Reflections On the Financial Crisis of 1873

March 22, 2020

In the middle of December, 1873, the economy slipped on the ice and crashed. The resulting depression led to layoffs en masse. Not long after landlords began tossing those workers and their families into the frozen streets. The streets matched their hearts, cold and with a healthy smattering of excrement. Labor suffered for Capital. Our economy has now come to a halt in the midst of a pandemic. The expected layoffs have begun, and our landlords will soon put us out in plague ridden streets. Their sick hearts reflect our society perfectly. Labor still suffers for Capital.

This crisis is unbearable! The capitalists have already absorbed most of our resources. Yet, they continue to dine on the emaciated body of Labor. The bosses usually give us meager wages, the landlords take most of that, and the rest goes to their friends for food and toilet paper. the difference now being many of us no longer get the wages and still have to line the pockets of landlords and capitalists to survive. This crisis keeps expanding and Labor doesn’t have much left to give, but Capital needs Labor alive. No. Capital needs just enough Labor to maintain profits. It will gladly strike a devil’s bargain. The lives of laborers will be sacrificed for the life of capitalism. The army of Labor will march back to work, pandemic be damned.

This isn’t news to us conscious workers, but we are few and far apart. We realized the sacrifices made under “normal” conditions are only different by degrees. The unconscious worker will not understand why their burden is increased unless we turn on the light and expose the monster consuming them. That is the task before us. That was the task of Marxists in 1873 and every subsequent crisis in capitalism.

1873 was a crucial development in the history of American Marxism. The Civil War stunted the growth of Marxism. Organized labor was quashed in the opening stages of the war, and its reemergence was lackluster. Wedyemeyer the giant of American Socialism died shortly after the war. Thankfully, a new crop of Socialists came to the fore and began to exercise power in both the International and in the Labor movement. The sections of the International in America grew to several thousand members, the majority of whom were Marxists by tendency.

As the depression of 1873 began these sections flew into action. In the words of Kenneth Kann “It was the International which assumed leadership in Chicago during the depression, seeking the ideology, the organization, and the tactics. Which would give shape and force to the dissatisfaction, the anger, and the fear expressed in the unemployment demonstrations.” 1 The sections went to the masses and synthesized their natural complaints and gave them a Marxist character. The unemployed raised the demands drafted by the IWA. They demanded “Work for all able bodied men and women at the usual rate at an 8 hour date; The advance of money or produce sufficient to feed workers for a week; and a moratorium of at least six months on rent” 2

A period of acute class struggle began. Unemployed workers were organized and began to hold demonstrations in the face of government inaction. They were met in the American tradition, with violence from the state. The movement failed, strikes were lost, wages cut, and the unions decimated again. Opportunists forsook the trade union movement for Lassallean electoralism. however, the Marxists held firm and maintained the struggle in 1873 was more than an economic struggle, It was a political one. Workers had lifted up the demands of the socialists as their own and fought for them. they gained experience in organization and tactics that would be used to found the Workingmens Party of the United States of America. The first of its kind in the western hemisphere. The sections committed to rebuilding the trade union movement to build the base for that Marxist Party. The sections failed to alleviate the suffering of the working class in the short term, but they revealed the line of struggle going forth.

The same task lays ahead of us now. We must elevate the economic crisis into a political one. We must find our demands of ‘73. Demands that speak to the inherent dissatisfaction of the quarantined masses. The demands of the IWA were the result of a proto mass line. We must use the Mass line to give the anger of the workers a Marxist character. As a matter of necessity we will need to lift up the demands of 1873 the issues addressed are still relevant, but the current crisis adds other points of struggle. Access to free healthcare, housing the houseless, and free utilities must also be lifted up as demands on the bourgeois state. We will likely fail in securing those demands and properly alleviating the burden on workers. We lack a Party to centralize and direct our efforts, but so did the ’73ers. We must not limit ourselves to mere mutual aid networks for fear of failure, we must raise the scarlet standard in the face of adversity and win workers to our cause.

Let us give voice to the workers!
Let us struggle in the name of Socialism!

1 “Working class Culture and the Labor Movement in Nineteenth Century Chicago”, Kenneth Lyle Kann, Univ. of California-Berkeley, 1977, p. 232.
2 “The Workingmen’s Party of the United States: a History of the First Marxist Party in the Americas, by Philip Sheldon Foner, MEP Publications, 1984, pp. 20–22.