REVIEW ARTICLE: Why is the American labour movement so weak?

Submitted by Anon on 23 June, 2004 - 12:24

Paul Hampton reviews Historical Materialism 11/4 (2003) £10

Why is the American labour movement so weak, given the rapid development of capitalism in the United States over the last 150 years? Why is union density now so low (15%) and why has no workers' party developed in the US? Does this mean socialism has failed, given the Marxist argument that economic development constitutes the basis of politics?
The latest issue of Historical Materialism journal contains illuminating material on these questions, providing valuable historical context to discussions on working class representation in the run up to the US elections in November.

Alan Johnson, a contributor to Solidarity, pulled together this issue of the journal. His introduction explains that the starting point for Marxists on this question is the letters of Frederick Engels on American conditions.

In a letter to his comrade Friedrich Sorge (2 December 1893), Engels wrote that: "American conditions involve very great and peculiar difficulties for a continuous development of a workers' party."

Engels set out three particular difficulties:

"First, the Constitution, based as in England upon party government, which causes every vote for any candidate not put up by one of the two governing parties to appear to be lost. And the American, like the Englishman, wants to influence his state; he does not throw his vote away.

"Then, and more especially, immigration, which divides the workers into two groups: the native-born and the foreigners, and the latter in turn into 1. the Irish, 2. the Germans, 3. the many small groups, each of which understands only itself: Czechs, Poles, Italians, Scandinavians, etc. And then the Negroes. To form a single party out of these requires quite unusually powerful incentives. Often there is a sudden violent élan, but the bourgeois need only wait passively, and the dissimilar elements of the working class fall apart again.

"Third, through the protective tariff system and the steadily growing domestic market the workers must be exposed to a prosperity no trace of which has been seen here in Europe for years now (except in Russia, where, however, the bourgeois profit by it and not the workers)." [My emphasis]

But he added on an optimistic note: "A country like America, when it is really ripe for a socialist workers' party, certainly cannot be hindered from having one by the couple of German socialist doctrinaires."

Engels' comments provided no more than a sketch of the issues. The first in depth answer to the weaknesses of the American labour movement was Karl Kautsky's The American Worker, published in the journal Die Neue Zeit in 1906. This issue of Historical Materialism publishes the first English version of Kautsky's seminal work, translated and with a comprehensive afterword by Daniel Gaido. The journal is worth getting for this essay alone.

At the time he wrote The American Worker, Kautsky was the foremost Marxist theoretician in the world, the teacher of Lenin and Trotsky and a leading figure on the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) - one of the most formidable Marxist parties ever built. He was also at the height of his powers, and fired up by the inspirational 1905 revolution in Russia.

Kautsky's article was written in response to an essay by German professor Werner Sombart, later published in English as Why is there no socialism in the United States?

Sombart argued that the United States had replaced England as the most advanced capitalist country in the world by 1900. The US was the biggest industrial nation, possessing modern factories and complex business organisations on a scale that surpassed most of Europe. Yet compared with Germany and other capitalist countries it also had a weak labour movement.

Kautsky compared the situation in the US to Russia, the most backward of the large capitalist states and yet the country with the most militant working class and well developed socialist organisations.

Kautsky recognised that America like Russia was "a dramatic example of combined and uneven development" (Moody p.351). He showed that for Marxists, "there is no direct relation between the political power of the working class and the bourgeoisie on the one hand, and the level of capitalist development on the other". In this respect, Kautsky offered a version of permanent revolution to explain both the advanced state of the Russian labour movement and the backwardness of the American movement.

In Russia, capitalism had developed under Tsarist control, resulting in a weak capitalist class together with a powerful working class concentrated in the cities. The political situation, with few individual liberties meant socialist ideas attracted workers and wider layers of the population, including intellectuals.

Kautsky argued that the form capitalist development had taken in the US meant that, in contrast to Russia, the dictatorship of capital reigned supreme. He thought the civil war (1861-65) had brought the capitalist class to power, and unencumbered by an old landowning class or an absolutist state, could concentrate tremendous power in its hands - witnessed by the emergence of huge corporation and trusts "the robber barons". For Kautsky, part of the explanation for the weakness of the labour movement lay in the homogeneity of the capitalist class.

