All posts by X.lenc

Adventures in Anarchy Volume 2: Lucy Parsons

While it’s true that anarchists are frequently ignored by labor historians, the lack of writing about Lucy Parsons is especially egregious, even among fellow anarchists. Her relative lack of recognition is hard to explain, given her tremendous contributions. She often spent more time organizing than writing theory, and perhaps contemporary anarchists privilege theorists in their histories. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, unlike more well–known figures like Emma Goldman, her audience was almost exclusively poor and working class. Or maybe it’s simply because much of her history has been stolen from us: almost immediately after her death, the FBI raided her personal library (including her collection of private writings), and to this day refuses to release it to the public. Regardless of our excuses, she was, at one point, one of the most important anarchists in the American labor movement, and her story is worth knowing.

To be fair, there’s a lot we don’t know about Lucy Parsons. We don’t know where or when she was born (but it was probably around 1853 near Waco, Texas), how she met her future husband or when she married him (or whether she had been married before), or her race (she publicly maintained that she was Native American and chicana, not black, but most biographers claim that the evidence suggests that she was born into slavery with black parentage). We do, however, know that she left Texas for Chicago, Illinois with her husband, Albert Parsons, (a white, Confederate veteran, who became an advocate for racial equality after the civil war) in 1873 to evade legal and vigilante persecution (their marriage was an open defiance of the state’s anti–miscegation laws), and Albert had been shot the year before while registering black voters.

It was an especially difficult time to be poor in Chicago – two years after the Chicago fire, almost all of the money collected by the Relief and Aid Society had been funneled into the Society’s board members’ company accounts, leaving the city’s working class in a state of disaster long after the city had been rebuilt. To make matters worse, Wall Street’s feverish investment in railroad securities (along with other factors) culminated in a financial crisis called the Panic of 1873. The Panic plunged the United States and Europe into a massive depression that lasted until at least 1879, and the working class immigrants and emigrants who helped define the urban core of American cities like Chicago were condemned to a cycle of crippling semi–employment and confinement in almost–uninhabitable slums. When the Parsons arrived in one such Chicago slum (a ghetto of poor German immigrants within today’s Old Town), they were not only exposed to a kind of poverty they had never seen in the American South, but also to the emerging wealth of radical European literature imported by the neighborhood’s recent immigrants. They began attending labor meetings together, and even got involved with local socialist organizations, but the Parsons maintained their old Republican faith in law and peaceful voting as primary vehicles in social change.

All that changed in 1877, when a railway strike in West Virginia erupted into a nationwide wave of walkouts and sabotage, only to be beaten back by endless hoards of cops and corporate security thugs, leaving hundreds of workers dead, including dozens in Chicago. As Lucy later reflected in The Principles of Anarchism, “I then thought as many thousands of earnest, sincere people think, that …. government, could be made an instrument in the hands of the oppressed to alleviate their sufferings. But… this was a mistake. I came to understand that such concentrated power can be always wielded in the interest of the few and at the expense of the many. Government in its last analysis is this power reduced to a science.” So while she was not yet a full–fledged anarchist, her own anarchistic critique of hierarchy was already present in the aftermath of 1877.

