Watching the US presidential elections is a dispiriting experience for socialists.
American workers are once again forced to choose between a capitalist Democratic party, firmly tied to the ruling class and over which the trade unions have no control, and a Republican party that is even worse.
In most developed capitalist societies, major parties based on trade unions — however reformist, uninspiring or however treacherous their role — have emerged. But in the US, this has never happened. Why not?
Some put it down to Americans being inherently right-wing, anti-socialist by nature. The American right like to portray things this way. But the absence of an American labour party is not written in the stars. It is the product of a specific set of historical conditions.
The US has a history very distinct from most European capitalist countries. In France, Germany or Britain, the capitalist class fought its way to power in competition with the feudal and monarchical system that had come before it. Big chunks of the capitalists’ profits were hived off by the king and the church to be spent on wars or patronage.
In contrast, the American bourgeoisie was far less hindered. After winning independence from Britain at the end of the 18th century, it was able to rule more or less unchallenged, giving it a social weight disproportionate to its relatively early development and small size. The vast space and abundance of natural resources in North America also gave the US bourgeoisie the opportunity to become extremely strong.
The sheer scale of America also led to a demand for immigrant labour and enormous waves of immigration from Europe lasted throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. The American working-class was far more diverse, ethnically and religiously, than in other industrial countries. With such cultural differences, and with slavery as a relatively recent memory, racism was an easy way for the bosses to divide workers against themselves.
Hostility was generated between Protestants and Catholics, whites and blacks, Christians and Jews.
Despite all these difficulties, the American labour movement began to achieve an impressive power and militancy.
The American workers were beginning to exert a serious clout, challenging their treatment in the workplace. The response of the ruling class was particularly brutal — as Mike Davis points out in his book Prisoners of the American Dream, the working-class “never had to face the carnage of a Paris Commune or a defeated revolution, but it has been bled in countless ‘Peterloos’ at the hands of Pinkerton or the militia”.
However, this labour militancy never fully translated itself into an electoral challenge.
Many workers still identified themselves with either the Republicans or Democrats whatever was appropriate to their racial, regional or religious allegiances. The bourgeois parties took ready advantage, manoeuvring to curry favour with various groups on sectional, cultural lines.
Nevertheless, the Socialist Party of America, built on strictly non-sectarian and class struggle lines, began to build real support, with Eugene Debs, receiving around 915,000 votes in 1920.
In the 1930s, Democratic president Franklin D Roosevelt embarked on the New Deal, an attempt to resolve the enormous capitalist crisis of the time though large-scale Keynesian investment. Along with a number of other factors which this pushed working-class militancy into an uneasy cross-class alliance with a Democratic party whose declared aim was to “save capitalism”.
Large sections of the trade union leadership came to see Roosevelt as a saviour of industrial unionism. In the late 30s, with the approach of the Second World War, the “Popular Front” strategy of the Communist Party further pushed working-class radicalism into following the Democrats.
The illusions of this approach were soon to become apparent. The New Deal was not to last, and its relative achievements foundered. Support for the Democrats, who sucked up trade union funding without allowing trade unionists any real influence on its policy, became a policy of ever more diminishing returns.
Many decades later, and the American labour movement is still caught in this punishing trap. A break from lesser-evilism and from reliance on bourgeois politics is as important now as ever.