Labour Parties in the USA

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on 24 September, 2004 - 12:00

Paul Hampton reviews True Mission: Socialists and the Labor Party in the US by Eric Chester (Pluto 2004, £14.99)

The debate about working class representation in the United States takes place in very different conditions from those we encounter in Britain. However, discussions on the US left over the last hundred years are very instructive — both for our concerns in Britain and for American comrades today.

True Mission discusses the history of third party efforts in the United States over the past 120 years.

It has chapters on Henry George’s campaign for New York mayor in 1886, the Socialist Party before 1914, the Farmer-Labor party and La Follette in the 1920s, the Labor Party question in the 1930s, and the Ralph Nader campaign of 2000

As a member of the US Socialist Party, the author argues that the idea of a labour party should be abandoned as an “artificial construct” in the US context. He believes that, “the anti-corporate populism of third party politics, as epitomised by the Nader campaign, is incapable of establishing the organisational or ideological grounding for a definitive break with the two party system”. His conclusion is that “only an explicitly democratic socialist party can provide the organisational framework for genuinely independent politics”.

I think Chester is almost entirely wrong on the question of working-class representation.

He completely ignores the objective conditions facing American workers, such as the high rate of exploitation and consumption, race and immigration, which go a long way to explaining the weakness of the American labour movement. Nevertheless Chester’s discussion of the role of socialists is interesting.

At the beginning of 1886, a wave of strikes and stoppages took place in the US around the eight-hour day. Later that year, a number of labour candidates stood in major cities such as New York, Chicago and Milwaukee.

In August 1886, the New York Central Labor Union (CLU), the local federation of trade unions, organised a conference of more than 400 delegates from 165 unions representing 40,000 members, which voted to run an independent slate. The CLU approached Henry George, a well-known social reformer and author of the single-tax theory — a property tax on land and landed property as the primary source of public revenues. The CLU subsequently endorsed his candidacy.

George’s platform was based around his single tax theory, and did not mention issues such as the eight hour day or the right to strike. Nevertheless local unions and the mainly German-speaking Socialist Labor Party (SLP) supported him.

At the election in November 1886, George was credited with 68,000 votes (31%), losing to the Democrats, who used fraud to ensure victory. In Milwaukee the Labor Party candidate won mayor, seven candidates to the state legislature and one to the US Congress. In Chicago ten Labor candidates made it to the state legislature.

Within a week, a meeting of 4,000 in New York met to launch a new party, the United Labor Party (ULP). However, the ULP did not develop into a coherent working class force.

In May 1887 George’s supporters pushed through a proposal declaring that “there was no enmity between labor and capital”. In August the ULP leadership excluded the SLP from the party. The ULP ran George in the statewide elections later in 1887, where he won 68,000 votes (7%).

In 1888 George endorsed the Democrats’ sitting President Cleveland in his re-election campaign. The ULP went forward with its own presidential slate, which received 3,000 votes in New York, after which the party dissolved.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels pioneered the Marxist approach to working class representation and Engels’ approach to Henry George’s campaign for New York mayor in 1886 remains highly relevant.

Engels wrote to the German socialist August Bebel in 1884: “George is a bourgeois, born and bred, and his plan of meeting all state expenditure out of rent is merely a second edition of the Ricardian school’s plan, i.e. purely bourgeois.”

Nonetheless in the election of 1886 Engels urged socialists to work for George’s campaign. A strong showing in the municipal elections in November 1886 would mark “the entry of the Americans into the movement”, an event “of world historic importance”, he said.

After the election Engels was convinced the ULP had potential. In November he wrote that for “a country that has newly entered the movement, the first really crucial step is the formation by workers of an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is distinguishable as a labor party”. He also advocated working with the Knights of Labor to form trade unions and to reach workers with socialist ideas.

Engels criticised the SLP for their sectarianism. He wrote: “The Germans have not understood how to use their theory as a lever which could set the American masses in motion; they do not understand the theory themselves for the most part and treat it in a doctrinaire and dogmatic way, as something which has got to be learnt off by heart but which will then supply all needs without more ado. To them it is a credo [creed] and not a guide to action.”

At the end of 1886, he wrote that “the great thing is to get the working class to move as a class” and that “a million or two of working-men’s votes next November for a bona-fide working men’s party is worth infinitely more at present than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect platform”.

