History Ideas International Labor

The Tactical Utility of VIOLENCE, Part 1

By Mike Kolhoff

Old Joke:
On Ellis Island, early in the 20th century, an elderly eastern European man is being processed for immigration into the United States. He stands before the desk of the immigration officer who loudly asks him, without looking up: “Do you advocate the overthrow of the United States Government by subversion or violence?”

The old man mulls it over for a few seconds, then answers:  “VIOLENCE!”

What place does violence have in the struggle to overthrow the capitalist system? What place does it have in any struggle? Is the current definition of violence as accepted by the ruling regime and the loyal opposition relevant or realistic? These questions interest me enough to make me want to take a stab (no pun intended) at answering them, and a few more, by examining violence in the workers movement in North America. I want to try to examine violent action from a tactical standpoint, free from the moral preconditions of the religious and pacifist positions.

The etymological origin of the word violence is the Latin “violentus”, meaning vehement, forceful, and probably related to “violare”, meaning to violate. This is the earliest appearance of the word in Western European language, meaning that all future western definitions of the term should be derivative from this root. This is of course not the case, and the definition of violence in modern industrial society has taken on an abstract and contradictory character, as has peace, freedom, love, hate, joy, democracy, etc. Most of this abstraction is derived from sociological interpretations of ideas of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” violence.

Sociologist Max Weber and political theorist Hannah Arendt have added to the mystification of violence, removing it from any natural and neutral sense, and helping to make it the vehicle for both maintaining power and facilitating oppression. Weber is responsible for the definition of state (governmental) power as “the monopoly of the legitimate use of force”. Arendt defined violence inherently in the negative, as something sometimes justifiable, but never acceptable: “Violence can be justifiable, but it never will be legitimate … Its justification loses in plausibility the farther its intended end recedes into the future. No one questions the use of violence in self-defense, because the danger is not only clear but also present, and the end justifying the means is immediate”.1 And more to the point: “The end of human action, as distinct from the end products of fabrication, can never be reliably predicted. The means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals.”2 The implication is: if we defend ourselves when attacked, we are justified, but it is still socially wrong. Is this because violence is somehow unnatural? Or is it more because our definition of “violence” has drifted too far from the original, and largely neutral, definition? If violence is natural, then its rightness or wrongness is purely a human social construction. Yet we seem to instinctively know when an act of violence is right, and when an act of violence is wrong.

A mother shooting someone threatening her children is something anyone but a dogmatic pacifist would see as right; while a mugger beating an elderly man to death for the contents of his wallet would be instinctively and universally seen as wrong. Official, “legitimate” violence is judged on a political basis as much as a moral one, expressed in the interpretation of events: the terrorist attack on the world trade center could be interpreted as a viscous act of mass murder or justified retaliation for cultural destruction and racism; the killing of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians could be seen as mass murder or justified retaliation for a terrorist attack.

Dogmatic pacifism has defined any kind of violence, even justifiable self-defense, as unacceptable, in keeping with the essence of Arendt’s position. This pacifist tendency is derived from two primary sources, both religion-based. The first is the Christian pacifism of the protestant dissenter sects, such as the Friends, the Amish, the Mennonites, etc. These groups take their inspiration from various passages in the New Testament, mostly from the Sermon on the Mount, related to the eventual superiority of the meek and the turning of cheeks.

The other source of dogmatic pacifism is from Hinduism, as practiced by Mohandas Gandhi, who developed the practice of “Satyagraha”, or “non-violent resistance”, in the struggle for Indian rights in South Africa and during the Indian independence movement against British colonialism. In this theory, the means and ends are completely inseparable, and violence, force of any kind, is always “unjust”. “They say, ‘means are, after all, means’. I would say, ‘means are, after all, everything’. As the means, so the end.”3 Gandhi’s position is based on the “law of suffering” as it appears in many eastern religions, where suffering is seen as a good thing, in that it accrues beneficial “Karma”, which in turn can be exchanged in some way for a pleasant reincarnation. Of course if “karma” doesn’t exist, if the universe isn’t operated like a giant buyers bonus club, then suffering is just suffering, and ending suffering should be a primary goal of any human activity.

