Political theorist Ruth Kinna describes two key events in the early history of anarchism, the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Haymarket Affair of 1886, in her brilliant book on anarchist thought and practice
As anti-authoritarian exponents of the International Working Men’s Association’s [IWMA or First International] politics, anarchists fleshed out the implications of their position with reference to two key events: the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Haymarket Affair of 1886.
These two episodes served as rallying points for anarchists in the early years of the European movement and they were habitually celebrated in anarchist journals and at annual meetings.
The Paris Commune is a shorthand term to describe a series of events in France at the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 – the last of the three wars of German unification engineered by Otto von Bismarck, which led to the collapse of Napoleon III’s Second Empire and the founding of the French Third Republic.
The Commune was declared in March 1871, following the catastrophic defeat of French forces by Bismarck’s Prussian army, on the back of a crippling siege of Paris in September 1870.
It was sparked by the refusal of Parisians to accede to the demands of the Republic’s provisional government, based in Versailles under the leadership of Aldophe Thiers, which was then negotiating terms with Bismarck.
It ended with the brutal suppression by the French government of the armed resistance that this refusal spawned.
Frustrating Thiers’s plans to disarm the city, Parisian workers concentrated in the areas of Montmartre, Belleville and Buttes-Chaumont prevented government troops from confiscating the cannon of the National Guard. Seizing the guns, they constructed barricades and brought together left republicans, Proudhonists [followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, author of What is Property? and one of the first thinkers to call himself an anarchist] and other revolutionary socialists in the city’s defence.
These were the Communards. As historian John Merriman has shown, the resistance resulted in the biggest massacre in nineteenth-century Europe: an estimated 20,000 Parisians were slaughtered in the Bloody Week of the Commune’s collapse in late May 1871. Many thousands more were deported to New Caledonia. They were not amnestied for ten years.
The other key anarchist event, the Haymarket Affair, started at a protest meeting in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on 4 May 1886 and concluded with the execution of four anarchists in November 1887.
The Haymarket meeting had been called after the killing of workers by police at a locally organized strike held on 3 May at the McCormick reaper factory in support of a national campaign for the eight-hour day. As police attempted to disperse the crowd, a bomb exploded, killing one police officer and wounding several others. The police opened fire on the crowd and in the skirmishes that followed, seven officers were killed.
A Chicago police round-up netted eight anarchists: George Engel, Samuel Fielden, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, Albert Parsons, Michael Schwab and August Spies. All were active in Chicago’s socialist networks as prominent radicals and labour organizers.
Tried for instigating the bombing but not for the bombing itself, they were found guilty as charged. The case against them was flimsy, to say the least. The rigging of the jury, the incompetence of the jurors, a wanton disregard for the evidential basis of the law and the partiality of the judge ensured the prosecution’s victory.
The case sparked international protests, so obvious were the procedural flaws, and eventually went to appeal. This failed and the miscarriage of justice was not recognized until 1893.
John Altgeld, the Governor of Illinois who quashed the original verdicts, observed that the presiding judge, Judge Gary, had displayed a degree of ‘ferocity’ and ‘subserviency . . . without parallel in all history’. Judge Jeffries, England’s notorious seventeenth-century hanging judge, was moderate by comparison.
Altgeld’s decision resulted in an absolute pardon for Fielden, Schwab and Neebe, ending their terms of imprisonment. It came too late for Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fischer. They were all dead. It was also too late for Lingg, who had committed suicide in his cell while awaiting execution.
Proudhonists were a significant force in the Commune. It was Proudhon’s friend, the artist Gustave Courbet, who famously instigated the toppling of the column in the Place Vendôme. A number of other prominent Communards, including Louise Michel and Élisée Reclus, later emerged as leading figures in the anarchist movement. That’s not to say that the Commune was an exclusively anarchist affair. Those who fought on the barricades identified with a plethora of revolutionary traditions.
The horrifying brutality and evident injustice of the government actions was one strong thread tying these events together. And in responding to the violence that the Commune and Haymarket unleashed, anarchists argued that the limits of European republicanism and liberalism had been revealed.
For those within the nascent anarchist movement, these two events exposed the continuity between these regimes and the tyrannies and the systems of absolutism that the great seventeenth- and eighteenth-century revolutions in Britain, America and France were supposed to have swept away.
It appeared that class war raged as violently in these apparently virtuous, enlightened states as in the autocratic regimes that republicans and liberals jointly held in contempt.
Excerpts adapted from The Government Of No One: The Theory And Practice Of Anarchism by Ruth Kinna (Pelican Books, £20). Buy a copy here.
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