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  • Why Violence Matters:Radicalism, Politics, and Class War in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
  • Beverly Gage

In his 1966 article "Violence in American Labor Disputes," Philip Taft laid out a paradox for American history.1 On one hand, he wrote, class relations in the United States have been among the least ideological in the world. On the other hand, American labor conflicts have been among the world's most violent. "It may appear anomalous," Taft commented, "that the United States, a country in which class feeling and class ideology are almost entirely absent, has experienced a considerable amount of violence in labor disputes."2 He resolved this anomaly by arguing that class violence in the United States was mainly an adaptation to structural circumstances: In conflicts where vital interests, especially union recognition, were at stake, workers and employers tended to resort to brute force. By this logic, the intense violence of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era fit quite comfortably within the exceptionalist narrative of the United States as a nation largely free from ideological conflict.

In the 40 years since Taft wrote his article, this has remained largely the conventional wisdom regarding ideological violence in the United States. To the degree that violence of any sort has figured into a story of American class relations, it has often been framed as a structural issue, the product of a weak state and a frontier culture rather than of an ideological commitment on the part of American workers to revolution or class war. And as with all conventional wisdom, there is a great deal of truth to this view. Certainly the United States never experienced anything like a viable revolutionary assault on the capitalist system, even during the turmoil of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Nor did most violence, in any age, stem from preexisting ideological commitments. [End Page 99]

And yet there is something very strange about the suggestion that ideologically motivated violence did not much matter in American history, particularly when applied to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Far from being a period of ideological timidity, the years between 1877 and 1920 were a time when major national controversies over the use of violence by left-wing radical and revolutionary groups—anarchists, syndicalists, Wobblies, militant trade unionists—erupted with remarkable frequency. Many of the events that inspired these controversies are well known to historians: the Haymarket bombing of 1886; the attempted murder of industrialist Henry Clay Frick by anarchist Alexander Berkman during the Homestead strike in 1892; the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley by self-proclaimed anarchist Leon Czolgosz; the murder of former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg in December, 1905, for which Big Bill Haywood was eventually tried and acquitted; the 1910 dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times headquarters, which resulted in the conviction of nearly the entire leadership of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers; the 1916 Preparedness Day bombing, for which radical Tom Mooney served decades in jail; the May Day and June 2 conspiracies of 1919, including the bombing of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's home; and the 1920 Wall Street explosion, which killed 39 people in the heart of the country's financial district. In addition to these relatively famous events, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of lesser-known, smaller-scale incidents. The newspapers of the era were filled with reports and rumors of violent attacks on the symbols of American government and business: bombs mailed to mayors and governors; dynamite found beneath railroad tracks or outside a factory door; threatening notes sent to police chiefs; mysterious explosions near an industrialist's home.

The interesting question, then, is not why the United States has experienced so little ideological violence, but why historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, especially labor historians, have agreed so uniformly that it was not a major factor in American political life. That question provides the starting point for this essay.

To some degree, the disjuncture between Taft's view of an ideology-free working class and the existence of targeted acts of radical violence is a matter of definition. When Taft wrote about industrial violence...


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