Lucy Parsons: “More Dangerous Than a Thousand Rioters”
The strongest argument that can be made as to why all radical activists should study the life and works of Lucy Parsons is that the FBI wants you to know nothing about her.Lucy Eldine Gonzalez Parsons died in 1942, at the age of 89, in a house-fire in Chicago — the city in which she lived most of her life. The ashes had hardly cooled before the Chicago police raided the remains of her home, confiscated all 3,000 volumes of literature and writings on “sex, socialism, and anarchy,” which constituted her personal library, and turned it over to the FBI. Tragically, and despite her comrades’ repeated inquiries, this treasure trove of revolutionary material was never again to see the light of day.Indeed, the Chicago police had ample reason to want to bury Parsons’ legacy as quickly as possible. In their own words, she was “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.” For virtually the entirety of the last 40 years of her life, the Chicago police tried to bar her from making any public speeches, and routinely arrested her for the ‘crime’ of handing out revolutionary pamphlets on the street. Famed labor historian Studs Terkel even noted how rare of a privilege it was to hear Parsons address a large audience in her later years, owing to the constant police harassment.Overlooked by History Partially because so much of her own writings were ‘disappeared’ by the government, and partially because she was a revolutionary woman of color speaking out against the injustices of a capitalist society run by white men, Lucy Parsons is one of the least known of the major figures in the history of revolutionary socialism in the U.S. Much like her long-time comrades and friends, Eugene Debs, William “Big Bill” Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Lucy Parsons made a tremendous contribution to the birth of America’s turn-of-the-century, revolutionary working-class movement; a movement which continues to this day to shape the character of class struggle and revolutionary politics in this country.Historian Robin Kelley argues that Lucy Parsons was not only “the most prominent black woman radical of the late nineteenth century,” but was also “one of the brightest lights in the history of revolutionary socialism.” Historian John McClendon writes that she is notable for being the “first black activist to associate with the revolutionary left in America.
More often than not, however, if Lucy Parsons is mentioned as an historical figure, she is noted merely as the “wife of Albert Parsons,” a man who had gained international notoriety after he was executed in 1887 by the state of Illinois for his revolutionary activities.
Unfortunately, this slight extends beyond solely ‘mainstream’ historians, including supposedly left-wing intellectuals as well. For instance, in the 1960s, the feminist editors of Radcliffe College’s three-volume work, Notable American Women, decided to leave Parsons out of their study on the grounds that she was “largely propelled by her husband’s fate” and was a “pathetic figure, living in the past and crying injustice” after her husband’s execution.
Even contemporaries of Lucy Parsons, such as the popular anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman (with whom Lucy Parsons became a life-long political opponent), accused Parsons of being an otherwise unimportant opportunist who simply rode upon the cape of her husband’s martyrdom, describing her as nothing more than one of those wives of “anarchists who marry women who are millions of miles removed from their ideas.”
None of this, however, is to diminish the historical importance of Albert Parsons and the events leading up to his execution; and while it is true that Lucy Parsons spent much of her life addressing the crime that was her husband’s murder at the hands of the capitalist state, nonetheless, her political activity and impact on history extend far beyond the scope of that single tragedy. In fact, the work that she lent her energies to in the years following Albert’s execution are of equal (if not greater) importance than anything he had been able to add to the fight for workers’ emancipation in the course of a life that was sadly cut short.
“Whose Lucy Parsons?”
In one sense, Lucy Parsons defies easy political categorization. Throughout her life she referred to herself alternatively (and sometimes all at once) as an anarchist, socialist, communist, and syndicalist. She worked with socialist groups in the 1870s and anarchist groups in the 1880s. She was part of the founding of the Socialist Party in the 1890s and the revolutionary-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World in the early 1900s. Finally, the last two decades of her life would see her working with the Communist Party.
The fact that she allowed her ideas on revolution and revolutionary organization to adapt so much over the years have led some present-day activists to feel the need to “rescue” her in order to firmly place her under the banner of their particular ideology to the exclusion of all others. For instance, the anarchist author Gale Ahrens, in the Introduction to her otherwise useful collection of Lucy Parsons’ writings and speeches, waxes near apoplectic at the thought that anyone would consider Lucy Parsons a communist. The origin of her ire is the only existing biography of Lucy Parsons, written by Carolyn Ashbuagh, in which Ashbaugh concludes that Lucy Parsons officially joined the Communist Party in 1939.