The 20th century Indian independence movement did not begin or end with Mohandas Gandhi and in fact included significant elements of the armed struggle. Leaders such as Sri Aurobindo and Subash Chandra Bose advocated immediate overthrow of the British Raj by violent means if necessary. Bose (called Netaji) worked with the Soviet Union and Germany to seek support for his Indian National Army, eventually allying with the Japanese and openly fighting the British in Burma and at the battle of Imphal in northeast India. Bose saw WWII as the perfect opportunity to overthrow the British and drive them out of India. So did Mohandas Gandhi, who launched the “Quit India Movement” in 1942, although he vacillated on the point, declaring that he did not wish to “build a free India in the Ashes of Britain.” By 1943 the Quit India movement was no longer moving, with all its leaders imprisoned.

Gandhi’s overtly racist statements regarding black South Africans are public knowledge, as is his participation in the British suppression of the Bambetta rebellion in 1906 South Africa (he served as a stretcher bearer in the colonial army).  He was also a strong advocate of racial purity: “We believe as much in the purity of race as we think they do; only we believe that they would best serve these interests, which are as dear to us as to them, by advocating the purity of all races, and not one alone. We believe also that the white race of South Africa should be the predominating race.”4 Recent protests over the erection of a statue of Gandhi in Johannesburg have reminded many people that the civil rights he was fighting for in South Africa were limited to British Indians, and specifically excluded black Africans.

It was during this period in South Africa that the construction of the Gandhi myth began, mostly by American missionaries and visiting clergy, such as Unitarian minister John H. Holmes who described Gandhi as “the greatest man since Jesus Christ.”

George Orwell, in his 1949 essay “Reflections on Gandhi” pointed out the level of support Gandhi had from the colonial authorities in India, who were terrified of a mass uprising of the Indian people: “Strictly speaking, as a Nationalist, he was an enemy, but since in every crisis he would exert himself to prevent violence – which, from the British point of view, meant preventing any effective action whatsoever – he could be regarded as “our man.” In private this was sometimes cynically admitted. The attitude of the Indian millionaires was similar. Gandhi called upon them to repent, and naturally they preferred him to the Socialists and Communists who, given the chance, would actually have taken their money away.”

Surely the most questionable actions by MK Gandhi involved his treatment of the Dalits of India, those called “untouchables”. Gandhi himself was a “high caste” Indian, of the merchant caste of Vaishyas. The Hindu religion teaches that untouchables are being punished for their sins in a past life. The entire Indian caste system is based on this idea of divine reward (for the upper castes) and divine punishment (for the lower castes). In 1933 Gandhi went on a hunger strike specifically to protest the inclusion of an article in the Indian draft constitution which granted Dalits the right to elect their own leaders. Literally tens of thousands of Dalits were murdered in the riots that followed. In the end, the rights of the Dalits were sacrificed.

The Dalit freedom movement of Bhimaro Ramji Ambedkar was a far more admirable effort than that of Gandhi and his followers. “Ambedkar was one of Gandhi’s harshest critics, a bitter opponent of the manner in which Gandhi drew a gauze of unity over what for him was India’s warring social landscape. For Ambedkar, the Gandhian movement was conservative, upper caste, and bourgeois, a movement resisting the full-scale socioeconomic transformation of Indian society.”5 Ambedkar correctly argued that democracy without social transformation was pointless, refusing to align his Dalit movement with the Indian nationalist cause, and railing against “enlightened high caste social reformers who did not have the courage to agitate against caste.” Ambedkar championed the idea of the industrial strike, a form of protest that Gandhi refused to sanction, since he opposed all types of class-based conflict.6 Ambedkar rejected Gandhism, the caste system, and eventually all Hinduism, converting to Buddhism in 1956.

