More dangerous than a thousand rioters
tells the story of a revolutionary who contributed enormously to the struggles of U.S. workers on both sides of the turn of the 20th century.
THE ASHES had hardly cooled from the house fire that killed labor radical Lucy Parsons in 1942 when the Chicago police raided the remains of her home, confiscating her personal library of 3,000 volumes of literature and writings on "sex, socialism and anarchy"--in the cops' words--turning it over to the FBI. This trove of revolutionary material was never again to see the light of day.
Through the six decades of her adult life, Lucy Parsons was a revolutionary, with a reputation as one of her generation's finest orators. She led workers and oppressed people in struggle, wrote widely on the questions facing anarchists and socialists, and lived a full and remarkable life.
It was no surprise that the Chicago police were anxious to bury Parsons' legacy as quickly as possible. In their own words, she was "more dangerous than a thousand rioters." For virtually the entirety of the last 40 years of her life, the police tried to bar her from making any public speeches and routinely arrested her for the "crime" of handing out revolutionary pamphlets on the street.
LITTLE IS known of Lucy Parsons' exact origins, though most historians agree that she was born around 1853 in Texas, where she probably grew up as a slave. She is thought to have been of mixed African, Mexican, and Native American ancestry.
She would stay in Texas until 1873, when she and her husband, Albert Parsons, fled the persecution they regularly faced as an interracial couple--married in a state that had been part of the slave-owning Confederacy less than a decade before--and moved north. They eventually reached Chicago, where they took up residence in a working-class, immigrant neighborhood.
The two were quickly drawn into the radical circles of the European immigrants they met there, and they breathed in the ideas the ideas of socialism, class struggle and revolution, which increasingly dominated the political and cultural life of the working classes of Europe.
The single greatest catalyst for the Parsons' radicalization was the national railroad strike of 1877, the first general strike in U.S. history. The capitalist class had responded viciously to the labor uprising. In Chicago, the police and the newly formed Illinois National Guard were mobilized to break the strike with the use of sword, gun and cannon. Scores of workers were killed, and even more wounded.
Profoundly influenced by the lessons of the strike, Lucy Parsons became increasingly active in the Chicago socialist movement. She began writing regular articles for The Socialist newspaper, and organized housewives and other women who worked but did not receive a wage into the Working Women's Union.
Lucy Parsons came to stand out as a leader among the most militant of the Chicago socialists. She had given up on the idea that there could be a peaceful transformation from capitalism to socialism, or that it could be achieved primarily through electoral channels.
The capitalist class was certainly anything but peaceful in its approach to workers' struggle, as its behavior during the 1877 strike showed. It was such class violence that prompted Parsons to pen one of her most famous articles, "To Tramps," which was published in the first edition of The Alarm, a newspaper started by her and Albert in Chicago.
Parsons addressed her call-to-arms to the "35,000 now tramping the streets of this great city, with hands in pockets, gazing listlessly about you at the evidence of wealth and pleasure of which you own no part." She called upon these crushed victims of inequality to take up arms against their industrial masters--and reminded them that all was fair in the class war.
The more Lucy Parsons involved herself in the revolutionary movement, the more popular she became. She began regularly addressing crowds numbering in the thousands on the streets of Chicago.
She also became virtually the sole revolutionary in the anarchist or socialist movements of the time to seriously take up the so-called "Negro question." In the pages of The Alarm, she decried the epidemic of lynchings of Southern Blacks. Though she viewed racism as an expression of "deep-seated prejudice," Parsons nonetheless maintained that the oppression of Black people under capitalism was rooted in economic conditions.
"Are there any so stupid as to believe these outrages have been, are being and will be heaped upon the Negro because he is Black?" wrote Parsons. "Not at all. It is because he is poor. It is because he is dependent. Because he is poorer as a class than his white wage-slave brother of the North."
