Chapter Two: Pioneer Marxists in the United States (1848-1860)

2.  Pioneer Marxists in the United States (1848-1860)

Adolph Douai, early American Marxist,
friend of Karl Marx, teacher and founder
of first Kindergarten in the US.
The foundation of scientific socialism dates from the publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848 by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.1 These two great scientists were the first to explain that socialism, contrary to the ideas of the Utopians, was not the invention of dreamers, but the inevitable outcome of the workings of modern capitalist society. They discovered the laws of capitalist development and proved that the growth of capitalist society, with the class struggle going on within it, must inevitably lead to the downfall of capitalism, to the victory of the working class, to the dictatorship of the proletariat and socialism. They taught that the proletariat was the grave digger of capitalism and that its victory would rid humanity of all exploitation.

The doctrines of scientific socialism were introduced into the United States during the decade preceding the Civil War. The objective conditions had become ripe for them. Industry was growing rapidly and despite the restrictive power of the slavocracy, American capitalism had already reached fourth place among the industrial nations of the world. During this decade the volume of manufactured goods doubled, railroad mileage increased from 9,000 to 31,000, annual coal production (50,000 tons in the 1830's) reached 14 million in 1850, and a tremendous advance took place in the concentration and centralization of capital. The discovery of gold in California had given a big stimulus to general capitalist development. The working class had also become numerically stronger, and class relations were sharpening. Immigrants, mostly skilled workers and farm hands, were pouring into the country at double the rate of the preceding decade, and already about one-third of the population was depending upon manufacturing for its livelihood.

Marxism took root in the United States after the working class had already experienced two deep economic crises. The workers had long undergone severe exploitation at the hands of the employers, they had built many trade unions and local labor parties, waged innumerable hard-fought strikes and political campaigns, and won various important concessions in sharp class struggle. As we have seen, the most developed thinkers among them had already begun to attack the capitalist system as such and to seek a way of escape from its evils. The acceptance of Marxist socialism by these advanced sections of the working class was, therefore, the logical climax of the whole course of social development in the United States since the Revolutionary War. It was further stimulated by the current revolutionary events in Europe—the Chartist movement in England and the revolutionary struggles in France, Germany, and Ireland—with all of which the awakening American working class felt a vivid and direct kinship.

The traditional charge by employers that Marxist socialism, because it originated in Europe, is therefore alien to the United States, is typically stupid. As well assert the same of the alphabet, the multiplication table, the law of gravity, and a host of other scientific principles and discoveries, all of which also developed outside of the United States. "Marxism is no more alien to the United States because of the historically conditioned German origin of its founders, or the Russian origin of Lenin and Stalin, than is the American Declaration of Independence because of the British origin of John Locke, and the French origin of the Encyclopedists.2


Marxist thought, based on the generalized experiences of the toiling masses of all countries and worked into a science on European soil, was transmitted to the American working class by the stream of political immigrants, mainly German, who came to this country following the defeat of the European revolutions of 1848. During the 1830's about 2,000 German immigrants arrived yearly, but after 1848 this stream became a torrent of over 200,000 annually throughout the 1850's. There were also large numbers of Irish immigrants, and Italian and French as well (the latter particularly after the Franco-Prussian war and the defeat of the Commune in 1871); but it was the Germans who remained the most decisive force in developing Marxist thought in the United States throughout most of the rest of the nineteenth century. They were the earliest forerunners of the modern Communist Party.

The Germans settled chiefly in such main industrial centers as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati. Many entered industry as skilled mechanics and soon began to exert a strong influence on the development of the trade union movement. While most of them considered themselves Socialists and revolutionaries, they brought along with them a wide variety of political ideas, and they reflected the many ideological divisions that existed in their homeland. Their primary preoccupation was with events in the old country, but many of the Germans, in the early 1840's, began to be drawn into American political affairs.