The person of Gandhi and whether or not he was a perfect human being is of little real significance. It is the deification of Gandhi by the pacifist cult that’s important. The presentation of Gandhi as a latter-day Jesus, a man who is More than a man, takes us directly to the Christian pacifists, and it’s no accident that much of the Gandhi myth has been the work of American evangelists. Through their work Gandhi has become a saintly figure beyond criticism or even critical analysis. The presentation of a flawless Gandhi has become as vital as the presentation of a flawless Jesus. Criticism of Gandhi is as unthinkable as criticism of Jesus. In turn, the idea of passive, non-violent protest has become sacrosanct, immune to criticism, and accepted without question as the only truly legitimate means of opposing the actions of the State. It is presented as the Perfect Tactic, in fact the only legitimate tactic, for dealing with social change. That this accepts the State’s monopoly of violence in the same way that “the free market” is accepted as the only legitimate form of economy, and so is a tacit acceptance of the inequity, injustice, and brutality that are inseparable from the Capitalist State, makes it acceptable to the dominant class for the simple reason that it does not threaten them.

Hannah Arendt has produced a significant analysis of this phenomenon in the above referenced work “On Violence.”  Writing in 1969, the thrust of the work is a critique of the New Left’s love affair of violence, demonstrated in the emergence of numerous clandestine armed struggle organizations. Her critique draws a clear line between violence and power, arguing against such old saws as Weber and Mao. She correctly notes that the only thing that can come out of the barrel of a gun is violence, in the form of a bullet. Power is something different, and may or may not use violence (which she defines as force) to establish itself. “In a head-on clash between violence and power, the outcome is hardly in doubt. If Gandhi’s enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance had met with a different enemy- Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, even pre-war Japan, instead of England- the outcome would not have be decolonization, but massacre and submission.”7 She does however cling to a belief in a humanity that is somehow beyond and above nature, which is inexplicable. True that human culture has taken us far from the Hobbesian “state of nature”, a few thousand years of civilization are insufficient to alter 100,000 years of genetic coding. We are separate from nature to the degree that we believe ourselves to be, and even so it is a baseless belief, as any natural “disaster” quickly demonstrates.

The radical environmentalist movement has recently become the focus of both police repression and a vigorous tactical debate over the use of violence. The arrest of a number of members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), their trials and attendant harsh sentences for “eco-terrorism”, has underscored one relevant fact: the Capitalist State is scared shitless of violence. They can dismiss peaceful protests by crowds in the hundreds of thousands, ignore even the most aggressive letter-writing campaigns, but one thing they cannot ignore is the willingness to blow the crap out of property.

The sentence given to Marie Mason (an IWW member and former editor of the Industrial Worker) is one of the most outrageous (21 years in prison for arson), and reflects the determination of the State to use the PermaWar on Terror as a club to beat domestic opposition into submission. For comparison, the average sentence for manslaughter in the USA is 7-15 years. Sentencing Mason to significantly more years in prison than someone who killed another person is a clear message: attacking the basis of Capitalism (private property) is worse than killing someone. Property is to be protected, people are to be imprisoned. It is not that property has the same rights as people; property has MORE rights than people. “Violence against property”, what was once dismissed as vandalism, is now a crime against the economy and the State. The judge at the trial admitted that Mason’s main crime was against “the marketplace of ideas”8 , a bizarre and mystical place apparently, where ethics are reserved for real estate and people are served only abuse.

Author Derrick Jensen has some very interesting points on the use of violence and “property violence” in his 2 volume opus, “Endgame.” From one of the twenty premises:

“Premise Five: The property of those higher on the hierarchy is more valuable than the lives of those below. It is acceptable for those above to increase the amount of property they control—in everyday language, to make money—by destroying or taking the lives of those below. This is called production. If those below damage the property of those above, those above may kill or otherwise destroy the lives of those below. This is called justice.”

