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The New International, December 1940


David Coolidge

American Labor and Politics – II


From New International, Vol. 6, No. 10, December 1940, pp. 205–208.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for ETOL.

IN THE FIRST ARTICLE in this series on American Politics we posed certain significant questions related to the development of independent working-class political action in England, expressed in the formation of the Labour Party, and contrasted the British experience with the absence of such developments in the United States. We presented as relevant factors: the difference in the structure of the two governments, the comparative lateness in the full development of capitalism and the proletariat in the United States, the relatively high standard of living of workers in this country, the fact that in the U. S. the working class won the franchise before the English workers, the difference in the quality of working-class leadership in the two countries, the important consideration that independent working-class political action did not arrive until after the organization of the unskilled workers, and finally the influence of the teachings of Marx and Engels.

In the present article we will develop in more detail, the application of these observations to the labor movement in the United States.

A Twentieth Century Problem

The problem of independent working class politics and the formation of a national labor party in the United States is, in reality, a problem of the twentieth century. It was only after the victory of industrial capitalism, its extension to monopoly finance capitalism and the establishment of the United States as leader of world imperialism, that the stern necessity for independent political action could be presented to the working class in clearly delineated and definitive form. That is, the events of the past forty years made it objectively possible to present the real face of United States capitalism and imperialism to the workers.

These events are chiefly, the formation of vast monopolies, through concentration and centralization of capital, the extension of control over the government by finance capitalism and the bid of United States finance capitalists for domination of the world market. This was best exemplified by the entry of the United States in the first world war and now by participation in the second world imperialist war. This means that capitalism has reached its peak in all the imperialist countries, that it is not the virgin society of an earlier day, that it has lost every shred of progressive character, and most important of all, that the working class in the United States is completely enclosed within capitalist productive relations, and bound irrevocably, so long as capitalism is accepted, to the ups and downs, the caprice and the anarchy of capitalist production.

Neither the working class in the United States nor the progressive trade-union leaders have understood either the past nor how it functions today. This can be demonstrated by an examination of the functioning of the organized labor movement in relation to the question of independent political action.

The working class very early understood the necessity for some sort of political action. At the time, that is toward the end of the first quarter of the 18th Century, it conceived of organized working-class politics as action toward fulfilling the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It was concerned with winning for itself “the promise of American life.” This was the period of the struggle for immediate political demands: for the franchise, for free schools, for the abolition of imprisonment for debt, for shortening the work day, for protection of the worker against being robbed of his pay. These and many more concessions the workers sought to gain from the government by act of Congress and the state legislatures.

The workers of course had many other grievances. These were largely due to the harsh conditions under which they worked: extremely low wages, inordinately long hours, child labor, corporal punishment of women and children in the factories, factory fines, being mulcted of part of their wages to pay the salary of the preacher provided by the employer to bring salvation to his employees.

These and many other political and economic grievances laid the base for the formation of the first labor parties. We should not be misled, however, into thinking that these early labor parties were organizations dedicated to independent political action as we understand this term today. This is true despite the fact that some of their pronouncements sound as though the working class of that period was ready to begin the final struggle against capitalism. For instance, Frances Wright, one of the founders of the New York Labor Party in 1829 wrote that “what distinguishes the present from every other struggle in which the human race has been engaged, is, that the present is evidently, openly and acknowledgedly a war of class and that this war is universal.” Oneal (The Workers in American History) points out that “declarations of the class struggle may be found in the early labor journals of America at least twenty years before Marx and Engels proclaimed it in Europe in the Communist Manifesto of 1848.”

In no instance however did conscious class-struggle ideas penetrate the labor movement nor were they embodied in the thinking and programmatic conceptions of the leaders. None of these labor parties was based on the idea of class and class struggle. They were not parties of wage-earners as wage-earners. They were parties of the poor, struggling against the rich. But neither the rich nor the poor were distinct classes existing in a certain historical type of society. They were fighting for general human rights. Their chief aim was to accomplish the integration of the working class into United States democratic society with full rights, privileges and immunities. That is, they wanted to become full-fledged American citizens.