Engels argued that socialists in the US should work within a broad working class party, acting as a distinct tendency.

Engels also used a new preface to his book, The Condition of the English Working Class (1887) to comment on the 1886 election. He criticised George’s land tax as “too narrow to form the basis for anything but a local movement” and it “would leave the present mode of production untouched”. However, he argued that the campaign was the logical next step towards the creation of a working class party and urged the SLP to relate to the movement as he and Marx had towards the Chartists.

As the problems in the ULP became clear, Engels continued to criticise George. When George finally had the socialists expelled from the ULP, Engels says it was “an unmerited piece of good luck which will redeem to a great extent the — unavoidable — blunder of placing George at the head of a movement he did not even understand” (15 September 1887).
Chester says Engels was wrong. Those union officials who organised a labour party were bound to view an organised socialist tendency as a threat. Socialists should have rejected George’s candidacy from the start.

But Engels rightly saw the potential of the movement, and can hardly be blamed for it petering out. To explain why it came to very little depends on an analysis of the conditions of the time and the role socialists played.

How should socialists relate to the most recent attempt to create a labour party in the 1990s, Labor Party Advocates (LPA), and to Ralph Nader’s campaigns for the presidency in 2000 and again this year?

Labor Party Advocates was a campaign headed by Tony Mazzochi, an official from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW). Mazzochi was for years a mainstream trade union bureaucrat, but in the 1980s came to the conclusion that a labour party was necessary in the US. In 1989 he polled members of his union and found that 55% of members rejected both the Democrats and Republicans as parties of corporate interests and called for a new, labour party.

In 1991 Mazzochi organised LPA, and in 1996, 1,400 delegates came together to create a labour party. The OCAW merged with the paper workers’ union to form PACE in 2000. PACE supported Nader in 2000, but soon closed down funding for LPA. Since Mazzochi died in 2002, little progress has been made.

Chester argues that LPA was a “hollow shell” from the start, “ineffectual bluff by a segment of the union leadership” for putting pressure on the Democrats. It never put up any candidates of its own. It was never likely to grow. However, for nearly a decade the LPA did promote an embryonic form of independent workers representation.

Chester is similarly dismissive of Ralph Nader. Nader received 2.7 million votes, nearly 3%, as the Green Party candidate for the presidency in 2000 and is running again this year. The book provides a summary of Nader’s background as a consumer campaigner.

Nader cultivates an ascetic image, taking home $25,000 a year (£15,000), travelling by on the metro and living in a small flat in Washington. However the book points out that between 1967 and 2000 Nader made around $13 million in speakers’ fees and book royalties, and has $4 million in assets.

Nader says he donates most of his income to finance his campaign organisations. However these are often “rigidly hierarchical”, paying those at the top much more than those at the bottom. Nader was also involved in a scandal in 1984, when he sacked Tim Shorrock, editor of his paper the Multinational Monitor, after he and other workers tried to organise a union. Nader argued that there was “no compelling need for a union with a non-profit organisation”.

Chester argues that in 2000 Nader remained aloof from his backers: the Green Party, the LPA and by some unions. He ran a “personality-driven” campaign.

Nader organised some big rallies and promised after the 2000 election that a significant progressive party would develop after the election. However, nothing was formed.

Although Chester is sectarian towards Nader, his criticisms do have some purchase.
Last time Workers’ Liberty argued: “[Nader’s] campaign is not working-class politics — he defines himself as a ‘progressive populist’ — but it does offer great leverage to the small socialist groups in the USA who are trying to develop working-class politics” (Rhodri Evans, WL64/65)

I think support for Nader in 2000 was consistent with Engels’ approach in the 1880s, although his candidacy was only a small step towards working class representation.
Nader’s 2004 campaign has been criticised by American Marxists for his softness on the Democrats and for his lukewarm opposition to the Iraq war. On this basis, the case for supporting him again is even weaker than in 2000. But, in my view, if supporting Nader this time will advance the cause of working class representation even by a small degree — by offering an alternative to both the Republicans and the Democrats, and giving American socialists some space to explain their ideas — then in the absence of alternatives it is the right stance to take.

* An extended review of this book, discussing the intervening period, is on the Workers’ Liberty website.

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