Workers and Utopia: A Study of Ideological Conflict in the American Labor Movement, 1865-1900

By Gerald N. Grob | Go to book overview

CHAPTER NINE
Trade Unionism, Politics, and Socialism, 1886-1896

I

FROM THE VERY BEGINNING of the A.F. of L. it was evident that the new leaders of American labor were determined that working-class energies should not be dissipated by too much concern with political action. This is not to say that the Federation was any more immune than its predecessors to the paradoxes and difficulties raised by the fact that it lived and operated in a political environment. As we will see subsequently, the leaders of the A.F. of L. could never avoid the implications of this fact. It is only to say that the answers that these leaders gave marked a radical new departure in American labor history -- an explicit repudiation of the idea that politics was the primary vehicle of social and economic change, indeed, of the entire reformist tradition, and the espousal of the belief that direct economic action afforded the surest hope of achieving labor's goals. Since the leaders of the A.F. of L. held such convictions, it is almost needless to say that from the outset they were more interested in avoiding the pitfalls of politics than in capitalizing upon the advantages of direct political action. In the end they succeeded in laying the foundations for the limited political policy of the American labor movement, a policy that was to remain largely unchanged until recent times.

At the time of the founding of the A.F. of L. in 1886, however an unprecedented political uprising was sweeping through the ranks of workingmen throughout the nation.1 Indeed, it is difficult to exaggerate the extent of labor's uprising at this time. Years of suppressed discontent and frustrations had ultimately reached a peak of intensity, resulting in numerous and widespread strikes, an eight-hour movement, a phenomenal growth of the Knights of Labor and the trade unions, and a desire to effect a change in the generally unfavorable attitude of government toward labor. Under these circumstances it was perhaps natural that a working class political movement would result, given the past heritage of similar endeavors.

____________________
1
See Chapter Five.

-163-

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