Chapter Five: The Socialist Labor Party (1876-1890)

5. The Socialist Labor Party (1876-1890)

Frederich Engels, along with Marx, was directly
involved with the early development
of the SLP in the US.
For a quarter of a century, from the dissolution of the International Workingmen's Association in 1876 to the foundation of the Socialist Party in 1900, the Socialist Labor Party was the standard bearer of Marxism in the United States. This marked the next big stage in the pre-history of the Communist Party. The decades of the S.L.P. were a period of intense industrialization, of growing monopoly capitalism and imperialism, of sharpening class struggles, of many of the greatest strikes in our national history, of big farmer movements, and of the gradual consolidation of Marxism into an organized force in the United States.

The need for a Marxist party being imperative, the socialist forces proceeded to reorganize one in Philadelphia, July 19-22, 1876, just a few days after the old I.W.A. was dissolved in that same city. The new body was the Workingmen's Party of America, the following year to be named the Socialist Labor Party. It was based primarily upon a fusion of the Marxist elements of the I.W.A., headed by F. A. Sorge and Otto Weydemeyer, son of Joseph Weydemeyer, and of the Lassallean forces of the Illinois Labor Party and the Social-Democratic Party, led by Adolph Strasser, A. Gabriel, and P. J. McGuire. All told, there were about 3,000 members represented. The Philadelphia founding convention had been preceded by a unity conference in Pittsburgh three months earlier.

The Lassalleans at the convention succeeded in securing a majority of the national committee of the new Party, and they also elected one of their number, Philip Van Patten, to the post of national secretary. In the shaping of policy, however, the influence of the Marxists was predominant. The Party demanded the nationalization of railroads, telegraphs, and all means of transportation, and it called for "all industrial enterprises to be placed under the control of the government as fast as practicable and operated by free co-operative trade unions for the good of the whole people."1 The Declaration of Principles was taken from the general statutes of the I.W.A., and in the vital matters of trade unionism and political action, the Party's program unequivocally took the position of the old International.2 That is, the new Party would energetically support trade unionism and would base its parliamentary activity upon substantial trade union backing. A program of immediate demands was also adopted, and the Party headquarters was established in Chicago. J. P. McDonnell became editor of the Party's English organ, The Labor Standard, and Douai was made assistant editor of all Party publications. Organizational, if not ideological, unity was thus established. The conflicting Marxist and Lassallean groups went right on with their disputes in the new organization. Lassallean opportunism, although as such a declining force during the next decade, was soon to graduate into its lineal political descendant, pseudo-Marxist right opportunism.


The economic crisis of 1873 was one of the severest in American history. The employers, taking advantage of the huge unemployment, slashed wages on all sides. The workers desperately replied with a series of bitter strikes, such as this country had never before experienced. These strikes were mainly spontaneous, most of the unions having fallen to pieces during the economic crisis. In 1874-75, there were broad, hard-fought strikes in the textile and mining industries. The "long strike" of 1875 in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania culminated in the hanging of ten Irish workers and the imprisonment of twenty-four others, as "Molly Maguires." They were falsely charged with murder, arson, and other violence against the mine owners. This was another of the many shameful labor frame-up cases that have disfigured American history.

The most important strike of this period, however, was the big railroad strike of 1877. This reached the intensity of virtual civil war. Beginning in Martinsburg, West Virginia, on July 17, 1877, all crafts, Negro and white, struck against a deep wage slash. Like a prairie fire the spontaneous strike spread over many railroads, from coast to coast. The listing weak railroad brotherhoods, led by conservatives, were but a small factor. For the first time the United States found itself in the grip of a national strike.

The government proceeded ruthlessly to break the strike.   The big road centers were flooded with militia and federal troops.  About 100,000 soldiers were under arms.3 In many places the soldiers fraternized the strikers; in others they fired upon the crowds, and in some places the militant strikers drove them out.   Many scores were killed.