Parsons took a similar approach to the question of women's oppression, which she argued was a function of women's economic dependence on men, first as his "household drudge" and second as a lesser-paid worker. In a speech before a group of male trade unionists, she argued:
We, the women of this country, have no ballot even if we wished to use it...but we have our labor. We are exploited more ruthlessly than men. Wherever wages are to be reduced, the capitalist class uses women to reduce them, and if there is anything that you men should do in the future, it is to organize the women.
ON MAY 1, 1886, tens of thousands of workers across Chicago went on strike as part of a national walkout for the eight-hour day. Lucy and Albert Parsons played a leading role in this struggle.
Employers were furious as the movement scored victories that forced a growing number of businesses to concede the movement's demand for a shorter workday. They were waiting for an opportunity to carry out a counter-offensive against the workers. That opportunity came after a May 4 meeting at Chicago's Haymarket Square. As the strike support rally was coming to a close, a bomb went off in a crowd of police who were attacking the gathering.
Though the actual bomb thrower was never found, Albert and seven others were rounded up and charged with murder. None of the "Haymarket Eight" were accused of having any direct connection to the bombing--the prosecutor even told the jury that the eight men were on trial simply because they were the leaders of the working-class movement.
The men were found guilty, and four of them, including Albert Parsons, died on the gallows on November 11, 1887--one defendant committed suicide the day before the cheat the hangman, and the other three remained in prison until they were pardoned in 1893 by Illinois' governor.
Lucy Parsons had immediately set about organizing a defense campaign for the Haymarket Eight. She went on a national speaking tour to plead their case. By the time the execution date arrived, Lucy Parsons had traveled through 17 different states, where she made 50 speeches in front of close to 200,000 people.
Not one to be intimidated, Lucy Parsons continued her revolutionary activity after Albert's execution. She toured and spoke around the country, sold revolutionary newspapers and pamphlets in the streets of Chicago--while continually evading police--and walked picket lines with striking workers.
In 1894, she lent her efforts to what would become the first-ever mass march on Washington, D.C., organized by the populist Jacob Coxey. She addressed Coxey's "Army of the Unemployed" as they gathered on the South Side of Chicago in preparation for their long march to the capital in pursuit of federal relief for the jobless.
Later that year, she would meet with Eugene Debs, a man quickly becoming America's most popular socialist, to help him found what later became the Socialist Party of America.
But Parsons remained critical of the reformists in the socialist movement and their obsession with electoral campaigns. When some reform socialists supported the 1888 presidential campaign of Democrat Grover Cleveland, Parsons shouted at them, "Have the Democrats committed no sin? Have the Republicans been guilty of everything? The Negroes of the South are no longer in physical slavery, but the Democrats of the South intend to keep them in economic slavery!"
Within the anarchist movement, Lucy Parsons also found herself engaged in a series of debates over strategy and tactics. While Parsons was primarily focused on building revolutionary struggle among the working class, both inside and outside of trade unions, the recognized leaders of American anarchism were definitely not interested in this approach.
By the turn of the century, Emma Goldman was the most popular anarchist in the U.S. Her focus was on the freedom of the individual, primarily around the question of sexual independence and "free love." Goldman and Parsons became fierce, lifelong adversaries over their differing perspectives on revolution.
Parsons charged Goldman with ignoring the class struggle and "addressing largely middle-class audiences." Goldman attacked Parsons for failing to prioritize the fight to "smash monogamy."
For Parsons, it was ridiculous to talk about women's sexual liberation without a struggle around economic issues. "I hold that the economic is the first issue to be settled," she writes. "That it is woman's economical dependence which makes her enslavement possible...How many women do you think would submit to marriage slavery if it were not for wage slavery?"
As the anarchist label came to be associated with those moving away from a focus on the working class, Lucy Parsons became increasingly disenchanted with anarchism. Soon she would be writing, "Anarchists are good at showing the shortcomings of others' organizations. But what have they done in the last 50 years?...Nothing to build up a movement; they are mere pipe-dreamers dreaming. Consequently, anarchism doesn't appeal to the public."
