Anarchist bombs and working class struggle

David Douglass reviews Louis Adamic's 'Dynamite: the story of class violence in America', AK Press, 2009, pp352, £13

AK are to be highly congratulated for bringing out this book. It was first published in 1931, with a revised edition in 1934, republished 1958 and abridged back into availability in 1984.

I suspect it is one which will greatly inform and surprise your average British leftist - possibly even quite a few American ones too. It describes the huge influence of anarchist working class leaders, and the centrality of armed resistance to the American labour movement from the turn of the 19th century to the end of the 1930s: “Thenceforth [following the electoral defeats of the Socialist Labor Party in 1885] Anarchism was definitely a growing movement in Chicago. The active membership of the anarchist clubs perhaps never exceeded 3,000 - surely a small number in a community of 850,000 - but among the leaders were picturesque, intense men … they talked much of ‘the revolution’, dynamite, human rights, justice, firearms, liberty, arson and received much sensational publicity” (p44).

The book highlights two early formations and influences of the movement - the Western Federation of Miners, for instance, hugely powerful and dynamic, which spawned the later Industrial Workers of the World, and provided some of those memorable leaders. The readiness of this movement to respond to violence with violence is rooted in the merciless oppression of the miners and other trade unionists both at work and on the streets - often slaughtered en masse by police, troops and other hired thugs: “Most of the violence in the class struggle in the United States was perpetrated by organised capitalist interests, acting largely through their agents in the government ... these massacres, frame-ups, judicial murders are not going unavenged. The underdog in America is getting his vengeance” (pviii).

Not that the IWW, for example, had violence as a policy means to an end: its tactics were primarily those of mass action and the mass picket and boycott. Where it engaged in violence, it was purely defensive. It did though, advance the tactic of sabotage - this was moved up several points by the ironworkers union, which sought to undo any work undertaken by non-union or scab labour. Dynamiting structures which the employers had prided themselves in having built without recognising or hiring union workers.

But armed struggle can be a double-edged sword. Its tactical legitimacy can be robbed by unintended causalities, especially those on your own side. So it was that the 1910 bombing of the anti-union Los Angeles Times, when several workers were killed, turned into a spectacular debacle, which the employers might only have prayed for. A huge international and domestic campaign had been built around the proposition that the building had been badly built, that the explosion was caused by a gas leak and that the dynamic union men banged up had been patently framed. At the 11th hour, however, the McNamara brothers confessed to the bombing and not only pulled the rug from under the defence, but set back the confidence of the whole working class movement and the spirit of the previously pugnacious American Federation of Labor.

One of the influential organisations of the period covered by the book was the Noble Order Of The Knights of Labor, founded in 1869 by a Philadelphia garment cutter Uriah S Stephens and six of his fellow craftsmen. The Knights engaged much of the ancient Masonic rituals - the uniforms, high-sounding titles, elaborate signs and passwords of the gilds and early craft unions. They aspired to something more than simple ‘trade unionism’: a moral crusade, the ‘dignity’ of labour, a kind of socialistic humanitarianism. Initially the Knights were highly successful, having recruited over a million members by May 1886, but they promised far more than they ever delivered. When the chips were down they conceded the rights of capital and looked with great disfavour on strikes. Their first foothold in Britain was rapidly dislodged when they scabbed a local dockers strike in Liverpool and disappeared almost overnight.

The author concludes that anything the Knights ever achieved was in spite of its leaders, local union affiliates having taken up strikes, sometimes mass strikes, in the face of the objective conditions on the ground. But the conditions for ‘something more’ than simple trade unionism were laid by the Knights perhaps, and the ground was fertile for the later emergence of the IWW.

The book contained surprises for me, despite previously having considered myself quite well informed on this period. The section on the Molly Maguires, for example, demonstrates that, far from Hollywood legend, they were in fact a very numerous tendency among the miners: “There were then several thousand Molly Maguire lodges in Pennsylvania with a central executive body” (p17). Acts of violence against blacklegs and occasionally employers had been a feature of the coal communities this side of the Atlantic for a century, but what was different about the Mollies is that there really was a Molly Maguire - fresh from libertarian, republican and anti-capitalist struggle in Ireland, she migrated across the ocean with a strong following and took up roots in the States, particularly in the coalfields of Pennsylvania.

“She was a barbaric and picturesque character. She blackened her face and under her petticoat carried a pistol strapped to each of her stout legs. Her special aversions were landlords, their agents, bailiffs and process servers, and her expression of hatred was limited to beating them up or murdering them ... she was the head of the so-called Free Soil Party, whose banner was her red petticoat” (p13). For a time parts of Ireland were dominated by her and the resistance of ‘her boys’.

