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"More Dangerous Than a Thousand Rioters"
By Keith Rosenthal
The strongest argument that can be made as to why all radical activists should study the life and works of Lucy Parsons is that the FBI wants you to know nothing about her.
Lucy Parsons died in 1942, at the age of 89, in a house-fire in Chicago — the city in which she lived most of her life. The ashes had hardly cooled before the Chicago police raided the remains of her home, confiscated all 3,000 volumes of literature and writings on “sex, socialism, and anarchy,” which constituted her personal library, and turned it over to the FBI. Tragically, and despite her comrades’ repeated inquiries, this treasure trove of revolutionary material was never again to see the light of day. 
Indeed, the Chicago police had ample reason to want to bury Parsons’ legacy as quickly as possible. In their own words, she was “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.” For virtually the entirety of the last 40 years of her life, the Chicago police tried to bar her from making any public speeches, and routinely arrested her for the ‘crime’ of handing out revolutionary pamphlets on the street. Famed labor historian Studs Terkel even noted how rare of a privilege it was to hear Parsons address a large audience in her later years, owing to the constant police harassment.
Overlooked by History
Partially because so much of her own writings were ‘disappeared’ by the government, and partially because she was a revolutionary woman of color speaking out against the injustices of a capitalist society run by white men, Lucy Parsons is one of the least known of the major figures in the history of revolutionary socialism in the U.S. Much like her long-time comrades and friends, Eugene Debs, William “Big Bill” Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Lucy Parsons made a tremendous contribution to the birth of America’s turn-of-the-century, revolutionary working-class movement; a movement which continues to this day to shape the character of class struggle and revolutionary politics in this country.
Historian Robin Kelley argues that Lucy Parsons was not only “the most prominent black woman radical of the late nineteenth century,” but was also “one of the brightest lights in the history of revolutionary socialism.” Historian John McClendon writes that she is notable for being the “first black activist to associate with the revolutionary left in America.”
More often than not, however, if Lucy Parsons is mentioned as an historical figure, she is noted merely as the “wife of Albert Parsons,” a man who had gained international notoriety after he was executed in 1887 by the state of Illinois for his revolutionary activities.
Unfortunately, this slight extends beyond solely ‘mainstream’ historians, including supposedly left-wing intellectuals as well. For instance, in the 1960s, the feminist editors of Radcliffe College’s three-volume work, Notable American Women, decided to leave Parsons out of their study on the grounds that she was “largely propelled by her husband’s fate” and was a “pathetic figure, living in the past and crying injustice” after her husband’s execution.
Even contemporaries of Lucy Parsons, such as the popular anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman (with whom Lucy Parsons became a life-long political opponent), accused Parsons of being an otherwise unimportant opportunist who simply rode upon the cape of her husband’s martyrdom, describing her as nothing more than one of those wives of “anarchists who marry women who are millions of miles removed from their ideas.”
None of this, however, is to diminish the historical importance of Albert Parsons and the events leading up to his execution; and while it is true that Lucy Parsons spent much of her life addressing the crime that was her husband’s murder at the hands of the capitalist state, nonetheless, her political activity and impact on history extend far beyond the scope of that single tragedy. In fact, the work that she lent her energies to in the years following Albert’s execution are of equal (if not greater) importance than anything he had been able to add to the fight for workers’ emancipation in the course of a life that was sadly cut short.
“Whose Lucy Parsons?”
In one sense, Lucy Parsons defies easy political categorization. Throughout her life she referred to herself alternatively (and sometimes all at once) as an anarchist, socialist, communist, and syndicalist. She worked with socialist groups in the 1870s and anarchist groups in the 1880s. She was part of the founding of the Socialist Party in the 1890s and the revolutionary-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World in the early 1900s. Finally, the last two decades of her life would see her working with the Communist Party.
The fact that she allowed her ideas on revolution and revolutionary organization to adapt so much over the years have led some present-day activists to feel the need to “rescue” her in order to firmly place her under the banner of their particular ideology to the exclusion of all others. For instance, the anarchist author Gale Ahrens, in the Introduction to her otherwise useful collection of Lucy Parsons’ writings and speeches, waxes near apoplectic at the thought that anyone would consider Lucy Parsons a communist. The origin of her ire is the only existing biography of Lucy Parsons, written by Carolyn Ashbuagh, in which Ashbaugh concludes that Lucy Parsons officially joined the Communist Party in 1939.
Despite the fact that this conclusion is backed up by several interviews conducted by Ashbaugh with contemporaries of Lucy Parsons (both friend and foe), and Lucy Parsons’ own words, which reveal the fact that by the 1930s she was publicly referring to herself as “connected with” the Communist Party, Ahrens feels the need to take pains to attack what, in her words, is an “unlikely image of Lucy Parsons as Communist — or worse, as The Anarchist Who Became a Communist.”
Clearly for Ahrens there is nothing worse than an anarchist becoming a communist. However, the actual writings and actions of Lucy Parsons herself reveal that this aversion to communism is wholly that of Ahrens, and is not something that Parsons shared in the least.
As one anarchist writer has correctly pointed out regarding those, like Ahrens, who would attempt to declare that Lucy Parsons was one thing by simply lopping off those pieces of her life that indicate she was also something else, “Gale Ahrens’ documentary history was an attempt to rescue Parsons ‘for the anarchist movement.’ In doing so Ahrens provides anarchism with another hero but does little to demystify Parsons’ legacy. Indeed, the real question is not whose hero Lucy Parsons is, but how we can learn from her struggle and how her history can provide a better understanding of American radicalism.”
