Chapter One: Early American Class Struggles (1793-1848)

1. Early American Class Struggles  (1793-1848)

The history of the Communist Party of the United States is the history of the vanguard party of the American working class. It is the story and analysis of the origin, growth, and development of a working class political party of a new type, called into existence by the epoch of imperialism, the last stage of capitalism, and by the emergence of a new social system—Socialism. It is the record of a Party which through its entire existence of more than three decades has loyally fought for the best interests of the American working class and its allies—the Negro people, the toiling farmers, the city middle classes—who are the great majority of the American people. It is the life of a Party destined to lead the American working class and its allies to victory over the monopoly warmongers and fascists, to a people's democracy and socialism.

The life story of the Communist Party is also the history of Marxism for a century in the United States. The C.P.U.S.A. is the inheritor and continuer of the many American Marxist parties and organizations which preceded it during this long period. It incorporates in itself the lessons of generations of political struggle by the working class; of the world experience of the First, Second, and Third Internationals; of the writings of the great Socialist theoreticians, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin; and of the great revolutions in Russia, China, and Central and Eastern Europe. It is also the continuation and culmination of American scientific, democratic, and artistic culture, embracing and carrying forward all that is sound and constructive in the works of Franklin, Jefferson, Douglass, Lincoln, Morgan, Edison, Twain, Dreiser, and a host of American thinkers, writers, and creators.

The Party history is the record of the American class struggle, of which it is a vital part. It is the story, in general, of the growth of the working class; the abolition of slavery and emancipation of the Negro People; the building of the trade union and farmer movements; the numberless strikes and political struggles of the toiling masses; and the growing political alliance of workers, Negroes, farmers, and intellectuals. The Party is the crystallization of the best in all these rich democratic and revolutionary traditions of the people; it is the embodiment of the toilers' aspirations for freedom and a better life.

The story of the Communist Party is also necessarily the history, in outline, of American capitalism. It is the account and analysis of the revolutionary liberation from British domination and establishment of the Republic, the expansion of the national frontiers, the development of industry and agriculture, the armed overthrow of the southern slavocracy, the recurring economic crises, the brutal exploitation of the workers, the poles of wealth and poverty, the growth of monopoly and development of imperialism, the savage robbery of the colonial peoples, the great world wars, the barbarities of fascism, the bid of American imperialism for world domination, the fight of the people for world peace, the general crisis of capitalism, and the development of the world class struggle, under expanding Marxist-Leninist leadership, toward socialism.


The American Revolution of 1776, which Lenin called one of the "great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars,"1 began the history of the modern capitalist United States. It was fought by a coalition of merchants, planters, small farmers, and white and Negro toilers. It was led chiefly by the merchant capitalists, with the democratic masses doing the decisive fighting. The Revolution, by establishing American national independence, shattered the restrictions placed upon the colonial productive forces by England; it freed the national market and opened the way for a speedy growth of trade and industry; it at least partially broke down the feudal system of land tenure; and it brought limited political rights to the small farmers and also to the workers, who were mostly artisans, but it did not destroy Negro chattel slavery. And for the embattled Indian peoples the Revolution produced only a still more vigorous effort to strip them of their lands and to destroy them.

The Revolution also had far-reaching international repercussions. It helped inspire the people of France to get rid of their feudal tyrants; it stimulated the peoples of Latin America to free themselves from the yoke of Spain and Portugal; and it was an energizing force in the world wherever the bourgeoisie, supported by the democratic masses, were fighting against feudalism. The Revolution was helped to success by the assistance given the rebelling colonies by France, Spain, and Holland, as well as by revolutionary struggles taking place currently in Ireland and England.

The Revolution was fought under the broad generalizations of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, which called for national independence and freedom for all men. It declared the right of revolution and the dominance of the secular over the religious in government. But these principles meant very different things to the several classes that carried through the Revolution. To the merchants they signified their rise to dominant power and an unrestricted opportunity to exploit the rest of the population. To the planters they implied the continuation and extension of their slave system. To the farmers they meant free access to the broad public lands. To the workers they promised universal suffrage, more democratic liberties, and a greater share in the wealth of the new land. And to the oppressed Negroes they brought a new hope of freedom from the misery and sufferings of chattel bondage.

