The Haymarket Conspiracy
by Timothy Messer-Kruse
University of Illinois Press
Has hagiography transformed a clumsy group of criminal conspirators into secular saints? Are subscription to an ideology and belief in common modes of action by individuals and small groups enough to constitute a network capable of autonomous action?
In The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks, Bowling Green State University professor of history Timothy Messer-Kruse attempts to make both cases. The 1886 Haymarket affair was a mass gathering on Chicago’s near west side of workers and activists in support of the eight-hour workday that erupted in violence and left a police officer and several workers dead. It culminated in a trial of labor activists that has generally been condemned as a political show trial at worst, a hysterical overreaction at best. That four men were eventually hanged to death not for hurling the small bomb that sparked the violence but for “fomenting” an atmosphere in which a bomb could be thrown is typically treated by scholars as a miscarriage of justice. But the “martyrs” of the Haymarket, Messer-Kruse argues, were guilty of a criminal conspiracy to murder police officers as a way to spark a worker uprising. What’s worse, he writes, they were doing so as a result of their membership in an international operational conspiracy of anarchists, for whom violence was not only a tolerable but a preferred means of bringing about a stateless workers’ polity. Their advocacy of the eight-hour workday—the cause with which they are most closely associated—was little more than a pretext for propagandistic violence.
Messer-Kruse bemoans the fact that historians have chosen to ignore the Haymarketers’ affirmative support of violence as a means of “active propaganda” to motivate the working class, and that in doing so historians gloss over the legal liability the activists carried as fomenters of disorder. Nothing in the actual Haymarketers’ story, Messer-Kruse argues, makes them admirable symbols of the rights of the exploited classes. To the contrary, they were alienated from the mainstream labor and socialist movements and beholden to an insular “transatlantic anarchist network.”
That last phrase may hit the ears of contemporary readers as ambiguously consonant. There is a reason for that: Messer-Kruse advances an argument demythologizing and imputing legal liability to the Haymarket agitators that vibrates at the resonance of today’s War on Terror.
For Messer-Kruse, the Haymarket “conspiracy,” as he dubs it, was not an isolated incident of fanatics misreading the public’s appetite for mass uprising and acting rashly; it was the necessary effect of an international stateless ideology, preached and practiced by clandestine cells of semiautonomous fanatics. The state was right to react to the Haymarket “attacks” as it did, because it was facing a new type of enemy. The analogy may be discomfiting, but it is not a stretch. While today’s radical Islamists advocate a reactionary theocracy and the Haymarketers an egalitarian and peaceful utopia, under Messer-Kruse’s reading the state’s repression of ideology as a means to action is commensurate with the threat they respectively pose.
Messer-Kruse’s conclusion, that the Haymarketers’ goal was always to engender revolution through violent acts of propaganda and thus their sainthood is undeserved, misses the point in much the same way as the extrajudicial, or tortured judicial, prosecution of the War on Terror has missed the point. In the latter case what is expedient is not necessarily just, and in the former case what is just de jure is not just in any normative sense.
The book begins with a retelling of the events leading up to the bomb-throwing that took place that May evening and the subsequent trial that condemned seven men to death (two would have their sentences commuted to life, and one would kill himself in his cell). “According to the law that was operative at the time of the Haymarket trial,” the author informs us, “the most relevant act was not the throwing of the bomb, but the meeting at which this attack was planned.” Thus Messer-Kruse believes that conviction and death by hanging was inappropriate. In turn, he accepts as essentially true the fact that the “conspiracy” to throw a bomb and precipitate attacks on police was hatched in a tavern basement, even though the evidence is sourced to police spies and none of the witnesses who described details of the meeting testified to explicit discussions regarding attacks on the police. In any case, Messer-Kruse’s assertion that the defendants were technically guilty under the conspiracy laws of the time is a cold comfort. Just as assuredly, Eugene Debs’s years-long imprisonment for criticizing the First World War draft was “just” insofar as the operative law at the time—the Espionage Act of 1917—made his speech, rather than any material effect on the war effort, illegal.
