Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Marxist-Leninist Collective

Proletarian Revolution and the Split in the Working Class


The Civil War and the subsequent westward expansion was a stimulant to the development of steel, mining, and other basic industries. The railroad system, the steam engine, the development of manufacture, and the spread of agriculture all reflected the rapid concentration of capital which was being increasingly exported to other nations with the rise of US imperialism in the 1870s and 1880s. In particular, capital was exported to Canada, Mexico, Latin America, the Black Nation, and the Southwest within the US state, the main reserves of US imperialism.

A. Skilled Workers in the Steel Industry

This rapid expansion and concentration of capital made certain changes necessary in the productive process, changes which had widespread affects on the working class. The development of the steel industry was typical. This was the period of competitive capitalism in the US. In much of industry, particularly steel, highly skilled workers had an important role in determining the speed and technique of production. Until the 1870’s, skilled steel workers would sign contracts with the company for production of a certain amount of steel. A “sliding scale” existed where wages were pegged to market prices. Skilled workers hired and trained unskilled helpers, who earned between one-sixth and one-half of what the skilled workers made. This resembled certain aspects of colonial handicraft and cottage industry. It was, in a sense, a ’social partnership’ between the skilled laborer and the employer, the latter having a limited influence and understanding of production. This was partly because the skilled workers had all the knowledge and skills necessary to produce the finished product and had, in addition, the authority to decide how the various tasks within the productive process would be carried out. This relative control by the skilled workers over the productive process was a result of the particular requirements of capitalism at this time.

In the 1880’s, as capital expanded and new markets opened tip, there was an increased demand for products. Monopoly capitalism was emerging from the competitive era. The question was, therefore, how to increase productivity and output, reduce the skilled workers’ control over the process, and simplify the work. This, of course, meant a struggle between the capitalist and skill ed worker, the latter represented by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL was founded in 1881 by northern European skilled immigrants, primarily to protect the narrow craft interests of the upper stratum of the proletariat. It was formed on the basis of trade unionism; opposed to an independent political party of the working class, its intent was to struggle for better conditions under capitalism. The AFL was plagued with national chauvinism and sectarianism towards the immigrants from southern Europe and towards Black workers who migrated from the Black Nation to the North after the 1890’s, and replaced skill ed northern Europeans. Unskilled workers, nation al minorities, and women were in fact excluded from the ranks of the AFL.

Frederick Taylor and his principles of scientific management, known as the Taylor system, gave the bourgeoisie an understanding of how to separate the mental and manual skills possessed by the skilled worker, leaving him without the former. Most mental tasks were moved from the shop floor to the engineering department. Men were replaced with machines, tasks were simplified, and labor was further divided. All this was designed to minimize the workers’ ability to influence or regulate production, to centralize knowledge and authority with management, to reduce the overall skill of the workers to a specialized one, applicable to a certain task only.

The Homestead Strike of 1892 was a strike provoked by US Steel in an attempt to break the hold of the skilled workers and their union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers (AA). New methods of production were needed, and the social relations of relative cooperation and social partnership between skilled worker and employer had to go. The advance of the productive forces could not occur without such a modification in the relations of production. The Homestead Strike was a lockout by the employers with the explicit aim of breaking the union. This was a turning point for the AA throughout the country; by 1910, the steel industry was entirely non-union. The employers were left to mechanize as much as they needed. Unprecedented developments occurred in every aspect of steel-making. The old labor system was replaced. The new process required neither the heavy laborers nor the highly-skilled craftsmen of the past. Rather, it required workers to operate the machines, and perform simplified and repetitive operations on them. A new category of workers was created to perform these tasks: machine operators known as ’semi-skilled’. These workers in this new category were brought in by the downgrading of the skilled workers and the upgrading of the unskilled. Between 1890 and 1910, productivity tripled in the steel industry. Whereas in 1884 skilled workers made as much as 67% more than the unskilled, between 1890-1910 the hourly wages of the unskilled steel-workers rose by about 20%, while the daily earnings of the skilled workers fell by as much as 70%.

