J.R. Johnson

In the American Tradition

The Working-Class Movement in Perspective

(November 1943)

Originally published in The New International, Vol. IX No. 10, November 1943, pp. 306–309.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Proofread by Einde O’Callaghan for MIA. (July 2015)

“But I consider this certain: the purely bourgeois basis with no pre-bourgeois swindle behind it, the corresponding colossal energy of the development... will one day bring about a change which will astound the whole world. Once the Americans get started it will be with an energy and violence compared with which we in Europe shall be mere children.” [1]

Thus on the 30th of March, 1892, Engels wrote from London to a friend in America. Marx and Engels knew that in every country, in whatever continent, the socialist revolution denoted the seizure of power by the working class under circumstances dictated by the law of uneven development and the historical peculiarities of each country. But they were sensitive to the subjective qualities of different sections of the international proletariat. Thus they looked upon the German proletariat as the most theoretical in Europe; the British workers were somewhat slow but once they had gained some advantage, did not let it go lightly, etc. In his last years, Engels always wrote about the American proletariat in such terms as the above. It is therefore important to see what Engels thought, why he thought it, to examine the historical development since his death and to see how far his analysis and expectations have been justified. This, useful at all times, is particularly necessary today because Engels was stirred to write about America at the time when it seemed to him that a national labor party was at last on its way.

Engels based his views on two fundamental facts. The country in 1886 is “rich, vast, expanding.” That is its special economic characteristic. Its special historic characteristic is that its political institutions are “purely bourgeois ... unleavened by feudal remnants....” These combined give to the economy a tremendous power of development and this national characteristic is of necessity imbued in the proletariat. Yet at the same time “in every young country” where the development is of a predominantly material nature, there is a “certain backwardness of thought, a clinging to traditions connected with the foundations of the new nationality....” The “exigencies” of practical labor and the concentrating of capital “have produced a contempt for all theory” and in such a country the people must become conscious of their own social interests by making “blunder upon blunder....” But always he insists that when the workers begin their political development it will be like nothing ever seen before. They will go fast, “faster than anywhere else, even though on a singular road, which seems from the theoretical standpoint, to be almost an insane road.”

It would be perhaps most fruitful to begin with a comparison between the economic and political development of the working class movement in America with the working class movement in Great Britain. For Marx and Engels, England was the model capitalist country and in their day the most fully developed. It is the easier to do so because in his observations on America, Engels constantly referred to earlier parallel and future developments in Britain.

The National Tradition

The “traditions connected with the foundations of the new nationality” date back to before the American Revolution. But just as the French Revolution is the foundation of the modern French nation and the English Revolution in the seventeenth century is the foundation of modern Britain, just so the modern American nation finds its roots in 1776. This revolution differs sharply from the other two. A hundred and fifty years before, in Britain, the Cromwellian Revolution produced a powerful combination of petty bourgeois and neo-proletarian elements. They raised a program for political democracy which was not realized in Britain until over two hundred years afterward. Though they raised the question of property openly in debate with Cromwell, they were not communists. The real communists, the Levellers and the Diggers, were a small minority to the left of this movement which was so large and well organized that it almost drove Cromwell and his associates into the arms of the monarchy. He had to suppress these formidable revolutionaries by force. Carlyle calls them “sans culottes before their time.” The real sans culottes were the driving force and the mainstay of the French Revolution. From that day to this the French bourgeoisie has lived in terror of revolutionary Paris.

No such conflicts took place in the American Revolution. Whereas the other two nationalities were born out of civil war, the American nation was born in a national struggle against foreign rule. Despite the very real class differences among the American revolutionaries and the struggle against the Loyalists, yet bourgeoisie, farmers, artisans and mechanics were a more or less homogeneous whole against British imperialism. Their ancestors had left European tyranny behind. Now they were clearing it out of the magnificent new country for good. The economic opportunities of this rich and vast new world prevented the extreme sharpening of class relations which characterized the old, but the consequent absence of sharp class political differentiation had powerful subjective reinforcement in the very circumstances under which the American people first felt themselves a nation.

