The Haymarket Martyrs: Albert Parsons

Albert Parsons (1848-1887) was perhaps the best known of the Haymarket Martyrs prior to their execution on November 11, 1887. Parsons published the Alarm, at the time the leading English language anarchist newspaper in North America. He played a prominent role in the struggle for the 8 hour day and was already well known as an advocate for socialism. Prior to becoming an anarchist in 1880, Parsons had been involved with several political parties, including the Socialist Labor Party of America. He ran for office several times but came to the conclusion that meaningful change could not be achieved through the ballot box. He was influenced by Marx‘s critique of capitalism, as clearly illustrated in the passages set forth below taken from his trial speech. Parsons believed that the capitalist system was destroying the middle class, creating a vast and impoverished working class reduced to starvation wages. While he could have accepted this state of affairs and become himself a successful capitalist, he refused to do so, rejecting the power and privilege of the master. As with many other 19th century socialists, Parsons compared wage labour to chattel slavery, describing the former as a form of “wage slavery.” He denied that he wished to destroy the machinery that was putting thousands out of work, objecting rather to the uses to which modern technology was being put. While awaiting execution he wrote his memoirs and edited a collection of writings, Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis, which included some of Marx’s writings on political economy, essays on anarchism by Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus, and the trial speeches of himself and his fellow defendants. His references to anarchy being the next step in progressive evolution illustrate the influence of Kropotkin and Réclus. As he was about to be hanged he cried out, “Will I be allowed to speak, O men of America? Let me speak Sheriff Matson! Let the voice of the People be heard!”

Albert Parsons

Labour is a commodity and wages the price paid for it. The owner of this commodity—of labour—sells it, that is himself, to the owner of capital in order to live. Labour is the expression of energy, the power of the labourer’s life. This energy of power he must sell to another person in order to live. It is his only means of existence, he works to live, but his work is not simply a part of his life; it is the sacrifice of it. His labour is a commodity which under the guise of free labour, he is forced by necessity to hand over to another party. The reward of the wage labourer’s activity is not the product of his labour—far from it. The silk he weaves, the palace he builds, the ores he digs from out the mines—are not for him—oh, no. The only thing he produces for himself is his wage, and the silk, the ores and the palace which he has built are simply transformed for him into a certain kind of means of existence, namely, a cotton shirt, a few pennies, and the mere tenancy of a lodging-house. In other words, his wages represent the bare necessities of his existence, and the unpaid for or ‘surplus’ portion of his labour product constitutes the vast superabundant wealth of the non-producing or capitalist class. That is the capitalist system. It is the capitalist system that creates these classes, and it is these classes that produce this conflict. This conflict intensifies as the power of the privileged classes over the non-possessing or propertyless classes increases and intensifies, and this power increases as the idle few become richer and the producing many become poorer, and this produces what is called the labour movement. Wealth is power, poverty is weakness. If I had time I might answer some suggestions that probably arise in the minds of some persons not familiar with this question. I imagine I hear your honor say, ‘Why, labour is free. This is a free country.’ Now, we had in the southern states for nearly a century a form of labour known as chattel slave labour. That has been abolished, and I hear you say that labour is free; that the [Civil] War has resulted in establishing free labour all over America. Is this true? Look at it. The chattel slave of the past—the wage slave of today; what is the difference? …