Despite the fact that this conclusion is backed up by several interviews conducted by Ashbaugh with contemporaries of Lucy Parsons (both friend and foe), and Lucy Parsons’ own words, which reveal the fact that by the 1930s she was publicly referring to herself as “connected with” the Communist Party, Ahrens feels the need to take pains to attack what, in her words, is an “unlikely image of Lucy Parsons as Communist — or worse, as The Anarchist Who Became a Communist.
Clearly for Ahrens there is nothing worse than an anarchist becoming a communist. However, the actual writings and actions of Lucy Parsons herself reveal that this aversion to communism is wholly that of Ahrens, and is not something that Parsons shared in the least.
As one anarchist writer has correctly pointed out regarding those, like Ahrens, who would attempt to declare that Lucy Parsons was one thing by simply lopping off those pieces of her life that indicate she was also something else, “Gale Ahrens’ documentary history was an attempt to rescue Parsons ‘for the anarchist movement.’ In doing so Ahrens provides anarchism with another hero but does little to demystify Parsons’ legacy. Indeed, the real question is not whose hero Lucy Parsons is, but how we can learn from her struggle and how her history can provide a better understanding of American radicalism.”
Perhaps the most egregious example of this type of pick-and-choose approach to Lucy Parsons’ legacy is the Lucy Parsons Project website, which posits itself as a “tribute to Lucy Parsons, her work, and the causes she championed.” This would all be well and good if the website actually lived up to its promise. While useful insofar as it provides some of Parsons’ own writings and speeches, it unfortunately does her a major disservice by creating a distorted, incomplete picture of what constituted her political life.
While one can find on this website a myriad of writings on anarchism (including those by and about Emma Goldman, who Parsons grew to utterly despise by the end of her life), as well as links to several dozen contemporary anarchist websites, one will not find any writings by or about Karl Marx, anything about the successes of the Russian revolution of 1917, nor links to any contemporary socialist websites (not to mention any specifically anti-racist media), though these were all major, if not defining, contributors to Lucy Parsons’ political worldview.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not note the other side of this trend, which can be seen in erroneous attempts to declare that at no point in Parsons’ life did she ever actually espouse anarchist ideas, which appears in her biography. This, of course, is plainly not true.
In the end, while people like Emma Goldman considered Lucy Parsons an ‘opportunist’ for working with different revolutionary organizations and letting her politics evolve over the years, I would argue that this is actually her greatest attribute. Unlike Goldman, Lucy Parsons retained a firm, unwavering commitment throughout her entire life to identifying with, and struggling for, the liberation of working people as a class from the chains of capitalist exploitation, while simultaneously being open to a number of different forms in which that liberation might be brought about.
For Lucy Parsons, the aegis under which workers (and by extension, herself) were best able to fight for their social emancipation was not important. If a new type of organization or tactic in the class struggle was developed that seemed an advance over that which preceded it, Parsons did not miss a beat in throwing herself into the work of this new-found creation. Lucy Parsons had only one loyalty — to the downtrodden, oppressed, abused, and exploited. In the end, she measured an organization or an action, not by what label it could be categorized under, but how effective it was in moving this latter group of people into revolutionary action. It is for this reason, and not ‘opportunism,’ that Lucy Parsons was so quick to latch on to new organizations and ideas that emerged in the course of what she considered to be the great and ongoing war between labor and capital.
Lucy Parsons Becomes a Socialist
Little is known of Lucy Parsons’ exact origins, in no small part because she herself was quite circumspect about this matter. Today, most historians agree that Parsons was likely born circa 1853, in Texas, and quite possibly grew up as a slave on a plantation. Documentary evidence suggests that she was of mixed African, Mexican, and Native American heritage. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that she actually denied being of African ancestry, though theories abound as to why she may have claimed this.
She would stay in Texas until 1873, when she and Albert Parsons, who she had married several years before, would move to Chicago. A large part of what inspired this move north was the fear of what the rise of the KKK in the post-Reconstruction South would mean for a progressive-minded, interracial couple like themselves (Albert had been shot in the leg and threatened with lynching in 1872 for his efforts to register black voters).
