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Ron Radosh

Haymarket! Another Leftist Historical Myth Gets Destroyed

January 28th, 2013 - 2:27 pm

You will find the details in Miller’s excellent article. Let me only note that armed protesters probably fired the shots that resulted in the deaths of policemen and bystanders, and that most importantly, one of the defendants in the trial, Louis Lingg, “almost certainly built the bomb.” Another, Rudolph Schnaubelt, was the man who threw it.

What next occurred paralleled directly my own experience after publication of The Rosenberg File. Much to his surprise and consternation, Messer-Kruse was confronted by others’ “utter and complete denial of the evidence.”

I could have told him that he would get that response. I received calls from former friends telling me: “We need the Rosenbergs to be innocent.” “You have betrayed the movement and all of us.” “Even if they were spies, you should not have written the book.” One person even offered to host a Chinese Communist-style rectification session at which I could atone and take back what I wrote.

Knowing all this, I was not surprised, although Miller evidently was, to find:

The standing-room-only crowd refused to question what had become an article of faith in left-wing mythology.

One scholar is quoted as having written that the Haymarket anarchists were “humane, gentle, kindly souls” who were killed by the capitalist class, which “had blood on their hands,” and those who now swallow Messer-Kruse’s views have “blood on our lips.”

Messer-Kruse’s response to all this was precisely the one that I had. He said:

We have an obligation to represent as best as we can the objective reality of the past.

Reading his words, I had to suppress a laugh. How quaint — a historian, although one on the political Left, believes he has a commitment to truth about the past, a commitment that stands above serving the needs of a political movement. Doesn’t he know, as one of my old comrades in the social-democratic movement told me at the time: “We’re trying to recruit former Communists into our movement (Michael Harrington’s group) and your book will hinder our effort. You shouldn’t have written it”?

After all, truth is relative. We are supposed to do what serves the class struggle and the movement; the truth is what serves the movement’s ends, and is not objective.

So Messer-Kruse went on in two books, The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists and The Haymarket Conspiracy, to reveal that the heralded anarchists were in fact members of a violent anarchist faction that believed revolutionary change could only occur through violence. The defendants received a fair trial by the standards of the time, and the defense team was more interested in making martyrs than in giving the group serious legal advice.

Again, the parallels with the Rosenberg trial stand out. Their defense team also sought to use the trial on behalf of international Communist propaganda, and to deflect attention from the purge trials simultaneously going on in Czechoslovakia — where actual innocent defendants were framed and put to death — and to create martyrs at home. And the chief counsel to the Rosenbergs, Emanuel Bloch, gave them anything but a competent defense.

At this point, some differences stand out. Messer-Kruse is receiving some support and honors, and regular academic journals in his field are presenting his case. Perhaps that outcome occurs because the 19th century is further away, and the Left’s stake in the incident is not as volatile as that of the more recent Rosenberg trial, or the two trials of Alger Hiss, whose defendants still seek to exonerate him of guilt.

Messer-Kruse and I, however, do now share some of the same enemies.

The prominent historian Eric Foner, who has attacked me for many years for supposedly writing bad history and who still evidently believes the Rosenberg case was about civil liberties and was a witch-hunt against the Left, also wrote that the evidence against the Haymarket defendants “was extremely weak.”

The historian Norman Markowitz — a proud member of the American Communist Party today — is quoted as sarcastically saying: “perhaps Romney will put the book on his reading list.” Markowitz once said I was “apologizing for anti-Semitism” and defending “the capitalist class.” He also is author of an entry in American National Biography in which he demonized those who concluded that the Rosenbergs committed espionage as “conservatives and anti-Communist Cold War liberals,” for whom “unquestioning belief in the Rosenbergs’ guilt” was “a kind of loyalty oath.” As Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes have written, Markowitz’s entry in the ANB “will distort the historical understanding of students for several generations to come.”

Having an enemy like Norman Markowitz is something any real historian should be proud of.

Interested readers should consult the forum about Messer-Kruse’s book at the Labor and Working-Class History Association’s website. You will find a short essay by Rosemary Feurer, accompanied by a “Bookmark” section at the right-hand of the page with a link to a forum of five historians introduced by Eric Arnesen of George Washington University, along with a response to their critique by Messer-Krause. In his retort, Messer-Kruse concludes:

Those who have written of the Haymarket trial simply as a parable of the lawless state crushing peaceful dissent have inadvertently clouded our understanding of the public response to the trial and the internal workings of the anarchist movement itself.

It is a mark of progress that his thesis is being given serious attention, and that even those historians who are angry at him feel compelled to engage his evidence and the case he makes.

This has never happened with the Rosenbergs.

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