1894 found Europe, in the main, at peace. Over the course of the 19th century, the mad patchwork quilt of principalities, kingdoms, and duchies had faded away in favor of a continent made up of consolidated national states helmed by sober-minded ministers. The Crimean War and a number of more minor conflagrations aside, the guns had been silent since the fall of Napoleon. Those wars that did break out, such as the fighting that resulted in Italian unification, intermittent dynastic squabbling in Spain, or the decisive contest between France and the newborn German Empire, tended to be brief, almost proper affairs.
It was nearly a half century since ’48 and twenty years since the Paris Commune, and the ghost of revolution did not hover so heavy over the governments of Europe. Trade and migration bound the nations ever closer together. The continent’s vital, aggressive energies were directed outwards, towards the bullying of China or the division of Africa. No one could conceive of another bloodbath on the scale of Napoleon’s wars.
This was the Europe upon which word of the American turmoil fell. And on no country did it fall harder than on Britain.
The destinies of the United Kingdom and the United States were inextricably intertwined, if sometimes fraught. After all, the American republic had been founded and was primarily peopled by Anglo-Saxons. There was much sense of cultural and racial affinity, and economic ties across the Atlantic were increasingly tight.
So, within an hour of the first reports from Chicago reaching Britain, the London Stock Exchange had crashed hard. No great economic catastrophe resulted, since the insurrection was contained within two weeks, but England still sat uneasy.
Queen Victoria drafted a letter of condolence to Cleveland, though at the urging of Prime Minister Primrose she struck the paragraph outright congratulating the American president on his suppression of the ‘rebellion’. In conversation the long-reigning monarch referred to the rebel workers as ‘beasts’ and ‘Jacobins’.
The conservative strata of society naturally greeted the news with horror. The Times of London referred to ‘wild communards and negroes’ in the streets of New Orleans. Primrose and the indomitable Salisbury, then opposition leader, briefly joined hands to denounce the carnage across the ocean and radicalism in general. But that moment of bipartisanship was fleeting, and soon Salisbury was hurling accusations in the House of Lords that the liberals’ long-sought Home Rule for Ireland might very well ‘make Belfast another Chicago’.
The Daily Telegraph reminded readers of the massive 1889 London dockworkers’ strike, wherein the city’s stevedores had scored a smashing victory over the employers, and the ranks of the General Labourer’s Union had swelled. The workers had won their pay raise without bloodshed, but the Telegraph darkly wondered whether ‘the next such affair mightn’t more closely resemble Debs’ commune’.
Such was the reaction of the conservative middle and upper classes. The reaction within Britain’s burgeoning labor movement was quite different. The Labour Party had yet to spring into existence—its germ existed within the Trades’ Union Congress and the handful of ‘Lib-Lab’ MPs in parliament, Liberal Party representatives with a special orientation towards the working class, generally sponsored and supported by a particular trade union.
These relatively conservative forces had somewhat muted reactions to the American troubles. Randal Cremer, an old labor activist and abolitionist, and now Lib-Lab representative in the House of Commons, took the middle road many did. In parliament, he criticized the ‘savagery’ displayed by the revolutionaries, but also pointed to the ‘fount of misery’ that were so many working-class communities.
Even this even-handed take was too much for some—the Telegraph condemned his speech as ‘irresponsibly radical’.
Havelock Wilson, elected as an ‘independent labour’ candidate from Middlesborough, took a similar tack. He vocally rejected violence but warned that such convulsions were ‘the inevitable conclusion’ of governments which ignored the needs and interests of their most destitute citizens.
But there were more radical voices in the circles of British labor. Trade unionism in the British Isles had historically been a phenomenon of skilled craftsmen, generally more interested in maintaining their own positions than in structural change, and disdainful of ‘common’ labor. In the late 1880s and early 1890s this was changing, with the rise of the ‘new unionism’ such as the General Labourer’s Union, which directed themselves to unskilled, unorganized workers. Most ‘new unions’ took a far more radical line than the constituents of the TUC, usually advocating socialism of some form or another.
Closely tied with the ‘new unions’ was the Social Democratic Federation, the creature of energetic communist Henry Mayers Hyndman. He had formed the SDF in 1881 to popularize the doctrines of Karl Marx in the United Kingdom, and hopefully lead the English working classes to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. His comrades included Marx’s daughter Eleanor, but through its early years the SDF was a politically irrelevant organization of a few dozen.