Lucy began making and selling dresses to make ends meet after Albert was fired from his printing job and blacklisted from the publishing industry for strike agitation, but continued her work with the Socialist Labor Party (SLP). This work included writing for the party’s semi–official paper, the Socialist. During this period, she advocated for a broader labor movement, one that would encompass forms of unpaid labor frequently performed by women, such as housework and childcare. Lucy knew of this injustice all too well: she gave birth to her two children around this time, and became a prominent speaker for the Working Women’s Union. When the relatively center–left Knights of Labor began accepting women as members, she was among the first to join, but she remained a representative of the militant wing of the movement, advocating for a shorter work week and armed struggle against the police (she eventually left the Knights of Labor for their lack of support for a class basis in revolution. When the SLP split in 1881, she helped form the militant International Working People’s Association (IWPA), a group that saw unions as a potentially violent revolutionary force to destroy class rule, establish gender equality, and create a society organized by free contracts between autonomous communes. Such beliefs brought Parsons into personal contact with firebrands such as Johann Most, an orator who had been exiled from his native Germany for promoting violent political action acts (such as assassination of counter–revolutionary bosses or police) to promote a revolutionary idea. Along with her personal experiences with labor organizing, where striking laborers were openly murdered by police and company security whether or not the strike was a ‘violent’ one, new associates such as Most further radicalized Lucy Parsons’ approach to the labor question, and she soon began publicly identifying not only as an anarchist, but also as an advocate for dedicated sabotage and violence. In one 1884 pamphlet, she encouraged “tramps, the unemployed, the disinherited, and miserable” to “learn the use of explosives!” if they wanted to capture the attention of the upper class. Her radical attitudes extended to her racial politics: unlike most ‘black leaders’ who embraced the appeasement philosophy of Booker T. Washington, and white labor organizers who typically ignored racism and the nation’s wave of lynchings altogether, Lucy insisted that capitalism and racism were dual monsters that could not be fought independently, arguing for against assimilationist politics and racial hierarchies in the labor movement. In 1887, Albert was executed by the State of Illinois in a notorious case called the Haymarket Affair, in which seven anarchists were sentenced to death following a bombing that killed seven Chicago police officers, on the grounds that they may have inspired the unidentified bombing by espousing anarchist ideas. Her status as the case’s most prominent widow thrust Lucy into the international spotlight, where she refused to be the apolitical woman in mourning that the press seemed to hope she would be. Rather than attempting to appear more moderate to the public to help with her husband’s trial, she raised money for the legal team through an aggressive revolutionary speech tour (during which she incurred some legal fees of her own when she was arrested for her fiery invectives). After the execution, she kept the Haymarket affair from falling into obscurity by publishing the final speeches and biographies of the condemned anarchists.

As Chicago’s population swelled and changed, so did the Chicago anarchist movement. The failed attempts by a young anarchist named Alexander Berkman to assassinate a murderous strikebreaking industrialist had failed to incite much more than a stiff prison sentence, Johann Most recapitulated his political stance on terrorism and began to denounce violence, and Lucy increasingly stumbled into ideological squabbles with other leftists. By the time an anarchist finally managed to kill a major American head of state (President McKinley in 1901, by Leon Czolgosz), she had grown pessimistic about the power of sporadic acts of violence to mobilize class war, and was in search of an alternative. In 1905, she joined major organizers Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Bill Hayward, and others in founding the International Workers of the World (IWW), which abandoned the ‘craft unionism’ typical of the time for ‘industrial unionism’ (meaning that they tried to organize all the workers of entire industries regardless of skill level, rather than simply organizing individual trade groups). The IWW organized African American, Asian, and white workers alike, valued rank–and–file organizing over strong leadership positions, and sought working class struggle through general strikes and direct action rather than through electoral politics. A series of successful campaigns sent the IWW’s membership rates soaring, bringing Lucy under even more scrutiny by the police: her travels were closely watched by coordinated police information networks, and she was often followed or arrested upon entering or leaving a new town or before giving a speech. She was seen as a magnet for uprisings, and not without good reason. During an impromptu 1914 visit to San Francisco, for example, a crowd from the city’s enormous unemployed and homeless population gathered in the hopes of hearing her speak. When the cops arrested Parsons to prevent her from appearing, a thousand people broke instantly into a riot; soon afterwards, the IWW set up shop in San Francisco, and terrified California politicians scrambled to fund employment–boosting public works projects in the hopes of forestalling future riots.

After the outbreak of World War I in 1917, however, an enormous wave of state repression all but decimated the IWW. Lucy had already begun grown suspicious of or exhausted with a number of IWW policies (and anarchism generally). By 1927 she was sitting on the executive council of the strictly–communist legal advocacy group (where she admittedly supported the anarchist political prisoners Sacco & Vanzetti) and publicly aligning herself with the soviet Communist Party (where she worked for fifteen years until her death), and trading jabs with more individualistic anarchists such as Emma Goldman over the repression of anarchists in the newly–formed USSR. She wasn’t shy about her reasons: she wrote that anarchists had fallen into a trap of going to conferences, talking, and going home instead of actually mobilizing, and that she joined the communists because “they are the only bunch making a vigorous protest against the present horrible conditions!” Parsons was less interested in any particular ideology or political philosophy as she was in organizing the working class. Her willingness to ‘switch sides’ probably had less to do with ideological changes as it had to do with changes in the size, composition, and activity of the anarchist movement generally.

