Subversives in the City: Responses to Political Radicalism in Chicago

What is the history of political radicalism in Chicago from the 1880s through the 1950s? How did the government and the public respond to radical movements?


“A Picnic of the Reds at Sheffield,” in Anarchy and Anarchists by Michael J. Schaack (1889)

The city of Chicago provided a crucial battleground for a national struggle over the meaning of political radicalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The term political radicalism refers to individuals and parties who advocate far-reaching political and social reform. During this period, writers usually applied the term radical to activists and parties on what is known as the left side of the political spectrum, such as Communists, socialists, and anarchists. Leftist radicals were also called Reds, after the color of their party flags. There were significant ideological differences between these parties and each party’s positions changed over time. But all of them rejected the concept of private property and promoted the rights of workers against those of the people for whom they worked, wealthy factory and business owners, known as capitalists.

From the 1880s through the 1960s, Chicagoans engaged in a passionate debate over how government should respond to political radicalism. On one side, were proponents of civil liberties, the freedoms and rights promised to every member of society by the U.S. Constitution. They argued that political radicals and their organizations were protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. On the other side, were people primarily concerned with security. They wanted to maintain social order and protect the government from violence or radical change. These concerns increased during wartime. Many political radicals, like the workers they claimed to represent, were recent immigrants from northern and eastern Europe. Their opponents often raised alarms about foreign influences in the United States.

Leftist radicals rejected the concept of private property and promoted the rights of workers.

Adding to the complexity of these debates was the difficulty in defining who or what constituted a real threat to the United States. A small number of political radicals engaged in deliberately violent or overtly treasonous activities, such as bombings or espionage. But these people were affiliated with larger movements and parties that included many people committed to reforming, not overthrowing, the U.S. government and society. Many radicals sought workplace protections for laborers, African Americans, and women that are now widely accepted. They made important contributions, for example, to movements to prohibit child labor or to enforce an eight-hour workday. The documents that follow represent some of the milestones in Chicago’s history of political radicalism from the Haymarket Affair of 1886 through the Palmer raids of 1920 into the McCarthy era of the 1950s.

Please consider the following questions as you review the documents

  • What were the goals of the political radicals represented here? How did they try to accomplish those goals? Did their actions increase or weaken public support of their ideals?
  • What were the goals of the officials and organizations that sought to police or monitor political radicals? What were their methods? Was their treatment of radicals a form of persecution or not?
  • How do writers throughout these documents define the concepts of freedom, justice, and security? In what ways do these ideals conflict with each other?
  • Who or what constitutes a threat to the community, the city, or the nation? On what grounds does a person, idea, or group constitute a threat? How should such threats be handled?
  • How do definitions of and responses to political radicalism evolve from the 1880s through the 1950s?

Anarchism and the Haymarket Affair

“Attention Workingmen!” (1886)
Broadside advertising the May 4, 1886 Haymarket rally.

Nineteenth-century employers often expected workers to spend 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week on the job. In the 1880s, anarchists, unionists, socialists, and reformers organized a national effort to demand an eight-hour workday. During the first week of May 1886, 35,000 Chicago workers walked off of their jobs in massive strikes to protest their lengthy work weeks. Some of these strikes involved violent skirmishes with the police. At least two strikers were killed on May 3. In response, the next evening, roughly 1,500 people gathered at the West Randolph Street Haymarket, a market on the edge of the city where people bought hay for their horses. The May 4 rally featured fiery speeches from the city’s leading anarchists and labor leaders, but was a peaceful gathering. As the rally drew to a close, hundreds of policemen moved in to disperse the crowd. Someone threw a bomb at the police brigade, killing one officer instantly. The police responded with a barrage of bullets. An unknown number of demonstrators were killed or wounded. Sixty police officers were injured and eight eventually died. Politicians and the press blamed anarchists for the violence. Although there was no evidence linking specific people to the bomb, eight men were convicted of murder on the basis of their political writings and speeches. Four men were executed; one committed suicide. The trial was later considered grossly unjust and, in 1893, the Illinois governor granted absolute pardon to the three, remaining, imprisoned defendants. The anarchist movement, however, never recovered from the trial. The documents that follow include passages and images from a history of the Haymarket Affair written by Captain Michael Schaak. Schaak commanded a Chicago Avenue police station in 1886 and played a large role in the arrests and prosecutions of anarchists following the Haymarket violence. Schaak included in his book the published principles and constitutions of several radical parties, such as the Workingmen’s Party of the United States, excerpted below. He also reproduced Judge Joseph E. Gary’s instructions to the jury, or guidelines on reaching a verdict.

