Socialist Worker

Why the US doesn’t have a mass workers’ party 

Sophie Squire examines why there isn’t a party of the working class, and argues that activists should fight for a revolutionary project

Issue No. 2730

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The logic of the Democrats means that activists fall in step with the electoral machine (Pic: GPA Photo Archive/Flickr)


Unlike in many other countries, a social democratic party does not exist in the United States. That’s not because of a lack of struggle. 

In Britain, the Labour Party is a reformist party connected to the working class through its trade union link. But why isn’t there a comparable project in the US?

There have been waves of very militant working class action. And there have repeated attempts at socialist organisation.

Writing in the 1880s, socialist Frederick Engels put forward two main reasons for the lack of such a party. 

He said the huge land areas available to new settlers after the brutal removal of the original inhabitants inhibited the growth of a settled working class. 

There was a big boom in industry after the end of the civil war in 1865. But Engels argued the working class was constantly changing—some workers moved out to the land and their place was taken by new immigrants.

Whatever the truth of this analysis, it didn’t apply anymore by the 1920s, when a settled working class appeared in major cities. 

But while there was a massive upsurge in militancy by workers in this period a labour party still didn’t appear. 

The left in Britain and the US after two earthquakes
The left in Britain and the US after two earthquakes
  Read More

This, in part, is down to the idea that the left should organise within the Democratic Party.

Before the 1930s the Democrats were regarded as the party that had backed slavery and then the racist Jim Crow laws. 

But while Democrat Franklin D Roosevelt was president in the 1930s the perception of the party shifted significantly.  

The 1930s saw a wave of militancy and mobilisation by millions of workers in response to the hardship and suffering of the Great Depression. 

As a result, Roosevelt was forced to bring about a programme known as the “New Deal” in order to prop up US capitalism. 

There were talks in this period about unions setting up an independent party that would give them a voice in government. 

But the leadership of the influential Congress of the Industrial Unions weren’t interested. They choose instead to align themselves with Roosevelt and the Democrats. 

Wasted

So the opportunity to form a new party with significant backing of workers was wasted.

From this point on the idea that the left and unions should organise within the Democratic party and not form their own organisations had taken root.

There have been several moves to shift the Democrats to the left, including the realignment in the 1960s which sought to push reactionary southern Dixiecrats out of the party. 

But those within the Democrats couldn’t and still can’t alter what the Democratic Party is—a capitalist party supported by the ruling class. 

Repeatedly, sections of the left have poured decades of work into the Democrats when they could have formed an independent party. 

The last few years have shown that the progressive politics of figures such as Bernie Sanders can find a large audience in the US. 

It would be hugely significant if Sanders, or another left leader, were to form a party that would take up some demands of the trade union movement. 

But yet another social democratic party—absent in the US but popular throughout the world—won’t take on the multiple crises of this age. 

Far better to form a revolutionary organisation that focuses on struggle and advances working class interests, rather than relying on the same electoral machinations for change.


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