Crowds and Power

Crowds and Power

In Death in the Haymarket James Green uses the story of the Haymarket riot to expose the hopes and fears of nineteenth-century America, a nation living on the knife-edge of social catastrophe.


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.

At work were two historic undercurrents whose momentum proved irresistible. Both were propelled by a convulsive economy marked by deadly competition, wild booms and panics, chronic deflation, deep depressions in the 1870s and ’90s and shallower ones in between–in a word, chaos. A later, more complacent time would characterize all this as the “takeoff” stage of American industrial development. Back then, however, what people lived through was more raw and ugly. One process involved the near extinction of the family farm and a whole way of life through a protracted campaign of primitive accumulation by the nation’s financial establishment. The second upheaval transformed millions of onetime European peasants and skilled artisans into proletarians, native-born and immigrant, who together found themselves descending into a world of brutal exploitation and abject powerlessness. Together these cataclysms converged to generate an enveloping universe of the aggrieved, boiling over in anger and resistance but also exploding with hope. Fully mobilized, this living alternative to a merciless regime of industrial capitalism inspired legions ranging from the Populists to the Knights of Labor, from the semimythical Molly Maguires in the Pennsylvania coal mines to the roustabouts of the Chicago dockyards, from the proud craft unionists driving the country’s railroads and molding its iron to the Polish and Southern Italian birds of passage manning the killing floors of Chicago’s stockyards. Green introduces us to all of these and many other groups and to their collective drama. He notes, for example, that when the Knights of Labor conducted their great strikes against Jay Gould’s Southwestern railroad empire in the months preceding Haymarket, their staunchest supporters were members of the Texas Farmers’ Alliance, roused by their own revulsion for Gould, not only for his offenses as a railroad tycoon but because he was a Wall Street predator of the first rank who, these agrarian rebels were convinced, lived like a parasite off the fat of their land.

There was a social physics at work here of an extraordinary sort, and Green is superb in describing it. This is quite an accomplishment, because, like the hunt for elusive subatomic particles that may only pop into being for a moment and then vanish, the phenomenon Green tracks only erupts in moments of intense social strain and fluidity. Green calls it the mass strike, perhaps echoing Rosa Luxemburg. And that is just what was happening in America over and again, beginning with the great railroad strike of 1877 and continuing through and beyond the Great Upheaval for the eight-hour day in 1886–the immediate run-up to the Haymarket bombing.

Green characterizes that “upheaval” as a “strange enthusiasm” in an attempt to capture its exoticism. During a mass strike people stop working, as in a conventional trade union strike, but there the similarities end. The normal trade union strike is a closed system joining two parties contesting over limited if sometimes intractable issues. The mass strike is open-ended, ecumenical in reach; its desires, however exalted, are always tethered to the needs of the most abused. In Chicago, as in other cities, the mass strike, or “Upheaval of ’86,” erupted at a thousand points at once, leaping across all boundaries of skill, gender, nativity, ethnicity and race, and winning the support of many people whose immediate economic interests did not depend on the outcome, including farmers, neighborhood merchants and whole urban barrios, from school kids to the aged and unemployed. Brickyard and packinghouse workers, dry goods clerks and iron molders, unskilled Jewish female shoe sewers and skilled telegraphers, German craftsmen from the bookbinding trade and unlettered Bohemian freight handlers assembled together under the banner of the Knights of Labor. Moreover, the mass strike midwived a new nationalist pride among immigrants traditionally bound to more particularistic identities. Indeed, this “strange enthusiasm” was inherently transgressive, as it shattered and then recombined dozens of more parochial attachments, the intense heat of the strike fusing them into something more daring and generous-minded.

