How liberal reformers killed the International in America: 1868-1876, by Thad Eckard

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How liberal reformers killed the International in America: 1868-1876, by Thad Eckard


This is the story of how a bunch of shallow, self-absorbed liberals successfully destroyed Karl Marx's effort to organize workers in the United States. If some of it reminds you of our current situation, then perhaps the moral of this story won't be lost on you.
The General German Workingmen’s Association of New York, formed in 1868, followed the socialist philosophies of Ferdinand Lassalle and Karl Marx and may have been the first Marxist organization in the United States (See Foner 414 & Hillquit 177. Bibliographical references are cited at the end of this article). “The members, almost exclusively plain wage-workers of every possible trade, vied with each other in the study of the most difficult economic and political problems,” writes Friedrich Sorge (qtd. In Hillquit 178). “Among the hundreds of members who belonged to the society from 1869 to 1874, there was hardly one who had not read his Marx (Capital), and more than a dozen of them had mastered the most involved passages and definitions, and were armed against any attacks of the capitalist, middle class, radical or reform schools.” The German Workingmen’s Association gained membership in the International Workingmen’s Association in 1869 and became “Section 1” in the United States, the first U.S. section for the IWA.
Section 1 gained the respect of workers around New York by helping in several important strikes, including a six-month-long anthracite miners’ strike in Pennsylvania that involved 30,000 miners (Hillquit 179). Their solidarity with the Fenian Brotherhood gained respect from Irish immigrants. They stood in solidarity with the Paris Commune and welcomed fleeing Paris communards to New York, gaining them respect from French immigrants. Section 1 remained strong, staying close to labor and founding other sections, including French and Czech sections.
In order to join Section 1, its French and/or its Czech offspring, a new pledge need only promise to defend the principles of the International Workingmen’s Association. Part of that vow included defending the notion “That the economical emancipation of the working classes is therefore the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means.”
They were without a doubt the socialists en pointe in the U.S. at that time. In December 1870, these three sections, that is, Section 1, along with the French and the Czech sections, created the North American Central Committee of the International Working Men’s Association (Hillquit 178, Foner 415).
Outreach activities the Central Committee organized, hoping to expand the IWA, focused most on men and women who worked for a living, but they found most new membership ended up coming from a somewhat higher socioeconomic class. This alone should have signaled to organizers that a potential difference in their members’ life experiences might likely engender conflicting viewpoints within the group. Unfortunately, according to historian Morris Hillquit, the leisurely in society had grown high-minded, utopian and dreamy. The IWA appeared to them, though only vaguely no doubt, as their kind of organization, and thus the International started to attract all types of liberal reformers, many of whom stopped far short of venerating labor (Hillquit 179). Instead, they brought with them their own hobbyhorse issues and peddled their own precious campaigns, raising awareness about this thing or that, ...all with the hope of enlightening others and of winning support from the International. One of these new members was Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States.
By all accounts, Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee “Tennie” Celeste Claflin, were both adventurous. They were also both quite attractive. These attributes, together with their skills of charlatanry and charm, bought for them early on a respectable level of financial freedom. “During the decade and a half since they had left the Ohio farm community of their birth, they had staged spiritualist séances, peddled wondrous cures for cancer, been run out of an Illinois town when their patients began dying and attracted a host of ardent, devoted lovers,” writes David Montgomery in his 1967 book Beyond Equality (418). By 1868, Woodhull had somehow found herself giving clairvoyant stock market advice to railroad tycoon Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt. Her sister, Tennie, then hopped on board the jockey joyride, touting her amazing “magnetic” hands and began applying them somewhere sensitive on Vanderbilt’s 74-year-old body. In return, Vanderbilt set them up with their own Wall Street brokerage office, presented them to the business world as his own progenies and gave them a newspaper company (113 Bernstein).
The Woodhull & Claflin Weekly, published between 1870 and 1876 in New York, introduced its readers to some of the most outrageous ideas of its time: Sex education, free love, women's suffrage, short skirts, spiritualism, vegetarianism, licensed prostitution (Foner 415). There were lots of new ideas floating around New York during this time, and these were some of the edgiest.