Finally, the desperate strike was crushed. The workers learned at bitter cost the need for strong unions and organized political action. This near-civil war deeply shook all sections of the population throughout the land.

The Workingmen's Party was very active in this great strike, as in all others of the period. The Party executive urged the workers and the public to support the strike; it raised the eight-hour demand and called for nationalization of the railroads. In Chicago, a socialist stronghold, the Party organized an effective general strike. "Chicago is in possession of the Communists," shrieked the newspapers. Albert R. Parsons was then one of the most active Party leaders in Chicago. The leadership of the socialists in St. Louis was also equally outstanding, and it made the strike very effective. "This is a labor revolution," cried the local paper, The Republican. For a week the Party-led strike committee was in virtual possession of St. Louis.4 Finally, the strike was crushed by troops and the wholesale arrest of the strikers' leaders. Activities were carried on by the Party in other strike centers.

For the Workingmen's Party all this was a new and tremendous experience in leading huge masses in struggle. It was a powerful blow against the sectarian barriers that were separating the Party from the workers. Marx and Engels hailed the great mass struggle. In its 1877 convention the Party changed its name to the Socialistic Labor Party of North America. The Party grew rapidly; by 1879 it had 10,000 members in 25 states, and between 1876 and 1878, 24 papers were established.

During this critical period, in 1877, there was published in the United States the famous scientific work, Ancient Society, by Lewis Henry Morgan. It was primarily a study of the social organization of the Iroquois Indians and perhaps the most important book ever written in the Western Hemisphere. Engels declared that "it is one of the few epoch-making books of our times." Morgan was not a Socialist, but Engels said of him that "in his own way [he] discovered afresh in America the materialist conception of history discovered by Marx forty years ago."5


Following the big strikes of 1877, the workers, outraged by the brutal suppression methods of the government, took a sharp turn toward political action. Labor parties sprang up in many cities and states. In the meantime, the farmers, under the pressure of the severe economic crisis, also embarked upon political activity. They created the Greenback Party, whose cure-all panacea was the issuance of paper-money green-backs, hopefully to pay off the farmers' mortgages, to liquidate the national debt, and to finance a general prosperity. In the 1876 elections the workers' parties refused to support tire Greenback Party, because it had 110 labor demands in its program.

By 1878, however, there had developed a farmer-labor alliance, the National Greenback-Labor Party. This party, which by then included in its program minimum labor demands, scored considerable success in the elections of that year, polling its high vote of 1,050,000 and sending 15 members to Congress. The capitalist press shouted that the Communist revolution was at hand. But it was an uneasy alliance of workers and farmers. Labor's forces resented the domination of the party by businessmen and big farmers, and they also reacted against the minor stress that was placed upon the workers' demands. Disintegration of the party, therefore, set in; so that in the 1880 presidential elections its candidate, General Weaver, got only 300,000 votes. The Greenback-Labor Party was already far along the road to oblivion.

The Marxists generally took a position of participating in these important political struggles. They actively supported the building of the local and state workingmen's parties, and they also endorsed the general plan of a worker-farmer political alliance. They raised demands, too, for the Negro workers. However, they had opposed supporting the Greenback Party in the 1876 elections on the sound ground that it did not defend the workers' interests. In the 1878 elections considerable socialist support was given to the Greenback-Labor Party candidates, and in 1880 a national endorsement of that party's candidates was extended by the Socialist Labor Party.

In the carrying out of this general line there was gross opportunism. The Lassalleans, headed by Van Patten and other middle class intellectuals, controlled the Party. Taking advantage of the heavy defeats suffered by the trade unions during the economic crisis and misinterpreting the swing of the workers toward political action, they held that the trade unions had proved themselves to be worthless and that thenceforth the Party should devote itself exclusively to parliamentary political action. They elaborated upon this opportunism by making impermissible compromises with the Greenbackers and by surrendering to Denis Kearney of the Pacific Coast, with his reactionary slogan, "The Chinese must go." They also watered down the S.L.P. program until it called for the abolition of capitalism by a step-at-a-time process. The Lassalleans, here and in Germany, were gradually dropping Lassalle's original Utopian demand for state-financed producers' co-operatives, and were being transformed into the characteristic right-wing Social-Democrats, who were to wreak Such havoc with the whole world's labor movement for many decades.

