Chapter V — Labor and Capital

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“Give Me Your Huddled Masses”

The emigration of the Pilgrims was the first influx into America of people fleeing from a defeated revolution, but by no means the last. Over the last two centuries we observe the following phenomenon: after every defeat of a revolution in Europe, there was a big influx of refugees into America. That rich mosaic of peoples that fused together to form the modern American nation was formed in the first place out of Poles, Hungarians, Germans, Italians, Russians, Scandinavians, Jews, Irish, and Asians, with the admixture of the descendants of African slaves and more recently, people from Latin America.

Where did these people come from? If we leave aside the native Americans and the millions of black slaves forcibly torn from their native lands and shipped to the plantations of the South and consider the European immigrants who formed the central core of the population of the U.S.A. in the 19th century, the great majority were, like the Pilgrims, political refugees fleeing from either victorious counterrevolution or national oppression. The defeat of the Polish uprisings of 1830 and 1863, the crushing of the German revolution of 1848, the persecution of Jews and revolutionaries by Russian Tsarism, the defeat of numerous uprisings of the Irish people against their British tormentors – all these things provided America with a steady flood of human material that made it what it is today.

The opening up of the West was undoubtedly an historically progressive development (although it was a terrible tragedy for the native peoples who were regarded as an obstacle to be removed). Americans refer proudly to the “pioneer spirit” that made this development possible. But where did this spirit come from? In order to conquer the vast open spaces of North America, to clear the dense forests, to brave the innumerable dangers of an untamed and hostile environment – all this required a special kind of people, motivated by a special kind of spirit. If we examine this question more closely, it will immediately become evident that those heroic pioneers who threw themselves with such energy into the opening up of America were to a very large extent revolutionaries who, having lost all faith in the possibility of changing the Old World, looked for and found a new life in the New World. The very same energy and courage with which they fought against the ruling regimes in Europe was now turned to other purposes. Thus, the celebrated American “pioneer spirit” was to a very large extent the product of a revolutionary psychology and spirit that simply found a different outlet.

This fact was already understood by the great German philosopher Hegel, who pointed out that if France had possessed the prairies of North America, the French Revolution would never have taken place. Here we also find the historical explanation for the celebrated “American Dream”, the idea that it is possible for anyone to succeed on the basis of individual initiative and work. In a period when America possessed vast expanses of uncultivated land, this vision was not altogether without foundation. The apparently unlimited possibilities meant that the idea of revolution was subsumed and absorbed. In place of the struggle between the classes, there was the struggle of individual men and women against nature, the unceasing fight to tame the wilderness and carve a living out of mother earth. This is the true origin of that element of rugged individualism that has for so long been regarded as the basic ingredient of the “American character”.

W.E. Woodward writes:

“Like those who were better off, the average laboring man or farmer was an individualist too. He detested authority and was inclined to be rowdy and pugnacious. His class consciousness was dissipated by his individual self-assertiveness. The working class had no leaders, and it is doubtful if any set of leaders, however gifted, could have organized the laboring men of that time into a permanent association or a working class political party. Laborers’ revolts took the form of spontaneous and senseless riots which usually began and ended in a few hours.

“The spirit of our early civilization was the spirit of the pioneer. It pervaded all classes of society. Four out of five men were pioneers in something or other, or the sons of pioneers. A feeling for adventure, a pride in single-handed accomplishment, was a necessity of social life.

“Through the generations the pioneering spirit has persisted in its various sublimated forms, long after the need for it has passed away. It has become so thoroughly infused in the American character that it has acquired the dignity of an honored tradition, and in that role it adds enormously to our present-day vexations and befuddlements. You may observe it in the ardent worship of individualism; in the widespread opposition to collective efforts for human betterment; in the stubborn attempts to preserve, in individualistic patterns, activities which are inherently social. There is a time and a place for the pioneer, the individualist, but in a modern, compact, highly organized society, he is not helpful but destructive.” (W.E. Woodward, op. cit., p. 252.)

In the 19th century, the famous French sociologist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a well-known book called Democracy in America, which ever since has enjoyed the status of a classic. His basic thesis is that democracy in the United States had such profound roots because the difference between rich and poor was relatively small, and certainly much less than in Europe. He also observed that many rich Americans had started out poor and worked their way up the social ladder. When de Tocqueville wrote his book, this was largely true. With the exception of the South, where slavery still ruled supreme and a wealthy white aristocracy existed, in most of the States of the Union, there existed a remarkable degree of equality between citizens. Of course, there were still rich and poor. But even the poorer citizens felt that it was still possible to “get on” with a little effort. Class divisions existed – there were the so-called range wars between the big ranchers and smallholders that sometimes assumed a violent character. But in general, until the last decades of the 19th century, the class struggle, although clearly present, remained relatively undeveloped.

This had certain consequences. For example, for a long time the state was relatively weak, and America was not cursed with the heavy burden of bureaucracy and militarism that weighed so heavily on most nations in Europe. However, all that began to change with the rapid development of industrial capitalism towards the end of the 19th century. The growth of the big trusts, the search for markets and the commencement of America’s involvement in foreign adventures, beginning with Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1892-1898, marked the inexorable transformation of the U.S.A. into a country dominated by giant monopolies and the most powerful imperialist state the world has ever seen.

The Golden Calf

“‘To think’, he said to Gallatin, ‘what has happened to our country since your father’s day! Since the time of Jefferson!’

“Gallatin was astonished. ‘But surely everything is so much better now, Mr. Tilden. The country is so big, so very rich…’ This was some weeks before the panic. ‘Railroads everywhere. Great manufactories. Floods of cheap labor from poor old Europe. America is El Dorado now, whilst in my father’s time it was just a nation of farmers –and not very good farmers at that.’

“‘You misunderstood me, Mr. Gallatin.’ Tilden’s sallow cheeks now each contained a smudge of brick-colored red. ‘I speak of corruption. Of judges for sale. Of public men dividing amongst themselves the people’s money. Of newspapers bought, bought by political bosses. Even the Post.’ Tilden nodded gravely to me, knowing that I often wrote for that paper. ‘The Post took a retainer from Tweed. That’s what I mean by change in our country, this worship of the Golden Calf, of the almighty dollar, this terrible corruption.’” (Gore Vidal, 1876, p. 15.)

