Franz Mehring

Review of Hermann Schlüter’s The Beginnings of the German Labor Movement in America


Source: Franz Mehring, Literarische Rundschau: Hermann Schlüter, Die Anfänge der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung in Amerika (Stuttgart: J.H.W. Dietz Nachfolger, 1907, 216pp.), Die Neue Zeit, Vol.26, No.1 (1907-08) pp.347-49.
Translated & transcribed by Daniel Gaido. [1]
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Comrade Schlüter, the founder of our party archive, who under [Bismarck’s] Anti-Socialist Laws fought in the first line, and which, for a number of years already, has been editing our party organ in New York [the New Yorker Volkszeitung], has made in this work a very valuable contribution to the history of the modern labor movement, which he knows as intimately as few others. With amazing diligence, and with an ever more amazing good fortune, he has been able to gather the literary remains of the German working class movement in the United States, and especially in New York, until the Civil War, and in that way was able to preserve a wealth of primary sources, that without his painstaking care would otherwise have been lost forever.

That would have been all the more regrettable because, as Schlüter rightly puts it, it is doubtful whether there is another city in the world offering such a classical ground for the observation of the different stages that the proletarian struggle for emancipation had to go through, as the city of New York. It is like the physicist, who looks at the natural phenomena where they appear in their most precise form and less tarnished by disturbing influences. Those disturbing influences have incessantly stood in the way of the normal development of the modern working-class movement in Germany. Thus, for instance, during the fifties [of the nineteenth century] the weight of reaction deprived the proletariat even of the memory of its independent movement; during the sixties and seventies the bourgeois struggles for freedom torn apart the young working-class party for more than a decade; during the eighties the law against the socialists forced the irresistibly growing stream into a underground course; and up to the present, a very significant part of the proletarian forces has to be employed in fighting for demands, that the bourgeois classes should have accomplished long ago, but which they have ignominiously betrayed.

That does not mean, of course, that due to the great complexities of its fatherland the German working class movement has been less significant or instructive. On the contrary! But for that reason it is no less interesting to see, how it has developed in a place where it is completely free from those obstructing influences, such as the United States, and especially New York. That is why Schlüter has no reason to apologize for having “overloaded with material” his work. Rather, the articles, programs, proclamations, etc. which he reproduces in his work, though perhaps not an exciting reading in the superficial sense of the word, are absolutely necessary in order to offer a thorough picture of the German labor movement in the American metropolis, and extremely interesting for those who do not look in such books for idle amusement, but for real instruction – especially since Schlüter, which is one of the most trained heads of Marxism, always remains the master of his subject matter.

Moreover, his work by no means lacks chapters able to arouse the literary interest of the readers, as well as the scientific interest of the researcher. We are referring above all to the sections on Hermann Kriege, Wilhelm Weitling and Joseph Weydemeyer. Kriege and his Volkstribun [People’s Tribune] appear in Schlüter’s work in the same unfavorable light as in the well-known circular which Marx and Engels addressed from Brussels against Kriege’s enervating propaganda. The Volkstribun was the first German labor newspaper in New York, if not in the whole of the United States. Shortly before it, the Adoptivbürger [Adoptive Citizen], edited by G. Dietz, had already appeared in Philadelphia, only to disappear shortly afterwards, in January 1948. In that same month and year began to appear the Volkstribun with the motto: “Up with Work! Down with Capital!” [Die Arbeit hoch! Nieder mit dem Kapital!] and the picture of Masaniello, the Neapolitan people’s tribune, as head-piece.

The Volkstribun was a weekly newspaper. It lasted for only one year, during which it underwent several metamorphoses. Kriege sent to a number of rich bourgeois a series of letters begging for money, which he signed “A Fool,” “A Nobody,” and sometimes also with his own name, in order to raise a few dollars for his newspaper. Schlüter reproduces one of those letters, which tends to confirm the suspicion, that Kriege had already fell victim to the insanity to which he succumbed a few years later. His articles in the Volkstribun were no less insane that those letters, and fully justify the steps taken against him by the communists in Brussels. Kriege answered the [excommunication] “papal bull” with the usual empty talk, i.e. that he wanted “to help humanity make a real step forwards,” whereas his critics wanted to “do” nothing. His “purely positive work,” however, turned out to consist in throwing himself into the arms of Tammany Hall, the most corrupt political clique of New York, and preach the most bloodthirsty war propaganda about the conflict over the Oregon Territory, raging at that time between England and the United States.

Weitling’s disavowal by the European communists set him in a bad light, but he belongs to a completely different category from Kriege. Schlüter offers much new material about him, and not only over his activities in America. Thus, for instance, he shows that Weitling was the son of a French officer, which perished in the Russian campaign of 1812. Weitling conducted in the United States what for that time was a very significant working class agitation, even if unfortunately it did not have the original freshness and strength of his Swiss agitation. Since his break with Marx, Weitling had lost his sense of orientation, and he seems to have felt it, to judge from the truly unnatural hate he entertained against Marx, which he allowed to burst into the wildest calumnies. Weitling was opposed both to the trade unionist and the political organization of the workers; he placed all his hopes in utopian plans, such as the creation of labor exchange banks and communist colonies.

