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February 20, 2001

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What Went Wrong?
Part II

by Townsend Walker, Sr.

[Editor’s note: In Part I, Mr. Townsend Walker argued that progressive voices in American have been stifled by the National Civic Federation and its descendants.]


The whole of the nineteenth century was a trajectory leading ineluctably to the creation of the National Civic Federation in 1900. Once the power elite of the colonial period had secured for itself control of the political process and the reins of governance, it could not have been otherwise. Indeed, with the 1788 adoption of the federal constitution legitimizing slavery (the scruples of some notwithstanding) and barring the toiling masses from the right to vote with "the great wall of property qualifications," there was a certain inevitability in certain key events of the next hundred years."

(Historian Howard Zinn has astutely observed in A People’s History of the U.S., "When economic interest is seen behind the political clauses of the Constitution, then the document becomes not simply the work of wise men trying to establish a decent and orderly society, but the work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support.")

The creation of the NCF in the waning days of the nineteenth century was a predestined consequence of all that had gone on before -- necessary, that is, if the accustomed ways of privilege and wealth were to endure in the aging nation. And today, another hundred years later and long after the demise of the NCF, we still live with the various incarnations of the latter (e.g., the Council on Foreign Relations, the Business Roundtable, the Committee for Economic Development, etc. (See G. Wm. Domhoff, Who Rules Ameria: Power and Politics in the Year 2000.)

Let us examine, then, the details of Swinton’s and Foner’s snapshots to better understand the inexorable nature of the force that led to the creation of the NCF and its successors. Note how the following numbered events are interconnected, forming a chain whose inner logic works overpoweringly to the advantage of the top echelons of society and, later, the creation of the NCF.

(1) The Civil War proved to be foremost among the instruments of enlightenment that were indispensable to the postbellum emergence of a radicalized labor movement. Often exploited by corrupt and fraudulent wartime employers, principled labor leaders of the North came to identify the plight of the working freeman with that of the southern slave. Thus, William Sylvis, strong proponent of organizing working men for political action, was the sparkplug of a group of which he wrote in 1861, "The business of this committee is to perfect and perpetuate an organization among the industrial classes...for the purpose of placing in positions of public who will represent us according to our wishes; men who will represent us according to our wishes; men who have not made politics a trade, who will not become the mere tools of rotten corporations and aristocratic monopolies, who will made good laws...(that) will best serve the interests of the whole people." Moreover, it was labor’s duty, Sylvis argued, to educate Lincoln and workers everywhere to the idea that working freeman and working slaves were alike beneficiaries of the freedom the war would bring. A straight line connects Sylvis with Lincoln’s dictum, "working men are the basis of all governments."

(2) The war that ended officially in 1866 added immensely to the economic development and wealth of the North, while the economic destruction in the southern states was so great that it took decades to recover. As Anthony Bimba observed in 1927, " the northern bourgeoisie had the whole country in its hands. Industry, commerce, banks, state power, press, schools, and churches -- all were under its control. The bourgeoisie was at last ‘almighty.’"

(3) On the other hand, the cost of living added immensely to the misery of the working class. While industrialists and money handlers reaped enormous profits from the war, those whose livelihood was their wages saw the cost of necessities increase 70 percent as wage increased only 30 percent. Again Bimba: "Conditions opened his (the wage earner’s) eyes and taught him that only through united action with his fellow workers could he lighten his burden."

(4) As a consequence, workers’ unions proliferated. Though the two national trade unions substantively active before the war had disappeared by 1862, by December 1863 there were 79 local unions in 20 industries. Within a year there were 270 embracing the fifty-three trades and 16 states. For the next thirty-five years the condition of the American working class was further catalyzed for the worse by economic depression and the disparity between the cost of living and wages received for work rendered, thus assuring continued growth of the nation’s labor movement.

(5) Very soon a growing awareness set in that local organizing efforts of workers were ineffective against the superior power, influence and solidarity of corporate America. "Only by nationalizing their struggle, and by establishing a unity among the working classes throughout all states" could the American worker realistically win for himself a better life (Workingman’s Advocate, Aug. 21, 1869 -- see Philip Foner’s History, V. 1, p. 370). Edward Schlegel, speaking for German workers, was applauded by fellow workers when he called for the repudiation of the two dominant parties -- "A new labor party must be formed, composed of the elements of American labor."

But the first post-war attempt to create a national labor movement was short-lived. The National Labor Union, founded in 1866 by men with strong convictions that the working class could have no confidence in the existing political parties, was little more than a wisp of fog on a summer day. By 1873 the NLU had passed from the scene. But even so, I suspect, the conclusion of its leaders that only the ballot box would "correct all the evils" did not go unnoticed by the captains of business and industry. More importantly, the short life span of the NLU prepared the soil from which would spring two organizations that would not pass so quietly into the dust bin of history. Even more than the NLU, these organizations would shortly impress those captains with their volatility and the uncertainties and dangers of an educated and organized work force to the burgeoning capitalist domain -- and become a factor in the creation of the National Civic Federation in 1900.

