The St. Louis Commune of 1877: Communism in the Heartland by Mark Kruger. University of Nebraska Press, 2021, 301 pp.
Reviewed by Bob Bonner
Mark Kruger has masterfully unearthed an episode of labor history which the ruling class had buried and tried to permanently erase. He has done a tremendous service to all, save the forces bent on the expulsion of the St. Louis Commune from historical memory. Kruger traces the roots of the late 19th century U.S. labor struggle to European events that occurred earlier, in the revolutions of 1848 and 1849 and later the Paris Commune of 1871.
Uprisings in Germany, France, Italy, the Hapsburg Empire, and Switzerland, became battlegrounds for democratic rights such as male suffrage, trial by jury, press freedom, cancellation of debts, rents, limitations of feudal privilege, all the while serving as ideological and tactical training sites for spectators and participants. Kruger succinctly narrates the general conduct and outcomes, then follows the participants and leaders as they emigrated to the United States, many serving in the Union Army during a Civil War that ended in the abolition of slavery.
The Civil War in the United States and the years immediately following saw an explosion of capitalist expansion, much of it due to US government funding and land grants, with rail track mileage, for example, growing from 30,000 miles to 200,000 by 1900. Corruption was rampant and many viewed the railroad industry as its source because of its control of government. They saw the railroads as the symbol of capitalist evil.
The war had dampened organizing and union strength, and created a giant gap in wealth between the rich and working people. Postwar working conditions were characterized by increased danger, long hours, and decreases in wages. Compounding the suffering was the Panic of 1873 which by 1877 was in its fourth year. The economic slump utterly crushed both urban and rural workers who were being evicted, often by privately hired company police. Between 1873-1880, wages were down almost 50%.
Desperation reached epic levels and on July 16th, 1877 when railroad management announced trains would be run as doubleheaders, increasing workloads and danger for exhausted workers, employees in Martinsburg, West Virginia had reached their limit and struck. Those familiar with the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 will be familiar with the support of many militias and troops for strikers, the wildfire spread of the clash from Martinsburg to Camden Yards in Baltimore, then to Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri and the violence and repression that ensued.
St. Louis, Missouri had been a primary site of European immigration and veterans of the foreign revolutions brought their philosophy and leadership to the Midwestern city. They accounted for over half the leadership of the efforts responsible for the St. Louis Commune. Kruger identifies leadership as 31% German, 21% Irish, and 21% American-born. Marx’s First International, which would become the United States Workingmen’s Party, provided the ideological basis for the effort. The Paris Commune of 1871 provided the blueprint.
In St. Louis other industries besides the railroads joined the effort resulting in a general strike and for a brief time a socialist party led a major American city, bringing fear to the hearts of an American ruling class still trembling with the memory of the Paris Commune. They labelled the 1877 uprising an insurrection.
Kruger tells us why and how the ruling class has hidden this remarkable course of events from our view with the creation of the Veiled Prophet, a story illustrative of what has occurred in much American labor history.
This is a book well worth reading.