Events in America

Peter Kropotkin

“Affaires d’Amérique”, Bulletin de la Fédération Jurassienne, 5 August 1877

Our readers already know that during the past week the United States of North America has been the scene of insurrections which seemed, for a moment, to assume the characteristic of a great popular uprising. Up to this time we have drawn our information on these events only from the brief updates brought to us by telegraph, which is silent on the causes of the movement. But these causes are easy to guess.

We had already said some time ago that in the United States around 2 million workers were without work. The industrial crisis that we are experiencing in Europe is also deeply felt in America. Before, industrial workers without work would have gone to the Western States to seek employment in agriculture: there is still so much land to clear, or to cultivate more rationally, in America. But today, times have changed. Most of the land available to the pioneer without capital has already fallen into the hands of the big stock exchanges (speculators). The small pioneer finds no place there; small-scale agriculture gives way to the big, which replaces the worker by the machine or else by the Chinese – those negroes of today.

Taking advantage of the abundance of unemployed workers, the bosses obviously reduce wages in all branches of industry and increase the number of hours of work; so much so that today wages in America have fallen, comparatively, as low as in Europe, and people work there (despite the ten-hour law) as amongst us, from 11 to 14 hours a day. The workers are resisting as much as they can, and during these past months we have seen strike after strike, but they were only desperate attempts at resistance that almost all ended in the defeat of the worker.

But, not content with imposing beggars’ wages, the bosses – who, it should be noted, in the “democratic republic” make the law as much as in Belgium or France – still take their measures for the future: they terrorise by hanging dozens of “Molly Maguires”, and they have recently passed laws which tend to abolish the freedom even to strike. Let us quote one – it gives an idea of the others: that, for example, of the State which says that whoever will conspire with another, or others, to hinder in any way whatsoever the operation of an industrial enterprise, will be sentenced to a heavy fine and to prison from twenty days to three months.

Finally, the legislative power having already fallen into the hands of the capitalists, these gentlemen are also trying to destroy the political rights of the people; they are abolishing, like the State of New York for example, universal suffrage and are already introducing the property tax for elections, while taking advantage of the power they are appropriating, as we have said in our second last number.

These are the general causes of the events which have just taken place in the United States. Their specific cause appears to have been the 10 per cent cut in driver wages made by the Baltimore-Ohio railway company.

This reduction caused a strike to break out in Martinsburg. But this time, probably telling themselves that it is always the worker who suffers the consequence of the strike and almost never the boss, the strikers seem to have directly attacked the property of their bosses. The bosses asked for troops, and the democratic government, everywhere and always the faithful servant of the bosses, immediately sent the militia. The militia, arriving quickly, soon triumphed over the strikers in this little village. But the strike and uprising were already speaking with almost incredible speed over the entire surface of the United States In two days traffic was suspended on all the railways. “The lower classes”, “the rabble” everywhere sympathised with the strikers; the workers of different trades left the factories and joined their brothers.

In many places the strike turned into a struggle of the people against their oppressors. In Baltimore, a city of 300,000 in habitants, 5,000 men, armed with stones and a few rifles, attacked the militia; just as it was taking the train to go somewhere and protect sacred property. The militia fired, killing 10 men and wounding 29. Then the furious people fell upon the militia, drove them back, destroyed and burned the train station, the telegraph and the line, and burned a number of wagons loaded with oil. At the same time the insurrection broke out in Pittsburgh, a large industrial city of 100,000 inhabitants. The militia, having arrived at the station, was repulsed and locked themselves into a machinery warehouse. The strikers, supported by other city workers, seized guns and cannons and besieged the warehouse; they soon forced the militia to abandon the warehouse, inflicting a loss of 10 men killed and many wounded, amongst others its general Pearson. The militia abandoned the town, reached the other bank of the river and fled into the mountains, pursued by the populace. Troop reinforcements sent by the government could not reach Pittsburgh. People destroy the train station and burn 2,000 wagons loaded with goods. “Terrible night in Pittsburgh!” exclaims the telegraph. “20 million fr. of damage!”

