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Learning From the Children Of the '80s -- the 1880s

As soon as I began to read about events that happened outside of my lifetime, I learned about an era of essential revolution that put the 1960s to shame.
Richard Singer

Issue #25, March 1996

Like most of the seemingly few would-be revolutionaries in my age group, I have spent much of my life trying to shake off the myth of a movement that ended a few years before I could join it. This movement was the "revolution" of the 1960s, which, I have been told, was the time to protest and rebel against the System and the Establishment. Time and again, my older acquaintances have told me that my feelings against capitalism and the ruling powers belonged to the '60s. Similarly, they have told me that all the attempts I've made to rebel against the System -whether it was playing in anarchistic performances (during the painfully inconsequential punk rock rebellion) or writing experimental fiction and Leftist essays or joining socialist organizations and attending protests — were the kinds of activities that belonged to the 1960s. And, while I had hung around with hippies and gone to peace marches when I was a child, my elders never let me forget that I was too young to have played a real part in the real era of revolution...

For the longest time, they had me convinced. Yet in recent months, I have finally been able to shake off the myth that my older acquaintances had created. I have done this through the study of American history. For, as soon as I began to read about events that happened outside of my lifetime, I learned about an era of essential revolution that put the 1960s to shame.

This period was the 1880s and 1890s, the time known most appropriately as the "Great Upheavals." It was a time when the System as we know it — that is, capitalism (with all the troubles that it perpetuates) — was seriously challenged by huge numbers of people in a concrete, coherent and organized way. This was a time when people devoted their lives to addressing injustices that most rebels in the '60s noticed only fleetingly, the kinds of problems and inequities that are plaguing us with a renewed vigor today.

I do not want to belittle the greater accomplishments of the '60s. The Civil Rights movement, in particular, made great advances in society that no reactionary forces will really be able to reverse. But this movement had already peaked by the time the movement that my acquaintances revere got under way. Certainly, there were other rights-based movements which blossomed well into the '60s, and which laid the foundations for a kind of openness in American culture that hadn't existed before. But these movements-gay rights, women's rights, Latino rights, Native American rights, prisoners' rights, students' rights, senior citizens' rights-also laid the foundations for what we now call "identity politics," with a lot of attention paid to the claims for recognition voiced by different disenfranchised groups, and relatively little attention paid to organizing everyone against the forces that affect us all.

There were movements against capitalism underway in the 1880s and 1890s, and they were joined and fought by the essential kind of people whom most of the radicals in the '60s seemed to want to ignore: workers. These people were dissatisfied with the capitalist system, not (like those '60s radicals) out of some disappointment with parents and/or prosperity, but out of a need to find a way past the poverty and violent oppression that capitalism inflicted on them. All over America, working people organized into unions and rebelled, demanding changes in the fundamental conditions of the arrangements between employers and employees, landowners and tenants, and even (as certain theorists overseas would label it) bourgeoisie and proletariat. In numbers that dwarfed the American student protestors of the 1960s (at least when you consider the proportion of population), workers everywhere organized into multi-racial/multi-ethnic/all-ages- and-both-genders unions such as the Knights of Labor, the UMWA and the CLU, and struck, picketed, boycotted, and even fought gun battles with employers, repeatedly shutting the System down.

The movement in the heyday of the 1960s that unified the most American protestors was the Vietnam War. But the protest against the War was mostly a middle-class young people's struggle, waged because these middle-class young people did not want to meet the same fate that many working-class American kids faced thousands of miles away. While there was a good amount of organized protest centered around this movement, few people seemed to think much about what would happen to the protest movement after the War. And, while a movement such as this one did infuse the United States with an unprecedented skepticism about military involvement, it did little to challenge the system under which everyone must live. If we accept the notion that the workers of a nation are its most valuable people (the "producing classes," as the folks in the 1880s and '90s called them), then the most valuable people were hardly courted by the Vietnam protestors — in fact, they often became adversaries rather than allies: New Leftists condemned and excluded various unions (including the AFL-CIO) for supporting the War, middle-class kids condemned working-class kids for fighting in Vietnam, and working-class parents held the protestors in contempt for taking away the dignity that these parents felt should be granted to the young men who were fighting. Considering that the anti-war protest was so concentrated among young people whose families prospered, it's no wonder that this movement did so little to challenge the methods by which the System made certain people prosperous.

