Henry Ford and the $5 Day: Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin Rückert

Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin Rückert

Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin “Zolotnik” Rückert came from a long line of Russian silversmiths. And anarchists. He was collaterally related to Feodor Ivanovich Rückert, the famous Russian silversmith who worked with Carl Fabergé — he of the intricate gold eggs of the Romanovs — and his father was philosophically bolted to the hip of Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, the famous Russian anarchist of the same era. Though Rückert worked in neither gold nor silver, he nickname was “Zolotnik,” the Russian term for the standard of gold which, ironically, came from the Russian zoloto which translated as gold. One zolotnik was 1/96th of a pound, a very small piece of solid gold which, in his mind, “Zolotnik” was — all five feet one inches of him.

In spite of the fact that he was neither an artisan of silver nor gold as his name insinuated, he was a master craftsman of sorts. But his craft was engines. He was a mechanical genius in the sense that he could fix anything that had moving parts. On his voyage to America in the last century he had repaired a broken boiler on the ship where he — alone — had booked passage. Thus did he increased the speed of the ship but did not decrease his passage fee. When he arrived in New York he lived a penurious life repairing wagons and wheels until he got a job as a coal shoveler on New York & Philadelphia — which went out of business three months after he was hired. But in those three months he had shown himself to be a superb mechanic and was retained by the new owners as a fireman and mechanic. He spent the next fifteen year on the railroad — many of them because they were going bankrupt almost as fast as they were coming into existence — and rode the rails topside coast to coast. He was particularly valuable to the railroad companies — all of them — because he spoke four languages fluently plus English so he could communicate with any of their immigrant workers. Considering that most of the people working on the railroads were immigrants or Negro he could and did communicate with everyone from the Gandy dancers to engineers and porters to oilers.

And did he communicate! He would talk to anyone for any reason. He spoke their language and shared grappa with the Italians, moonshine with the blacks, ouzo with the Greeks, beer with the Germans, vodka with the Poles and stories with all of them. He rubbed elbows with Socialist and Anarchist, Fabians and Pinkertons, Progressives and monarchists. He read newspapers in just about any language from any part of the country where he happened to be and made it a point to know everyone he met on the rail lines on a first name basis whether they were worth knowing or not. He also kept a mental compendium of the best workers because he could see them again and again on different rail lines in different parts of the country as the industry cannibalized itself.

From the windows of the railcars he could see America changing. Even though America was the only nation he could call his own as he had come to United States as a child, he saw the footsteps of the future. He read about it in the newspapers and heard talk of it in the stations. He was in a dying industry. While the railroads would probably never disappear from the landscape, they were not the wave of the future; the automobile was. Trip after trip across the country he saw the wagon ruts become roads. He saw things called gas stations appear in the middle of cornfields and watched horses being squeezed out of the cities as trucks rumbled in. In New York, the stench of horse manure on the streets was replaced with the choke of exhaust fumes. In Los Angeles, the city grew outward on a spider web of roads. In Denver the downtown moved out of town, away from the rail yards. Land that had been too distant to have value gradually became housing projects and prairie land became factories.

Then he looked up in the sky and saw cargo with wings. He did not see airplanes in the conventional sense of the invention. He saw money. Inventions did not make money; money fueled the inventions. Things were invented to make money. Cargo made money. Cargo moved by train but trains were expensive. They were also rail locked. But cars could go anywhere the earth was dry and planes didn’t even need the earth to be dry. The future was in cars and planes, not the railroad.

Even more important, Zolotnik recognized a widening trail in America. The problem was the rise of the rich class. The rich didn’t give a tinker’s damn about anyone but themselves. Worse, they did not see the world as it really was, a civilization built on the combination of labor and resources. Combined, labor and resources was building America. It was the steel of the railroad with the blood-and-muscle-and-bone of the working man that made it profitable. You could not through all the parts of the railroad onto the ground and make a profit. It took humans to do that. But the rich did not understand that. They believed that they had been blessed by God to be rich and that’s why they were rich. It was a mutual fulfilling conundrum: they were blessed by God and this made them rich and proof that they were blessed was that they were rich.

