Chapter 07: Knights of Labor, Central Labor Unions, Socialistic Labor Party, United Labor Party

THE KNIGHTS OF LABOUR Organisation is so well known on both sides of the Atlantic that all really necessary here is the definite statement of certain facts, dates, and figures, and an attempt to make plain the exact position of the K. of L. at the present time. On Thanksgiving Day, 1869, Uriah S. Stevens, a tailor of Philadelphia, called together eight friends. The nine (is one not irresistibly reminded of t.he theory that a tailor is one-ninth of a man?) founded the K. of L. At first a secret order, whose very name was not known to the public, and whose cabalistic five stars were for long an example of omne ignotum pro terrifico to the Philadelphians, this became in June 1878 an organisation, public at least as far as its name and its general objects are concerned.

Roughly speaking, the scattered unions of the various towns of the various states and the scattered units of labour have affiliated themselves with the Knights, and thus formed another one, and the largest, of the National labour organisations. Each local society is called the Local Assembly (L. A.). Its members may be of one, or more than one, trade. Three-fourths of the members of a new L. A. must be wage-workers. Any one but a banker, stockbroker, gambler (with cards), lawyer, and alcoholic money-maker may be admitted. Local Assemblies are grouped into D. A. (District Assemblies). These are either geographical or technical. I,. A.'s and D. A.'s, alike represented by numbers, are grouped up as a whole into the General Assembly, or delegate body representing the whole order. The first General Assembly was held in 1878; membership, 80,000. A General Assembly has taken place in each year since that date. Membership in 1883, 52,000; l884, 71,000; 1885, 111,000. The membership, as estimated by Professor Ely, for 1856, would be 300,000 to 500,000, though our friend Colonel Hinton, who knows much of the internal working of the order, estimates its number as at least a million.

What are the principles of the K. of L.? Here at once it becomes necessary to distinguish the principles of the organisation from those of its members. This necessity arises from the fact that the majority of those who join the organisation and subscribe to its principles understand neither the aim of the former nor the meaning of the latter. Both these last are in the main socialistic. It is impossible here to analyse the four paragraphs of the preamble or the twenty-two declarations that follow them. To one or two points only can we call attention. The burden of the four preliminary paragraphs is that capitalists and corporations (companies) need checking; that the industrial masses need organisation; and though the K of L. are formed "Not as a political party, most of the objects herein set forth can only be obtained by legislation." "With the contradiction contained in these last two quotations we are the less concerned, as the movement of November 1886 and the action of thousands of the Knights in regard to it are the best comment on the two phrases and the best indorsement of the latter of them.

One only of the twenty-two "aims" can we note. But this is in truth the sum of all of them. It is No. 19. " To establish co-operative institutions, such as will tend to supersede the wage system, by the introduction of an industrial co-operative system." Now this is pure and unadulterated Socialism.

Briefly; scientific Socialism teaches that the basis of our society to-day is the method of the production and distribution of commodities; that the misery and inequality in that society are due to that method; that the essence of that method is unpaid labour. Co-operative institutions are to he established--i.e., co-operation both in production and in distribution. That this is the true reading is shown, practically, by the extensive establishments founded by the K. of L. for the production of commodities (mines) and their distribution (stores). Now a co-operative industrial system, or, as the Knights at times put it, a universal co-operative system, that is "to supersede the wage system," is not possible unless the means of production and distribution are systematised and are universal. Universal cooperation in production and distribution is impossible without the universal possession of the means of production and distribution--i.e., without the abolition of private property in these.

But the real significance of all this lies in the fact that in the Knights of Labour we have the first spontaneous expression by the American working people of their consciousness of themselves as a class. This expression--this organisation--at first almost unconscious, are becoming every day more conscious. Necessarily confused at first, the very confusion of the movement is evidence of its spontaneity and its reality. At present there is much uncertainty as to leaders, or even as to the direction in which movement is to be made. But all this is sorting itself, and it will not be long before the American working class will be organised, and moving with definite purpose towards a definite end.

The Knights, then, are a huge heterogeneous organisation; and whilst certain of its members are conscious and avowed Socialists, and others are unconscious Socialists, the mass know no more of the teachings of Socialism than they do of their own supposed principles.

As a consequence of this and of other causes, there are two clearly defined parties within the organisation, into one or the other of which all the minority of earnest men is entering. The one party, led by Mr. Powderly, the Grand Master Workman, is conservative, reactionary, and must go back yet more completely to the capitalistic side as the intensity of the struggle increases. The other party is advanced, socialistic, and must launch out into Socialism open and avowed. The split between these parties will probably turn on the two questions of political action and the open declaration of Socialism. But whatever form it takes, such a split is, we think, imminent.

