The Origins of May First : Haymarket 1886 and the “Troublesome Element”
During 1885 a circular passed hand to hand through the ranks of the proletariat in the United States. With the following words it called for class-wide action on May 1, 1886:
“One day of revolt – not rest! A day not ordained by the bragging spokesmen of institutions holding the world of labor in bondage. A day on which labor makes its own laws and has the power to execute them! All without the consent or approval of those who oppress and rule. A day on which in tremendous force the unity of the army of toilers is arrayed against the powers that today hold sway over the destinies of the people of all nations. A day of protest against oppression and tyranny, against ignorance and war of any kind. A day on which to begin to enjoy ‘eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.'”
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A century ago, on May 1, 1886, a general strike broke across the United States. Within days it would culminate in the events forever associated with the name Haymarket. In 1889 the founding congress of a new, second, Marxist International named that day, May Day, for worldwide actions of the proletariat.
Through all the twists and explosions of these past hundred years, the tradition of May Day has developed and spread: as a day when class-conscious proletarians of all countries take stock of their situation, make their plans for the year ahead, celebrate proletrian internationalism, and declare their determination to carry their struggle through to the final goal of communism throughout the world.
In many countries, battles rage to proclaim May Day as a day of revolutionary struggle after years where it has been suppressed or gutted by revisionists.
in 1984 the newly formed Revolutionary Internationalist Movement issued its Declaration on May First and since then has called for celebrations and struggle on May First in countries across the planet under unified revolutionary slogans. Today, just as throughout the past century, May Day concentrates in embryo the leaps and prospects of the world revolution.
In light of this May Day tradition, we offer a look at the Haymarket events on their centennial.
Early Sparks of a Revolutionary Epoch
Consider the world a century ago.
Communism was no longer merely the “specter” Marx and Engels had described in 1848. It had emerged as flesh and blood, and shook the crowns of Europe.
1871: the Paris Commune. With warring bourgeois armies at opposing end of their city, the Parisian proletariat stormed heaven! They dared seize power for the first time in the name of the propertyless. And they dared set out to transform all society in a radically new direction: toward the abolition of all classes and all oppression.
But the brilliant year 1871 came and went. The ruling classes of Europe were brutal and thorough. In France, the Commune died before firing squads. In Germany, the Prussian state responded with 1878’s severe Anti-Socialist laws, driving the revolutionary party into illegality. In Britain, yet a third form of reaction ruled: Wealth from new colonies so corrupted whole strata of British workers that the labor movement sank into a stupor.
For a few dark moments the red flame ignited in Paris seemed extinguished.
Suddenly, new sounds of class warfare broke the stillness – from a totally unexpected corner! From the very edge of the North American prairie, Chicago, a crude boom town that hardly seemed part of the “civilized world.” Not for the last time, the world revolution had leapt to a totally new continent.
This fresh outbreak of proletarian life became May 1, 1886.
The Truly “Modern” City
In 1886 one writer from abroad sought to capture Chicago in a sentence: “An overwhelming pall of smoke, streets filled with busy, quick-moving people; a vast aggregation of railways, vessels and traffic of all kinds; a paramount devotion to the Almighty Dollar.”
Some claim today that because of the Haymarket events May Day must somehow be considered an American invention. This is laughable for many reasons. Among them is the obvious fact that Chicago may have risen from North American soil, but this was a city of “foreigners,” dragged by the workings of a world system to the very edge of industrial society.
Engels wrote at that time about the “exceptional” and “aristocratic” position occupied by the native-born (white Anglo) workers in the country. However, the vast bulk of the proletariat, especially in such cities as Chicago, were from Germany, Ireland, Bohemia, France, Poland, and Russia. Waves of immigrants were hurled against each other – pressed into ghetto-like slums, unleashed into ethnic warfare, used to drive one another further down.
Many were illiterate peasants, cast into an alien battle for survival. But there were others already tempered by class warfare. Especially among the proletarians from Germany there was an infectious consciousness: learned, shaped by complex experience, deeply hostile to the dominant world order. And these radicals were hated, feared and defamed in return.
One proletarian described himself: “‘Barbarians, savages, illiterate ignorant Anarchists from Central Europe, men who cannot comprehend the spirit of our free American institution’ – of these I am one.”
One year after the Paris Commune, the winter of 1872: thousands left homeless and starving by the Great Chicago Fire demonstrated for relief. Many carried the banner “Bread or Blood.” Blood they got. Driven into the tunnel beneath the Chicago river, they were shot and beaten.