There were movements afoot in the late '60s that supposedly sought to transform society, but these were the very movements that pale the most when compared to their counterparts in the Great Upheavals of the 1880s and '90s. While the revolutionaries of the 19th Century fought for such transformation through active, organized struggle, the kids of the late '60s generally indulged in hedonistic retreat. In fact, most of my acquaintances who boast about the "revolutionary" '60s participated in this movement mainly by having sex and taking drugs. While these impulses also motivated some people in the Great Upheavals-such as Emma Goldman, whose views on free love would have fit right in with the 1960s crowd-they were always understood to be secondary to the greater cause of fighting capitalism. While a number of kids in the 1960s also liked to call themselves socialists, it is impossible to discern any powerful and cohesive movement in America during the '60s that sought any economic changes more advanced than the social-democratic anti-poverty programs which were executed by a far-from-radical president, Lyndon Johnson. By contrast, in the 1880s, America's largest union, the Knights of Labor, openly campaigned for the abolition of the wage system; for a universal workers' solidarity; and for the reclamation of society's wealth by the "producing classes" from the hands of "nonproducers" such as bankers and speculators. The Knights also often inspired one Eugene Debs, who led the American Railway Union in the momentous Pullman Strike of 1894 and would later become the most prominent figure in the history of U.S. socialism. And another openly socialist leader, Thomas Morgan, wielded enormous influence, pushing forward then-radical reforms (compulsory education, inspection of workplaces, abolition of sweatshops, nationalization of utilities, etc.) that would actually be adopted for the next century.

To me, though, the most interesting and illuminating contrast between the anti-capitalists of the Upheaval and those of the '60s is found not among socialists, but among anarchists. Certainly, one of the most interesting developments during the late '60s was the way in which a small, young and highly visible minority of people revived the concept of anarchism. They did so mainly by forming rural communes in which goods were shared as freely as possible, work was supposedly shared (though this did not always happen in that manner), materialism was (at least superficially) shunned and hierarchies were consciously avoided. It is these then-young people whom I used to look to with the most admiration, and who later would taunt me the most with their tales of the revolution that I'd missed. Yet I have learned recently that their methods for achieving anarchism were very limited compared to the more genuine efforts of the anarchists of the Great Upheavals.

The '60s anarchists were surprisingly authentic in that many of the communes which they formed adhered to the tradition of the 19th Century anarchist Peter Kropotkin and his concept of "communist anarchism," which had emphasized this very mode of agrarian living, sharing and local, small-group autonomy. In fact, many of Kropotkin's followers (though not Kropotkin himself) became individualist eccentrics who might have been happy on a hippie commune. Yet this kind of anarchism — especially as it was practiced by '60s hippies — did not take into account the means by which anarchism could be spread. Rather than addressing the question of how society as a whole could be transformed by anarchism, these neo-Kropotkinist hippies ended up doing everything they could to protect their environments from the intrusion of the outside world. Not only did they separate themselves from the older generation, from working people and other "squares" in mainstream society; they even went so far, eventually, as to publish newspapers that were to be restricted to members of "alternative communities" like their own.

There was an anarchist-leaning organization of the '60s known as the Yippies (who continue to operate today, albeit in relative obscurity), who at least tried to spread some anarchist notions through odd forms of street theater, public pranks, and a briefly visible presence in the protests against the War. Yet their kind of activity only broke up the routine of bourgeois reality for those who could appreciate such spectacles, and it never did become clear how they thought these activities could really defeat capitalism. Certainly, they never seemed to form any serious connections with workers, i.e., those whom the revolutionaries of the Great Upheavals championed as the "producing classes."

Needless to say, the anarchists of the Great Upheavals considered the "producing classes" to be the most important potential converts to their creed. They cultivated their anarchism in the heart of urban immigrant neighborhoods such as Manhattan's Lower East Side and did everything they could to spread this anarchism to workers, to make it a driving principle for working-class unions intent on transforming the workplace and society.