But what the rich did not understand was that they got rich and would only stay rich if their products sold and cargo traveled on their railways. That was only going to happen if the working people of America bought those products. Thus it was economic lunacy to imagine that underpaying workers or cutting their wages was going to make the rich richer. It made them poorer.

But try to tell the rich that!

Further, he saw the coming of a great equalization. Just as America could not be half-slave and half-free when the slaves were black, America could not exist with a gulf between the workers and the rich. A civil war of some kind was coming. The problem, in this case, was easy to spot. And historical. It was the rich. They would not, have not, never had, never will pay their fair share of taxes. They viewed themselves as privileged because they were rich and because they were rich they were entitled to privilege. It was, has always been, that ageless self-fulfilling prophesy.

Adding insult to injury, everyone knew that it took brains to make money. Ergo, since the rich had money they had brains. This was, again, a self-fulfilling prophesy. The problem was that the reality was a bit different. Yes, it took brains to make money but the reverse was not true. Having money did not mean you were smart; just that you had money. Anyone could be smart but it took brains to be clever.

But the fantasies of the rich went deeper than that. Riches, both Jesus and Zolotnik knew, created a dangerous cycle. Since money was the goal, anything was justified in the name of getting it. And once you had it, everything you did to maintain it was justified as well. Thus it was perfectly reasonable for the rich to cut the wages of the poor and hire strikebreaking goons to keep expenses low and profits high. The rich did not believe in the concept that ‘what goes around comes around’ because they believed themselves to be immune from the laws of nature. You could always buy your way into Heaven with philanthropy, so what were a few dozen broken heads and starving widows along the way?

If the rich were not going to learn the basic lesson of economics on their own, they would have to be taught it forcefully. There were only two ways this could be achieved: laws or dynamite. There was not a third option. Zolotnik preferred laws — and specifically the ballot box — but feared that the labor problem was growing too fast and was geographically too spread out to be solved with a few laws. Unions were a reasonable answer but the workers as a group, the masses — were too frightened, cowed, ignorant or distracted to do much for themselves. Thus it was up to the leadership, the so-called “Talented Tenth” as the great scholar and activist W. E. B. Dubois noted, to do the preliminaries. Thereafter it was a game of numbers. A strike could be successful if the workers were organized if enough workers walked off the job and if enough strikebreakers could not be found and if it was too expensive for the company to hire goons and if the company management figured they would make more money by remaining open and paying higher wages than losing money by being shut down. That was a lot of ifs when workers were living paycheck to paycheck — and living in company housing.

A quicker way to convince the company to accede to the workers’ demands was to add violence into the mix. Done anonymously, it would jar management’s sense of reality. A bomb could put the company completely out of business and if no one knew who threw the device, no one could be prosecuted. Yes, the unions would be blamed for the violence, but so what? They were usually ravaged in the press for being violent even though the violence had been in the form of self-defense.

Traveling across the country Zolotnik had come in contact with many anarchists, men and women who felt that the only way to improve the lot of the worker was through systematic violence. They referred to it as the power of terror, the ability to force management to take the workers of the world seriously. Zolotnik referred to as the power of stupidity because he was a fervent reader of both history and religion and knew full well that violence only begets more violence. Even more telling, many of the dynamiters were immigrants who had first-hand knowledge of how violence had not worked in the factories of Europe. The company just rebuilt and went on cutting workers’ wages to pay for the equipment that had been destroyed.

The primary problem, as Zolotnik told his good friend Sandro Moreno, a seasoned dynamiter, was that the economy of the world was on the upswing, particularly in the United States. As the armies in Europe got bigger and bigger they needed more food and shoes and uniforms and guns. Someone had to provide those items and the companies that made those items had to buy corn and cans and needles and thread and fabric and leather and hire workers and expand factories. The economy was moving up so companies were more likely to give in to workers’ demands because missing a deadline would cost them too much money. The workers would be better off negotiating a wage increase than striking for one.

