Henry George and
the Labor Movement in New York
[An escerpt from the book, History of the Great
(published by The Modern Library, 1907 and 1936, pp. 356-358]
In the meanwhile, between the time of the Haymarket episode and the
hanging in imprisonment of the Chicago group, the labor movement in
New York City had assumed so strong a political form that the ruling
class was seized with consternation. The Knights of Labor, then at the
summit of organization and solidarity, were ripe for independent
political action; the effects of the years of active propaganda
carried on in their ranks by the Socialists and the Single Tax
advocates now began to show fruit. At the critical time, when the
labor unions were wavering in the decision as to whether they ought to
strike out politically or not, the ruling class applied the necessary
vital impulsion. While in Chicago the courts were being used to
condemn the labor leaders to death or prison, in the East they were
used car lies the weapons of offense and defense by which the unions
were able to carry on their industrial welfare.
The conviction, in New York City, of certain members of a union for
declaring a boycott, proved the one compelling force needed to mass
all of the unions and radical societies and individuals into a mighty
movement resulting in an independent Labor Party. To me this exigency
an effort was made by the politicians to buy off Henry George, the
distinguished Single-Tax advocate, who was recognized as the leader of
the Labor Party. But this flanking attempt at bribing an incorruptible
man failed; the labor unions proceeded to nominate George for Mayor,
and a campaign was begun of an ardor, vigor and enthusiasm such as had
not been known since the Workingmen's party movement in 1829.
The election was for local officers of the foremost city in the
United States -- a point of vantage worth contending for, since the
moral effect of such a victory of the working class would be
incalculable, even if short-lived. To the ruling classes the triumph
of the labor unions, while restricted to one city, would unmistakably
denote the glimmerings of the beginning of the end of their regime.
Such rebellious movements are highly contagious; from the confines of
one municipality they sweep on the other sections, stimulating action
and inspiring emulation. The New York labor campaign of 1886 was an
intrinsic part and result of the general labor movement throughout the
United States. And it was the most significant manifestation of the
onward march of the workers; elsewhere in the labor unions had not
gone beyond the stage of agitation and industrial warfare; but in New
York, with the most acute perception of the real road it must
traverse, the labor movement had plunged boldly into political action.
It realized that it must get hold of the governmental powers. Its
antagonists, the capitalists, had long had a rigid grip on them, and
had used them almost wholly as they willed.
But the capitalists class was even more doggedly determined upon
retaining and intensifying those powers. Government was an essential
requisite to its plans and development. The small capitalists bitterly
fought the great; but both agreed that Government with its
legislators, laws, precedents, and the habits of thought it created,
must be capitalistic. Both saw in the uprising of labor a perspective
overturning of conditions.
From this identity a interest of singular concrete alliance resulted.
The great capitalists, whom the middle-class had denounced as pirates
now became the decorous and orthodox "saviors of society,"
with the small capitalists trailing behind their leadership, and
shouting their praises as the upholders of law and the conservators of
order. In Chicago the same men who had bribed legislators and common
councils to give them public franchises, and who had hugely swindled
and stolen under the guise of law, had been the principles in calling
for the execution and imprisonment of the group of labor leaders, and
this they had decreed in the name of the law. In New York City a
pretext for dealing similarly with labor leaders was entirely lacking,
but another method was found effective in the subjugation and
dispersion of the movement.
CAPITALIST TRIUMPH BY FRAUD
This was the familiar one of corruption and fraud. It was a method in
the exercise of which the capitalists as a class had proved themselves
adepts; they now summoned to their aid all of the ignoble and
subterranean devices of criminal politics.
In the New York City election of 1886 three parties contested, a
Labor Party, Tammany Hall and the Republican Party. Steeped in decades
of the most loathsome corruption, Tammany Hall was chosen as the
medium by which the Labor Party was to been defrauded and effaced.
Pretending to be the "champion of the people's rights," and
boasting that it stood for democracy against aristocracy, Tammany Hall
had long deceived mass of the people to plunder them. It was a
powerful, splendidly-organized body of mercenaries and self-seekers
which, by trading other principles of democracy, had been able to
count on the partisan votes of a predominating element of the
wage-working class. In reality, however, it was absolutely directed by
a leader or "boss," who, with his confederates, made a
regular traffic of selling legislation to the capitalists, on the one
hand, and who, on the other, enriched themselves by a colossal system
blackmail. They sold immunity to pick pockets, confidence men and
burglars, compelled the saloonkeepers to pay for protection, and even
extorted from the wretched women of the street and brothels. This was
the organization that the ruling class, with its fine assumptions of
respectability, now depended upon to do its worker breaking up the
political labor revolt.
The candidate of Tammany Hall was the ultra-respectable Abram S.
Hewitt, a millionaire capitalist. The Republican Party nominated and
verbose pushful, self-glorifying young man, who, by a combination of
fortuitous circumstances, later attained the position of President of
the United States. This was Theodore Roosevelt, the scion of a
moderately rich New York family, and a remarkable character whose
pugnacious disposition, indifference to political conventionalities,
capacity for exhortation, and bold political shrewdness were mistaken
for greatness of personality. The phenomenal success to which he
subsequently rose was characteristic of the prevailing turgidity and
confusion of the popular mind. Both Hewitt and Roosevelt were, of
course, acceptable to the capitalist class. As, however, New York was
normally a city of Democratic politics, and as Hewitt stood the
greater chance of winning, the support of those opposed to the labor
movement was concentrated upon him.
Intrenched respectability, for the most part, came forth to join
sanctimony with Tammany scoundrelism. It was in edifying union, yet
did not compromise all the forces linked in that historic coalition.
The Church, as an institution, cast into it the whole weight of its
influence in power. Soaked with the materialists spirit while
dogmatically preaching the spiritual, dominated and pervaded by
capitalists influences, the Church, of all creeds and denominations,
lost no time in subtly aligning itself in its expected place. And wow
to the minister or priest who defied the attitude of his church!
Father McGlynn, for example, was excommunicated by the Pope,
ostensibly for heretical utterances, but in actuality for espousing
the cause of the labor movement.
Despite every legitimate argument coupled with venomous ridicule and
coercive and corrupt influence that wealth, press and church could
bring to bear, the labor unions stood solidly together. On election
day groups of Tammany repeaters, composed of dissolutes, profligates,
thugs, and criminals, systematically, under directions from above,
filled the ballot boxes with fraudulent votes. The same rich class
that declaimed with such superior indignation against rule by the "mob"
had pour in funds which were distributed by the politicians for these
frauds. But the vote of the labor forces was so overwhelming, that
even piles of fraudulent votes could not suffice to overcome it. One
final resource was left. This was to count out Henry George by grossly
tampering with election returns and misrepresenting them. And this is
precisely what was done, if the testimony of numerous by witnesses is
to be believed. The Labor Party, it is quite clear, was deliberately
cheated out of a election won in the teeth of the severest and most
corrupt opposition. This resulted it had to accept; the entire
elaborate machinery of elections was in the full control of the Labor
Party's opponents; and had it instituted a contest in the courts, the
Labor Party would have found its efforts completely fruitless in the
face of an adverse judiciary.