The crass opportunism of the S.L.P. right-wing leadership antagonized Sorge, Parsons, Schilling, McDonnell, and other Marxists and trade unionists in the Party. The latter elements, in particular, insisted that the Party should combine economic with political action. The Party conventions from 1877 to 1881 were torn with quarrels over this issue. The factional split widened, minor secession movements developed, membership declined, papers succumbed, and the Party sank into an internal crisis. Meanwhile, a new danger appeared on the horizon —anarcho-syndicalism. During the next few years, this was to threaten the very life of the Socialist Labor Party.


Anarcho-syndicalism originated from a number of causes. Among these were the following: (a) the extreme violence with which the government repressed strikes generated among workers the idea of "meeting force with force"; (b) the robbing of workers' election candidates of votes tended to discredit working class political action altogether; (c) the fact that millions of immigrant workers had no votes also operated against organized political action; (d) the opportunist policies of the reformist leadership of the S.L.P. disgusted and repelled militant workers; (e) the influence of petty-bourgeois radicals upon the working class, and (f) the injection of European anarchist ideas gave a specific ideological content to the movement.

As early as 1875, to defend themselves, German workers in Chicago formed an armed group. This tendency spread rapidly, as a result of the government violence in the big 1877 strikes. In 1878, the S.L.P. national executive condemned the trend and ordered its advocates to leave the Party. In October 1881, the supporters of "direct action," led principally by Albert R. Parsons6 and August Spies, met in Chicago and organized the Revolutionary Socialist Labor Party. This movement, however, did not take on a definitely anarchist complexion until after the arrival of Johann Most, a German anarchist, in 1882. Most found willing hearers, and in October 1883, a joint convention of anarchists and members of the Revolutionary Socialist Labor Party was held.

This convention formed the International Working People's Association.7 Its program proposed "the destruction of the existing class government by all means, i.e., by energetic, implacable, revolutionary, and international action," and the establishment of a system of industry based on "the free exchange of equivalent products between the production organizations."8 The program condemned the ballot as a device designed by the capitalists to fool the workers. The Chicago group, more syndicalist than anarchist, inserted the clause that "the International recognizes in the trade union the embryonic group of the future society." Behind this movement was the anarchist anti-Marxist conception that socialism could be brought about by the desperate action of a small minority of the working class, impelling the masses into action.

The opportunist-led S.L.P. shriveled in the face of the strong drive of the anarcho-syndicalists. By 1883 the S.L.P. membership had dwindled to but 1,500, whereas that of the International went up to about 7,000. Also, the latter's several journals were flourishing. In April 1883, after six years as S.L.P. national secretary, Van Patten suddenly disappeared, turning up later as a government job-holder. Shortly afterward attempts were made by prominent S.L.P. members to fuse that organization with the anarcho-syndicalist group; but to no avail, the latter replying that the S.L.P. members should join their organization individually. From then on it was an open struggle between the two parties.

The anarcho-syndicalist International met shipwreck in May  1886, at Chicago. The militants of that organization were taking a leading part m the A.F. of L. trade unions' big agitation for the national eight-hour general strike movement, which climaxed on May first. At the McCormick Harvester plant six striking workers were killed by the police.   The anarcho-syndicalists called a mass meeting of protest in the Haymarket on May 4th, with Parsons, Spies, and Fielden as the principal speakers. Some unknown person threw a bomb, killing seven police and  four rkers and wounding many more.  In the wild hysteria following this event, Parsons, Fischer, Lingg, Fielden, Schwab, Spies, Engel, and Neebe were arrested. After a criminally unfair trial, another on the growing list of labor frame-ups, they were all convicted.  Neebe, Schwab, and Fielden were glven long prison terms; Lingg committed suicide while awaiting trial and Parsons, Spies, Fischer and Engel were hanged on November 11, 1887.   Governor John Altgeld, six years later, released the four reining in prison and proclaimed their innocence.    Haymarket Affair was a heavy blow especially to the International group and after a futile effort in l887 to amalgamate with the S.L.P it dissolved. The substance of the Haymarket outrage was an attempt by the employers to destroy the young trade union movement.


