The Tactical Utility of VIOLENCE, Part 2

Continued from Part 1…

By Mike Kolhoff

After the Great Uprising

Although the great uprising of 1877 failed to achieve working class emancipation, it did demonstrate the potential of armed workers to challenge the power of the capitalist state. The seriousness with which the capitalists took this threat can be seen today in the form of the many fortified armories in the downtowns of older American cities. These were built by, or at the behest of, frightened capitalists who wanted no repeat of the worker victories of 1877. The local militias, which had proven unreliable or downright mutinous during the uprising, were placed under tighter control, and would eventually (at the turn of the century), be transformed into the Army National Guard.

As terrified as the capitalists and their minions were, working class advocates were energized. The most obvious beneficiary of the Great Uprising was the Knights of Labor. By the mid 1880s K of L membership had risen to 700,000 workers. The Knights openly advocated for the replacement of the capitalist system with a Cooperative Commonwealth, a socialist system based on economic and social equality. Breaking with the exclusiveness of the craft unions

of the past, the Knights welcomed both women and African Americans as members of their local assemblies, sometimes in mixed organizations, sometimes in separate affiliated assemblies. This in itself was revolutionary, as segregation based on race and gender was the norm, and would remain so for many years after the passing of the Knights of Labor.

The Workingmen’s Party changed its name to the Socialist Labor Party after the Great Uprising. It promptly split in 1878 over the issue of political action versus organizing workers, with one half continuing to call itself the SLP, and the other forming the International Labor Union. By the end of the decade, the SLP had 2600 members.

In 1881, the SLP split yet again, this time social anarchists formed the Revolutionary Socialist Labor Party, which made its headquarters in Chicago. In 1883 the RSLP merged with other anarchist groups to form the U.S. Section of the International Working People’s Association, the anarchist international. While the SLP withered, the IWPA thrived. By 1886 the SLP had shrunk to less than 2000 members, while the IWPA had grown to more than 6000.

Both radical workers and capitalists seemed certain that the events of 1877 were only a prelude to what would become a general workers revolution. Unfortunately, events and circumstances would combine against this outcome.

Immigration to the US had been increasing steadily since 1825, and by the latter decades of the 19th century thousands of immigrants were entering the United States every week. Between 1880 and 1890 5.2 million immigrants arrived, almost 800,000 in 1882 alone. These new Americans came primarily from southern and eastern Europe, and unlike previous waves of immigration, a large number were Catholic, and a good many were Jewish. These immigrants faced an even harsher welcome than did the immigrants of the period prior to the Civil War. Most could neither speak English nor write in their native languages.  They crammed into the cities of the Northeast and Chicago in the Midwest, where they formed small ethnic communities that allowed them to maintain the traditions of their homelands. They took low-paying jobs in construction, the factories, mills and mines, sometimes being used as strikebreakers by the capitalists.

At the same time as immigration from Europe was rising toward its peak, African Americans in the south began their exodus from Jim Crow oppression in earnest. Congressional Reconstruction of the south had officially ended in 1877 with the final withdrawal of federal troops. In May 1879, African American leaders from fourteen states gathered in Nashville, Tennessee, and proclaimed that “colored people should emigrate to those states and territories where they can enjoy all the rights which are guaranteed by the laws and Constitution of the United States.” Black leaders such as Benjamin “Pap” Singleton and Ida B. Wells supported the declaration and called upon their followers to leave the south. As a result, thousands of black people “quit the South” and headed north and west.

1877 also saw the end of the Black Hills War between the Sioux Nation and their allies against the US government, with the surrender of Crazy Horse on May 5th of that year. This opened vast tracts of land to exploitation and safe settlement, and began a massive westward migration larger than anything beforehand.  By 1880 railroads could carry pilgrims into Wyoming, the Dakota Territory and Montana, plus all the western stops on the transcontinental line (Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California). Hundreds of thousands of working people headed west, all seeking realization of their version of the American Dream. What they mostly found was wage labor in the mines and on the farms of the Great Plains. When they actually were able to homestead a patch of land (usually so remote and barren no politically connected capitalist wanted it), they found themselves scratching out a subsistence living that made the slums of Chicago look attractive. This combination of increased immigration from Europe and internal migration (from the south to the north and from the east to the west) must have created an atmosphere of a world in motion. It was like the dawn of a new era.