American capitalism in the nineteenth century was an historically progressive force, and the victory of the North laid the basis for the economic expansion and domination of the U.S. on a world scale. It freed up a massive labor pool for capitalist enterprise, and allowed for the domination of a handful of industrialists, paving the way for the giant trusts and monopolies of the 1890s. While the working class was fighting and dying in the war against slavery, the monopolists-to-be were busily enriching themselves in the lucrative war industry. The early fortunes of Carnegie, Mellon, Armour, Gould, Rockefeller, Fisk, Morgan, Cooke, Stanford, Hill, and Huntington were made during this period.

The triumph of capitalism in the U.S.A. signified an unprecedented development of the productive forces. This is nest shown by the explosive growth of the railroads:

In 1860 there were 30,000 miles of railroad track in the U.S.A. In 1880 there were three times as much – 90,000 miles. By 1930 the figure was 260,000 miles.

The supporters of the market economy cite this as a shining example of the achievements of free enterprise. In reality the railway bosses received huge state subsidies. Twelve million acres of government land along the railway’s right of way were given outright to the Union Pacific Railway, which, in addition, received a government loan of $27 million in U.S. bonds. Union Pacific, which set out with no funds at all, then entered into an agreement with a small financial entity in Pennsylvania called Crédit Mobilier, to build the railway. One of the directors of Crédit Mobilier was a member of Congress, Oake Ames, who sold stock in the company to his fellow congressmen. The Congressional investigation later discovered that the bank, its stockholders and friends had obtained a profit of $23 million on an initial investment of less than a million.

It is also worth noting that the U.S.A., which today (theoretically at least) stands for “free trade” was originally firmly committed to protectionism and tariffs. Indeed, this was an important element in the conflict between the capitalists of the North and the slaveholding South. The Tariff Act of 1870, which pretended to be a step in the direction of tariff reduction, in fact raised tariffs steeply on things like steel rails that were of fundamental importance to the northern industrialists. The manufacturers of the North and East, sheltering behind high tariff barriers, were making vast fortunes in easy, unearned profits at the expense of the South and West.

Up to 1860 the government of the United States was largely in the hands of the landowners of the South. From 1865 the Northern capitalist oligarchs pushed them aside and took over the power. Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, whose rapacious greed was equalled only by his crudeness and ignorance, was the richest man in America. The attitude of these men was shown by his words: “Law! What do I care about law? Hain’t I got the power?” Yes, the Vanderbilts and their like had the power, and they still have it. W.E. Woodward provides us with a good account of this capitalist adventurer:

“He was considered a great constructive genius and a pattern for poor boys. But there was in him no constructiveness of any kind. He waited for the other fellow to do all the preliminary work, and when the industry – steamships, railroads, or whatever it was – had turned the corner and was about to be a big thing, then Cornelius Vanderbilt proceeded to crowd out the originators and inventors and get control of the property by methods which would fill an ordinary cardsharp with envy. He was a financial gangster with many lesser gangsters working for him. When he died the reverend gentleman who officiated at his funeral said that ‘riches and honors had been heaped on Vanderbilt, that he might devote all his ability to the cause of humanity and seek to lay up treasures in heaven.’

“The net worth of the treasures he laid up in heaven is unknown, but the value of his worldly assets was large. He left about one hundred million dollars.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, pp. 607-8.)

The American ruling class has always surrounded itself in the “rags to riches” myth, made popular in Horatio Alger’s penny novels. In fact, it has its origins in crime, swindling and downright robbery. The present rulers of America are descended from a real rogue’s gallery of speculators and crooks, such as the pious Daniel Drew, who was a deacon of the church on Sundays and a common stock market swindler the rest of the week. He began his career as a cattle drover who sold cows to the butcher by weight and just before they got to market fed them salt and gave them large quantities of water to drink to increase their weight.

Drew saw no contradiction between this kind of activity and religion. Religion has its place in the church and the home, he said, but not in business. He took this principle to its logical conclusion when he unloaded a pile of worthless stock on the unsuspecting members of his congregation. But that was done on a weekday, so it was presumably OK. When he died he left a fortune to Drew Theological Seminary, an institution that trains preachers – presumably in the same moral principles.

Under the Grant Presidency, gangsters like these were allowed to rule unchecked by any controls. The administration was in their pocket, and Grant himself was corrupted by big business, although not as much as other members of his entourage:

“Since the War Grant had played the part of little Jack Horner with much gusto. In his particular corner the plums were numerous. He accepted valuable presents from anybody and everybody. The gifts ran from horses to houses. A group of ‘fifty solid men’ of Boston gave him a library which had cost seventy-five thousand-dollars. Alexander Stewart, a wealthy department store proprietor of New York, sent Mrs. Grant a thousand-dollar shawl, which was gratefully accepted. Whisky distillers contributed cases of their product, and there were donations of furniture, paintings, choice hams, boxes of sausages, and a vast collection of elaborate toys for the general’s youngest son.” (ibid., p. 605.)

The Grant administration was the first to reveal the real content of bourgeois democracy in the U.S.A. The government was firmly wedded to big business and served it faithfully, while the new class of capitalist robber barons showed their gratitude by generously filling the pockets of the politicians. And all of them regarded the state and its treasury as a gigantic pork barrel from which it was legitimate to help oneself.

The salary of the President was raised from $25,000 to $50,000 a year – a fortune in those days. Senators and representatives also did quite well, their stipends being boosted from $5,000 to $7,500 a year. But unfortunately Congress got too greedy. It proposed to make the measure retroactive for two years. This outstanding piece of legislation became known as the Back Pay Grab. It caused a public uproar almost as furious as the Union Pacific bribery case. In the end the Grant Presidency sank under a heap of financial scandals. The President’s private secretary adviser and friend, Babcock, had received valuable presents and money from the leaders of the Whisky ring, which he had used to finance Grant’s election campaign. There were many other such cases. Grant wrote: “Let no guilty men escape.” But they nearly all did and have been escaping ever since. The clique of super wealthy oil barons who control the Bush administration today behave no differently to the crooks and swindlers of the Grant administration. Only the quantities involved are infinitely larger.


