In 1828—as Karl Marx once reminded his readers—a group of Philadelphia artisans organized the first ‘Labour Party’ in world history. Now, one hundred and fifty years later, a television news camera depicts a group of modern Philadelphia workers arguing in their local tavern over the candidates in the 1980 presidential election. Against a background of irreverent catcalls and hisses, one worker tepidly defends Carter as the ‘lesser evil’, while another, with even less ardour, tries to float the idea of a ‘protest’ vote for Reagan. Finally, with the nodding assent of most of the crowd, a rather definitive voice spells out the name of the popular choice in the campaign: n-o-t-a, (‘none of the above’). He underlines his point with the declaration that he intends to occupy a barstool rather than a polling booth on election day. In no other capitalist country is mass political abstentionism as fully developed as in the United States, where a ‘silent majority’ of the working class has sat out more than half the elections of the last century.footnote1 Arguably, this mute, atomized protest is the historical correlative of the striking absence of an independent political party of the proletariat in the country that once invented both the labour party and May Day.

Perhaps no other dimension of American history is simultaneously as salient and as difficult for Marxist theory as the complex evolution of the economic class struggle in relation to a political system that has managed to repulse every attempt to create an alternative class politics. The absence of the level of working-class self-organization and consciousness represented in every other capitalist country by the prevalence of labourist, social-democratic, or Communist parties is the spectre that has long haunted American Marxism. As a first approach to the problem it may be useful briefly to review the perspective that ‘classical’ revolutionary theory has offered on ‘American exceptionalism’.

At one time or another, Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Lenin, and Trotsky all became fascinated with the prospects for the development of a revolutionary movement in the United States. Although each emphasized different aspects of contemporary social dynamics, they shared the optimistic belief that ‘in the long run’ the differences between European and American levels of class consciousness and political organization would be evened out by objective laws of historical development. In their view the American working class was a more or less ‘immature’ version of a European proletariat. Its development had been retarded or deflected by various conjunctural and, therefore, transient conditions: the ‘frontier’, continuous immigration, the attraction of agrarian-democratic ideologies bound up with petty-bourgeois property, the international hegemony of American capital, and so on. Once these temporary conditions began to be eroded—through the closing of the frontier, the restriction of European immigration, the triumph of monopoly over small capital, the decline of us capital’s lead in world industrial productivity—then more profound and permanent historical determinants arising out of the very structure of the capitalist mode of production would come into play. In this shared scenario, a systematic economic crisis of American society would unleash class struggles on a titanic scale. Furthermore the very breadth and violence of this economic class struggle would provoke escalating conflicts with state power. In such a crisis the bourgeois-democratic institutions of American society—previously an obstacle to class coalescence—would provide a springboard for independent political action and the formation of a mass labour or socialist party. Stages of development that had taken the European proletariat generations to traverse would be ‘compressed’ in America by an accelerated process of ‘combined and uneven development’.

Thus Engels, writing in 1886, had little doubt that the dramatic growth of the Knights of Labor together with the massive vote for Henry George in New York City’s mayoralty election signalled the birth of mass labour politics in America. (Engels, in fact, exhorted the ‘backward’ English labour movement to take these more ‘advanced’ American events as their model.) A similar conclusion was drawn by Lenin with regard to the apparent giant strides of the Socialist Party in the elections of 1912, and by Trotsky when, in the aftermath of the great sit-down strikes of 1936–37, a labour party again seemed likely to emerge.footnote2

Unfortunately, all these hopes for a qualitative political transformation of the class struggle in the United States have remained stillborn. The premonitory signs of a political break in the middle eighties turned out to be spurious, as renewed ethnic and racial divisions undermined the embryonic unification of Eastern industrial workers. Fledgling ‘labour parties’ collapsed as workers were successfully reabsorbed into a capitalist two-party system that brilliantly manipulated and accentuated cultural schisms in the working class. Likewise the 6% of the presidential vote that Gene Debs won in 1912—internationally acclaimed as the beginning of the Socialist Party’s ascent to majority representation of the American proletariat—turned out to be its high-water mark, followed by bitter conflict and fragmentation. This socialist fratricide was, in turn, a manifestation and symptom of the profound antagonisms within the early-twentieth-century labour movement between organized ‘native’ craftsmen and the unorganized masses of immigrant labourers.

The Great Depression furnished the most ironic experience of all. Despite a cataclysmic collapse of the productive system and the economic class war that the crisis unleashed, the political battlements of American capitalism held firm. Indeed it can be argued that the hegemony of the political system was reinforced and extended. The same workers who defied the machine guns of the National Guard at Flint or chased the deputies off the streets during the semi-insurrectionary Minneapolis General Strike were also the cornerstone of electoral support for Roosevelt. The millions of young workers aroused by the struggle for industrial unionism were simultaneously mobilized as the shock troops of a pseudo-aristocratic politician whose avowed ambition was ‘the salvation of American capitalism’. To the extent that so-called ‘labour’ or ‘farmer-labour’ parties emerged in industrial areas of the midwest or north-east they remained scarcely more than advance detachments and satellites of the New Deal.

Thus, in spite of the periodic intensity of the economic class struggle and the episodic appearance of ‘new lefts’ in every generation since the Civil War, the rule of capital has remained more powerfully installed and less politically contested than in any other advanced capitalist social formation. In the face of this dilemma, and given the apparent inadequacy of the theory of the American working class as an ‘immature proletariat’, what other perspectives are available for conceptualizing the problem of an absent political class consciousness in the United States?