1877: a great strike wave spread along the rail lines, exploding into general strikes at major railheads, including Chicago. A new radical leadership emerged, especially among German immigrants connected with the first International of Marx and Engels. Alongside them stood a native-born activist, Albert Parsons. Political experience was concentrated here from two continents, from the turmoils of Europe and the anti-slavery movement of the United States. Parsons, for example, had been a Radical Republican in the tumultuous period of slave emancipation, and he had defied genteel Texan society by marrying a freed slave of mixed blood, Lucy Parsons, who would become an inspiring political figure in her own right.
The massive strike rallies of 1877 in Chicago were broken up by police gunfire.
Wrathful Tinder Was Drying
Previously the conditions of life in America, even for impoverished immigrants, were better than in countries they had left behind. With the explosive growth of industry, and the systematic conquest of the continent from Mexicans and Native peoples, there had long been a steady shortage of labor, which had meant little unemployment and relatively high wages. In addition, that special resource of the United states – free (i.e. stolen) land – gave whole sections of the laboring classes at least hope of obtaining property. A sense of opportunity and even speculative mania penetrated deeply among workers.
However, by the 1880s sweeping changes cut away at the material basis for such “American Dreams.”
The capitalist class had defeated the Southern slave owners only decades before and through the 1870s had reassimilated those exploiters of black skins into a more “modern” order. Newly freed slaves were disarmed, stripped of all political rights, and bound into the semifeudal system of sharecropping. The entire country felt the political winds shift from Radical Reconstruction to new gusts of triumphant reaction.
At about the same time the last of the “Indian Wars” ended. 1886 was the year of Geronimo’s final surrender. Within a couple of years, Sitting Bull would be assassinated by government agents during the Ghost Dance revolt. For many workers this final conquest of the Indians meant that the frontier was closed. There was no more “free land” to steal, no “safety valve” for surplus labor. Coupled with this, a devastating “Great Depression” came in 1873 and lasted for two decades.
Unemployment erupted. The mechanization of previously skilled jobs forced historic changes in the structure of the working class. Poverty and all its ugliest sores took unprecedented forms.
Having broken the Indians, ripped off Mexico, defeated the slaveowners, and then betrayed the slaves, American capitalism turned to gorge itself on the imported labor in its factories. However, while the ruling class consolidated this glittering system – amid squalor, there were men and women who started to dream new dreams, proletarian dreams. In a babel of languages, these dreams found expression – as politics.
The Gathering Storm
After 1877 both classes understood well that conflict would soon break out again. The bourgeoisie saw an “American Commune” on the horizon and prepared the bloody means to suppress it: armories were build as fortresses in every major city; the national guard was transformed into a modern army and equipped with modern weaponry; and in every industrial region, the capitalists hired large private armies of informers, thugs and Pinkertons.
The workers too prepared, both politically and militarily. Secret societies, trade unions and working class parties formed and within them debate raged over how the oppressed should respond to their worsening conditions. Today when the very words “American labor movement” evoke images of chauvinism and reaction, it may be hard to imagine the radical glow that once emanated from unions in general.
Unions then were semi-legal (or wholly illegal) networks within the factories. The police routinely broke up meetings of workers as a matter of course, beating and jailing organizers. Frederick Engels writes: “They are constantly in full process of development and revolution; a heaving, fermenting mass of plastic material seeking the shape and form appropriate to its inherent nature.”
To strike then often meant to enter into warfare with all the powers of society. The recruitment of scab crews from among the starving slum dwellers was routine. Work stoppages, even those that focused on clearly economic issues, quickly assumed the character of desperate revolts and spread like contagions to the class as a whole.
Chicago gave birth to a particularly radical scene. There revolutionaries were at the core of the Central Labor Union, the largest of the competing union networks. Within this framework, revolutionaries circulated a truly incendiary press: Albert Parsons’ biweekly paper, the Alarm, had an English-speaking readership of 2,000-3,000. August Spies (pronounced SHPEEZ) edited the daily Germany Arbeiter Zeitung with a circulation of 5,000. Several other revolutionary organs appeared at various times. Lively polemics and agitation raged among the workers in three or four languages.
A resolution passed by the Chicago Central Labor Union in 1885 captures the mood: “We urgently call upon the wage-earning class to arm itself in order to be able to put forth against their exploiters such an argument which alone can be effective: violence.”
