William O. Reichert, Partisans of Freedom: A Study in American Anarchism, 1976.

Albert R. Parsons and the "Chicago Anarchists"

Had Albert Parsons (1848-1887) been born at a different time or a different place, he would in all probability have lived to a much riper age, and his name, most certainly, would be less well-known than it is. But it was his sad fate to have come upon the American scene precisely at that moment that the nation desperately needed a victim to sacrifice to Moloch, and hence he left this world with a noose burning into the flesh of his neck and the sound of his deathrattle haunting the ears of sensitive Americans for generations to come. This was indeed a strange end for Parsons to come to, for on the record his heritage was as favorable as any American youth might want. His ancestors, passengers on the second voyage of the Mayflower, had been among the pious Puritans who had risked all in the clamor for religious freedom in seventeenth century England.1 Here in the new world, having found the religious peace they sought, they were active in the political turmoil which had been engendered by the growth of the democratic idea and were all courageous fighters for freedom. One of his paternal grandfathers had carried a musket in the revolution against the mother country, while his great grandfather on his mother's side of the family (the Tompkins-Broadwells of New Jersey) had fought under Washington in some of the most important battles of the war -- Trenton, Brandywine, Valley Forge. Samuel Parsons, Albert's father, was a native of Maine and a dedicated Universalist and temperance reformer who moved his family in 1830 to Montgomery, Alabama, where he established a shoe and leather factory to support his ten children. When Samuel Parsons died, Albert, who was then four, was raised by an older brother who was in later years to become inspector of customs at Newport News, Virginia. At the time, however, Parson's brother was engaged in operating a cattle ranch in Johnston County, Texas, and so Albert became an expert horseman as well as a crack shot with a rifle. Coming to manhood in the early [213] years of the Civil War, Albert Parsons could not wait to enlist in the niy and impetuously ran away from home at age fifteen to join an rv unit that was stationed at Sabine Pass, Texas, where another 0f ,, others, Captain Richard Parsons, commanded an infantry company. When that hitch was up, Albert joined a cavalry brigade, The Lone Star Grays, under the command of his older brother and guardian, Major General William H. "Wild Bill" Parsons, and soon found himself facing the dangers of reconnaissance duty as one of the renowned Mclnoly Scouts.2 After four years of war service, Parsons, a hardened veteran of nineteen, mustered out to become a university student in Waco, Texas, concentrating his studies in what was then called "moral philosophy and political economy," or what we would today call political science. Undoubtedly the theoretical foundations of the social beliefs for which he later was to die on the scaffold were laid during this period of his life.

Although we do not know what kind of student Parsons was in terms of academic performance, it is clear that he had a mind of his own, for at the age of twenty he had already started to outgrow the Southern attitudes he had been indoctrinated in as a child.3 So far had he progressed away from his Southern upbringing that when he was ready to take a wife he chose to marry a girl of Mexican-Indian blood, the beajutiful Lucy Eldine Gonzalez, who was not only devoted to him through the years as a spouse but completely faithful to the social values he held. Marrying across racial lines as Parsons had done was then defined as the crime of miscegenation in Austin, Texas, where the event took place, and thus constituted the first of his several encounters with the law. His courage and daring in undertaking such a radical break with social convention is remindful not only of his ancestors' devotion to conscience but his own later martyrdom to an idea. Yet Parsons was not yet ready to break completely with organized political society, for he was elected secretary of the Texas Senate in 1870 and in the following year received an appointment as a deputy of the United States Internal Revenue Service. So far as one could tell from his actions, Albert Parsons fancied himself entitled to enjoy all the benefits and privileges of his native land and was well on his way in the climb to success within the establishment.

In 1875 the Parsons moved east to Chicago where they became increasingly involved in political activity of a different and more dangerous kind. In many ways Albert Parsons' education was just [214] beginning, as he was learning many things as a member of a great mid-western city's labor force that his teachers of political philosonh had failed to mention. He learned, for instance, that major dislocations of the national economy have more serious personal implications for the workingman than they do for the owners and manager of capital. He learned that the worker, who ordinarily owns little beyond his weekly wage and his few meager household possessions, suffers the torments of hell when unemployed during hard times. A devoted family man himself, Parsons knew what it was to come home empty-handed to a wife and hungry children day after day. As his heart swelled with sympathy for the industrial poor, his brain throbbed with resentment of the overfed rich whom he held responsible as the prime cause of all this social discontent. Joining the Knights of Labor and later the Social-Democratic Party, he became an outspoken critic of capitalism, availing himself of every opportunity to inform his fellow proletarians of the injustice of the system. As economic conditions worsened throughout the country, spontaneous outbursts of social unrest took place here and there, making it evident for all to see that the nation was in for even more serious difficulties as a consequence of the clash between the forces of labor and capital. In the summer of 1877 the discontent of railroad employees burgeoned into the first nationwide strike against management and gave labor agitators a perfect opportunity to further the organization of American workingmen. When the railroad strikers in Pittsburg were put down by force in July, Albert Parsons was the principal speaker at a meeting called to protest the incident. For this, according to Alan Calmer, his biographer, Parsons was discharged as a typesetter for the Chicago Times and kept from finding employment for many months by a conspiracy of management which was determined to snuff out the labor trouble once and for all before it spread too far. On one occasion Parsons was physically manhandled and forced to submit to two hours of abuse at the hands of some thirty prominent members of the city s power structure, including the Chief of Police himself; on another, he was warned not to visit the printing shop where he was once employed if he wanted to live out the year. The threat of personal danger only served to cause Parsons to become more determined in his radicalism, however, and he now devoted full time to the revolution he saw just beyond the horizon.

