Violence and the US class war


The Story of Class Violence in America

In the United States, violence has played a greater role in the struggle between capital and labor than in any other industrialized country. From the 1890s to the 1930s, hardly a year passed without a serious—often deadly—clash between workers and management.  Louis Adamic’s Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America, first published in 1931, attempts to unpack this bloody history of confrontation between the haves and the have-nots.  

Dynamite recounts the fascinating and largely buried history of class and labor struggle during America’s industrial beginnings. With the inexorable style of a true muckraker, Adamic insists that class violence has been central to the development of American capitalism, from the Molly Maguires to the legalized murder of Sacco and Vanzetti. Along the way, Adamic addresses the great Pullman strike, the trial of Big Bill Haywood, the Homestead Strike, Colorado Labor Wars, and the Los Angeles Times bombing.

Adamic begins Dynamite with a chapter on the Molly Maguires, a secret miners’ society in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania during the late 1860s and early 1870s—a group whose principal tactic was terrorism, or the threat of violence. The history of the “Mollies” goes back to feudal Ireland of the 1840s. Molly Maguire, “who did not believe in the rent system,” was known to terrorize landlords with her own hands or via “her boys” (who called themselves Mollies or Molly Maguires).

After being expelled from Ireland, the Mollies found work in the Pennsylvania coal mines, bringing their militant, unyielding form of resistance. Coal bosses were the main target of the Mollies, but their wrath was also unleashed at labor leaders they deemed as ineffectual.

While some murders were motivated by petty, personal grudges or directed at innocent workers, Adamic contends that “the Mollies unquestionably improved the working conditions not only for themselves but for all the miners in the anthracite regions of Pennsylvania and saved many workers’ lives.” In the Appeal to Reason, the Socialist Party’s Eugene V. Debs later described them as “the neglected children of poverty” and “the first martyrs of the class struggle in the U.S.”

The last decades of the 1800s saw an upsurge in class struggle that gave way to the growth of groups such as the Knights of Labor and the American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs. 

Eventually the bosses began to see that “on occasion when labor leaders were un-purchasable,” labor would have to be dealt with by methods at “once more subtle and more brutal” than had been employed to subdue the upheavals of 1870s and 1880s. They added a new weapon to their war arsenal—the injunction. The effect of injunctions was to “deprive the workers…of their constitutional rights of freedom of speech, press, and assembly.” Of course, this nonviolent act was accompanied by arming deputies (government-sponsored vigilantes) to enforce the injunctions. These deputized citizens were given a green light to attack and arrest anyone suspected of participating in strike activity.  The injunction became the preferred tool of the federal government and industry bosses, most notably during the Pullman Strike of 1893—where it was used to prevent a potential general strike of the railway industry.

A good part of Adamic’s book centers around the introduction of racketeering—organized illegal/criminal activity—into the labor movement. According to Adamic, racketeering “appears …an inevitable result of chaotic, brutalizing conditions in American industry, a phase of the dynamic, violent drive of economic evolution in the United States.” That is, the resistance to brutal conditions on the part of labor compels capitalist forces to resort to all manner of illegal, criminal practices in order to combat the threat of organized labor. Adamic also puts forward the argument that the racketeering of the capitalist class—most clearly shown in the development of Pinkerton Detectives, strike-breaking thugs, etc.—influenced the organization of labor unions, particularly those (such as the unions in the American Federation of Labor) that adhered to a business model of union organizing.

Adamic states that, “criminals were drawn into the class-struggle as gunmen to powerful industrialists, organized by private detective agencies and hired out by the government to protect property.” Thus, it was only natural that some labor organizations, “taking their cue from capital, began to hire professional strong-arm men to slug scabs…and dynamite mines.”

Adamic’s analysis of the evolution of violence in the class struggle asserts that violence itself is an historic dynamic, dependent on the economic and political development of a given society. The Gilded Age in America, for instance, was especially violent because of the expansion of the railroad, steel, coal, and textile industries (among the most grueling occupations). As corporations implemented cost-cutting measures, jobs became even more dangerous.

Though violence has been and continues to be an indispensible tool for employers to break up unions, persecute radicals, and enforce inhumane working conditions, Adamic also acknowledges that the use of violence is generally an expression of weakness. Capital uses it when unions threaten their ability to rule and run industry, and labor uses it when it appears hopeless to negotiate or organize massive forces.

 While criticizing the use of violence by workers, Adamic remains steadfast in his differentiation between the violence of the oppressor—corporations, their private detectives, and state repression—and the violence of the oppressed workers, highlighting the fact that when peaceful strikes or negotiations yielded no results, workers have often fought back using whatever means necessary. He understood that the violence of workers occurs in a particular historical context: “Labor’s impulse to violence—to dynamite, arson and assassination—became stronger after each injunction, after the failure of each peaceable effort to better its conditions”.

In the book’s final words, Adamic concludes that, “The American working-class will be violent until the workers become revolutionary in their minds and motives and organize their revolutionary spirit into force—into unions with revolutionary aims to power.” This aligns with the Marxist concept that it is the collective, united actions of labor that both reduce the need for violence and ensure the greatest gains for working people.

It was not until the victories of the 1930s, which laid the foundations for the formation of the industrial unions of the CIO, that workers had any legal means to better their working conditions, defend their jobs and have any hope of winning contract negotiations with their employers. Dynamite! offers an important history, revealing the conditions that labor has been forced to endure and the extent to which the rulers of this country are willing to wield violence in order to maintain the social and economic order. 

Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

Issue contents

Top story



Critical Thinking


  • The crimes of occupation

    Jim Ramey reviews Aftermath: Following the Blood of America's Wars in the Muslim World by Nir Rosen
  • Gaza’s nightmare shows the truth about Israel

    Hadas Thier reviews Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict by Moustafa Bayoumi and Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé
  • The planet and the profit system

    Chris Williams reviews The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York
  • Ways of resistance in Latin America

    Jason Farbman reviews Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America by Ben Dangl and Bolivia's Radical Tradition: Permanent Revolution in the Andes by S. Sándor John