Eighty-five, bent and nearly blind, as poor as the day she arrived there more than a half-century earlier, Lucy Parsons addressed a rally in Chicago on November 11, 1937. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the day her husband, Albert Parsons, and three other anarchists were hanged by the State of Illinois for allegedly throwing a bomb in Haymarket Square at an open-air rally in May 1886, a rally called to condemn a brutal attack the previous day by police on striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works. She was there to memorialize the Haymarket anarchists and to cry out against a more recent act of deadly violence, the “Memorial Day Massacre” that spring, when Chicago police shot ten men in the back who had gathered, along with thousands of others, to demand union recognition at Republic Steel, a bitterly antiunion corporation. For Lucy nothing had changed. Such savagery would continue, she told her listeners, until capitalism was overthrown. That was the nub of a conviction that had inspired her, her husband, their comrades and untold numbers of others all across late nineteenth-century America. They were alive in an age that, with the singular exception of the Civil War, was arguably the most protracted period of social violence in the country’s history; one might even call it an undeclared second civil war following hard on the heels of the first.
Haymarket reverberates. It always has, echoing down the decades with the sound of gunfire and grief. The tragic events leading up to the execution of the Haymarket martyrs have been told over and again in plays and poems, in novels and films, in histories and documentary anthologies, in cartoons and protest banners, most recently in a video and, at long last, as a permanent memorial erected on that fateful square less than two years ago. If you want to know about the Haymarket affair, there’s a dazzling array of sources to choose from. But if you must choose just one, read James Green’s Death in the Haymarket. It tells the tale with extraordinary grace. Its simplicity of expression carries an understated dramatic charge that stays with you long after finishing. Its collection of newspaper illustrations, cartoons and photographs heightens the tactile evocation of an age that now seems so remote. Moreover, Green, a professor of labor history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, deftly uses the Haymarket story to peer deep inside the fears and hopes of a nation living on the knife-edge of social catastrophe. And after all, that is just how multitudes felt when the bomb went off in their midst.
Today, such a moment is hard to recall, even to imagine. This is not only because we live in a pathologically amnesiac culture. It also has something to do with the triumph (that is, in the realm of ideology and culture) of democratic capitalism, celebrated by its boosters as “shareholder democracy.” Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of a remarkable work of history, Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America. Hartz is famous for having argued that, thanks to the absence of any entrenched feudal-aristocratic past, the United States had bypassed the class-based social and political divisions that tore apart nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe. Instead, our political culture remained forever trapped within the claustrophobic confines of a Lockean consensus, defined by the universal pursuit of propertied independence and individual material acquisition. Hartz’s thesis on “American exceptionalism” has never seemed more apropos than it does today. But Death in the Haymarket is a stunning refutation of that rather Olympian view of American history precisely at the point where Hartz thought it best applied: namely, during the Gilded Age. It was then, so the Harvard political scientist believed, that upper-class businessmen–and their panegyrists in the newsroom, the pulpit and the academy–shed their elitist pretensions and learned to talk the talk of Horatio Alger, the idiom of every man a capitalist. But where Hartz imagined one nation under The Market, Green paints a picture of one nation dividing in two where the haves and have-nots are united by little more than their premonition of an impending, violent confrontation.
Death in the Haymarket brilliantly depicts this profoundly fractured universe, its atmosphere of hardening suspicions and conspiratorial paranoia. Here the material and cultural abyss separating the “dangerous classes” from their social overlords severed all communication, except the exchange of metaphorical artillery: incendiary hallucinations about “crazed offal” and “unwashed gutter snipes” from the Paris Commune alongside furious denunciations of the “Property Beast” and wits-end anarchist hallelujahs for dynamite as the proletariat’s best friend. It was a Dickensian best and worst of times, when hunger marchers paraded solemnly past the mansions, gentlemen’s clubs and luxury department stores of Chicago’s “better half.” The atmosphere seemed infused with a mounting readiness to settle accounts once and for all, and not just in dollars and cents. What was at stake, many believed, was nothing less than the future of the good society. Would it be hierarchical or egalitarian, competitive or cooperative, democratic or tyrannical? Would the patriarchal family survive or give way to something scarily unknown? Would the social order be hard-wired by ethnicity and race, or would it surmount those purportedly natural divisions? Unsettled as these questions were, the age overflowed with futuristic literature, of utopias and dystopias, from Edward Bellamy’s Panglossian and enormously influential Looking Backward to Populist tribune Ignatius Donnelly’s horrific anticipation of a class Armageddon in Caesar’s Column.