Urging labor to make itself felt at the polls, Albert Parsons threw [215] his support behind the eight hour day movement, then the focal point ,f labor's program, and pressed for any political action that might trc r> the workingman in his struggle with management. For a time Parst as was perfectly content to work within the established oolitical process, convinced, apparently, that the workingmen and women of the country would ultimately receive justice at its hands. As he learned more and more about the subterranean currents that swirl beneath the mainstream of American politics, however, he gradually developed a class consciousness that brought him into contact with the forces of Marxian thought that were then taking shape in America. By 1878 Parsons had formally begun to think of himself as a socialist, for it was in that year that he took on the editorship of The Socialist, an organ of Daniel DeLeon's Socialist Labor Party. One of the organizers of the Social Revolutionary Club, Parsons figured large in the formulation of the "Chicago Idea," which projected the militant trade union as being the vanguard in the proletariat's march to victory." More closely resembling syndicalism than it did anarchism, the Chicago Idea was a reflection of the Marxian precept that the working people of the world were destined to taste the sweetness of victory over capital if only their leaders were sufficiently energetic in their labors. Accordingly, Albert Parsons worked feverishly in the movement then underway to make the working people of America aware of the power that was theirs for the asking. Adopting the view that class warfare is not an abstract doctrine of the future but the chief fact of the existing social structure, Parsons called upon the American working classes to arise and throw off their chains, for the social revolution was under way and nothing further could be gained by waiting.

This is not to suggest, however, that Albert Parsons was chiefly responsible for the fact that the workers of Chicago began to arm themselves for the violence that soon burst into the open. Three years before Parsons became editor of The Socialist, a group of German-speaking laboring men formed and began to call themselves the Lehr und Wehr Vereine. The counterpart of today's Black Panther organization, the Lehr und Wehr Vereine acquainted its members not only with social and political theory but with the techniques of armed resistance to be used in self-defense when attacked by the police. Undoubtedly it was from the Lehr und Wehr Vereine, at least in part, that Albert Parsons and other Chicago radicals got the idea of [216] defending themselves with armed force if necessary. However this mav have been, Parsons very quickly adopted the view that only armed resistance could be successful in the worker's fight for survival against capital.

Sometime around 1880 Parsons began to refer to himself as an "Anarchist." Actually the practice was not altogether original with him; increasingly referred to as an anarchist by the hostile press Parsons and other radicals adopted the title more as a matter of convenience than ideological commitment. "We began to allude to ourselves as anarchist," Parsons wrote, "and that name which was at first imputed to us as a dishonor, we came to cherish and to defend with pride."5

Becoming editor of The Alarm in 1884, Parsons, already a socialist, sought for a means to give expression to the anarchist ideas which increasingly appealed to his common sense as well as the sharply etched patterns of justice that always predominated in his social thought. The rapid pace of his intellectual development during this phase of his life very often left him confused as to who or what he really was or where he stood on crucial social and political questions. But one thing was perfectly clear in his mind and that was that the working classes would have to fight for their freedom from capital.

In a meeting of the English-speaking group of the Canton, Ohio, chapter of the International Working People's Association held just three months before the Haymarket incident, Parsons and his associates distributed red cards amongst the assembled workers which bore the inflammatory inscription: "Private Capital is public theft. Get lead and you'll get bread."6 And in his address to the disgruntled workingmen who were there assembled, Parsons informed them that in his opinion it was perfectly legitimate for the working classes to fight back against military force if things should come to that. Sounding very much like his ancestors who took down their guns in self-defense in 1776, Parsons argued that liberty is something that one must be prepared to shed his blood for if necessary. "We hold that a people up in arms are a free people," he declaimed. Less American were the economic theories that flavored his words. Taking the same view of historical necessity that characterized the thinking of Marx and Engels, Parsons lectured his audience on the dialectics of the "materialist view" of social development and stressed the need of the working people of America to clear away the tottering ruins of [217] capitalistic civilization so that a new order might be born. "We are destroyers," he admitted, "but only of the bad." Picturing the revolutionary as being in the same desperate position as the trapped animal who must fight his way out of his hazardous predicament if he is to survive, Parsons argued that: "Our struggle is against the present economic institutions, not against men. But insofar as men represent these institutions, they must suffer." Undoubtedly these were the words of a desperate man who had been so totally alienated from the values and institutions of society that he saw no hope save through the instrument of bloody revolution and relentless class conflict; they were also the words of a man who was somewhat unclear as to the precise pattern of his own ideological commitment.

Whatever one may think of the moral implications of Parson's argument, it would be extremely unfair to suggest that he alone was responsible for the violence that so sorely troubled Chicago in his day. As a number of reputable historians have pointed out, the class conflict that gripped Chicago in the last quarter of the nineteenth century was intensified by the hard-nosed opposition of the city's business community in the face of the urgent necessity for social change. "In no city in America," Louis Adamic has written, "was the capitalist's contempt for the public interest stronger than in Chicago. . . ."7 Openly hostile to the working classes, the rich defiantly paraded their opulence as their brazen answer to the growing social discontent, while their hearts were at the same time gripped by the fear that social warfare would sweep away all the wealth that they had accumulated. Deciding on a policy of crushing the social agitation before it got completely out of hand, a "Citizen's Committee" made up of prominent businessmen urged public officials to take measures adequate to the threat that was presented by labor. Accordingly, units of the state militia were called out, the Chicago Police Department was strengthened by Pinkerton agents and special deputies, and the city girded itself for civil war. With ominous prophecy the Chicago Mail appeared on May Day, denouncing Albert Parsons and August Spies as the chief troublemakers in the city and calling for their severe punishment as an object lesson to others should trouble break out. It was not long before the forces of reaction found their opportunity to strike down those who dared to question established authority in Chicago.8

