When workers took control of the city of St Louis in July 1877, it was historically significant for a number of reasons.
The stunning action constituted the first general strike in US history. It was the only time a major US city was ruled by a communist party. And it single-handedly dispelled the myth that workers in the United States are inherently allergic to class politics or contemptuous of radical “Old War” doctrines. In fact, the general strike and St Louis Commune of 1877 were launched by class-conscious workers directly influenced by the socialist movements of their European brethren.
St Louis’s ruling class saw perfectly clearly the class nature of the strike and its relationship to European socialism — in particular, the Paris Commune of 1871 and the First International, led by Karl Marx. On July 27, 1877, the Missouri Republican screamed, “The Internationalists have taken control of the strike, same as the communists who took control of Paris.”
It is therefore impossible to understand the events of July 1877 without looking across the Atlantic. What occurred in St Louis that explosive month was an outgrowth of the upheavals, organizations, and revolutions of the international workers’ movement.
The European Roots of the St Louis Commune
In 1848 and 1849, German and French workers rebelled against their countries’ monarchies and the wrenching changes brought on by capitalism. They were joined by the rising bourgeoisie — the new middle class of factory owners, business leaders, and merchants who also sought an to end the power of kings, aristocracies, and the church, and the establishment of more democratic republics with civil rights for ordinary people.
This alliance was tenuous, however: a fundamental economic conflict existed between the new owners of the means of production and those who worked for them — wage earners who owned nothing and had only their labor to sell. Ultimately, the bourgeois leaders decided that they had more to fear from the working class than they did from a reformed monarchy. While the 1848 revolutions produced some liberal reforms, the revolutionary democratic dreams of workers were dashed.
In the wake of the revolutions, scores of radical workers — primarily from Germany, France, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire — emigrated to the US, where many found a new home in St Louis, an originally French city with a large German population. They licked their wounds and bided their time.
Back in Europe, the trade unionists and radical leaders founded the International Workers’ Association in an attempt to unite workers across borders. Associated most with Karl Marx, the so-called First International brought the workers’ movement in different countries together, allowing workers to communicate with each other, share knowledge and experiences, and support each other in times of crisis.
Then, in 1871, a radical cause for hope: workers in Paris took control of the city amid the Franco-Prussian War and established the Paris Commune. They held free elections, organized city services, seized control of the city’s industries, and passed social welfare laws designed to aid the poor and working classes. This, Marx proclaimed, was the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The worker government was continually attacked by Prussian and French forces, both of which desired its downfall. When the city finally fell to French forces, communards were massacred in the streets of Paris. Those who were able to escape the carnage made their way to other countries, including the United States. Many settled in St Louis, joining the radical “48ers.”
Like their counterparts in Europe, workers in the United States were experiencing dramatic economic changes and grinding poverty. The rise of the factory system wiped out much of the artisan class, forcing formerly independent workers into conditions they regarded as industrial dungeons. Unions were young and the working class was weak, at the mercy of the emerging capitalist class. Economic depressions were common. An 1850 study of housing in New York found instances of twenty people living in one room and up to three hundred living in one house.
Conditions were especially bad for railroad workers: they were paid little, and their work was extremely dangerous and insecure.
In 1877, major railroads slashed wages by up to 50 percent, despite earning healthy profits. The reduction in pay sparked an explosion that became known as the Great Railroad Strike. Before it was over, the Paris Commune would be invoked stateside.
Railroad workers first walked off their jobs in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and Baltimore in mid-July. The strike, modest at first, quickly moved west from town to town. Soon, it encompassed the entire country. In all, approximately a million railroad workers across the United States went on strike that month.
Tired of starvation wages, irate at being maimed and ordered around by the boss, workers erupted. In Baltimore, after a state militia was called in to put down the strike, thousands of workers and unemployed surrounded the troops in a railroad depot and attacked them as they attempted to escape, chasing them through the city. In Pittsburgh, after twenty onlookers were killed by a Philadelphia militia, the crowd reacted with stones and gunfire, forcing the militia to retreat into the railroad roundhouse. Over two thousand railroad cars and over a hundred locomotives were burned or destroyed, as was other railroad property. In Chicago, workers and police engaged in running gun battles throughout the city.
The striking workers found favor in their various towns and cities. The railroads were generally unpopular, and residents provided strikers with financial and material support. Even local merchants backed the strikers, giving them food and other commodities.
On July 21, the strike reached East St Louis, Illinois, and the next day, East St Louis railroad workers, joined by four hundred workers from St Louis, voted to stop all railroad transportation passing through the city, with the exception of passenger and mail trains. St Louis’s mayor claimed that thirty thousand socialists were attempting to take over the city, and on July 22, federal troops arrived in St Louis, even though no violence had occurred there.
The same day, the St Louis branch of the Workingmen’s Party of the United States (WPUSA, the successor to the First International) elected an executive committee to lead the strike. St Louis was well represented in the organization. St Louis workers accounted for 20 percent of the entire membership of the organization and boasted several separate language sections (German, French, English, and Bohemian).
Led by the radical party, ten thousand workers rallied in downtown St Louis market and demanded public works to create jobs for the unemployed, an end to child labor, and an eight-hour workday. Demands for reform quickly evolved into calls for the end of capitalism and the nationalization of major industries, including railroads and means of communication.
And still the strike grew larger. After crowds in St Louis insisted that the rest of the city’s workers join them, the working class obliged.
It was the first general strike in US history. Virtually all businesses in the city closed down, and shortages of coal meant much manufacturing could not operate.
The next day, no freight trains were allowed to pass through East St Louis or St Louis. Workers operated passenger and mail trains, even collecting fares and turning the money over to the railroad companies. Black steamboat and wharf workers joined the strike, and cross-racial parades of workers marched through the city, calling out those working in other industries. Elevator operators and barbers marched behind a drum and fife parade. No business operated without the consent of the WPUSA’s executive committee.
For the powers that be, this display of workers democracy was anarchy — St Louis’s sheriff called for a posse comitatus to fight the strikers, and drafted all available men under threats of jailing for failure to report. Businessmen ordered their employees to join the posse, and ten thousand men were armed by the Committee of Public Safety. Weapons were imported from the state’s militia and federal arsenals, and more state and federal troops joined those already in the city.
Strike leaders were rounded up and arrested, and seven hundred militia troops led by calvary, infantry, foot police, and artillery marched to the headquarters of the WPUSA and arrested everyone on the premises, including onlookers and journalists. The next day, one thousand troops marched on East St Louis and crushed the strike.
The St Louis Commune was no more.
The Legacy of the Commune
Several months after the suppression of the strike, St Louis businessmen founded an elite private club called the Veiled Prophets and paraded through the streets. The celebration was intended to announce that its members, the powers that be of St Louis, controlled the city — not workers, the unemployed, or black people.
Shockingly, the Veiled Prophets are still around. They continue to hold an annual parade and ball. In recent years, various daughters of the St Louis rich who made their debut as debutantes at the Veiled Prophet Ball have publicly apologized for their participation in an event with white-supremacist, anti-labor roots.
But the strike itself, and the commune that it briefly erected, is still too often forgotten. That titanic action was part of an international working-class movement against capitalist rule. German and French veterans of the 1848 revolutions and the 1871 Paris Commune, joined by members of the First International, led the revolt in St Louis. And rebellious, class-conscious workers rose up, embracing socialism as the solution to their brutal exploitation.