american socialists became anarchists -- 9/21/15

Today's selection -- from Death in the Haymarket by James Green. The industrial age in the U.S. accelerated in the decades after the Civil War. But the unlimited working hours and abominable working conditions brought a virulent counter-reaction in the form of a militant socialist movement. The nexus of these movements was Chicago. In time, part of this socialist movement morphed into an anarchist movement -- small, self-organizing groups should govern those who rejected any over-arching form of government and instead believed society.

"At some point in 1884 the militant socialists of Chicago began identifying themselves as anarchists. This caused confusion among observers as well as among members of the International, because the movement's leader, August Spies, insisted he remained a follower of Marx, and not of Marx's anarchist enemy, [the Russian revolutionary anarchist Mikhail] Bakunin. It was true that Spies and his Chicago comrades had given up hope of finding a peaceful path to socialism via elections and legislative changes that they had broken decisively with their former comrades in the Socialistic Labor Party. Yet the Internationals continued to label their publications socialist in 1885, because they adhered to Marx's belief that capitalism would be destroyed by its own contradictions and by the inevitable emergence of a class-conscious movement of workers prepared to abolish private property along with the forms of government that sanctioned and protected it.

"The Chicago militants thought of themselves as socialists of the anarchist type -- that is, as revolutionaries who believed in liberating society from all state control, whether capitalist or socialist. Anarchists proclaimed that true freedom in a socialist society could be gained in self-governing communities and workplaces where working people determined their rights and responsibilities democratically, without the domination of a powerful national state with its judges and laws, its police forces and armies. This was the freedom anarchy promised, said Albert Parsons, in contrast to the vision of his old socialist party comrades, who still embraced 'State Socialism,' which meant 'the government controlled everything.'

"Johann Most, the world's leading anarchist in 1885, exerted a strong hold ... the Chicago Internationals, but they did not fully embrace his view that individual acts of violence would provoke a revolution; indeed, they faithfully adhered to the lesson they had learned from Karl Marx: that socialism could be achieved only through the collective power of workers organized into aggressive trade unions -- the 'great lever by which the working class will be emancipated.' The anarchists imagined militant workers' organizations as more than movement building blocks; these unions could be 'the living germs of a new social order which would replace the bourgeois world,' or, as Parsons put it, the 'embryonic' groups of a future 'free society.'

"This concept of revolutionary unionism, later known as 'the Chicago idea,' appealed to European artisans like Michael Schwab who were familiar with the watchmakers and other artisans in Europe who embraced Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's anarchist ideas about free association and mutual aid. A few of them had even put these cooperative ideas into practice in their own shops and benefit societies. The notion of workshops controlled by intelligent craftsmen was not a utopian dream to them. Furthermore, the idea that artisans, shopkeepers and other ordinary citizens could govern a city was not simply a theoretical possibility, because this, they knew, was precisely what the people of Paris had done with some success during the days after they created the Commune in 1871.

"The Chicago anarchists also drew inspiration from American revolutionaries: from Thomas Paine, the most influential of all propagandists; from Thomas Jefferson, who proclaimed the right and the duty to rebel against unjust authority; from Patrick Henry, whose words 'Give me liberty or give me death' were often quoted; and from John Brown, the most heroic of all revolutionary martyrs. ...

"Still it was a daunting endeavor, this anarchist effort to create an alternative intellectual and moral world in a city devoted to the pursuit of private property and personal wealth, a place that thrived on speculation and competition of every kind, a city that epitomized American capitalism."


James Green


Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America


Anchor Books a division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 2006 by James Green


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