“It matters not one iota what political party is in power or what President holds the reins of office. We are not politicians or public thinkers; we are the rich; we own America; we got it, God knows how, but we intend to keep it if we can by throwing all the tremendous weight of our support, our influence, our money, our political connections, our purchased senators, our hungry Congressmen, our public-speaking demagogues into the scale against any legislature, any political platform, any presidential campaign that threatens the integrity of our estate.” (Frederick Townsend Martin, The Passing of the Idle Rich.)

Progress in the last decades of the 19th century was tremendous, but the fruits of progress were not equally enjoyed by all. The growth of the economic might of the U.S.A. signified a simultaneous growth in the power of Big Business. By 1904 the Standard Oil Company controlled over 86 per cent of the refined illuminating oil of the country. By 1890, gigantic corporations were in control of each great industry. The Aluminium Company produced 100 per cent of the output of virgin aluminium in the United States. The Ford Motor Company and the General Motors Corporation together produced three out of every four cars. The Bell Telephone Company owned four out of every five telephones in the United States. The Singer Sewing Machine Company made at least three out of every four sewing machines sold in the United States. And so on.

The huge polarization between Labor and Capital, between rich and poor, was the real basis on which the class struggle developed on the soil of the United States. In the old days the difference between rich and poor were so small that a man like de Tocqueville could regard them as insignificant. But for the last hundred years or more the gulf between rich and poor, between haves and haves not, has widened into an abyss. The bosses were utterly indifferent to the conditions of their workers. These so-called Christians were all ardent believers in laissez-faire and “Social Darwinism”. John D. Rockefeller is reported to have said: “the growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest.” For millions of Americans living and working conditions were very bad, and the hope of escaping from a lifetime of poverty virtually non-existent. As late as the year 1900, the United States had the highest job-related fatality rate of any industrialized nation in the world. Most industrial workers worked a 10-hour day (12 hours in the steel industry), yet earned from 20 to 40 percent less than the minimum deemed necessary for a decent life. The situation was only worse for children, whose numbers in the work force doubled between 1870 and 1900.

Under these conditions socialist ideas were beginning to get an echo in the U.S.A. In 1892 the People’s Party noted in its platform:
“The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal wealth for a few […]

“Wealth belongs to him who creates it, and every dollar taken from industry without an equivalent is robbery. If any will not work, neither shall he eat […]

“We believe that the time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads […] Transportation being a means of exchange and a public necessity, the government should own and operate the railroads in the interests of the people […]

“The telegraph and telephone, like the post office system, being a necessity for the transmission of news, should be owned and operated by the government in the interest of the people…”

Karl Marx pointed out that without organization the working class is only raw material for exploitation. The American workers began to organize quite early on. The roots of the labor movement were already well established in the nineteenth century. William Sylvis, an early trade union activist, founded the Iron Moulders’ Union, and helped found the National Labor Union, which he wanted to affiliate to the International Workingmen’s Association – the body in which Marx played the leading role. He was far ahead of his day on issues of black workers and women – he wanted them in the unions – against considerable opposition. This great advocate of working class unity, cutting across all artificial lines, died in great poverty at age 41.

The attempts of working people to defend themselves against rapacious employers were met with extreme brutality. As one contemporary labor leader wrote: “a great deal of bitterness was evinced against trade union organizations, and men were blacklisted to an extent hardly ever equalled.” In response the workers formed a clandestine union – The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor – founded in 1869. Originally a secret society organized by Philadelphia garment workers, it was open to all workers, including African Americans, women and farmers. The Knights grew slowly until they succeeded in defeating the great railroad baron, Jay Gould in the strike of 1885. Within a year they added 500,000 workers to their membership.

The Knights of Labor had a very advanced program that called for the eight hour day, equal pay for equal work for women, the abolition of convict and child labor, the public ownership of utilities and the establishment of co-operatives. The terrible conditions and brutality of the bosses sometimes provoked a violent response. The “Molly Maguires” were a secret society of Irish immigrant coal miners who fought for better working conditions in the coalfields of northeastern Pennsylvania. Called murderers and framed, 14 of their leaders were imprisoned and ten of them were hanged in 1876.

In reply to the labor movement the bosses sent in their shock troops, the Pinkerton Detective Agency – those hated private cops of the monopolists, scabs, strike breakers, hired guns and murderers – to fight the workers. The bosses also had at their disposal the forces of the state. Workers were imprisoned, beaten up and killed for the “crime” of fighting for their rights. This state repression was carried out on behalf of private interests, in particular Lehigh Valley Railroad founder, Asa Packer, as well as Franklin Gowen of Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, and the coal company bosses who wanted to crush the fledgling labor organizations.

The Workers’ Uprising of 1877

“The power of money has become supreme over everything. It has secured for the class who control it all the special privileges and special legislation which it needs to secure its complete and absolute domination. … This Power must be kept in check. It must be broken or it will utterly crush the people.” (The New York Sun, quoted in Philip S. Foner, The Great Labor Uprising of 1877, p. 7.)

In 1876, as the nation prepared to celebrate a hundred years of American Independence, an economic depression (or panic, as it was then known) gripped the country. Millions had been thrown out of work. In New York one quarter of the workforce was unemployed. The already meagre wages of the workers were cut. The police attacked meetings of the unemployed, mercilessly beating up men, women and children.

This was the period of the most violent labor conflicts in the history of the United States. The first of these occurred with the Great Rail Strike of 1877, when rail workers across the nation went out on strike in response to a 10-percent pay cut. A contemporary labor paper called the Great Strike the beginning of a Second American Revolution. The Journal of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers asked in April 1873:

“Are not railway employees in this year of grace, 1873, enduring a tyranny compared with which British taxation in colonial days was as nothing, and of which the crack of the slave whip is only a fair type?”

