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Lessons from the Haymarket Affair

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May Day is celebrated internationally as a worker’s holiday. The origin of this celebration came through the fight for the 8-hour workday. One of the greatest battles in this struggle was seen in the violent oppression of striking workers at the Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886. A brief look at the history of the Haymarket Affair helps illustrate the class struggle that continues today.  

May 1, 1886 was the start of a general strike with the demand of reduction of the workday from 10 hours to 8 hours. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions declared in 1884 that “…eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” This demand grew into a call for a nation-wide general strike. On April 24, 1886, the Chicago based anarchist paper The Alarm, edited by Albert Parsons, published the following in a handbill:  

War to the palace, peace to the cottage, and death to luxurious idleness! 

The wage-system is the only cause of the world’s misery. It is supported by the rich classes, and to destroy it, they must be either made to work or die. 

One pound of dynamite is better than a bushel of ballots. 

Make your demand for 


With weapons in your hands to meet the capitalistic bloodhounds–police and militia in proper manner.” 

While anarchists understood it was necessary to destroy the wage-system, they got behind the reformist effort of the 8-hour workday. They understood it would be of benefit to the working class to reduce hours from the typical 10-hour day. This pamphlet was in essence the declaration of a class war. However, when the general strike began, it was not the working class that fired the first shots. On May 1, over 350,000 workers went on strike nationwide. This included 40,000 workers in Chicago. The demonstrations remained peaceful until May 3, when the police engaged striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works, where workers had already been on strike for six months. During the confrontation, the police fired into the crowd, killing two workers, and injuring several others.  

Explosion that set off the Haymarket Riot in 1886

The violent confrontation at the McCormick Reaper Works led to a call for a public meeting the following day in the Haymarket Square. This gathering was attended by many people including Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison – who was concerned with the violence the preceding day and intended to disperse the meeting if it appeared to be inciting more violence. August Spies, Albert Parsons, and Samuel Fielden gave speeches that night and Mayor Harrison would testify that none of them called “for the immediate use of force or violence towards any person.” Nevertheless, as the speeches were ending, 175 policemen showed up to disperse the crowd, which at this point only numbered in the hundreds. An unknown person threw a dynamite bomb into the police unit– killing one of them. The police responded by firing blindly into the crowd, killing at least four workers and seven more police.  

The response was immediately to blame the organizers of the gathering. August Spies, Albert Parsons, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, and Oscar Neebe were all arrested – even though only two of them had been present at the Haymarket square at the time of the bombing. All eight were convicted, according to the Civil Liberties Defense Center, “The trial, according to most accounts, was nothing short of a sham designed to convict the eight accused and deprive them of any semblance of due process.” Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab were sentenced to life in prison and Oscar Neebe received 15 years hard labor. Louis Lingg committed suicide in prison before he could be hanged. Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Albert Parsons, and August Spies were executed by the state on November 11, 1887. They were not the first martyrs of the labor movement, but they are some of the most well-known.  

What can we learn today from the events and aftermath of the May Day strikes of 1886?  

The call for an eight-hour workday differs little from modern day demands for an increase in the minimum wage. Revolutionaries understand this does not go far enough, but it would increase the material conditions of much of the work force – much as the anarchists understood the 8-hour workday was only an incremental reform. The trouble with such incremental demands is they still maintain the exploitative capitalist mode of production. As Marx explained in Value, Price, and Profit in 1865,  

“At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!”  

However, the Haymarket Affair shows us even the call for a modest reform like an eight-hour workday brings about a brutal response from the capitalist state. This response comes in the form of the militarized police force, which brutally repressed the strikers on May 3 and May 4. It must be stated that the police are not a part of the working class. The working class were in the streets in Chicago in 1886, and it was the police who violently oppressed them.  

The police are used by the state (or the corporate ruling class in the case of privatized security/police forces such as the Pinkertons) as an armed force to maintain control over the lower classes through threat or use of violence. Engels describes the origin of these bodies of armed men, “The second distinguishing feature [of the state] is the establishment of a public power which no longer directly coincides with the population organizing itself as an armed force.” The police hold the role “of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class.” This is why modern day calls for defunding and abolishing the police are met with such resistance from the bourgeoisie. The police uphold the capitalist mode of production. As Engels explains,

“Society thus far, based upon class antagonisms, had need of the state, that is, of an organization of the particular class, which was pro tempore the exploiting class, for the maintenance of its external conditions of production, and, therefore, especially, for the purpose of forcibly keeping the exploited classes in the condition of oppression corresponding with the given mode of production (slavery, serfdom, wage-labour).”

This shows why in the United States, many police forces evolved from slave patrols, they simply shifted their role from protecting slavery to protecting wage labor. To abolish the wage system, it will be necessary to abolish the police and the bourgeois state they uphold.  

On this May Day, and every day, we should remember all those who died in the struggle against capitalism. It will take true revolutionary action to overcome the corrupt system that murdered the Haymarket martyrs and continues to oppress the working class to this day. As the inscription on the Haymarket memorial plaque says,

“The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”

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