Scott Noble’s latest documentary series, The War at Home, takes a deep dive into the history of labor movements and state repression in the United States. Soon to be a multi-part series, the first entry is titled ‘Rebellion’ and can be viewed online for free. As with all of Noble’s films, The War at Home is meticulously researched and weaves a rich tapestry of primary and secondary sources and documents, including amazing period footage of momentous yet often little-remembered (or effectively censored) events. Punctuated by classic American folk and blues music, it is as much a celebration of America’s rebels as a condemnation of its injustices.
The film looks at history through the lens of the working class, beginning with the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 in Chicago, continuing through the spread of Jim Crow in Louisiana, to the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy of 1911, and on to the violent strikes and police crackdowns of the Great Depression. In the first few minutes alone, the film tackles the concept of “wage-slavery,” noting that the great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass initially rejected the term, yet later conceded, “there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery.” Conservatives who have re-branded themselves “classical liberals” may be surprised to learn that 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill believed that wage-labor would soon be replaced by something more amendable to the majority, as it was not a “satisfactory state to human beings.”
The period of industrialization following the Civil War had a brutalizing effect on most Americans, creating horrendous working conditions and giving rise to the first labor unions, as well as more radical movements devoted to various forms of socialism. Noble connects the dots between the rise of industrial capitalism, mass corporate profits, and the suppression/exploitation of labor along with affiliated radical political adherents, eventually leading to international conflicts and destruction on a scale the world had never before seen.
Particular attention is paid to the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (aka “the wobblies”), who as the film notes were the first American union “to reject all divisions among workers, even that of nationality.” At a time when racial issues are occupying much of our public discourse, the film reminds us that racial conflict and white supremacy have always been intentionally fostered by America’s ruling class, pitting workers against one another to prevent class solidarity. Though the Wobblies were non-violent, they embraced an overtly anti-capitalist and revolutionary doctrine (the Wobblies have undergone a resurgence in recent years, though have yet to approach their former heights).
Noble highlights how these struggles put common people in the crosshairs of their own civil institutions. Time after time, authorities responded to union organizing with extreme violence, often via the National Guard. When combined with the equally violent counter-insurgency methods of private armies like the Pinkertons, it was perhaps inevitable that some workers responded with violence of their own. The “propaganda of the deed” campaign, which originated in Europe, saw anarchists engage in assassinations and bombings of ruling class figures, undertaken with the hope of spurring on the masses to revolution. Instead, the campaign mostly had the effect of increasing state repression. In the United States, the most deadly and dramatic of these incidents was the bombing of Wall Street in 1920 (the film adds a grimly ironic historical footnote, namely that Wall Street was originally founded as a slave market).
The Industrial Workers of the World (and socialists of all stripes) were viciously repressed during WWI, often under the pretense that they were saboteurs working for Imperial Germany. New legislation such as the Espionage Act and later the Sedition Act provided broad authority to the Bureau (later Federal Bureau) of Investigation, resulting in the Palmer Raids and the deportation of hundreds of people, mostly poor immigrants. Leading the assault was a young J. Edgar Hoover, initially the head of the “radical division” or G.I.D. According to a later report, constitutional violations became a matter of routine. Mass surveillance was implemented against dissidents, ranging from the NAACP to Hellen Keller, the first deaf and blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree. People were beaten and sent to jail without trial or warrant. Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs was imprisoned after delivering an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio (stating that he would not “go to war for Wall Street”). Equally damaging to radical union organizers were the introduction of “criminal syndicalism” laws passed at the state level. The laws were so broad in their wording that “loitering on the job” could be classified as “sabotage.”
Discussion in The War at Home of repression during WWI and the red scare includes an analysis of propaganda and information control (looking at the influences of Walter Lippmann, George Creel, and Edward Bernays among others), and how such campaigns paved the way for social/political acceptance of such repression. Conscription is also highlighted as a serious injustice (most American men who fought and died in WWI did not do so voluntarily). The anarchist Emma Goldman spearheaded a legal challenge to outlaw the practice, arguing that it violated the 13th Amendment’s prohibition against involuntary servitude. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the petition.
The film draws a link between the purging of radicals from labor unions and the decline of union power during the 1920’s. Following the Bolshevik revolution, mainstream unions such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) ejected communist members, while business organizations simultaneously portrayed unions as a communist plot. The Socialist Party fractured after a majority of their members voted to support the Comintern in Russia. Minimum wage laws were struck down. The drunken exuberance of the wealthy during the “roaring twenties” is contrasted with the poverty of the majority (as well their hellish workplaces, epitomized by soul-destroying assembly lines under the corporate metric tyranny of Taylorism).
The final section of the film deals with events during the Great Depression, emphasizing the great labor strikes of 1934. Many of these strikes, including those in San Francisco, Toledo, and Minneapolis, were led by communists. In Minneapolis, militant Trotskyists created alliances with farmers and encouraged everyone connected to the delivery process to join in the strike – not just truckers. The events of 1934 were instrumental both to the creation of Congress of Industrial Organizations (CEO), which sought to organize unskilled workers, and various New Deal measures adopted by president Franklin. D. Roosevelt (FDR). Increasingly frightened of rebellion from below, certain segments of the ruling class actually supported FDR’s reforms.
Based on research from historians like Howard Zinn, Sharon Smith, Peter Kuznick, Peter Rachleff, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “The War at Home – Rebellion” exposes the roots of America’s class war on its own people. If this montage paints what seems a grim portrait of US history, it is because most students are rarely presented with the Untold History that Noble explores. But the story he tells is not a bleak one, rather, it is ultimately a history of hope and struggle, of progress and perseverance. It shows just how powerful we the people can be when we work together against the odds, against our myriad oppressors.
Glimpses of genuine worker solidarity and triumph appear at various stages of the film: the Wobblies overcoming free speech prohibitions in the early 20th century; the Lawrence Textile strike, which involved immigrant workers (mostly women) from dozens of different nationalities; the Seattle General strike of 1919, which saw workers taking over the entire city for a brief time period; the great sit-down strikes of 1936-37, by which workers successfully challenged some of the largest corporations in the country and indeed the world.
In a time when many are questioning institutional integrity across society, seeking accurate and relevant information to help make sense of our supposedly post-truth era, Noble shines a spotlight into our dark past while providing a crucial class context often missing or obscured in mainstreamed accounts. It is precisely this sort of work that can provide a foundation for mapping a better, brighter, and more just future for all.
As I write this, Noble promises to upload part II of The War at Home, titled Blacklist. It explores the years 1936 to 1956, and ends with the word “COINTELPRO.” All of Noble’s films can be viewed at his website. He is currently seeking support for Part III, which will cover the 1960s.
Having seen all of Noble’s previous films, it is safe to say that once completing the series, he will have provided yet another stellar resource for educators and others who seek a deeper understanding of the world’s most powerful hegemon, and of its many oppressed inhabitants fighting for liberty and democracy in the United States of America.