It is this which Engels refers to fifty years ago, and today, despite the unprecedented development during the last twenty-five years, this sense of America being a free country, inherently different from the rest of the world, is still enormously powerful among all sections of the people. It has its drawbacks, but it has its virtues also.

But if, except for Shay’s Rebellion, the American masses did not assert themselves with the vigor and independence of the English petty bourgeoisie and the French sans culottes, they ran far, far ahead of Europe politically in the years immediately following their revolution. By 1825 the battle for manhood suffrage had been won. The vote of the farmers and the masses in the towns exercized an influence upon the ruling class, upon legislative machinery and upon the “money power” which today might seem more illusory than real. For it to be appreciated it should be seen in comparison with conditions in Britain, reputedly the classic country of bourgeois democracy.

Politics and the British Workers

If 1776 saw the Declaration of Independence of the American commercial bourgeoisie, in the same year appeared The Wealth of Nations, the declaration of independence of the British industrial bourgeoisie. Britain entered upon a period of dazzling economic development. Politically, however, the country was a hundred years behind the United States. Feudal remnants had Britain by the throat. G.K. Chesterton has summed up the situation perfectly when he contrasted the Commons with a capital C and the commons with a small c. The English aristocracy ruled in the House of Lords and their sons, brothers and sons-in-law sat in the House of Commons in close alliance with the financial and commercial magnates. Not only the masses of the people but even the rising industrial bourgeoisie were excluded. It took nearly fifty years to break this political stranglehold of the feudal remnants. Britain reached the verge of revolution in 1832 before the aristocracy gave way. Yet the Great Reform Bill of 1832 enfranchised only some 200,000 people. The masses, whose revolutionary agitation and direct action were the main causes of the bill being passed, were entirely excluded. This political advance was so eminently satisfactory to Lord John Russell, who pioneered the bill, that he became known afterward as “Finality John.”

We shall understand America better if we continue with Britain. The masses, disappointed with the results of the Reform Bill, started the Chartist agitation. It lasted from 1839 to 1848 and embraced millions of British workers. Its demands were a curious mixture of political and social aspirations which we shall meet again forty years later in the Knights of Labor in the United States. Politics, however, predominated. The Chartists demanded universal suffrage, equal electoral areas, payment of members of Parliament, no property qualifications, vote by ballot and annual Parliaments. But they aimed also at “social equality.” A worker needed a good house, good clothes and “plenty of good food and drink to make him look and feel happy.” They were not quite sure how they were to achieve all this and wavered between petitions and direct action which on one occasion reached the stage of a half-hearted general strike and on another a planned insurrection.

The movement suddenly collapsed in 1848. In 1846 the Corn Laws, by which the British landlords had kept up the price of corn, were abolished. The British industrialists, on the basis of cheap food, began that economic development by which Britain dominated the world market for forty years. The Chartist movement faded away. In 1851 the workers’ movement took the form of slow and solid craft unionism, which dominated the British labor movement for forty years, the same period of time that Britain dominated the world market. It took the same forty years before Britain achieved manhood suffrage. The workers in the town got the vote only in 1867 and the workers in the country only in 1888.

The American “Chartists”

In America between 1825 and 1850 industries are at a far lower stage of development than they are in Britain. But we have the beginnings of a labor movement, and the utopian socialism of Fourier and Owen flourishes not only in theory but in practice. Between 1850 and 1860 the growth of industry brings numerous strikes, fought out with the customary vigor of the American working class. But the political development of the country is overshadowed by the necessity of crushing the slave power. Astonishing development! Such is the territorial extent of America that the crushing of the plantation owners is a regional struggle. The industrial bourgeoisie wins its victory in civil conflict so gigantic that it is the first great modern war. Yet it manages this without a single serious clash with the workers. [2] The leader of the bourgeoisie is a national hero who fights “to save the Union” and later to abolish slavery.

