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Rescuing Lucy Parsons for the anarchist movement

category north america / mexico | history of anarchism | feature author Donnerstag Mai 05, 2005 19:03author by Andrew Flood - WSM (personal cap) Report this post to the editors

Lucy has unfortunately been remembered mostly as the widow of the Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons, executed in Chicago in 1887. But this book reveals her activism to have started nearly a decade earlier and to have ended nearly fifty years later. For much of this period she was at the core of the revolutionary anarchist movement in the USA

One of the striking things about reading Lucy's writing is how relevant many of her comments are to the US anarchist movement today. As a frequent contributor to the anarchist press and the editor of the anarchist and pro IWW paper 'The Liberator' she understood how important a serious commitment to organization and large-scale publication was.

Rescuing Lucy Parsons for the anarchist movement

Review: Lucy Parsons: Freedom, Equality and Solidarity: Writings and Speeches, 1878 - 1937. Edited Gale Ahrens Published by Charles H. Kerr


Gale Ahrens has done the anarchist movement a real service in putting together this collection, which should rescue Lucy Parsons from the dark corner she has existed in. In it she emerges from the shadow of her martyred husband as a central if neglected figure in the development of anarchism in the USA.

Lucy has unfortunately been remembered mostly as the widow of the Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons, executed in Chicago in 1887. But this book reveals her activism to have started nearly a decade earlier and to have ended nearly fifty years later. For much of this period she was at the core of the revolutionary anarchist movement in the USA and many so of her writings retain a real relevancy today.

Lucy and Albert arrived in Chicago in the 1870's and together threw themselves into the revolutionary socialist movement that was growing there. The first letter in this collection was one sent by Lucy to 'The socialists' almost eight years before Haymarket. It uses the example of a glass workers lockout to argue against the idea that there can be any partnership between bosses and workers. This was a theme she was to return to again and again in her writings over the decades to come.

Organiser

By 1879 Lucy was one of the main organizers of the Working Women's Union and in 1883 Lucy and Albert took part in the founding of the Chicago section of the anarchist International Working Peoples Association. She was a frequent contributor to the anarchist paper 'The Alarm' and a co-leader of important working class demonstrations in 1884 and 1885.

The anarchists of Chicago were no fringe movement but rather the main leadership of the Chicago unions and in particular the struggle for the eight-hour day. Following the general strike of May 1st 1886 the state used the excuse of a police riot during which seven policemen died (mostly after being shot in the crossfire from other police guns) to crush this movement. A rigged trial was used to smash the anarchist's influence and jail or execute eight of the most prominent anarchists. These events which led to Mayday becoming an international day of working class solidarity are covered in great detail elsewhere - relevant to this review is that Albert, Lucy's husband was one of those executed.

Quite naturally these events threw a shadow across the rest of her life but contrary to what is often implied they did not form the sole focus of her future activity. On a speaking tour of Britain in 1888 it was observed that "she came as a propagandist to whom tragedy had given a stronger voice." Later in 1909 she was also to tour Canada - this time as an IWW agitator. For the next 50 years she would be active in many anarchist and campaign groups as well.

Communist?

Towards the end of her life when the US anarchist movement has largely collapsed she was active in the Communist Party dominated 'International Labour Defense'. Unfortunately this allowed some to claim she had joined the Communist Party - a claim that is too often repeated by many anarchists today. In fact there is no evidence for this. The CP did publish an obituary when she died it but did not claim she was ever a member - surely a major oversight if she had been. Her own attitude to working with the ILD is probably best expressed in her 1930 May Day speech, which delivered at the age of 77. In it she appeals for support for the "hundreds and hundreds" of CP members in prison cells but she also declares "I am an anarchist: I have no apology to make to a single man women or child, because I am an anarchist, because anarchism carries the very germ of liberty in its womb."

At the age of 81 she replies to an anarchist who had written to her about the state of the US movement at that time. She says "Anarchism has not produced any organized ability in the present generation, only a few loose struggling groups scattered over this vast country, that come together in conferences occasionally, talk to each other, then go home"... "Do you call this a movement?" ... "I went to work for the International Labour Defense (ILD) because I wanted to do a little something to help defend the victims of capitalism who got into trouble, and not always be talking, talking, talking."