The Mollies so dominated Irish mining labour that bosses tried to exclude them from employment. “... but they all died by violence. If a superintendent dared to come forward in support of his mining boss against the Molly, he too became a marked man and eventually was beaten up or assassinated” (p15).

We are told that the secret Molly society also led open ‘associations’ of miners - and struggles like the ‘long strike’ of 1874-75. The Mollies themselves had their peak around that time. We are told mine bosses and enemies of the miners were “falling dead week after week”. Coal trains and mines were sabotaged. After the long strike, a concerted state effort using traitors, infiltrators and the infamous Pinkerton ‘detectives’ (gun thugs), was launched .A key figure who went undercover and put the finger on the leaders was fellow Irishman James McParland. In subsequent years 10 Mollies were executed and 14 given long prison terms. As an efficient terrorist labour organisation the Mollies were broken, but their inspiration was deeply embedded in the ranks of radical American labour.

The book describes the great labour riots of 1877, which grow from the Baltimore and Ohio railroad strikes against wage cuts and longer hours. The militia is mobilised and comes over to the workers. The strike spreads across the country.

“For three days the riots continue in Baltimore. The strikers, who were practically leaderless, were joined by thousands of labourers and mechanics out of work, as well as by the entire criminal class if the city ... A large number of men in various other occupations, who had recently suffered reductions in wages, were in a sullen mood. They welcomed what they thought was an attempt on the part of the railroad men to right a common wrong. They aided the rioters ...

“In Cumberland, Maryland the militia killed 10 workmen and wounded twice that number ...

“Mobs rendered furious by the deadly fire of the military surged about the city, sacking stores for arms and food. For a time it seemed that the rioters, albeit leaderless, would gain the upper hand over the authorities ...

“... riots occurred elsewhere in Pennsylvania. At Reading 13 were killed and over 20 wounded in a single day” (pp24-25).

Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith in their Chicago - a history of its reputation say: “Twenty thousand men, police and citizens, were under arms. Squads of householders shouldered rifles and patrolled the residence districts. [At one time] 50 different mobs were clashing with militiamen and volunteer ‘specials’. Saloons were closed. Citizens brought rifles and horses to City Hall … At the Chicago Burlington and Quincy roundhouses on Western Sixteenth Street, locomotives were destroyed and volleys fired. A pitched battle was fought at the viaduct between Halstead and Archer Avenues. Terror had the businessmen by the throat, and ... they demanded 5,000 militiamen to put down ‘the ragged Commune wretches’ ... ” (quoted on p26).

Then a battalion of the US regulars commanded by lieutenant-colonel Frederick D Grant (son of Ulysses) arrived in Chicago and the strike was broken. The author speculates as to what would have become of this near national insurgency if there had been a systematic leadership behind - someone like Bakunin.

The most radical American city in the 1870s and 80s was Chicago. The Socialist Labor Party was rooted in its culture: “They were acquainted with the Marxist ideas, but they also read Hegel, Kropotkin, Bakunin, Alexander Herzen and Spenser. In addition to the SLP, they were organising in the so-called ‘revolutionary clubs’, meeting in secret halls and beginning to despair of starting ‘a revolution in the minds of the people’... In 1881 a national convention of revolutionary clubs was held in Chicago and the Revolutionary Socialist Party came into existence, competing with the SLP ... There was loose talk of violence, dynamite and assassination, but the party as a whole dangled self-consciously between Marxism and nihilism, between theory and action” (p33).

“The anarchists at first viewed the eight-hour movement with scorn, insisting that it was useless to demand anything from the capitalists; the thing was to arm the working class and ‘take over the whole damn system and change it’. But the movement became the all-absorbing topic of the proletariat; they - Parsons, Spies, Schwab, Fielden and other ultra-radical orators and publicists - joined their talents, soon became the outstanding, if not the most popular, agitators of the cause” (p46). This in turn caused the rightwing, pro-employer press to brand the whole eight-hour movement as anarchist-inspired and un-American, the work of ‘foreigners’.

In Chicago, the anarchists were clearly the decisive and influential movement, the black flag appearing alongside the red flag: “More than a thousand of the so-called Lehrund-Wehr Vereine drilled with rifles in secret halls and practised shooting in the woods” (p47). The strikers and those laid off during one severe winter paraded, gaunt and ragged, with red and black flags, but the police dispersed them using utmost force. On Christmas day 1887 the anarchists organised a march through the avenues of the rich.

In April 1886 the Chicago-based Die Arbeiter Zeitung, the world’s first anarchist paper, proclaimed: “The police and soldiers. must be met by armed armies of workers ... Arms are more necessary in our time than anything else. Whoever has no money should sell his watch, if he has one, and buy firearms ...” (p49).

A general strike for the eight-hour day was called for May 1. On May 3 locked-out McCormick workers held a mass meeting near the works. When the scabs emerged from the factory, a pitched battle ensued. The police arrived and opened fire on the crowds, killing several men and wounding many more.

