Book review: Revolution in Seattle. A memoir by Harvey O’Connor

Focussing on the 1919 General Strike in Seattle – the first in the United States – Revolution in Seattle is a dense, journalistic account of early twentieth century radical agitation in Washington state.

Originally published in 1964, and now republished to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 1999 ‘Battle of Seattle’, Harvey O’Connor’s memoir of this forgotten chapter in American history is a timely tribute to the late American historian Howard Zinn’s belief in documenting ‘people’s history’.
As the book’s Forward notes, this was a time when “radicals openly advocated abolition of the capitalist system – not merely reform of its most glaring abuses”, a position that won “shorter hours, better conditions, and higher wages for the workers of America”. The editor of a radical newspaper in Seattle at the time, O’Connor relates how the state repression – fully supported by frightened business interests and the corporate media – was harsh and relentless, with unionists and radicals suffering slanders, blacklisting, beatings, regular imprisonment and sometimes death.
The brazen radicalism and direct action exhibited by the people fighting for their livelihoods will no doubt be a revelation to many reading the book today (it certainly was for this reviewer). For example, with the first world war raging across the Atlantic, labour leader Eugene Debs told a mass meeting “the master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has nothing to gain and all to lose – especially their lives.” For uttering these words Debs was imprisoned under the misleadingly named Espionage Act, which made publicly discouraging conscription a crime. “Under this law few spies were sent to jail, but hundreds of socialists and others radicals were to feel the fury of the persecution”, O’Connor notes dryly.
Perhaps the most amazing part of the book is the list in the appendix of radical papers that were published in Washington state between 1898 and 1920 – 52 newspapers in total with names such as ‘Revolution’, ‘Wage Worker’ and ‘Suppressed Facts’.
With a cast of hundreds of colourful radicals and unionists, O’Connor’s narrative can be a little difficult to follow on occasion. But this is a minor criticism of a book that will both inspire and astonish activists seeking to transform society today. A classic history that deserves to be re-read by every new generation.
Revolution in Seattle is published by Haymarket Books, priced £12.99.

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