Marx, Woodhull and Sorge

Dogmatic Marxism's hostility toward "non-class" demands has been around for a very long time, judging from the evidence of Timothy Messer-Kruse's "The Yankee International: 1848-1876." (U. of North Carolina, 1998) Furthermore, you are left with the disturbing conclusion that this problem existed at the very highest levels of the first Communist International, and included Marx himself.

The people who launched a section of the Communist International in the USA were veteran radicals, who had fought against slavery and for women's rights for many years. They saw the emerging anti-capitalist struggles in Europe, most especially the Paris Commune of 1871, as consistent with their own. They saw revolutionary socialism as the best way to guarantee the success of the broader democratic movement. What European Marxism would think of them is an entirely different matter.

The names of some of the early recruits should give you an indication of the political character of the new movement. Included were abolitionists Horace Greely, Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner. Feminist Victoria Woodhull joined in and put her magazine "Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly" at its disposal. The weekly not only included communications from Karl Marx, but spiritualist musings from Woodhull. The native radical movement of the 1870s was a mixed bag. Socialism, anti-racism, feminism, pacifism and spiritualism co-existed comfortably. The Europeans were anxious to purify the movement of all these deviations from the very start. Unfortunately they put anti-racism, feminism and spiritualism on an equal footing.

Victoria Woodhull was unquestionably the biggest irritant, since she defended all these deviations while at the same time she spoke out forcefully for free love, the biggest deviation imaginable in the Victorian age:

"The sexual relation, must be rescued from this insidious form of slavery. Women must rise from their position as ministers to the passions of men to be their equals. Their entire system of education must be changed. They must be trained to be like men, permanent and independent individualities, and not their mere appendages or adjuncts, with them forming but one member of society. They must be the companions of men from choice, never from necessity."

Marx decided to put an end to all this nonsense and threw his weight behind the German-American Frederic Sorge, who was assigned to clean house. Against the Yankee swamp, Sorge would ram through a "scientific socialism" that was true to the tenets of Marx and Engels. Furthermore, the orientation of the American section would not be to women and blacks, but only to the white workers and their embryonic trade unions. It seemed to matter little that Sorge understood next to nothing about American politics. His mastery of Marxist doctrine would produce the desired results: "Fellow-workman," he proclaimed, "Keep our standard pure & our ranks clean! Never mind the small number! No great work was ever begun by a majority." With sectarian nonsense like this, it should surprise nobody that Sorge's group remained small in number. What does surprise us is that Sorge was Marx's hand-picked leader.

The Yankees and the German-American "orthodox Marxists" split and began to carry out their respective orientations, which are instructive to compare. Although the Sorge group was formally in favor of racial equality, their actions often fell short of the verbal commitment. The simple explanation for this is that they adapted to the prejudices of the white workers whom they curried favor with.

Woodhull's group made no such concessions, as their political traditions were rooted in the abolitionist movement. Indeed, when they called for a mass demonstration in New York City to commemorate the martyrs of the Paris Commune, the first rank in the parade went to a company of black soldiers known as the Skidmore Guard. The demonstration passed by a quarter million spectators and the sight of armed black men in the vanguard was electrifying. Sorge's group complained that the demonstration was a distraction from working-class struggles, whose participants would lose a day's pay by participating. He called for a boycott.

Black militias were an important fixture of northern urban politics in this period. When black men donned uniforms and marched in formation, they were making a statement not only about their full rights as citizens, but their determination to back these rights by any means necessary. The black Eighty-Fifth Regiment in NYC was one of the more radical and internationalist militias in the city. They had marched alongside Irish New Yorkers in honor of Fenian heroes and gave their units names like the "[Crispus] Attucks Guards" and "Free Soil Guards." This regiment decided to name Tennessee Claflin, Victoria Woodhull's sister, their commander and supplied her with a uniform. Woodhull had become the presidential candidate of the Equal Rights Party in 1872 and her vice-presidential running mate was none other than Frederick Douglass. This combination symbolized the commitment of the Yankee Marxists to racial equality and woman's liberation.

While the Sorge faction held the black struggle at arm's length, they at least gave lip service to it. No such concessions were made to Chinese workers whom they treated as outright enemies of the white worker. Woodhull's group took a strong stand against immigration bans, but the "orthodox" Marxists caved in completely to white prejudice. Unfortunately Karl Marx was little help in standing up to bigotry, since he regarded Asians as locked in "hereditary stupidity" and the unproductive Asiatic Mode of Production, an economic theory that had no basis in fact. Marx also warned about the importation of Chinese workers as "rabble" who could "depress wages."

At the NYC branch of Sorge's section, a San Francisco worker addressed his comrades:

"The white working-men see and feel daily the effects of the Chinese labor in that State. We cannot only perceive how it affects us, but know assuredly that it will seriously affect the destiny of the working classes of this country. The Chinese have driven out of employment thousands of white men, women, girls and boys.... They are in all branches of the manufacturing business, and it is only a matter of time when they will monopolize all branches of industry; as it is impossible for white men to exist on the same amount and sort of food Chinamen seem to thrive upon."

The Yankees refused to go along with the anti-Chinese xenophobia and viewed the Chinese as brothers and sisters in struggle. Woodhull wrote:

"The population of the country is forty millions. If the Chinese should at the rate of five thousand a week, even that figure will nothing near equal the present ratio of the Irish and German immigration, and it would a hundred and fifty years to import forty millions. . . The economical idea of immigration is that every new comer is a producer; he directly contributes to the wealth of the community; he will not consume all that produces. . . As for any immediate influence of John Chinaman on the labor market and rate of wages that is an impossibility. The workingmen of New York protest against two or three hundred foreigners. What injury can accrue to them?"

