Friday, December 31, 2010

The Workingmen's Party,Albert Parsons and the Eight-Hour Workday

  The Workingman's Party is often viewed as the first tangible political representation of the Socialist impulse in America.It played a prominent role in the St.Louis General Strike of 1877.Its seven thousand members were mostly German-American craft workers but the group favored worker unity across ethnic and racial lines.It was founded on the question of advancing Socialism's cause through electoral politics.Some of the members were Marxian Socialists that didn't believe it was worthwhile to engage in party politics(I'm feeling more like this everyday).They believed there would be no progress until man's labor was fairly valued,trade unions flourished,strikes and boycotts persisted to reveal the weaknesses of capitalism and private property.

Shortly after the 1877 rail strike, it renamed itself the Socialist Labor Party and it achieved notable electoral success in Chicago,where in 1878-9 its candidates won slots for a state senator,three state representatives, and four city aldermen.But within a few years many in the Chicago SLP became disillusioned with political corruption and denials by judges of elected SLP candidates.Albert Parsons,leader of the SLP, had placed faith in the ballot as a means of alleviating the workers' blight.Parsons and other leaders eventually became disillusioned and stated that the State,the Government and its laws were agents of the powers of capital(sound familiar)..that the chief function of all Government was to maintain economic subjection of man of labor.This form of despotism was an invasion of man's natural right to liberty.Of course, the Chicago authorities kept a close eye on Parsons and friends since those words were proclaimed at a Market Street speech.

One of Parsons friends was August Spies who was the editor and business manager of the German-language daily called the Arbeiter-Zeitung in Chicago.Spies paper was radical in tone and both men retained a tenuous faith in the ballot as an instrument for change.They found themselves among the more adamant colleagues at national gatherings.They sided with the Revolutionary Socialist Party,an anarchist splinter group from NYC,who advocated direct action including terrorism as a weapon of harassing the ruling elite and emboldening the masses.

Parsons edited the Alarm which had a subscription of twenty-five hundred and a pass-along readership that was much higher.In February,1886,the Alarm viewed the popular eight-hour movement as a sign of the progressive ideas underlying the entire labor movement.On May 1,Chicago and numerous cities around the nation would demonstrate for the eight-hour workday.One hundred thousand marched in Chicago for the cause on May 1,the nation's largest turnout, with relative calm.Unfortunately,on May 3,four men were shot to death by the Pinkertons in an riot at the McCormick Reaper Company who wanted to replace union workers and lower wages.To protest the slaughter at McCormick,a rally was called for the next day at Chicago's Haymarket Square.

The Haymarket Square gathering was peaceful.Spies and Parsons spoke but didn't inflame the crowd with violent rhetoric.Spies accused the McCormick bosses of murder while Parsons urged the workers to arm themselves in self defense.Both left the rally after their speeches.Samuel Fielden worked as a teamster and gave the last speech.He stated that a war has been declared on us and that workers must resist with anything they can get a hold of...the capitalists have no mercy,so ought you? The Pinkertons,lead by Inspector Bonfield,was informed about the remarks and lead his men to disperse the crowd. As they got to the stage to stop the rally, a terrific explosion occurred and the bomb killed seven and injured sixty-seven policemen.After the explosion,the police killed four and wounded fifty workers at the rally.Samuel Fieldon was led away by companions,a police bullet in his knee.

Most of the nation was outraged over the incident,a deadly assault on uniform police by anarchists.The NY Times,Harper's Weekly and the Chicago Daily News all came out against the violence of the leaders of the rally. While the much-published assumption that the bombing was planned,there was little proof to support the theory.Spies,Fielden and five others were arrested immediately with Parsons evaded the police dragnet.Sifting through the scant evidence and interviewing witnesses,investigators could not agree on weather the bomb had been thrown at the police from the speakers wagon,the sidewalk,or a window overhead.Nonetheless,over several days the outlines of a conspiracy emerged with the arrested as the targets for the prosecution.Parsons came back to Chicago to stand trial with the other six comrades on June 21,1886.

The defense assaulted the state's claim that the anarchists intended the rally in Haymarket to trigger"a revolution",since any intelligent person knew that when anarchists spoke of revolution they were referring to an ideal--a change in the economic and civic conditions of society that would someday replace government authority with greater individual autonomy.Unfortunately,the defendants lost the trial and all were hanged on November 11,1887.Before he died Parsons read a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier's"The Reformer".Wheather on the gallows high,Or in the battle van,The noblest place for man to die,Is where he dies for man.

More from "There Is Power In A Union" by Philip Dray.

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