Lucy Parsons, Working Class Anarchist

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.
LucyParsons photoThe 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.

Brief Background
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.
LucyParsonsRR StrikeThey 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 PrinciplesAnarchism
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.

LucyParsons quote on the systemOne 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)

Elections
Lucy Parsons Voting“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.”

Racism
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).

Unions
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.

Violence
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.

Women
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.

Family
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.

Lessons Learned

Strengths:
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.

Weaknesses:

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.

Readings
Asbaugh, Carolyn. Lucy Parsons: an American Revolutionary, 1976.
Greer, TS. A Lifelong Anarchist: Selected Works and Writings of Lucy Parsons. Ignacio Hills Press, 19??
lucyParsons GoddessJones, 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
Viewed 11-28-18

Kavanaugh – The Tip of the Iceberg

By Karyn Pomerantz, October 16, 2018

Kava nopeThe Kavanaugh hearings and his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice have opened a floodgate of women’s stories of rape and sexual harassment, building on the many recent accounts from the #MeToo movement.  Kavanaugh’s arrogant behavior represents the entitled status of ruling class men who wield their power without consideration for anyone except corporate and right wing politicians.  His danger extends beyond his individual actions to the realm of policy:

  • support for the Patriot Act and torture,
  • opposition to abortion,
  • threats to end the pre-existing condition protection in the Affordable Care Act,
  • support for the public charge policy that would deny immigrants’ use of federal benefits, such as Medicaid and food stamps, whether they were here legally or not
  • support for the detention of immigrants years after they were charged with a crime no matter how minor,
  • support for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 US Census.

His nomination represents the ruling class’ assault on the social safety net with Trump leading the way.

The hearings revealed how the power elite tries to shame and intimidate women into silence.  According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, sixty-three percent (63%) of the people who are raped do not report the crime while only 12 percent of child sexual abuse is reported. One in five women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, yet over 90% of students do not report the assault. Sexual violence also occurs in same sex relationships.  Over 46 percent of lesbians, 75 percent of bisexual women, 40 percent of gay men, and 47 percent of bisexual men reported forms of sexual violence (NSVRC, Statistics About Sexual Violence, http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf. Viewed 10-9-2018).

RACISM INCREASES THE DEGREE OF VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

Racism has always been used to depict black men as hyper-sexual violent rapists (of white women) yet black men have a lower rate of rape than white men. (RAINN, Perpetrators of Sexual Violence: Statistics, http://rainn.org/statistics. Viewed 10-13-18).  Among women raped, 17.7 percent were white and 18.8 percent are black. Native Americans have the highest rate of rape, twice the rate of any other groups (RAINN, Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics, http://rainn.org/statistics. Viewed 10-13-18).

While rape is one of the severest forms of violence, there are many other assaults on women’s health and well-being, that disproportionately affect black and Latinx women:

  • High maternal and infant mortality rates
  • Immigration policies of detention, deportation, public charge policies, and migration caused by severe poverty and violence
  • Poor access to health care, abortion and contraception in many areas
  • Economic exploitation by employers; women make 80 percent of white men’s earnings while black and Latinx women earn even less
  • Economic exploitation in the home providing unpaid domestic labor
  • No access to education and expensive school fees that push girls to engage in sex for money in many countries
  • High rates of HIV

kav fight for 15While the media highlights white middle class women in #MeToo, poor women working in fast food, hotels, and factories have joined efforts to prevent sexual harassment.  USA Today reports that workers at McDonald’s filed a suit, and some city councils are passing policies against sexual violence (https://www.thetowntalk.com/story/opinion/2018/09/18/editorial-me-too-times-up-slowly-spread-hollywood-protect-low-wage-workers/1337140002/. September 2018. Viewed 10-13-18).

Legislative and electoral strategies cannot eradicate sexism; it is too profitable due to women’s lower wages and free household labor.

Women have long fought their oppression, demanding equal pay, education, health care, reproductive rights, and political participation.  During the 19th Century in the US, women rebelled against slavery and organized for voting rights.  Women in the Lowell, Massachusetts textile mills led the first strike to demand better conditions and wages.  They played significant roles in the civil rights movement during the early and mid 20th Century, holding leadership positions in SNCC and CORE, two mass anti-racist organizations.  Black women, such as Lucy Parsons, Louise Thompson, and Claudia Jones, advocated for socialism and communism and defended the Scottsboro Boys, who were falsely convicted of raping a white woman in the South in the 1930s.  Many immigrant women led the union organizing drives in the garment, farmworkers and textile industries in the late 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century.

kav chinese womenIn the newly launched Soviet Union, Alexandra Kollantai and other communists established communal kitchens and housekeeping to alleviate the burdens of domestic labor.  Women also joined and led the revolutionary liberation struggles in China, Vietnam, and South Africa.

Hundreds of women teachers went out on strike in West Virginia in 2018 to demand funding for education and a living wage, and women are joining unions and struggles to raise the minimum wage in the Fight for $15 campaign. Recently, women initiated Black Lives Matter and MeToo!. More women have entered political races for local office since the Trump election.  Hundreds of women protested Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation to the Supreme Court risking arrest to do so.

