A Spiritualist leader of early American Marxism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Jan 2 11:43:49 MST 2001

The people who launched a section of the Communist International in the USA
after the Civil War 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, as
deviations from the class struggle.

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

"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

Woodhull's spiritualism was very much in the spirit of the times. A
Spiritualist medium, Mrs. Nellie Colburn Maynard, conducted séances at
Lincoln's White House and claimed that the president had been moved to
emancipate the slaves through a spirit message she transmitted to him! Mary
Todd Lincoln backed this claim up although their son Robert denied it. The
civil war was an occasion for the deepening of such beliefs since
battlefield deaths provoked yearnings for immortality. Spiritualism's
adherents swelled from 2 million in 1850 to 7 million in 1863, according to
Woodhull's biographer Barbara Goldsmith ("Other Powers: The Age of
Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull").

Horace Greeley, who was Karl Marx's editor at the Herald Tribune, was an
ardent Spiritualist and abolitionist. At his upstate NY state farm, séances
were held frequently under the stewardship of Kate Fox, who was a powerful
influence on Woodhull, as well as the abolitionist movement. Pilgrimages
were made to Fox's home in upstate Rochester, a hotbed of freethinking.
Many of its citizens were Quakers who supported abolition, since the
religion stated that enslavement of body or soul was degrading and unjust.

Among the most prominent Quakers in the city were Amy and Isaac Post,
friends and collaborators of Kate Fox. William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of
the Liberator, who had been dragged half-naked through the streets of
Boston for his abolitionist views, was a frequent guest of the Posts, as
was Wendell Phillips, a dedicated abolitionist as well. So was Frederick

Goldsmith writes:

>>The rise of Spiritualism came at a time of rapid territorial and economic
expansion. Not only Morse’s telegraph but other technological
advances—canals, railroads, and steamships—led to a new America whose
boundaries seemed both limitless and God-given. In 1845, when Texas joined
the Union as the twenty-eighth state, Congress affirmed the "right of our
Manifest Destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent."
But as the country grew, Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke for a lost security when
he wrote, "Instead of the social existence which all shared, now there was
separation." The Calvinist ethic that once had held everyone in place was
fading, and the search for alternative meaning in a transformed world had

Marx was deeply uncomfortable with Woodhull's eclecticism and threw his
weight behind the super-orthodox Marxist Frederic Sorge, a German emigre,
who was assigned to clean house--starting with the Spiritualism. Against
the Yankee swamp, Sorge would ram through a "scientific socialism" that was
true to the tenets of Marx and Engels. Overbearingly so.

For Sorge--the quintessential 'workerist', 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 might surprise us is that Sorge was Marx's
hand-picked leader.

The "unscientific" 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

"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.

Louis Proyect
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