With the revival of industry, beginning in 1879, trade unionism, weakened in the long economic crisis, again spread with great rapidity. To meet the fierce exploitation by the employers, the workers had to have organization. Local trades councils and labor assemblies grew in many cities, and small craft unions also began to take shape. The Socialists, while only a small minority in the membership and leadership of the unions, were very active in all this work. The S.L.P. Bulletin, in September 1880, declared that the formation of the central bodies "has been accomplished mainly by the efforts of Socialists who influence and in some places control these assemblies, and are respected in all of them."9

A serious attempt to organize the labor movement upon a national scale was made through the International Labor Union, formed early in 1878. This center developed out of the joint efforts of such Socialists as Sorge, McDonnell, and Otto Weydemeyer, and also of the noted eight-hour day advocates, Ira Steward and G. E. McNeill. The I.L.U. laid heavy stress upon the eight-hour day, and advocated the ultimate emancipation of the working class. The organization finally developed, however, chiefly as a union of textile workers. It conducted a number of strikes, but was formally dissolved in 1887. More successful was the next big effort, the Knights of Labor.

The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor was organized in Philadelphia in December 1869, by Uriah S. Stephens and a handful of workers. It was at first limited to garment workers, but in 1871 it expanded to other trades. With the decline of the National Labor Union, the Knights of Labor grew and by 1877 it had 15 district or state assemblies. Like various other labor unions of the period, the K. of L. was a secret organization with an elaborate ritual. It held its first general assembly, or national convention, in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1878, when it became an open body. The Order grew rapidly in the aftermath of the great 1877 strikes and under the effects of reviving industry. In 1883, the K. of L. had 52,000 members; in 1885, 111,000; and in 1886, its peak about 700,000. Stephens was its Grand Master Workman until 1879-when he was succeeded by T. V. Powderly, who served until 1893, at which time he was replaced by J. R. Sovereign.

The K. of L. contained trends of Marxism, Lassalleanism, and "pure and simple" trade unionism. Its program set as its goal the Lassallean objective, "to establish co-operative institutions such as will tend to supersede the wage system by the introduction of a co-operative industrial system." It proposed a legislative program which included labor, currency, and land reforms, and also government ownership 0f the railroads and telegraphs, as well as national control of banking. The Marxist influence was to be seen chiefly in the many militant strikes of the K. of L. The Order considered craft unionism too narrow in spirit and scope, and it aimed at a broad organization of the whole working class. Its motto was "An injury to one is the concern of all." The K. of L. accepted workers of all crafts into its local mixed assemblies. It had many Negro workers in its ranks and about 10 percent of its members were women. Professionals and small businessmen were also admitted, to the extent of 25 percent of the local membership.

Although its conservative leadership, heavily influenced by Lassallean and outright bourgeois conceptions, deprecated strikes, even sinking to the level of actual strikebreaking, the K. of L. made its greatest progress as a result of economic struggles. During 1884-85 the organization was especially effective in a number of big strikes of telegraphers, miners, lumbermen, and railroaders. Harassed masses of workers turned hopefully to the new organization, and the employers viewed it with the gravest alarm. The K. of L. swiftly became a powerful force in the industrial struggle. It also was active politically, participating generally in the broad labor and farmer political movements of its era.

The period of the rise of the K. of L. was one of internal crisis within the S.L.P.—what with the crippling effects of the right-wing leadership, the continuing pest of sectarianism, and the severe struggle of the Party against the anarcho-syndicalists. Nevertheless, the Party did exercise a considerable influence in the K. of L. from its earliest period as an open organization, particularly in the local assemblies, in various cities where German immigrant workers were in force.


