Thursday, May 3, 2012

Book Review: Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists

The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age
by Timothy Messer-Kruse

I will henceforth remember May 1st as Victims of Communism Day. Until now, its been celebrated as an international workers' holiday to commemorate the Haymarket affair. On May 4, 1886, during an 8-hour-day strike, a bomb was thrown at police setting off days of gunfights and rioting. Seven police officers and four civilians were killed and scores injured. Eight anarchists were tried and seven eventually sentenced to death for conspiring to kill police. Their goal: cause widespread mayhem and a violent overthrow of capitalism for the sake of communism in the U.S. (Sound familiar?). Popular history has it that they were railroaded by an unsympathetic judge and a packed jury.

When Timothy Messer-Kruse took a second look into the affair, he found a very different past buried in unexamined court transcripts and contemporary popular accounts. He recounts his experience researching the book and attempting to update Wikipedia here.
In 2001 I was teaching a labor-history course, and our textbook contained nearly the same wording that appeared on Wikipedia [that "The prosecution, led by Julius Grinnell, did not offer evidence"]. One of my students raised her hand: "If the trial went on for six weeks and no evidence was presented, what did they talk about all those days?" I've been working to answer her question ever since.

I have not resolved all the mysteries that surround the bombing, but I have dug deeply enough to be sure that the claim that the trial was bereft of evidence is flatly wrong. One hundred and eighteen witnesses were called to testify, many of them unindicted co-conspirators who detailed secret meetings where plans to attack police stations were mapped out, coded messages were placed in radical newspapers, and bombs were assembled in one of the defendants' rooms.
In his book, The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists, he discusses in detail his research and the events of 1886, showing that the bombing, deaths and subsequent rioting was fully intentional. The actual bomber slipped through the police's fingers before he could be arrested, but many of the other conspirators were tried and convicted. The reason history has treated the anarchists so sympathetically is most academics are already leftists and historians largely relied on summaries of the trials written by the defendants' lawyers. Messer-Kruse, on the other hand, was able to use the recently digitized court transcripts.

I highly recommend this book for the history, for the discussion of revolutionary communism's methods and for all the parallels to today's occupy wall street movement, which is a stale, anti-intellectual reprise of the anarcho-communism of the late 19th century. Today's anarcho-communists have the same goal the haymarket rioters did: chaos followed by a dictatorship of the proletariat, or in today's language, dictatorship of the '99%'. Then then they'll start piling up the bodies of tens of millions of new victims of communism.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for that bit of history and the link as well. I have many times found media accounts of events about which I have technical knowledge to be flawed. This flaw is carried over into wikipedia.