The tragic events of the Haymarket bombing is one of the black-blackest [218] pages of all American history. Brazenly flaunting every principle of civilized behavior, the Chicago Police Department, long known for its brutality and lawlessness, was deliberately used to crush the leaders of the growing social unrest. Rushing into every public meeting of labor with upraised nightsticks, the police seemed to delight in inflicting pain upon the workers without regard as to whether they were disturbing anyone or not. Under these circumstances it became generally agreed that labor could not expect to get a fair hearing in Chicago through conventional political means and the necessity of protecting themselves from police atrocities became real in the minds of such labor agitators as Albert Parsons. As the Haymarket bombing made painfully evident, the police, maintained by public tax funds, were being used to protect the interest of the privileged few.9

The events of the Haymarket incident have been too well-documented to require detailed reiteration here. Excited by the trend of events, a huge crowd had assembled in Haymarket Square on the night of May 4, 1886, upon the call of several labor unions, to demonstrate against the police brutality suffered the previous day by strikes at the McCormick Harvester Works. Although only one person had been killed in the McCormick clash, the police had been bestial in their attack, unnecessarily wounding a number of strikers. August Spies had witnessed the bloody melee and had been revolted by the sight of police officers viciously clubbing and firing upon helpless workers who had been knocked to the ground. It was in a belligerent mood, therefore, that the Haymarket meeting had been called by the leaders of the labor movement. Addressed by Spies, Parsons, and Samuel Fielden, the crowd was orderly, although definitely sympathetic to the radical views of those who addressed it. Carter Harrison, the mayor of Chicago, had mingled with those on the edge of the crowd, concluding that since the meeting was peaceful, he could afford to leave it and go home. Driven off by the sudden threat of rain, a crowd was rapidly dwindling when it was approached by a large contingent of police led by Captain John Bonfield, one of the most notorious of those who delighted in breaking the heads of strikers. Confronting the startled speakers who were seated on a wagon before the crowd, the police had just issued the command that the meeting must break up at once when a bomb was thrown from nowhere into the ranks of the police, killing one and wounding almost seventy [219] more, six of whom were ultimately to die of their injuries. As soon as the shock of the bomb's blast had worn off, the police, regrouping themselves under their officers, set upon the crowd of assembled workmen and sent it flying, firing wildly into the terrified mass of humanity as though it was composed of vermin that must be wiped off the face of the earth. Hospitals and drug stores throughout the city were kept busy all night long treating the wounds of the victims who were estimated to be over 200 in number.

Almost immediately a wave of hysteria swept the city, prompted by the sensational headlines of the Chicago newspapers, many of which were outright fabrications. Although the person who threw the bomb was never apprehended or definitely identified, the press spread the word that the deed was the work of an "anarchist" conspiracy designed to completely destroy law and order in the city.. Businesses closed their doors and the citizens of Chicago, the victims of an irresponsible press, howled for vengeance for this act of "propaganda by deed." The police, recognizing a good opportunity when it presented itself, hurled themselves into a frenzied search for the perpetrators of this "foul crime," and bombs of all shapes and sizes were soon found all over town in the most unlikely places. Unable to find the specific individual who hurled the bomb, the object of the manhunt became reds and radicals in general rather than any particular person. Led by Captain Michael J. Schacck, an unprincipled incompetent who seized upon this opportunity to satiate his craving for fame and glory, droves of "anarchists" and "communists" were herded into police stations with a melodramatic flourish seldom seen off the stage. When the curtain was finally lowered on the first act of Chicago's greatest extravaganza, thirty-one persons were indicted for murder and a total of sixty-nine lesser crimes, although only eight were finally brought to trial.

As Henry David aptly demonstrates in his History of the Haymarket Affair, the trial of the Chicago anarchists -- August Spies, Michael Schwab, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, and Albert Parsons -- was one of the most glaring travesties of justice ever witnessed in this country. The proceedings in the courtroom were more like a comic opera than a serious judicial proceeding. Some years after the trial a prominent Chicago jurist, commenting upon the conduct of Judge Gary, who presided, expressed dismay at the irregularity of what had taken place, writing: [220]

I never was in the courtroom during the trial when Judge Gary did not have on the bench, sitting with him, 3 to 5 women. He seemed to treat the affair as a Roman holiday and so did the women, and the thumbs were all down from the start. One day my wife sat on the bench and Gary showed her a puzzle.10
Not only had the police ignored all established rules of procedure in conducting their investigation before the trial but the hysteria that gripped the public made a fair trial impossible, even had the judge been big enough to have permitted one. Although it is difficult xo establish the exact truth at this late date, there is strong probability that the Haymarket bomb was not thrown by an "anarchist" at all but by an agent provocateur named Rudolph Schnaubelt who was in the employ of the police. Schnaubelt was spirited out of the country before the trial got underway and lived out his life abroad, very likely haunted by the specter of what he had left behind. But the court was not as much concerned with finding the real bomber as it was in trying the defendants it had in hand for their alleged anarchist beliefs. Had the general public been allowed to act upon its impulses, the accused would not have been heard at all but hung at once from the nearest lamp post. Albert Parsons, correctly concluding that he could not expect fair play from the police, had left the city immediately after the bomb had burst and his hideout in Waukasha, Wisconsin was never discovered by the officials. As soon as the trial got under way, however, he dramatically returned and voluntarily presented himself before the court. Parsons believed no doubt that his voluntary return would have the result of demonstrating the strength of his personal character and integrity, thereby aiding the other accused in their defense. But his actions were even more determined by his basic honesty and his sense of social responsibility; not only did he refuse to abandon his co-defendants in their hour of need but he was determined to speak out in praise of the social ideas he loved, whatever the cost might be to himself. The thought that he might hang for his convictions must have entered his mind as he hugged his loving children to his breast as they ran to him each morning before the court proceedings began. Idealist that he was, however, Albert Parsons undoubtedly felt in his heart that the goddess of justice would miraculously appear at the last moment to prevent innocent men from being sacrificed once again to human ignorance and ill will. That he was mistaken in his idealism was not so much to his discredit as it was to that of the social system before which he was on trial. [221]

