A pioneer for women’s rights

WITH THE the re-publication of this long out-of-print 1976 work by Carolyn Asbaugh, Haymarket Books has provided a major boon for a new generation of radical and progressive activists. Lucy Parsons might very well be the most unsung hero in the pantheon of major American labor revolutionaries, such as Eugene Debs, William “Big Bill” Haywood, and Mother Jones.

As Ashbaugh informs us, Parsons was one of the first women to join the Knights of Labor in 1879 and the first woman of color to rise to prominence in the revolutionary left. She helped found the International Working People’s Association, the Socialist Party, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). She also lent her efforts to the development of the Communist Party (CP). She also figured prominently in the events surrounding one of the most notorious episodes in the history of the American labor movement: the 1886–1877 frame-up, trial, and execution of the Haymarket Martyrs, whose numbers included her husband, Albert Parsons.

Additionally, Parsons was one of the very first to seriously address the question of racism and the plight of Black people at the turn of the century in the pages of the socialist and anarchist press. And she was a pioneering advocate for women’s rights, including unfettered access to abortion and birth control, the right to at-will divorce, and freedom from rape (marital and otherwise). She also organized domestic laborers and housewives into working women’s unions.

Given all of these accomplishments, it is quite astonishing that her life and legacy are so little recognized or discussed on the Left. Indeed, Ashbaugh’s work is the only existing biography written about Parsons. “Lucy Parsons was black, a woman, and working class,” Ashbaugh writes, “three reasons people are often excluded from history.... [Even] on the left, the view of Lucy Parsons as the ‘devoted assistant’ of her martyred husband . . . is prevalent.”

The minimization of the independent contributions of Parsons is, unfortunately, nothing new. Even some of her contemporaries, such as the famous anarchist Emma Goldman (with whom Parsons developed a life-long political feud), considered her an opportunist who was nothing more than one of those wives of “anarchists who marry women who are millions of miles removed from their ideas.” The source of Goldman’s disdain? Among other things, it was Parsons’ readiness to go “around with every group proclaiming itself revolutionary, the IWW, now the communists.”

On this latter point, at least, Goldman is partially correct. Lucy Parsons certainly defied easy political categorization. Throughout her life, she referred to herself alternatively (and sometimes all at once) as socialist, anarchist, syndicalist, and communist. She considered Karl Marx an anarchist, and thought many —if not most —of her anarchist contemporaries to be too far removed from the working class. She would come to decry the Socialist Party as too conservative and reformist, and the IWW as too narrow in its refusal to work within the nonrevolutionary milieu of the existing craft unions. She defended the Russian Bolshevik-led revolutionary workers’ government even as it put down an uprising of anarchist peasants at Kronstadt in 1921, while nonetheless proudly declaring during a speech at a CP-sponsored May Day rally a few years later, “I am an anarchist!”

While people like Goldman criticized Parsons for the ease with which she moved between various revolutionary organizations and political affiliations, I would argue that this is actually one of her greatest attributes. Parsons retained an unwavering, lifelong commitment to identifying with, and struggling for, the liberation of working people as a class from capitalist exploitation. Simultaneously, however, Parsons was open to a number of different forms in which that liberation might be brought about.

Recently, much ink has been spilled by various writers over the question of to which political tradition Lucy Parsons “belongs.” I believe it is the question itself which is problematic. In large part, the dispute concerns Ashbaugh’s claim that Parsons was never really anything other than either a socialist or syndicalist her entire life, which she contrasts with pure anarchism. She also avers that Lucy Parsons officially joined the CP in 1939.

To be fair, it does seem a bit disingenuous on Ashbaugh’s part to deny that Parsons ever espoused decidedly anarchist ideas. On the other hand, it is equally important to recognize that Parsons and her Chicago comrades repeatedly spoke of themselves as adherents of Marx, in contrast to, for instance, the anarchists Pierre-Joseph Proudhon or Mikhail Bakunin. Indeed, the very last words that Albert spoke to Lucy implored her to spread the ideas of “socialism” across the land in his absence.

A 2004 anarchist publication of Lucy Parsons’ selected speeches, edited with an introduction by Gale Ahrens, sought to weigh in on the debate by attacking what were perceived as Ashbaugh’s “careless” and “unfounded” arguments. More than anything else, Ahrens takes umbrage at the assertion of Parsons’ membership in the CP, a claim for which she feels “there appears to be no evidence.” Thus, according to Ahrens, was created the “unlikely image of Lucy Parsons as Communist—or worse, as The Anarchist Who Became a Communist.” Clearly there is nothing “worse” for Ahrens than an anarchist becoming a Communist. But this aversion to communism is something that Parsons did not share in the least. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Parsons writes and speaks repeatedly of her appreciation of the work of the CP and that she was glad to be “connected with” their efforts.

Second, any honest reader of Ashbaugh’s work cannot but conclude that she is an eminently meticulous scholar. Far from providing “no evidence” for her claim, Ashbaugh quite explicitly recounts several interviews she conducted with contemporaries of Lucy Parsons—both friend and foe—who attest to her CP membership.

Finally, Ashbaugh does not appear to have anything in particular to gain from advancing the idea of Parsons as a Communist. There is no evidence that Ashbaugh is an uncritical supporter of either the CP, the Bolshevik’s role in the Russian revolution, or even Marxism, per se. The only political ideology that one can conclusively attribute to Ashbaugh based on her book is that of radical feminism.

In fact, it is along these lines that Ashbaugh actually explicitly takes issue with elements of Parsons’ politics, accusing her of class reductionism on the question of oppression. Ashbaugh writes that Parsons was “erroneous” in her belief that “all social ills stemmed from economic oppression”; that “the abolition of capitalism would automatically produce racial and sexual equality”; and that “Lucy Parsons did not see that racism and sexism have histories and existences independent of the economic structure of society.” Such accusations do not, however, hold up to the evidence that Ashbaugh herself presents throughout the course of the book, which depicts Parsons as actually quite attuned to the specific character of social oppression faced by women and people of color under capitalism.

All told, Ashbaugh’s biography deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the working class struggle for social change. It is an engaging, moving, and illuminating portrait of one of the most powerful figures in the history of labor radicalism, and one which all revolutionary socialists certainly ought to embrace.