May Day: Remembering Haymarket

Today has become, by a sequence of contingent events, a day for the commemoration both of the Haymarket Martyrs in particular and of the world’s working class in general – that vast majority of the world’s people who have no capital or privileged position on which to survive and must work, manually, intellectually, or emotionally.

The Haymarket massacre is not an enormously well-known event, nor do I know it enormously well. Indeed, many details of the events are not known for sure to anyone, enormous or otherwise. But the essential facts are these:

In 1886 Chicago was at the centre of the drive for an 8-hour day – a struggle that crystalised around the date May 1st. Huge numbers of unionised workers, a great many of them anarchists, were on strike. Against them were arrayed both the government’s police force, a hostile press, and the Pinkertons, an enormous private security agency employed by business.

The event that became the Haymarket massacre was called in response to earlier police killings: at a picket line, with strikers confronting strikebreakers, the police had started firing indiscriminately into the crowd of strikers, killing and injuring several. At the subsquent protest rally in Haymarket square, after a sedate round of speeches, the police attempted to forcibly disperse the crowd, and at this point a bomb was thrown at them, killing several. At this the police drew firearms and again shot indiscriminately into the crowd, killing several of their own number and a never-confirmed but almost certainly very large number of proesters.

According to many reports, the rally had up to then been very peaceful – but as we know from the G20 protest ‘Climate Camp’, if the police want a fight, then refusing to give it to them is just delaying the inevitable. And as is common in fights with the police, you have a choice: either it doesn’t escalate, and one side does nothing while the other side shoves and hits them, or it does escalate, and one side, with a crushing superiority of force, splats the other.

The identity of the bomb-thrower was never established. Some people suggest it was a Pinkerton agent provocateur. Certainly, it wasn’t mandated by or accountable to the unions or strike organisations – which, since both the level-headed leaders and the (possible) hot-headed combatants were anarchists, should put paid to the annoying habit among some on the left of treating ‘anarchist’ as synonymous with ‘teenager high on adrenalin looking for a fight’.

After the massacres came the martyrdom: a group of anarchist leaders, including many who hadn’t been at the event, and others who had stood up publicly to call for calm, were arrested, and a farcical trial took place in which the events that had transpired were irrelevant: in the words of the attorney-general, “Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial.”

The killing of a small number of police officers was used to execute 4 unconnected anarchist leaders; the killing of a much larger number of strikers by police never produced any action. The class nature of the state’s justice was made very clear. In the context of an assertion of autonomous working-class power, the fiction of a neutral arbiter faded, and the state became what it had always been: a council of war for capital against labour.

One Response to “May Day: Remembering Haymarket”

  1. May Day 2009 — S.P. Greenlaw Says:

    […] Warm-Fork has a good post about the Haymarket Affair at his blog Directionless […]


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