‘Wilhelm Weitling and the General Working-Men’s League’ by Morris Hillquit from History of Socialism in the United States. Funk and Wagnalls Publishers, New York. 1910.
WILHELM WEITLING was born in Magdeburg in 1808 as the illegitimate child of a woman in humble circumstances. As a youth he learned the tailoring trade, and, according to the custom of German journeymen in his day traveled extensively during the period of his apprenticeship.
The young man combined extraordinary mental gifts with a veritable thirst for knowledge, and during his travels he managed to master the French language and to fill many gaps in his neglected education.
He became very early in life an enthusiastic apostle of communism, and devoted himself entirely to the work of organization and propaganda among German working men sojourning abroad. He organized a number of cooperative restaurants for journeymen tailors in Paris and Switzerland, and a communistic working-men’s educational society in London. He took an active part in various secret revolutionary societies which were then in vogue in Paris, and in 1846 joined the German Working-Men’s Society at Brussels, of which the youthful Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were the leaders.
Weitling’s first literary production to attract wide attention was a book printed by the secret revolutionary press in Paris in 1838. It was entitled, “The World as It Is, and as It Should Be,” and contained the first exposition of the author’s communistic theories.
His best-known work, “The Guaranties of Harmony and Freedom,” was published four years later, and met with a decided and spontaneous success. It was widely read and commented on, and translated into French and English.
These two books, together with the “Gospel of a Poor Sinner,” published in 1846, compose his principal works.
In his social philosophy Weitling may be said to have been the connecting link between primitive and modern socialism. In the main he was a Utopian, and his writings betray the unmistakable influence of the early French socialists. In common with all Utopians, he based his philosophy exclusively on moral grounds. Misery and poverty were to him only the results of human malice, and his cry was for “eternal justice” and for the “absolute liberty and equality of all mankind.” In his criticism of the existing order, he leaned closely on Fourier, from whom he also borrowed the division of labor into the three classes of the Necessary, Useful, and Attractive, and the plan of organization of “attractive industry.”
His ideal of the future state of society reminds us of the St. Simonian government of scientists. The administration of the affairs of the entire globe was to be in the hands of the three greatest authorities on “philosophical medicine,” physics, and mechanics, who were to be supported by a number of subordinate committees. His state of the future was a highly centralized government, and was described by the author with the customary details. Where Weitling to some extent approached the conception of modern socialism, was in his recognition of class distinctions between employer and employee. This distinction never amounted to a conscious endorsement of the modern socialist doctrine of the “class struggle” but his views on the antagonism between the “poor” and the “wealthy” came quite close to it.
Unlike most of his predecessors and contemporaries, Weitling was not a mere critic; he was an enthusiastic preacher, an apostle of a new faith, and his writings and speeches breathed love for his fellow men and an ardent desire for their happiness.
Weitling ‘s magnetic personality and affable manners won the hearts of his fellow workers, and his persistent persecutions by the Swiss and German governments augmented his popularity.
In the forties of the last century he was, beyond doubt, the most influential figure in the numerous colonies of German working men in Switzerland, France, Belgium, and England.
Weitling ‘s first visit to the United States was undertaken toward the end of 1846 upon the invitation of a group of German Free Soilers to take editorial charge of the Volkstribun, already alluded to. But, upon his arrival, he found that the magazine had suspended publication, and when, one year later, rumors of an approaching revolution in his fatherland reached this country, he hurriedly returned to Germany. But the “glorious revolution of 1848 ” was nipt in the bud in very short order, and Weitling, disappointed but not discouraged, came back to the United States in 1849. Here he found a wide and fruitful field of activity.
As already mentioned, the German immigrants had at that time formed a number of labor organizations of different kinds, but there was little organic connection and still less unity of aim and action among them. Weitling immediately undertook the task of centralizing the movement and directing it into definite channels. For this purpose he published The Republic of the Working Men (Die Republik der Arbeiter) a magazine which appeared monthly during the year 1850, and was converted into a weekly in April, 1851.
Under Weitling ‘s influence also a “Central Committee of United Trades” was formed in New York in 1850. This was a delegated body of labor organizations, representing from 2,000 to 2,500 members. Similar bodies were organized in other cities of the Union, and a lively movement soon sprang up among German working men, especially in the East.
Mass-meetings were held, leaflets distributed, and numerous clubs organized. The movement attracted the attention of the American press, and was made the subject of much favorable and unfavorable criticism, with the result that it soon spread beyond the bounds of the purely German labor organizations, and enlisted the sympathies and cooperation of working men of other nationalities, including native Americans.
Every issue of the Republik of that period contains glowing reports of progress. In March, 1850, a mass meeting of negroes in New York declared itself in accord with Weitling’s ideas of a “labor-exchange bank,” and a similar stand was taken in April of the same year by a convention of American working men in Philadelphia. On May 10th the Republik published a letter from Cabet, in which the famous French Utopian expressed himself in favor of harmonious cooperation between the Icarian colony at Nauvoo and Weitling’s movement, and in the same issue the paper reported that a number of American farmers at Weedport, New Jersey, had organized under the name of “Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Protective Association,” for the purpose of establishing a labor-exchange bank on Weitling’s plan. On the twenty-first day of September a call for a general working-men’s convention, a subject long agitated by Weitling, was published in the Republik, and the convention was actually held in Philadelphia in October, 1850.
