The Special U.S. Background

Submitted by AWL on 8 October, 2013 - 4:43

The American labor movement is different from the labor movement in any other country. One of the ways in which it differs most strikingly from most other national labor movements in the capitalist portion of the world is that it is non-socialist and even anti-socialist. How do American socialists account for this fact?

Most important of all, doesn't this non-socialist character of the American working class contradict the socialist analysis of capitalist society and prove that, in America at least, socialism is a Utopian ideal with no real political future? The enemies and critics of socialism have for a long time claimed that the peculiar history of this country renders it immune to serious socialist "infection". In fact, when one surveys the formidable stream of anti-socialist literature devoted to proving that socialism does not and cannot have any real mass appeal to the American working class, one wonders why so much money and energy should be poured out to convince people that they are immune to socialist conviction.

America, like every other country in the world, has a unique history, and the modern American labor movement, like all other sections of our society, is a product of it. Socialists for the past century. Including Karl Marx, have discussed and analyzed at length those features of American history which have made the American working class and its labor movement different from those of other lands. In this article, we will try to summarize briefly the highlights of this analysis, and to see what implications It has for the socialist approach and movement in America today. Socialists and their opponents agree that the chief reason a mass socialist movement has failed to develop in this country lies in the relative fluidity of American society throughout its history.

In much of Europe, the present ruling capitalist class was able to come to power only after a bitter struggle against the feudal ruling class which preceded it. The economic development which made this struggle possible, and its outcome inevitable, also created a modern working class. From the time this class became strong enough to put forward its own claims to social and political recognition and power, it was opposed by a ruling class which knew from experience that revolutionary change is possible, and sought to use every means at its disposal to make sure that the bourgeois revolution remained the last one.

No Individual Escape

The modern European working class grew up in a historically old continent with firmly established social and economic patterns. Father and son followed grandfather in the same occupation, or at least in the same class. The history of Europe as well as the concrete circumstances of life taught them that social, economic and political oppression could only be fought by mass movements. The possibility of individual escape from their circumstances was restricted pretty much to immigration abroad, not to a rise out of their class in their own country.

In the new continent of America the situation was far different. Up to the close of the last century the great, open frontier beckoned anyone who found life too difficult at home. The vast wealth of the country made much room further up on the economic ladder, because the ladder itself was growing by leaps and bounds. The succeeding waves of immigration produced an American working class stratified in skill and status and broken up along national lines. All of this worked against the development of the kind of social and political self-consciousness which makes the working classes of Europe an independent political as well as economic sector of society.

This does not at all mean that the American workers played no distinguishable role in American politics. The fact that men could escape to the rigors and opportunities of the frontier did not mean that they were immune from grinding exploitation and poverty in all parts of the country. From the end of the Civil War there were repeated efforts to form workingmen's parties and trade-union organizations. From that day to this, the workers' movements have been in the forefront of every social and political struggle for democracy and social reform. The pioneers of every movement - whether to broaden the franchise, establish public education, create a system of social and old-age insurance, or abolish racial discrimination - have found that their strongest support came from the workers and their movements. These have been movements of reform within the capitalist system. Generally speaking, the workers have formed the shock-troops of political movements led and controlled by middle-class and capitalist groupings. The workingmen's parties which were formed at various times failed to survive the demand for immediate, concrete results in a society whose apparently limitless capacity to expand opened the prospects for such results to any massively organized pressure group.

Movements of Reform

The American trade-union movement's history has run parallel to the political history of the working class. Although many of the unions here were originally organized by socialists, and an early American Federation of Labor convention adopted a statement which looked to the socialist reconstruction of society as the ultimate goal of the labor movement, the dominant tendency of the American labor movement has been merely to win better wages and working conditions for its members rather than to seek to change the economic system.

The American workers have made enormous gains through their trade-union movement. But these gains have been stubbornly contested at every step by the employers, and the resultant clash has often led to bitter and even bloody struggles. In these battles the employers have traditionally been able to count on the police and even the armed forces to assist them in crushing the resistance of the workers. Yet time and again the American working class has shown a solidarity, organizational imagination and capacity to sacrifice and struggle which is unsurpassed by the workers of any other country.

The American labor movement grew up as a movement of the skilled workers. For many decades attempts to organize the semi-skilled and unskilled workers of the new mass-production industries were thwarted by the employers oh the one hand, and ignored or even opposed by the old leadership of the AFL craft unions on the other. But during the '30s the workers flocked into the CIO unions and finally succeeded in establishing powerful and stable unions in the strongholds of the giant monopoly industries which had resisted organization up till that time. The rise of the CIO marked a sharp turn for the American labor movement. The industrial unions were formed in dramatic struggles involving sit-down strikes, pitched battles with city and company police, general strikes which bordered on local insurrections (Minneapolis, Toledo), all of this marked by a high degree of "disrespect for authority" and "direct action."

