[Marxism] The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Dec 4 08:49:47 MST 2017
NY Review of Books, DECEMBER 21, 2017 ISSUE
Street Fighting Woman
by Eric Foner
Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical
by Jacqueline Jones
Basic Books, 464 pp., $32.00
With its economic instability, mass immigration, corrupting influence of
money on politics, and ever-increasing gap between the rich and everyone
else, our current era bears more than a slight resemblance to the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dubbed by Mark Twain the
Gilded Age. There are also striking differences. Back then,
larger-than-life radical organizers—Eugene V. Debs, Emma Goldman, Bill
Haywood, and others—traversed the country, calling on the working class
to rise up against its oppressors. Today’s critics of the capitalist
order such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren seem tame by comparison.
In her time, Lucy Parsons was as celebrated a radical orator as Debs and
the others. Born a slave in Virginia in 1851, she lived into the 1940s,
witnessing vast transformations in the American economic and political
order but also the persistent exploitation of American workers. She
became a prolific writer and speaker on behalf of anarchism, free
speech, and labor organization. But she has been largely forgotten, or
treated as an afterthought compared with her husband, Albert, an
anarchist executed after Chicago’s Haymarket bombing of 1886. Thanks to
Goddess of Anarchy, Jacqueline Jones’s new biography, readers finally
have a penetrating account of Parsons’s long, remarkable life.
One of the most influential historians of her generation, Jones is the
author of books that sweep across centuries. Her previous works include
a pioneering history of black women’s labor in America, a study of the
evolution of the underclass, an account of four centuries of black and
white labor, and a history of “the myth of race” from the colonial era
to the present. Again and again, Jones returns to the complex
connections between racial and class inequality in American history.
Jones makes clear that Lucy Parsons deserves attention apart from her
martyred husband. Originally named Lucia, she was removed with other
slaves to Texas by her owner (probably also her father, Jones believes)
during the Civil War to prevent them from seeking refuge with the Union
army. Educated after becoming free at a school established by a northern
teacher, she fell in love with Albert Parsons, the descendant of early
New England settlers, whose father had moved to Alabama in the 1830s.
(Parsons had fought on the Confederate side and managed to survive four
years of bloody fighting.) During Reconstruction, when Congress rewrote
laws and the Constitution to grant legal and political equality to the
emancipated slaves, Parsons embraced these radical changes. He moved to
Texas, where his brother ran a newspaper, and became one of the few
white leaders of the state’s predominantly black Republican Party. (Most
of the other white members in Texas were German immigrants who had
remained loyal to the Union and suffered severe reprisals under the
Parsons worked as a journalist, political operative, and officer of the
state militia as it sought to put down violence against blacks. He
emerged as a spellbinding speaker, addressing crowds of up to a thousand
freedpeople. Reconstruction was a violent time, and nowhere as violent
as in Texas, where armed bands committed many atrocities against former
slaves and their allies. The life of a Republican leader was hardly
secure, and became even more dangerous when Albert and Lucia wed in
1872—interracial marriages were frowned upon, to say the least, by white
Texans. Albert was assaulted, shot at, and threatened with lynching.
Soon after white supremacist Democrats regained control of the state
government in 1873, the couple left for Chicago. En route, in good
American fashion, Lucia reinvented herself. She changed her name to Lucy
and henceforth described her ancestry as Mexican and Indian (although on
the birth certificate of her son, born in 1879, she identified his race
as Negro). Passing for white has always been an option for light-skinned
blacks. Lucy’s complexion made this impossible; she did, however, try to
shed the stigma of slave origins. She and her husband never set foot in
Chicago in the 1870s was home to a militant labor movement and the site
of bread riots and mass strikes. Albert Parsons joined the small
Socialistic Labor Party and picked up where he had left off as a public
speaker, quickly making the transition from denouncing the southern
planter class to assailing northern capitalists, and from condemning
chattel slavery to demanding the abolition of wage slavery. “My enemies
in the southern states consisted of those who oppressed the black
slave,” he proclaimed. “My enemies in the North are among those who
would perpetuate the slavery of the wage workers.”
During the national railroad strike of 1877, thousands of demonstrators
clashed on Chicago’s streets with police and armed veterans’
organizations, leaving over thirty workers dead. Afterward, Parsons lost
his job as a printer and was blacklisted; Lucy, an accomplished
seamstress, supported the two of them by establishing a clothing shop.