Perhaps the most egregious example of this type of pick-and-choose approach to Lucy Parsons’ legacy is the Lucy Parsons Project website, which posits itself as a “tribute to Lucy Parsons, her work, and the causes she championed.” This would all be well and good if the website actually lived up to its promise. While useful insofar as it provides some of Parsons’ own writings and speeches, it unfortunately does her a major disservice by creating a distorted, incomplete picture of what constituted her political life.
While one can find on this website a myriad of writings on anarchism (including those by and about Emma Goldman, who Parsons grew to utterly despise by the end of her life), as well as links to several dozen contemporary anarchist websites, one will not find any writings by or about Karl Marx, anything about the successes of the Russian revolution of 1917, nor links to any contemporary socialist websites (not to mention any specifically anti-racist media), though these were all major, if not defining, contributors to Lucy Parsons’ political worldview.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not note the other side of this trend, which can be seen in erroneous attempts to declare that at no point in Parsons’ life did she ever actually espouse anarchist ideas, which Ashbaugh appears wont to do in her biography. This, of course, is plainly not true.
In the end, while people like Emma Goldman considered Lucy Parsons an ‘opportunist’ for working with different revolutionary organizations and letting her politics evolve over the years, I would argue that this is actually her greatest attribute. Unlike Goldman, Lucy Parsons retained a firm, unwavering commitment throughout her entire life to identifying with, and struggling for, the liberation of working people as a class from the chains of capitalist exploitation, while simultaneously being open to a number of different forms in which that liberation might be brought about.
For Lucy Parsons, the aegis under which workers (and by extension, herself) were best able to fight for their social emancipation was not important. If a new type of organization or tactic in the class struggle was developed that seemed an advance over that which preceded it, Parsons did not miss a beat in throwing herself into the work of this new-found creation. Lucy Parsons had only one loyalty — to the downtrodden, oppressed, abused, and exploited. In the end, she measured an organization or an action, not by what label it could be categorized under, but how effective it was in moving this latter group of people into revolutionary action.
It is for this reason, and not ‘opportunism,’ that Lucy Parsons was so quick to latch on to new organizations and ideas that emerged in the course of what she considered to be the great and ongoing war between labor and capital.
Lucy Parsons Becomes a Socialist
Little is known of Lucy Parsons’ exact origins, in no small part because she herself was quite circumspect about this matter. Today, most historians agree that Parsons was likely born circa 1853, in Texas, and quite possibly grew up as a slave on a plantation. Documentary evidence suggests that she was of mixed African, Mexican, and Native American heritage. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that she actually denied being of African ancestry, though theories abound as to why she may have claimed this.
She would stay in Texas until 1873, when she and Albert Parsons, who she had married several years before, would move to Chicago. A large part of what inspired this move north was the fear of what the rise of the KKK in the post-Reconstruction South would mean for a progressive-minded, interracial couple like themselves (Albert had been shot in the leg and threatened with lynching in 1872 for his efforts to register black voters).
The Chicago to which the Parsons’ fled, was a city undergoing dramatic, if not chaotic changes. The city was fast industrializing and thousands of immigrants were streaming in from around the world, adding to the city’s developing proletariat. These workers were savagely exploited and lived in abysmal conditions.
An 1873 investigation conducted on the housing situation in Chicago’s immigrant neighborhoods revealed that homes designed for 6 or 7 people often housed 30 or 40.
Children played in streets covered in animal litter from the nearby meatpacking plants. Fifty percent of these children never reached the age of five.
It was in one such immigrant neighborhood that the Parsons’ first took up residence. Immediately, they were drawn into the radical circles of these European immigrants, learning about the ideas of socialism, class struggle, and revolution, which were rapidly growing amongst the working classes of Europe. Through these circles, the two came to be familiarized with various socialist theorists, including Karl Marx, whose works engrossed them.
Before long, the Parsons’ had become leading members in the Chicago branch of the Workingmen’s Party (WP), an organization affiliated with, and modeled on, the German Social-Democratic Party (SDP). WP organizing meetings were held at the Parsons’ house, and Albert even ran for local office in a WP-sponsored electoral campaign.
More than anything else, the single greatest catalyst of the Parsons’ radicalization was the national railroad strike of 1877, the first general strike in U.S. history. Originating in West Virginia as a strike against wage cuts, the strike quickly spread along the rails to Chicago, where every single railroad worker joined in, turning trains over onto the tracks to render them impassable.
As Lucy Parsons would later write of this event, “It was during the great railroad strike of 1877 that I first became interested in what is known as the ‘Labor Question’.”
The WP threw itself into the strike, with Albert at one point addressing a rally of 25,000 striking workers.
The capitalist class responded viciously to the labor uprising. In Chicago, the police and the newly-formed Illinois National Guard were mobilized to break the strike with the use of sword, gun, and cannon. Scores of workers were killed and even more wounded. The capitalist press was remorseless in its appraisal of the bloody repression. The Chicago Tribune commenting on the working people who joined the strike, opined, “The world owes these classes [of people] rather extermination than a livelihood.”
Despite the brutal defeat suffered by the working class in the course of the strike, the aftermath saw the WP — now renamed the ‘Socialist Labor Party’ (SLP) — grow dramatically.
