Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Nov. 11 and the Haymarket Affair

On this day, November 11, 1887 Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel and Adolph Fischer were hanged for their alleged part in the 'Haymarket Affair', widely acknowledged as one of the most unjust court actions in American history.

From Anarchist FAQ.
The history of Mayday is closely linked with the anarchist movement and the struggles of working people for a better world. Indeed, it originated with the execution of four anarchists in Chicago in 1886 for organising workers in the fight for the eight-hour day. Thus May Day is a product of "anarchy in action" -- of the struggle of working people using direct action in labour unions to change the world.

It began in the 1880s in the USA. In 1884, the Federation of Organised Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada (created in 1881, it changed its name in 1886 to the American Federation of Labor) passed a resolution which asserted that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's work from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labour organisations throughout this district that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution." A call for strikes on May 1st, 1886 was made in support of this demand.

In Chicago the anarchists were the main force in the union movement, and partially as a result of their presence, the unions translated this call into strikes on May 1st. The anarchists thought that the eight hour day could only be won through direct action and solidarity. They considered that struggles for reforms, like the eight hour day, were not enough in themselves. They viewed them as only one battle in an ongoing class war that would only end by social revolution and the creation of a free society. It was with these ideas that they organised and fought.

In Chicago alone, 400 000 workers went out and the threat of strike action ensured that more than 45 000 were granted a shorter working day without striking. On May 3, 1886, police fired into a crowd of pickets at the McCormick Harvester Machine Company, killing at least one striker, seriously wounding five or six others, and injuring an undetermined number. Anarchists called for a mass meeting the next day in Haymarket Square to protest the brutality. According to the Mayor, "nothing had occurred yet, or looked likely to occur to require interference." However, as the meeting was breaking up a column of 180 police arrived and ordered the meeting to end. At this moment a bomb was thrown into the police ranks, who opened fire on the crowd. How many civilians were wounded or killed by the police was never exactly ascertained.

A reign of terror swept over Chicago. Meeting halls, union offices, printing shops and private homes were raided (usually without warrants). Such raids into working-class areas allowed the police to round up all known anarchists and other socialists. Many suspects were beaten up and some bribed. "Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards" was the public statement of J. Grinnell, the States Attorney, when a question was raised about search warrants. ["Editor's Introduction", The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs, p. 7]

Eight anarchists were put on trial for accessory to murder. No pretence was made that any of the accused had carried out or even planned the bomb. Instead the jury were told "Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the Grand Jury, and indicted because they were leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousands who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury; convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society." [Op. Cit., p. 8] The jury was selected by a special bailiff, nominated by the State's Attorney and was composed of businessmen and a relative of one of the cops killed. The defence was not allowed to present evidence that the special bailiff had publicly claimed "I am managing this case and I know what I am about. These fellows are going to be hanged as certain as death." [Ibid.] Not surprisingly, the accused were convicted. Seven were sentenced to death, one to 15 years' imprisonment.

An international campaign resulted in two of the death sentences being commuted to life, but the world wide protest did not stop the US state. Of the remaining five, one (Louis Lingg) cheated the executioner and killed himself on the eve of the execution. The remaining four (Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel and Adolph Fischer) were hanged on November 11th 1887. They are known in Labour history as the Haymarket Martyrs. Between 150,000 and 500,000 lined the route taken by the funeral cortege and between 10,000 to 25,000 were estimated to have watched the burial.

In 1889, the American delegation attending the International Socialist congress in Paris proposed that May 1st be adopted as a workers' holiday. This was to commemorate working class struggle and the "Martyrdom of the Chicago Eight". Since then Mayday has became a day for international solidarity. In 1893, the new Governor of Illinois made official what the working class in Chicago and across the world knew all along and pardoned the Martyrs because of their obvious innocence and because "the trial was not fair".

The authorities had believed at the time of the trial that such persecution would break the back of the labour movement. They were wrong. In the words of August Spies when he addressed the court after he had been sentenced to die:

"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 in misery and want, expect salvation -- if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread on a spark, but there and there, behind you -- and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out." [Op. Cit., pp. 8-9]

At the time and in the years to come, this defiance of the state and capitalism was to win thousands to anarchism, particularly in the US itself. Since the Haymarket event, anarchists have celebrated May Day (on the 1st of May -- the reformist unions and labour parties moved its marches to the first Sunday of the month). We do so to show our solidarity with other working class people across the world, to celebrate past and present struggles, to show our power and remind the ruling class of their vulnerability. As Nestor Makhno put it:

"That day those American workers attempted, by organising themselves, to give expression to their protest against the iniquitous order of the State and Capital of the propertied . . .
"The workers of Chicago . . . had gathered to resolve, in common, the problems of their lives and their struggles. . .

"Today too . . . the toilers . . . regard the first of May as the occasion of a get-together when they will concern themselves with their own affairs and consider the matter of their emancipation." [The Struggle Against the State and Other Essays, pp. 59-60]

Anarchists stay true to the origins of May Day and celebrate its birth in the direct action of the oppressed. Oppression and exploitation breed resistance and, for anarchists, May Day is an international symbol of that resistance and power -- a power expressed in the last words of August Spies, chiselled in stone on the monument to the Haymarket martyrs in Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago:

"The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today."

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