The Meaning of Liberty Through History

Liberty: But a Word to Those Who Know Not It’s Meaning

History has shown that it is characteristic of impoverished peoples who share a helpless and hopeless outlook on the ability to change a resident power structure to sooner use means of violence as revenge for suffered injustices than to seek out a more constructive end that could ensure their long-term liberation.

For centuries, the peasant was a submissive, meager and powerless victim of recurring, unbalanced distributions of power. The peasant held no sense of what it meant to be an individual, no values self-determination or equal opportunity. He commonly did not even see himself as human. He had no morals because he had no choices; life was determined by nature, by external forces that were outside of the peasant’s control.

This was the life of a peasant.

For years, the peasant was controlled and oppressed, and served repeated injustices. But every so often, those in power made one egregious mistake and spark a peasant furor of bloodlust and hatred that had been building in a deadly pressure-cooker for generations. And so the peasant lashed out; taking up arms, he indiscriminately and mercilessly slaughtered his oppressors, rampaging against any and all symbols of power and control until none remained. Some days pass, and then an armed force representing the state interceded in the uprising. And so the rebellion ends faster than it began, and the cycle of peasant oppression continues. However, with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the peasant, now an industrial worker, would come to hold new opportunities to overturn resident power structures through unionization and nonviolence.

The once-powerless peasants held an astounding amount of influence, as factory management relied so heavily upon their workers for production. They now had the ability to collectively refusal to work in hopes of forcing management to concede to worker demands. Through collective action, industrial workers create the greatest possibility for shifting the traditionally lopsided balance of power. But unionization is a difficult and daunting task; before collective nonviolent action can be utilized, the peasant’s common perception that he cannot influence positive changes must change. The difficulty of reversing the peasant’s typical helpless and hopeless attitude is illustrated in Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli.

The peasant perceives the state to be a distant, unchangeable body of powerful statesmen who enthusiastically oppress the lower class, as illustrated in Carlo Levi’s personal account of his exile to southern Italy in the 1930s in Christ Stopped at Eboli. Levi starts his diary by claiming that “…no message human or divine has reached” the deeply impoverished peasants of southern Italy (Levi 4). Even in Italy, the home of the Vatican, Levi explains that southern Italian peasants have remained so deeply disconnected from any concept modernity that not even “Christ … came this far, nor the individual soul, nor hope… nor reason, nor history” (Levi 4). Not only are the peasants of southern Italy powerless to make significant changes in their lives, they are also completely hopeless, devoid of any belief that things could ever change.

For thousands of years, since before the days of the Romans, their lives have hardly improved. While history usually means progress, development and change for the privileged, history has come to mean nothing to the peasants. As history holds no meaning, the peasants’ lives likewise hold no meaning. Furthermore, one of the only possible sources of hope – religion, as in Christianity – not only holds no weight with the peasants, but is represented by an angry, drunk priest who makes it a habit to disrespect the peasants of his town. To these peasants, the state is a distant foe, an “inescapable evil”, a pawn of the elite classes and enforcer of unjust laws. For, the state does not exist to serve the peasants; rather, it is like a natural disaster, an object of Mother Nature that only external forces can influence, completely outside of the peasants’ control (Levi 76). Rather than attempting to influence change, the peasants resign to indifference, claiming, “such is life!” (Levi 76).

This portrayal of the peasants places them between two extreme poles in relation to their interpretation of the resident power structure in southern Italy. On the one hand, in their hopelessness and helplessness, in their subhuman interpretation of self-worth, the peasants are naturally pulled towards impotence, inability, indifference, and inaction. On the other hand, as grievances and injustices mount, the peasants, upon a sudden, after years of tolerating unfair treatment can be suddenly explode like a fuming volcano into a bloody, armed uprising. The peasants, in their sheer numbers, possess the ability, in theory, to topple the much smaller lower class and implement appropriate changes that would improve their lives overall.