Another interesting premise:

“Premise Thirteen: Those in power rule by force, and the sooner we break ourselves of illusions to the contrary, the sooner we can at least begin to make reasonable decisions about whether, when, and how we are going to resist.”

Jensen has no qualms about the use of violence and presents decent refutations of the claims made by dogmatic pacifists. I have problems with several aspects of his program (he demands that “civilization” has to be destroyed, yet is clearly writing about one culture, western industrialism, as the destroyer of the world; civilization didn’t begin in Europe, so it doesn’t make sense that it should end there); but I find more to agree with in his work than to disagree with.

Like many people who are able to recognize and articulate the need for radical social change, he has only the foggiest of ideas of how to bring it about. By ignoring the class struggle, he makes his own position impossible, a not uncommon mistake made by radical environmentalists. He is however absolutely correct in stating that we should not allow the forces of the State to maintain their monopoly of legitimate force. To do so is to surrender the one thing they fear most of all. Jensen also accurately points out that among the lower classes violence is a daily reality. To say “violence never works” is to state the opposite of what we see every day. Violence definitely works, that’s why the State uses it so often and so energetically. But if we’re to consider the use of violence intelligently, we need to study its history and application, which for us means how and if it has been effective in historical workers struggles. To do this I want to look at several confrontations between working class rebels and the armed representatives of the Capitalist Sate, determining the results of these based on a very simple criterion: did the outcome further the cause of workers struggle, or did it negatively affect that struggle?

The Molly Maguires

The civil war gave the same sort of boost to industrial capitalism that World War 2 gave to consumer capitalism, and as the current PermaWar on “terror” is designed to boost the next phase of capitalist transformation. The principle industrial focus in the years after the civil war was the building of the railroads. Between 1850 and 1870 the miles of track in the United States expanded from 5000 to nearly 80000, and the principle fuel of this expansion was coal-fired steam engines. Coal mining and railroad work were the growth areas of employment, with high hopes on the part of workers for expansion of labor unions and accompanying improvements in pay and conditions. This already vain hope was blown completely to hell when criminal activity in the banking and finance industries resulted in a financial panic and then an economic collapse (sound familiar?). Stock market flimflams and real estate scams are as old as capitalism, and the depression of 1873 was every bit as momentous as the depression of the 1930s. Certainly thousands died of starvation, mostly children. In those days the deaths of working people were not given much notice, especially if they were foreign-born and/or Catholic.

Union membership, which had grown steadily up to the war years and during the war, dropped dramatically. Union membership in the coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania had never been large, and the downturn in the economy destroyed the organizations that had existed. The group called the Molly Maguires first appeared during the civil war, as the bosses fought the nascent organizing taking place when work was plentiful. The coal operators encouraged their managers to utilize any and all resources to stop workers from forming unions, including violence. The Mollys came together as a means for the unorganized workers to fight back, and they also used violence. It had been said, even by those sympathetic to the capitalists, that the coal company gangs committed 10 murders for every one the Mollys did, but even one worker daring to strike back at their masters was intolerable to the capitalists. The actions of the Molly Maguires were called terrorist even at the time, and that’s pretty much what they were! More than a few coal company mine managers ended up shot in the head with a threatening note pinned to their bloody shirts. During the long strike of 1875 other miners who were considering going back to work were likewise threatened with murder unless they changed their minds.

The coal bosses hired the Pinkerton detective agency to destroy the Molly Maguires, and that is what they did, either by killing suspected members outright or by framing known Mollys for various murders which they may or may not have been a party to. The 1876 hanging of 20 Molly Maguires in eastern Pennsylvania was good kindling for the Great Strike that came after.

