Karl Marx, the American Worker, and the Natural Rise of Socialist Movements

Karl Marx is possibly history’s most divisive figure. I argue that he unfairly gets a bad reputation for simply writing down what the world was already thinking. Marx’s ideas on wage slavery, capital, and exploitation were already on the minds of the American labor class years before they even knew who Karl Marx was.

That is, Socialist movements developed completely independent as a natural response to the realities of the time. Here is a quick timeline of events in support of this argument:

  • Manifesto of the Communist Party was published in 1848.
  • The first English translation of the Communist Manifesto, by Miss Helen Macfarlane, appeared in George Julian Harney’ s Red Republican, London, 1850.
  • The International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), commonly known as the First International, was established in London in 1864. The organization was initially strictly European in composition, including prominently English, French, German, Polish, and Italian labor leaders and political activists.
  • The IWA made its way to American soil in 1866 when Italian socialist Cesare Orsini, brother of an attempted assassin of Napoleon III, arrived in the United States in 1866 and attempted to organize an American section.
  • In 1876, Workingmen’s Party of the United States (WPUS) was formed as one of the first Marxist-influenced political parties in the United States. It later changed its name to the Socialist Labor Party of America in 1877.

And here’s the proof: The Industrial Worker, 1840-1860: The Reaction of American Industrial Society to the Advance of the Industrial Revolution.

Published in 1924 by Canadian-born historian Norman Ware, this book goes into meticulous detail about the conditions of the labor classes following the rise of industrialism in the mid-19th century. Many of these observations and conclusions are drawn from workers’ writings in the popular labor newspapers of the time, including Voice of Industry, Working Man’s Advocate, and The Awl.

Here are some excerpts:

As late as 1854, a little group of highly skilled pianoforte makers in New York declared that a daily wage was equivalent to slavery and hoped that “the day is far distant when they [the wage-earners] will so far forget what is due to manhood as to glory in a system forced on them by their necessity and in opposition to their feelings of independence and self-respect. May the piano trade long be spared such exhibitions of the degrading power of the day system.”

New York Daily Tribune, March 22, 1854. The term ‘wage-slave’ had a much better standing in the forties than it has to-day. It was not then regarded as an empty shibboleth of the soap-box orator. This would suggest that it has suffered only the normal degradation of language, has become a cliche, not that it is a grossly misleading characterization.

Wherever we turn our eyes we see insurmountable obstacles presented to our view. Here we see a moneyed aristocracy hanging over us like a mighty avalanche threatening annihilation to every man who dares to question their right to enslave and oppress the poor and unfortunate. If we take another view we find ourselves crippled and destroyed by human competition, and last, though not least, we see machinery introduced that will not only lessen but annihilate the last surviving hope of the honest mechanic.

The new industrialism was repugnant to the liberal tradition of the eighteenth century. Workers and reformers alike considered that they were being enslaved, not only by the new power, but by their own acquiescence.

They accepted, along with their generation, the theory that the price of labor and the price of goods were determined by natural law in a completely competitive market. No one seems to have imagined that wages could be affected artificially in the same way that the prices of cotton goods had been affected from the beginning of the industry.

It was in fact the more vital ‘Spirit of the Age.’ “The first lesson a boy is taught on leaving the parental roof,” said a Fall River labor leader in 1846, “is to get gain…gain wealth…forgetting all but self….”

In addition to this, wages were paid in ‘store orders’ instead of cash, a practice that was very common in the period and meant a loss to the worker of from twenty to thirty and even fifty per cent. The men were said to be “as completely subjugated to the will of the employers as was possible in a free country.”

The Lynn shoemakers, after they had completed their own organization, sent a circular to the shoemakers throughout New England asking their cooperation in an attempt to get better prices. “Let us prove,” they wrote, “that we are not menials or the humble subjects of a foreign despot, but free, American citizens.” At the same time they admitted, “We are slaves in the strictest sense of the word. For do we not have to toil from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same for our masters— aye, masters, and for our daily bread?”

The shoemakers signed a “declaration of independence” [The Awl, 1844]:

Whereas, our employers have robbed us of certain rights which they will, in our opinion, never voluntarily restire … we feel bound to rise unitedly in our strength and burst asunder as freemen ought the shackles and fetters with which they have long been chaining and binding us, by an unjust and unchristian use of power and a host of advantages which the possession of capital and superior knowledge furnishes.

