Class conflict and politics in the North during the Civil War era

Chicago in the Age of Capital:

Class, Politics, and Democracy during the Civil War and Reconstruction

Although a great deal of ink has been spilled on the politics of the Civil War era, including by Marxist historians, relatively little attention has been paid to social and political change in the North. Radical scholars generally agree that the events of the 1860s and 1870s constitute the Second American Revolution—a bourgeois revolution during which the remaining obstacles to industrial capitalism were swept aside by war, emancipation, and the dramatic curtailment of the political power of the South. Yet the implications of this analytical framework for the study of the northern states have not been explored in any great depth. How did the economy of the free states change during the revolutionary period? Did the war encourage or retard industrial growth and development? How did the struggle between capital and labor progress during these tumultuous decades? With Chicago in the Age of Capital, John Jentz and Richard Schneirov take up some of these important questions. 

This book makes for a particularly fine case study of the rise of industrial capitalism and the political and ideological changes that went along with it. As Jentz and Schneirov note, this was “the most dynamic industrial city of the northern states” in the mid-nineteenth century. From being a trading post with just a few thousands inhabitants in 1840, Chicago became a major railroad hub in the 1850s, and a center of meatpacking, engineering, and textile production in the 1860s. Consequently, the city witnessed the relatively sudden birth of both a confident and increasingly self-conscious group of factory-owners and a class of propertyless wage earners. This emergence of capitalist social relations created a major contradiction for the dominant political ideology of the period. According to the hegemonic “free labor” worldview of the antebellum years, America was a fluid society without the permanent class distinctions that marred industrializing Europe—the sort of place where a young man could start out poor and work his way to the top. Such an ideology struggled to explain the new type of society emerging in cities like Chicago.

Jentz and Schneirov are therefore interested in the ways in which the rise of a permanent working class served to reorganize the assumptions and practices of municipal politics. Deploying Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony,” they attempt to explain how Chicago’s urban elite maintained and negotiated its political leadership at a time of profound social change. At the most basic level, the forms of control suitable for a merchant-capitalist ruling class in a pre-industrial city were not sufficient for the class of manufacturers who rose to power in the years of Civil War and Reconstruction. Before the Civil War, Chicago’s merchants had maintained what the authors term a “segmented regime,” in which the commercial elite also assumed direct control of city government. From the 1870s, however, the local elite tended to avoid a hands-on role in the municipal government, preferring to exercise its influence indirectly. As the forms of the municipal state adapted to the rise of the manufacturing elite, therefore, so too did the types of “civil society” organizations through which the ruling class exercised its ideological dominance: manufacturers found their voice through an array of business associations, newspapers, and Protestant churches, as well as through the local Republican Party. 

Chicago’s new manufacturing elite had to respond to more than just changes in the fabric of social life—it also needed to deal with the rise of a combative labor movement in the same period. This dynamic is another central theme of Chicago in the Age of Capital. Jentz and Schneirov show how working-class politics changed and adapted to the new realities of revolutionary upheaval and industrial development. Early manifestations of working-class ideology took their cues from the currents of mainstream political thought, adapting them to the needs of the apprentices and journeymen who made up the first protagonists of the labor movement. Artisan republicanism emphasized the unity of interests among all “producers”—including master craftsmen and small manufacturers—in opposition to “parasites” such as merchants and bankers who enjoyed undue influence over the political system. In the 1860s, this worldview gave way to what Jentz and Schneirov call “transnational social republicanism,” an ideology that drew on the experiences of German refugees from the failed revolution of 1848, Irish Fenians, and militant British craftsmen. Unlike artisan republicanism, social republicanism saw the origins of inequality in the structure of the economy as well as in abuses of the political system. Finally, by the early 1870s, the most advanced section of the labor movement had adopted socialism—both Lassallean and Marxian—as its guiding ideology, leading to the rise of the Workingmen’s Party. 

The burgeoning class consciousness and confidence of Chicago’s workers forced the local ruling class to make repeated changes to the means by which it maintained its political power. One such shift came as a result of the eight-hour movement in 1867. Initially, the Radical Republican city government in Chicago had hoped to incorporate sections of the working-class vote into its electoral coalition by vigorously supporting an eight-hour law. However, this policy provoked strong opposition from manufacturers, another crucial part of the Radical coalition, and thus called into question the Republicans’ ability to pose as a party of both capital and labor. Especially after the dramatic eight-hour strike of May and June 1867, local manufacturers lost faith in the ability of Radicals to adequately represent business interests in the city. Similarly, the strength of the local socialist movement in the wake of the 1877 railroad strike forced Chicago’s ruling class to abandon Republican rule altogether, and turn instead to a populist regime, under Mayor Carter Harrison, that could incorporate elements of the labor movement while maintaining a favorable business climate in the city. 

Chicago in the Age of Capital stands alongside David Montgomery’s Beyond Equality, Sven Beckert’s The Monied Metropolis, and Heather Cox Richardson’s The Death of Reconstruction as one of the most important works dealing with class formation and social conflict in the North during the revolutionary decades of the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s. It will therefore become required reading for anyone interested in the story of how the Second American Revolution played out in the North. Jentz and Schneirov have, moreover, made fruitful use of Gramscian theory to understand the political changes of this period, illuminating an interesting potential research agenda for further work on class and politics in this era. As a short and accessible work of labor history, Chicago in the Age of Capital deserves to be widely read.

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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