Sorge's group picked up a new recruit in 1872, an English immigrant and cigarmaker named Samuel Gompers. Gompers was impressed with the "working-class" and trade union tilt of the German-American followers of Marx, while regarding the Woodhull section as "dominated by a brilliant group of faddists, reformers, and sensation-loving spirits." He was as repelled by them as some old leftists were repelled by the 1960s New Leftists. Gompers was tutored by Ferdinand Laurell, a fellow cigarmaker who he met at the Manhattan Lower East Side factory where both were employed. Laurell initiated him into the profound scientific socialism of the Communist Manifesto and placed special emphasis on the centrality of the trade unions. "Study your union card, Sam, Laurell said, "and if the idea doesn't square with that, it ain't true."

What gradually happened is that Gompers let the revolutionary socialism fall by the wayside while allowing trade union fundamentalism to take charge, including the virulent racism of the time. As Gompers climbed the ladder into officialdom, he found that anti-Chinese racism gave him a foot up. He endorsed the labeling of cigar boxes as made by white men, to be "distinguished from those made by the Chinese." After Gompers attained the AFL presidency, women, ethnic minorities, African Americans and those who did unskilled work found themselves without a friend in organized labor. The Bolshevik revolution inspired a new Communist movement in the US 50 years later, which began to remedy this injustice. The Cold War reversed this progress.

The Sorge section of the First International began to fall apart because its sectarian, workerist and essentially reactionary politics guaranteed this. The immediate heir of Sorge's politics was a group called the Socialist Labor Party, founded by Daniel De Leon in 1877. This group also saw itself as the guardian of Marxist orthodoxy, but never even made the attempt to intervene in the trade union movement. It was content to issue racist broadsides from the sidelines like condemning the "importation of Coolies under contract." It survives today as an embalmed purist sect-cult with zero influence in the labor or social movements, thank goodness.

Marxism as a revolutionary idea transcends the dogmatic mistakes of people such as Sorge and De Leon. What is even more confounding is that it transcends Marx's own mistakes. Marx was wrong to back the workerist backwardness of Sorge. One of the great things about Marx is that he was capable of change, even when he was in the late stages of his career. After denouncing Russian populism for most of his adult life, he became persuaded that he did not understand the movement adequately and saw great possibilities for it. To maximize his understanding, he began to study the Russian language in his 60s.

The greatest obstacle to the development of Marxist thought has been the tendency of its adherents to not see contradictory aspects of society and politics dialectically. Clearly Sorge's failure was to see the dialectical connection of the black struggle to the trade union movement. If anything, the na´ve Yankee radicals understood the dialectical connection better than the "orthodox" Marxists.

Even though there is a tendency for small sectarian groups of today to search for a "revolutionary continuity" going back to Marx, it is better to understand Marxism as the product of deep internal tensions that can only be resolved through struggle. If the "workerism" of the First (and Second) International had not been confronted and defeated, then the Marxist movement would have not had the impact it has had in the 20th century. Although these very same sectarian groups see Lenin as the Pope who succeeded Pope Marx, in reality Lenin was more like a Protestant Reformation revolutionary who attacked old beliefs at their root. His articles were nailed to the door of institutionalized Marxism.

Lenin was the very first Marxist to SYNTHESIZE the proletarian and non-proletarian elements of the revolution. Unlike Sorge, Lenin was eager to embrace every form of rebellion against the absolutist state and not question whether it was "orthodox" or not. His most radical departure was to support the demands of the Russian peasantry who had been regarded by orthodox Marxism as an alien and hostile class. Closely related was his support of self-determination for oppressed nationalities, which he understood as having an anti-capitalist dynamic. Even when the oppressed nationality was led by reactionary or clerical fakers, he still backed their demands.

Although all of our latter-day Bolsheviks pay lip-service to Lenin's example, there is evidence everywhere that they have more in common with Frederic Sorge. When the black nationalist, feminist and gay revolts erupted in the 1960s, the Marxist-Leninists found every excuse they could to repudiate the new mass movements. These movements were petty-bourgeois "diversions" from the real class struggle based in the trade unions.

The answer to dogmatic Marxism is not Judith Butler, as Doug Henwood seems to think. Butler is not interested in synthesizing the social movements with the broader struggle for working-class emancipation. Rather she is interested in promoting radical individual behavior, as if this could stop the bombing in Iraq or famine in Russia. But the solution to capitalist oppression can only be found in collective action, which is of little concern to a high-profile academic.

A true synthesis of class, race and gender won't be found in books published by the University of Minnesota or Duke. It will be found in struggle. You get some sense of this in a film like "Salt of the Earth," about Chicano miners and the women who found ways to express feminist demands in the course of a bitter strike, while convincing their husbands that these demands were just. It will be found in AMNLAE, the Sandinista woman's rights government agency. Or the black caucuses of the UAW in the early 1970s, which eventually inspired white workers to follow their militant lead. Marxists should be looking for every opportunity to promote such class, race and gender alliances. If the early American Marxist movement screwed up, let's at least study what they did wrong and avoid the same mistakes. A good place to start with is Messer-Kruse's brilliant scholarly research.