A Response to Rebecca Hill

Against the Current, No. 183, July-August 2016

Timothy Messer-Kruse

Author’s note: I would like to thank the editors of ATC for extending an invitation to respond to Hill’s review of my books. It is a credit to this publication that it encourages such an open and free exchange of ideas.]

LIKE SO MANY academic radicals before her, Rebecca Hill (“Messer-Kruses’s Haymarket History,” ATC 182, http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/4655) protects the false memory of the Haymarket martyrs against my charge that they were just what they said they were, namely armed revolutionaries who acted on their beliefs, not just debated them.

Hill makes false claims about my books, employs double standards, and suppresses the most significant evidence my research has uncovered. (Those interested in the details of Hill’s false charges and errors can find them at my blog: http://blogs.bgsu.edu/trial/excerpt-2/response-to-rebecca-hill/.) These are standard tactics among those who continue to paint Chicago’s anarchists as trade union socialists, distorting their true place in an international revolutionary movement whose historical legacy has been intentionally buried.

As happens every May Day, Chicago’s anarchist revolutionaries are remade into liberal heroes who gave their lives for the eight-hour workday and free speech. Every effort is made to completely distance these heroes from any violent actions, because armchair radicals prefer their revolutions peaceful or distant. Jacobin magazine observed May Day by explaining:

“In Chicago’s Haymarket Square, a police massacre claimed the lives of several workers after someone — likely a provocateur working for one of the city’s industrial barons — tossed a homemade bomb into the crowd. The Chicago authorities took the bombing as an opportunity to arrest and execute four of the movement’s most prominent leaders — including the anarchist and trade unionist August Spies.” (Jonah Walters, “Today Is Our Day,” Jacobin, May 1, 2016.)

Peter Linebaugh, in his recent Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day, depicts the anarchists as downright Gandhian:

“Michael Schwab defended anarchy saying it was the antithesis of violence. Parsons charged the court with ‘judicial murder.’ He explained socialism and anarchism. ‘I am doomed by you to suffer an ignominious death because I am an outspoken enemy of coercion, of privilege, of force, of authority…’”

In this way all violence is perpetrated by the state, and those resisting the state are reduced to being victims and lawful “trade unionists.”

Ideology in Flux

The anarchists’ history is far more complicated. As I detail in The Haymarket Conspiracy, Chicago’s socialists underwent a rapid ideological evolution over the decade leading up to the Haymarket bombing. Many, like Albert Parsons, Samuel Fielden and August Spies, began this period believing in socialism through the ballot box and union hall. They believed that socialism could be won peacefully and gradually, and supported a broad range of panaceas from the eight-hour day to worker cooperatives.

Meanwhile a new movement arose in central Europe, a revolutionary ideology that condemned such ideas as “soothing syrup for babies.” Instead these militants argued that there was only path to true socialism: immediate armed insurrection.

Some of these extremists went so far as to argue that individual acts of terrorism were necessary to heighten class tensions, provoke the authorities, expose the hidden oppression of the state, and ultimately kindle the workers’ revolt.

These ideas swept through radical ranks on both sides of the Atlantic and proved especially attractive in Chicago where the Socialist Labor Party, led by the later Haymarket martyrs, suffered stolen elections and SLP-affiliated unions confronted a modernizing and brutal police force.

The old SLP was abandoned in favor of a new organization, the so-called Black International, dedicated to armed revolution and the use of bombs and other weapons as instruments of propaganda. Members were encouraged to organize or join unions but only as a means of turning them from their dead-end reformism to making actual preparations for the revolutionary battles to come.

It was at this point that the Chicago anarchists began to seriously arm themselves and fantasize about sparking the workers’ insurrection that would turn Chicago into an American version of the Paris Commune.

Because Chicago’s anarchists went through such a wide ideological journey to arrive at the militancy they harbored in the spring of 1886, they are peculiarly susceptible to those interested in falsely claiming their legacy by stripping them of their radicalism. One can point to statements or actions made just a few years earlier, before the wild winds of the Black International blew through their ranks, and simply ignore their later ones.

Likewise, one can rely on statements made once eight men faced the noose and their lives depended on their convincing a judge and jury that their proclamations were insincere and their weapons merely for self-defense.

Or one can approach this record and conclude that the industrial horrors of the Gilded Age provoked a group of brave militants to attempt a revolution in the greatest industrial city in the world.

Historically it is understandable why Chicago’s revolutionaries were declawed and domesticated. It began with the necessity of defending eight men in jeopardy of their lives. For two years an international movement attempted to save them from the gallows, and one tactic of this effort was to deny and hide as much as possible of the insurrectionary nature of the movement.

Once the anarchists were laid in their graves and the torch of violent insurrection in America was passed from German and Irish radicals to Spaniards and Italians, a degree of ethnic chauvinism increased the tendency to deny such ideas were ever popular in klein Deutschland.

Later, when the labor movement attracted elite allies from the worlds of academia and the arts, a more systematic distortion of radical history was undertaken. Liberal socialists like Floyd Dell, John R. Commons and Henry David successfully erased volumes of the anarchists’ enthusiastic exhortations to violence by explaining that words were just rhetorical weapons and bomb-talk just a means of gaining attention and scaring the bourgeoisie.

Paul Avrich and James Green went a step further and pretended to explore the anarchists’ ideology, but did so to recast the anarchists’ military preparations as strictly defensive and self-protective.