Nevertheless, he succeeded in building a workers’ organization and to convene the first German-American labor congress, which met in 1850 in Philadelphia, as well as in founding an organ of the organization called Republik der Arbeiter [Workers’ Republic], which however lasted for only one year. From January 1850 to April 1851 the Workers’ Republic appeared weekly. It ceased publication in July 1855, whereupon Weitling, after the inevitable disappointments, retired from the working class movement. Through Democratic influences has received a post in Castle Garden, then the immigration bureau of New York, as a registrar of the German immigrants. He lost that post at the beginning of the Civil War, partly out of disgust with the vexations to which he was subjected as a Democrat (he didn’t have the slightest interest in the abolition of Negro slavery) by the Republican administration, and partly voluntarily, as he couldn’t accede to the demand of persuading the young immigrants coming to his office to take part in the war. He devoted himself to inventions, in which he employed his genial talents. He built a machine to make buttonholes, which was at the same time an embroidery machine, but was cheated of the profits of his work by the large sewing-machine firm Singer & Co. He died on the 25th of January 1871, three days after having attended an anniversary celebration of the New York sections of the International. In spite of all his faults and failures, Weitling left behind, during his American as well as during his European period, a personally very sympathetic impression, to which Schlüter gives eloquent expression. Only his absurd invectives against Marx set his character in a very bad light.

The beginnings of the German labor movement found their most prominent representative in Joseph Weydemeyer, the friend of Marx and Engels, about whom some documentary material has been reproduced in the previous issues of this magazine [Die Neue Zeit]. Next to him should be mentioned Adolph Cluss, though the latter was a much inferior figure. Both worked together in the Reform, which began to appear from March 5, 1853, first as a weekly, then twice a week, then from the fall of that year as a daily. It only managed to survive for little more than a year, but as long as it was a weekly, it can, as Schlüter states, proudly bear comparison with its successors as a revolutionary working class periodical. Its real editor was a certain G. Kellner, an old fighter from the 1848 revolution, who lacked clarity on the main questions of the working class movement. He tried to make the paper acceptable to the German bourgeois in New York, but they did not forgive him its original standpoint, and let it go down. Weydemeyer then continued to put out pamphlets, even when the crisis crippled the labor movement and the slavery question began to overshadow it. According to a well-know dictum by Marx, a healthy working class movement in America was unthinkable before the abolition of slavery, and that was also the opinion of Weydemeyer, who, first with the plume and then with the sword, waged a passionate and glorious fight against the slave barons.

Schlüter deals in a thorough fashion with these issues, in a special chapter on the Negro slavery and the working class movement, which is one of the most instructive in the whole book. With the outbreak of the great Civil War ends therefore the period which for the present he has chosen to describe, and we close with the wish, that he will be able to find enough leisure time to describe the later stages of the German-American working class movement in the same captivating manner.



Note by the Translator

1. Hermann Schlüter (1851-1919) was a member of the editorial staff of the Sozialdemokrat in Zurich and London and organized the archives of the German Social-Democratic Party. In 1889 he was forced by Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws to migrate to the United States. He became the editor of the main German organ of the Debsian Socialist Party, the New Yorker Volkszeitung. On Schlüter’s early biography see pages 21 to 29 of Paul Mayer, Die Geschichte des sozialdemokratischen Parteiarchivs und das Schicksal des Marx-Engels-Nachlasses, Archiv für Sozialgeschichte, Vols.VI/VII, (1966/67), pp.5-198. Schlüter was a frequent correspondent of Engels and an intimate friend of the leader of the First International in the US, Friedrich Sorge. In the chapter of his autobiography dealing with his exile in New York, Trotsky states: “In the German federation old Schlüter, the editor-in-chief of the Volkszeitung, and a comrade in arms of Hillquit’s, was more and more yielding his influence to the young editor Ludwig Lore, who shared our views.” (Trotsky, My Life, Ch. 22, New York). The year before his death we find him writing for the organ of the Socialist Party left wing, The Class Struggle, edited by the future leaders of early American Communism: Hermann Schlüter, Marx and the International, The Class Struggle, Vol.2, No.3, (May-June 1918), pp.271-88. Schlüter retained his post as editor of the Volkszeitung until his death in January 1919, when he was replaced by Lore: see his obituary in the New York Call, January 31, 1919 (Lore later had the honour of being the first person expelled for Trotskyism in the American CP). Schlüter’s 1907 book Die Anfänge der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung in Amerika was reprinted in 1984 with a preface by Carol Poore (New York: P. Lang). As Mehring hoped, he did succeed in completing two other volumes on the later history of the American working class movement: Lincoln, Labor and Slavery: A Chapter from the Social History of America, New York, Socialist Literature Co., 1913 (reprint: New York: Russell & Russell, 1965), and Die Internationale in Amerika: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Arbeiter-Bewegung in den Vereinigten Staaten [The First International in America: A Contribution to the History of the Working Class Movement in the United States], Chicago: Deutsche Sprachsgruppe der Sozialistsiche Partei der Vereinigten Staaten, 1918. The latter work has unfortunately not yet been translated to English. Schlüter is also the author of a study on The Brewing Industry and the Brewery Workers’ Movement in America, Cincinnati, Ohio: International Union of United Brewery Workmen of America, 1910, as well as of a history of the Chartist movement: Die Chartisten-Bewegung: Ein Beitrag zur Sozialpolitischen Geschichte Englands, New York: Socialist Literature Company, 1916, 368 pp. The early version of this book was reviewed by Engels and is now included in the German edition of the Marx-Engels Collected Works: see Renate Merkel-Melis, Engels’ Mitarbeit an Hermann Schlüters Broschüre Die Chartistenbewegung in England, MEGA-Studien, 1995/1, pp.5-32. Schlüter’s archives are located at the library of the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam:
Inventar Nachlass Hermann Schlüter (1851-1919)


Last updated on 7.7.2004