Selection: Michael J. Schaack, Anarchy and Anarchists: A History of the Red Terror and the Social Revolution in American and Europe, Frontispiece and title page, 50, 52, 578 (1889).
  • Anarchy and Anarchists. A History of the Red Terror and the Social Revolution in America and Europe

Questions to Consider

  1. Examine the broadside advertising the Haymarket rally. What can you learn about the rally’s audience and purpose from this broadside?
  2. What are the principles and goals of the Workingmen’s Party, as outlined in this document? Which, if any, of their goals do you consider reasonable? Which, if any, do you consider unreasonable?
  3. How does the judge instruct the jury to consider the constitutional right to freedom of speech? What are the limitations on this right, according to the judge?
  4. What activities do political radicals appear to engage in, according to the Picnic of the “Reds” illustrations? How do these illustrations represent the ethnicity of political radicals?
  5. Does Schaak’s position as police chief appear to affect his presentation of the issues and events?

Workers and Socialists during World War I

The International Workers of the World (IWW) is a radical labor organization that formed in Chicago in 1905 and still exists today. The IWW, whose members are known as Wobblies, encouraged workers across the country and around the world to unite to take control of economic resources such as factories and land. Like the anarchists involved in the Haymarket Affair, the Wobblies believed that economic resources should not be owned by individuals or private companies, but should belong to everyone. The organization urged direct action, such as strikes, rather than participation in the political process through elections. It was one of the first labor organizations to welcome women alongside men and to embrace people of all races and ethnicities. The IWW became the target of federal raids as well as public animosity when it opposed the United States’ entry into World War I. The following articles portray a 1915 strike by women garment workers and the 1917 federal raids of the IWW’s Chicago offices. In 1917 the U.S. Congress passed the Espionage Act, a law that made it a crime to interfere with military recruitment or operations or to support U.S. enemies during wartime. The following year, the federal government prosecuted over 100 IWW leaders on the grounds that their antiwar and labor organizing tactics violated the Espionage Act. All were convicted and sentenced to prison.

Selection: “The Garment Workers’ Strike” International Socialist Review, vol. 16, no. 5, 260-264 (1915).
Selection: “The I. W. W. and the Socialist Party,” in International Socialist Review, 205-209 (1917).

Questions to Consider

  1. How does the article on the garment workers’ strike portray the women’s working conditions? What do the strikers hope to achieve? What is their relationship to the police and other authorities?
  2. How does the journal portray the federal raids on the IWW offices? How do the editors encourage IWW members to respond to the raids?  

The First Red Scare

Chicago Federation of Labor, “Terrorism,” in The New Majority (1920)

Anxiety about political radicalism and foreign influences further increased in the years following World War I as American politicians responded to events such as the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and a series of bombings in U.S. cities. The period, known as the first Red Scare (1919-1920), culminated in coordinated raids of the offices and homes of political radicals, trade union militants, and immigrants. The raids were organized by U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and came to be known as the Palmer raids. Critics objected that the raids violated civil liberties, the freedoms protected by the U.S. Constitution. But officials defended their actions on the grounds that the radicals posed a real threat to the security of the U.S. government. Twenty members of the Communist Labor Party were among those arrested in January 1920. They were accused of plotting to overthrow the government. The principle evidence against the men was, simply, their membership in the CLP. The well-known civil liberties attorney Clarence Darrow defended them in court. The following documents include an editorial published by the Chicago Federation of Labor responding to the Palmer raids and an excerpt from Darrow’s courtroom defense of the Communists.

