Book review: “The St. Louis Commune of 1877”

Prof. Joel Eissenberg, Upfront Blog

For Christmas 2021, Linda gave me a copy of “The St. Louis Commune of 1877: Communism in the Heartland” by Mark Kruger. The title certainly grabbed my attention. Having read it, there’s somewhat less than meets the eye here. The reason I never heard of this before is that the “commune” was very brief and poorly organized, and the history has been mostly ignored, since the historical impact on St. Louis government and labor was minimal. But I did learn some worthwhile things from the book, and it helped me better understand why socialism and communism failed in this country, and why labor has always struggled.

A significant driver of labor unrest leading to the St. Louis Commune was the explosive growth of railroads in post-Civil War America. Railroads were dangerous places to work, the work was long and hard and poorly compensated. With time, the railroad companies addressed overbuilding and competition by cutting pay for unskilled laborers and recruiting poor Blacks and immigrants to displace white workers unhappy with pay and working conditions.

Like Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” the title action of the book is relegated to the end. While the previous chapters on revolution in Europe, the American Civil War, the Paris Commune and First International, railroads and German immigration are all informative historical backdrops, I found myself wondering when we’d get to the climax promised in the book’s title.

My impatience with the narrative was further provoked by the writing. It is as though each chapter was written to stand alone; thus, information introduced in one chapter is repeated, almost verbatim, in following chapters. And the repetition doesn’t end there. There are passages that repeat within the same chapter, and in a few instances, even in consecutive paragraphs! This book could have benefitted from a strict editor, but then it would have been considerably shorter.

Having recently read a Karl Marx biography, a history of France and a Mao biography, what I found most interesting about this book was its detailed history of labor under monarchies and industrial capitalism. I hadn’t fully appreciated how fractious the labor alliances were, both in Europe and in America in the 19th century. The Paris Commune and the other revolutions in 1948 Europe were weakened by a lack of planning, strategic thinking and organization. There was too much reliance on the theory that status as an exploited worker was sufficient to overcome the centrifugal forces of religion, guilds, language and regional culture.

The problem was even worse in the US in the 19th century, where racism and ethnic stereotyping prevented white labor from embracing blacks, Irish and Italians. Notably, Germans took the lead in labor organizing in the US at this time, but even they were divided as Catholics, Protestants and atheists. And the rhetoric of communism made them easy marks for the right-wing press and politicians who pointed to the violence of the French Revolution and the anti-capitalist oratory. To be sure, America offered freedom from the shackles of inherited class status, at least for white men. The recently freed black Americans and all women still lacked opportunities for upward mobility and the American labor movement failed to systematically incorporate these large segments of American labor and consistently speak on their behalf. Since reading this book, I have a much better understanding of how unions have struggled and failed in this country. More’s the pity, because the middle class and working class are the real job creators.

Having lived most of my adult life in St. Louis, I was intrigued by the possibility of learning more about my adopted hometown. Probably the most surprising fact on that score was the origin of the Veiled Prophet Parade as an annual display of dominance by the businessmen of the city to assert themselves over the middle class and working class. The parade was a cultural event for many years after we arrived here, and I was always mystified by it, other than it was associated with a debutant ball for the children of the upper classes and politicians.

This book isn’t for everyone. I’ve had a long fascination with Cold War history and have developed a growing appreciation for how the negative externalities of the industrial revolution have created a large and growing underclass in capitalist society. If you share those interests, you may like this book.