Ideology of the Gilded Age: Socialism and Capitalism

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In the tumultuous age of the Industrial Revolution in America, some became very rich while others faced terrible poverty. Out of this dilemma came both defenders and critics of the capitalist economic system. Some believed capitalism would usher in a new era of prosperity, while others argued it would be the undoing of society. Out of this debate emerged more refined explanations of the goods and ills of capitalist society during the Gilded Age. This discussion will utilize the viewpoints of two men, Andrew Carnegie and Albert Parsons, to illuminate the extremes of both arguments.

Andrew Carnegie – The Gospel of Wealth

Andrew Carnegie was the owner of steel manufacturing business in the late 1800’s, and had accumulated a vast fortune from his business. He argued that it was beneficial to society as a whole that the majority of wealth be held by the few, who, in his mind, were deserving of such wealth. In an article titled “Wealth” published in the North American Review in 1889, Carnegie argued that the staggering inequalities resulting from the Industrial Revolution were “not to be deplored, but welcomed as highly beneficial.” To him, the lavish wealth of the upper class was simply a measure of progress made and “the contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer with us today measures the change which has come with civilization.” Carnegie did however advocate that the rich should use their wealth to fund operations for public welfare and that the process of sharing wealth voluntarily would end the problem of poverty and inequality, although he had his own ideas about to whom or what the money should be given. Carnegie’s ideology was one that was widely held among affluent men of his time, and mirrors very closely the beliefs held by wealthy business owners of the 21st century.

Albert Parsons – The need for anarchy

Albert Parsons worked as a printer, was an outspoken anarchist and socialist sympathizer, and held a view of capitalism that was very different from that of Carnegie’s. Parsons saw the rich as vultures feeding off of the efforts of the laborer. In an essay published in the New York Herald in 1886, he described anarchy as “the perfection of personal liberty or self-government.” He argued that the freedom to compete with others in a capitalist society only advanced the rich who in his mind were the only ones profiting from free labor. Instead, Parsons favored socialism and anarchy to capitalism, believing that the common laborer would be bound by the chains of “wage slavery” until the upper crust of society was abolished along with social classes and capitalist society. To Parsons, the saving grace of society would be the complete and total freedom of its members. To quarrel with socialist views, he argued, was to “quarrel with history; to denounce the logic of events; to smother the aspirations of liberty.” Although Parsons was sentenced to death ten days after this article was published, (he was believed to have been involved in the Haymarket Bombing of May 4, 1886) socialist leanings would still persist among working class Americans up until the present day.

Similarities and Differences

The interesting similarity between Parsons and Carnegie is that they both believed their ideologies were based on historical progression and destined to become main stream. Both men truly believed that their ideology would inevitably become that of the world, because they both believed their philosophies provided for the good of all. Carnegie’s viewpoints illustrated a sort of Social Darwinism in which the fittest and most deserving would rise to riches, and the weak and unfit would remain in poverty. Parsons sought to eradicate this inequality through whatever means necessary, believing that until the common worker wrested power and influence from the wealthy, the system of inequality would persist. Even though Carnegie’s capitalism would remain the dominant philosophy in America, socialism and sympathy for the lower working classes still remains a strong ideological facet in today’s society, in America and around the world.