Such calls were hardly abstract. In Chicago a core of workers, overwhelmingly from Germany, formed armed militias called Lehr und Wehr Vereins (Study and Resistance Associations) to answer the violence of the employers’ private armies in kind. With them were the English Club (for English-speaking workers), the Bohemian Sharpshooters (for Czechs), and a French group. Ten companies were recorded, many led by the veterans of European and American wars. Not surprisingly, the bourgeoisie responded in 1879 by simply banning these worker militias, and a protracted lesson in American democracy unfolded. While the bourgeois armies were being visibly strengthened at every hand, the workers took the issue all the way to the Supreme Court and were coldly denied their “constitutional right to keep and bear arms.” In an America where the gunslinging frontier traditions still lived, such a ruling was a shocking precedent indeed. Some “gun clubs” dissolved; others went underground.
Meanwhile, the growing strength of radical working-class forces paralleled a clearcut failure of electoral activities. Working class aspirations were suppressed at the polls through the crudest means: ballot stuffing, bribery and police attack.
As a result, in the brutal collisions of 1877 and the complex aftermath a significant section of the proletariat, especially centered in Chicago, came to deeply distrust the American constitutional system as a vehicle for emancipation. They were called “the troublesome element”; one bourgeois account fumed that they “consisted largely of the ignorant lower classes of Bavarians, Bohemians, Hungarians, Germans, Austrians and others who held secret meetings in organized groups armed and equipped like the nihilists of Russia and the communists of France. They called themselves socialists. Their emblem was red.”
Unfortunately the main organized socialist party at that time, the Socialist Labor Party, came under the control of reformists who worshipped the electoral arena and rejected armed struggle. Although these early revisionists sometimes claimed to be followers of Karl Marx, they were precisely those types of whom Marx wrote: “I have sown dragon’s teeth and harvested fleas.” The SLP expelled the forces of the Lehr und Wehr, claiming that armed workers were bad for their party image.
The socialist ideology that prevailed among the most revolutionary-minded workers was anarchism, in a particular syndicalist form dubbed “the Chicago Idea.”
The Revolutionary Thrust of the “Chicago Idea”
This “Chicago Idea” was expressed in an anarchist manifesto written at the Pittsburgh Congress of the “International Working People’s Association” (IWPA) in October 1883. It proclaimed:
“This system is unjust, insane and murderous. It is, therefore, necessary to totally destroy it with and by all means, and with the greatest energy on the part of everyone who suffers by it, and who does not want to be made culpable for its continued existence by his inactivity.
“Agitation for the purpose of organization; organization for the purpose of rebellion. In these few words the ways are marked which workers must take if they want to be rid of their chains…
“If there ever could have been any question on this point it should long ago have been dispelled by the brutalities which the bourgeois of all countries – in America as well as in Europe – constantly commits, as often as the proletariat anywhere energetically move to better their conditions. It becomes, therefore, self-evident that the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeois will be of a violent, revolutionary character.”
The “Chicago Idea” specifically fought the notion that individual terror and assassination could destroy the oppressor. They envisioned building a mass movement of their class which would disdain the struggle for crumbs. For the revolutionaries, and for the bourgeoisie, the Paris Commune had given a model of what might come.
Among revisionist and some other historians writing about the first May Day, this belief in revolutionary violence is treated as something to be either hidden or denounced. However, what true revolutionary today can find here ground for criticism?
The real weakness of this “Chicago Idea” and its movement lay in its worship of spontaneity. There was a dogmatic belief that loose union structures alone could serve as sufficient vehicles for revolutionary victory. This flowed from the anarchist tenets that the shell of the old society need only be broken by the determined general strike of the workers and that then a new world would automatically emerge form the self-organization of the oppressed. A mystical “natural order,” not a new reovlutionary state, was their goal. They planned to break up state power, but not to wield it.
The Marshalling of Forces
After the proletariat recovered from the events of 1877, its movement spread like a wild fire, especially once it had found a focus: the demand for the eight-hour day.
In 1884 one of the several national union networks, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, called for a national day of action. On May 1, 1886, they proposed, the workers should simply seize the eight-hour day and shut the gates on any factory that did not comply. Eight hours was to be transformed from an economic demand between workers and their immediate employers to a political demand of one whole class against another.