(6) Consider the Knights of Labor (KoL), originally a secret society of workers created in 1869. Its meteoric rise would dominate America labor for two decades. Frederick Engels himself would characterize the KoL as "the first national organization created by the American working class as a whole; whatever their origin and history, whatever their platform and their constitution, here they are, the work of practically the whole class of American wage-earners, the only national bond that holds them together, that makes their strength felt to themselves not less than to their enemies...the raw material out of which the future of the American working-class movement, and along with it, the future of American society at large, has to be shaped."

How eloquently and prophetically Engels spoke to the untrammeled promise of the Knights of Labor! And how true rang his identification of "the future of American society at large" with the identity of the American working class. So numerous, yet so at the mercy of the few who controlled the country’s wealth and political machinery, America’s workers had to come to an awareness of what they had to do to share in "the blessings of liberty" hitherto monopolized by the few. They needed to organize, still a recognized need in today’s lexicon of strategic imperatives. And they needed to educate themselves to the hard realities perpetuating their miserable existence.

"The fundamental principle of the Knights of Labor is Education," a declaration by the early Knights, stands at the head of Philip Foner’s exposition of the role education must play in labor’s struggle for dignity and justice. Foner continues, "It was a basic tent of the Knights that the workers would have to be educated before they could hope to assume the leadership in society which was their birthright...Since most of its members were "persons who...have been deprived of opportunities of knowledge as taught by schools," and since even those who had gone to school had not learned the truth of social, economic and political issues, but only distorted, anti-labor, pro-capital interpretations, it was necessary for the Order to establish its own educational apparatus and program."

Foner again: "the educational activities of the Order consisted of lectures given by prominent men and women in the organization as well as friendly progressives on the outside, and the establishment of libraries and reading rooms...The local assemblies...became a school of practical economics in many localities and dispelled the fallacies which have so long prevented the people from knowing what hurt them."

Perhaps at no other time in the evolution of the American labor movement was there so clear a vision of the need to rise above the parochial constraints imposed by a system of education controlled from above and dedicated to the maintenance of the status quo. Even among the Knights, however, the benefits among the working class of an educational program calculated to enhance self-awareness and promote resistance to the exploitive ways of capitalism among the working masses was crippled from above.

The leadership of the KoL used the practice of education in the abstract as a crutch to step around the bread-and-butter issues with which the rank and file wrestled every day. Issues like a shorter workday, better pay, decent working conditions, child labor -- translatable in our day to universal health care, a livable wage, education, the uses of technology and resources for a sustainable planet, etc. -- were subordinated to a vision of a far-off future beyond the ken of the everyday worker and only distantly connected to his present suffering. As Foner observes, "education became a substitute for action...strikes, boycotts and political activity [were to] be held in abeyance until the educational program had been fully developed...But the rank-and-file viewed education as a guide to correct action not in some distant future but in the day-to-day struggle they faced."

The Knights of Labor as an institution of the American worker could have had it both ways -- education now, concurrently with action now and improvement now in the lot of the common man. Its leaders, however, were lukewarm -- nay, downright opposed -- to its involvement in the political process, especially in the form of a labor party, on the ground that it was not in "accord with the genius of American institutions." Thus, by failing to put the understanding that comes with education to work in the arena, the KoL effectively denied itself access to the laboratory of practical application where theoretical understanding and action enhance one another and become one. That is why Karl Marx was moved as a young man to climax his little treatise Theses on Feuerback with this revolutionary dictum: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."

Even so, the Knights of Labor left on American history indelible marks that still challenge the reflective worker to investigate the curiosa of American labor: its being able to bring the railroad tycoon Jay ("I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half") Gould to his knees with the railroad strike of 1885, only to fade into the darkness of night; its organization and unification of the working class on a hitherto unprecedented scale in spite of a leadership that frustrated the hopes and dreams of the rank and file and ultimately collapsed the Order in 1893; Engels’ seeing the KoL, for all its shortcomings, as the first step of importance toward "the constitution of [the American] workers as an independent political party"; the ease with which the purveyors of the myth of American democracy have beguiled the many (Lincoln’s "working men") into unquestioningly serving Big Brother.

Anthony Bimba observed long ago that many factors contributed to the fall of the Knights of Labor, though "foremost, probably, was the treachery of the leaders of the Order."

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Townsend Walker, Sr. has been advocating universal health care since his retirement more than 20 years ago. He now edits New Vision- New Voices in Huntsville, AL. This essay has previously been published in NVNV and is reprinted here with permission.


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