Albert Parsons and the Rise of Anarchism

By Richard Schneirov, Indiana State University

One of the leading Chicago Socialists was Albert Parsons. Born in Texas into a family descended from the Pilgrims, which had also served in the Revolutionary War, Parsons as a teenager ran away from home to fight for the Confederacy. But, after the war he threw his lot in with the freedman, championing their right to vote and participate in politics. In the course of his agitation, Parsons fell passionately in love with a young African-American woman, Lucy del Gather, who claimed Mexican and Indian descent. Hounded by racists, he and Lucy left Texas for Chicago in 1873.

In Chicago Parsons graduated from his Radical Republican politics to become an active Socialist. During the 1877 strikes he gave stirring speeches to crowds of thousands of workingmen on behalf of the local party. His oratorical talents brought him to the attention of the police, who conveyed him to City Hall where he was harangued and threatened with lynching by Board of Trade businessmen, police, and politicians. This did not deter him. Following the strike he aligned himself with the workers' militias, which had been established to defend labor meetings from police assault. "The Social Revolution began last July," said Parsons. "The issue is made, and sooner or later it must be settled one way or another."1

In the first two years following the great railroad strike, revolutionaries like Parsons were inhibited by Socialist electoral success. But, once Mayor Harrison won over many Socialist voters, and following an election in 1880 in which a Socialist alderman was deprived of his seat through fraud, they left the party in droves. The revolutionaries rejected electoral politics as a means of social transformation. Initially, they did not use the label "anarchist"; they simply viewed themselves as anti-political revolutionary socialists. But, by 1881, a European movement of revolutionary socialists, dissatisfied with Karl Marx's reliance on labor unions, took up the strategy of the "propaganda of the deed." With the discovery of dynamite, which could be used to make bombs, it seemed that the power relations between workers and capitalists and their backers in the state could be equalized at a single stroke without the need for patient organizing. Bomb throwing would terrorize state authorities and arouse the masses to participate in a revolutionary uprising. Because these revolutionaries believed that capital ruled mainly by the force deployed by government, they were confident that once the state had been abolished a "free society" of autonomous workers' associations would naturally emerge.

This movement spread to the United States when the brilliant orator Johann Most toured the country. Most terrified American society with his bloodthirsty comments about the rich, but he thrilled his working-class immigrant audiences. In 1885 he published a short handbook, Revolutionary War Science, with specific instructions for the use of bombs in urban guerilla warfare and insurrection.

Concentrated in Chicago, the American anarchist movement coalesced at the Pittsburgh Congress of 1883. There they founded the International Working People's Association (IWPA) or "Black International" on the ashes of the fading electoral-oriented socialist movement. Though all were united on the strategy of revolutionary direct action through the use of dynamite, the leadership of the Chicago anarchists was rooted in the trade unions. Anticipating the anarcho-syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), what became known as the "Chicago Idea" viewed unions as the nucleus of the future free society. Rather than limiting their objectives to piecemeal improvements, Chicago anarchists advocated that unions prepare for uncompromising revolutionary action. 2

By 1886, there were approximately 2800 anarchists in the city organized in twenty-six autonomous groups. But, their influence far outweighed their numbers. They supported seven daily newspapers with a combined circulation of 30,000 and held periodic picnics, parades, dances, and celebrations of revolutionary events such as the Paris Commune -- all of which gave them a substantial public presence. The anarchists also led one of three large labor federations.3

But, was Chicago on the verge of a revolution? Despite the faith of the anarchists that a working-class insurrection for a "free society" was inevitable and imminent, there is little evidence of a looming revolution in mid-1880s Chicago. Mayor Harrison's wooing of the socialists had divided the movement, with the anarchists representing only one of its wings. The city's labor movement was also divided into three labor federations, each with distinct politics. Moreover, by 1886 the older labor goal of ending the wage-labor system through producers' cooperatives (analogous to the anarchists' free society) had given way to raising the standard of living through shorter hours and higher wages -- Samuel Gompers "more." On the other hand, whatever the objective situation may have been, many leaders of the city's upper class were insecure in their status and social power and thought that a revolution threatened.

1. Chicago Tribune, Apr. 26, 1878.

2. Excellent discussions of the beliefs of the Chicago anarchists are available in David, Haymarket Affair, 101-37 and Avrich, Haymarket Tragedy, 79-175.

3. On the political culture of Chicago anarchism see Bruce C. Nelson, Beyond the Martyrs: A Social History of Chicago's Anarchists, 1870-1900 (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988).