The remarkable and apparently sudden change from a very backward and collaborationist working class to quite violent and militant struggles was characteristic of a tendency in American life toward sharp transformations and toward the easy use of violent methods by all classes, particularly by the bourgeoisie. Here we see another aspect of the frontier tradition, not that aspect which safety-valved the class struggle but that aspect which sharpened methods when it broke out. This development tended to create unions with a lively rank-and-file democracy and mass-membership participation. From a narrow instrument for the protection and advancement of the interests of the skilled workers, the organization of the mass-production industries transformed the American labor movement into a social organization which seeks to represent the interests of the working class as a whole.

"Organize the Unorganized"

For the old craft unions, "organize the unorganized" was a relatively empty slogan. For the mass industrial unions it is a pressing necessity. Large sectors of unorganized industry are a constant threat to the existing unions. This accounts for the strenuous efforts to extend union organization to the South, where the workers confront the employers once again in the brutal, gloves-off and no-holds barred kind of struggles which used to be characteristic of union battles throughout the country. The same is true of the trade-union movements attitude toward equal rights for Negroes and other minori-
ties. The old AFL unions had (and many still have) a shameful record of discrimination against minorities. This was part and parcel of the skilled-worker, craft-union, "aristocracy of labor" philosophy of these unions. In the mass-production industries, however, it was soon found that discrimination was an immediate, direct threat to union solidarity and survival. The employers made it a practice to bring Negroes in to scab against striking workers. Many Negro workers,
having suffered discrimination at the hands of the unions, saw nothing wrong in getting jobs at the expense of the organized workers. Quite aside from idealistic social considerations (which also were present), the ClO unions took the lead in fighting discrimination both inside the labor movement and as practised by employers, and many AFL unions were impelled to follow their example.

The old divisions in the American working class which hindered its organization and delayed the development of its self-conscicusness have been fending to disappear. Divisions along lines of national origin have been reduced in importance as the moss of the workers are now native-born. Even prejudice and discrimination against Negroes, that deep disease of American society, no longer plays the same kind of divisive role. Regional differences and craft differences have tended to be reduced in importance by the urbanization and geographic unification of the country, and by the reduction of the skilled trades to small islands in a vast sea of semi-skilled and unskilled production workers.
All this has tended to reduce the special characteristics of the American working class as compared to the working classes of Europe. Nevertheless, the American workers remain politically backward as compared to their brothers in Europe, as we pointed out at the beginning of this article. This relative political un-self-consciousness of the American workers and their labor movement is due today primarily and above all to the aristocratic economic position which this class enjoys as compared to the working class of any other country.

World Labor Aristocracy

The United States bestrides the capitalist half of the world like a colossus. It out-produces, out-sells, out-consumes every other country in the world, and most of them combined. It has reached this pre-eminent position as a result of the general tendency of European capitalism to decline and decay hastened along by two world wars which devastated Europe while leaving the United States intact.

The American workers share in this prosperity. Just as American capitalism is just about the only "going concern" in a world where the earlier-born capitalist systems are gasping for life, so the American working class is the "labor aristocracy" of the world. Their position today is roughly analogous to the position of the British working class at the high point of British imperialist development, when they shared (however meagerly) in the exploitation of millions of colonial slaves. That situation then produced a working class which lagged far behind its brothers in many countries of the Continent in political activity and consciousness, and the present situation has the same effect on the American working class.

But there are many disturbing elements in the present prosperity of this country. For one thing, it depends for its continuation on a vast expenditure for armaments, and hence on the world tensions which make this level of armaments politically and socially acceptable to the American people. A prosperity based on such a foundation is the least likely to endure. It is threatened internally by the necessity to continually expand the armament sector in order to keep the rest of the economy on an even keel. And it is threatened even more ominously by the logical issue of an armament race: world atomic war. Such are the problems which face the modern American working class and its labor movement.

The historic development which has thwarted the rise of independent, socialist class-consciousness in this country has nevertheless produced a class which is more homogeneous and better organized than ever before in its history. Whether or not it will rise to face and solve the new problems which confront it depends not only on its history, but on the conscious activity of all who see the problems and are determined to struggle for their solution on a progressive basis.

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