THE HAYMARKET BOMBING occurred almost 100 years ago in mysterious and soon forgotten circumstances, but repercussions from its blast reverberated for decades through American society and its struggling labor movement.

In a fascinating new book, historian Paul Avrich brings this dark chapter out of the cobwebs of our history, illuminating its current relevance to issues of economic and social justice and of personal liberty.

The actual explosion shook downtown Chicago on May 4, 1886, but its shockwaves quickly radiated throughout the country. Haymarket dramatized a national trauma over widespread industrial strife. The nation was in the midst of a severe depression. Millions were hungry and out of work, while others toiled at less than a living wage.

On May 1, 300,000 workers launched a strike for better conditions, including the eight-hour work day. On May 3, several strikers were killed by police in Chicago during a clash between strikers and scabs at the McCormick Reaper Works. The following night anarchist and labor leaders called a meeting to protest the killings. It took place at the Haymarket, a widening of Randolph Street between Desplaines and Halsted. When police tried to break up the gathering, a bomb was thrown into their midst and the police opened fire. When the shooting had ended, eight policemen and as many workers were dead.

In an atmosphere of national hysteria, eight outspoken anarchists quickly were indicted, tried and convicted of conspiracy to incite the bombing, even though the identity of the bomb thrower remained unknown, then and now. Following their conviction, four of the accused men were hanged, one blew himself up in prison and three received life sentences.

Avrich characterizes these criminal proceedings as "the first great American inquisition since the Salem witch trials." He shows in convincing detail that prosecutor, judge, jury, press -- all supported by the public -- violated every conceivable right of the defendants to a fair trail. Indeed, seven years later, Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld courageously pardoned the three imprisoned men and denounced the trial of the "Haymarket 8" as a total travesty of justice.

Avrich tells a riveting story and brings alive the eight colorful anarchists, their persecutors and defenders, but the deeper impact of his book is to document how this nation viscerally reacts whenever it feels threatened by radical activists who advocate violence. Those 19th-century events, for example, bear an uncanny similarity to the disruption of the 1968 Democratic Convention and subsequent conspiracy trial of the "Chicago Seven." In the same vein, one can see close parallels between the 1880s anarchists and 1960s Black Panthers, and the treatment of both by Chicago police. When violence permeates the American air, the precious freedoms of the Bill of Rights often get swept aside.

Avrich, who is Distinguished Professor of History at Queens College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York, regards the Haymarket tragedy as a pivotal event in the history both of the American labor movement and of the radical political ideology of anarchism. As a result of Haymarket, he contends, the labor movement turned away from radical doctrine for years to come. And the ideas of anarchism were denied further hearing, brushed by Haymarket with the grossly unfair stereotype of bearded, foreign, bomb-throwing madmen.

The eight accused men all were anarchist leaders and members of the International Working People's Association, which advocated a violent overthrow of existing institutions to achieve equality and justice in a society without government or capitalist enterprise.

In the midst of depression and industrial turmoil, anarchism briefly had become a modest force in American political thought, espoused by socialist labor leaders disillusioned with the prospects of ever achieving reform through the ballot and legislation.

Avrich portrays some of the thinking of anarchism as a perceptive critique of industrial injustices, and its proponents -- including several of the Haymarket defendants -- as thoughtful idealists. The anarchists sought to harmonize industrialism and organize it to public advantage. They wanted to replace capitalism with an economic system that valued a decentralized, egalitarian society, based on the voluntary cooperation of free individuals, a society without government or property. The worker would regain the lost joy of his labor and the dignity of being his own master.

Most sympathetically portrayed of the Haymarket defendants is Albert Parsons, handsome and idealistic descendant of a distinguished American family dating from the Mayflower. "Anarchism is the perfection of personal liberty and self- government," Parsons wrote from his jail call. "It is the free play of nature's law . . . the negation of force or the domination of man by man."

Parsons was a thoughtful, peaceful, family man. Following the Haymarket bombing, he acted selflessly: first coming out of hiding to stand trial with the other defendants; then rejecting a certain commutation of his own death sentence, out of concern that his action would tighten the noose for three other defendants whose own more militant advocacy of violence made them unlikely recipients of selective mercy.

The only "crime" committed by Parsons and the other defendants was to exercise forcefully their right of free speech. But there is the rub. They preached that the blissful state of anarchism could not be achieved until existing institutions were overthrown by force. Parsons and other "moderates" in the movement were vague about how the millennium was to be achieved. Usually, they were careful not to advocate the initiation of violence, saying only that workers should arm in self-defense. With a hazy naivet,e, they forecast that the revolution would somehow erupt spontaneously in response to repession. "Anarchists do not make the social revolution," said Parsons. "They prophesy its coming."

But their violent rhetoric proposing violent solutions had quite a different effect. In significant respects, they set back the cause for social and economic justice by frightening cautious, law-abiding citizens and providing an excuse for brutal repression by reactionary forces in industry and government.

That point was made forcefully by labor leader George Schilling in a letter to Parson's wife. "Fear is not the mother of progress and liberty," Schilling wrote, "but oft times of reaction and aggression. Your agitation inspires fear; it shocks the public mind and conscience and inevitably calls forth strong and brutal men to meet force with force. By your mistaken methods, you have the misfortune of repelling those you should attract, of antagonizing where you should unite in mutual sympathy and cooperation for common good."

The Haymarket defendants did give the labor movement its first revolutionary martyrs. Later generations were inspired by their courage, right down to the final words of August Spies on the scaffold: "The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today."

Over the last 100 years, remarkable progress has been made in the United States to achieve greater economic and social justice. The message of both The Haymarket Tragedy and of more recent history is that future gains will come slowly, and then only with great peristence and patience to win public support for lawful change.