editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung and, working with Spies, helped build the publication into one of the leading German anarchist papers in America, rivaling that of Johann Most’s Freiheit in New York.

Born in the Franconia region of northern Bavaria, Schwab’s first contact with the socialist movement occurred when, in 1872, under the notorious Anti-Socialist laws, German Marxists August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht were tried and imprisoned.

That year, Schwab became a bookbinder and joined the Social Democratic Party. During his “Wanderjahre,” when he traveled widely through Germany, Austria and Switzerland in order to perfect his craft, Schwab was deeply angered by the poverty and exploitation around him. In 1879, he emigrated to America.

Schwab was 32 at the time of the Haymarket incident. A quiet man with a scholarly bearing, Schwab was particularly popular among the German anarchists.

Oscar Neebe

Oscar Neebe

Oscar Neebe was born in New York of German parents, but spent much of his childhood in Germany. Neebe joined the socialist movement while in Chicago and was immediately fired from his job and blacklisted.

Although he appears throughout the Haymarket events as a figure of lesser stature, he was, in fact, well known in the working class as one of the IWPA’s most capable organizers in Chicago. Through his tireless work, bakers, beer wagon drivers and brewery workers were organized and secured wage increases and a ten-hour day.

In Chicago, where the anarchist movement flourished, there were several organizations that coexisted under the umbrella of the IWPA. These groups owed their identity mainly to the national origin and language of their members.

In New York, for instance, there emerged Italian- and Yiddish-speaking anarchist groups, along with the German groups. In Chicago, there was a German group, with its newspapers, the Arbeiter-Zeitung and Verbote, a Bohemian group and an English-speaking group.

Paul Avrich, in his book The Haymarket Tragedy, described the latter “American Group” as “a remarkable band” that included Parsons, Spies, Fielden, Fischer and Neebe. “Women,” he wrote, “played a conspicuous role in its activities, most notably Lucy Parsons, Lizzie May Holmes and Sarah E. Ames. As in the International at large, nearly all of the members were workers” (Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986, p. 99).

Samuel Fielden

Samuel Fielden

A number of the American Group’s members were from the British Isles, the most important among them being Samuel Fielden. He was a native of Lancashire and worked in the very cotton mills that Marx and Engels used as the basis for their analysis of the conditions of the English working class.

Fielden’s father was a weaver by trade and a Chartist, and every Sunday his household was filled with politically advanced workers discussing current issues. The young Fielden was also influenced by the evangelical Methodism of his mother. These two seemingly antithetical influences produced a young man imbued with a fervent hatred of injustice.

When he spoke, whether to miners in Appalachia or workers in New York City, Parsons fought passionately for workers to understand the necessity for the socialist revolution. Parsons was also vehemently opposed to any notion of American exceptionalism.

Within the Chicago IWPA, Fielden became, next to Parsons, the movement’s most popular English-speaking orator. His comrade, Lizzie Holmes, described him as “a man of the people. His sturdy eloquence, rising from a warmly beating heart rather than from a cultured brain, reached the masses and stirred and welded them together, as few men could.”

The IWPA leaders nationally, and especially in Chicago, were unrivaled both in their devotion to the working class and their unbounded energy. They were extremely active, publishing at least a dozen newspapers and numerous pamphlets, holding meetings, marches and social events—often combining them into one gala activity.

Parsons was the group’s driving force. During this period, he emerged as one of the principal revolutionary figures in the United States. Traveling throughout the East and Midwest, he was one of the great orators of the period. When he spoke, whether to miners in Appalachia or workers in New York City, Parsons fought passionately for workers to understand the necessity for the socialist revolution.

Parsons was vehemently opposed to any notion of American exceptionalism. In an 1885 speech, he declared, “America is not a free country. The economic conditions of the workers here are precisely the same as they are in Europe. A wage slave is a slave everywhere, without any regard to the country he may happen to have been born in or may be living in.”

All was not unanimity within the anarchist movement, however. There were those among the Germans who considered Spies and Schwab too moderate. They were known as the “autonomist” faction, and included two of the Haymarket defendants, both of whom met their deaths as a result of the frameup. They were radical, genuinely anarchist, elements who favored decentralization. Opposed to virtually all forms of organization, including trade unions, the “autonomists” refused to send delegates onto the leading committees.