By the 1880s all major strikes saw the intervention of state or federal troops. Fortified gun emplacements manned by soldiers with bayonets at the ready guarded the capitalists’ factories, mines and rail yards. These soldiers, unlike the citizen militias of 1877, had absolutely no problem firing into groups of striking workers. Supported by local police and mercenaries, they made every economic struggle a life-or-death fight. The workers formed their own militias, such as the Lehr und Weir Verein in Chicago. The militia groups practiced marksmanship and marching, and prepared for the coming class war. They knew it was just a matter of time before the events of 1877 were repeated on a grander, more successful scale.

In fact, the number and size of strikes increased progressively between 1881 and 1886,1  and half of these strikes occurred without the approval of, or against the wishes of, the national organizations of the craft unions or the Knights of Labor. They were organized and led by local workers of the Knights, the RSLP/SLP or the craft unions, sometimes all together.

1881 also saw the founding of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, championing the “new unionism” of Samuel Gompers. Gompers, as leader of the Cigar Makers Union, had restructured that organization in 1879 to “run like a business”. The new unionism promoted by FOTLU was pure business unionism, wherein the workers organization would weigh the cost-benefit of each action it would take, making the continued prosperity of the Union its primary concern. They were not particularly successful. By 1883 membership in FOTLU hovered around 25,000 workers.

Conflict between the Knights and FOTLU escalated quickly. The Knights raided FOTLU locals and denounced FOTLU organizing drives. This conflict reached its crisis point in 1886, in Chicago, where the Knights sponsored a break-away faction of the Cigar Makers Union, the Progressive Cigar Makers, which advocated the overthrow of the capitalist system. Gompers was enraged.

Haymarket and the first Red Scare

May 1st 1886 had been set as the date for a nationwide General Strike for the eight hour day. This date was set by FOTLU at their 1884 convention. Foolishly, the national leadership of the Knights refused to endorse the strike. When the date came, there was certainty among the capitalists that it would be a replay of 1877. In sheer numbers of workers involved, it certainly was. Over 300,000 workers struck nationwide, 40,000 in Chicago alone.

On May 3rd a demonstration at the McCormick Harvester Works, where molders had been locked out since February, was fired on by police and mercenaries, killing six workers. A speaker at the demonstration was August Spies, a leader of the IWPA.

On May 4th a rally and demonstration on behalf of the murdered McCormick strikers was to be held at Haymarket Square.  Early flyers announcing the rally called on workers to arm themselves and gather at Haymarket. These were quickly replaced by a less inflammatory version, but clearly there were some who saw the McCormick murders as the spark that would light the fires of a new insurrection.

What happened next varies based on who does the telling. The most popular version has Chicago cops moving in to disrupt a peaceful demonstration. At some point a bomb was tossed among the cops, exploding and killing one. The rest of the cops then began shooting wildly, killing 5 more of their own and an unknown number of demonstrators. Who tossed the bomb and why is, for many leftists, a matter of passionate dispute.

Whoever threw the bomb, whether it was a Pinkerton agent or an individual anarchist, the results are well known and undeniable. All of the key figures in the Chicago social anarchist movement were arrested. Ten men were indicted, eight went to trial, and all eight were convicted of conspiracy. Seven were sentenced to hang, one to fifteen years in prison. Their trial was conducted in the national press, which portrayed them as “fiends”, “cutthroats” and “bloody monsters”, this despite no clear evidence that they had any connection whatsoever to the bomb or bomb thrower. They were convicted for advocating the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a socialist system. They were convicted of being anarchists.

What followed was the first of several “red scares” in the United States. Knights of Labor leaders who had radical political beliefs were arrested in several cities. In fact only two of the convicted anarchists had any association with the Knights (most were associated with the anarchist Central Labor Union of Chicago). The Chicago Knights had even issued an angry denunciation of the anarchists immediately in the wake of the bombing, claiming that they should receive “no more consideration than wild beasts.” Once the nature of the trial became clear, they changed their tune and joined in calling for the freeing of the Haymarket anarchists.