However, remaining “of rather singular notions on many subjects,” they could not be bothered to develop their own ideas with much depth (Hillquit 179). We might judge the level of her enlightenment from a statement Woodhull made during a speech to the American Association of Spiritualists’ 1873 convention that, according to her, socialism was just as hopeful and as important as occultism. In her view, either Internationalism (international socialism) or Spiritualism could alone “constitute a universal and permanent foundation for humanitarian organization,” adding that she most wanted the see the two merge into one movement (Messer-Kruse 120).
Eugenics lectures she gave years later also shed some light on her personal sophomoric philosophy. Among her concerns was how rapidly the “unfit” bred. She also suggested scientific pairing of mating adults. Then, when she talks about race mixing, she describes the mingling of black and white genes: “The white does not descend to the black, but the black gradually approaches the white.”(Messer-Kruse 201)
Their newspaper and the notoriety of its content, their Wall Street business and the fame, by association, with Vanderbilt soon brought Woodhull enough publicity for her to present herself convincingly to certain uninitiated novices as an authoritative suffragette. Being so endowed with these qualifications, and after months of networking around the Capitol, the House Judiciary Committee agreed to listen to her speak on women’s suffrage as it relates to the 15th Amendment. She had arranged this on her own, without any coordination with leading suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Isabella Beecher Hooker or Susan B. Anthony, and she did this knowing the 1871 National Women’s Suffrage Association Convention would be nearby (The Woman Who Ran For President, Underhill, 101). In this way, she succeeded in pulling off an intentional coup for her own personal recognition. Having then gained the suffragettes’ attention, she next turned her attention to labor in order to expand her fan base.
Woodhull and her sister had by this time become part of a clique that included the individualist-anarchist Stephen Pearl Andrews and certain middle class land reformers and anti-monopolists such as John Commerford, Lewis Masquerier and William West. Many members had also been members of the former Fourierist organization, New Democracy (Socialism and American Life, 234, Egbert). It was this clique that gained entrance into the International Workingmen’s Association.
Woodhull’s group became Section 12 of the International in July 1871, six months after Woodhull upstaged everyone else at the D.C. convention. As with all other sections, upon joining, number 12 also committed to upholding the stated principles of the International, which included subordinating all political movements to the chief goal of economic emancipation of the working classes and “That the economical subjection of the man of labor to the monopolizer of the means of labor—that is, the source of life—lies at the bottom of servitude in all its forms, of all social misery, mental degradation, and political dependence.”
As we might suspect, these were not really the goals of Section 12. The goals of Section 12 were mostly hoop-la to draw attention to moralistic, idealistic reform measures that included public ownership of utilities and land reform, along with universal suffrage. Soon, Section 12 became known as a group of “rich ladies, playboys, homosexuals, free-love advocates and spiritualism freaks” (quoted directly from Women in Russia, Atkinson 106). Section 12 was made up of American, English-speaking reformers who had little interest in discipline, commitment or revolution. Instead of shoring up a foundation for a working class movement, they made spectacles of themselves championing causes fit for self-aggrandizing eccentrics. Suffragettes, feminists, former slavery abolitionists, free-lovers, pacifists, proponents of a one-world government, supporters of alcohol temperance, spiritual loonies and even preachers who made up Section 12 flagrantly blurred the line between activism and flamboyant displays of self-importance, all to the dismay of more disciplined, committed labor organizers leading neighboring sections. Samuel Gompers writes in his autobiography that “Section 12 of the American group was dominated by a brilliant group of faddists, reformers and sensation-loving spirits. They were not working people and treated their relationship with the labor movement as a means to a ‘career.’”(Socialism and American Life, 234, Egbert)
Woodhull pretended to offer her newspaper to the service of the International. It soon became the most popular mouthpiece for the International in America, and readers looked to the Weekly for articles on the organization. What the Weekly offered its readers instead were “shocking exposes of sex scandals; the latest antics of 60-year-old Section 12 Secretary William West, some of which would make Abbie Hoffman blush with disbelief…; flaming manifestos of free love and the feminist movement; and occasional statements of the working class movement and the International, which were frequently misstatements” (quoted directly from “Young Socialist Discussion Bulletin,” November, 1973).