Hyndman greeted the news from America with delight, declaring that ‘Chicago is a signal to the workers of the world!’
The middle-class Fabian Society, dedicated towards ‘evolutionary socialism’, which would ultimately replace capitalism through gradual change, had more mixed reactions. Their socialism was a respectable, pacific one. Beatrice Webb, one of the society’s leading lights, called America’s ‘Red Summer’, both ‘spectacular’ and ‘tragic’.
Radicalism was also blooming in the north of England, spurred on by such papers as Robert Blatchford’s the Clarion, which declared that ‘the workers of America are ahead of the workers of Britain, and we had best make up the distance’. Someone subsequently tried to set fire to the offices of the Clarion.
Blatchford was one of the men behind the foundation of the Independent Labour Party, which would soon seek separation from the liberals.
Red ’94 certainly spurred much condemnation and acclamation in Britain, but most Britons seemed to believe it was a singular explosion and hoped it portended nothing more.
At least one man in England disagreed.
That was Friedrich Engels, the long-time friend and collaborator of Karl Marx. Marx was, in the summer and fall of 1894, more than a decade dead, and Engels was to follow him within the year.
Exhilarated by the news from America, the aging and cancer-stricken Engels penned his final work, the dryly titled Vindication of Scientific Socialism. The booklet, about 90 pages long in its original edition, viciously skewered the many critics of Marx, who asserted his predictions had failed and his theories been proven false. Engels begged to differ.
The 1889 stevedore’s strike of London, and now the revolt of the American working class demonstrated that, ‘as the law of history directs, the workingmen of the advanced countries are at the vanguard of the workers of the whole world.’ He expected these were only the first sparks of a conflagration that would engulf the Anglo-American sphere, and in the end establish between them the long awaited international socialist republic, that would then blaze a trail to communism for the whole world to follow. ‘Where are the scoffers now,’ he demanded, ‘who insisted the passage of time only ever improved the lot of the proletariat? Where are the constitutionalist cretins who insisted the workers could never, and would never conquer power by force of arms?’
Vindication of Scientific Socialism was a best-seller, and Engels, evidently satisfied that the working class was marching on to victory, died the following August.
Across the channel, the year found France in a rather more hectic state than her old rival. That June, as the events of the Red Summer unfolded, the French President Carnot had been assassinated by an Italian anarchist, horrifying the whole nation.
The news from America seemed of a kind with such radicalism, and the new president Perier expressed solidarity with France’s old ‘sister republic’, because France too knew the horrors of ‘the Commune’.
Among the very Parisian workers whose fathers (or they themselves) had participated in the Commune, the mood was somewhat different. A demonstration in the radical 18th Arrondissement of militant workers crying ‘vive l’Amérique!’ was broken up by police.
The Blanquist Revolutionary Committee crowed that the ‘spirit of the Commune has been carried across the sea’. The young reactionary anti-Semite and future head of Action Française, Charles Maurras agreed, and saw in it a ‘Jewish element’, the same he saw at work in France, behind Jacobinism, socialism, and the republic itself.
But France was soon deluged with its own troubles, when the seminal Dreyfus Affair broke on the nation that fall. The affairs of America seemed more distant than ever. For now.
The German Empire in 1894 was a country on the rise. It had not even existed until 1871, when Bismarck had at last welded the disparate little states of the defunct German Confederation into a unitary entity under the Hohenzollern King turned Emperor. The old Prussian martial prowess, now leavened with the manpower of southern Germany, made the Kaiser’s army without a doubt the finest on the continent. Economically, the empire was no slouch. Her industry was second only to that of Great Britain, and she was fast catching up. The year prior, 1893, had seen Germany overtake Britain in steel production for the first time.
Less flattering to the Kaiser and the upper classes was the fact that Germany had perhaps the best organized working class in Europe, and certainly the mightiest social democratic party.
The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) had been founded in 1863 by the great German socialist Ferdinand Lasalle. It had suffered much persecution under Bismarck but been finally legalized in 1890. Since then it had advanced in leaps and bounds, easily capturing the vote of Germany’s ever-expanding industrial proletariat, and emerging as the largest party in the country.
But the SPD was frustrated. The Kaiser, the Junker lords, and the emerging lords of modern industry, refused to see the social democrats as anything but a subversive enemy. They might be legal, but they were still viewed as revolutionaries in parliamentary clothing (as, indeed, many of them were). They were not considered ‘German’, but rather the antithesis of the true German nation founded upon family, property, and tradition.
