Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Chapter Two: Pioneer Marxists in the United States (1848-1860)

2.  Pioneer Marxists in the United States (1848-1860)

Adolph Douai, early American Marxist,

friend of Karl Marx, teacher and founder

of first Kindergarten in the US.

The foundation of scientific socialism
dates from the publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848 by Karl
Marx and Frederick Engels.1 These two great scientists were the first to
explain that socialism, contrary to the ideas of the Utopians, was not
the invention of dreamers, but the inevitable outcome of the workings of
modern capitalist society. They discovered the laws of capitalist
development and proved that the growth of capitalist society, with the
class struggle going on within it, must inevitably lead to the downfall
of capitalism, to the victory of the working class, to the dictatorship
of the proletariat and socialism. They taught that the proletariat was
the grave digger of capitalism and that its victory would rid humanity
of all exploitation.

The doctrines of scientific socialism
were introduced into the United States during the decade preceding the
Civil War. The objective conditions had become ripe for them. Industry
was growing rapidly and despite the restrictive power of the slavocracy,
American capitalism had already reached fourth place among the
industrial nations of the world. During this decade the volume of
manufactured goods doubled, railroad mileage increased from 9,000 to
31,000, annual coal production (50,000 tons in the 1830's) reached 14
million in 1850, and a tremendous advance took place in the
concentration and centralization of capital. The discovery of gold in
California had given a big stimulus to general capitalist development.
The working class had also become numerically stronger, and class
relations were sharpening. Immigrants, mostly skilled workers and farm
hands, were pouring into the country at double the rate of the preceding
decade, and already about one-third of the population was depending
upon manufacturing for its livelihood.

Marxism took root in the United States
after the working class had already experienced two deep economic
crises. The workers had long undergone severe exploitation at the hands
of the employers, they had built many trade unions and local labor
parties, waged innumerable hard-fought strikes and political campaigns,
and won various important concessions in sharp class struggle. As we
have seen, the most developed thinkers among them had already begun to
attack the capitalist system as such and to seek a way of escape from
its evils. The acceptance of Marxist socialism by these advanced
sections of the working class was, therefore, the logical climax of the
whole course of social development in the United States since the
Revolutionary War. It was further stimulated by the current
revolutionary events in Europe—the Chartist movement in England and the
revolutionary struggles in France, Germany, and Ireland—with all of
which the awakening American working class felt a vivid and direct

The traditional charge by employers that
Marxist socialism, because it originated in Europe, is therefore alien
to the United States, is typically stupid. As well assert the same of
the alphabet, the multiplication table, the law of gravity, and a host
of other scientific principles and discoveries, all of which also
developed outside of the United States. "Marxism is no more alien to the
United States because of the historically conditioned German origin of
its founders, or the Russian origin of Lenin and Stalin, than is the
American Declaration of Independence because of the British origin of
John Locke, and the French origin of the Encyclopedists.2


Marxist thought, based on the
generalized experiences of the toiling masses of all countries and
worked into a science on European soil, was transmitted to the American
working class by the stream of political immigrants, mainly German, who
came to this country following the defeat of the European revolutions of
1848. During the 1830's about 2,000 German immigrants arrived yearly,
but after 1848 this stream became a torrent of over 200,000 annually
throughout the 1850's. There were also large numbers of Irish
immigrants, and Italian and French as well (the latter particularly
after the Franco-Prussian war and the defeat of the Commune in 1871);
but it was the Germans who remained the most decisive force in
developing Marxist thought in the United States throughout most of the
rest of the nineteenth century. They were the earliest forerunners of
the modern Communist Party.

The Germans settled chiefly in such main
industrial centers as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis,
Milwaukee, and Cincinnati. Many entered industry as skilled mechanics
and soon began to exert a strong influence on the development of the
trade union movement. While most of them considered themselves
Socialists and revolutionaries, they brought along with them a wide
variety of political ideas, and they reflected the many ideological
divisions that existed in their homeland. Their primary preoccupation
was with events in the old country, but many of the Germans, in the
early 1840's, began to be drawn into American political affairs.

