Why has there been no ‘Labour Party’ in the U.S.A.?

The answer to this question lays in the very nature of American society itself: its ideology and its origins. There have been socialist and worker orientated parties and movements within the United States, yet these have failed, or at the very least not fulfilled their full objectives; they have been weak and short lived. I have identified four reasons for this which are interweaving, each having an effect on the next, and each springing from the very notion of ‘Americanism’, the dominant ideology within the United States which spells out what it is to be a ‘good’ American.

The first of these is deeply imbedded in American ideology, or the ‘American Dream’, and this is the double edged sword of the distrust in the left, and the belief in the ‘good’ of capitalism. This distrust in the left is based on the fear that it will destroy the free economy, and bleeds into the next factor which is the suppression of workers movements using violence and cohesion. Another consideration is the failure of a ‘working class consciousness’ arising to bind the workers together in their action, and following on from this, the issue of immigration is prominent.

Belief in capitalism, as mentioned above, has its roots firmly placed within the roots of the country. The idea of the possibility of ‘rags to riches,’ has been immortalised and
stained onto public memory, and can be epitomised by the works of Horatio Alger. Alger wrote stories of the poor man ‘making good’ by merit of hard work . Of course, this theme ties in heavily with the Protestant work ethic, as well as the idea of America’s forefathers moving westwards across their new continent to claim their land, and therefore wealth. Workers across America then, feel less need to organise as they are not being exploited by capitalism, there is merely a need to work harder. This though is too simplistic an answer, and in order to fully understand the lack of a ‘labour party’ we must delve deeper.

Where labour orientated movements have grown in European industrialised countries, this has been preceded by a distrust in the liberal concept of the right to private property, an idea which in the USA is wholeheartedly believed in. There has at no time been a divide of the population over the ideal of private property and the right to acquire wealth.

The Socialist Party, however, headed by Eugene Debs, was a growing political force before the First World War. It drew 6% of the popular vote in the 1912 elections, yet the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia brought about a country-wide ‘red
scare’, which, coupled with divisions within the party, sapped its support and power.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, labour discontent grew, strikes took place and the traditional fear of the left again began to manifest it self from above. “Folks are restless. Communism is gaining a foothold. Right here in Mississippi.” A series of strikes and riots took place, yet with the advent of the New Deal, a programme aimed at saving capitalism from destruction, and the Second World War, which did just that, worker dissent died down. There are two reasons for this turn around amongst the American working class. After the Second World War, another, more intense ‘red scare’ swept America. With the emergence of the Soviet Union as a main player on the world stage, what has become to be known as ‘McCarthyism’ reared its head. With the professional and personal persecution of all those liberal or left leaning, the Trade Union movement was strangled of its voice.

The second of these reasons was the belief in capitalism which was brought about by the relative affluence of the workers. The war had repaired the economy of the United States and had brought about almost full employment, spending power and better living conditions for most. The average wage of an American worker was two times that of their British counterparts and three times that of German workers. Faith in capitalism had been
restored and had won back those who “might otherwise have looked for more radical, anti-business solutions” .

Another factor to explain the absence of a workers political party in the USA follows from the above fear of the left, and that is the oppression and suppression of workers action using violence, and often with the support of the federal government. Where strike action was taken often the response of the employers was to use their own security forces to break these strikes by force, and in the event of this proving ineffective, federal troops were used. In 1877, for example, railroad workers, dissatisfied with severe wage cuts and unemployment, went on a strike which led to riots when local police and state militia were unable to contain the dissent. 3,000 federal troops were rushed in under the direction of the War Department. When order was restored it was at the cost of fifty-eight lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Chicago. Trade unions existed, such as the National Labor Union, which grew rapidly until 1873. Depression and wide spread unemployment, however, weakened the hand of the worker and their unions, with employers able to employ those not affiliated with such organisations. Unhappy with the ruin of their unions, some workers formed underground organisations, such as the ‘Molly Maguires’ in the coal mines. Employers though, infiltrated the group, and upon one ‘spies’
testimony, ten were hanged. This was not merely a 19th century phenomena. In 1946 striking railroad workers defied a government order to return to work, in response Truman threatened to draft the strikers into the army, and called on the country to help him fight the “communist labour leaders.”