It’s hard to see how the actions of the Molly Maquires advanced the workers struggle in any real way. Operating as a “secret society”, they exposed themselves to the same danger of infiltration and destruction all clandestine organizations face. Their actions were retaliatory, exacting revenge for things the bosses did, and got lost in the cycle of revenge that such actions are necessarily limited to. The mine operators were of course infuriated, not so much at the murder of their managers, but at the sabotage and destruction of their property. The Molly Maguires did the most good when they were destroying the bosses’ property, and not the bosses’ minions. Still, the Molly Maguires offered a glimmer of hope for the miners of Pennsylvania when any chance of fighting back seemed impossible. The resources and energy expended by the capitalists in arranging their demise indicates the level of fear they caused them. Their sacrifice exposed the ruthlessness and criminality of the coal operators more than discrediting the workers struggle in any way.

The Great Uprising of 1877

Called variously the Great Upheaval, the Great Strike, the Great Railroad Strike, and the Great Labor Uprising of 1877, this event was possibly the most significant action in the class war to take place in the USA before or since. It was a great victory of working people over the power of the bosses, even though it failed to establish libertarian socialism and workers control, and in fact saw self-organized workers defeated in detail across the country. Hundreds were killed outright, many more were sent to prison. The railroad barons were able to call on the power of the federal government, in the form of the Army, to crush the workers revolution as it was being born. Yet it was still a victory beyond the wildest hopes of those who fought in the streets and rail yards. The depth of the fear it instilled in the capitalist class can be measured in the thickness of the walls of the fortified armories built in the middle of many cities afterwards.

After the defeat of the Long Strike of the coal miners and the destruction of the Molly Maguires it seemed that a kind of deadly quiet settled over the class struggle in the United States. The power of the Robber Barons, who tried to own everything and to control what they could not own, seemed unbeatable. “By the summer of 1877 it had become clear that no single group of workers- whether through peaceful demonstration, tightly-knit trade unions, armed terrorism, or surprise strikes- could stand against the power of the companies, their armed guards, the Pinkertons, and the armed forces of the government.”9

All of that began to change on July 16th, 1877, when the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) railroad enforced yet another wage cut for workers. That this 10 percent wage cut came only one day after the company president had proudly announced a 10 percent dividend for stock holders made the situation glaringly obvious. This was the third wage reduction since the beginning of the 1873 depression, and workers were literally at the starvation level. With company charge-backs (for housing, tools, even train fare!), workers and their families were forever hungry, ill-clothed and in growing debt to the company stores. The July 16th cut was the final blow.

The uprising began in West Virginia, when workers decided to stop all freight trains until the 10 percent wage cut was reversed. Passenger and mail trains were not affected.10 In Martinsburg, efforts by the sheriff and mayor to end the strike were dismissed and rejected. By the time regional managers of the B&O were running to the governor’s office, the strike had already begun to spread along the rail lines. The governor was only too happy to order a militia company to go to Martinsburg and crush the strike. What he wasn’t aware of was that the militiamen of the area were also railroad workers, and they, and most of the town, were fully in support of the strike. When the militia arrived in Martinsburg they were greeted by cheers and handshakes from friends and relatives, strikers all, who met them at the station. After a long search the managers finally found an engineer willing to take a train out. With armed militiamen in the engine house and on top of the cow catcher, the freight train rolled out of the round house. A striker, armed with a pistol, rushed in and tried to switch the train onto a siding. He exchanged shots with militia and was hit three times. The striker, William Vandergriff, died 9 days later, leaving behind a pregnant wife with no means of support.

After this incident the local militia refused to follow orders, many of them throwing off their uniforms and changing back into civilian clothes. The colonel in charge wired the governor that he could do nothing more, that the militia was unreliable, and then he dismissed his company.

Another militia company, this time from farther away, was called in. But they too appeared sympathetic to the strikers, and the officer in charge was reluctant to press the issue, deciding instead to wait for federal troops, which by this time the governor had requested. President Rutherford B. Hayes had come to power with the backing and connivance of the railroad barons. He had no problem using troops to break strikes (and had previously done so as governor of Ohio). On July 18 he issued a proclamation ordering that the “lawless elements in West Virginia are to disburse by noon on July 19th”.11 The 2nd US Artillery under General William French was dispatched to Martinsburg to insure that his orders were carried out, 300 of whom arrived by the 19th. Strikebreakers from Baltimore arrived on the 20th, and the freight trains began to move. Strikers who tried to block the tracks were arrested for inciting a riot. It appeared that the strike was broken.