As the Knights of Labor developed, a new, rival union movement, eventually to become the A.F. of L., also began to take shape. This was based upon the national craft unions, which could find no satisfactory place in the K. of L. These organizations, some of which antedated the CiviL War, objected to the mixed form of the K. of L., to its autocratic centralized leadership, to its chief concern with other than direct trade union questions, and to its neglect of their specific craft interests. Hence, gathering in Pittsburgh, on November 15, 1881, six national craft unions painters, carPenters, molders, glass workers, cigar makers, and iron, steel, and tin workers—were the prime movers in setting up an organization more to their liking, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada.

Marxist influence was manifest but not dominant in this new movement. Samuel Gompers, a Jewish immigrant cigar maker born in London, who was its leading spirit, had long been associated with Marxist circles; indeed, he had probably belonged to the I.W.A., but later found it expedient to deny the fact. Gompers said that he had studied German so as to be able to read Marx's Das Kapital. Adolph Strasser, Ferdinand Laurrell, and P. J. McGuire, close Gompers associates, had been members of the S.L.P. There were eight S.L.P. members present among the 107 delegates at the founding convention. Marxist conceptions also stood out in the new body's preamble, still in effect in the A.F. of L. today. This signalizes "a struggle between capital and labor, which must grow in intensity from year to year." The constitution, which granted a high measure of autonomy to the national unions, was copied almost verbatim from that of the British Trades Union Congress and its Parliamentary Committee.10

The general trade union programs of the K. of L. and the new Federation were similar, but there were also important differences. "The Knights demanded government ownership of the systems of transportation and communication, but the new Federation did not. Nor did the Federation accept the monetary program of the Knights of Labor, indicating that it definitely regarded the industrial capitalist rather than the banker as the chief enemy of the wage-earners, and-unlike the Knights—had pretty nearly rid itself of the belief in financial panaceas. It is also significant that the Federation made no reference to producers or consumers co-operatives, and failed to recommend compulsory arbitration which the Knights supported."11 The new Federation was evidently geared to limiting itself to concessions under capitalism, rather than aiming at the abolition of the existing regime of wage slavery.

It was clear soon after its foundation that the new labor center, basing itself upon the skilled workers, was little concerned with the welfare of the masses of semi-skilled and unskilled. The A.F. of L. aimed chiefly at organizing the developing labor aristocracy, a policy which dovetailed with the employer policy of corrupting the skilled workers at the expense of the unskilled.' An anti-Negro bias was also to H observed in the affiliated A.F. of L. unions, reflecting the employers policy of discriminating against these workers. These were long step backward from the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor. The K. of L. at its height, with some 700,000 members, had about 60,000 Negroes in its ranks, a figure not reached by the A.F. of L. for about fifty years, when it counted, however, a total of some three million members. 

At first the new Federation was not considered as an enemy of the Knights of Labor—thus, at its first convention, 47 of the 107 delegates came from K. of L. organizations. Potential antagonisms sharpened, however, and soon the two labor centers were at loggerheads. Efforts were made, especially by the A.F. of L. leaders in the early years, to harmonize and unite the two bodies, but these came to naught and the rivals fought it out, to the eventual disappearance of the Knights.

For its first five years the Federation stagnated along, with only about 50,000 members. After its initial year Gompers was its president. At the Federation's second convention, in 1882, only 19 delegates attended. Nor were the three succeeding annual conventions any more promising. The attention of the workers, dazzled by the successful strikes of the K. of L., was focused on that organization. But the great events of 1886 were soon radically to change the whole labor union situation.


