Click on title to link to a 1960 article, "American Radicalism: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow", by James P.Cannon, noted in the commentary below, about the history of American radical movements in the early 20th century from one who was involved in the American Socialist Party, IWW, American Communist Party and the American Socialist Workers Party. I would say with that pedigree he knows some things we need to think through about our political forbears. Workers Vanguard No. 938
5 June 2009
The Grant Administration (1869-1877) and the Rise of U.S. Imperialism
We print below, in slightly edited form, a presentation by Don Cane to a Spartacist League educational in the Bay Area on March 14.
The German Social Democratic leader Karl Kautsky, in reference to the early English settlers in North America, wrote that they:
“carried the peculiar Anglo-Saxon mode of thought along with them across the ocean. They did not find anything on the other side that could have shaken them in their views. No class free from the work for a living was formed that could have cultivated arts and sciences for their own sake. We only find farmers and city dwellers whose maxim was that of the home country: Time is Money.... This also became the principle of the gradually arising proletariat for the simple reason that they did not feel as a proletariat, but considered their position only as a stage of transition for the purpose of becoming farmers, capitalists or at least lawyers....”
—“Socialist Agitation Amongst Farmers in America” (1902)
I will not be able to cover all subjects related to this class in a timely manner. I will address the Ulysses S. Grant administration (1869-1877) and imperialism in detail, Reconstruction in general and some details as well as the emergence of the organized labor movement and Populism.
In his classic book, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), Lenin defined imperialism as:
“The monopoly stage of capitalism. Such a definition would include what is most important, for, on the one hand, finance capital is the bank capital of a few very big monopolist banks, merged with the capital of the monopolist associations of industrialists; and, on the other hand, the division of the world is the transition from a colonial policy which has extended without hindrance to territories unseized by any capitalist power, to a colonial policy of monopolist possession of the territory of the world, which has been completely divided up.”
It is generally accepted by Marxists that American capitalism entered the imperialist stage with the Spanish-American War (1898), when the U.S. took over the Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. But is it possible to fix a date for such a dynamic process? I do not believe it is possible to fix such a date. The following quote is from an American business journal:
“Excess capacity became a problem in a number of industries well before the depression of the 1890s. Efforts begun in the 1870s and 1880s to limit or regulate production were spurred on by the depression of the 1890s. Experiments with trade associations, pools, and trusts often culminated in the late 1890s with the creation of large holding companies. These companies concentrated control over production and pricing decisions in fewer hands, and they often bought out and closed down the most inefficient firms in their industries.”
—Quoted in William H. Becker, “American Manufacturers and Foreign Markets, 1870-1900,” Business History Review (1973)
The journal further asserts that by 1890, “America’s industrial might had reached a point where supply exceeded domestic demands and its need for foreign markets was sharply increasing.” Emily Rosenberg in Financial Missionaries to the World (1999) states that the American economist Charles Conant’s “theory, identifying overproduction and declining profits as the motive forces behind late-nineteenth-century imperialism, reappeared in the analysis of [J.A.] Hobson and ultimately became enshrined in the writings of V.I. Lenin.”
The thing that is most characteristic about U.S. imperialism is that it did not reach world dominance by a gradual ascent, but by leaps and bounds. American products were in demand in foreign markets. By 1900 American capitalism, firmly based on the gold standard, began the work of manipulating world finance away from London, transforming New York into a world financial center. J.G. Wright, in an article in the June 1936 issue of the Trotskyist New International covering much of this same material in detail, concluded, “In 1898 the United States was a world power conducting a colonial policy with the perfect consciousness of her major imperialist interests.”
With the Northern capitalist victory over the Confederate South in the Civil War all the elements compelling U.S. capitalism toward the imperialist stage cohered. Overproduction and the formation of finance capital were evident early on.
I would like to say a few words about Grant himself. The popular historical image of him is of a dimwitted and bloody drunk. But I believe that this image is a product of the same forces that wish to rewrite the history of the 1861-1865 American Civil War as a “war between the states” or, more grievously, “a struggle for Southern Independence.” Grant was an intelligent, politically astute and brilliant bourgeois military officer. It is for this reason much venom is directed at him. His administration was no more corrupt than the rest of the American political structure. I believe that Grant, himself, was too financially incompetent to be a good thief.
The Grant Administration and Emerging U.S. Imperialism
A closer examination of the Grant administration presents much evidence of the beginning consolidation of an American capitalist-imperialist class. However, a general understanding has prevailed (including among ourselves), to quote the first sentence of Lenin’s Imperialism, that “especially since the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), the economic and also the political literature of the two hemispheres has more and more often adopted the term ‘imperialism’ in order to describe the present era.”
It was the Grant administration that took the first steps to convert the Caribbean into an American lake—recognizing the importance of securing an island with a large harbor and building the Panama Canal connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. It was the Grant administration that anticipated the Anglo-American alliance—deferring to the British as the world’s superpower as it simultaneously sought to be both competitor and ally of British imperialism. It was the Grant administration that recognized the need for a strong navy to pursue Pacific Rim trade under the banner of “free trade.”
