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Harvey O’Connor, Revolution in Seattle: A Memoir – Tribune

17/04/2010

Take a glance at the Seattle Times website and you quickly come across news of the Tea Party’s activities in the city – the leaderless, refusenik movement whose adherents call for the overthrow of a government run, so they argue, by “unaccountable and self-serving elites”. The campaign has grown rapidly because people jolted into action by “economic distress”, have made common cause with other disgruntled Americans in a coalition of the hard-pressed and hard done-by: “If you don’t trust the…people running the system, you can’t even look at the facts anymore.” So Tea Party “activists” have built online communities, disseminating the ideas of writers and economists – Buckley, Sowell, Hayek and Rand – whose facts accord more closely with their values.

One example is a Facebook site, The Seattle Sons and Daughters of Liberty (376 members) run by ‘Liberty Belle’, a Seattle teacher and one of the movement’s founders. She calls upon today’s dissenters to have the courage of their revolutionary forebears in the struggle against Obama and his kind, who are leading the nation “down the road to serfdom”. In the name of liberty, freedom and patriotism, she invites Tea Party volunteers to fight for the “free market” and against any signs of “collectivist mentality”.

If the talk today is of free markets, one hundred years ago it was of free people. Then the  Seattle Times filed reports of another grass-roots movement with revolution in its sights, one that also believed government was in the grip of a powerful coterie – robber barons – who kept ordinary people in a state of serfdom and “economic distress” hardly imaginable by today’s standards. They, too, set up communities. Between 1897 and 1915 thousands moved to utopian colonies around Seattle, with names like Equality, Freeland – run by ‘Rochdalers’, followers of the English co-operative movement – and Home (the longest-lasting and most unconventional: some of its Russian and Swedish members were jailed for advocating free love and nude swimming).

Those without the wherewithal to find their way to the colonies established communities right where they stood: in makeshift shop-fronts on skid roads (“skidding” logs from the forest to the waterfront), the International Workers of the World (IWW) set up halls where the homeless and jobless could find a bowl of stew, a flop for the night, shelves of radical literature, and plenty of fighting talk. And because these were idealists, concerned not just with material deprivation, but “the sickness of heart of people”, the colonies and many of the unions or halls produced newspapers or journals, carrying news of resistance, but also ideas for transforming the world. With titles like Spirit of 76, Agitator, Discontent, Barbarian, The Call, Industrial Freedom, Wage Worker (“the only 3-color ‘roughneck’ revolutionary monthly on earth!”), Appeal to Reason, Voice of the People, Revolution, Justice, Freedom and The Truth, there were scores of them in Washington State alone.

The IWW (the Wobblies, as they were affectionately known), were founded in 1905 by Eugene Debs and Bill Haywood. Debs was a leader of the Brotherhood of Co-operative Commonwealth (“The Kingdom of Heaven Here and Now” was the demand on their masthead), that launched many of the colonies, but he soon saw progress would not be made by isolating workers from the industrial market. Their example, however, helped to shape the IWW’s syndicalism. The Wobblies, as the colonies had, disavowed the politics of the ballot-box. Unlike them, they did not isolate workers in utopian groups, but connected them in solidarity, deploying only the immediate power that lay in their hands: the power to strike.

For the first two decades of the twentieth century the Wobblies, in a loose coalition with socialists and anarchists, union men and women, journalists and lawyers with a heart or a conscience, all fought to improve the meagre conditions of life for manual workers, many of them migratory ‘bindlestiffs’, who hired out where they could up and down the coast, hopping freights and carrying their possessions in bindles (blankets), as the companies provided only bare ground or cots for them to sleep on.

The fight was strongest in the lumber mills and shipyards of Washington state where men of steel and wood waged a series of strikes, go-slows, and works-to-rule that eventually brought down the working day from twelve to eight hours, cleared out the job sharks charging men to work and, finally, abolished the hated bindles, forcing companies to provide bedding, and in some instances, unchain the tin plates and cutlery from the benches where they ate. Bindles were replaced by cardboard suitcases in which a man could carry something other than his stiff and stinking overalls – a suit and shoes fit for civil company. Their ongoing rebellion culminated in the Seattle general strike of 1919 when for five days the city held its breath and workers imagined a different kind of world.

Harvey O’Connor was a journalist known for his books on America’s business dynasties, (the Mellons, Astors and Vanderbilts), and on the oil and steel industry. But he started out on worker-produced broadsheets like The Call where he swept the office, learned to pour lead for the moulds, and later, “the knack of writing news stories”, eventually, reluctantly, taking the helm (“It was the editor who took the rap when the police asked for the person in charge”). Revolution in Seattle was written during McCarthy’s reign of terror (which is why many of the testimonials are anonymous), and looks back to an already forgotten period of activism that ended in the Twenties, when a combination of recession, repression, and a failure to marry homegrown radicalism with European Marxism all but kicked the life out of it.

There was no revolution in Seattle, but from O’Connor’s pen you get a sense of revolutionary possibility that hovered briefly in the air, when many saw for the first time their fates need not be sealed in drudgery. More than the temerity of the strike itself, it was the demonstration that workers could run a city (milk was delivered to mothers, clean linen provided to hospitals, garbage cleared, and improvised workers canteens fed the people) that so enraged the business class and its press, already threatened by events in Russia.

When the strike unravelled, reaction was brutal and swift: radicals and unionists were rounded up across the territory. “Terrorise the American Bolshevik!”, the Seattle Times demanded; while the Business Chronicle incited its readers to “put to death the leaders in this gigantic conspiracy of murder, pillage and revolution.” In Centralia, south of Seattle, Wobblies defending their hall in the face of an attack by the American Legion were sentenced to thirty years in prison. Awaiting trial, Wesley Everest was sprung from jail by vigilantes who castrated and lynched him before dumping his body back on the jailhouse floor: a warning to other defendants.

Why read a book written half a century ago about a period, O’Connor admits, that already seemed remote? At a time of increasing historical deafness – “the United States of Amnesia”, Gore Vidal calls his country – it is important to listen to the voices of the men and women who fought and in some cases died for the freedoms we take for granted. Today moreover, a lack of interest in the past means there is a paucity of connecting literature making the moment live again and speak to now. A few disparate works come to mind: Paul Mason’s Live Working or Die Fighting, linking the struggles of labour history to those of a globalised workforce; Frances Fitzgerald’s Cities on a Hill, recounting the history of utopias in America; and John Sayles’s film Matewan, about attempts in 1920 to unionise miners. But perhaps the work that comes closest to O’Connor’s world, the one most imaginatively realised, is Michael Ondaatje’s lyrical novel, In The Skin of a Lion, that tells how those “foot-loose rebels” – railroaders, loggers and miners – moved into the cities of North America, encountered immigrants with new customs and ideas and, against the bosses and agents provocateur, and despite the threat of jail or deportation, began unionising.

This is the original version of a review that appeared in Tribune, April 16-22, 2010, pp. 24-5, it was posted on Tribune‘s website on April 17 2010. 

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