US Capitalism’s Bully Boys

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about the rise of the United States’ industrial and financial empire. These descriptions include everything from journal and magazine articles to textbooks and monographs of various lengths. All too many of them celebrate the men who got extremely rich from their activities during those years most often included in that historical period. In what is taught as history to most of us, these men are usually celebrated for their foresight, their drive, and their success; a success measured by their vast wealth. Although some of the histories of this type offer a nod to the negative aspects of these men’s rise to the top of the capitalist food chain–the low wages they paid, the corruption they depended on to get their way with governments, their attacks on workers attempting to organize–those negatives are treated more like a sidebar. You know, the cost of doing business.

Fortunately for those who aren’t comfortable with the so-called great man theory of history, recent years have seen a few books published providing a more rounded view of the so-called industrial revolution in the United States. In other words, they dismiss the idea that only great men make history. Instead, they argue that the role of the regular folks is at least as important as those few who control the wealth. The authors of these books consider the role of labor organizers and unions, the roles of farmers and indigenous peoples, women, and the land itself. Of course, given the power of the exploiter class, much of this history is a history of resistance to that class. As historian Chad Pearson’s latest book Capitalist’s Terrorists: Klansmen, Lawmen, and Employers in the Long Nineteenth Century makes clear in is the latest book, the employer class was (and is) not afraid of using brutal violence to get its way.

From tame-sounding organizations like employers’ associations to less tame groups like the so-called Concerned Citizens Alliances composed of employers, vigilantes, off-duty police officers, and hired thugs, the history Pearson relates is one of conspiracies and violence. Both of these phenomena were directed at working people fighting for a living wage. These groups’ intention was to keep the people working for them in poverty and fear; poverty because lower wages increased employers’ profits and fear because that kept workers from organizing to get their fair share. The tactics of fear included everything from blacklisting workers associated with organizing their fellows or agitating for better working conditions and pay to beatings, threats of beatings, running workers out of town, and even murder.

Pearson begins his text with a look at the Ku Klux Klan in its first incarnation during Reconstruction. Most historians place the motivations for the genesis and growth of the Klan during that period on southern white supremacists’ fear that equal rights for Black citizens would mean the end of their domination of the southern political system. Pearson takes this analysis further, arguing that the Klan was organized by southern white elites who needed to keep what were once slaves working for them. This presented a challenge as many former slaves took to the road, working when they wanted to and getting paid to do so. Just as the employers’ associations and Concerned Citizens Alliances would do a few decades in the future, one of the roles the KKK played was to intimidate Black workers to stay put and keep working for their former masters. Murder, beatings, whippings, and other physical torture were considered reasonable means to effect this. Similarly, just as labor organizers would be chased out of town by the employers and their co-conspirators, so would radical Republicans working to enforce the laws of Reconstruction in the South.

As the text moves into the early twentieth century, Pearson details numerous efforts to organize workers in the rapidly industrializing nation. Likewise, he discusses the often brutal attacks on those efforts. In addition, he describes the role courts and law enforcement agencies played in this repression. Not only did the courts act as legal support for the capitalist class in its attacks on workers, but on occasion the executive branch took part. In fact, President Harrison’s role in quashing labor uprisings during his term was more or less a sequel to his actions as a vigilante during the 1877 Pullman strike when he was a lawyer for the railroads. Like most wealthy and powerful people, he understood the nature of class warfare. In his introduction, Pearson quotes historian Gustavus Myers, who called the Supreme Court, “the most powerful instrument of the ruling class.” In other words, its only real allegiance was to the continued domination of the capitalist class; not the people or their rights such as they are. Some things never change.

This book identifies numerous players in US history engaged in what is essentially the conspiracy of capitalism. Even though the story in these pages covers decades and includes men and groups who never met each other, the actions detailed by Pearson describe the employer class’s intention to make the US safe for capitalism and capitalists. This intention meant that groups of men (and now, women) from this class met, often clandestinely, and contrived ways to keep and expand their power. In other words, they were a conspiracy. It was a conspiracy that involved murder, kidnapping, illegal imprisonment and numerous other forms of violence. It is also a conspiracy that continues to this day, only on a grander scale. Not only is Capitalist’s Terrorists an important history, but it is also essential to understanding the brutal truth of US capitalism and its meaning in today’s hypercapitalist reality.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: