The Meaning of Haymarket Square: How Marxists Won the Eight-Hour Day for Working Americans


There is no “straight” history of the United States. The standard version is the one told from the perspective of organized money; it is not just a plain, objective recounting of facts.

In his 1980 masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn informs the reader from the get-go that his perspective will be different. He will tell the story of America from the view of Americans who were on the receiving end of oligarchy–the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the silenced, excluded and ignored. The ninety-nine percent, if you will.

(And by the way, in 1980, assuming that America was an oligarchy turned out to be a pretty good working hypothesis. In 2014, two Princeton economists–stout guardians of the status quo if anyone is–concluded that Zinn’s assumption was sound: our country was run by a small group of economic elites with exclusionary access to power.)

I am heartily enjoying re-reading of Zinn these last couple weeks. To me it’s a puzzle that so many “ordinary” Americans seem allergic to Zinn, or any kind of critical retelling of our history. (1619 Project wars, anybody?). If we are indeed the home of the brave, why should we fear hearing voices from the past that have been forgotten or marginalized or blotted out? Can our faith in our founding ideals not withstand the testimony of ordinary, powerless people?

I don’t do a lot of flag-waving, but I would only want to belong to a country that keeps digging up its past and trying out new versions of its history. Any other kind of country is not free–and is also deeply uninteresting, which is another kind of problem.

If the authorities get the people to forget all the “irrelevant” facts that have been winnowed away to create the official version of history, eventually the unofficial version will simply die away. Memory and public record are the only things that enable us to think honestly about who we used to be and how we have changed. If the authorities can manipulate those two things sufficiently, they can create a history of themselves that is impervious to examination. Future Princeton economists will not get to call them oligarchs. We will be forced to believe their version as the only one. It will be as if the state’s antagonists never existed. And weren’t we born from an antagonistic movement? Didn’t Jefferson himself say that a democracy needs rebels?

So with that thought in mind, today I want to showcase Zinn’s recounting of the history of Haymarket Square. As an American living abroad most of the last 30 years, I’ve been quizzed more than once about this event. Almost every developed country east of the Azores celebrates May Day. The date is renowned as a victory of labor over capital.

Furthermore, almost every educated European also knows two slightly incongruent things about Haymarket. They know that the events in Chicago are venerated almost exclusively by the political left, and they know that America today is curiously devoid of memories of Haymarket. It’s not just that we have forgotten about it. We don’t seem to want it in our history. We even moved our version of Labor Day to a whole new month to keep it free of socialist taint.

Generally speaking, my interlocutors are not setting me up for a gotcha moment when they ask about Haymarket. They genuinely want to know how such basic information about it could have been purged from the public consciousness in the very country where it happened. It’s puzzling.

Zinn introduces his retelling of Haymarket by recalling a poem of the day, “My Boy.” It goes

I have a little boy at home,

A pretty little son;

I think sometimes the world is mine

In him, my only one . . .

‘Ere dawn my labor drives me forth;

Tis night when I am free;

A stranger am I to my child;

And stranger my child to me.

When we think of the labor movement, we think of strikers demanding two things–higher pay and better conditions. But the subject of this poem doesn’t just want a job that’s better remunerated or safer or easier for him to do. He wants a life. He wants his everyday not to be dictated to him so that it prevents privacy, agency, and normal human bonds of love.

By 1886, labor movements across the country were gaining momentum. The workers had nothing to lose but their chains, to paraphrase a Certain Someone. Zinn recounts that, from the days of Revolutionary America onward, laborers had worked 12 to 16 hour days and many considered a mere 9-hour shift on Saturdays a godsend. They were paid poverty-level wages across almost all industries.

As the Industrial Revolution gathered force, producers’ need for labor skyrocketed, and by the Civil War, cities across America (mostly in the north) became huge slums of the working poor. Contrary to Horatio Alger Myths, there was no way up and out of the slum, and this was by design. The system needed those masses of the powerless, immiserated poor to stay where they were and spend their every waking hour working.

When the American Federation of Labor called for nationwide strikes on 1 May 1886, it had the explicit goal in mind of ending the working person’s entrapment in a workday that permitted no private life, no time to be anything other than a factory hand. One group in Chicago that answered the AFL’s call, indeed, anticipated it, was the Central Labor Union. Led by two Marxists, Albert Parsons and August Spies, the CLU had published a manifesto the previous year. Here is the main part of it:

Be it Resolved, That we urgently need the wage-earning class to arm itself in order to be able to put forth against their exploiters such an argument which alone can be effective: Violence, and further, Be it Resolved, that notwithstanding that we expect very little from the introduction of the eight-hour day, we firmly promise to assist our more backward brethren in this class struggle with all means and power at our disposal, so long as they will continue to show an open and resolute front to our common oppressors, the aristocratic vagabonds and exploiters. Our war cry is “Death to the foes of the human race.”