“So far as the journeymen are concerned,” Greeley lamented, “the Golden Age of printing is passing away.” Those who were yet young were advised to go West “where independence and plenty may be found.” While they remain at their trade “they are always slaves . . . despite their proud boasts of freemen, living from hand to mouth and seldom in possession of twenty dollars clear of the world.

The Lowell factory system was being attacked in our period from two directions. The Battle of Books represented the opposition of the intellectuals and was directed chiefly against the alleged tendency to degrade the morals and health of the operative, while the attack of the operatives themselves was chiefly against the ‘tyranny’ and ‘despotism ‘ of the system, its increasing discipline and anti-republican nature.

That the factory system contains in itself the elements of slavery, we think no sound reasoning can deny, and every day continues to add power to its incorporate sovereignty, while the sovereignty of the working people decreases in the same ratio.

It was against despotism, whether benevolent or malicious, that the industrial worker was in revolt. “It is the monopoly feature that we have opposed. … It is the divorce of labor and capital in the repartition of dividends—the fact that labor is not represented in these companies. . . . They who work in the mills ought to own them.

“I do not believe,” said the “Citizen of Lowell,” “that there is upon the face of the earth any large class of persons who labor incessantly for so many hours each day as do the factory operatives of New England.” In the matter of health, no class of persons in the country were so unfavorably situated. The slaves were infinitely better off than the factory operatives, and if the moral and intellectual condition of the latter was better no thanks were due to the factory system, “for that allows less time for the improvement of the intellect and morals than the slaves enjoy.”

In 1846, a long, low, black wagon, termed a “slaver,” makes trips to the north of the State cruising around in Vermont and New Hampshire with a commander who is paid $1 a head for all [the girls] he brings to the market and more in proportion to the distance —if they bring them from a distance they cannot easily get back. This is done by representing to the girls that they can tend more machinery than is possible and that the work is so very neat and wages such that they can dress in silks and spend half their time in reading.

Scarcity of employment, low wages, and fourteen, sixteen hours of labor per day [they contended] are indeed grievances which the laborer does now and then muster courage to grumble about; but they are not fundamental. The laborer does not belong to himself, has no right to be, and exists upon sufferance. He is emphatically a wage slave.

A member from your city [Lowell] made a speech in which he said that capitalists and priests had joined hands to put down, grind and oppress the laboring man – that commerce, manufacturing and foreign emigration were killing them – that there was ten times more slavery in Lowell than on the Southern plantations – that Lowell manufactured the prostitutes of New York.

Again, in July, the Land Reformers called a meeting at Croton Hall of “mechanics, laborers, and useful persons,” They made a great parade of the craft character of the delegation and declared that in the City of New York are 65,000 paupers, that is, one-seventh of the entire population; in the State, one in seventeen is a pauper, and ratios in city and country are increasing year by year. The compensation for labor is steadily sinking until thousands are now reduced to the starvation point. Labor and laborer— it is useless to deny it — are, in this Republican country even, subject to a subtle, indirect slavery rarely acknowledged, but everywhere felt. And in this respect the white laborer of the North is in a worse state than the slave of the South, for while the condition of the slave is pretty much the same from year to year, that of the supposed free man is growing constantly worse.

This Croton Hall meeting had grown out of a gathering of mechanics at the National Hall to consider organizing cooperatives. But Bovay, the secretary of the National Reformers, had killed this proposal, asserting that the ballot box was the only hope of the worker, and through the ballot box the freedom of the public lands, “that the virgin [soil], rich and wild as at the dawn of creation, should be preserved, a free asylum for the oppressed and a safe retreat for the slaves of wages and all other slaves forever.”

In Boston, the Congress developed out of cooperative activities. The shoemakers proposed to form a cooperative society “to emancipate themselves from the system of wage slavery and become their own masters.”

So you see, regular people a continent and ocean removed from the events in Europe naturally came up with the same conclusions as Marx.

Now, don’t for a minute think that this “wage slave” phrase was confined to the 19th century. In 1947, Congress pass the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, better known as the Taft–Hartley Act. The labor class was staunchly against it, calling it the “slave labor bill” — as reported in Time magazine.

Notice this giant banner at a rally in Madison Square Garden to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act.

Thanks for reading,


PDF of The Industrial Working 1840-1860

Complete Issues of The Voice of Industry

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