Goddess of Anarchy by Jacqueline Jones

Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical BY Jacqueline Jones. Basic Books. Hardcover, 480 pages. $32.
The cover of Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical

More than a century before Antifa or Occupy Wall Street, thousands showed up to hear lectures on wealth inequality and its discontents from Lucy Parsons, the subject of Jacqueline Jones engrossing new biography, Goddess of Anarchy. A former slave, Parsons transformed herself from a rural seamstress with only the “bare bones of a formal education” into a revolutionary essayist, orator, and celebrity. Railing against the Dickensian horrors of capitalism from the Gilded Age through the Great Depression, Parsons was one of the few female activists of color to capture a mass audience. But despite Parsons’s fantastic life story, Goddess of Anarchy is only the second-ever biography on the “sharp-tongued” and “ever fashion-conscious” woman who “refused to mellow with age.”

Where Jones departs from Carolyn Ashbaugh, author of the first biography, Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary (1976), is her critical take on Parsons’s evasion of the needs and desires of black workers. Though Parsons was able to inspire thousands of whites with her gothic fiction, acerbic essays, and fiery speeches at striking worker rallies, sold-out lecture halls, and street corner soapboxes, she made a “lifelong effort to distance herself from black struggles.” Another point of contention for Jones was Parsons’s seeming embrace of what we would now call terrorism, based on her quasi-religious devotion to theories of German-American anarchist Johann Most, who preached that dynamite or any violent “propaganda of the deed” was the working class’s true and only path to salvation. Her loyalty to Most left her politically out-of-step with workers of all colors. A penetrating but sympathetic biographer, Jones weaves Parsons’s contradictions—the prescience, myopia, courage, and recklessness—into a rich and dramatic cautionary tale on race and violence.

In reading Jones’s lucid rendering of Parsons’s life, there are moments that make you doubt whether American politics ever really changes. Parsons foray into public life began in the 1870s, when she and her husband, Albert, a dapper Confederate-veteran-turned-socialist journalist and politician, abandoned Waco, Texas for Chicago. Around the same time, a major financial crisis had thrown more than a fifth of the city’s labor force out of work. New technologies depressed wages for many still-employed whites, prompting a backlash against black workers and non-white immigrants. Thousands “squeezed into high-priced, poorly ventilated barracks, basements, and hovels surrounded by open sewers that were clogged with kitchen slop, human excrement, and animal carcasses,” Jones writes, while the city’s magnates built mansions on Lake Shore Drive.

Around the time of the deadly Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Parsons abandoned the ballot box and placed all her revolutionary hopes on trade unionism and Most’s strategy of radical violence. By that time, the couple had become mainstays in the labor halls, press offices, Lake Michigan picnic-rallies, and black-and-red-bannered parades of the city’s burgeoning circle of radical activists and propagandists, which was overwhelmingly composed of German immigrants. In 1887, Albert was sentenced to death for inciting a bomb explosion at a labor rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square that led to the killing of seven police officers. The sensational trial—based solely on circumstantial evidence and on what Judge Joseph E. Gary deemed the couple’s “seditious utterances” on dynamite—brought the “Haymarket widow” into the mainstream. With the erudition of a scholar but without the stodgy prose of an academic, Jones pulls Parsons’s legacy from the shadow of her husband’s fame.

In the ensuing decades, Parsons gleefully cultivated symbiotic relationships with the mainstream press that “covered her obsessively.” She became a tenacious orator, traversing the country with rousing speeches on labor strikes, the feckless two-party system, police brutality, surveillance of activists, and free speech. “Perhaps most indelible are the images of her dodging the police, running from one street corner to the next, barging her way into a lecture hall, sprinting past a barricade,” Jones writes. Parsons used her platforms to forge rivalries with the leading radicals of her time like Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs, whom she helped launch the influential Industrial Workers of the World. Shortly after the IWW opening convention in 1905, Parsons began publishing her own paper, The Liberator, in whichshe warned about many of the social ills that still plague America today: “the erosion of the middle class” due to “technological innovation,” the corruption of money in politics, and the workplace full of “soul-deadening boredom, repetition, and physical danger.”

But at the time, many white workers and radicals looked down on black workers as scabs. As a major figure in the largely white socialist movement, Parsons remained “bound by the prejudices of the overwhelming majority of white Americans,” Jones writes.Shefashioned a false Hispanic and Native American heritage for herself, likely as the price for acceptance in the white immigrant circles she kept in Chicago and on the lecture circuit. She lived with a “fractured” and “bifurcated way of being in a world that forced her to deny, or suppress, her childhood as a slave.” Parsons’s writings and theories, “derived mostly from European communists and anarchists, seemed wholly divorced from the awful reality faced by black Chicagoans,” Jones writes. In the pages of The Liberator,Jones finds that Parsons “ignored the struggles of African-Americans,” as “not an article—or a paragraph, for that matter—covered the distressed Chicago black laboring classes.”

In one of the rare instances she addressed black America politically, Parsons wrote in 1886 that Southern blacks—terrorized because of their class, not their skin color—should arm themselves in defense against white mobs: “And to the negro himself we would say your deliverance lies mainly in your hands.” She went on to argue that anarchist thought or strategy was incompatible with “race,” essentially absolving white radicals of any responsibility for civil rights and racial equality. Ironically, the working people who appropriated Parsons’s and Most’s violent methods were white racists. Between 1917 and 1921 alone, whites set off nearly sixty bombs on or near Chicago homes owned by black people to keep them from moving into their neighborhoods. “For radicals who continued to insist that the liberation of the white laboring classes would eradicate prejudice based on skin color, Chicago offered abundant evidence to the contrary,” Jones writes.

Though she sidestepped the toxic issue of race, Parsons never shied away from over-the-top violent rhetoric that “seemed to aspire to sheer outrageousness,” Jones writes. Parsons called directly and unequivocally for working people to use improvised explosive devices against the authorities or the wealthy. The “dear stuff (dynamite)” was the tool to build a “free society” predicated on the “good judgment of the people,” not the state, Parsons wrote in an essay for Labor-Inquirer in April 1885. “Thus the ‘terror’ becomes a great educator and agitator,” she concluded. When asked to comment on a strike of quarry workers that same year, Parsons told a local newspaper: “Let every dirty, lousy, tramp arm himself with a revolver or knife and lay in wait on the steps of the palace of the rich and stab or shoot the owners as they come out. . . . Let us kill them without mercy, and let it be a war of extermination without pity.”

Parsons’s “breathtaking naiveté” combined with, at times, “a callous disregard for human life,” Jones writes. How serious Parsons was about these calls to arms is unclear, but she did not seem to care that this rhetoric fell on deaf ears among working people. As one reporter put it, after Parsons would lecture crowds at anarchist picnic-rallies on Lake Michigan nearing the thousands to arm themselves, “away they would go, to arm themselves with beer.” And when the anarchist steel worker Leon Czolosgz shot and killed the most powerful man in the American power structure, President William McKinley, in September 1901, the masses did not follow this ultimate “propaganda of the deed” and revolt, while Parsons distanced herself from Czolosgz. And at some point, Jones speculates, Parsons must have realized that “dynamite has no politics.” In her final years of life, the frail, nearly blind Parsons stood in Chicago’s Washington Park, in her “old-fashioned dress and floppy flowered hat,” selling pamphlets and books out of tattered shopping bags. “This busy, practical world cares nothing for fine-spun theories,” an elderly Parsons concluded.

Justin Slaughter has written about politics and pop culture for Jacobin, Talking Points Memo, Public Books, and Guernica. He lives in Brooklyn.