Every so often, a cherished myth of the Left’s historical narrative comes apart. That is why keeping the flame alive by repeating the myths gives sustenance to the Left’s chosen causes. I learned this the hard way when I wrote The Rosenberg File with Joyce Milton in 1983.
To the Left, it was imperative that the Rosenbergs — who were found guilty of “conspiracy to commit espionage” and sentenced to death by Judge Irving Kaufman after the trial — be innocent. If they were not, it would mean that they were not martyrs for peace, arrested and tried for their “progressive” and anti-war politics and their opposition to the impending fascism and anti-Soviet hysteria of the Truman administration. Rather, if actually guilty, it would mean that the United States had a right to protect itself against those who were working on behalf of the Soviet Union by seeking to ferret out atomic secrets on behalf of Joseph Stalin’s tyrannical regime.
To acknowledge the truth, in other words, meant that those on the Left would have to question their most cherished beliefs.
When the book came out, it was only thirty years after the Rosenbergs were executed at Sing Sing prison, and many of those who fought on their behalf were still around and active. Thus they engaged in a massive campaign to discredit our findings and to smear us as tools of the FBI and the Reagan administration, which they charged was trying once again to undermine the cause of peace and to seek war with the still existing Soviet Union.
That is the charge that the Nation magazine’s editor-in-chief, Victor Navasky, made in the magazine’s editorial. As for the American Communist Party, its chief, Gus Hall, attacked us for smearing the Rosenbergs, whom he tellingly referred to as “the sacred couple.”
Now, a brave left-wing historian named Timothy Messer-Kruse — despite his own self-proclaimed “social-democratic” politics — has walked into the minefield.
In the latest issue of National Review, writer John J. Miller has penned an article — “What Happened at Haymarket?” — that takes up one of the Left’s most longstanding historical myths: the one surrounding events that took place the night of May 4, 1886, at Haymarket Square in Chicago. Formerly, Messer-Kruse would tell his students:
A gathering of anarchists near Haymarket Square turned into a fatal bombing and riot. Although police never arrested the bomb-thrower, they went on to tyrannize radical groups throughout the city, in a crackdown that is often called America’s first Red Scare. Eight men were convicted of aiding and abetting murder. Four died at the end of a hangman’s noose. Today, history books portray them as the innocent victims of a sham trial: They are labor-movement martyrs who sought modest reforms in the face of ruthless robber-baron capitalism.
To the present day, those events have been a staple in the portrayal of the United States as a nation unjust to those it oppressed, which included workingmen who sought only to gain protection for their rights against rapacious capitalists.
Miller explains that a group of peaceful protesters had gathered to demand an eight-hour workday. Many were anarchists, but Messer-Kruse formerly believed:
They were mainly a peace-loving bunch who simply wanted to improve their wretched conditions. As police arrived to bust up the crowd, someone tossed a bomb. No one knows who did it — perhaps an anarchist agitator.
Howard Zinn wrote in his best-selling People’s History of the United States that it likely was “an agent of the police, an agent provocateur.” Police fired their guns, and seven of their group and some protesters lay dead. Authorities blamed the deaths on the radicals, who were rounded up and convicted without evidence; four were hung, one committed suicide, and three were later pardoned. The Left’s narrative is explained by Miller:
Ever since, Haymarket has occupied a central place in progressive lore. The international labor movement honors May Day as its holiday in part because of its proximity on the calendar to Haymarket’s anniversary. In the United States, Haymarket ranks alongside the cases of Sacco and Vanzetti, Alger Hiss, and the Rosenbergs as a fable of anti-radical persecution. Well into the 20th Century, its notoriety provoked violent rage. In 1969, Bill Ayers and an accomplice from the Weather Underground engaged in their own Haymarket terror, bombing a statue that honored the fallen policemen of 1886. “This is too good — it’s us against the pigs, a medieval contest of good and evil,” wrote Ayers of the affair in his memoir, Fugitive Days.
Historian Messer-Kruse believed the standard left-progressive mythology. But a student’s question about what happened during the trial led him to look anew at the events from that sad day in 1886. The result was his brave exploration of what had been until now the standard take on Haymarket. Just as most of the college textbooks portrayed the Rosenbergs as innocent, the Left’s narrative was repeated verbatim, and as Miller writes, “entered mainstream education.” The left-wing labor historian James Green explained in a 2006 account:
The Haymarket case challenged, like no other episode in the nineteenth century, the image of the United States as a classless society with liberty and justice for all.
Imagine Messer-Kruse’s shock when his own careful scholarly examination of Haymarket revealed that most of what the Left taught about the event was based on both shoddy scholarship and ideological wish-fulfillment.
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.
When a group of us held a serious forum on the case last year in Washington, D.C., which CSPAN covered (here and here),we could get almost no opponents or defenders of the Rosenbergs to appear and to present their contrary assessment.
What Timothy Messer-Kruse has accomplished is to put history and truth ahead of ideology, and to present his findings, even if it militates against the myths of the social-democratic movement to which he is sympathetic.
I praise him for doing that, and have but one question: as the attacks on him mount, and many of them become personal, will he come to learn that for the Left, truth about the past is not a priority? Will he too take the path I and others have taken away from the Left after realizing the Left intrinsically cannot be counted upon to offer Americans a genuinely honest look at our own history?