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Misled into laboring for anarchy: the Haymarket Affair is a classic example of how well-organized agitators cleverly manipulated many well-intentioned laborers into committing acts of social demolition.


On a rain-soaked night on May 4, 1886, a crowd of about 1,000 laborers gathered near Haymarket Square in Chicago, to rail against the action of police at the McCormick labor strike a few days earlier. Among them were anarchists and socialists, who struck a chord with laborers by calling for an eight-hour work day and better working conditions, but whose agenda included the elimination of capitalist society through violent means. Unfortunately, the subversive elements were in control.

City authorities, fearing another McCormick incident which resulted in the death of one striker, decided not to interfere in the meeting. But as a precautionary measure, they assembled a large police force in the vicinity near the Desplaines police station. Of the 176 men under the command of Chicago Police Inspector John Bonfield, 50 were ordered to insert themselves among the crowds to watch for signs of trouble. The site was well chosen by the anarchists, who intended a confrontation. It was dimly lit and the alleyways offered an escape route should things turn badly for the agitators.

And a confrontation was exactly what occurred. The police, receiving reports that the crowd was being incited to violence, decided to move in. Inspector Bonfield and Captain William Ward led the way at the front of the first of four divisions, arrayed like columns of infantry ready for battle. Upon seeing the blue-clad officers moving toward the crowd, British-born socialist Samuel Fielden cried: "Here come the bloodhounds. You do your duty and I'll do mine!" Captain Ward commanded the crowd to disperse and walked within three feet of Fielden, shouting: "I command you, in the name of the people of the State, to immediately and peaceably disperse." Fielden responded by jumping off the wagon, and declaring, "We are peaceable."

Just then, an unknown assailant in the crowd launched a bomb into the ranks of the second division of policemen. The homemade device sailed through air, its fuse glowing like a lit cigar. The following explosion was heard for miles around. Instantly, a volley of small arms was fired into the ranks of the policemen from the periphery of the mob. The results of the explosion were terrifying. The entire column of the second division lay on the ground. Elements of the third and fourth divisions were injured too. Inspector Bonfield quickly rallied the troops and ordered them to fire upon the assailants. The protestors fled in all directions. Fielden fired his revolver into the ranks of the police and then disappeared from the scene. When it was over, the casualty list included one police officer dead and over 70 wounded. The bomb thrower was never identified.

The Labor/Socialist Nexus

America in the late 19th century was a country undergoing profound change on the labor front. The number of immigrants streaming into the United States brought foreign-born numbers to unprecedented levels. Most of them were laborers. At the same time, labor advocates and organizations began asserting their influence on a much greater scale than ever before. The old trade-union models which traced their origins to the early republic still existed, but new groups began emerging to meet the upsurge in the numbers of working men and women of all trades--both unskilled and skilled. All of these developments, the upsurge in immigration and the rise of labor unions, coalesced to produce one of the most volatile periods in U.S. history.

As early as the 1840s, trade unions were clamoring for the eight-hour day. By the 1880s, they were still fighting for a reduced work day but had added demands for higher pay and better working conditions to their wish lists. They differed from their mid-19th-century trade union counterparts by adopting new methods of labor solidarity. And for a brief time groups like the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor succeeded in uniting disparate groups under the leadership of men like Uriah S. Stephens, and later Terence V. Powderly. By 1873, the Knights had formed their first district assembly in Philadelphia. The Knights continued to grow even as trade unions collapsed following the economic panic of 1873. At their first General Assembly they formed a national organization and began pushing for reforms that included the eight-hour day and the elimination of convict labor.


Unlike the trade unionists, the Knights welcomed all wage earners, skilled and unskilled, to their ranks regardless of profession, excepting lawyers, doctors, bankers, and liquor salesman. They reached their developmental apex after Powderly succeeded Stephens in 1879. Powderly, a former mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, preferred the boycott to the strike, but the Knights owed their greatest victories to the latter. In 1884, they struck successfully against wage cuts in Union Pacific railroad shops, and in 1885 they managed a stunning victory over railroad magnate Jay Gould. As a result the ranks of the Knights swelled to more than 700,000 by 1886. For the Knights it was a short-lived victory. Gould, stung by his defeat in 1885, outmaneuvered the Knights during a rail strike when he called in the Pinkertons to ensure that the trains kept running. The Knights called off the strike but the real damage to their reputation would occur at Haymarket Square a year later.