Moreno responded that a little dynamite here and there across the country would remind companies that the workers were not without resources. Even more important, terror was a very useful tool. If management never knew is they were in the crosshairs they would be a lot more forthcoming with concessions. Violence had a place at the negotiating table, so to speak. Besides, management was using violence anyway so what was so wrong about the workers meeting management blow by blow. Management was busting heads, so why not the workers.

Then Moreno would get philosophical. The dynamiter pointed out that anarchists and their fellow socialists alike did not look at the here-and-now as important. It was the direction of travel of the world. It wasn’t so much wage concessions that were necessary, it was a complete reordering of the capitalistic system. As currently constituted it was rigged against the worker. The rich were getting richer and the poor were on a treadmill to penury. As the cost of goods went up, wages did not. Companies, on the other hand, just charged more for the finished product. The long-term key to the survival of the workers of the world was not only a more equitable distribution of money but a pathway to better working and living conditions. They were on a treadmill now and there was no avenue of escape for their children. America was, after all, supposed to the land of opportunity but the only opportunities the workers were seeing was the chance for companies to make more and more while the workers kept falling behinder and behinder.

Zolotnik took Moreno and his fellow dynamiters seriously because they were serious. And they were masters of their craft. They were not going to be stopped and as long as there were cadres of workers willing to pay for the dynamiters, the red dragon would continue to make an appearance. Zolotnik — unfortunately he told himself — realized that there was a kernel of truth in what Moreno believed.

But only a kernel.

Over the long run violence was the wrong road and every step down that path was one that would have to back-stepped later. It was a tactic that was bad when it was unsuccessful and even worse when it produce positive results. Zolotnik was not a student of the Bible but he did agree with parable that he who lives by the sword will died by the sword. While he was not Christian enough to turn other check, he was religious enough to know that you will eventually reap what you sow.

Speaking of reaping and sowing, Zolotnik saw a glimmer of hope for the future in the newly forming Progressive Party.

But it was only a glimmer. It had the glitz, no doubt, with Theodore Roosevelt at its head but there was problem. There was only TR at its head. It was a parade of midgets lead by a rampaging bull. Yes, it certainly did well in the last election, but it is the not the last election that counts; it’s the next one. The Progressives had everything that was needed to be successful: a great leader, a platform that would draw votes by the millions, nation-wide appeal and support from both Wall Street and the working-class neighborhoods. What could go wrong?

What went wrong was that TR could read the writing on the wall. All the Progressives had done was split the Republican vote. TR got more votes than the other Republican in the race, William Howard Taft, but was 15 percentage points behind Woodrow Wilson — and Wilson took a whopping 435 electoral votes to TR’s 88. While the Progressives showed strength in statewide elections, the party was over in both sense of the word. That was a glimmer that Zolotnik saw but it was fading fast.

But he was not a fool. He could, as the Brits said, “could read the tea leaves.” Being a student of history he could see the shadow of the future as it was falling. The Progressives may have been a weak and weakening force in the United States but they were the canaries in the coal mine. They were a rock-solid indication that there was growing discontent in the land. What made America different was that in the United States the workers would vote. The poor could vote. The middle class could vote. There were a lot more workers and middle-class people than rich and sooner or later the worm was going to turn and the power of the ballot box would become more power than money of the political bosses and the large companies. You could only buy a congressman for so long. The wind of reform was blowing across the land. The rise of the Progressive Party was proof. But they would not last because they did not have the staying power of real political party. But to those who understood the march of history, the Progressives were the wave of the future. The smart politician would ride the crest of that wave; the ignorant one would drown in the trough.

Thus was Zolotnik caught between two worlds, neither of his liking. The Progressives were fading fast and the anarchists were offering an unsavory alternatives. He had a flickering faith in the Progressive movement — but not necessarily the Progressive Party — rising like a phoenix from its own funeral pyre but he would place no bets on its revival. He also had little faith in dynamite. But there seemed to be no other alternatives to consider.

Then he heard about the $5 day.

[This story is from Steven Levi’s collection of Henry Ford short stories FIND A REMEDY on Kindle.]

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