This is a speech given by the famous anarchist Lucy Parsons. This excerpt in particular is particularly relevant to recent discussions of a general strike:
“Nature has (…) placed in this earth all the material of wealth that is necessary to make men and women happy. (…) We simply lack the intelligence to take possession of that which we have produced. (…) My conception of the future method of taking possession of this is that of the general strike: that is my conception of it. The trouble with all the strikes in the past has been this: the workingmen like the teamsters in our cities, these hard-working teamsters, strike and go out and starve. Their children starve. Their wives get discouraged. (…) That is the way with the strikes in the past. My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production.”
For Parsons, a general strike and an occupation are synonyms.
The rest of the speech is below. Other elements resonate greatly with the present moment. Parsons discusses her experiences with the police and state murder of her husband, sadly relevant to recent police violence. Parsons talks about how U.S. residents drew inspiration from struggles around the world, another parallel to the present where protests around the world look to each other for ideas and motivation. Parsons also discusses gender divisions within movements of her day, issues which we still need to address today.
“I think it is August Bebel, in his “Woman in the Past, Present and Future”—a book that should be read by every woman that works for wages—I think it is Bebel that says that men have been slaves through-out all the ages, but that woman’s condition has been worse, for she has been the slave of a slave. I think there was never a greater truth uttered. We are the slaves of the slaves. We are exploited more ruthlessly than men. Wherever wages are to be reduced the capitalist class use women to reduce them, and if there is anything that you men should do in the future it is to organize the women.
And I tell you that if the women had inaugurated a boycott of the State street stores since the teamsters’ strike they would have surrendered long ago. I do not strike before you to brag. I had no man connected with that strike to make it of interest to me to boycott the stores, but I have not bought one penny’s worth there since that strike was inaugurated. I intended to boycott all of them as one individual at least, so it is important to educate the women. Now I wish to show my sisters here that we fasten the chains of slavery upon our sisters, sometimes unwittingly, when we go down to the department store and look around for cheap bargains and go home and exhibit what we have got so cheap. When we come to reflect it simply means the robbery of our sisters, for we know that the things cannot be made for such prices and give the women who made them fair wages.
I wish to say that I have attended many conventions in the twenty-seven years since I came here to Chicago’ a young girl, so full of life and animation and hope. It is to youth that hope comes; it is to age that reflection comes. I have attended conventions from that day to this of one kind and another and taken part in them. I have taken part in some in which our Comrade Debs had a part. I was at the organization that he organized in this city some eight or ten years ago. Now, the point I want to make is that these conventions are full of enthusiasm. And that is right; we should sometimes mix sentiment with soberness; it is a part of life. But, as I know from experience, there are sober moments ahead of us, and when you go out of this hall, when you have laid aside your enthusiasm, then comes solid work. Are you going out with the reflection that you appreciate and grasp the situation that you are to tackle? Are you going out of here with your minds made up that the class in which we call ourselves, revolutionary Socialists so-called—that that class is organized to meet organized capital with the millions at its command? It has many weapons to fight us. First it has money. Then it has legislative tools. Then it has its judiciary; it has its army and its navy; it has its guns; it has armories; and last, it has the gallows. We call ourselves revolutionists. Do you know what the capitalists mean to do to you revolutionists? I simply throw these hints out that you young people may become reflective and know what you have to face at the first’ and then it will give you strength. I am not here to cause any discouragement, but simply to encourage you to go on in your grand work.
Now, that is the solid foundation that I hope this organization will be built on; that it may be built not like a house upon the sand, that when the waves of adversity come it may go over into the ocean of oblivion; but that it shall be built upon a strong, granite, hard foundation; a foundation made up of the hearts, and aspirations of the men and women of this twentieth century who have set their minds, their bands, their hearts and their heads against the past with all its miserable poverty, with its wage slavery, with its children ground into dividends, with its miners away down under the earth and with never the light of sunshine, and with its women selling the holy name of womanhood for a day’s board. I hope we understand that this organization has set its face against that iniquity, and that it has set its eyes to the rising star of liberty, that means fraternity, solidarity, the universal brotherhood of man. I hope that while politics have been mentioned here I am not one of those who, because a man or woman disagrees with me, cannot act with them—I am glad and proud to say I am too broad-minded to say they are a fakir or fool or a fraud because they disagree with me. My view may be narrow and theirs may be broad; but I do say to those who have intimated politics here as being necessary or a part of this organization, that I do not impute to them dishonesty or impure motives. But as I understand the call for this convention, politics had no place here; it was simply to be an economic organization, and I hope for the good of this organization that when we go away from this hall, and our comrades go some to the west, some to the east, some to the north and some to the south, while some remain in Chicago, and all spread this light over this broad land and carry the message of what this convention has done, that there will be no room for politics at all. There may be room for politics; I have nothing to say about that; but it is a bread and butter question, an economic issue, upon which the fight must be made.
