The Chicago Anarchists: Michael Schwab

Michael Schwab (1853-1898) was the co-editor, with August Spies, of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, the German language anarchist newspaper published in Chicago from 1884 t0 1910. He only briefly attended the May 4, 1886  Haymarket protest meeting, and left before the bomb was thrown. Nevertheless, he was convicted and sentenced to death, commuted to life imprisonment. He was pardoned by Governor Altgeld in 1893, and died in 1898 from a respiratory disease he contracted in prison.

Schwab was a proponent of the “Chicago Idea,” the proto-syndicalist doctrine which saw the role of trade unions as pressing for the immediate betterment of working conditions, such as the achievement of the 8 hour day, while preparing the workers to overthrow the capitalist system, replacing it with anarchist communism. In the following excerpts from his trial speech, Schwab describes the misery of the working classes in Europe and the United States, and sets forth a socialist critique of capitalism based on the labour theory of value. He regarded anarchy as a society based  on reason without any coercive authority.

We contend for communism and anarchy—why? If we had kept silent, stones would have cried out. Murder was committed day by day. Children were slain, women worked to death, men killed inch by inch, and these crimes are never punished by law. The great principle underlying the present system is unpaid labour. Those who amass fortunes, build palaces, and live in luxury, are doing that by virtue of unpaid labour. Being directly or indirectly the possessors of land and machinery, they dictate their terms to the workingman. He is compelled to sell his labour cheap, or to starve. The price paid him is always far below the real value. He acts under compulsion, and they call it a free contract. This infernal state of affairs keeps him poor and ignorant, an easy prey for exploitation.

I know what life has in store for the masses. I was one of them. I slept in their garrets, and lived in their cellars. I saw them work and die. I worked with girls in the same factory—prostitutes they were, because they could not earn enough wages for their living. I saw females sick from overwork, sick in body and mind on account of the lives they were forced to lead. I saw girls from ten to fourteen years of age working for a mere pittance. I heard how their morals were killed by the foul and vile language and the bad example of their ignorant fellow workers, leading them on to the same road of misery, and as an individual I could do nothing. I saw families starving and able-bodied men worked to death. That was in Europe. When I came to the United States, I found that there were classes of workingmen who were better paid than the European workmen, but I perceived that the state of things in a great number of industries was even worse, and that the so-called better paid skilled labourers were degrading rapidly into mere automatic parts of machinery. I found that the proletariat of the great industrial cities was in a condition that could not be worse. Thousands of labourers in the city of Chicago live in rooms without sufficient protection from the weather, without proper ventilation, where never a stream of sunlight flows in. There are hovels where two, three and four families live in one room. How these conditions influence the health and the morals of these unfortunate sufferers, it is needless to say. And how do they live? From the ash barrels they gather half-rotten vegetables, in the butcher shops they buy for some cents offal of meat, and these precious morsels they carry home to prepare from them their meals. The dilapidated houses in which this class of labourers live need repairs very badly, but the greedy landlord waits in most cases till he is compelled by the city to have them done. Is it a wonder that diseases of all kinds kill men, women and children in such places by wholesale, especially children? Is this not horrible in a so-called civilized land where there is plenty of food and riches? …What these common labourers are today, the skilled labourers will be tomorrow. Improved machinery that ought to be a blessing for the workingman, under existing conditions turns for him to a curse. Machinery multiplies the army of unskilled labourers, makes the labourer more dependent upon the men who own the land and the machines. And that is the reason that socialism and communism got a foothold in this country…

Socialism, as we understand it, means that land and machinery shall be held in common by the people. The production of goods shall be carried on by producing groups which shall supply the demands of the people. Under such a system every human being would have an opportunity to do useful work, and no doubt would work. Four hours’ work every day would suffice to produce all that, according to statistics, is necessary for a comfortable living. Time would be left to cultivate the mind, and to further science and art…

Is it not strange that when anarchy was tried nobody ever told what anarchy was. Even when I was on the witness stand, and asked the state’s attorney for a definition of anarchy, he declined to give it. But in their speeches he and his associates spoke very frequently about anarchy, and it appeared that they understood it to be something horrible—arson, rapine, murder. In so speaking, Mr. Grinnell and his associates did not speak the truth. They searched the Alarm and the Arbeiter-Zeitung… In the columns of these papers it is very often stated what we, the “anarchists,” understood by the term anarchy. And we are the only competent judges in this matter. As soon as the word is applied to us and our doctrine, it carries with it the meaning which we, the anarchists, saw fit to give to it. “Anarchy” is Greek, and means, verbatim, without rulership; not being ruled. According to our vocabulary, anarchy is a state of society in which the only government is reason.

A state of society in which all human beings do right for the simple reason that it is right, and hate wrong because it is wrong. In such a society, no laws, no compulsion will be necessary. The attorney of the State was wrong when he said: “Anarchy is dead.” Anarchy, up to the present day, has existed only as a doctrine, and Mr. Grinnell has not the power to kill any doctrine whatever… Anarchy is a dream, but only in the present. It will be realized. Reason will grow in spite of all obstacles. Who is the man that has the cheek to tell us that human development has already reached its culminating point? I know that our ideal will not be accomplished this or next year, but I know that it will be accomplished as near as possible, some day, in the future. It is entirely wrong to use the word anarchy as synonymous with violence. Violence is one thing and anarchy is another. In the present state of society violence is used on all sides, and, therefore, we advocated the use of violence against violence, but against violence only, as a necessary means of defence.