In 1845 a group of Germans formed the
Social Reform Association, as part of the National Reform Association.
The principal figure in this movement was Hermann Kriege, once a
co-worker with Marx, who later swallowed the doctrines of George Henry
Evans, a labor editor who had become a land reformer. Kriege was
probably the first radical exponent of "American exceptionalism." In
substance he was already generating the notion that there existed in the
United States a capitalist system fundamentally different from that of
Europe, and he developed the theory that because of the great mass of
free land, the American workers need not follow the revolutionary course
of their European brothers. He declared that if the 1,400,000,000 acres
of United States lands were distributed to the poor, "an end will be
put to poverty in America at one stroke."3 Marx castigated Kriege for
this opportunism and riddled his agrarian illusions.

Another important figure among the early
circles of German immigrant workers was Wilhelm Weitling. After an
earlier visit, he returned to the United States in 1849. Weitling was
one of the first revolutionary leaders to come from the ranks of the
workers. He took a position midway between Utopian and scientific
socialism. His plan for a "labor exchange bank," previously indicated,
attracted much working class support, and for the next decade it proved
to be a confusing element in the developing Marxist movement.


Joseph Weydemeyer, born in Germany, an
artillery officer who had participated in the Revolution of 1848, was
the best-informed Marxist early to immigrate to the United States.4 More
than any other, he contributed toward laying the foundations of
scientific socialism in the new world. Arriving in 1851, Weydemeyer
stood out as the leader among the American Marxists, which then included
such men as F. A. Sorge, Adolph Douai, August Willich, Robert Rosa,
Fritz Jacobi, and Siegfried Meyer, most of whom had known and worked
with Marx personally in Germany. Sorge, like Weydemeyer, was a
well-developed Marxist. Marx and Engels long carried on a voluminous
correspondence with him.5

Weydemeyer and his co-Marxists found the
Socialist movement in the United States in confusion. There were the
disintegrating effects of Weitling's labor exchange bank scheme; Kriege
was advocating his agrarian panacea; Willich and Gottfried Kinkel were
seeking to transform the movement simply into a campaign to advance the
revolution in Germany; and there were various groups of Utopians and

Of all the groupings only the German
Sports Society, the Turnverein, organized in 1850, had a relatively
sound program. Founded upon advanced socialist ideas, this body opposed
conspiratorial groups and proposed instead a broad democratic movement
rooted among the masses. While these Marxists supported the free soil
and other reform movements, they warned that these were not the path to
socialism and they emphasized that the emancipation of the working class
could only be achieved in struggle led by the proletariat against the
capitalist class.

Weydemeyer, a close co-worker of Marx
and Engels and well-grounded in Marxist theory, was singularly qualified
to undertake the task of clarifying the ideology of the budding
American Socialist movement. He was an extremely capable and energetic
organizer, and he had spent three years in underground work in Germany,
where in the face of the fierce Prussian terror, he had continued to
spread the works of Marx and Engels. A gifted polemist, Weydemeyer ably
defended Marxism against many distortions. He possessed the ability to
apply Marxist principles to American conditions. He avoided the errors
of the Utopians, of the radical agrarians, and also those of the
"exceptionalists," who believed that the workings of American bourgeois
democracy on the land question would solve the problems of the working
class. Marx considered Weydemeyer as "one of our best men," and had
agreed to his going to the United States only because of the growing
importance of America in the world labor movement.


The Proletarian League, founded in New
York in June 1852, was the first definitely Marxist organization on
American soil. It was composed of seventeen of the most advanced
Marxists in New York City, at the initiative of Weydemeyer and Sorge.
The rising tide of labor struggle and organization, and the rapidly
developing strike movement in the United States, together with the
foundation by Marx of the German Workers Society in Europe, gave the
immediate impetus to the formation of the pioneer Proletarian League.

In starting the League, and in the
ensuing work of that organization, the Marxists, then called Communists,
based themselves upon the newly-published Communist Manifesto. This
historic document, which still serves as a guide for the world's
Socialist movement, furnished a clear and basic program for the young
and still very weak American movement. Marx and Engels, who always paid
very close attention to developments in the United States, were prompt
in seeing to it that copies of the great Manifesto were sent to
Weydemeyer and his co-workers.

