Her faith in workers’ power

April 3, 2013

Randi Hensley reviews a recently republished biography of an American revolutionary.

THE CHICAGO police called her "more dangerous than a thousand rioters," but little is known about Lucy Parsons and the tremendous life she lived.

Who is this dangerous woman of color who led the radical movement of the early 1900s? Why do we know so little about her? Carolyn Ashbaugh sheds some light on these questions in her book, Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary, originally published in 1976 and recently republished by Haymarket Books.

Lucy Parsons is best known as the widow of Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons. While it is certainly true that Lucy often spoke out against her husband's unjust execution, she was a well-known revolutionary before this event and remained committed to the cause of emancipation of the working class until her own death in 1942.

Carolyn Ashbaugh's book, Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary, chronicles Lucy's legacy as a class fighter and paints a picture of her far beyond the image of grieving widow. Ashbaugh takes us through a radical history of the turn of the 20th century in the U.S. and shows us how Lucy Parsons was situated at the front of the class struggle, through its many twist and turns.

Lucy Parsons
Lucy Parsons

Ashbaugh's book counters the way history is often taught--that rich, white men move things forward--and instead shows that the clash of class forces is how history is made, and that people like Lucy Parsons who help lead and move the working class can play a huge role in how historical periods are shaped.

The book is a chronological picture of Lucy's life, beginning with she and Albert fleeing for their lives from Texas--where Albert, a former Confederate soldier in the Civil War, was part of the pro-Northern Reconstruction administration, and where the couple faced massive discrimination because of Lucy's mixed race heritage.

They arrived in Chicago in 1873, amid huge unrest and inequality. The experience of the 1877 railroad strike had a profoundly radicalizing effect on Albert and Lucy. They immediately got to work helping to build the revolutionary movement and both became well-known and outspoken leaders of the labor movement.

Albert, along with four others, was hanged on November 11, 1887 after being convicted for planting a bomb in Haymarket Square during a labor rally on May 4. They were obviously innocent, but they were anarchists and tremendous working-class fighters, so Chicago's ruling class wanted desperately to silence them.

Although Lucy fought tirelessly to clear their names, she accepted that her husband would be a martyr for the cause of emancipating the working class.

On the day of the executions, the authorities treated Lucy and her young children unconscionably. They were stripped, searched for bombs, and imprisoned during Albert's hanging. The experience of her husband's death would have a lasting impact on her, and she spent the rest of her years speaking out against his unjust execution.

THROUGHOUT HER life, Lucy was a member of several different anarchist and socialist groups and was a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World. She published books, pamphlets and newspapers, and she took part in debates about many of the questions facing socialists and anarchists at the time.

Parsons traveled across the country, giving speeches that moved many people into action. She fought for the eight-hour day, campaigned against poverty and hunger, supported strikes, and became a voice for the downtrodden.

She was known as one of the best orators of her time, and her voice could command the attention of huge crowds and inspire people to act. The book goes through her many talents and contributions to the radical movements of her time and her participation with both theoretical and agitational aspects of the struggle.

By looking at Lucy's life, we learn how incredibly repressive the state was and remains. At every turn, Lucy encountered repression and harassment from the police.

She was arrested a number of times merely for giving speeches or passing out literature. Even after her death, the state found her to be such a dangerous character that they confiscated her books, writings, letters and photographs.

With the execution of her husband, the death of her two children, and a life of crushing poverty, Lucy's life was a tragic one. However, Ashbaugh makes it clear that, despite these many obstacles, Lucy remained focused on the fight for working-class emancipation. She never stopped fighting for a better world and never lost hope that ordinary people could run society for themselves.

While the book portrays Lucy's heroic actions, it doesn't try to gloss over Lucy's faults. Instead, it shows how her views evolved through time.

In her early days of organizing, she put a heavy emphasis on propaganda of the deed and often suggested the working class use dynamite against the capitalists, as a means of shocking others into getting involved. She had seen firsthand the oppressive nature of the capitalist class and was sure that the ballot box wouldn't lead to real change.

As time went on, she realized that there was no substitute to winning over large sections of the working class to taking over the means of production in what would be a long struggle.

Lucy's approach to fighting oppression also changed throughout the course of her life. She always maintained that sexism and racism came from economic exploitation, but sometimes emphasized the class war over fighting these special oppressions.

These two shouldn't be counterposed because they're inextricably linked. In order to fight for the liberation of our class, we must fight the racism and sexism that people face. The book talks about the debates she had with Emma Goldman and others about the question of women and sexual liberation and her frustration as anarchism became less and less rooted in the working class.

THE BOOK helps explain the horribly oppressive conditions that would have lent Lucy Parsons to wrestling with her own identity, at some points denying her own Black heritage.

Ultimately, Lucy fought tirelessly against racism and sexism. She fought for the Scottsboro Boys and other victims of the racist criminal justice system; organized against lynchings in the South; advocated for birth control, the right to divorce, and equal pay; praised the revolutionary women of Russia; fought for the rights of immigrants.

She became a tribune of the oppressed. Ashbaugh shows Lucy as a real person, whose ideas and emphases change over time.

The book points out the undeniable role Lucy played in helping women find their rightful place at the front of the labor movement. After Lucy's death, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote:

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.

Flynn realized the important part Lucy had played in smashing boundaries and paving the way for women revolutionaries.

People should read Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary because it helps us to understand how history works. It shows the brutality of the capitalist class and the impact that ordinary people can have on determining the outcome of history.

Although Lucy's vision of the abolition of wage slavery has not yet been fully realized, she and her contemporaries left behind lessons that help today's revolutionaries continue on their work.

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