Even without the advanced state of sleep science today, common sense and normal, bodily imperatives tell us we need about eight hours of sleep each night. The oligarchs of 1886 America said that’s all we needed, period: eight hours of sleep and 16 hours of work. You would have had no use for any life outside the factory and your meager bed. You are a mere extension of the machine you attend.

When the CLU had the temerity to assemble thousands of strikers in Haymarket Square, Chicago on 1 May against this idea, the authorities sent out the police, as usual. Many strikers quit under fire, many others were arrested. Spies wrote a fiery pamphlet calling for stiffer resistance, and on 4 May, a smaller group of protesters turned out. What they didn’t know is that an agent provocateur was among them, and at the end of the gathering, he threw a bomb at the police, killing seven of them.

Haymarket Riot - HISTORY

With no physical evidence to identify who threw the bomb, the public prosecutor went after Parsons, Spies and six other CLU leaders. The lack of evidence was no barrier to achieving justice. Zinn recalls, “The evidence against the eight anarchists was their ideas, their literature; none had been at Haymarket that day except Fielden, who was speaking when the bomb exploded. A jury found them guilty, and they were sentenced to death.”

As Christopher Hitchens reminds us of the Catholic Church, it is worth worth remembering what it was like when it was strong, even though it seems docile today. The Inquisition and the Church’s other atrocities cannot simply be tossed down the memory hole.

I take a similar lesson from Zinn’s history of the contest between labor and capital in 19th-century America. Give capital enough power, and it will deny that you are even a human being. It will find a way to deprive you of a life of your own, and it will pay for “respectable” courts to convict you of thought crime if you demand more. For that is indeed what Parsons and Spies were convicted of. They were hanged in 1887. They were executed for thinking that workers deserved to have their own lives–a third of their day in which they could love, loaf, read, garden, or do whatever made them them. It is vital that we be able to recall a time in our history when this idea was deemed so dangerous that the state dispassionately killed its authors.

Parsons and Spies did not win the eight-hour work day alone, but they did spearhead its victory and made the ultimate sacrifice for it. I quoted their manifesto at length on purpose. It’s a discomfiting document. Its authors are Marxists, and their prose shows it–turgid, militant, straddling a line between peaceful protest and violent rebellion. It is an all-American document. If you feel entitled to your eight-hour workday, as I readily admit I do, take a moment to remember that the bravest, most committed partisans of this privilege–all-American Marxists–were hanged for bringing it to you. That is the meaning of Haymarket Square for me.


Howard Zinn and the Legacy of Orwell


For students of Orwell, Howard Zinn’s 1980 masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States, provides an endless source of inspiration and reflection. All history writing, Zinn argues, is recounting facts. But choosing the facts to recount is shaped by ideology. So when you look back at the stories that historians tell–or when you want to tell a new story of your own–you must try to be critical and candid about which ideology is at play.

Orwell wrote that his only talent was a “power of facing unpleasant facts.” And this talent was not merely an idle form of pessimism. Orwell’s most militant attacks on the status quo were calculated, deliberate and, yes, optimistic. He saw around him a society of fundamentally decent people but who were blind to the mass thievery, subjugation, and brutality of colonialism, which provided their income. Orwell wrote over and over again that the English people’s comfort and gentleness–national virtues which he sincerely admired–were based in a widespread ability not to see what was right in front of their noses. He wanted them to do better.

Orwell was also devastatingly frank about his own ideologies. Near the end of his life he wrote in an essay that since 1936, when he had gone to Spain to fight for the republic, everything he published had been “propaganda” for social democracy. Of course he believed he was writing the truth, but he didn’t believe that any writer could work completely objectively: it was impossible to write about anything of importance, Orwell believed, from an ideologically neutral perspective.

From the moment you crack open A People’s History of the United States, you see Zinn exuding a kind of intellectual courage that would do Orwell proud. The standard view of American history is not factually wrong, Zinn writes, but it dissembles, overshadows or understates so many unpleasant facts that it ends up telling a deeply warped version of how our country came to be. Every single-volume history of the United States that we had been presented with before 1980 invites its readers to avoid seeing what is right in front of their noses.