Adolph Fischer and George Engel belonged to the North-West Side Group, which was the stronghold of this tendency. Fischer was only 27 at the time of the Haymarket bombing, while Engel was the oldest of the defendants. Both were dedicated revolutionists, but tended toward individualism and lacked the theoretical development of Parsons and Spies. Their demeanor, nonetheless, was dignified and heroic throughout the Haymarket ordeal.

Louis Lingg

Louis Lingg

Louis Lingg, 23, the youngest defendant, committed suicide before his execution. Although Lingg was not a member of the “autonomist” faction, he was an advocate of violent action against the ruling class, and was the only defendant who was known to have definitely manufactured bombs.

Frank Harris, in his book about Haymarket, The Bomb, wrote of Lingg: “He had the martyr’s pity for men, the martyr’s sympathy with suffering and destitution, the martyr’s burning contempt for greed and meanness, the martyr’s hope in the future, the martyr’s belief in the ultimate perfectibility of man” (Harris, The Bomb, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963, p. 320).

Paul Avrich, in The Haymarket Tragedy, observes that all three men—Fischer, Engel and Lingg—were advocates of “propaganda of the deed,” and capable from the standpoint of both politics and temperament of throwing the Haymarket bomb. Yet their innocence was firmly established despite the frameup nature of the trial.

The Chicago anarchists desired and fought for the immediate overthrow of capitalism, eschewing, at least in theory, the struggle for immediate economic gains. Some, as has already been noted, even opposed the trade unions.

Political limitations of anarchism

The limitations in their political outlooks were not due to individual shortcomings. In virtually every respect, the Haymarket martyrs and those like Lucy Parsons and others who marched and fought with them stood head and shoulders above the likes of Terence Powderly and Samuel Gompers.

The anarchists fought uncompromisingly for the overthrow of capitalism, but lacked a scientific grasp of how that was to be achieved.

The development and attractiveness of anarchism had definite social roots in the formation of the industrial working class itself. In The Haymarket Tragedy, Avrich notes that most of the leaders of the movement belonged to the dwindling class of small artisans and tradesmen. Many in the movement, and especially among the leadership, felt acutely threatened by the rapid deployment of machinery and the factory system, and the horrible social dislocation and brutal exploitation that resulted from it.

Lenin at his desk in 1919

Lenin at his desk in 1919

The anarchists fought uncompromisingly for the overthrow of capitalism, but lacked a scientific grasp of how that was to be achieved. Lenin, in a thesis on anarchism written in 1901 and drawing upon the lessons of the Paris Commune as well as Narodism in Russia, summed up in brilliant fashion its principle shortcomings:

“1. Anarchism, in the course of the 35-to-40 years of its existence, has produced nothing but general platitudes against exploitation. What is missing is an understanding of the development of society, which leads to socialism; an understanding of the class struggle as the creative force for the realization of socialism.

“2. An understanding of the causes of exploitation. Private property as the basis of commodity economy. Social property in the means of production. In anarchism—nil. Anarchism is bourgeois individualism in reverse. Individualism is the basis of the entire anarchist world outlook. Defense of petty property and petty economy on the land. Negation of the unifying and organizing power of authority.

“3. Failure to understand the development of society—the role of large-scale production—the development of capitalism into socialism. (Anarchism is the product of despair. The psychology of the unsettled intellect or the vagabond, and not of the proletarian.)

“4. Failure to understand the class struggle of the proletariat. Absurd negation of politics into bourgeois society. Failure to understand the role of organization and the education of the workers. Panaceas consisting of one-sided, disconnected means.

“5. What has anarchism, at one time dominant in the Romance countries, contributed in recent European history? No doctrine, revolutionary teaching or theory. Fragmentation of the working class movement. Complete fiasco in the experiments of the revolutionary movement (Proudhonism, 1871; Bakuninism, 1873). Subordination of the working class to bourgeois politics in the guise of negation of politics.” (Lenin, vol. 5, Collected Works, pp. 327-28)

Lenin’s criticism is correct and uncompromising. These political and theoretical deficiencies of the Haymarket defendants do not detract from their devotion to the working class and the enormity of their sacrifice. Yet their lack of a scientific and Marxist perspective was evident as the Eight-Hour Movement exploded.

The Eight-Hour movement

At the 1884 convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, the following resolution was passed. “Resolved … that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this district that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.”

Up until that time, the conservative leaders of the Federation had depended almost solely on legislative action, but this had proved totally ineffectual. Now the call went out for a “universal” strike on May 1.

