Karl Kautsky

Our American Reports
by F.A. Sorge

(May 1895)

Source: Kautsky, Unsere amerikanischen Berichte von F. A. Sorge, Die Neue Zeit, Vol.13, No.2 (1895), pp.183-85.
Translated and transcribed: by Daniel Gaido.
Copyleft: Creative Commons (Attribution-ShareAlike) 2005;
Mark-Up: by Andy Blunden.

The background to this article was the serialization of Sorge’s history of the American labor movement, which was critical of the SLP, in the pages of Die Neue Zeit between 1891 and 1895. Engels had recommended the publication of Sorge’s work in book form to the SPD editorial house, though in the end nothing came of this proposal. – Translator.

Our American reports by the pen of F.A. Sorge are generally recognized, even in enemy circles, as extraordinarily valuable and instructive contributions to the understanding of the American labor movement. That is not however the opinion of our American sister organ, The People of New York. It includes in its issue of April 14 [1895] an article under the title Die Neue Zeit’s Humoristic Articles on American Affairs, which expresses astonishment at the fact that our otherwise so serious journal is fond of amusing its American readers with the “side-splitting harlequinades” of a Mr. F.A. Sorge, “an otherwise harmless and law-abiding German inhabitant of Hoboken,” whose merits stand in the same category with those of Mr. von Alvensleben, who placed the United States south of Mexico. The People concludes by advising us not to accept any more contributions by Sorge, but to fling them down our domestic cat.

In Europe it is, to put it mildly, quite unusual for a party organ to employ such a language against a comrade that is moreover not some newly arrived youngster, but a veteran who took part in the great struggles of 1848 and 1849, and who since his emigration to America has been an untiring worker for the proletarian cause, the trusted friend of Marx and Engels, and the soul of the [First] International in America. However, we are apparently too “sicklied o’er” with Europe’s whitewashing politeness to appreciate correctly the superior humor and propagandistic force of the tone in which The People exercises its criticism of party comrades.

But The People not only sneers, it also proves that its scorn is justified. In fact Sorge has committed totally irresponsible, ridiculous mistakes. The People has been lenient enough to point out only two, but of the strongest type. In an article entitled From the United States (Neue Zeit, issue 23, p.717) Sorge wrote: “The last presidential elections, held in 1894.” But in 1894 there were no presidential elections at all! Can there be anything more embarrassing than this statement! No wonder that The People dedicates no less than 60 lines of the most comical observations to it. We thank The People very much for them. They have called our attention to an awkward printing mistake, which however any reader with a minimum of good will and knowledge of the subject could have corrected by himself: instead of presidential elections we evidently meant congressional elections.

Whoever does not consider that an obligatory reason to denigrate the literary honesty of one of our most deserving comrades has no idea of well understood party interests.

The second obligatory reason to do it does not consist in a printing mistake. Sorge writes on p. 721: “When Gompers was defeated at the election for president of the American Federation of Labor in Denver, the New York socialists organized a sort of jubilee celebration, without thinking that by doing so they were also celebrating the defeat of plank 10 [1] the relocation of the headquarters of the American Federation of Labor to the interior of the country and the election of John McBride!” [2]

The People has not objected to a single word or even a single letter of this paragraph. But one can read out of this passage something different from what it says — for instance the opinion that Gompers advocated article 10. True, that interpretation would be impossible for those who have read Sorge’s previous article in Die Neue Zeit on the annual convention of the AFL (pp.661ff.), where Gompers’s position against plank 10 is described in detail. But who will act so conscientiously, when the issue at stake is only the literary honesty of an old party comrade! The interpretation suits the writer of The People and is therefore accepted offhand!

And that is all, literally all, what The People is able to bring forward in its attempt to make impossible any further contribution from Sorge to Die Neue Zeit!

We think the comrades of The People are clever enough to determine for themselves what judgment should be passed on the miserable inanities they have brought forward against Sorge. We must assume that the reason for their actions lies deeper.

