The Haymarket Martyrs: Anarchy on Trial (1886)

On May 3, 1886, the Chicago police shot and killed several striking workers. At the time, Chicago was the centre of a militant working class movement with significant anarchist involvement. The Chicago anarchists had been instrumental in creating the North American International Working People’s Association (IWPA) in 1883, which drew its inspiration from the anti-authoritarian wing of the so-called First International, in which Michael Bakunin (1814-1876), Carlo Cafiero (1846-1892) and many other anarchists played a prominent role (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE to 1939), Chapter 6). The IWPA’s program was largely written by the anarchist collectivist and advocate of armed struggle, Johann Most (1846-1906). Consistent with the view of the anarchists in the First International, the IWPA declared that the workers “must achieve their liberation by their own efforts.” But because, as “in former times a privileged class never surrendered its tyranny, neither can it be expected that the capitalists of this age will give up their rulership without being forced to do it,” the IWPA invoked the example of the American Revolution and War of Independence in support of a new revolution of the toiling masses: “By force our ancestors liberated themselves from political oppression, by force their children will have to liberate themselves from economic bondage. ‘It is, therefore, your right, it is your duty,’ says [Thomas] Jefferson-‘to arm!'” (Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 55).

On May 4, 1886, a protest meeting was held in the Haymarket area of Chicago to denounce the police violence. Two prominent IWPA members, August Spies and Albert Parsons, spoke at the meeting. While another Chicago anarchist, Samuel Fielden, was making his concluding remarks, the police ordered the crowd to disperse, a bomb was thrown, the police opened fire into the crowd and scores of people were killed and injured. Despite the fact that most of the victims, including several police officers, had been shot by the police themselves, eight Chicago anarchists were arrested, tried and convicted of murder. After four of them  (Parsons, Spies, George Engel and Adolph Fischer) were executed on Novermber 11, 1887 (a fifth, Louis Lingg, committed suicide before the executions), they became known as the Haymarket Martyrs.

Originally, I had planned to devote an entire chapter to the Haymarket Martyrs in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Ideas, but due to space limitations was unable to do so (I did include the IWPA’s program, the “Pittsburgh Proclamation,” as Selection 55). The Haymarket Martyrs made lengthy speeches at their trial in which they presented a clear exposition of views then current among revolutionary anarchists in Europe and the Americas. As a result of their trial and executions, their expositions of anarchist ideas received wide publicity, particularly within the international anarchist movement, which commemorated their executions every November 11th. The Chicago anarchists advocated armed struggle, as noted above, but also worked for immediate change to benefit the working class, such as the 8 hour day. For them, anarchism was a form of socialism. Their critique of capitalism was informed not only by the writings of European anarchists, but by Karl Marx’s analysis in Capital. In his book, Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis, which Albert Parsons wrote and edited while awaiting execution, he included extensive excerpts from both Marx’s Capital and the Communist Manifesto. Bakunin himself had translated the Communist Manifesto into Russian, Johann Most had published a popular summary of the main themes from Marx’s Capital, and the Pittsburgh Proclamation itself contained passages taken from the Communist Manifesto. Errico Malatesta was later to remark that anarchists of this era, himself included, and Bakunin before them,  were “too Marxistin their “political economy and in the interpretation of history” (Life and Ideas, page 209).

It was Peter Kropotkin who developed a more original anarchist “political economy” in The Conquest of Bread (first published in 1892), in which he  also criticizes Marx’s analysis in Capital (the 1995 Cambridge University Press edition includes additional critical remarks on Marx’s Capital taken from Kropotkin’s Memoirs). In Modern Science and Anarchism (first published in 1901), Kropotkin presents a critique of Marx’s theory of surplus value. At the time of the trial of the Chicago anarchists, Kropotkin’s writings were just being introduced to English language readers. In 1886, Kropotkin help found and began writing for the venerable English anarchist publication, Freedom, in London. Parsons included two articles by Kropotkin in Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis, “The Scientific Basis of Anarchy” and “The Coming Anarchy,” which had only just been published in the February and August 1887 editions of the English journal, The Nineteenth Century, while Parsons was awaiting execution (Kropotkin’s two articles were reprinted in 1891 as a single pamphlet, Anarchist Communism: Its Basis and Principles). Parsons also included in his book an 1884 essay by Elisée Reclus, “An Anarchist on Anarchy,” which I hope to post at a later date.