The Communist Manifesto, among its many
fundamental political lessons, teaches that "the emancipation of the
working class must be the act of the working class itself";6 that "every
class struggle is a political struggle";7 that the building of a
political party of the most advanced section of the workers is
fundamental to the success of the Socialist movement; that the
proletariat, in its struggles, must make alliances with other
progressive forces in society; that the Marxists have no interests
separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole; that
Communists must fight for the immediate as well as the ultimate
interests of the working class; and that socialism can be established
only through the abolition of the capitalist system.

Die Revolution, the first American
Marxist paper, founded in 1852 and edited by Weydemeyer, popularized
this basic program. In the first of the only two issues of the paper
there appeared, years before it was published in Europe, Marx's classic
historical work, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. During the
following year this original Marxist journal was succeeded by another,
Die Reform, also with Weydemeyer as its guiding spirit. This paper,
finally a daily, became the leading labor journal in the United States.

As consistent Marxists, the League
members did not live in an ivory tower. Together with centering major
attention upon theoretical clarification, they also, in the spirit of
The Communist Manifesto, participated actively in the struggles of the
working class. In all this work Sorge played a role second only to that
of Weydemeyer, and thenceforth, for over a generation, he was to be a
tower of strength in the political movements of the American working

In line with their general policy of
supporting the workers' struggle, the Marxists, small though they were
in number, issued in March 1853 a call through the trade unions of
German-speaking workers for the formation of one large workers' union.
Consequently, over 800 workers gathered in Mechanics' Hall, New York,
and launched the American Labor Union. The platform of this
organization, avoiding the utopian-ism of Weitling and the
"ultra-revolutionary fantasies" of Willich and Kinkel, adopted a short
program of immediate demands. This first American Marxist program of
immediate demands had the weakness of not being specific and also of
ignoring the basic issue of slavery. The organization was composed
almost exclusively of German workers. It was a sort of labor party, with
affiliated trade unions and ward branches. Its life span was short.

While stressing the united political
action of all workers, the American Labor Union directed its energies to
the organization of new workers in each craft. Its program called for
the immediate naturalization of all immigrants, passage of federal labor
laws, removal of burdensome taxes, and the limitation of the working
day to 10 hours. It gave active support to the many strikes of the
period. And upon its initiative, representatives of 40 trades with 2,000
members launched the General Trade Union of New York City.

The impact of these movements made
itself felt among the English-speaking workers in other cities. Through
the efforts of two leading Marxists, Sam Briggs and Adolph Cluss, the
Workingmen's National Association was set up in the city of Washington
in April 1853. The organization, however, died during the same year. The
American Labor Union was reorganized in 1857 as the General Workers'
League, but it, too, died out by 1860.8


The severe economic crisis that struck
the country in the autumn of 1857 sharply changed the character of the
workers' struggles. Although it hit the native workers hard, causing
them much suffering, it was the newly-arrived immigrants who felt the
brunt of the depression. The major struggles of the period were waged by
the unemployed, and they developed into battles of unprecedented scope
and sharpness. In the forefront of these struggles stood the Marxists
who, though few in number, were able to give the workers clear-sighted
and militant leadership.   Big demonstrations of the unemployed, led by
the Communists, took place in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Newark,
and here.  They demanded relief and denounced the ruling class and its
system that created starvation amid plenty. So outstanding was the role
of the Marxists in this period that all important struggles of the time
were labeled "Communist revolts" and attempts at revolution.

To better co-ordinate their activities
the Marxists reorganized their forces, forming the Communist Club in New
York on October 25, 1858. Friedrich Kamm was elected chairman and Fritz
Jacobi secretary, although Sorge was the real leader of the
organization. A Communist Club resolution proclaimed as the aims of the
Communists: "We recognize no distinction as to nationality or race,
caste, or status, color, or sex; our goal is but reconciliation of all
human interests, freedom, and happiness for mankind, and the realization
and unification of a world republic."9

The Communist Club of New York,
exercising national leadership, began to establish communication with
similar but smaller groups springing up in other major centers, notably
Chicago, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati. With many leading Marxists,
including Weydemeyer, who had moved to the Middle West, the center of
the movement also soon shifted to Chicago, where the Arbeiter Verein
(Workers' Club) was coming forward as the most effective socialist
organization of the period.

