Working-class History 101

A people’s history of the U.S. working class starts with the conflict between resistance and repression.

As income inequality widens in the U.S., the narrative that we need to “take back” our country, or return to an America where hardworking people are rewarded for playing by the rules, is everywhere. But is this really the history of the U.S.—or a fairy tale that obscures the U.S.’s path to industrial dominance?

A Harper's depiction of freed slaves participating in their first election during Reconstruction (Alfred R. Waud | Harper's Weekly)

A Harper’s depiction of freed slaves participating in their first election during Reconstruction (Alfred R. Waud | Harper’s Weekly)

Filmmaker Scott Noble’s first installment in a planned five-part series called Plutocracy makes a strong case that U.S. history is born out of titanic struggles—and the power of the ruling class is based on its willingness to use the most vicious violence and divisive policies to achieve its end. The series is a not-for-profit work that is being shown for free on the Internet.

Part One, titled Divide et Impera (Divide and Rule), ((Plutocracy, a five-part documentary by Scott Noble. The first part, Divide et Impera (Divide and Rule), is currently available online at Films for Action.)) is a chronological recounting of the history of U.S. workers from the time of the America Revolution to the turn of the 20th century. But it tells a very particular version of this story, showing the centrality of race in the conflicts that shaped class struggle and the institutions of society that arose to contain it.

Noble doesn’t shy away from the brutal history of genocide and slavery that underpins the creation of industrial capitalism in the U.S. Instead, he ably weaves a history of struggle in which laborers, both free and enslaved, force changes in their conditions and society around them.

The era covered in this episode, however, is not one of sweeping victories—and the impact of defeated struggles is still seen in racialized policies and how class rule is constructed in the U.S.

Very much in keeping with the tone of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Plutocracy depicts history from the bottom up. The saccharine and overly ideological textbook version of this era–especially the birth of the U.S.–is nowhere to be found in this film.

Fear of mob rule featured prominently in the minds of the landed elites who wrote the Constitution. Founding Fathers James Madison and Alexander Hamilton are shown to have driven policies of expansion at the expense of Native inhabitants to forestall the growth of an industrial working class.

The film shows how rapid industrialization rocked the compromise struck in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention between the burgeoning capitalists in the North and the slaveocracy of the South. Writer and activist Brian Jones explains how the self-activity of slaves–through sabotage, strikes and enlisting in the Union Army–transformed the Civil War into a revolutionary struggle for Black liberation.

This opened up a period that is little talked about, even among the radical left, when freed slaves flocked to political activity. This segment and a later one on the 1877 railroad strike dovetail beautifully to show the contingency of history, and how different aspects of the class struggle flow together and interact.

Jones’ insights stand against a reading of this period that sees an unbroken continuity between the white supremacy of slavery and later Jim Crow segregation. Real alliances with poor whites were built in this time, only to be actively smashed by a combination of upper-class white supremacist terror and federal abstention.

Jim Crow retrenchment was just one aspect of racialized policy devised for ruling over the ever-growing, ever more diverse U.S. population. The expansionary war against Mexico added a new population of Native residents, who, as Justin Akers Chacón explains, were “legislatively constructed as a foreign people” on their own historic land.

Similarly, immigration policy was cast in racial terms for the first time to restrict Chinese immigration, which was instrumental in the creation of the infrastructure that would allow capitalism to explode across the continent.


plutocracy_DVWoven through the film’s chronology of U.S. expansion and the growth of the working class are a number of examples of class struggle. Some are more familiar–like the Haymarket incident, which is well known for its role in kicking off an anti-anarchist red scare, as well as turning the tide nationally in the struggle for an eight-hour day.

Less well-known conflicts are also depicted: the 1877 railroad “insurrection” which enveloped the Central Atlantic States in a bloody conflict; the numerous mining strikes which turned to armed struggle; and the 1892 New Orleans dock strike, which was notable for its integrated unions and industrial-model of organizing.

Time and again ,the critical advantage the bosses had was an enthusiastic use of violence: state militias, private “detective agencies” like the Pinkertons and ultimately federal troops mobilized to protect capital. In the case of the Homestead Steel strike, the bloody crushing of the movement in the 1890s meant unionization would be prevented until the great upheaval of the 1930s.

Commenting on the mobilization of federal troops to break the 1877 railroad strike, historian Julie Greene describes the national shift:

Order is restored in part because the president takes troops–it’s a signal moment in U.S. history–out of the South where they had been protecting the rights of freed men and women, and orders them North to put down working-class insurrection. You can see symbolically the shift in U.S. history, from a moment that was about empowering freed slaves, to a moment to repress the rights of working-class men and women.

This view—that struggle, even when defeated, shapes the institutions of society—is lacking in most accounts of history.

The documentary’s content is superior to some of its technical aspects, but this doesn’t substantially detract from the viewing experience. Minor issues like an overly long introduction featuring the West Virginia Coal Mine Wars lacks the context and insight of the main feature.

The film is full of powerful images, both stock footage and re-enactments. It features an excellent collection of experts, including Socialist Worker contributors Brian Jones, Sharon Smith and Justin Akers Chacón. All are eloquent and engaging, and add to the overall understanding of the chaos, violence and fluidity of the period.

Highly recommended, Plutocracy contributes a much-needed dose of dynamism to our understanding of how U.S. capitalism evolved, and how racial identities were legally constructed in the interest of that system.

  • Read also “How the Elite Deal with Sparks of Revolt.”
  • Ruth Hurley is a labor activist from New York who writes for Socialist Worker. Read other articles by Ruth.