[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Socialisms]: Bekken on Jones, 'Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Sun Jan 26 08:00:47 MST 2020



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> From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
> Date: January 26, 2020 at 6:59:26 AM EST
> To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-Socialisms]:  Bekken on Jones, 'Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical'
> Reply-To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> 
> Jacqueline Jones.  Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy 
> Parsons, American Radical.  New York  Basic Books, 2017.  480 pp.  
> $32.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-07899-8.
> 
> Reviewed by Jon Bekken (Albright College)
> Published on H-Socialisms (January, 2020)
> Commissioned by Gary Roth
> 
> Lucy Parsons's Anarchism
> 
> Despite her central role in the Haymarket events and five decades as 
> a leading activist in the anarchist movement, Lucy Parsons has 
> received little attention from historians. Until this volume, there 
> was only Carolyn Ashbaugh's _Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary 
> _(1976/2013) and Gail Ahren's anthology of her writings, _Lucy 
> Parsons: Freedom, Equality & Solidarity--Writings & Speeches, 
> 1878-1937_ (2004). Jacqueline Jones, professor of women's and 
> southern history at the University of Texas at Austin, has done 
> extensive research into Parsons's life and written what will likely 
> be the definitive biography for years to come. Yet despite her 
> impressive scholarship and extensive citations, Jones does not fully 
> grasp the nuances of the radical and labor movements--and especially 
> the anarchist movement--of the time. 
> 
> Jones has done extensive work with primary sources to document Lucy 
> Parsons's birth and early years as a slave, before refashioning 
> herself in the early years of Emancipation. The certainty with which 
> Jones derides Lucy Parsons's "fiction about her origins" (p. ix) goes 
> well beyond the documentary record--relying heavily on an 1886 
> newspaper article Jones terms "the Rosetta Stone of Lucy Parsons's 
> early life" (p. 361n1), but the argument that she was born a slave is 
> persuasive. Although Jones dismisses Parsons's claim to Mexican 
> heritage, her birth name, Lucia, suggests otherwise. There seems to 
> be no surviving evidence as to who her father was; Jones speculates 
> that it was either the man who owned her mother, Thomas Taliferro, 
> "or another white man" (p. 12). Jones's documentation of Parsons's 
> final decades is less impressive, no doubt largely because Chicago 
> police and the FBI seized her papers and books in the aftermath of 
> the fire that killed her. 
> 
> In Texas, where she changed her name to Lucy and met and married 
> Confederate soldier turned Reconstruction Republican Albert Parsons, 
> the Parsonses defied the racial status quo and worked to build a 
> multiracial alliance before fleeing north to Chicago. While official 
> records might be afforded less deference (Jones concludes, for 
> example, that Albert lied about his age based upon an 1850 census 
> report listing his birth in 1845 rather than 1848--something that 
> could be a result of clerical error or confusion, especially as both 
> parents were dead within months of the interview), she draws on a 
> rich array of primary sources for this period. 
> 
> Jones criticizes Parsons for denying her African American heritage 
> after fleeing Texas, and especially for failing to adequately address 
> the violent oppression African Americans faced or to organize among 
> Chicago's African American population. Albert and Lucy Parsons only 
> occasionally addressed this reign of terror in their speeches and 
> writings after leaving Texas, although when they did address it they 
> consistently denounced racism, and the anarchist International 
> Working People's Association (IWPA) program demanded equal rights. 
> Chicago was hardly a safe place for African Americans. Illinois's 
> infamous black codes were repealed in 1870 and its antimiscegenation 
> law only in 1874, the year after the Parsonses arrived in Chicago. 
> African Americans remained a tiny proportion of the Chicago 
> population until the early 1900s. Lucy Parsons was far less involved 
> in organizing by the time a substantial African American population 
> had developed in Chicago, largely focused on preserving the memory of 
> the Haymarket Martyrs and working to expose contemporary repression, 
> often through the lens of the Haymarket legacy. Indeed, Lucy Parsons 
> shared a platform with the mother of one of the Scottsboro "boys" 
> during this period. 
> 
> In Chicago, the Parsonses quickly became active in the labor and 
> socialist movements, joining a handful of English-speakers in what 
> was a predominantly immigrant movement. The movement soon abandoned 
> electoral reform, and Albert and Lucy joined efforts to build the 
> IWPA. Jones states that native-born IWPA activists "presented 
> themselves as the new abolitionists ... [but] most native-born 
> workers found this analogy highly offensive" (p. 121). References to 
> wage slavery might connect with immigrants, she contends, but to 
> "white, American-born men" such rhetoric registered as an insult. No 
> doubt some found it so, but the language of wage slavery continued to 
> be employed well into the twentieth century, suggesting that it 
> resonated for many. And, of course, immigrants made up the core of 
> Chicago's working class. Jones insists that the Parsonses' rejection 
> of religion, voting, and temperance alienated them from ordinary 
> workers, ignoring the substantial numbers who joined "free-thought" 
> and anarchist organizations, were in any event denied the right to 
> vote as immigrants, and held their meetings and celebrations in 
> taverns and beer gardens. At the same time, she criticizes Lucy 
> Parsons for her failure "to speak openly and honestly of her 
> enslavement as a youth and of her free-spirited sexuality" (p. 348). 
