The U.S. Workers Movement: Revolutionary Exiles and Lincoln’s Comrades

Peter Moody traces the revolutionary workers movement's development through the Civil War

American Civil War: the second revolution

The first article in this series (see August 2014 edition of The Red Vine)1 examined the initial attempts to develop independent working class politics in the United States. While these efforts were not strictly socialist, they were influenced by the burgeoning socialist thinkers of the time – such as Robert Owen and other “utopian socialists” – and did project some vague concept of a future cooperative commonwealth. Furthermore, contrary to those who would argue that class struggle or socialism is wholly alien to American political consciousness, the organizations such as the Working Men’s Party were largely indigenous developments rather than imported whole-cloth from other countries. This initial movement, tied to distinctly American radical traditions but still articulating some sort of socialist or communist aim, formed one of the major trends of the American workers movement.

The second major trend didn’t appear until after 1848, when exiles from the failed revolutions in central Europe made their way to the United States and attempted to organize in their new country. These immigrants had more success organizing among other (mostly German) recent immigrants than among English-speaking workers, but were able to connect with some segments of the indigenous radical movements in the United States, particularly in the developing struggle against slavery and the formation of the Republican Party as, at least in part, a radical anti-slavery organization.

Joseph Weydemeyer (1818-1866) was perhaps one the exemplars of this trend. Originally from Prussia, Weydemeyer was an organizer for the Communist League and friend of Marx and Engels. He moved to New York City at Marx’s suggestion after the 1848 revolution failed in Germany. Once in New York, he worked as a journalist, trying (and in his view largely failing) to keep the immigrant community in touch with the revolutionary movement in Europe, and writing some of the first analyses of American society and political economic from a Marxist perspective. While Weydemeyer is credited with founding the first Marxist organization in the United States – the American Workers League – the organization was largely confined to the German-American community, and Weydemeyer himself withdrew from the League by the mid 1850s.

However, Weydemeyer was more successful in helping organize German-Americans against slavery, thus pulling them into the orbit that eventually created the Republican Party. The fight against slavery ultimately became, for Weydemeyer and others, the defining political issue in the United States at the time. This orientation of nascent American communists towards the anti-slavery movement provided a critical link to their comrades in Europe: once the Civil War began in 1861, organizing British working class support for the North became one of the primary campaigns of what became the First International. In this way, the transmission of European radicals to the United States during a time of developing crisis helped bring American politics into a more global spotlight, forging some early links of potential working class solidarity, which could be drawn on later as the workers movement in the United States matured and developed.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, between the folding of the Working Men’s Parties into the Democratic Party and the revolutionary German immigrants of the 1840s and 50s forming a core component of the Republican Party, both major political parties in the United States today have some sort of radical working class history, even in a very attenuated way. This actually makes a fair amount of sense; both the Democratic and Republican parties were formed during periods of social crisis, where most classes in society were mobilizing towards their own aims. The developing parties of those respective periods needed to make any working class mobilization part of its own constituency in order to divert it into “acceptable” political channels to secure their own power.

This doesn’t negate the yeoman work of these early working class radicals, but rather acknowledges their contributions while at the same time recognizing their limitations, and helps trace a line from these periods of early 19th century social crisis to the later half of the century, where the disparate currents of the American workers movement and American Marxism would merge into the first recognizably socialist parties in the country.

(From The Red Vine.)




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