The party that never was

Issue: 119

Kim Moody

Robin Archer, Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States? (Princeton University, 2007), £19.95

It’s an old question, but despite the academic fashion of dismissing it, it’s a question that returns in both academic and political guise with some regularity. Robin Archer of the London School of Economics gives some new answers. Not many have ventured to argue that racism was not a barrier to the formation of a labour-based party in the US. Even fewer dared to say one reason was that there was just too much Marxist influence in the US labour movement. Furthermore, Archer roundly dismisses some of the old chestnuts of the “American exceptionalism” debate. Prosperity, upward mobility, individualism, lack of feudal remnants, early male suffrage, among others, all make the dustbin of history—as they should. In conclusion, he argues, “It is the importance of repression, religion, and socialism that helps explain the failure to establish a labour party.”

Archer’s method of disposing of so many of the old cliches and arriving at his novel conclusions is to compare American labour with Australian, the “most similar case”, rather than the more traditional comparison with Europe. Australian labour, he argues, had all the features of its American counterpart in the 1880s and 1890s, the period Archer designates as crucial. Its working class was more prosperous, had more upward mobility, was at least as individualistic in outlook, had white male suffrage and was deeply racist.

Yet, with all this working against it, the Australian working class, or at least its white members, managed to form a labour party in 1891. It was anti-Chinese, anti-Melanesian and for a “White Australia”. So why didn’t white US labour, most of which was similarly racist in outlook, form an all-white labour party? Aside from the fact that it would have had disastrous consequences, it would not have been possible in the US for reasons I will return to.

The other aspect of Archer’s approach is that he pins the failure to form a labour party on a single event, the 1894 convention of the American Federation of Labour (AFL). It was at this convention that the delegates debated the merits of the “Political Programme”, which was in fact the programme of the British Independent Labour Party. It had been proposed by the socialists in the AFL, and its preamble called for independent class political action. Its supporters presumed that its passage meant the AFL would take action to form an alliance with rebelling rural populists to create a farmer-labour party.

Although it appeared that the programme would pass, Samuel Gompers and the other advocates of “pure and simple unionism” manoeuvred to secure its defeat. Archer’s argument about the role of socialism and too much Marxism comes down to the bitter factionalism of that debate between two sides whose leaders had learned their strident “either-or” polemical style in the Marxist-dominated socialist movement of the 1870s and 1880s. This is in counterposition to the Australians who, he argues, were utopians or ethical socialists rather than Marxists, and hence presumably less polemical and more willing to compromise.

Ironically, the “pure and simple unionism” that emerged full-blown in the 1890s, had its origins in the debates between the followers of Marx and Engels, who saw trade unions as an important development in working class organisation, and the Lasallians, who, with their “iron law of wages”, saw unions as a waste of time. Adolf Strasser and his understudy, Samuel Gompers, both of the Cigar Makers’ union and major shapers of “pure and simple unionism”, were active in the International Workingmen’s Association as supporters of Marx in the US and were founders of the Social Democratic Workingmen’s Party in 1874 upon the demise of the International.

This was renamed the Socialist Labour Party in 1877. Within the socialist movement they emphasised the centrality of unions and came to advocate a form of organisation based on the English “new model” craft unions. Their views would be picked up by the other father of “pure and simple unionism”, Peter J McGuire, who converted from Lasallianism to Marxism around 1880, after which he helped found the Carpenters’ Union. Marx and Engels were, of course, highly critical of the English craft unions precisely for the narrowness that Strasser et al embraced as the recipe for stable organisation. All three would lead the fight against the Political Programme. In the end, Strasser et al chose craft narrowness and bureaucratic stability over socialism of any sort. Nevertheless, Archer sees the rigid factional style they learned as socialists as the reason the programme failed.

In fact, the failure of the AFL to take a first step towards a labour party involved much more than the sectarian styles of former and current Marxists. For one thing, the depression of 1893 had reduced the ranks of the unions dramatically. Despite the birth of the United Mine Workers in 1890 and the radical Western Federation of Miners in 1893, and the huge dockers’ strikes in St Louis and New Orleans in 1892, any chance of mass general unionism at that time was set back by the depression. Only the more conservative skilled building workers’ craft unions held on as the urban building boom continued and their employment expanded.

They formed Gompers’s base and would continue to do so into the new century. It was this base that allowed him to defeat subsequent moves towards an independent class party. It was also the survival of these craft unions that further convinced Gompers and others that exclusive craft unionism was the only model of stable organisation.

Archer treats racism as simply a matter of ideology. Racist Australians formed a labour party, so why couldn’t racist Americans do the same? He misses something important about the period he is examining. Racism grew out of and perpetuated a clear structure of oppression in slavery. With its abolition at the end of the civil war not only did that structure disappear, but the former slaves became citizens—unlike Austrialia’s Chinese, Melanesians and Aboriginies.