Although the prosecution announced at the beginning of the trial that it would produce the individual responsible for throwing the bomb, it never made good its claim, and most of its witnesses turned out to be professional informers of highly dubious character and judgment. The defense attorneys were repeatedly informed that since the defendants were being tried for murder, testimony that related to the social convictions of the accused was irrelevant and out of order. Yet when the prosecution summed up its case for the jury in the final hours of the trial, it insisted that anarchism itself was the issue and that society could not rest easy until its nefarious doctrines had been destroyed. Since Parsons and the other prisoners personified anarchism in the minds of the jurors, it was evident that they would never leave prison alive. Parsons and the others, however, were less interested in saving their necks than they were in establishing the exact nature of the social beliefs that they were being tried for.

In regard to the question of whether Parsons was deliberately willing to employ violence as a means of affecting social change, it is extremely difficult to arrive at a clear conclusion. As chief editor of The Alarm, Parsons no doubt permitted statements to appear in print which were indeed inflammatory, as when in 1884 Alarm editorialized that "Gunpowder brought the world some liberty and dynamite will bring the world as much more as it is stronger than gunpowder."11 A few weeks later Alarm made the terrifying prophecy that "there will be deprived and starving people enough in the United States this winter to strike the first deadly blow at this ancient property system" and announced its determination to incite the people to revolutionary action. "We know of no way to strike," Alarm intoned, "but to make a raid on all stores, warehouses, vacant tenements, etc., and open them to the free access of the general public."12 These were undoubtedly the words of a revolutionary-minded individual who was not afraid of leading his followers to the barricades, at least in theory.

It is to be noted, however, that Albert Parsons, whatever else he may have believed, did not expect that blood would actually flow in the streets. In fact, pressed to act in a real situation, Parsons, like Proudhon, might well have abandoned the barricades to take refuge again in his books and theories, for he was a very sensitive individual and personally had no stomach for violence. Somewhat naively, perhaps, Parsons seemed to have placed his faith in the hope that a revolutionary confrontation of the sort he advocated could be carried [222] off without widespread bloodshed or human suffering. Whether or not blood will be spilled during a revolutionary situation, he argued will depend upon how ancient the social injustice to be overthrown is and how determined its defenders are in preserving it. Where the revolutionary forces are extremely strong, or at least believed to be strong, he urged, a determined show of power may well bring a bloodless victory. "This is why," he wrote in Alarm, "The Communist and Anarchist urges the people to study their schoolbooks on chemistry and read the dictionaries on the composition and construction of all kinds of explosives, and make themselves too strong to be opposed with deadly weapons. This alone can assure against bloodshed."13 Like the inhabitants of the Kremlin or Pentagon, Parson's mind was clouded by the romantic notion that force can actually bring peace to men on earth. In his opinion the fact that labor had been subjected to violence made it legitimate for the harassed worker to fight back with the same weapons that had been used against him. Yet for all the fire of his language, he thought of himself as basically a pacifist and a devotee of the anarchist idea that force and compulsion should never be exerted against any human being.

Perhaps the most vague area of Parson's thinking was his uncritical acceptance of collectivism as the "only solution" to the conflict between capital and labor. As many anarchists have discovered, Plato knew of what he spoke when he insisted that the quest for social justice must proceed largely along individualistic lines rather than those of mass political action. Where social reformers have chosen the technique of collective force after the fashion of a Lenin or a Stalin, there is acute danger that what starts out as a positive movement for social reform will soon change into an authoritarian organization that is antithetical not only to the original enemy but to its own members as well. Mass organization, as Proudhon so perceptively noted, inevitably necessitates the development of leaders and administrative machinery. And once social reform is thus burdened with a formal structure, there is bound to be a progressive development toward increased authoritarian control, for public administration, whoever controls it, is in essence authoritarian to the extent it leads ever toward more centralization of power. Enthusiastically embracing the attitude of collectivism, the Chicago anarchists opened themselves to the charge that they had broken with the force majeure of libertarian philosophy which is a basic commitment to the idea ot [223] individual freedom and autonomy. The schism between the individualists and collectivists was present even before Haymarket, of •ourse but it was not brought out into the open until Parsons, Spies, and the other Chicago anarchists were placed on trial for their beliefs. When Alarm made its first appearance in 1884, Benjamin Tucker, speaking for the individualists, welcomed Parsons to the anarchist ranks but reserved final judgment as to whether the paper was authentically libertarian until he had learned more about the views of its editor. It was not long before Tucker observed that Alarm "spoils all its support of liberty by opposing the private ownership of capital."14 Apparently Parsons did not understand, Tucker complained, that all the liberties in the world are useless where the individual does not possess the freedom to own his own tools.