The other side of the equation was the greater heterogeneity of the American working class. The opening up of the continent ("the frontier") provided a living in agriculture for millions of proletarians. Hence the US working class had to be constantly replenished by immigrant labour. Kautsky produced figures for immigration, showing that at least a fifth of workers were foreign born in 1900. This instability and heterogeneity explained why it was so difficult for workers' organisations to develop.

Kautsky also addressed some of the reasons adduced by Sombart for the lack of class-consciousness of American workers, such as the co-option of working class leaders (what he called "proletarian ministerialism") and the myth of a "democratic capitalism" where anyone could get rich.

Kautsky did not simply dismiss these reasons, but rather argued that conditions were changing. He pointed to the decline in agriculture, falling wages, increased child labour and high unemployment that were creating the conditions for the development of a powerful labour movement. Kautsky compared the increase in wealth at one pole, and the growth of poverty at the other, and found them analogous to those in Germany in the 1890s, as described in the SPD's Erfurt programme.

Kautsky's essay in worth reading for other reasons too, such as his discussion of the growth of unproductive labour under capitalism, and for the issues of imperialism he touches on. Though not a comprehensive explanation for "American exceptionalism", it is an argument of great force that would be vindicated to some extent by developments soon after it was written. In particular the growth of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the level of strikes and the electoral success of the Socialist Party in the years that followed showed that the labour movement was indeed becoming a force in American politics.

Other essays by current American Marxists in the journal build on Engels and Kautsky's earlier answers, extending the analysis and strengthening it in important respects.

Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff offer a systematic class analysis of the US social formation and its contradictions. Their central argument is that on the one hand US capitalism has provided US workers with an exceptionally high standard of living over the last 150 years, but on the other productive labour has been subjected to the highest rate of exploitation in the capitalist world, leading to exhaustion, stress and other forms of atomisation. In short "rising consumption compensated for - and thereby helped to suppress workers' consciousness of their rising exploitation" (p.210).

Defining workers as Marx did primarily as the class that produces surplus value, Resnick and Wolff point to "the extraordinary quantitative dimensions of the surplus produced by productive workers in the US and appropriated by their capitalist employees" (p.212). This rising surplus made possible both a rising standard of living for workers and a mass of unproductive labour. Such an economy strengthened the capitalist class, its state and its functionaries, and made the working class "very fragile".

The merit of this approach is that it grounds any explanation of the weakness of the American labour movement in the actual realities of US capitalism. Another essay in the journal that does that, but goes much further, is Kim Moody's review.

Moody criticises those who fail to recognise "the impact of capitalist development in the US, which was different from that in England and the rest of Europe in important ways, had on the class consciousness of workers" (p.348).

However he points to race as "the central dividing line in class formation in the US" - in particular the legacy of slavery and its impact on the South, retarding industrial development there for a century after the civil war and dividing black and white workers (p.349).

Similarly, the mode of industrialisation of the west and the waves of immigrant labour between 1870 and 1920 helped to "decompose and recompose the US working class in ways that disrupted and fragmented labour organisation and class consciousness" (p.351).

Although there were attempts at industrial organisation, such as the Knights of Labor, before the First World War these failed because of the tumult of working class life. Much of the working class faced constant movement from workplace to workplace, city to city, boarding house to shantytown. A significant part of this transient working class was not eligible to vote and disenfranchised by the state.

Although the geographical and industrial contours of US capitalism had taken shape by the 1920s, and indeed the next two decades witnessed further drives for industrial organisation (culminating in the CIO) and for a labor party, the unprecedented prosperity after 1945 coupled with rabid anti-communism snuffed out most radical working class alternatives.

Clearly there are other important elements to any assessment of the American labour movement, including the role of the trade union bureaucracy and of the way support for the Democrats has blighted working class political independence. A critique of the role of socialists is also necessary - though there are some pointers in the journal.

Indeed much of what was considered exceptional about American conditions has turned out to be quite 'normal' for other capitalist states. But there are some signs of hope. Moody argues that the impact of globalisation has awakened many American workers to realities of their exploitation. Twenty years of stagnant or declining real wages have punctured the prosperity of millions.

On the political front, the formation of the Labor Party in 1996, high-profile strikes at UPS and General Motors, and the Seattle demonstration in November 1999, have all shown it would be a grave error for socialists to write off the American working class.

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