How the Haymarket Affair Came to Australia:

Free Thought to Free Action

          Labour historians have complained of the lack of Australian theorisation, akin to that developed in Europe by Marx, Morris, Bakunin, or in the USA by ‘philosophers’ such as Tucker or Thoreau or Emerson. They have noticed the debates under the name, for example, of the Australasian Secular Association and/or of the Melbourne Anarchist Club but have dismissed them because their titles did not contain ‘socialist’, ‘working’ or ‘industrial’ and, therefore couldn’t possibly be relevant or important. The centrality of the celebration of ‘May Day’ by anarchists in the Haymarket Affair made this major event impossible to integrate into any ‘labour history’ taking its cues and its themes from Europe. These difficulties have had major consequences in both the practice and the reporting of ‘the labour movement.’


The first Australian references to ‘anarchy’ or its derivatives date from the mid-nineteenth century and show early misuse of the word. W.G. Wentworth, newly established NSW Tory, used the word to slander opposition politicians, John Dunmore Lang [123] and Henry Parkes [124]. Even when the word was used more accurately it could still be seen as a term of abuse, as when Henry McDermott, a Sydney City Councillor in 1842 [125] complained that he had ‘suffered abuses’, that is, he had been called an anarchist for suggesting ‘agricultural areas’ and small towns on the coast to encourage decentralization. [126] More usual was the association expressed by James McEarchern who established the Tambaroora Association of Alluvial Miners in 1852 and disputed merchants’ claims that individual miners were causing ‘law and order’ to be superseded by anarchy and confusion.[127] French printer and philosopher, Proudhon, is credited with the first notable, public statement that anarchism could be thought of positively. The first, known positive expressions in Australia appeared in the 1880’s in Melbourne[128] as part of debates over organised religion. The social heights of the city were in the grip of ‘narrow, forceful men’ who were using their political dominance ‘to carry into legislation the social tenets of their churches’.[129] As in the northern hemisphere, this provoked secular societies and anti-church propaganda. A youngish band of self-styled ‘free thinkers’ then rebelled against the restrictions of organised Free Thought and formed themselves into the Melbourne Anarchist Club (MAC). Today, an informed attempt to encompass the strands of anarchism in a single definition would be:

[Anarchism is] a system of social thought, aiming at fundamental changes in the structure of society and particularly … at the replacement of the authoritarian state by some form of non-governmental co-operation between free individuals.[130]

Following the lead of its counterparts in the USA[131] and England,[132] organised Free Thought in Australia necessarily encompassed breaks with conventional thinking on a broad range of issues. The Australasian Secular Association [ASA]was established on 17 July 1882 by Thomas Walker(1858-1932) who elected himself President and undertook to pay himself a stipend for lecturing, and James Donovan, about whom little is known other than that he was elected Vice-President.[133] Walker was an adventurer, already on the run from authorities in Canada who wished to interview him about certain money-raising ‘projects’ he had begun and abandoned when questions began to be asked. He did not remain long in Melbourne, either, but travelled to Sydney and, much later, to Perth where he became a successful and apparently respectable Attorney-General and Parliamentary Speaker. The ASA flourished without him, attracting a raft of other non-conformists. With the help of Charles Bradlaugh, leading English secularist, the membership obtained the services of English-born Joseph Symes as president, chief lecturer and editor of its journal, The Liberator, from February 1884.[134] The first Symes’ editorial, 1 June 1884, began with the ambitious pronouncement:

This paper is started in the interests of freedom, not licence, not lawlessness, but such freedom as is consistent with the rights of all.

His choice of words reflects the collision, happening as he was writing, of a theoretical debate over the authority of established churches and ‘the God idea’ with the more urgent concerns of social justice. External attacks on the ASA temporarily covered over differences within the free speech camp[135] but when the ‘atheism of politics’[136] emerged formally, Symes’ stubbornness and his interest in a parliamentary career made his choice of sides in the Haymarket furore easy, and prevented him and the Liberator converging with the anarchist/secularist line[137] taken by Ben Tucker, Bostonian editor of the influential ‘anarchist and free thought’ journal, Liberty.[138] One biographer has written of Symes:

Aroused by the smugly parochial, wowserish society of (Victoria), he led agitations for free speech, an uncensored press, excursion trains and the opening of art galleries and public libraries on Sundays.[139]

The Lord’s Day Observance Society and the Victorian government retaliated with three major and some minor prosecutions in 1885-87. Unable to engage reliable counsel, Symes defended himself in the courts and routed his persecutors. Smith went on to say:

These harassments worsened his health and temper. He became dictatorial with his followers and his denunciations of cant became increasingly strident and exhibitionist.