On March 7, 1942, Lucy Parsons, nearly 90 years old, died in a house fire, leaving her anarchist friends to bicker with her communist friends over funeral arrangements while the pigs raided her charred home. There’s been a lot of embittered hand–wringing about Lucy’s apparent defection from anarchism, but I think it’s entirely possible to appreciate her contributions to anticapitalist and antistatist movements without agreeing with her later defenses of soviet terror (I sure as fuck don’t agree with her), especially when many of her frustrated criticisms of anarchists are being repeated earnestly within the anarchist tent nearly a century later. In the meantime, learning her life story is like reading the history of American anarchism itself, and while she always insisted that that stories of individuals were unimportant and unworthy of study, I think we can make an exception for her.

Here are some suggestions for further reading, both big and small:

For light readers: “Lucy Parsons: More Dangerous Than a Thousand Rioters”, by Keith Rosenthal. (available for free online)

For readers with intermediate interest: Lucy Parsons: American Revolutionary, by Carolyn Ashbaugh (~250 pages, Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co.)

Grand Slam – what you need to know about Grand Juries

Though there are a number of wonderful radical essays and pamphlets about the U.S. Grand Jury system floating around online, most of them are (justifiably) lengthy, full of inaccessible legal jargon, or buried in larger guides on fighting state repression. As a result, even as anarchists celebrate the exciting release of the Pacific Northwest Grand Jury Resisters, widespread confusion about what a grand jury actually is persists. What I’m presenting here is intended only as a cursory introduction to Grand Juries for anarchists who, like me, want to spend as little time as possible talking about the legal system.

The Basics:

The kind of jury that most people are familiar with is merely one of many varieties that a prosecutor (a lawyer responsible for presenting a case against people accused of crimes, or ‘defendants’) can choose to assemble, called a ‘petit jury’ or ‘trial jury’ – think To Kill a Mockingbird. The purpose is a familiar one: to decide whether or not someone who has been indicted (formally accused of a crime) is actually guilty, and if so, to determine the punishment. Scenarios in which a trial jury is assembled typically include a defendant who has been charged with a crime, a defense lawyer who represents them, the eponymous jury of twelve or fewer people who lawyers from both legal teams deem representative of the general population (naturally, they rarely represent much more than the lawyers’ worldview), and a judge who presides over the case, supposedly to make it fair to all parties or whatever. A federal grand jury court, however, does not include any of these people: it only includes a prosecutor, their hand-picked assemblage of sixteen to twenty-three jurors, and a few witnesses who have been given a subpoena (an order to appear before the jury).

Since the ‘witnesses’ hauled before a grand jury haven’t been charged with a crime, prosecutors are able to elude the constitutional provisions that apply in criminal court. Whereas the sixth amendment of the constitution gives a defendant in a criminal trial the right to the presence of their lawyer not only during their trial, but also during police interrogation, a Grand Jury victim is prohibited from having a lawyer present during the prosecutor’s interrogation. The 5th Amendment specifically ensures that nobody shall be compelled to be “a witness against himself”… except in front of a grand jury. The ‘exclusionary rule’ in the fourth amendment holds that evidence collected in a manner that violates the constitution – by conducting an illegal search, for example – doesn’t apply to grand juries. While trial jurors are expected to be screened for bias, grand jurors are not. Since grand juries last for eighteen months at a time, and can easily be extended for another six months, assembling one more or less amounts to an extended suspension of constitutional law in a region.

