Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Lasting Legacy of Joseph Labadie Anarchist Labor Leader and Hoarder

                                    Joseph Labadie circa 1880.

Joseph Labadie with his flowing moustache and imperial goatee cut quite a dashing figure as a young man and after his adoption of big wide-brimmed hats in his later years looked like he might have toured with Buffalo Bill Cody and Ned Buntline.  But he was one of the late 19th and early 20th Century’s leading anarchists and the only one to have a long career at the very center of the labor movement.

His background was strikingly different from most of the better known figures of the movement—the German Johann Most who introduced the European model featuring the idealization of the propaganda of the deed or immigrants like most of the Haymarket Martyrs, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and Carlo Tresca.  He was also unique among home grown anarchist figures like Bostonian Benjamin Tucker and former Confederate trooper, Texas Radical Republican, and Chicago labor leader Albert Parsons and his bi-racial wife Lucy Parsons.

He was born as Charles Joseph Antoine Labadie on April 18, 1850 in Paw Paw, Michigan into a French family who settled on both sides of the Detroit River when the land was claimed as New France.  Even at this late date the area was still frontier-like and as a boy spent much time fishing and hunting with the Potawatomi tribes in southern Michigan, where his father served as interpreter between Jesuit missionaries and the native tribes.  He deeply admired their culture, especially a sense of communalism. 

His only formal schooling was a few months in a parochial school.  But he was bright, inquisitive, and read everything he could lay his hands on.  He must have had some informal apprentice training because by his late teens he had become a tramp printer, literally packing a small press and type font cases on his back or in a pushcart as he made a circuit of small towns and farming villages.  The life on the road was an eye-opening experience in and of itself. 

After five years on the road, Labadie settled in Detroit where he became a typesetter at the Detroit Post and Tribune.  He joined Typographical Union Local No. 18, rapidly rose in its leadership and was one of its two delegates to the International Typographical Union convention in Detroit in 1878.

Labadie's dues card for the Detroit Typographical Union No. 18.  His vast collection of included every dues card he ever had.

He married a first cousin, Sophie Elizabeth Archambeau, in 1877. Together they had a happy marriage and raised three children Laura, Charlotte, and Laurance, who also became a prominent anarchist essayist.

Labor conditions of the post—Civil War era of rapid industrialization were brutal and labor unrest was sweeping the country culminating in the Great Railway Strike of 1877.  Although Detroit was only on the fringes of that epic battle it inspired Labadie as it did his fellow typographer in Chicago, Albert Parsons.  Like Parsons he joined the early Socialist Labor Party, which included all sorts of radical tendencies and was soon a familiar sight handing out its tracts and pamphlets on the streets of Detroit.  He was gaining a reputation.

Like others of the era, he dabbled in several radical ventures while slowly evolving his unique political philosophy.  In 1878 he organized Detroit’s first assembly of the Knights of Labor and ran unsuccessfully for mayor on the Greenback-Labor ticket.  In 1880 he served as the first President of the Detroit Trades Council which united both Knights lodges and craft unions. He also founded the Michigan Federation of Labor.

His positions with the Detroit Trades Council and the Michigan Federation of Labor eventually made him a de facto ally of Samuel Gompers and the emerging American Federation of Labor (AFL) although the relationship was often strained and tenuous.

Labadie also edited a succession of local labor papers and began contributing articles and columns to several other publications including the Detroit Times, Advance and Labor Leaf, Labor Review, The Socialist, and the Lansing Sentinel.  His long running opinion column Cranky Notions was carried widely and admired for its forthright style and humor.

                            Labadie became a supporter of individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker.

In 1883 Labadie announced that he was embracing the individual anarchism of Benjamin Tucker.  It was a somewhat odd and contradictory association that he never renounced even though his commitment to an organized labor movement was at odds with Tucker.   But both renounced violence and owed much to the philosophy of the American Universalist anarcho-pacifist Aden Ballou, Russian Mikhail Bakunin, and presaged the work of Leo Tolstoy.

Nominally accepting identity as a socialist in the days before Marxism solidified as the dominant trend in the international labor movement, Tucker rejected any permanent or transitional state involvement and advocated for a free market solution.   Tucker wrote

The fact that one class of men are dependent for their living upon the sale of their labour, while another class of men are relieved of the necessity of labour by being legally privileged to sell something that is not labour...And to such a state of things I am as much opposed as any one. But the minute you remove privilege...every man will be a labourer exchanging with fellow-labourers...What Anarchistic-Socialism aims to abolish is usury... It wants to deprive capital of its reward.

Tucker also rejected organized labor unions and their intermediate reform demands like eight hour day and minimum wage laws.  He believed instead that strikes should be organized by free workers rather than by bureaucratic union officials and organizations and that such spontaneous uprisings would lead to the collapse of the state.  Labadie was sympathetic in the abstract but as a practical leader he never abandoned the labor movement which he continued to serve the rest of his life.  In fact, no other anarchist ever had a longer or more fruitful association with organized labor that Labadie.

Both Tucker and Labadie were initially critical of the violence advocated by the German anarchists and the Haymarket defendants.  But both became active in international defense efforts because they did not believe they were the sole perpetrators of violence. Labadie broke with the Knights of Labor when Grandmaster Workman Terrance V. Powderly their national leader, repudiated the defendants completely.

Without the oppression of the state, Labadie believed, humans would choose to harmonize with “the great natural laws...without robbing [their] fellows through interest, profit, rent and taxes.” But sometimes at odds with Tucker, he supported localized public cooperation, and was an advocate for community control of water utilities, streets, and railroads.