The Chicago to which the Parsons’ fled, was a city undergoing dramatic, if not chaotic changes. The city was fast industrializing and thousands of immigrants were streaming in from around the world, adding to the city’s developing proletariat. These workers were savagely exploited and lived in abysmal conditions.
An 1873 investigation conducted on the housing situation in Chicago’s immigrant neighborhoods revealed that homes designed for 6 or 7 people often housed 30 or 40. Children played in streets covered in animal litter from the nearby meatpacking plants. Fifty percent of these children never reached the age of five.
It was in one such immigrant neighborhood that the Parsons’ first took up residence. Immediately, they were drawn into the radical circles of these European immigrants, learning about the ideas of socialism, class struggle, and revolution, which were rapidly growing amongst the working classes of Europe. Through these circles, the two came to be familiarized with various socialist theorists, including Karl Marx, whose works engrossed them.
Before long, the Parsons’ had become leading members in the Chicago branch of the Workingmen’s Party (WP), an organization affiliated with, and modeled on, the German Social-Democratic Party (SDP). WP organizing meetings were held at the Parsons’ house, and Albert even ran for local office in a WP-sponsored electoral campaign.
More than anything else, the single greatest catalyst of the Parsons’ radicalization was the national railroad strike of 1877, the first general strike in U.S. history. Originating in West Virginia as a strike against wage cuts, the strike quickly spread along the rails to Chicago, where every single railroad worker joined in, turning trains over onto the tracks to render them impassable.
As Lucy Parsons would later write of this event, “It was during the great railroad strike of 1877 that I first became interested in what is known as the ‘Labor Question’.
The WP threw itself into the strike, with Albert at one point addressing a rally of 25,000 striking workers.
The capitalist class responded viciously to the labor uprising. In Chicago, the police and the newly-formed Illinois National Guard were mobilized to break the strike with the use of sword, gun, and cannon. Scores of workers were killed and even more wounded. The capitalist press was remorseless in its appraisal of the bloody repression. The Chicago Tribune commenting on the working people who joined the strike, opined, “The world owes these classes [of people] rather extermination than a livelihood.”
Despite the brutal defeat suffered by the working class in the course of the strike, the aftermath saw the WP — now renamed the ‘Socialist Labor Party’ (SLP) — grow dramatically.
It was during this period that Lucy Parsons also first became tremendously active in the socialist movement. By 1879, she was pregnant with her first child and working full-time as a dress-maker to support her and Albert, who had been fired and blacklisted from working in the printing trades due to his involvement in the strike.
Despite this, she began writing regular articles for the newspaper of the SLP, The Socialist, was a leading figure in organizing housewives and other wageless women into the SLP’s Working Women’s Union, and was one of the first women to join the Knights of Labor once it finally accepted female members in 1879.
Through the pages of The Socialist, Lucy addressed the plight of women servants of the rich; wrote tributes to the late Abolitionists who had mortally wounded the Southern “aristocracy” by “striking the shackles from the black slave”; and excoriated the profiteering rich Northerners who grew wealthy during the Civil War, only to spit on the ragged soldiers who later came to them in search of relief from their hunger.
In one article, titled, “On the ‘harmony’ between capital and labor,” Lucy argued that there was no such thing as an identity of interest “twixt the oppressor and the oppressed, twixt the robber and the robbed.”
Let the masses understand that these robbers hold this property (which is so much unpaid labor) under the plea of the laws which they themselves have made … and further, that these so-called laws would not be worth the paper they are written on, twenty-four hours after the producers of all wealth had willed it otherwise.
Reform or Revolution
By the early 1880s, the SLP was undergoing a major internal fight roughly along the lines of a reformist versus revolutionary wing. The SLP, much like the corresponding German SDP, was primarily a reform-oriented organization, which saw socialism as coming about via electoral channels. It viewed the transformation from capitalism to socialism as a peaceful process to be carried out ‘from above,’ by holders of political office, with the class struggle playing an ancillary role, if at all.
In the wake of the violent repression of the 1877 strike, many socialists began to view the notion of a peaceful resolution to the conflict between workers and capitalists as fantasy. For them, the ‘class war’ was no mere phrase, and some actually saw the arming of the working class as an imminent objective. Moreover, these socialists had come to see the electoral road to socialism as a dead-end. The SLP had been making little progress in this vein, and those candidates that did make gains were oftentimes quickly co-opted by local Democratic politicians, jettisoning their socialist platform in the process.
