Wednesday, June 12, 2013

New biography of Alfred Dolge

 The  Violet Festival in Dolgeville last weekend was once again a celebration of the wonderful spirit of the village founded by Alfred Dolge so many years ago. Here are some scenes and the script of  the annual living street theater production on the life of Alfred Dolge. 

My new short biography of Alfred Dolge is now available on Kindle for 99 cents and as an illustrated paperback for $7.95. The Kindle version can  also be read on tablets,smartphones and PCs by downloading the free Kindle app. Amazon Prime members may also borrow the story through the Kindle Owners Lending Library.

This booklet is meant only as an introduction to the remarkable founder of Dolgeville and originator of an early form of Social Security. I draw  on two works that are essential to anyone interested in the history of the Dolgeville and Little Falls. Dolge by Eleanor Franz is the only full length biography of  Dolge ever published and can be purchased from the Herkimer County Historical Society. Richard Buckley's history of Little Falls, Unique Place, Diverse People can be purchased from the Little Falls Historical Society.

 Dolge himself wrote widely and two collections of his thoughts can be found on google books: The Just Distribution of Earnings, So-called Profit Sharing (1889) and The Practical Application of Economic Theories in the Factories of Alfred Dolge & Son (1895)

I also found the Dolgeville-Manheim Historical Society to be a great source of material on Dolge and his era. Dolge's self-published History of a Crime can be purchased in photocopy form at the Society's museum on Main Street in Dolgeville.

In the new Alfred Dolge my goal is to increase awareness of a visionary businessman whose great experiment is more relevant than ever, a hundred and fifteen years after his enemies forced him into bankruptcy and destroyed the amazingly equitable and prosperous industrial village he had created. The Social Security System, now under attack from a variety of politicians and their wealthy backers, gives credit to Dolge as one of its forerunners. But his downfall is particularly instructive at this time.

Dolge was a captain of industry, an immigrant who made his fortune in America, and completely devoted to the capitalist system that made him and his family so wealthy. And he did not stint from enjoying that wealth, living in a grand mansion attended by servants, traveling annually to Europe, and throwing his son an over-the-top wedding in which the happy couple and guests came from New York to Dolgeville on their own special wedding train.

But Dolge understood that unrestrained capitalism could not last.  Analyzing the recession of 1892 for his fellow Mohawk Valley industrialists, he pointed to the collapse of demand as the real cause of the fiancial crisis: “Capitalists must learn that wage earners of today are of greater importance to the community as consumers than as producers.”  He saw the labor conflicts that were growing in intensity from the 1870s onward as due not to dangerous radicals but to the reasonable demand of workers for a better life: “Almost every conflict between capital and labor originates in the demand of laborers for a betterment of their condition.” 

He said that too many manufacturers subscribed to the notion that “profits rise as wages fall,” and argued that the recession of 1892 was due to a collapse in demand caused by the failure of Congress to pass a protective tariff that would safeguard high wages for workers.  His insistence that American industry and workers had to be protected from low-wage competition overseas was self-evident to him and to many of his fellow Republicans in those years - a stark contrast to the present time in which both parties vie to see who can do more to outsource American jobs and dismantle american industgry, all in the name of "globalization."

When Dolge spoke to his fellow capitalists, he presented his social and economic reforms as simply enlightened self-interest. But his commitment to building a prosperous and cultured life for working people went deeper and was rooted in the example of his revolutionary father and in his readings of such diverse authors as Karl Marx, Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Wilhelm Leibknecht, found of the German Socialist Party, was a close friend of his father and a guide to Albert's youthful studies of politics and economics. 

Eleanor Franz described the breadth of Dolge's vision:

“What Dolge built grew out of his determination that children should no longer scavenge coal, or old men end up in paupers’ graves. It was his belief that a workman should be able to retire at sixty with a pension paid for by his employer as part of the cost of production. The security of such a plan, he wrote, “would allow the laborer to live better and be more healthy, keep his wife at home and his children in school. He could live up to his income and thus develop a higher manhood and superior citizenship.” Dolge saw employees eventually becoming partners in a business, so that a capitalist would no longer be enriched at the expense of his laborers. Even though he believed in hard work as a way out of poverty, it was never his belief that the poor remained poor because of laziness. What he aimed for was, in effect, a leveling of the economy to benefit everyone rather than solely the man at the top.” 

Some who have studied his life may differ but my view is that Dolge was brought down by a conspiracy among his fellow capitalists, led by George Hardin and Schuyler Ingham but supported by other wealthy men afraid that the high wages and social benefits Dolge provided to his workers would lead their own employees to demand the same and thus cut into their own immense profits.  The resentment of Dolge took on a very personal note, as when Hardin told the Little Falls Journal & Courier in 1898 that Dolge was "an anarchist, an atheist and a communist." 

The life of Alfred Dolge has much to teach about the struggles of our own time and we can only hope that people beyond Dolgeville will be inspired by his dedication to building a humane capitalism in which working people can thrive.

Previous posts from this site on Alfred Dolge and Dolgeville: 

1 comment:

  1. Yes, the capitalism that Dolge's "friends" practiced was monopolization, which is a bastardization of free enterprise and the capitalism that Dolge aspired to. His "fellow capitalists" wanted to keep the little guy down, wipe out all competition, which, by the way, passes for capitalism today.
    I would not equate Dolge's system with social security, either. In fact I wouldn't mention it in the same breath, for it was far from it. Social security of today is nothing if it isn't a tax. Dolge's pensions, etc. were equitable and fair, based on what the worker put into the company. Not so with S.S.
    Certainly Dolge read Marx, but his (Dolge's) ideas were as different as night is to day from Marx, when put into practice.