by Karyn Pomerantz, Dec. 2, 2018.
“The wealth of this country should be equally distributed … if one man through shrewdness should then amass more wealth than his neighbor, his surplus should be taken away from him. Every man should carry arms and have the right of self-defense. Shops and means of transit should be free. There would be no need of elections, police or standing army… Every man should bring his products to an immense clearinghouse in each city or town, and every family to receive an equal portion.” Lucy Parsons, 1891.
The life of Lucy Parsons holds many lessons for the working class and students today, especially since we recently witnessed a polarizing election, increased xenophobia, and racist, anti-Semitic murders. Lucy gained fame as the widow of Albert Parsons, the labor leader and anarchist whom the city of Chicago executed for his role in the fight for the 8 hour day in 1887. Known as the Haymarket Massacre, cops threw a bomb into the crowd that killed 7 policemen and blamed the deaths on the anarchist and socialist leaders, including Albert. May Day, the international workers’ day, commemorates this event. Lucy spent her life celebrating her husband’s and her political ideas. Today she is honored as a revolutionary leader in her own right.
The Parsons lived through a tumultuous period of history marked by severe exploitation, racism, and strikes. Thousands of immigrants arrived to escape violence and poverty in Russia and Eastern Europe, and millions of black sharecroppers fled north during the Great Migration. There were no labor protections and little solidarity among white and black workers. Workers organized numerous political and labor organizations from the trade union Knights of Labor and various socialist and anarchist parties to the militant International Workers of the World (the IWW or Wobblies).
This blog piece will cover her current relevance, using several biographies and her own writings. It includes her positions on political organizing, electoral reforms, unions, racism, women, and family. She prefigures many current political trends and remains a controversial activist. Scholars and biographers disagree on her racial and ethnic heritage, her antiracist activities, and her later role in the Communist Party USA.
Lucy’s early history is obscured by many lies and a tangle of family relationships. Born in 1851, she was enslaved in Virginia until her owner marched his “property” to Texas in 1863 where she became free after the Civil War during Reconstruction. With her light complexion and education she passed herself off as the daughter of a Mexican father and Native American mother, never denying this fabricated heritage. During the more liberal Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War she married Albert, a white radical Republican politician from Texas. Eventually they fled to Chicago in 1873 and joined various left wing organizations and wrote for several radical publications. Albert worked as a printer and joined the printers union. Lucy earned an income as a seamstress and organized numerous women’s organizations, and joined various socialist and anarchist groups. She eventually became a member of the Communist Party.
Their contemporaries included the anti-lynching journalist Ida Wells-Barnett, labor organizer Mother Jones, IWW founder Big Bill Haywood, socialist Eugene Debs, anarchist and free love advocate Emma Goldman, union leader Samuel Gompers, and anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.
They supported some of the most important struggles of the 19th Century, including the 8 hour day fight, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 that developed into a general strike, and other union campaigns in major US industries. The Parsons frequently gave public speeches, eventually traveling throughout the United States. After Albert’s hanging in 1887, Lucy maintained a leadership role until she died in a house fire in 1942 at the age of 92.
Political Principles – Anarchism
As anarchists, Lucy and Albert advocated for a revolution to topple capitalism. Anarchists promoted individual freedom versus collective or centralized governmental control. They repudiated the concept of a state and operated as independent activists rather than long-term members of political organizations or parties. Lucy was highly critical of other revolutionary groups and extremely caustic in her dealings with colleagues. As one of a few African American women leaders, she demanded that others take her seriously. She was very popular with workers and feared by the police and industry.
While the Parsons organized within major labor unions, their primary focus was revolution, not reform. They used personal appearances, meetings, writings, parades and picnics to whip up hatred of capitalism, reaching thousands of laborers in the Midwest and beyond. They exhorted their followers to use violence to eradicate the ruling class and warned striking workers against compromising with the bosses.
One of Lucy’s famous speeches, An Open Letter to Tramps (1884) portrayed the plight of 35,000 impoverished, unemployed men and their wives and children in Chicago, and urged them to take up weapons to fight the larcenous industrial bosses:
“…Have you not worked hard all your life, since you were old enough for your labor to be of use in the production of wealth? … Then can you not see that the “good boss” or the “bad boss” cuts no figure whatsoever? That you are the common prey of both, and that their mission is simply robbery? Can you not see that it is the INDUSTRIAL SYSTEM and not the boss that must be changed?…each of you hungry tramps who read these lines, avail yourselves of these little methods of warfare which Science has placed in the hands of the poor man, and you will become a power in this or any other land. Learn the use of explosives!”