The Constitution, as originally formulated in 1787, and as adopted in the face of powerful opposition, consisted primarily of the rules and relationships agreed upon by the ruling class for the management of the society which they controlled. The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the Constitution, providing for freedom of speech, press, and assembly, religious liberty, trial by jury, and other popular democratic liberties, was written into the Constitution in 1791 under heavy mass pressure.2

Great as were the accomplishments of the Revolution, it nevertheless left unsolved many bourgeois-democratic tasks. These unfinished tasks constituted a serious hindrance to the nation's fullest development. The struggle to solve these questions in a progressive direction made up the main content of United States history for the next three-quarters of a century. Among the more basic of these tasks, were the abolition of slavery, the opening up of the broad western lands to settlement, and the deepening and extension of the democratic rights of the people. The main post-revolutionary fight of the toiling masses, in the face of fierce reactionary opposition, was aimed chiefly at preserving and extending their democratic rights won in the Revolution.

It was a great post-revolutionary political rally of these democratic forces that brought Jefferson to the presidency in 1800. Coming to power on a program of wresting the government from the hands of the privileged few, Jefferson sought to create a democracy based primarily upon the small farmers, but excluding the Negroes. From this fact many have drawn the erroneous conclusion that his policies were a brake on American industrial development. Actually, however, by the abolition of slavery in the North, the opening up of public lands, the battle against British "dumping" in America, and the extension of the popular franchise, all during Jefferson's period, the growth of the country's economy was greatly facilitated.

The extraordinary rapidity of the United States' economic advance in the decades following the victorious revolution was to be ascribed to a combination of several favorable factors, including the presence of vast natural resources, the relative absence of feudal economic and political remnants, the shortage of labor power, the constant flow of immigrants, and the tremendous extent of territory under one government. Another, most decisive factor was the immense stretch of new land awaiting capitalist development, the opening up of which played a vital part for decades in the economic and political growth of the country. It absorbed a vast amount of capital; it largely shaped the workers' ideology and also the progress and forms of the labor movement; and it was a main bone of contention between the rival, struggling classes of industrialists and planters. As Lenin, a close student of American agriculture, noted, "That peculiar feature of the United States ... the availability of unoccupied free land" explains "the extremely wide and rapid development of capitalism in the United States."3


The swiftness of the industrial growth of the United States was matched by that of the working class. In pre-revolutionary days the stable part of the free working class was largely made up of skilled craftsmen—ship-builders, building mechanics, tailors, shoemakers, bakers, and so on—who inherited much of the European guild system, with its relations of masters and journeymen. The shift of the center of production from home to mill, however, and the development of the factory system, especially after the war of 1812, revolutionized the status of American labor. The development of the national market enabled the budding capitalists, with their expanding factories and large crews of workers, soon to replace the master craftsmen employing only a few mechanics at the bench. The new capitalists resorted to the most ruthless exploitation of the workers, which included huge numbers of women and children, and they displaced skilled labor by machinery.

The conditions of the workers in this period were abominable. The hours of labor extended from sun-up to sun-down—13 to 16 hours per day. Wages were often no more than a dollar a day for men, and far less for women and children. In the shops the workers were subjected to the worst boss tyranny. Health conditions were unspeakable, and safety precautions totally absent. The workers also had no protection whatever against the hazards of unemployment, accidents, sickness, and old age.   When they could not pay their way, they were thrown into debtors' prisons—as late as 1833 there were 75,000 workers in these monstrous jails. Irish immigrants and free Negro workers were employed building turnpikes and canals, and they died like flies in the swamps.

The workers were faced with the alternatives of going west, of submitting to the harsh conditions of this work, or of fighting back. Inasmuch as the great bulk could not afford the expense of going west and taking up land, they stood and fought the exploiters. Mostly their struggles, at first, were in the shape of blind, spontaneous strikes. But soon they learned, particularly the skilled workers, that in order to fight effectively they needed organization. The trade union movement began to take shape, and strikes multiplied. But the employers struck back viciously, using the old English common law, which branded as "conspiracies" all "combinations" (organizations) to improve wages and other conditions of work.