Formerly the master selected the slave; today the slave selects his master and he has got to find one or else he is carried down here to my friend, the jailer, and occupy a cell alongside myself. He is compelled to find one. So the change of the industrial system, in the language of Jefferson Davis, ex-president of the Southern Confederacy, in an interview with the New York Herald upon the question of the chattel slave system of the south and that of the so-called ‘free labourer,’ and their wages—Jefferson Davis has stated positively that the change was a decided benefit to the former chattel slave owners who would not exchange the new system of wage labour at all for chattel labour, because now the dead had to bury themselves and the sick take care of themselves, and now they don’t have to employ overseers to look after them… They say: ‘Now, here, perform this piece of work in a certain length of time,’ and if YOU don’t (under the wage system, says Mr. Davis), why, when you come around for your pay next Saturday, you simply find in the envelope containing your money, a note which informs YOU of the fact that YOU have been discharged. Now, Jefferson Davis admitted in his statement that the leather thong dipped in salt brine, for the chattel slave, had been exchanged under the wage slave system for the lash of hunger, an empty stomach and the ragged back of the wage-slave, who, according to the census of the United States for 1880, constitutes more than nine-tenths of our entire population. But you say the wage slave has advantage over the chattel slave. The chattel slave couldn’t get away from it. Well, if we had the statistics, I believe it could be shown that as many chattel slaves escaped from bondage with the bloodhounds of their masters after them as they tracked their way over the snow-beaten rocks of Canada, and via the underground grapevine road—I believe the statistics would show today that as many chattel slaves escaped from their bondage under that system as could, and as many as do escape today from wage bondage into capitalistic liberty. I am a socialist, I am one of those, although myself a wage slave, who holds that it is wrong, wrong to myself, wrong to my neighbour and unjust to my fellowmen, for me, wage slave that I am, to undertake to make my escape from wage slavery by becoming a master. I refuse to do it; I refuse equally to be a slave or the owner of slaves. Had I chosen another path in life, I might be upon the avenue of the city of Chicago today, surrounded in my beautiful home with luxury and ease and slaves to do my bidding. But I chose the other road, and instead I stand here today upon the scaffold. This is my crime. Before high heaven this and this alone is my crime. I have been false, I have been untrue, and I am a traitor to the infamies that exist today in capitalistic society. If this is a crime in your opinion I plead guilty to it. Now, be patient with me; I have been with you, or rather, I have been patient with this trial. Follow me, if you please, and look at the impressions of this capitalistic system of industry. Every new machine that comes into existence comes there as a competitor with the man of labour… as a drag and menace and a prey to the very existence of those who have to sell their labour in order to earn their bread. The man is turned out to starve and whole occupations and pursuits are revolutionized and completely destroyed by the introduction of machinery, in a day, in an hour as it were. I have known it to be the case in the history of my own life— and I am yet a young man—that whole pursuits and occupations have been wiped out or revolutionized by the invention of machinery.

What becomes of these people? Where are they? Tens of thousands are thrown out of employment, and they become competitors of other labourers and are made to reduce wages and increase the work hours. Many of them are candidates for the gibbet, they are candidates for your prison cells. Build more penitentiaries, erect new scaffolds, for these men are upon the highway of crime, of misery, of death. Your honor, there never was an effect without a cause. The tree is known by its fruit.

Socialists are not those who blindly close their eyes and refuse to look, and who refuse to hear, but having eyes to see, they see, and having ears to hear, they hear. Look at this capitalistic system; look at its operation upon the small dealers, the middle class. Bradstreet’s Commercial Statistics tells us in last year’s report that there were 11,000 small business men financially destroyed the past twelve months. What became of those people? Where are they, and why have they been wiped out? Has there been any less wealth? No: that which they had possessed has simply transferred itself into the hands of some other person. Who is that other? It is he who has greater capitalistic facilities. It is the monopolist, the man who can run corners, who can create rings and squeeze these men to death and wipe them out like dead flies from the table into his monopolistic basket. The middle classes, destroyed in this manner, join the ranks of the proletariat. They become what? They seek out the factory gate, they seek in the various occupations of wage labour for employment. What is the result? Then there are more men upon the market. This increases the number of those who are applying for employment. What then? This intensifies the competition, which in turn creates greater monopolists, and with it wages go down until the starvation point is reached, and then what?

