History of the Labor Movement in the United States - Vol. 2

By Philip S. Foner | Go to book overview
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The Socialist Movement in the Eighties

In a previous volume we have traced the history of socialist movements in the United States from the Utopian stages of the 1820's and 1840's to the founding of the Socialist Labor Party in 1877 and its development to the opening of the decade, 1880-1890.* It is unnecessary in the present volume to recapitulate the history of American socialism before the 1880's, but certain facts are of importance as they relate to the development of socialism after 1880.


American Socialists in the 1870's were divided into two groups: Lassalleans and Marxists. The former accepted Ferdinand Lassalle s belief in the "iron law of wages," maintaining that since there was always a surplus of labor under capitalism, wages were always forced down to minimum levels. Therefore, any economic action by labor aimed at raising wages or shortening hours was futile. The Lassalleans considered trade unions as doomed to failure, stressed the omnipotence of political action and the founding of government-financed cooperatives that would gradually replace the capitalist system.

The Marxists were not opposed to political activity. In fact, they held that every class struggle was a political struggle. But they placed major

See Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in U.S., Vol. I, pp. 167-79, 205-07, 211-12, 230-34, 308-10, 448-53, 469-73, 487-88, 489-91, 493-99.
Most American labor historians, following the lead of Commons and Associates ( History of Labor in the United States, New York, 1918, Vol. II, pp. 449, 514-15) have oversimplified this conflict of theories and tactics in the American socialist movement by speaking of the "political socialists" versus the "trade union socialists." Actually, the issue revolved about the relationship between the trade unions and political action; both wings were part of a political party, and the Marxists never rejected political action.


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