Before the 1819 economic crisis there were already many unions in various trades and cities. During that industrial crash these early unions collapsed, but no sooner had industrial conditions begun to improve again when the workers, with ever-greater energy and clearer understanding, resumed the building of their unions. The next decade saw very important strikes of the new-born labor movement.

The unions, in this early period, began to extend into many new occupations and to combine into city-wide federations. By 1836 such union centers existed in 13 of the major seaboard cities. The unskilled were also being increasingly drawn into the movement. A high point in the rising labor movement was reached in 1833-37, when 173 strikes were recorded—chiefly for better wages and the shorter workday. During these years, in March 1834, the National Trades Union, the workers' first attempt at a general labor federation, was organized. It lasted three years.4

The panic of 1837 again wiped out most of the trade unions, yet the great struggles of the 20's and 30's had produced lasting results. In addition to the 10-hour day gains, imprisonment for debt was abolished, a mechanics' lien law passed, a common school system set up in the North, and property qualifications for voting as yet only by whites in the North "were practically eliminated.


The workers of young America, oppressed by ruthless exploiters, had been quick to learn the value of trade unionism, and the most advanced among them also saw early the necessity for political action on class lines. They realized that it was not enough that they had the voting franchise; they had to organize to use it effectively.

Bourgeois historians have coined the theory that the American workers historically have resorted alternately to economic or political action, as they lost faith in one form and turned to the other. The facts show, however, as indicated by these early American experiences, that the same working class upsurge that produced great economic struggles, also found its expression in various forms of political activity. Thus, the city of Philadelphia, the first to build a labor union, to organize a central labor body, and to call a general strike, was also the starting place for the first labor party in the United States.

The call for a political party issued by the Philadelphia labor unions in 1828 declared that "The mechanics and working men of the city and county of Philadelphia are determined to take the management of their own interests, as a class, in their own immediate keeping."5 The New York Workingmen's Party was launched a year later, and during the years 1828-34, some 61 local labor parties were established, with 50 labor newspapers. These local parties, despite ferocious attacks from the employers, made many gains such as the 10-hour day on public works, the free public schools, and limitations on the labor of women and children. The workers dovetailed this political struggle with the economic battles of the trade unions. But within a few years the local parties had passed out of existence.6

Although these local labor parties did not develop into a permanent national organization, they nevertheless prepared the ground for the next phase of the political struggles on a national scale—the farmer-labor alliance that formed around Andrew Jackson during the 1830's. Labor, although still weak, was particularly attracted to support Jackson, the frontiersman president, because of his vigorous attacks upon the United States Bank, the darling project of the budding capitalists of the time. This movement in support of Jackson was the beginning of labor's organized functioning in the support of bourgeois political parties, a policy which was to become of decisive importance in later decades. The disappearance of the early labor-party movement was to be ascribed to various reasons. The local parties were torn by internal dissension, cultivated by outside politicians, who sought either to lead them back to the bourgeois parties or else to destroy them. They were undermined also by political confusion, engendered by various schemes and panaceas of Utopian reformers. They were subjected, too, to extreme attacks from the reactionaries on moral and religious grounds. Besides, the major bourgeois parties, largely for purposes of demagogy, took over much of their program. Underlying all these weaknesses, however, was the basic fact that the continued existence of the frontier made possible the persistence of Jeffersonian illusions and prejudices which prevented the development of a stable working class and the establishment of an independent class political movement.


The American labor movement entered the industrial era with a Jeffersonian ideology inherited from the agrarian and colonial past. The mass of workers who took part in the struggles of the 1820's and 30's of the immature working class, could not and did not raise the question of the overthrow of the existing social order. Their fight, instead, was directed toward realizing the promises of 1776, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. They held tenaciously to the concept of a government representing the interests of all the people. They saw the solution of their problems, not in changing the existing order, but in improving and democratizing it.

