Duncan Hallas

The American working class


First published in Socialist Review 88, June 1986.
Reprinted in L. German & R. Hoveman (eds.), A Socialist Review, London 1998, pp.235-40.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The central question in discussing the American working class is why there is not, and has not been, a political labour movement of any significance in the United States. This is in spite of the fact that the US is today the major capitalist power in the world and has been, since the turn of the century, one of the two or three major capitalist powers.

There are a number of explanations put forward. The first set of arguments are what you might call the “sociological” arguments. They can all be found in letters which Engels wrote to various people in America in the 1880s.

They are important because they have been recycled arid refurbished, time and again, by various American liberals. They come down in essence to three propositions.

The first proposition concerns the unique character of land settlement in the US. In the post civil war period, the victorious radical wing of the American bourgeoisie carried out their pledge to give most of the land formally in the hands of the state – the land in the West – to anyone who would actually agree to settle and improve it.

Consequently it is argued – and with some substance in that period – that this seriously delayed the formation of a permanent working class.

The second proposition is a connected one. American industry developed on an enormous scale in the post civil war decades. The extent of this development can be seen by one statistic. In 1860, the year the war broke out, American iron and steel production (mostly iron) was one fifth of the British output. By the turn of the century US output – now mostly steel – had completely outstripped the British and was the largest in the world.

This development was based on immigrant labour. But – and this is where it fits in with the land settlement question – this immigrant labour itself rapidly became assimilated into society.

The pattern went like this. Wave after wave of immigrants were brought in from Europe. They became, if you like, a temporary proletariat, because large sections of them moved on and up.

The important thing about this temporary proletariat, as Engels and others argued, is that it did not become stabilised and acclimatised in the cities – it was being drained at the top and the sides all the time.

The stockyards and steel mills were manned, so far as the mass of the workforce was concerned, by relatively recent, ever changing waves of immigrant labour.

This had a further consequence – the ghettoisation of the developing industrial cities, of which Chicago is the most famous example. So the picture developed: rapidly expanding industry – murderously efficient by world standards, and brutally managed; a way out – the new frontier – and therefore extreme difficulty in developing permanent organisation; and the ghettoisation of the cities.

Out of these conditions arose the third of the effective “sociological” arguments. It is something which developed quite early on. The immigrant workforce would arrive poor, in trouble, in a strange land, with no social security and no social services. Who did they look to for help?

Here we come to the final peculiarity about the development of the working class in the US: democracy.

Democracy matters to the argument in two senses. Firstly, it is a fact that – long before it existed in Europe – there was effective universal suffrage for white males almost everywhere in the US.

Secondly, however, the system was democratic in another way – states with rights, and local government with powers, vastly greater than they have ever been in Britain.

What did this mean for the immigrant worker? There were people who, for a consideration, would do something for them or their children – in terms of jobs, or education, or talking to the precinct police captain. What was that consideration?

In short, that the immigrant workers had to learn enough English to pass the citizenship test, and then had to turn out and vote. The city machines, then, served in a sense as a substitute for a reformist labour movement. That is not so true now, but it certainly was in the 19th century.

For all these reasons, therefore, a political labour movement did not develop. At this point, however, we need to make a very important qualification. It is not true that in the period there was a low level of class struggle. In the 1870s and again in the late 1880s to early 1890s there were massive strikes, often very violently fought, involving large numbers of workers.

Typically, however, they did not lead to permanent trade union organisation or to a real alteration in the process whereby the work-force was being constantly renewed. This was because the wage rise and the improvement of conditions – assuming that you could get them – were still a lesser attraction than moving out.

All this seems to add up to a plausible sounding explanation, except for one obvious fact. The “new frontier” was effectively finished by the 1890s.

True, immigration did not slow down. On the contrary, it continued to accelerate. The peak year for immigration into the US was 1914, when five million plus entered the country in one year. But that was on the basis of intensive growth of American industry, not extensive growth. The proletariat had become permanent, in the ordinary sense, by the turn of the century. And by the 1920s immigration had become much more difficult.

Consequently, you then got a certain development of a politicised labour movement, albeit of a rather peculiar sort. Roughly between 1900 and 1914 stable trade union organisation was largely confined to skilled workers. It was very patchy, geographically, and did not significantly affect mass production industry.

One partial exception to this was coal. But in steel and the developing automobile industry, the only people who held union cards were members of skilled craft societies.

The Socialist Party founded in 1901, which enjoyed a fair degree of support, was not therefore based on the trade union bureaucracy, nor was it at all closely associated with trade union organisation.

This is confirmed by the pattern of its electoral success. By 1912 the American Socialist Party had 100,000 members. Its strongest vote, however, was not in the eastern seaboard, which was still the major industrial area, but in the West – an area only recently settled.

All the special factors which can be shown to have operated in the US until 1900 or 1920 were now of steadily diminishing importance. So the presence or absence of a political labour movement has to be judged in terms of certain specific events and struggles.

To understand this better, it is worth looking back at the British labour movement. From the 1830s onwards there were a number of massive struggles, leading by and large to defeat. By 1850 the big struggles were in the past, and stable mass union organisation did not exist, except in a few cases.