The developing class struggle after the Civil War reached a new height of militancy in the great fight for the eight-hour day in 1886. The agitation for this measure had been on the increase ever since the end of the war. Its foundation was the intensified exploitation to which the workers were being subjected. Marx called the eight-hour movement "the first fruit of the Civil War . . . that ran with the seven leagued boots. . . from the Atlantic to the Pacific."12

The Federation leaders, who were far more militant then than now, seized upon the shorter-hours issue. "Hovering on the brink of death, 'he Federation turned to the heroic measure of a universal strike which had been suggested a decade before by the Industrial Brotherhood. At its invention in Chicago in 1884 a resolution was adopted to the effect that from and after May 1, 1886, eight hours shall constitute a day's Work."13 The Federation put its forces behind the movement, but Powderly, the head of the Knights of Labor, a rank conservative, made the fatal mistake of opposing the strike.

The general strike centered in Chicago, where the Parsons-Schilling forces headed the Central Labor Union. Nationally, it was highly successful, some 350,000 workers, including large numbers of K. of L. members, going on strike. The eight-hour day was established in many sections, particularly in the building trades. And more important, despite the Haymarket outrage committed by the bosses (described earlier), a tremendous wave of trade union organization was set on its way. This laid the basis for the modern trade union movement.

Out of this movement was born historic International May Day, which, however, the A.F. of L., its creator, has never seen fit to celebrate, although A.F. of L. unions participated in May Day celebrations for many years. May first was adopted as the day of celebration of world labor at the International Socialist Congress in Paris, France, in July 1889. Since then, tens of millions of workers have marched on that day in every city of the world, in anticipation of the final victory of the
working class.14

The 1886 strike virtually decided that the Federation and not the K. of L. would be the national trade union center. At its December 1886 convention in Columbus, the original Federation, now with some 316,469 members, and growing rapidly, reorganized itself and adopted its new name of the American Federation of Labor. Although the K. of L. gained heavily in numbers as a result of the great 1886 struggle, it had definitely lost the leadership of labor and soon thereafter began to decline in strength. By 1890 it had only 200,000 members and was no longer the decisive labor factor.

In the struggle for leadership the A.F. of L. had a number of advantages over the K. of L. The craft form of organization, based on the key role of the skilled workers in this period, was superior to the hodgepodge mixed assemblies of the K. of L. Its decentralized form was also more effective than the paralyzing overcentralization of the K. of L. The A.F. of L.'s policy of confining its membership strictly to workers likewise gave it a big advantage over the K. of L., which took in large numbers of farmers, professionals, and small businessmen. Its strike policy, too, was a big improvement over the no-strike attitude of Powderly and his fellow bureaucrats. The rejection of current money nostrums and other social panaceas that infested the K. of L. also helped the A.F. of L., and so did the opposition to the K. of L.'s adventurous petty-bourgeois political policies.

Despite these advantages, which compared favorably with the Knights of Labor, the A.F. of L. program contained a whole series of weaknesses which were to manifest themselves with deadly effect in the coming decades. The A.F. of L.'s gradual rejection of a Socialist perspective implied its eventual outright acceptance of capitalism and a slave role for the working class. Its concentration upon the skilled workers finally developed into direct betrayal of the unskilled and the foreign-born masses. Its obvious white chauvinism was a callous sell-out of the Negro people from the start. Its opposition to independent political action grew into a surrender to the fatal two-party system of the capitalists. Its general program, which through the years became a real adaptation of the labor movement to the profit interests of the powerful and arrogant monopolists, finally resulted in the wholesale corruption of the labor aristocracy, in the growth of a monstrous system of inter-union scabbing, and eventually in the creation of the most corrupt and reactionary labor leadership the world had ever known.

In the early years of the A.F. of L. the non-Marxist leadership of the unions, not yet solidly organized as a dominating clique, reflected some of the militancy of the rank and file under the latter's pressure. But with the development of American imperialism, particularly from 1890 on, they soon fell into the role allotted to them by the employers, as "labor lieutenants of capital," basing themselves upon the skilled at the expense of the unskilled. They proceeded to build up the notorious Gompers machine, which ever since has been such a barrier to working class progress. They were able to do this because of the whole complex of specifically American factors, related to the rapid growth of American industry, which had resulted in relatively high living standards for the workers as compared to those in other countries, and which were operating to prevent a rapid radicalization of the American working class.


