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Conner “C” McCombs – Critical Thoughts on the Erasure of Anarchist History from May Day Celebrations and How this Relates to a Critique of “Left-Unity.”

The Anarchist Library

Author: Conner "C" McCombs
Title: Critical Thoughts on the Erasure of Anarchist History from May Day Celebrations and How this Relates to a Critique of “Left-Unity.”
Date: May 11, 2022
Source: Retrieved on May 11, 2022 from https://itsgoingdown.org/may-day-problem-with-left-unity/

This past International Workers Day, otherwise known as May Day, I attended my local rally. The same old May Day groups were in attendance, Party for Socialist Liberation (PSL), Communist Party USA (CPUSA), Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and a couple other single issue labor groups. The endless tedium of speeches aside, something strange stood out to me. Every group called for left unity in some way or another. “Unite as workers to crush capitalism,” was the exact quote from the young man in running shoes, jeans, and a bright red PSL shirt. I could have spoken up and made a scene, again, but I feel it is more effective to broadly address why this call for left unity is absurd especially considering the Marxist historical revisionism surrounding May Day. The success of May Day was directly because of the anarchist Haymarket Martyrs and the Marxist attempt to ignore this fact is one of the many reasons why left unity is never in the best interest of anarchists.

Before we begin, it is important to go over the events of the Haymarket uprising on May 4th, 1886. The first May Day was called for by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) as the official first day the eight-hour workday in 1886. On May 1st 1886, between 30,000 and 80,000 laborers in Chicago refused to work in support of the eight hour day, which shut down the industrial zones. August Spies, a German-born anarchist and leading contributor to the newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung, was enthused by the unity and relative success of the eight-hour fight.[1] The McCormick Reaper Works’ solution, instead of meeting the demands of the workers, was to hire scabs. On May 3rd, 1886, striking workers from the McCormick Plant asked Spies to come down to the Southwest side of Chicago and give a speech to bolster morale. Minutes into Spies speech, the scabs began filing out of the plant and the McCormick strikers rushed to the gates of the factory. To protect the business and scabs, 200 police officers rushed in and beat the strikers with clubs and shot them with pistols. According to Spies, 6 strikers were killed including those that were shot in the back as they fled. Spies knew that the battle had been lost and returned to his newspaper office with the sound of screams and pistol fire still ringing in his ear.

That night, August Spies rushed into print several thousand leaflets urging workingmen to come to a meeting the next day, May 4th, at Haymarket Square.[2] The next day, the anarchists August Spies, Albert Parsons, and the Rev. Samuel Fielden spoke to a crowd estimated variously between 600 and 3,000. At around 10:30 PM as Fielden spoke, the police showed up despite the peaceful nature of the crowd. As they ordered the crowd to disperse, a bomb was thrown into the advancing officers, killing 6. The Police then opened fire on the anarchists killing 4 and some of the anarchists returned fire killing another police officer. The Police argued it was a conspiracy and eight influential anarchists were arrested, including Spies and Parsons, who were not present but had significant influence in the community. On November 11th 1887, 4 convicted anarchists including Spices, Parsons, Adolph Fischer, and George Engle were hanged. The state executions further enraged the broader community and would be the catalyst for the International Workers Day.

The Haymarket Uprising was internationally significant. During the funeral procession for the anarchists in Chicago, the historian Philip Foner estimates, between 150,000 and 500,000 people lined the streets in support. Both the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor, although initially reluctant, supported the slain anarchists as heroes of labor. The Knights of Labor even published the autobiographies of Parsons, Spies, Fischer, Engle, and the anarchist who killed himself in prison, Oscar Neebe.[3] The London Freedom group argued “No event in the worldwide evolution of the struggle between socialism and the existing order of society has been so important, so significant, as the tragedy of Chicago.”[4] According to the historian Paul Avrich, pamphlets and articles about the case and autobiographies of the martyrs appeared in every language across the world. In Europe, over twenty-four cities boasted sizeable protests in support of the Haymarket Martyrs.[5] Famous anarchists like Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and Ricardo Flores Magón all attribute the Haymarket uprising to their radicalization. Moreover, it was not only Europe that celebrated the Haymarket Martyrs. The Times of London reported protests in Cuba, Peru, and Chile.[6] Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was in Mexico on May Day, 1921, and wrote that their May Day was expressly in honor of “the killing of the workers in Chicago for demanding the eight-hour day.”[7] More to this point, during a trip to Mexico in 1939, Oscar Neebe’s grandson was shown a mural by Diego Rivera in the Palace of Justice depicting the Haymarket Martyrs.[8] The international significance of the Haymarket Martyrs was undeniable in the hearts and imagination of all of the Left and is a significant element in the success of May Day.