What follows is the first in a series of excerpts I will be posting from the speeches the Haymarket Martyrs delivered at their trial. This first post is taken from the speech of August Spies (1855-1887). He refers to Police Inspector Bonfield, a sadistic brute who specialized in cracking the heads of striking workers, and whose men were responsible for shooting on the crowd, and prosecuting Attorney Grinnell, who orchestrated the conviction and judicial murder of the Haymarket Martyrs. During the trial itself, Grinnell was successful in preventing the defendants from explaining their anarchist views, arguing that they and not anarchism were on trial. Yet in his concluding address to the jury, he said that “anarchy is on trial,” urging them to convict the defendants and to condemn them to death on the basis of their political views, as there was no real evidence connecting them to the bomb that was thrown on May 4, 1886. Spies was immortalized by the words he cried out just before he was hanged: “the day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

August Spies

It is not likely that the honorable Bonfield and Grinnell can conceive of a social order not held intact by the policeman’s club and pistol, nor of a free society without prisons, gallows, and State’s attorneys. In such a society they [would] probably fail to find a place for themselves. And is this the reason why anarchism is such a ‘pernicious and damnable doctrine?’

Grinnell has intimated to us that anarchism was on trial. The theory of anarchism belongs to the realm of speculative philosophy. There was not a syllable said about anarchism at the Haymarket meeting. At that meeting the very popular theme of reducing the hours of toil was discussed. But, ‘anarchism is on trial’ foams Mr. Grinnell. If that is the case, your honor, very well; you may sentence me, for I am an anarchist. I believe with Buckle, with Paine, Jefferson, Emerson, and Spencer, and many other great thinkers of this century, that the state of castes and classes—the state where one class dominates over and lives upon the labor of another class, and calls this order—yes: I believe that this barbaric form of social organization, with its legalized plunder and murder, is doomed to die, and make room for a free society, voluntary association, or universal brotherhood, if you like. You may pronounce the sentence upon me, honorable judge; but let the world know that in A. D. 1886, in the State of Illinois, eight men were sentenced to death because they believed in a better future; because they had not lost their faith in the ultimate victory of liberty and justice!

‘You have taught the destruction of society and civilization,’ says the tool and agent of the Bankers’ and Citizens’ Association, Grinnell. That man has yet to learn what civilization is. It is the old, old argument against human progress. Read the history of Greece, of Rome; read that of Venice; look over the dark pages of the church, and follow the thorny path of science. ‘No change! No change! You would destroy society and civilization!’ has ever been the cry of the ruling classes. They are so comfortably situated under the prevailing system that they naturally abhor and fear even the slightest change. Their privileges are as dear to them as life itself, and every change threatens these privileges. But civilization is a ladder whose steps are monuments of such changes! Without these social changes—all brought about against the will and the force of the ruling classes—there would be no civilization. As to the destruction of society which we have been accused of seeking, sounds this not like one of Aesop’s fables—like the cunning of the fox? We, who have jeopardized our lives to save society from the fiend—the fiend who has grasped her by the throat; who sucks her life-blood, who devours her children—we, who would heal her bleeding wounds, who would free her from the fetters you have wrought around her; from the misery you have brought upon her—we her enemies!!

Honorable judge, the demons of hell will join in the laughter this irony provokes!

We have preached dynamite. 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? Are not already the large industries of this once free country conducted under the surveillance of the police, the detective, the military and the sheriffs—and is this return to militancy not developing from day to day? American sovereigns—think of it—working like galley convicts under military guards! We have predicted this, and predict that soon these conditions will grow unbearable. What then? The mandate of the feudal lords of our time is slavery, starvation and death! This has been their program for the past years. We have said to the toilers, that science had penetrated the mystery of nature—that from Jove’s head once more has sprung a Minerva—dynamite! If this declaration is synonymous with murder, why not charge those with the crime to whom we owe the invention? To charge us with an attempt to overthrow the present system on or about May 4th by force, and then establish anarchy, is too absurd a statement, I think, even for a political office-holder to make. If Grinnell believed that we attempted such a thing, why did he not have Dr. Bluthardt make an inquiry as to our sanity? Only mad men could have planned such a brilliant scheme, and mad people cannot be indicted or convicted of murder. If there had existed anything like a conspiracy or a pre-arrangement, does your honor believe that events would not have taken a different course than they did on that evening and later?