However, they would sooner act out in instances of sporadic armed revolts because their habitual feelings of passivity, submission, and resignation prevent them from even wanting to take power and be products of change. Levi’s tale of the southern Italian peasant reveals the typical peasant’s preference to use means of violence as revenge against the upper class than to seek out a more long-term, constructive end. The consequence of when that vengeful terror is wrought against the peasants’ oppressors is portrayed by Giovanni Verga in his short story, Liberty.

In Liberty, Giovanni Verga graphically portrays a merciless peasant uprising in a small Italian village during the revolution of 1860, and the subsequent barbaric slaughter of the landed gentry in the region. With the words “Hurray for liberty!” the peasant mob commences its massacre of every representative of law and power in the town, including the baron, the priest, the police sergeant, a lawyer, the landlords, and all the rest of the town “hat-wearing” elites (Verga 197-8).

But the indiscriminate rage ruthlessly spread to claim innocent victims as well, such as the lawyer’s young son, who begged and pleaded for his life before being trampled and murdered by the blood-drunk mob (Verga 200). Once the gentry was entirely slaughtered, the peasants had no sense of order, nor any idea of what they were to do afterward (Verga 203). And in the following days, the army moved in to reinforce order, to carry out trials and executions against the murders, those peasants who acted out so violently in the name of “liberty”.

The title of Verga’s short story is significant, as the writer attempts to portray that the concepts of “liberty” and “justice” hold different meanings to different classes. To the peasants in the story, “liberty” meant the complete obliteration of the elite class and all those who came to represent power and authority, including the judicial system and the church. And such sentiment was not necessarily the fault of the southern Italian peasant. Italy’s sense of “liberty” was tainted from the start, with Garibaldi’s and his militia of a mere 1,000 conquering the independent kingships of the Italian states on behalf of another king, Victor Emmanuel II. The southern Italian peasants’ understanding of “liberty” was completely different than how it was interpreted by Northern elites. While the richer Northern Italians sought liberty in the name of economic development and political freedom, they were more self-interested than concerned with their southern Italian counterparts. Contrary to the northerners who sought our liberal capitalist reforms, southern Italians shared a more socialist utopian vision of classless society. To these peasants, “…liberty meant that everybody should have his share” (204).

The peasants’ behavior in Liberty is an example of one of the more unproductive methods of collective action. The peasants bound together in an irrational outpouring of indiscriminate hatred and mercilessly slaughtered all men, women and children in their paths. While they sought justice for past grievances, the peasants really only inflicted vengeance upon those they considered unjust rulers. Liberty reveals that the definition of justice is merely class-based, indicative of different classes’ conflicting interpretations of structures of power. They rampaged with no interest in the future, without any concern for making long term, positive changes. For, peasants seldom believe that they can influence constructive changes within the due process of the law. Rather, they feel that the laws were written to preserve the power of those who oppress them; thus, they must act outside the law – in egregious, murderous fashion – to overturn the power structure.

However, with the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, the peasant was unknowingly granted a remarkable amount of power. As the world of manufacturing demanded high numbers of low wage-earning factory workers, the peasant would soon realize that he could take advantage of his numbers and attempt to force management into paying higher wages. On the one hand, some unions would utilize vengeful violence and targeted murders of unjust bosses, as in the Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania. In some cases, large unions would bind together, nonviolently refuse to work, and see their cut wages restored in a matter of mere days, as in the Debs Revolution of 1894. Still, in others, factories would look to circumvent the threatening possibility of unionization by playing a father-like figure to its workers, distracting them from striking with enticing morale boosters such as team sports, as in Amoskeag. Yet clearly, American industrial peasants show, to a much greater extent than can be seen in southern Italy, that collective nonviolent action has the potential to yield a lasting and more beneficial product than by utilizing random vengeful violence to temporarily overturn power.