It was a politically moderate Grant administration that oversaw Radical Reconstruction—a turbulent decade of interracial bourgeois democracy in the South, the most egalitarian experiment in U.S. history, ultimately betrayed by the Northern bourgeoisie. It is today an accepted view that Grant was sympathetic to black demands. But this view is simply shallow. Grant both understood and accepted the legitimacy of what he referred to as the “governing classes.” For Grant, the bourgeois military officer, black people were allies in the struggle against a hated enemy, the Confederacy. Thus, he supported the recruitment of black troops into the Union Army as an effective military measure in the struggle to destroy the Confederate Army. Grant, the bourgeois politician, feared that the Johnson administration, which took over after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, would surrender to the defeated Confederate enemy what had been gained by the Union Army on the battlefield. Thus, he supported black voting rights in the political struggle against a still hostile enemy.
The Grant administration came into power on the slogan, “Let there be peace.” But it also understood that the war had not ended with the surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s army. The Civil War, a military contest between two property classes—the capitalists and the slave masters—ended with the victory of the Northern-based capitalist class. Reconstruction was a struggle to consolidate this victory and reshape the whole of American society in the image of the bourgeoisie.
In an historical irony, Abraham Lincoln created the U.S. Secret Service the same day he was assassinated. When Grant entered the White House as president it was common for several Secret Service agents to be present on every floor of the White House. Nonetheless, it was also common that the general public was allowed use of the White House grounds and free entry into the White House to await the arrival of the president or other officials. It was the Grant administration that padlocked the White House gates, denying use of its grounds to the public. Under the Grant administration, access to the president was by appointment only. The Grant administration was the first to recruit military officers for the White House staff. Responding to the pressure of Republican Party politicians, Grant replied, “I am not the representative of a political party.” In a letter accepting the Republican nomination, he clearly stated the president was “a purely administrative officer,” elected “to execute the will of the people” (quoted in Geoffrey Perret, Ulysses S. Grant, Soldier and President ). In all of this we see shades of the imperial presidency to come.
Grant strongly opposed the Tenure of Office Act (1867), which denied the president the power to remove from office anyone appointed by the president and approved by the United States Senate unless the Senate also approved the removal. He consistently fought for the power to hire and fire his appointed cabinet. At the same time, he supported the British model of civil service in opposition to party patronage. It was political tradition that the party that won the election carried out the wholesale firing of political opponents then in government employment, replacing them with its own supporters. This spoils system was a source of incompetence in government. In the British government it was those officials whose work concerned military affairs who first came to appreciate the advantages of a hiring and promotion system based on competitive examination—civil service. It should be no surprise that Grant, a professional soldier who witnessed firsthand the incompetence of politically appointed Union Army officers, would also appreciate the advantages of such a civil service system.
U.S. Expansion into Asia
In 1871 the Grant administration sent a naval force into Korean waters. Some of the senior officers of this force were experienced Civil War veterans. This naval force sent out survey teams to map the Korean coast. When this act was not sufficient to provoke a Korean response, survey teams armed with artillery and rifles were sent upriver in the direction of the Korean capital, Seoul. Needless to say, they were fired upon, and the Americans retaliated by killing over 250 Korean soldiers at a loss of only three of their own. Journalists wrote about the episode as a pivotal event in 19th-century U.S.-East Asian relations—as one wrote, “by far the most important political action undertaken by the United States in Asia until the occupation of the Philippines in 1898” (quoted in Gordon H. Chang, “Whose ‘Barbarism’? Whose ‘Treachery’? Race and Civilization in the Unknown United States-Korea War of 1871,” Journal of American History [March 2002]).
The war was one of the largest and bloodiest uses of military force overseas by the United States in the 50 years between the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 and the Spanish-American War of 1898. It was also the first time that American ground forces actually seized, held and raised the American flag over territory in Asia. The American objective was to “open” Korea for trade—just as Commodore Matthew C. Perry had “opened” Japan in the 1850s. Korea was a protectorate of China, paying tribute to the Chinese court in exchange for being left alone. American diplomats pressured Chinese officials to obtain a Korean invitation for this naval force. The Chinese officials reluctantly complied, but the Korean invitation never came. To the imperialists, a backward nation’s refusal to open itself up for trade was an affront to their “civilizing” mission of world conquest. The Koreans, of course, forced to capitulate, protested that it was the right of any nation to defend its borders. At an earlier time they had defeated a French military excursion attempting to accomplish similar objectives as the Americans. Indeed, the American officers consulted the French, following the same upriver route of the French forces.
In the summer of 1879, Grant and his wife were in the final stage of a two-year pleasure trip around the world following the end of Grant’s second term. In Grant’s words he was a “private citizen” touring the world on U.S. warships. With his arrival in China, a very revealing incident took place. The Japanese government had seized a group of islands belonging to the Ryukyu island chain (including Okinawa) claimed by China. The Chinese appealed to Grant to intercede on their behalf. Grant responded, “I have no knowledge on the subject, and no idea what opinion I may entertain when I have studied it.” But it is clear in Grant’s negotiations with the Japanese that he did, in fact, have some knowledge on the subject. To the Chinese he had nothing much to say, except to deplore the Europeans’ treatment of Asian nations. To the Japanese he had a lot more to say, first of all, urging them to come to a negotiated settlement with the Chinese—a settlement that they easily and readily came to.
