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(en) A review of Albert Parsons book on anarchism -- the ideas that created May Day! "Hurrah for anarchy!" - Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sun, 2 May 2004 15:47:07 +0200 (CEST)


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"Hurrah for anarchy!" These were the last words of two of the five
anarchists hung by the state in 1887. They were murdered by the
state because of their revolutionary politics, union organising and
their role at the head of the strike movement for the eight hour day
which started on May 1st, 1886. The nominal reason for their trial
and murder was the bomb explosion which killed one of the
policemen sent to break up an anarchist meeting on May 4th. The
meeting was protesting the killing of a picket the day before by the
police.

The real reason for their deaths was their anarchism and role in the
eight-hour day strikes which were rocking America. "Anarchism is
on trail," proclaimed the state and a packed jury and biased judge
ensured their conviction. Four anarchists were hung on November
11th, 1887 and another cheated the hangman by committing
suicide. Three others has their sentences commuted to life
imprisonment. Six years later, the new Governor of Illinois pardoned
the Martyrs because of their obvious innocence, saying "the trail was
not fair." By then, the May 1st had been adopted as international
workers' day to commemorate the "Martyrdom of the Chicago
Eight". May Day had been born.

While the Haymarket events radicalised a whole generation of
people to become anarchists, including Emma Goldman and
Alexander Berkman, very little is known about the politics of the
Chicago Anarchists. This is, in part, deliberate. How many times
have Marxists talked about May Day and failed to mention the
anarchism of the "labour leaders" involved? Or that the anarchists
were union activists? In anarchist circles, there is little material
written by the Martyrs available. Luckily, this has changed with the
republication of Albert Parsons' book "Anarchism: Its Philosophy
and Scientific Basis."

Albert Parsons was the only native born American among the
Martyrs. A former Confederate soldier, he became a socialist after
the civil war. Soon seeing the pointlessness of the ballot box, he, like
the rest of the Martyrs, turned to anarchism. Its direct action and
union organising proving to be far more effective in the class war
than the socialist strategy. He complied this book while in prison
waiting for execution in order to explain the ideas of anarchism. And
it succeeds.

Thus we find Albert Parsons arguing that "anarchy is the social
administration of all affairs by the people themselves; that is to say,
self-government, individual liberty . . . the people . . . participate
equally in governing themselves . . . the people voluntarily associate
or freely withdraw from association; instead of being bossed or
driven as now . . . The workshops will drop into the hands of the
workers, the mines will fall to the mines, and the land and all other
things will be controlled by those who posses and use them." For
"wealth is power . . . The chattel slave of the past -- the wage slave
of today; what is the difference? The master selected under chattel
slavery his own slaves. Under the wage slavery system the wage
slave selects his master" and he refused "equally to be a slave or the
owner of slaves."

Modern anti-capitalists have raised the slogan "the world is not for
sale" and would, undoubtedly, agree with Parsons when he argued
that the "existing economic system has placed on the markets for
sale man's natural rights . . . A freeman is not for sale or for hire"
While nowadays wage labour is commonplace, in 1880s America it
was different. The first few generations of workers had just become
wage slaves and hated it. Parsons spoke for them (and us!): "the
wage system of labour is a despotism. It is coercive and arbitrary. It
compels the wage worker, under a penalty of hunger, misery and
distress . . . to obey the dictation of the employer. The individuality
of the wage-worker . . . is destroyed by the wage-system. . . .
Political liberty is possessed by those only who also possess
economic liberty. The wage-system is the economic servitude of the
workers."

Yet the Martyrs were not just critics. They constantly stressed the
positive and constructive aspects of their ideas. Michael Schwab, for
example, argued that "Socialism . . .means that land and machinery
shall be held in common by the people . . . Four hours' work would
suffice to produce all that . . . is necessary for a comfortable living.
Time would be left to cultivate the mind, and to further science and
act . . . Some say it is un-American! Well, then, is it American to let
people starve and die in ignorance? Is exploitation and robbery of the
poor, American?" No, this was not meant to be a trick question!

The Martyrs had, originally, been Marxists and this can be seen
from some of the terminology used by the eight. Parsons quotes
extensively from Marx's "Wage Labour and Capitol" as well as the
"Communist Manifesto" when he discusses the development of
capitalism in the United States and Europe. However, while they
agreed with Marx's economic analysis of the system they rejected
his ideas on how to get there. "Anarchism and socialism," wrote
George Engell, "differ only in their tactics . . . Believe no more in the
ballot, and use all other means at your command." Instead of
elections they followed Bakunin and saw the labour movement as
both the means of achieving anarchy and the framework of the free
society. As Lucy Parsons (the wife of Albert) put it "we hold that the
granges, trade-unions, Knights of Labour assemblies, etc., are the
embryonic groups of the ideal anarchistic society . . . We ask for the
decentralisation of power." For the Martyrs, working class people
had to liberate themselves by their own efforts and using their own
organisations. This is just as true today and is their most important
legacy.

They equally rejected the false notion of a "workers' state."
"Anarchists," wrote Adolph Fischer, "hold that it is the natural right
of every member of the human family to control themselves. If a
centralised power -- government -- is ruling the mass of people . . . it
is enslaving them." However, "every anarchist is a socialist but every
socialist is not necessarily an anarchist . . . the communistic
anarchists demand the abolition of political authority, the state . . .
we advocate the communistic or co-operative methods of
production." In the words of August Spies: "You may pronounce the
sentence upon me, honourable 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!"

The passion for justice and freedom which inspired the Martyrs
comes through. They are utterly unapologetic for their activism and
anarchism: "I say to you: 'I despise you. I despise your order; your
laws, your force-propped authority.' HANG ME FOR IT!" (Louis
Lingg). Equally, they did not try and hide their revolutionary ideas.
They knew they faced class justice and knew that "only by force of
arms can the wage slaves make their way out of capitalistic
bondage" (Adolph Fischer). Yet the injustice meted out to the
Chicago Eight failed to crush the labour or anarchist movements for
obvious reasons. They were born from resisting capitalism and
would remain as long as it does. As August Spies put it:

"But, if you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labour
movement -- the movement from which the downtrodden millions,
the millions who toil and live in want and misery -- the wage slaves
-- expect salvation -- if that is your opinion, then hang us! Here you
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."

Unfortunately, the new edition lacks a modern introduction which
could have summarised the events and their aftermath for a reader
who is unaware of them. However, for someone who knows the
general history of the Haymarket events and wants to read what the
Martyrs thought and did then this book is essential reading.
Moreover, it includes essays by Elisee Reclus, Dyer D Lum and C.L.
James (anarchists whose works are extremely rare to find these
days) as well as the original two articles by Kropotkin which became
the pamphlet "Anarchist Communism: Its basis and principles."

As such, it is a well rounded account of the ideas of the Chicago
anarchists, why they became anarchists and their role in the events
that created May Day. While undoubtedly dated, the book is
essential reading for those interested in the ideas and history of
anarchism. The Martyrs accounts of their lives and activism show
why people have died fighting for a better future, for anarchy, far
better than any pseudo-neutral history. As Michael Schwab wrote:
"Anarchy is a dream, but only in the present. It will be realised."
This book should inspire others to fight to realise that dream.

"Hurrah for anarchy!" - Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis
Albert R. Parsons
University Press of the Pacific
Honolulu, Hawaii
ISBN: 1-4102-0496-5


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