This is being published on May Day - or more appropriately, International Workers day. Originally a pagan festival, It was first used order to celebrate the start of spring. Although authorities have never taken kindly to this, it has since been a celebration of the common people, and a rejection of the upper classes, among different societies, ranging from Celts to Saxons. In this tradition then, it was soon adopted by anarchists and socialists who in Chicago 1886 used it, and the days that followed, to protest for the eight hour day. It is now an annual celebration and day of protest by anarchists and Libertarian Socialists alike, In order to commemorate this fight, and the subsequent execution of four innocent anarchist workers. Not only is this celebration intended to commemorate those that lost their lives fighting for a fairer world, but to make both ordinary people and the powers that exist, realise that the fight for workers’ rights is not over.
Chicago and what lead up to the protest
At the time of the protests the Chicago anarchist movement was already strong. 1884 saw them produce the world’s first anarchist daily newspaper, the Chicagoer Arbiter - Zeitung. Publications such as this, having a circulation of about 26,000, were read by the large German immigrant, working Class population of the city. Despite this, they were published in a range of different languages making them accessible to anyone in Chicago’s thriving community. In addition to this, not only were they active in union organising but anarchists were also at the forefront of the labour movement. Chicago anarchists provided open democratic spaces such as communal picnics, free lectures, libraries and entertainment. Such spaces and events helped form strong bonds of solidarity between workers, to the worry of capitalists who were keen to destroy workers right to organise. It was for this reason, that Chicago became the perfect place to demand for workers’ rights.
On May the first 1886, the eight hour strike engulfed the city. It was carried out mainly to protest workers being forced to work for up to fourteen hours a day, and to act on a resolution passed by the Federation of Organised Unions, stating that as of May the first, eight hours work should constitute a legal day’s work. Protests in Chicago, the centre of the movement, were attended by workers from companies such as the McCormick Harvester, and members of unions such as the ‘Lumber Shovers’ union. These protests were largely organised by the First International. However, workers there were not waiting around for May Day, they had been organising for months, and in doing so had won gains for local Shoemakers, Clothing Cutters and packinghouse workers. On the day before May the first 50,000 were already out on strike, Mayday however brought the ranks swelling to 80,000 bringing much of Chicago’s infrastructure to a standstill. Two days later, a mass meeting was held, on workers’ rights, attracting thousands of strikers. During the meeting, workers listened to a speech by anarchist August Spies, who urged workers to stand together against the capitalists. It was around this time that a force of 200 police suddenly arrived, attacking the crowd with Clubs and revolvers, killing at least one striker, seriously wounding others and injuring many others. Understandably upset and outraged by this brutal assault, Spies went to the offices of the main anarchist publication in Chicago, composing a circulated calling for the workers in Chicago to arm themselves and attend another protest meeting the following night in Haymarket square. This protest meeting was yet again addressed by Spies and two other anarchists active in the trade union movement, Albert Parsons and Samuel Fielden. By the time the last speaker was climbing down from the platform at Haymarket square a force of 180 policemen ordered the crowd to disperse. It was at that time that an unidentified person threw a bomb, resulting in the deaths of both many police officers and protesters. What followed is the reason why we remember May Day, with mourning, celebration and protest.
Reaction, trial and Sentence
Despite the fact that it was never found out who threw the bomb, a reign of terror swept through Chicago. The mainstream press published article after article, calling for revenge, and insisted the bomb attack was the work of Socialists and Anarchists. All anarchist spaces such as publication offices and meeting halls, as well as private homes, were raided and often destroyed. Known trade Unionists and other people who supported the workers movement were rounded up and arrested. Despite this, the law seemed careless, as many individuals ignorant of left wing politics, were also arrested and tortured. Julius Grinnell, the state’s attorney, was reported of encouraging authorities to ‘make the raids first, and look up the law afterwards’ clearly showing no regard for fairness towards the people of Chicago. Eight of Chicago’s most known Anarchists were arrested and charged with helping to facilitate murder: Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Fielden, Michael Schwab, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neeb and August Spies.
