“Haymarket: The Bomb, the Anarchists, the Labor Struggle,” May 4, 2021, directed by Adrian Prawica , 2021, documentary, 83 minutes, now at various festivals.
Americans’ collective sense of history is weak at best, and their knowledge of labor history is frequently non-existent. Though most Americans work, the institutional labor movement struggles to survive, and as the recent defeat at Amazon in Alabama suggests, faces an uphill struggle even when working conditions seem to cry out for collective action. In this context, then, Adrian Pawica’s documentary look at the Haymarket Affair is an important telling of a key moment in American history. It takes us into some of the conflicting historical views of this event while it attempts to place it into a broader understanding of the moment. It will prove a valuable resource for both for classroom use (largely for discussion after out-of-class viewing) and by people attempting to understand the complexities of American working-class history.
Haymarket relies on a diverse set of sources. It includes interviews and comments from historians with differing opinions although it does not directly pit them against one another. It also relies on a rich trove of photos, newspaper and magazine graphics, and photos of the day’s papers to give the film a dynamic visual sensibility. Movies, of course, are not of that era, but a few early 20th century clips make it into the film to provide a sense of Chicago’s urban dynamism, although I found their inclusion more jarring than helpful. In any event, I enjoyed and appreciated this film, carried by its story and the characters it presents, including August Spies, Albert Parsons, Lucy Parsons, and their anarchist comrades. Haymarket focuses on the event and its meaning in the moment and for an anarchist vision that accepted the likely imperative of violent resistance to oppression by a capitalism bent on destroying workers’ organizations and, through corruption, the ability to work within any sort of democratic framework.
Late nineteenth century America saw the rise of the new and increasingly integrated industrial order linked via railroads and telegraphs, with production rooted in the immense productivity of the factory system and, increasingly, consumption at a national level. Workshop production by master and journeymen artisans often shifted to more divided, large-scale, managed, mechanized factories. Not surprisingly, railroad, industrial, and commercial nodes like Chicago grew quickly, attracting immigrants from both rural America and Europe. Chicago alone doubled in population to over one million residents during the 1880s. Workers faced intense cycles of boom and bust and, for many, extreme vulnerability to labor markets and mechanized production. Hours were long, conditions were often fraught with danger, and wages were subject to the vagaries of labor and product markets and production and organizational innovations that challenged and often reduced worker control.
Working people struggled to understand the implications of these changes and, as a result of their experiences and observations, moved in a variety of directions. These included a range of organizational forms including both craft and industrial unions and political groupings designed to work within and outside electoral politics. Some worked both inside and outside these different forms, while others cleaved to one model or another. Anarchists, for example, usually rejected electoral politics as a sham.
On May 4, 1886, as the great national May 1 strike for the Eight Hour Day surged forward, a bomb killed seven Chicago policemen sent to break up a peaceful rally of about two-three thousand workers protesting the killing of two strikers at Chicago’s McCormick Harvesting Machine Company factory the day before. The McCormick strike was not for the eight-hour day; rather, it was by skilled workers fighting to keep their union and protect their standing as skilled workers, something the film does not clarify. The violent police response that followed the bombing at Haymarket killed at least three civilians. The bomb thrower has never been identified, although historian Timothy Messer-Kruse argues the bomb maker’s identity was one of those charged and offers another suggestion as to the bombardier. Although the Eight Hour Strike faltered in the wake of this bombing and the antiradicalism it engendered, labor activity continued, another subject the film does not develop.
The arrest of 8 anarchists connected with the rally’s call or as speakers or just for being well-known anarchists led to charges of conspiracy. In the context of lurid press coverage and a Red Scare-like environment, the trial and conviction were followed throughout the United States and around the world. Despite world-wide protests, these convictions led to the exceptionally brutal 1887 hanging of four of the accused. One, the defendant identified by Messer-Kruse as the bombmaker, committed suicide before the hanging, another was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, and Illinois’s Governor Richard Oglesby commuted two sentences to life in prison. Two hundred thousand Chicagoans marched in the funeral procession.
The three survivors were pardoned in 1893 by Governor John Peter Altgeld in 1893 in consideration of trial irregularities. The Second International’s designation of May Day as the International Worker’s Holiday in 1889 stemmed from both the strikes for the Eight-Hour Day and in commemoration of the Haymarket Martyrs. That eight-hour goal languished until the New Deal and has, sad to say, returned to the status of an ambition for millions of ‘part-time,’ gig, salaried, and underpaid full-time American workers today, as workdays frequently average more than “8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, and 8 hours for what we will.”
Haymarket, the film, is at its best when it examines the rise of anarchism, the bombing as an event and the trial, executions, and the proceedings that followed. The participants come alive, their struggles are made comprehensible, and whatever the analytical differences amongst historians, righteous demands of the eight-hour movement and strike, the martyrdom of the accused, and the impact of capitalist industrialization become palpable and understandable. These are no mean feats.
There are, however, some problematic issues in Haymarket, the likely result of the need to keep the film at a manageable length The complexities and unevenness of industrial development, for example are smoothed over. Skilled work and workers all but disappear in this film, their gains and standing obliterated in the dialectic of industrialization.
Even more importantly, the labor movement itself is entirely absent from this narrative. There are no Knights of Labor, a powerful organization with a complex ideological identity, almost 800,000 national members, and a strong presence among both skilled and less-skilled workers in Chicago in 1886. They were crucial to the eight-hour movement in that city. The smaller trades unions are absent as well, although the call for a May 1, 1886 action by the AFL’s precursor organization helped spark the nationwide strike. Both the K of L and the AFL formally opposed anarchism and violence, but both included anarchist and socialist members and had member unions/lodges that embraced socialism. Albert Parsons himself had been an important Knight in Chicago and was a long-time eight-hour activist even as that was disparaged as reformist by purer anarchist comrades. Though the Knights’ Grand Master Workman, Terrance Powderly, attacked the anarchists and rejected the eight-hour strikers after Haymarket, many Knights remained committed to these strikes and supported the accused. Similarly, while the AFL condemned the bombing, Sam Gompers also inveighed against their executions and many union members saw the trial as a sham.
These issues aside, however, the Haymarket Affair was a crucial moment in the complex and powerful history of American labor and radicalism. Haymarket: the Bomb, the Anarchists, the Labor Struggle brings these issues and years to life with verve and thoughtfulness. It will prove a valuable resource for teachers, unionist, organizers and citizens as we attempt to both recreate an understanding of prior struggles for a more just society, and move forward in that direction ourselves.