Grant reminded the Japanese that the United States was their nearest neighbor in the West. He went on to state, “No nation needs from the outside powers justice and kindness more than Japan, because the work that has made such marvelous progress in the past few years is a work in which we are deeply concerned” (quoted in Horatio Wirtz, “General Ulysses Grant: Diplomat Extraordinaire,” in Wilson and Simon, eds., Ulysses S. Grant: Essays and Documents). This, of course, was in reference to Japanese capitalist modernization under the Emperor Meiji at the time (see “The Meiji Restoration: A Bourgeois Non-Democratic Revolution,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 58, Spring 2004).
Again, Grant deplored the European treatment of Asian nations. But Grant also raised the problem of extraterritorial rights forced on Japan by European powers, supported by the United States, which was now willing to revise these. These treaties limited to 5 percent the tariff Japan could place on imports. Grant urged the Japanese to defy the Europeans and claim a greater percentage of profit from commerce that they were rightly entitled to. He explained that such a move would make it possible to relieve the Japanese people of a great burden—the land tax. At the time only 3.8 percent of Japanese revenue came from customs duties while 64.8 percent came from the land tax. The land tax was clearly an obstacle to development. Furthermore, Grant advised the Japanese to avoid European bank loans. Grant explained to the Japanese that the British, after the experience of the Afghan and Zulu campaigns, were in no position to take counteraction.
In 1872 the United States Navy acquired a mid-Pacific coaling station at Samoa, Pago Pago Harbor. Such coaling stations were of immense importance for the extension of naval power. The Germans were alarmed and laid claim to an interest in the Samoan islands group. This solicited a response from the British. All three nations then sent battleships to the Samoan waters. But the American and British naval forces were clearly acting in concert to block the Germans. After some period of jockeying, these islands passed permanently under American control. At a later period, 1893, the American sugar plantation owners, supported by American military forces, staged a Texas-style revolt overthrowing the native monarchist government of Hawaii. The strategic Pacific islands were soon annexed by the United States.
U.S. Expansion in the Western Hemisphere
In 1869, seeking Caribbean harbors, Grant had concluded an annexation agreement with the dictator of Santo Domingo (the modern-day Dominican Republic). Grant’s administration also sought the purchase of the Caribbean islands of St. John and St. Thomas from Denmark. The purchase agreement of these islands was concluded at a later period. The annexation agreement of Santo Domingo failed in the Senate, which was angry that the Grant administration had negotiated it without consultation with the Senate. Grant envisioned the future of Santo Domingo as an annexed American state with a black majority. He also viewed it as a solution to the black question. He wrote of blacks that they were “brought to our shores by compulsion, and now should be considered as having as good a right to remain here as any other class of our citizens. It was looking to a settlement of this question that led me to urge the annexation of Santo Domingo.”
Grant explained that the island was capable of supporting 15 million people and he “took it that the colored people would go there in great numbers, so as to have independent states governed by their own race. They would still be states of the union, and under the attention of the general government; but the citizens would be almost wholly colored” (U.S. Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters). But it was the race question that led ultimately to the Senate rejection of the annexation agreement. They did not desire more “colored” U.S. citizens. They felt the same way about Hawaii, but the strategic importance of these islands overcame race prejudice.
Grant played an active role in countering European influences in the Western Hemisphere. It was General Grant, in his military capacity, who urged the use of the American army to help expel the French from Mexico. In 1865, General Philip Sheridan was dispatched to the Mexican border with a large armed force prepared to do just this. The French withdrew from Mexico.
In 1867 the United States purchased Alaska from Russia. The purpose of this purchase was to contain the British. Grant, like many other representatives of the American ruling class, viewed Britain as a natural ally, but with wary bitterness. During the Civil War, the British government had permitted Confederate cruisers, built in British ports, to escape and prey upon the commerce of the U.S. The most famous of these Confederate cruisers was the Alabama. In 1871 the British and American governments entered into arbitration, known as the Alabama claims. Grant was the spokesman for a section of the American ruling class that demanded not only that the British pay a heavy fine but also that they concede Canada to the United States. It was rumored that the British were willing to give up Canada, though the Canadians objected. But other members of the American ruling class pointed out that London was still the center of world banking and the heavily indebted Americans coming out of the Civil War could not afford to confront them. The British paid a fine of $15.5 million and the matter was closed.
Marshall, Harrison County, Texas: A Microcosm of the Defeated South
We have always noted that imperialism abroad has a domestic reflection at home. Predatory imperialism’s devouring of smaller nations, in competition with other imperialist powers, requires the suppression of class struggle at home. The American Civil War unleashed a great expansion of wealth and democracy. However, this expansion of political democracy was short-lived, as the American ruling class quickly entered upon the imperialist stage.
