Web Letter: Timothy Messer-Kruse Responds to Thai Jones

Thai Jones, clearly discomforted by what my book is—essentially an ideological genealogy of a particular strain of revolutionary anarchism that flared into popularity in the 1880s and died in America with the explosion of the Haymarket bomb—employs the age-old dodge of setting up a straw man to knock down. He studiously avoids any discussion of The Haymarket Conspiracy’s actual subjects, themes, and arguments, and instead tilts at a windmill of a book that doesn’t exist. Jones opens his discussion by observing, “[Messer-Kruse’s] latest book, The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks, amounts to an elaborate retrial of the case—and the defendants receive the same prejudiced treatment this time around.”

Of course, the book is not about the trial at all and mentions the legal proceedings on at most two pages. A short opening chapter recounts the testimonial evidence of what various anarchists who turned claimed was discussed at the secret meetings leading up to the Haymarket meeting, but the remainder of book’s five chapters are actually an intellectual history of the origins, spread, and impact of the “Propaganda by the Deed” school of revolutionary anarchism.

Having misled the reader into thinking the book is simply a rehash of the trial (and why would I write another book on the trial after The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists (Palgrave Macmillan 2011)?), Jones then lets fly without shame many of the most discredited canards of the knee-jerk defenders of hagiographic orthodoxy:

• “The central fact of the case has never been disputed: none of the anarchists on trial were found personally responsible for throwing the bomb.” (In fact, the prosecution presented witnesses who identified Rudolph Schnaubelt as the bomb-thrower and August Spies and Adolph Fischer as accomplices in the act. Of course, anyone is free to claim such evidence is unpersuasive but no historian can deny it was presented to the jury and did serve as one important link in the chain of prosecutorial reasoning.)

• “All [defendants] were notorious for their radicalism but since none had actually been present at the time of the attack, the state’s attorneys were forced to employ the most malleable of all charges—conspiracy.” (This is laughably inaccurate—Spies, Fielden, Fischer, and Parsons were indisputably present at the Haymarket protest up to moments before the blast. Parsons attempted the alibi of having left for a pub before the rally was concluded, but it was disputed by other witnesses. Fielden was shot in the melee following the bombing.)

• “A guilty verdict did not require any direct link to the crime at hand; the state merely had to prove that the eight defendants had fomented an atmosphere in which such an act might have occurred.” (As carefully explained in The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists the clear legal standard the prosecution had to reach was linking all defendants to the conspiracy and the conspiracy to the bombing. They had to demonstrate that the bomber was privy to and a member of the group’s plan.)

• “One—Louis Lingg—admitted to constructing bombs, and several explosive devices were discovered in his apartment, though no link could be made between these weapons and the one used at Haymarket.” (In one of the first uses of forensic chemistry in an American criminal trial, shrapnel pulled from dead policemen’s bodies was shown to match elementally the unexploded shells found in Lingg’s apartment and not to match commercially available types of lead.)

• “Considering the hostility of the jury and the anti-radical furor that followed the bombing, the outcome was foreordained. The anarchists were dead men from the moment of their arrest.” (As I carefully recount in The Trial, there were numerous opportunities for the anarchist defendants to better challenge the prosecution, but at turn after turn their lawyers chose politics over sound legal strategy. The failure to effectively sever the trial among the defendants, the inept use of jury selection, the flagrant admission that Lingg made bombs, and the folly of putting Spies on the stand were just some of the turning points in the trial. Once the trial was concluded the governor was prepared to extend clemency to most of the men—probably not Lingg—but they refused to go along.)

• “Downplaying exculpatory facts, Messer-Kruse exhibits credulity toward even the most dubious or compromised testimony—if it fits his brief. For instance, he identifies a secret meeting held in a saloon basement on the night of May 3 as the time and place when the conspiracy was concocted. But he ignores the fact that the witnesses who described this clandestine session at the trial explicitly testified that no discussions had taken place there concerning a potential attack on the police.” (This is simply incorrect. Several witnesses recounted Engel’s plan of shooting police as they left their station-houses and of anticipating fighting at the Haymarket meeting. Other evidence on this score introduced at the trial is too numerous to mention here other than that other anarchists testified that they spent the afternoon of May 4 feverishly assembling bombs so they would be ready that evening and of delivering them to a prearranged location so they could be distributed before the rally.)

• “…within a decade a more objective voice added to the chorus of dissent. In the 1890s, when the Democratic Governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, reviewed the facts of the case, he found a biased jury, inadequate evidence, and a prejudiced judge. In an unparalleled act of moral statesmanship, which cost him his political career, Altgeld issued a formal rebuke of the prosecution and pardoned the three surviving Haymarket prisoners.” (As I point out in The Trial, Altgeld was hardly “objective,” using the pardon message as a means to settle an old simmering personal grudge against Judge Gary who presided over the Haymarket trial. Hardly an unselfish act, Altgeld in fact timed the pardons to promote his reelection by winning over the labor vote in Chicago.)