Tremendous enthusiasm greeted the plan. One historian writes, “It was little more than a gesture which, because of the changed conditions of 1886, became a revolutionary threat.” A vast churning took place among workers nationally. The Knights of Labor, for example, swelled from 100,000 in the summer of 1885 to 700,000 one year later.
It hardly seems necessary to explain why the “eight hour movement” was taken up so fervently. Eighteen-hour workdays were typical. Workers were literally worked to death; their lives proscribed by labor, brief sleep, and hunger. Before the workers as a class could raise their heads toward distant horizons, they craved free moments for thought and self-education.
In the streets workers sang:
We mean to make things over
We’re tired of toil for naught
But bare enough to live on;
Never an hour for thought.
1886 became a “mad year.” Even before spring, a strike wave started nationally. Two months before May Day, one historian writes, “disturbances occurred repeatedly [in Chicago], and it was a common sight to see patrol wagons filled with armed policemen dashing through the city.” The publisher of the Chicago Daily News wrote that “a repetition of the Paris Communal riots was freely predicted.”
Among the workers’ ranks this gathering storm provoked intense debate. The different political trends had sharp doubts about the movement – for diametrically opposed reasons. The highly conservative leadership of the Knights of Labor issued a secret circular describing their position. This gospel of “slow and patient educational work” is all too recognizable today:
“No assembly of the Knights of Labor must strike for the eight-hour system on May first under the impression that they are obeying orders from headquarters, for such an order was not, and will not, be given. Neither the employer or employee are educated to the needs and necessities of the short hour plan. If one branch of trade or one assembly is in such a condition, remember that there are many who are in total ignorance of the movement. Out of the sixty millions of people in the United States and Canada, our order has possibly three hundred thousand. Can we mold the sentiment of millions in favor of the short-hour plan before May first? It is nonsense to think of it. Let us learn why our hours of labor should be reduced, and then teach others.”
The fact that the author, Terence Powderly, really feared the consciousness (not the ignorance) of the workers is proven in another section of the circular where he wrote:
“Men who own capital are not our enemies. If that theory held good, the workmen of today would be the enemy of his fellow toiler on the morrow, for after all, it is how to acquire capital and how to use it properly that we are endeavoring to learn.”
By contrast, the anarchists questioned the “eight-hour plan” because, as a demand, they thought it left the system unchallenged. Along with Marx, whom several leaders had studied, they believed that “Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ [the working class] ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!'”
However, unlike Marx, the anarchists had difficulty anticipating the role a class-wide political movement could play in forging the proletariat into a self-conscious force. Albert Parsons himself had long been active within the Eight Hour Leagues, yet as late as December 1885 his newspaper, the Alarm, wrote: “We of the Internationale [meaning the anarchist IWPA] are frequently asked why we do not give our active support to the eight-hour movement. 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 means to the exclusive ownership of the means of life is a true one or it is not. If we are correct, then it concede 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.” The anarchist press argued that: “even though the eight-hour system should be established at this late day, the wage worker…would still remain the slaves of their masters.”
Such a view ignored the actual development of the class struggle at that point: Up until that decade the bourgeoisie had played a commanding role within the revolutionary movement, based on its leadership of the struggle against the slavocracy. In this context the “eight-hour” demand was playing a crucial role in demarcating emerging proletarian currents from those of other classes.
A battleline between classes was objectively being drawn by the workers – and regardless of subsequent historians’ distortions, this is how the “eight-hour movement” came to be viewed by all sides. Naturally, there were workers who rushed to join with no loftier purpose than winning a shorter workday for themselves or their immediate shop. It is the nature of all great movements that they draw in formerly passive and unconscious strata of the proletariat. However, to portray this sentiment as the essence of 1886, as the revisionists do, is more than a lie. It is an attempt to deny the proletariat any aspirations higher than some leisure and comfort within this system.
Unlike Powderly, Chicago’s anarcho-socialists were simply unwilling to stand against such an historic movement once they got a sense of its objective impact. They put their previous prejudices aside and entered a largely spontaneous movement to infuse it with revolutionary content.
Parsons wrote that his forces joined “first, because it was a class movement against domination, therefore historical and evolutionary and necessary; and secondly we did not choose to stand aloof to be misunderstood by our fellow workers.”
On March 19, 1886 the Arbeiter Zeitung wrote: “If we do not soon bestir ourselves for a bloody revolution, we can not leave anything to our children but poverty and slavery. Therefore prepare yourselves, in all quietness, for the revolution.” The Lehr und Wehr Verein grew, with a membership of over a thousand as the spring approached. Similar defense militia were reported in Cincinnati, Detroit, St. Louis, Omaha, Newark, New York, San Francisco, Denver and other cities.
