Revolution Aborted; Society Sacralized:
Class War in Buffalo, 1910-1920
By Dr. Elwin H. Powell
(Design of Discord -1973)
one, unafflicted with invincible ignorance, desires to preserve our
economic system in its existing form. "
Every functioning society is integrated by a nuclear institution; the history of the Middle Ages is the history of Catholicism, and the past hundred years of Western life can be written in terms of the transformation of the institution of capitalism. Between 1860 and 1900 the capitalist consensus reigned supreme, at least in America. More than merely an economic system, capitalism was an ethos, a faith, a way of life. Capitalist theory and ideology provided the ra tionale for the political order as well as the organizing principle of industry, i.e. production for private profit. The capitalist was the hero of imaginative literature (e.g. the novels of William Dean Howells) and popular culture (Horatio Alger). The virtues of hard work, thrift, and sobriety were preached and often practiced. Yet the very triumph of industrial capitalism brought in its wake a profusion of social problems crime, pauperism, unemployment, and labor conflict which verged close to class war.
There were three major responses to this "war": the conservative capitalist elite sought to perpetuate it, occasionally turning it into a national war (1898, 1917); the reformists (populists, progressives, trade unionists) wanted to fight a limited war; the revolutionaries (anarcho syndicalists, I.W.W., socialists) sought to turn the Hobbesian war of each against all into a class war of some against others. The reform elements accepted capitalist ends but sought rules to re strict the power of monopolies and thus restore the free competition of the marketplace. This objective animated the "trust busting" and regulative legislation of the period. Similarly, trade unionism pursued capitalist goals of higher wages, shorter hours the market phi losophy of more for less and rejected political objectives which would alter basic property relations. Numerically, smaller but more influential than is often recognized today, the revolutionaries wanted to transform, not reform, society by building working class solidarity on the co-operative principle as a means to abolish the competitive profit system of capitalism.
Between 1900 and 1920 the reform forces won certain battles income and inheritance taxes, strengthening of antitrust laws but in the end lost the "war." In 1919 the Wilson administration's plan to retain control over the railroads and to establish public ownership of communications was defeated, and in the same year the Supreme Court ruled that U.S. Steel did not constitute a trust. By 1921 the capitalist elite had been able to liquidate radicalism, roll back the tide of reform, and consolidate a new position of dominance one that has not seriously been threatened since then. But the capitalist elite could no longer justify itself in terms of the traditional capitalist ethic rags to riches, every man a capitalist. Rather, it found its justification in the concept of Americanism. Americanism was implicitly identified with capitalism the open shop crusade of the 1920's was known as the "American plan" and became the accepted rationalization of capitalist power.
This is not to suggest that an all powerful elite forcefully imposed its will on a resistant public; nor on the other hand did the people enthusias tically embrace the new Americanism. Rather, the power of the cap italist class after World War I was so overwhelming as to deter the very thought of opposition. In 1919 the public was weary from the frustration and futility of reform and opted for the simple alterna tive of disengagement; it "returned to normalcy" with a vengeance (Harding was elected by one of the largest pluralities on record). The people preferred the imagined certainties of the past to the confusing present and the problematic future.
The decisive "battles" of this "war" between the forces of reform, revolution, and reaction were fought out in the American city between 1910 and 1920. While the outcome of the "war" is known already, a re-analysis of the campaign may throw light on the problems of conflict and conflict resolution. The present chapter deals with some of the skirmishes that occurred in the city of Buffalo. We can see in this microcosm the forces which were shaking the whole urban industrial world.
The primary source of data for this study is the newspaper file. For the sociologist, concerned with the behavior of groups and collectivities, the newspaper is an indispensable source; it is as close to a living history as one is apt to come. The newspaper is not the product of a single mind but a collective creation, a daily record of the public life of the community. Newspapers, of course, reflect the ideology of their publishers, but the news is distorted more by selection than by deliberate falsification. Important events are sometimes ignored, but where there is a competing press that danger is diminished. The decade of 1910-20, before the syndicated column, radio, TV, and the national newspaper chain, was in many ways the great day of American journalism. At that time Buffalo had six dailies (as opposed to two in 1970), and thirteen major weeklies four German, one Polish, one Italian, and the remainder English. In addition there was one German and one Polish daily. Of the six dailies the Express is the most reliable and substantial; in its prime it was regarded as the New York Times of Buffalo. Politically, the daily press ranged from center to far right (The Commercial). The Democratic papers were mildly reformist; the Republican papers were more conservative. While none of the papers were pro- labor they differed in their hostility to unionism; The Commercial equated the closed shop with Bolshevism; the others were more temperate. The Catholic press was strongly anti-Socialist but mildly, and occasionally vigorously, pro-labor. Little remains of the Socialist press. The Arbeiter-Zeitung had a long history in the community and early connections with the De Leonite Socialist Labor party. It seemingly flourished between 1912 and 1916, when circulation increased from 2750 to 7500, but ceased publication during the war. Copies of the Buffalo Socialist between 1912 and 1914 have been preserved; the paper continued until 1919 under the name of New Age, but no copies of it are available. On major issues the press follows the current of opinion of the whole nation, with the Republican papers acting as the local pace setters and the Democratic ones following suit. Generally, the opinion of the Express became in time the opinion of Buffalo. Table 12 gives data on the principal newspapers used in this study.