> Jones believes Parsons had a number of sexual partners both before 
> marrying Albert Parsons and after he was hanged; she offers strong 
> evidence for some, but for many others little more than speculation. 
> 
> Lucy Parsons is of course best remembered for her (and Albert's) role 
> in the Haymarket events, and for her decades-long crusade to keep the 
> memory of the Haymarket Martyrs alive and to prevent future such 
> outrages. Jones's account of Haymarket relies heavily upon Timothy 
> Messer-Kruse, who devoted two books to resuscitating the prosecutors' 
> case against the Martyrs and imagining an international anarchist 
> terrorist conspiracy. (It being impossible to defend the trial as 
> fair to contemporary audiences, Messer-Kruse falls back on the claim 
> that the trial was acceptable by the standards of the time. One need 
> only look to the international protests and Governor Altgeld's pardon 
> of the surviving martyrs to see that the trial outraged contemporary 
> sensibilities.) Jones acknowledges in a footnote that Messer-Kruse's 
> attempt to vindicate the police and prosecutors is controversial 
> (citing but a single critique), but this does not seem to have 
> discouraged heavy reliance on his deeply flawed work. 
> 
> The resulting account is in many ways reminiscent of Henry David's 
> (uncited) _History of the Haymarket Affair_ (1936), with its emphasis 
> on dynamite talk to explain the brutal repression of Chicago's 
> radical labor movement. Somehow, while she acknowledges the 
> mainstream press's advocacy of murder of tramps and labor activists 
> and the severe violence police routinely meted out on picket lines, 
> labor demonstrations, and radical meetings, she does not adequately 
> take this context into account when criticizing the movement's 
> rhetoric. This was an era when soldiers were routinely dispatched to 
> suppress labor disputes, and courts treated labor unions as criminal 
> conspiracies (something she suggests on page 318 began in the 1920s). 
> Given this reality, it should not be surprising that activists were 
> looking for means to defend themselves. German and Czech immigrants 
> in Chicago organized workers' militias, but these were promptly 
> outlawed. Western miners did in fact use dynamite as they defended 
> themselves against company and government thugs, martial law, and 
> concentration camps. It is no coincidence that the first popular 
> history of the American labor movement was titled _Dynamite _(Louis 
> Adamic, 1931, 1935/2008), or that a more recent history of press 
> coverage of labor disputes during this era was titled _The Great 
> Industrial War _(Troy Rondinone, 2009). 
> 
> It is surely worth remembering that the Haymarket rally was called in 
> response to the police murder of workers picketing the McCormick 
> Reaper Works, and that there was no violence at the rally until 
> police attacked it. Who threw the bomb (which almost certainly killed 
> fewer people than the indiscriminate police gunfire) remains a matter 
> of conjecture, though the anarchists' _Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung_ 
> was convinced that the police were responsible and had killed their 
> own as a result of their incompetence. 
> 
> Jones's unremitting hostility to anarchism pervades the book. She 
> insists that "principled anarchists ... would have refused counsel 
> [at the Haymarket trial], arguing that the state-run proceedings were 
> inherently corrupt" (p. 145). That it was an inherently corrupt show 
> trial is beyond dispute, but does that mean the defendants should 
> meekly go like lambs to the slaughter? Jones understands anarchism's 
> (or at least the IWPA's) "guiding principle" to revolve around 
> "burst[s] of violence that would awaken the masses from their slumber 
> and impel them to overthrow their masters" (p. 90). This 
> misunderstanding flows naturally into her obsession with dynamite, 
> and she attributes the Parsonses' continued involvement in a range of 
> organizing and propaganda as evidence not of her misunderstanding, 
> but rather of incoherence on their part. She also seems not to 
> recognize that there was an actual mass movement of which they were a 
> part. Jones resorts to the passive voice when discussing August Spies 
> "becoming" editor of the _Arbeiter-Zeitung_ and "turn[ing] it into an 
> anarchist publication" (p. 91). It was in fact an elected position, 
> and the movement chose to replace an advocate of electoral reform 
> with an avowed anarchist. Similarly, in Jones's account, "Albert 
> withdrew from the [Trades & Labor Assembly], taking twelve unions 
> with him," and "formed a new federation--the Chicago Central Labor 
> Union (CLU), which consisted of an estimated 12,000 members, rivaling 
> the TLA" (p. 93). In actual fact, the CLU was a movement initiative, 
> grounded in an immigrant working class that had developed its own 
> unions, cultural and political associations, and daily and weekly 
> newspapers. 
> 
> The IWPA's and CLU's relations with the mainstream labor movement 
> were often contentious. Jones criticizes Albert Parsons for his 
> denunciation of the National Typographical Union and other business 
> unions, suggesting that "his animus toward the local seemed to stem 
> not only from broad ideological differences with its members but also 
> from his bitter memories of those members who had abandoned him when 
> he was blacklisted" (p. 121). Of course, their decision to allow 
> employers to blacklist a union member because of his political 
> activities was symptomatic of a class-collaborationist approach that 
> led the Typographers to routinely scab on other newspaper unions and 
> to boast, when they were finally locked out by publishers in 1947, 
> that the union had gone one hundred years without striking. For much 
> of her life, Lucy Parsons made her living as a dressmaker--Jones says 
> she "probably" employed one or two assistants in a small "factory" 
> with Albert as her "business partner" and salesman (p. 55, 69). The 
> evidence cited to support this insinuation that she was an employer 
> is a business card for "Parsons & Co." (pp. 372-3n1). 
> 
> Jones repeatedly asserts that the Parsonses routinely lied about 
> their lives and about the Haymarket events, including when they 
> challenged the prosecution's claim that the martyrs had planned 
> violence at the Haymarket rally, noting that they would not have 
> brought their children with them if they had any reason to expect 
> violence. Jones says the claim that they were at the Haymarket was 
> "untrue," a "myth," and notes that no one testified during the trial 
> to seeing the children at the rally (pp. 150, 200, 344, 349). 
> Elsewhere she acknowledges that the entire family was at Haymarket 
> Square that evening when the rally was scheduled to begin, before 
> proceeding to a meeting of the American Group of the IWPA called to 
> discuss organizing seamstresses. Jones suggests that the meeting was 
> called for some other unspecified, sinister purpose, but offers not 
> the slightest evidence for this. Albert and several others left that 
> meeting when a messenger arrived saying speakers were urgently needed 
> at the Haymarket rally. Jones says they "may have arranged for 
> someone else to take their children home" from the meeting, though 
> Albert and Lucy insisted they had brought them to the rally (p. 132). 
> It is not clear why she insists they were lying about this, as no 
> evidence contradicting them has ever been produced. It appears that 
> the children were sent home at some point, as the rally ran until 
> 10:30 p.m., when it was broken up by the police attack, but the 
> details have never been established. Jones claims that the Parsonses 
> must have known that an attack against police was planned, offering 
> as evidence only the fact that Albert went into hiding after police 
> opened fire on the demonstration. This suggestion is unsupported by 
> any evidence (police were not even present until after the mayor 
> left, creating an opportunity to attack the rally), and seems to have 
> been concocted to support the claim "that Albert needed the ruse of 
> his children's presence there in order to dispel suspicions that he 
> was privy to the information" (p. 152). 
> 
> A major theme of the book is Jones's concern that the Parsons paid 
> insufficient attention to racial oppression after leaving Texas and 
> that Lucy betrayed her heritage by trying to pass as Mexican. She 
> devotes several passages to demonstrating that reporters did not go 
> along with this. She also discusses instances where Lucy Parsons 
> addressed racial issues, including an article ("one of only a handful 
> of _Alarm_ pieces devoted to southern blacks," p. 127) on a massacre 
> of 23 African Americans in Carrollton, Mississippi. In that article, 
> Parsons suggested that blacks were terrorized not because of their 
> race but because they were poor and powerless, and that the key to 
> their liberation lay in arming themselves to enforce their rights. 
> Jones claims Lucy Parsons made only a single passing reference to 
> lynching and black oppression in her writings and "denigrated the 
> black freedom struggle", including "the opportunity to advance within 
> the workplace, to swim at a lakefront beach on a hot summer day, 
> [and] to send their children to decent schools" (p. 349). The first 
> claim is disproven by Jones's own book (though there are other 
> writings which she does not discuss), even if racism received less 
> attention than it deserved; the second appears to be a complete 
> fabrication, unsupported by any footnote or textual evidence. In 
> 1915, Parsons agreed to speak under the auspices of the African 
> American Alpha Suffrage Club (p. 302), raised funds for the 
> Magonistas, and offered her Spanish-speaking skills to the movement. 
> Jones, nonetheless, insists that Parsons did not speak Spanish, 
> offering no source for the claim. 
> 
> Two years later Parsons embraced the Russian Revolution, and Jones 
> seizes on the moment of revolutionary enthusiasm to tar Parsons with 
> "the Bolsheviks' bloody suppression of their political opponents, 
> evidenced, for example, in genocidal progroms against Jews" (p. 304). 