Then came the development of the craft societies, and 50 years of “Lib-Labism”. This was due to two factors: the defeats, without which Lib-Labism could not have survived, and the increasing world dominance of British capitalism in the second half of the century.

It was only at the end of the century, which saw the relative decline of British capitalism, that a political labour movement in Britain was born.

How does that model compare to the US? The First World War produced an upsurge in attempts at union organisation, many of which were temporarily successful. This culminated in 1919 with an employers’ offensive.

This offensive took a number of forms. There was a massive anti- red, anti-immigrant campaign. A number of important strikes – the packing house strike, the steel strike – were defeated. The unions, where they existed, were effectively driven out of large scale production. Consequently, the right wing inside the American Federation of Labour was reinforced, sitting on top of little craft societies.

This was combined with, from 1924, a period of very rapid economic growth. In spite of everything, real wages were rising. This, and the ideology that went with the boom, had a deadening effect.

What was the state of the significant political tendencies? The Socialist Party basically never recovered from the splits in the postwar period. All the guts were torn out of it. The party’s better activists went to the Communist Party and the worst jumped on the bandwagon – share promotion schemes, the trade union bureaucracy and so on.

The Communist Party, on the other hand – the product of a fusion in 1919-20 – was essentially a federation of factions. It must have been one of the very worst parties in the Comintern – and that’s really saying something. It was internalised, fraught with problems arid ineffective until two events coincided. One was the onset of the world slump. The impact of the slump in the US was enormous. In the years 1929-32 there was a catastrophic drop in industrial output of 40 percent. Secondly, by 1929 the American Communist Party had been effectively Stalinised – all the warring factions were done away with.

This combination of things meant that the development of a political labour movement – which looked on the cards – was aborted.

So what happened? The Communist Party was initially tiny. In 1932 when it ran William Z. Foster for president, it had 12,000 members. By 1938 it had 100,000 members. This growth was against a background of whatever the current line was that was coming from the Stalinist centre.

That meant until 1934 wildly ultra-left policies, and after 1935 policies based on the policies of the popular front. However, the growth could not have occurred but for what was happening industrially.

The initial impact of the slump was to destroy utterly even those vestiges of struggle which had existed in the 1920s. But following a marginal economic upturn in 1934, the accumulation of bitterness led to a series of disputes.

After a brief check in 1935, there was a real explosion, mainly around the question of union organisation. It was really spectacular. In the short period of time from the sit-in at Flint in 1936 to the unionisation of Fords in 1941, the basic industries were organised – even in the South.

Given this mass industrial upheaval, the breakthrough to political consciousness would most certainly have taken place but for one factor: the people who were most influential in these terms were opposed to it.

They were on the one hand the newly emerging labour bureaucracies, and on the other the Communist Party – which played a central role industrially.

There was a contradiction in the period. The explosion of union organisation radicalised large numbers of workers – no question about it. But the bureaucracies themselves were largely happy with the Roosevelt administration and its New Deal. They were willing to enter into what amounted to a coalition with one wing of the government.

The New Deal, despite its restrictive elements, entitled workers to a legally binding ballot on the question of a union. It was this side of it, under conditions where people were unorganised, that helped to spark the upsurges and consequently strengthen the bureaucracies.

But the bureaucracies couldn’t go into this coalition with sections of government without the support of the Communist Party. Others on the left – the remnants of the Socialist Party, the Trotskyists and all sorts of independents – were calling for the formation of a labour party. In order to contain this process, the bureaucracy sometimes resorted to setting up labour parties in order to get a working class vote for Roosevelt.

In New York State the union bureaucracies set up an American Labour Party, which of course ran candidates of its own, but whose presidential candidate was Roosevelt.

In Michigan the auto union set up the Michigan Cooperative Federation which was a similar operation. There were many others, but in all cases the union leaders sought to tie them to the Democratic Party.

They could do so, from 1935 onwards, because the Communist Party was concerned above all else to promote the Roosevelt administration, and to prevent the development of any independent reformist working class organisation.

This analysis stops at 1940. But subsequent events can be summarised very simply by another comparison to Britain in the latter half of the last century with its massive expansion, world dominance and so on.

A single statistic will do to draw a comparison. In the late 1940s one half of the world total of industrial output – excluding the USSR – was produced in the US. For a period of two or three decades this was the objective factor. There was also the subjective factor.

The real function of the Cold War in America was to eliminate the substantial Communist Party influence, especially in the unions. It was to consolidate a labour bureaucracy that owed its allegiance, in the last analysis, to the US state. It was, over time, successful. By the 1950s the right wing was in control everywhere. Since then union organisation has dropped from 40 percent to 20 percent in 1986.

Under these circumstances, the development of political class consciousness was out of the question. But, just as in the British case, changing objective circumstances change the nature of the arena. This doesn’t mean we’ll see an automatic rerun of the British experience.

But it does mean that new possibilities will be – and are being – created by the relative decline of American capitalism today.


Last updated on 17.11.2002