Now, what do we mean when we say revolutionary Socialist? We mean that the land shall belong to the landless, the tools to the toiler, and the products to the producers. Now, let us analyze that for just a moment, before you applaud me. First, the land belongs to the landless. Is there a single land owner in this country who owns his land by the constitutional rights given by the constitution of the United States who will allow you to vote it away from him? I am not such a fool as to believe it. We say, “The tools belong to the toiler.” They are owned by the capitalist class. Do you believe they will allow you to go into the halls of the legislature and simply say, “Be it enacted that on and after a certain day the capitalist shall no longer own the tools and the factories and the places of industry, the ships that plow the ocean and our lakes?” Do you believe that they will submit? I do not. We say, “The products belong to the producers.” It belongs to the capitalist class as their legal property. Do you think that they will allow you to vote them away from them by passing a law and saying, “Be it enacted that on and after a certain day Mr. Capitalist shall be dispossessed?” You may, but I do not believe it. Hence, when you roll under your tongue the expression that you are revolutionists, remember what that word means. It means a revolution that shall turn all these things over where they belong to the wealth producers. Now, how shall the wealth producers come into possession of them? I believe that if every man and every woman who works, or who toils in the mines, the mills, the workshops, the fields, the factories and the farms in our broad America should decide in their minds that they shall have that which of right belongs to them, and that no idler shall live upon their toil, and when your new organization, your economic organization, shall declare as man to man and women to woman, as brothers and sisters, that you are determined that you will possess these things, then there is no army that is large enough to overcome you, for you yourselves constitute the army. (Applause). Now, when you have decided that you will take possession of these things, there will not need to be one gun fired or one scaffold erected. You will simply come into your own, by your own independence and your own manhood, and by asserting your own individuality, and not sending any man to any legislature in any State of the American Union to enact a law that you shall have what is your own; yours by nature and by your manhood and by your very presence upon this earth.
Nature has been lavish to her children. She has placed in this earth all the material of wealth that is necessary to make men and women happy. She has given us brains to go into her store house and bring from its recesses all that is necessary. She has given us these two hands and these brains to manufacture them suited to the wants of men and women. Our civilization stands on a parallel with all other civilizations. There is just one thing we lack, and we have only ourselves to blame if we do not become free. We simply lack the intelligence to take possession of that which we have produced. And I believe and I hope and I feel that the men and women who constitute a convention like this can come together and organize that intelligence. I must say that I do not know whether I am saying anything that interests you or not, but I feel so delighted that I am talking to your heads and not to your hands and feet this afternoon. I feel that you will at least listen to me, and maybe you will disagree with me, but I care not; I simply want to shed the light as I see it. I wish to say that my conception of the future method of taking possession of this is that of the general strike: that is my conception of it. The trouble with all the strikes in the past has been this: the workingmen like the teamsters in our cities, these hard-working teamsters, strike and go out and starve. Their children starve. Their wives get discouraged. Some feel that they have to go out and beg for relief, and to get a little coal to keep the children warm, or a little bread to keep the wife from starving, or a little something to keep the spark of life in them so that they can remain wage slaves.