Attempts to break the strike led to a full scale working class uprising in several cities: Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago, Illinois; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Buffalo, New York; and San Francisco, California. At several locations the military was called in to crush the uprising workers. Many workers were killed and wounded. The first victim of this repression was shot on July 17 by the militia in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and died a few days later of his wounds. But the workers were not intimidated and the strike continued to like wildfire along the main railroad lines. On July 20, a clash between strikers and militia at the Camden depot in Baltimore left eleven unarmed people dead and many more wounded. President Hayes called in three companies of regular soldiers to deal with the subsequent protests.

In Pittsburgh the militia fraternized with the workers, obliging the authorities to call in the First Division of the National Guard from Philadelphia. These “heroes” shot into an unarmed crowd of men, women and children, killing ten people and wounding another eleven. A report in the Pittsburgh Post described the scene of carnage:

“Women and children rushed frantically about, some seeking safety, others calling for friends and relatives. Strong men halted with fear, and trembling with excitement, rushed madly to and fro, tramping upon the killed and wounded as well as upon those who had dropped to mother earth to escape injury and death.” (Quoted in Philip S. Foner, op. cit., p. 63.)

The workers responded by burning the property of the railroad. Everywhere there was the same insurrectionary spirit. The situation in Baltimore was so serious that the marines were called in to guard the railroad company’s buildings and equipment with artillery. Six companies of the Fourth National Guard arrived in Reading, Pennsylvania, where they shot into a crowd, killing eleven more. Everywhere the authorities responded to the strike with great brutality, beating up strikers and demonstrators. But still the strike spread.

On July 25th there was a monster demonstration in St. Louis, including many black workers, closing down businesses and carrying out a general strike. The women of the working class played a prominent role, fighting shoulder to shoulder with their men, as the following account from the Chicago Inter-Ocean shows:

“Women with babes in arms joined the enraged female rioters. The streets were fluttering with calico of all shades and shapes. Hundreds were bareheaded, their dishevelled locks streaming in the wind. Many were shoeless. Some were young, scarcely women in age, and not at all in appearances. Dresses were tucked up around the waist, revealing large underthings. Open busts were common as a barber’s chair. Brawny, sunburnt arms brandished clubs. Knotty hands held rocks and sticks and wooden blocks. Female yells, shrill as a curfew’s cry, filled the air. The swarthy features of the Bohemian women were more horrible to look at in that scene than their men in the Halsted Street riots. The unsexed mob of female incendiaries rushed to the fence and yards of Goss Phillips’ Manufacturing company. The consternation which this attack created extended to Twenty-second Street, at that hour very quiet. A crowd of men gathered on Fisk Street to witness this curious repetition of the scenes of the Paris commune. The fence surrounding the yard gave way, and was carried off by the petticoated plunderers in their unbridled rage. There was fear for a while that the Amazonian army would continue their depredations. Word was dispatched to the Himmon Street Station, and a force of officers under Lieutenant Vesey pushed down to the corner of the contest. The women hissed as they saw the blue coats march along. Some of the less valorous took to their heels… Others stood their ground.

“A shower of missiles greeted the boys as they came smiling along left front into line. One woman pitched a couple of blocks at the heads of the officers, and then moved on to attend to her family duties. The men were weak in the strength and forcefulness of their language compared to these female wretches. Profanity the most foul rolled easily off their tongues with horrid glibness. Expressions were made use of that brought the blood mantling to the cheek of the worst-hardened men in the crowds of spectators. It was awful.” (Quoted in Philip S. Foner, op. cit., pp. 154-5.)

The police showed no sign of sex discrimination. They beat up the women with the same enthusiasm as they beat up the men.

One significant element in this great strike that was close to an insurrection was the active participation of the Workers’ Party of the United States, an anticipation of the great Party of American Labor, which one day must emerge and lead the working class to victory. The Workers’ Party played a most active role in the strike, issuing leaflets and proclamations and providing practical guidance to the strikers. At a rally organized by the WPUS., one of the speakers, an Englishman named John E. Cope, a former member of the International Workingmen’s Association, spoke in favour of the nationalization of the railroads:

“In his speech, Cope insisted that the workingmen were not going to destroy the railroads. Rather, the railroads were going to become national property for the benefit of the people, and the working class would not destroy its own property. If the railroad corporations starved their workers, he went on, it was as if they murdered them, and whoever murdered a man should be hung. Yet under the existing system, these ‘murderers’ were honoured: ‘A man who stole a single rail is called a thief, while he who stole a railway is a gentleman.’ Cope concluded by warning the workers to be prepared to meet the military once the authorities called them in to crush their strike.” (Philip S. Foner, op. cit., p. 167.)

The strikers were accused in the press of being communists (the Paris Commune just six years earlier had terrified the ruling class of America). Someone signing himself “a red-hot striker” replied:

“You challenge me to compare ‘the Communist and the Railway.’ The way to do it is, first to see what is the idea of both, what each of them demands. Now, I say, – and I challenge you, or any other fellow like you, to show I’m not right, – I say the ‘Commune’ represents the cause of the poor in this: that its object is to give every human born into this world a chance to live; live long, and die well. And I say of the ‘Railway,’ it represents the few rich who don’t want everybody to have a chance for a decent living, but intend to grind out of the rest of the world all the wealth possible for their own special benefit. I say this, and don’t fear you can show the contrary. The difference is, the one is struggling to make it possible for all the world to get on; the other is doing its damnedest to make it impossible for anybody to get on, save the few rich it represents. Let the public judge which side is most worthy, – as it will judge in good time, and don’t you forget it.” (Quoted in Philip S. Foner, op. cit., p. 211.)

Marx followed the unfolding of the Great Strike with tremendous interest. Writing to his friend and comrade Frederick Engels, he called it “the first uprising against the oligarchy of capital which had developed since the Civil War.” He predicted that, although it would inevitably be suppressed, it “could very well be the point of origin for the creation of a serious workers’ party in the United States.” (Letter to Engels, July 24, 1877.)

Marx’s prediction proved to be premature. The spectacular upswing of the productive forces in the United States was sufficient to give capitalism a new lease of life and blunt the political consciousness of the masses for far longer than Marx or anyone else could have anticipated. But the need to create a class-independent mass party of labor in the U.S.A. remains as correct and necessary today as then. Sooner or later the American working class, through the experience of struggle, will come to the same conclusion.

