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The Battle of Blair Mountain

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Posted on Jul 16, 2012
Illustration by Mr. Fish

By Chris Hedges

(Page 3)

These miners knew the dynamics of capitalism and the role of government. They knew who their friends and enemies were. They knew that only by organizing and physically defying centers of power would they ever get justice. They did not trust authority. They did not wait for authority figures to dole out justice. They were not seduced by the empty rhetoric of politicians. They knew that if they wanted a better world they would have to be their own leaders. They would have to fight for it. And this is a lesson in the nature of corporate and governmental power that we have forgotten. We must make the powerful afraid of us if we are to get any semblance of an open and free society. They are not and never will be on our side.

“The hatreds instilled in the union miners for their bosses and erstwhile friends were a new twisting and darkening influence in the whole society of the plateau,” wrote Harry M. Caudill in “Night Comes to the Cumberlands.” “For a whole generation of workingmen such abhorrence became second nature and was directed indiscriminately at any thing or idea originating within the offices of company officials. In later years, after the Second World War, the larger companies sent a new generation of youthful executives into the region for the purpose of ameliorating this deeply rooted animosity, but even their Rotary-learned jocularity and genial expansiveness could not soften the bias of men whose aversion had become hardcrusted in the heat of bitter union drives.”

The coal companies have erased this piece of history from school textbooks. It is too inconvenient. It exposes predatory capitalism’s ruthless commodification and exploitation of human beings and the natural world. It exposes the drive by corporations to keep us impoverished, disempowered and unorganized. If corporate forces can sanitize history, if they can ensure historical amnesia, then the doctrine of laissez faire economics—which in short promises that the wealthier that rich people get, the better it is for all of us—can continue to rule our lives.

The plan to blast Blair Mountain into rubble, part of the devastation that Big Coal has carried out in southern West Virginia, is intended to obliterate not only a peak but a physical reminder of the long fight for justice by workers and the poor. The Battle of Blair Mountain marked a moment when miners came close to breaking the stranglehold of the coal companies. It exposed the dark and murderous intentions of corporations. It made visible the insidious relationship between government and big business. It illustrated that until we rise up, until we begin to trust in our own strength, nothing will change.

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All the gains, often paid for with the lives of working men and women, have now been reversed. We are back where we started. We must organize, resist and build movements. We must embrace radical politics and remain perpetually alienated from power or become a subjugated herd. I do not call for an emulation of this violence. But I do call for direct and sustained confrontation with all formal mechanisms of power, including the Democratic Party. The corporate state, for its part, should also remember the lesson from Blair Mountain. There are limits to how far a people can be pushed. And if violence continues to be the preferred mechanism for control, if the state refuses to institute rational economic and political reforms to address the growing misery that corporations inflict on the citizens, it will, as at Blair Mountain, engender a violent response.


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