Workingmen's Party of the United States

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Workingmen's Party of the United States

United States 1876

Synopsis

The Workingmen's Party of the United States (WPUS), organized 19-22 July 1876, was the first nationwide socialist organization in the United States. Although it lasted less than two years before splitting into irreconcilable factions, it was an important seed-bed for future developments of the American labor movement in that it embraced trade unionism, labor journalism, worker education, struggle for social reform, socialism, and electoral activity.

Timeline

  • 1856: Gustave Flaubert publishes Madame Bovary.
  • 1861: Emancipation of the serfs in Russia.
  • 1867: Maximilian surrenders to Mexican forces under Benito Juarez and is executed. Thus ends Napoleon III's dreams for a new French empire in the New World.
  • 1869: Completion of the first U.S. transcontinental railway.
  • 1872: The Crédit Mobilier affair, in which several officials in the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant are accused of receiving stock in exchange for favors, is the first of many scandals that are to plague Grant's second term.
  • 1874: Discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
  • 1876: General George Armstrong Custer and 264 soldiers are killed by the Sioux at the Little Big Horn River.
  • 1876: Alexander Graham Bell introduces the telephone.
  • 1876: Four-stroke cycle gas engine introduced.
  • 1878: Opening of first commercial telephone exchange, in New Haven, Connecticut.
  • 1882: Agitation against English rule spreads throughout Ireland, culminating with the assassination of chief secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and permanent undersecretary Thomas Burke in Dublin's Phoenix Park. The leader of the nationalist movement is Charles Stewart Parnell, but the use of assassination and terrorism—which Parnell himself has disavowed—makes clear the fact that he does not control all nationalist groups.
  • 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.

Event and Its Context

The WPUS formed as the result of the merger of several organizations: the North American remnants of the International Workingmen's Association (Karl Marx was a primary leader of the First International chapter of this group, which had among its members Friedrich Sorge, Carl Speyer, and Otto Weydemeyer); the Social-Democratic Workingmen's Party of North America (which included Adolph Strasser, Peter J. McGuire, George Schilling, Thomas J. Morgan, and Albert Parsons), and two smaller groups, the Workingmen's Party of Illinois and the Social Political Workingmen's Party of Cincinnati. The influence of Marx was obvious within the WPUS, but there were other influences as well, including the ideas of the late German socialist leader, Ferdinand Lassalle, and the analyses and agitation for the eight-hour workday by the U.S. working-class intellectual, Ira Steward.

Ethnic Diversity, Class Unity

The WPUS reflected the fact that the United States was a multicultural "nation of nations." The party had two official weekly German-language papers—the Chicago Verbote (Herald), edited by Conrad Conzett, and the New York Arbeiter-Stimme (Labor's Voice), edited by Otto Walster, to serve the organization's large number of German-American members. (Germans were the largest immigrant group in the U.S. at this time, followed by the Irish.) The party's official English-language weekly, the Labor Standard, was edited by J. P. McDonnell, a former Irish Fenian who later served for a time as secretary to Karl Marx in the First International. At least 21 other newspapers around the U.S. supported the WPUS, of which 12 were German, 7 English-language, 1 Bohemian, and 1 Swedish. In its first year, the WPUS had about 3500 members in 55 sections grouped by nationality: 33 German, 16 English-language, 4 Bohemian, 1 Scandinavian, and 1 French. By the following summer the WPUS had doubled its membership to 7,000, with 82 sections (of which 23 were English-language).

The WPUS favored working-class unity transcending racial and ethnic divisions. Yet there is evidence of prejudice among some of the members in California toward imported Chinese laborers and in Missouri toward African American workers. Nor was there an appreciation in the organization of the catastrophe wrought by the Republican Party's final betrayal of Reconstruction and black rights in the South. The organization was divided over whether women workers should be organized into trade unions or instead be driven back to their "rightful place" in the home, so as not to compete with male labor. On the other hand, the WPUS did have a small number of African American members (most prominently Peter H. Clark of Cincinnati) and women members (generally concentrated in "women's clubs" or, in German, frauenverein), and one of its founding documents proclaimed the organization's adherence to "perfect equality of rights of both sexes."