But the economic question was not Tucker's most important criticism of Parsons' anarchism. More fundamental in his opinion was the tendency of the Chicago anarchists to advise the use offeree in carrying off their plans for social revolution. Referring to Parsons' claim during the trial that he had not publicly advised the employment of violence in his Haymarket address, Tucker pointed out that whatever he may or may not have said on that particular evening, Alarm had for several years advocated a policy of expropriating the instruments of production by any means, employing force and violence if necessary.15 Observing that August Spies had argued that the bomb would never have been thrown if the police had not attacked the meeting, Tucker found it difficult to accept this line of reasoning. "How do they know?" he demanded. "Have they not been preaching for years that the laborers need no other provocation than their steady oppression by capital to warrant them in wholesale destruction of life and property? Was not this very meeting held for the purpose of advising the laborers to pursue such a policy? Why, then, should they not expect some ardent follower to act upon their advice?"14 In Tucker's opinion, the Haymarket affair had one beneficial effect and that was to focus attention upon the basic question of how far an anarchist might go in advising armed revolution. Conceding that the right to resist oppression and violence is inviolable, Tucker, engaging in some fancy footwork, danced all around the issue when he maintained that the only remaining question was how far the individual is justified in exercising that right. Holding to his "plumb line" with even more tenacity than usual, Tucker doggedly argued that the only [224] legitimate excuse for the exercise of armed revolution is the necessity of overthrowing a regime that seeks to suppress all freedom of thought, speech, and the press. In Tucker's mind, apparently, violence as a means of self-defense was permissible only when all other alternatives had been tried and found wanting. It never seemed to occur to him that Albert Parsons and the other supporters of the International Workingmen's Association had already concluded that capitalist America was a regime that sought to suppress all freedom of thought, speech, and the press, and that they thought they had good evidence to prove it.

Looking back upon the doctrinal disputes that separated the native born individualist anarchists from the anarchist communists represented by Albert Parsons, it is clear that the credibility gap that divided them was more a matter of changing life styles than it was a question of social or political principles. Tuned to the more simple needs of the pre-industrial era of American development, and steeped in the philosophy of individualism that Emerson and others had preached, Tucker found it difficult to recognize the .enormity of the immediate threat that capitalism presented to the workingman. For Parsons and the other wage earners without capital, however, violence at the hands of the capitalist state was not an abstract concept but a real category of everyday experience. Exacerbating the situation was the foreign origin of many of Parsons' associates. August Spies, for example, a native of Central Germany, was a youth of seventeen when he first came to America. Settling in Chicago where he had a number of well-to-do relatives, he worked principally as a furniture maker and after a time found himself the proprietor of a small shop of his own. Upon his arrival in this country he was politically untutored, although he had enjoyed a better than average education in Germany before his father's premature death forced him to go to work. Shocked by the squallor and brutality he witnessed in industrial America, Spies very rapidly became radicalized and determined that he would educate himself in social and political theory. In 1875 he attended his first lecture on the principles of socialism; two years later he joined the Socialist Labor Party, having made up his mind by that time that Marx had more than a little to offer the individual who sought for a real answer to industrial strife. Judged by the fact that he next associated himself with the Lehr und Wehr Verein, Spies had come a long way in accepting the concept of class conflict. In the spring of [225] 1880 Spies took over the management of the Arbeiter Zeitung, a German language worker's daily, and soon thereafter was made the editor of this largest German paper in the city of Chicago.17 From that on, Spies, like Parsons, assumed a major role in educating the proletariat in America to the realities of capitalist society. Not the least of August Spies' transgressions against the American establishment was a statement he issued along with Joseph Labadie at the International's Workingmen's Association Congress held in Pittsburg in October of 1883. "We ought to adopt a method of creating revolutionists," Spies and Labadie exhorted the workers. "Why not begin to proselyte among the young men of America?"18 Like many another reformer, August Spies soon came to understand how dangerous it is to advocate the corruption of the youth in a land dominated by a powerful ruling class. Allowed to speak in defense of his anarchist convictions after the guilty verdict had been delivered in court, Spies declared that Buckle, Paine, Jefferson, Emerson and Spencer had been the inspiration for his ideological development. From them, as well as from his own bitter experience, he had discovered that the worst of all social orders is a state in which one class dominates and exploits another for its own convenience and supremacy."

Dyer D. Lum who frequently visited the Haymarket anarchists in their death row cells found Spies, a lighthearted "ladies man" in his social relations, to be a clear-sighted realist when it came to recognizing the political implications of radical agitation. Totally composed when the police arrived at the Arbeiter Zeitung office after the Haymarket blast to lead him away to jail, Spies, even before the trial began, was convinced that they would all hang.20 Admitting that he and his confreres had "preached dynamite" as an antidote to the viciousness of industrial capitalism, Spies gave poignant demonstration of his penetrating realism when he said at the trial: "Yes, we have predicted from the lessons history teaches, that the ruling classes of today would no more listen to the voice of reason than their predecessors; that they would attempt by brute force to stay the wheel of progress. Is it a lie, or was it the truth we told?"21 Few people who have taken the trouble to read the details of the Haymarket proceedings can deny that August Spies' greatest crime against society was to speak too openly and bluntly about its deficiencies, and hence, like Socrates before him, he was forced to pay with his life. Before he died, however, August Spies unburdened himself totally when he blurted out at the trial: [226]

The ground upon which you stand is on fire. You can't understand it. You don't believe in magical arts, as your grandfathers did who burned witches at the stake, but you do believe in conspiracies; you believe that all these occurances of late are the work of conspirators! You resemble the child that is looking for his picture behind the mirror. What you see is . . . nothing but the deceptive reflex of the stings of your bad conscience.22
No wonder those who controlled political power in the City of Chicago decided to silence this firebrand of proletarian discontent.