By the spring of 1886, nearly a quarter-of-a-million workers were involved in the struggle for the eight-hour day.

The IWPA was initially opposed to the eight-hour struggle, regarding it as reformist and a diversion. In August 1885, Parsons wrote: “Hours of labor, wages, or any other conditions of employment cannot be controlled by those who are in economic bondage and wage slavery … Comrades, for pity’s sake, do not longer waste your precious time in vain endeavors, but combine to remove the cause which makes labor the slave to capital.”

Spies also opposed the movement and declared, “We can get no real relief without striking at the root of the evil.” Under the banner of “No Compromise,” Parsons’ newspaper The Alarm editorialized in December 1885: “Let us take what we can get, say our eight-hour friends, else by asking too much we may get nothing.

“We answer: Because we will not compromise. Either our position that capitalists have no right to the exclusive ownership of the means of life is a true one, or it is not. If we are correct, then to accede the point that capitalists have the right to eight hours of our labor is more than a compromise, it is a virtual concession that the wage system is right.”

Meanwhile, the Eight-Hour Movement was gathering steam. According to the labor journal John Swinton’s Paper: “There is eight-hour agitation everywhere.” By the spring of 1886, nearly a quarter-of-a-million workers were involved in the struggle.

The anarchists, perceiving how powerfully the eight-hour fight had gripped the working class, began to reconsider their position. Parsons and Spies recognized that they could not remain distant from such an important movement in the working class. Moreover, being revolutionists, they saw it as an opportunity to advance the social revolution, in contrast to the purely reformist considerations of the Federation leaders.

Parsons and Spies aligned themselves with the Eight-Hour Movement, and were soon joined by Fielden, Schwab and William Holmes, a leading Chicago anarchist of British extraction and a close friend of Parsons. Parsons, in explaining their changed attitude toward the movement, wrote that it was a “movement against class domination, therefore historical and revolutionary and necessary … We did not choose to stand aloof and be misunderstood by our fellow workers.”

The IWPA leaders in Chicago threw themselves totally into the eight-hour struggle and quickly supplanted the more conservative labor organizations as the principal leaders of the movement. Parsons, Spies, Fielden and Schwab became the most popular speakers at eight-hour rallies.

In The Haymarket Tragedy, Avrich describes their impact on the workers. “Largely as a result of their efforts, Chicago emerged as the most dynamic center of the eight-hour crusade. Every week, throughout the early spring of 1886, meetings were held, leaflets distributed, and speeches made demanding shorter hours and lashing out at the capitalist system.

“On April 25, the Sunday preceding May 1, the Central Labor Union [an IWPA-led organization] staged an immense eight-hour demonstration on the lakefront at which an estimated 25,000 persons were addressed by Parsons, Spies, Fielden and Schwab. Banners in English and German contained both reformist and revolutionary slogans: ‘Eight Hours Working Time, May 1, 1886,’ ‘Private Capital Represents Stolen Labor,’ ‘Workingmen Arm,’ ‘Down With Throne, Altar and Money Bags.’

“Parsons delivered a warning. ‘If the capitalists by the lockout raise the black flag of starvation against the producers of wealth, then the producers will raise the banner of liberty, equality and fraternity.’ A number of the anarchists began to expect that the revolution was not far off, and that the movement was preparing to establish the ‘Chicago Commune’” (Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986, p. 184).

The growing revolutionary temper of the masses terrified the bourgeoisie, whose class hostility was particularly vented against the two leaders of the movement, Parsons and Spies. 

The growing revolutionary temper of the masses terrified the bourgeoisie, whose class hostility was particularly vented against the two leaders of the movement, Parsons and Spies. On the eve of May 1, the Chicago Mail wrote: “There are two dangerous ruffians at large in this city, two sneaking cowards who are trying to create trouble. One of them is named Parsons. The other is named Spies. Should trouble come they would be the first to skulk away from the scene of danger, the first to attempt to shield their worthless carcasses from harm, the first to shirk responsibility.

“These two fellows have been at work fomenting disorder for the last ten years. They should have been driven out of this city long ago. They would not be tolerated in any other community on earth.

“Parsons and Spies have been engaged for the past six months in perfecting arrangements for precipitating a riot today. They have taken advantage of the excitement attending the eight-hour movement to bring about a series of strikes and to work injury to capital and honest labor in every possible way. They have no love for the eight-hour movement, and are doing all they can to hamper it and prevent its success. These fellows do not want any reasonable concessions. They are looking for riot and plunder. They haven’t got one honest aim nor one honorable end in view.

