Reviewed by Roger Marheine
Capital’s Terrorists: Klansmen, Lawmen and Employers in the Long Nineteenth Century, by Chad E. Pearson. (Univ. of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2022. 314pp.)
In Capital’s Terrorists, Chad Pearson reveals, in extraordinary detail, the history of “terrorist organizations,” spearheaded by capitalists themselves in an attempt to control labor and increase profits.
Chad Pearson is a labor historian and currently a lecturer at North Texas State university. His earlier book Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement (American Business, Politics, and Society) traced the Open Shop movement from 1890 to 1917, and was published by University of Pennsylvania Press (2015).
In Capital’s Terrorists, Pearson states, “My study….treats nineteenth-century vigilante formations, , including the Ku Klux Klan, various Law and Order Leagues, and stock growers organizations as employers’ associations with unambiguous economic and managerial interests” (4-5). His analysis begins with Reconstruction (1865-1877), documents the last decades of nineteenth century labor activism, and concludes with the period just after World War I. He traces a consistent historical trajectory from the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) through the Pinkertons, and ultimately to groups responsible for the January 6, 2021 assault on the nation’s capitol. He includes fifty pages of Endnotes, a thirty-page Bibliography, and a useful Index.
Pearson presents an impressive class analysis that demonstrates American capitalism’s consistent use of organized violence, relying heavily on racism and racial terror, to suppress working class activism, both non-violent and militant resistance. Further, he traces multiracial unity among labor activists that consistently opposed capitalism’s ruthless assaults.
After a lucid “Introduction,” Pearson’s text divides into six primary chapters. Key chapter titles include, “Keeping Them in Their Place: Labor Problems, Management, and Vigilantism in the Reconstruction South,” “Management Militarization, Vigilante Traditions, and Incarceration in Northern Idaho, 1890-1900,” and “Birth of Citizens’ Alliances, the Persistence of Law and Order, and Mythmaking in the Early Twentieth Century.”
Pearson insists on a class analysis of racism and racial terror as the fundamental strategy of American capital to crush working class resistance in any form. Citing both Marx and DuBois, he traces class warfare at its most brutal. While not denying white workers’ racism to include joining the KKK, he states, “Given their interests and activities, we must label the Klan and Klan-like formations employers’ associations” (italics in original).
A Trinity of Terror: “Terrorists,” “Enablers,” and “Narrative-Creators”
Pearson’s core message relies on three terms akin to the notions of economic base (“Terrorists”) and the supporting superstructure (“Enablers” and “Narrative-Creators”).
First, Pearson pulls no punches in identifying “terrorists” as capitalism’s wealthiest elites in any given region whether plantation owner, mining mogul, railroad baron, or monopoly industrialist. He notes that the word, “terrorist” conjures up a considerably different image in the U.S. today and is all too often associated with Arabs or Muslims. He concedes that some readers might be taken aback in this provocative labeling of the nation’s “great men,” who led the Second Industrial Revolution.
The terrorists comprise the ruling class itself which routinely utilized extra-legal vigilantes, but also local police and militia to assault workers across the country. Pearson includes numerous figures, among the most notorious being Nathan Bedford Forrest (the Klan’s first grand wizard) and Jay Gould (railroad financier and monopoly capitalist). He notes Benjamin Harrison, who became president (1889-1893), played a decisive role in a campaign of terrorism. During the 1877 railroad strikes, Harrison, employed as a lawyer by railroad interests, favored “shooting the workers down” and stated, “If I was governor…I would have every train running if I had to wade in blood up to my fingertips” (quoted in Pearson 96).
Idaho mine owners, John Hays Hammond (called the “capitalist cowboy” by his biographer) and A.M. Eisler employed hundreds of strike breakers and fifty gun-wielding thugs to battle Idaho’s striking lead miners in the 1890s. Miners resisted valiantly. In one clash (July, 1892), they unleashed dynamite which killed one strike breaker, and a subsequent battle led to the deaths of another and three unionists.
Pearson reports on the notorious Pinkerton Agency, established by Allen Pinkerton, whose efforts merged with capitalist class interests. James McParland, a Pinkerton agent, gave testimony that led to the execution of twenty union activists, mostly from the Irish immigrant group, the Molly Maguires. Pinkerton himself lamented the weakness of police during Pittsburgh’s 1877 mass demonstrations: “It is the miserable failure of authorities to make…the slightest effort against the mob” (quoted in Pearson 189). To his dismay, Pinkerton also expressed shock that “thousands of citizens” stood by, or worse, actually participated in the violence.
As ruthlessly effective as the Pinkertons could be, Pearson asserts that they were not always sufficient to stifle worker activism. After Pinkerton guards had failed to end Pennsylvania steel workers strikes (1894), Andrew Carnegie and his partner, Henry Clay Frick convinced Governor Robert Pattison to send 8500 troops of the National Guard to quash the strikes.
Pearson’s is a bold and resolute argument against a covering up of class violence perpetrated by capitalists, and is a rejection of a facile reformism or duplicitous electoral politics; only class struggle will bring meaningful change.
Second, Pearson identifies “Enablers” who comprise “public sector authorities, including police officials, judges, and law makers” (14); they essentially make up the political, judicial, and militant arm of the state to insure capitalism’s profits. He cites numerous strikes which were violently assaulted by local police forces in the name of maintaining “law and order.” Local police alliances with the KKK or local “citizens’ organizations” explicitly funded by capitalist interests, routinely utilized assassinations, beatings, floggings, kidnapping and burning of strikers’ homes. He maintains terrorism was capitalism’s solution to workers’ quest for improved lives, and he concedes that all too often, “terrorism worked.”
