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Lucy Parson: Anti-American or Pro-American? Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 4th, 2021

Lucy Parsons was a leading labor organizer, anarchist, and radical feminist. On many of the basic issues of political and social life, Lucy Parsons displays a variety of opinions: she ranges from unmitigated individualism to complete communism, from militant revolutionism to nonviolence, from trust in reason to faith in will and instinct. Thesis Lucy Parsons was a pro-American political activist who fought against oppression and unfair labor practices.

Lucy Parsons was a pro-American political activist involved in labor relations and labor union organizations. Despite these polarities, however, the “family resemblance” that unites them is unmistakable. Lucy Parsons displays the hallmark o anarchism the vision of a community devoid of political authority, formed by a voluntary association of its members based on interest and affinity, and providing a maximum of freedom, equality, and opportunity for self-development.

Some emphasize one element of this formula and some emphasize another. But she all share this characteristically anarchist frame of reference, which lends an underlying unity to the diversity of their views on specific issues. The significance of Lucy Parsons in the history and social thought goes far beyond her involvement in the Communist Party and a labor union.

The strategy supported by Lucy Parsons was the following: “workers would demand eight hours work with no cut in pay, and if this was received with opposition, she would strike. As a result, 350,000 workers across the nation walked off their jobs to participate in a mass general strike” (Lucy Parsons: Woman of Will. 2008). Critics underline that the selections here have singled out the specifically anarchist elements of their thinking.

In each one, three distinct phases of their thought can be distinguished more or less clearly: a critique of the world as it exists and an explanation of the ills that beset it; an image of the anarchist future when those ills will have been healed; and how the transition is to be made from present reality to ideal future. It is this last point that confronted the anarchists with their most intractable problem and provoked the sharpest disagreements among them, in theory as well as in practice (Lowndes 2008).

Lucy Parsons supported fair pay and social equality movements she states that each man would contribute the produce of her labor to the common store and would be entitled to withdraw from it only her equal share. No selfish material interest must stand between the individual and her devotion to the community. Finally, the dictatorship would have to control the press and the educational system to banish old prejudices and instill among the people the virtue and enlightenment necessary for the exercise of their sovereignty.

Further, even in extreme cases, if impatient chiliasm and bigoted self-righteousness suffice to define the totalitarian mentality, then we have had totalitarians throughout the ages: Lucy Parsons writes: “Again the reverend gentleman says: The Knights of Labor imagine that they are tyrannized over, and once in a while they will do things no one will commend them” (Parsons 2004, p. 60).

Following Lowndes (2008) the importance of historical context may be immediately appreciated if one thinks of the assumption evident in the works of so many philistine critics of Lucy Parsons that advocacy of violent revolution is undemocratic per se. Taking for granted the existence of democratic institutions, of a legal road to power, these critics suppose that all proponents of revolution must necessarily be elitists who lack the patience to win majority support for their views or who have no faith in the masses at all. Whatever their claim to speak for the people, such revolutionists construct vanguard parties or guerrilla armies and justify minority revolution, political terror, and totalitarian dictatorship.

A genuine popular movement would not need these expedients; it could simply vote itself into power. Hence, in the philistine view, if Lucy Parsons advocated violent revolution, she could not have been democrats at all. If one drops the initial unhistorical assumption, the entire frame of reference changes. Lucy Parsons lived most of her life in the predemocratic era of history, under conditions that made it quite impossible for a working-class movement, even one embracing a sizable majority, to achieve power legally. Parsons underlines:

I will state this contention in another way: I learned by a close study that it made no difference what fair promises a political party, out of power might make to the people to secure their confidence when once securely established in control of the affairs of society that they were after all but human with all the human attributes of the politician (Lucy Parsons Project 2008).

While some American democrats renounced revolution even under these circumstances, most did not, and precisely because they were democrats. Thus Lucy Parsons’s advocacy of popular revolution to overthrow the repressive oligarchies of wealth did not set them apart from the principles of democracy but, on the contrary, placed them squarely in the mainstream of the mid-nineteenth-century democratic tradition (Lucy Parsons: Woman of Will. 2008).

Lowndes (2008) underlines that: “Although Parsons was primarily a labor activist, she was also a staunch advocate of the rights of African Americans. Published in The Alarm on April 3rd, 1886, the article was a response to the Iynching of thirteen African Americans in Corrollton, MS. In it, she claimed that blacks where only victimized because they were poor, and that racism would inevitably disappear with the destruction of capitalism” (2008).

