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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s