The original intention of this practice, which dates as far back as a 1166 promulgation from King Henry II of England, was allegedly to curb state power: the American Bar Association (an organization that sets academic standards for lawyers) states that it, “act[ed] as a buffer between the king (and his prosecutors) and the citizens,” so a community jury could pre-screen people before a prosecutor charged any of them with a crime and brought them to trial. Even in colonial American courts, citizens could still submit allegations against other people that a grand jury would consider before deciding to prosecute. In practice, this often gave citizens some sway over powerful politicians: in one famous case, a grand jury refused to charge the anti-royalist newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger with a crime three times in a row, rebuffing the Royal Governor of New York’s attempts to try him for libel, which I guess is kind of cool. Nowadays, however, only a prosecutor can bring a case to a grand jury.

The Reality:

Of course, anyone who has been arrested and charged with a crime knows that prosecutors and cops rarely care about jury bias or the constitutional rights that defendants are given (not even in goddamn To Kill A Mockingbird!), and any anarchist who has read the constitution knows that public juries and constitutional rights are a lousy substitute for smashing capitalism anyway. But it’s easy to see how the ease with which grand juries avoid constitutional encumbrances would make them especially attractive tools for federal lawyers intent on making your life miserable.

Recently, federal grand juries have been established in the Pacific Northwest, Minnesota, and Santa Cruz, and given the Department of Justice’s recent obsession with beleaguering anarchists, it’s extremely likely that this legal tactic will continue to spring up in other famously radical regions such as the SF Bay Area or New Orleans. Law enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors use grand juries to intimidate radicals, threatening to force them to testify against their allies and loved ones to destroy bonds of trust and community, especially in urban areas rich with anarchist activity. Well-organized resistances to the tactic have emerged, however, and if efforts are successful the new popularity of using grand juries to harass radicals will wane.

Your Options:

I’m not your lawyer, so none of this should be interpreted as professional legal advice. If a cop, federal agent, or any other kind of jerk approaches you with a subpoena, you may treat them how you would in any other situation: don’t give them any information beyond what is legally required in your state (this usually just means giving your name, but you should check your local laws to be sure). You are not legally required to let them search you or your home, or even to open the door for them (if they have a warrant, the situation may be a little more complicated). You are required to accept their paperwork and nothing else. If you don’t want to open the door for them, they are allowed to leave it near you (e.g. on your doorstep or next to you) to pick up later.

Afterward, you should contact a lawyer immediately, and assume that everything the cops tell you about grand juries is a lie until you confirm it with your new legal buddy. Warn your friends and family that a grand jury is in town: it is very possible that they will receive similar harassment soon. If you simply don’t show up in court, you will likely be charged with contempt of court (disobeying court orders), appear before a trial jury, and possibly even serve some jail time, though it’s possible that your court date will be postponed indefinitely. Either way, make sure to ask your lawyer about the possibility of requesting your judge to quash (nullify) your subpoena,.

If you do show up for your court date, you still have an important decision to make: will you cooperate with the prosecutor? You’ll be hard pressed to find many American anarchists who think it’s a good idea to do so under any circumstances and it’s not hard to understand why: it puts everyone you know (and many people who you don’t) at risk. You should expect that any answers that you give to a prosecutor’s questions, even the seemingly benign or trivial ones (“Do you know Jackie? Do you live alone? Have you ever gone downtown before?”), will be twisted beyond anything you could have foreseen, instantly turning you into an unwitting snitch, even if you didn’t intend to screw anyone over. You will have no idea what questions they will be asking you ahead of time, but many of the questions may be traps set up to catch you in the act of perjury (lying as a witness), so even seemingly innocuous answers like “I don’t know” can get you thrown in prison down the line. The prosecutor will try and convince you that grand jury cooperation is your get-out-of-trouble-free card, but you have absolutely no reason to believe anything they say; you may still be charged with a felony when a new lawyer takes over their job, or you may be summoned for additional interrogation in the future because prosecutors have you pegged as a talker. Ultimately, it’s entirely possible for a prosecutor to simply lie, locking up cooperators despite any prior promises.
Not everyone cooperates. Last November, one grand jury witness dealt with their summons by only giving the prosecutor their name and birth date. When given any other question, they simply responded with “I am exercising my state and federal constitutional rights including the 1st, 4th and 5th amendments,” until the exasperated prosecutor gave up. They were held in solitary confinement in federal prison for several months before their release, but it’s difficult to tell how many people (including themselves) they saved from long prison sentences.