Michael Goldfield in The Color of Politics (1997) uses the term “dual power” loosely to describe the short-lived period of expansion of democracy based on the class struggle as it presented itself at this time. But to pose the question as one of a dual-power struggle between the Northern capitalist class and the defeated slave-master class is wrong. The American Civil War ended with the destruction of the slave-master class as a class and with the class emancipation of the slaves. In other words, slavery was abolished. What ensued in the aftermath was a struggle of contending class forces to reshape American society, in particular the South. C. Vann Woodward’s Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1963) described the time: “A few old heads recognized ‘Reconstruction’ for what it was––a Yankee euphemism for capitalist expansion.”
The essence of the struggles between the contending class forces after the Civil War was over control of the wealth created by labor—old wealth created by slave labor, new wealth created by the “free labor” of the freedmen. The following is a description of this struggle as it unfolded between 1865 and 1868 in Marshall, Harrison County, Texas (the home of Wiley College of The Great Debaters fame). [See “Communist Organizing in the Jim Crow South: What’s Not in The Great Debaters,” WV No. 925, 21 November 2008.]
General Sheridan, commander of the Union occupation troops in Texas, declared that if he owned both Texas and hell he would “rent out Texas and live in hell.” It was reported that 2,700 blacks were killed in Texas between 1866 and 1867. The Freedmen’s Bureau reported that between 1 January and 1 July 1867, 2,316 murders or assaults with attempt to kill occurred in Texas. The vast majority of victims of these assaults was black. There existed a state of lawlessness as senior Confederate officials fled to Mexico—from state to county to local towns, governmental authority ceased to function. Demobilized Confederate soldiers plundered Confederate and state properties, roaming the countryside robbing whites as well as blacks of anything of value.
The only semblance of law and order to prevail was with the Union Army deployed at county seats such as Marshall. In 1860 Harrison County was the wealthiest county in Texas and had the highest percentage of slave ownership. Of the total population of the county of 15,000 persons, 59 percent were slaves. Over 60 percent of white households owned at least one slave. The average slaveholding family possessed eleven slaves. Sixty-eight slaveowners owned 20 or more slaves; one slaveowner owned 104 slaves.
The emancipation of Harrison County’s 10,000 slaves meant an immediate loss of approximately $7 million to the slaveowners. The misfortunes of war—high taxes, high cost of living, loss of fugitive slaves and the inability to market cotton at a profit—forced many planters into bankruptcy. During the war, Harrison County residents had no access to Northern financial institutions and Texas, like much of the South, had few banks. The local economy, reliant on the Confederate dollar, was reduced to bartering since neither cash nor credit was available. Large land holdings enabled a significant number of pre-Civil War planters to retain their status after emancipation. They did, however, suffer a real loss of wealth.
Northern capitalist interests and Southern planter interests both wanted a stable black labor supply. The system of contract labor was introduced by the Union Army and overseen by the Army’s Freedmen’s Bureau. The purpose of the contract was to keep black labor in place. The freedmen’s desire to be paid in wages could not be met. Ready cash in the form of Union currency was still severely restricted. The Freedmen’s Bureau intervened to negotiate sharecropping in lieu of wages. What is revealed here is the beginning of the South’s notoriously oppressive sharecropping system of farming.
But one key element of the sharecropping system had not yet found its place. The planters sought to continue the work practices and organization that were typical of the slave system—to work gang labor under an overseer. The planters sought to continue working conditions similar to slavery—the planter possessed absolute authority and the worker no rights at all.
The freedmen resisted any work practice and organization similar to slavery. They resisted gang labor in preference to a division of the land to be worked individually. This breakup of the large plantations into smaller units was, of course, inefficient. But on this score the freedmen prevailed over the wishes of the planters with the planters retaining ownership of the land. The freedmen resisted any work contract that required the women and children of the family to work the fields. However, success on this point was entirely uneven. To the planters’ displeasure, the freedmen resisted work outside of the crop—the planters defined the work to encompass the whole of the farm operation.
The freedmen faced powerful class enemies. Cotton, the leading export crop in the U.S. during the 19th century, secured foreign exchange for the U.S. Treasury. With $1.5 billion in war debts, the U.S. government was under pressure by European creditors to resume the exportation of cotton.
Marshall, Texas, attracted large numbers of freedmen who sought the security and assistance offered by the Union Army and the Freedmen’s Bureau stationed there. Blacks who were either too young or too old for productive labor were simply dumped. Harrison County authorities refused to allocate funds to care for orphaned black children. County authorities devised a system of apprenticeship of black youth that committed them to labor for a master until the age of 21. This measure, of course, lessened the labor costs of white landowners. Oliver Otis Howard, the first Freedman’s Bureau chief, declared: “State laws with regard to apprenticeship will be recognized...provided they make no distinction of color” (quoted in Kenneth Hamilton, “White Wealth and Black Repression in Harrison County, Texas: 1865-1868,” Journal of Negro History ). This color-blind approach of Howard’s masked forced labor of black youth under the title “apprenticeship.”
The initial Reconstruction government of Texas was composed of white pro-Union partisans exiled under the Confederate regime and now returned with the Union Army. Black Republicans entered the stage a little later, changing the character of the state government. Like the Northern capitalists, this state Reconstruction government recognized the benefits of a tax-supported education system; however, it established schools solely for white students. Blacks relied on the Freedmen’s Bureau school that, with a black staff, taught blacks who supported the school with a monthly fee of $1.50 per student. Whenever blacks attempted to establish schools outside of the county seat of Marshall and the protection of the Freedmen’s Bureau, their schools were broken up and the teachers forced to flee for their lives. This was Marshall, Harrison County, Texas, a microcosm of the defeated South in the period immediately following surrender—one can see why Sheridan preferred to live in hell than to live in Texas.
[TO BE CONTINUED]Workers Vanguard No. 939
3 July 2009
The Grant Administration (1869-1877) and the Rise of U.S. Imperialism
We print below, in slightly edited form, the conclusion of a presentation by Don Cane to a Spartacist League educational in the Bay Area on March 14. Part one of this talk, published in WV No. 938 (5 June), focused on the consolidation of an American capitalist-imperialist class during the administration of Ulysses S. Grant. What follows is a discussion of the rise of the American labor movement in the decades following the Civil War (1861-65).
An 1860 pamphlet promoting British investment in American railways made this observation: “The valley of the Mississippi and the basin of the St. Lawrence alone have been truly described as capable of furnishing breadstuffs, coal, iron, and other articles of prime necessity, equal to the consumption of the world.” In 1888 an American writer, William H. Harrison Jr., wrote a book called How to Get Rich in the South that reported that there was “no country that offers such tempting inducements to the capitalist for profitable investments” (quoted in C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1933 ). Both Northern and British capital flowed into the former Confederate South in the period after the Civil War. This great influx of capital found its way not only into cotton production, but more importantly into mining and railroad construction. Of course, banking interests expanded in the South along with the flow of this capital.
It was the construction of a national railroad system that made possible the creation of a national market. The pre-Civil War Southern railroad system could have been described as branches without a trunk. The year 1880 witnessed the first major consolidation movement among Southern railroads, where once independent railroads coalesced into large systems. This consolidation was accomplished by Northern and British capitalist interests. By 1890 more than half the railroad mileage of the South was in the hands of a dozen large companies, mainly centered in New York City. In the process of this consolidation, Southern railroad gauges were adjusted to Northern standards—a difference of three inches involving 13,000 miles of railroad track and significant bottlenecks. The largest railroad company, the Louisville & Nashville, hired 8,000 men who in one day adjusted 2,000 miles of track and the wheels of 300 locomotives and 10,000 pieces of rolling stock to conform to Northern standards.
V.I. Lenin, in the preface to Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), observed: “Railways are a summation of the basic capitalist industries, coal, iron and steel; a summation and the most striking index of the development of world trade and bourgeois-democratic civilization.... The uneven distribution of the railways, their uneven development—sums up, as it were, modern monopolist capitalism on a world-wide scale.” Lenin noted that by 1890 the U.S. had surpassed all of Europe in total railroad mileage. Railroads spread beyond West Europe and North America in the years after 1860; by 1900, Asia, for example, had 34,700 miles of railroad, representing 7.1 percent of the world’s total in that year. Even more dramatic was the replacement of wood and sail by iron, steel and steam in ocean shipping. From the national market to the world market this resulted in a dramatic drop in freight rates.
The U.S. capitalist ruling class profited handsomely. But this accumulation of profit did not come without bloody resistance. During the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China, one Boxer poster proclaimed, “The will of heaven is that the telegraph wires be first cut, then the railways torn up, and then shall the foreign devils be decapitated” (quoted in Diana Preston, The Boxer Rebellion ). At home, within the U.S., the class struggle was unfolding. This was inevitable at a time when half of the country’s vast wealth was owned by 1 percent of the population—the ruling class that ruled with blatant corruption and violence.
Quoting Friedrich Engels, Lenin’s The State and Revolution (1917) established that “in a democratic republic, Engels continues, ‘wealth exercises its power indirectly, but all the more surely,’ first, by means of the ‘direct corruption of officials’ (America); secondly, by means of an ‘alliance of the government and the Stock Exchange’ (France and America).” Lenin added: “A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell…it establishes its powers so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it.”
In the U.S. South after the Civil War, both the progressive Reconstruction governments and the reactionary post-Reconstruction “Redeemer” governments fit Lenin’s description. Both governments handed out millions of acres of public lands free or at nominal cost to railroad and mining interests. Officials of both governments could be bought.
These governments, however, represented the competing interests of different factions of exploiters. The Reconstruction governments were alliances of the Republican Party and the freedmen. But the Republican Party was moving quickly away from its historic roots, the alliance of Northern capitalists and small farmers that had dislodged the slave power from the federal authority through the Civil War. The Republican Party became the party of the big capitalists with a fig leaf of interest in the rights and advancement of black people. Under the Republican Party the rights of free blacks in the North were greatly expanded—the right to vote, access to public schools and the protection of the law. (In pre-Civil War days the movement of free blacks was restricted, and kidnapping and being sold into slavery was a constant threat.) It was under Republican Reconstruction governments that social advances were made in the South. Under these circumstances the Democratic Party recuperated by becoming a “big tent” encompassing all those disgruntled with the policies of the big capitalists and hostile to black rights.
The Compromise of 1877, which formally ended Reconstruction by pulling the last Union troops from the South in exchange for allowing Republican Rutherford B. Hayes to become president in the disputed election of 1876, ceded political control of the South to the Democratic Party (see “Defeat of Reconstruction and the Great Rail Strike of 1877: The Shaping of Racist American Capitalism,” WV No. 701, 20 November 1998). The Southern Democratic Party, under the banner of “rule of the taxpayer,” openly constituted themselves champions of the property owner against the propertyless and allegedly untaxed masses. They abolished large numbers of government offices, departments were cut to skeletal staffs, and some public services were simply dropped. One “Redeemer” governor considered public schools “a luxury...to be paid for like any other luxury, by the people who wish their benefits.” Unlike the North, there was no tradition of public schools in the South; it was the Reconstruction governments that brought public schools to the South. The Northern capitalist understood the greater productivity of an educated workforce. The development of the South was to be hindered by high rates of illiteracy. Here are a few examples of how the South’s high illiteracy rate hindered development:
• Deposit banking developed slowly among a population that could not read or write checks;
• The normal business of lawyers and bankers requiring the use of documentation was hindered among the population that could not read or prepare these documents;
• Modern agriculture depended upon many things, including the learning of agricultural colleges; pamphlets and books were of no use among a population that could not read.
The Republican Reconstruction governments and the Democratic “Redeemer” governments were both bourgeois governments, but their particular policies had concrete implications for the historic development of this country and its various regions.
The Emergence of the Working Class
In “Socialist Agitation Among Farmers in America” (1902), German Social Democratic leader Karl Kautsky made this observation:
“Even when a permanent proletariat arose, in which born Americans began to take their places by the side of foreign immigrants and Negroes, the Anglo-Saxons still remained ‘practical politicians.’ They did, indeed, begin to understand that they must go into politics for themselves, but like true practical politicians, they demanded that it should be a shortsighted policy which should take heed only of the moment and regard it more practical to run after a bourgeois swindler who promises real successes for tomorrow, instead of standing by a party of their own class which is honest enough to confess that it has nothing but struggles and sacrifices in store for the next future, and which declares it to be foolish to expect to reap immediately after sowing.
“If at any time Anglo-American workingmen had come to the conclusion that they must keep clear of the old capitalist parties, then this ill-starred ‘practical’ sense would mislead them into founding a party on some single issue, which was supposed to cure at once all evils, free silver, single tax, or the like. But when this agitation did not bring any immediate success, then the masses soon tired of it, and the movement which had grown up over night collapsed quickly. Only the workingmen of German origin kept a Socialist movement alive among their countrymen. However, such a movement of immigrants could never hope to become a serious political factor. And as this emigration from Germany decreased considerably…and as the Germans in America soon became anglicized, this German Socialist propaganda not only made no progress, but actually fell off after a certain time.”
These “single issues” to “cure at once all evils” were Greenbackism, free silver, bimetalism and the single tax, all of which reflected the pressure of the farm on the worker. I am not an economist so I will give you what I understand to be the broad strokes of these single issues. It was a question of cheap money versus the gold standard. After the Civil War, the federal government was $1.5 billion in debt; this was mostly held in war bonds. These war bonds when due were payable in gold dollars. To conduct the Civil War the federal government for the first time began printing paper money. What Grant meant by “balancing the budget” was reducing the amount of paper money in circulation.
The U.S., however, was actually on two standards—gold and silver. The ruling class favored the European gold standard and felt the necessity to adopt this standard as the one-and-only. The American farmer had already been brought into the capitalist world market where prices were established. It was to the advantage of the farmer to pay his debts with cheap currency—paper and silver. While the European and U.S. ruling classes conducted their business on the gold standard, much of the colonial world was on a silver standard. This raised the costs of maintaining military forces abroad. At home and abroad the U.S. sought to eliminate the use of the silver standard.
At the same time, the American farmer and worker did have one common enemy, the railroads. The privately owned railroad was a powerful means of exploiting the farmer by the capitalist, using higher freight costs. The same railroad owners stood opposed to the railroad workers and the iron workers, the two most important branches of labor. But a labor-farmer alliance was not tenable given the campaign for the eight-hour day, which farmers necessarily opposed.
The Knights of Labor
In 1869, a secret labor organization called the “Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor” was founded by a handful of garment cutters in Philadelphia. The founding leader of the Knights of Labor was Uriah Stephens, a former abolitionist and Lincoln supporter. Early in the Civil War Stephens was described as “one of the first and foremost to urge upon the Lincoln administration the securing of the right to the soil for the liberated freedman of the south” (quoted in Sidney H. Kessler, “The Organization of Negroes in the Knights of Labor,” The Journal of Negro History [July 1952]). He later left the Republican Party when it became clearly dominated by big capitalists.