Developments abroad and the growing
movement for international solidarity occupied much of the attention of
the Marxists in the United States. The formation of an international
committee in London in 1856 to commemorate the great French revolution,
stimulated these trends. Consequently, an American Central Committee of
the International Association was set up, with contacts in many cities.
One of its first and most successful undertakings was a mass meeting to
commemorate the historic June days of the 1848 Revolution in France.
Another event, in April 1858, was a big torchlight parade in honor of
Felice Orsini, the Italian patriot who had attempted the assassination
of Napoleon III. All of these activities brought the German Marxists
into contact with other working class forces, and consequently helped to
prepare the groundwork for the International Workingmen's Association,
founded in 1864 and later known as the First International.


The early Marxists were confronted with
the task of developing the ideological, tactical, and organizational
bases for Marxism in America. As yet, however, this movement was not
united ideologically, nor was it organized into a national party. This
meant that first of all the Marxists themselves had to master the
teachings of Marx and Engels. This implied, furthermore, acquiring the
ability to apply the principles of Marxism to the specific conditions in
this country. They also had to lay the foundations of a national
Marxist political party. All this called for the most persistent
struggle to free the minds of the workers from the many Jeffersonian,
bourgeois agrarian illusions which persisted with particular
stubbornness among them.

The needs for ideological clarification
and political organization were freshly stressed when, with the easing
of the economic crisis of 1857, various petty-bourgeois conceptions
began to make themselves increasingly felt afresh in the thinking of the
workers. These were also reflected in growing confusion and friction in
the Marxist movement. Thus, some of the leaders did not push the fight
against slavery, although claiming to be true disciples of Marx; also
various Utopian sects reappeared, and Weitling's harmful notions sprang
up again in new garb.

In undertaking their great tasks of
ideological and organizational development, the early Marxists were
favored by the fact that in the decade before the Civil War many of the
fundamental problems of Marxist theory—its philosophy, political
economy, and revolutionary tactics —had been developed by Marx and
Engels. In addition to the famous Manifesto, they had also completed
such basic works as Wage-Labor and Capital, Ludwig Feuerbach, The
Eighteenth Brumaire, and The Peasant War in Germany. The American
movement also had the tremendous advantage of close personal contact
with Marx and Engels, who both carefully observed and advised on its

The great problem of the Marxists in the
United States, of course, was to apply Marxist principles to specific
American conditions. Here the early Marxists were faced with many
objective and subjective difficulties. These difficulties, in their
essence, continued constantly to reappear in new forms and under new
conditions, and they have persisted in many ways down to the present

Already in the 1850's the Marxists
noticed a seeming contradiction between the great militancy and fighting
capacity of the American working class, and the slowness with which the
workers developed a class-conscious outlook toward politics and
society. They noted the contradiction between the highly advanced
development of American capitalism and the subjective backwardness of
the labor movement. Some of the German immigrants' tried to explain this
on the basis of a supposed innate political inferiority of the American
working class, while others concluded that Marxism had no validity in
the new, democratic United States.

Combating such illusions, the early
Marxist leaders pointed out the destructive effects upon labor of
slavery in the South. They pointed out further that the existence of the
free land in the West, by absorbing masses from the East, hindered the
development of class consciousness and of a stable working class, and
that the current petty-bourgeois Jeffersonian ideas among the workers
stemmed from the Revolution of which the bourgeoisie were the
ideological leaders, and also from the whole history of the country.
They also gave a Marxist explanation of the recurrent economic crises,
which deeply perplexed the workers and the whole American people.