Distorting the Record

Because she stands on the shoulders of such giants of obfuscation, Rebecca Hill can both combat my assertion that the Chicago anarchists were part of a much larger international anarchist network dedicated to the use of violence to spark a working-class revolution, and to claim that this is old news.

According to Hill, previous scholars of this era, specifically Paul Avrich and James Green, already fully noted the anarchists’ revolutionary character, and I misrepresented their scholarship by not recognizing their contributions. But both these historians purposely downplay the militancy of the anarchists — Avrich in a rather brilliant intellectual maneuver that acknowledges this as a train of thought but a minor one held by a few, Green by selectively quoting and mischaracterizing his sources.

Green labors to reshape Chicago’s anarchists into Marxian trade unionists: “(T)he city’s revolutionaries remained convinced by Marx and Engels that the road to socialism was a long one and that there were no shortcuts through individual acts of terror.” (96)

To sustain this false characterization, Green suppresses the most salient statements contained in the Pittsburgh Manifesto, the catechism of the International Working Peoples’ Association (IWPA) largely written by Chicago’s anarchist leaders.

Green says that the Pittsburgh declaration created “a militant body dedicated to ‘agitation for the purpose of organization [and] organization for the purpose of rebellion’” and a “justification for armed resistance.”

Green depicts this document as a charter for militant unionism, one that allowed for armed defense when in fact it was quite the opposite. The actual document stated explicitly that “mere wage conflicts can never lead to the goal” and “the fight of proletarianism against the bourgeoisie must have a violently revolutionary character.”

Moreover, the idea that arming was simply for defense of unionism is nowhere evident in the original. Rather, the Manifesto specifically describes violence as to be initiated by workers themselves: “the victory of the laboring population can be confidently counted on only when the proletarians inaugurate the decisive combat at the same time along the whole line of the civil (capitalistic) society.…”
Though Green cribs most of his information from Avrich, he chose not to repeat the one telling line from the Manifesto that Avrich does include, “there is only one remedy left — force…” (Avrich, 75)

Avrich’s strategy throughout his work was to downplay the popularity and international scope of the revolutionary doctrines of direct insurrectionary action and propaganda of the deed. One of his most consistent strategies to accomplish this was to claim that the anarchist movement was more fragmented than it actually was, and to attribute all such violent motives to a tiny faction: “From 1883 to 1886 virtually the whole social revolutionary movement was the expression of the ideas and vision of this one man.” (Avrich 67)

While even his predecessor, Henry David, described the split in the Chicago SLP as being over the “issue of force,” Avrich softens this division by describing it as a “question of self-defense.” (Avrich 45)

Likewise, in describing the so-called “Cult of Dynamite” Avrich again paints dynamite bombs as devices aimed at self-defense rather than the terroristic weapon it was actually praised as being. In forming armed divisions, Avrich says the “Internationalists justified these preparations primarily as defensive measures.” (Avrich 162)

For Avrich, even these “intransigents” were not sincere and in the end did not truly believe their own ideology. “Of the eight Haymarket defendants… all had spoken out in favor of dynamite. All, moreover, believed in retaliatory violence and rejected docile submission to the forces of capital and government. For most, however, their humanitarian outlook shrank from the methods that in theory they justified and professed.” (Avrich 175)

Green, never to miss an opportunity to soften the hard edges of anarchist ideology, eagerly repeated this claim.  “Johann Most, the world’s leading anarchist in 1885, exerted a strong hold on Parsons, Spies and the Chicago Internationalists but they did not fully embrace his view that individual acts of violence would provoke a revolution…” (Green 129, 130)

Perhaps, Avrich suggests, following the lead of the old Socialist Party journalist Floyd Dell, the anarchists only spoke of bombs to scare the pants off the capitalists. “For anarchists all over the country dynamite became a symbol of retribution, a bugbear with which to frighten the propertied classes.” (Avrich 167)

Green followed suit: “(A)narchists like Spies and Albert and Lucy Parsons indulged in ‘bomb talking’ to frighten the authorities…” (Green 141)

The enormous intellectual effort that has been undertaken by Avrich, Green and others to remake the revolutionary anarchists into gradual socialists is quite impressive in both its art and its success. Today Chicago’s AFL-CIO unions, even police brotherhoods, march past Mary Brugger’s wonderful Haymarket memorial and consider themselves carrying forward the martyrs’ banner.

Tenured radicals rush from their lounges to defend the martyrs from their own words and deeds and keep them safely immortalized. This may be why you will never find this full quote of Louis Lingg, written on death row, in such books:

“It has long since been my opinion that in the present state of society the working classes could make no gain in the direction of improving their condition by means and ways of Trade Union, but, nevertheless, I participated in the organization of the latter, because I knew that the working men from their past and coming experiences and disappointments would soon become revolutionists…I held the opinion that the forces by which the workers are kept in subjugation must be retaliated by force…” (Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs, 235)

So should we suppose he really didn’t mean it — or is it time to accept that Chicago’s martyrs were fighters and not insincere talkers?


Philip S. Foner, editor, The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs, (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977, org. 1969).

Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).

James Green, Death in the Haymarket (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006).

Peter Linebaugh, Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day (PM Press, 2016).

Timothy Messer-Kruse, The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks, (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2012).

Timothy Messer-Kruse, The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

July-August 2016, ATC 183