Telling the story of the factory through the actual workers who labored there, Amoskeag by Tamara Hareven and Randolph Langenbach gives historians a unique perspective on how one of the largest American textile mills operated in the 19th-century, from the perspective of a number of Amoskeag factory workers. The Amoskeag mill provides a much different historical interpretation of class-relations, as the mill itself was deliberately modeled as an experiment in industrial class relations. Contrary to any aforementioned case as in Liberty or Christ Stopped at Eboli, the upper class had and understood its vested interest in the lower class, and attempted to keep the workers happy so as to avoid the possibility of costly unionization and strikes. To prevent such, Amoskeag organized itself on a family model, establishing father-children relationships between the mill owners and the workers in hopes of creating benevolence and maintaining productivity. This form of “corporate paternalism” was understood by the mill owners to be a matter of vital importance in improving class relations.

Fostering a family atmosphere worked quite successfully. Some Amoskeag fathers recruited their teenage sons to work alongside them in the mill (Hareven 217). Workers also proudly self-identified as being employees of Amoskeag (Hareven 79). “Amoskeag men,” some would call themselves, indicating that Amoskeag was not only a company but a lifestyle, where workers and owners possessed a profound sense of shared interest and mutual benefit (Hareven 11).
Amoskeag was a model of class collaboration and class harmony, where shared interest overcame typical class divisions.

While on the one hand Amoskeag can be perceived as an example of “enlightened capitalism”, on the other hand it can also be seen as a perfect example of exploitive capitalism, where workers are dubiously distracted from being dissatisfied. Because, even still, while the workers are content with their wages, they were still working nearly 60 hours per week for minimal pay in extremely loud and incredibly dangerous factories. With a critical eye, one could easily draw parallels with the case of Amoskeag to that of a feudal system, with the managerial staff of the mill as the monarch, forcing the peasants to work long and hard hours, to the exclusive benefit of the upper class. What one sees in the Amoskeag case can easily degenerate into a case of exploitive labor, as can be seen in the case of the Molly Maguires, where the lower will not simply be won over with leisure activities and corporate paternal relationships, but will resort to striking, targeted violence, and terror.

In The Labor Wars, Sidney Lens analyzes several cases of Industrial American class relations that reveal interesting interpretations of power structures, and the lower class’ attempts to rectify them. The peasant’s mindset appears to operate quite similarly to the southern Italian peasants, who would sooner resort to short outbursts of violence than attempt long-term reform. In some instances, worker unions use means of clandestine terror, targeted murders, and violent public demonstrations in hopes of removing harsh managerial adversaries, striking fear into ownership, or attempting to draw public attention. However, contrary to the cases of southern Italian peasantry, the violence tends to be less indiscriminate and more targeted, lest the public should turn its sympathy against the workers and in favor of oppressive – but order-keeping – management.

Unionism started within the Pennsylvanian anthracite industry in the early 1840s. By 1849, unions were demanding monetary pay over the company currency that was exclusively redeemable at the company’s stores (Lens 16). In some cases, unions employed rioting and clandestine terror when workers feared that black slaves would be brought “into northern cities to replace workers who were striking for higher wages” (Lens 16). And so enter the Molly Maguires, a coal ring of Irish immigrants who adopted the gang name from old Irish legend. The group was described by Irish World as simply a “coal ring” that invented the name because they “found it necessary… to frighten the country” (Lens 11).

However, the local media, government, and the Pennsylvanian coal company the Irish immigrants worked for regarded the Maguires as a legitimate criminal organization that partook in targeted murders of coal mine management. The Maguires utilized sporadic instances of targeted violence to terrorize and murder their oppressive overlords.

The Irish World newspaper, while sympathetic to their Irish kin in Pennsylvania, accused coal companies of appallingly exploitive behavior, including reducing the “…miners to a condition actually worse than serfdom” (Lens 11). The Maguires responded to their treatment with anger and violence. Lens cites some 63 “unsolved” murders which occurred over 7 years in anthracite fields, many largely attributed to the greater Molly Maguire coal miner ring. While “most were acts of violence against abhorrent supervisors,” the instances of terror they employed were, like the southern Italian peasants in Liberty, merely short-term acts of vengeance or episodes of “retribution without constructive reward” (Lens 17).