That is the way with the strikes in the past. My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production. If any one is to starve—I do not say it is necessary—let it be the capitalist class. They have starved us long enough, while they have had wealth and luxury and all that is necessary. You men and women should be imbued with the spirit that is now displayed in far-off Russia and far-off Siberia where we thought the spark of manhood and womanhood had been crushed out of them. Let us take example from them. We see the capitalist class fortifying themselves to-day behind their Citizens’ Associations and Employers’ Associations in order that they may crush the American labor movement. Let us cast our eyes over to far-off Russia and take heart and courage from those who are fighting the battle there, and from the further fact shown in the dispatches that appear this morning in the news that carries the greatest terror to the capitalist class throughout all the world—the emblem that has been the terror of all tyrants through all the ages, and there you will see that the red flag has been raised. According to the Tribune, the greatest terror is evinced in Odessa and all through Russia because the red flag has been raised. They know that where the red flag has been raised whoever enroll themselves beneath that flag recognize the universal brotherhood of man; they recognize that the red current that flows through the veins of all humanity is identical, that the ideas of all humanity are identical; that those who raise the red flag, it matters not where, whether on the sunny plains of China, or on the sun-beaten hills of Africa, or on the far-off snow-capped shores of the north, or in Russia or in America—that they all belong to the human family and have an identity of interest. That is what they know.
So when we come to decide, let us sink such differences as nationality, religion, politics, and set our eyes eternally and forever towards the rising star of the industrial republic of labor; remembering that we have left the old behind and have set our faces toward the future. There is no power on earth that can stop men and women who are determined to be free at all hazards. There is no power on earth so great as the power of intellect. It moves the world and it moves the earth.
Now, in conclusion, I wish to say to you—and you will excuse me because of what I am going to say and only attribute it to my interest in humanity. I wish to say that nineteen years ago on the fourth of May of this year, I was one of those at a meeting at the Haymarket in this city to protest against eleven workingmen being shot to pieces at a factory in the southeastern part of this city because they had dared to strike for the eight-hour movement that was to be inaugurated in America in 1886. The Haymarket meeting was called primarily and entirely to protest against the murder of comrades at the McCormick factory. When that meeting was nearing its close some one threw a bomb. No one knows to this day who threw it except the man who threw it. Possibly he has rendered his account with nature and has passed away. But no human being alive knows who threw it. And yet in the soil of Illinois, the soil that gave a Lincoln to America, the soil in which the great, magnificent Lincoln was buried in the State that was supposed to be the most liberal in the union, five men sleep the last sleep in Waldheim under a monument that, has been raised there because they dared to raise their voices for humanity. I say to any of you who are here and who can do so, it is well worth your time to go out there and draw some inspiration around the graves of the first martyrs who fell in the great industrial struggle for liberty on American soil. I say to you that even within the sound of my voice, only two short blocks from where we meet to-day, the scaffold was erected on which those five men paid the penalty for daring to raise their voices against the iniquities of the age in which we live. We arc assembled here for the same purpose. And do any of you older men remember the telegrams that were sent out from Chicago while our comrades were not yet even cut down from the cruel gallows? “Anarchy is dead, and these miscreants have been put out of the way.” Oh, friends, I am sorry that I even had to use that word, “anarchy” just now in your presence, which was not in my mind at the outset. So if any of you wish to go out there and look at this monument that has been raised by those who believed in their comrades’ innocence and sincerity, I will ask you, when you have gone out and looked at the monument, that you will go to the reverse side of the monument and there read on the reverse side the words of a man, himself the purest and the noblest man who ever sat in the gubernatorial chair of the State of Illinois, John P. Altgeld. On that monument you will read the clause of his message in which he pardoned the men who were lingering then in Joliet. I have nothing more to say. I ask you to read the words of Altgeld, who was at that time the governor, and had been a lawyer and a judge, and knew whereof he spoke, and then take out your copy books and copy the words of Altgeld when he released those who had not been slaughtered at the capitalists’ behest, and then take them home and change your minds about what those men were put to death for.
Now, I have taken up your time in this because I simply feel that I have a right as a mother and as a wife of one of those sacrificed men to say whatever I can to bring the light to bear upon this conspiracy and to show you the way it was. Now, I thank you for the time that I have taken up of yours. I hope that we will meet again some time, you and I, in some hall where we can meet and organize the wage workers of America, the men and women, so that the children may not go into the factories, nor the women into the factories, unless they go under proper conditions. I hope even now to live to see the day when the first dawn of the new era of labor will have arisen, when capitalism will be a thing of the past, and the new industrial republic, the commonwealth of labor, shall be in operation. I thank you.
Editorial notes: Readers interested in this post will probably be interested in Ralph Chaplin’s discussion of the general strike. Parsons made this speech at the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. The minutes of the IWW’s founding convention are online here and are worth reading in their entirety, as they contain debate and analysis that are still relevant today to many issues about life under capitalism, workers’ struggles, and efforts to end capitalism.