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The Class Struggle in the Old West

Against the overall political pall cast by the Trump administration, there are hopeful signs. Despite the problems I have with the DSA’s failure to make a clean break with the Democratic Party, my spirits remain lifted by their rapid growth. I also take heart in the ability of filmmakers to produce outstanding critiques of our social system in defiance of the commercial diktats of Hollywood. Finally, there is a bounty of radical historiography that through the examination of our past sheds light on our present malaise.

The New Historians of Capitalism (NHC) are just one indication of this trend. Within this school, Walter Johnson, Edward Baptist and Sven Beckert have all written about slavery and capitalism from the perspective of how the “peculiar institution” has shaped American society to this day. Despite their focus on the 19th century, all are sure to “only connect” as E.M. Forster once put it. In an article for the Boston Review  titled “To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice”, Walter Johnson put it this way:

The Movement for Black Lives proposal, “A Vision for Black Lives,” insists on a relationship between the history of slavery and contemporary struggles for social justice. At the heart of the proposal is a call for “reparations for the historic and continuing harms of colonialism and slavery.” Indeed, the ambient as well as the activist discussion of justice in the United States today is inseparable from the history of slavery.

While not a school in the same exact way as the NHC, the historians grouped around the Labor and Working Class History Association (LAWCHA) website have set themselves to the task of promoting “public and scholarly awareness of labor and working-class history through research, writing, and organizing.” Among its members is Chad Pearson, whose “Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement” helps us understand the threat posed by Janus today even if the period covered in the book is over a century ago.

Pearson’s LAWCHA colleague Mark A. Lause, a civil war era historian just like the NHC’ers, has just come out with a new book titled “The Great Cowboy Strike: Bullets, Ballots, & Class Conflicts in the American West” that should be of keen interest to CounterPunch readers. Since American society is guided by notions of “rugged individualism” embodied in the old West, it is high time for that mythology to be put to rest. Reading Lause’s magisterial account will leave you with only one conclusion: Billy the Kid had more in common with Occupy Wall Street than he did with faux cowboys like Ronald Reagan chopping wood and George W. Bush clearing bush in their respective ranches. In fact, he was more likely to put a bullet in their counterparts way back then.

Pat Garrett, the lawman who killed Billy the Kid and who was characterized as a hero in most Hollywood movies, mostly functioned as a hired gun for the big cattle ranchers who considered small-time rustlers like Billy as the class enemy.

Like Billy, most cowboys were super-exploited. In many ways, working for a rancher was not much different than doing stoop labor for a big farmer. Riding 12 to 16 hours a day in the saddle at low pay—often in the Texas panhandle’s bitter cold–was not what you’d see in most cowboy movies, especially those made by John Ford who romanticized their life.

In the 1880s, there was a series of cowboy strikes that were never dramatized by John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Wellman or any other Hollywood director. In 1883, a virtual General Strike swept across the Texas panhandle that one newspaper described as the natural outcome of cowboys having some knowledge of the “immense profits” some bosses were making. Wasn’t it to be expected that they would “ask for fair wages for what was the hardest of hard work”?

As he does throughout his book, Lause digs deep into the historical archives and discovers that one of the leaders was a forty-year-old Pueblo Indian from the Taos Agency named Juan Antonio Gomez. The cowboys had no union but according to the Commissioner of Labor, they were well organized and prepared for the strike by building a strike fund in advance. As we have seen recently from the West Virginia teachers strike, there is no substitute for militancy and organization. Strike headquarters was in Jesse Jenkins’s saloon in Tascosa. Jenkins was sympathetic to the Greenback movement in Texas that eventually led to the formation of a party committed to a farmer-labor alliance that challenged the two-party system. As has generally been the case with militant labor struggles, the bourgeois press regarded the cowboys in much the same way that the West Virginia press viewed the teachers. The Las Vegas Gazette harrumphed that the strikers were “using unlawful means to compel their employers to grant their request” and added that the strikes “always result in evil and no good”.

Unlike most recent strikes, the cowboys were not easy to push around. One newspaper reported that the bosses “imported a lot of men from the east, but the cowboys surrounded the newcomers and will not allow them to work”. Of course, it also helped that, according to the Fort Collins Courier, the strikers were “armed with Winchester rifles and six-shooters and the lives of all who attempt to work for less than the amount demanded, are in great danger”.

Another strike wave took place between 1884 and 1886. This time the cattle bosses were better prepared. They brought in Pat Garrett to head up the strike-breaking machinery. He was implicitly also the agent of the “Redeemer” Democrats, those politicians that supported terrorism to break the back of Reconstruction. He led a raid on the house of strike leader Tom Harris that led to the arrest of two strike leaders but not Harris. He and another cowboy striker came to the jailhouse later that night and broke them out.

Get the idea? This is material for a “revisionist” movie that could shake Hollywood and the mainstream film critics to their foundations. In fact, one was once made along these lines—the vastly underrated 1978 “Heaven’s Gate” by Michael Cimino that was widely viewed as Marxist propaganda. The N.Y. Times’s Vincent Canby was beside himself:

The point of ”Heaven’s Gate” is that the rich will murder for the earth they don’t inherit, but since this is not enough to carry three hours and 45 minutes of screentime, ”Heaven’s Gate” keeps wandering off to look at scenery, to imitate bad art (my favorite shot in the film is Miss Huppert reenacting ”September Morn”) or to give us footnotes (not of the first freshness) to history, as when we are shown an early baseball game. There’s so much mandolin music in the movie you might suspect that there’s a musical gondolier anchored just off-screen, which, as it turns out, is not far from the truth.

”Heaven’s Gate” is something quite rare in movies these days – an unqualified disaster.

A passage on the Johnson County War, upon which “Heaven’s Gate” was based (as well as “Shane”), can be found in chapter 8 of “The Great Cowboy Strike”. This was essentially an armed struggle between wealthy ranchers and those trying to scratch out a living in Wyoming between 1889 to 1893 that Lause aptly describes as illustrating “the connections between cowboy discontent, range wars, and political insurgency.”

This go-round the bosses’ enforcer was Sheriff Frank Canton (played by Sam Waterston in “Heaven’s Gate”), another cold-blooded killer like Pat Garrett. Anybody who defied the big ranchers was immediately dubbed a “rustler” and met the same fate as a cowboy named Jim Averill and his companion Ellen Watson who dared to defend their homestead against Johnson County’s elite. Canton led his thugs into a raid on their cabin and strung them up on a short rope, as Lause put it.

For the final assault on the cowboys and the small homesteaders, a small army of men from Texas was recruited. An attack party was launched on April 5th, 1890 against Nate Champion’s Kaycee Ranch (played by Christopher Walken in “Heaven’s Gate”). Surrounded by a much larger force, Champion was fearless. Lause writes, “To the unwanted admiration of those closing in on the cabin, the door flew open and Champion stormed out, a Winchester rifle in his left hand and a large pistol in the other. Even those who riddled him with bullets expressed their admiration for a man who had died ‘game’”.

If you want to mix solid class-oriented history with stirring tales of cowboy rebels, check out “The Great Cowboy Strike: Bullets, Ballots, & Class Conflicts in the American West”. It is a reminder that once upon a time in America the Red States were really Red.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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