Lucy on organistion

One of the striking things about reading Lucy's writing is how relevant many of her comments are to the US anarchist movement today. As a frequent contributor to the anarchist press and the editor of the anarchist and pro IWW paper 'The Liberator' she understood how important a serious commitment to organization and large-scale publication was. "There is no way of building up a movement, strengthening it, and keeping it intact except by a press, at least weeklies if dailies are impossible"... "The Liberator is the only English-language anarchist propaganda paper in America; for this reason, comrades and sympathizers in all parts of the country should feel in duty bound to support this paper, write for it, contribute to its support financially, and make its success their personal concern."

Writing in 1907 she observed, "The Anarchistic cause (there has been no movement in recent years) has lacked a plan of procedure or organization." The existing groups "were composed, for the most part, of young, inexperienced people who had about as many conceptions of the real aims of Anarchism as there were members of the group ... I, personally, have always held to the idea of organization, together with an assumption of responsibility by the members, such as paying monthly dues and collecting funds for propaganda purposes. For holding these views I have been called an 'old school' anarchist, etc."

This is an example of her serious approach towards organization. She was involved in the Syndicalist League which argued for involvement in the mass unions as well as building the IWW. This along with her willingness to generally argue for involvement in mass working class organizations suggests she is one of the few 20th century US anarchists making arguments similar to the organizational and interventionist currents of anarchist-communism. However there is no hint in this collection that she was even aware of the similar debates around 'the platform' happening within the European anarchist movement in the mid 1920's.

Sex, race and class

Apart from being known as the widow of Albert Parsons Lucy has also received some coverage because she was a women of colour in a movement whose leadership was nearly always white and male. This collection carries a number of her articles on women and racism and from these it is easy to see why Lucy has not received a lot more publicity from modern US anarchists.

In summary Lucy may have argued for armed self-defense as the right response to racist lynchings some 80 years before Malcom X but her approach to the question of racism would quickly lead today to her being labeled today as a 'class reductionist' . In 1886 in response to lynchings in the south she asked "Are there any so stupid to believe these outrages have been, are being and will be heaped upon the Negro because he is black? 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."

Her attitude on women's struggles was similar. While speaking at the founding convention of the IWW in 1905 she said "I have taken the floor because no other women has responded" but continued "Wherever wages are to reduced the capitalist class use women to reduce them, and if there is anything that you men should do in the future it is to organize the women."

In this context it is easy to understand the obscurity Lucy Parsons was allowed to fall into by the US anarchist movement. At it became increasing hostile to organisation and organisational discipline, as identity politics was pushed to the fore over class politics Lucy Parsons cut an increasingly awkward historical figure precisely because she was a woman of colour. Perhaps her arguments are overly reductionist but at a stage when some who call themselves anarchists seemed to have altogether lost sight of the importance of class struggle they are a useful encouragement to look again.

This collection goes some considerable way to putting Lucy Parsons back at the centre of the development of the anarchist movement in the USA. It is not necessary to agree with everything she wrote to see that she adds a very valuable perspective to the debates that have come to dominate that movement today.

Andrew Flood

Written for Anarkismo.net

You'll find more on Lucy Parsons online at
http://www.lucyparsonsproject.org/

Photo of Lucy Parsons
Photo of Lucy Parsons

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Neste 8 de Março, levantamos mais uma vez a nossa voz e os nossos punhos pela vida das mulheres!