That same year, Parsons ran for local office as a socialist and did so
for the next three years. But he received only a tiny number of votes.
This lack of electoral success, combined with the labor militancy he
witnessed in 1877, convinced him and his wife that violent upheaval, not
the ballot box, was the path to social transformation. The two renounced
the electoral system and joined the city’s anarchist movement.
Anarchists in Chicago were almost entirely immigrants from Germany.
Jones suggests that his experience working with Germans in Texas made
Parsons comfortable with their Chicago counterparts. As a descendant of
colonial Puritans and virtually the anarchists’ only English-speaking
orator, Parsons was especially valuable to the movement—his presence
proved that anarchism was not simply a foreign import.
Meanwhile, Lucy Parsons engaged in a program of self-education,
attending weekly anarchist meetings and devouring radical books and
newspapers. She soon established herself as a talented writer and
lecturer. Her article “A Word to Tramps” in The Alarm, a periodical
edited by her husband, became a widely reproduced “staple of anarchist
propaganda.” In another piece, “Communistic Monopoly,” she joined
numerous other radical writers of the era—Edward Bellamy being the most
famous—who made their point by transporting a character to a future
utopia. Unlike his authoritarian socialism, in her model of the good
society small local associations, including trade unions and religious
groups, governed the social order.
As American-born anarchists, Albert and Lucy Parsons were a minority
within a minority. Their outlook, however, had more in common with that
of their German associates than with other native-born anarchists, whose
views represented an extreme version of common American values—suspicion
of the state and celebration of unfettered individualism. European
anarchists tended to be more collectivist in orientation. Their
ideology, sometimes called anarcho-syndicalism, envisioned labor unions,
not liberated individuals, taking over the functions of government.
However, while many Chicago Germans denounced existing unions as
hopelessly reformist, Lucy worked with the Chicago Working Women’s Union
and Albert with the Knights of Labor and the Chicago Eight-Hour League.
One issue on which the couple fully agreed with other anarchists was
their forthright advocacy of violence. They hailed dynamite, invented by
Alfred Nobel in the 1860s, as the great equalizer in the class struggle.
Dynamite would even the odds between a weak and fractured working class
and the economic and political elite (which time and again proved quite
willing to use violence to promote its own interests). Johann Most, the
leading anarchist in Germany, preached the propaganda of the deed: acts
of violence would awaken class consciousness and inspire a working-class
uprising. He urged his followers to plant bombs not only in government
buildings but, among other places, in ballrooms of the rich and churches.
Albert and Lucy Parsons, too, celebrated violence. Lucy urged tramps to
“learn the use of explosives.” Albert advised members of one audience to
“buy a Colt’s navy revolver, a Winchester rifle, and ten pounds of
dynamite.” The Alarm published articles on how to make dynamite bombs.
Despite their heated rhetoric, Albert and Lucy do not seem to have
committed any acts of violence themselves. But others did. In Europe,
Irish revolutionaries planted dynamite bombs in London and anarchists
assassinated Tsar Alexander II of Russia and King Umberto I of Italy. In
1901 an anarchist assassinated President William McKinley. In 1910 the
McNamara brothers, two radical unionists, bombed the Los Angeles Times
building. An anarchist was probably responsible for the Wall Street
bombing of 1920.
Today, after Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden, and ISIS, loose talk
celebrating violence seems rather less exhilarating than in the
Parsonses’ era. Jones makes it clear that she believes their advocacy of
violence was “largely harmless.” Few workers seem to have taken it
seriously. A local newspaper, reporting on one of Chicago’s Sunday labor
picnics, reported that after speakers harangued the crowd to arm
themselves, listeners did—with beer. Jones points out that the
Parsonses’ language was entirely counterproductive, needlessly
frightening law-abiding citizens and allowing authorities to tar all
radicals with the brush of insurrection.
To explain why the couple insisted on using such shocking language,
Jones develops an elaborate scenario in which a symbiotic relationship
developed between the Parsonses, the mainstream press, and the police.
