Mayday and the lessons of the Haymarket Martyrs

The Chicago anarchists still have something to teach us about political expression

The origins of Mayday as international workers day are embedded in anarchist tradition, not least because of the ‘martyrdom’ of the eight Chicago anarchists who were tried for murder for their supposed role at Haymarket in May 1886. The subsequent execution of four of them was seen amongst radicals worldwide as the US state exacting revenge on the agitators for their political beliefs rather than the crime they committed, a crime they were to be absolved of years later.

The bomb throwing at Haymarket, agitating for an eight hour working day, the police violence and state repression connected to workers organising, all form part of the history of why Mayday is still celebrated amongst anarchists, radical workers and leftists of all descriptions. What perhaps is less well known, and certainly less documented is the Chicago anarchists’ practical activities which provided a backdrop to their political ideas, activities that wouldn’t be out of place, indeed in some cases seem all too familiar, to today’s anarchist.

From Paul Avrich’s Haymarket Tragedy:
The [Chicago] anarchists sought not only an end to capitalism and government but a total revolution in human relations, cultural as well as political and economic. Their object, in an age of growing centralisation and standardisation, was to create an alternative society, based on freedom, brotherhood, and equality, as opposed to the authority and privilege of the established order. Anarchism, as they conceived it, was not something to dream of for the future. It was a guide to everyday life, a doctrine to be applied, so far as possible, within the interstices of American capitalism. And the extent to which they succeeded in doing so was quite remarkable. Between 1883 and 1886 they developed a rich libertarian counterculture, deeply rooted in the working classes and totally at odds with the values of the prevailing system.

During the three years prior to Haymarket, the International ¹ published no fewer than fourteen journals, daily, weekly, fortnightly, which acquainted a growing number of workers with socialist and anarchist ideas. By far the most important were Most’s Frieheit, Spies’s Arbeiter-Zeitung, and Parson’s Alarm. All these journals, in whatever language they were published, trumpeted revolutionary methods and goals. All, moreover, used the term “anarchist” to characterise their political beliefs. Initially, as Parsons relates, the anarchist label had been fastened upon the Internationalists by their opponents, who had sought to stigmatize them as enemies of “law and order”. Before long, however, the Internationalists defiantly adopted it as a badge of esteem. “We began to allude to ourselves as anarchists” writes Parsons “and that name, which was at first imputed to us as a dishonour, we came to cherish and to defend with pride”. While many Internationalists continued to call themselves socialists as well as anarchists, the latter term soon took precedence over the former. As Fielden later recalled “In regard to whether the term anarchist is the proper one or socialist, I wish to say that [we] were all anarchists at that time”.

Beyond their publishing ventures, the anarchists engaged in a broad range of cultural and social activities, which enhanced their feeling of solidarity and greatly enriched their lives. They organised lectures, concerts, picnics, dances, plays and recitations. Saloons and beer gardens became bustling centres of radical life.

For all the enthusiasm of these celebrations, the International attained its greatest degree of public visibility through street demonstrations and processions, often mounted jointly with the Central Labor Union. Such demonstrations frequently combined a parade through downtown Chicago with a picnic at Ogden’s Grove. As many as three or four thousand demonstrators participated, many of them decorated with red ribbons or rosettes and carrying red or black flags inscribed with mottoes setting forth “the grievances and hopes of the proletariat”.

The International staged yet another mass procession, and one that, because of the impact, warrants detailed description. Billed specifically as a “counter demonstration” it was planned to coincide with the opening of an elaborate new building by the Chicago Board of Trade. On the night of April 28, 1885 gathered “a motley crowd of radicals, tramps and curiosity seekers” under the IWPA banner. From the North Side arrived bearing aloft red and black flags and marched to the speakers stand amid shouts from the assembled crowd. Fielden pointing to the flags said that the red flag represented “the red blood of humanity which flowed alike through the veins of all”. The other the black flag was “the emblem of starvation and misery” or “the fearful symbol of hunger, misery and death” as the Alarm described it. To the music of the band, the procession moved off forming a line about two blocks in length. At the head of the line marched Lucy Parsons and Lizzie Holmes each bearing a flag one black, the other red.

Demonstrations like these were a peculiar feature of the agitation in Chicago in the years before the Haymarket explosion. They were designed, above all, to display the strength of the movement to its opponents and at the same time to encourage its supporters with a sense of collective power. Yet, combining entertainment with social protest, they had a festive air which belied their seriousness of purpose. With their flags and banners, their placards and posters, their mottoes and slogans, their speeches and music, they brought all the devices of the counterculture into play and provided a vivid example of how traditional social activities might be used for revolutionary purposes.

¹ International Working People’s Association (IWPA), sometimes known as the “Black International,” was a worldwide political organisation established in 1881 at a convention held in London. The Chicago anarchists were part of the American federation of groups affiliated to the IWPA, often known as the Internationalists.

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