Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States?


Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States?

By Robin Archer.

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. $38.50. 368 pp.

The traditional explanations as to why the United States is the only “advanced capitalist” country with no labor-based party have probably been heard by every socialist at least once.  In the late nineteenth century the level of prosperity in the U.S. ensured that economic grievances were inadequate to support the founding of a labor party—so goes Werner Sombart’s famous argument in Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? Anti-Black and anti-Chinese racism by white workers in the 1890s also supposedly reduced the viability of a movement for a workers’ party. The early presence of universal manhood suffrage for whites is also said to have removed the kind of class-based political grievance that led to the formation of labor parties elsewhere, and the basic institutional features of the American political system (federalism, presidentialism, and single district, winner-take-all electoral districts) simply made it too difficult for most trade union leaders to see a labor party as an electorally viable project.  And then, of course, there is the “liberalism thesis” made famous by Louis Hartz in The Liberal Tradition in America: that the prevalence of an egalitarianism of social status minimized or eliminated the status-based grievances and class-consciousness that would have made a labor party possible, that the dominant liberal ethos of the U.S. was so “socialist” that “Americanism” effectively became a “substitute socialism” which ensured that American workers would see no need for a party that was explicitly of their social class.

Political sociologist Robin Archer, of the London School of Economics and Political Science, seeks to explode these explanations in Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007). The problem with the conventional wisdom on this question, Archer claims, is that it relies on comparison with Europe—the “Old World.” Archer opts to compare the U.S. with its most similar New World counterpart, Australia. In the 1890s both countries suffered form the worst depression of the nineteenth century and the unions of both countries were utterly defeated in a series of major industrial confrontations.  Yet Australian unions’ response was to establish one of the earliest and most electorally successful labor parties in the world. The nation-wide Australian Labor Party took office for the first time in 1904 and again in 1908. These were short-lived minority governments, but in 1910 the ALP formed a majority government with the support of exactly 50 percent of the electorate. This level of support for a social-democratic party would not be equaled in any other countries until the New Zealand Labour Party and the Swedish Social Democrats took office in 1938 and 1940, respectively. In the U.S., however, the American Federation of Labor retained its commitment to “pure-and-simple” unionism and the Democratic Party, despite the best efforts of labor party advocates in the U.S.  When the U.S. union movement as a whole rejected the option of building a party, it became firmly entrenched as settled official policy.

Archer does a very impressive job in refuting the traditional explanations for the lack of a U.S. labor party. While it is true that American workers enjoyed high living standards in comparison to their European counterparts in the 1890s, the living standards of Australian workers were higher still, and yet Australian workers built a labor party. Australian unionists also shared the “basic racial antipathies as their American counterparts,” and yet “this was quite compatible with the establishment of new industry-wide unions and a labor party” (p.  55)—indeed, it encouraged unity among white workers against immigrant “colored labour,” and for years the ALP was officially in favor of “the cultivation of an Australian sentiment based on the maintenance of racial purity…”[1] This populist championing of White Australia enabled Labor “to pose as the party of Australian nationalism” and win support among middle-class racists.[2] Nor was racism a particularly influential factor in dividing American workers in that era, as the labor movement had not yet fully embraced racial hostility towards southern and eastern European immigrants and the great migration of black workers to northern factories, in any event, had not yet occurred.  The “early” achievement of manhood suffrage for whites in the U.S. also fails as an explanation for the lack of an American labor party; as Archer documents, the same was true for Australia, but this did not impair efforts to create the Australian LP.  In both cases the prior achievement of suffrage “achieved legitimized efforts to engage in political mobilization, and provided a ready-made electoral arena in which to undertake this task” (p. 91). The dominance of liberal values was also a feature of late-nineteenth century Australia, just as in the U.S., but in Australia labor leaders and the pro-labor press saw this “as an opportunity rather than as a constraint. They saw themselves as defenders of these values, which, they argued, were being threatened by contemporary social developments” (p. 175). In a rejoinder to arguments offered by everyone from Seymour Martin Lipset to Michael Harrington, Archer writes:

One of the strangest versions of the liberalism thesis is the claim that labor and socialist movements have been weak in the United States because the ideological content of its dominant liberal values was so similar to that of socialism. ...What this fails to see is that, because of the gap between the promise of these values and actual social practices, the prevalence of liberal values gave labor leaders in the United States some important advantages. Unlike their counterparts in countries where feudal values remained influential, they did not have to defend the desirability per se of social equality or freedom for all. Their goals could be presented...as the completion of the American project and the fulfillment of its promise. (p. 176)

