Death in the Haymarket

By James Green

According to Eric Foner, the question “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” is one that “has been a source of apparently endless debate among historians examining the distinctive qualities of the American experience” (Foner’s essay on the question is included in the collection Who Owns History?). In fact, there have been popular socialist movements in the United States. They have not, however, had a great deal of success either politically or culturally, at least as a movement, and it seems safe to say that there is no effective socialism in the United States today. The label itself is one of pure vilification, scarcely distinguishable in any circles from that of communist. What leading political figure in America today would dare identify him or herself as a socialist?

Any alternative to capitalism is seen as heresy. Indeed the triumph of American capitalism has been so complete that it has been elevated from an ideology to a natural, universal law. Natural law is inevitable, hence divinely provided for. Striking workers in 1880s Chicago, the setting for Death in the Haymarket, were instructed that theirs was a struggle against “the laws of political economy.” Such laws are of a higher order than mere mortal legislation. When the state legislature and governor of Illinois passed a law providing for an eight-hour work day in 1867 it was simply rejected by Chicago’s business elite, who saw in it a violation of the “sacred principle” of freedom of contract. Faced with the messiness of democracy it’s always convenient to be able to appeal to a higher court. Popular support is no match for sacred principles.

The disjunction between people and power is evidence that natural laws don’t always operate naturally. There is, in fact, nothing free about a free market. This was understood in Chicago at the time of the Haymarket explosion as well:

Business leaders were so alarmed by the working-class mobilization of May 1886 that they went far beyond invoking the laws of supply and demand in condemning collective efforts to raise wages and reduce hours. The field of forces had changed so radically that employers now threatened to employ the “whole machinery of government,” including the military, to “enforce the laws of the market.”

As things turned out, this was no idle threat. The law (of the market) was vindicated through force. As one of its most prominent cheerleaders today famously puts it, “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist.” And a “hidden” fist is, in this context, no fist at all. It has to be felt.

This background of a law beyond legality is felt throughout James Green’s thorough history of the events surrounding the Haymarket bombing. The men tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang in the aftermath of the bombing – none of whom appears to have been guilty of much of anything except through association – were not, as their leading spokesman put it, victims of “judicial murder.” They were victims of a hysterical form of totally extra-judicial murder. Their trial had all the trappings of law and order – a judge, jury, formal process – but that is all. In the end they were convicted of a crime they hadn’t even been charged with. The “field of forces” (big business, the press, the police) were against them, not the law.

Not that the law could have helped much by the time of their trial. Capital had its Pearl Harbor, its 9/11, and wasn’t going to miss its opportunity to lower the boom. Chicago was on red alert, the highest degree of nineteenth-century terror warning. And there is much here as well that will strike contemporary readers as disturbingly familiar:

Almost every day detectives uncovered some dynamite plot or cache of weapons that they said indicated a dangerous anarchist conspiracy was still afoot. It was easy to persuade the terror-stricken population of the existence of a gigantic revolutionary conspiracy, recalled Chicago journalist Brand Whitlock. No rumor of a deadly plot seemed too fantastic to be believed by a hysterical public. It all produced, said Whitlock, “one of the strangest frenzies of fear that ever distracted a whole community.”

The Haymarket bombing was an isolated event, apparently committed by a lone troublemaker. There was no further threat of violence. But the hysteria helped sell papers, which is what mattered. The war on terror, like any war, has its economic calculations.

As Green shows in his conclusion, the Haymarket became an important myth internationally for the labour movement while vanishing into the footnotes of American history. In Chicago only a decade after Black Friday (the day the condemned were hanged) “it appeared that the Haymarket martyrs had become lost in the past, forgotten and misunderstood.” To understand these different responses is another way of approaching the question of why socialism is the political movement that dare not speak its name in the United States. Historically, socialism, in very clear terms, offered an alternative to the two dominant political and cultural forces of the twentieth century: nationalism and capitalism. And the United States is the nationalist-capitalist state without equal. There is no other country as ideologically rooted in these values. And so, in the national myth, the Chicago anarchists lynched on Black Friday weren’t martyrs or rebels. They were only un-people, ejected from history, undone.

Review first published online May 17, 2007.