It was during this period that Lucy Parsons also first became tremendously active in the socialist movement. By 1879, she was pregnant with her first child and working full-time as a dress-maker to support her and Albert, who had been fired and blacklisted from working in the printing trades due to his involvement in the strike.
Despite this, she began writing regular articles for the newspaper of the SLP, The Socialist, was a leading figure in organizing housewives and other wageless women into the SLP’s Working Women’s Union, and was one of the first women to join the Knights of Labor once it finally accepted female members in 1879.
Through the pages of The Socialist, Lucy addressed the plight of women servants of the rich; wrote tributes to the late Abolitionists who had mortally wounded the Southern “aristocracy” by “striking the shackles from the black slave”; and excoriated the profiteering rich Northerners who grew wealthy during the Civil War, only to spit on the ragged soldiers who later came to them in search of relief from their hunger.
In one article, titled, “On the ‘harmony’ between capital and labor,” Lucy argued that there was no such thing as an identity of interest “twixt the oppressor and the oppressed, twixt the robber and the robbed.”
Let the masses understand that these robbers hold this property (which is so much unpaid labor) under the plea of the laws which they themselves have made … and further, that these so-called laws would not be worth the paper they are written on, twenty-four hours after the producers of all wealth had willed it otherwise.
Reform or Revolution
By the early 1880s, the SLP was undergoing a major internal fight roughly along the lines of a reformist versus revolutionary wing. The SLP, much like the corresponding German SDP, was primarily a reform-oriented organization, which saw socialism as coming about via electoral channels. It viewed the transformation from capitalism to socialism as a peaceful process to be carried out ‘from above,’ by holders of political office, with the class struggle playing an ancillary role, if at all.
In the wake of the violent repression of the 1877 strike, many socialists began to view the notion of a peaceful resolution to the conflict between workers and capitalists as fantasy. For them, the ‘class war’ was no mere phrase, and some actually saw the arming of the working class as an imminent objective. Moreover, these socialists had come to see the electoral road to socialism as a dead-end. The SLP had been making little progress in this vein, and those candidates that did make gains were oftentimes quickly co-opted by local Democratic politicians, jettisoning their socialist platform in the process.
Lucy Parsons had come to stand out as a spokesperson for the more militant faction inside the SLP, fully participating in party debates and conventions. Even the local bourgeois press took note of her, commenting that “she preached the social revolution with even more vehemence than her husband.”
By the end of 1881, the SLP had officially undergone a nationwide split. In Chicago, the revolutionary wing of the SLP, in whose ranks could be counted Albert and Lucy, branded itself the ‘Socialist Revolutionary Club.’ In 1883, the Socialist Revolutionary Club participated in the Congress of North American Socialists, from which Congress issued forth a new national formation, the International Working People’s Association (IWPA).
The IWPA was established on a firmly militant basis, arguing in its Manifesto that, “No ruling class has ever laid down its privileges without a struggle. It becomes, therefore, self-evident that the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie will be of a violent revolutionary character.”
And while the IWPA adopted a resolution, motivated by the Chicago Revolutionary Socialists, which said that the trade unions “form the advance guard of the coming revolution,” the bulk of the IWPA rather held to the concept of “propaganda of the deed.”
This theory, as propounded at the Congress by the German émigré, Johann Most, centered on the efficacy of property damage, sabotage, and political assassination, as the main catalyst of social revolution.
Anarchism and State-Socialism
Though the Manifesto of the IWPA did not explicitly mention the word ‘anarchism,’ it nonetheless became the main label associated with the IWPA by both its critics and proponents.
It is also at this time that Lucy Parsons begins referring to herself as an anarchist. She explained that she used to believe the “government could be made an instrument in the hands of the oppressed to alleviate their sufferings. But a closer study of the origin, history and tendency of governments convinced me that this was a mistake. … that it made no difference what fair promises a political party, out of power, might make to the people in order to secure their confidence, when once securely established in control of the affairs of society.”
She went on to argue that “the struggle for liberty is too great and the few steps we have gained have been at too great a sacrifice, for the great mass of the people … to consent to turn over to any political party the management of our social and industrial affairs.” Finally, as she concludes, “For these and other reasons, [I] turned from a sincere, earnest, political Socialist to the non-political phase of Socialism — Anarchism.”
For Parsons, the ‘political (i.e., electoral) Socialists’ or ‘state-socialists’ were guilty of harboring delusions in the possibility of creating fundamental change simply by capturing state power. And even if possible, this would be undesirable, for nobody but the masses themselves could be trusted to bring about their own emancipation.
Interestingly enough, however, the struggle against the ‘state-socialists’ was not historically unique to anarchism. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels fought bitterly against the state-socialists who dominated the German SDP. The leader of this school of thought in Germany, Ferdinand Lassalle, was also the man whose ideas held sway over the very same Socialist Labor Party in the U.S. that Lucy Parsons had come to criticize.
As Paul D’Amato has accurately summarized,
[I]t was Marx and Engels who organized the fight in the socialist movement against those who believed that socialism was about taking over the state, or that socialism could be equated with state ownership or control of production. … Marx rejected the politics of the German socialist Ferdinand Lasalle, who viewed the working class as a sort of stage-army that would help him into office where he and his cohorts would implement socialism through the state. Marx attacked Lasalleans for their ‘servile belief in the state.’