Of course, I must hasten to point out, all these sloppy “corrections” of my supposed book are beside the point. This book isn’t about those things, it is a history of the revolutionary ideas that culminated in the violence in Chicago in 1886.

Jones wields his hatchet with a particularly clumsy swing when he is compelled to misquote a passage from my book in order to depict me as some sort of neocon:

Demonstrating his enmity toward the defendants, Messer-Kruse asserts that modern Americans should abide by the assumptions of a flawed nineteenth-century legal system explicitly designed to protect plutocratic interests. “According to the law that was operative at the time of the Haymarket trial,” he writes, “the most relevant act was not the throwing of the bomb” but the plotting of the demonstrations that resulted in violence. If prosecutors at the time had employed a standard as lax as Messer-Kruse advocates today, every labor activist in Chicago would have been as legally culpable for the attack as the individual bomber.

Here is the actual quotation from page 14 of my book: “According to the law that was operative at the time of the Haymarket trial, the most relevant act was not the throwing of the bomb but the meeting at which this attack was planned.”

Note that the context of this quote discusses what was alleged and prosecuted at the trial–that the bombing was planned the night before. Not just the demonstration, but the actual attack on the police. (In order to twist my words, Jones elides the end of my quote, which would have clarified my meaning.) I did not say that the plotting of the demonstration itself was a crime, nor do I in any sense “advocate” for this interpretation, but simply state what was the standing law of conspiracy in the state of Illinois at that time (which I assumed any good historian would do).

Toward the end of his review, Jones runs out of things to say about my imagined book and returns tangentially to my real one, though here he seems to lose his way and forget how he began his attack. “Most of the chapters consist of a broad attack on anarchist political philosophy more generally. Messer-Kruse spends an inordinate amount of time describing violent declarations issued by radical conferences, while making no effort to show that these rhetorical utterances had any impact on actual activism…” Besides being simply not true this claim forgets that my book is structured to conceive of the Haymarket bombing as the penultimate fruit of this idea. Additionally, I trace how this strain of radical thought inspired two assassination attempts on the Kaiser, August Reinsdorf and his gang’s bombing and murder spree, as well as some previously unknown direct actions such as the bombing of the Andre Monument in Tappan, New York, the founding of Johann Most’s bomb academy, and the curious insurance fraud scheme that involved burning down tenements in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

In a final act of deception, Jones claims the exact opposite of what my book actually does. The Haymarket Conspiracy carefully untangles the many intellectual strains of anarchism and socialism to identify the particular set of ideas that animated Chicago’s revolutionary anarchists and repelled others, such as Boston’s individualist Tuckerites. I uncover the deep schisms in the ranks of Chicago’s and New York’s radicals as the “Propaganda of the Deed” gained force, schisms that eventually tore apart the old Socialist Labor Party. But Jones wants to paint me into a corner by claiming that I overlook such subtleties and simply assume all anarchists are spun from the same fiber. “The narrative is riddled with innuendo and suggestive possibilities, but overall it aims to reduce anarchism to a synonym for bloody-mindedness and chaos. In The Haymarket Conspiracy all violent revolutionaries are anarchists and all anarchists are violent.” Nothing could be more untrue or unfair.

Of course I knew my books on anarchism would be contentious, and I’m not surprised that an ideologically motivated response came so swiftly after its publication. I’m only saddened by how intellectually lazy and dishonest this inevitably first of many attackers seems to be.

-Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor in the School of Cultural and Critical Studies at Bowling Green State University. In addition to The Haymarket Conspiracy he is the author of The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age, a book that was recently awarded the “Best Book in Labor History” by the journal Labor History.

 

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Anarchism did not begin or end at Haymarket. And yet Timothy Messer-Kruse views the entire tradition through the filter of this one event. “[D]id anarchist leaders plot a campaign of violent attacks to coincide with the general strike for the eight-hour workday that first weekend of May 1886?” he asks. “Upon the answer to this question turns the whole history of the anarchist movement in America.”

Despite his assertions to the contrary, Timothy Messer-Kruse has written a sweeping, highly speculative attack on the nineteenth-century anarchist movement. In his response he restates this very point, and in so doing he—unintentionally, of course—confirms the primary critique I offered of his work. “[M]y book,” he writes, “is structured to conceive of the Haymarket bombing as the penultimate fruit of this idea [anarchism].” Or, in another passage: “This book…[is] a history of the revolutionary ideas that culminated in the violence in Chicago in 1886.”