Labor Action, Diverging Perspectives

Another founding document asserted that "in this country the ballot box has long ago ceased to record the popular will, and only serves to falsify the same in the hands of professional politicians," adding that "the organization of the working people is not yet far enough developed to overthrow this state of corruptions." It concluded that workers should "abstain from all political movements for the present and to turn their back on the ballot box," and should instead concentrate on organizing workers into trade unions to provide a strong basis for future labor politics: "Let us bide our time! It will come!" The WPUS would eventually founder on precisely this issue.

The decisive event in the short life of the WPUS was what has been appropriately tagged "the great labor uprising of 1877," a wave of militant labor insurgencies and street battles that swept through many cities as part of a nationwide strike of railway workers. In many cities, WPUS members apparently played no part in the upsurge, but organized support meetings and rallies in others (most notably in Boston, Cincinnati, Louisville, Newark, New York City, Paterson, San Francisco). In Chicago's general strike WPUS leaders Philip Van Patten, George Schilling, and Albert Parsons were arrested for their efforts to draw the spontaneous outburst into more organized channels. In St. Louis such WPUS stalwarts as Albert Currlin and Peter Lofgreen (who later assumed prominence as a writer under the name Laurence Gronlund) played a central role in a general strike that for a brief period put workers in control of that city, which was then dubbed by the newspapers as "the St. Louis Commune." The result was a flood of new members who were determined to help advance the struggle of labor against capital.

By 1877 a sharp political divided the WPUS. Some historians have emphasized a so-called Marxist vs. Lassallean conflict in the WPUS. Lassalle had rejected the value of trade union organizing (because the so-called iron law of wages would supposedly prevent working-class gains under capitalism), and called instead for the development of a socialist party that would vote capitalism out of existence. Marx insisted that trade union gains could be made and that such gains would provide experience, organization, and a power base for organizing a successful labor party. The use of "Marxist" and "Lassallean" labels, however, does not correspond to how the combatants actually identified the divisions. The split had little to do with views on the value of trade unionism but focused instead on whether socialists should also be engaging in socialist election campaigns.

In the autumn of 1877, the working-class ferment in many U.S. cities encouraged many WPUS sections to run candidates and rewarded them with amazingly high vote totals. In Louisville, the WPUS took 8,850 out of 13,578 votes cast, sending five out of seven candidates to the Kentucky state legislature. Vote totals in other cities: Chicago, 7,000; Cincinnati (where African American socialist Peter Clark ran ahead of the entire ticket) 9,000; Buffalo, 6,000; Milwaukee, 1,500; New York, 1,800; Brooklyn, 1,200; New haven, 1,600; and Detroit, 800. The rush to the ballot box, in contradiction to the WPUS founding documents, led to a split at the end of 1877. A substantial minority—including Friedrich Sorge, Otto Weydemeyer, Carl Speyer, J.P. McDonnell, Adolph Strasser, a young Samuel Gompers, and others—left the WPUS to concentrate on union organizing that began with the International Labor Union and eventually evolved into the American Federation of Labor. The majority renamed the WPUS the Socialistic Labor Party, later simply the Socialist Labor Party (SLP).

Socialist Labor Party

Despite its initial successes, the SLP failed to become a significant electoral force. This failure was accentuated by the counterattack from the two major capitalist parties, Democrats and Republicans (both of which projected themselves as the "true" party of labor). It proved especially difficult to compete successfully against another electoral alternative, the Greenback-Labor, whose platform called for monetary reforms, particularly the increase of paper currency to promote better circulation of money, which was conceived as a way to erode the power of financial business interests. In 1878, combining "greenbackism" with a variety of other reforms and strongly prolabor rhetoric, the Greenback-Labor Party polled more than a million votes nationwide and elected 14 congressmen.

The lure of this proved too strong for the SLP, which was led by its national secretary Phillip Van Patten, prominent German-American stalwart Adolph Douai, Peter J. McGuire, and others into the Greenback-Labor presidential campaign of 1880. General James B. Weaver, a Greenback congressman from Iowa, was the presidential candidate. The SLP unsuccessfully backed the eminent life-long U.S. socialist John F. Bray (whose writings were cited favorably in Marx's Capital) for the vice-presidential slot. The socialists' choice was rejected in favor of Texas radical B. J. Chambers, and their distinctive orientation was swamped in the welter of diverse reforms and panaceas. What's more, the wind was going out of the Greenbackers' sails and the national ticket received little more than 300,000 votes.