Elsewhere, Marx argued against Lassalle’s top-down approach to working-class organization, saying that, especially “where the worker is regulated bureaucratically from childhood onwards, where he believes in authority, in those set over him, the main thing is to teach him to walk for himself” [emphasis in original].
In fact, it seems quite likely that Lucy Parsons knew of Karl Marx’s fight against the ‘political socialists’ in Germany, for she repeatedly insisted on referring to Marx in her writings as an ‘anarchist’ like herself!
Clearly, the differences between the theories of socialism and anarchism, which to many people today may seem quite clear, were incredibly intermingled in the minds of Lucy Parsons and those around her. As one of her comrades in the IWPA later explained, “A number of persons claim that an anarchist cannot be a socialist, and a socialist not an anarchist. This is wrong. … The anarchists are divided into two factions; the communistic anarchists and the Proudhon or middle-class anarchists. The ‘International Working People’s Association’ is the representative organization of the communistic anarchists.” In sum, he concludes, “a socialist who is not a state-socialist must necessarily be an anarchist.” 
Of course, under such a definition, we would have no choice but to consider Marx an anarchist, too!
Indeed, at one point Albert Parsons responded to a claim that the IWPA was not only anti-Marx, but actually inspired by his political opponent, the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, by flatly stating, “The IWPA was not founded by Bakounine … The IWPA is not in opposition to Marx. So far from it that one ‘group’ in this city as elsewhere, is called by his name. The first publication ever issued by the IWPA was written by Marx and Engels in English-German” [emphasis in original].
Elsewhere, Albert said of the IWPA, “We are called Communists, Socialists, or Anarchists. We accept all three of the terms.”
Nonetheless, Lucy Parsons was also very much influenced by distinctly anarchist politics during this period. Especially attractive to her was the idea of “propaganda of the deed” and its emphasis on the positive role of political violence.
She considered wage-slavery to be little different than chattel-slavery and so concluded that a similar type of armed conflict would be required to abolish it. In this vein, she supported the efforts to set up armed detachments of the various unions that affiliated with the IWPA. This tactic actually had a degree of appeal amongst some unions, as the 1880s were a time of bloody clashes between workers and armed thugs, called Pinkertons, hired by capitalists to suppress any labor disturbances.
In truth, Lucy Parsons’ tendency to view the class struggle in martial terms is quite understandable if one looks at the rhetoric of the capitalist class of the time, not to mention their behavior during the 1877 strike.
The Chicago Times , for instance, editorialized on a group of sailors fighting for an increase in pay:
Hand grenades should be thrown among these union sailors, who are striving to obtain higher wages and less hours. By such treatment they would be taught a valuable lesson, and other strikers could take warning from their fate.On the topic of the growth in homeless people begging for food in the streets, The Chicago Tribune opined:
When a tramp asks you for bread, put strychnine or arsenic on it and he will not trouble you any more, and others will keep out of the neighborhood.
It was in response to such depravity that Lucy Parsons penned one of her most famous articles, entitled, “To Tramps, the Unemployed, the Disinherited, and Miserable,” which was published in the first edition of the newspaper started by her and Albert in Chicago, The Alarm, in 1884, and later reprinted as a pamphlet by the IWPA.
Parsons addressed her call-to-arms to the “35,000 now tramping the streets of this great city, with hands in pockets, gazing listlessly about you at the evidence of wealth and pleasure of which you own no part, not sufficient even to purchase yourself a bit of food with which to appease the pangs of hunger now gnawing at your vitals."
Have you not worked hard all your life, since you were old enough for your labor to be of use in the production of wealth? Have you not toiled long, hard and laboriously in producing wealth? And in all those years of drudgery do you not know you have produced thousands upon thousands of dollar’s worth of wealth, which you did not then, do not now, and unless you ACT, never will, own any part in?
… And that at last when the caprice of your employer saw fit to create an artificial famine by limiting production, that the fires in the furnace were extinguished, the iron horse to which you had been harnessed was stilled; the factory door locked up, you turned upon the highway a tramp, with hunger in your stomach and rags upon your back?
… Awaken them [the industrial bosses] from their wanton sport at your expense! Send forth your petition and let them read it by the red glare of destruction. Thus when you cast “one long lingering look behind” you can be assured that you have spoken to these robbers in the only language which they have ever been able to understand, for they have never yet deigned to notice any petition from their slaves that they were not compelled to read by the red glare bursting from the cannon’s mouths, or that was not handed to them upon the point of the sword.The titles of some of her other articles written for The Alarm in 1885, such as, “Dynamite! The Only Voice the Oppressors of the People Can Understand!” and, “Our Civilization: Is It Worth Saving?” convey the unmitigated contempt in which she held the ruling class.
Let every dirty, lousy tramp arm himself with a revolver or knife and lay in wait on the steps of the palaces of the rich and stab or shoot their owners as they come out. Let us kill them without mercy, and let it be a war of extermination and without pity. Let us devastate the avenues where the wealthy live as [General] Sheridan devastated the beautiful valley of the Shenandoah.
