Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 08 Feb 2017

Harvey O’Connor

Watching and listening to the coverage of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States from the comparatively safe and distant location of the English Midlands  (OK, so we Brits have got our own issues….), I’m intrigued to see that one of the topics that has been raised more than once is the hope ( and in some cases, belief) that the emergence of Trump will be the spark that reignites the American Left as a genuine force in public discourse. For most of my lifetime, certainly during my years of political consciousness, it’s been impossible to see the USA as anything other than the bastion of capitalism – a place where Republican or Democrat were simply names for different brands of dominant and largely unchallenged conservative ideology.

It doesn’t take too much digging around to know that it wasn’t always like that. The USA has its own proud tradition of socialism and radical action; the struggles for the rights of the workers and of minority communities is legendary and full-bloodied  but it’s also the case that these battles weren’t just fought on the industrial picket lines but in theatre, art and literature. Some of the world’s greatest writers came out of the tradition of American radicalism. However, in recent decades this strand of US ideology seems to have become fragmented and, although it manifestly continues to exist, to the outsider it looks as if it has been driven underground by the relentless march of neo-liberalism and an increasing fascination with nationalism and anti-state notions of personal liberty. The role of the media is, of course, significant in explaining the way in which a spectrum of views and ideologies are crushed down and cleaned up to deliver one hegemonic message – the Right is right.

In the pursuit of this single story of  what American ideology should be it seems that one of the key victims is going to be the honouring of truth and the valuing of critical, evidence-led dissent. And it’s probably at times like this that it’s important to remember those writers and campaigners from the  past who were not afraid to stand up for the Enlightenment values we are in danger of losing. Step forward Harvey O’Connor.

I don’t think Harvey O’Connor is a well-known figure in Britain, even on the Left. I know him for his retelling of the story of the 1919 general strike in Seattle – Revolution in Seattle – a narrative that shines a forensic light on the role of state institutions, aided by big business, in brutally quashing the insipient anti-capitalist uprising and, in the longer term, their role in vilifying and slandering activists and strikers. I came to the book because of my own interest in the literature of the British trade union movement and it’s not hard to see that there are strong echoes here of the way the British miners’ strike of 1984-5 was crushed by the state machine. O’Connor’s book is a magnificent read, full of righteous anger and cold analysis.

O’Connor was a firebrand journalist from a working class background. During his time working as a logger he joined the IWW (International Workers of the World ), or Wobblies as they were known, advocating a syndicalist style of management which put workers in democratic control. He was active in the 1919 Seattle General Strike and was arrested for criminal anarchy – his role was the writing of leaflets and pamphlets to promote the cause of the strike. His case never went to trial and he would go on to have a career in journalism with a number of expressly left-wing newspapers.

It was in his later years he took to writing books and he specialised in a form of non-fiction exposé about the lifestyles of the rich – Mellon's Millions, The Astors, The Guggenheims, History of the Oil Workers International, and The Empire of Oil - comparing them unfavourably with the  honest endeavours of the poor working class.

O’Connor remained active on the Left and in the Sixties he was involved in opposing the witch-hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He died in 1987 at the age of 90 and his autobiographical writings in particular remain vital and informative for today’s embryonic activists.

Revolution in Seattle isn’t just a book about the state of the USA in the early 20th century; it’s an analysis of how power elites oppress those who dare to challenge the self-serving justification of the role of politics and big business. Harvey O’Connor understood both the attractions and compromises involved in the slogan ‘Power to the People’ and we would do well to learn from his wisdom.


Terry Potter

February 2017