All honest historians know, Zinn writes, of Columbus’s cruelty and greed in “dealing” with the native Arawak people of the West Indies. Columbus himself records that one of his first acts was to “take by force” several Aarawaks to interrogate them about the location of gold. He also records how he enslaved thousands of Arawaks and sent them back to Spain. Tens of thousands more were to follow. Many were simply massacred. Once Columbus landed on their shores, the Arawaks’ history became one of subjugation, enslavement and death.

The standard histories do not lie about such devastation; one historian even calls it genocide. Another says Columbus “had his faults” but must be remembered for his seamanship. What the historian accomplishes by this kind of subterfuge is, Zinn writes, worse than lying. The loyal historian

refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide.

But he does something else–he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and them to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important–it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world. . . . To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice.

To weigh and arrange the facts of history in a certain way is an ideological choice. And just as Orwell tells us plainly that his writings are all “propaganda,” Zinn tells us what his ideological choice is: he will tell the history of America focusing on the lives of the forgotten, subjugated, murdered, silenced and oppressed. Such a history may not give us a perfect picture of who we are or how our country came to be, but it would–and does–go a long way toward correcting a historical narrative shaped only by the ideology of conquest, money, and property.

Orwell’s Attack on Christianity in “1984”


By the time Orwell wrote 1984, near the end of his life, he was very much over God. He had been for a long time. He recalls in a 1947 essay, “Till the age of about fourteen I believed in God, and believed that the accounts given of him were true. But I was aware that I did not love him. On the contrary, I hated him, just as I hated Jesus and the Hebrew patriarchs.”

Strong stuff.

Young Eric Blair was rebelling against the most outrageous commandment in Christianity–to love, fear, and worship the very God who had created him sick with sin. It was a crazy-making idea. A sane, whole person cannot love his tormentor, certainly not on command, and young Blair knew it. “[A]t the middle of one’s heart,” he believed, “there seemed to stand an incorruptible inner self,” and this self had to stay sane, even if it meant living with the consciousness that he was a mere mortal animal, mastered in the end by time, fate and chance, not bound for victorious, eternal glory.

Why did Orwell, a committed liberal, do so little to promote the cause of secularism, which seeks to pierce the very first authoritarian code we are taught as children and, in a sense, fathers all the rest? Orwell writes almost nothing in his maturity about the benefits of losing one’s religion. It seems that once he had outgrown the idea of God at the age of 14, he dropped it entirely.

Well, that’s not exactly true. He did write a whole novel about theism and atheism, A Clergyman’s Daughter, but it is remarkably thin stuff, theologically speaking. It pivots on no towering clash of ideas, is harrowed by no Dostoevskyan “furnace of doubt.” It is much more English than that. After Orwell’s heroine, Dorothy, stops believing, he describes her change in meteorological terms:

There was never a moment when the power of worship returned to her. Indeed, the whole concept of worship was meaningless to her now; her faith had vanished, utterly and irrevocably. It is a mysterious thing, the loss of faith–as mysterious as faith itself. Like faith, it is ultimately not rooted in logic; it is a change in the climate of the mind.

Today we might say it was Orwell’s “lived experience” as a liberal democrat that caused his faith to vanish without fuss or ceremony. Arguments and logic played no role in his mental liberation, so he made no point of promoting them. Just give people time to outgrow the myths and superstitions of religion, and they will do so, he seemed to be thinking.

Although this passivity, I believe, characterized Orwell’s abiding attitude most of his non-believing life, I was wrong to think he let A Clergyman’s Daughter express his last word on Christian theism. The closing chapters of 1984 aim a savage blow directly at the core imperatives of Christianity. Furthermore, it is clear that the dying Orwell still hates the very things that outraged him as a school boy: the commandment to love and worship a sadist who claims the power to bend reality itself and who demands the subject, under pain of torture, connive in this self-aggrandizing fraud.

Everyone who has read 1984 recalls the broad outline of what happens to Winston Smith in the Ministry of Love. O’Brien tortures him to the point where he believes–with apparent genuineness–that 2 + 2 = 5.

But I hadn’t noticed until my latest re-reading the specificity with which Orwell attacks certain Christian principles as inherently totalitarian.

Evangelical Christians’ belief in a “young earth” created by God and fully furnished with familiar animals is well known. The most literal interpretation of this dogma is the basis of James Ussher’s famous “calculation” that the earth was created on 23rd October 4004 BCE.