Louis Lingg, the gay young Bohemian who in life divided his previous vitality between the making of bombs and his consuming passion to make love to beautiful women, was very much like August Spies in respect to his devotion to the idea of revolution and his unyielding realism. Arriving in Chicago from his native Mannheim, Germany in July of 1885, Lingg, who was then just twenty-one years of age, hardly had time to get oriented to life in his new home before the Haymarket incident caused him to be hauled off to jail. Despite his youthful idealism, Lingg was already a confirmed political cynic and was convinced that no social reform will ever come about until the world is jarred out of its complacency by a blast of dynamite. Resigned to his fate as an unsuccessful revolutionary, he won Benjamin Tucker's praise for his unflinching realism in acknowledging that all he and his friends could expect from the state was the death penalty. Although Lingg, in Tucker's opinion, was no more representative of anarchy than the others with whom he was implicated, he at least understood that those who challenge authority to a duel to the death can expect to be killed for their pains. "We must cry out against the viciousness of this gross miscarriage of justice at the hands of government and do what we can to snatch these mistreated men from the jaws of death," Tucker announced. But "if we cannot save these men except by resorting to their own erroneous methods and thus indefinitely postponing the objects we have in view," Tucker rasped in his inimitable style of brutal frankness, "then the wild beast must have its prey. Nothing requires us to save misguided men from consequences which we did nothing to bring upon them. Those who think this cruelty may make the most of it."23 Unfortunately for the anarchist movement in America, Tucker's dogged pursuit of truth, although obviously well-intentioned, appeared to be perversity in the eyes of many other anarchists. Holding dogmatically to his "plumb line," Tucker navigated anarchism directly into the eyes of [227] the storm. Had he been, more willing to talk, the movement might never have broken up on the reefs of doctrine, for in final analysis the disputes which shook it were superficial rather than basic, however deep the emotions and misunderstandings that accompanied them might have been.

From among the Proudhonians, Gertrude B. Kelly took issue with Tucker's ideological obduracy, arguing that the violence created in the Haymarket was directly caused by capitalism as a system and not by any irrational statements that might have been made by Spies, Parsons, or any of the other Chicago anarchists. Comparing social conditions in this country with those just preceding the French Revolution, she pointed out that there was great danger in the extreme and contradictory views which American public opinion had divided itself into; "On the one side we see the almost blind despair, the sense that things are becoming more and more hopeless . . . , and on the other a blind confidence that this is a mere temporary insurrection, fraught with no far-reaching dangers, which need not at all interrupt us in our pursuit of pleasure, as it can be met by the 'bravery and prowess of the police.'. . ."24 True to the art of critical thinking which she had learned as an associate of Tucker's, Gertrude Kelly understood full well that the labor question could never be resolved by force or dynamite and that reason alone held a true solution to the problem. But she denied that an anarchist need necessarily reject all theories of class conflict, as Tucker now seemed to suggest. "As Proudhon has demonstrated in a masterly manner, society being divided into two classes, one of which controls all the means of production and the other only the labor of its hands or brains, which labor it is obliged to sell at the lowest figure compatible with the maintenance of its life as a class, all the deeds of violence which are commited are necessarily the encroachments of the latter class upon the privilege of the former. . . ."25 The fact that she stated her opinion in Alarm rather than in Liberty would seem to indicate that Gertrude Kelly found nothing in the communist version of anarchism that was basically alien to her own libertarian values.

In keeping with his lust for freedom and justice, Louis Lingg, aware of the futility of all his idealism, ended his life as dramatically as he had lived it when he blew his head off with a dynamite cartridge clamped between his teeth the day before he was to be executed. Lingg's basic ideological viewpoint was expressed in an article written [228] by him, translated from the German and published in Alarm after his death, in which he pointed out that the major development in American anarchism was a sharp decline in the number of individualists and a definite swing to the modern school which accepted the viewpoint of the communist teachings. "The adherents of this advanced or modern school of anarchists, to which I belong," Lingg wrote, "call themselves communistic anarchists, being opposed to a centralized organization of society -- the state -- but at the same time preferring co-operative production and consumption."26 Reflecting Kropotkin's faith in the ability of people to voluntarily organize themselves into efficient economic and social groups without resorting to the formal political process or the machinery of a centralized state, Lingg insisted that "our advocacy of decentralization distinguishes us from the social democrats or state socialists, who are not opposed to the state. . . ." Not only was Lingg correct in his description of the fundamental viewpoint of anarchist communism but he was right when he argued that the forces of individualist anarchism were rapidly dwindling to insignificance. During the early and middle years of the nineteenth century it made sense to talk about freedom in terms of individualist philosophy, for the American economy, still largely agrarian, left ample room for newcomers who were the least bit lucky and who were willing to sacrifice enough. By the 1800's, individualism as an economic solution had just about run its course, for industry and finance had become so tightly centralized with the aid of government that it was unrealistic to maintain that the average American youth could make it primarily on his own any longer. For the individual of middle-class background who had access to capital, the economy was still ripe for plucking. But for the sons and daughters of the working classes there was very little room left at the top of the social structure into which they might squeeze, however hard they might work and save. As the waves of immigrants succeeded each other upon American shores and the nation's cities became ever more crowded with unskilled workers, Tucker's brand of individualist anarchism inevitably declined in appeal, for it made little sense to those of an industrial proletariat in that age of giant corporations. Faced with a well-entrenched system of privilege and inequality, the oppressed workers found Kropotkin's theory of social solidarity and collective action much more realistic than Proudhon's economic mutualism, although the latter's social philosophy was as relevant for [229] those who could see it as, it ever was. Unfortunately, the execution of the Chicago anarchists caused such chaos in American social thought that it became virtually impossible to talk sense about anarchism for years to come.