This ‘conspiracy’ nonsense is based upon an oration I delivered on the anniversary of Washington’s birthday at Grand Rapids, Mich., more than a year and a half ago. I had been invited by the Knights of Labor for that purpose. I dwelt upon the fact that our country was far from being what the great revolutionists of the last century had intended it to be. I said that those men if they lived today would clean the Augean stables with iron brooms, and that they, too, would undoubtedly be characterized as ‘wild socialists.’ It is not unlikely that I said Washington would have been hanged for treason if the revolution had failed. Grinnell made this ‘sacrilegious remark’ his main arrow against me. Why? Because he intended to inveigh the know-nothing spirit against us. But who will deny the correctness of the statement? That I should have compared myself with Washington, is a base lie. But if I had, would that be murder? I may have told that individual who appeared here as a witness that the workingmen should procure arms, as force would in all probability be the ultima ratio; and that in Chicago there were so and so many armed, but I certainly did not say that we proposed to ‘inaugurate the social revolution.’ And let me say here: Revolutions are no more made than earthquakes and cyclones. Revolutions are the effect of certain causes and conditions. I have made social philosophy a specific study for more than ten years, and I could not have given vent to such nonsense! I do believe, however, that the revolution is near at hand—in fact, that it is upon us. But is the physician responsible for the death of the patient because he foretold that death? If anyone is to be blamed for the coming revolution it is the ruling class who steadily refused to make concessions as reforms became necessary; who maintain that they can call a halt to progress, and dictate a stand-still to the eternal forces, of which they themselves are but the whimsical creation…

If the opinion of the court given this morning is good law, then there is no person in this country who could not lawfully be hanged. I vouch that, upon the very laws you have read, there is no person in this courtroom now who could not be ‘fairly, impartially and lawfully’ hanged! Fouche, Napoleon’s right bower, once said to his master: ‘Give me a line that any one man has ever written, and I will bring him to the scaffold.’ And this court has done essentially the same. Upon that law every person in this country can be indicted for conspiracy, and, as the case may be, for murder. Every member of a trade union, Knights of Labor, or any other labor organization, can then be convicted of conspiracy, and in cases of violence, for which they may not be responsible at all, of murder, as we have been. This precedent once established, and you force the masses who are now agitating in a peaceable way into open rebellion! You thereby shut off the last safety valve—and the blood which will be shed, the blood of the innocent—it will come upon your heads!

…This verdict against us is the anathema of the wealthy classes over their despoiled victims—the vast army of wage workers and farmers. If your honor would not have these people believe this; if you would not have them believe that we have once more arrived at the Spartan Senate, the Athenian Areopagus, the Venetian Council of Ten, etc., then sentence should not be pronounced. But, if you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement—the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery—the wage slaves— expect salvation—if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.

The ground is on fire upon which you stand. 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 occurrences of late are the work of conspirators! You resemble the child that is looking for his picture behind the mirror. What you see, and what you try to grasp is nothing but the deceptive reflex of the stings of your bad conscience. You want to ‘stamp out the conspirators’— the ‘agitators?’ Ah, stamp out every factory lord who has grown wealthy upon the unpaid labor for his employees. Stamp out every landlord who has amassed fortunes from the rent of over-burdened workingmen and farmers. Stamp out every machine that is revolutionizing industry and agriculture, that intensifies the production and ruins the producer, that increases the national wealth, while the creator of all these things stands, amidst them, tantalized with hunger! Stamp out the railroads, the telegraph, the telephone, steam and yourselves—for everything breathes the revolutionary spirit.

You, gentlemen, are the revolutionists! You rebel against the effects of social conditions which have tossed you, by the fair hand of fortune, into a magnificent paradise. Without inquiring, you imagine that no one else has a right in that place. You insist that you are the chosen ones, the sole proprietors. The forces that tossed you into the paradise, the industrial forces, are still at work. They are growing more active and intense from day to day. Their tendency is to elevate all mankind to the same level, to have all humanity share in the paradise you now monopolize. You, in your blindness, think you can stop the tidal wave of civilization, and human emancipation by placing a few policemen, a few gatling guns, and some regiments of militia on the shore—you think you can frighten the rising waves back into the unfathomable depths, whence they have risen, by erecting a few gallows in the perspective. You, who oppose the natural course of things, you are the real revolutionists. You and you alone are the conspirators and destructionists!