Assembling the Troops

The Haymarket Affair had its origins in labor's ongoing quest for the eight-hour day. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada took the lead and set May 1, 1886 as the deadline for the eight-hour day, calling for general strikes from all trades. Prone to indecision, Powderly did not support the call for strikes, but some of his assemblies joined with the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in a show of solidarity. In Chicago, the largely German-speaking Socialistic Labor Party gained increasing influence in the labor movement along with a small group of committed anarchists. A sense of growing solidarity helped the various groups to coalesce around the eight-hour day issue and Chicago became the center for the national movement. It was a virtual powder keg in Chicago, and no one quite knew what to expect on the eve of May 1, 1886.

On May 1, 1886, the Knights, trade unions, and socialists--approximately 80,000 Chicago workers--struck for the eight-hour day. The local bilingual socialist/anarchist organ Arbeiter-Zeitung urged the workers on with a mix of militant headlines and inflammatory rhetoric. Bravely Forward! Cowards, to the rear! Men, to the front! read the headlines on May 1. The paper's editor, August Spies, a German-born member of the International Working People's Association, led the strikers up Michigan Avenue.

The march was peaceful but on May 3, the uneasy peace was shattered when McCormick Reaper Works strikers fought replacement workers. Attempting to restore order, Chicago police clashed with the striking employees, killing one of them in the process. For Spies, a witness to the event, it was an act that cried out for vengeance.


Spies, like many of his anarchist and socialist brethren, believed in the doctrine of Propaganda of the Deed. It was an idea based on the belief that a decisive violent act is capable of rousing individuals to action. Its foremost proponent was Johann Most, a German anarchist who moved to Chicago in 1882. Most championed the use of dynamite in the commission of terrorist acts. The German demagogue felt that dynamite was the perfect weapon to support the Propaganda of the Deed doctrine. Dynamite had only recently been developed by Alfred Nobel, a Swedish inventor looking for an alternative to the use of unstable nitroglycerine in construction projects. Its capability to cause extensive damaged leveled the playing field between civilians and armed policemen. This appealed to Most, who realized that individuals now possessed a weapon that was perfectly suited to advance the socialist agenda. He went so far as to publish instructions for building dynamite bombs, while Spies's Arbeiter-Zeitung published a number of tracts containing specific direction about the use of dynamite as a tool of terror. The editors of another Chicago socialist newspaper, The Alarm, unabashedly opined that "one dynamite bomb properly placed, will destroy a regiment of soldiers a weapon easily made and carried with perfect safety in the pockets of ones' clothing." Louis Lingg, who would eventually be convicted of conspiracy after the Haymarket riot, stated, "If they use cannons against us, we shall use dynamite against them." Lingg was an expert bomb-maker and would later use his skills to kill himself on the eve of his scheduled execution.


In the days following the McCormick riot, Spies published increasingly inflammatory editorials calculated to agitate the mobs. On May 3, he penned his famous "Revenge" circular with headlines that screamed "Revenge! Workingmen to Arms!" The text in English read: "If you are men, if you are the sons of your grand sires, who have shed their blood to free you, then you will rise in your might Hercules, and destroy the hideous monster that seeks to destroy you. To arms, we call you to arms!" The German-language version was much stronger in its militancy, urging "annihilation to the beasts in human form who call themselves rulers!" On May 4, he continued to stoke the fires of discontent. Raising the specter of class warfare, he wrote, "Blood has flown. It happened as it had to. The militia have not been drilling in vain. It is historical that private property had its origin in violence. The war of classes has come. To arms! To Arms!"

The stage was now set. Imbued with the doctrine of violence, the socialists and anarchists mobilized under the red and black flags determined to effect social revolution change through illegal force.

