An excerpt from current work in progress: An historical novel inspired by the life and family of Alfred Dolge
On a bright morning in March of 1893 when the fields and pastures were still covered with snow, two boys climbed high on the leafless branches of a maple tree and scanned the southern horizon. When they heard the steady huffing of a steam engine and saw a plume of smoke rounding the hills, they shouted to the crowd waiting in High Falls Park. “The train is coming! They're here!”
“Ach, the crown prince of Dolgeville has brought home a bride,” declared a bearded old man, speaking in heavily accented English.
“You must be indeed proud of your grandson,” replied the slender and younger man on whose arm the old man leaned. Then he added with a mischievous smile: “Though I cannot share your monarchical views, sir. Are you certain that you are the same Christian Dolge who fought on the barricades in 1848?”
“You young rascal!” growled Christian Dolge. “I was there and so was your father, the bravest man of us all!”
“I cannot wait to tell him of all that Alfred has built here in the New World.” The younger man smiled and took off his pince-nez, wiping the lenses. Karl Liebknecht had arrived in Dolgeville a week earlier on his tour of the United States and had spent much more time with Alfred Dolge's father than with the industrialist himself. His father's old pupil had barely a minute to spare from his busy schedule of supervising the felt mill, the autoharp shop, the piano manufactory, and the school board – not to mention second-guessing his wife on every detail of the approaching wedding ceremonies for his oldest son and his bride.
Karl was not disappointed to have the time with Christian. Even if he had mellowed in the decades since he and Bakunin had raised the red flag in Dresden, the old radical was still an inspiration in many ways. For one, he had actually known Marx in his youth before he had even written the Manifesto or put together the massive edifice of Kapital. The old man had paid a heavy price for his heroism, and spent years in the dungeons of the mad Bavarian king..
At twenty-two, Karl Leibknecht had just completed service with the Imperial Guards and would begin his legal studies in Leipzig after returning to his homeland. This journey to America represented a small rebellion against his father's plans for him, one that would pass as quickly as his brief infatuation with the trappings of monarchy. As he listened to the tales of his father's old comrade, Karl's resolve to follow the revolutionary path was strengthened. And already he was beginning to doubt the efficacy of his father's decision to found a socialist party and work for a better future only within the confines of Bismarck's tightly controlled Reichstag.
In his mid seventies, Christian Dolge's materialism was now more focused on zoology and botany than economics, and he delighted in showing off the menagerie that surrounded the sturdy home his son had built for him on the edge of the village. Prairie dogs, coyotes, raccoons and even an eagle could be viewed in their cages along the roadway beside the creek. Nearby was a five acre fenced area for deer, peacocks and a variety of wild local fowl. A den on the cliff above the creek contained a high wall that prevented, for the most part, wandering by the old man's beloved bears, Schnippsal and Schnappsal. At the foot of an adjacent hill, three fishponds were filled with trout, bass and bullheads – and the village children were welcomed to cast their lines at any time except during school hours
To Karl, Dolgeville represented a model of what all of Germany, all the world in fact, could be once the socialist revolution was achieved. Thanks to Alfred's keen sense of business, well-paid work was provided for all. Even more, workers became eligible for old age pensions and sick leave funded by what was, in effect, a tax on their incomes. Every child was guaranteed a free education in the excellent public school he had built. Dissatisfied with the abilities of the typical, poorly paid American teachers, he doubled and tripled the salaries for teachers, thereby attracting well educated normal school graduates. In the company of Old Christian, Karl had visited the school and was particularly impressed by the charming kindergarten, an institution developed in Germany but hitherto unknown in the United States.
“This village is a living illustration of what Marx meant by surplus value!” he exclaimed to the old man as they stepped out of the high school where a German lesson was in progress. “This is what can happen when the true value produced by workers is directed to the betterment of all instead of being diverted into the wasteful extravagances of the owner class.”
“I agree with you, young man,” returned Christian with a sly smile. “But surely you have observed that my son also provides very well for himself and his family, have you not? Do you think that Karl Marx would approve?”
Taken aback for a moment, Karl hesitated before answering. “Yes, I could not help but notice your son's fine mansion and of course I know of his annual trips to Europe, having met him on more than one occasion in my father's humble house. I confess, with respect, that I was concerned by the difference in wealth between your family and that of the workers. It seems at first...not truly socialist.”