Already there are among the rank and file plentiful signs of dissatisfaction with the action of their leaders. The vacillating, temporising conduct of these last in respect to the strike of the Chicago packers in the autumn of 1886, to the subsequent railroad strikes, to the long shore strike and others, above all their disapproval, in direct contravention of the principles of the order, of the eight-hour movement of May 1886, have made many of the Knights believe that it is not only the interest of the working class that is in the minds of their chiefs. More than mere rumours have been rife of the subordination of these to the interests of the capitalists and of the Roman Catholic Church. A great many delegates who went up to the convention of 1886 at Richmond with the profoundest belief in Powderly came away with that belief shaken or shattered.

A comparative study of the position of the Knights in the eastern and western towns still further bears witness to this general fact. In the former, where the mass of the members are more in contact with, and more under the influence of, the bosses of the movement, two things are more noticeable than in the western towns further removed from their reactionary influence. First, the organisation is much less really effective for good to the working classes, and shows much more signs of being under capitalist pressure; second, its relations to other labour organisations are much less harmonious in the eastern towns.

CENTRAL LABOUR UNIONS.--This name may be used generally for a number of bodies all of the same nature, but with names so varying as General Trades Unions, Trade and Labour Assemblies, Trade and Labour Councils, Federations of Labour. They are certain central bodies organised with a view to the men and women of a particular district working together. These Central Labour Unions are more hopeful organisations than even the Knights. They are, in the first place, more avowedly socialistic; and, in the second, more avowedly political organisations. The declarations of principles of the New York, and of the Kansas City C. L. U., for example, are definite. and decisive, without any of the vagueness that runs through the preamble and principles of the Knights. They speak out plainly against the wages system, on the ground that it is based on unpaid labour, and recognise the necessity and inevitableness of a complete change of that system. Here again, as with the Knights, the mass of the members, unfortunately, do not understand the full meaning of the ideas to which they subscribe.

The Central Labour Unions do not hesitate to work at present for certain means towards the ultimate end, and they do this as a political party altogether apart from the old parties. A brief quotation from the Kansas City C. L. U., sent us by one of its chief organisers, J. H. Trautwein, may be taken as generally typical of the Unions. "We, the undersigned, believing all the old parties have failed to legislate for the people at large, and have betrayed the trust reposed in them by the masses, and only enacted measures that result in creating paupers and millionaires, pledge ourselves to sever all affiliations with all the old parties whatever, and sign the following club roll for the purpose of forming a party of the industrial masses." Then follow certain measures to be worked for, many of which--such as the prohibition of child labour, equal wages for women and men, an eight-hour working day--are indorsed by the Knights also.

The difference between the C. L.U. and K. of L.-- a difference at present distinctly in favour of the former--is due to the different historical development of the two bodies. The Unions are the result of many years of evolution in Labour organisations; and upon them has been brought to bear the practical experience especially of the German Socialists. The Knights, as we have already shown, were the first spontaneous and indigenous outgrowth of the American working class: as it became conscious of itself.

The Socialist Labour Party.--This party, founded originally by the Germans, now numbers many thousands of members of all nationalities in America. The men of its earlier days--F. A. Sorge and others--are beginning to reap at last their deserved reward. This organisation, with its German, American, Scandinavian branches throughout the States differs from all others in certain important points. (1) Long before any of the others the Socialists understood that there was a labour question, and understood what that question really was. Thus they have been, unconsciously to their scholars in many cases, the teachers of the working classes. (2) They state clearly that society is made up of only two classes--"that of the workers and that of the great bosses." (3) They formulate clearly their demands that the land, the instruments of production (machines, factories, etc.), and the products of labour become the property of the whole people. (4) They announce sufficiently their means; "to realise our demands we strive to gain control of the political power with all proper means." (5) They are in alliance with the Socialistic Labour Party of Europe.

What are the relations of the Socialistic Labour Party to the other organisations of America? In the first place, the vast majority of its members are also members of one or more of these organisations; and only a few, not understanding the position of the movement in America, hold aloof from the Knights or Central Labour Unions. As a consequence, these other organisations are becoming, to a constantly increasing extent, infiltrated with Socialism, and slowly their vague, indefinite aspirations and ideas are becoming formulated in terms of that science. With this the individual Knights and Unionists are being gradually brought over, not only to the understanding of Socialism, but to open declarations of themselves as Socialists and as members of the S. L. P.