Who … could help but stand aghast and heave a sigh and perchance drop a tear as they read the graphic account flashed to us of the awful massacre of the poor and defenseless wage-slaves … in the state of Mississippi? Defenseless, poverty-stricken, hemmed about by their deadly enemies; victims not only of their misfortunes, but to deep-seated, blind, relentless prejudice, these our fellow-beings are murdered without quarter.She continues:
Are there any so stupid as to believe these outrages have been, are being and will be heaped upon the Negro because he is black? Not at all. It is because he is poor. It is because he is dependent. Because he is poorer as a class than his white wage-slave brother of the North.And as to what recourse Southern blacks had to fight this tyranny:
[T]o the Negro himself we would say your deliverance lies mainly in your own hands. You sow but another reaps. You till the soil but for another to enjoy. The overseer’s whip is now fully supplanted by the lash of hunger! And the auction block by the chain-gang and convict cell!
… But your course in the future, if you value real freedom, is to leave politics to the politician, and prayer to those who can show wherein it has done them more good than it has ever done for you, and join hands with those who are striving for economic freedom.
… As to those local, periodical, damnable massacres to which you are at all times liable, these you must revenge in your own way. You are not absolutely defenseless. For the torch of the incendiary, which has been known to show murderers and tyrants the danger line, beyond which they may not venture with impunity, cannot be wrested from you.Some critics have taken this article as an example of what they call Parsons’ “class reductionism” in approaching the question of racism. Ashbuagh writes that Parsons was “erroneous” in her belief that “all social ills stemmed from economic oppression”; that “the abolition of capitalism would automatically produce racial and sexual equality”; and that “Lucy Parsons did not see that racism and sexism have histories and existences independent of the economic structure of society.”
Never since the days of the Spartan Helots has history recorded such brutality as has been ever since the war and is now being perpetrated upon the Negro in the South.
Women are stripped to the skin in the presence of leering, white-skinned, black-hearted brutes and lashed into insensibility and strangled to death from the limbs of trees. A girl child of fifteen years was lynched recently by these brutal bullies. Where has justice fled?
The whites of the South are not only sowing the wind which they will reap in the whirlwind, but the flame which they will reap in the conflagration.Further, to truly understand the significance of Lucy Parsons’ forthright condemnation of the scourge of racism, one has to look at the context in which she was operating.
[A]s man ascended in the social scale of development, he began to acquire property, which he wished to transmit along with his name to his offspring — then woman became his household drudge.
She was regarded as a sort of necessary evil; as something to be used and abused; to be bought and sold — as a thing fit only to cater to his pleasures and his passions — this was woman’s lowly position. For countless centuries, the drudge went her lonesome, weary way, bore the children — and man’s abuse.However, she goes on to explain that the development of industry and the entrance of women into the ranks of the proletariat “was to bring relief at last. This enabled woman to leave the narrow confines of the kitchen where she had been kept for so long. She entered the arena of life’s activities, to make her way in this hustling, pushing, busy world as an independent human being for the first time in the world’s history.”
We, the women of this country, have no ballot even if we wished to use it … but we have our labor. We are exploited more ruthlessly than men. Wherever wages are to be reduced the capitalist class use women to reduce them, and if there is anything that you men should do in the future it is to organize the women.Finally, on the immense capacity of women to play a key role in the process of social change, she wrote, “When the women take hold of a great and crying evil, you may expect revolution — not necessarily a revolution of blood and destruction, yet not necessarily one of peace.”
Had I been there, had I seen those murderous police approach, had I heard that insolent command to disperse, had I heard Fielden say, ‘Captain, this is a peaceable meeting,’ had I seen the liberties of my countrymen trodden under foot, I would have flung the bomb myself. I would have violated no law, but would have upheld the constitution.
I do not stand here to gloat over the murder of those policemen. I despise murder. But when a ball from the revolver of a policeman kills it is as much murder as when death results from a bomb.She related how the prosecution had lined the walls of the courtroom with red and black flags as a way to whip up an anti-anarchist and anti-socialist hysteria within the jury. To this she retorted:
But the red flag, the horrible red flag, what does that mean? Not that the streets should run with gore, but that the same red blood courses through the veins of the whole human race. It meant the brotherhood of man. When the red flag floats over the world the idle shall be called to work. There will be an end of prostitution for women, of slavery for man, of hunger for children.Lucy Parsons’ tour was making quite the stir. “My trip is having its effect,” she wrote to Albert in a letter from Connecticut. “The powers that be don’t know what to do with me. One New York paper suggests that ‘Parsons be let out as a compromise to get Mrs. Parsons to stop talking.’”
Our verdict … cheers the hearts of tyrants throughout the world, and the result will be celebrated by King Capital in its drunken feast of flowing wine from Chicago to St. Petersburg.
There was no evidence that any one of the eight doomed men knew of, or advised, or abetted the Haymarket tragedy. But what does that matter? The privileged class demands a victim, and we are offered a sacrifice to appease the hungry yells of an infuriated mob of millionaires …
You I bequeath to the people, a woman of the people. I have one request to make of you: Commit no rash act to yourself when I am gone, but take up the great cause of Socialism where I am compelled to lay it down [emphasis in original].In the days before the execution, Lucy was a fixed presence out in the Chicago streets, selling pamphlets and making speeches, as crowds of thousands of people gathered around her.
Our comrades were not murdered by the state because they had any connection with the bombthrowing, but because they were active in organizing the wage-slaves. The capitalist class didn’t want to find the bombthrower; this class foolishly believed that by putting to death the active spirits of the labor movement of the time, it could frighten the working class back to slavery.Her first major undertaking was to publish a book that Albert had been working on while in jail, titled, Anarchism: Its philosophy and scientific basis. Released in December of 1887, the police seized all but the first 300 copies from the printer.
