Bringing Marx to America: The Life of Friedrich Sorge

Posted by Pete on Nov 14th 2023

Born on 9th November in 1828, Friedrich Sorge went on to play a key role in American radical history

Some of you might have heard of the San Francisco 49ers, named after the California Gold Rush of 1849.

But what about the German 48ers, one of the most important groups in U.S. radical politics during the nineteenth century?

After the Revolutions of 1848 were crushed in continental Europe, several revolutionary exiles looked for political support in the United States.

For instance, the Hungarian Lajos Kossuth visited the United States to promote the cause of Hungarian independence from Austria.

But other European revolutionaries moved to the U.S. – and they brought their radical politics with them!

Sorge moved to America in 1852 and went on to found the Socialist Labor Party of America

After their effort to create a democratic German Republic based in Frankfurt was defeated by the Prussian Kaiser, backed by his reactionary allies in Russia and Austria, hundreds of German radicals emigrated to America.

The German ‘48ers’ became a pivotal part of progressive politics in America, backing the causes of abolition and suffrage, and driving the growth of the US socialist movement.

One of the most prominent 48ers was Friedrich Sorge, born today in 1828.

From Bethau in the Kingdom of Prussia, Sorge was from a radical family. His father had been an active sympathiser with Polish revolutionaries in the early nineteenth century.

When the 1848 Revolution kicked off in the German states, Friedrich Sorge was still a teenager.

He joined up with various militias in Saxony, Baden, and the Palatinate, fighting to defend the creation of a parliamentary democracy throughout Germany against Prussian intervention.

Karl Marx tea towel

1848 was also the year that Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto

See the Karl Marx tea towel

But the counter-revolutionaries were too strong and tyranny prevailed in central Europe.

Sorge, condemned to death by the King of Prussia for his political disobedience, found exile in Switzerland, then Belgium, then London.

But he soon grew sick of Europe altogether. In June 1852, Sorge moved across the Atlantic to New York.

Settling in Hoboken, New Jersey, Sorge married and found work as a music teacher.

But he also continued his political activism. If anything, Sorge became more radical in the United States.

A close friend and ally of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who he had stayed with in London, Sorge was a vocal critic of the economic inequality brought about by modern capitalism.

And capitalist development was more advanced in the northern United States than it was in most of the rest of the world.

Frederick Douglass tea towel

The 1850s was a time of great radical change in the United States - this was the time of Frederick Douglass and John Brown, of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman

See the Frederick Douglass tea towel

In 1857, Sorge co-founded the New York Communist Club with other European exiles.

The Communist Club spoke out on behalf of the Northern industrial working class. But the German exiles were also a key part of the movement to abolish black slavery in the U.S.

Thousands of 48ers fought in the U.S. Army during the Civil War to put down the Confederate rebels and destroy slavery, and Friedrich Sorge actively supported them.

After the Civil War, Sorge helped to establish the future of the U.S. socialist movement.

In December 1869, he co-founded the first section of the New York branch of the International Workingmen’s Association – Karl Marx’s ‘First International’.

In September 1871, Sorge’s section was key to organising a massive, multiracial demonstration of workers in New York to demand an eight-hour working day and to express solidarity with the French revolutionaries of the Paris Commune.

Then, in 1877, Sorge and a group of fellow Marxists in Newark founded the Socialist Labor Party of America.

Friedrich Sorge was therefore a direct forerunner of Eugene Debs and twentieth-century socialism in the United States.

U.S. Radical History is bound up with stories of migration, asylum, and international solidarity.

Migrants and refugees didn’t just move to America to improve their own lives. Many, like the German 48ers, came to support and spread liberation and solidarity, making America a freer country in turn.

Read more radical stories on our blog