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“His Act is Doublely Despicable”: Albert Parsons Responds to His Condemnation by Terence V. Powderly

by Albert Parsons

In the aftermath of the 1886 Haymarket bombing Knights of Labor leader Terence V. Powderly was desperate to distance his organization from the accused anarchists and maintain the order’s respectability. The day after the bombing he stated that it was the duty of every organization of working men in America to condemn the outrage committed in Chicago in the name of labor. Though there were exceptions, most assemblies of the Knights followed Powderly’s lead. Albert Parsons, a long-time member of the Knights and one of the Haymarket defendants, viewed Powderly’s lack of support with bitterness and wrote the following letter from jail on his tenth anniversary of joining the Knights, July 4, 1886.

Cook County Bastile, Cell No. 29,

Chicago, July 26, 1886.

To the Editor of the Chicago Times:

General Master Workman Powderly, of the Knights of Labor, if he is correctly reported in his speech delivered to workingmen at Luzerne, Pa., yesterday, where he is credited with saying: “Anarchy is destructive of civil liberty, and no honest workman can afford to identify himself with an organization which has for its object the destruction of life and property”—if he uttered these sentiments, then I am justified in denouncing him as a man who bears false witness against his neighbor. Whether he said it or not is immaterial, since it has gone forth to the world, which believes he did. What right has Mr. Powderly to define the meaning of Anarchy, unless he knows what it is? Or, knowing what it is, for him to falsify it is both cowardly and despicable. In the names of tens of thousands of workmen I solemnly protest. In the past ten years I have been active as a labor organizer and orator. I am a Knight of Labor. In that time, from New York in the east to St. Louis and Kansas City in the west and from St. Paul, Milwaukee, and Detroit in the north to Louisville and Baltimore in the south, I have addressed at least 500,000 persons, and among all that number in all these years I challenge Mr. Powderly to find a man who can truthfully say that I, as a Socialist or Anarchist, have advocated or countenanced “the destruction of life and property.”Whoever says so lies. The foundation principle of Socialism, or Anarchy, is the same as the Knights of Labor, viz.: “The abolition of the wage-system”and the substitution in its stead of the industrial system of universal co-operation, making every capitalist a laborer and every laborer a capitalist, ending forever the conflict of classes and the inevitable antagonisms of the wage-slave system. If this be “destruction of life and property,” then is Mr. Powderly equally criminal with the anarchists. The assertion that we use and advise the use of force is gratuitous and untrue. But we have declared that the existing social order is founded on force and maintained by force, and we have and do still predict a social revolt of the wealth-producing against this force system; that they will be driven unconsciously into open rebellion against class rule and class domination. This result will flow from cause to effect and not from anything that Mr. Powderly, myself, or any one else may say or do. The more general and intelligent the diffusion of this truth the less violent and destructive will the period of transition be. This is Anarchy, its teachings, which mean an end forever to brute force; the reign of eternal peace and prosperity.

For saying these things myself and comrades are now in prison awaiting the pleasure of our executioners. I think it ill-befits Mr. Powderly in the name of labor to join in the cry for our blood.

Whether we live or whether we die, the social revolution is inevitable. The boundaries of human freedom must be enlarged and widened. The seventeenth century was a struggle for religious liberty, the eighteenth for political equality, and now in the nineteenth century mankind is demanding economic or industrial freedom. The fruition of this struggle means the social revolution. We see it coming. We predict it, we hail it with joy! Are we criminals for that? The labor movement means the downfall of bosses, of dictators, and rulers, and a ruler or dictator is no more to be tolerated in the order of the Knights of Labor than out of it, and is no more sufferable whether he be a Powderly or a Gould. Mr. Powderly can ill-afford to malign his fellow-laborers, and when he does so in the name of labor his act is doubly despicable.

The labor question is up for consideration and adjustment. To the hundreds of thousands who have heard and know me I say: Beware of false gods and false issues.

A. R. Parsons.

Source: Lucy Parsons, Life of Albert R. Parsons (Chicago, 1889), 213–214.

See Also:Haymarket Martyr Albert Parsons's Last Words to His Wife
"A Healthy Public Opinion": Terence V. Powderly Distances the Knights of Labor from the Haymarket Martyrs
"We ask it; we demand it, and we intend to have it": Printer Albert R. Parsons Testifies before Congress about the Eight Hour Day
An Anarchist by Any Other Name: Albert Parsons and Anarchist Socialism