While the KKK represents the prototype of racial violence to keep laborers (former slaves) working for paltry wages, Pearson traces early nineteenth-century tactics used against Native Americans which entailed removal (a form of kidnapping) and seizure of land. He cites the incredible story of Tampa cigar workers, who in 1891 comprised “a rebellious workforce [that] consisted largely of immigrants from Spain, Italy, and Cuba, including sizable numbers of Afro-Cubans” (Pearson 125). Their impressive multiracial and international unity, under their banner name La Resistencia, posed a significant threat to local factory owners. Subsequently, the owners kidnapped strike leaders, transported them to Honduras, and abandoned them on a beach with a tiny supply of provisions. Clearly, the owners’ hope was that the leaders would perish due to starvation or exposure. However, local Honduran Native Americans discovered them and brought them to safety; ultimately the strikers returned to Florida. Internationalism and multiracial unity provide a profound narrative.
Third, Pearson asserts that “Narrative-Creators,” operated as media influencers, cultural contributors, and outright propagandists. Citing Marx’s assertion in The German Ideology that the ruling ideas of any era are the ideas of the ruling class, Pearson’s makes a broad but compelling claim. Narrative-Creators include, “society’s dominant opinion makers, and religious leaders, newspapermen, and prominent authors of articles and books [who] presented businessmen, laborers, and the conflicts between them…that raised the status of elites while stigmatizing disobedient ordinary people” (Pearson 17).
One infamous “enabler,” Owen Wister, a life-long friend of Teddy Roosevelt, became a primary ideologue for the Citizens Industrial Association of America (CIAA), the national umbrella organization opposing organized labor. He wrote constantly of class war from the capitalists’ perspective. Wister’s widely read novel, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, an homage to Wyoming cattle barons, had established his fame. Pearson notes that following Thomas Dixon’s racist novel, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, Wister published his own white supremacist novel, Lady Baltimore (1906). Wister’s elitism and white supremacy dove-tailed to inform his tireless advocacy for the Great Men (capitalists) theory of history. Pearson assets, “By celebrating state and elite collusion in policing, military interventions, vigilantism, and lethal violence, Wister provided moral cover to cattlemen, employers, corporations, and white supremacists politicians—all of whom [terrorized] ordinary people…homesteaders, union members, African Americans, and poor white Southerners” (209).
Racism as Class War
Pearson’s compelling purpose is to trace home-grown American fascist (“terrorist”) organizations as a function of capitalism’s intensified exploitation of the working class. He denounces recent historical works that trace racist victimization but fail to clarify accurate historical causation. In a note, Pearson criticizes Jacobin Magazine’s special issue (Spring 2021) and singles out Doug Henwood and Shamus Khan for downplaying capitalist’s explicit use of racism and violence as a fundamental, and thus primary aspect of capitalism’s exploitation from the period of Reconstruction onward. (Pearson 273).
While documentation of racial violence needs constant, updated reportage, the primary causes are too often claimed to be mere racial bias of elites rooted in fear. Such arguments tend to suggest racism is an irrational ideology, that it is morally wrong and largely a function of ignorance— Pearson emphatically rejects such liberal platitudes that preclude fundamental materialist analysis.
Pearson does claim that capitalism’s divide-and-conquer racial strategy that pitted workers against each other along ethnic lines, largely failed. In his “Epilogue,” he cites numerous job actions led by the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers: “Disruptive outbursts of protests and strikes—including biracial ones—of farmers, longshoremen, and miners in the 1880s and 1890s illustrated their collective power as well as the limitations of racism [to divide workers] and ruling class’s use of terrorism” (Pearson 213).
Recent Vestiges of Historical Racism
Pearson asserts the 2017 Charlottesville, Virgina racist mob violence and the 2021 attack on the nation’s capitol as fundamental examples of his thesis. The Virginia crowd of white supremacists with their Confederate flags and subsequent violent attack via an automobile, killing an anti-racist woman, hearken back to the post-Reconstruction era ruled by the KKK. The mob at the Capitol, a motley crew of violent perpetrators, were likely inspired by President Trump himself (and thus part of Pearson’s “Terrorist” class): “[L]ike the Law and Order leagues of the Gilded Age and the Citizens’ Alliances of the ‘Progressive Era,’ the January 2021 terrorists harbored a deep contempt for anarchists, socialists, and anti-racist activists” (Pearson 219).
Pearson’s most significant contribution is his class analysis of racism, racial terror, and capitalist violence perpetrated to stifle working class activism. While maintaining the theoretical primacy of class, he asserts racism as fundamental to capitalism’s arsenal. His text is a scathing indictment of the capitalist system, and lays bare the fallacies of impotent reformism or complicit electoral politics.
Pearson admirably dissects the collaboration of political structures, police and militias, the judicial system and the courts, racist vigilantism, and media propaganda as weapons of capitalism in the toxic alliance against workers.
His term “resistance” covers a broad swathe of activism. He concludes with an open-ended declaration: “The tens of thousands who have taken to the streets in campaigns against police brutality, ICE kidnappings, and union-busting efforts illustrate that capitalist society is defined not only by repression, but also by resistance. Whether the forces of repression or resistance triumph remains to be seen” (222).
To be sure, Pearson does not call for a revolutionary party, nor does he actually argue for capitalism’s end. Ultimately, do Pearson’s arguments imply that to defeat “terrorism” and its gaggle of enablers and narrative creators, capitalism must be overthrown? The short answer is, yes! Then why does Pearson not say so? Is he himself unsure, content to present the problem and leave the historical struggle for others to decide? Does he self-censor and avoid the call for revolution partly to remain working within the professional ranks of practicing historians who write and teach for their living? Possibly. At any rate, readers must take Pearson’s argument and draw their conclusions.
-Roger Marheine taught English at Pasadena City College and is now retired. His interests include war culture and resistance literature.