The Chicago Martyrs and May Day

The bosses met the workers’ movement with extreme violence. The list of the martyrs of American Labor is endless, the most celebrated being the Chicago martyrs of 1886 – as a result of which the American working class gave May Day to the rest of the world. It is ironic that in the U.S.A., “Labor Day” is now held at the beginning of September, far from the more significant date of May 1. It is generally seen as a last 3-day weekend of summer with lots of grilling and beer drinking. The union marches in major cities have been emasculated in order to reduce the importance of May Day by moving it to September and making it a “fun” weekend. In this way the ruling class in the U.S.A. does everything possible to make the working class forget its own history and traditions.

On May 1, 1886, Albert Parsons (his wife Lucy was a tireless activist who campaigned to have him pardoned), the head of the Chicago Knights of Labor, led a demonstration of 80,000 people through the city’s streets in support of the eight-hour day. In the next few days they were joined nationwide by 350,000 workers who went on strike at 1,200 factories, including 70,000 in Chicago. On May 4, Spies, Parsons, and Samuel Fielden were speaking at a rally of 2,500 people held to protest the police massacre when 180 police officers arrived, led by the Chicago police chief. While he was calling for the meeting to disperse, a bomb exploded, killing one policeman. The police retaliated, killing seven of their own men in the crossfire, plus four others; almost two hundred were wounded. The identity of the bomb thrower remains unknown.

Of course another Red Scare was invoked (“Communism in Chicago!”) when all the workers were fighting for was the eight-hour day. On June 21, 1886, eight labor leaders, including Spies, Fielden, and Parsons went on trial, charged with responsibility for the bombing. The trial was rife with lies and contradictions, and the state prosecutor appealed to the jury: “Convict these men, make an example of them, hang them, and you save our institutions.”

Even though only two were present at the time of the bombing (Parsons had gone to a nearby tavern), seven were sentenced to die, one to fifteen years imprisonment. The Chicago bar condemned the trial, and several years later Governor John P. Altgeld pardoned all eight, releasing the three survivors (two of them had had their sentences reduced from hanging to life imprisonment). Unfortunately, the events surrounding the execution of the Haymarket martyrs fueled the stereotype of radical activists as alien and violent, thereby contributing to ongoing repression. On November 11, 1886, four anarchist leaders were hanged; Louis Lingg had committed suicide hours before. Two hundred thousand people took part in the funeral procession, either lining the streets or marching behind the hearses.

As the crisis of capitalism deepens, workers need to arm themselves with a program that can answer their needs and aspirations. In doing so they need to reclaim May Day’s tradition of struggle. May Day itself was born out of struggle. The fight for the 8-hour working day in the United States in the 1880s was the issue that gave birth to May Day as International Labor Day. In 1884 the Convention of the Federation of Organized Trades raised a resolution that was to act as a beacon to the whole working class: “that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after 1st May 1886”. This call was taken up by the Labor movement with the creation of Eight Hour Leagues, which wrung significant concessions out of the bosses, and led to the doubling of trade union membership.

Shortly after the Chicago tragedy of May 1886, which became known thereafter as International Workers Day, workers representatives set up the Second (Socialist) International in 1889, under the banner of workers’ internationalism. A key resolution of the Congress was that on every May Day workers in every country would strike and demonstrate for the 8-hour day. On May 1, 1890 workers struck all over Europe, with 100,000 demonstrating in Barcelona, 120,000 in Stockholm, 8,000 in Warsaw, while thousands stayed at home in Austria and Hungary where demonstrations were banned. Strikes spread throughout Italy and France. Ten workers were shot dead in Northern France. In the words of the Austrian Social Democratic leader, Adler, “Entire layers of the working class with which we would otherwise have made no contact, have been shaken out of their lethargy.”

In Britain and Germany, huge demonstrations were held on the Sunday following May Day. The importance of these developments was not lost on Frederick Engels, the lifelong comrade of Karl Marx, who had lived through the long period of quiescence in the British Labor movement after the great Chartists days of the 1840s. He wrote enthusiastically about May Day: “more than 100,000 in a column, on 4th May 1890, the English working class joined up in the great international army, its long winter sleep broken at last. The grandchildren of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle.” Yet again, a great tradition of international labor was “made in the U.S.A.”.

Craft Unionism

The rise of American capitalism as a world power in the last decades of the 19th century was marked by a sharp upturn of the productive forces, booming industry and high profits that permitted certain concessions to the upper layer of the working class in the skilled trades. This “labor aristocracy” formed the basis of the kind of “craft unionism” typified by the AFL.

In 1881, six prominent unions, the printers, iron and steel workers, moulders, cigar-makers, carpenters and glass workers met together with other groups to launch the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU), led by Samuel Gompers and Adolph Strasser. With only 45,000 members, it was initially weak and overshadowed by the Knights of Labor. But on the basis of the booming economy, the tendency towards class collaborationism gathered ground. In the 1880s the tendency of “practical trade unionism” or “pure and simple unionism” gained ground at the expense of the Knights of Labor who, by 1890, had only 100,000 members.

The strength of the AFL – as it later became – was primarily in the crafts already named. It began with a membership of around 138,000 in 1886 and slowly doubled that number in the next twelve years. Gompers and his ilk represented what one might call the aristocracy of labor. By appealing to craft prejudices with their narrower outlook, they succeeded in turning the labor movement away from the socialist views of earlier labor leaders. In this sense it represented a big step back as compared to the Knights of Labor.

Lenin explained that apolitical trade unionism is bourgeois trade unionism. The idea that the unions must be non-political inevitably leads to them falling under the domination of one or other of the bosses’ parties. This assertion has been proved by the history of the American trade union movement from this time onwards. Samuel Gompers, a real bosses’ man, was elected first president and held onto the position until his death in 1924.

The rise of this so-called trade unionism “pure and simple” was no accident, but flowed from the material conditions at that time. In the exceptionally privileged position of U.S. capitalism, which was already beginning to challenge Britain’s position as the main industrial power by the beginning of the 20th century, concessions could be given to buy off the labor aristocracy. A similar situation led to the national-reformist degeneration of the labor and Social Democratic organizations in Britain, France and Germany in the years before 1914. From 1900 to 1904, the membership of the AFL went from half a million to a million and a half, and then to two million on the eve of the First World War. During and immediately following the War, membership again increased rapidly to more than four million in 1920. During this period, an estimated 70 to 80 percent of all unionized workers in the U.S.A. were in the AFL.