Yet the signs of a mass labor movement with political aspirations were ominously clear. This movement, however, was deflected by the richness and the vastness of the country and the absence of feudal relations. In the average European country there would have been no land. If there had been any it would have been owned by some noblemen. The Homestead Act of 1862, which opened up free land to the more dissatisfied and adventurous of the proletariat, diluted the independent political aspirations of the working class. America enters upon a period of industrial development comparable to that of Britain between 1784 and 1848. It took fifty years in Britain to produce Chartism. In America, where the energy of development is so colossal, the movement corresponding to Chartism appeared within less than ten years.

The Knights of Labor was organized in 1869, as a secret society. By 1879 the secrecy was discarded and between 1879 and 1886 it developed in much the same way and on much the same scale that Chartism had developed forty years before. The Knights wished “to secure to the workers the full enjoyment of the wealth they create, sufficient leisure in which to develop their intellectual, moral and social faculties, all of the benefits, recreations and pleasures of association.” The similarity to the ideas of the Chartists is very striking. Like the Chartists, the Knights aimed at a new social order, but they were not socialist in the European sense. Their main demands were not political because, being Americans, they already had political freedom. But in accordance with their country and their time, they demanded the reserving of public lands for actual settlers, the abolition of the contract system of labor and public works, the eight-hour day, etc. Like the Chartists, the movement aimed at helping all workers in all fields. Suddenly in 1886, the year of the “Great Upheaval,” the Knights of Labor claimed international attention.

Late in 1885 and early in 1886 a huge strike movement, based on their struggle for the eight-hour day, swept over the United States. A number of Labor Parties sprang into being. In November, 1886, candidates of the newly formed Labor Parties were successful in the municipal elections. In New York City, where a united Labor Party had been formed only in July, it put forward Henry George as candidate. The Democrat got 90,000 votes. George came next with 68,000, beating Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican candidate, by 8,000 votes. The Chartists had aimed at more but done much less.

Engels in London greeted the upheaval as the dawn of a new age. On June 3 he writes to America:

“Six months ago nobody suspected anything, and now they appear all of a sudden in such organized masses as to strike terror into the whole capitalist class. I only wish Marx could have lived to see it.”

The old man was sixty-six, but he reacted with the exuberance of someone who had just joined the movement.

In November after the electoral successes he writes again and takes up the question of the National Labor Party.

“The first great step of importance for every country entering the movement is always the organization of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party. And this step has been taken far more rapidly than we had a right to hope, and that is the main thing. That the first program of the party is still confused and highly deficient, that it has set up the banner of Henry George, these are inevitable evils, but also only transitory ones. The masses must have time and opportunity to develop, and they can only have the opportunity when they have their own movement – no matter in what form, so far as it is only their own movement — in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn wisdom by hurting themselves. The movement in America is in the same condition as it was with us before 1848....”

That the movement had attained such electoral successes after only eight months of existence was “absolutely unheard of.”

Engels warned the German émigrés working in the movement not to be doctrinaire.

“A million or two of working men’s votes next November for a bona-fide workingmen’s party is worth infinitely more at present than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinably perfect platform.”

These ideas Engels repeated formally in his introduction to the American edition of The Conditions of the Working Class in England. The passage is worth ample quotation.

In February 1885, American public opinion was almost unanimous on this one point; that there was no working class in the European sense of the word in America; that, secondly, no class struggle between workmen and capitalists such as tore European society to pieces was possible in the American Republic, and that therefore socialism was a thing of foreign importation which could never take root on American soil. And yet at that moment the coming class struggle was casting its gigantic shadow before it in the strikes of the Pennsylvania coal miners and of many other trades and especially in the preparations all over the country for the great eight-hour movement which was to come off and did come off in She May following. That I duly appreciated these symptoms, that I anticipated the working class movement on a national scale, my Appendix shows; but no one could then foresee that in such a short time the movement would burst out with such irresistible force, would spread with the rapidity of a prairie fire, would shake American society to its foundations.

The spontaneous and instinctive movements of these vast masses of working people, over a vast extent of country, the simultaneous outburst of their common discontent with the miserable social conditions, the same and due to the same causes, made them conscious of the fact that they formed the new and distinct class of American society... and with true American instinct this consciousness led them at once to take the next step toward their deliverance; the formation of the political working-men’s party, on a platform of its own and with the conquest of the Capitol and the White House for its goal.