In 1845 a group of Germans formed the Social Reform Association, as part of the National Reform Association. The principal figure in this movement was Hermann Kriege, once a co-worker with Marx, who later swallowed the doctrines of George Henry Evans, a labor editor who had become a land reformer. Kriege was probably the first radical exponent of "American exceptionalism." In substance he was already generating the notion that there existed in the United States a capitalist system fundamentally different from that of Europe, and he developed the theory that because of the great mass of free land, the American workers need not follow the revolutionary course of their European brothers. He declared that if the 1,400,000,000 acres of United States lands were distributed to the poor, "an end will be put to poverty in America at one stroke."3 Marx castigated Kriege for this opportunism and riddled his agrarian illusions.

Another important figure among the early circles of German immigrant workers was Wilhelm Weitling. After an earlier visit, he returned to the United States in 1849. Weitling was one of the first revolutionary leaders to come from the ranks of the workers. He took a position midway between Utopian and scientific socialism. His plan for a "labor exchange bank," previously indicated, attracted much working class support, and for the next decade it proved to be a confusing element in the developing Marxist movement.


Joseph Weydemeyer, born in Germany, an artillery officer who had participated in the Revolution of 1848, was the best-informed Marxist early to immigrate to the United States.4 More than any other, he contributed toward laying the foundations of scientific socialism in the new world. Arriving in 1851, Weydemeyer stood out as the leader among the American Marxists, which then included such men as F. A. Sorge, Adolph Douai, August Willich, Robert Rosa, Fritz Jacobi, and Siegfried Meyer, most of whom had known and worked with Marx personally in Germany. Sorge, like Weydemeyer, was a well-developed Marxist. Marx and Engels long carried on a voluminous correspondence with him.5

Weydemeyer and his co-Marxists found the Socialist movement in the United States in confusion. There were the disintegrating effects of Weitling's labor exchange bank scheme; Kriege was advocating his agrarian panacea; Willich and Gottfried Kinkel were seeking to transform the movement simply into a campaign to advance the revolution in Germany; and there were various groups of Utopians and anarchists.

Of all the groupings only the German Sports Society, the Turnverein, organized in 1850, had a relatively sound program. Founded upon advanced socialist ideas, this body opposed conspiratorial groups and proposed instead a broad democratic movement rooted among the masses. While these Marxists supported the free soil and other reform movements, they warned that these were not the path to socialism and they emphasized that the emancipation of the working class could only be achieved in struggle led by the proletariat against the capitalist class.

Weydemeyer, a close co-worker of Marx and Engels and well-grounded in Marxist theory, was singularly qualified to undertake the task of clarifying the ideology of the budding American Socialist movement. He was an extremely capable and energetic organizer, and he had spent three years in underground work in Germany, where in the face of the fierce Prussian terror, he had continued to spread the works of Marx and Engels. A gifted polemist, Weydemeyer ably defended Marxism against many distortions. He possessed the ability to apply Marxist principles to American conditions. He avoided the errors of the Utopians, of the radical agrarians, and also those of the "exceptionalists," who believed that the workings of American bourgeois democracy on the land question would solve the problems of the working class. Marx considered Weydemeyer as "one of our best men," and had agreed to his going to the United States only because of the growing importance of America in the world labor movement.


The Proletarian League, founded in New York in June 1852, was the first definitely Marxist organization on American soil. It was composed of seventeen of the most advanced Marxists in New York City, at the initiative of Weydemeyer and Sorge. The rising tide of labor struggle and organization, and the rapidly developing strike movement in the United States, together with the foundation by Marx of the German Workers Society in Europe, gave the immediate impetus to the formation of the pioneer Proletarian League.

In starting the League, and in the ensuing work of that organization, the Marxists, then called Communists, based themselves upon the newly-published Communist Manifesto. This historic document, which still serves as a guide for the world's Socialist movement, furnished a clear and basic program for the young and still very weak American movement. Marx and Engels, who always paid very close attention to developments in the United States, were prompt in seeing to it that copies of the great Manifesto were sent to Weydemeyer and his co-workers.