We can see here that the ideal of free enterprise is one which carries huge weight, and allows not only employers, but federal government to intervene in the interests of capital.

The lack of a working class consciousness arising in the United States is another argument used to explain the omission of a labour party. It is the Marxist perception that before the working classes can change their situation, they must first come together in realisation of their exploitation. Of course one explanation for this is documented above, that free enterprise is ingrained in the idea of ‘Americanism’, and is not an evil to conquer. There is though a deeper understanding to be found if we analyse further.

Industrialisation was taking the same form as that in Europe, where worker objective parties had been formed. By 1890 farmers had started being forced from their land into the cities to find work, as they could no longer compete with the industrial paced economy. In 1910 at least 11,000,000 city dwellers were
originally from rural areas “driven from the land by the same processes of industrial efficiency operating in the Old World”

When looking at consciousness in America, it seems to be drawn not along class but ethnic lines. Upon arriving in new cities, immigrants tended to stay within neighbourhoods populated by their own race. Looking for economic and social security in a new and sometimes disorientating environment, immigrants and those moving to the cities from the country made their own communities. “Poor blacks, Catholics or Jews… did not associate with one another politically.” This diversity in ethnicity and culture hindered the development of solidarity amongst workers, who regarded each other with suspicion. These suspicions were fostered by the employers, with some factories hiring only one particular nationality, in order to prevent organisation along class lines. One industrialist remarked on this procedure that he could “hire one half of the working class to kill the other”

The main difference between American and European societies is that the American working class is built upon the principle of immigration. Any combined class consciousness resulting in industrial action could be quashed by industrialists simply employing new workers from the plentiful supply of new
immigrants, those purely looking for wages in their adopted country.

To take the argument full circle, and focus again on the ideology of the USA, or the ‘American Dream’, it is important also to look at how new immigrants wanted to be accepted as ‘good Americans’. As seen above, ‘anti-leftism’ is a thread running long and deep in American society. Public opinion, moulded by education and the media was, and is, hostile towards all kinds of radicalism, especially in the periods following the First World War, and World War Two. During the McCarthy era, Caute points out, the easiest way to prove allegiance to the flag was to condemn the left and radicalism.

There has been no labour party within the USA due to the intensity of the belief in free enterprise and a free economy. The interests of these concepts take priory over the interests of the working class.

All of the above factors feed from this belief. The first, the fear of the left, is due to socialism and similar models being a threat to a free economy, with the oppression of working class organisation being a consequence of this fear. Class consciousness was slow to develop, or arguably has not developed, due to a deep seated belief in the American way, and
individuals striving to protect it. This same belief is what sent, and sends, immigrants to the United States to follow the dream of a higher standard of living, a chance which should not be thrown away by pursing ‘un-American’ modes of behaviour.

Each of these considerations feeds into and consolidates the next, taken together they map out a society in which a workers party has no place. In short, the answer to the above question is a mixture of ideological inoculation and socio-economic circumstance.

P.Carroll and D. Noble, ‘The Free and the Unfree’(1977, Penguin, Middlesex)
Caute, ‘The Great Fear,’(1978, Verso, London)
M. Davies, ’Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class’ (1986, Versoo, London)
F.Fox Piven and R. Clowan, ‘Poor People’s Movements’ (1977, Pantheon Books, New York)
T. Kemp, ‘The Climax of Capitalism: The US Economy in the Twentieth Century’ (1990, Longman Group Ltd, Essex)
Maidment and McGrew, ‘The American Political Process’ (1986, Open University Press, London)
M. Sherry,’In the Shadow of War: the United States since the 1930’s’ (1995,Yale University Press, Michigan) p124