A passage which followed is even more significant. For Engels the working class movement developed in two stages, the mass trade union movement acting on a national scale and the independent labor party, also on a national scale. Usually there is a lengthy period between both of these. But history can develop very rapidly and Engels writes:

On the more favored soil of America, where no medieval ruins bar the way, where history begins with the elements of modern bourgeois society, as evolved in the seventeenth century, the working class passed through these two stages of its development within ten months.

Engels really thought that the moment had come in America. In November, 1886, he had written that the American bourgeoisie was persecuting the movement so “shamelessly and tyrannically” that it would bring matters rapidly to a decision “and if we in Europe do not hurry up, the Americans will soon be ahead of us.” That was on November 29. Three weeks before, in his preface to the first English translation of Capital, he had shown that he was expecting social revolution in Britain. The number of unemployed in Britain was swelling from year to year “and we can almost calculate the moment when the unemployed, losing patience, will take their own fate into their own hands.”

In both instances, the expectation was not realized. [3] In Britain the British bourgeoisie solved the problem by the export of finance capital, thus ushering in the age of imperialism. In the United States once more the vastness and richness of the country came to the rescue of the bourgeoisie.

The Turn of the Century

Let us once more take a rapid survey of British development.

It was only three years after Engels’ preface to the English edition of Capital that Britain found itself in turmoil. The year 1888 was the year of two famous strikes in Britain: the dock strike and the match girls’ strike. There was none of the violence associated with similar large-scale actions in the United States. The strikes, in fact, evoked great popular sympathy. They were triumphant and they marked the beginning of the organization of the unskilled workers in Britain. Let us note that this took place precisely at the moment when Britain was beginning to lose its almost exclusive domination of the world market and just a few years after the working class in the agricultural areas had got the vote. But the long lag behind the political activity of the American masses was now rapidly overcome. Hitherto the British working class had on the whole supported the liberals. In 1892, however, Keir Hardie, a Scottish miner, and an avowed socialist, founded the first independent labor party. The Trade Union Congress had refused to have anything to do with Hardie at first. Then (as now) there was the usual lamentation that the formation of an independent labor party would weaken the “progressive” vote and so let in the reactionaries. For many years there had been working class members in Parliament elected from predominantly working class constituencies. They had supported the labor-liberal combination almost exclusively. But the work of Marx and Engels and their associates on the First International now bore fruit. By 1899 a joint committee of the Trade Union Congress, the Independent Labor Party and some socialist societies, was organized. The British Labor Party was on its way.

In 1906, out of fifty candidates, twenty-nine were successful. In 1918 there were sixty-one members in Parliament; in 1922, 142 members; in 1923, 191, and the first Labor government took office in 1924.

Even for Britain this development was extraordinary, taking into consideration the long years that the British workers had had to fight in order to gain manhood suffrage toward the end of the century. One reason for the success lay in the strength of the trade union movement which is the base of the Labor Party in Britain. And the strength of the trade union movement lay not only in the cohesiveness of the British people but in the fact that between 1848 and the end of the century Britain became industrialized to a degree far surpassing that of any other great European country. Britain imported food and raw materials and exported manufactured goods. The population was proletarianized until by 1914 Britain was between sixty per cent and seventy per cent “proletarian.” On this basis and the political pressure of a declining economy, the British workers pushed ahead in the representation of their interests by a national Labor Party. [4]

Exactly the opposite is the development in America. After 1886 the Knights of Labor rapidly declined. American labor historians have blamed the failure upon the weakness of the bureaucracy, etc. There is no need to go into these questions here. It is sufficient that immediately after the failure of the Knights, the American Federation of Labor emerged to prominence and took much the same place in the American labor movement that the craft unions in Britain had taken after the Chartist fiasco in 1848.

Engels visited America in 1888. He saw at first-hand the immigrant problem and other subjective difficulties from which the American working class suffered. In 1892 he put his finger on the fundamental weakness behind its slow political development.