However, the organizational and numerical strengthening of the unions was accompanied by a process of bureaucratic degeneration at the top. In this period the basis was laid for the policies of class collaboration and non-political, that is for “yellow” trade unionism that has characterized the leadership of the AFL ever since. Leaders like Gompers and Meany accommodated themselves to capitalism, preaching the unity of interest between Capital and Labor – which is like preaching the unity of interest between horse and rider. Meanwhile, the vast majority of American workers remained unorganized, unrepresented and oppressed.

Moreover, the class collaborationist views of the AFL leaders were not at all shared by the bosses, who viewed the growth of trade unionism with alarm. Caroll Dougherty writes in his book Labor Problems in American Industry:

“Most of the powerful ones [employers], believing that unionism was growing too strong and fearing further encroachments on their control of industry, decided to break off relations, and the years from 1912 to World War I, were characterized by a definitely increasing anti-unionism. […]

“Scientific management and ‘efficiency’ systems were introduced in many plants, much to the discomfiture of many skilled craft unions. A variety of union-smashing tactics were adopted by employers. Vigilante groups and citizens’ committees were fostered to resist unionization activities. Court decisions upheld as a rule most of the employers’ anti-union practices. In the face of these new difficulties, the membership of the AFL at first fell off a little and then resumed growth at a much slower rate than before 1902.”

This is the eternal contradiction of reformist politics in general – that it produces results that are the exact opposite to those intended. The compromising attitude of the labor leaders always leads to a hardening of attitudes on the part of the employers: weakness invites aggression. This is shown by the record of that period – and the same applies today.

In spite of the class collaboration of Gompers and Co., the class struggle reached a fever pitch. In 1892 the bitter Homestead strike by the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers at the Carnegie steel mills in Homestead Pa., resulted in the death of several strikers and Pinkerton guards. A group of 300 Pinkerton detectives the company had hired to break the strike by the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers were fired upon and 10 were killed. Unions were not let back into the plant until 1937. The workers were sacked from most of the mills in the Pennsylvania area.

Two years later a strike of the American railway Union led by Eugene V. Debs against the Pullman Co., was defeated by the use of injunctions and federal troops sent into the Chicago area. The National Guard was called in as a result to crush the striking workers; non-union workers were hired and the strike broken. Debs and others were imprisoned for violating the injunctions, and the union was defeated.

Then, as now, workers could not rely on the law to come to their aid. The bosses could buy expensive lawyers and bend the law to their will. The following example is quite typical. Wage cuts at the Pullman Palace Car Company just outside Chicago led to a strike, which, with the support of the American Railway Union, soon brought the nation’s railway industry to a halt. As usual, as soon as labor began to fight for its rights, the federal government stepped in on the side of capital. U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney, himself a former lawyer for the railroad industry, deputized over 3,000 men in an attempt to keep the rails open. This was followed by a federal court injunction against “union interference” with the trains.


In the stormy years before and after the First World War, the labor movement in the U.S.A. was alive and vibrant. This was a period of giants – people like Eugene Debs, the “grand old man” of U.S. labor. Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs left home at 14 to work in the railroad shops. As a locomotive fireman, he became an early advocate of industrial unionism, and was elected president of the American Railway Union in 1893. His involvement in the Pullman Strike led to a six-month prison term in 1895. In 1898 he helped found the U.S. Socialist Party; he would run as its presidential candidate five times in the period from 1900 to 1920. In 1905 he helped found the Industrial Workers of the World. Debs was charged with sedition in 1918 after denouncing the 1917 Espionage Act; he conducted his last presidential campaign from prison, winning 915,000 votes, before being released by presidential order in 1921.

During the early 1900s, mass production industries had expanded rapidly. Most of the workers in these industries lacked union representation. The AFL opposed unionizing these largely unskilled or semi-skilled workers, arguing that such attempts would fail. This view was challenged – successfully – by one of the most extraordinary militant union movements ever seen in any country. The Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW.), also known by their nickname of Wobblies – would prove to be the most radical and militant movement in the nation’s labor history.

Formed from an amalgam of unions fighting for better conditions in the West’s mining industry, the IWW, or “Wobblies” as they were commonly known, gained particular prominence from the Colorado mine clashes of 1903 and the singularly brutal fashion in which they were put down. In 1905 a handful of the nation’s most radical political and labor figures met in Chicago. Featuring Big Bill Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners and Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist Party, the group aimed to ignite a grassroots fire that would sweep the nation and pull down an evil and unjust system, brick by brick.

The IWW, engaged in militant action in the years before the war. Led by larger-than-life figures like Joe Hill and Big Bill Haywood, the “Wobblies” succeeded in organizing layers of the working class that had never been organized. They were free from all routinism, reformist prejudices and craft narrowness, and approached the class struggle with enthusiasm and verve. Fresh from his acquittal on murder charges in Idaho, Bill Haywood soon became a driving force for the IWW. Convinced that the Western Federation of Miners was not the answer, Haywood wanted the IWW to represent all workers in one big union – and to bring that union into a head-on clash with the centers of power in America.

The ideas of the IWW were a peculiar and colorful mixture of anarcho-syndicalism and Marxism. At its founding convention in 1905, it adopted a preamble that was a stirring statement of the class struggle:

“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things.

“Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the political, as well as the industrial, field, and take and hold that which they produce by their labor, through an economic organization of the working class without affiliation with any political party.”

The IWW declared war on the kind of narrow craft unionism represented by the AFL:

“The rapid gathering of wealth and the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands make the trade unions unable to cope with the ever-growing power of the employing class, because the trade unions foster a state of things which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in the wage wars.”

