Class War Is an American Tradition

As capitalism took shape in the United States during the late 19th century, there was nothing metaphorical about the idea of class war. For American workers facing the merciless brutality of employers and the state, it was simply a fact of life.

Riot by Baltimore and Ohio Railroad workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia, August 1877. (Photo12 / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In America during the late nineteenth century, class war wasn’t just a metaphor. Struggle between workers and their employers would regularly lead to actual warfare.

This tendency has as much to do with the conditions of American capitalism as with the militancy of strikers. The global hegemony of the United States, as both an economic and a geopolitical superpower, was the result of industrialization — and its industrialization was entwined with war.

The Next War

So writes world-systems theorist Giovanni Arrighi and a team of researchers in their global history of political transformation:

At least potentially, this giant island was also a far more powerful military-industrial complex than any of the analogous complexes that were coming into existence in Europe. By the 1850s, the US had become a leader in the production of machines for the mass production of small arms. In the 1860s, a practical demonstration of this leadership was given in the Civil War, the first full-fledged example of an industrialized war.

The Civil War also revolutionized and concentrated the industrial and agricultural means of production, as waves of railway construction established privileged access to the planet’s two largest oceans. “A truly integrated US Continental System,” Arrighi adds, “was realized only after the Civil War of 1860–65 eliminated all political constraints on the national-economy-making dispositions of Northern industrial interests.” This dynamic, in which actual war countersigns accumulation while simultaneously giving it a mythic veneer, is the secret history of industrial capitalism in the United States.

In the canonical version of this argument, the historian Matthew Josephson describes the emergent capitalist class — whose ranks included Jay Gould, J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John Rockefeller — as a cartel of robber barons. Here we get a sense of the martial spirit of industrial capitalism, which found its energies liberated by war and enjoyed lucrative deals in food, produce, clothing, machines, fuel, and railways:

Loving not the paths of glory they slunk away quickly, bent upon business of their own. They were warlike enough and pitiless yet never risked their skin: they fought without military rules or codes of honor or any tactics or weapons familiar to men: they were the strange, new mercenary soldiers of economic life. The plunder and trophies of victory would go neither to the soldier nor the statesman, but to these other young men of ’61, who soon figured as “massive interests moving obscurely in the background” of wars.

In short: capitalists in the United States consolidated their powers in and through war, exploiting political conflict to satisfy an enormous appetite for private profit, acquiring their social form through the battle’s economy and culture. This explains why those same capitalists were so given to narrate their enterprise using the language of military bombast, adopting terms like “captains of industry” and insisting that, for the continual triumph of large-scale industry, “the war of finance is the next war we have to fight.”

Tentacles of Capital

American literature has been alive to the historical apposition if not the mutual imbrication of social structure and military conquest. This tendency is at its most visible with The Octopus, a work of Zola-esque naturalism written by Frank Norris and published in 1901.

Describing the conflict between independent wheat growers of the San Joaquin Valley in Southern California and the tentacular expansion of the Southern Pacific Railroad company, the narrative begins with a half-ironic invocation of the poetic muse on behalf of a young writer who will come to observe the clash between ranchers and the railroad:

He was in search of a subject, something magnificent, he did not know exactly what; some vast, tremendous theme, heroic, terrible, to be unrolled in all the thundering progression of hexameters. That was what he dreamed, while things without names — thoughts for which no man had yet invented words, terrible formless shapes, vague figures, colossal, monstrous, distorted — whirled at a gallop through his imagination.

The unnamed subject here is capital, a dawning empire whose blood-drenched epic is still elusive. “Oh,” he later opines, “to put it all into hexameters; strike the great iron note; sing the vast, terrible song; the song of the People; the forerunners of empire!”

The social substance of such an epic is class conflict, and its combat often takes the form of strikes. As one railway driver insists, “they’ve not got a steadier man on the road,” even as his wages are slashed and his employment terminated, precisely because he has always been a scab. “And when the strike came along, I stood by them — stood by the company,” he says:

You know that. And you know, and they know, that at Sacramento that time, I ran my train according to schedule, with a gun in each hand, never knowing when I was going over a mined culvert, and there was talk of giving me a gold watch at the time.

Another character, who self-identifies as an anarchist, is said to owe his militancy to personal tragedy, for his wife was trampled to death by strikebreakers during the same conflict. “Wait till you’ve seen your wife brought home to you with the face you used to kiss smashed in by a horse’s hoof,” he intones, “killed by the Trust, as it happened to me.”

Deeply opposed to any sort of moderation or compromise, which he describes as a bourgeois luxury — “You could do it, too, if your belly was fed, if your property was safe, if your wife had not been murdered, if your children were not starving. Easy enough then to preach law-abiding methods, legal redress, and all such rot” — this “blood-thirsty anarchist” advocates instead for violent action:

That talk is just what the Trust wants to hear. It ain’t frightened of that. There’s one thing only it does listen to, one thing it is frightened of — the people with dynamite in their hands — six inches of plugged gaspipe.

Railroad Rebellion

There is, however, an anachronistic dimension to Norris’s book, which is set during the 1890s. Before the final decade of the nineteenth century, the railway had already been converted into a site of struggle. More than that, opposition to the railway as a capitalist technology had morphed into antagonistic social practices that used the railway as their vehicle, producing a kind of mobile insurrection for which strikes would serve as catalyst.