The Communist Manifesto, among its many fundamental political lessons, teaches that "the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself";6 that "every class struggle is a political struggle";7 that the building of a political party of the most advanced section of the workers is fundamental to the success of the Socialist movement; that the proletariat, in its struggles, must make alliances with other progressive forces in society; that the Marxists have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole; that Communists must fight for the immediate as well as the ultimate interests of the working class; and that socialism can be established only through the abolition of the capitalist system.

Die Revolution, the first American Marxist paper, founded in 1852 and edited by Weydemeyer, popularized this basic program. In the first of the only two issues of the paper there appeared, years before it was published in Europe, Marx's classic historical work, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. During the following year this original Marxist journal was succeeded by another, Die Reform, also with Weydemeyer as its guiding spirit. This paper, finally a daily, became the leading labor journal in the United States.

As consistent Marxists, the League members did not live in an ivory tower. Together with centering major attention upon theoretical clarification, they also, in the spirit of The Communist Manifesto, participated actively in the struggles of the working class. In all this work Sorge played a role second only to that of Weydemeyer, and thenceforth, for over a generation, he was to be a tower of strength in the political movements of the American working class.

In line with their general policy of supporting the workers' struggle, the Marxists, small though they were in number, issued in March 1853 a call through the trade unions of German-speaking workers for the formation of one large workers' union. Consequently, over 800 workers gathered in Mechanics' Hall, New York, and launched the American Labor Union. The platform of this organization, avoiding the utopian-ism of Weitling and the "ultra-revolutionary fantasies" of Willich and Kinkel, adopted a short program of immediate demands. This first American Marxist program of immediate demands had the weakness of not being specific and also of ignoring the basic issue of slavery. The organization was composed almost exclusively of German workers. It was a sort of labor party, with affiliated trade unions and ward branches. Its life span was short.

While stressing the united political action of all workers, the American Labor Union directed its energies to the organization of new workers in each craft. Its program called for the immediate naturalization of all immigrants, passage of federal labor laws, removal of burdensome taxes, and the limitation of the working day to 10 hours. It gave active support to the many strikes of the period. And upon its initiative, representatives of 40 trades with 2,000 members launched the General Trade Union of New York City.

The impact of these movements made itself felt among the English-speaking workers in other cities. Through the efforts of two leading Marxists, Sam Briggs and Adolph Cluss, the Workingmen's National Association was set up in the city of Washington in April 1853. The organization, however, died during the same year. The American Labor Union was reorganized in 1857 as the General Workers' League, but it, too, died out by 1860.8


The severe economic crisis that struck the country in the autumn of 1857 sharply changed the character of the workers' struggles. Although it hit the native workers hard, causing them much suffering, it was the newly-arrived immigrants who felt the brunt of the depression. The major struggles of the period were waged by the unemployed, and they developed into battles of unprecedented scope and sharpness. In the forefront of these struggles stood the Marxists who, though few in number, were able to give the workers clear-sighted and militant leadership.   Big demonstrations of the unemployed, led by the Communists, took place in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Newark, and here.  They demanded relief and denounced the ruling class and its system that created starvation amid plenty. So outstanding was the role of the Marxists in this period that all important struggles of the time were labeled "Communist revolts" and attempts at revolution.

To better co-ordinate their activities the Marxists reorganized their forces, forming the Communist Club in New York on October 25, 1858. Friedrich Kamm was elected chairman and Fritz Jacobi secretary, although Sorge was the real leader of the organization. A Communist Club resolution proclaimed as the aims of the Communists: "We recognize no distinction as to nationality or race, caste, or status, color, or sex; our goal is but reconciliation of all human interests, freedom, and happiness for mankind, and the realization and unification of a world republic."9

The Communist Club of New York, exercising national leadership, began to establish communication with similar but smaller groups springing up in other major centers, notably Chicago, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati. With many leading Marxists, including Weydemeyer, who had moved to the Middle West, the center of the movement also soon shifted to Chicago, where the Arbeiter Verein (Workers' Club) was coming forward as the most effective socialist organization of the period.

