The 11th of November
Document Item Type Metadata
THE 11th OF NOVEMBER.
By H. Kelly.
The anniversary of the death of the Chicago martyrs will always awaken tender memories and suggest problems. Those memories will develop the tender and emotional sides of our natures; and reflection over the problems will give us a broader and deeper outlook on life.
The “Riddle of the Universe” remains a riddle to many of us, but in spite of seemingly futile efforts to solve it, we still continue grappling with it; and slowly but surely nature unfolds her secrets to us. Generations yet to come will analyze our actions and will try to fathom the promptings of our beings just as we do in the case of those who have gone before us. Why do men live, conduct themselves this way or that way, and, after summing up the pros and cons of a given question, act in a given manner, even to the point of sacrificing life itself? These will always be fascinating questions to solve, and solving them only partially will give exquisite pleasure to the investigator and will clear the path for future generations.
The reasons which actuated the Chicago Anarchists to offer up their lives and liberties for the principles they professed are the same in character as those which animated the persons who have done similar things in past ages. It is no new thing for men to suffer and die for what they believed to be true; and we can imagine society disintegrating and the race perishing as easily as we can conceive that these habits become extinct in men. The desire for justice, liberty and human brotherhood is as old as civilized society; nay, older, for we discover similar ideas and customs existing before men lived in what we call civilized society.
It is probable that Spies and his associates knew they were toying with death in attacking vested interests; it is very likely true that in their zeal and enthusiasm for their cause they never troubled themselves much about it. When the fatal 4th of May came and their arrest followed, they realized the immensity of the task they had undertaken; thoughts which had been nebulous in their minds took definite form during their sojourn in prison, and they grew into their full moral and intellectual powers.
Judged solely from the standpoint of their effect upon organized society, the eighteen months the men spent in prison were most valuable to Anarchism, and most damaging to existing institutions. The long months gave them time to ripen and to come to their own; for their speeches betray a depth of insight into human society, a love of justice and humanity and a singleness of purpose that stand as mute yet powerful witnesses against their traducers and murderers. One of the most beautiful and most touching features of the trial was the faith of most of the men in the sense of justice in mankind in general and in their accusers in particular. Parsons, with his great love of humanity welling up in his heart, could not believe in the possibility of their conviction. All his traditions were against it. Was he not a descendant of men who had fought and bled in the revolution against George III., a revolution that had caused Paine to give to the world the Rights of Man and Jefferson to pen his immortal Declaration of Independence? How could he believe that a nation that had voluntarily freed four millions of slaves and caused thousands upon thousands of men to lay down their lives, some for State rights, some for the preservation of the Union—in short for an ideal, freedom as they understood it—would put five men to death for advocating a still higher ideal of freedom?
Spies, with just a touch of cynicism in his nature and with the vision of a seer, was under no illusions on the subject, and welcomed Parsons mournfully when the latter returned like a hero of old to take his place by the side of his comrades. Spies said, “Parsons, you arc returning to certain death,” and so it proved. Romance is still alive in the world when an Albert Parsons can return of his own free will to share the burdens and dangers of his comrades and, when in sight of the gallows, he can refuse a commutation of sentence, which would eventually mean freedom, except on terms of equality with his comrades. When I think of the Atlanta race riots and the burning of negroes, I remember that Parsons was born south of Mason and Dixon’s line; and hope revives within me.
Anarchism being a philosophy of life it is impossible to measure its depth with a yard stick, or its adherents by those who profess its principles. It is equally impossible to decide to what extent the Chicago tragedy influenced the growth and development of the Anarchist philosophy. That it influenced it greatly is without question, and meetings to commemorate the event are held in every civilized country in the world. The reason for such commemorations is not far to seek. The victims were men of deep sympathy, gifted imagination and intellectual ability approaching genius. Their virtues were of the positive order, and after having plumbed the depths of human society, they went forth into the world with all the zeal of disciples to install hope where indifference or despair had previously reigned. They saw much misery and ignorance in the world, but as they did not believe in God or that “man was created in his image,” they did not believe man was inherently bad. Grave evils existed in the world, but as all men possess the spirit of solidarity, to a greater or lesser degree, they saw a solution of these great social problems by a society based upon freedom; not freedom as is commonly understood, but an equal right to the earth and an opportunity to live one’s own life in one’s own way. They saw the hollowness and hypocrisy of such words as “the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” when one man had to seek the consent of another for the right to work and live. It filled them with indignation and disgust to hear people prating about the dignity of labor when all their lives they lived by exploiting others, and like Siegfried with the Dragon, they determined to go forth to conquer injustice or die.
Men of high ideals, they were of the people and did not forget the practical side of life. Throwing themselves into the labor movement, they soon became leaders by sheer force of merit and by the irony of fate it was over so trifling a reform as the eight-hour day that they lost their lives. Workers themselves, they realized the necessity for reforms in the condition of the wage earner at that time and devoted themselves to a shortening of the hours of labor and an increase of wages by means of trade unions, and they did this with as much zeal as if those aims were the ultimate of their ideal instead of being merely a means. Harbingers of a new time it was this practical application of their talents to the everyday affairs of life that endeared them to the hearts of the workers. The latter saw in them not doctrinaires, but comrades who lived and suffered with them. Understanding their class, they sought to encourage them with an intelligent sympathy while pointing out their ideals. Far ahead of their time, they were as Spies said, “birds of the coming storm” who came to inspire and to warn. Their death was a logical conclusion of their mission.
He who attacks grave abuses does so at his peril, as those who study history well know. Brilliant advocates of a great cause—the emancipation of man, they accomplished far more by their death than they could have done had they continued to live.
Truth seems twice a truth to most of us when its advocate is a man of high moral character, who tries to live the ideas he puts before others; this was the case of the Chicago martyrs; hence the tenderness and respect that gathers in force about their names as time rolls on. By “moral character” we do not mean that adherence to the hypocritical protestations of our so-called “good citizens,” which is at its best mere conventionality, but a morality which, while seeking freedom for one’s self, will refuse to invade the freedom of others, which comprehends that to exploit their fellowman is as unjust as to allow their fellowman to exploit them. In short, that morality which says “labor is the source of all wealth” and that the fruits thereof belong to those who produce it, all sophistry to the contrary notwithstanding. They loved humanity not wisely but too well, and the masses deserted them as they have always deserted their champions. Their influence was felt, however, and will increase in years to come. The road to freedom has ever been dark and stormy and countless victims have perished on the way. Others will follow and perish, but the pilgrimage continues; and out of the multitude who travel, some will reach the goal, and on their journey will leave finger prints to guide those who follow.
When the day of emancipation finally comes and the perspective is great enough we shall appreciate the Chicago martyrs at their true value, men of lofty ideals who gave not only the best that was in them, but the one supreme thing, life, for humanity; gave it without fear or reproach, sublime in the consciousness that their cause was just and that nature in her own good time would rehabilitate them and revere their memory.
Harry Kelly, “The 11th of November,” Mother Earth 1, no. 9 (November 1906): 7-11.