An epic tale with few heroes
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.