The great eight-hour struggle naturally had important political repercussions for the workers. As the 1886 fall elections approached, the workers organized labor parties in a number of cities. The Socialists were active in all these parties, which played a considerable role in the local Sections. But by far the most important of such independent movements was the 1886 campaign of Henry George for mayor of New York City.

Henry George, because of his notable book on the single tax, Progress and Poverty, published in 1879 and selling eventually up to several million copies, had gained a wide popularity  among  the  toiling masses. George considered the people's woes as originating basically from the private monopolization of the land, and his main social remedy was to tax this monopoly out of existence. This was the single  tax.  George failed to note, however, as Engels and the S.L.P. leaders sharply pointed out, that the main cause of the workers' poverty and the antagonism of classes was the capitalists' ownership of all the social means of production and that, therefore, the final solution, as the Socialists proposed, could only be had through the collective ownership by society of all these means of production. George did not understand the capitalist class as the basic enemy of the working class and the people. In his election platform, however, he included demands for government ownership of the telegraph and railroads, as well as some minor labor planks.

Henry George was nominated by the local trade union movement in New York. The S.L.P. also endorsed his candidacy as a struggle of labor against capital, "not because of his single tax theory, but in spite of it." While basically criticizing the single tax, Engels, who paid close attention to American labor developments, agreed that the Socialists should offer Henry George qualified support. The main thing, he said, was that the masses of workers were taking important first steps in independent political action.

The bitterly contested local campaign resulted in votes as follows: Abram S. Hewitt, 90,456; Henry George, 67,930; Theodore Roosevelt, 60,474. 15 The George forces claimed with justification that they had been counted out. Following the New York elections, the Socialists and the George forces split over the question of program, and the single tax movement, torn with dissension, soon petered out.

In the aftermath of the tremendous class struggles, beginning with the big national railroad strike of 1877, which climaxed in the eight-hour fight of 1886, the S.L.P., although still weakened by internal confusion and dissension, began to grow. At its seventh convention, in 1889, the Party claimed to have 70 sections, as against 32 at its convention of two years before. The Party press was also looking up-The Party, however, was far from having developed a solid Marxist program and leadership. As yet, those who could actually be called Marxists were very few. Consequently, the Party, while abiding by its ultimate goal of socialism and using the writings of Marx and Engels as its guide, was wafted hither and yon by the pressures of the current class struggle. Still torn with division, the Party had, in its fourteen years of life so far, developed various ideological deviations, most of which were to plague the Socialist movement for years to come. 

There were the "rights," who had dominated the Party's leadership since its foundation in 1876. They underestimated the importance of trade unionism, made opportunistic deals with Greenbackers and other movements, yielded to Chinese exclusionist sentiment, catered to the skilled workers, and generally played down the leading role of the Party. Then there were the sectarian "lefts," who wanted to cast aside the ballot as a delusion, refused to participate in broad labor and farmer movements, toyed with dual unionism, and satisfied themselves with mere propaganda of revolutionary slogans. There were also the "direct actionists," anarcho-syndicalists who, as we have just seen, had nearly wrecked the Party. And finally, on the part of all these groupings, there was a deep misunderstanding and neglect of the vital Negro question.

Marx, and especially Engels, gave direct advice to the American Socialist movement during the seventies and eighties, fighting against all the characteristic deviations.16 These two great leaders sought tirelessly to break the isolation of the Socialists from the broad masses, urging their active participation in all the elementary movements of the working class and its allies—in the trade unions, the labor parties, and the farmer movements. But the great Marx died in 1883, and Engels followed him a dozen years later in 1895. Thus the young American proletariat lost its two most brilliant and devoted teachers and leaders.

