Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

The New International, October 1940


David Coolidge

American Labor and Politics


From New International, Vol. 6 No. 9, October 1940, pp. 186–188.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for ETOL.

THE present political campaign, coming in the midst of the Second World Imperialist War, calls our attention again to the question of organized, independent working class politics in the United Slates. It is commonly known as the Labor Party question. It is the chief purpose of this article, and one to follow, to inquire into the causes underlying the failure of the workers in the United States to develop a national independent working class political party, and to suggest a program, procedure and technique for accomplishing this end.

It is customary when discussing the failure of the workers in the United States to form a national labor party, to make comparisons with the situation in England where the workers resorted to organized independent political action as early as 1893 with the formation of the Independent Labor Party under the leadership of Keir Hardie. This was followed in 1900 by the Labor Representative Committee which shortly became the British Labor Party. In the United States however, despite the fact that the first labor party in the world was formed here in 1828, no national mass party of the working class exists. It is necessary to examine the roots of the present situation if there is to be any opportunity at all for remedy and correction.

In order to have independent working class political action there must be first of all a clearly differentiated industrial working class, a proletariat. The factory workers must outweigh in relative importance and strength the agricultural workers in a country. Due to the fact that the Industrial Revolution in England occurred long before in the United States, industrial capitalism was firmly established in England by the time of the Reform Bill of 1832. This was not the case in this country where the factory system was not entrenched until after the Civil War. The factory system and industrial capitalism threw up a comparatively large proletariat in England at a time when agriculture was predominant in the United States. Trade union membership in England had reached 8,300,000 by 1920. It has scarcely reached this figure in this country in 1940.

Background Of British Labor Party

This earlier development of industrial capitalism and the factory system in England with the accompanying development of a factory proletariat and attendant economic and political grievances, played a determining role in the formation of the trades unions and working class political parties. The political disabilities of the English workers were numerous. As late as 1837 the Peoples Charter was demanding universal manhood suffrage. The working class had fought alongside the bourgeoisie for the Reform Bill of 1832 but came out of the fight still disfranchised. In 1867 only one sixth of the adult males in England could vote. In this year the “settled” working class was given the ballot. Agricultural laborers were not enfranchised until 1884. In contradistinction to this American workers voted quite early; not as workers however but as “citizens”. In fact the workers in the United States were enfranchised before the British industrial middle class. This integrated the working class into the regular political parties and retarded independent working class political action.

Not only is it true that a working class developed earlier in England than in the United States and that the objective conditions for the formation of a labor party were perhaps more pronounced, the differences in the structure of the two governments must be taken into account. The “government” in the United States represents one party. There is no opportunity for another party to get into the “government”. We have not known coalition governments in this country and anything except strict party government and responsibility is frowned upon. A political party must win the election and take over the government in its own name. It holds power for a set period of four years and may be re-elected for another four years.

This is not the case in England. There a workers party not only can get a sizeable representation in parliament but depending on the size of the parliamentary block may determine who shall form the “government” and also enter the cabinet. The chief executive is not chosen by the electorate directly but by parliament, that is by the House of Commons. The working of this system has been demonstrated on several occasions when the British Labor Party has blocked up with the Liberal Party and won seats in the cabinet and on two occasions has become the “government.”

Special Position Of American Workers

While such a factor as the structure of the state set-up and the parliamentary procedure tend to discourage the formation of an independent working class party this is not all nor the most important. We have mentioned the fact that in the United States the workers got the right to vote earlier than the English workers. They were citizens. We must add to this the effect of a higher standard of living possible with an expanding capitalism in a very large country, abounding in natural resources including, for a period, cheap land and free land. Legally the American worker was equal to anybody else. He could rise in the world; he could become an employer and own his factory. He could become a member of his state legislature, governor and even president. Theoretically he could accomplish all these things even before the British worker had the right to vote. And he could do this according to law and, as he was taught, within the framework of the two party system.

The English worker did not have these advantages. He did not live in a land flowing with milk and honey for him. The fact that the situation in the United States as pictured to the worker was highly colored and somewhat mythical did not destroy the fact of a real difference. And workers from all over the world, including England, came to this country for freedom and wealth.

We want to come now to the most fundamental and relevant considerations in the matter under discussion. We have pointed out the early formation of the British proletariat resulting from the development of the factory system in England. Tremendous organized economic actions followed. The trades unions grew in power and numbers. But they hit a stone wall in the form of repressive governmental acts and resistance from the employers. Because of the conditions mentioned above the English workers were forced into political action. Some drastic change in the government was necessary even before they could preserve their unions and use these organizations for the improvement of their living conditions.

Importance Of Political Leadership

The mere fact of the necessity of some kind of change in order that the working class could have more breathing space and more effective organization, of course was not a unique need of the British working class. That was true of the United States also. In both countries the workers were in need of independent working class political action. However the English workers had one decisive advantage over the workers in the United States: they had developed not only a trained leadership for their economic struggles but more important a trained and competent political leadership.

This leadership had developed not only inside the trade union movement but alongside it in the socialist movement of England. The idea of independent political action developed early under socialist influence. This tended toward throwing up strong independent working class leaders. The Independent Labor Party was formed in 1893 with Keir Hardie, a socialist, as leader. According to the program of the party it was organized “to secure the collective ownership of all the means of production, distribution and exchange.” While it is true that ILP leaders did not take this part of their program very seriously, they were definitely for independent political action, albeit with a reformist and gradualist slant.

