Why would the system proposed by the Knights of Labor to replace capitalism not be considered socialism? Was this also a goal of the AFL?

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Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The neat thing about your question is that there are many definitions involved. Let us peruse the definitions of Knights of Labor, capitalism, socialism, and the AFL. Then we can begin to answer your questions.

The Knights of Labor was one of the most important labor organizations at the end of the 19th century. Their main goal was to institute the eight-hour workday for the working man of their time. Due to lack of organization, the group was permanently disbanded over time (even though its remnants still exist within some labor unions today). Capitalism is a system of economy where people and businesses control the wealth (as opposed to the government controlling the wealth). Socialism is a system of economy where the community controls the wealth (as opposed to the government, individuals, or corporations controlling the wealth). Finally, the AFL stands for the American Federation of Labor. It was founded at the end of the 19th century and had better leadership than the Knights of Labor. In fact, after merging with its rival and becoming the AFL-CIO in the 1950s, it has grown even more and still exists today.

I find your first question interesting because the Knights of Labor existed specifically within capitalism and was strategically against both “socialism and anarchism.” I am assuming you refer to the original acceptance of georgism by the members and their support of co-ops. In regards to the latter, the business is owned by the community and not by the individuals involved. This does sound like socialism, you are right. In regards to the former, georgism is also a philosophy of economics which is precisely about land. Basically, georgism says that natural resources should belong equally to the community members, but should be divvied up by the value created by each individual member. The confusion here comes in regards to both of these ideas’ focus on “community.” Still, remember that co-ops are simply one business unit that can exist within capitalism (as many exist within America today), and that resources (even within georgism) still belong to the individuals that help harness the natural resources. Considering that the Knights of Labor was specifically against socialism, they would definitely consider the reasoning above to be true.

In regards to your second set of questions, the AFL goals, instead of being many and varied, have always been considered “pure and simple” in regards to their organizational structure. In short, the AFL always focused on working conditions and wages. Period. They delegated political goals to their political friends and did not associate them with the organization itself. The AFL wanted to expand capitalism, not weaken it, and they used workers’ interested to support that idea, so socialism was far from the AFL’s goals, for sure in that they considered socialism “working class radicalism.”

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, were fairly radical. They advocated the abolition of the wage system and sought to organize all workers in one union. Unlike later unions, such as the AFL, the Knights of Labor accepted women, African Americans, and immigrants. They wanted to organize both skilled and unskilled labor in one union. The union stated that it was opposed to socialism and anarchism and only wanted to use strikes as a last resort. While they wanted to reform capitalism (through such changes as the creation of an eight-hour workday and the abolition of child labor), they still existed within the capitalist system. Their goals also included setting up a cooperative system in which workers would share in the profits they generated, but they were unable to achieve this goal. Therefore, while they had some socialist goals, they officially denounced socialism, and their achievements stopped far short of achieving any degree of socialism.

The AFL, or American Federation of Labor (founded in 1886) was only open to skilled white workers and was not socialist. Instead, the AFL sought to reform working conditions by instituting an eight-hour workday and asking for better pay for its members. They also wanted to use collective bargaining as a tool with business owners. The AFL was far less radical in its aims than the Knights of Labor and accepted the basic tenets of capitalism.