anarchy archives

An Online Research Center on the History and Theory of Anarchism



About Us

Contact Us

Other Links

Critics Corner


The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
  Emma Goldman
  Peter Kropotkin
  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Max Stirner
  Murray Bookchin
  Noam Chomsky
  Bright but Lesser Lights
  Cold Off The Presses
  Anarchist History
  Worldwide Movements
  First International
  Paris Commune
  Haymarket Massacre
  Spanish Civil War

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.


LONG after the strike, Parsons couldn't find work. He tried every newspaper in Chicago, but it was no use, he couldn't get anywhere near a composing room. He was blacklisted. He and his wife went hungry.

Soon he was spending most of his time in party work. Before he knew it, he was drawn into the top leadership of the Workingmen's party and was made an organizer. He became a "professional revolutionist," giving all his energies to his job. It became his daily routine and his diversion, his food and lodging, his conscious existence and even part of his dreams. His life and experience merged into the history of the party.

Parsons began his new duties at the beginning of a period of extreme ferment in the labor movement. The great strike wave of '77, broken by relentless terrorism, and coming after four years of devastating crisis, lifted thousands of workers to class consciousness. Having learned the lesson of solidarity, they banded together for mutual protection. Then they pushed slowly ahead to take the offensive.

Hard times still hung over the country. The protests of the workers against wagecuts and layoffs, their efforts to build and strengthen their trade unions, were ruthlessly crushed by local, state and national government. The lesson of this armed suppression seemed too obvious to be overlooked: strikes could not be won, living conditions could not be bettered, if the armed forces of the government stood in the way. So the workers turned toward independent political action. They wanted to nominate their own candidates, to elect their own representatives, men who would not side with the employers but would fight for the demands of their own class.

The political-minded faction in the Workingmen's party was quick to see the new trend of labor. Particularly in Chicago, where the extremity of conditions had leveled away the barrier between jobless Yankees and foreign Socialists, a large English-speaking branch of the party was being built, under the leadership of Tom Morgan, a hard-working, conscientious organizer. In the fall of '77 they nominated a county ticket, with Parsons for Clerk and one of his comrades, Frank Stauber, who ran a hardware store on Milwaukee avenue, for Treasurer. They polled about seven thousand votes. And in other cities, the elections were also very encouraging.

It was to be expected, then, that at the congress of the Workingmen's party -- held in Newark during December of the same year -- the political wing would come out on top. Parsons, who was the only delegate from Chicago, participated in the convention proceedings, which were designed to clear the deck for political action. The constitution, with its obstacles to immediate election campaigning, was completely revamped. The structure of the party was overhauled -- sections were divided into wards and precincts, and united into the State organizations. Even the name was changed -- to the Socialistic Labor party. The executive committee was removed to Cincinnati -- where the Socialists had just polled nine thousand votes -- while Van Fatten was reelected national secretary.

In the spring city elections of '78, the Chicago Socialists, under their new name, the Socialistic Labor party, made history. By this time they had rigged up a real political machine. Concentrating upon the working-class districts, they mapped out a thorough campaign, holding one mass rally after the other. Stauber received 1416 votes, nearly as many as the combined count of his Democratic and Republican rivals, and was elected alderman of the fourteenth ward. Parsons and another comrade, running for similar positions in two adjoining wards, lost by the slimmest margin, and were undoubtedly counted out of office. "We shall contest the election in the fifteenth and sixteenth wards," wrote a Chicago correspondent to the National Socialist, new organ of the party, "where the most shameful tricks were resorted to, in order to count out our candidates."

One of the chief reasons for this political victory was the cooperation of the trade unions, which stood solid behind the party ticket. "On election day, hundreds of members of the newly amalgamated Trades Unions, left their work and helped us," wrote a labor reporter from Chicago.

But how did the party win the support of the trade unionists, many of whom were hostile at this time to the use of political measures? The key man in effecting this coalition was Parsons. He belonged to the English branch, which led the political movement in the Chicago section of the Socialistic Labor party; at the same time he was an active unionist. In fact, he was elected president of the Amalgamated Trade and Labor Union of and Vicinity, which he helped organize. He was also on the central committee of the International Labor Union, a nationwide movement to organize the unorganized, led by George E. McNeill and backed by the Labor Standard- which opposed the political ventures of the party and was no longer an official publication.

Many of the trade-union Socialists in Chicago were German immigrants, who were very suspicious of the native-born members of the party. Nevertheless, Parsons was able, through his organizing his eloquence and his personal charm, to overcome this distrust and to win their complete confidence. Thus he was able to swing their support behind the party ticket.

Throughout the spring and summer of '18, the Chicagoans prepared for the coming state elections. Parsons was not so busy in this campaign as he had been in the preceding ones, for he was spending most of his time in trade union work. Among other things, he brought McNeill to Chicago to speak at a trade union picnic just before the local Fourth of July celebrations. After a morning spent in dancing and singing, at the inevitable Ogden Grove, the comet player -- as one worker-correspondent described the occasion -- "called the great assembly together, and Comrade Parsons after a few appropriate remarks, introduced Mr. George E. McNeill of Boston, president of the International Labor Union," who spoke on the eight-hour day.

"Just as soon as we recover from the fatigues of the glorious Fourth," wrote another reporter, "the engineering minds of the party must go to work and break ground for the coming fall campaign."

As election day drew nearer, Parsons spoke with Morgan and McAuliffe at several large open-air gatherings. Occasionally he also covered these meetings for the National Socialist. Of one rally he wrote:

"The broad street, from side to side up and down for nearly a block, was filled with an immense throng of earnest and intelligent workmen. The 'Cause and Remedy of Poverty' was discussed from the Socialistic standpoint, showing that destitution, ignorance and crime, was an unnatural condition...and that universal poverty among the masses was the penalty inflicted by nature for the crime of violating her laws...."

In the same despatch, Parsons outlined his general point of view at this time, which favored both economic and political action. By organizing trade unions and by working through the party at the polls, the workers would "ere long," he said, "call a halt to the increasing power of aggregated wealth which is surely turning out once fair America into a land of paupers, tramps and dependent menials."

But if Parsons was so confident of the future of socialism during this period, his optimism was far surpassed by his fellow speaker, John McAuliffe. "Pass the word down the line," the rhetorical Socialist shouted at one public gathering, "Forward march! Onward, to perfect organization and the independence of Labor from class servitude! Ho! all ye oppressed, ye weary and heavy laden, come gather under the protecting shelter of the banner of Socialism...under whose folds the wage workers, the masses, shall be inspired to deeds of heroism and drive the fell monster -- poverty -- from off the earth forever."


This page has been accessed times since June 6, 2006.


[Home]               [Search]               [About Us]               [Contact Us]               [Other Links]               [Critics Corner]