While racism as an ideology remained a powerful force in itself, it took some time for a new institutional basis of racial oppression to be constructed. Institutional segregation and political disenfranchisement were not successfully imposed until the opening of the 20th century. African Americans in most of the South still voted and even held political office until 1900, despite the final withdrawal of federal troops in 1877 and the reign of Ku Klux Klan terror and lynch law that followed.

This was, in fact, the basis of the rise of populism, as black and white tenant farmers in the South united with those in the West to form the People’s Party after 1890. The strategy of the socialists in the AFL who put forth the “Political Programme” was to fuse with the populists to create a broader working class base for the People’s Party. Whatever the depths of subjective racism in the unions or among farmers, this could only be accomplished on an inter-racial basis—something that was made explicit at the time by both populist farmer and radical trade union leaders.

From its founding in 1886 to the 1894 convention, the AFL not only admitted black workers, but actively sought them as members, particularly in the South. This was less a matter of lofty principles or consistent practice than of economic necessity. African American workers still held important jobs on the waterfronts of the South. The dramatic inter-racial strikes of dockers in St Louis and New Orleans in 1892 underlined this fact. The AFL actually refused to issue charters to two unions that explicitly excluded African Americans in the early 1890s.

Although this was deeply compromised by the practice of separate locals of the same union for blacks and whites in the South, the idea of an all-white labour movement was still inconceivable. All of this would change rapidly after 1894, as the movements for segregation and disenfranchisement gained momentum and swept workers and unions in their wake.

In effect, with the defeat of the “Political Programme” in 1894, the moment was lost. Racial exclusion by AFL unions would increase so that by 1916 W E B DuBois named 16 unions that explicitly excluded blacks and others that did so informally. Populism was absorbed by the Democratic Party in 1896 and then splintered along racial lines. Key organising drives in meat packing (1917-8) and steel (1919) were undermined by craft narrowness and racial division, derailing the next move towards a labour party in the early 1920s.

A more central reason for the failure to form a labour party in the 1890s, in fact, the most important one Archer names, was the absence of the “new unionism” of unskilled and semi-skilled workers that characterised both Australia and Britain. America’s equivalent of the new unionism, the Knights of Labour, had all but disappeared by the critical mid-1890s. The base of the AFL, formed in 1886 of mostly craft unions, was too narrow to support the kind of mass based organisation that would have been needed to break through the dominant two-party system, even if the Political Programme had passed and racism had been subordinated to the rudimentary class consciousness that existed at the time. Archer attributes the failure of the Knights of Labour mainly to the brutal repression that followed the 1 May 1886 general strike and the Haymarket “riot” two days later. The depression of 1893 killed any chance of a revival of mass general unionism at that time.

Yet underlying the inability of the working class then in formation in the US to create mass unions on a nationwide basis or a class-based party was something deeper and more powerful—something that is usually overlooked in discussions of “American exceptionalism”, including Archer’s. That is the exceptional nature of the process of capital accumulation in the US from the 1870s through the early 1900s.

What made this process of accumulation different from that of other industrialising nations of the time was not only the size and speed of industrial growth, but the rapid urbanisation that accompanied it and the geographic and demographic scale of the process, which no other nation experienced. The space of this review precludes a full analysis, but a few figures will give some idea. In the 20-year period from 1880 to 1900 the population grew by 51 percent, itself rather a leap. But the urban population grew by 174 percent. Real GDP grew by half in those 20 years, while real manufacturing output grew by 138 percent. The number of production workers in manufacturing almost doubled, while the value-added they produced more than tripled in real terms.

All of these figures might lead to the conclusion that this rapid industrialisation should have laid the basis for mass industrial or general unionism. But the process was not simple or linear. Every year thousands of businesses went under as the new trusts, cartels and finally corporations deploying new technology destroyed old sites of unionism, creating an accelerating power imbalance in terms of organisation and resources—one that union activists were well aware of.

Between 1870 and 1900 industry and urbanisation swept across 2,500 miles from Pittsburgh in the East to the Rocky Mountains in the West. Not only did urban giants like Chicago, Milwaukee and St Louis explode, but the plains and prairies were dotted with smaller industrial cities, and the Western mountains filled with mines, mills and booming urban centres from Canada to Mexico.

As this vast accummulation of capital created less skilled jobs and burgeoning cities, workers, millions of them immigrants, were constantly on the move. This made both stable unions and political organisations difficult on a national scale. The typical housing of unskilled workers was the boarding house. In this context, the Knights of Labour and newer industrial unions like the United Mine Workers (1890) or the radical Western Federation of Miners (1893), all of which had favoured independent political action and might have provided the mass base for a labour party, faced retreats due to not only repression and depression, but the scale, scope, and spread of industry during the period, all of which made stable organisation on a national scale extremely difficult.

Archer’s comparative study is an interesting one and a number of the points he makes are valid. Yet the comparison with Australia ultimately falters on the enormous differences in the economic context. It would be another 40 years before this new industrial working class would launch the mass industrial unions that might have been the base for a labour party. Of course, it didn’t happen then either, but that is another story.