"I Am an Anarchist": The Social Anarchism of Lucy E. Parsons

By Harrell, Willie J., Jr. | Journal of International Women's Studies, March 1, 2012 | Go to article overview
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"I Am an Anarchist": The Social Anarchism of Lucy E. Parsons

Harrell, Willie J., Jr., Journal of International Women's Studies


A determined advocate of socialism anarchism, Lucy E. Parsons believed that inequities in society stemmed from unequal power relations between government and the people. Parsons delivered powerful orations and had an enormous influence in world history in general and US labor history in particular. This essay raises two issues: Parsons' view of human nature and the degree to which her ideas were rooted in a theory of historical progress. She maintained a staunch commitment to establishing and maintaining collective freedom and her allegiance was demonstrated by her perpetual critiques of any form of domination or subordination of the working class perpetrated by government.

Keywords: Anarchism, social anarchism, black anarchism, anarcha-feminism, anarchosyndicalism, anti-jeremiad

Anarchists are peaceable, law abiding people. What do anarchists mean when they speak of anarchy? Webster gives the term two definitions--chaos and the state of being without political rule. We cling to the latter definition. Our enemies hold that we believe only in the former.

Lucy E. Parsons "I am an anarchist," 20 December 1886

On December 20, 1860, a revolutionary move ensued that transformed the maturing American government forever. South Carolina, one of the original thirteen colonies, seceded from the union, initiating a sectional conflict that would be known as the Civil War. Forming a self-governing country, citizens of South Carolina clearly believed that states had the right to gain autonomy and revolt if they were not content with the developing nation's present political and economic ideologies. Believing that their rights were being trampled upon, South Carolinians' audacious move abolished the perceived enforced authority government wielded over them. Establishing what would be known as the Confederacy, their succession, the first of many to come, represented what some labeled as anarchy, a political and theoretical dogma that advocated unwarranted forms of automatic rule or government. "Plainly the central idea of secession," declared Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address on 4 March 1861, "is the essence of anarchy ... Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left." (1)

Twenty-six years after South Carolina's formal separation from the Union, on that same historic day, self-proclaimed "revolutionary socialist" ("Industrial workers of the world," 2004, p. 80) Lucy E. Parsons delivered her infamous anarchist homily to a crowd of insurgents at Kansas City's Kump Hall, almost two months after "the dedication of the Statue of Liberty" (Foner & Branham, 1998, p. 656). Despite ideas of liberty and justice that saturated the nation's democratic atmosphere, Parsons, the "mystery revolutionist" (Ahrens, 2004, p. 3), roared "I am an anarchist." She beckoned her audience to "count the myriads starving; count the multiplied thousands who are homeless; number those who work harder than slaves and live on less and have fewer comforts than the meanest slaves." Parsons chided the American government for allowing the "victims of rank injustice" to permeate through "the system of government." She avowed that there were "plenty of reasons for the existence of anarchists" in America ("I am an anarchist," 1998, p. 657). An unfaltering activist of anarcho-syndicalism, (2) Parsons revealed that her beliefs stemmed from the unequal power relations between government and the people. At the core of her discourse of dissent, she argued that anarchism was the only way "to advance the cause of working-class emancipation." Maintaining that government thwarts the progress of human development, Parsons challenged "wage-slavery and the repressive state" that supported it (Ahrens, 2004, p.12, 13).

In an effort to stimulate interests on the critical role Parsons played in America's anti-government associations, this investigation explores her social anarchist discourse to discover how she attempted to bring about transformation through her discourse of dissent.

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