As strikes escalated beyond a relatively orderly form of rebellion, anchored in place and defined by employment, the railway provided such antagonism with high-speed transport, spreading solidarity at the pace of capital, opening onto armed conflict against the state as well as the employers and their trusts. Such escalation was new to the period after the Civil War.

As the historian Paul A. Gilje writes: “Before 1865, most violent strikes were limited to cracked heads and were local affairs. After 1865, the rioting became national in scope.” Note the modulation from strike to riot, pivoting on the use of violence, before the two modes of antagonism are regrouped as warfare. Gilje continues:

In the great railroad strike of 1877, workers fought the military from Baltimore to San Francisco. The dimensions of these labor wars continued to capture national headlines with battles at Homestead in 1892, Pullman in 1894, Ludlow in 1914, and Blair Mountain, West Virginia, in 1921.

And while the escalation from strike to war often effaces the original form of struggle, with the strike vanishing from narrative description as the antagonism leaves the worksite and enters the battlefield, here we will discern how that movement shifts its organizational energy away from any one given workforce in order to mobilize as a class. The multiple interlocking rail strikes of 1877 are exemplary and seminal events in such a movement, with workers in and around the railway industry organizing for, and committing to, an armed uprising.

Taking place during the long depression that began in 1873 and lasted until 1879 — a downturn that wrecked the railroad companies, reduced track expansion, and decimated the railroad craft brotherhood — the strike started over wage cuts in Martinsburg, West Virginia. From there it spread up, down, and along the railways, with strikers taking up weapons, burning depots, and fighting off the forces of repression, only to be joined by workers from other industries, producing comprehensive general strikes that shut down entire cities.

According to the writer and journalist Louis Adamic, this was a time of material hardship coupled with massively diminished union power:

Hundreds of thousands were suddenly thrown out of work. Wages were reduced. The reductions caused prolonged and desperate strikes. Every one of them failed. Some strikes were followed by lockouts, so that vast numbers of people could not get to work on any terms. Labor leaders were blacklisted. Between 1873 and 1880 real and nominal wages were cut to almost one-half of the former standards. Labor organizations went out of existence. There were no leaders to lead them and no workmen to pay the dues. In New York City alone the trade union membership dropped from 45,000 to under 5,000.

While the train brotherhoods were fragmented according to craft, didn’t coordinate with other branches, negotiated their own labor agreements, and were universally opposed to strikes or disruptions, now the workers self-organized into their own secret union: a representative and coordinating body open to all craft workers. Their first meeting took place in Pittsburgh on June 2, 1877, where they pledged to unite across crafts: “In short, unity of capital would be met at last by unity of labor.”

America’s Paris Commune

If this pledge gestured at an expanded (though industry- or employment-bound) sense of class, the conflicts themselves would take that principle further. The strike’s expansive scope was more than the result of the nearly absent labor unions. In fact, it occurred despite their presence, with warlike action fulfilling its pedagogical role in the place of older and ultimately conservative institutions.

A manifesto issued by the workers in Westernport, Maryland, on July 20 warned the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad that, if wages were not restored, “the officials will hazard their lives and endanger their property,” and promised the kinds of sabotage pioneered by the Luddites in England:

For we shall run their trains and locomotives into the river; we shall blow up their bridges; we shall tear up their railroads; we shall consume their shops with fire and ravage their hotels with desperation.

True to their word, the strikers’ tactics were violent and destructive, including the removal of coupling pins and brakes, the tearing up of tracks, making trains only run backward, cutting telegraph wires, and shooting strikebreakers.

As a school of war, these strikes demonstrate a double movement of expansion and escalation, from local strike to wider conflict and from reformism to insurrection; and this, as the realized threat of war, proved decisive in the consolidation not just of railway workers but of oppressed peoples from many backgrounds into a unified class. So writes the labor movement scholar Robert Ovetz:

Several thousand Irish packing-house workers armed with butcher knives were met by cheering Czech workers marching across the city to enforce the strike and force employers to raise wages. Gender differences were also dissolving in the strike. The Times estimated that 20 percent of the strikers and their supporters were women. The Chicago Inter-Ocean generated national attention with their report of “Bohemian Amazons” whose “Brawny, sunburnt arms brandished clubs. Knotty hands held rocks and sticks and wooden blocks.” A fence around one plant was “carried off by the petticoated plunderers” and other similar portrayals of the powerful women who helped enforce the strike.

Armed conflict serves as a shared language that leaps across racial as well as gendered divisions to forge a provisional unity against interconnected systems of oppression.

This tendency would be carried through to the climax of the movement in the general strikes in St Louis and East St Louis, where for a few days a multiethnic coalition of strikers shut down much of their industry and the cities were controlled by executive strike committees. Comparisons were made with the events that had occurred six years previously in France. “In St. Louis and East St. Louis,” writes Ovetz, “the strike went further as workers across the cities shut down all industry and became renown in the press of the time as America’s ‘Paris Commune.’”

Adamic made the same comparison in his history of class violence in America. “The underdog had given capitalism in America its first big scare,” he writes. “The memory of the Paris Commune of six years before was still fresh.” Not just the memory, either; it was the very spirit of 1871, the commitment to solidarity through an expansive mobilization of class, that made the movement powerful.