> That the Bolsheviks were ruthless dictators is now beyond dispute, 
> and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and other radicals 
> published firsthand exposés at least as early as 1921. (Parsons 
> never confronted the Bolsheviks' betrayal, whether out of distrust of 
> press accounts or a misguided commitment to left unity. But she also 
> refused to join the Communist Party, identifying as an anarchist 
> until the day she died.) But genocidal progroms were the specialty of 
> the old czarist regime and the White armies that sought to restore 
> it; like the Makhnovshchyna, the Bolsheviks condemned progroms and 
> executed progromists. Here Jones seems (the relevant paragraph is 
> footnoted, but the note does not address the issue) to conflate the 
> official anti-Semitism that flourished under Stalin with the earlier 
> years of the Revolution. 
> 
> Jones describes Lucy Parsons' writing as "descriptive and colorful[,] 
> exploit[ing] melodramatic themes and [taking] considerable care in 
> fashioning her prose" (p. 104). But this does not discourage her from 
> scandal-mongering and constant digs. There is extensive speculation 
> about her relationships after Albert's judicial murder, supported by 
> contemporary gossip and by court testimony by one man following a 
> violent incident when she barred him from her home. Her strained 
> relationship with the Pioneer Aid Society, which maintained the 
> Haymarket Monument and supported the Martyrs' survivors, is 
> documented, as is her discomfort with more "American" elements in the 
> twentieth-century anarchist movement, which emphasized cultural 
> rebellion and sexual liberty in ways that left her uncomfortable. 
> Instead, Lucy Parsons preferred to work with immigrants, who in any 
> event remained a strong majority of both the anarchist movement and 
> Chicago's working class. 
> 
> Apparently convinced that Lucy Parsons cared more for the spotlight 
> than for the emancipation of the wage slaves, Jones suggests that she 
> might have resented the failure of Columbian Exposition organizers to 
> invite her to speak in 1893. There is not the slightest evidence that 
> she sought or expected such an invitation. It is not as if Parsons 
> was not regularly invited to address rallies and meetings during this 
> period. Indeed, Jones seems surprised that Parsons and other 
> anarchists sometimes spoke at "respectable" venues; this is an 
> artifact of her pervasive present-mindedness. Albert Parsons and his 
> colleagues often spoke to such audiences in the 1880s; Karl Marx was 
> a correspondent for the _New York Tribune;_ and radicals and 
> reformers regularly engaged with one another through World War I at 
> least (and if one considers the Popular Front, for decades beyond). 
> In part, I suspect, this engagement was prompted by the undeniable 
> brutality of the era and a shared understanding that unprecedented 
> concentrations of power posed an imminent danger to nearly everyone. 
> 
> As she moves into the 1910s, Jones focuses increasingly on broader 
> social trends and Parsons recedes into the background for pages at a 
> time. There are some curious choices in the extensive sections where 
> Jones relies on the secondary literature, and some places where she 
> seems to have misread her sources. For example, she discusses a 
> letter Parsons wrote to Eugene V. Debs "to congratulate him on his 
> decision not to beg for the restoration of his citizenship after his 
> release from prison" (p. 325). While it is true that Debs was under 
> the impression that he had been stripped of his "right of 
> citizenship," by which he seems to have meant the right to vote, the 
> source Jones cites for this letter makes it clear a few pages earlier 
> that Debs was not stripped of his citizenship (and indeed could not 
> have been), and retained the right to vote under Indiana state 
> law.[1] 
> 
> In her final years, Lucy Parsons tried to bridge ideological divides, 
> working with the Communist Party-dominated International Labor 
> Defense but also the IWW and the anarchist Free Society Group. This 
> led to much criticism, though as anarcho-syndicalist Sam Dolgoff, who 
> met her in Chicago when he was beginning his own revolutionary 
> career, noted, "For her, anyone against capitalism was ipso facto a 
> revolutionist and she saw no reason why all of them should not bury 
> the hatchet" (p. 326). Nearly blind and increasingly frail, Parsons 
> was killed at age ninety-one when her house caught fire March 7, 
> 1942, but remained a rebel to the day she died. Police officers and 
> FBI agents stole her library and any surviving papers--no doubt a 
> fitting end to a lifetime of struggle against the forces of 
> oppression, but one which will continue to frustrate historians 
> exploring the life of this remarkable woman. 
> 
> Note 
> 
> [1]. Morris Hillquit to EVD, March 1, 1926, in _Letters of Eugene V. 
> Debs_, vol. 3_, _ed._ _J. R. Constantine (Urbana: University of 
> Illinois Press, 1990), 547-48. 
> 
> Citation: Jon Bekken. Review of Jones, Jacqueline, _Goddess of 
> Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical_. 
> H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54685
> 
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States 
> License.
> 
> 



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