This was anything but the case. The same day, July 20th, handbills began to show up on walls in all of the B&O railroad towns. They carried bold titles such as: “WE SHALL CONQUOR OR WE SHALL DIE”. The strike was just getting under way.

On July 16th  strikers in Baltimore had also walked out, but were almost immediately broken apart by police, militia and company mercenaries. The difference between Baltimore and Martinsburg had been in the almost 100 percent community support for the strike in Martinsburg and the surrounding area. With this support the strikers had been able to seize the trains, the rail yards and the roundhouses, and also defend themselves against the militia, whose sympathies were in any case with the strikers.12

The strike spread to Newark, Ohio and Hornellsville, New York. In Hornellsville the New York governor had the unpleasant experience of mobilizing 600 members of the state militia to “quell the riot,” only to have them found picnicking and socializing with the strikers.13

The strike erupted again in Baltimore when the governor ordered the mobilization of the 5th and 6th Maryland militia to put down disturbances in Cumberland. Thousands of workers gathered outside the armories and the Camden train station. At the armories they at first cheered the militia as they left the building, but the cheers turned to shouts of derision as the troops formed up to march. The shouts were followed by a rain of stones, driving the militiamen back into the armory. The crowd was definite: the troops were not going to be allowed to get on the trains. After keeping them under siege for several hours, the soldiers began to fire into the crowd and they began to exit the armory by company. The best estimate of the number of workers killed in the shooting is over a dozen, probably a lot more, with many dozens wounded.  The strikers dragged their dead and wounded away from the battle, so the actual numbers are unknown.

At the Camden railway station, strikers hearing of the slaughter outside the armories set fire the station, a lumberyard, a train of oil cars, and a foundry.

On the 19th workers at the Pennsylvania railroad in Pittsburgh joined the strike. Soon foundry workers and mill workers were with them. At a mass meeting at Phoenix Hall they loudly declared their solidarity. Attempts by Pittsburgh authorities to mobilize the local militia failed miserably. Most of the militiamen were either strike supporters or on strike themselves. One officer reported to his commander: “You can place little dependence on the troops in your division; some have thrown down their arms, others have left, and I fear the situation very much”.14

The call was sent for 600 troops from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh’s commercial rival. As the Philadelphia troops arrived and began to form up outside the railroad depot, a company official is quoted as saying: “The Philadelphia regiment won’t fire over the heads of the mob.”15

A crowd of 5-6000 was at the station to bar the tracks and keep the trains from moving. The Philadelphia troops fixed bayonets and tore into the crowd, slashing and stabbing many. The crowd responded with stones, bricks and pistol fire. Suddenly the Philadelphia troops began firing into the crowd, shooting as fast as they could reload. At least 20 people were killed on the spot, many more were wounded, some of whom probably died later. The crowd scattered as local militia members looked on in shock as a Gatling gun was brought forward. Most of them went home in disgust or else joined the strikers.

With the tracks now cleared, several engines were fired up. But the train crews who had stayed loyal to the company and not joined the strike now refused to operate them.  The strike had not only held – it had expanded. The Philadelphia troops retired to the roundhouse and began to dig in.

Enraged at the massacre, the working classes of Pittsburgh turned out in force. Several thousand armed workers surrounded the roundhouse and began shooting. More workers came as time passed, armed with guns, knives, sticks and stones, the crowd poured a withering fire into the roundhouse. Workers formed themselves into fighting formations and marched under arms through the streets to join the attack. Local militiamen who had joined the strikers even turned one of their field guns on the roundhouse and began a bombardment.