This was the first national convention of German working men on American soil, and is of great interest to the students of the labor movement, and especially of the socialist movement, in this country. The convention was opened on October 22d, and it completed its work on October 28th.
The basis of representation was one delegate for every one hundred organized members, and the number of members represented was 4,400. These were distributed among forty-two organizations in the following ten cities: St. Louis, Louisville, Baltimore, Pittsburg, Philadelphia, New York, Buffalo, Williamsburg, Newark and Cincinnati.
The subjects discussed at the convention were: 1. Labor- Exchange Banks. 2. Associations. 3. Political Party Organization. 4. Education and Instruction. 5. Propaganda. 6. Colonies. 7. Conventions.
The views of the delegates on these subjects were expressed in resolutions published in the Republik and other newspapers.
The “Exchange Bank” of Weitling was, in the main, identical with Owen’s “Equitable Bank of Labor Ex- change.” It was to be an institution where every producer of a useful commodity could deliver his product and receive in exchange a paper certificate of an equivalent value, with which in turn he could purchase any article contained in the bank store at cost. The difference between Owen’s plan and that of Weitling was that the latter included cooperative industries as an indispensable complement to the bank.
The Exchange Bank was Weitling’s pet idea; through its operations he hoped gradually to displace the capitalist mode of production, and he never tired of extolling the advantages of the scheme.
The convention adopted his plan without modification, and prescribed minutely the mode of administration and practical workings of the institution.
The political views of the convention were summed up in the motto, “Equal Rights and Duties,” and its platform consisted of twelve planks, almost all of them borrowed from the program of the Free-Soil Party.
The delegates also provided for a central political committee of seven in each city, who were to act in conjunction with each other in State and national elections, and they also adopted resolutions in favor of an extension of educational facilities and the organization of communistic settlements.
The delegates appointed the “Exchange Commission ” of New York as the temporary executive organ of the movement, and provided for the time and manner of holding the next convention. But, singularly enough, they failed to designate an official name for the combination of organizations represented at the convention, and the body was for some time thereafter vaguely referred to as “the movement,” “the association,” or “the union of cities,” until the name “General Working-Men’s League” (Allgemeiner Arbeiterbund) was by common consent settled upon.
The period immediately following the Philadelphia convention marked the zenith of power and influence in Weitling’s public career, and was followed by a period of rapid decline. His Exchange Banks never materialized. Altho some money was occasionally subscribed for the enterprise and some snares issued for it, the amount realized was altogether insufficient for even a very modest experiment, and Weitling reluctantly abandoned his favorite dream.
His followers made one attempt to realize his colonization scheme by founding the settlement called “Communia” in Iowa in 1849, but the attempt proved a disastrous failure and involved its originators in financial losses and unpleasant litigations over the title to the land.
In the meanwhile Weitling’s methods and his self-asserting conduct provoked the antagonism of many prominent members of the League, and after a brief but intense quarrel, Weitling, irritated and disappointed, withdrew from public life.
The remainder of his years he passed as a clerk in the Bureau of Immigration in New York. Toward the close of his life his notions of the value of his own achievements became morbidly exaggerated. He wrote a book on astronomy which, he asserted, contained discoveries by far excelling those of Newton, and he also claimed to have invented many valuable devices in sewing machines, all of which were stolen from him by men who made immense profits out of them.
His attitude of listlessness toward the succeeding phases of the labor movement was broken only once, when he appeared at a joint meeting of the New York Sections of the International on January 22, 1871. Three days later he died.
The General Working-Men’s League continued in existence for some years after Weitling’s withdrawal, but it never attained the significance of which its bright beginnings gave promise.
In 1853 a call for a second convention of trade organizations to be held in New York was issued, but the only trade represented in the convention was that of the typesetters.
In 1858 the League established a new weekly magazine under the title Social Republic, and elected as editor the well-known German revolutionist, Gustav Struve, a romantic phrasemonger of confused mind, under whose influence the League soon succumbed. To characterize the spirit and mental caliber of the League at that time, we quote the following resolutions on the obligations of its candidates for political office:
“Resolved, That the following questions be asked of each candidate for office in the presence of the executive or ward officers:
“1. Are you prepared, on life and death, to break the chains which tie labor to capital, and generally to defend the rights of the poor to the best of your abilities?
“2. Are you prepared, on life and death, to maintain the absolute rights of labor before the law and to combat every injustice to immigrants through nativistic tendencies, etc.?”
Here follows a long string of similar questions, culminating in the following emphatic declaration:
“Resolved, That any candidate who may break his vows by acting contrary to the above principles be delivered to the judgment of the people. “
The Social Republic suspended publication in 1860, and the General Working-Men’s League was heard of no more.
Some new life was infused into the German labor movement about the middle of the fifties by the activity of Joseph Weydemeyer. Weydemeyer was a personal friend of Marx and Engels and well versed in the theories of scientific socialism. He came to New York at about the same time as Weitling. In the spring of 1852 he published a monthly magazine entitled The Revolution, in the second and last issue of which Marx’s famous historical essay, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” was printed for the first time. Weydemeyer strove to inoculate the doctrines of Marxian socialism in the Working-Men’s League, and delivered many lectures on the subject in German and English before the members.
Toward 1856 Weydemeyer settled in Chicago, and remained there until the outbreak of the civil war.
Morris Hillquit from History of Socialism in the United States. Funk and Wagnalls Publishers, New York. 1910.
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