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 â€“ 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.)