“Mark them for today. Keep them in view. Hold them personally responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if trouble does occur.”

Thus was the ruling class preparing for the first May Day. The stage was being set for Haymarket.

End of Part II.

Part III

The ruling class was preparing for violence on the first May Day, but there was none. Instead, May 1,1886, was a historic culmination of the struggle for the eight-hour day. More than 350,000 workers struck 11,562 establishments nationwide. In Chicago, 40,000 workers struck and another 45,000 were granted the eight-hour day without striking. Eighty thousand workers marched arm-in-arm down Michigan Avenue, led by Albert and Lucy Parsons and their children.

Above, on the rooftops, armed police and Pinkertons were in readiness, and detachments of the state militia, armed with Gatling guns, were holed up at the city armories.

The infamous "revenge circular"

The infamous “revenge circular”

After May Day the tension increased and then boiled over. On May 3 at the McCormick Reaper Works, several striking workers were killed by police following a confrontation with scabs. Outraged at the incident, August Spies issued a leaflet in German and English, in which the word “REVENGE,” in bold type, was added. It became known as the “Revenge Circular.”

“REVENGE! Workingmen, to arms!!! Your masters sent out their bloodhounds—the police; they killed six of your brothers at McCormicks this afternoon. They killed the poor wretches, because they, like you, had the courage to disobey the supreme will of your bosses. They killed them, because they dared ask for the shortening of the hours of toil. They killed them to show you, ‘Free American Citizens,’ that you must be satisfied and contented with whatever your bosses condescend to allow you, or you will get killed!

“You have for years endured the most abject humiliation; you have for years suffered immeasurable iniquities; you have worked yourself to death; you have endured the pangs of want and hunger; your Children you have sacrificed to the factory-lords—in short; You have been miserable and obedient slaves all these years. Why? To satisfy the insatiable greed, to fill the coffers of your lazy thieving masters? When you ask them now to lessen your burden, he sends his bloodhounds out to shoot you, kill you!

The Haymarket incident whipped the ruling class into a frenzy. Spearheaded by the capitalist press, a vicious red scare and campaign of police terror was launched.

“If you are men, if you are the sons of your grand sires, who have shed their blood to free you, then you will rise in your might Hercules, and destroy this hideous monster that seeks to destroy you. To arms, we call you, to arms! YOUR BROTHERS.”

Only 2,500 copies of the leaflet were printed and less than half that number distributed, yet the “Revenge Circular” was used to implicate Spies in the Haymarket bombing. Meanwhile, at Grief’s Saloon, a meeting of anarchists was taking place that would later be referred to as the “Monday Night Conspiracy.”

Present at the meeting were two of the future Haymarket defendants, Adolph Fischer and George Engel, as well as other anarchists, mostly members of the radical North-West Side Group. These included Gustav Breitenfeld and Bernhard Schrade, commanders of the second company of Lehr-und-Wehr Verein (Education and Defense Society).

While the meeting was not called to discuss the Reaper Works shootings, it was agreed that a violent confrontation was imminent, and that the workers had to defend themselves against the bosses’ police. Thus it was decided that when the word “Ruhe,” meaning quiet or rest, appeared in the letter box of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, armed detachments of workers would assemble at various points in the city.

When the word “Ruhe” did mysteriously appear in the paper the next day, this was later used at the trial as “evidence” that the Haymarket defendants were preparing insurrection.

On May 3, Parsons had been in Cincinnati where he addressed an eight-hour rally and picnic. Arriving back in Chicago on the evening of the fourth, he spoke at the Haymarket meeting. Attending the early part of the rally was Mayor Carter Harrison, who, although regarded by some as a “friend of labor,” had warned that a call to violence by any of the speakers would result in the police breaking up the assembly.

Harrison later remarked that in the speeches of Spies and Parsons, “there was no suggestion made by either of the speakers for the immediate use of force or violence toward any person that night; if there had been I should have dispersed them at once.”

After addressing the crowd, Parsons waited at Zepf’s saloon nearby for the meeting to end. He was there with his family and Lizzie Holmes when they heard the explosion and the shooting, and saw people running for cover. They waited in a back room in darkness for the tumult to subside. Lizzie Holmes persuaded Parsons that he should leave the city for a few days. He took the midnight train to Geneva, a town forty miles west of Chicago, and the next day arrived at the home of his friend William Holmes.