On June 21st 1886, the trial opened in the criminal court of Cooke County. Despite this, the candidates for Jury Duty were not chosen in the normal manner of drawing names from a box. Instead, a special bailiff, conveniently nominated by the before mentioned state attorney, was appointed to select the candidates by himself. Perhaps more outrageously, the defence was not allowed to state the fact that the special Ballif had publicly claimed ‘I am running this case and I know what I am about, these fellows are going to be hanged, certain as death’. As such, the eventual composition of the Jury was entirely farcical, made up of Businessmen, their clerks and the relative of one dead policemen. No proof whatsoever was offered by the state that any of the eight men before the court had either thrown the bomb, had been connected in some way to the incident, or had even agreed with the act. Indeed, only three of the men on trial had been at Haymarket square that evening, one of which, at the time of the explosion, was on the Speakers Platform making a speech which mayor Harrison described to the court as largely ‘tame’. It was clear from the trial then that the eight men were not on trial for inciting murder, but for their anarchist beliefs and union activities. This was made clearer still by Grinnell’s closing speech which tried to convince the Judge and Jury that ‘anarchy is on trial. These men have been picked out by the grand jury because they were leaders. There are none guiltier than the thousands who follow them. Gentlemen of the Jury make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions and society’. On August the 19th seven of the defendants were sentenced to death, and Neebe to fifteen years in prison. Before being sentenced Spies made the following speech to the court.
"If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement... the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in misery and want, expect salvation - if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread on a spark, but there and there, behind you - and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out".
Inspired by spies message that this conspiracy would not succeed in killing the labor movement, a massive international campaign for their release, despite failing to release any of the men, forced the court to reach a compromise and sentenced Schwab and Fielden to life in prison. Lingg cheated the hangman by committing suicide in his cell the day before the executions. On November 11th 1887, Parsons Engel Spies and Fischer were hanged. 60,000 working people turned out for their funeral. The Campaign to free the remaining three men continued. On June 26th 1893, governor Altgeld set them free making clear that he was not granting them pardon because of the protests but because of a biased judge a packed jury. Indeed, later evidence emerged that the bomb may have been thrown by a police officer working for captain Bonfield, in a conspiracy involving certain steel bosses, to discredit the labor movement. All The men were innocent of the crime for which they had been tried.
For Anarchists and Socialists everywhere, the Haymarket affair became a symbol of struggle for a fairer world. 1889 saw the first congress of the second international, meet in Paris for the centennial of the French Revolution. Here, following a proposal by Raymond Lavigne, the second international called for international demonstrations on the 1890 anniversary of the Chicago Protests. At the Internationals second congress in 1891 May Day was formerly recognized as an annual event in commemoration of the Haymarket martyrs, and the Red Flag became the symbol of the blood of Working Class Martyrs in their battle for rights.
After this, the mayday riots of 1894 occurred. In 1904, an international Socialist conference meeting in Amsterdam demanded ‘all social democratic Party organizations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on May First for the legal establishment of an eight hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace’ making it mandatory for all organizations to stop work on May the first, without any harm done to workers. Since then, despite efforts to abolish the holiday from authoritarian governments, in places such as Spain, Italy and Portugal, in many countries the working classes sought to make May Day a Public holiday, with much success. Admittedly, the mass popularity of the celebration has to an extent led to it being sabotaged by Trotskyites and Stalinists. In the United States and Canada, due to fears of commemorating the riots, the official Labor Day is in September, a date supported by the anti-anarchist Knights of Labor union. Indeed, even the second international who helped make Labor Day a public holiday, cared about internationalism so much that they condemned millions of workers to death in the trenches of WW1. Despite this, this should only serve to make us celebrate the real reasons behind May Day even more. As spies said ‘we cannot put it out’.
In 1998 a number of revolutionaries, most of whom had been involved with the Class War Federation and Paper, organized a conference in Bradford with the aim of bringing the broad movement together and opening up new ways to celebrate May Day. May Day still finds its essence, in acts of protest and direct action that happen not just on May Day but every day! The sea of Red and Black flags that dominate many capital cities on mayday serves to remind people that if we want a new world we must stop maintaining this one!