By the turn of the 20th Century the great majority of the labor left of the anarchist movement rejected Tuckerism and became centered on anarcho-syndicalism which viewed labor unions as the natural building blocks of a society without state oppression.  Today Tucker is considered the inspiration for modern libertarianism.  Labadie’s association with him has tainted his reputation on the left.

Some of the pamphlets and books that Labadie issued on his own press.

After the turn of the Century Labadie also began writing poetry and issuing both prose and verse publications that he handcrafted using his skills as a typographer.  In 1908 a zealous postal inspector refused to handle his mail because it bore stickers with anarchist quotations. After the ensuing uproar the Detroit Water Board where Labadie then worked as a clerk, fired him for expressing anarchist sentiments.  But by then he was a beloved figure in the city not only with the labor movement but with much of the public which admired him as the “Gentle Anarchist.” In both cases the officials were forced to back down in the face of mass public protests in support.

Labadie and Judson Grennell, labor editor of the Detroit News at a union convention in 1918.  The two had been friends and comrades since they both worked together in the same print shop in 1877.

Despite his considerable achievements is best remembered because he was something of a hoarder—he never threw any scrap of paper the passed through his hands or over his desk away.  That included all his personal manuscripts and coorespondence with figures like Tucker, Powderly, Albert and Lucy Parsons, Voltairine de Cleyre, Emma Goldman, Gompers, and Eugene V. Debs; clippings of articles; copies of pamphlets, leaflets, and handbills; posters; and photographs.  Significantly it also included records of all the organizations he was part of or related to including membership rolls, meeting minutes, by-laws and constitutions, ledgers and invoices, coorespondence, invitations to programs and social occations, and the badges and ribbons of membership and for attendance at meetings, conventions, and even funerals.  Taken together the collection that filled the attic of his home constituted the most complete and detailed archive of labor, socialist, anarchist activity of almost forty years, including the ephemora that rarely survives.

Labadie knew his collection would be a gold mine for historians.  Arround 1910 he began to look for a repository that would value, cataloge, and maintain it.  The libraries of Johns Hopkins Univeristy and Michigan State in East Lancing expressed interest.  The University of Wisconsin in Madison vigorously pursued it and made an attractive offer to purchase the collection which would have been a great boon to Labadie who was still a poor man and near the end of his working life.

But he was determined to place his collection at the University of Michigan in near-by Ann Arbor, close enough for him to make regular visits.  The U of M was more than coy.  It sent an inspector to Labadie’s home to determine the value of the collection.  He returned a negative report that scorned it as a useless “mass of stuff.”  The school demurred to several offers.  Finnally nine Detroit residents, including several businessmen donated $100 each to purchase of the collection, which was then donated to the university with requisite pomp.  The university did not have to directly pay the notorious anarchist. 

In 1912 twenty crates of material were moved from Labadie’s attic to Ann Arbor.  Labadie spent the remaining years of his life soliciting contributions of additional material from his wide circle of friends and aquaintences across the labor and radical movements.  But the University did not seem to know what to do with the ever-increasing mass.  The material remained un-sorted and uncatalogued and was kept in  receiving boxes in a locked room of the library.  Any interested researcher was given a key to the room and left to his or her own devices to sort through the mass.  Undoubtably some material was removed by some of the researchers and lost.

Shortly before his death, Labadie sent another large consignment of material to the University.

He died on October 7, 1933, in Detroit at the age of 83.

Iris Inglis working in the Labadie Collection in 1929.

Wealthy Detroit activist Agnes Inglis began doing research in the Labadie Collection in the early 1920s.  Her inherent organizing instincts took over, and she stayed to sort out the materials and bring some order to the chaos. She stayed at the Labadie Collection for over 20 years as its unofficial curator. Inglis donated her time to the effort, working without a salary of any kind except for one brief period when she received a small stipend.

After Inglis died at age 81 on January 29, 1952 the administration did nothing to replace her and did not keep a promise to her to continue to collect contemporary radical and labor material.  The neglected collection was pillaged by researchers and collectors and Inglis’ careful catalogue system was disrupted and eventually lost.  Only her note cards on most items remained in disturbed card files.

In 1960 reference librarian Edward Weber was finally appointed as formal curator.  Weber also brought his own social/political interests to the job, which included the radical elements of sexual freedom, gay liberation, Freethought, and civil liberties. Because there was still no acquisitions budget, Weber relied on donations and sympathetic library workers, who adjusted accounts somehow and funneled subversive literature into the Collection. Weber was an outspoken critic of censorship and ignorance, as well as a prolific letter writer, and the extensive correspondence he generated throughout his 40-year tenure kept the Collection growing.

It was not until the mid-1970s that the Labadie Collection was finally given a book budget. Weber was, for the first time in the history of the Collection, able to make legitimate purchases.

In 1994 Julie Herrada was hired as the first Assistant Curator, and as the first trained archivist in the Labadie Collection. When Weber retired in 2000, Herrada took over as curator.

Viewing an exhibit of radical posters from 1968 at the Labadie Collection.

The Collection currently contains over 50,000 books, 8,000 serials titles (including nearly 800 current periodical subscriptions) records and tape recordings of speeches, debates, songs, and oral histories, sheet music, buttons, posters, photographs, and comics. On the Labadie Collection’s website over 900 photographs can be viewed as well as the descriptions of over 100 archival collections, listings of some non-print materials, online exhibitions, and browse a directory of nearly 9,000 subject files.  

In short the Labadie Collection is the most comprehensive and still growing repository for radical American history.

That old hoarder would be proud.

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