There are two distinct phases of socialism in the labor movement throughout the world today. One is known as anarchism, without political government or authority; the other is known as state socialism or paternalism, or governmental control of everything.He continues:
Socialism is a term which covers the whole range of human progress and advancement. Socialism … I think I have a right to speak of this matter, because I am tried here as a socialist. I am condemned as a socialist, and it has been of socialism that [the Chief Prosecutor, Julius] Grinnell and these men had so much to say, and I think it right to speak before the country, and be heard in my own behalf, at least. If you are going to put me to death, then let the people know what it is for.”This particular approach to the question of socialism and anarchism can be found repeated in Lucy Parsons’ next major work, The life of Albert Parsons: with a brief history of the labor movement in America, published in 1889.
“I am an anarchist. Now strike! But hear me before you strike! What is socialism, or anarchism? Briefly stated, it is the right of the toilers to the free and equal use of the tools of production, and the right of the producers to their product. That is socialism.”Much like Lucy Parsons during this period, it is clear from the above works that Albert neither considered himself exclusively an ‘anarchist’ nor ‘socialist’ but rather both, simultaneously.
Will you deny that your jails are filled with the children of the poor, not the children of the rich? Will you deny that men steal because their bellies are empty? Will you dare to state that any of those lost sisters you speak of enjoy going to bed with ten and twenty miserable men in one night and having their insides burn like they were branded?She continued over the boos and hisses of the forum’s upper-class attendees:
I will not rise to your reform bait. This is your society Judge Atgeld; you helped to create it, and it is this society that makes the criminal … And if the workers unite to fight for food, you jail them too … No, so long as you preserve this system and its ethics, your jails will be full of men and women who choose life to death, and who take life as you force them to take it, through crime.”Statements such as these, however, should not be taken to indicate that Parsons was against all reforms, as some have incorrectly averred. Far from the caricature of Lucy Parsons as a fanatical revolutionary stubbornly opposed to all measures that did not lead to the immediate abolition of the existing order of things, Parsons understood the importance of the fight for reforms as part of the process of building up the consciousness and confidence of the working class towards the goal of revolution.
A reduction of the hours of labor to the point where all can have employment is worth a general strike, because upon this point all efforts can be focused, and if carried, its beneficial effects would be felt immediately by the whole working class, men, women, and children.
It would be an object lesson at once demonstrating what united effort can accomplish. Having carried this point of attack, further moves could be instituted for attacks upon the profit-taking class, and gained until the wage system is abolished and a system of cooperation is instituted, the working class preparing themselves in the meantime for a larger liberty.”For Parsons, there was a world of difference between reforms granted from on-high, by a ruling class trying to co-opt and control its subjects, and reforms wrested from the ruling class by a fighting movement from below.
You are the sole producers; why should you not consume? … The present social system is rotten from top to bottom. You must see this and realize that the time has come to destroy it.
Let our streets run with gore but let us have justice … Capitalist lives swept away are so much gain to us … That is why I am a revolutionist!
You must no longer die and rot in tenement houses … Shoulder to shoulder with one accord you should rise and take what is yours.In 1894, she lent her efforts to what would become the first ever mass march on Washington, D.C., organized by the populist, Jacob Coxey. She addressed Coxey’s “Army of the Unemployed” as they gathered on the South Side of Chicago in preparation for their long march to the Capitol in pursuit of federal relief for the jobless.
I appeal to you young men to refuse to enlist and go to those far-off islands for the purpose of riveting the chains of a new slavery on the limbs of the Filipinos … What will it avail you? Don’t you have to fight enough battles against the trusts here, without traveling across the Pacific?
I have seen the Ku Klux in the South myself. I know something about them, and they were every one of them Democrats. The negroes of the South are no longer in physical slavery, but the Democrats of the South intend to keep them in economic slavery!In 1889, Lucy Parsons was speaking at a meeting organized jointly by members of the IWPA and the SLP. She was inveighing against racism, and attacking the Church and the State as Siamese twins.
The Christian civilization of Chicago … permits the heart’s blood of your children to be quaffed in the wine cups of the labor robbers … Socialism is the only 100-cents-on-the-dollar religion. (Cheers) … We have heard enough about a paradise behind the moon. We want something now.”At this point, one of the leaders of the reformist current within the SLP jumped up and started yelling, “I won’t allow Socialism to be imposed upon. Socialism means one thing and anarchy another. … Mrs. Parsons spoke in this hall last Wednesday night, and she used the word socialist every time she should have used the word anarchist. Mrs. Parsons has no right to call herself a socialist.”
Each branch of industry will no doubt have its own organization, regulations, leaders, etc.; it will institute methods of direct communication with every member of that industrial branch in the world, and establish equitable relations with all other branches. There would probably be conventions of industry which delegates would attend, and where they would transact such business as was necessary”In the meantime, the duty of all revolutionaries was to agitate within the existing trade unions in order to fight for their direction and to win over the workers therein to the necessity of revolution.
Lucy Parsons and Emma Goldman came from very different social and political backgrounds. Parsons developed in the context of the militant Chicago working class movement of the 1870’s and 80’s. Goldman developed in the immigrant radical intellectual circles of New York.
