The next two weeks of my AP European History syllabus and AP US History syllabus are filled with discussion sets and readings about class conflict. Next week both sections of European History are presenting seminar papers on Jacques Barzun’s book Darwin, Marx, and Wagner. Today in US History we are addressing the plight of the working class and their insecurities. Without strong unions to worry about at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century, an employer could let any worker go for joining a union or speaking against his/her employer. Essentially, Gilded Age corporations worked hard to inculcate a process of class subordination. Furthermore, the government’s marriage to corporations only furthered a model of class conflict and animosity.
As part of US History’s reading syllabus this term, students are required to read The Communist Manifesto (cartoon version link here). Karl Marx’s Four Modes of Production marks a shift in human behavior. Once humans reach stage three, they empower a strong government to regulate their lives and create a sense of social and economic equality. Then, according to Marx, humans naturally progress to stage four: Communism; it is at this point Marx’s model fades into a state of disillusionment. Here he contends that after a proletariat revolution brings about a socialistic/ communistic change, government will wither away. Marxism failed to find a place in the United States and for the most part England due to the late activity of the government. 1900 to 1920 was a “progressive” period when the US government adopted many of the socialist ideas of the Populist Party. Fearing Communism after the Bolshevik Revolution, the US government clamped down on un-American perspectives as early as 1920.
In the 19th century a number of social critics in England, continental Europe, and the US came to fix their attention on the nature of work. They “slowly” realized that factories and machines degraded the status of workers, denying them any joy at life. Government’s reaction to this in the US kept strong elements of Marxism out. Marx called for the proletarians to unite. In England and the US they did by formulating unions.
Terms such as socialist and Marxist are often used synonymously, much to the bitterness of non-Marxist socialist. As a member of Democratic Socialist of America, my major aim is to address matters of racial inequality, as well as political and economic. Marxism in academic circles has been victorious; however, not on the political stage. It will be interesting to see how students feel about terms they have only heard used incorrectly by the misinformed.