Lucy helped organize the International Workers of the World (IWW), the Wobblies, along with many anarchists, Marxists, and socialists. Their militancy, commitment to class struggle, and inclusion of anarchists attracted her. The IWW recruited unskilled laborers from major industries, including women, black and immigrant workers who were excluded from the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Led by Bill Haywood, the Wobblies led militant strikes in the mines, lumber fields, and textile factories where they won a 5% wage increase and an 8 hour day in Lowell, Massachusetts. They often used mass violence to win their strikes, until they were framed and many leaders executed.
“An injury to one is an injury to all… For one dollar a (boss) didn’t earn is one dollar a worker didn’t get.” (Big Bill Haywood, IWW)
“Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to vote away their wealth.”
The Parsons opposed electoral politics, arguing that elections maintained capitalism. They refused to participate in any political campaigns or endorse any candidates, even those who identified as socialists. They consistently argued that capitalism was the problem, not political parties or politicians.
“…so-called laws” were not “worth the paper they are written on because capitalists had the power to do as they wanted even if “the producers of all wealth had willed it otherwise.”
Lucy’s inaction on racism diminishes her role as a labor activist. It is the most serious weakness of her and others’ political work. Many other union members and supporters held racist ideas and denied union membership to black people. This opened the door for the bosses to use black workers as strikebreakers, further inflaming white racism. A woman social reformer actually endorsed lynchings as a way to maintain social control over black people!
There is no evidence that Lucy (or most anarchists and socialists) organized black and white workers together. There was little multiracial unity. Although most industrial workers in Chicago were white, this was also the period of the Great Migration when 6 million southern black people fled the south to live in northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. White workers and their unions viewed black workers as strikebreakers and cheap labor who threatened their jobs; women workers were also viewed as cheap labor threatening men’s pay. US born workers feared immigrant workers from Europe as purveyors of communism and threats to their jobs.
This was an opportunity to include black workers in unions to strengthen the labor movement and unite immigrant and US born people. The Parsons made no effort to counter anti-black racism. They settled in white immigrant neighborhoods largely populated by German families. Many Eastern European immigrants were socialists and active labor organizers who strengthened US labor struggles and introduced new political ideologies, but did not advocate for black workers either.
Black workers led significant struggles outside of the northern labor movement. Ida Wells-Barnett risked her life organizing against lynchings. Socialists and communists organized the Southern Workers Tenant Union that united black and white sharecroppers in the south. When black soldiers returned from WWI in 1919, they battled white racists who attacked them, destroying lives, homes, and businesses in Tulsa, Detroit, and Rosewood. During the 1930s, black and white communists in the Communist party USA (CP) fought the prosecution of the Scottsboro Boys who were falsely accused of raping a white woman. Lucy participated in the Scottsboro movement but considered antiracist issues a distraction from class struggle. She didn’t appreciate the power of racism to divide and weaken the working class. (Williams in The Mythologizing and Re-Appropriation of a Radical Hero disputes this. Michael Goldstein in The Color of Politics writes that Lucy did endorse multi-culturalism and united workers across racial barriers although he only devotes 1 page to this assertion without any evidence).
Lucy helped to organize and joined the IWW but did not maintain her membership preferring to work more independently. She never held jobs that offered union membership. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 affected her deeply, confirming her ideas regarding direct action and rebellions as a strategy for challenging the state. She supported many strikes but primarily worked as a small business woman, as a seamstress, employing other women in her businesses. She never worked in a factory where she could have formed political and social relationships with other women. She focused on gravitational revolutionary work, writing and speaking about the need to eliminate capitalism. She viewed unions as models of cooperative working class organizations under a society built on anarchy although most aimed to reform capitalism rather than abolish it.
Lucy and other anarchists urged workers to arm themselves with dynamite to destroy factories and fight the police. They correctly believed that revolution required violence, not the ballot. However, they never utilized dynamite themselves or joined unions that could carry out strikes and rebellions. Their call for violence predates the 1960s Weather Underground who used violence such as bombs and provocative actions (like running through a high school topless) in ludicrous attempts to instigate revolution. They used inflammatory rhetoric urging violence but did not practice it themselves. Nonetheless, the police and government portrayed them as terrorists and criminals.