Finally the roundhouse caught fire, this after several rail cars full of coal and oil had been rammed into the building. As the flames began to engulf the Pennsylvania depot, the Philadelphia National Guardsmen decided they had had enough. They had to retreat, but they had to run a gauntlet of gunfire and projectiles as they fled. The workers of Pittsburgh had completely beaten the army.

Across the river from Pittsburgh, the town of Allegheny was completely under workers control. After taking guns from the armory, units of strikers dug entrenchments and rifle pits at key points to defend against government troops. Strikers took over the telegraph office and used it to send messages up and down the railway. They continued to operate the passenger trains, under workers control, and formed patrols to keep peace in the streets at night.

“The strike spread almost as fast as word of it, and with it came conflict with the military. In the Pennsylvania towns of Columbia, Meadville, and Chenago, strikers seized the railroads, occupied the roundhouses, and stopped troop trains. In Buffalo, New York, the militia was stoned on Sunday but scattered the crowd by threatening to shoot. The next morning a crowd armed with knives and cudgels stormed into the railroad shops, brushed aside militia guards, and forced shopmen to stop work. They seized the Erie roundhouse and barricaded it. When a militia company marched out to recapture the property, a thousand people blocked and drove them back.”16

In Reading, Pennsylvania the militia again opened fire on strikers, killing 11. The people were enraged, and began plundering freight cars and tearing up tracks. They broke into the armory and took enough rifles to arm their own company of fighters. When the company of militia that had killed the 11 strikers marched down the track toward the strikers they were met with stones and bricks, but a newly arrived company of militia was greeted warmly by friends among the strikers. When the troops that had massacred the 11 formed up to menace the strikers, the new militia troops went over to the strikers side, telling them” If you fire at the mob, we’ll fire at you.”17

Mutinies among militia units happened in many places. In Lebanon, Pennsylvania they mutinied but remained under arms, marching through the streets to the cheers of the crowd. Most just changed back into their civilian clothes and went home or joined the strike.

The entire city of St. Louis, Missouri was under workers control for several days. At a rally of 10,000 strikers, a barrel-maker proclaimed: “There was a time in the history of France when the poor found themselves oppressed to such an extent that forbearance ceased to be virtue, and hundreds of heads tumbled into the basket. That time may have arrived with us.”18 The British consul in St. Louis noted how the workers of the railroad had “taken the road into their own hands, running the trains and collecting fares…” Mills, a sugar refinery, and dozens of other enterprises remained in operation, under worker self-management. This experiment in workers control was eventually broken by federal troops, vigilantes, railroad mercenaries and the city police. Twenty to thirty people died and hundreds were wounded in the street fighting that took place before the tyrannical order of capitalism was finally restored.

Participation in the General Strike took place in cities as far away as San Francisco, making it a truly national workers rebellion, and a moment all working class Americans should be proud of, although in the end the power of the capitalist class, with the federal army at their disposal, was too strong to be defeated. In truth the demands of the strikers had never been revolutionary or unreasonable: they just wanted enough pay to not starve. Yet for the limitless greed of the capitalists, even this was considered ridiculous and impossible. Any collective action by working people was seen as criminal conspiracy, and the ruling class would hang the ringleaders like they had the Molly Maguires. What resulted from capitalist stupidity was an outburst of working class anger and creativity that hasn’t been equaled since in the USA, but hopefully will again, sooner rather than later.

On a tactical level, the violent resistance of the strikers was successful in many places in the short term. In some places the police and government militia switched sides and joined in the cause of the workers. Turning again to Hannah Arendt:  “In a contest of violence against violence, the superiority of the government has always been absolute; but this superiority lasts only as long as the power structure of the government remains intact- that is, as long as commands are obeyed and the army or police forces are prepared to use their weapons. When this is no longer the case the situation changes abruptly. Not only is the rebellion not put down, but the arms themselves change hands, sometimes, as in the case of the Hungarian revolution, within a few hours.”19