Perhaps most powerful is Archer’s destruction of the idea of the overwhelming significance of the U.S. electoral system on the failure of unions to launch a labor party. In the late nineteenth century both the U.S. and Australia had a first-past-the-post system based primarily on single-member districts, and the tendency of working class voters to be geographically concentrated allowed labor parties to commonly overcome such high thresholds in both Australia and Europe. Federalism also fails as an explanation; though federalism made it harder to achieve systematic nationwide change in the early twentieth century, it made it easier for the labor movement to establish a political foothold, as the Australian case soon proved.  Nor was the presidential (or gubernatorial) nature of the U.S. executive the barrier that some believe it to be, as sufficient geographically concentrated support in the legislature (federal or state level) by a labor party could have won the balance of power in Congress and used it to substantially influence legislation, and even veto executive appointments. Given that U.S. workers often lived in very concentrated areas, the electoral system would not have ensured the failure of a labor party to achieve political relevance.

With American exceptionalism discredited, Archer moves on to provide more credible reasons for the lack of a labor party in the U.S. and the presence of one in Australia. First, the level of armed repression in the U.S. was greater. While such repression also occurred in Australia, where it convinced many unionists that they needed to form a party and contest parliamentary elections, the difference is that in the U.S. those unions which were subject to the greatest repression were not merely defeated but destroyed, removing the “new union” base of semi-skilled and unskilled workers that would have made a labor party credible and scaring craft union leaders into opposition to forming such a party.[3] Secondly—and here Archer’s reasoning will resonate well with the experiences of many U.S. leftists—ethno-religious cleavages were more politically relevant in the U.S. than in Australia, creating “a hurdle that Australian unions did not have to jump” (p. 192). American Federation of Labor leaders feared that establishing a labor party would force their members to choose “between union solidarity and loyalties rooted in conflicting religious commitments. They concluded that, in such a contest, God would prevail and the unions would be destroyed” (p. 200). Lastly, AFL leaders also feared socialist sectarianism among certain union activists would run rampant.[4] Fights between Marxists and Lasalleans raged in the U.S. but found no equivalent in the Australian labor movement. Ironically, it was avowed Marxists who took a “pure and simple unionist” perspective that viewed the idea of establishing a labor party “as an overt or covert attempt to undermine the unions” (p. 240). Personal recriminations, deep distrust of opponents and dogmatic certainty characterized both sides, but Archer claims that it was the paradoxical strength of a sectarian version of Marxism which helped to undermine the possibility of a U.S. labor party.

Archer’s discrediting of traditional “American exceptionalist” arguments and the alternative explanations he offers are mostly convincing. The use of Australia in place of the usual comparisons to Europe is commendable and certainly gives it a distinctive character in American eyes. However, as Neville Kirk has illustrated in Comrades and Cousins: Globalization, Workers and Labour Movements in Britain, the USA and Australia from the 1880s to 1914, the Australian union movement was far more united in its commitment to a labor party than were its U.S. (and UK) equivalents. Also, Archer fails to explicitly answer the questions that inevitably arise from his line of reasoning: Why was state repression so much more violent in the U.S. than in Australia? Why were religious issues so much more important—and so much more tied to political parties—than in Australia? Why were American socialists so very dogmatic and sectarian? Nor does Archer offer any information whatsoever about the failure of a nationwide labor party to emerge after the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s—which, admittedly, is a question which has been examined elsewhere.[5]

These minor failings aside, Archer’s book is one that American socialists and historians ought to read. Thought it provides no advice as to how an electoral class politics from below might be furthered in the U.S. today, Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States? does an effective job in demolishing arguments which generations of American socialists have absorbed as “common sense.”


[1] Quoted in Dean Jaensch, The Politics of Australia (South Melbourne: MacMillan Education, 1992), p. 217.

[2] Mick Armstrong, The Origins of the Australian Labor Party (Sydney: Socialist Alternative, 1998), p. 59.

[3] In Archer’s clever phrase: “While troops in Australia faced outwards towards imaginary foreign threats, troops in the United States faced inwards towards imaginary domestic threats” (p. 141).

[4] I admit to being easily persuaded by this explanation because it fits with my experience in the Metro New York branch of the ill-fated Labor Party founded in the 1990s. As one comrade once said to me, even the union leadership which was financially supporting the LP “will never really let it get off the ground because they’re scared to death of letting Trotskyists run wild.”

[5] See Eric Davin, “The Last Hurrah? The Defeat of the Labor Party Idea, 1934-36,” in Staughton Lynd, ed., We Are All Leaders: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996).

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