As the fateful day approached, weekly marches streamed through Chicago with banners reading: “The Social Revolution,” “Down with Throne, Altar and Moneybags,” and “Workingmen, Arm Yourselves.” Torches lit workers’ faces during nighttime marches as they sang:
Toiling millions are now waking
see them marching on
All the tyrants now are shaking
ere their power’s gone.
On the very eve of May Day the Arbeiter Zeitung contained the following passages, which capture the raw edge that had developed:
“Bravely forward! The conflict has begun. An army of wage-laborers are idle. Capitalism conceals its tiger claws behind the ramparts of order. Workmen, let your watchword be: No compromise! Cowards to the rear! Men to the front!
“The die is cast. The first of May has come. For twenty years the working epople have been begging extortioners to introduce the eight-hour day system, but have been put off with promises. Two years ago they resolved that the eight-hour system should be introduced in the United States on the first day of May 1886. The reasonableness of this demand was conceded on all hands. Everybody, apparently, was in favor or shortening the hours; but as the time approached, a change became apparent. That which was in theory modest and reasonable became insolent and unreasonable. It became apparent at last that the eight-hour hymn had only been struck up to keep the labor dunces from Socialism.
“That the laborers might energetically insist upon the eight-hour movement, never occurred to the employer…. It is a question whether the workmen will submit, or will impart to their would-be murderers an appreciation of modern views. We hope the latter.”
This issue of the newspaper contained a prominent warning: “It is said that on the person of one of the arrested comrades in New York, a list of membership has been found, and that all the comrades compromised have been arrested. Therefore, away with all rolls of membership and minute-books, where such are kept. Clean your guns, complete your ammunition. The hired murderers of the capitalists, the police and the militia are ready to murder. No working man should leave his house these days with empty pockets.”
The ruling class too made its preparations, with particular focus on the workers’ leadership. The Chicago Mail ran an ominous editorial: “There are two dangerous ruffians at large in this city; two skulking cowards who are trying to create trouble. One of them is named Parsons; the other is named Spies….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.”
May First, 1886: one Chicago newspaper reported that “no smoke curled up from the tall chimneys of the factories and mills; and things had assumed a Sabbath-like appearance.” The Philadelphia Tribune wrote: “‘The labor element’ has been bitten by a kind of universal tarantula – it has gone ‘dancing mad.'”
In Detroit 11,000 workers marched in an eight-hour parade. In New York, a torchlight march of 25,000 flooded up Broadway into Union Square, while 40,000 struck.
In Cincinnati one worker described the kick-off rally: “only red flags were carried…. the only song we sang was the ‘Arbeiters Marseillaise’ … a workers’ battalion of 400 Springfield rifles headed the procession. It was the Lehr und Wehr Verein, the educational and protective society of embattled toil… All of us expected violence, I suppose.”
In Louisville, Kentucky more than 6,000 workers, both Blacks and whites, marched through National Park deliberately breaking that park’s Jim Crow ban on non-whites.
In Chicago, the stronghold of the rebellion, at least 30,000 were out. Every railroad stopped running, the stockyards closed down, the docks were jammed with unloaded barge. Conservative leaders were forced to the margins of events. Michigan Avenue filled with a huge outpouring of proletarians and their families, marching in their Sunday best.
But the “Sabbath-like” calm was deceptive and temporary. Hidden in the alleys, sprawled on strategic rooftops, the armed police were ready for open warfare. In the state armories a thousand National Guardsmen mobilized and were specially equppped with Gatling machine guns.
The “Citizens’ Committee” of Chicago’s ruling class decided that incidents had to be created to decapitate and crush the movement. The police started assaulting workers wherever they gathered in the city. One furious police account charged that on May 2 a “large force” collected” and dared to reverse the American flag, “carrying it top side down, symbolic of the revolution they intended to work in American institutions.”
The Massacre at McCormick’s
The breaking point came at the McCormick Reaper works. A lockout had been ongoing there since mid-winter, with herds of scabs led in daily by police. On May 2, an exhausted Spies appeared there to deliver one of his countless speeches to workers gathered on the prairie. As a crowd of 6,000 or 7,000 workers listened to his talk, a few hundred left to confront McCormick’s scabs then leaving work.