When the State of Illinois murdered Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer on November 11, 1887, a sore took growth upon the American social body which has not been healed to this day. It is impossible to overstate the enormity of the injustice done to the Chicago anarchists. Not only was there no legal case presented against them but much of the evidence presented by the prosecution was either sheer fabrication or the perjured testimony of paid witnesses hired by the police.27 Even more clearly than in the recent trial of Jerry Rubin and the other so-called Chicago conspirators, the prosecution found itself compelled to deal with a small band of determined idealists whose love of truth and injustice was greater than their personal desire for freedom. The game of charades enacted out in the courtroom in 1886 was a deadly serious affair for Albert Parsons and his compatriots, for they genuinely believed in the validity of their social ideals. If they were guilty of anything, in fact, it was the crime of taking themselves and their social beliefs too seriously. As Harry Kelly, a communist anarchist of a later day pointed out:

One of the most beautiful and most touching features of the trial was the faith of most of the men in the sense of justice in mankind in general and in their accusers in particular. Parsons, with his great love of humanity welling up in his heart, could not believe in the possibility of their conviction. All his traditions were against it. Was he not a descendant of men who had fought and bled in the revolution against George III! How could he believe that a nation that exalted freedom could possibly turn her back on it?28

The pathos of what was taking place in the courtroom was not missed by the public and huge rallies and processions were staged in support of the men on trial for their lives. Parsons, a born actor, made the most of his brief moment in the limelight; when brought before the bench to hear the verdict, he pulled a bright red hanker-chief from his pocket and waved it to the crowd waiting down below in the street. As the words "guilty and condemned to death by hanging" were droned out by the clerk, Parsons, turning toward the window behind him, whistled in mock compassion for himself and making a loop in the cord that dangled down from the shade, held it out in symbolic gesture of the fate that was in store for him.29 On the eve of [230] his execution Parsons was in a loquacious mood and engaged his guards in a long conversation concerning the loves of his life -- -his sweet wife and loving children, the principles of socialism and anarchism, and his visions of what a just world would be like. After the lights had been turned out and the prisoners settled down for the night, the deadly silence of death-row was broken by Parsons' voice reciting Whitier's poem, The Reformer. "With clear intonation verse after verse flowed from his lips, ringing through the gloomy corridors and awakening prisoners to listen as if to the death-song of a dying hero."30 Later in the night he broke the silence once again, this time to make the walls of the prison reverberate with the meloncholy strains of "Annie Laurie." On the scaffold, just before the trap door was sprung from under his feet, Parsons valiantly attempted to deliver a last message to the people for whom he was making the supreme sacrifice but the masks and ropes which his executioners nastily bound him with prevented him from uttering more than a few words. August Spies, however, left his murderers something to think about when he managed to warn them that "There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today." Almost as cruel and barbaric as the execution itself was the inhumane treatment that Parsons' wife, Lucy, was subjected to at the hands of the ever vicious Chicago police force. When she, along with her children and her friend Lizzie Holmes, attempted to visit Parsons just before the execution, she was brutally turned away and finally thrown in a jail cell when she could not accept the fact that she would be denied one last embrace from the man she loved. For years after the execution Lucy Parsons wandered the four corners of the land explaining to all who would listen what the real beliefs of the silenced Albert Parsons were. Founding a journal of her own, The Liberator, in 1905, the widow of one of American anarchism's most faithful sons continued the work that her slain lover had begun.

It is not easy to establish the precise depth of Albert Parsons' attachment to anarchist philosophy. Judged by the face value of his declarations before the court and in his writings published by his wife after his death, Parsons was in fact deeply committed to the anarchist idea and had a profound understanding of its essential meaning. "Anarchy," he correctly concluded, "is a free society where there is no concentrated or centralized power, no state. . . ."" Objecting to the principle of compulsion exercised by one person over the actions of [231] another, he insisted that it is wrong to interfere with the natural inclinations of the individual, for only nature has enough wisdom to establish the pattern of right conduct. "In a natural state, intelligence of necessity controls ignorance, the strong, the weak, the good, the bad." In final analysis, then, anarchy is a social situation in which natural laws are given free play and in which all man-made law is excluded. Like all anarchists, Parsons displayed a basic rejection of all formalized social control and legal machinery. "Whoever prescribes a rule of action for another to obey," he insisted, "is a tyrant, usurper, and an enemy of liberty." Writing in the style and manner of Gerard Winstanley, Parsons pronounced an anathema upon all man-made statutes, charging them with being the "last and greatest curse of man" and the one remaining obstacle in the path of a free society. "The statute book is a book of laws by which one class of people can safely trespass upon the rights of another," he charged. Here in America, the lawmaking process is dominated by the capitalists who will fight and kill "before they permit laws to be made, or repealed, which deprive them of their power to rule and rob. This is demonstrated by every strike which threatens their power; by every lock-out, by every discharge, by every black list. Their exercise of these powers is based upon force, and every law, every government, is in the last analysis resolved into force." We anarchists are often accused of advising the use offeree as a means to our social ends, Parsons complained, but this charge is utterly false. To the contrary, he argued, existing capitalistic society is held together by force and could not last another day if it were not for the guns and clubs of the police, backed up by the bayonets of the militia. There was more than a little bitterness in Parsons' heart when he wrote:

The political economy that prevails was written to justify the taking of something for nothing; it was written to hide the blushes of the rich when they look into the faces of the poor. These are they who brand anarchy as a compound of 'incendiarism, robbery, and murder'; these are they who despoil the people; they love power and hate equality; they who dominate, degrade and exploit their fellow men; they who employ brute force, violence and wholesale murder, to perpetuate and maintain their privileges.32
In the light of the deliberate attempt made by the industrial barons of Chicago to crush out the forces of social reform by any means, fair or foul, and the willingness of public officials to serve as the tools of wealth, one can hardly make good the claim that Albert Parsons did not comprehend the true nature of the political monster [232] he sought to slay.

Embracing the liberatarian ideal of a free society held together by voluntaristic forces arising spontaneously from the people Parsons, in theory, would have abandoned all political control of the individual's actions, for politically inspired laws were, in his opinion, "violations of the laws of nature and the rights of man." We anarchists have complete faith in the average man's ability to control himself when given the opportunity to do so, he declared. The anarchist believes that "if each man held all laws within himself, he would be held to a just execution of them by every other man."" Contrary to what religionists may tell us, Parsons maintained, evil does not arise in the human will but in the thwarting of the laws of nature by those who control the machinery of government. The anarchist believes that "evil in man only appears when some natural law or some natural right of that man has been violated, and therefore, as all statutes only operate when they oppose the natural will, they can only operate to produce evil." Only in a libertarian society where all formal political controls have been jettisoned can we hope for the perfection of man as a social being.