Any advocate of social revolution was caught in the red scare, whether they considered themselves anarchists or not. It’s questionable even if there was significant distinction between those who we today would call “Marxists” and those who we’d call “anarchists”. Certainly there was nothing like the distinction between modern Leninists and anarchists. The real distinction was between those who sought to overthrow capitalism by the ballot box and those who advocated armed revolution, and there doesn’t seem to be anything close to the animosity between those divergent positions that there is now.  In any case, revolutionaries of every type were effectively purged from the labor movement after Haymarket.

The success of the capitalist press in portraying anarchists as “bomb-throwers” was at least in part because of the accuracy of the description in relation to “some anarchists”. The idea of the individual act of violence against the ruling class was gaining popularity. Johann Most, who became leader of the International Working Peoples Association, was a strong advocate of “propaganda of the deed”. Bombings and assassinations were supposed to inspire “the masses” to revolt against the oppressors. This was a particularly attractive prospect for individualists and egoists, since it removed the discomfort of working with others, and the danger of compromising their individual autonomy to the group will. Nevertheless, most anarchists denounced all forms of terrorism:

“Anarchists who rebel against every sort of oppression and struggle for the integral liberty of each and who ought thus to shrink instinctively from all acts of violence which cease to be mere resistance to oppression and become oppressive in their turn are also liable to fall into the abyss of brutal force. … The excitement caused by some recent explosions and the admiration for the courage with which the bomb-throwers faced death, suffices to cause many anarchists to forget their program, and to enter on a path which is the most absolute negation of all anarchist ideas and sentiments.”2

Malatesta was not writing about the Haymarket bombing in particular (he wrote this nine years afterwards) but about acts of terror in the more recent past, including the 1894 bombing of the Café Terminus in Paris (which killed one patron and injured twenty others) by anarchist Emile Henry,3 and the bombings by Ravachol who was executed in 1892 and became the hero of those who advocated terrorism.

Human society produces a number of different kinds of violence, but fundamentally they can be broken down into two distinct categories: collective violence and individual violence.  Collective violence has to involve at least two perpetrators and involve at least minimal coordination among the people involved.4) Individual violence is one person acting on their own. Both are subject to determination of their social acceptability in the popular imagination. In our current social system, collective violence is usually acceptable only if authorized by the state; individual violence (if we exclude self-defense) is never socially acceptable. This was absolutely not the case in 1886.

In the late 19th century the use of collective violence by capitalists to “defend their property” was considered perfectly acceptable by most of the middle class. Private armies were hired by capitalists like Jay Gould and Henry Clay Frick to brutalize and/or kill any workers that dared endanger their right to profit from the toil of others. Likewise, among some in the middle class and a very great number of workers, it was considered the right of workers to use collective violence to defend their own right to be treated fairly and not be bullied by robber barons. Armed violence in the defense of liberty was still a tradition at that time. That’s why most of the working class was anything but appalled by the actions of 1877; many were in fact inspired by this bold assertion of class combativeness. It made them proud to be workers. Even the collective actions of the Molly Maguire’s had been seen as an acceptable assertion of workers’ rights to collective self-defense; this despite the fact that many of the acts were carried out by individuals. So why was the force of public opinion, including much worker opinion, turned so quickly against the bombing at Haymarket, and why was it not seen as an acceptable act of retaliation for the killing of the McCormick workers?

Though the range of collective violence might have been more open in 1886, the range of individual violence was almost as limited as it is today. A man was allowed to beat his children and his wife, “within reason”, as this was a family matter. He certainly couldn’t kill them, or anybody else, without justification or he would face serious consequences. Then, as today, an act of self-defense was justifiable. The difference between the assassinations carried out by the Molly Maguires and the bomb thrown at Haymarket was both the failure to meet the criteria of self-defense, and the failure to meet the criteria of acceptable collective violence. The witness reports from Haymarket are wildly conflicting, but if, as some witness testified, the police were firing into the crowd of demonstrators prior to the bombing, then the bomber was probably justified. But the majority of the testimony indicated that the demonstrators were already dispersing (the speakers had finished) and the cops were “hurrying them along” with clubs, kicks, punches, etc; the normal fare for 1886, when the bomb was thrown. If the bomber was pro-worker, it was an act of idiotic madness; if the bomber was anti-worker, it was an act of evil genius.