For his part, Powderly saw the dangers of socialist and anarchist infiltration in the Knights. In the spring of 1886, he issued a circular that attempted to quell some of the more radical elements in the eight-hour workday movement. For all his alleged faults, Powderly knew that the socialist and anarchist elements that infected the labor movement were really about the deconstruction of society and the abolition of capitalism. In his circular he wrote:
 Men who own capital are not
 our enemies. If that theory held
 good, the workman of today
 would be the enemy of his fellow-toiler
 on the morrow, for,
 after all, it is how to acquire
 capital and how to use it properly
 that we are endeavoring to
 learn. No! the man of capital
 is not necessarily the enemy
 of the laborer; on the contrary,
 they must be brought closer
 together. I am aware that some
 extremists will say I am advocating
 a weak plan and will say
 that bloodshed and destruction
 of property alone will solve the
 problem. If a man speaks such
 sentiments in an assembly read
 for him the charge with the
 Master Workman repeat to the
 newly initiated who join our
 "army of peace." If he repeats
 such nonsense put him out.

Unfortunately for Powderly, many of his Knights ignored his instruction.



There was nothing left but to mobilize the forces of destruction for action. Anarchist and socialist leaders scheduled a public meeting for the evening of May 4 at Haymarket Square. In preparation for the event they met to discuss a plan of action at a place known as Greif's Hall. Representatives of the various armed sections gathered there on the afternoon of May 3. Spies' inflammatory "Revenge" circular was distributed, and under the guidance of Gottfried Waller, later a witness for the state, the 70 or so socialists and anarchists in attendance devised a plan to incite a riot at Haymarket Square while simultaneously bombing Chicago police stations. The ambitious plan was adopted and the next morning the call for the mass meeting was printed and distributed throughout the city. Captain Michael J. Schaack, investigator and state's witness at the Haymarket trial, later wrote, "The carnival of riot and destruction ... only awaited the proper signal from the committee."

Among the speakers at Haymarket Square was August Spies, who used the opportunity to rail against the McCormick incident and to exhort "workingmen" to arm themselves. Also in attendance was democratic Mayor Carter Harrison who, after hearing a few restrained speeches, determined that there was no need to hold the police force in reserve. He departed in the middle of a speech given by Samuel Fielden, whose remarks grew bolder and more inflammatory shortly after Harrison left the scene. Fielden exhorted the crowd to have nothing to do with the law except to "Throttle it! Kill it! Stab it!" Fielden's revolutionary rhetoric began to incite the crowd. Several officers in the crowd began to send situational reports to Inspector Bonfield of the Chicago Police Department. Still, Bonfield initially resisted sending in the force to disperse the crowds. He later reported that he wanted to be "clearly within the law, and wishing to leave no room for doubt as to the propriety of our actions, I did not act on the first reports, but sent the officers back to make further observations." Shortly after 10 o'clock, a number of officers sent back reports that the crowd was becoming increasingly agitated. It was at that point that Bonfield ordered elements of the reserve to move to disperse the crowd. Moments later, an unknown assailant would launch the revolutionary missile that would kill one police officer and unmask the socialist conspiracy.

Conspiracy Trial

It was easy for the authorities to round up those morally responsible for the incident because the inflammatory actions of Spies, Fielden, and a host of others were evident from the outset. But who bore the criminal responsibility? Captain Schaack launched a massive investigation. Detectives started with the offices of the Arbeiter-Zeitung--the heart and soul of the anarchist/socialist movement in Chicago. There they uncovered the infamous manuscript of the "Revenge" circular and a trove of other incriminating documents that suggested a conspiracy, including testimony that dynamite had been stored in the offices of the Arbeiter-Zeitung.

Ultimately, eight anarchist leaders of the conspiratorial clique, including Louis Lingg, August Spies, and Samuel Fielden, were arrested and sentenced to death despite the lack of any evidence directly linking them to the bomb thrower. Lingg admitted to building dynamite bombs and attending the conspiracy meeting at Greif's Hall, but he denied throwing the bomb. In the end, Spies, Fielden, Lingg, Albert Parsons, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, and Oscar Neebe were indicted for the murder of police officer Mathias Degan. Though the court could not connect any of them directly to the bomb thrower, they were found guilty of murder on the basis of their conspiratorial activities and public exhortations to violence. All of them, save Oscar Neebe, were sentenced to death.