The organization Stephens helped to found developed into the first real national trade union and a genuine product of the American workers, encompassing a broad swath of the American working class. The Knights of Labor stood on a modest program. In their own words, they meant “no antagonism to capital.” They sought to “create a healthy public opinion on the subject of labor” and aimed to achieve “a full just share of the values or capital it [labor] has created.” The bourgeois press hysterically denounced the Knights of Labor as a “dangerous underground political organization.” All trade unions were secret organizations by necessity. When the Knights of Labor ended their status as a secret trade union in 1881, their membership experienced steady growth. In 1885 the Knights of Labor won a strike against Jay Gould’s Southwest Railway conglomerate. After this victory the Knights of Labor membership mushroomed.
The motto of the Knights of Labor was “an injury to one is the concern of all.” This is the origin of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” The Knights of Labor drew into their ranks tens of thousands of workers who had never been organized before—men and women, black and white, foreign-born and native-born. The Knights of Labor was not organized on an industrial but on a geographical basis, in the form of assemblies. Each assembly was independently chartered and given a number. All assembly halls featured a reading room with a recommended list of readings. Organizers were appointed by the Grand Master Workman, Terence Powderly, who had superseded the founding leadership by the 1880s.
The Knights of Labor established roots in the South, recruiting blacks and whites alike, skilled labor and unskilled labor. Local assemblies were sometimes integrated and other times segregated, by no particular plan. Some assemblies in the South began as all-black and gradually recruited white members. The biggest demand of the black workers in the Knights of Labor was for black organizers. As one letter writer wrote, “Down in this country the wt. [white] people have set a decoy and fooled the colored people so much it is simply impossible for a wt. organizer to orgze them” (The Journal of Negro History [January 1968]). Nonetheless, Powderly appointed very few black organizers. In spite of this, blacks continued to join the Knights of Labor even after it entered a period of decline.
The Knights of Labor, like other labor organizations in the decades after the Civil War, practiced the reactionary exclusion of Chinese workers. In spite of this ban there were attempts to organize Chinese assemblies of the Knights of Labor in New York and Philadelphia. This pitted the General Executive Board, which refused to grant charters to these assemblies, against local organizers (among whom blacks were represented). Anti-Chinese bigotry was centered in California, where Chinese immigrants made up some 25 percent of the wage workers in the early 1870s. This reactionary ban was a litmus test of labor leadership. It was the IWW that later brought industrial unionism to the American working class, welcoming into its ranks all workers regardless of race.
Powderly, an Irish nationalist, was rumored to have considered petitioning the Pope for his blessing. This was his answer to the reign of terror that fell upon the labor movement after the Haymarket bombing in Chicago in 1886, when working-class leaders, mainly anarchists, were framed up and sentenced to die. Of course, such an effort to gain the blessing of the church aroused distrust among the Protestant members—many of the Knights of Labor leadership were Irish and the pressure of the Catholic church was felt. Powderly was an anti-communist who believed the anarchists were guilty in the Haymarket bombing. But given the enormous support for the Haymarket men among the Knights of Labor workers, it was impossible to openly denounce the anarchists. Powderly fought to keep politics out of the Knights of Labor. But this was difficult as all political currents within the workers movement found expression within the organization.
Henry George was the leader of the United Labor Party and author of a popular book titled Progress and Poverty (1879), a central tenet of which was the “single tax.” The single tax was a tax on land values, to replace all other taxes. As a candidate for New York City mayor in 1886, George outpolled Republican Teddy Roosevelt and likely the Democratic candidate as well. But by the tried-and-true American method of election fraud, he was denied his victory.
Henry George also joined the Knights of Labor. This was the beginning of an uneasy alliance between George and Powderly. Both leaders were anti-communists and believed that the Haymarket martyrs were guilty. But George favored clemency for the convicted Haymarket men, while Powderly opposed even this call. Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons was expelled from the Knights of Labor, and the Knights of Labor General Executive Board refused to endorse the first May Day general strike. This boycott was successful, except in Chicago where the Knights of Labor ranks joined the strike. The differences between George and Powderly were strictly within the bounds of capitalist politics—protectionism (Powderly) or free trade (George). The fortunes of the United Labor Party began to wane and George reversed himself, making a public statement asserting that the violence each Haymarket man had espoused made him guilty of conspiracy under Illinois law. He implied that even if none of them had thrown the bomb, their fates were the logical outcome of their dangerous ideals. In 1887, all United Labor Party members holding dual membership in the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) were expelled.
The SLP was the organization of the German socialists in the U.S. to whom both Kautsky and Engels had addressed their remarks. A section of the Socialist Labor Party was to go on to play an important role in the founding of both the American Socialist Party and the IWW later on. Throughout the period that we are discussing the SLP fought to carry out a revolutionary perspective. They stood out as a principled party among labor opportunists of all sorts.
