Perhaps the most important thing that a reader can learn from reading Scott Martelle's recounting of a bloody conflict between coal miners and coal mine owners (and the groups that they represented both directly and indirectly) is that history is as much about what is left out as it is about what is included. While this may be rather obvious in terms of large-scale wars, it is far less so for minor historical events, although Martelle demonstrates that what constitutes a "minor" as opposed to a more important historical event can itself be a part of the erasure that occurs in history when the victors get to write the authoritative accounts. One of the spoils that go to the victors is the chance to paint the other side as evil as possible and themselves as white as driven snow. By telling the stories as fairly as possible of each of the sides, Martelle is able to forestall such a dichotomy.
Martelle's Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in The American West is a treatise both on historiography -- the way in which history is conceived and documented -- as well as a detailed description of a series of events in 1913 and 1914. He describes the conflict that would break out as one that (at least in retrospect) could be seen as inevitable. The major players in the fighting can be described as the miners and the corporations behind the mines. However, the players can just as accurately be described as a series of concepts coming together in violence: The poverty of the miners and their families, the greed and callousness of the corporation owners, and very-much incompatible ideas about the role of labor and the value of the individual worker. In the historical moment of their time, men were not (despite what America's founding documents might say) created equal.
In this essay I will follow one character in the book, using him as a lens to assess the events that Martelle describes as well as the way in which the author has crafted his book. For this exercise I have chosen to write about Lamont Montgomery Bowers not because I sympathize with him (for I certainly do not) but rather because I cannot imagine what could make any person act the way he did. While greed is certainly something that each of us has experienced at some point, it remains impossible for me to understand how greed could drive someone to countenance large-scale murder of the kind that accompanied the strike.
As Martelle's title makes clear, he is writing about the way in which everyday workers were treated in the first decades of the last century. The miners in this story were certainly among the worst-treated of any group of American workers by virtue of the fact that coal mining is such an inherently dangerous job, the way in which they were swindled by the lure of good jobs that never appeared, made into indentured laborers, and the ways in which they were treated with overwhelming content by the men for whom they were making fortunes. However, this level of poor treatment would have been familiar to members of the working class across the country and in a range of different types of work.
One of the strengths of Martelle's book is that he is careful not to demonize the mine owners but presents their view of the world accurately and factually -- or at least so it appears. One of the ways in which he does this in terms of his presentation of Lamont Montgomery Bowers is that he places the mine owner within the context of the historical moment. I think that I would have been tempted as a writer to describe the miners as unadulterated heroes and as standard-bearers for the labor movement that was beginning to stir across the nation.
The miners were certainly part of a larger social moment and this makes the violence that they perpetrated against even innocent people (such as a mine owner's wife) easier to understand and forgive. When we (as viewers of history) look at the miners, see what they had to go through, and understand that American workers across the country needed as many groups on their side as possible, we can understand them as key components in their moment. From this perspective, the miners were an isolated battalion holding a fort against impossible forces.
What Martelle has been successful in doing is to show that Bowers was as much a product of and a prisoner of his historical moment. He was also an exploiter of his moment in his, and it is this combination of privilege and contempt that made the strike inevitable. One side had to blink for the combat to end before so many people died, and neither the miners nor the corporate plutocrats had anything in their backgrounds that would have allowed them to do so. Part of what made the conflict inevitable was that the world was changing around all of the players in this terrible drama and that the miners were compelled to work in ways that supported and forwarded that change just as Bowers and his ilk were compelled to push back against the changes around them, changes that were symbolized by the miners.
Bowers, as Martelle describes him, feels something very like fury against the miners for two distinct reasons. The first was the more immediate: Their actions were imperiling his profits. Any reading of the day's news -- or of the recent election -- demonstrates that people who are wealthy often have few if any compunction about leveraging the wealth that they already have into even greater wealth. Bowers was even more inclined to do so than is true today because there are now numerous examples of wealthy men who are philanthropists. While there were philanthropists in his day as well, there were far more examples of the wealthy believing that wealth did in fact make them morally and socially better than the poor. It does not stretch the imagination at all to see Bowers chatting to some of his fellow corporate chiefs about the 47% who just don't count.
This second reason is the more powerful reason that Bowers did not consider negotiating with the miners. Bowers simply did not see the miners as his equals and so found it impossible to comprehend a strategy in which he would sit down and negotiate with them. A parallel today might be high-ranking corporate officials considering whether or not to negotiate a new management-labor relationship with a panel of rabbits or mice. Bowers would have found the possibility to be ludicrous. He would also have -- to give him credit -- possibly believed that to talk to men who he saw as so much his inferior in every way would be to take advantage of them. (This would only have been a very small part of his decision if it existed at all.)
Connected to his inability to see the miners as the moral equivalent of himself and other wealthy, leading men were the changes rolling over the nation. The world that existed before World War I -- the Great War and the War to End All Wars -- until 1939 was dissolving in front of them. The ideas and values that Bowers had been taught would be enduring no longer seemed so and he reacted in the most common way that people caught in such historical moments do. He could have embraced the changes in the status of the miners and all other workers -- but only if he had been a different man, one who had grown up with different images of the men whose work his family depended…