Albert and Lucy knew that advocacy of violence would attract attention
the tiny anarchist movement could not otherwise enjoy. Reporters eagerly
recounted their fiery speeches and interviews because such articles sold
newspapers. Albert seems to have known the identity of undercover police
agents who attended anarchist meetings. When they were present, he spoke
even more vividly of violent class warfare so that their reports would
rattle the city’s establishment. Meanwhile, police reports about his
language justified the city’s pouring more and more public money into
what would later be called its Red Squad. This interpretation seems too
conspiratorial to be entirely persuasive. Another possibility is that
the Parsonses believed in what they were saying and how they said it.
The turning point in Lucy’s life was her husband’s trial and execution.
On May 4, 1886, a mass rally took place at Haymarket Square to protest
the killing of four men when police opened fire during an altercation
between strikers and strikebreakers at the giant McCormick agricultural
machinery factory. Albert delivered one of the rally’s speeches, after
which he and Lucy repaired to a local saloon. As the gathering was
winding down, someone threw a dynamite bomb, killing a policeman. At
least ten other people later succumbed to injuries, some from gunshot
wounds, although it remains unclear if anarchists or police fired the shots.
Eight prominent anarchists (five immigrants from Germany, one from
England, an American of German descent, and Albert Parsons) were put on
trial for murder and conspiracy. The proceedings were notably unfair,
beginning with the decision to try all eight together. Only two of the
men had been present when the bomb was thrown, and Parsons had not even
attended the meeting the evening before when the rally was planned. The
judge openly displayed bias against the defendants and spent part of his
time flirting with female admirers in the audience. The prosecutor told
the jury to convict because anarchy itself was on trial. For his part,
Parsons claimed, falsely, that he had brought his two young children to
the rally, allegedly proving that he did not anticipate violence. All
eight men were convicted. After fruitless appeals, four, including
Parsons, were hanged. Having survived the Civil War and the violence of
Reconstruction Texas, Parsons went to his death in Illinois for a crime
he did not commit.
With her husband in jail (where he received a steady stream of visitors,
some bringing food, cigars, and other gifts), Lucy Parsons came into her
own. She embarked on speaking tours to raise money for the expensive
appeals process. She spoke at union halls and saloons, and at highly
respectable venues such as Cooper Institute in New York City. She
insisted on her husband’s innocence but refused to renounce her views
(she began her speeches by proclaiming, “I am an anarchist”).
In interviews Parsons repeated the tale that she had been born in Texas
of Mexican and Native American ancestry. The mainstream press reviled
her as “a sanguinary Amazon.” Reporters obsessed over the exotic
appearance of this “dusky representative of anarchy,” dwelling in detail
on her coloring, hair, and elegant clothing (she did not present the
image of an unkempt rabble-rouser). But working-class audiences, whether
they agreed with her anarchist views or not, saw her as a symbol of the
judicial system’s class bias, and she succeeded in raising significant
sums of money. Albert would long be remembered as a working-class
martyr. John Brown, Joe Hill, Sacco and Vanzetti, Julius and Ethel
Rosenberg, and Albert Parsons—execution elevated all of them to a fame
that transcended their particular political views and the crimes they
did or did not commit.
Lucy Parsons lived for over half a century after her husband’s
execution. For years she pursued her career as an anarchist speaker and
writer. She became a prominent figure in Chicago’s vibrant reform
culture, in which groups of all kinds, from labor radicals to Christian
socialists and settlement house workers, debated ways to ameliorate the
dire conditions of the urban working class. As Jones relates,
middle-class reformers proved remarkably willing to listen to a radical
like Parsons. She even spoke before the ultra-respectable Friendship
Liberal League and New Century Club. Parsons became a stalwart advocate
of free speech, engaging in frequent battles with the Chicago police,
who tried to prevent her from lecturing and displaying anarchist flags.
In the early twentieth century she joined the free-speech fights of the
Industrial Workers of the World. These battles remind us how much our
civil liberties owe to radicals—abolitionists, anarchists, free lovers,
labor agitators, black militants—all of whom had to fight for the right
to disseminate their ideas without official persecution.
Despite her husband’s fate, Lucy Parsons did not retreat from the
advocacy of violence. “Rivers of blood,” she said in one speech, would
have to flow before social justice could be achieved. By the early
twentieth century, however, she seemed a relic of an earlier era.
Anarchism was changing as urban intellectuals and bohemians claimed the
label for themselves. These new recruits did not idealize violence and
were more interested in shattering social taboos, especially with regard
to sex, than liberating the working class. Parsons did not find this
stance appealing. Not that she was sexually conventional. A few months
after Albert’s execution she began living with a younger man, and other
lovers followed. But open advocacy of sexual freedom offended her.
