The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

101 Years Ago:
Attacks on Those Who Wanted a Better Society

Jan 4, 2021

The current government administration is only one of many which have attacked immigrants or people with socialist, communist or anarchist views. One hundred and one years ago, this January, the attorney general, Mitchell Palmer, directed raids leading to thousands of arrests and hundreds of deportations of people without citizenship.

The Palmer raids took place in Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s administration, starting in 1919. Wilson had already shown his many prejudices. He had said in 1915 that such people with their “passion, disloyalty and anarchy ¼ must be crushed out.”

Attorney General Palmer turned the actual raids over to a new division called the Bureau of Investigation, led by 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover. They began raids on November 7, 1919, a date chosen exactly because it marked the anniversary of the Russian Revolution two years earlier.

Wilson and Hoover, among many politicians all over the world, paid attention to the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks had led the overthrow of the Russian capitalists who owned the largest factories and banks. Capitalists in the rich countries all took note of this revolution and feared that the horrible conditions facing much of the world’s populations would lead to revolutions in their countries. And five long years of World War I butchery and brutal conditions of exploited labor certainly might have led in that direction.

The laboring population in the United States was actively trying to improve its working conditions, sometimes under the leadership of socialists and communists. In February 1919, Seattle was the scene of a five-day general strike. In April, miners went on strike for the right to organize a union. Activists planned on organizing the giant U.S. Steel conglomerate, set in place by J.P. Morgan capital and totally anti-union. The steelworkers went on strike in September.

Hoover had carried out raids starting in November and then again on January 2, 1920, arresting and detaining people in 30 large cities over the next six weeks. Attorney General Palmer claimed, “There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberty.”

Ten thousand people were arrested. While 6,500 were let go quite rapidly, one person died, having been pushed out of a window by federal agents in New York.

Finally, 556 people from these raids were deported because they were not citizens and Congress had passed a harsh immigration law in 1918.

Today is vastly different from 100 years ago. There is very little union organizing and the ideas of socialists, communists and anarchists are almost unknown to most of the population. One hundred years ago, many thousands proudly proclaimed they wanted an end to capitalism and a better society. In the 1920 presidential election, almost a million men voted for Eugene V. Debs, a socialist then held in prison for opposing World War I. Debs said, “We are going to destroy all enslaving and degrading capitalist institutions and recreate them as free and humanizing institutions.” The need to complete this work is still ahead of us today.