Resisters may also be considering the irreparable social alienation their testimony would cause. It can’t be emphasized enough: cooperating with the prosecution team puts their friends, their neighbors, their family, and even complete strangers at risk of being thrown in jail, whether or not they have done anything illegal. So even if you think a grand jury resister believes that they’ve somehow cooked up a foolproof plan to spill the beans and get out of trouble, they can’t necessarily expect the people they love to be waiting for them when they get home, because whether or not they’ve “done the right thing” or behaved like “a good anarchist,” they are likely to be considered untrustworthy and dangerous for the rest of their lives. Some cooperators have left town altogether because they no longer felt welcome there. This pattern of social ostracization of cooperators doesn’t always end in tragedy, however: a judge recently released two Pacific Northwest grand jury resisters in part because he considered it unreasonable to imprison non-cooperators indefinitely when they would face serious social consequences for testifying.

It’s clear, then, that there are major downsides to snitching beyond the obvious moral or political issues that are more commonly raised. But people considering noncooperation with Grand Juries shouldn’t need to rely on super secret-agent anti-snitching stamina to be a member in a radical network: there are countless radical allies (and even a few liberal ones), including dedicated friends and strangers (and lawyers!) who will guide and support you through grand jury resistance if you choose to challenge the legitimacy of the twisted grand jury system. These are the people who deserve your trust, not the federal lawyers hunting for an easy snitch.

In the meantime, take the advice of some folks from the Oakland Commune in the article “Stay Calm: Tips to Keeping Safe in Times of State Repression”: nurture healthy relationships in your personal community and deescalate whatever personal conflicts you have, as people are more likely to break down and snitch if they feel isolated, afraid, or contemptuous of their comrades. It will be easier to keep your wits about you in a time of crisis if you think of this an opportunity to build solidarity and strong social bonds in radical scenes often famous for fractious interpersonal drama and political infighting. You can start by reading some of the resources listed below and asking your friends / housemates / family / neighbors / coworkers / partners / etc how they feel about them. If we manage to get everyone on the same page, then when the Grand Slam comes, we’ll be ready.

Resources and Further Reading
“If An Agent Knocks…” is a classic and accessible guide to dealing with grand juries and assholes from the FBI.

For true legal wonks, Susan Brenner and Lori Shaw of the University of Dayton created a bulky website dedicated to grand jury info.

The absolutely wonderful Bay of Rage article mentioned above is available at

Adventures in Anarchy: Vol. 1: Proudhon

Who was the first anarchist? Nitpickers and academics will happily bicker over this question for hours at a time, but few would dispute the claim that Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the first person to call themselves an anarchist. While working as an apprentice in a printing press, the mostly self-educated Proudhson encountered many ideas from the European enlightenment, which suggested that all people had the ability to use scientific reasoning, and that this ability to reason could and should be used to challenge conventional wisdom and advance human freedom (though for most Enlightenment writers, this admittedly only meant freedom for white middle class men). After several failed ventures in the printmaking business, Proudhon took the advice (and money) of his friend Gustave Fallot, and went to university to study philosophy. From this point on, he wrote prolifically and unrelentingly: he continued to publish books as he fought off various sedition charges, as he built barricades during the 1848 revolution in France (while he published newspapers with readerships in the tens of thousands), while he was imprisoned by Napoleon III (where he continued to write for two newspapers), as he fled France for Belgium to avoid further persecution, as he organized massive anti-voting campaigns, and even as he died: his final moments were spent dictating one last book.