The workers predominantly held the Jeffersonian theory of democracy. This was largely the adaptation to American conditions of John Locke's conceptions of "natural rights" and "equalitarianism." These ideas, seized upon by the revolutionary bourgeoisie in its struggle against feudalism, had become the dominant ideology of the Revolution and as such were absorbed by the workers. The great influence of the Declaration of Independence upon working class thinking during the pre-Civil War decades was evidenced by the repetition of its language and form in many union constitutions and statements.

But the bitter capitalist exploitation soon began to give a different class content to the outlook of the working class. The workers' demand for equality was no longer limited to formal equality at the ballot box; it was also directed against economic inequality and exploitation. Crude but penetrating attacks upon the capitalist system began to be formulated in proletarian circles.

"We are prepared to maintain," said the Mechanics' Free Press of Philadelphia, "that all who toil have a natural and inalienable right to reap the fruits of their own industry, and that they who labor ... are the authors of every comfort, convenience, and luxury."7 The Workingmen's Political Association of Penn Township, Pennsylvania, declared that "There appears to exist two distinct classes, rich and poor, the oppressors and the oppressed, those that live by their own labor and those that live by the labor of others."8 The Workingmen's Advocate of New York demanded a revolution which would leave behind it no trace of the government responsible for the workers' hardships.9 And Thomas Skidmore, one of the most famous radicals of the times, proposed a co-operative society which would "compel all men, without exception, to labor as much as others must labor for the same amount of enjoyment, or in default thereof, to be deprived of such enjoyment altogether."10 The land reform theory of George Henry Evans fell under this general head. Many poets and writers—Thoreau, Whittier, Emerson, and others—expressed similar radical ideas.

These anti-capitalist expressions represented a groping of the masses for a program of working class emancipation. But they lacked a scientific foundation and a firm set of working principles. It was the historical role of Marxism to give the needed clarity and purpose to this early proletarian theoretical revolt and to raise it to the level of scientific socialism.


The crisis of 1837, and the twelve long years of depression that followed it, profoundly influenced the thinking of labor and the progressive intellectuals. In their search for a way out of the bitter evils which encompassed them, many advanced beyond the limits of capitalism proper. In the face of the reduced standards of the workers, the sufferings of the unemployed, and the general paralysis of industry, they concluded that what was needed was a new social system which would end the exploitation and oppression of the many by the few. Lacking a scientific analysis of the laws of capitalist society, however, they had no recourse but to devise or support various ingeniously concocted plans for newsocial orders. Thus was initiated an era of Utopian experiments.

While these Utopian schemes originated mainly in Europe, they were most extensively developed in the United States. At least 200 such projects were undertaken within a few years. American soil was particularly inviting for them. There was ample land to be had cheaply; the people were burdened with few feudal political restrictions; and the masses, near in experience to the great Revolution, were readily inclined to try social change and experimentation. 

Indeed, America, long before this time, had already had considerable experience with co-operative regimes. The Indian tribes all over the western hemisphere had been organized on a primitive communal basis.11 Also the colonies in both Virginia and Massachusetts, during their early critical years, practiced some sharing in common of the general production.12 And from 1776 on numerous European religious societies, on a primitive communal basis—Shakers, Rappites, Zoarites, Ebenezers, Bethel-ites, Perfectionists, etc.—took root in the United States and expanded widely. But the three Utopian schemes most important in the pre-Civil War era were those of Robert Owen, a Scotsman, and Charles Fourier and Etienne Cabet, both Frenchmen.13

Owen, a humanitarian industrialist, planning to found a society in which all the workers would own the means of production and where there would be no exploitation, came to the United States in 1824 and established co-operative colonies in New Harmony, Indiana, and also in a few other places. At first these enterprises attracted wide attention, but by 1828 they had all perished. Owen was invited to speak to Congress. In 1845 he called an international Socialist convention in New York, but it amounted to very little.