So powerful were the current bourgeois
illusions and disintegrating influences among the workers that Engels,
in 1892, wrote as follows to Hermann Schlueter: "Up to 1848 one could
only speak of the permanent native working class as an exception; the
small beginnings of it in the cities in the East always had still the
hope of becoming farmers or bourgeois."10

The pioneer Marxists, Weydemeyer, Sorge,
and the others—greatly aided by the many new books, articles, letters,
and the personal advice of Marx and Engels, fought on two ideological
fronts—against the "lefts," who believed that political activity was
futile and that Socialism was to be brought about by conspiratorial
action and by directing themselves exclusively to supporting
revolutionary movements in Germany; and also against the rights, who
toyed with agrarian panaceas, sought to tie the workers to corrupt
bourgeois politicians, and denied the role of Marxism in the United

The Marxists especially attacked the
budding theories of "American exceptionalism," advocated by those who,
like Kriege, sought to liquidate Marxism by arguing that communism was
to be achieved in the United States by a different route from that in
Europe—through agrarian reform. Of great help in this struggle were the
current writings of Marx and Engels. They pointed out that the
establishment of a bourgeois democracy, such as existed in the United
States, did not abolish but greatly intensified all the inherent
contradictions, and that the forces making for the speedier development
of American capitalism were also producing more clear-cut class
divisions and sharpening all class relations. They pointed out that the
"land of opportunity" was also the classical land of economic crises,
unemployment, and of the sharpest extremes between the wealth of the few
and the poverty of the great masses.

One of the difficulties peculiar to
early Marxism was that its founders, nearly all German immigrants, were
striving to introduce their Socialist ideas into a labor movement
speaking a different language and having a background and traditions
which they little understood. Many of these immigrants also thought that
their own stay in America was only temporary, until victory was won in
Germany. These circumstances provided fertile ground for sectarian
tendencies, which manifested themselves in strong trends among the
Socialist-minded German workers to stay apart by themselves and to
consider the American workers as politically immature. This sectarianism
was a very serious obstacle to the bringing of Socialist ideas to the
masses of native workers, and for a full generation Engels  thundered
against it.

The early Marxists carried on a great
deal of propaganda on the need of the workers to act politically in
their own interests. They stressed the importance of the workers
fighting the employers on all levels; they exposed the fallacy of
separating the political from the economic struggles; they showed that
every economic struggle, such as the 10-hour day fight, when the working
class fought as a class against the ruling class, was a political

The developed Marxists of the decade
just prior to the Civil War were only a handful; yet, for all their
weakness, they made tremendous contributions to the young American labor
movement. They were pioneer builders of the trade unions; they fought
in the front line of every struggle of the workers; they helped break
down the barriers between native and immigrant workers; along with
native Abolitionists, they were militant fighters against Negro slavery;
they helped to build up a solid and influential labor press; and above
all, they created the first core of organized Marxists in America, and
they spread far and wide the writings of Marx and Engels. The extent of
the general influence of the pioneer Marxists may be gauged from the
fact that many young trade unions of the period, in their preambles,
used The Communist Manifesto as their guide.

For all their relative sensitivity to
the position of the white workers, the Negroes, the immigrants, and
other oppressed sections of the population, the pioneer Marxists did
not, however, become aware of the "significance of the struggle of the
Indian tribes, who during these years were being viciously robbed and
butchered by the ruthless white invaders of their lands. Indeed, in the
whole period from Jefferson right down to our own day, the long series
of workers' trade unions and political parties have almost completely
ignored the plight and sufferings the abused and heroic Indian peoples.
 The story of labor's relations with the Indians is practically a blank.

1 During these early decades,
revolutionary Socialists called themselves Communists. As Marx pointed
out, this was because the Utopians and opportunists had discredited the
name of Socialist. During the period of the Second International,
however, from 1889 to 1914, when opportunists and revolutionaries found
themselves within one organization, the terms Socialist and
Social-Democrat again came into general use. After the Russian
Revolution, for the same reasons that had originally moved Marx to adopt
the term Communist, the Bolsheviks ceased calling themselves
Social-Democrats and resumed the designation of Communists. The name
Communist is also more accurate scientifically.

2 V- J- Jerome in The Communist, Sept. 1939, p. 836.

3 Cited by V. I. Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. 12. p. 299, N. Y., 1943.

4 Karl Obermann, Joseph  Weydemeyer: Pioneer of American Socialism, N. Y.,  1947.

5 See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Letters to Americans, N.Y. 1952

6  Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, p. 6, N. Y., 1948 (Preface to the English edition of 1888).

7 Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, p. 18.

8 Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US., pp. 232-33.

9 Obermann, Joseph Weydemeyer, p. 96.

10 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence, p. 496, N. Y., 1942.

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