Journal of American Studies

Research Article

Theories of American Labour Violence

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones

Labour violence is an indication of the nature of any society at a given time, and has been a catalyst of tensions and harbinger of change on many occasions in America since 1865. Furthermore, it has had in that country a braking effect on social reform. These aspects of labour violence have received their fair share of recognition and attention. Their investigation has uncovered a mass of useful evidence. For this reason, it is today possible to view labour violence with better understanding, and to approach directly the problem of its causes.

Although historians have tried to explain labour violence, they have mostly done so obliquely or on the basis of unquestioned assumptions. Recently, for example, Herbert G. Gutman referred to labour violence repeatedly in his collection of essays Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, but focussed on “ patterns ” of disorder rather than on its causes, and belittled even these patterns by stating that they “ deserve brief attention.” Philip Taft, a long-surviving member of the John R. Commons school of labour history, tackled the problem of labour violence in American history because of renewed public interest in the subject occasioned by the race riots of the 1960s, but simply assumed throughout his work that wage-earners resorted to violence in response to oppressive conditions. The same undifferentiated assumption appeared in earlier work on labour violence, most notably in 1931 in Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America by the Jugoslav socialist immigrant, Louis Adamic. Adamic wrote absurdly that the racketeering of the Al Capone era was a “ phase of class conflict.”


Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones lectures in History at the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH8 9JY.