An epic tale with few he­roes

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Aram Bak­shian Jr. Aram Bak­shian Jr., a for­mer aide to Pres­i­dents Nixon, Ford and Rea­gan, has writ­ten widely on pol­i­tics, his­tory, gas­tron­omy and the arts.

THE EDGE OF AN­AR­CHY: THE RAIL­ROAD BARONS, THE GILDED AGE, AND THE GREAT­EST LA­BOR UP­RIS­ING IN AMER­ICA By Jack Kelly St. Mar­tin’s, $28.99, 308 pages

Some ques­tions will never be an­swered: Which came first: The chicken or the egg? Golden eggs — and the geese that lay them — are another mat­ter. While fu­ri­ous ar­gu­ments on its dis­tri­bu­tion still rage, one thing is cer­tain. Be­fore it can be dis­trib­uted, wealth must be gen­er­ated. And if the wrong dis­tri­bu­tion for­mula is cho­sen, it can abort the gen­er­a­tion of fu­ture wealth.

This sim­ple truth has been re-proven ev­ery time un­fet­tered so­cial­ism has been ap­plied at the na­tional level. Like the an­cient Chi­nese cus­tom of foot-bind­ing, so­cial­ism at­tempts to im­pose a the­o­ret­i­cally beau­ti­ful ideal by mu­ti­lat­ing re­al­ity.

Foot-bind­ing re­pressed the nat­u­ral growth of the fe­male foot. In the name of “beauty” it in­flicted pain and de­for­mity. So­cial­ism tries to cre­ate a more “beau­ti­ful” so­ci­ety by re­press­ing hu­man na­ture in the name of an ab­stract ideal. Again and again, it has re­sulted in pain and poverty, from the (grate­fully) dead So­viet Union to the ter­mi­nally ill “Bo­li­var­ian Repub­lic” of Venezuela.

Eu­gene Debs (1855-1926), in many ways the most noble, sin­cere Amer­i­can ad­vo­cate of so­cial­ism ever, was liv­ing proof that a good man with a bad idea can do more harm than a bad man with a good idea — an ax­iom some might be tempted to ap­ply to Bernie San­ders and Don­ald Trump to­day. Debs was at the heart of the Pull­man Strike of 1894, the great­est la­bor dis­pute ever to con­vulse the United States, and the near­est thing to a na­tion-wide gen­eral strike our coun­try has ever ex­pe­ri­enced.

While “The Edge of An­ar­chy,” Jack Kelly’s splen­didly-writ­ten and thor­oughly re­searched new his­tory of the Pull­man strike, is gen­er­ally sym­pa­thetic to Debs and the strik­ers, he con­cedes that “… Debs was in­clined to ig­nore cer­tain home truths. The first was that sol­i­dar­ity has its lim­its. Cer­tainly the boy­cott, waged al­most en­tirely for the ben­e­fit of the rel­a­tively small group of em­ploy­ees at the Pull­man works, was a stun­ning ex­am­ple of self­less ac­tion.”

Tens of thou­sands rail­road work­ers had, in­deed, left work out of sym­pa­thy with the strik­ing la­bor­ers who man­u­fac­tured ty­coon Ge­orge Pull­man’s rail­way cars. But Debs’ un­der­ly­ing as­sump­tion that the rail­roads would be par­a­lyzed was “a chimera.”

Why? In Mr. Kelly’s words, “Self­ish­ness, an­i­mos­ity to­ward fel­low work­ers, and pure des­per­a­tion prompted hun­dreds of firemen, en­gi­neers, switch­men, and hum­ble la­bor­ers to seek the po­si­tions that had been va­cated by the strik­ers.”

Debs’ sec­ond mis­take was be­liev­ing that all those who did strike would hold them­selves to his own high stan­dard of con­duct. “From the be­gin­ning, strik­ers had done more than walk away from their jobs. Some … had ac­tively in­ter­fered with trains, un­cou­pled cars, cut brake lines, caused de­rail­ments. In spite of Debs’ re­peated calls to obey the law, the ri­ot­ing had played a sig­nif­i­cant role in par­a­lyz­ing rail traf­fic.”

This led to the de­ploy­ment of state and fed­eral troops to end mob vi­o­lence and re­store or­der on the tracks. An at­tempt to hold the na­tional econ­omy hostage to union de­mands — and to crip­ple the flow of vi­tal ne­ces­si­ties like food, mail and medicine via rail (then the only na­tional dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem) failed.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, Samuel Gom­pers, head of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor, along with many union lead­ers and mem­bers rep­re­sent­ing skilled rather than un­skilled rail­road la­bor, sided with the greater pub­lic good rather than en­gag­ing in knee-jerk sol­i­dar­ity.

While Debs con­sid­ered Gom­pers and his fol­low­ers traitors, Gom­pers ar­gued that sup­port­ing a gen­eral strike in a lost cause would have been un­fair to wage earn­ers, and that “such a course would de­stroy the con­struc­tive la­bor move­ment of the coun­try.” He was prob­a­bly right, and he would spend the rest of his life chalk­ing up real gains for work­ing people.

By con­trast, Debs, who had ear­lier de­nied be­ing a so­cial­ist, would end his po­lit­i­cal life as a quixotic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date run­ning on the so­cial­ist ticket, be­sides serv­ing prison time as the re­sult of over-zeal­ous fed­eral prose­cu­tion.

It’s an epic yarn and Jack Kelly tells it with Homeric power and sweep. But this epic con­tains more tragedy than hero­ism. Both Ge­orge Pull­man, the in­no­va­tive and in many ways hu­mane founder and head of the com­pany at the heart of the dis­pute, and Eu­gene Debs, the sil­ver-tongued but semi-de­luded voice of the strik­ers, were good but flawed men.Real­ists like Samuel Gom­pers and Pres­i­dent Grover Cleve­land, a mod­er­ate Demo­crat — when there used to be a lot of them — had to do the clean­ing up.

The one solid re­sult of the failed strike was an un­of­fi­cial com­mand­ment later ar­tic­u­lated by Calvin Coolidge (as gover­nor of Mas­sachusetts dur­ing the Bos­ton Po­lice Strike) and Ron­ald Rea­gan (as pres­i­dent dur­ing the Air Con­trollers Strike): “There is no right to strike against the pub­lic safety.”

True then and true now.

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