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Tom Kerry

Class Struggle – American Style

(Spring 1960)

From International Socialist Review, Vol. 21 No. 2, Spring 1960, p. 60.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

1877: Year Of Violence
by Robert V. Bruce
Bobbs-Merrill, New York City. 384 pp. $5.00

According to the publisher’s blurb, the author spent “over two years of intensive research and a year and a half of writing,” to complete this book. He should be commended for the research. The facts speak more eloquently than the author whose understanding of the events is shallow and whose interpretation is colored by a definite class bias.

The class prejudice of the author is most marked in the use of a derogatory terminology. Contrast, for example, the sensitivity of labor historian Samuel Yellen who wrote in his introduction to his book: American Labor Struggles, “except in a few instances, I have used the word ‘crowd’ rather than ‘mob’ because of the dubious application of the latter by newspapers.” With Bruce it’s the other way around.

In his summary chapter, Bruce projects his interpretation of the 1877 events onto the railroad strike of 1894, and says

“With the outbreak of the Pullman Strike in 1894, memories of ’77 came rushing back. Many of the old ingredients were there: railroaders on strike in twenty-seven states and territories; a call for a general strike at Chicago; tramps, hoodlums, depression unemployed and teenagers stirring up trouble; fine July weather bringing out crowds; dozens killed in rioting.”

It is from this kind of an amalgam that the author derives the title of his book which comes enclosed in a lurid dust jacket depicting a raging conflagration with figures of the “mob” dancing about in the flames. The year 1877 was indeed a year of violence – of frightful, murderous violence, directed against the working people by the minions of capital; and of workers goaded beyond endurance to militant resistance.

With the end of the civil war the Northern capitalists set out to garner the fruits of victory. There was an entire rich continent to ravage and they set about systematically to pillage and plunder its wealth. Some of America’s greatest family fortunes – Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, etc., etc., – date from that era. The stockjobbers, land-grabbers and money changers bought up city officials and state legislatures; they named Governors, Congressmen and Senators; the federal government in Washington was at their beck and call.

In 1876 the northern capitalist class, ruling through the Republican party, betrayed the Negroes in the South and terminated Reconstruction for a deal with the Democrats which landed Hayes in the office of US president. The greatest concentration of capital at the time was in the mushrooming railroad industry. The railroad barons spread their greedy tentacles over the whole of American economic life. They swindled the investor, squeezed the farmer and trampled on the worker.

The American capitalist class, engaged in the bloody process of primitive accumulation, were insatiable in their greed and merciless in their disregard of the most elementary human rights. Beginning with the economic crash in 1873 the railroad tycoons repeatedly slashed wages and worsened conditions to maintain a high rate of dividend payments on generously watered stock. The rest of the employers followed suit.

The author records that: “By late 1873 even skilled craftsmen could be hired for board alone.” When the railroad bosses announced another ten per cent cut for June 1, 1877, it was more than flesh and blood could stand. A spontaneous strike movement erupted and soon swept through all the major railroad centers. Police, special deputies, company thugs, vigilantes, militia and finally federal troops, were called upon to smash the strike. Lacking organization and leadership the strike was broken.

From an historical point of view the 1877 strike movement established a number of memorable firsts. It was the first strike to achieve national scope; the first in which federal troops were used as strikebreakers; the first in which the anti-labor injunction was introduced as a strikebreaking weapon. Despite the author’s bias the book contains much factual material of interest to the student of American labor struggles.

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