IN 1905, Lucy Parsons would participate in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a revolutionary-syndicalist organization. Her speech at the IWW's founding convention contains some of her most powerful statements on socialism, revolution and workers' power. She also anticipated important developments that would later confront the international workers' movement:
The trouble with all the strikes in the past has been this: the workingmen strike and go out and starve. My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production. If anyone is to starve...let it be the capitalist class.
Later that year, Parsons would begin editing The Liberator, a newspaper connected to both the IWW and the Socialist Party. Parsons wrote a weekly column on women's issues, a series of articles on "Labor's Long Struggle with Capital" and continued to engage in the ideological debates within the movement.
On the question of the ballot box as a means of affecting social change, she wrote, "The fact is money and not votes is what rules the people. The idea that the poor man's vote amounts to anything is the veriest delusion. The ballot is only the paper veil that hides the tricks."
In 1914, war broke out between some of the world's biggest powers in Europe. As an early opponent of the war, Parsons was shocked by the behavior of the various mass socialist parties within the countries at war. Virtually all supported the war or refused to oppose it--the number of steadfast antiwar socialists was reduced to tiny numbers.
When the German Social-Democratic Party--then the largest socialist party in the world--voted to fund the national war effort, Parsons attacked its leaders for "help[ing] their imperial master lay a war levy of a billion marks or more for the prosecution of a war on workers of other countries."
The shining beacon of hope for Parsons and many others during the dark days of war was the Russian revolution of 1917. Led by the Bolshevik Party and its leader Lenin, Russian workers had risen up to overthrow the Tsar's regime and then a pro-capitalist provisional government--they aimed to a establish a system based on workers' democracy and workers' control of production.
Parsons immediately identified with the revolution. She saw in the efforts of the Russian workers the concrete embodiment of what she had spent her entire life working for. When the Communist Party (CP) was formed in the U.S. in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Parsons quickly came to play a leading role in connection with its various activities.
In 1925, she was elected to the national executive committee of the International Labor Defense (ILD), an organization formed by the CP to defend the victims of capitalist repression, both in and out of jail, and to fight for the civil rights of the victims of racism.
Through the ILD, she was involved in some of the most important fights of the day. She organized against the executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two anarchist labor organizers; she defended Angelo Herndon, the young African-American Communist from Georgia who faced 20 years in prison on a charge of "insurrection"; and she fought to prevent the executions of Tom Mooney and "Big Bill" Haywood, leaders in the Socialist Party and the IWW.
She also actively participated in the now-famous campaign to free the "Scottsboro Boys"--nine young African American men in Alabama who were falsely accused of rape, convicted by an all-white jury, constantly threatened with lynching by white mobs, and who ultimately became national symbols of injustices of the criminal justice system in the segregated South.
Though there is some debate as to whether Parsons was an official member of the CP or a devoted fellow traveler, there can be no doubt that she saw herself as part of the revolutionary tradition within which the CP operated. Speaking at a 1930 May Day rally organized by the CP, Parsons said:
I have seen many movements come and go. I belonged to all of those movements. I was a delegate that organized the Industrial Workers of the World. I carried a card in the old Socialist Party. And now I am today connected with the Communists.
WHEN PARSONS died in 1942, The Daily Worker, the CP's newspaper, published a series of stirring obituaries honoring her life and legacy. One of these pieces, titled "Tribute to a Heroine of Labor," written by Parsons' longtime friend and comrade Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is arguably the most sublime portrait of Lucy Parsons in existence:
Lucy Parsons spoke in a beautiful melodious voice, with eloquence and passion. She never lost faith in the power, courage, intelligence and ultimate triumph of the people. Years ago, she accustomed trade union men to listen respectfully to a woman speaking for labor. She helped make them more keenly aware of the need of strong unions and organizing the unorganized. She helped to build up a strong tradition of labor defense so that other leaders of labor should not suffer the same fate as her husband.
She encouraged every new effort to push forward the whole labor movement. What a great satisfaction to her it must have been for her to realize the number of splendid young women, many of her color, who are enrolled in it today. She did not live in the past. She lived for the future. She will live in the future, in the hearts of the workers.
A longer version of this article appears on the writer's Joan of Mark blog.