On a personal note, I was rather amazed by a reading of the first chapters of Emma Goldman's memoir, Living My Life. Here, I saw a fusion between some of the features I've associated with the '60s and '70s and those of the Great Upheavals. The anarchists who congregated in Goldman's circle hung out in restaurants throughout the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village, sharing their vibrant counter-culture much the way New York's folk singers or its (later) intellectual hippies congregated during the '60s. They gave performances-in their case, political speeches-which generated the kind of controversy, enthusiasm and praise that later would surround underground rock performances throughout the same neighborhoods. They often lived together in communal apartments, where Goldman did not hesitate to put her belief in free love into practice. And they went on tours, where excitement and controversy surrounded them, where they often had to overcome the obstacle of being banned. (Oddly enough, this brought to mind a legend from my own generation's punk rebellion, when the Sex Pistols were repeatedly banned during their Anarchy Tour.)

But these anarchists focused most of their energies on spreading explicit and comprehensive theories about eliminating capitalism. Moreover, they made every effort to bring these ideas straight to workers in union struggles. They became so involved in these workers' struggles, that some of them risked their lives for union rights: Alexander Berkman, Goldman's main lover in this period, got so carried away that he wound up spending 14 years in jail for shooting a ruthless and violent union-busting tycoon named Henry Clay Frick. Much in the tradition of the classic anarchist Bakunin, these radical New Yorkers saw the transformation of economic systems as being the most essential ingredient in their revolution; without reaching workers, they could not even pretended to be active as anarchists.

Goldman and her comrades had all been inspired by a series of events which took place in Chicago in early May of 1886. On May 1 of that year, some 80,000 people, led by anarchists(!), marched to promote something we have since taken for granted, the eight-hour workday. Two days later, a somewhat smaller picket/demonstration resulted in police killings of two unarmed workers. On May 4, a third demonstration, protesting the May 3 incident, culminated in a bombing by an unknown party and the subsequent police shootings and arrests known as the Haymarket Massacre. Goldman and her colleagues would often look to the Haymarket Massacre (and the subsequent unjust execution of several Haymarket anarchists) to stir up their own passions for the overthrow of capitalism.

Exactly 84 years later, on May 4, 1970, four young students were shot by National Guardsmen at Kent Sate. Some of my older acquaintances look to this day to stir up their own idealistic nostalgia about the anti-war movement. While the Kent State murders were, indeed, tragic, the earlier Haymarket massacre now stands out in my mind as a far more significant event.

Sometimes I ask myself why I have been so much more impressed by the Great Upheavals. My need to shake off the legacy of the '60s certainly is an important factor, but I also do think that the participants in the Upheavals carried out far greater plans against greater dangers and accomplished infinitely more, coming much closer to a real revolution against capitalism. I am also greatly concerned about the events that are occurring in the present day: corporations are consolidating power everywhere, and workers are in constant fear of losing many of the privileges that they've gained over the last 100 years. Real wages are plummeting, inequality is rising geometrically, and jobs that can support families comfortably are becoming scarce. It is clear now that the '60s revolution did little to combat this consolidation of corporate power — if anything, it aided it by allowing rebellious energies to be channeled strictly into hedonist impulses, which could easily be addressed and coopted in the capitalist marketplace. In order to address the serious problems that now face us, we need to look to the Great Upheavals and take our inspiration from that era's true revolutionaries.

Invaluble Source Materials

  • Who Built America, Volume II, by the American Social History Project
  • "Democratic Struggles in the Industrializing United States", a course taught by Marvin Gettleman at the NY Marxist School
  • The Twilight of Common Dreams, by Todd Gitlin
  • Living My Life by Emma Goldman
  • Anarchism: Left, Right, and Green by Ulrike Heider
  • A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

Richard Singer is a 34-year-old writer of essays, music reviews, and fiction. His work appeared in various publications over the past 15 years. Richard is a longtime (independent) student of anarchism and a somewhat newer student in democratic socialism. When he can, he contributes to egalitarian causes, disseminates electronic propaganda and spray-glues posters to the lampposts of New York.

Copyright © 1996 by Richard Singer. All rights reserved.