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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out of the Past

Johann Most
(Feb. 5, 1846–March 17, 1906)

(28 February 1938)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 11, 28 February 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Into the somewhat placid labor movement of the American 80’s came Johann Most – the fiery “propagandist of the deed.” Great struggles were pending, the eight-hour movement was just then getting into full swing, individuals like Parsons and Spies were already spreading the doctrines of militant labor action. Haymarket Square was soon to be the center of the first great anti-labor frame-up in the United States.

Jailed in Every Country

When Most arrived in 1882 he had behind him years of activity in the socialist movements of Europe, and a reputation so great that a huge mass meeting was organized in New York City to welcome him.

He also had behind him, this ex-journeyman bookbinder who startled bourgeois German sensibilities by his bitter proclamations, years of jail sentences. These were to be continued in the United States. For though Most agitated for his “propaganda of the deed” primarily in speeches and tracts that were rarely matched in specific deeds, he was regularly imprisoned for the violence of his words.

In Vienna he had been sentenced to five years imprisonment, and released after twelve months on condition that he leave Austria. Back in his native Germany, he engaged in socialist editorial work, and was elected to the Reichstag. But not for long. Bismarck exiled him under the anti-socialist laws. In London, to which he went, he was twice sentenced to jail for articles that appeared in the famous anarchist journal he founded, the Freiheit.

Gives Labor Slant to Anarchism

Before he came to this country, the German Social Democratic Party had expelled him for his trenchant denunciations of parliamentary action. Arrived in the United States he almost immediately quarreled with the various anarchist groups then existing – most of them bred in the Thoreau tradition of peaceful retirement from active life. Most brought to American anarchism a labor slant, and with it separated the old school, which enjoyed a certain respectable popularity in the United States for generations, from the new school which sought, however unclearly, to wrest power from the bosses through class struggle. It was thus largely through the influence of Most that the anarchist movement played a dominant role in the labor battles of the 80’s.

Having separated himself from the main body of American anarchists in bitter controversy, Most sought out and united in October 1883 in the organization of the International Working People’s Association (the “Black International”) with Parsons and Spies. The platform of the “Black International” pointed to the inefficacy of ballots as a means of conquering power; it called for the “destruction of the existing class rule by all means, that is by energetic, relentless, revolutionary and international action.”

A Brilliant Orator

Most toured the country. The brilliance of his attack on capitalist rule, his wit, his biting sarcasm gave many a fat-growing money-bag sleepless nights. “Extirpate the miserable brood!”, cried Most, “Extirpate the wretches!” Workers, many of them come to the United States as exiles from Bismarck’s tyranny, applauded. Bosses, frightened by the venom and vigor of his words, demanded he be jailed.

And so he was for “inciting to violence” – just before the Haymarket demonstration. Hardly was he released from Blackwell’s Island when he was returned there for a pamphlet on the “scientific art of revolutionary warfare.” Later, after the assassination of McKinley, he was sentenced to a third term on Blackwell’s Island. He claimed that the greatest indignity done him in jail had been the shaving of his beard.

Rejects Individual Terror

Towards the end of his life, though he continued to be hounded for his “violence,” Most rejected individual acts of terrorism, except where they would awaken the masses to revolutionary action. So that when Alexander Berkman shot Frick, the steel baron, Most criticized the act as ineffective in advancing the cause of anarchism. With this change in viewpoint, the mainstream of the American anarchist movement, represented by the new figures of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman which he had up to then nurtured and which had looked upon him as its ideological leader, broke from him.

Persecuted every year of his life, from his childhood spent under the lash of beatings, through his adulthood spent under the whip of capitalist repression, Most died in 1906. Few, if any, of his works are now read, few victories remain as monuments to his pioneer work. Yet, Most with his speeches and burning tracts helped educate the American proletariat into militancy of action, to stir it into a realization that it alone could fight its own cause.

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Last updated: 28 November 2015