Many of the German Empire’s federal divisions, most importantly Prussia (by far the largest, containing half the country’s population) maintained a three-tiered franchise. Similar to the old French estates, it afforded equal representation to three classes, from the wealthiest to the poorest. This meant less than 5% of the population held the same power at the ballot box as another 90%. Thus, though the social democrats were the largest party in Germany, and in any proportional system would have held a parliamentary plurality at the very least, they were instead relegated to a perpetual minority in the Reichstag.
By 1894, the SPD had settled in for an existence as a constitutional socialist party, though their platform still called for the communal administration of production. Despite the disdain of most every other grouping and association in Germany, the SPD stood candidates for elections, entered the Reichstag, and worked peacefully towards their goals.
But the social democrats, including their leader August Bebel, never forget the insurrectionary roots of the workers’ movements, and could even display sentimental inclinations towards revolutionary action.
Through the summer and into the fall of ’94, many German workers went through the streets of Berlin or Hamburg with red white and blue crepe pinned to their lapels, in a show of support for the American rebels. The Prussian secret police noted with dismay that ‘there is much sympathy for the American insurgents among the lower classes’.
Taking advantage of the news from America, in October of 1894, the Conservatives and the Center Party joined together and attempted to renew the ‘Anti-Socialist Laws’ of the deposed Chancellor Bismarck, which had all but outlawed the SPD for more than a decade. In response, Bebel stood up and gave a speech in which he warned that suppression of labor’s peaceful organization would lead exactly to the terrible revolution his opponents feared.
He was shouted down amid calls for his arrest.
The conservatives failed to push through the anti-socialist laws. But they would try again.
The further east one went, the less relevant happenings across the Atlantic became. Eastern Europe sometimes seemed a world apart from the continent’s western half, let alone the United States.
Most of the continent east of the Elbe was under the rule of three tottering empires: the Austrian, the Russian, and the Ottoman. Modernity and industry were only just making its inroads, and the great bulk of the population still worked the land in rural torpidity as their fathers had for centuries before.
In the sprawling expense of Russia, under its newly ascended but yet-uncrowned young autocrat Nicholas II, most of the tens of millions of peasants that were the majority of the empire’s people would have never heard of America’s Red Summer. For them, even the affairs of the capital, St. Petersburg, often seemed like the concerns of an alien world.
But Vladimir Ulyanov was not most Russians.
The young Marxist was not yet twenty-five, but already immersed in Russia’s vibrant, if tiny, revolutionary underground. He had already been expelled from university for radical agitation and had now formed a small clique of self-proclaimed social democrats in St. Petersburg.
Engaging in vigorous debate with fellow revolutionaries, Ulyanov, who was not yet Lenin, already demonstrated the ferocity and force of personality that would propel him to the heights he would one day reach.
In the summer of ’94, Ulyanov was dazzled by the reports of the American revolts, and wrote his first widely published screed, Chicago and What it Means for the Proletarians of the World, that fall.
The work was a stinging rebuke to those Russian Marxists he determined inordinately enamored with the peasantry as the instrument of revolution. The unrest in America, Ulyanov insisted, demonstrated that Marx had been correct. The industrial laborer was the engine of revolution. Just as Marx had predicted, the fire of revolution was first being kindled in the ‘advanced countries’ of America, England, and Germany. And so would be the case in Russia. The peasant would at best serve as a helpmeet for the revolutionary worker.
It was in the aftermath of a vicious debate with a Narodnik activist over the significance (or lack thereof) of the American rebellions, which spiraled into a brawl, that Ulyanov was arrested for the first time. With Chicago and another recent work of his, What the "Friends of the People" Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats as evidence, Ulyanov received the first of his many sentences courtesy of the tsarist regime, and was exiled to Siberia forthwith.
Later in life, Lenin would often joke that he was ‘arrested for the sake of the American Revolution’ as a young man.
But for the time being, all of this was largely insular, academic socialist squabbling. Russia seemed, of all European countries, the unlikeliest to ever adopt socialism. It was derided by continental socialists as a backward, stupid, ‘oriental’ despotism. Nearly half the population was illiterate. What little industry the country maintained was concentrated in a few great urban centers like St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev. The country had not even undergone the ‘bourgeois revolution’ orthodox Marxist theorists (including Lenin) insisted was a necessary precondition for socialism. The autocracy, represented by its new (and many hoped, especially able) tsar, sat firmly in the saddle, and it did not appear in danger of falling out any time soon.