Unfortunately the state seemed to have an unlimited supply of killers whose only loyalty was to the money they were paid. The participation of the labor unions was virtually non-existent. In places like Pittsburgh men who had been leaders in the unions became leaders in the general strike, but just as often it seemed that leaders appeared out of the crowds of working people spontaneously, put forward for their good sense and cool heads rather than any union affiliation. The only political party that claimed to champion the cause of the working class, the Workingmen’s Party, had nothing to do with creation of the strike, and in fact appeared as frightened as the capitalists in some ways, actually issuing initial calls for caution and non-violence. They were active in spreading the strike after it had already begun, and played important roles in those places they were strongest (Chicago and St. Louis), but, all in all, they were pretty much irrelevant. It was the experience of the Great Strike that helped moved one of the Workingmen’s Party leaders, Albert Parsons, towards Anarchism and away from the electoral strategy of the Marxists.20

As amazing as the spontaneity of the Great Uprising, was the class solidarity demonstrated by the working people of places like Pittsburgh and Baltimore. It was this solidarity that would survive the cannon fire of the army and the hangman’s noose, and urge the working class into the fight for the 8 hour day in the continuing war with the robber barons of the capitalist class.


Haymarket and the first Red Scare

  1. Arendt, Hannah; On Violence, 1970, Harvest Book. p. 52. []
  2. Arendt, p.2 []
  3. R. K. Prabhu & U. R. Rao, editors; The Mind of Mahatma Ghandi,  1967, Ahemadabad, India []
  4. MK Gandhi, Indian Opinion, 24 September 1903 []
  5. Sarkar, Sumit, The Logic of Gandhian Nationalism, The Indian Historical review, July 1976 []
  6. Ghosh, B.N.; Gandhian Political Economy: Principals, Practice and Policy, Ashgate Publ., 2007 p. 46 []
  7. Arendt, p. 53 []
  8. Reed, Henry; Fifth Estate, #380, Spring 2009 []
  9. Brecher, Jeremy; Strike!, South End Press, Boston, 1997 p.22 []
  10. Foner, Phillip; The Great Labor Uprising of 1877; Monad Press, New York, p. 35 []
  11. Foner, p. 42 []
  12. Brecher, p. 19 []
  13. Len, Sidney; The Labor Wars; Doubleday, New York, 1973  p.45 []
  14. Brecher, p. 24 []
  15. Brecher, p. 25 []
  16. Brecher, p. 27-28 []
  17. Brecher, 28 []
  18. Burbank, David; The Reign of the Rabble: The St. Louis General Strike of 1877; Kelly, New York 1966 p. 53 []
  19. Arendt, p. 48 []
  20. The Workingmen’s Party was dominated by the followers of Marx and Ferdinand Lassalle. []


  1. The way I heard the joke that leads off this article goes something like this:

    The old man is asked, “Do you advocate the overthrow of the government by force or violence?”

    He replies, “You mean I have a choice?”


  2. question for mike:
    mike, are you going to address in this series the realistic use of civilian force against a military machine that has gained overwhelming technology and mass very quickly, with extreme and unlimited financing, that includes the use of unmanned drones and one button to blow the earth to ashes? i appreciate the notes about organizing the police/military to lay down their weapons (maybe a good article would be on the hungarian revolution?) but i think, tentatively, that the first or most important article, to be followed by your historical examples of useful force which are important in and of themselves, would be an extremely honest, informed and realistic appraisal of an organized civilian mass’ ability to trump the american military. or even the appraisal of organized civilians WITH the cooperation of the rank and file police/military.

  3. Thanks for your comments! I absolutely agree that a realistic assessment of a winnable revolutionary confrontation would be interesting, and I’ll try to come up with one before this series is done. My thoughts on this are developing as we go along.

    As to the ability of an organized civilian mass to trump the full force of the military, obviously that can’t happen. Any mass movement must have the power to command the loyalty of a substantial part of the military if it is to succeed. And it must be able and willing to destroy that part of the military that will stand with the oppressors.

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