Asserting that the bomb was thrown by an “agent provocateur” is understandable; it would be hard to come up with an act that better served the interests of the bosses. But it was just an idea. No evidence of such a terrible conspiracy has ever surfaced, and given the quality of mercenary employed by the bosses, it probably would have. Both Johann Most and Lucy Parsons admitted that there was probably no basis for the Agent Provocateur idea. And years afterward, Voltairine de Cleyre, a prominent individualist anarchist, hinted that she knew who the bomber was.

De Cleyres initial reaction to news reports of the bombing is revealing:  “Fifteen years ago today, when the echoes of the Haymarket bomb rolled through the little Michigan village where I lived, I, like the rest of the credulous and brutal, read one lying newspaper headline, “Anarchists throw a bomb in the Haymarket in Chicago,” and immediately cried out, “They ought to be hung.” This, though I’d never believed in capital punishment for ordinary criminals.”5

Even someone already involved in the anarchist movement was immediately captured by this presentation of the events in Chicago. The response was a reflexive outcry against an inexcusable horror. I think it’s safe to say that her reaction was shared with a very large number of people who had no connection with any kind of revolutionary movement or organization;  in other words the vast majority of the population.

The Aftermath

To say that the Haymarket bomb singlehandedly destroyed the hopes of the workers movement in the United States is certainly an exaggeration. To say that it was an important part of a series of events that mark 1886 as a turning point for the American working class is absolutely correct. To say that it discredited and destroyed the ability of anarchists to lead the workers movement at that time is accurate, and this most certainly had a negative effect on the political prospects of the working class in the U.S.

1886 marked the beginning of the decline of the Knights of Labor, and the founding of the American Federation of Labor (FOTLU under a new name). The loss of the Great Southwest Railroad Strike in 1886 probably had more to do with the decline of the Knights than anything else. The strike involved over 200,000 workers in Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kansas and Texas. It should be noted that there was far more violence involved in this strike than in anything that happened in Chicago. This is the strike where robber baron Jay Gould claimed: “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” The army of Pinkerton mercenaries he hired was supplemented by cops, state troops and eventually federal troops.

As violence escalated, the workers fought back. Station houses and mechanic shops were burned, train cars were uncoupled; shots were exchanged. Begun in March of 1886, it was over by June, with a disastrous loss for the workers. Public opinion had turned hard against the workers, which can be attributed directly to the Haymarket events presented in the press. The workers found themselves fighting not only the cops, gun thugs and troops, but also the leadership of the Knights, who wanted desperately to end the strike before violence spread, and to make themselves seem more respectable in the process. The loss of this strike in this way meant the end of the Knight’s influence among railroad workers.

The internal purging of radicals within the Knights is described in detail in “Knights Unhorsed: Internal Conflict in a Gilded Age Labor Movement” by Robert Weir. Conservative Knights Grand Master Terrance Powderly made it his personal mission to eliminate the influence of radicals, especially anarchists, in the organization. Anarchist union leader Joe Buchannan had been instrumental in winning some of the biggest strikes the Knights had been involved with. In 1885 he was perhaps the single leader most responsible for the DEFEAT of Jay Gould in the first southwest railroad strike. This victory was the major impetus behind the phenomenal growth of the Knights, which increased from approximately 120,000 members in 1884 to over 700,000 by 1886! Despite this he was removed from the executive board of the Knights and exiled from any responsible position in the organization: “Buchanan tried his best to don the ideologue mantle and explain the differences between his socialist anarchism and that of the Black International, but his lesson was lost on Powderly.”6

This highlights the two different anarchist positions regarding the workers movement in the 1880s. Socialist anarchists like Buchanan considered themselves socialists first (Buchanan was and remained a member of the 2nd International) and saw anarchism as providing a vocabulary to describe the kind of socialist world they wanted. To them the struggle for workers self-emancipation WAS the revolution. They viewed the workers movement as the beginnings of a new self-managed socialist society, a view that became the essence of anarcho-syndicalism.