This was a normal attitude for the working class of the first half of the 19th Century to assume. The material basis for the coming of “wage-consciousness” had not been laid. The factory system was not yet born and there was no distinct proletariat. This is true despite the fact that from the very beginning there were clear class divisions in the United States. The commercial ruling class understood its role and fought consistently to establish its hegemony. But the workers did not understand this and even if they had they were not strong enough to challenge the rule of the commercial bourgeoisie.

The Tradition of “Classlessness”

The workers could not develop the idea of “class” which is a necessary prerequisite for independent political action, left to themselves; especially in the “rights of man” ideology of the 19th Century. Furthermore there has been a conscious and deliberate effort from the very beginning in this country to obscure the existence of classes and class distinctions. The concept of “classlessness” was expounded and this continues today unabated. Liberals accepted this propaganda of the bourgeoisie and added to the confusion in the ranks of the working class. Theoretical political equality, or more precisely, voting equality added its bit to keeping the workers chained to the “regular” political parties. The fact also that there was a certain fluidity of class relations, making it actually possible for transfers from the working class to the ruling class gave the equality myth a grand opportunity to function in the interest of the no-classes ideology.

As we have said, the political and commercial fathers of the country, fully understanding their class interests, never had in mind to submit to the demands of the “lower orders.” Their attitude was fully demonstrated in their attitude on the franchise, free public education and the right of the working class to organize into trades unions. That hallowed and honored statesman of the Republic, Daniel Webster was a violent opponent of universal suffrage. Chancellor Kent, of New York, said that “this democratic principle cannot be contemplated without terror” ... “universal suffrage jeopardizes property” ... “the poor man’s interest is always in opposition to his duty, and it is too much to expect of human nature that interest will not be consulted.”

The bourgeoisie of the day said that legislative provision for public schools would be “class legislation.” The public school would be a promoter of idleness. The ruling class of all ages has been willing to make all manner of sacrifices to keep the working class from “idleness.”

The high crime of course was the efforts of the workers to organize for improving their condition. They were indicted, tried and convicted for organizing “a combination to raise their wages.” Such actions were conspiracies under the common law which had been brought over from England.

These grievances were the main causes for the organization of the labor parties. The ruling class itself, however, did not remain united on these questions. They split; the Federalists applying the common law rigidly and keeping the screws down while the Republicans (Jeffersonians) made a gesture of defense of the workers. This drew the workers nearer to the Republicans and did not tend to promote independence of political action. This process of befriending the working class was accentuated during the era of Jacksonian democracy when the “left wing” of the rising bourgeoisie rendered some aid to the workers, farmers and the middle class in their struggle for democratic rights.

The outstanding factor, in slowing down the development of independent political organization of the working class was the development of capitalism itself and a change in the outlook of the bourgeoisie. Legally, the workers won virtually every demand that they had made on the ruling class. They got the franchise. Not only were free public schools established but attendance was made compulsory. Trade unions were legalized. These juridical and parliamentary grants to the workers have increased down through the decades on through the New Deal.

How was this change connected with the development of capitalism? Free public education, the franchise and trade union organization accompanied by collective bargaining were seen to be absolutely necessary if rising and expanding capitalism was to have at hand the type of worker necessary for machine production. The bourgeoisie of the North finally envisaged the future of their own system as they had not in the earlier days. Also it must be remembered of course that the “impending conflict” with the South hastened the extension of bourgeois democracy to the workers in the North. Also as the bourgeois became more “enlightened,” he realized more and more that the working class was completely manacled by capitalist productive relations. The extension of democratic rights, the granting of concessions and softening up a little would not allow the working class to escape from the net that had been woven around it.