With a population of half a million, the social life and political climate of Buffalo in the decade of World War I were typical of the American city of the industrial heartland, differing in detail but not in contour from Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, or Chicago. Toward the close of the century the city was dominated by a capitalist elite, described by Professor Horton as "the noblemen of America," with both the trappings and the substance of power:
...the power of the community in commerce and in dustry was concentrated in the banks. The men who wielded that power thought of themselves as capitalists and re ferred to themselves as such with conscious pride. Their pride was justifiable. They belonged to a class that had made itself the dominant power in the country, turning by force of intelligence and character the greatest battles of the century to its advantage. This class had supplanted the Southern aristocracy and had made the United States, on the whole, submissive to its will . . . In their economic affairs they were anxious lest they leave any stone unturned in their attempt to strengthen and extend (their power).
In their political affairs these fresh and zestful capital ists were as alert and vigilant as in their economic concerns.
Some index of the capitalist command of political life in Buffalo is indicated by the voting record of the city and the vote is always only the one tenth of the iceberg above the surface. Although 60 per cent of the city were blue collar workers, with another 20 per cent in the lower white collar ranks, Buffalo voted Republican in every national election between 1892 and 1932, except 1912 when the Taft Roosevelt split gave a plurality to Wilson. In 1896, McKinley, the forthright spokesman of the capitalist class, defeated the great commoner Bryan by a handy two to one. (Table 13 gives an over view of the Buffalo vote from 1896 to 1920.) The rising Democratic vote indicates the growing spirit of reform, yet the ideology of the two parties was essentially the same. Eugene Debs said in a Buffalo speech in 1908, "The Republicans want the capitalist system as it is; the Democrats want the capitalist system as it was" (Enquirer, Oct., 1908). Debs said the choice was between:
"Wall Street and Taft
Tammany and Graft. "
While Debs's own showing in 1908 was not impressive, it represented a gain over 1904, and in the next four years the Socialist vote increased fourfold both locally and nationally. In 1912 Debs drew a larger crowd (9000) in Buffalo than did any of the other candidates, and some of his more ardent supporters were actually surprised when he did not win the presidency. Moreover the Socialist vote was a party vote, and in Buffalo Charles E. Russell, Socialist candidate for governor, ran slightly ahead of Debs (4207 vs.4457). "After the election," says one student of the subject, "there was not the usual fading of interest." The party was beginning to take root in the community and by 1913 had seventeen locals, a central office, a biweekly newspaper, and had begun construction on a socialist school and a labor lyceum.
strength and influence of the socialist movement cannot be assessed
by the vote. Their numbers were small, but they had a revolutionary
spirit which gathered momentum between 1912 and 1914, a spirit personified
in Debs: "We ask no quarter, and we grant none; we ask for no compromise
and become stronger with each defeat." Although the local Socialists
were less articulate they were equally defiant. "A good thing about
your work for the socialist movement," the Buffalo
Socialist told its imaginary capitalist readers, "is that every
time you fire a man you make him hate the system the capi talist system
you make him class conscious" (Nov. 1912). To the conservative
trade unionist it said: "Talk of a living wage is tommyrot. If
you were not getting a living wage now, you'd be dead. The Chinese get
a living wage. The socialist wants you to get all you produce, and you're
entitled to it" (Nov., 1912). In its rhetoric, at least, the Socialist
party repudiated the whole society demanding not only better wages and
working conditions but: . . . the emancipation of the whole people through the abolition of the
profit system and the substitution of the Socialist commonwealth . .
. The main purpose of the Socialist Party is to fight the battle of
labor against grasping capitalists and employers to put human life above
the sordid scramble for dollars. And its ultimate aim is to substitute
a sane system of cooperative production, democrati cally administered,
for the present planless system which enriches the idle few at the expense
of the great multitude who produce all the wealth of the world. (Buffalo
Socialist, August 9, 1913) ... CONTINUED NEXT
... CONTINUED NEXT PAGE>>
This text was transcribed from: Powell, Elwin. H (1925-1991). The
Design of Discord, Studies of Anomie. Suicide, Urban Society, War.
Oxford Universirty Press. 1970.
* This text was transcribed from: Powell, Elwin. H (1925-1991). The Design of Discord, Studies of Anomie. Suicide, Urban Society, War. Oxford Universirty Press. 1970.
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There may by several typographical errors in this text from the OCR process. If you notice any errors please contact us and we will correct them. This electronic text version is copyright reserved by Buffalonian.com.
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