The Fourierist Utopians made even more of a stir than the Owenites. Differing from Owen, who abolished private property rights, Fourier preserved individual ownership. Unlike Owen also, Fourier considered industry an unmitigated evil and relied upon an agrarian, handicraft economy. The Fourierists, with the support of such prominent figures Albert Brisbane, Horace Greeley, James Russell Lowell, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and Henry Thoreau, during the 1840's set up some forty "Phalanxes," or colonies. The most famous of these was Brook Farm, near Boston. By 1850, however, the movement had virtually disappeared. The Cabet, or Icarian movement established its first agrarian colony Texas, in 1848. Various others were soon set up in Missouri and Iowa.

Some of these co-operative ventures lingered on in skeleton form until as late as the 1890's. During this same general period Wilhelm Weitling, a German immigrant worker, tried, with but little success, to establish a utopian-conceived labor exchange bank, from which the workers would receive certificates to the full value of their product. It was Weitling's idea that this scheme would gradually replace capitalist production; but it soon went the way of all such enterprises.

In the 1840's and 1850's a big movement also developed toward producers' and consumers' co-operatives, which the numerous Utopians advanced as a social cure-all. Many of the great crop of land reformers of the period were also filled with grandiose conceptions of fundamental social change, largely of a Utopian character. Even as late as the 1890's traces of this agrarian utopianism were still to be observed, as for example, in the Debs colonization schemes  (see page 94).

The many Utopian colonies and movements which sprang up in the pre-Civil War period eventually died out because they were not based upon the realities of material conditions or upon an understanding of society and its laws of growth and decay. They were constructed according to arbitrary plans, emanating from wishful thinking. These little island colonies were artificial creations and could not survive in the midst of the broad capitalist sea, which inevitably engulfed them one and all. They proved, among other things, that it is impossible "to build the new society within the shell of the old."  The  more  definitely Utopian schemes, with the exception of Weitling's, never greatly attracted the workers, who turned to more practical projects, such as trade unionism and political action. They were mostly anti-slavery, but they had few Negro members. The supporters of the various Utopias consisted chiefly of white farmers and city middle class elements.

The great European Utopian leaders, with their artificially constructed social regimes and ignorance of the leading role of the workers, could not lay the foundations of a solid Socialist movement. Nevertheless, they performed a very useful service for the workers by their sharp condemnations of capitalist exploitation. As Marx and Engels pointed out, they were definitely the forerunners of scientific socialism. And as Engels said: "German theoretical socialism will never forget that it rests upon the shoulders of St. Simon, Fourier, and Owen, the three who, in spite of their fantastic notions and utopianism, belonged to the most significant heads of all time, and whose genius anticipated numerous things, the correctness of which can now be proved in a scientific way."

This, briefly, was the course of the class struggle in this country before the rise of Marxism. The workers were with increasing vigor combating their exploiters economically, politically, and ideologically, but in this fight, because of the youth of capitalism, the working class still lacked the class consciousness, energizing force, and clear direction, which finally was to manifest itself in the Communist Party.

1 Herbert M. Morais, The Struggle for American Freedom, pp. 254-57, N. Y., 1944.
2 V. I. Lenin, Capitalism and Agriculture in the United States, p. 40. N. Y., 1946.
3. Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, pp. 97-180, N.Y., 1947.
4 Mechanics' Free Press, Philadelphia, Aug. 16, 1828, cited by Foner,  History  of the Labor Movement in the U.S., p. 127.
5 Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the U.S., pp. 121-41.
6Mechanics' Free Press, Oct. 25, 1828.
7Mechanics' Free Press, June 5, 1830, cited by John R. Commons and associates, History of Labor in the United States, Vol. 1, p. 193, N. Y., 1918.
8The Working Man's Advocate, Oct. 31, 1829, cited by Commons, History of Labor in the U.S., Vol. 1, p. 238.
9Thomas Skidmore, The Rights of Man to Property, p. 6, N. Y., 1829.
10 Lewis H. Morgan, Ancient Society, Chicago, 1907.
11 Richard T. Ely, The Labor Movement in America, pp. 7-8, Boston, 1886.
12 Charles Nordhoff, The Communist Societies of the United States, N. Y., 1875.
13  Frederick Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, p. 28, N. Y., 1926.

Chapter 2

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