The answer of the IWW was to fight for the principle of industrial unionism under their famous slogan “One Big Union”. In combating craft narrowness and fighting to organize all workers in one union, they were undoubtedly on the right lines, and although their policies were distorted by some anarcho-syndicalist prejudices, they led the way with militant class politics. In 1908 they approved another preamble, which ended with a call for the abolition of capitalism:

“Instead of the conservative motto ‘A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’, we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system’.

“It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for the everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the old.”

In reality, the organizations of the labor movement in the U.S.A. and every other country are just that: the embryo of the new society that has taken shape and is slowly maturing in the womb of the old. That is why the capitalists have historically shown such bitter hostility to the unions and try to destroy, by one means or another, any attempt of the workers to organize in defence of their class interests. The IWW, uniting in its ranks the most advanced, resolute and revolutionary elements of the American working class, led a series of militant strikes before the First World War, in the teeth of the most ferocious repression by the employers and their state.

By openly calling for class warfare, the Wobblies gained many adherents. Among other mass actions, they organized a brilliantly successful strike by textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. Their militant actions in the midst of World War I, however, provided the excuse for a government crackdown in 1917, which virtually destroyed the IWW. Some of the leaders later joined the young American Communist Party. The IWW degenerated into a small sect.
The reason for this was only partly state repression. It had a sectarian attitude to the AFL, which represented the big majority of the American workers. This conduct tended to separate the most militant and revolutionary workers from the mass, dooming them to impotence. In the end, the Left Wing of the union movement emerged through a big split in the AFL with the founding of the CIO.

Joe Hill

“Tomorrow I expect to take a trip to the planet Mars and, if so, will immediately commence to organize the Mars canal workers into the IWW and we will learn to sing the good old songs so loud that the learned star-gazers on earth will once and for all get positive proof that the planet Mars is really inhabited […] I have nothing to say for myself only that I have always tried to make this earth a little better for the great producing class, and I can pass off into the great unknown with the pleasure of knowing that I have never in my life double-crossed a man, woman or child.” (Joe Hill to editor Ben Williams, Solidarity, October 9, 1915.)

On November 19, 1915, a 33 year-old Wobbly songwriter was executed by a firing squad in the prison yard of the Utah State Penitentiary, framed on a murder charge. Thus ended the life of one of the most extraordinary figures of the history of American labor – Joe Hill.

Joe was born in Gavle, Sweden, on 7 October 1879, and, like so many of his compatriots, immigrated to the lower east side Bowery section of New York City via Ellis Island in 1902. Joe Hill, also known as Joseph Hillstrom and Joel Hagglund, was an American labor songwriter and martyr of the working class. His naive idealism about American society was soon shattered by the harsh conditions and exploitation of immigrant workers that he witnessed. He became an itinerant laborer, working in mines, the lumber industry, and as a longshoreman. He also developed skills as a hobo, traveling on freight trains and living off the land.

Joe joined the IWW around the year 1910 and became the “Wobbly bard”, showing tremendous ability as a poet and songwriter. He was the author of dozens of Wobbly songs, which were printed on song cards and published in the Industrial Worker, Solidarity and in the IWW’s little red songbook. These songs were based on his personal experience of the lives of the ordinary working people of his day. His most famous songs, including Rebel Girl, The Preacher and the Slave, and Casey Jones, became world -famous and were used in labor organizing drives and in rallies supporting strikes.

The Wobblies used many varied weapons in their fight against Capital, including art, poetry and music. These songs, with their air of cheerful proletarian defiance, were not written only for amusement. They were weapons of struggle. One of the participants in the Lawrence strike recalled:

“It is the first strike I ever saw which sang. I shall never forget the curious lift, the strange sudden fire of the mingled nationalities at the strike meetings when they broke into the universal language of song. And not only at the meetings did they sing, but in the soup houses and in the streets. I saw one group of women strikers who were peeling potatoes at a relief station suddenly break into the swing of the Internationale. They have a whole book of sings fitted to familiar tunes – The Eight Hour Song, The Banners of Labor, Workers, Shall the Masters Rule Us? But the favorite was the Internationale.” (Ray Stannard Baker, The Revolutionary Strike, in The American Magazine, May, 1912.)

The IWW also used that most devastating proletarian weapon, particularly important in the United States: humour. This is a good example:

“On one occasion a non-union man entered a butcher’s shop to purchase a calf’s head. As the butcher was about to wrap it up for him the customer noticed the union shop card.

“‘Say, is that a union calf’s head?’ he asked.

“‘Yes, sir,’ answered the butcher.

“‘Well, I’m not a union man and I don’t want union meat,’ said the customer.

“‘I can make it non-union,’ said the meat man, picking it up and retiring to the back room. He returned in a few minutes and laid the head on the counter with the remark, ‘It’s all right now.’

“‘What did you do to make it non-union?’ asked the prospective buyer.

“‘I just took the brains out of it.’“

Joe Hill arrived in Utah in 1913 and found employment in the Park City mines while becoming acquainted with the Swedish community in Murray, Utah. In 1914 he was accused of the murder of a Salt Lake City storeowner, John A. Morrison, and convicted on circumstantial evidence. There ensued an international battle to prevent his execution by the State of Utah. What exactly happened can never be ascertained. But it is certain that the business interests of the West, especially the Copper Bosses of Utah, had conspired to eliminate him.

The bosses used all manner of dirty methods against the labor movement but were always careful to cover their tracks. The climate of opinion in the West and in Utah was decidedly hostile to the IWW and to Joe Hill and he could never get a fair trial. Under today’s laws, Joe Hill would not have been executed on the evidence presented at his trial. President Woodrow Wilson intervened twice in an attempt to prevent the execution, but Hill was executed at the Utah State Prison in Sugar House, Utah, on November 19, 1915.

Joe Hill has become a folk hero and labor martyr, a symbol of the American revolutionary tradition and the fight to defend the working class and the poor and downtrodden sections of society. One of his final statements, “Don’t mourn, organize!” has become a labor-rallying cry. There can be few more moving human documents in world literature than Joe Hill’s Last Will, written while he was awaiting execution in the condemned cell:

“My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to decide.
My kin don’t need to fuss and moan –
‘Moss does not cling to a rolling stone.
“My body? – Oh! – If I could choose,
I would to ashes it reduce,
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow.
“Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my last and final will.
Good luck to all of you.”

