Propaganda of the Deed

Steve Fraser

  • Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years Vol I: Made for America, 1890-1901 edited by Candace Falk
    Illinois, 659 pp, $35.00, August 2008, ISBN 978 0 252 07541 4
  • Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years Vol. II: Making Speech Free, 1902-1909 edited by Candace Falk
    Illinois, 641 pp, £35.00, August 2008, ISBN 978 0 252 07543 8

From the 1870s, when members of a secret organisation of Irish coalminers, the Molly Maguires, were executed for allegedly assassinating Pennsylvania mine owners and their henchmen, to the summer’s day in 1920 when an Italian anarchist called Mario Buda ignited his dynamite-laden horse-drawn wagon outside the Morgan bank on Wall Street, killing more than 30 bystanders, America was wracked by extraordinary political and civil violence, most of it initiated by the country’s new industrial overlords and their political allies. All the confrontations that gave the period an atmosphere of impending civil war – the coast-to-coast railroad strikes of 1877, the Haymarket bombing of 1886, the Homestead Strike against the Carnegie Steel Company in 1892, the Pullman strike of 1894 – ended in bloodshed. Between 1877 and 1903 federal troops and state militias were called up more than 500 times to put down strikes across the industrial heartland. Captains of industry retained Pinkerton goons, spies, agents provocateurs and industrial armies. Vigilantes roamed the South terrorising and lynching uppity African Americans. Massive urban fortresses, public armouries that were often financed by robber barons and equipped with Gatling guns and modern munitions, were designed to deal ruthlessly with incipient insurrections.

Responding in kind, armed worker militias paraded in the streets of major American cities to convey the message that they were prepared to shoot back. Strikes often turned into mass revolts, with whole neighbourhoods and communities burning company property, assailing the police, defying court injunctions and hurling makeshift weapons at advancing militiamen from behind barricades. George Pullman was so sure that labour insurgents would desecrate his corpse that he left instructions for his lead-lined casket to be covered with tar paper and asphalt and deposited in a vault made of concrete and reinforced steel. Small conspiratorial groups, most of them connected to one or another sub-species of anarchism (usually found in the ghettos and hobohemias of German, Italian or Jewish immigrants), proclaimed dynamite to be the people’s weapon – cheap, readily available and easy to conceal – and plotted to use it along with violent other means to inspire popular uprisings. Sometimes they followed through: the anarchist Alexander Berkman severely wounded Henry Clay Frick, Carnegie’s chairman and the man who, together with Carnegie, had presided over the bloodshed at Homestead; Leon Czolgosz shot and killed President William McKinley in 1901; and an anarchist’s bomb exploded at the San Francisco Preparedness Day rally in 1916. In working-class anarchist circles such acts were known as the ‘propaganda of the deed’.

American industrialisation from the Civil War to the First World War happened with stunning speed. But it was a brutal process, generating an immense amount of what those in high places now call ‘collateral damage’. This harshness had its roots in the country’s violent frontier culture; in the legacies of slavery and the nativism that treated every immigrant group, beginning with the Irish, with fear and loathing, and in memories of the Civil War which were refreshed with every outbreak of class warfare. But it expressed, above all, how poorly prepared the country’s new business elite was to deal with the social unrest that accompanied capitalist upheaval. Faced with dissent, discontent and resistance, it responded with naked force.

No wonder an atmosphere of apocalyptic dread enveloped the US in the last third of the 19th century, particularly during the great depression of 1893-97, when a credit crisis led to the failure of tens of thousands of businesses and hundreds of banks, and one in six American men lost his job. The mood was captured by the populist writer Ignatius Donnelly in his bestselling dystopian novel of 1890, Caesar’s Column. Its denouement was the construction by the ‘Brotherhood of Destruction’ of a macabre memorial to the savagery of the ancien régime, a column consisting of thousands of corpses of the old ruling class and its minions, cemented together and rigged to explode should anyone try to dismantle it.

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