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March 27, 2001

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What Went Wrong?
Part III

by Townsend L. Walker, Sr.

"The National Civic Federation is crucial to an understanding of how the power elite shaped social legislation in the twentieth century."

-- G. William Domhoff in The Higher Circles.

In every sense of the word, the year 1900 would be fateful for the United States of America and its people. It was prophetic in its relation to what happened the next hundred years within the nation’s borders. It was significant and decisive in having important consequences for the shaping of public policies and the mindset of the American people. In hindsight the creation of the National Civic Federation (NCF) in December of that year would ultimately control as if by fate the destiny of the nation and give to the word democracy a new and perverse meaning rooted in deception and greed. Finally, it would bring about death and destruction on a scale so colossal as to boggle the mind. (See the definition of "fateful" in Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, 1970.)

Many readers may question the use of the word fateful to capture the significance of the creation of an organization so veiled to contemporary consciousness that it might as well have occurred in the nether regions of the moon. Sixty years ago my college textbook on American history for the period 1865-1940, written by one of the century’s most distinguished historians, has no mention of the NCF. The National Academy of Design, yes. The National Cordage Association, yes. The National Federation of Musical Clubs, yes. But the National Civic Federation that would lay the groundwork for the systematic purging of progressive thought from American discourse and the arraying of the working class against itself, no.

It is to be expected, therefore, that, given our nigh universal ignorance of the significance of NCF, cries of outrage and betrayal will greet what is set forth here. But not from those who have read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or G. William Domhoff’s Who Rules America? or Matthew Josephson’s classic of seventy years ago The Robber Barrons, or John Knowles’ little monograph of 1973, The Rockefeller Financial Group, or Ferdinand Lundberg’s 1968 expose of who really owns America in The Rich and the Super-rich, and volumes one and two of Philip Foner’s History of the Labor Movement in the United States. What then, is to be learned from the likes of these? Much in every way.

By 1875 depressions, declining wages and the iron-fisted repression by captains of America’s industrial and financial might had become too onerous for common workers to bear. Everywhere, workers on production lines and railroads, in mines and fields -- wherever men, women and children eked out the daily wage that kept body and soul together -- were pressed to the limits of endurance. Something had to give. And did. People rediscovered the truth of age-old adages: "your strength is in your union," "united we stand, divided we fall" -- and put the truth to practice in workers’ associations and unions.

Between its founding in 1869 and its virtual demise by 1900, the Knights of Labor struck terror in the hearts of industry and big business. Foner observes that "A crusading spirit swept the working class. The unity of all workers, Negro and white, men and women, native-born and foreign-born against their common exploiters fired the imagination, aroused the initiative, and inspired the confidence of the great masses in the Knights to accomplish remarkable deeds. The army of labor was surging forward. It was winning important victories. Its spirit and morale were high."

Nor was the significance of the forward march of labor lost on the industrial, business and financial captains of the day. Jay Gould, one of the most hated of the robber barons, perceived that the proliferation of organizations like the Knights of Labor was on the verge of becoming a threat to the free-wheeling ways of the capitalist establishment. Karl Marx, in 1881, presciently quoted this "octopodus railway king and financial swindler" as saying to New York’s commercial magnates: "You now attack the railways, because you think them most vulnerable considering their present unpopularity; but take heed: after the railways every sort of corporation...will have its turn; then, later on, all forms of associated capital; finally all forms fo capital; you are thus paving the way to -- Communism whose tendercies are already more and more spreading among the people." (from a letter to Nikolai Danielson) Jay Gould has a keen scent. Small wonder that even here in the U.S. today, Karl Marx is being given his due, in select circles of the informed, as one of the most astute observers of capitalism -- a recognition seldom acknowledged by the "talking heads" of America’s mainstream media.

From an ocean away, one man had looked, astutely and dispassionately, into a money-shriveled heart and seen epitomized there the gestating fear of a nation’s ruling class that enlightened workers, when organized, would drive the money changers from the holy temple.


Excluding the near annihilation of America’s native "Indian" population, the long nightmare of America’s enslavement of Africans, and the blood-letting of the Civil War, the nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" experienced between 1880 and 1900, until then, its most tumultuous and perhaps bloodiest domestic period. The multifarious army of organized wage earners who made America tick -- millhands, factory workers, miners, railroaders, printers, carpenters, masons, iron molders, machinists, blacksmiths, stone cutters, cabinet makers, skilled journeymen and "common" laborers, cordwainers, hatmakers, tailors, needle workers, seamstresses, cigar makers, etc. -- challenged in sundry ways the injustices endemic to the new American capitalism and unwittingly triggered a process that would make white- and blue-collar workers alike the hapless servants of the nation’s financial giants. They organized. They struck. They boycotted. They challenged the nation’s controlling elite.