No final assessment of Parsons' anarchism can be made without reference to the opinion of William Holmes, his longtime friend and confidant, and one of the moving spirits of the anarchist movement in America in the decade following Parsons' execution. It was at the home of William and Lizzie Holmes in Denver, where they moved after the tragic event of November, 1887, that Emma Goldman would stop off for succor on her way West when making one of her many speaking tours. The Holmes' household, in fact, was something akin to a shrine for Emma, for it was the execution of the Haymarket martyrs that had won her over to anarchism; William and Lizzie Holmes, therefore, were a vital spiritual link between her and her fallen hero. As William Holmes recalled the events of his friend's political transformation, at the time of the Haymarket affair all of the followers of anarchist-communism in America, of which he considered himself to be one, had not yet come to a mature and final understanding of the philosophy they sought to establish. Genuinely dedicated to the libertarian idea of free will, they nevertheless clung to the liberal notion that the state could somehow help mankind to realize social equality and justice. Again and again the Parsons and the Holmes would come together with Fielden, Spies, and Fischer [233] to try to untie the Gordian Knot that would free mankind from servitude to ignorance and superstition. Although all of them had originally been members of the Socialist Labor Party, and had therefore drunk deeply of the spirits of Marxism, all had by the time of Haymarket severed their connections with DeLeon and had become affiliated with the International from which they imbibed Bakunin's distaste for the idea of the state. From this moment on they never wavered in calling themselves anarchists. Seeking for a rational basis on which to ground their newfound social vision, Parsons and his companions, according to William Holmes, read voraciously. "We read Proudhon, Warren, Spooner, Tucker and other anarchist writers; we also read Kropotkin's and Malatesta's works, and gradually the truth dawned on us."34 Incarcerated for over a year and a half in the Cook. County Jail before their execution, Parsons and the others were visited daily by William Holmes and Dyer D. Lum, both of whom were confirmed in their acceptance of the anarchist idea. With nothing but time on their hands, Parsons, Fielden, and Fischer, according to Holmes, had thought deeply and had broken completely with the idea of state socialism that they had formerly held, although Spies and Schwab had read so much Marx that it was more difficult for them to give up the idea of state power altogether.

Even more important in assessing the ideological position of the Chicago anarchists was their basic commitment to the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Each of the Haymarket martyrs had in one way or another discovered the beauty of free thought sometime in his ideological development and had accordingly been led to anarchism by virtue of it. Louis Lingg aptly captured the catholic nature of the tradition when he described himself as "naturally a freethinker, a domain in which greater men than I have trod, and still greater will continue to walk."35 Once the cobwebs of superstition have been brushed away from the mind in the realm of religion, new vistas suddenly become possible in the political realm as well. The Chicago anarchists, freethinkers all, were in this respect completely within the libertarian tradition of American anarchism and rightfully take their place alongside of Greene, Spooner, Warren, Tucker, and other noble souls who have tasted the delight of freedom.



1. Lucy Parsons, The Life of Albert R. Parsons (Chicago, 1903).

2. The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs, ed. by Philip S. Foner (New York, 1969), p. 20.

3. Alan Calmer, Labor Agitator: The Story of Albert R. Parsons (New York, 1937), p. 34.

4. Samuel Yeller, American Labor Struggles (New York 1936), p. 46.

5. Autobiography of the Haymarket Martyrs, p. 43.

6. The Canton Daily Repository (February 6,1886), 1.

7. Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America (New York, 1931), p. 60.

8. Henry David, The History of the Haymarket Affair (New York, 1936).

9. Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States (New York, 1955), p. 111.

10. Samuel P. McConnell, "The Chicago Bomb Case," Harper's Magazine, (May, 1934), 733.

11. The Alarm, I (November 15,1884), 2.

12. The Alarm, I (December 6,1884), 2.

13. The Alarm, I (October 25,1884), 2.

14. "On Picket Duty," Liberty, III (October 25,1884), 1.

15. "On Picket Duty," Liberty, IV (September 18,1886), 1.

16. "Liberty and Violence," Liberty, IV (September 18,1886), 1.

17. The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs, p. 69.

18. International Workingman's Association Congress, (Pittsburg, October 14-16,1883), p. 18.

19. Lucy Parsons, Famous Speeches of the Eight Chicago Anarchists (New York, 1969), p. 14. This is a reprint of the 1910 edition.

20. Dyer D. Lum, "Pen Pictures of the Prisoners," Liberty, IV (February 12,1887), 1.

21. Albert R. Parsons, Anarchism; Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis (Chicago, 1887), p. 56.

22. Ibid., p. 57.

23. "Why Expect Justice From the Senate," Liberty, IV (September 18, 1886), 4. [235]

24. Gertrude B. Kelly, "The Wages of Sin," Liberty, IV (May 22,1886), 5.

25. Gertrude B. Kelly, "Anarchy No Disease," The Alarm, I (December 17, 1887), 1.

26. The Alarm, 1 (December 17, 1887), 2.

27. John P. Altgeld, Reasons For Pardoning Fielden, Neebe, and Schwab (n.d., n.p.), p. 50.

28. "The Eleventh of November," Road to Freedom, II (November, 1925), 2.

29. The Chicago Tribune, XLVI (August 21, 1886), 1.

30. The Alarm, I (November 19, 1887), 1.

31. Anarchism; Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis, p. 95.

32. Ibid., p. 98.

33. The Alarm, I (November 15, 1884), 2.

34. "Were The Chicago Martyrs Anarchists?" Free Society, XV (September 18,1904), 2-3.

35. Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs, p. 178.