- Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States?
Revisiting the “American Exceptionalism” debate, political scientist Robin Archer argues in this thought-provoking work that the establishment of labor-based parties in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was an “international norm” that the United States did not follow (13). At the heart of the book is a comparison between the United States and Australia that draws largely on the fact that Australian unions established their party in the early 1890s, just when the American Federation of Labor came closest to establishing a labor party of its own. Although the American exceptionalism debate is an old one, the author does introduce a fresh angle by providing the first systematic comparison of the American experience with that of Australia.
By measuring the United States against another New World country, rather than against a European model, new conclusions emerge. Rather than thwarting the establishment of a labor party, for instance, in Australia racial hostility actually fostered the Labor Party’s foundation and growth. Overall, in fact, Archer finds that repression, religion, and socialist sectarianism influenced the American labor movement far more than racial divisions or economic conditions. In particular, Archer shows that the level of economic prosperity was even higher in late nineteenth-century Australia than it was in the United States, casting doubt on the long-held claim that there were insufficient economic grievances to support a labor party in America. He also finds that it was the extensive use of state repression that really set the United States apart from Australia, especially as it prevented new, inclusive unions of unskilled and semi-skilled workers from [End Page 862] flourishing. Overall, the author asserts that his conclusions “turn much of the conventional wisdom about American exceptionalism on its head” (243).
In the body of the book, Archer considers a range of factors that help to explain the divergence between the experiences of the two countries. Each explanatory factor is given its own chapter, an approach that allows each chapter to be read as “a relatively self-contained whole” (19). Despite the book’s broad title, these chapters are actually quite narrowly focused, concentrating almost exclusively on the late nineteenth century, particularly the early 1890s. The comparative angle is sustained, however, and Archer utilizes a good range of primary and secondary sources from both countries to bolster his argument. In addition, a long list of tables provide revealing comparative data, particularly with regard to workers’ living conditions and patterns of religious observance. Most previous works on various aspects of exceptionalism are also addressed effectively, and the author includes a very detailed bibliography.
Readers may take issue with some of this work’s central claims and arguments, however. As its title suggests, Archer’s book is based on the assertion that the United States does not have a “labor-based party” (3), yet this central claim is somewhat problematic. For much of the twentieth century, unions heavily funded the Democratic Party and Archer’s dismissal of this party as never truly “labor-based” is contentious (4). The author’s thematic coverage also means that this book lacks a clear chronology, and it is very much a work of political science rather than history. In particular, the author’s methodology is rather intrusive and human agency is given short shrift throughout the analysis. The thematic structure also means that the chapters are rather disconnected from each other. When discussing the United States, the author also concentrates heavily on the industrialized northern and mid-western states, particularly Illinois, and overlooks the South. The fate of the Populist Party, which came to prominence in the 1890s, gets a particularly short shrift. The South and West need to be covered more extensively here, especially as Archer is making nationally based conclusions.
Finally, Archer also overlooks the contemporary Labor Party in the United States, headed until recently by the late union activist Tony Mazzochi. While it is small, this party deserves some...