Though the Weekly sometimes covered organized labor news, the articles were nearly always based on the premise that capital and labor should cooperate together for the benefit of all. Articles in the Weekly supported free trade, proposed legislation to fix social inequality and offered the naïve liberal-bourgeois belief that we all can all come together as fellow human beings, regardless of whether we are capitalists or laborers (Messer-Kruse 165). “Whether she pondered her beliefs as well as she defended them remains a moot point,” writes Bernstein (113).
On Sept. 23, 1871, the Weekly published the International’s official request to them urging them to print nothing about the International “except authentic information” (Bernstein 114). In response to this request, the Weekly published on Oct. 15, 1871, an appeal to their readers. Their appeal laid out Section 12’s own priorities, placing universal suffrage and “social freedom” at the very top.
The following extracts are sufficient to give an accurate idea of the class consciousness and depth of their understanding about socialism. The appeal stated that “the object of the International is simply to emancipate the laborer, male and female, by the conquest of political power."(…) "It involves, first, the Political Equality and Social Freedom of men and women alike.
“Political Equality means the personal participation of each in the preparation, administration, and execution of the laws by which all are governed." (…) "Social Freedom means absolute immunity from impertinent intrusion in all affairs of exclusively personal concernment, such as religious belief, the sexual relation, habits of dress, etc.
“The proposition involves, secondly, the establishment of a Universal Government... Of course, the abolition of... even differences of language are embraced in the program.”
With this established as their focus, they then suggested that many more groups everywhere in the States form their own sections just like they did. Section 12 critics accused them of trying to charter new sections with similarly trite reform goals in order to strengthen their standing. The message that the Central Committee heard in this appeal is that Woodhull and company wanted to dissipate the International’s leadership into an irresolute free-for-all for the vapid, inane bourgeois men and women of America who fancied themselves radical.
The Federal Council of the International described the appeal as “…an appeal famous for its ludicrous attempt to saddle the International with every imaginable visionary idea of issue, except the cause of labor, the name of which even does not seem to agree with that section’s idea of euphony, since it is scarcely mentioned in that appeal of considerable length” (Hillquit 180).
Historian Amanda Frisken probably comes closest to the truth about what happened when she explains that Woodhull was not so much a socialist, nor a feminist, nor even a suffragette, as much as she was a “sex radical” (Victoria Woodhull's Sexual Revolution, 35). Woodhull and her faction of sex radicals joined the International because they wanted to expand their base and hoped their call to arms sounded apropos to anyone brazen enough to join the Internationalists. (It could very well be that Woodhull did not even understand what the International was.) She then immediately offered her skills as a public speaker, her weekly publication as Section 12’s personal organ, as well as the paper’s staff and offices, to win favor right at the beginning and to boost Section 12 specifically. With all these offerings on the table, the Weekly spent the summer of 1871 promoting Section 12 as the unit best positioned to steer the International’s course in America, knowing full well that such decisions were hardly set by public opinion and that International officials, including Marx himself, had already appointed Section 1 to the American helm.
Woodhull apparently had a very poor sense of reading the feelings of her onlookers as well as general attitudes toward her own repertoire of useless expertise. She published a rather fantastical biography of herself in the fall of 1871, making claims about her clairvoyant abilities that brought mockery reverberating through the press. She may have been too delusional to be embarrassed herself, but she definitely became an embarrassment as the spokesperson of an IWA section (Frisken 35).
To remedy their problem with priorities, Friedrich Sorge proposed that wage earners make up at least two-thirds of the members of any section, explaining that only working people had the experience, the intelligence and the vision necessary to build a successful labor movement. Woodhull rejected this suggestion, but Sorge won favor from the International at its Hague Congress of 1872. In fact, the International moved its General Council from London to New York at this point and placed it under Sorge’s direct authority.
Section 12 Secretary William West and Woodhull revealed through Weekly articles and opinion pieces a hopelessly ill-conceived social philosophy far too jejune to ever improve their cloistered view on the world. In the December 15, 1871, issue of the Weekly, Woodhull baulked at the new rule requiring “that two-thirds or any part of a section shall be wage slaves, as if it were a crime to be free” (qtd. by Marx in “Notes on the ‘American split’”). West wrote that Section 12’s enemies had “no higher conception of the qualifications necessary to membership of the I.W.A. other than that the applicant shall be alien, of the masculine gender, and a slave, at that” (Messer-Kruse 166).