From the Arbeiter Zeitung of May 4: “Suddenly shots were heard near McCormick’s factory, and about seventy-five, well-fed, large and strong murderers, under command of a fat police lieutenant, marched by, followed by three more patrol wagons full of law and order beasts.”
In a battle of workers’ stones against police gunfire, the workers suddenly broke and fled. Bullets exploded into their backs. At least two workers fell dead. Many were wounded, among them children.
Within hours a leaflet, penned by the enraged Spies, was passing through the working class slums. “WORKING MEN, TO ARMS!!!” it proclaimed. “The masters sent out their bloodhounds — the police; they killed six of your brothers at McCormick’s this afternoon. They killed the poor wretches because they, like you, had the courage to disobey the supreme will of your bosses… rise in your might, Hercules, and destroy the hideous monster that seeks to destroy you. To arms we call you, to arms!”
By the next day, May 3, the spread of the strike was “alarming.” Nationally, some 340,000 workers were drawn in, 190,000 of them by striking. In Chicago, 80,000 were out. When several hundred sewing women took to the streets to join the demonstrations, the Chicago Tribune raged: “Shouting Amazons!”
In this heated moment, the Arbeiter Zeitung called for armed struggle, as it always had — except now the call assumed a distinct air of immediacy:
“Blood has flown. It happened as it had to. The militia have not been drilling in vain. It is historical that private property had its origin in violence. The war of classes had to come… In the poor shanty, miserably clad women and children are weeping for husband and father. In the palace, they clink glasses filled with costly wine and drink to the happiness of the blood bandits of law and order. Dry your tears, ye poor and wretched: take heart, ye slaves; arise in your might and overthrow the system of robbery.”
In proletarian meeting halls intense debate raged — “the capitalist tiger” had indeed struck, and thousands grappled for a way to respond. Significant factions apparently wanted to seek an insurrection. A mass meeting was called for the Haymarket Square for the evening of May 4. Worried about ambush, the organizers had chosen a large open place with many possible escape routes. After sharp disagreement, Spies later claimed, he convinced Haymarket’s organizers to withdraw their call for an armed rally and instead to seek the broadest participation possible.
The Haymarket Incident
The morning of May 4, the police attacked a column of 3,000 strikers. Gatherings formed throughout the city. By evening the Haymarket emerged as one of many protest meetings, with an attendance of 3,000.
Speeches followed on another from the back of a wagon. As rain started to fall, the meeting disbanded. Suddenly, when only a few hundred remained, a detachment of 180 heavily-armed policemen appeared, and a police officer demanded that the workers disperse. They received the answer that it was a peaceful and legal meeting. As the police captain turned to give orders to his men, a bomb suddenly exploded in their ranks. The police turned the Haymarket into a free-fire zone, pumping volley after volley into the crowd, killing several and wounding two hundred. The neighborhood was thrown into terror. Drug stores were crowded with the wounded.
Seven policemen eventually died, most from bullets of police guns.
This incident became the pretext for the ruling class to unleash its planned offensive: in the streets, in the courts, and in their press. The newspapers, not only in Chicago but throughout the United States, went mad. They demanded the instant execution of all subversives. Their headlines raged: “Bloody Brutes,” “Red Ruffians,” “Red Flagsters,” “Dynamarchists.” The Chicago Tribune, May 6: “These serpents have been warmed and nourished in the sunshine of toleration until at last they have been emboldened to strike at society, law, order and government.” The Chicago Herald, May 6: “The rabble whom Spies and Fielden stimulated to murder are not Americans. They are offscourings of Europe who have sought these shores to abuse the hospitality and defy the authority of the country.”
In Milwaukee, the state militia responded with a bloody massacre of rallying workers on May 5; eight Polish laborers and one German were shot down for violating martial law.
In Chicago a sweeping dragnet crammed the jails with thousands of revolutionaries and strikers. Historians have used the word “torture” to describe the interrogations. Subscription lists were used to guide the raiding parties. Meeting halls and homes were broken into, the workers’ presses were smashed. The entire printing crew of the Arbeiter Zeitung was arrested. The police put on display all the “evidence” they had made sure they would find: ammunition, rifles, swords, clubs, literature, red flags, incendiary banners, bulk lead, bullet molds, dynamite, bombs, instructions in bomb making, underground rifle ranges. Each find was paraded through the press. Faced with this assault, the general strike crumbled. The leadership of the revolutionary-minded workers was in the clutches of the bourgeoisie.
