The Haymarket Riot: Labor, Violence, and Industrial Capitalism
The Haymarket riot is one of the most important–and least discussed–moments in the history of American politics and labor relations. On May 4th, 1886, striking workers, fighting for an eight-hour work day, gathered in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, where they were confronted by police. As the two collided, a bomb of still-unknown origin was detonated, killing 12 and injuring many more. While no evidence concerning the bomb’s origins or detonation could be located, official retribution was swift: Eight of Chicago’s most prominent anarchists were immediately arrested and convicted of conspiracy to murder (three were executed, four sentenced to life in prison, and one committed suicide). Meanwhile, Haymarket became a rallying cry for workers and activists, as well as an effective symbolic tool of reaction and repression.
The Haymarket incident was singular, but the violent tumult of 19th-century Chicago was in many ways representative of the changing political economy of the post-Civil War United States. It was also, like most dramatic events, the culmination of decades of conflict and activism. Workers had been fighting for the eight-hour day since 1867, and anarchism was much more popular than standard histories of the United States would lead us to assume. This history of Haymarket offers a unique window into the history of America’s explosive, mostly unregulated, often violent industrial growth and has much to teach us about labor conflict and the nature of industrial capitalism and the often deadly mechanics of class formation. How did urban police forces shape the lives of workers in 19th-century cities? What role did labor conflict and immigration play in the development of modern police forces? How did developments in transportation and communication shape labor organizing and conflict? What exactly were the conditions that made a general strike possible? How did people react? What effect did the bombing and the trial have on the formation of a self-conscious American working class? A self-conscious American ruling class? In this course, we will use one of the most dramatic events in American labor history as a point of departure for considering the country’s industrial and political landscape as shaped by immigration, infrastructure, westward expansion, technological developments and unprecedented urban growth. We will learn about the decades leading up to the Haymarket bombing from labor historians such as James Green and David Montgomery, consider questions of violence and property destruction from an historic and philosophical perspective and read primary texts by the eight Chicago anarchists on trial, and responses by labor leaders, politicians, and the press.
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
March 07 — March 28, 2022