By this time, two things had happened. First, Woodhull’s appeal won support from the majority of all other International sections. Dr. A. Orvis, a Section 12 supporter who had attempted to register a section of the International in Rochester, alleged that the that the whole sad affair boiled down to sexist prejudice against Woodhull. In his letter of support for Woodhull he writes that, “I have not much doubt but the action had at London has been because of your prominence as a woman in it, which, if you had been a man, would have not been noticed.” He added, “I do not propose to give any support to any organization which by its action, whether directly or indirectly, strikes at woman” (176). With the majority of the American sections behind them, Section 12 tried to force the entire International to change its founding doctrine, demanding that the International recognize that women’s equal rights were preliminary to any change of relations between capital and labor (Bernstein 118). With this as their first goal, they would become a suffrage organization, not a labor organization. Two months after Woodhull had published her section’s appeal, those sections siding with Woodhull formed the Spring Street Federal Council to rival the General Council.
The split turned new members off. It seemed to outsiders that the once class-conscious organizers once so dedicated to the workers’ struggle had deteriorated into a bunch of petty squabblers. The International could not establish a single new section from May to August (Messer-Kruse 176). By the end of 1872, the Spring Street Federal Council could not even attract enough members to its own meetings to make quorum (Messer-Kruse 184). By November 1873, the Spring Street Federal Council was all but dead (Bernstein 219). “The members who were left took up with other causes, including Positivism,” Bernstein writes. “With remnants of other societies, they founded The Toiler in May 1874, in anticipation of making it an organ of a brand-new labor party. But the paper went under, after nearly seven months of struggle to survive” (220).
By this time, Woodhull and Claflin had already moved on to something else (to help derail). In November 1872, the Weekly published an article charging their longtime enemy, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, with having a sexual relationship with the wife of their longtime supporter, Theodore Tilton (Montgomery 419). With the resultant front-page scandal, long trial and acquittal that followed, Woodhull and Claflin bid their fond farewell to America. The sisters sailed away to jolly old England, landed rich husbands and eventually died.
After the discord, both Councils worked their own courses toward organizing black workers and the unemployed, but moving the International’s General Council to New York had marked the beginning of its end. As Montgomery puts it, “Woodhull and Claflin were catalysts of the split in the International, not its cause” (419). The impetus among Yankee members to rebuff the International’s workerist creed was their difference in perspective.
A great many alleged socialists among the American sections wanted bourgeois liberal reform, not a workers’ revolution. At one point, West even went so far to proclaim that, “The bourgeoisie possess and acquire the experience and the intelligence which the movement needs” (421). The dominant view among the Yankee sections seems to have been that the most natural and deserving leaders would be found among those who have already succeeded in business. At one point, the Yankee sections hosted a convention to bring about their own International Working Men’s Association that would stand opposed to the original International. It was at this convention that Ezra Heywood, the Presbyterian Minister and Finance Reformer who had not yet turned toward anarchism, praised the leadership qualities of “the capitalist whose genius and energy make him the natural head of the concern” (421). No group with these sorts of opinions could have possibly understood the significance of alienation and exploitation. Neither could such a group possibly understand the indignity of wage slavery, the insecurity of free market competition nor the priority of labor over capital in the people’s struggle for power.
By 1874, The International was dead (Messer-Kruse 247). The International officially dissolved in July, 1876.

BIBLIOGRAPHICAL CITATIONS:
Atkinson, Dorothy. Women in Russia
Bernstein, Samuel. The First International in America
Egbert, Donald Drew. Socialism and American Life
Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 1
Frisken, Amanda. Victoria Woodhull’s Sexual Revolution: Political Theater and the Popular Press in Nineteenth Century America
Hillquit, Morris. History of Socialism in the United States
Messer-Kruse, Timothy. The Yankee International: Marxism and the American Reform Tradition, 1848-1876
Montgomery, David. Beyond Equality
Underhill, Lois Beachy. The Woman Who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull
“Young Socialist Discussion Bulletin,” Vol. XVII, no. 3 (Nov. 1973). Young Socialist Alliance. New York.