The majority of the IWPA anarchists saw the workers movement as a recruiting ground for anarchists, and as a weapon to use against the power of the capitalist state. The destruction of the state was the primary objective. The workers struggle was a conveyer belt that turned militant workers into anarchist revolutionaries. Men like Johann Most (despite being a former social democratic legislative deputy) considered themselves anarchists first and socialists second, if at all; he advocated assassination and bombing as a means of inspiring the masses to revolt and revolution. In this he and his followers were similar to the ultra-left groups of the 1970s and 1980s (Red Army Fraction, Weather Underground, Symbionese Liberation Army, etc). But the masses, far from being inspired, were appalled and frightened. Instead of revolting, they were revolted. The people rejected the violence of the 19th and early 20th century anarchists in the same way they rejected the violence of the ultra-left terrorists decades later. I would guess that this had almost nothing to do with the ideologies involved, and was instead based on the perception that these acts of violence were individual acts, without social context and unconnected to any collectivity, and as such unacceptable and inexcusable.

Acceptable Violence?

“Real individual neighbors are not necessarily loved, but they are loved or hated for concrete, not abstract reasons. And especially they are not hated en masse. On the contrary in order to apply group violence to the neighbor as belonging to a category, the concrete individual’s face has to be erased: the person must become an abstraction.”7

In order for violence to mean something beyond individual expression, it must be connected to a legitimate social collectivity, some body of people which can be considered as a whole. This places it beyond the limits of the state’s monopoly of violence to the degree that it “seriously” challenges that monopoly, and by “serious” I would say: with some realistic hope of success, which means that the act has something more than a symbolic impact.  Historically the collectivity could be based on ethnicity, economic class, nationality, or any of the other ways human beings decide to divide ourselves. It has to be violence coming from, and for, this collectivity. Outside agencies, however sympathetic, do not meet these criteria, whatever the make-up of the actors involved. Only the mass organizations of the collectivity, their remnants, or their accepted agents can meet these criteria for legitimate violence.

Self-appointed revolutionary vanguards do not meet the criteria, unless they can somehow successfully attach themselves to that collectivity, which would be impossible in all but the most disordered, chaotic of circumstances. Even then it would require equal parts ruthlessness, opportunism and good luck to make this (artificial) connection. It can happen, as in Russia, Italy and Germany in the first half of the 20th century, but the results were so monstrous as to be almost unbelievable.

If we consider the utility value of violence, as in the ethical principle of act utilitarianism,8 where the correct action is that which produces the greatest utility (usefulness=happiness, satisfaction, pleasure, etc.) for the greatest number of people, it is even easier to evaluate.  The utility value of the Haymarket bomb was zero. In fact, it had a negative value. It destroyed sympathy for the workers movement and destroyed the ability of anarchists in the workers movement to lead.

In the end, utility value might be the most objective criteria for judging this or any other act of violence. Is it useful? Does it further a greater purpose? Does it do more good than harm?  If these questions can’t be answered with satisfaction, then it’s most likely a bad idea.

  1. Montgomery, Workers Control in America, p. 18 []
  2. Errico Malatesta, Violence as a Social Factor, 1895, in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Vol. 1, Robert Graham editor, Black Rose Books, 2005 []
  3. “Our dead are many; but you have not been able to destroy anarchy. Its roots go deep: its spouts from the bosom of a rotten society that is falling apart; it is a violent backlash against the established order; it stands for the aspirations to equality and liberty which have entered the lists against the current authoritarianism. It is everywhere. That is what makes it indomitable, and it will end by defeating you and killing you.” []
  4. Charles Tilly, The Politics of Collective Violence, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 3 []
  5. From Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine de Cleyre, SUNY Press, 2005, p, 289 []
  6. Robert  Weir, Knights Unhorsed, Wayne State University Press, 2000, P.81 []
  7. Roberto Toscano, “The Face of the Other: Ethics and Intergroup Conflict,” in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), p 68 []
  8. Act utilitarianism states that the value of the consequences of a particular action determines whether it is right or not. Obviously this can be interpreted negatively, as in: the ends justify the means. Human judgment is as paramount in this as in any other ethical consideration. []

One comment

  1. “If they’re the annoying tail csiuang me to kick the entire anarchist dog, forgive me. And if they have that effect on me, someone who is actually predisposed intellectually to give their ideas some credence, imagine what they do to the uninitiated.”Heh, don’t worry about it. Most of my fellow anarchists are easily offended. They haven’t developed the kind of thick skin you get from having rational and intellectually stimulating conversations with the uninitiated. Most of the time they just rant and rant and alienate everyone they talk to, including fellow anarchists and libertarians.We’re anarchists, we’re automatically hated by a huge majority of people. We are (or should be) used to it.

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