Selection: Clarence Darrow, Argument of Clarence Darrow in the Case of the Communist Labor Party, Cover, 16-17 114-115 (1920).

Questions to Consider

  1. Why is the CFL editorial entitled “Terrorism”? Who are the terrorists according to this writer?
  2. How do the Palmer raids and prosecutions violate civil liberties, according to the CFL editorialist and Clarence Darrow?
  3. How does Darrow define freedom? Why does he believe that the government’s prosecution of the Communists poses a greater threat to the United States than the Communists themselves do?

Union Organizing and Union Busting

Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, “Labor Rally” (May 9, 1937)

Some owners of private companies feared that labor organizers would harm their businesses. They engaged in tactics, such as spying, to prevent workers from forming unions or joining radical political parties. Following World War II, federal and state governments as well as many private companies adopted a “loyalty-security program.” The program required employees to swear, not only that they had never committed treason or espionage, but also that they had never been a member or an associate of the Communist Party. The documents that follow represent an early incarnation of these Cold War loyalty oaths. The Chicago-based Pullman Company was a leading manufacturer and operator of passenger coach railroad cars in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The company consistently opposed unionizing efforts on the part of its workers and urged them, instead, to participate in a company-controlled “employee representation plan.” Nevertheless, in the 1920s, Pullman’s African American porters and maids organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph. The union fought racial discrimination at the company and demanded treatment and wages for its members that were equal to those of white employees. The Pullman Company responded by requiring employees to sign loyalty oaths, such as the one included here, and by recruiting informants to report on union activities. The Pullman Company agreed to recognize the union in late 1937.

Selection: Mrs. M Butler, “Notes on the Meeting of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters” (May 9, 1937).
Pullman Loyalty Resolution, Nashville, TN (March 19, 1928)

Questions to Consider

  1. What do the porters promise by signing this oath? Why do you think a porter would agree to sign it? What might be the costs or benefits to an employee of signing the oath? What do you think the company accomplished by asking porters to sign the oath?
  2. Randolph and the BSCP had no ties to the Communist Party. Why do you think the porters were asked to renounce “Russian socialism” as well as the BSCP?
  3. What does Mrs. M. Butler witness at the labor rally? Why do you think she was willing to serve as an informant?
  4. Why do you think the company went to such lengths to prevent the union from forming? What kind of threat, if any, do you think the workers’ activities posed to the company?

The Second Red Scare

Karl Baarslag, “I Am Not a Communist, But…,” in Communist Trade Union Trickery Exposed, 15 (1949)

These two books represent examples of post-World War II anticommunist thought. This period, extending from 1946 into the 1960s, is known as the second Red Scare. We know now that Soviet espionage did occur in the United States, primarily during World War II. However, many prominent Cold War anticommunists, such as Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, did not limit their investigations to evidence of treason or spying. They singled out people simply for membership in or affiliation with the Communist Party. Americans from a variety of professions and trades were investigated and pressured to provide names of others who would become targets of investigation. The books excerpted here offer ways of detecting Communists in the United States. Karl Baarslag had served as chairman of the Radio Officers Union in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1931. His frustration in that position prompted him to write this advice manual on how to identify and counteract Communist influences in American labor unions. Anthony Trawick Bouscaren was a Wisconsin political science professor who specialized in United States-Soviet relations. He opened this guidebook with a 1956 quote from J. Edgar Hoover, warning that “the threat of Communist tyranny has not been lessened.” Bouscaren urged readers to “Know the enemy, then attack him.”

Selection: Anthony Trawick Bouscaren, A Guide to Anti-Communist Action, 178-182 (1958).

Questions to Consider

  1. What methods do Baarslag and Bouscaren suggest for identifying Communists? What beliefs do they associate with Communism?
  2. Do you think these guidelines would have been useful in finding hidden members of the Communist Party? Are these behaviors and speech patterns necessarily indicators of disloyalty to the United States?
  3. The anticommunist rhetoric and tactics used by McCarthy and others have been widely renounced in recent decades as unjust. However, during the second Red Scare, many Americans accepted them. Why do you think that the kind of advice Baarslag and Bouscaren provided seemed compelling to many people at the time?