My review offered other examples along similar lines, which need not be repeated here. But one passage that did not make the cut now seems germane. Complaining of scholars’ imprecise treatment of the Haymarket defendants’ belief system, Messer-Kruse offers a concrete definition of his own. “For the purposes of this study,” he writes, “…the terms anarchism and anarchist will be used only to describe those ideas, groups, or individual radicals who are distinguished by their complete rejection of ameliorative legal reforms and the voting systems that bring them about, by their advocacy of violence both collective and individual, and by their belief in the imminence of mass insurrection.”

This is a tautology, of course. Having defined anarchism as violence and delimited its adherents to those who embraced revolutionary actions, it inevitably follows that one will find violent anarchists everywhere. Thus, in another example, Messer-Kruse finds “a glimpse of the true anarchist spirit” in an infamous article extolling dynamite in The Alarm, an anarchist newspaper. But one need not read tea leaves to this effect. The book is entitled The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks, and the burden of its argument is to show how a powerful, organized conglomeration of violent anarchists around the world combined to perpetrate acts such as the Haymarket bombing.

Anarchism, like most political philosophies, has had its violent adherents. And there is no inherent reason why a scholar should avoid casting judgment on beliefs and practices embraced by historical actors. The troubling part of Messer-Kruse’s work, as stated in my review, is the insistence that he is burnishing the historical record on anarchism rather than tarnishing it. He urges a view of the Haymarket defendants “as soldiers and not victims.” But a movement that combined journalists, poets, philosophers, labor organizers, social workers, educators, and myriad other elements cannot be usefully reduced to either of these stark categories.

Only with trepidation and humility did I undertake to critique the work of a fellow scholar. On a subject like the Haymarket Affair, where each detail has been contested for more than a century, this hesitation was greatly magnified. I am not a specialist on these events, and I misstated facts on two specific points. Messer-Kruse correctly states that two of the eight Haymarket defendants were at the scene when the attack occurred (others had participated in the demonstration, but had previously departed). Their presence did not suggest they took an actual hand in the assault, since many witnesses saw them near the speakers’ platform at the moment the bomb was thrown. Connections between two defendants and one suspected bomb thrower were implied by the prosecution, but since the actual attacker’s identity remained disputed, these accusations were by their nature tendentious and not provable.

Other supposed inaccuracies result from differences of interpretation concerning evidence too ambiguous, in my opinion, to allow for firm conclusions. A crucial element of Messer-Kruse’s case involves whether the anarchists planned offensive action against the cops, or if their various preparations were intended as defensive measures in case of police aggression. The meeting at Greif’s Hall undoubtedly concerned potential reactions against governmental belligerence, but the evidence for an “attack” plan rests on arguable interpretations of witness testimony. In the case of Louis Lingg’s bombs, Messer-Kruse’s eagerness to embrace circumstantial evidence and his credulity toward nineteenth-century forensic science—especially as practiced by prosecutors and police—are among the central reservations of his methodology that I expressed in my review.

In keeping with his practice of seeing conspiracies everywhere, Messer-Kruse speaks of deception, dishonesty, and hatchet-wielding in my assessment of his work. This is not the case. I have familiarity enough with the anarchists of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to know that violence could form an integral part of their tactics. Nor is the absolute innocence of all the Haymarket defendants a shibboleth with me. It is also true that labor historians, as a group, have a habit of marginalizing direct action from their narratives of working-class struggle. But I also have spent enough time working with unreliable evidence—police reports, paid informants, secret service agents, reporters for the yellow press—to recognize that they should be used only with extreme care. In tracing transatlantic anarchist conspiracies, these sources compose a significant portion—too significant a portion—of the author’s material.

The author expresses disappointment that my review puts a disproportionate weight on the Haymarket trial. One is tempted to suggest that the title of his book, The Haymarket Conspiracy, must bear some responsibility for this misunderstanding. But it is anyway untrue that I suggested this to be the main emphasis of the work. “Most of the chapters,” I wrote, “consist of a broad attack on anarchist political philosophy more generally….he traces supposed links between terrorist cells scattered across the globe, and argues that German ideologues influenced American-born socialists to gravitate toward violent methods.” The events in Chicago are never far off stage; the Haymarket bombing is situated as the culmination of a sprawling discussion of anarchist activities and ideas. In tracing these connections, Messer-Kruse employs a variety of speculative assumptions: “This sounds eerily like…” “It is intriguing to wonder if…” “Other scraps of evidence hint at connections between…”

In the plaintive conclusion to his response, Messer-Kruse states that “Nothing could be more untrue or unfair” than my suggestion that a linkage between anarchism and violence is the core argument of his book. I sincerely hope that this is so. But I must restate my reasons for doubt: the author consistently employs derogatory language against the anarchists; he repeatedly holds up violence as the true anarchist principle, and accuses those who shrank from this course of betraying their ideals; and he makes little or no effort to describe the social conditions that inspired anarchists to take dramatic actions against the state, in effect portraying the violence of anarchists as existing in a political vacuum.

-Thai Jones

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