We are now at the point that holds the key to understanding how a former school teacher, postmaster and newspaper reporter, with a flair for publicity, succeeded in creating in December 1900 that seemingly harmless and now all-but-forgotten organization known as the National Civic Federation. Having understood that, we will be able to move to an understanding of how the NCF was able to set in motion over the next twenty years, with never more than 6,000 members, a strategy that would warp America’s collective mind into a way of thinking that suited the insatiable ambitions of a few families of great wealth. We will understand how it was that over the twentieth century the American working class would be seduced into embracing an ideology fashioned for the wealthy, and dying in dubious military ventures for the rich man’s causes.

Let us proceed, then, to conjecture on what was going on in the minds of those who in the 1980’s either owned or controlled the nation’s wealth -- the Goulds, the Rockefellers, the Morgans, the Carnegies, the Fricks, the Vanderbilts, the Stanfords, the Harrimans, the Hills, the Fisks, the Hannas, et al.

The nation’s powerbrokers in 1890 surely had knowledge that a short forty-three years prior to the onset of that fateful decade, Europe was shaken to its foundations by the revolution of 1848. Beginning in Italy in January, erupting in Paris in February, and then spreading to Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and the German Confederation, the revolution gained momentum, forcing royalty and powerful officials to flee, bringing sweeping changes to the political landscape, and liberalizing the rights of ordinary citizens. Surely the accelerating social and economic turmoil of the post-Civil War period -- recession, unemployment, starvation wages, a burgeoning labor movement, strikes, boycotts, riots -- rang a warning bell, suggesting that what happened in Europe in 1848 could happen here.

We may be sure that the battle cries that punctuated working-class struggles at Coal Creek, Coeur d’Alene, Haymarket Square, Homestead, and scores of lesser known venues -- Hocking Valley, Cripple Creek, the tragedy and scandal of Spring Valley, etc. -- did not go unnoticed among the robber barons of the time. Surely the more astute and imaginative among the latter sensed the parallelism between the social unrest that gripped Europe in 1848 and the rumblings of discontent among the American working class in the decades following Civil War. Indeed, they must have intuited in the suggestive calculus of the day that the Atlantic Ocean was no barrier to the spread to American shores of the social turbulence that reached maturity in Europe in the year that Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto was published.

Nor is it likely that the wealthy powers behind the creation of the National Civic Federation were unaware of the implications of the rebellion of the Paris Commune in 1870 or of the first American translation of the Manifesto two years later. And any doubts that lingered in the minds of lesser baronial intellects as to the threat posed by the working class to America’s privileged elite were surely shattered by the short-lived but violent Pullman strike of June and July 1894.

"More perhaps than any other industrial clash since the Civil War," writes Philip Foner, "the Pullman strike, or the ‘Debs Rebellion’ as it was named by the newspapers, shook the nation to its very depths, bringing to the surface all the pent-up bitterness of exploited labor, and exposing the role played by the federal government as the agent of the capitalists in their drive to crush...the aims and activities of the labor movement." Before the month-long period of the strike was over (June 16 - ca. July 7, 1894), the entire central and western United States had struck. Foner again: "This was the first truly nationwide strike. It stretched from the West Coast to northern New York, and involved more than 150,000 workers in hundreds of local lodges."

Before the strike was over, 25 workers were dead and 69 badly injured, all victims of Federal troops, and symbolic of the warfare among the working class that persists to this day. Strike leaders, including Eugene V. Debs, were jailed. The American Railway Union (ARU) was destroyed, striking (in Foner’s words) "an ominous note for the future well-being of American labor." But most damaging of all was that "ominous note" embodied in the destruction of ARU. The prospect for the unification of all workers under the banner of industrial unionism was shipwrecked -- a setback fostered by a high-level coterie who basked in the monetary rewards of a labor movement divided along craft-union lines. The hope of uniting skilled, semiskilled and unskilled workers into a solid phalanx of self-defense against the united force of big business melted away. And a strategy for insuring the permanent demise of the laboring man’s yen for social justice would soon be institutionalized as the National Civic Federation.

(to be continued)


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