Thai Jones, clearly discomforted by what my book is—essentially an ideological geneaology of a particular strain of revolutionary anarchism that flared into popularity in the 1880s and died in America with the explosion of the Haymarket bomb—employs the age old dodge of setting up a strawman to knock down. He studiously avoids any discussion of The Haymarket Conspiracy’s actual subjects, themes, and arguments, and instead tilts at a windmill of a book that doesn’t exist. Jones opens his discussion by observing, “[Messer-Kruse’s] latest book, The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks, amounts to an elaborate retrial of the case—and the defendants receive the same prejudiced treatment this time around.”
Of course, the book is not about the trial at all and mentions the legal proceedings on at most two pages. A short opening chapter recounts the testimonial evidence of what various anarchists who turned states evidence claimed was discussed at the secret meetings leading up to the Haymarket meeting but the remainder of books five chapters are actually an intellectual history of the origins, spread, and impact of the ‘Propaganda by the Deed’ school form of revolutionary anarchism.
Having mislead the reader into thinking the book is simply a rehash of the trial (and why would I write another book on the trial after The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists (Palgrave Macmillan 2011)?) Jones then lets fly without shame many of the most discredited canards of the knee-jerk defenders of hagiographic orthodoxy:
“The central fact of the case has never been disputed: none of the anarchists on trial were found personally responsible for throwing the bomb.” (In fact, the prosecution presented witnesses who identified Rudolph Schnaubelt as the bomb-thrower and August Spies and Adolph Fischer as accomplices in the act. Of course anyone is free to claim such evidence is unpersuasive but no historian can deny it was presented to the jury and did serve as one important link in the chain of prosecutorial reasoning.)
“All [defendants] were notorious for their radicalism but since none had actually been present at the time of the attack, the state’s attorneys were forced to employ the most malleable of all charges—conspiracy.” (This is laughably inaccurate—Spies, Fielden, Fischer, and Parsons, were indisputably present at the Haymarket protest up to moments before the blast. Parsons attempted the alibi of having left for a pub before the rally was concluded, but it was disputed by other witnesses. Fielden was shot in the melee following the bombing.)
“A guilty verdict did not require any direct link to the crime at hand; the state merely had to prove that the eight defendants had fomented an atmosphere in which such an act might have occurred.” (As carefully explained in The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchiststhe clear legal standard the prosecution had to reach was linking all defendants to the conspiracy and the conspiracy to the bombing. They had to demonstrate that the bomber was privy to and a member of the groups’ plan.)
“One—Louis Lingg—admitted to constructing bombs, and several explosive devices were discovered in his apartment, though no link could be made between these weapons and the one used at Haymarket.” (In one of the first uses of forensic chemistry in an American criminal trial, shrapnel pulled from dead policemen’s bodies was shown to elementally match the unexploded shells found in Lingg’s apartment and not to match commercially available types of lead.)
“Considering the hostility of the jury and the anti-radical furor that followed the bombing, the outcome was foreordained. The anarchists were dead men from the moment of their arrest.” (As I carefully recount in The Trial there were numerous opportunities for the anarchist defendants to better challenge the prosecution but at turn after turn their lawyers chose politics over sound legal strategy. The failure to effectively sever the trial among the defendants, the inept use of jury selection, the flagrant admission that Lingg made bombs and the folly of putting Spies on the stand are just some of the turning points in the trial. Once the trial was concluded the governor was prepared to extend clemency to most of the men—probably not Lingg—but they refused to go along.)
“Downplaying exculpatory facts, Messer-Kruse exhibits credulity toward even the most dubious or compromised testimony—if it fits his brief. For instance, he identifies a secret meeting held in a saloon basement on the night of May 3 as the time and place when the conspiracy was concocted. But he ignores the fact that the witnesses who described this clandestine session at the trial explicitly testified that no discussions had taken place there concerning a potential attack on the police.” (This is incorrect. Several witnesses recounted Engel’s plan of shooting police as they left their station-houses and of anticipating fighting at the Haymarket meeting. Other evidence on this score introduced at the trial is too numerous to mention here other than to note that other anarchists testified that they spent the afternoon of May 4 feverishly assembling bombs so they would be ready that evening and of delivering them to a prearranged location so they could be distributed before the rally.)
