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This work appears in Anarchy Archives with permission of International Publishers Co. 239 W 23rd Street - New York, NY and located on the web at:

Labor agitator: The story of Albert R. Parsons

Alan Calmer

New York, International publishers, 1937.


PARSONS joined the Social-Democratic party during a period when unity was the central issue of the labor movement. In the spring of '76 the party sent delegates to a congress which was called for the purpose of consolidating all the labor forces in the country. The conference was also attended by other socialist groups and by members of the Knights of Labor. However, the gathering was split largely between socialists on the one side and greenbackers, with their money-reform schemes, on the other. They couldn't agree on a program and, when the sessions were over, unity had not been accomplished.

Nevertheless, the get-together did a lot of good: it paved the way for uniting the various socialist factions, including the Social-Democratic party to which Parsons belonged, into a single organisation. During the summer, this fusion was effected. Radicals of various brands--made up chiefly of followers of Lassalle (political reformists who were indifferent to trade union action) and members of the old First International (who stressed the importance and need of trade union organization which, they pointed out, was the way in which the proletariat as a class carried on its daily struggle against capital)--met in Philadelphia and organiaed the Workingmen's party of the United States.

"Political liberty without economical independence being but an empty phrase," the constitution adopted at the congress read, "we shall in the first place direct our efforts to the economical question." Participating in politics was not to be thought of until the movement was "strong enough to exercise a perceptible influence, and then in the first place locally in the towns or cities, when demands of a purely local character may be presented."

This stand was largely a victory for a small group of First Internationalists, headed by Marx's friend, Sorge. However, McGuire, who led the Social-Democratic party delegates, won a concession for his adherents: he moved that the executive committee be given the power to permit local election campaigns wherever advisable.

It was decided that the executive committee should be located in Chicago; and Philip Van Fatten, who lived in the city and whom Parsons knew, was later elected national secretary. Candidates who belonged "to no political party of the propertied class" were admitted into the Workingmen's party, although it was decreed that "at least three-fourths of the members of a section must be wages-laborers."

Parsons followed the news of the convention in the pages of the Socialist, edited from New York; by decision of the "Union" congress, held at Philadelphia, this newspaper was now changed to the Labor Standard, and became the English organ of the new Workingmen's party. One of the treats in the paper was the poetic efforts contributed regularly by John McIntosh. Parsons, who was very fond of verse and could recite reams of it from memory, soon added McIntosh's long "socialistic ballad" on "The Tramp" to his repertoire:

We canvassed the city through and through,
Nothing to work at--nothing to do;
The wheels of the engines go no more,
Bolted and barred is the old shop door;
Grocers look blue over unpaid bills,
Paupers increase and the poorhouse fills.

He was overjoyed to find an English paper which saw things through the eyes of the workers, especially since the Chicago sheets continued to castigate the Socialists, dubbing them "Robbers," "Loafers," "Tramps, "Bandits."

The capitalist press angered Parsons beyond endurance. As he walked home from work, he felt an overwhelming desire to shout to the workers on the street to tell them the truth about the class struggle, to carry to them the message of the Workingmen's party. Outside of John McAuliffe, there was no decent English mass speaker in the Chicago section and, while Parsons admired his impetuous rhetoric, McAuliffe was inclined to be a bit wild and incoherent.

Soon Parsons was making use of the experience he had gained on the stump in Texas. His resonant voice and his good presence quickly made him one of the very best agitators in the city. He spoke whenever and wherever he could: in parks, in vacant lots, on street corners, in halls and private houses. But the crowds were rather small. Often, after putting up posters and handing out leaflets, and speaking, he had to give his last nickel to pay for the hall rent and, late at night, walk all the way home-and to work early the next morning.

Just before the Philadelphia "Union" congress was held, and the Social-Democratic party merged into the Workingmen's party, Parsons helped to work out an excellent idea for their local July Fourth picnic. Parsons was was unable to be there himself--he had to speak at a meeting sponsored by Knights of Labor in Indianapolis --but the idea worked out very well.

After parading through the Chicago streets, the Socialists gathered around the platform at Ogden Grove, their picnic grounds. Later in the day Van Fatten arose and, on the hundredth anniversary of the American Revolution, read the Chicago Workingmen's Declaration of Independence, paraphrased after the original:

"...We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the full benefit of their labor...."

It was a good stunt. After the new Declaration was read, in both English and German, the three thousand listeners, with cheers and loud applause, adopted it unanimously.

As Parsons became more active, he was perplexed by the squabbling which took place among the Socialists, who had all joined the Workingmen's party. There seemed to be two groups of extremists. Merging into one party had evidently not dissolved the differences between the warring factions. One still demanded immediate participation in politics, while the other, which had come out on top at the "Union" congress, was against such activity. However, the former refused to give up its aims and soon took its first political steps.

In New Haven, the political activists won Van Patten's permission to nominate local candidates. Their example was followed in other cities. Early in 1877, a Chicago group decided to enter the city spring elections. Without consulting anybody, they held a mass meeting and passed a resolution to that effect. Although angered by this highhanded move, their opponents decided not to oppose it, because they wanted to avoid a split in the party. Only one candidate was nominated -- Parsons, for alderman of the fifteenth ward. The party ticket stressed chiefly demands of an immediate local character, such as abolition of the contract system on city works, better hours and wages for city employees, etc.

Concentrating upon the fifteenth ward, which was in a working-class section, the party "imported" canvassers from other parts of the city, worked day and night and, when the count was taken, polled four hundred votes -- one-sixth of the total cast in that ward. It was something of a moral if not a political victory.


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