Saturday, October 25, 2014

Why Wasn't There a Worker's Revolution in the United States after 1880?

Marx and Engels never quite figured out why the United States didn't have a serious worker revolt, but they suspected that the United States' lack of a feudal experience and early adoption of political democracy for large sections of society prevented the development of class consciousness. Think about it: although colonial America maintained property requirements for voting, they were low enough that all free, white males could aspire to political participation even before independence. By the 1820s, Jacksonian democratic ideals essentially enfranchised free white men across the country. That meant that despite the rhetoric of the pre-Revolutionary years that England sought to turn colonists into political slaves, most white Americans had no experience of being downtrodden without some hope of social and economic mobility.

Others also argued against the development of class-based politics in the United States. As early as 1867, E. L. Godkin argued that workers were not the same in America as they were in Europe where laborers were members of an order in society that was arrayed in conflict with higher economic classes. Eric Foner argued that In the United States, workers simply wanted better wages or working conditions. The social line between capital and labor was faintly drawn, so that successful laborers could hope to become employers themselves.

David Montgomery argues that while American workers had intense conflicts with employers, they didn't wrap those conflicts in class consciousness. Even when a revolutionary ideology did appear, it focused on control of the work place rather than political change. Despite this, in the first fifteen years of the 20th century, Americans elected more socialists than the English did. So despite the distance between worker objectives and politicos, socialists were successful in elections. One significant issue was that American capitalism simply worked better for workers, who had better wages, housing, and diet than their European counterparts. Americans also enjoyed more social and geographic mobility, which meant they could go West and fame if they grew weary of factory work and city life. This extension of Turner's frontier thesis rendered socialism mostly irrelevant in American politics.

Another thesis, proposed by Louis Hartz, argued that American life was inherently hostile to revolutionary ideologies. harts claimed that Americans never had to fight a revolution simply in order to gain political equality - they took it for granted because it had existed before the American revolution. In effect, the United States had only retained the bourgeois portion of the European social order, not the aristocratic, religious, or peasant portions. That simple fact meant that Americans simply had no need for radical revolutionary further because we were already equal in the eyes of the law - if you ignored the status of African Americans and women, that is. Aileen Kraditor extended Hartz's theses to include recent immigrants. She argued that even immigrants felt no great need for political change. In part this was because they created their own ethnic enclaves that allowed so much self-sufficiency that they had no real need for radical political change. Radicals trying to organize immigrant communities were most often seen as misfits who had rejected their own cultures.

Access to voting was the key to preventing radical revolutions in the United States after 1880, accordion got Selig Perlman and Alan Dawley. The mere act of being able to go to the polls and cast a ballot kept class consciousness from becoming a significant political issue. Perlman contends that unlike the situation in England, Americans gained the right to vote before their Industrial Revolution, meaning that they never had the conception of being anything other than full citizens. Taking a different tack on the issue, Dawley argued that not only did the franchise give workers a vested interest in the existing social order, but that political parties were quite adept at absorbing worker demands in their party platforms, as evidenced by the Democrats co-option of Populist Party agenda items in the 1890s and some Republican acceptance of Progressive political goals under Theodore Roosevelt and Taft.

The nature of workers organizations during the 1880s also worked against revolutionary change. In 1878 the Knights of Labor emerged as an group that tried to organize workers regardless of skill, gender, ethnicity, race, or ideology. Twenty percent of their membership were women, and 95,000 were African American. The Knights advocated worker democracy that included public ownership of railroads, an income tax, equal pay for women, and the abolition of child labor. They preferred boycotts and negotiation, but were most famous for the 1885 strike against the railroads. Samuel Gompers' new American Federation of Labor competed with the Knights for members, but focused on skilled workers, and using strikes as a tool to gain better working conditions.

The groups came together to advocate for the eight-hour work day as part of a nationwide strike on May 1, 1886, with the leaders of both the Knights of Labor and the AFL in Chicago. When strikers and scabs fought on May 3rd outside the McCormick Reaper works, the real trouble began. A rally of angry radicals was scheduled for May4th, but drew only 3,000 people. As the crowd dwindled, a bomb was thrown, leading Chicago police to shoot into the crowd. News of what became called the "Haymarket Riot" repulsed the nation, turning it against unions, workers, anarchists, and strikes. The eight-hour day movement died, the Knights of Labor collapsed, and the AFL focused on incremental economic improvements for its skilled workers.

The lack of a revolution in the 1930s is perhaps easier to explain. A significant factor was the splintering of the American socialist and communist parties after World War I. American socialists did not support World War I, unlike European socialists, which cost it many native-born workers and intellectuals. Daniel Bell argued that the revolutionary parties failed to gain support because they were obsessed with ideological purity rather than political success, leading them to oppose the war. In addition to these weaknesses, Paul Buhle argued that the party didn't bring in new immigrants and focused on elections rather than their issues. The final straw during the 1920s, according to Eric Foner, was that opposition to the war opened American socialists to prosecution under the Espionage and Sedition Acts.

Workers' experiences with 1920s welfare capitalism may have also helped ward of revolution in the United States. Lizbeth Cohen argued that the Depression did not make workers anti capitalist after the paternalism of the 1920s. What workers desired was "moral capitalism" that provided workers the security and compensation they deserved. Participation in wars and voting led workers to believe that they were entitled to state support and protection from the excesses of business. Unfortunately, welfare capitalism largely disappeared with the onset of the Great Depression - businesses no longer saw a need to keep workers so happy, and many could not afford the expense of providing housing and other services to their workers.

By Franklin Delano Roosevelt's election in 1932, the United States would seem ripe for a revolution, but faith in FDR's attempts at reforms should get credit for American political stability during the Great Depression. FDR was able to absorb some labor militancy in the New Deal and led the Democratic party to develop a broad coalition that included Communists. James Weinstein argued that the Communists saw themselves as the left wing of the New Deal ruling coalition. As long as the goals of socialism and nationalism were the same, the Communists prospered. Their influence waned as those two sets of goals diverged.

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