The Haymarket Conspiracy is a companion volume to Timothy Messer-Kruse’s prize-winning book, The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists (2011). They originally formed a single manuscript that challenges accepted views of the iconic 1886 Chicago bombing and its legal aftermath. Amid intense hostility, eight anarchist leaders were blamed for an anonymous bomb attack that killed several policemen. Four of the men were hanged (a fifth blew himself up in his cell). Messer-Kruse argues in the 2011 book that the convictions did not result from a legal process corrupted by antiradicalism or demands for vengeance. His close reading of transcripts revealed that the trial was, by the looser standards of the late nineteenth century, fairly conducted and that the strategic errors of the defense team were more crucial to the outcome of the proceedings than was the widespread loathing of militant anarchists so evident in the public culture of industrializing America.
Messer-Kruse pushes the argument further, however. By portraying the Haymarket anarchists as innocent victims of a repressive system, Messer-Kruse contends that historians have diverted attention from the authentic radicalism of the Chicago anarchists and the reality of militant class conflict in Gilded-Age America. The Haymarket Conspiracy [End Page 263] closely follows the development of a violent strain in European anarchism, a commitment to the educational and emotional value of dramatic violent acts—the propaganda of the deed—to inspire class cohesion and revolutionary ardor among workers. The German anarchist community of Chicago praised the facility of dynamite to catalyze class conflict into revolution. Given an opportunity by the 1886 citywide eight-hour campaign, the “armed men” among the Chicago German-speaking anarchists planned a series of attacks on police stations, a conspiracy that failed to develop after a bomb sailed into the ranks of police marching down Desplaines Street (p. 9).
Messer-Kruse carefully reconstructs the ideology of violence among European anarchists and its transfer to the United States. Mastering a complex literature in several languages, Messer-Kruse charts the influence of particular violent blows against state and monarchy in Russia, Austria, the German states, and Italy. Patient detective work in manuscripts, newspaper files, and memoirs documents the movement of advocates of violence across the Atlantic. Challenging the assertion of prominent labor and radical historians that the appeal of violence was restricted in the United States to Johann Most and the New York anarchists he influenced, Messer-Kruse demonstrates through analysis of International Working People’s Association meetings that the German-speaking anarchists of Chicago became committed advocates of force. He also documents the split over violence and ethnicity that separated most English-speaking radicals (Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons being the most prominent exception) from the more militant German speakers. He denies that the Haymarket anarchists genuinely supported the eight-hour movement that swept Chicago in 1886. Spurning short-term gains in wages and hours as a perpetuation of slavery, August Spies, Parsons (to a lesser extent), and the other Haymarket defendants remained opposed to trade unions and endorsed the eight-hour strikes as an opportunity for direct clashes with the forces of capital that might initiate revolutionary confrontation.
Messer-Kruse places the Haymarket anarchists in a radical intellectual [End Page 264] framework which approved of the revolutionary potential of violent acts. He significantly revises the work of Paul Avrich, James Green, and other historians, although his notes challenging scholars who see violence as a rhetorical rather than active anarchist strategy seem unduly tart. This work joins that of historians such as Beverly Gage and Thomas G. Andrews in better situating themes of violence into the context of class conflict in the long nineteenth century. Historians have well described the antiradical climate of the Haymarket affair; now scholars must rethink the interior history of the Chicago anarchists in light of Messer-Kruse’s revelations.
Thomas R. Pegram is professor of history at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the author of One Hundred Percent American: The Rebirth and Decline...