Struggling against all odds

Teamsters Local 810 member Tim Goulet reviews the third installment of the radical working-class history documentary Plutocracy by filmmaker Scott Noble.

"Your violent chaotic state always bears within it war as a sleeping cloud bears the storm."
-- Jean Jaures, French socialist, assassinated on the eve of the First World War

Survivors of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre survey the ruins of the strikers' protest camp (Library of Congress | Wikimedia Commons)Survivors of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre survey the ruins of the strikers' protest camp (Library of Congress | Wikimedia Commons)

THESE WORDS are the opening salvo to filmmaker Scott Noble's Plutocracy III: Class War, the third installment of a non-for-profit, five-part film series intended for free viewing online. Reviews of parts one and two by Ruth Hurley can be found here and here.

Noble's latest addition is a powerful rejoinder to the anodyne version of U.S. history we're typically taught in grammar school--the popular narrative that tells us the motive force of history is great men, with even greater ideas; that those who suffer must be patient, for social progress comes slowly; that progressive reforms are the product of benevolent politicians; and while there are certainly flies in the ointment, the wondrous free market will sort it out, if only left to its own devices.

As Noble shows, however, the experiences of working people throughout U.S. history have run far afield of this description.

The "chaotic state," so pregnant with war, that Jaures poetically describes alludes to the class nature of capitalist society. Capitalism pits a minority of powerful elites who control the nation's wealth against a laboring majority that produces it, creating the basis for social struggles and upheavals. It's a logic built into the fabric of the system.

Review: Documentary

Plutocracy III: Class War, part three of a five-part documentary by Scott Noble. Available online at FilmsForAction.org.

The gains working-class people have made in the U.S. have come through intense struggles, and even loss of life.

Plutocracy III: Class War, in the best tradition of Howard Zinn and other "people's historians," is a sobering, compelling and inspiring look at U.S. history from the bottom up, centered around the fiery struggles of the working class and the downtrodden.

The film includes fascinating commentary from movement activists, writers and labor historians such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Brian Jones, Justin Akers Chacon and Peter Rachleff, juxtaposing analysis and anecdotal, with stirring imagery from past struggles.

Today, when the labor movement has been in retreat for a number of decades, mainstream politics is so openly reactionary, and socialism is just beginning to gain a new hearing, it can be difficult to visualize the working-class combativity that Plutocracy III: Class War describes.

But throughout history, American workers have often been among the most tenacious. They have organized themselves collectively into unions, identified openly with socialist politics, braved extraordinary levels of ruling-class violence and have often transcended deep divisions inherent to the American experience, such as racism, sexism and nativism.

But none of this has come without contradictions or limitations. Noble's film realistically portrays the social forces that unite the working class, while simultaneously showing those that divide it.

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CLASS WAR centers mainly on the period stretching from the profound economic transformation and social ferment following the Civil War, through the post-Second World War class confrontations of 1919.

The Civil War (1861-1865) profoundly transformed the U.S. economy. An explosion in manufacturing and infrastructure dotted the land, as the federal government passed pro-business legislation and awarded lucrative contracts to industrialists.

The banking system was modernized, and a national network of railroads were built connecting it all.

With this increase in industrialization and finance came great concentrations of wealth, and with it, massive inequality. This era became known as the "Gilded Age."

By 1890, the wealthiest 9 percent of the population owned 71 percent of the nation's wealth. Names like Andrew Carnegie in steel, J.P. Morgan in banking, John D. Rockefeller in oil and Jay Gould in rail were the so-called "captains of industry." But to the industrial workers who toiled in their employ, they were nothing but "robber barons."

As the film explores, the working class had to reckon with certain factors in the American context that made it difficult to organize and fight back.

One was the legacy of slavery, which left a virulent level of racism and segregation in its wake, dividing workers against themselves.

Secondly, the political system left barely any room for an alternative to the two parties of capital, the Democrats and Republicans, who both represented the interests of big business and high finance, with the Democrats posing as an ally of the oppressed and exploited.

There was also a massive influx of immigrants. From 1880 to 1900, the population increased 51 percent, while the urban population increased 174 percent. Immigration, coupled with the transformation and reorganization of the economy meant a working class in a perpetual state of fluidity, making stable organization difficult.