Parsons was a pro-American activist who supposed that when free competition is viewed as a process over time, the inevitable result is a concentration of ownership, with the less efficient enterprises going bankrupt or bought up by the more efficient. Thus her moral ideas involved three criteria: a just cause, majority support, and no other means open. Thus Parsons did not call for a fight against a democratic constitution but only for utilization of the legal rights and freedoms, it provided in the interest of the workers. There was no guarantee, of course, that the bourgeoisie would peacefully submit to being ousted legally through a majority vote, but democratic institutions opened up at least the chance.

Parsons underlines that the active role of artisans and African-Americans in the disturbances is now increasingly recognized. Far more than industrial workers, artisans took part in violent demonstrations and riots, volunteered in revolutionary militias, organized themselves into protest groups, met in congresses, issued petitions, and generally manifested acute discontent. Nor is the reason hard to uncover: in the first half of the nineteenth century, substantial segments of this class–most notably tailors, weavers, shoemakers, and joiners–were displaced or severely threatened by technological and commercial-managerial advances.

Rapid population growth and preindustrial economic expansion had swollen their numbers, exacerbating the disaster that set in following the elimination For the time being, however, this tension was on the wane, as both sides perceived a broad area of agreement on political issues (Lucy Parsons: Woman of Will. 2008).

Lucy Parsons wanted the enlightened few to organize labor unions as a vanguard and maintain a certain separation from the mass; Lucy Parsons never expected the vanguard, however, to make the revolution by itself, without mass support. Only a revolution that had such support and actively involved the masses could succeed. She writes:

“Freedom.” Freedom to discover any truth, freedom to develop, to live naturally and fully. Other schools of thought are composed of crystallized ideas-principles that are caught and impaled between the planks of long platforms and considered too sacred to be disturbed by a close investigation (Lucy Parsons Project 2008).

Lucy Parsons did believe, on the other hand, that the struggle had to perform certain essential tasks without which the revolution also could not possibly succeed. These tasks included, first, bringing “revolutionary consciousness” to the masses, who on their own would develop at best only a “trade-union consciousness”; and second, preparing and executing the seizure of power itself seemed to have done, but at precisely the “correct” historical moment when mass discontent reached a peak of violent turmoil that would ensure the successful destruction of the old regime as well as popular support for the new one.

Without this crucial guidance and coordination by the vanguard, the violent turmoil of the masses would be dissipated uselessly, like steam not enclosed in an engine. Both these critical and demanding tasks required that the vanguard recruit selectively, limiting its size by preference, so that only full-time, technically competent, and utterly dedicated revolutionaries would be included (Lowndes 2008).

Lucy Parsons underlines that day-to-day party activity under military discipline in an organized chain of command from the top down. At the same time, she advocated a more democratic thought for decision-making at periodic intervals, for example, in the election of leaders. To get a clear answer it is necessary above all to pose questions in a sufficiently discriminating manner. It is not enough, for instance, to ask whether the league comprised the enlightened few as against the mass, since like things parties generally have small beginnings and since no socialist party has ever succeeded. In 1892 she published the short-lived Freedom, which attacked Lynchings and black peonage.

In 1905 she participated in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World, an anarcho-syndicalist trade union, and also published a paper called The Liberator” (Lowndes 2008). Scarcely had the new organization been launched than a whole series of revolutions broke out spontaneously (Lucy Parsons Project 2008).

Many critics admit that the political task of the revolution was to clear away the thirty-odd princely despotisms, large and small, that were the legacy of the Middle Ages, and create a modern centralized bourgeois government (Lucy Parsons Project 2008). A subsequent period of bourgeois domination was also required for economic development, firstly to polarize the older intermediate strata into genuine proletarians, “recruits for us,” and secondly to create the material prosperity that a classless society must-have.

Premature revolution in a backward county, by a proletariat that would not be ready to rule “for a long time yet,” could scarcely result in a classless society. yet been created which would render the destruction of the bourgeois mode of production necessary, and thus also the definitive overthrow of the political rule of the bourgeoisie. Thus, Lucy Parsons was not involved in antisocial political actions and did not threaten the political regime of the country (Lowndes 2008).

In her speeches, Lucy Parsons stressed the need for a period of bourgeois domination, certainly lasting “several years,” before the next major step could be taken successfully, Lucy Parsons spoke plainly against a premature proletarian seizure of power, against the very telescoping of revolutions that the more famous document seems to demand. While urging certain patience, Lucy Parsons offered the consolation that workers’ rule would bring important political advantages for the proletarian movement. However inadequate workers’ rights might be, they were not–as the True Socialists are continually insisted-entirely sham or devoid of value.