The decline of a firmly established and conservative union rested on an inherent weakness: the Amalgamated Association was limited to skilled workers; its strength lay in its control of the supply of vital steelmaking skills. Mechanization undermined the base of the union’s power. Skilled workers were readily replaced by semi-skilled and unskilled workers. Within six to eight weeks, any worker could be trained. And so, strikebreakers were imported until the unions had been forced out. Some skilled workers remained in the industry, but they were not the highly skilled craftsmen of decades earlier, whose skills were applicable to other jobs and industries. They did not have the overall understanding of the production process that the old skilled workers possessed. Their skills were more specialized and they had a knowledge only of certain aspects of the production process. In 1884 more than one-third of all men employed in rolling mills were skilled, whereas by 1907, skilled workers constituted only 17% of all workers in the mills.

Despite the fact that the wages of the skilled workers had been cut drastically, the employers continued to maintain a substantial gap between the wages of the skilled on the one hand, and the unskilled on the other. The skilled workers made wages higher than the value of their labor-power. Some were brought into management and given high salaries and bonuses. The employers recognized the importance of forging an alliance with the skilled, even though these workers no longer played a decisive role in the production process. As history has shown, their function as ideological and social props within the working class has been crucial in maintaining the rule of the bourgeoisie.

Having become the unchallenged controllers of steel production, the employers were faced with the problem of ’labor discipline’. When the skilled workers had been ’partners’ in production, the problem of worker motivation did not arise; skilled workers felt they were working for themselves because they had a certain amount of control over the process of production. When this system was broken, the intensity of labor became an issue of sharp class struggle. Without the exclusiveness of the craft unions, the possibility that the workers might unite as a class to oppose the capitalist was greater than ever. The employers, developed new techniques to break down the basis for unity amongst workers, and to convince them that, as individuals, their interests were identical with those of their company.

New methods of wage payments and sew advancement policies were developed. The piecework schemes increased competition between workers as did an elaborate “job ladder” and division of labor. This hierarchy of classification for various jobs, each requiring a minimum amount of training and knowledge, continues today with over thirty different classifications of semiskilled operatives in the steel industry and with a seven cent differential separating each step.

In addition to bribing the skilled workers, the steel barons devised other methods which encouraged the identity of all workers with that of capital. Stock subscription plans were designed to provide stocks at reduced rates to employees. The employers started pension programs and only workers with ’good conduct’ and ’continuous service without absenteeism’ were eligible. Low cost housing was built near the steel plants. US Steel Corporation constructed tens of thousands of housing units in Gary, Indiana, during the first quarter of the century. The companies made available low-interest loans so that workers could become property-owners. The employers built schools, libraries and recreational facilities in these steel towns. We can see that many of these benefits and welfare programs were the roots of modern ’social reforms’ (unemployment insurance, GI loans, etc.) available to most workers and today administered by the state.

B. Influence of ’New Immigrants’, Women on Work Force

Another very important trend developing at the turn of the century that shaped the development of the US working class was the migration of ’new immigrants’ from eastern and southern Europe to the US. Prior to 1880, most of the immigrants had been skilled northern European workers, principally British, German, French, and Scandinavian. In 1910 northern Europeans constituted 407 of the work force and 62% of the skilled laborers. The exposure of these ’old Immigrants’ to trade union and socialist ideas in their homelands was part of the reason why they were instrumental in organizing the first trade unions in the US. But their subsequent privileged position as higher paid skilled workers was the basis for reformism and revisionism amongst them. The ’new immigrants’ on the other hand, from Italy, Spain, Yugoslavia, etc., came without skills and generally from peasant backgrounds compared to the northern Europeans. Except perhaps for the Irish, who had been exposed through the national struggle in Ireland, few of these newer immigrants had previous exposure to the working class movement or revolutionary theory. Both the AFL and the Socialist Party ignored the organization of these immigrants. By 1900 there were more than 30,000 steel workers from southern and eastern Europe. In 1910, Italians constituted 75% of the unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the steel industry, Irish, Asian, and Chicano workers were concentrated in mining and construction, particularly on the railroads.