“(The working class) should rise and overthrow aristocracy by means of dynamite…” Lucy Parsons.
Lucy fought for recognition as a leader in labor and radical circles at the time in which male activists relegated women to the home. Even the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) did not welcome women, believing that they jeopardized men’s pay and their own health if they worked. The SLP also opposed women’s suffrage and ignored black workers. In their view (as for many today), racism distracted from class struggle. Lucy developed several organizations of women who primarily worked as seamstresses and servants. The Working Women’s Union (WWU) held weekly discussion meetings as Lucy tried to involve them in anarchist politics. It dissolved in 1880 due to decreasing attendance.
Meanwhile, Albert organized an American chapter of the International Working People’s Association (IWPA), an anarchist group founded in Europe. It agitated for anarchism and published the Alarm to voice their political ideology and strategies, such as violence against the state and the rejection of voting.
After Albert’s death, Lucy spent the rest of her life promoting Albert’s politics and martyrdom. She had several affairs, offending her comrades for betraying her husband and defying the moral customs of the period. At the same time, she rejected the free love practices of Emma Goldman and recoiled from gay or bisexual sex.
Lucy’s experiences with her children were sad. Her daughter, Lulu Eda, died from lymphedema when she was 8 years old. Lucy committed her son to a psychiatric hospital when he joined the Army during WWI, a war Lucy and the left opposed. He never left the hospital in the more than 20 years until his death.
Organizing labor: Lucy and her comrades encouraged strikes and disruption by workers to thwart the capitalists at the workplace and in the cities. They organized social events in the form of picnics and parades to attract thousands of workers to hear their messages.
Rejection of politicians: They rejected voting as the means to change the fundamental goals of capitalism – to make profit from the work of others. They did not support any candidate or bourgeois party.
Endorsement of direct action and violence: The anarchists understood that only violence would eliminate the bosses’ power and urged workers to arm themselves.
Lifelong commitment to revolution: Lucy committed herself to revolutionary principles and practice for 70 years without stopping her outreach, publishing and family responsibilities. She opposed US imperialism and wars, including WWI and the invasions in the Caribbean and Far East.
When one organization failed to accomplish its mission, she would form another. She also committed herself to keeping Albert’s memory alive through her speeches and writings about his life.
Powerful communication: She was an expressive, forceful speaker and writer who called directly for action against the wealthy and their politicians. She contributed to many newsletters, newspapers, and books to promulgate anarchism.
Racism: Lucy mirrored the racist ideas of the left and ordinary people of the time, ideas that are once again in fashion. The socialists and related parties viewed black workers as a category of workers, oppressed only from poverty, not from super-exploitation due to “racial” categories. In true “blame the victim” mentality, she wrote “…to the Negro himself we would say your deliverance lies mainly in your own hands.” (!)
“These were the men and women (communists, socialists, anarchists of this time) who claimed for themselves the mantle of radical change, but whose own prejudices served to replicate the unequal society against which they professed to be fighting.” (Jones J., The Goddess of Anarchism)
Sectarianism: Lucy denounced other anarchists and socialists who did not accept her outlook. She did not develop alliances with other labor radicals or with any antiracist activists. Her responses to them were caustic deal breakers. She had two close friends during her life but outlived them as well.
As Jacqueline Jones, the author of The Goddess of Anarchy from which much of this blog is based, concludes that:
“…Lucy Parsons lived a singularly eventful life… full of remarkable achievements… her story in all its complexity remains a powerful one for its useful legacies no less than its cautionary lessons.”
Her life holds many lessons for us today: fight for an inclusive, multiracial/ethnic strategy; use mass violence as necessary in strikes and rebellions; reject politicians; and build leadership among people who have been powerless. Build a movement of workers to take state power to replace capitalism instead of relying on reform organizations and workers’ spontaneity.
Asbaugh, Carolyn. Lucy Parsons: an American Revolutionary, 1976.
Greer, TS. A Lifelong Anarchist: Selected Works and Writings of Lucy Parsons. Ignacio Hills Press, 19??
Jones, Jacqueline. The Goddess of Anarchism. NY: Basic Books, 2017.
Williams, Casey. Whose Lucy Parsons: THE MYTHOLOGIZING AND RE-APPROPRIATION OF A RADICAL HERO. https://ithanarquista.files.wordpress.com/2014/…/casey-wiliams-whose-lucy-parsons