The Haymarket incident whipped the ruling class into a frenzy. “NOW IT IS BLOOD,” screamed the headline of the Chicago Tribune on the day after the explosion. Spearheaded by the capitalist press, a vicious red scare and campaign of police terror was launched. The anarchists were vilified, the most vile invective reserved for those of foreign birth.

Joining the crusade against the anarchists was the leadership of the Knights of Labor. Terence Powderly, Grand Master Workman of the Order, frantically sought to disassociate himself from the anarchists. “Honest labor is not to be found in the ranks of those who march under the red flag of anarchy, which is the emblem of blood and destruction,” he declared. “It is the duty of every organization of working men in America to condemn the outrage committed in Chicago in the name of labor.’’

Meanwhile the police unleashed their reign of terror. “Make the raids first and look up the law afterward,” advised Julius S. Grinnell, the Cook County state’s attorney who was to prosecute the case against the anarchists.

The day after the bombing, Spies, Schwab and Fischer were arrested. Engel was arrested, released and then disappeared. Later it was learned that he had been picked up by police a second time and held incommunicado. Fielden was arrested at his home the morning of May 6, and Oscar Neebe, not until May 27. Only one of the future defendants arrested, young Louis Lingg, offered any resistance.

Paul Avrich, in his book, The Haymarket Tragedy, describes the reign of terror. “The police cast their dragnet far and wide. The next few weeks saw the detention of hundreds of men and women, most of them foreigners, who were put through the ‘third degree’ to extract information and confessions. Radicals were hunted ‘like wolves,’ wrote William Holmes, himself expecting arrest at any moment. Anyone suspected of the remotest connection with the IWPA was held for interrogation. Police headquarters and local precincts bulged with radicals of every type and with men and women who merely ‘looked like communists,’ reported the Chicago Times, including one because he spoke of Spies as a gentleman” (Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986, p. 221).

The campaign against the anarchists was backed financially by the Chicago robber barons, principally Marshall Field, Phillip Armour, George Pullman and Cyrus McCormick, Jr. The raids were conducted by the notorious Inspector John Bonfield and supervised by police Captain Michael J. Schaack. Schaack was a corpulent man, intoxicated with his own importance, who did everything in his power to keep up the anti-anarchist hysteria, even to the point of proposing the setting up of bogus organizations.

The bourgeois press howled for the speedy execution of the anarchists. A Chicago Times editorial stated, “Public justice demands that the European assassins, August Spies, Christopher (sic) Spies, Michael Schwab, and Sam Fielden, shall be tried, and hanged for murder. Public justice demands that the assassin A.R. Parsons, who is said to disgrace this country by having been born in it, shall be seized, tried and hanged for murder. Public justice demands that the negro woman who passes as the wife of the assassin Parsons, has been his assistant in his work of organized assassination, shall be seized, tried and hanged for murder. Public justice demands every ringleader of the association of assassins called Socialists, Central Union of Workingmen, or by whatever name, shall be arrested, convicted, and hanged as a participant murderer.”

Parsons was now a fugitive, and his wife Lucy was being daily hounded and tailed by police in the hope that she would lead them to him. At first Parsons did not know what had happened at Haymarket, and it was only the next day that he received news of the killings and mass arrests. He left Geneva and took refuge in Waukesha, Wisconsin, at the home of a socialist and subscriber to The Alarm, Daniel Hoan.

On May 27 a grand jury returned indictments against Parsons, Spies, Schwab, Fielden, Engel, Fischer, Neebe, Lingg and two other men, William Seliger and Rudolph Schnaubelt. Seliger, a member of the North-West Side Group, later turned state’s evidence, and Schnaubelt fled the country, ending up in Argentina where he lived out the rest of his life in anonymity. It was long afterwards believed that Schnaubelt was the “bomber.”

Parsons, meanwhile had effectively eluded capture. He kept up regular contact with his family and friends, but only William Holmes and Hoan knew his whereabouts. In Chicago, a Defense Committee had been established to collect funds and to secure legal counsel. The committee persuaded the prominent corporate lawyer William Perkins “Captain” Black to defend the anarchists.

Parsons remained at large for six weeks and could have escaped altogether. Yet he did not want to abandon his comrades and also felt confident that he would prove his innocence. Captain counseled that Parsons would get a fair trial and acquittal, despite the ferocity of the witch hunt.