Racism Weakens the Women’s Movement

While the civil rights struggle inspired women’s activism during the 1960s and 1970s, leaders of the women’s movement marginalized and ignored the specific needs of working class and black, Latinx, Asian, and Native women.  Racism weakened the movement for women’s liberation by separating women based on their racial classification and economic status, and choosing a more narrow set of demands and issues that appealed to middle class educated white women.  This was not new.

White women suffragists threw black women under the bus in 1869.  Trying to win support for voting rights from Southern Democrats, they excluded black women and their issues in their movement, prioritizing women’s issues over racial justice.  The Fifteenth Amendment allowed voting for black men but denied this to women. Suffrage leaders Stanton and Anthony lashed out at black men, accusing them of illiteracy and the inability to understand political issues.  (Men often accused women of the same problems).  When Frederick Douglass offered a compromise that would allow voting for any excluded group, Stanton and Anthony rejected it.

kav black and white unity signThe dissension broke the suffrage movement at this time, which was only renewed decades later.  In 1913 suffragists led by Alice Paul and others organized a parade of 5,000 women down Pennsylvania Ave in Washington, DC to promote voting rights. Yet they relegated black suffragists to the end of the march!  Using arguments popular through US history, they did not want to alienate Southern participants but they themselves held the same attitudes (Kendi I. Stamped from the Beginning. NY: Nation Press, 2016).

In 1963, Betty Frieden’s immensely popular book, The Feminine Mystique, addressed middle class white women’s oppression as free household labor and advocated for equal rights for professional women in the workplace.  There was no acknowledgement of white and non-white working class women’s needs.  She and other women established the National Organization of Women (NOW), and developed and promoted the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) with demands for non-discriminatory employment opportunities, maternity leave, child care, abortion, and contraceptives. NOW, led by Friedan, proposed an electoral, legislative approach to winning the ERA that led to opportunistic compromises.   ERA proponents eliminated many provisions in the ERA to gain wider support among state legislators.  As it became clear that NOW did not fight for black women, many left the organization (Smith S. Women and Socialism. Chicago: Haymarket, 2016).

Don’t Trust the Liberals-Build a Mass Militant Movement

NOW’s reliance on electoral politics rather than building a mass movement doomed it to failure.  It supported Bill Clinton who demolished welfare for poor women, advocated sexual abstinence, and opposed gay marriage.  Obama extended the Hyde Act banning federal funds, such as Medicaid, to pay for abortions to the Affordable Care Act.  Yet NOW and moderate women’s groups clung to the Democratic Party.

kav women's lib marchMore radical women renounced this incremental strategy.  They staged demonstrations against labor practices and cultural norms, such as beauty pageants, bridal showers and prevailing standards of beauty.  The Boston Women’s Health Collective wrote Our Bodies, Ourselves to teach women about their health, sexuality, and birth control, criticizing the medical establishment for medicalizing women’s conditions.  The book addressed women in other countries and the racism experienced by US women.  Thousands read the book; it is still in print today

Marxists condemned capitalism as the source of sexism in the United States and opposed US imperialist wars while the conservative leaders of the Feminist Majority led by Eleanor Smeal supported the war in Afghanistan as an opportunity to liberate women there.

MEN AND WOMEN MUST UNITE TO FIGHT SEXISM

During the 1960s and 1970s, separatism of men and women became popular.  Feminists accused all men as the source of sexism, blaming the “patriarchy” or male supremacy as the cause of women’s oppression. Many men adopted the ideology of male supremacy and the so-called ideal of masculinity, such as hyper-sexuality, aggression, and heterosexual orientation, traits used to justify sexual violence. Black men were seen as especially threatening to women.

Black women feminists opposed separatism, arguing that feminists needed to combat racism as well as women’s oppression.  They developed the concept of intersectionality in the 1970s put forward by Kimberle Crenshaw (See blog post on Intersectionality, October 2018https://multiracialunity.org/2018/09/26/intersectionality-a-marxist-critique/, ), acknowledging that women (and men) experience multiple forms of exploitation, especially racism.  While sexist practices, such as rape or fewer job promotions, affect all groups of women, black, Asian, Latinx, and Native women suffer much more.  They could not ignore the effects of racism on men and women.

The Cohambee River Collective of black feminists led by Barbara and Betty Smith published the Cohambee statement that pledged their solidarity with black men:

kav cohambee statement“… we feel solidarity with progressive black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand… we struggle together with black men against racism while we also struggle with black men about sexism.

These lessons can guide the current generations of young men and women to build an inclusive movement based on class: solidarity among workers and opposition to capitalism.  Reject the Democrats and voting as the way out; they will only use us to preserve this system.”

 

See more about sexism at:

 https://multiracialunity.org/2017/01/20/stop-the-oppression-of-women-build-a-multiracial-anti-racist-movement/

https://multiracialunity.org/2017/12/20/fight-the-oppression-of-women-from-sexual-assaults-to-capitalist-exploitation/