Land is the basis of speculation, and the American speculative mania and speculative opportunity are the chief levers that hold the native-born worker in bondage to the bourgeoisie. Only when there is a generation of native-born workers that cannot expect anything from speculation any more will we have a solid foothold in America.”

Yet so strong was his belief that the national characteristic would find powerful expression in the American proletariat that it was in that very 1892, after the failure of the Knights was patent, that he penned the confident words which head this article.

History slowly but nevertheless surely is justifying his concept of American development. Between 1880 and 1914 American industry developed with the colossal American energy, and the American proletariat reacted with equal vigor. The Homestead strike in 1892, the Pullman strike of 1894, the anthracite coal miners’ strike in 1902, these were working class actions which astonished the world and, in Engels’ words, struck terror into the hearts of the American bourgeoisie. But whereas in Britain industry overwhelmingly outdistanced agriculture, in the United States, American industry developed not only itself but American agriculture as well. The total population of the United States in 186o was not thirty millions. In 1910 there were more than fifty million people living on farms or in villages dependent upon agriculture. The AFL grew steadily and a Socialist Party appeared toward the end of the century. By 1908, however, the Socialist Party could boast of only one member of Congress. In 1914 the national party of labor was pretty much where it had been after the failure of the Knights of Labor.

Yet the colossal energy of the development was perfectly visible, though Engels was not there to trace it after 1895. The later development of agriculture was thoroughly capitalistic. The disruption which capitalism carries into the countryside and financial swindling raised the wrath of the farmers and they replied with a “Populist” movement which repeatedly rocked the whole political life of the country. Though the rapid penetration of industry into the West prevented the organized extension of trade unions such as characterized countries with a more peaceful development like Britain and Germany, yet even to these unstable conditions, the American working class reacted with an organization unique in the history of organized labor.

In the years just previous to the First World War, the work of the IWW among the textile workers in Massachusetts, in the Western Federation of Miners and among nomadic workers, such as lumbermen and longshoremen, gave them a reputation which spread over the whole world and earned them the ferocious hatred of the American bourgeoisie. Their strikes for “free speech” and the fearless energies with which they threw themselves into all their industrial struggles made them internationally famous. Their songs and slogans have traveled all over the world. This is particularly remarkable because only for a few years in Australia did the movement ever take hold in any other country. It was a characteristic American phenomenon.

The end of the First World War saw the United States pass rapidly through a period of the export of finance-capital. By 1929, however, the world crisis put an end to capitalist expansion on a world scale. Thereupon this most capitalistic of all countries experienced a crisis of a scope and depth far exceeding all other previous crises and greater than that of all the other countries of the world put together. America had now reached the stage that Britain had reached in 1888. The American proletariat, true to the national tradition, replied in kind. History will record that between 1935 and 1948 the American proletariat, in the organization of the CIO, did exactly what Engels fifty years before had prophesied. “Once the Americans get started, it will be with an energy and violence compared with which we in Europe shall be mere children.”

The land boom is now over, the immigrant elements are being kneaded into a whole. The organization of labor and the struggles on the industrial field have given the American worker that class consciousness which has been so absent in his past. The American proletariat now faces the organization of an independent national party of labor. We need have no doubt that when the moment comes it will be true to its traditions.


1. Marx-Engels Correspondence, page 497. The Correspondence has a fairly good collection of the letters to America. Science and Society, spring and summer 1938, contain letters which are not in the Correspondence.

2. The draft riots lasted only a few days.

3. It is easy to point out the numerous occasions when Marx and Engels made predictions about revolution which did not come true and which seemed indeed to be wide of the mark. In their early days some of this was due to youthful enthusiasm. Later it was different. Whenever the possibility of revolution appeared, they threw themselves into it, hoping to make the best of the opportunities. In 1891 Bebel asked Engels if he had prophesied the collapse of bourgeois society in 1898. Engels replied: “All I said was we might possibly come to power in 1898 ... An old casing like this can survive its inner essential death for a few decades, if the atmosphere is undisturbed.”

4. We do not propose here to go into the history of its failures. The history of the Social-Democracy in Europe, its rise and decline, are well known to the readers of The New International.

Last updated on 10 July 2015