Wage-Slavery and Republican Liberty

Generations of workers critiqued wage-labor in the name of republican liberty.

In a recent interview, historian Quentin Skinner had the following to say about Karl Marx and the republican theory of liberty. The republican or “neo-Roman” theory says that we are unfree when we are subject to another person’s will:

I am very struck by the extent to which Marx deploys, in his own way, a neo-Roman political vocabulary. He talks about wage slaves, and he talks about the dictatorship of the proletariat. He insists that, if you are free only to sell your labour, then you are not free at all. He stigmatises capitalism as a form of servitude. These are all recognizably neo-Roman moral commitments.

Skinner also says that “this is a question which would bear a great deal more investigation than it has received.”

I have been engaging in some of this investigation. It is not just Marx or even primarily Marx who believed that the neo-roman theory of freedom leads directly to a critique of wage-slavery. As early as the late 1820s, urban workers seized on the inherited republicanism of the American Revolution and applied it to the wage-labor relationship. They organized themselves city-by-city into the first self-conscious political parties of labor and their main campaign was against “wage-slavery.”

They argued that the wealthy “keep us in a state of humble dependence” through their monopoly control of the means of production. As Thomas Skidmore, founder of the Workingmen’s Party of New York, put it:

thousands of our people of the present day in deep distress and poverty, dependent for their daily subsistence upon a few among us whom the unnatural operation of our own free and republican institutions, as we are pleased to call them, has thus arbitrarily and barbarously made enormously rich.

Their “humble dependence” meant that they had no choice but to sell their labor to some employer or another. Their only chance of leading a decent life was if some employer would give them a job. Though formally free, these workers were nonetheless economically dependent and thus unfree. That is why they saw themselves as denied their rightful republican liberty, and why wage-labor merited the name slavery. Skidmore made the comparison with classical slavery the most explicit:

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 labor 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…

The critique of wage-slavery in the name of republican liberty could hardly be clearer.

Given their analysis of wage-labor, these artisan republicans were inexorably led to radical conclusions about the conditions that could restore workers their full independence. Every leading figure of these early workingmen’s parties made some form of the argument that “the principles of equal distribution  [of property be] everywhere adopted” or that it was necessary to “equalize property.” Here, the “property” to be equally distributed was clearly means of production. And it was to be distributed not just in the form of land, but cooperative control over factories and other implements.

For instance, the major report articulating the principles of the Workingmen’s Party of New York included the demand for “AN EQUAL AMOUNT OF PROPERTY ON ARRIVING AT THE AGE OF MATURITY.” Only with control over this kind of property could workers’ structural dependence on owners be eliminated. For these “Workies” following out the logic of the republican theory led not to a nostalgic, agrarian idealism, but to the view that each person’s independence depended upon everyone possessing equal and collective control of productive resources. Even more striking, they argued that the only way to achieve this condition of independence was through the joint political efforts of the dependent or “enslaved” class.

As Langdon Byllesby, one of the earliest of these worker republicans, wrote, “history does not furnish an instance wherein the depository of power voluntarily abrogated its prerogative, or the oppressor relinquished his advantages in favour of the oppressed.” It was up to the dependent classes, through the agency of their workingmen’s parties, to realize a cooperative commonwealth.

There is an important historical connection between these radical artisans and Marx. As Maximilen Rubel and Lewis Feuer have shown, just at the time that Marx turned from Hegelian philosophy to political economy, in 1841–2, he began to read comparative political history. He was particularly interested in the American republic, and read three main sources: Beaumont, Tocqueville, and a less well-known Englishman, Thomas Hamilton. Hamilton was a former colonel who wrote his own, very popular observation of his time traveling in the United States called Men and Manners in America, published in 1833. For Marx, Hamilton was the best source of the three because Hamilton, unlike the Frenchmen, actually met with and spoke to leaders of the Workingman’s Party of New York. That section of Hamilton’s travelogue includes ominous references to the “Extreme Gauche” of the “Workies” who wish to introduce an “AGRARIAN LAW, and a periodical division of property,” and includes gloomy reflections on the coming “anarchy and despoliation.” It is these very sections of Hamilton that Marx copied into his notebooks during this period of preparatory study.

Unbeknown to Marx, he was copying a copy. In those sections of Men and Manners Hamilton had essentially transcribed parts of Thomas Skidmore’s report to the Workingmen’s Party of New York, which were a distillation of the ideas that could be found in Skidmore’s lengthy The Rights of Man to Property! Skidmore’s book included the argument that property rights were invalid if they were used to make the poor economically dependent, allowing owners “to live in idleness, partial or total, thus supporting himself, more or less, on the labors of others.”

If property rights were illegitimate the minute they were used to make some dependent on others then it was clear all freedom-loving citizens were justified in transforming property relations in the name of republican liberty. This was why Skidmore proposed the radical demand that the workers “APPROPRIATE ALSO, in the same way, THE COTTON FACTORIES, THE WOOLEN FACTORIES, THE IRON FOUNDERIES, THE ROLLING MILLS, HOUSES, CHURCHES, SHIPS, GOODS, STEAM-BOATS, FIELDS OF AGRICULTURE, &c. &c. &c. in manner as proposed in this work, AND AS IS THEIR RIGHT.” The manner proposed for this expropriation of the expropriators was not violent revolution but a state constitutional convention in which all property would be nationalized and then redistributed in shares of equal value to be used to form cooperatives or buy land.