The centerpiece of his philosophy is probably found in the answer to the title of the book that first launched him to fame, What is Property? (1840). He argues that property is despotic (tyrannical) and, more famously, that property is theft. This is more than a slogan to him, it’s a fundamental thesis in his vision of capitalism. The Enlightenment philosophers that Proudhon had grown up reading generally considered property a ‘natural right’, meaning that humans deserved access to property simply because they have the capacity for scientific reasoning. Proudhon pointed out that whether or not property (especially arable land for agriculture, and factories for industrial production) was a ‘right’, the institution of property itself was precisely what denied access to land or industrial production capacity to the vast majority of people (It’s worth noting here that there is an important distinction between personal possessions [i.e. your toothbrush] and property [i.e. a toothbrush factory]). Instead, owners force workers or peasants to grow food or labor in factories to survive, giving them wages or food worth far less than what they had actually created, and keeping the rest (called “surplus value”) to themselves – Thus, property is theft. The ability to hold the basic necessities of life hostage allows property owners to control nearly all aspects of the social and political existence of those without property – thus, property is despotism. But because of the human capacity to use science, “a system of knowledge in harmony with the reality of things, and inferred from observation”, those without property are able to recognize the farce of their condition, and champion the cause of scientific socialism for their release from their current state in society. All of these ideas will probably sound familiar to those familiar with Karl Marx, an early admirer and correspondent of Proudhon who decades later made scientific socialism and surplus value the basis of his theory of political economy. But not only did Marx go ahead and claim these ideas as his own, he went ahead and wrote an entire book primarily devoted to mischaractarizing Proudhon’s work, often brazenly misquoting the Frenchman to appear as though he were making the case for capitalism that he spent his entire life writing against. And it seems to have worked: few people read Proudhon nowadays, and Marxists have been feeling smug about their leader’s supposed ‘discovery’ of the pillars of capitalism for over a century and a half (although Marx’s theories were certainly built on more the Proudhon alone).

But if this is the case, why do we call Proudhon an anarchist, rather than simply a communist? Could Proudhon not only be the first person to identify themselves as an anarchist, but also the first person to mis-identify themselves as an anarchist? One could be forgiven for thinking so. (For that matter, most contemporary anarchists will probably also find it strange that the famous critic of parliamentarianism ran for and was elected to a term in the French National Assembly, or that the man who claimed to fight for “the absence of a master, of a sovereign” expressed virulent and even violent prejudice against women and Jewish people). But while Proudhon at times held equivocal views on the state, the failures of the French Revolution of 1848 convinced him that governments – even revolutionary governments that allegedly represented workers – were incapable of committing suicide (as Marx never fully understood). He insisted, as many continue to insist, that governments exist chiefly to violently enforce the capitalist class system, and that liberty is thus achieved not by “reducing big government” (as modern right-wing libertarians believe), but through the immediate abolition of government itself.

In it’s place, Proudhon advanced the cause of a pre-existing concept called ‘mutualism,’ which he had encountered during a visit to a silk-weaving cooperative in Lyon made up of workers who co-owned their operation, living as laborers but not serving bosses. Mutualists argue that if everyone has the means to their own production, without capitalist property-owners and tax collectors who claim any surplus value, goods could be exchanged to mutual benefit rather than through exploitation. Proudhon’s mutualist vision also involved (and here’s where most anarchists will turn up their noses) a Bank of the People, which would use an extremely small interest rate to cover basic administrative expenses (whereas typical interest rates basically amount to rent paid to banks on the money you use), and in return would assist in providing the cheap credit necessary to end capitalism. His attempts to make such a bank, however, were cut short when he was imprisoned for insulting Emperor Napoleon III, and the while the world has seen more than a few credit schemes orchestrated by nations to topple rival economies, and even the abandonment of the gold standards (which has led to widespread inflation), we haven’t seen a genuinely widespread execution of Proudhon’s specific plan to take down the financial system with the intention of ending capitalism forever, so it’s hard to measure how well it would work. Today, institutions like the FBI police financial crime not simply to stop fraud and traditional white-collar crime, but also to help shield the vulnerable financial organs of capitalism from would-be saboteurs like Proudhon.

For a forerunner to anarchist theorists who better understood the role of social revolution, rather than reform and financial tricks, Proudhon has an astounding level of understanding of the way that capitalism robs the working class, and he’s definitely worth a read, if you can stomach his sexist views on the importance of traditional family structures. Here are some suggestions for further reading, both big and small:

For light readers: Marx and Anarchism (1925), by Rudolf Rocker (free online)

For intermediate readers: What is Property?, by Proudhon (free online)

For advanced readers: Property Is Theft! A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology, ed. Iain McKay (AK Press, 2011). 823 pages,.