Just now Social Democracy had nowhere to struggle against such difficulties as in America. The disunion and petty jealousies among the different socialist organizations are if possible even greater than in England. While in the latter country these drawbacks have to a certain extent been balanced by great advances in the socialist consciousness of the proletariat, the mental effervescence lately to be seen in America has not yet led to a considerable advance of the socialist movement. On the contrary, some socialist organizations have lately even experienced a decline. Whether the fault lies in the American workers or in the socialists, whether the former are too limited and egoistical or the latter do not sufficiently understand the workers, or finally whether both are to be blamed for that situation — that is difficult to determine from here. It is clear that, just as such a situation demands criticism it must lead to particularly irritable reactions to it. Sorge has only described these conditions, quite gently besides, but in many respects his viewpoint differs from that of the comrades of The People, and they therefore see his contributions to Die Neue Zeit as damaging to their cause. But we can only explain their actions, without finding them in the least edifying.

We do not pretend to interfere with the American party relations. But when one sees that the comrades from The People, who have access to the pages of Die Neue Zeit as freely as Sorge, do not answer his remarks before our readers, who have also read the original articles, but in The People, whose readers have no idea of what Sorge has really written; when one sees that The People avoids any factual discussion with Sorge, and that the entire material on which they base their attack is a printing mistake and a misconstruction, which stands in complete contradiction with everything Sorge has actually written; when finally one sees, how this miserable material was accompanied by a deluge of the most obscene – let us call them Americanisms; one is involuntarily led to the conviction that the way the comrades of The People regard and set out things must not always be unobjectionable, and that in the numerous conflicts of these comrades with other American socialists the latter must not always be in the wrong. Sorge’s reports cannot be more outstandingly vindicated than by the article in The People. We are very glad to announce the launching, in the coming numbers of Die Neue Zeit, of a long series of articles by our venerated friend, which have for some time been in our hands but whose publication had until now been delayed due to lack of space.

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Translator’s Notes

1. Sorge praised Debs for his struggle for industrial unionism but dismissed as hopelessly sectarian the Socialist Labor Party attempt to set up its own “red unions” under the pretentious name of Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance of the United States and Canada. Instead, he advocated the creation by the American unions of a Labor Party, programmatically based on the famous resolution of the British Trade Union Congress gathered at Belfast, calling for the collective ownership of the means of production. He described how, as a result of the inspiring example set by the TUC, a proposal was narrowly defeated in the December 1893 Denver AFL Convention to establish an independent political workers’ movement based on eleven demands, of which the most important was collectivist Plank 10: “All means of production and distribution to be the collective property of the people.” The AFL boss Samuel Gompers was, needless to say, totally opposed to such an independent labor electoral movement. Friedrich A. Sorge’s Labor Movement in the United States: A History of the American Working Class from 1890 to 1896, translated by Kai Schoenhals, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987, pp.71-72, 136-40, 175-84, 59-60, 104-107.

2. John McBride became the Ohio United Mine Workers’ first president in 1882 and held the post until 1889. After a brief tenure as a state representative, McBride helped found the Ohio People’s Party in 1891. McBride unseated Samuel Gompers as AFL president in November 1893. In his year as president, McBride worked to bring the AFL into third party political action. The fusion of the Populists and Democrats in 1896 destroyed the coalition that Ohio trade unionists had built around the People’s Party. McBride abandoned his union activity afterward. Gompers made a comeback in 1895 and remained president of the AFL until 1924. As a result, Daniel De Leon exhorted the workers to support explicitly revolutionary trade unions and the Socialist Labor Party set up the Socialist Trade & Labor Alliance (ST&LA) – a federation of tiny “dual” red unions in practical opposition to the established AFL unions.

Sorge supported Gompers’s attitude towards the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party: “On the subject of the attempts by the farmers’ organizations to open contacts with the AFL, Gompers said bravely and correctly ‘that these organizations are composed of employing farmers. While I am aware that there are many wrongs from which they suffer that should be righted, it is my opinion that our purpose should be to organize and ally ourselves with the farm laborers whose condition is so wretched and whose living is so precarious.’ The president’s report placed the most important emphasis on the renewed eight-hour agitation and made various suggestions on the subject.” Friedrich A. Sorge’s Labor Movement in the United States: A History of the American Working Class from Colonial Times to 1890, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press 1977, p.270.


Last updated on 4.12.2005