Marx never knew these labor republicans by name, nor any of their primary writings, but it is clear from his notebooks that their ideas and political self-organization contributed to his early thinking, especially at the moment at which he was formulating his view of workers as the universal class. Indeed, in On the Jewish Question, Beaumont, Tocqueville and “the Englishman Hamilton’s” accounts of the United States feature heavily in Marx’s discussion of America. It is there that Marx makes the famous distinction between political and human emancipation, arguing that the American republic shows us most clearly the distinction between the two. This was almost exactly the same distinction that the Workies made when saying, as Philadelphian Samuel Simpson did, “the consequence now is, that while the government is republican, society in its general features, is as regal as it is in England.” A republican theory of wage-slavery was developed well before Marx (see here for evidence of similar developments in France that were also very likely to have influenced Marx).

In the United States, the republican critique of wage-labor went into abeyance for a time after the 1840s, or more appropriately, it was absorbed into the agrarian socialism of the National Reform Association — a tale masterfully told by the historian Mark Lause in Young America: Land, Labor and Republican Community. But “labor republicanism” exploded back onto the political scene in the United States after the Civil War, especially with leading figures around the Knights of Labor and the eight-hour movement. The Knights were for a time one of the most powerful organizations in the country, organized skilled and unskilled labor together, and at their peak included more than 700,000 official members, probably representing more than 1 million participating workers. The Knights used the republican concept of liberty to assert the universal interests of labor and to argue for the transformation of American society. George McNeill, a leading Knight, wrote that “There is an inevitable and irresistible conflict between the wage-system of labor and the republican system of government.” Ira Steward, most famous as an eight-hour campaigner, demanded a “a republicanization of labor, as well as a republicanization of government.”

These turns of phrase were more than rhetorical gestures. They were self-conscious appeals to the republican theory. Indeed the Journal of United Labor even reproduced a famous passage on slavery from Algernon Sidney’s Discourses on Government in order to articulate why wage-labor was a form of servitude. The passage goes:

Slavery. — The weight of chains, number of stripes, hardness of labor, and other effects of a master’s cruelty, may make one servitude more miserable than another; but he is a slave who serves the gentlest man in the world, as well as he who serves the worst; and he does serve him if he must obey his commands and depend upon his will.

This passage, and Sidney’s writings, have played a major role in contemporary scholarship on early modern republicanism, and here it is deployed to critique not the political enslavement to a monarch but wage-slavery.

In fact, the labor republicans not only drew on the republican theory but further developed it in light of the new dynamics of industrial capitalism. They noted that there were two interconnected forms of dependence. One was the general or structural dependence of the wage-laborer on employers, defined by the fact that the monopoly of control over productive property by some left the rest dependent upon those owners for their livelihoods. This, as George McNeil put it, meant that workers “assent but they do not consent, they submit but do not agree.”

The voluntaristic language here was meant to capture how, thought the workers were not literally slaves, they were nonetheless compelled to work for others. As Skinner has shown in his book on Hobbes, it is precisely this conflation of voluntaristic action and freedom that modern republicans have always rejected, and which their enemies, like Hobbes, have regularly defended. Though here, the worker’s dependence was not a feature so much of being the legal property of another as it was being forced, by economic need, to sell his labor:

when a man is placed in a position where he is compelled to give the benefit of his labor 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.

Emancipation may have eliminated chattel slavery, but, as eight-hour campaigner Ira Steward once put it, the creation of this new form of economic dependence meant “something of slavery still remains…something of freedom is yet to come.”

According to labor republicans, the structural dependence of the wage-laborer was translated, through the labor contract, to a more personal form of servitude to the employer. After all, the contract was an agreement of obedience in exchange for wages. It was an agreement to alienate control over one’s own activity in exchange for the privilege of having enough money to buy necessities, and perhaps a few luxuries. Indeed, even if the wages were fairly high, the point of the contract was to become subject to the will of a specific owner or his manager. As one anonymous author put it, in the Journal of United Labor, “Is there a workshop where obedience is not demanded — not to the difficulties or qualities of the labor to be performed — but to the caprice of he who pays the wages of his servants?” As nearly every scholar of republican thought has noted, the language of being subject to the caprice of another is one of the most enduring rhetorical tropes of the neo-Roman theory of freedom. It is no accident that it would feature so heavily in labor republican arguments about domination in the workplace.

It was for this reason that the Knights of Labor believed that the only way to “republicanize labor” was “to abolish as rapidly as possible, the wage system, substituting co-operation therefore.” The point about a cooperative system was that property was collectively owned and work cooperatively managed. Only when the class differences between owners and workers were removed could republican liberty be truly universalized. It would, at once, remove the structural and personal dependence of workers.

As William H. Silvis, one of the earliest of these figures, argued, cooperation “renders the workman independent of necessities which often compel him to submit to hectoring, domineering, and insults of every kind.” What clearer statement could there be of the connection between the republican theory of liberty, economic dependence, and the modern wage-system? Here was a series of arguments that flowed naturally from the principles of the American Revolution.

To demand that “there is to be a people in industry, as in government” was simply to argue that the cooperative commonwealth was nothing more than the culmination and completion of the American Revolution’s republican aspirations.