He stood in the Legislative Assembly elections of 1889 but came last. His programme included land nationalization, graduated income tax, abolition of colonial titles and governorships, a free Sunday, legalized contraception, the ending of discrimination against Chinese, and Home Rule for Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Smith concluded, without mentioning anarchism, that Symes’ radicalism was ‘probably the most extreme to be announced in nineteenth-century Australia’.

Being largely self-taught, leading radicals knew the value of written materials and while many worked on newspapers or journals others maintained news agencies. Symes helped his income along with a news agency at the corner of Bourke and Queen Streets, an inner city location.[140] Clerical attacks on Free Thought, Symes and the ASA, some reprinted in The Liberator, illustrate the geographic penetration of ASA propaganda into and through the strongly-independent press at the time. For example, the Launceston Examiner and the Queensland Evangelical Standard are quoted on 22 June 1884.[141] A listing of Liberator agents shows it was sold throughout New Zealand, in all colonies except Western Australia, and as far north as Cairns. Thirty country towns, in Victoria had distribution outlets for The Liberator.[142] Pars and correspondence indicate how keenly rural Australia followed the debates testing not just the ASA and the MAC but the larger questions of justice and equity.[143]

Around half the ASA councilors and a similar percentage of the membership had quickly become disenchanted with him. Most of the executive positions on the Liberator Publishing Coy at its launch were filled by men who had already or later turned to anarchism, the most prominent being the native-born brothers, David and William Andrade,[144] Fred Upham from Rhode Island, New York,[145] Donovan and George Newberry, about whom little is known. Others prepared to ‘out’ themselves as anarchist included Nichols, Peter McNaught, Brookhouse, John White and McMillan. Others such as Fryer and ‘Monty’ Miller[146] were derided as anarchists by Symes’ supporters because of their rebelliousness. After Symes, these were the most active members of the ASA. As time went on, it became obvious he was progressively alienating the Association’s strongest elements, and thereby diminishing its impact on progressive issues. By 1888, it was a shadow of what it had been when he arrived.

Will Andrade, better known much later for his bookshops, had his earliest piece published in the Liberator, ‘The Basis of Morality’ (‘self-control is the key-stone’) on 29 June 1884. Many others followed. In October 1885 he was appointed delegate to the Annual Conference in Melbourne by the Picton (NZ) Secular Society, and was made secretary of the Liberator Publishing Coy. In January 1886 he resigned the latter position to prepare for his wedding on 6 February to Emma Wickham. One of his last articles as secretary was a biography of W.W. Collins, another secularist lecturer from England, for whom he moved his family to Sydney in May. Before leaving Melbourne and after the first reports of the Haymarket had been read he contended in debate that Symes’ actions in defying the government over free speech were not consistent with his support that night for the procedure of changing laws through the ballot box:

The people at present put barriers to their own freedom by having governments. Anarchy was what the world needed and progress could only be obtained by individual freedom.[147]

‘Chummy’ Fleming was another early ASA member who turned to anarchism, having arrived in Australia two years before Symes.[148] His family had had a long history of ‘working class’ militancy. He had been introduced at age 10 to factory work which profoundly impaired his health.[149] He had attended Free Thought lectures before coming to Australia at an uncle’s invitation. Getting short-lived employment as a bootmaker, he attended the 1884 Second Annual Secular Conference in Sydney and in 1885 was Secretary of its Ballarat (Vic) branch where he would have met Rose Stone, another secularist being harassed by town believers.[150] A very staunch free-thinker, she moved to Melbourne, became an ASA Sunday school teacher and lecturess before marrying and, as Mrs Summerfield,[151] moving to Sydney where we will meet her again later. A man called Lee replacing Fleming in Ballarat, was punched, kicked, stoned and chased by 2,000 people in September – ‘during the time that we were being ill-used, the police stood and did not interfere.’[152]

Overwhelmingly, these names are anglo-saxon and apart from the atheism, do not fit the hysterical caricature being perpetrated in Chicago, viz: ‘long-haired, wild-eyed, bad-smelling, atheistic, reckless foreign wretches..(etc).’[153] Their interests were decidedly international and the ASA had begun receiving specifically anarchist literature from overseas around 1885, as overseas secular and free thought societies were doing. No doubt there were non-anglo radicals in Melbourne and in other States but they have not yet been researched.