It is not disputed that some anarchist labor agitators intended to attack the symbols of the state as an act of “propaganda by deed..” Even so, did four men deserve to be hung to death because a bomb was thrown possibly as a result of that conspiracy? Messer-Kruse offers no new evidence that all four executed men participated in a meaningful way in a conspiracy to murder police officers. Rather, he indulges in an admittedly enlightening and entertaining close reading of the court documents and contemporary sources, and asks rhetorical questions meant to undermine the defendants’ assertions. A close reading, however, cannot turn the transcripts into something more than they are: observable phenomena of an unquestionably deficient, if not outright biased, legal proceeding and system. The author buttresses this close reading with, among other things, anecdotes about individuals referring to letters they no longer possessed years later. This is hardly a damning reappraisal demonstrating actual guilt.
But even if some degree of complicity in a criminal conspiracy could be established by relitigating the trial itself, Messer-Kruse draws a more troubling connection from some of the Haymarket conspirators to a particularly virulent and baneful strain of European anarchism originating in the chaos of preunification Italy and crystallized by Russian anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin. Messer-Kruse, again seemingly missing the point of the subsequent lionization of the Haymarket martyrs, does solid work in tracing the evolution of the idea of violent anarchism as a form of mass propaganda meant to awaken the slumbering illiterate masses. In so doing he ignores the irrelevance of this species-level evolution to the specific concern of how a single violent act during a protest against intolerable working conditions resulted in the state’s hanging four men.
In tracing the phylogeny of violent anarchism, Messer-Kruse does a great job of elucidating a somewhat arcane intellectual history. But when attempting to draw concrete ideological connections to the events in Chicago, he is prone to—or required to, by the lack of firm evidence—resort to abstractions. For example, he characterizes a shift in tactical emphasis among a portion of the international socialist movement as important because, although a small alteration, it entailed “a greater emphasis on one particular aspect of socialist strategy,” and thus “this minor change effected a great transcendence of long-standing and bitter debates.” If that seems obscurantist and opaque, that’s because it is.
This genealogy is intellectually compelling, if unsatisfying as a justification for reversing a century of scholarship on the Haymarket martyrs. After all, is ideological comity enough to draw a more nefarious conclusion or justify state homicide of fellow travelers? Is the holding of a worldview, and even advocating distasteful or illicit tactics associated with that ideology, dispositive of guilt whenever that ideology is instantiated? This is the central thrust of the prosecution of the War on Terror; the Supreme Court’s holding in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project states as much, namely, that even purely political speech becomes opprobrious when targeted at or emanating from a group disfavored by the state.
Messer-Kruse doesn’t fail to take some of the luster off the Haymarketers’ reputation, even if he relies for the most part on unquestioned statements by cooperators and police spies made at trial. Based on the evidence he provides, his characterization of the Haymarket “leaders” as opportunistic revolutionists bent on exploiting sincere moments of workers’ frustrations to blow things up as acts of propaganda is not unreasonable. The author goes to pains to point out that, at least according to the witnesses for the prosecution, the Haymarketers did not really care about the eight-hour workday—the cause for which they were supposedly martyred—but cared only about the opportunity it afforded them.
But even assuming all of this—assuming the meaningfulness of a connection between European and American anarchism, assuming bad intentions, assuming a “but-for” causal link on a long chain between the ideology of the Haymarketers and the events of the Haymarket affairs—four men were killed by the state and several others lost years of their lives for acts of speech, none of which were conclusively connected to the throwing of a single bomb. Nothing in Messer-Kruse’s well-researched work can transform ideological harmony into operational mechanics, acts of speech into acts of violence, or a miscarriage of justice emblematic of state hostility to the rights of the repressed into a dispassionate application of the law against an international axis of evil.
Messer-Kruse undoubtedly adds to the popular and academic scholarship on the Haymarket affair, and a contrary view is always welcome, particularly when expressed in earnest. His book is worth reading for both its concise (if overly credulous) recounting of the Haymarket trial and its excursus through the history of ideologically violent anarchism of the late nineteenth century. That does not mean, however, that his conclusions are fair to the full historical record. And the lurking-under-the-surface analogy to today’s conflict with radical political Islam, though likely unintended, is unsatisfying and unwelcome.