If I had never seen life as it is, I never would have taken to foretelling the coming downfall of this murderous system, and might now cry out like the learned and the ignorant mobsters: “Hang the anarchists!” instead of living in the shadow of the gallows. Seeing the terrible abuses with my own eyes, seeing how girls became prostitutes, before they knew it, observing the slaughter of the little ones, the killing of workingmen by slow degrees, corruption, misery, crime, hypocrisy, poverty, dirt, ignorance, brutality and hunger everywhere, and conceiving that all those things are the legitimate children of the capitalistic system, which, by establishing the right for single persons to possess the means of production and the land, makes the mass of the people wretched, I became a “kicker.” For an honest and honourable man only one course was left, and I became an opponent to the existing order of things, and was soon called an anarchist.

What are my views? If we socialists, communists and anarchists held the views malicious or ignorant hirelings impute to us in their writings, we would simply be madmen who should be confined in an insane asylum forever…

The modern communist holds that labour is the fountain of all wealth and all culture and that, because useful labour only is possible by association of all mankind, the fruits of labour belong to all mankind. Even land has no value except where it can be put into use by labour. No empty lot in a city would have the least value, if labour had not built around it houses and streets, if business was not going on near that lot. We know further, that labour is not paid its full value; if this were the case, it would be unprofitable to employ labour and would not be done. Let one man work alone for himself, he never could grow rich, although even in such a case his knowledge would be the fruit of the work of others, the labour of generations. And because the latter is the case, the communist wants education, culture and knowledge for all…

The sentence: ‘Property is robbery,’ is literally true… The socialists and communists know further that the capitalistic system requires always expansion. The so-called profits—that is, the fruit of the labour withheld by the employer—are transformed into capital, to gain for him new profits. New factories are built, more machines set to work, new markets are sought for, if necessary by war. More and more nations are drawn into competition. It begins to become difficult to find buyers for the goods; each nation, each corporation, each capitalist wages war against the other for supremacy. He who sells cheapest holds the market. But not only this is required; he who is first in the market, he who can supply the demand in any emergency quick and cheap, will win the battle.

This brings in speculation. The demand of the market is but limited, but the capitalists of all industrial countries are busy to glut it, to overflood it with the products of their factories. To come out all right from this insane race for money, it is necessary to supply cheap and quick, so as to leave other competitors behind. The greater the plant, the better the machines, the cheaper the workmen, the more probable is victory. The smaller manufacturer is soon driven from the contest and forced to close his establishment; new inventions of labour saving machines throw workmen out of employment and compel these forces to look out for new work, as machines tend to transform skilled labour into common labour. The competition for work among workingmen grows to fearful dimensions and brings wages down to a minimum. But this in turn has its effect on production, and the battle wages more fearful than ever. But now reaction sets in. Millions of workmen are starving and leading the lives of vagabonds. Even the most ignorant wage-slave commences to think. The common misery makes it clear to them that they must combine, and they do it. The great levellers, the machines, destroyed the guild-pride of olden times. The carpenter feels that he has a common interest with the farm hand, and the printer with the hod-carrier, the German learns that his interest is that of the Negro, of the Frenchman, of the American… The workingmen learn that the capitalistic system, although necessary for some time, must make room for universal co-operation; that the land and means of production must pass from the hands of speculators, private individuals into the hands of the producing masses; this is communism.

Any thinking man must concede that strikes, boycotts, co-operation on a small scale and other means will not and cannot better the condition of the working-classes, not even so-called factory laws can bring the sought for result about. It is true the workingmen cannot help to use these insufficient means, often enough they are forced upon him. They must be looked on as means of education. Man learns by failures. A little baby who commences to stand on his feet, tumbles down many and many a time, before his limbs gain sufficient strength to walk. Many and many a time it tries to raise itself, till at last the great feat is accomplished. In all these fights, in striking, boycotting, going into politics, yes, even in street riots, the young Hercules collects strength to throttle the serpent— the capitalistic system. The workingmen may be sometimes wrong, why not, the baby sometimes tries to raise itself by means of the table-cloth, thus bringing down the dishes, but his impulse to raise is all right, and therefore the workingman should continue to try raising his condition, even if he sometimes brings down the dishes.

Now as to anarchism. Anarchism is order without government. We anarchists say that anarchism will be the natural outgrowth of universal co-operation (communism). We say that, when poverty has vanished and education is common property of the people, that then reason will reign supreme. We say that crime will belong to the past and that the misdeeds of erring brethren can be righted by other means than those of today. Most of the crimes of our days are engendered directly by the system of today, the system which creates ignorance and misery.

We anarchists do believe that the time is near at hand when the working people will demand their rights of their exploiters, and we further believe that the majority of the people will rebel against the slave-holders of today, aided by the slums of the cities and duped people of the country. This struggle, in our opinion, is inevitable.


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