This led to another split in 1881, with more revolutionary elements bolting from the SLP to help create the anarchist-influenced International Working People's Association (IWPA), which tended toward a revolutionary antistatist interpretation of Marx's ideas more than toward traditional anarchist theory. The Chicago wing of this organization gained an especially large following and a foothold in the labor movement. IWPA's leaders were at the head of the massive movement for the eight-hour workday on the first May Day, in 1886, but shortly thereafter were victimized and falsely condemned for murder in the wake of the violent Haymarket Affair.

SLP membership dropped below 3000 by 1883, and its demoralized American-born national secretary, Van Patten, abandoned the party in the wake of a personal scandal. A rapid succession of national secretaries (all foreign-born) in the years that followed reflected the party's disarray, although some of its members maintained influence among the larger and more vital Knights of Labor and AFL. In 1886-87, in a major effort to establish its relevance on the U.S. political scene, the SLP allied with various trade union activists and labor reformers (particularly "single-tax" advocate Henry George) to run a United Labor Party campaign in various cities. Once again, substantial vote totals in some localities failed to bring victories, and the electoral alliances dissolved. By 1890, hindered by consequent drift and demoralization, the SLP fell under the sway of intellectual Daniel De Leon's rigid interpretation of Marxism, its pre-1890 history of "fusion and confusion" being rejected by most remaining party stalwarts. By 1901 some of the SLP's members had broken away to join the new Socialist Party of America, which bypassed the older organization.

Key Players

Clark, Peter H. (1829-1925): Grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Before the Civil War Clark was a prominent African American abolitionist and founding member of the Republican Party. He worked as a teacher and had been active in the National Labor Union and in efforts to establish consumer cooperatives. For several years a leading socialist in Cincinnati, he later gravitated to the Democratic Party.

Douai, Adolph (1819-1888): Douai moved to the U.S. after the defeat of the 1848 revolution in Germany. He became an antislavery activist and pioneer of the kindergarten movement, as well as a prominent writer and editor in the socialist movement.

Gompers, Samuel (1850-1924): Prominent in the Cigar Makers Union, Gompers became the long-time (1886-1924) and increasingly conservative president of the American Federation of Labor and a spokesman for the "pure and simple union" orientation that had been developed initially by his colleague Adolph Strasser. In his later years Gompers became an outright opponent of socialism (though he never lost his admiration for Karl Marx, whose outlook he viewed as consistent with his own "pure and simple" unionism).

Gronlund, Laurence (1846-1899): Under the name of Peter Lofgreen, Danish-born Gronlund (who worked at various times as a teacher, a clerk, and a journalist) was a leader of the St. Louis WPUS. He was later author of the first substantial popularization of Marxist ideas in the U.S., the 1884 classic The Cooperative Commonwealth. After drifting out of the SLP, he became a leading activist in the Nationalist Clubs initiated by Edward Bellamy, author of the best-selling utopian novel Looking Backward.

McDonnell, J. P. (1840-1906): An Irish revolutionary, ex-Fenian, and former secretary to Karl Marx in the First International, McDonnell became prominent in socialist and labor politics upon his arrival in the U.S. in the 1870s. He remained editor of the Labor Standard after it disaffiliated from the WPUS, was prominent in various labor reform efforts, and became the leader of the New Jersey Federation of Trades and Labor Unions from its founding in 1883 until his death in 1906.

McGuire, Peter J. (1852-1906): An American-born worker whose initial involvement in socialist politics was as a member of the First International. McGuire left the SLP in the 1880s to become a founder and general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a founder of the AFL. He is often credited for being involved in the creation both of Labor Day (1882) and May Day (1886), although—as with Gompers—his socialist commitments faded with the passage of time.

Morgan, Thomas J. (1847-1912): A stalwart of Chicago socialism for three decades and leading activist in the Machinists union who later secured a law degree. Morgan became a leader of the strong socialist current in the AFL. In 1893 he submitted a political program for adoption by the AFL, calling for an independent labor party based on the unions plus "the collective ownership by the people of all means of production and distribution." The adoption of this platform was prevented only by the strenuous efforts of Samuel Gompers and his allies. Morgan continued to play an important role in the SLP until he left with others to help form the Socialist Party of America.