Developments abroad and the growing movement for international solidarity occupied much of the attention of the Marxists in the United States. The formation of an international committee in London in 1856 to commemorate the great French revolution, stimulated these trends. Consequently, an American Central Committee of the International Association was set up, with contacts in many cities. One of its first and most successful undertakings was a mass meeting to commemorate the historic June days of the 1848 Revolution in France. Another event, in April 1858, was a big torchlight parade in honor of Felice Orsini, the Italian patriot who had attempted the assassination of Napoleon III. All of these activities brought the German Marxists into contact with other working class forces, and consequently helped to prepare the groundwork for the International Workingmen's Association, founded in 1864 and later known as the First International.


The early Marxists were confronted with the task of developing the ideological, tactical, and organizational bases for Marxism in America. As yet, however, this movement was not united ideologically, nor was it organized into a national party. This meant that first of all the Marxists themselves had to master the teachings of Marx and Engels. This implied, furthermore, acquiring the ability to apply the principles of Marxism to the specific conditions in this country. They also had to lay the foundations of a national Marxist political party. All this called for the most persistent struggle to free the minds of the workers from the many Jeffersonian, bourgeois agrarian illusions which persisted with particular stubbornness among them.

The needs for ideological clarification and political organization were freshly stressed when, with the easing of the economic crisis of 1857, various petty-bourgeois conceptions began to make themselves increasingly felt afresh in the thinking of the workers. These were also reflected in growing confusion and friction in the Marxist movement. Thus, some of the leaders did not push the fight against slavery, although claiming to be true disciples of Marx; also various Utopian sects reappeared, and Weitling's harmful notions sprang up again in new garb.

In undertaking their great tasks of ideological and organizational development, the early Marxists were favored by the fact that in the decade before the Civil War many of the fundamental problems of Marxist theory—its philosophy, political economy, and revolutionary tactics —had been developed by Marx and Engels. In addition to the famous Manifesto, they had also completed such basic works as Wage-Labor and Capital, Ludwig Feuerbach, The Eighteenth Brumaire, and The Peasant War in Germany. The American movement also had the tremendous advantage of close personal contact with Marx and Engels, who both carefully observed and advised on its development.

The great problem of the Marxists in the United States, of course, was to apply Marxist principles to specific American conditions. Here the early Marxists were faced with many objective and subjective difficulties. These difficulties, in their essence, continued constantly to reappear in new forms and under new conditions, and they have persisted in many ways down to the present day.

Already in the 1850's the Marxists noticed a seeming contradiction between the great militancy and fighting capacity of the American working class, and the slowness with which the workers developed a class-conscious outlook toward politics and society. They noted the contradiction between the highly advanced development of American capitalism and the subjective backwardness of the labor movement. Some of the German immigrants' tried to explain this on the basis of a supposed innate political inferiority of the American working class, while others concluded that Marxism had no validity in the new, democratic United States.

Combating such illusions, the early Marxist leaders pointed out the destructive effects upon labor of slavery in the South. They pointed out further that the existence of the free land in the West, by absorbing masses from the East, hindered the development of class consciousness and of a stable working class, and that the current petty-bourgeois Jeffersonian ideas among the workers stemmed from the Revolution of which the bourgeoisie were the ideological leaders, and also from the whole history of the country. They also gave a Marxist explanation of the recurrent economic crises, which deeply perplexed the workers and the whole American people.

So powerful were the current bourgeois illusions and disintegrating influences among the workers that Engels, in 1892, wrote as follows to Hermann Schlueter: "Up to 1848 one could only speak of the permanent native working class as an exception; the small beginnings of it in the cities in the East always had still the hope of becoming farmers or bourgeois."10

The pioneer Marxists, Weydemeyer, Sorge, and the others—greatly aided by the many new books, articles, letters, and the personal advice of Marx and Engels, fought on two ideological fronts—against the "lefts," who believed that political activity was futile and that Socialism was to be brought about by conspiratorial action and by directing themselves exclusively to supporting revolutionary movements in Germany; and also against the rights, who toyed with agrarian panaceas, sought to tie the workers to corrupt bourgeois politicians, and denied the role of Marxism in the United States.