Lingg decided not to wait for the hangman's noose and took his life in jail by detonating a small bomb in his mouth! The sentences of Fielden and Schwab were commuted to life in prison, and the others were hanged. Fischer's last words before he died were, "Hurray for Anarchy ? This is the happiest moment of my life." Albert Parsons declared, "Let the voice of the people be heard." The bodies of the dead men were laid to rest at Waldheim Cemetery. Six years later, the Haymarket Martyrs Monument was erected in memory of the dead anarchists. In 1887, Governor John P. Altgeld of Illinois pardoned Fielden, Schwab, and Neebe.


Anatomy of a Riot

The stage-managed, anti-capitalist riot of Haymarket Square followed a favored pattern of communists, anarchists, and other revolutionaries since the dawn of mass communication. Author Eugene H. Methvin detailed the process in a groundbreaking work entitled The Riot Makers: The Technology of Social Demolition. The first step is the development of an organization. Lenin once said, "Give me an organization of professional revolutionaries, and I will turn Russia upside down." In the late 19th century, there was no shortage of organizations in America dedicated to the restructuring of American society. Some, like the Knights of Labor, were dedicated to effecting change on a level that would preserve the basic structure of American life; others, like the anarchists and socialists, sought a complete reshaping of society. It was from these organizations that the socialist seed was planted on this continent, and they could not have done it without a well-oiled organizational machine in place.

The second stage according to Methvin is based upon preconditioning the masses. It is essential that the masses be convinced that the current system is corrupt or deficient and in need of change. They must adopt a code of generalized beliefs. Methvin writes that "precondition functions as the process by which the radical subculture of political violence maintains itself, attracts new members and acts disruptively upon the dominant culture in pursuit of its ... world vision." For the late 19th-century radicals it was the belief that capitalism was inherently corrupt.

Third, a specific issue must be chosen for agitation. The struggle for the eight-hour day and other labor issues served as the perfect vehicle to agitate the masses. In Methvin's model, sloganeering like that employed by the leaders of the anarchists and editors of their organs in Chicago functioned as the "precise tools for engineering, molding and directing opinion." Cries of injustice and revenge induced many garden-variety labor-rights activists to walk side by side with socialists and anarchists in 1886 Chicago. Once the preconditioning and advance work has been done, the conspirators stage a rally and employ the on-the-scene techniques that achieve the desired objective. In the case of the Haymarket conspirators, the objective was to provoke the police to use force in order to produce a violent revolutionary response from labor groups, and to signal the beginning of such an event to their followers among the anarchists and socialists.

It also had the benefit of likely producing a pantheon of martyrs from which the socialists could benefit. Martyrdom has the power to turn public opinion and destroy opposition to radicalism. The manufacture of martyrs is also an effective recruitment tool. The capital punishment of the Rosenbergs in 1953 was used as an occasion by the communists to condemn American justice. According to Methvin, Lee Harvey Oswald's introduction to Marxism came through a leaflet protesting the execution of the two nuclear spies. Today, Muslim extremists use similar techniques to attract recruits to their hideous death cult.

Lenin studied his radical predecessors and borrowed much from their techniques. Today the legacy of "social demolition" that characterized the season of upheaval in Chicago is carried on faithfully by radical protesters the world over and always orchestrated from above.

The Haymarket Affair is a mere footnote in the history of the United States. On the surface it is merely one of several labor-versus-establishment riots characteristic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that followed a familiar pattern--workers strike for better wages, hours, etc., only to be crushed by state militia or local police forces. But there is a greater historical lesson to be learned. The mass-manipulation techniques employed by the instigators of the Chicago riot prefigured Lenin and the rise of communism by some 31 years. Lenin may have perfected the techniques of social disruption and mass manipulation, but the "Reds" and anarchists of 1886 Chicago were already on to it.

When the Haymarket Affair is taught in American schools today, it is usually presented as a heroic struggle for the eight-hour workday juxtaposed against police brutality and soulless capitalism. In reality it is no such thing. Rather, it is a classic example of how well-organized nihilistic agitators cleverly manipulated many well-intentioned laborers into committing acts of social demolition, while gaining sympathy for the socialist and anarchist movements.
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Author:Telzrow, Michael E.
Publication:The New American
Date:Nov 26, 2007
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