Between 1890 and 1910, the number of women in the work force doubled from four to eight million. They were particularly concentrated in manufacturing, such as food processing, bookbinding, tobacco, and textiles. Their wages were half that of men in manufacturing. The AFL refused to organize women. Blacks in the 1880s and 1890s were pushed out of the skilled trades in the South by the national chauvinist policies of the AFL. The craft unions refused to admit Blacks and prohibited union members from working in shops employing non-union (Black) workers. The penetration of finance capital into the South, and the mechanisation of agriculture forced many Black sharecroppers off the land. Blacks began to migrate in large numbers to northern industry after 1910. They were employed principally as unskilled workers, below the southern Europeans who were primarily semi-skilled operatives. During the same period Chicanos represented 70-90% of the workforce in the railroads, from the West Coast to the Midwest. Chicane workers also dominated the developing agricultural industry in Texas and California. This opportunity for employment in the rail and agricultural industries led to an increase in both legal and illegal immigration from Mexico between the 1900 and 1920.[1]

The struggle for democratic rights amongst the foreign born, Blacks, Chicanos, women, and others who constituted the lower stratum of the working class was held back by the bankrupt, agents of the bourgeoisie, the AFL:

The 32nd Annual Convention of the American Federation of Labour, as the association of trade unions is called, has come to a close in Rochester. Alongside the rapidly growing Socialist Party, this association is a living relic of the past: of the old craft-union, liberal-bourgeois traditions that hang full-weight over America’s working-class aristocracy.[2]

The treacherous policies of the AFL in refusing to organize the ’new immigrants’, Blacks, Chicanos, Chinese, and women opened the door for the capitalists to use these workers as strikebreakers. This further split the working class.

The development of class consciousness and the spread of Marxism was stymied by the Socialist Party. Like the AFL, it was based in the upper stratum of the proletariat. The Party was to join the Second International and put forward a line of national chauvinism and ’evolutionary socialism’ (reformism).

The closing of the frontier, decline of skilled labor, and decreasing opportunity for upward mobility marked the changing of economic and social conditions which decades earlier had encouraged the development of reformism and revisionism amongst the skilled northern Europeans. Under these new conditions the International Workers of the World (IWW) was formed in 1905. Despite its anarcho-syndicalism, it was a major step forward. It was the first attempt since the abortive Knights of Labor in the 1870s to organize the most oppressed and exploited strata of the proletariat. Not until the 1930s, however, did the process of fusing Marxism-Leninism with the working class movement really begin. The 1930s saw a tremendous upsurge in the spontaneous resistance of the working class against the terrible effects of the economic crisis. The CPUSA, for a short period of time, actively participated in these spontaneous struggles, organizing and recruiting unskilled and semi-skilled workers of all nationalities, both male and female. It was during the 1930s that the CPUSA came out in support of the right to self-determination of the Negro Nation (largely in response to pressure from the Comintern), and became widely known as the ’party of the Negro’. The lower stratum of workers had as Engels said:

this immense advantage, that, their minds were virgin soil, entirely free from the inherited ’respectable’ bourgeois prejudices which hampered the brains of the better situated ’old unionists.’[3]

These workers rallied around the CPUSA – the only party attempting to give leadership to the workers’ struggles – and were in the forefront of the class struggle which raged throughout the US in the 1930’s. The northern Europeans, on the other hand, still had more possibility for upward mobility: they could become supervisors, technicians, foremen, and trade union bureaucrats.

Later, many skilled northern Europeans helped organize the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Many were maintenance workers who could move around the plant and communicate with all workers. They also had much trade union experience from their years in the AFL. Like their predecessors, the highly-paid crafts and early union leaders, most would betray their class and go over to the bourgeoisie. A few good examples are Walter Reuther, United Auto Workers, a German toolmaker; L.S. Buckmaster, Rubber Workers, an English coppersmith; Al Hayes, Machinist, a Scottish mill-right; John L. Lewis, United Mine Workers, skilled Welsh miner. These men, along with the early AFL leaders such as Gompers, are the forerunners of the modern-day labor aristocracy.


[1] August Twenty-Ninth Movement (M-L), Fan the Flames: A Revolutionary Position on the Chicano National Question. 1976, pp. 44-46,

[2] V.I. Lenin, “In America”, CW, Vol. 36, p. 214.

[3] F. Engels, “Preface to the English Edition of 1892”, The Condition of the Working Class in England, Stanford University Press, 1958, p. 371.