Parsons, Albert (1848-1887): Parsons was a Confederate war veteran in Texas who fell in love with and married a woman of color (Lucy Gonzales, at least partly African American, perhaps also Indian and Mexican). Parsons subsequently became a Radical Republican; with the collapse of Reconstruction in Texas, he fled with his wife to Chicago where they both become active in radical labor activities. Active in the Typographical Workers union, he was blacklisted after 1877 when he became a full-time labor and socialist activist. Editor of the revolutionary paper The Alarm in the 1880s, and a leader of the radical wing of the eight-hour movement, he was victimized as one of the Haymarket martyrs and executed in 1887.

Schilling, George (1850-1938): Initially a cooper by trade, active in socialist politics for many years, Schilling ran for mayor of Chicago on the SLP ticket in 1881. He was involved in the Knights of Labor, the eight-hour movement, and the Chicago Trades and Labor Assembly. He was prominent in the defense of the Haymarket defendants. In the 1890s he become an aide to Democratic Governor John Peter Altgeld (under whom he served as secretary of the Illinois Labor Department), and was active in Chicago's "single-tax" club.

Sorge, Friedrich (1827-1906): Sorge was a music teacher who emigrated to the United States after the defeat of the 1848 Revolution in Germany. He joined the Communist Club in New York City in 1858, engaged in an extensive correspondence with Marx and Engels, and became a central figure in the North American sections of the International Workingmen's Association (the First International). After its dissolution Sorge became a founder of the WPUS then left it to focus on helping to build the International Labor Union. In the 1890s he wrote a classic history, Labor Movement in the United States, which was serialized in the German Marxist journal Neue Zeit.

Strasser, Adolph (1851-1910): President of the Cigar Makers Union and a founder of the AFL, Strasser shifted sharply away from his socialist orientation in 1883 with the articulation of the "pure and simple" union orientation, which rejected "ultimate ends" in favor of "day-to-day" struggles to attain "immediate objects" (higher wages, a shorter work-day, better working conditions) that can be realized in a few years. In later years he left the labor movement to enter the real estate business.

Weydemeyer, Otto: Son of Joseph Weydemeyer (a hero of the1848 Revolution in Germany and of the Civil War in the U.S.), and like his father close to Karl Marx, Otto Weydemeyer was a leading member of the International Workingmen's Association (the First International). He was the first to translate into English portions of Capital, which was initially published as a series of articles in the Labor Standard, then as a pamphlet for U.S. workers.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Eight-hour Day Movement; First International; Haymarket Riot; Socialist Party of America.

Bibliography

Books

Avrich, Paul. The Haymarket Tragedy. Princeton, NJ:Princeton University Press, 1984.

Buhle, Mary Jo. Women and American Socialism,1870-1920. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

Buhle, Mary Jo, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas, eds. Encyclopedia of the American Left. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Commons, John R. et al. History of Labor in the UnitedStates, Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan, 1918.

De Leon, Solon, ed. The American Labor Who's Who. New York: Hanford Press, 1925.

Fine, Nathan. Labor and Farmer Parties in the UnitedStates, 1828-1928. New York: Rand School of Social Science, 1928.

Foner, Philip S. The Great Labor Uprising of 1877. New York: Monad Press, 1977.

——. History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 1. New York: International Publishers, 1947.

——. The Workingmen's Party of the United States, AHistory of the First Marxist Party in the Americas.Minneapolis: MEP Publications, 1984.

Girard, Frank, and Ben Perry. The Socialist Labor Party1876-1991, A Short History. Philadelphia: Livra Books, 1991.

Hillquit, Morris. History of Socialism in the United States.New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1910.

Johnpoll, Benard K., with Lillian Johnpoll. The Impossible Dream: The Rise and Decline of the American Left.Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Kaufman, Stuart Bruce. Samuel Gompers and the Origins of the American Federation of Labor. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973.

Marx, Eleanor, and Edward Aveling. The Working-Class Movement in America. Edited by Paul Le Blanc. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2000.

McNeill, Lydia. "Peter Humphries Clark." In Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Vol. 2. Edited by Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, and Cornell West. New York: Simon and Schulster/Macmillan, 1996.

Quint, Howard H. The Forging of American Socialism.Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1953.

Sorge, Friedrich A. Labor Movement in the United States.Edited by Philip S. Foner and Brewster Chamberlin. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Additional Resources

Other

Labor Standard, 1876-1878 (on microfilm).

George A. Schilling Papers, Illinois State Historical Library.

Socialist Labor Party Papers (on microfilm).

—Paul Le Blanc

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