Anarchism in the Early American Labor Movement

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Anarchism in the Early American Labor Movement
Anarchism, not in the sense of lawlessness, but in the sense of noninterventionist governmental policy and activity, has a colorful history in the United States. It has enjoyed periods of welcoming and periods of scorn by every class of people and for widely varied reasons. It is embraced by free market economists and by the socially liberal, favored in part by both major parties and wholly endorsed by the Libertarian Party in the U.S. today. In the past, its place has been substantially different, for at different periods of time, different policies and mindsets on the parts of the citizens and the government have been at the forefront of progressive thought. Whether it is considered novel, conservative, beneficial, or detrimental is all dependent on a large array of contemporary social and economic considerations.

Around the turn of the 20th century, anarchism was at the forefront of progressive thought for the American workforce. This is not surprising considering the state of governmental activity at the time. Federal and state governments were routinely interfering with the desires of American workers to organize into unions, to strike for better working conditions and to be recognized as valid opposition to an increasingly oppressive capitalist system with regard to its rank and file workers, It is clear as to why such a stance would be taken by the government. Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan, among many others, were driving American economic activity in a way that, while ugly for many, was beneficial at the national and international level. At this time, the United States was not by any means a superpower, it was a coming-of-age nation fresh out of civil war, seeking to make itself into a powerful world player amidst the imperialistic tendencies of its allies and enemies. As justification for the anti-labor sentiment that was carried with these interests, it was not difficult to reason that, as the expression goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

This popular phrase, however, fails to capture the suffering involved and the potential for longer-term detriments as a result. That is where Anarchism comes into play. When this sentiment is trumpeted by the government and the corporations in power, and when it leads to the government endorsement of policies that favor those corporations regardless of cost to the worker, it is Anarchism, a healthy opposition to such policy, which works to protect the worker. It is the political ideological equivalent of the relationship between the union and the corporation, a means of combating potential for (and in many cases the actual existence of) oppression. As such, during the initial U.S. labor movement toward the end of the 19th century, Anarchism served a vital role in ensuring the sustainability of that movement.

This iteration of Anarchism, like any movement or ideology, was dependent upon the leadership of a few key individuals. These individuals, leaders in the labor movement at the time, while endorsing this ideological backing, might also be credited with the early successes of the labor movement itself. Within their views and actions, anarchism and the movement they supported were not two separate ideas, but were instead interrelated and inseparable. These individuals include Albert and Lucy Parsons and Bill Haywood, among others, all of them notable for their radical views and their contributions to American labor.

Albert Parsons might best be known for his martyrdom for the cause of the American labor struggle, having been sentenced to death following the 1886 Haymarket Affair. Throughout his short life following the Civil War and his participation in politics, he was in strong opposition to the federal law at the time which favored corporate interest. He was particularly opposed to the 8-hour workday, which he felt was necessary for the reasonable accommodation of workers’ rights to everything from family...
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