Farther to the left than Hardie and his group was the Social Democratic Federation lead by Hyndman. Their influence in pushing the workers to political action was of considerable proportions. Also about this time came the Fabians and the idealistic Socialist League of William Morris. All of these together and particularly the Hardie “socialists” with their “new unionists” and the SDF of Hyndman gave the British working class a political leadership not even approached by the workers in the United States.

The development of such a leadership was not fortuitous. It arose out of something more than the objective conditions that we have mentioned. This leadership was the offspring of the work, the efforts and the teachings of Karl Marx. Marx and Engels were marching in front of the workers of England. This is true despite all the backslidings and shifting of their leaders such as Hardie and Hyndman. They had learned at least the rudiments of independent political action; political action of a class in society. This was the influence of Marx on the English working class movement.

Taff Vale Case Forces Workers’ Political Action

Furthermore the British workers early began to learn that they must intervene in the government as a class political group. This was vividly borne in on them in the Taff Vale Case of 1900. Employees of the Taff Vale Railway Company went on strike and their union, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants was fined 23,000 pounds and an injunction granted. This decision was not based on the violence that had occurred in the strike but on the alleged civil damage done the company by the strike itself. The fight against this decision resulted in the formation of the British Labor Party.

The objection may be raised that the above incentives for the formation of an independent working class party also hold for the United States. This is partially true if one takes the difference in objective conditions into account. It is also a fact that the labor movement in the United States has had its Taff Vale cases. There were the Homestead, Pullman, Coeur d’Alene strikes and the Danbury Hatters’ case. None of these and other significant strikes and government actions against the workers lead to political action as did the Taff Vale Case in England.

Early Socialists in U.S.

But let us examine the history of working class leadership in the United States. There has been a socialist movement in this country also. The Socialists of 1886–88 tried to win the labor movement to socialism. They failed in this effort and reacted in some measure against the trades unions. The socialist movement developed the conception of themselves as the political agitators and left “trade union matters” to the leadership of the unions. There was always a gap between the party and the unions. In a desperate effort to do something about politicalizing the union, the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance was formed in 1895 as a dual organization to the American Federation of Labor. This like its successor of later years, the Trade Union Unity League was a complete failure both from a trade union and political viewpoint.

The failure of the socialist movement to develop any effective and real political influence in the working class left the field to the trade union leaders; to such leaders as Powderly of the Knights of Labor and Gompers of the American Federation of Labor. The General Assembly of the Knights of Labor went on record in 1890 for an independent political party but nothing resulted. The Knights had not yet come abreast of the times even sufficiently to form an economic labor organization based exclusively on the skilled workers who were at that time the main section of the working class. It is not likely therefore that Powderly would have understood the meaning of workers’ political action on a class basis.

Gompers was the key figure. Although he began his career as some sort of a socialist he quickly repudiated any allegiance to the socialist movement or its ideas. The A.F. of L. convention of 1893 had submitted to it a political program. The program said that the British workers had begun independent political action as an aid to economic action. The attempt was made again at the 1894 convention. Gompers definitely opposed this program and said that the claim that the English movement had started independent political action was a “take.” The influence of Gompers decided the question and by 1895 the A.F. of L. had adopted its present policy of “reward your friends and punish your enemies.”

Gompers’ Role In Trade Unions

To understand Gompers’ role it is necessary to understand what the situation was in the trade union movement and its relationship to industry. In the 80’s the A.F. of L. was the progressive section of the labor movement. It was a working class economic movement based on the skilled workers over against the hodge-podge Knights of Labor that took in small employers and other non-working class elements. Gompers believed that the skilled workers had to be consolidated in economic organizations. He rejected any suggestion that economic organization would not do the job for the workers just because there had been several important defeats. Despite the fact that the government had moved in on the workers in the Homestead Steel strike, the Coeur d’Alene silver mine strike, the Buffalo switchmen and the Tracy Tennessee miners, Gompers still insisted that the workers could win by purely economic action. Neither he nor the workers seemingly understood the tremendous strength of the modern corporation and its influence over the government. Gompers was correct when he insisted on the power and permanence of the unions but he acted as though he had no understanding of their weakness and shortcomings. The point to emphasize is that the task before the American workers was not one that could be entrusted to the official trade union leaders. It was a political task for which they were suited.

The final consideration that we want to take up now is the fact that the period when the British labor movement was comparable to the movement in this country there was step toward independent political action. This step was not taken until there was a fundamental change in the character of the British unions. The English workers did not begin independent political action until the organization of the unskilled workers began. Before this the English trade union leaders had ideas similar to those later adopted by Gompers in the United States. The craft unions dominated the Trade Union Congress in England just as the craft union later dominated the American Federation in this country. Furthermore the workers in the United States separated from the middle class at a later date in the U.S. than in England. This did not occur here until the last decade of the 19th century. Then the workers began developing “wage consciousness.” The unions began to seek contracts with the employers.

Even after this however the movement was still dominated by the skilled craftsmen, the “aristocrats of labor.” They were difficult to replace and could gain their demands at least in part by economic action. Things did not change until the industrial union movement developed after the big spread of the mass production industries. It was only then that workers began thinking of independent political action on a national scale. Independent political action is a result of political education and unfolding class consciousness. The decisive factor for this consummation is an organized, articulate, political leadership with a sharply defined working class political program and dedicated to militant class economic and political action.

In this short article we have only attempted to show some of the reasons for the existence of a national labor party in England and its absence in the United States. There has been no attempt to evaluate the British Labor Party, its early or present leaders. It is not the purpose of this article to enter into the merits of the labor party question; that is whether or not a labor party can or should be formed in the United States. These matters will be considered in a following article.


Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 8.7.2013