Goldman became interested in the freedom of the individual; Parsons remained committed to the freedom of the working class from capitalism.While Emma Goldman was becoming the spokesperson for the bohemian, ‘free love’ movement, Lucy Parsons was doing speaking tours of AFL locals across the country.
I hold … that the economic is the first issue to be settled, that it is woman’s economical dependence which makes her enslavement possible … How many women do you think would submit to marriage slavery if it were not for wage slavery?Parsons believed that far too many women were “obliged to live with a man whom she does not love, in order to get bread, clothes, and shelter.” Therefore, substantive liberation for women required her economic ascendancy, but as a class, rather than as individuals.
The Anarchist cause (there has been no movement in recent years) has lacked a plan of procedure or organization … The result is that the realization of the anarchistic ideal, grand as it is, is not in the least encouraging …
I, personally, have always held to the idea of organization, together with an assumption of responsibility by the members, such as paying monthly dues and collecting funds for propaganda purposes. For holding these views, I have been called an ‘old-school’ Anarchist, etc.
Anarchism, as taught in recent years, is too far away from the mental level of the masses.By the early 1900s, Parsons was also beginning to firmly reject the ‘propaganda of the deed’ tactic, replacing it with a re-focused attention on the power of the united, mobilized working class.
... I have taken the floor because no other woman has responded, and I feel that it would not be out of place for me to say in my poor way a few words about this movement.
Taken together, her speeches at the convention comprise some of her most powerful statements on socialism, revolution, and workers’ power. They reveal a tremendous maturation in her perspective on the “Labor Question” over the preceding decades, and actually anticipate important developments that would later arise in the working class movement.
I entered here as a delegate to represent that great mass of outraged humanity, my sisters whom I can see in the night when I go out in Chicago … who are compelled to sell the holy name of womanhood for a night’s lodging. I am here to raise my voice with them, and ask you to put forth from this organization a declaration of principles and a constitution that shall give them hope, in the future, that they should be enrolled under the banner of this organization. When you go out of this hall, when you have laid aside your enthusiasm, then comes the solid work. Are you going out of here with your minds made up that the class which we call ourselves, revolutionary Socialists so-called -- that class, is organized to meet organized capital with the millions at its command? It has many weapons to fight us. First it has money. Then, it has legislative tools. Then, it has armories; and last, it has the gallows.... I simply throw these hints out that you young people may become reflective and know what you have to face at the first, and then it will give you strength.
That is the solid foundation that IShe continues:
hope this organization will be built on; that it may be built not like a house upon the sand, that when the waves of adversity come it may go over into the ocean of oblivion; but that it shall be built upon a strong, granite, hard foundation. ... [W]hat do we mean when we say revolutionary Socialists? We mean the land shall belong to the landless, the tools to the toiler, and the products to the producers. Now, let us analyze that for just a moment. Is there a single land owner in this country ... who will allow you to vote it away from him? ... [The product] belongs to the capitalist class as their legal property. Do you think that they will allow you to vote them away from them by passing a law and saying, 'Be it enacted that on and after a certain day Mr Capitalist shall be dispossessed?’ Hence, when you roll under your tongue the expression that you are revolutionists, remember what that word means. It means a revolution that shall turn all these things over where they belong -- to the wealth producers.
Now, how shall the wealth producers come into possession of them? I believe that if every man and woman who works ... should decide in their minds that they shall have that which of right belongs to them ... then there is no army that is large enough to overcome you, for you yourselves constitute the army.She concludes by making an allusion to the worker’s uprising then taking place in Russia, “where the red flag has been raised.” No doubt drawing inspiration from the Russian workers, she argues:
Later that year, Lucy Parsons would begin editing a new periodical in Chicago, which she saw as connected to both the IWW and the Socialist Party. She named it The Liberator, in tribute to the anti-slavery campaigner, William Lloyd Garrison, whose newspaper of the same name had played a key role in organizing the Abolitionist movement.
My conception of the future method of taking possession of this Earth is that of the general strike. The trouble with all the strikes in the past has been this: the workingmen ... strike and go out and starve. My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production. If anyone is to starve ... let it be the capitalist class.
There is no way of building up a movement, strengthening it and keeping it intact, except by a press, at least weeklies if dailies are impossible. The press is the medium through which we exchange ideas, keep abreast of the times, take the gauge of the battle and see how far the class conflict has progressed. It is by the press we educate the public mind and link the people of most distant parts together in bonds of fraternity and comradeship. We can keep track of the work and accomplishments of our comrades in no other way, except by the medium of the paper.
There was never a time in the history of America when there was such urgent need for radical education as at the present moment. The rich are becoming more oppressive, domineering and arrogant each day; the people more depressed, despoiled and helpless. Every radical should try to reach them and educate them to a correct understanding of their condition in society; tell them why they are exploited, and the remedy. The Liberator is trying to perform this task.“Educate the public mind” is precisely what Lucy Parsons did through the pages of this newspaper. She wrote a weekly column on women’s issues; wrote a series of articles entitled, “Labor’s Long Struggle with Capital,” covering the history of working-class radicalism; and she addressed the fight against racism, xenophobia, and police brutality.
The utter irreconcilability of the interest of labor and capital based upon the present system of buying and selling … should be transparent to any one who gives the matter serious thought.