Lens presents the concept of the union as an alternative to terror and violence. In past cases, peasants have been devoid of hope or beliefs that their impoverished lives could change for the better. In Industrial America, immigrants and lower class workers were finding that unions offered the unique and persistently-absent quality of hope. Rather than performing indiscriminant murders of the upper class or carrying out targeted killings against like offenders, unions established credibility and the possibility for change: “…[management] recognized the union, dealt with it, and thus gave the men a channel for resolving differences within the established order of business” (Lens 19). An example of how a well-functioning union can overpower its management’s pay cuts is the American Railroad Union under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs.

In 1893, the American Railroad Union, guided under the leadership of former locomotive fireman Eugene V. Debs, began a policy of incorporating all railway workers, regardless of area of expertise, into their trade union (Lens 82). Debs’ strategy was in response to the Great Northern Railroad’s repeated wage cuts against its railway workers from summer 1893 through spring 1894. By April of that year, Debs’ ARU voted in favor of striking against the Great Northern Railroad and demanded that worker wages be restored to the full amount before the initial cuts of 1893 (Lens 83). The railroad service was successfully shut down for merely 18 days before the Great Northern Railroad Company conceded to ARU pressure and agreed to restore almost the entire amount of three wage cuts, totaling close to $16 a month. The Salt Lake Tribute referred to the occasion as the first that now indicated “that the day has already come when the voice of united labor has to be heard in the matter of wages” (Lens 83).

The helpless and hopeless peasant mindset leads such impoverished masses to sooner use means of violence as revenge against the oppressive upper class, rather than to seek out a more constructive and lasting end. In Christ Stopped at Eboli, Carlo Levi portrays the peasant’s interpretation of life, the state, and himself. The peasants of southern Italy had no sense of self-worth; they believed that the state was their enemy, a body over which they had no control.

These peasants did not believe that they could change the state or improve their lives. They were indifferent, crippled by fear and submission and hopelessness. In Liberty, we see what happens when the peasants’ respond to years of oppression. After generations of unjust treatment, the anger and hatred of the upper class mounts and builds pressure until one fateful day the peasant masses rise up and slaughter their oppressors mercilessly. Then, the peasant uprising is stopped by the state, and so an unfortunate cycle goes on as it had for centuries beforehand. However, with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the peasant, now an industrial worker, would be granted new opportunities to overturn unjust resident power structures through collective action, unionization and nonviolence.

In Industrial America, the lower classes were depended on for their hard work in factories, mills, and mines to produce products that were in such great demand. The once-powerless peasants were, not on the individual level but on the collective level, granted an astounding amount of influence as factory management relied so heavily upon their workers for production. They now had the ability to collectively refusal to work in hopes of forcing management to concede to worker demands. Through collective action, industrial workers create the greatest possibility for shifting the traditionally lopsided balance of power.

As we have seen in Liberty, the Molly Maguires and Christ Stopped at Eboli, unionization is a difficult and daunting task. But as history would have it, as seen in the Debs Revolution, there are times when the lower classes can appropriately unite in their vast numbers and wield astonishing amounts of power over the upper class. For unionization and collective action offers the lower classes an alternative to violence and terror. Rather, the union brings legitimacy to the worker cause, an organized and cohesive body that the corporation can see and fear and be forced to negotiate with.

Most importantly, the union instills a unique quality that has evaded peasants of the lower class for thousands of years: hope. For the first time, peasants, with renewed faith that positive change can come, that the future will be better, that there is more to life than that of a peasant, are granted new opportunities through collective action, unionization, and nonviolent resistance that yields the highest opportunity for a positive, constructive outcome.

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