The Haymarket Trial
The ruling class convened its Chicago grand jury in the middle of May 1886. The charge was murder of a policeman who died at Haymarket. The accused were all prominent in the movement: August Spies, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, Albert R. Parsons, Adolf Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, and Oscar Neebe.
No one doubts that the following trial was anything other than a legal lynching. For one thing, all the defendants were forced to stand trial together, although they were a highly diverse group, with differently shaded politics, who had played quite different roles in the events of May.
Second, the jury was blatantly packed. The usual procedure of selecting jurors by lot was simply jettisoned — in its place a special bailiff was appointed. This man bragged: “I am managing this case, and know what I am about. These fellows are going to be hanged as certain as death.”
Finally, and most significant, the whole trial was conducted without any proof that any of these men had been involved in the bomb-throwing. Only two of the eight accused were even present at the rally when the bomb was thrown.
The issue of who actually threw the bomb has been debated but never settled. It seems like that a certain Rudolf Schnaubelt did the deed and that the bomb may have been made by Louis Lingg (who was certainly quite vocal in his defense of dynamite.) The real questions seems to be whether Schnaubelt was an anarchist streetfighter determined to strike the murdering police, or whether he was a police agent provocateur. The evidence is contradictory. It is proven however that Schnaubelt was twice in police custody after Haymarket and was twice released. This suggests at the very least that the police were consciously disinterested in having the actual bomb-thrower on trial — their real target was the leadership of the rebellion, not some incidental perpetrator and certainly not a police agent. Schnaubelt disappeared from Chicago.
For months the trial dragged on. Numerous workers were threatened and bribed into giving ridiculous testimony about conspiracies of all kinds. Lurid tales poured from the courtroom to inflame the country. The issue was plain — the words of the prosecuting State’s Attorney Grinnell speak for themselves:
“Law is upon trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they were leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousand who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury; convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and save our institutions, our society.”
The judge added that it was sufficient for the State to prove that “these several defendants have advocated the use of deadly missiles against the police on occasions which they anticipated might arise in the future.”
In short, the American bourgeoisie was already then perfecting its method of disguising political trials as criminal cases; using “conspiracy laws” to mask the suppression of revolutionary ideas and organizations. These men were on trial for the crime of leading the oppressed — nothing more or less.
The convicted men were called upon to speak before their sentence was pronounced. One reporter wrote: “They have neither penitence or remorse, and to their twisted minds it is society which is on trial and not themselves.”
Summarizing his revolutionary beliefs before the court, Spies concluded with these words: “Now, these are my ideas… If you think that you can crush out these ideas that are gaining ground more and more every day, if you think you can crush them by sending us to the gallows — if you would once more have people to suffer the penalty of death because they have dared to tell the truth — and I defy you to show us where we have told a lie — I say, if death is the penalty for proclaiming the truth, then I will proudly and defiantly pay the costly price! Call your hangman.”
The twenty-one year old Lingg spat out his defiance: “I repeat that I am the enemy of the ‘order’ of today, and I repeat that, with all my powers, so long as breath remains in me, I shall combat it… I despise you. I despise your order; your laws, your force-propped authority. Hang me for it.”
Seven were sentenced to death.
A great movement stirred in their defense. Meetings were held across the globe: in France, Holland, Russia, Italy and Spain and throughout the United States. In Germany, Bismarck became so concerned over worker reactions to Haymarket that he banned all public meetings.
As the execution day approached, two formerly condemned men were given life imprisonment. Louis Lingg was found dead in his cell, his head exploded by a dynamite cap. It is unknown whether this was a final act of defiance. However, rumors had been circulating that Lingg might receive a stay of execution, so it is likely that his death was an assassination.
November 11, 1886, later dubbed “Black Friday,” was chosen for the execution. Chicago newspapers rattled with rumors about civil war breaking out in the streets. The fact that half a million people joined in the funeral march testifies that there was certainly cause for bourgeois nervousness. And there do seem to have been plans proposed for an assault on the prison. However, the condemned men made their friends pledge not to carry out such “rash acts.”
At noon, four men — Spies, Engel, Parsons and Fisher — faced the gallows dressed in white robes. Spies spoke, as they pulled the hood over his head: “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” Parsons cried out, “Let me speak, Sheriff Matson! Let the voice of the people be heard…” He was cut off as the trap door opened.
This article originally appeared in RW#351, April 14 1986
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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