But the matter does not end there. The strike spreads all over the great railroad lines, and the insurrection breaks out in Reading, Harrisburg, Columbus, Cincinnati, Chicago, etc., in short, in all the great towns of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and in certain cities of the States of New York and Missouri. Popular uprisings were expected in all the major cities of the United States, federal troops were concentrated, battleships were being armed. The bourgeoisie had a hard time. In New York, the arsenals were guarded by troops whom the people insulted, and the outcome of a popular meeting was anxiously awaited. It took place; 10,000 men attended; but, for unknown reasons, it came to nothing.

According to the latest news it appears however that the movement is dying down. The railroad companies have found wretches to operate some of the trains; in many places strikers are laying down their arms and allowing themselves to be arrested.

This movement will have certainly deeply struck the proletariat of Europe and aroused its admiration. Its spontaneity, its concurrency at so many distant points communicating only by telegraph, the aid given by workers of various trades, the resolute character of the uprising from the start, the good idea of hitting the owners on their most sensitive nerve, their property, gains all our sympathies, arouse our admiration, and awaken our hopes.

But, to take full advantage of this admirable lesson given to us by our American brothers, let us also mention the weak side of the movement. That it was not victorious was to be expected. It is not by a single insurrection that the people will manage to get the better of the current society. But for this step towards the great revolution to have its full impact, it lacked one essential thing: a flag, a principle in the name of what was the insurrection, the blood shed? In the name of 10 percent on the wage? – Obviously not. Such a fine movement must have had much deeper reasons: hatred against the bosses, against the present abhorrent order, aspirations, perhaps vague, but always right, towards social revolution, towards a new order of things. But these aspirations, these hatreds were not formulated, set out in broad daylight. It is certainly not only the desire to maintain their wages which inspired our American brothers on July 21. No; it is evident that they received their heroic impetus from a higher order of ideas; for, as we know well, all the socialist aspirations which are emerging amongst the proletarians of Europe also exist in America. But – unless the telegraph has carefully omitted it – we do not see these aspirations formulated. They acted wonderfully but they do not set a marker for the future.

Why? – Because let us note it well – the American trades organisations , the Trades-Unions, because obviously it is they which prepared the strike and the insurrection – do not express all the aspirations of the people. Confining themselves to the exclusive domain of wage questions, they are no longer the representatives of the main aspiration which is already penetrating the mass of the people, the aspiration for the fundamental reorganisation of society through social revolution.

On the other hand, we wonder what role the American Workingmen’s Party has played in this movement – that party (composed for the most part of Germans) which, while propagating socialist ideas, neglects their application and persists in eliciting in America, despite the general disgust of the people for politics, a parliamentary movement? On the eve of the movement it spoke, as usual, of elections, of action on the legal terrain – when a spark had already lit a revolutionary fire! Of elections when it was a question of organising the insurrection that was already roaring around them!

Hence – on the one hand, the organisation for revolutionary action without broadly posing the principles of socialism; on the other – the principle, but without revolutionary action and with an organisation made to stop every affirmation of the revolutionary act: such are the causes which have prevented the American movement bearing all the fruits which it could have done, if the American workers’ organisation had been a synthesis of the two present organisations: the principle with the organisation necessary for achieving as much of it as possible, whenever the opportunity presents itself.

But the blood of our brothers in America will not have been shed in vain. Their energy, their unity of action, their courage will serve as an example to the proletarian of Europe. But may this noble bloodshed prove once again the blindness of those who amuse the people with the toy of parliamentarianism, when the powder keg is ready to burst into flames, unbeknownst to them, as a result of the slightest spark. May it also help to open the eyes of those who, by locking themselves into wage questions like the English [trade] unionists, do not want to know anything about immeasurably broader aspirations, the socialist aspirations of the people; may it do so as soon as possible! Time is pressing, for everything proclaims that the English proletarian will soon follow the example of his American brothers.

Respects to these noble and courageous fighters! Courage to imitate their example!