Lastly, the ruling class used an extraordinary level of violence and repression to beat back oppositional movements that threatened the status quo from the left.

This took the form of state violence--from the everyday discipline of the police and prisons, to the strikebreaking function of the National Guard. And it also included an unprecedented utilization of private armies and thugs that the capitalists employed themselves.

As labor historian Stephen Norwood writes,

The United States during the early 20th century was the only advanced industrial country where corporations wielded coercive military power. In Europe, employers did not hire armed mercenaries...Paradoxically, the nation that never experienced feudalism and that pioneered in introducing civil liberties allowed corporations to develop powerful private armies that operated outside the law, denying workers basic constitutional rights...During the 1930s, Ford Motor Company's Service Department, directed by ex-pugilist Harry Bennett, formed to suppress union organizing and strikes, constituted the world's largest private army, numbering between 3,500 and 6,000 men.

Yet despite what sounds like impossible odds, workers fought back--and won.

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THIS DOCUMENTARY examines some of the most remarkable examples of class struggle in U.S. history where these obstacles were overcome.

Miners braved the vicious violence of the Pinkerton Detective Agency at the 1914 Ludlow Massacre; and dockworkers braved the extreme racism down South when they united across racial boundaries in the 1892 New Orleans General Strike.

The film also covers the often overlooked Green Corn Rebellion, which Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz refers to as "the most important event in U.S. history no one knows about." In August 1917 in rural Oklahoma, a coalition of white, Black and Native Americans, led by the Muskogee, rose up in defiance of the First World War.

Dunbar-Ortiz describes Oklahoma at the time as a "cauldron of activism." The Socialist Party had been organizing sharecroppers and tenant farmers there for a number of years. The International Workers of the World (IWW), or "Wobblies," and other trade unions were also a force in the area.

Sharecropping was backbreaking work. It required the entire family to labor in in order to survive. This made the able-bodied 18-year-olds, who were targets for conscription, absolutely essential for their way of life. This was a driving force in the rebellion.

Most of the landless farmers were illiterate. Dunbar-Ortiz describes Karl Marx being read aloud, ministers preaching the "social gospel" and the preparation of a political manifesto that was explicitly anti-capitalist.

The plan was to go to Missouri, Louisiana and other outlying areas, and gather forces where other large-scale organizing had been taking place. After this a mass force would march on Washington and "overthrow the government." But the formation was repressed by force instead. An army of police were deputized, made up partly of wealthy owners in the area. Three were killed and hundreds arrested.

Although the rebellion failed, it's a powerful example of interracial organizing and solidarity that is worth studying today. An elderly Seminole Muscogee Creek woman said after the uprising:

It was not easy to persuade our poor white and black brothers and sisters to rise up. We told them that rising up, standing up, whatever the consequences, would inspire future generations....That has been the Indian way for centuries.

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THE FILM gives extensive focus to the tumultuous 1919--a year in which 4 million, or roughly 22.5 percent of all workers, went out on strike following the First World War.

The high-water mark of this working-class upsurge was the 1919 Seattle General Strike. The strike was put down when Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson called in federal troops, who, along with the National Guard, occupied the city.

But for six days, some 65,000 workers in 110 union locals formed a 300-member strike committee, taking full control of the city. Labor historian Jeremy Brecher described the committee as a virtual "counter-government."

Through various subcommittees, workers handled the city's sanitation, food delivery and medical services. Veterans of the First World War replaced the city police with a Labor War Veteran's Guard. Public dining halls served over 100,000 meals in six days to strikers and their families.

Incredibly, workers called the strike at the height of the postwar Red Scare in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The federal government was in the midst of leading a massive campaign against leftists, workers and immigrants, imprisoning and deporting tens of thousands.

The response among workers in Seattle was to declare solidarity with the Russian Revolution. In the fall of 1919, longshoremen refused to load arms destined for counter-revolutionary white armies in Russia.

Plutocracy III: Class War is highly recommended viewing. It gives us a sense of how modern capitalism was formed and how wealth was accrued on the backs of the working class and the most oppressed in society.

Most of all, it shows us that workers are capable of heroism under the seemingly worst of circumstances. What labor history tells us is that workers do not fight because they necessarily want to, but because their lives depend upon it.