The notorious Haymarket massacre took place in Haymarket Square, Chicago, on May 4 1896 after thousands had gathered in support of striking railroad workers–. Most of the demonstration had passed off peacefully and, as the rain continued to fall, the crowd had all but dispersed when the police turned up to disperse the dwindling ranks, the captain with his sword drawn. There was a blinding flash, as a bomb was thrown into the police ranks. Police started shooting into the crowd and into each other - 67 police were injured and seven killed (nobody knows how many casualties there were among the workers, but it was estimated three times those of the police).

This led to an intense period of police repression and 12 anarchists, socialists and communists were rounded up. Eight were charged with murder, seven were hanged and another given 15 years for having financial interests in the Zeitung. This was one of many ruthless employers’ offensives using judicial murders (the 1927 frame-up of Sacco and Vanzette - those ‘anarchist bastards’ - is perhaps the most well known), but ‘guilty’ class fighters were also targeted for execution or life sentences.

Sam Gompers, president of the AFL, denounced the violence of the ‘Haymarket anarchists’ with great vehemence, but following the repression and the savage ant- working class employers’ offensive, the use of dynamite became a definite tactic - used purely as a weapon of trade unionism rather than anti-capitalism. A whole army of professional sluggers, gunmen, arsonists and saboteurs were recruited, but often such professional hit men ended up going into business for themselves (it was this that spawned the criminal ‘rackets’ of the 1930s - though oddly the racketeers, perhaps mindful of their class roots, remained largely anti-capitalist and pro-labour in their actions, albeit for entirely selfish, self-gain motives).

From 1906 to 1916 the IWW dominated the labour movement in America and was involved in some of the most bitter, open fights - physical, social, political and ideological - between capital and labour: “In its battles it was frequently opposed - not only by the capitalists and the authorities, but also by the AF of L, which a few times went so far as to furnish strike-breakers in wobbly strikes” (p118).

The book comes with a critical foreword by Jon Bekken - associate professor of communications at Albright College in Reading PA, and former general secretary-treasurer of the IWW - which I for one did not find particularly helpful. He is critical of the absence of ‘black struggles’ in the book, although this is, as far as I can see, a branch of the more generalised class struggle than the author focused on. The employers, in order to divide less organised African-Americans from other groups with strong trade union traditions, exploited racial and cultural differences, and the author did mention this where it was notable. As Adamic himself says, “Dynamite was never meant to be anything more than an attempt at telling the story of the evolution of violence in the class struggle in America, which, of course, is but one phase of the history of our labour and our radical or revolutionary movement’s stirrings and upheavals” (p1).

Bekken is also critical of the author for being “bleakly pessimistic about the possibilities for American workers to successfully organise to build a new society” (pix). But this is hardly surprising, given that the book is written from the standpoint of the 1930s, after generations of wilful repression, unrestrained violence, gangsterism, world war and recession. It was a period of heroic and selfless class war waged by the American working class, but hundreds were injured, killed, starved and jailed, and these struggles saw numerous defeats and were met at almost every turn by anti-union drives and sell-outs by union leaders on the make and on the take.

But all is not hopeless: the author records the experience of mass, sometimes successful, movements, which organise millions and from time to time push back the frontiers of control. Adamic contends that employers and the lawmakers did not have it all their own way and the working class, through the medium of dynamite plus organisation, gave back as good as they got. Speaking with hindsight, Bekken tells us: “ ... the labour movement was on the eve of a resurgence that left it institutionally much stronger, but ultimately entrenched a business union vision that left organised labour further isolated from the broader working class than it ever was in the period Adamic writes about” (pxiii).

I would suggest Bekken is quite wrong when he concludes that the use of dynamite is individual struggle rather than collective class struggle. The book clearly demonstrates that this violent reaction and offensive on behalf of the class is a direct ancillary and aspect of mass organisation and class-consciousness.

The postscript provided by Bekken brings the reality of class struggle in the US home. In his final years, Louis Adamic had become sympathetic to Tito and the Yugoslav partisans, and wrote The eagle and the roots, contrasting a free and vigorous Yugoslavia to US McCarthyism and repression. In 1951 Adamic was found dead with a bullet in his head in a burning farmhouse, along with a rifle across his lap and a newspaper clipping accusing him of being a Soviet spy. The coroner concluded that he had committed suicide, although few agreed (piv).

A book of this scope and dynamism, with hugely exciting chapters of working class resistance leaping out from almost every page, contains too much for this brief review. I could easily fill the paper with random cuts from its chapters. It is perhaps easier to recommend you purchase it. I have been unable to put it down since I got it, and find it a great inspiration and highly informative.

In challenging many assumptions about the American labour and progressive movement it should become a classic work of reference.