“And what is your verdict on our little utopia?”
“In all honesty, I do not think your utopia could exist at all had not Alfred taken on himself the role and accoutrements of a capitalist. It is, unfortunately, what workers and particularly the German workers who come here, expect. They cannot imagine a successful industry without a boss, or a successful nation for that matter.”
“I agree with you,” said the old man in great seriousness. “If this town were governed by a collective of workers, it would quickly dissolve into factions. I see how the workers of Dolgeville function when given a voice on the school board or in decisions regarding new parks and other improvements. Perhaps in the far future, after generations of careful education, workers will be able to govern themselves, but for now they need a strong hand.”
“What Marx called the dictatorship of the proletariat?”
“No, the dictatorship of one very skillful man who is fully committed to the betterment of his people.”
"But sir, even if I concede that your son is uniquely equipped to design and operate this small society, what future could it have in the long run? Who in the future could fulfill the role of dictator as he has done, taking just enough of the common wealth to maintain his position without falling victim to the greed of a Carnegie or Morgan?”
“Perhaps the crown prince? Der Kronprinz?” the old man mused, puffing at his pipe.
“His son Rudolf?” Karl shook his head. “Have we socialists truly come to a point where we must return to monarchy in order to attain our goals? There, sir, I find we must disagree.”
This conversation was much in Karl's mind as he and his elderly companion awaited the arrival of what could only be called the royal pair. He had been dismayed to learn that Alfred had hired a special train to bring Rudolf, his bride Anna and all their friends up from New York City. The costs, he calculated, must be astronomical and could in no way be justified by a need to maintain the necessary “dictatorship” of Dolge. It was, he had to admit, exactly the kind of wasteful gesture typical of the worst of the plutocrat class.
Karl guided his companion to the open air pavilion where the rest of the welcoming committee and honored guests had assembled. The usually very sober Alfred Dolge could not conceal the intensity of his joy and kept turning to whisper into the ear of his wife, the stately Anna. By her side stood Dolge's great friend, one of the chief financiers of the newly completed Little Falls & Dolgeville railroad, Judge George Hardin. He was exchanging a comment with another of Dolge's business associates, Schuyler Ingham. In keeping with what Dolge's enemies called his “atheism,” the wedding ceremony was to be a civil one, and performed by Judge Hardin.
As the train came into view, Karl observed that it was draped in colorful bunting and banners, one of which proclaimed in huge red letters: “This is the Dolge Wedding Party.” Glancing about, Karl did not see that anyone but he disapproved of such showiness. Even the money men, Hardin and Ingham, seemed completely overjoyed at the sight of the gaudy train and whooped with laughter to see the young people hanging off the sides of it, shouting their greetings.
The wedding ceremony itself was brief as could be, taking place before a packed crowd in the Turnhalle, the great opera house that Dolge had built for his workers. The day had been proclaimed a sort of national holiday and the many hundreds of workers and their families who could not fit into the theater stood outside and cheered so loudly that the exchange of vows could not be heard more than a few feet away. As soon as the binding words were said, Rudolf and Anna stepped outside and waved to the throng, provoking more displays of enthusiasm. Then they returned to the bower of flowers erected on the stage and sat down to listen to speeches by the groom's father, his grandfather, Judge Hardin and too many other people for Karl to count. The young German was sure that the jewels that glittered on her dress were truly diamonds and pearls. And there was no doubt in his mind that the six fabulously gowned bridesmaids were each the daughter of some American millionaire.A great quantity of food and drink was served, and not only to invited guests. The whole village lined up in the tents where tables were piled high with roast beef and steins of beer. What passed in America for a genuine German band began to play and soon the working people and the silk-hatted millionaires were dancing together with the greatest glee Perhaps, the young German thought to himself, such displays truly are necessary in order to cement the relationship between the people and their socialist leaders.
“Who can predict,” he said to a workman named Krebs, “what direction the revolutionary spirit will take in the new century?”
“Who, indeed?” answered Krebs, reaching for another stein of fine German lager.
For more on the novel on the founder of Dolgeville, read Mr. Dolge's Money
For more on the novel on the founder of Dolgeville, read Mr. Dolge's Money