One of the most serious handicaps of the S.L.P. during this whole period was its almost exclusive German composition. The publication of Lawrence Gronlund's Cooperative Commonwealth in 1884, and Edward Bellamy's famous Looking Backward in 1888, helped to popularize Socialist and semi-Socialist ideas among the American masses, but Justus Ebert could still say, "The Socialist Labor Party of the eighties was a German party and its official language was German. The American element was largely incidental."17 And Lawrence Gronlund also said that m 1880 one could count the native-born Socialists on one hand.

Engels spoke of the "German-American Socialist Labor Party," and he fought to improve its isolated situation. In a letter to Florence Kelley Wischnewetsky, he said of the S.L.P.: "This Party is called on to play a very important part in the movement. But in order to do so they will have to doff every remnant of their foreign garb. They will have to become out and out American. They cannot expect the Americans to come to them; they, the minority, and the immigrants, must go to the Americans who are the vast majority and the natives. And to do that, they must above all things learn English."18

In 1889, the internal dissensions within the S.L.P. reached a breaking point. The opposition to the opportunist leadership, according to Ebert, turned around three major points: "First ... its compromising political policy; second, its stronger pure and simple trade union tendencies; third, its German spirit and forms."19 The revolt was led by the New York Volkszeitung (Schewitsch-Jonas group), founded in 1878 as a German daily paper. The Busche-Rosenberg official leaders of the Party, a hangover from the old opportunist Van Patten group, were deposed and the Schewitsch-Jonas faction elected instead. This led to a split, and in consequence for a while there were two S.L.P.'s. The Rosenberg group, the minority faction, got the worst of the struggle. It lingered along weakly, calling itself the Social Democratic Federation, until finally it fused in 1897 with Debs' Social Democracy. Lucien Sanial wrote the new program of the S.L.P. The split strengthened the Marxist elements in the Party. The S.L.P. of today dates its foundation from this period.

In the following year, 1890, an event of major importance to the S.L.P. and the labor movement took place. This was the entrance of Daniel De Leon into the Party. De Leon, born in 1852 on the island of Curacoa off the coast of Venezuela, was a professor of international law at Columbia University, and had supported Henry George in the 1886 campaign. Brilliant, energetic, and ruthless, De Leon immediately became a power in the S.L.P. In 1891 he secured the post as editor of the Weekly People (later a daily) which he held from then on. For the next thirty years, long after his death in 1914, De Leon's writings were to exert a profound influence not only upon the S.L.P., but upon the whole left wing, right down to the formation of the Communist Party in 1919, and even beyond.

1 The Socialist, July 29, 1876.
2 Commons, History of Labor in the U.S., Vol. 2, p. 270.
3 Justus Ebert, American Industrial Evolution, p. 60, N. Y., 1907.
4 Hillquit, History of Socialism in the U.S., p. 233.
5 Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, p. 5" N. Y., 1942   (Preface to 1884 edition).
6 Parsons was nominated as the S.L.P. candidate for president in 1879, but did not accept because he was too young. See Lucy E. Parsons, Life of Albert R. Parsons, p-22, Chicago, 1889.
7 Not to be confused with the International Workingmen's Association. See Chapter 4-
8 Hillquit, History of Socialism  in  the  U.S., p. 238.
9 Cited by Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the U.S., p. 498.
10 Lewis L. Lorwin, The American Federation of Labor, p. 13, Washington, 1933.
11 Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US., pp. 523-24.
12 Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, p. 387.
13 Lorwin. The American Federation of Labor, p. 19.
14 For a fuller account, see Alexander Trachtenberg, History of May Day, N. Y., 1947.
15 Nathan Fine, Labor and Farmer Parties in the United States, p. 43. N. Y., 1928.
16 Most of Frederick Engels' writings on the American question are to be found in the Preface to the American edition of his book, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (N. Y., 1887), and in many letters to Florence Kelley Wischnewetsky. Sorge, and others. See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Letters to Americans, New York, 1952. 
17 Ebert, American Industrial Evolution, pp. 66-67.
18 Engels, Preface to the American edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, p. v. See Marx and Engels, Letters to Americans, Appendix. 
19 Ebert, American Industrial Evolution, p. 66.

Chapter 6

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