…[S]ocialism does not mean the destruction of society. Socialism is a constructive and not a destructive science. While capitalism expropriates the masses for the benefit of the privileged class; while capitalism is that school of economics which teaches how one can live upon the labor (i.e., property) of the other; socialism teaches how all may possess property, and further teaches that every man must work honestly for his own living, and not be playing the ‘respectable board of trade man,’ or any other highly (?) respectable businessman or banker, such as appeared here as talesmen in the jurors’ box, with the fixed opinion that we ought to be hanged… Socialism in short, seeks to establish a universal system of co-operation, and to render accessible to each and every member of the human family the achievements and benefits of civilization, which, under capitalism, are being monopolized by a privileged class and employed, not as they should be, for the common good of all, but for the brutish gratification of an avaricious class. Under capitalism the great inventions of the past, far from being a blessing for mankind, have been turned into a curse! Under socialism the prophecy of the Greek poet, Antiporas, would be fulfilled, who, at the invention of the first water-mill, exclaimed: ‘This is the emancipator of male and female slaves’; and likewise the prediction of Aristotle, who said: ‘When, at some future age, every tool, upon command or by predestination, will perform its work as the art works of Daedalus did, which moved by themselves; or like the three feet of Hephaestus, which went to their sacred work instinctively, when thus the weaver shuttles will weave by themselves, then we shall no longer require masters and slaves.’ Socialism says this time has come, and can you deny it? You say: ‘Oh, these heathens, what did they know?’ True! They knew nothing of political economy; they knew nothing of christendom. They failed to conceive how nicely these man-emancipating machines could be employed to lengthen the hours of toil and to intensify the burdens of the slaves. These heathens, yes, they excused the slavery of one on the ground that thereby another would be afforded the opportunity of human development. But to preach the slavery of the masses in order that a few rude and arrogant parvenues might become ‘eminent manufacturers,’ ‘extensive packing-house owners,’ or ‘influential shoe-black dealers,’ to do this they lacked that specific Christian organ.

Socialism teaches that the machines, the means of transportation and communication are the result of the combined efforts of society, past and present, and that they are therefore rightfully the indivisible property of society, just the same as the soil and the mines and all natural gifts should be. This declaration implies that those who have appropriated this wealth wrongfully, though lawfully, shall be expropriated by society. The expropriation of the masses by the monopolists has reached such a degree that the expropriation of the expropriators has become an imperative necessity, an act of social self-preservation. Society will reclaim its own, even though you erect a gibbet on every street corner. And anarchism, this terrible ‘ism,’ deduces that under a co-operative organization of society, under economic equality and individual independence, the ‘State ‘—the political State—will pass into barbaric antiquity. And we will be where all are free, where there are no longer masters and servants, where intellect stands for brute force, there will no longer be any use for the policemen and militia to preserve the so-called ‘peace and order’—the order that the Russian general spoke of when he telegraphed to the Czar after he had massacred half of Warsaw, ‘Peace reigns in Warsaw.’

Anarchism does not mean bloodshed; does not mean robbery, arson, etc. These monstrosities are, on the contrary, the characteristic features of capitalism. Anarchism means peace and tranquility to all. Anarchism, or socialism, means the reorganization of society upon scientific principles and the abolition of causes which produce vice and crime. Capitalism first produces these social diseases and then seeks to cure them by punishment…

It is true we have called upon the people to arm themselves. It is true that we have told them time and again that the great day of change was coming. It was not our desire to have bloodshed. We are not beasts. We would not be socialists if [we] were beasts. It is because of our sensitiveness that we have gone into this movement for the emancipation of the oppressed and suffering. It is true we have called upon the people to arm and prepare for the stormy times before us.

This seems to be the ground upon which the verdict is to be sustained.

“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce the people under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government and provide new guards for their future safety.”

This is a quotation from the Declaration of Independence. Have we broken any laws by showing to the people how these abuses, that have occurred for the last twenty years, are invariably pursuing one object, viz: to establish an oligarchy in this country as strong and powerful and monstrous as never before has existed in any country? I can well understand why that man Grinnell did not urge upon the grand jury to charge us with treason… You cannot try and convict a man for treason who has upheld the constitution against those who try to trample it under their feet. It would not have been as easy a job to do that, Mr. Grinnell, as to charge ‘these men’ with murder.

Now, these are my ideas. They constitute a part of myself. I cannot divest myself of them, nor would I, if I could. And 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 out 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. Truth crucified in Socrates, in Christ, in Giordano Bruno, in Huss, Galileo, still lives—they and others whose number is legion have preceded us on this path. We are ready to follow!

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  1. […] 55) and became a popular and effective speaker among the Chicago workers. He was speaking at the Haymarket protest meeting when the police arrived, right before the bomb was thrown. As he points out in his […]

  2. […] by the capitalist elite, the general strike faced brutal police violence infamously known as the Haymarket Martyrs that established May Day as International Workers’ Day, officially holiday in 66 countries […]

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