The above considerations do not ignore the effects of the constant struggles of the workers through strikes and other means to better their condition. These struggles were effective and interacted with the factors mentioned above to produce the final results. The point though that we want to emphasize is that the very success of the struggles of the workers produced the effect on the working class that the bourgeoisie desired: namely, that constitutional democracy would work; that it was possible for workers to acquire their rights by legal and parliamentary means, within the framework of capitalism and through support of the existing bourgeois parties.

A Liberal Capitalism

It must also be kept constantly in mind that capitalism in the United States since the very beginnings of the factory system has been in a position to make concessions to the working class. Not only was it necessary to grant concessions for the reason pointed out above but the ruling class was in a position to do something in a practical way. The exploitation of the tremendous natural resources of the United States through advanced technology produced such fabulous wealth that the standard of living could be raised far above that of any other country in the world. The production of wealth was also increased by the United States remaining virtually free from the ever recurring wars that devastated European countries and consumed their wealth in such degree that even a relatively high standard of living was impossible for the working class.

The workers contemplated the economic and political concessions they had wrested from the bourgeoisie, their relatively high standard of living, the absence of militarism in the United States, their general well-being and became completely integrated into the national life. They do not understand even today that with the triumph of finance capitalism the “promise of American life” has been fulfilled.

All of these things have militated against the formation of a national labor party in the United States. We have contrasted the United States with England. In a previous article we discussed what we called the decisive factor: political leadership was developed in England, while in the United States there has been no such leadership. Here the trade-union leadership came under and remained under the complete political domination of bourgeois politics. The trade-union leaders either consciously or naively were as fully tied to the bourgeois parties as the mass of the workers. In a future article we will go into some detail on the role and program of those who attempted to assume the political leadership of the working class. We want to close this part of the discussion with an aspect of the question that has never been given the weight that it deserves.

We said in the first article in this series that, “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.” That is, not only political activity but even economic activity was colored by the narrow interests of craft unionism.

In England the trade unions were not faced with the harassing situation caused by the attitude of the public and its own membership toward the “foreign” worker. The English movement had no internal race problem to deal with. Above all it had no internal “Negro problem” as in the United States. In organizing and fighting for the interests of the unskilled worker the British movement was organizing and demanding rights for Englishmen. The demand for higher wages was a demand for more for Englishmen. The demand for the suffrage was a demand for the right of Englishmen to vote. There was no chance of the British movement being distracted, disrupted and split over a “race question.”

The Negro Problem

This is not and has never been the case in the United States. Our labor movement has always had a race problem to deal with and its record in this matter is anything but glorious. If independent political action is to be a mass movement of the working class and if the hub of the movement is the unskilled and semi-skilled workers then the very core of the agitation must be the struggle for the rights of the Negro people. That is, Negro rights would have to occupy a prominent place in the list of demands of the national labor party. To talk about independent political action of the working class while it ignored that part of itself most oppressed, would be quite a grim farce.

Not only did the labor movement fail to fight for the political and social rights of the Negro; it failed even to fight for the Negro’s economic rights. Above all and to begin with the Negro was barred from the unions themselves. The record of the labor movement before the coming of the C.I.O. was miserable enough throughout the present century, in the matter of organizing the millions of unskilled workers, but in the case of the Negro worker its record is completely disgraceful.

The race situation and the attitude of the labor movement to this question has been and is a prime factor in damming up and wiping out any tendency toward concrete independent political action in the form of the national labor party. Such a party if it were not a tool of the bourgeois parties would be compelled to include Negroes, foreigners, women and other oppressed elements and struggle for their full rights. Up to now the labor movement has not been willing even to apply these principles within its own trade union ranks.

Here again the question of leadership arises. And not only the question of leadership but also the question of program. While not attempting to answer now we pose something interesting and significant. In view of the racial heterogeneity of the working class in the United States, the historic race and color distinctions, the whole fabric of national thinking and practice on these matters, combined with the other national factors and characteristics we have presented – is it likely that a labor party similar to the Labour Party of Great Britain will be formed in the United States.


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