Lucy Parsons had come to stand out as a spokesperson for the more militant faction inside the SLP, fully participating in party debates and conventions. Even the local bourgeois press took note of her, commenting that “she preached the social revolution with even more vehemence than her husband.”
By the end of 1881, the SLP had officially undergone a nationwide split. In Chicago, the revolutionary wing of the SLP, in whose ranks could be counted Albert and Lucy, branded itself the ‘Socialist Revolutionary Club.’ In 1883, the Socialist Revolutionary Club participated in the Congress of North American Socialists, from which Congress issued forth a new national formation, the International Working People’s Association (IWPA).
The IWPA was established on a firmly militant basis, arguing in its Manifesto that, “No ruling class has ever laid down its privileges without a struggle. It becomes, therefore, self-evident that the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie will be of a violent revolutionary character.”
And while the IWPA adopted a resolution, motivated by the Chicago Revolutionary Socialists, which said that the trade unions “form the advance guard of the coming revolution,” the bulk of the IWPA rather held to the concept of “propaganda of the deed.”
This theory, as propounded at the Congress by the German émigré, Johann Most, centered on the efficacy of property damage, sabotage, and political assassination, as the main catalyst of social revolution.
Anarchism and State-Socialism
Though the Manifesto of the IWPA did not explicitly mention the word ‘anarchism,’ it nonetheless became the main label associated with the IWPA by both its critics and proponents.
It is also at this time that Lucy Parsons begins referring to herself as an anarchist. She explained tat she used to believe the “government could be made an instrument in the hands of the oppressed to alleviate their sufferings. But a closer study of the origin, history and tendency of governments convinced me that this was a mistake. … that it made no difference what fair promises a political party, out of power, might make to the people in order to secure their confidence, when once securely established in control of the affairs of society.”
She went on to argue that “the struggle for liberty is too great and the few steps we have gained have been at too great a sacrifice, for the great mass of the people … to consent to turn over to any political party the management of our social and industrial affairs.” Finally, as she concludes, “For these and other reasons, [I] turned from a sincere, earnest, political Socialist to the non-political phase of Socialism — Anarchism.”
For Parsons, the ‘political (i.e., electoral) Socialists’ or ‘state-socialists’ were guilty of harboring delusions in the possibility of creating fundamental change simply by capturing state power. And even if possible, this would be undesirable, for nobody but the masses themselves could be trusted to bring about their own emancipation.
Interestingly enough, however, the struggle against the ‘state-socialists’ was not historically unique to anarchism. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels fought bitterly against the state-socialists who dominated the German SDP. The leader of this school of thought in Germany, Ferdinand Lassalle, was also the man whose ideas held sway over the very same Socialist Labor Party in the U.S. that Lucy Parsons had come to criticize.
As Paul D’Amato has accurately summarized,
It was Marx and Engels who organized the fight in the socialist movement against those who believed that socialism was about taking over the state, or that socialism could be equated with state ownership or control of production. … Marx rejected the politics of the German socialist Ferdinand Lasalle, who viewed the working class as a sort of stage-army that would help him into office where he and his cohorts would implement socialism through the state. Marx attacked Lasalleans for their ‘servile belief in the state.’
Elsewhere, Marx argued against Lassalle’s top-down approach to working-class organization, saying that, especially “where the worker is regulated bureaucratically from childhood onwards, where he believes in authority, in those set over him, the main thing is to teach him to walk for himself” [emphasis in original].
In fact, it seems quite likely that Lucy Parsons knew of Karl Marx’s fight against the ‘political socialists’ in Germany, for she repeatedly insisted on referring to Marx in her writings as an ‘anarchist’ like herself!
Clearly, the differences between the theories of socialism and anarchism, which to many people today may seem quite clear, were incredibly intermingled in the minds of Lucy Parsons and those around her. As one of her comrades in the IWPA later explained, “A number of persons claim that an anarchist cannot be a socialist, and a socialist not an anarchist. This is wrong. … The anarchists are divided into two factions; the communistic anarchists and the Proudhon or middle-class anarchists. The ‘International Working People’s Association’ is the representative organization of the communistic anarchists.” In sum, he concludes, “a socialist who is not a state-socialist must necessarily be an anarchist.”