The complete bringing About of these desirable results is delayed by two things chiefly. One is the distrust of Socialism held until recently by the average American working men--a distrust born of his ignorance of its principles, its aims, its methods Most K. of L., for example, protest strongly against being called Socialists. The other impediment lies in some of the German Socialists themselves. A few of these, as already hinted, not understanding the movement generally, and still less understanding it in America, are anxious to "boss the show" in that country. As long as that is possible, the movement in America will not be American. Socialism, to be effective there, must be of native growth, even if the seeds are brought from other countries.

That is, whilst the Germans will in the future, as in the past, direct the thoughts of their fellow-workers, and suggest ideas to them, they will have to be content after a time to stand aside, and let the so-called leadership of the movement pass into the hands of the English-speaking peoples. The most clear-headed Germans in America quite see this. Their work has been, is, and still will be, to teach and to initiate organisation. But already their American brethren, under their tuition, are organising for themselves on the basis of Socialism. From the moment this is the case, the policy and duty of the Germans are to withdraw into the background, and whilst never relaxing in energy, or ceasing to inspire from within, to let the forefront of the movement be American.

THE UNITED LABOUR PARTY.--Out Of these labour organisations, but especially out of the last one considered, i.e., the Socialistic, has grown the United Labour Party. The date of the birth of this was the elections in November 1886. Then, for the first time, the class consciousness of t.he working people became embodied in a definite political movement of antagonism to the capitalist class. The startling success of the Labour Party in New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, and other places, taught their opponents, and taught themselves, something of the extraordinary power and significance of this new force in politics. Both of the old parties, Democrat and Republican, are frightened at the working-class movement. They will do all they can to get the Labour Party on their side. In this they will ultimately fail. Weaklings, especially at the outset, will succumb to the temptation; but the United Labour Party of America has, to use an Americanism, "come to stay," and to outstay all others.

The Henry George movement in New York, though often called Socialistic, did not, strictly speaking, deserve that name. The chief interest and importance of it were, as in the case of the Knights of Labour, in its spontaneity and Americanness. The Socialists played their usual pan. here. As the Communist manifesto has it, they, the vanguard of the working classes, cast in their lot with any genuine working-class movement. Their teaching for years before, and their action at the time, had, of course, much to do with originating and shaping the November movement; and the leading organisers, writers, and speakers were, in most cases, Socialists by avowal or in heart. Of course with these were associated many men and women who would by no means have accepted the name of Socialists as applicable to themselves.

In such towns as Chicago, Milwaukee, etc., further afield than New York, the running of working-class candidates in November 1886 was on somewhat different lines from the mayoralty contest in which George figured. In certain cases, at least, the men working in these contests in the more outlying districts understood more clearly than the New Yorkers the real questions at issue, and the real principles upon which the working class is and must be in conflict with the capitalists.

After the November (1886) elections the Labour Party began getting itself into yet more definite shape; and at a meeting held on January 13th, 1887, in New York, a permanent organisation, a platform, and a constitution for the United Labour Party of America were agreed upon. In these there were, from our point of view, certain weak points in detail. But the perty as then constituted condemned the present industrial system, and recognised that the "ultimate emancipation of labour can only be attained by the abolition of private ownership in the productive forces of nature." Here, then, we have, for the first time in America, the working class organised as a distinct political party, opposed alike to Democrat and Republican, taking its stand on the nationalisation of the productive forces of nature.

This basis is not sufficiently broad nor sufficiently firm. Nationalisation of the land is all that Mr. George and his followers mean; and already (September 1887) they have parted company with the men that see further and more clearly than themselves. At the Syracuse Convention in August 1887, the Socialists, by very questionable means, were practically expelled for the time being from the United Labour Party. But the Socialists can bide their time, and probably the time will not be long. A political party that repudiates the nationalising of all the means of production and distribution, and only bankers after the nationalising of the land, is assuredly not a labour party.

The most significant fact, none the less, is the formation of a party bearing even the name of labour. Its preliminary bossing by half-hearted men and professional politicians was an inevitable incident in its evolution; as inevitable as its ultimately becoming a purely Socialistic organisation.

The example of the American working men will he followed before long on the European side of the Atlantic. An English or, if you will, a British Labour Party will be formed, foe alike to Liberal and Conservative; its ultimate standpoint will be Socialistic, although, like the American Labour Party, it may have to pass through several preliminary stages; and its ultimate fate, like that of its trans-atlantic prototype, will be the attainment of supreme political, and then of supreme economic power.