Proudhon’s 1840 position is today called mutualist-anarchist. He wrote:

[The] authority of man over man is inversely proportional to the state of intellectual development which that society has reached… Property and royalty have been crumbling to pieces ever since the world began. As man seeks justice in equality, so society seeks order in anarchy.[154]

Arguing for a society made up of small-scale producers freely associating to exchange labor products equivalent in value, Proudhon believed in change to a just society through principle, not revolution.[155] Tucker, a significant North American figure for Australian anarchists wrote in 1888:

When [Josiah] Warren and Proudhon, in prosecuting their search for justice to labour, came face to face with the obstacle of class monopolies, they saw that these monopolies rested upon Authority, and concluded that the thing to be done was, not to strengthen this Authority and thus make monopoly universal, but to utterly uproot Authority and give full sway to the opposite principle, liberty, by making competition…universal…

He went on:

The Manchester men [Ricardo, etc] were… inconsistent. They believed in liberty to compete with the labourer in order to reduce his wages, but not in liberty to compete with the capitalist in order to reduce his usury.

This strand of anarchism, which has attracted different names, has argued for ‘Absolute Free Trade … the logical carrying out of the Manchester doctrine’ as the means to socialize resources. They were thus up against State Socialists who wished to seize capital, and opposed to ‘class’ monopolies, in particular, of money, land, tariff and patents.[156] Tucker’s anarchist solution for injustice was all about wealth and economics, as were many of his opponents. G.D.H Cole was debating the same issues thirty years later:

Socialists have all too often fixed their eyes upon the material misery of the poor without realizing that it rests upon the spiritual degradation of the slave.[157]

The distinctions between two organizing principles which have dominated radical political theory ‘from the time of the Paris Commune’ (1871)…and which can be ‘exemplified by the split between the Marxists and the anarchists’ from that time have been much clarified since. They involve three inter-related questions: the constituency of the movement; the structure of the movement; and the role of the state and organised politics. Closely related questions are about the forms of ownership and of decision-making.[158]The author of this formulation, Chodorkoff, had in mind the communist-collectivist strand of anarchism, not the Proudhonian/Tucker strand. In key exchanges with Karl Marx at meetings of the International Workers Movement in Europe in the 1870’s, Mikhail Bakunin raged about the need for personal endeavour with a sharp anti-State polemic.[159]His view of anarchism as social revolution, and not just one of economics, is clear in the following:

The future organisation of society should be carried out entirely from below upwards, by the free association and federation of the workers in associations first of all, then in communes, in regions, in nations and finally in a great international and universal federation. It is only then that the true and invigorating order of liberty and general happiness will be established, that order which far from denying either of them, affirms and brings into harmony the interests of individuals and of society.[160]

He regarded conflict and struggle, even in a fully evolved, future society as inevitable and natural, and thus he pre-supposed the need articulated by twentieth century anarchists to develop insights into healthy resolution of conflict as alternatives to either State surveillance or personal and mass violence.[161] Dolgoff commented that contrary to impressions given by historians about him, that he advocated indiscriminate violence against persons, Bakunin opposed regicide and stressed that any destruction be of institutions:

It will then become unnecessary to destroy men and reap the inevitable reaction which massacres of human beings have never failed and never will fail to produce in every society.[162]

In the same 1869 Program of the International Brotherhood quoted by Dolgoff Bakunin wrote:

It will not be surprising if the rebellious people kill a great many of [the oppressors] at first. This will be a misfortune…and as quickly over; but…neither moral nor even useful.[163]

The phrase ‘propaganda of the deed’ had come into vogue from the 1870s as a new, emotive name for the very old idea of civil dissent. Among undifferentiated ‘socialists’ it was also known as ‘direct action’. Premised on the belief that ‘the workers’ were unlikely to be moved to revolt by theory it was hoped they might be sparked into action by a spectacular ‘deed’ or at least take a lesson from it. As the dissent theories had gathered substance in the second half of the 19th century, differentiated ‘strands’ had adopted terms, tactics and even things like colours, to further distinguish themselves. ‘The deed’ amongst anarchists initially involved peaceful demonstrations, speeches and burning of public records.[164] Reaction of the authorities made it inevitable that the zealots would ‘weaponise’ and would speak of their violence as virtuous because it was defensive. In an atmosphere tense with expectation and often ablaze with sensation, anarchist/socialist circles began to buzz with defiant talk of heroic stances and martyrdom ‘for the cause’. In an age of imperialist image-making, the temptations for bombast and for provocation are obvious. Cranks, would-be politicians and police spies infiltrated meetings until it became difficult to determine who was a mercenary and who a genuine believer. A parroted cry – ‘death to tyranny’ – could mark a hired gun, a mug duped into ‘dirty tricks’, a detached idealist or a desperate zealot.