Of course, under such a definition, we would have no choice but to consider Marx an anarchist, too!
In May of 1885, soldiers killed two striking workers at a Chicago quarry. The IWPA held a meeting in response to the slayings in which another of Parsons’ most famous statements was recorded by The Chicago Tribune:
Let every dirty, lousy tramp arm himself with a revolver or knife and lay in wait on the steps of the palaces of the rich and stab or shoot their owners as they come out. Let us kill them without mercy, and let it be a war of extermination and without pity. Let us devastate the avenues where the wealthy live as [General] Sheridan devastated the beautiful valley of the Shenandoah.
Lucy Parsons on Oppression
The more Lucy Parsons involved herself in the revolutionary movement, the more popular she became. She began regularly addressing crowds numbering in the thousands on the streets of Chicago. The press compared her to John Brown and Louise Michel, the “red virgin” of the Paris Commune, who had died fighting to defend the first ever worker-run society in 1871. Lucy Parsons relished the comparison and was prepared to die a martyr, just as the Communards had done.
Her reputation quickly spread beyond Chicago. One reporter from Canton, Ohio, wrote of her, “She is a wonderfully strong writer and it is said she can excel her husband in making a fiery speech.”
She also became virtually the sole revolutionary in the IWPA (or the SLP, for that matter) to seriously take up the “Negro Question” as it was called then. In the spring of 1886, 13 black people were massacred by a white mob in Mississippi as retribution for one of the black men filing assault charges against a local police officer.
While Lucy Parsons indisputably saw social oppression as a function of the broader economic system in which it operated, it would nonetheless be incorrect to assert that she believed there was no need to wage particular fights against particular forms of oppression, outside of the purely industrial sphere of relations, simply because the abolition of capitalism would “automatically” obviate the need for such fights.
In 1892, Parsons wrote about a meeting she attended in Chicago organized by local black activists to “protest against the outrages being perpetrated in the South upon peaceful citizens simply because they are Negroes.”
Never since the days of the Spartan Helots has history recorded such brutality as has been ever since the war and is now being perpetrated upon the Negro in the South.
Women are stripped to the skin in the presence of leering, white-skinned, black-hearted brutes and lashed into insensibility and strangled to death from the limbs of trees. A girl child of fifteen years was lynched recently by these brutal bullies. Where has justice fled?
The whites of the South are not only sowing the wind which they will reap in the whirlwind, but the flame which they will reap in the conflagration.
Lucy Parsons was in an extreme minority amongst even most black leaders in the 1890s, who far from advocating armed self-defense, were rather supporting the efforts of Booker T. Washington, whose accommodationist approach to white racism was at the height of its popularity.
And within the ranks of the labor and revolutionary movements, the prevailing notions on racism ranged from the indifferent to the downright odious. For instance, Dyer Lum, the personal secretary to Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), was an extreme racist whose bigotry was nonchalantly accepted by all those around him. Lum, whose path Parsons routinely crossed in the course of various labor organizing efforts, once commented on the news of a Southern black man who had been burned at the stake, “I would have carried wood myself if I had been there. [T]o shoot him would only have made a county sensation. Burning him made the flesh of every nigger brute in the South to creep.”
Parsons’ theoretical approach to the oppression of women was greatly influenced by the writings of August Bebel, the German socialist and close friend of Frederick Engels.Bebel’s book, Women and Socialism, written in 1879, was one of the first instances of a socialist or anarchist attempting a serious, class analysis of the origins and basis of women’s oppression.
However, she goes on to explain that the development of industry and the entrance of women into the ranks of the proletariat “was to bring relief at last. This enabled woman to leave the narrow confines of the kitchen where she had been kept for so long. She entered the arena of life’s activities, to make her way in this hustling, pushing, busy world as an independent human being for the first time in the world’s history.”
She ends by cautioning: “But woman is allowing herself to be used to reduce the standard of life by working for lower wages than those demanded by men; this she will have to rectify, else her labor will become a detriment instead of a blessing or help either to herself or her fellow workers.
Finally, on the immense capacity of women to play a key role in the process of social change, she wrote, “When the women take hold of a great and crying evil, you may expect revolution — not necessarily a revolution of blood and destruction, yet not necessarily one of peace.”