“…within a decade a more objective voice added to the chorus of dissent. In the 1890s, when the Democratic Governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, reviewed the facts of the case, he found a biased jury, inadequate evidence, and a prejudiced judge. In an unparalleled act of moral statesmanship, which cost him his political career, Altgeld issued a formal rebuke of the prosecution and pardoned the three surviving Haymarket prisoners.” (As I point out in The Trial, Altgeld was hardly ‘objective’ as he used the pardon message as a means to settle an old simmering personal grudge against Judge Gary who presided over the Haymarket trial. Hardly an unselfish act, Altgeld in fact timed the pardons to promote his reelection by winning over the labor vote in Chicago.)
Of course, I must hasten to point out, all these sloppy “corrections” of my supposed book are beside the point. This book isn’t about those things, it is simply a history of the revolutionary ideas that culminated in the violence in Chicago in 1886.
Jones’ wields his hatchet with a particularly clumsy swing when he is compelled to misquote a passage from my book in order to depict me as some sort of neo-con:
Demonstrating his enmity toward the defendants, Messer-Kruse asserts that modern Americans should abide by the assumptions of a flawed nineteenth-century legal system explicitly designed to protect plutocratic interests. “According to the law that was operative at the time of the Haymarket trial,” he writes, “the most relevant act was not the throwing of the bomb” but the plotting of the demonstrations that resulted in violence. If prosecutors at the time had employed a standard as lax as Messer-Kruse advocates today, every labor activist in Chicago would have been as legally culpable for the attack as the individual bomber.
Here is the actual quotation from p. 14 of my book:
“According to the law that was operative at the time of the Haymarket trial, the most relevant act was not the throwing of the bomb but the meeting at which this attack was planned.”
Note that the context of this quote discusses what was alleged and prosecuted at the trial–that the bombing was planned the night before. Not just the demonstration, but the actual attack on the police. (Note that in order to twist my words, Jones elides the end of my quote which would have clarified my meaning had he included it.) I did not say that the plotting of the demonstration itself was a crime, nor do I in any sense “advocate” for this interpretation but simply state what was the standing law of conspiracy in the state of Illinois at that time (which I assumed any good historian would do).
Towards the end of his review, Jones runs out of things to say about my imagined book and returns tangentially to my real one, though here he seems to lose his way and forget how he began his attack. “Most of the chapters consist of a broad attack on anarchist political philosophy more generally. Messer-Kruse spends an inordinate amount of time describing violent declarations issued by radical conferences, while making no effort to show that these rhetorical utterances had any impact on actual activism…” Besides being simply not true this claim forgets that my book is structured to conceive of the Haymarket bombing as the penultimate fruit of this idea. Additionally, of course, I also trace how this strain of radical thought inspired two assassination attempts on the Kaiser, Reinsdorf and his gang’s bombing and murder spree, as well as some previously unknown direct actions such as the bombing of the Andre Monument in Tappan, New York, the founding of Johann Most’s bomb academy, or the curious insurance fraud scheme that involved burning down Manhattan’s Lower East Side tenements.)
In a final act of deception, Jones claims the exact opposite of what my book actually does. The Haymarket Conspiracy carefully untangles the many intellectual strains of anarchism and socialism to identify that particular set of ideas that animated Chicago’s revolutionary anarchists and repelled others, such as Boston’s individualist Tuckerites. I uncover the deep schisms in the ranks of Chicago’s and New York’s own radicals as the “Propaganda of the Deed” gained force, schisms that eventually tore apart the old Socialist Labor Party. But Jones wants to paint me into a corner by claiming that I overlook such subtleties and simply assume all anarchists are spun from the same fiber. “The narrative is riddled with innuendo and suggestive possibilities, but overall it aims to reduce anarchism to a synonym for bloody-mindedness and chaos. In The Haymarket Conspiracy all violent revolutionaries are anarchists and all anarchists are violent.” Nothing could be more untrue or unfair.
Of course I knew my books on anarchism would be contentious, and I’m not surprised that the ideologically-motivated response came so swiftly after its publication. I’m only saddened by how intellectually lazy and dishonest this inevitably first of many attackers seems to be.