The Seattle strike of February 1919 lasted for five days and was the first city-wide general strike anywhere in the USA. Harvey O’Connor’s gripping account demolishes the myth that socialism, revolutionary or otherwise, was never and could not be natural to American society.
Harvey O’Connor, Revolution in Seattle: A Memoir (Haymarket paperback reprint 2009, original Monthly Review Press 1964), 300pp.
Late in 1999, Seattle saw the militant birth of a new global anti-capitalist movement in the demonstrations against the WTO meeting there. This was, of course, to be the first of many such protests across the world in the next few years, as a whole range of previously disparate movements created links of solidarity, and made the movement truly international. For most onlookers it would have seemed as if this could have been any US city, but in fact Seattle has a tradition of radical politics with considerable depth and drama. On February 6th, 1919 the first city-wide general strike anywhere in the USA began in Seattle and lasted for five days (for an interesting web project dedicated to this event see http://depts.washington.edu/labhist/strike/index.shtml).
Harvey O’Connor’s gripping memoir recounts socialist and union activism in the area from the 1880s, through the years of explosive growth and militancy particularly around 1900, but reaching a height in the war years. The year 1919 saw a climax of politicisation, perhaps even after the general strike in one brilliant incident. Suspicious longshoremen ‘accidentally’ broke open a crate labelled ‘sewing machines’, to discover munitions. These were destined for the anti-Bolshevik army of Admiral Kolchak in Russia and donated by the US government itself, but the workers refused to load them, and were backed by the Central Labor Council of Seattle. News of this spread not only within the US, but around the world.
O’Connor is unsparing in his accounts not just of the corrupt justice system and rigged trials of IWW men (the revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World), but of the murderous violence inflicted upon activists. The movement O’Connor participated in as a young man was, in large measure, defeated: certainly the revolutionary enthusiasms of the years 1900-1919 were exhausted a few years later. Yet this personal history is not only fascinating in itself, but is a demolition of the myth that socialism, revolutionary or otherwise, was never and could not be natural to American society.
Seattle was not, on the face of it, a promising centre for militant labour traditions in the 1880s, yet it rapidly became exactly that. We think of the consequences of ‘combined and uneven development’ as applying to undeveloped economies; Russia as the leading example with China and others following. In these countries, the impact of modern industry upon particularly ‘backward’ societies has an immediate and explosive impact. Revolutionary movements can spring up among isolated centres of workers with the potential at least, to lead the struggles of other exploited classes such as poor peasants.
Something very like this process hit Seattle in the closing years of the nineteenth century. It had begun as simply a logging town barely decades before, but grew rapidly, becoming a manufacturing centre and port. For some time, the barest amenities hardly existed, while the most astonishingly brutal labour conditions prevailed, particularly in the logging industry. At the same time, Washington State was among the first to give votes to women, and a whole range of progressive and socialist ideas were being spread.
This progressive spirit grew in a context where lynchings were common and a settled state of law barely emerged even by the end of the nineteenth century. The beginnings of an organised labour movement was overshadowed by vicious anti-Chinese racism of the 1880s: the rates the Chinese were working for were seen to be undercutting wages. O’Connor acknowledges the damage done to the movement early on in his memoir. Signs of later recurrences of this nativism indicates a major weaknesses of working class politics in the region.
Amid the breakneck pace of economic development from the 1880s, some socialists were attempting to build utopian communities in the wilderness, and if these ultimately failed they were nonetheless one source of socialist ideas. The whole range of American labour organisations, from the Knights of Labour early on, through AFL unions to the Wobblies (IWW) all grew with astonishing rapidity. Alongside them appeared the then militant Socialist Party of Eugene Debbs. The Socialist Party began organising in the state from 1900 and within a few years could claim several thousand members. This scale of growth was testament to the conditions of rapid capitalist development: the same kind of contradictions that created the revolution in Russia were at work in their own way at the same time on the western side of the United States.
The revolutionary aspirations of these decades were defeated, and the logging union created by the Wobblies was destroyed by the 1930s. O’Connor, conscious of the disregard in which the radical movements of 1890-1920 had fallen, is helpful in putting the events of Seattle in the context of wider developments on the American left in these years. What results is an unusual overview of the American socialist and labour movement from a localised perspective in the particular centre of Seattle. This in itself brings an immediacy to the narrative which does do justice to those who fought, and all too often were killed, in Seattle’s revolutionary years.
One thing the book does not do is analyse the reasons for the defeat of the movement, beyond the suggestion that it was too isolated overall in the context of the Pacific coast. However, the detail O’Connor provides, and the implications of many of the stories, give the reader plenty of material for thought. The book is, as O’Connor clearly intended, a fine memorial to the heroic struggles that took place, and a reminder of the revolutionary forms of class struggle that had existed not that long before in the history of the United States.
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).
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