Socialism comes to the people and asks them to look into this thing, to discuss it, to reason, to examine it, to investigate it, to know the facts, because it is by this, and this alone, that violence will be prevented and bloodshed will be avoided, because, as my friend here has said, men in their blind rage, in their ignorance, riot knowing what ails them, knowing that they are hungry, that they are miserable and destitute, strike blindly, and do as they did with Maxwell here, and fight the labour-saving machinery. Imagine such an absurd thing, and yet the capitalistic press has taken great pains to say that socialists do these things; that we fight machinery; that we fight poverty. Why, sir, it is an absurdity; it is ridiculous; it is preposterous. No man ever heard an utterance from the mouth of a socialist to advise anything of the kind. They know to the contrary. We don’t fight machinery; we don’t oppose these things. It is only the manner and methods of employing it that we object to. That is all. It is the manipulation of these things in the interests of a few; it is the monopolization of them that we object to. We desire that all the forces of nature, all the forces of society, of the gigantic strength which has resulted from the combined intellect and labour of the ages of the past shall be turned over to man, and made his servant, his obedient slave forever. This is the object of socialism. It asks no one to give up anything. It seeks no harm to anybody. But, when we witness this condition of things, when we see little children huddling around the factory gates, the poor little things whose bones are not yet hard; when we see them clutched from the hearthstone, taken from the family altar, and carried to the bastiles of labour and their little bones ground up into gold dust to bedeck the form of some aristocratic Jezebel, then it stirs me and I speak out. We plead for the little ones; we plead for the helpless; we plead for the oppressed; we seek redress for those who are wronged; we seek knowledge and intelligence for the ignorant; we seek liberty for the slave; socialism secures the welfare of every human being…

Anarchists do not advocate or advise the use of force. Anarchists disclaim and protest against its use, and the use of force is justifiable only when employed to repel force. Who, then, are the aiders, abettors and users of force? Who are the real revolutionists? Are they not those who hold and exercise power over their fellows? They who use clubs and bayonets, prisons and scaffolds? The great class conflict now gathering throughout the world is created by our social system of industrial slavery. Capitalists could not if they would, and would not if they could, change it. This alone is to be the work of the proletariat, the disinherited, the wage-slave, the sufferer. Nor can the wage-class avoid this conflict. Neither religion nor politics can solve it or prevent it. It comes as a human, an imperative necessity. Anarchists do not make the social revolution; they prophesy its coming. Shall we then stone the prophets? Anarchists do not use or advise the use of force, but point out that force is ever employed to uphold despotism to despoil man’s natural rights. Shall we therefore kill and destroy the anarchists? And capital shouts, ‘Yes, yes! exterminate them!’

In the line of evolution and historical development, anarchy—liberty—is next in order. With the destruction of the feudal system, and the birth of commercialism and manufactories in the sixteenth century, a contest long and bitter and bloody, lasting over a hundred years, was waged for mental and religious liberty. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with their sanguinary conflicts, gave to man political equality and civil liberty, based on the monopolization of the resources of life, capital—with its ‘free labourers ‘—freely competing with one another for a chance to serve king capital, and ‘free competition’ among capitalists in their endeavours to exploit the labourers and monopolize the labour products. All over the world the fact stands undisputed that the political is based upon, and is but the reflex of the economic system, and hence we find that whatever the political form of the government, whether monarchial or republican, the average social status of the wage-workers is in every country identical. The class struggle of the past century is history repeating itself; it is the evolutionary growth preceding the revolutionary dénouement. Though liberty is a growth, it is also a birth, and while it is yet to be, it is also about to be born. Its birth will come through travail and pain, through bloodshed and violence. It cannot be prevented. This, because of the obstructions, impediments and obstacles which serve as a barrier to its coming. An anarchist is a believer in liberty, and as I would control no man against his will, neither shall anyone rule over me with my consent. Government is compulsion; no one freely consents to be governed by another, therefore there can be no just power of government. Anarchy is perfect liberty, is absolute freedom of the individual. Anarchy has no schemes, no programs, no systems to offer or to substitute for the existing order of things. Anarchy would strike from humanity every chain that binds it, and say to mankind: ‘Go forth! you are free! Have all; enjoy all!’

Anarchism or anarchists neither advise, abet nor encourage the working people to the use of force or a resort to violence. We do not say to the wage-slaves: ‘You ought, you should use force.’ No. Why say this when we know they must—they will be driven to use it in self-defence, in self-preservation, against those who are degrading, enslaving and destroying them.

Already the millions of workers are unconsciously anarchists. Impelled by a cause, the effects of which they feel but do not wholly understand, they move unconsciously, irresistibly forward to the social revolution. Mental freedom, political equality, industrial liberty!

This is the natural order of things, the logic of events. Who so foolish as to quarrel with it, obstruct it, or attempt to stay its progress? It is the march of the inevitable; the triumph of progress.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. My family continues its work for the freedom of the in-slaved workers for the past century we have and will continue to represent the working class using organized labor as our platform

  2. Very inspirational


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