Parsons carefully considered his decision. He later wrote, “I could see that the ruling class were wild with rage and fear against labor organizations. Ample means were offered me to carry me safely to distant parts of the earth, if I chose to go. I knew that the beastly howls against the Anarchists, for their bloody extermination, made by the press and pulpit, were merely a pretext of the ruling class to intimidate the growing power of organized labor in United States. I also perfectly understood the relentless hate and power of the class.”

The Haymarket trial

The Haymarket trial

On June 21, Parsons, accompanied by Captain Black, entered Judge Joseph E. Gary’s courtroom. Parsons was instructed by the judge to be seated with the other prisoners. He shook hands with Spies and the others and was greeted warmly. Spies reportedly told Parsons he had placed his neck in the hangman’s noose.

The trial lasted from June 21 to August 20. Parson’s friend and fellow anarchist William Holmes wrote as trial opened, “Many of the comrades, and our lawyers are sanguine of an acquittal, but I confess I have great fears for the result.’’ Holmes fears were well-founded. Socialist and union leader Morris Hillquit later called the trial, “the grossest travesty of justice ever perpetrated in an American court.”

The judge showed utter contempt for the defendants. Cultivating a circus atmosphere at the trial, he surrounded himself with attractive, well-dressed young women who would giggle and eat candy during the proceedings.

The outcome of the trial was, in fact, never in question. Although, the prosecution was unable to prove that the eight were guilty of murder or conspiracy to commit murder, the climate of hysteria maintained at a fever pitch by capitalist press enabled the state to convict the Haymarket defendants solely on the basis of their socialist and anarchist political beliefs.

The jury was selected through the usual random drawing, but handpicked by a special bailiff, Henry L. Ryce. This insured that the jury excluded anyone belonging to the Knights of Labor or any other workers organization, and accepted only those who were hostile to the anarchists and believed they should be executed.

In the course of the trial, Judge Gary ruled against the defense on every contested point. The judge showed utter contempt for the defendants. Cultivating a circus atmosphere at the trial, he surrounded himself with attractive, well-dressed young women who would giggle and eat candy during the proceedings.

The witnesses for the prosecution were a disreputable lot of paid liars, whose testimonies were repeatedly proven false. When it was established that none of the defendants had thrown the bomb, the state’s attorney Grinnel insisted, “Although perhaps none of these men personally threw the bomb, they each and all abetted, encouraged and advised the throwing of it and are therefore as guilty as the individual who in fact, threw it.”

In the case of defendant Louis Lingg, who defiantly paid no attention to the trial, even informant William Seliger failed to link him to the bombing, despite the established fact that Lingg had manufactured bombs.

In the end, however it was left to Judge Gary to instruct the jury before their deliberation. Seizing upon all in the printed statements in the Anarchist press, pamphlets like Johann Most’s “Revolutionary War Science,” Lucy Parsons’s “Appeal to tramps,” and other writings, Judge Gary ruled that if the defendants, “by print or speech advised, or encouraged the commission of murder, without designating time, place or occasion which it should be done, and in pursuance of, and induced by such advice and encouragement, murder was committed, then all of such conspirators are guilty of such murder, whether the person who perpetrated such murder can be identified or not.”

On August 20, after a brief deliberation by the jury the previous afternoon, the eight Haymarket defendants were found guilty. The verdict recommended the death penalty to all but Oscar Neebe, who should, according to the jury, be imprisoned for fifteen years. Of the defendants, defense attorney Black said, “not a face blanched, not an eye quailed, not a hand trembled.”

Their heroic speeches, imbued with an unshakable conviction in the ultimate victory of socialism, lasted for three days. Every defendant reasserted his innocence while denouncing the frame up nature of the trial.

Parsons later observed, “The only fact established by proof as well as by our own admission, cheerfully given before the jury, was that we held opinions and preached a doctrine that is considered dangerous to the rascality and infamies of the privileged law-creating class, known as monopolists.”

At the sentencing in October, the defendants were given the opportunity to address the court. Their heroic speeches, imbued with an unshakable conviction in the ultimate victory of socialism, lasted for three days. Every defendant reasserted his innocence while denouncing the frame up nature of the trial.

Spies defiantly told the court, in his now famous words, “But if you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement—the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery, the wage slaves, expect salvation—if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere, the flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand.”