Women, she said, “love the names of father, home and children too well”
to embrace the idea of free love. When Emma Goldman published her
autobiography in 1931, Parsons, now eighty, criticized the “sex stuff”
in the book and wondered why Goldman felt it necessary to identify
fifteen of her lovers.
There is much to praise in Goddess of Anarchy, including Jones’s
thorough research, which has laid to rest uncertainty about Parsons’s
origins, and the ways the book illuminates the rapidly changing economic
and political circumstances in which Parsons operated. A work that could
easily have descended into a confusing litany of tiny organizations,
short-lived publications, and endless speaking tours retains clarity and
coherence throughout. Lucy Parsons finally receives her due as a
pioneering radical. As Jones points out, Parsons was hardly the only
flamboyant and enthralling woman orator of the industrial era—one thinks
also of Goldman, the Populist Mary Ellen Lease, and the labor radicals
Mother Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. But she was the only woman of
color; indeed it is probable that no nonwhite person of the era other
than Frederick Douglass addressed as many Americans. Jones takes Lucy
Parsons seriously as a speaker and writer, rather than reducing her to
an adjunct of her husband.
Ultimately, however, the portrait is not sympathetic. As Jones makes
clear, Parsons pursued her goals, personal and political, with
“ruthlessness.” Jones chides both Albert and Lucy for thinking of the
working class as an abstraction, ignoring deep divisions along lines of
ethnicity, religion, race, and craft, as well as the fact that most
workers valued their democratic rights and did not view the ballot box
as a trap.
Candid criticism is always preferable to hagiography. Jones, however,
sometimes seems to measure both Parsonses against an ahistorical
ideal—the radical attuned to the intersections of race and class, the
nuances of political strategy, and the impact of language, whose private
life reflected his or her political principles. Not surprisingly, by
this standard Lucy is found wanting. So would almost any human being.
The great Debs enjoyed racist humor. Goldman preached free love but flew
into rages of jealousy over the womanizing of her lover Ben Reitman.
“Did she live life as an anarchist?” Jones asks of Parsons. The answer
is no: Parsons failed to pursue the “playful” kind of life other
anarchists aspired to, or to break openly with “stifling social
conventions.” She was not, in other words, a New Leftist.
A scholar deeply committed to revealing the history of racial
inequality, Jones frequently takes Albert and Lucy Parsons to task for
their “pronounced indifference to the plight of African-American
laborers,” in both the South and Chicago. Blacks were the most
downtrodden sector of the working class, but the Parsonses said almost
nothing about the particular exploitation—disfranchisement, segregation,
lynching, etc.—to which they were subjected. American radicals, Jones
writes, should be judged by “a single dominant standard”: the degree to
which they participate in a struggle against racism. Lucy Parsons fails
this test, politically and personally. Indeed, the book’s most serious
charge is that she refused to embrace her identity as a black woman and
former slave. Parsons, Jones believes, should have spoken for her race.
It is difficult today to appreciate that earlier generations may not
always have been as preoccupied with race as we are. The Parsonses
assumed that the liberation of the working class would benefit blacks as
much as whites. In one article, Lucy wrote about the plight of southern
blacks, but attributed it mainly to poverty, not racial oppression. This
analysis is open to criticism, but it was one adopted by Debs and many
other white radicals. At various points in our history, moreover, black
activists and social critics have also challenged the primacy of race.
As Jonathan Holloway shows in Confronting the Veil (2003), this was the
position of Abram Harris Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche in
important writings of the 1920s and 1930s.
The vexed question of the intersection of race and class has no single
answer. But it seems misguided for Jones to conclude that Albert’s
“indifference” to racial inequality in Chicago proves that his
courageous efforts on behalf of blacks in Reconstruction Texas were
“purely opportunistic,” or to criticize Lucy for going to great lengths
to deny her “African heritage” (an intellectual and political concept
less relevant in the late nineteenth century than today).
Political commitment is a choice, not an obligation. Throughout American
history, some people of all backgrounds, like Lucy Parsons, have found
it liberating to be part of an international movement with a
universalist vision of social change, rather than seeing themselves
primarily as members of a group apart. Then and now, DNA is not
necessarily political destiny.
More information about the Marxism