The one is employed by the other; the laborer wishes to sell his labor at the highest figure possible; the capitalist wishes to buy at the lowest, so the conflict begins. The whole labor problem is brought up when the dispute arises over the share of the product which each of these parties, the workers and the capitalists, are to receive. The competitive system fixes the wages received by the wage class upon the basis of mere subsistence; all over and above this sum, the surplus, goes to the profit-taker.She also continued to wage the fight against the reformists and ‘ballot-socialists’:
Of all the modern delusions, the ballot has certainly been the greatest. Let us see, for example, how our law factories are operated. A corruptionist works a majority as follows: He hires a tool called an attorney or lobbyist to hang around the capitol and buttonhole the members of the legislature … In this way, together with some graft, he usually gets the votes of the majority of the members.
With thousands of laws being enacted and hundreds of corruptionists playing their tricks, what becomes of the voter’s victory at the polls? What becomes of his reforming all things by the use of the ballot?
The fact is money and not votes is what rules the people. And the capitalists no longer care to buy the voters, they simply buy the “servants” after they have been elected to “serve.” The idea that the poor man’s vote amounts to anything is the veriest delusion. The ballot is only the paper veil that hides the tricks.”Or as she put it succinctly in another article, “The trusts will not allow you to vote them out of power because they are the power.”
[T]he IWW cannot hope to gain and hold the confidence of the wage class long if it has no definite aim in view looking to a lasting betterment of economic conditions. The Industrial Workers of the World have been organized nearly a year. What have they done worth mentioning? Carried a few isolated, insignificant strikes? What does this amount to? The whole organization seems to be floundering around like a ship lost at sea without a rudder.Perhaps her most important disagreement was over the IWW’s ‘dual unionism.’ The IWW was implacably opposed to the AFL, even to the point of cutting itself off from the vast numbers of workers who were organized in AFL unions. Lucy Parsons argued for a strategy in the IWW, called ‘boring from within,’ in which the IWW would work with and through existing AFL unions in an attempt to win AFL-organized workers over to a more radical perspective. The IWW rebuffed this strategy.
Scientific socialism (so-called) has been taught in Germany for more than fifty years. [Yet] the political representatives of “science” (backed by more than four million voters) helped their imperial master lay a war levy of a billion marks or more for the prosecution of a war on workers of other countries.
And each of the scientists was honored by a clasp of the imperial hand to the tune of “Deutschland Uber Alles!” German scientific Socialism has stifled the revolutionary tendency, once so promising.Fortunately, the patriotic fervor of the working class was not to last. By February of 1917, Parsons was able to write,
The anti-military spirit which is developing among the masses of Europe will tell the governments of the Earth that the workers have no trouble that needs to be settled by cruel war; and if the rulers have trouble, they can settle them by fighting it out among themselves … But we are told that kind of talk is unpatriotic, that every man ought to be willing to fight for his country. What country belongs to the wage class?In April 1917, the U.S. officially entered the war. As is often the case with imperial conflicts, the war abroad was coupled with a war at home. The U.S. Congress quickly passed the Espionage and Sedition Acts to clamp down on all domestic dissent, and unleashed a wave of repression against all revolutionary working-class organizations.
Anarchism has not produced any organized ability in the present generation, only a few little loose, struggling groups, scattered over this vast country, that come together in ‘conferences’ occasionally, talk to each other, then go home.With events in Russian providing a concrete example of the possibility of workers’ revolution, Lucy Parsons had no patience for those anarchists leveling abstract criticisms against the realities of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ as embodied in the early years of the Soviet government. It was precisely this issue that would spark the final flare-up in Parsons’ long-standing political feud with Emma Goldman.
Anarchists are good at showing the shortcomings of others’ organizations. But what have they done in the last fifty years … Nothing to build up a movement; they are mere pipe-dreamers dreaming. Consequently, Anarchism doesn’t appeal to the public … [It] is a dead issue in American life today.
I went to work for the International Labor Defense (ILD) because I wanted to do a little something to help defend the victims of capitalism who got into trouble, and not always be talking, talking, talking.” 
I think Russia treated her and Berkman very tolerantly and cleverly; anyone could see that they were doing everything in their power to provoke arrest.In an interview she gave around that time, she goes so far as to say of Goldman, “We had been friends for more than thirty years, but when she began publishing articles in the Chicago press attacking the Soviet Union I wrote her that I never wanted to see her again.”
As to the Kronstadt affair, that was war; nothing new about it, and the side that got licked are sour about that, too, nothing new about it either. I wonder what the Anarchists would have done, had they won out? Surrounded as they were by those hostile armies [of the Allied Powers] and enemies on every side?” 
Lucy Parsons spoke in a beautiful melodious voice, with eloquence and passion. She had her roots in the people, which gave her strength. Both of her children died. She kept on alone, without wavering. She never lost faith in the power, courage, intelligence and ultimate triumph of the people. Years ago she accustomed trade union men to listen respectfully to a woman speaking for labor. She helped make them more keenly aware of the need of strong unions and organizing the unorganized. She helped to build up a strong tradition of labor defense so that other leaders of labor should not suffer the same fate as her husband.
When Eugene V. Debs spoke at the 1905 IWW convention, Mother Jones sat on one side of him and Lucy Parsons on the other. Bill Haywood presided. She encouraged every new effort to push forward the whole labor movement. What a great satisfaction to her it must have been for her to realize the number of splendid young women, many of her color, who are enrolled in it today. What a joy to see trades unions millions strong! She did not live in the past. She lived for the future. She will live in the future, in the hearts of the workers.