Louis Lingg, who appeared “like a caged tiger,” declared, “I do not recognize your law, jumbled together as it is by the nobodies of bygone centuries, and I do not recognize the decision of the court…. I despise you. I despise your order, your laws, your force-propped authority. Hang me for it.”

The seven anarchists were sentenced to hang on December 3, but the Defense Committee obtained a stay of execution in order to appeal the verdict. Now that the initial hysteria over the Haymarket bombing began to subside, support for the defendants began to build. Leading the fight to mobilize this support was Lucy Parsons, who spoke before more than 200,000 people during the campaign for leniency.

Lucy Parsons

Lucy Parsons

Lucy Parsons, of Negro and American Indian background, never despaired, even after her husband’s execution, but instead rededicated her life to the struggles of the working class and oppressed. Along with Bill Haywood, Mother Jones and Eugene Debs, she attended the founding conference of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905.

Lucy Parsons traveled the country for the next half century, fighting to clear Albert Parson’s name. After the Russian Revolution she worked with but never joined the Communist Party. A courageous fighter, she was a partisan of the working class to her last breath. On March 12, 1942, as she was approaching her ninetieth birthday, a wood stove in her home accidentally caught fire and burned her to death.

It took another six months for the State of Illinois to make its decision. The state denied the defense’s appeal. Then, on November 2, 1887, the US Supreme Court ruled that it had no jurisdiction in the case. Now the only recourse was to appeal to Governor Richard J. Oglesby for executive clemency.

With nine days left before the scheduled execution, pressure was placed upon the inmates to appeal for clemency. Oscar Neebe was now moved from Cook County Jail to Joliet to begin serving his 15-year sentence.  Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden and August Spies appealed for clemency, but Spies later withdrew his appeal. Parsons, and the three more radical anarchists, Engel, Fischer and Lingg, refused to appeal for clemency.

Parsons issued an “Appeal to the People of America” in which he expressed his readiness to die. All four anarchists demanded unconditional release from prison or death.

During the whole period of their imprisonment the conservative leaders of the Knights of Labor and the newly formed American Federation of Labor refused to defend the anarchists. It was only when their execution appeared impossible to postpone, that Samuel Gompers personally appealed to Governor Oglesby for clemency. Gompers feared that the execution of the anarchists “would place a halo of martyrdom around them which would lead many to the violent agitation we so much deplore. In the interest of the cause of labor and peaceful methods of improving the conditions of achieving the final emancipation of labor, I am opposed to this execution. It would be a blot on the escutcheon of our country.” Gompers’s belated appeal was too little too late.

On Thursday, November 10, the day before the executions, Louis Lingg took his own life with a dynamite charge smuggled into his cell by fellow anarchist Dyer Lum. Several hours after reports of Lingg’s death reached Springfield, the Illinois state capital, Governor Oglesby commuted the sentences of Schwab and Fielden.

At 11:30 a.m. on the morning of November 11, “Black Friday,” Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and George Engel were led to the scaffold. Paul Avrich describes the scene: “The witnesses stopped talking when they heard the sound of feet on the iron stairway. One after another the prisoners appeared, each guarded by a deputy. Spies at the head, erect and firm, stepped to his place on the scaffold and turned towards the spectators.

“The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today,” declared Spies with his final breath.

“Close behind came Fischer, his chest thrust out, his bearing dignified, to all appearances unconcerned. Glaring at the crowd, he planted himself on the spot assigned to him, threw his head back and waited. Engel looked absolutely happy. His face showed no absence of color, and his eyes twinkled. Parsons, by contrast, wore an abstract look, as if his mind were on something else quite remote from the business at hand.” The ropes were placed around their necks and the shrouds were fastened. “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today,” declared Spies with his final breath. At 12:06 the four men were pronounced dead. Upon examining the bodies, doctors at the scene revealed that the necks of none of the four anarchists had been broken. All four had died slowly of strangulation (Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy,p. 392).

On June 36, 1893, seven years after Haymarket, Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab and Oscar Neebe.

On the 100th Anniversary of Haymarket, the Workers League [predecessor of the Socialist Equality Party] pays tribute to these towering figures in the history of the American and world proletariat. Today, under conditions of an unprecedented capitalist crisis and new developments in the class struggle worldwide, we rededicate ourselves, on the 100th May Day, to the building of the International Committee of the Fourth International, the Trotskyist movement, world party of the socialist revolution.


International May Day

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