North America / Mexico | History of anarchism | en

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textChaim Weinberg's 1930 Jewish Anarchist Memoirs Are Now Online 17:56 Di 29 Mai by KSL 0 comments

Wooden Shoe Books and the Dead Anarchists website are proud to announce the online release of Chaim Leib Weinberg’s Forty Years in the Struggle: The Memoirs of a Jewish Anarchist, which are translated by Naomi Cohen and edited by Robert P. Helms. We present this book for the first time in English, and in the only form that is now available to a general readership.
[Forwarded by KSL]

textNew pamphlet, "Alcatraz – Uncle Sam's Devil's Island" 21:43 Sa 10 Mär by KSL 0 comments

The Kate Sharpley Library has just published a new edition of Philip Grosser's account of his time imprisoned on the notorious prison island of Alcatraz. Philip Grosser was sent to Alcatraz because he didn't want to murder anyone, even on government orders. He was a Boston anarchist and anti-militarist who refused to be drafted into the slaughter of World War One.

textNew pamphlet: George Brown, the cobbler anarchist of Philadelphia By Robert P. Helms 17:51 Mi 04 Okt by KSL 1 comments

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textMemorial Statement for Murray Bookchin (NEFAC) 22:16 Do 17 Aug by Open City Collective 1 comments

The Northeastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists (NEFAC) extends its deepest sympathies to the family, friends, and all of the comrades of Murray Bookchin. Comrade Bookchin was a man who rigorously believed in the ideal of a free society.

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imageAlbert Parsons: The life of the Chicago anarchist and labour martyr in his own words Mai 01 by Albert Parsons 0 comments

As a tribute to one of the most remarkable agitators in labour history, we publish on May Day the autobiography of Albert Parsons. He was one of the five Chicago Anarchists who were tried in 1886-1887 and executed in November 1887 for their role as 8-hour working-day agitators and as anarchist militants. This mock-trial in 'the land of liberty' is one of the most shameful events in the history of labour in the whole world, and gave rise to May Day commemorations all over the world -the day was picked, because the repression which ended up in the 'legal lynching' of the Chicago Martyrs started after the general strike for the 8 hours working-day in May 1st 1886. This day is commemorated all over the world in memory of the Chicago Martyrs -unsurprisingly, one of the few countries which does not commemorate May Day is the land where this barbaric crime took place -the United States. They invented their own 'Labour Day' in September, with the purpose of severing the working class in the US from its radical tradition, and to devoid of meaning the conquest of the 8 hour working-day, a product of struggle and enormous sacrifice, not a gift from the capitalists. The life of Albert Parsons is instructive of the trajectory of many working class agitators in the US in the 19th century, a period of remarkable radicalism which was crushed with unspeakable ruthlessness and repression. His life story goes from fighting in the Confederate States Army during the US Civil War as a 13 year old, to republican and civil rights' agitator, advocate of the emancipation of the slaves, then trade unionist, socialist and anarchist. He was married to Lucy Parsons, a mixed race woman herself born a slave, who would become a prominent socialist and anarchist, and who was a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World, IWW, in 1905. A remarkable organiser and orator, he was the soul of the most progressive and active workers' movement in the USA at the time: in Chicago. Parsons was the only US citizen of 'pure stock' among the Chicago Martyrs (his ancestry going back all the way to one of the pilgrims in the Mayflower in 1632) -all his comrades being German. The immigrant nature of these anarchists was the cause for a racist and xenophobic uproar that no doubt was crucial to justify their barbaric execution -these racist, xenophobic tendencies are still alive and healthy in the USA, as we can see from the current state of affairs in the country. This is why, being not only a remarkable speaker, but also a well-self-educated man (at a time when the workers' movement still placed much emphasis on the self-education of the workers), he chose to strike a chord with public opinion and counter arguments that socialism and anarchism were 'foreign' and 'alien' ideas, by appealing to texts such as the US Declaration of Independence and opinions of Thomas Jefferson, while also appealing to the conservative and religious frame of mind prevalent, ended up by quoting the Bible. Of course, nothing would save him from the fury of the capitalists' class hatred, but this autobiography is a masterpiece of engaging with the prevalent environment at the time from a radical perspective, of showing in a sober manner his process of radicalisation and the logic behind it, and also, a staunch defence of the anarchist principles by which he lived and which he did not betrayed when confronted to the gallows. Our best tribute to this titanic figure is to resist the current onslaught of the global capitalists against hard-won workers' rights, while to keep faithful to the cause of a free and just world. José Antonio Gutiérrez D.
1st May, 2019

imageAddress Of Enrique Flores Magon In The Federal Court, Los Angeles, June 22, 1916 Jan 27 by Enrique Flores Magon 0 comments