Moreover, the mass strike had a rhythm all its own, syncopated and unpredictable as it spread like an epidemic from work site to marketplace to slum. It had no command central. But it was not some mysterious instance of spontaneous combustion. Rather, it had dozens of choreographers who directed local insurgencies that nevertheless remained elastic enough to cohere with one another while remaining distinct. Its program defied easy codification. At one moment and place it was about free speech, at another about a foreman’s chronic abuse, here about the presence of scabs and armed thugs, there about a wage cut. It ranged effortlessly from something as prosaic as a change in the piece rate to something as portentous as the nationalization of the country’s transportation and communication infrastructure; it called for relief from endless hours of work and gloried in Emancipation Day (the original name for May Day, which began in the United States on May 1, 1886). At its core stood the demand for the eight-hour day, blunt and simple yet profound as it defined for that historic moment both the irreducible minimum of a just and humane civilization and what the prevailing order of things seemingly could not, or would not, grant.

Insofar as the mass strike had an ideology and a political vision, it was similarly hard to pin down. Was it the embryo of the cooperative commonwealth, the rebirth or salvation of the Producers’ Republic? Was it some variant of socialism or anticapitalist anarchism? Was it an experimental, living collage of Marx and Jefferson, Paine and Bakunin? It’s hard to say precisely, yet it unmistakably opened up the prospect of a new society, founded on principles at odds with the tooth-and-claw struggle for self-advancement so celebrated in certain precincts of Darwinian America. That alternative possibility was perhaps best expressed not in some formalized credo but in the mass strike’s tactical repertory. Its two principal weapons were the boycott and the sympathy strike. Indeed, what else would one expect from a movement whose social character and programmatic reach made it the living embodiment of sympathy? This was solidarity, not merely as a piece of inspiring rhetoric but as the spirit come to life, discovering all the exfoliating networks of its social nervous system. The form of the strike was its content, the medium the message.

Only within the mélange of this “strange enthusiasm” can one assess the weighty role of those radical few who normally subsist in ghettos of irrelevance. Green gives us wonderful miniatures of the Haymarket martyrs: their social obscurity; their painstaking self-education; their chastening encounters with industrial exploitation and urban poverty both abroad (especially in Germany) and in the United States; the charisma of some, like onetime Confederate soldier and then Texas Radical Republican Albert Parsons; the stolid, near monomaniacal dedication of others, like the youthful and defiant Louis Lingg, who blew himself up in jail rather than suffer the indignity of state execution. Above all, we get a sense of how small, sectarian groups, normally marginal to the main currents of political life, all at once found themselves listened to, read, followed, even idolized by swelling numbers of ordinary citizens as the tides of the mass strike crested, receded and crested again during this remarkable decade. And finally, Green lets us experience not only the enthusiasm and optimism of these revolutionaries so accustomed to being ignored but also their growing desperation as they faced off against an ever more bloody-minded opposition. It may be unthinkable now, but the sight of armed workers’ militias training and parading in the streets of Chicago and other cities was common enough in Gilded Age America. And they had reason to be on guard.

It is impossible to underestimate the Great Fear that gripped much of the country. As a mental state this began with the news of the Paris Commune in 1871, an event that so alarmed bourgeois America that images of pétroleuses (Parisian female arsonists) and raving Communards continued to haunt the middle-class imagination for the next twenty-five years. When Haymarket happened there were plenty of Chicagoans who still believed the Chicago fire of 1871 was set by agents of the Commune. The fear took on more palpable form, as Death in the Haymarket documents, during the great railroad strike of 1877, when pitched battles between state militias and federal troops and an enraged and sometimes armed citizenry took place in cities from coast to coast. That same summer, ten Molly Maguires were executed by the State of Pennsylvania. Journalists circulated stories about anarchist plots to slip arsenic into the food supply of troops called out to quell rebellions. Moreover, the fear metastasized, flooding the social organism with images of racial pollution, moral depravity, alien conspiracy and sexual inversion. Headline hysteria about “bohemian amazons,” “ungrateful hyenas” and “foreign savages” suggested that much more was threatened than the mere distribution of wealth and income. Edward Bellamy, in a letter to William Dean Howells (who worked himself to the bone trying to save the Haymarket anarchists) observed that socialism “smells to the average American of petroleum, suggests the red flag and all manner of sexual novelties, and an abusive tone about God and religion.” If half of Chicago (and millions around the world) mourned their judicial murder, it is vital to remember that the other half celebrated, deliriously happy, as if they had been saved from some horrible fate.

