- The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks by Timothy Messer-Kruse
Few events have had so great an impact on the development of the American labor movement than the bombing in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886, and perhaps fewer have been more hotly contested. Rhetorical scholars will not find much in Messer-Kruse’s The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks in the way of contributions to rhetorical theory. It is, however, an outstanding example of the contemporary practice of forensic rhetoric. Messer-Kruse examines the evidence, interprets it, and argues for the guilt of the Haymarket anarchists. Moreover, he contends they were part of a transatlantic conspiracy of violent radicals. While the back cover of the book and the promotional materials distributed by the publisher [End Page 367] promise that Messer-Kruse will challenge “the view that there was no evidence connecting the eight convicted workers to the bomb throwing at the Haymarket rally,” that view is never presented nor is it convincingly challenged. Messer-Kruse does establish, I would say convincingly, that many labor movements, including Chicago’s anarchists, were disillusioned with electoral politics and increasingly willing to accept violence as a justified means of social change. But that view is hardly contentious among contemporary scholars.
Messer-Kruse chastises as naïve, idealistic, and politically motivated those historians who, in his opinion, base their conclusions on the disavowals of violence the Haymarket martyrs made in prison as opposed to the actual writings of the Chicago anarchists. When it comes to his own definition, however, Messer-Kruse turns not to the anarchists but to their ideological opponents and on that basis insists on using the terms “anarchism and anarchist … only to describe those ideas, groups, or individual radicals who are distinguished by their complete rejection of ameliorative legal reforms and the voting systems that bring them about, by their advocacy of violence both collective and individual, and by their belief in the imminence of mass insurrection” (7). Thus, from start to finish, Messer-Kruse begs his question. He defines anarchists as conspiratorial and violent, and identifies as an anarchist anyone who questions the ballot as a means of reform and who does not categorically reject violence. He then uses those examples to prove that all anarchists refuse to consider electoral reforms and are wholly committed to violence.
To make the case for a transatlantic anarchist conspiracy, Messer-Kruse first attempts to prove that the Haymarket bombing was itself the product of a conspiracy. His narrative of the bombing and the subsequent trial and prosecution is incredibly one-sided, ignoring any and all criticisms of the investigation and trial while overlooking the fact that Chicago and the nation as a whole were embroiled in nothing less than a war between business interests and labor. In this conflict the police were not disinterested champions of law and order, but active participants on the side of capital. The Chicago police had a well-documented history of violence against the labor movement, which is either downplayed or systematically ignored by Messer-Kruse. [End Page 368]
The Haymarket affair began on the afternoon of May 3, at the McCormick Reaper Works when police and Pinkerton detectives employed by McCormick opened fire on strikers, killing at least two people. When it comes to anti-labor violence, Messer-Kruse painstakingly qualifies his conclusions. The killings by the police are “alleged” and the “men … died as a result of wounds sustained in this incident” (1). There is no mention of agents provocateur or Pinkertons here or anywhere else in the work. Messer-Kruse casually dismisses the claim that the call issued by anarchists and other labor leaders to come armed to the May 4 rally could have been in self-defense, suggesting that they planned all along to “[take] the initiative and [fire] the first shot” (5). The suggestion, however, ignores the unequivocal fact that the “first shots” had been fired already at McCormick’s factory on May 3. Whether the shootings by the police were...