Joe Hill.

There have been many attempts to portray Joe Hill’s life in different media over the years: biographies, novels, songs, plays, and movies have been written about him. I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson has become an American folk song of enduring quality. Today the songs of Joe Hill, the Wobbly bard, class fighter and martyr of the American labor movement, are known, loved, and sung around the world.

Literature and Revolution

Joe Hill showed how music and poetry could be powerful weapons in the class struggle. His example was followed by others, including the great Woody Guthrie. The beloved “dust bowl” and “hobo” folksinger, established a new genre of radical folk song that marries the best traditions of the songs of the American West with revolutionary class politics. Spokesperson of the working class, one of greatest American songwriters of any genre, and a continued influence on musicians today, especially singers and songwriters like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Although most Americans know the song “This Land is Your Land”, few know that it is a socialist song. As the song says – “this land was made for you and me”!

It is a shame that many young Americans today are unaware that there was a great American tradition of left wing writers, starting with Jack London who was a committed and active socialist. Jack London, at his peak, was the highest paid and the most popular of all living writers. He is best known as author of wildlife novels Call of the Wild and White Fang, which remain popular with young readers. But how many have ever read his inspiring essays such as War of the Classes, Revolution, and How I became a Socialist? One of the most interesting is the autobiographical sketch called What Life Means to Me:

“So I went back to the working-class, in which I had been born and where I belonged. I care no longer to climb. The imposing edifice of society above my head holds no delights for me. It is the foundation of the edifice that interests me. There I am content to labor, crowbar in hand, shoulder to shoulder with intellectuals, idealists, and class-conscious workingmen, getting a solid pry now and again and setting the whole edifice rocking. Some day, when we get a few more hands and crowbars to work, we’ll topple it over, along with all its rotten life and unburied dead. Its monstrous selfishness and sodden materialism. Then we’ll cleanse the cellar and build a new habitation for mankind, in which there will be no parlour floor, in which all the rooms will be bright and airy, and where the air that is breathed will be clean, noble, and alive.

“Such is my outlook. I look forward to a time when man shall progress upon something worthier and higher than his stomach, when there will be an incentive to impel men to action than the incentive of today, which is the incentive of stomach. I retain my belief in the nobility and excellence of the human. I believe that spiritual sweetness and unselfishness will conquer the gross gluttony of today. And last of all, my faith is in the working-class. As some Frenchman as said, ‘The stairway of time is ever echoing with the wooden shoe going up, the polished boot descending’.”

One of Jack London’s most remarkable works is his novel the Iron Heel, which both Lenin and Trotsky admired. In it he predicts the rise of fascism and depicts the heroic struggle of the American workers for socialism – long before the Russian Revolution and the rise of Hitler proved how eerily accurate he was.

“In reading it,” states Trotsky in his introduction, “one does not believe his own eyes: it is precisely the picture of fascism, of its economy, of its government technique, its political psychology! The fact is incontestable: in 1907 Jack London already foresaw and described the fascist regime as the inevitable result of the defeat of the proletarian revolution. Whatever may be the single ‘errors’ of the novel – and they exist – we cannot help inclining before the powerful intuition of the revolutionary artist.”

There were many other great American socialist novels. Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle is a vivid exposure of conditions in the stockyards and slaughterhouses of America, ending with an uncompromisingly socialist message, its root-and-branch condemnation of capitalism that still reads well today, and its depiction of the appalling conditions of the workers in the slaughterhouses.

Sinclair’s novel appeared as early as 1906, when it caused a major scandal in America. Ever since the Cuban War, when thousands of American soldiers died as a result of the rotten meat supplied to the army by the Chicago meat packers, the industry had been the target of public suspicion. Sinclair himself had got a job in a large Chicago meat packing firm and obtained first-hand information about the appalling conditions of the workers. As a result his novel comes close to the best work of Emile Zola. The characters in it are mostly workers in packing plants like the one Sinclair worked in:

“There was no heat upon the killing beds; the men might exactly as well have worked out of doors all winter. For that matter, there was very little heat anywhere in the building, except in the cooking rooms and such places – and it was the men who worked in these who ran the most risk of all because whenever they had to pass to another room they had to go through ice-cold corridors, and sometimes with nothing on above the waist except a sleeveless undershirt. On the killing beds you were apt to be covered with blood, and it would freeze solid; if you leaned against a pillar, you would freeze to that, and if you put your hand upon the blade of your knife, you would run a chance of leaving your skin on it. The men would tie up their feet in newspapers and old sacks, and these would be soaked in blood and frozen, and the soaked again, and so on, until by night-time a man would be walking on great lumps the size of the feet of an elephant. Now and then, when the bosses were not looking, you would see them plunging their feet and ankles into the steaming hot carcass of the steer, or darting across the room to the hot-water jets. The cruelest thing of all was that nearly all of them – all of those who used knives – were unable to wear gloves, and their arms would be white with frost and the hands would grow numb, and then, of course, there would be accidents. Also the air would be full of steam, from the hot water and the hot blood, so that you could not see five feet before you; and then, with men rushing about at the speed they kept up on the killing beds and with butcher’s knives, like razors, in their hands – well, it was to be counted as a wonder that there were not more men slaughtered than cattle.”

The Jungle became a best seller in a week. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The sales of canned meat plummeted. A board of investigation was set up that substantiated all of Sinclair’s assertions. Legislation was put before Congress to control the industry. The owners tried to kill it but it was passed. Even the stupidest congressman must have realized that failure to act would have led to a collapse of the sales of American canned meat abroad. Almost a hundred years later, however, they are up to the same tricks, putting profits before people.

The powerful U.S. food and agriculture lobby, which, despite its hostility to socialism and state control, gets huge subsidies from the U.S. government. It is currently trying to force reluctant European consumers to eat genetically modified food. This is just the tip of a very large and ugly iceberg that potentially menaces the health of the entire planet. We look forward to the appearance of a new Upton Sinclair who will be capable of exposing the scandals of adulteration perpetrated by the modern food monopolies that will undoubtedly make the activities of the Chicago meat packers in 1906 look like child’s play.

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