If it is hard for us to conjure up the Great Fear, it is just as difficult to grasp the extreme violence that fear generated. While we live in a time when fear has become the common currency of our political life, its texture was immeasurably bloodier and more apocalyptic during America’s original Gilded Age. Green itemizes this record of fear, loathing and merciless repression, which boiled over in 1886. The Western Gun Works did a booming business selling a specialty item known as the Tramps Terror. After the bomb went off in the Haymarket, the Chicago Times advised: “Let us whip these slavic wolves back to the European dens from which they issue, or…exterminate them.” Such sentiments were not unusual but customary; one paper called for throwing grenades into the ranks of striking sailors.

That, in effect, is what happened. The Great Upheaval was crushed ruthlessly by police, Pinkertons and local militias, without the slightest regard for the civil liberties of the strikers or their legions of supporters. Concessions made days earlier were retracted. Legislatures cranked out new edicts outlawing boycotts and sympathy strikes; sympathy criminalized. The Haymarket trial itself was little more than a judicial lynching heard by an avowedly hostile, handpicked jury who listened to evidence from the state’s paid witnesses, instructed and presided over by a flagrantly prejudiced judge. Terrorism was the crime for which the anarchists would pay, but their violence paled in comparison to the campaign of repression launched by their accusers. Nor was this a passing aberration. Convinced, in the aftermath of the 1877 uprising, that the local constabulary was not capable of suppressing an insurrection many assumed was bound to happen again, leading businessmen and others from the urban upper classes began erecting massive, fortress-like armories; one was equipped with twelve-pound cannons and a ten-barrel Gatling gun. Men known for their foresight, they were looking ahead.

Is this the face and idiom of counterrevolution? It would seem so, and as Green observes, Chicago is perhaps the perfect place to watch it unfold. Louis Hartz pointed out long ago that in America there was precious little of that Tory aristocratic tradition of social obligation that has, now and then, worked to quiet class antagonisms. Chicago, just because of its economic exuberance, its singular devotion to amassing great fortunes, nurtured a business elite even less conciliatory and tempered than most. It was readier to resort to the knout when its authority was questioned. Andrew Carnegie might have traveled around the country speechifying about the “stewardship of wealth.” But it is doubtful many of his conferees were listening–indeed, given that the Monongahela River ran red with blood during the strike at his Homestead steelworks not long after Haymarket, it’s not even certain Carnegie took himself seriously.

Moreover, upper-class unease with democracy, with political machines too susceptible to mass pressure, with the mongrelizing of urban America by hordes of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants, had fermented for decades, and not just in Chicago. Calls to restrict suffrage were common enough. Laws that displeased the plutocracy, like the eight-hour edict in Illinois, were simply ignored. That the country’s upper classes went around masquerading as Louis XIV, confecting aristocratic genealogies and erecting urban castles filled with the past 500 years of European high art, may seem to us farcical. Certainly such theatrics constituted an expression of their own social and cultural insecurity, an attempt to find some toehold in a remarkably vertiginous society. But these airs also suggested a self-conception light-years away from the world of Horatio Alger, a hankering after a form of legitimacy that had little to do with democratic capitalism.

What made Haymarket an imperishable moment in the country’s history is that it laid bare the social anatomy and psychology of a whole society and each of its constituent elements traumatized by its full immersion in the Great Upheaval. It was, arguably, the end of American innocence. James Green calls it a historic turning point. Death in the Haymarket is a moving remembrance of that moment, capturing its pathos and enduring significance.

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