The Marxists especially attacked the budding theories of "American exceptionalism," advocated by those who, like Kriege, sought to liquidate Marxism by arguing that communism was to be achieved in the United States by a different route from that in Europe—through agrarian reform. Of great help in this struggle were the current writings of Marx and Engels. They pointed out that the establishment of a bourgeois democracy, such as existed in the United States, did not abolish but greatly intensified all the inherent contradictions, and that the forces making for the speedier development of American capitalism were also producing more clear-cut class divisions and sharpening all class relations. They pointed out that the "land of opportunity" was also the classical land of economic crises, unemployment, and of the sharpest extremes between the wealth of the few and the poverty of the great masses.

One of the difficulties peculiar to early Marxism was that its founders, nearly all German immigrants, were striving to introduce their Socialist ideas into a labor movement speaking a different language and having a background and traditions which they little understood. Many of these immigrants also thought that their own stay in America was only temporary, until victory was won in Germany. These circumstances provided fertile ground for sectarian tendencies, which manifested themselves in strong trends among the Socialist-minded German workers to stay apart by themselves and to consider the American workers as politically immature. This sectarianism was a very serious obstacle to the bringing of Socialist ideas to the masses of native workers, and for a full generation Engels  thundered against it.

The early Marxists carried on a great deal of propaganda on the need of the workers to act politically in their own interests. They stressed the importance of the workers fighting the employers on all levels; they exposed the fallacy of separating the political from the economic struggles; they showed that every economic struggle, such as the 10-hour day fight, when the working class fought as a class against the ruling class, was a political struggle.

The developed Marxists of the decade just prior to the Civil War were only a handful; yet, for all their weakness, they made tremendous contributions to the young American labor movement. They were pioneer builders of the trade unions; they fought in the front line of every struggle of the workers; they helped break down the barriers between native and immigrant workers; along with native Abolitionists, they were militant fighters against Negro slavery; they helped to build up a solid and influential labor press; and above all, they created the first core of organized Marxists in America, and they spread far and wide the writings of Marx and Engels. The extent of the general influence of the pioneer Marxists may be gauged from the fact that many young trade unions of the period, in their preambles, used The Communist Manifesto as their guide.

For all their relative sensitivity to the position of the white workers, the Negroes, the immigrants, and other oppressed sections of the population, the pioneer Marxists did not, however, become aware of the "significance of the struggle of the Indian tribes, who during these years were being viciously robbed and butchered by the ruthless white invaders of their lands. Indeed, in the whole period from Jefferson right down to our own day, the long series of workers' trade unions and political parties have almost completely ignored the plight and sufferings the abused and heroic Indian peoples.  The story of labor's relations with the Indians is practically a blank.

1 During these early decades, revolutionary Socialists called themselves Communists. As Marx pointed out, this was because the Utopians and opportunists had discredited the name of Socialist. During the period of the Second International, however, from 1889 to 1914, when opportunists and revolutionaries found themselves within one organization, the terms Socialist and Social-Democrat again came into general use. After the Russian Revolution, for the same reasons that had originally moved Marx to adopt the term Communist, the Bolsheviks ceased calling themselves Social-Democrats and resumed the designation of Communists. The name Communist is also more accurate scientifically.

2 V- J- Jerome in The Communist, Sept. 1939, p. 836.
3 Cited by V. I. Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. 12. p. 299, N. Y., 1943.
4 Karl Obermann, Joseph  Weydemeyer: Pioneer of American Socialism, N. Y.,  1947.
5 See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Letters to Americans, N.Y. 1952
6  Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, p. 6, N. Y., 1948 (Preface to the English edition of 1888).
7 Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, p. 18.
8 Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US., pp. 232-33.
9 Obermann, Joseph Weydemeyer, p. 96.
10 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence, p. 496, N. Y., 1942.

Chapter 3

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