Powerful address by the Mexican anarchist-communist revolutionary, Enrique Flores Magon, brother to fellow anarchist-communist militants Jesus and Ricardo Flores Magon. This address was given to a US court, defending the brothers' fight for "the emancipation of the downtrodden, particularly of the Mexican proletarians, and of the disinherited all over the world in general." It defends the then-ongoing Mexican Revolution against imperialism and capitalism, argues for anarchist-communism, and makes an internationalist appeal to the American working class for joint struggle against tyrants and exploiters, stressing common class realities.

The brothers Enrique and Ricardo Flores Magon were at the time in exile, in the USA, conducting revolutionary work. They were arrested several times, this speech being given during the trial that followed their arrest in 1916 for distributing "indecent materials" (both were found guilty). Ricardo was again arrested in 1918 for sedition, given 20 years, and died in a US prison in 1922. Enrique was released in 1923 and returned to Mexico.

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textHaymarket: A Novel by Martin Duberman [Review] Nov 12 by KSL 0 comments

Many anarchists will know the Haymarket story, if only because it gave us Mayday: the 1886 struggle for the eight hour day in Chicago and other American cities, the bomb thrown during a workers' meeting, the farce of a trial against eight anarchists, the execution of four and the suicide of a fifth. This novel covers all this by recreating the lives of Albert and Lucy Parsons and their world. Duberman is historically accurate but has gone beyond merely dramatising the trial records. He has built on his research to breathe life into history.

more >>

textChaim Weinberg's 1930 Jewish Anarchist Memoirs Are Now Online Mai 29 0 comments

Wooden Shoe Books and the Dead Anarchists website are proud to announce the online release of Chaim Leib Weinberg’s Forty Years in the Struggle: The Memoirs of a Jewish Anarchist, which are translated by Naomi Cohen and edited by Robert P. Helms. We present this book for the first time in English, and in the only form that is now available to a general readership.
[Forwarded by KSL]

textNew pamphlet, "Alcatraz – Uncle Sam's Devil's Island" Mär 10 Kate Sharpley Library 0 comments

The Kate Sharpley Library has just published a new edition of Philip Grosser's account of his time imprisoned on the notorious prison island of Alcatraz. Philip Grosser was sent to Alcatraz because he didn't want to murder anyone, even on government orders. He was a Boston anarchist and anti-militarist who refused to be drafted into the slaughter of World War One.

textNew pamphlet: George Brown, the cobbler anarchist of Philadelphia By Robert P. Helms Okt 04 Kate Sharpley Library 1 comments

The Kate Sharpley Library are please to announce the publication of a new pamphlet examining the life of George Brown (1858-1915), Philadelphia anarchist activist. Robert P. Helms traces the life of this anarchist shoemaker from freethinking Northamptonshire to Philadelphia's burgeoning anarchist movement of the 1890s. Never famous, and only occasionally infamous, Brown was typical of many of the militants who made the movement what it was, and his story sheds a fascinating light on the microcosm of a social movement.

textMemorial Statement for Murray Bookchin (NEFAC) Aug 17 NEFAC 1 comments

The Northeastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists (NEFAC) extends its deepest sympathies to the family, friends, and all of the comrades of Murray Bookchin. Comrade Bookchin was a man who rigorously believed in the ideal of a free society.

textSpanish Civil War veteran to speak in Montreal Mai 17 NEFAC 1 comments

In 1936 tens of thousands of volunteers from around the world illegally made their way to Spain to help in the first battle against the spreading tide of Facism in Europe. French national George Sossenko, driven by his antifascist politics, made this incredible sacrifice at only the age of sixteen. Once in Spain he was a member of the Legendary Durutti Colum and was introduced to the politcs of Anarchism. Fisrt hand he saw the incredible revolutionary movement of the Spanish workers and peasants and would be changed by what he saw for the rest of his life.

more >>
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