An iron chain of bondage: lessons from the Knights of Labor

As modern workers, we have much to learn from the rich tradition of labour republicanism in America. The second piece in our Democratic Wealth series, hosted with Politics in Spires


Knights of Labor pentagram

In 1828, William Heighton, a radical shoemaker, announced to a group of Philadelphia labourers that the wage-labour system “is…an iron chain of bondage. A system of unjust abstraction, oppression, and legal fraud, by which the most useful classes of society are drained of their wealth, and consigned over to eternal toil and never-ending slavery.” Heighton had just created the first formal political party of workers in modern history, the Working Men’s Party of Philadelphia. A fellow-traveler in New York, Thomas Skidmore, soon followed with his own Workingmen’s Party of New York, and wrote in his first message to its members that he, too, thought that the great evil was the rise of modern servitude in the form of wage labour: “For he, in all countries is a slave, who must work more for another than that other must work for him. It does not matter how this state of things is brought about; whether the sword of victory hew down the liberty of the captive, and thus compel him to labour for his conqueror, or whether the sword of want extort our consent, as it were, to a voluntary slavery, through a denial to us of the materials of nature…”

Various workingmen’s parties soon followed across the US, motivated by a concern that the rise of a permanent class of wage-labourers had introduced a form of slavery under the sign of ‘free labour.’ Notably, their indictment of wage-labour took place in the language of the revolutionary republicanism of their forefathers. On the republican view, freedom was a condition of independence, which, economically speaking, meant you were not forced to work for anyone else. But wage-labourers, these republicans said, were kept “in a state of humble dependence” by the monopoly of control over landed and productive property. Radical inequalities of control over productive property made the propertyless dependent upon the owners of property. Therefore, despite the fact that the source of the wage-labourer’s dependence was different from that of the chattel slave, it was no less a servitude. It was the task of workers to use their collective power as republican citizens to transform society, “equalize property,” regain control over their own labour, and thereby achieve a condition of real freedom or ‘independence.’

Although the workingmen’s parties quickly collapsed, their ideas did not. The constellation of ideas they articulated can be called ‘labour republicanism’ and persisted in the US up through the end of the nineteenth century. It ran through radical sections of the Democratic Party, known as the Loco-Focos, and the mid-century National Reform Association. The NRA argued for the redistribution of land from speculators and large landowners to small proprietors and workers. 

But it is after the American Civil War in the late 19th century that labour republicanism fully came into its own. In earlier periods, the labour republican had remained tied to a small producer tradition, suspicious of any public ownership of property whatsoever, and emphasizing small-scale production. It was sometimes agrarian in its focus, hoping to transform industrial relations indirectly, by expanding land ownership. But with the rise of groups like the Knights of Labor and the Populist Party, labour republicans married the critique of wage-labour to a cooperative conception of industrial relations. They believed that the way to recover independence was not by recreating the republic of small producers, equal in their separate ownership of property, but rather by creating producer and consumer cooperatives, and by nationalizing control over certain communications and transportation networks. It is this attempt to apply republican principles to a modern, industrial setting that makes them relevant to us today.

Their argument proceeded first by reiterating the view that wage-labour was dependent and therefore unfree. Though legally self-owning, wage-labourer’s were forced to sell their labour to owners. As the editor of the Journal of United Labour, the in-house journal of the Knights of Labor, put it, “when a man is placed in a position where he is compelled to give the benefit of his labour to another, he is in a condition of slavery, whether the slave is held in chattel bondage or in wages bondage, he is equally a slave.” Wage-labourers were compelled to sell their labour in just this way because they had no reasonable alternative to doing so. They could not steal, cheat or rely on charity. Though they agreed to a labour contract, they made this contract under conditions of dependence. To capture this voluntary but unfree condition, George McNeill, an editor and leading figure in the Knights of Labor, remarked of wage-labourers that they “assent but they do not consent, they submit but do not agree.” For this reason, labour republicans felt that “there is an inevitable and irresistible conflict between the wage-system of labour and the republican system of government.” They demanded a “a republicanization of labour, as well as a republicanization of government.” This republicanization of labour amounted to the demand “to abolish as rapidly as possible, the wage system, substituting co-operation therefore.”

The aspiration to create a cooperative commonwealth was the real innovation of the Knights of Labor. The Knights organized skilled and unskilled labour on a national basis, and made the creation a cooperation commonwealth their ultimate aim. Co-operation, rather than dis-integration into separate, productive units, was the path to transforming relations of inequality and domination into ones of equality and therefore independence. But co-operation was also difficult to define. On the one hand, labour republicans saw it as an integrated system of producer and consumer cooperatives linked together by national systems of communication and transportation. This appeared to demand a substantial use of the coercive power of the state. But labour republicans were extremely suspicious of the state and voluntarist in their thinking about how to create the desired cooperatives. Their suspicions about the state were quite reasonable, giving the extraordinary violence that the late nineteenth century American state visited on labour organizations. Their voluntarism was more problematic, because they were reluctant to force property-owners to contribute the funds to create and maintain cooperatives, and similarly relied only on voluntary contributions from interested workers.

There is much more to say about the labour republicans but there are straightforward ways in which they can serve as an inspiration to us today. Their worry that wage-labourers might not be fully independent, because of radical inequalities of wealth, points us well beyond the current, quite popular but potentially superficial, concern with inequalities of income. It directs our attention to structural inequalities in control over productive property. By making freedom their polestar, labour republicans were able to show that equal freedom was not just a matter of having more opportunities for consumption, but also a matter of how we organize production. They also brought this concern with dependence from an analysis of the economy as a whole into the workplace itself. They worried that the worker’s labour contract “often compel[s] him to submit to hectoring, domineering, and insults of every kind.” As various debates about employer intimidation and control remind us, we too are well acquainted with a wide range of concerns that labour contracts put workers in relationships of arbitrary power and domination with respect to their employers. Concern for human freedom thus requires us to think about how to organize power in and at work. Perhaps most aspirationally, but no less importantly, labour republicans not only thought we could become free at work but also free from work. A great virtue of cooperative ownership and control would be that everyone could benefit from the introduction of labour-saving machines. Instead of workers facing unemployment while owners increased their profits, everyone could equally enjoy a shorter working day. Ten hours a day would become eight, then six, perhaps even four. Not only would the burdens of hard work be reduced, but the enjoyments of leisure increased, for everyone. 

Most importantly of all, labour republicans were not idle dreamers. The promise of the cooperative commonwealth was inextricably intertwined with the political agency of the working class itself. They were interested neither in a free-floating utopia, nor a cultural tradition, but a political ideology. Perhaps the earliest and most consistent argument of labour republicanism is that freedom is not granted, it is won. And it is only won through the political efforts of those denied that freedom. As one labour republican put it, “from themselves alone, all their help must come.” That thought is why we find these ideas expressed by leading figures of political movements – like workingmen’s parties, land reform movements, and labour organizations. Here too, the American tradition of labour republicanism speaks to us all, in the US and across the globe. Political progress is as much about identifying the agents of transformation as it is about articulating new ideas. 

This piece is part of the Democratic Wealth series, hosted by OurKingdom in partnership with Politics in Spires.

About the author

Alex Gourevitch is an assistant professor of political science at Brown University. He has a forthcoming book with Cambridge University Press on the relationship between slavery and freedom in the republican tradition. He blogs at The Current Moment, and writes articles for magazines like Jacobin, n+1, and Salon.