It should be reiterated, however, that Lucy Parsons did not expect these political gains to include universal suffrage in a fully democratic republic; rather they anticipated that workers rule in America would follow the then standard model of constitutional monarchy with a parliament elected only by substantial property owners (Lucy Parsons Project 2008). Such a special drawn-out version of permanent revolution would not necessitate minority revolution or minority dictatorship: indeed, it expressly presupposes that the masses would develop themselves through their own long and vicissitudinous struggles. In To Tramps, Lucy Parsons writes:

Yet your employer told you that it was overproduction that made him close up. Who cared for the bitter tears and heart-pangs of your loving wife and helpless children, when you bid them a loving “God bless you” and turned upon the tramper’s road to seek employment elsewhere? I say, who cared for those heartaches and pains? You were only a tramp now, to be execrated and denounced as a “worthless tramp and a vagrant” by that very class who had been engaged all those years in robbing you and yours (Parsons 2004, p. 76).

The To Tramps stands alone in suggesting such a sequence of events. Surely that invites suspicion and begs us to ask why. The answer almost certainly lies in the tension between artisans and intellectuals. As explained there, artisan impatience to find some escape from their doomed world expressed itself positively as the desire for immediate communism and negatively in an implacable hostility toward the bourgeoisie and all its works. The leaders of the labor movement embraced a seemingly more patient strategy of democratic revolution, but no scholar seems to have noticed that they did not thereby embrace two other essentials of the Marxist ideas for communism–a prior bourgeois revolution and a high level of industrial development (Lowndes 2008).

This policy of critical support for the worker’s disobedience, spurring it to completion, had as its corollary the soft-pedaling of more radical demands that were not yet historically appropriate and would only further frighten the liberals into the arms of the old regime. As the year unfolded, Lucy Parsons’ policy of critical support for the liberal workers in the completion of its revolution became more and more critical, less and less supportive.

Lucy Parsons saw growing evidence that the workers would welcome back the old regime, sell out its birthright, and abandon its historically assigned tasks. If this happened, they made ready to move on to the next stage of their strategy, without the first’s ever having been completed.

Lucy Parsons’ looked for signs of some fresh wave of enthusiasm that would engulf the people at large and sweep into power the alliance of the majority classes–peasants, petty-bourgeois, and workers. Even the most comprehensive and scholarly Communist collections have discreetly omitted or mangled this remarkable document, in which Lucy Parsons’ not only repudiated the dictatorship of a single individual but also that of a class, in cases where the proletariat–as in America-was not yet sufficiently developed to form the majority class.

With this final abandonment of the bourgeois revolution, with this first open and direct call for a social republic, Lucy Parsons’ inaugurated a new, more radical phase in her strategy for a new order in America. Up until now, if her words were sometimes violent, her actual policies showed considerable restraint, with no inclination to call forth the immediate minority revolution of the proletariat that seems implicit in the concluding paragraphs of the principles of Anarchism (Lucy Parsons: Woman of Will. 2008).

In sum, Lucy Parsons was a pro-American activist who fought for equal pay and fair labor relations. Thus, she followed anarchist ideas and was supported of Communist ideology. Lucy Parsons’ contemplated skipping historical stages only in the limited sense that others would accomplish the political tasks of the bourgeois revolution. In the more profound sense, there could be no skipping the period of bourgeois-sponsored industrial development that was required to lay the necessary material and social foundation for the communist society. Lucy Parsons’ would even fight, but she remained nonetheless somehow aloof and emotionally disengaged.

The assembly, however, was disposed to remain nonviolent in its pressure. Lucy Parsons’ continued their her south, offering the same advice to the insurrectionists, but the latter were disinclined to think beyond the defense of their own territories. Lucy Parsons’ also urged the provisional governments here to abolish outright all remaining manorial burdens on the workers as the only way to secure active rural support, but again without success.

Bibliography

Lowndes, J. 2008. The Life of an Anarchist Labor Organizer. Web.

Lucy Parsons Project. 2008. Web.

Lucy Parsons: Woman of Will. Worker of the World. 2008. Web.

Parsons, L. 2004, Lucy Parsons: Freedom, Equality & Solidarity – Writings & Speeches, 1878-1937. Charles H Ker.

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