Although I’ve read 1984 a dozen times or more, I’d never paused at the episode where O’Brien propounds Big Brother’s version of the same theory. Winston cannot accept O’Brien’s claim that the party has fully mastered material reality and indeed “make[s] the laws of nature.” Winston objects that the party cannot even achieve military mastery of the whole planet, which is itself “a speck of dust” in the vast darkness of the universe. How could it possibly claim to make the laws of nature?

“Nonsense,” O’Brien replies, “The earth is as old as we are, no older. How could it be older? Nothing exists except through human consciousness.”

When Winston objects that the “rocks are full of bones of extinct animals” that were alive long before humans, O’Brien rebuffs him with words that could come straight from a creationist pamphlet, “Have you seen those bones, Winston? Of course not. Nineteenth century biologists invented them.”

It is not just the substance but mainly the logic of O’Brien’s argument that indicts Christian dogma. The human mind is a blank slate, according to both Christianity and Big Brother. Agents of good and evil contend to inscribe things on the slate. Inscribe enough things, and a narrative takes shape. If one side gains the power to blot out everything written by its opponent, that side completely and utterly controls the narrative. It might as well control all of reality.

Winston knows this. In his job at the Ministry of Truth, he blots things out for a living, revising old books and newspapers to reflect the ever-changing party line. If the party expels an official, the facts of the official’s life are edited to fit his status as an enemy and traitor. All evidence that he once was good goes down the memory hole. In the torture chambers of the Ministry of Love, O’Brien explains to Winston that revising books and newspapers is just the beginning of what the party can do. Controlling history is good, yes, but controlling all of reality is the party’s real objective.

Furthermore, there is a shortcut to achieving this control. There is no need to expand the Ministry of Truth to be able to revise all the world’s texts. “We control matter,” O’Brien intones, “because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do.”

Christianity, and indeed most religions, make the same naked invitation to power that O’Brien is making. When O’Brien says that scientists “invented” the fossil record, he opens the field for the individual to believe any alternative facts or theories whatsoever. Convince the individual that objective, mind-independent reality has no authority to rule his thought, and you become that authority. This is the power of cults, conspiracy mongers, dictators, and, yes, religions. It puts the faith-bearer at the center of a universe that makes no sense without his consent.

But how do you get a sane, reasonable person to believe the impossible–really believe? Perversely, it all comes back to the “Christian” commandment to love one’s tormentor.

Ministry of Love on Twitter: "We're from the Ministry of Love and we're  here to help. #WARisPEACE"

In the interrogation room, Winston is belted to something like a dentist’s chair; electrodes are attached to his body, and they are used to administer whatever strength of shock O’Brien chooses. O’Brien has a pain dial.

Even though Winston knows it will draw another shock, he cannot accept O’Brien’s philosophy that there is no earth without man, no reality without minds to shape it. Addled by prolonged torture, Winston cannot articulate his objection. O’Brien fills it in for him, and goes on to explain the articles of faith under duress:

“I told you, Winston,” he said, “that metaphysics is not your strong point. The word you are trying to think of is solipsism. But you are mistaken. This is not solipsism. Collective solipsism, if you like. But that is a different thing; in fact the opposition thing. “All this is a digression,” he added in a different tone. “The real power, the power we have to fight for night and day, is not the power over things, but over men.” He paused, and for a moment assumed again his air of a schoolmaster questioning a promising pupil: “How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?”

Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.

“Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating?”

The most pitiful scene in the terrifying next-to-last chapter in 1984 is when the emaciated, pain-wracked Winston accepts the comforting embrace of O’Brien, who has turned off the pain machine. In the moment of relief, the only thing that matters to Winston is that O’Brien–his tormentor over so many days that Winston can’t count them–is the author of his release from pain. In a foretaste of 1984‘s last horrible revelation–that Winston comes to love Big Brother, not just obey him–Winston in that moment loves O’Brien.

Any creed that invites us to love the author of our misery because he ipso facto has the power to relieve our misery is totalitarian. It expresses a wish to have our emotions invigilated and commanded by someone else. It tells us we would be better off if someone more powerful than us were to take control the seat of our privacy. Put us together again in new shapes of their choosing. Not our will but theirs be done.

Of course I’m not saying that just because Christianity is a gateway to the darkest of totalitarian attitudes that the faithful must follow that path. All the Christians I know are too decent and polite to believe the worst, privacy-canceling parts of their creed. But those worst parts are still there, an open invitation to power–a hideous strength, as C.S. Lewis might put it. For my part, I still believe, as Orwell did, that at the middle of one’s heart is an incorruptible self that must expose and stand up to such outrages.