By 1890 two organizations that stood outside the labor movement claimed over three million members: the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union, based in the South and West, and the Farmers’ Alliance, based in the North. In 1892 the two organizations held a joint convention, nominated a candidate for president, and adopted the name of “People’s Party,” from which they became known as Populists. They declared that “the newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrate; our homes covered with mortgages; and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists.... The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.”
Having delivered this sweeping indictment, the Populists put forward their remedies: the free coinage of silver, a graduated income tax, postal savings banks and government ownership of railways and telegraphs. At the same time, they called for the popular election of Senators—who at that time were appointed by state legislatures—but not the president, who to this day is still elected by the Electoral College. They also condemned the use of federal troops in labor disputes. On this platform, the Populists polled over a million votes in the 1892 elections, captured 22 presidential electors and sent a powerful delegation to Congress.
In 1893 the American capitalist economy was shaken by a periodic crisis: banks and businesses went into bankruptcy; factory production came to a halt; the unemployed searched for work that did not exist; and the prices of farm products (including cotton) fell disastrously. These conditions sent Populism on the march, with the working class being pulled behind the petty bourgeoisie.
Shaken by economic fluctuations, workers and farmers protested the economic inequalities of the capitalist order, and they found common ground in this multi-class populist movement. They protested the domination and outright corruption of the big financial and industrial interests that controlled the economy and the party machines of both Republicans and Democrats. Looking back at an America that used to be, they protested the inevitable centralization of the economy and state power in the hands of the capitalists. They voiced a theme that we still hear today: share the wealth more fairly and improve the living standards of the masses. They sought to remove the government from the hands of the big capitalists and put it in the hands of the people. They sought to stop imperialist war and keep the nation at peace. What they won fell well short of these objectives. But they did eventually win some reforms: recall of elected officials, direct election of U.S. Senators, the graduated income tax, gains in social welfare, prison reform, child labor legislation and many of the public commissions that regulate capitalist business practices.
The support for the People’s Party crossed not only the class line but also the race line. The People’s Party was crushed by heavy repression that included the utilization of vicious anti-black racism. But what finally ended and destroyed the People’s Party as a national party was the co-optation of its forces into the Democratic Party. Democrat William Jennings Bryan voiced their sentiments in his “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic Convention in 1896, invoking the image of Christ on the cross: “You shall not press upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” He declared that their cause “was as holy as the cause of liberty—the cause of humanity.” He exclaimed that the contest was between the idle holders of capital and the toiling millions. Then he named those for whom he claimed to speak: the wage-earner, the country lawyer, the small merchant, the farmer and the miner.
The Democratic Party’s appeal to labor voiced by Bryan in his “crown of thorns” speech was reinforced in its radical-sounding platform in 1896. “As labor creates the wealth of the country,” ran one plank, “we demand the passage of such laws as may be necessary to protect it in all its rights.” Referring to the 1894 Pullman strike, led by railway workers union leader Eugene Debs, the platform denounced “arbitrary interference by federal authorities in local affairs as a violation of the Constitution of the United States and a crime against free institutions.” A special objection was lodged against “government by injunction as a new and highly dangerous form of oppression by which federal judges, in contempt of the laws of states and rights of citizens, become at once legislators, judges, and executioners.” The remedy advanced was a federal law assuring trial by jury in all cases of contempt in labor disputes.
Early American Communist leader and founding Trotskyist James P. Cannon made the following observations regarding the founding of the American Socialist Party, a party that in part arose out of the People’s Party. In an article in International Socialist Review (Winter 1960), “American Radicalism: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” Cannon wrote, “The distinctive factor which made possible the development of this new socialist movement at that time was the turn of a number of influential individuals and groups away from the policy of class collaboration in politics to the policy of independent socialist action.” Eugene Debs and others who promoted the formation of the Socialist Party in 1901 had supported Bryan and the Democratic Party in 1896. Cannon went on to explain:
“The composition of the party was also unfavorable in some respects.... The Populist movement in the South was deflected into a reactionary channel. But there was another part of this Populist movement which was drawn into the Socialist party. The Socialist party in many parts of the country consisted of a very large percentage of former Populists. The composition of its membership in the western part of the country was very heavily weighted on the side of the petty bourgeoisie in the cities and in the countryside. At one time the largest single state membership of the Socialist party, and, if I’m not mistaken, the largest socialist vote proportionally, was in the state of Oklahoma. In the other western agrarian states also the hard-pressed tenant and mortgaged farmers and desperate petty bourgeoisie streamed into the Socialist party from the Populist movement and swelled its ranks. So the class composition of the party was not as proletarian as an ideal Socialist movement should be.”
This unfavorable class composition of the Socialist Party, the weakness of the trade unions, the mistakes of the militant IWW and the treachery of labor reformism prepared the way for the decline of the American labor movement’s impulse to class struggle. What we see here are the historical roots of American labor and the black struggle. Much has, in fact, changed, but evidence of these roots can still be seen today.
Labels: american capitalism, american communism, AMERICAN IMPERIALISM, american socialism, leon trotsky, working class