As we will now see, a very sophisticated theoretical level was reached inside the MAC before it followed the ASA into acrimony and was swamped by external events. Their analysis of power rather than of class as understood by Marxists, and of the non-violent basis of autonomy and collective decision-making within small groups is about where 20th century advocates of self-government have now reached.[165] As the MAC membership debated before them, the more recent ‘social anarchists’ have recognised that autonomy is only viable for mass society when large-scale changes in attitudes occur, thus education and personal growth are far more important change-agents than cataclysmic revolution. Unfortunately, State-surveillance and power to determine media debates has grown enormously since 1886 because of the theoretical flash point which the Haymarket explosion, the ASA and the MAC brought to life.

A lengthy column by the unidentified correspondent ‘Gyges’ in The Age on 1 May 1886 included a Spencerian view of anarchism and references to Seymour’s The Anarchist and Tucker’s Liberty before word of the bombing could have been received:

[Anarchist] propaganda must not be overlooked in any review of existing political fermentation if only that it furnishes a sort of raison d’etre for the terrible, inflammatory and explosive Nihilism which from time to time startles the world …The watchword of the old world was ‘obedience’….The watchword of modern democracy is ‘liberty’… Society must in its evolution, pass through these convulsions but they are birth not death throes…

The first mention of the Haymarket affair in Australian papers was via identically inaccurate cables on 6 and 7 May in all dailies with international content. These cables did not mention anarchist involvement. The first editorials appeared on the 10th of May:

It would be an injustice to the cause of labor to represent the riot and bloodshed … [in the USA] … as the natural and legitimate outcome of the system of combination which labor has in late times adopted as its great hope against the absolute dictation of capital … the violent measures into which those engaged in a movement, lawful and laudable in itself have been betrayed, have not in­frequently alienated public sympathy and thrown back for a long time the cause that those measures were intended to forward…[166]

The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) in reporting a European labor event made a similar point, but much more bluntly:

The disturbances in Belgium are quieting down after fearful excesses on the part of the strikers, or rather the bands of anarchists, convicts, social democrats, thieves and the scum of the populace who joined what were at first legal demonstrations and converted them into a saturnalia of riot, incendiarism and rapine.[167]

On 6 May, commenting on the US ‘labor riots’ preceding the Haymarket the Globe (Melb) gushed on ‘Happy Australia’: ‘It is for the Australian artisan to remember that through the ballot-box he controls the country.‘ The previous day it had reported a procession of Sydney unemployed to interview the Governor to bring attention to their desperate plight. Reports from other parts of the country indicate hundreds of unemployed prepared to labor ‘for almost nothing’.[168] The (Melbourne) Age of 17 May 1886 editorialised its support for a peaceful struggle to shorten the working day: ‘The attempt to organise an 8-hour system [in the US] is put down by volleys of musketry’.

Joseph Symes at The Liberator wrote:

Newspapers may write down the poor, soldiers may be called out to shoot the agitators, advanced or anarchic newspapers may be seized … what then? Their sufferings will add fuel to the fire and only hasten on the final victory.[169]

This Symes editorial appeared on the day of the first advertised Melbourne Anarchist Club meeting. A brief but accurate report of that meeting appeared in The Age,[170] provoking The (Melbourne) Herald to do an outrageous ‘beat-up’. It insisted that the Club’s aim was ‘to hoist a species of social “black flag”, order in a supply of red-caps and go on a rampage’.[171] Sensitive secularists immediately called on Symes to repudiate the Club. Ebullient and forward-looking when he arrived in Australia, he was giving way to periodic bouts of self-pity or self-glorification. He responded in his trademark bellicose language:

(The) name [Anarchist Club) is one of the grimmest jokes conceivable …Rather despotism…(Anarchy) means no rule at all, a dissolution of society.[172]

The publicity[173] was attracting visitors to the Club. They found basic meeting procedures were observed and a concern for decorum.[174] Efforts to reorient the ASA as in the northern hemisphere became a frenzied struggle for control of the Association, a struggle which continued after the Club moved to separate premises and began its own journal, Honesty.