- Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States?
Since the late-19th century, social scientists have debated the lack of a socialist movement in the United States. Home of the world's leading democracy and greatest capitalist economy, only the United States has lacked a significant working-class political movement.
Scholars from Werner Sombart to Seymour Martin Lipset have argued that "American Exceptionalism" reflects support for capitalism among American workers. Socialism, Sombart said, foundered "upon roast beef and apple pie." Robin Archer presents a remarkably coherent and well argued critique of this view of Exceptionalism, concluding instead that the failure of American political radicalism is due to the repressive power of American capitalism, sectarian mistakes by American socialists, and religious divisions among American workers.
Comparing the United States and Australia, or, at times, particular regions such as Illinois with parts of Australia such as New South Wales, Archer shows that abundant "roast beef" did not prevent socialism among Australian workers. Even racism and ethnic [End Page 275] divisions, Archer shows, afflicted and divided Australian workers as much as it did workers in the northern United States without preventing the formation of an effective Labor Party. Finally, Archer dismisses government by showing that Australian elections, like those in the United States, were won on a first-past-the-post system; and by showing that conservative Australian judges had discretion and power comparable to that exercised in the United States.
Having dismissed characteristics that Australia shared with the United States, Archer identifies three distinctions that he then associates with the failure of American socialism: repression, religion, and socialist sectarianism. The book's most effective section compares the use of force in strikes in Australia and the United States to argue that delegitimized labor militancy in the United States and undermined the union movement's organizational infrastructure and its subsequent ability to sustain a party organization (134). To explain Exceptionalism, Archer adds political divisions founded on religious differences, and the failure of American socialists (especially in the notoriously sectarian Socialist Labor Party) to present a coherent and plausible electoral program.
Robin Archer's book is a superb empirical argument. But like most of the literature he criticizes, he too often explains political outcomes, the lack of a strong political party, with nonpolitical factors. Formed to win political power, parties hold support by demonstrating a reasonable chance of success. In parliamentary systems, even minority parties, such as Australia, Labor and Socialist Parties, could exercise real power as the balance between larger parties. American socialists were never able to have this power because they could never reach the critical mass needed to elect presidents or governors. Archer is right to examine the impact of first-past-the-post elections, religious values, and the effect of repression on electoral organization. But for each of these, one needs to go further to explore these factors' political ramifications for electoral politics and party formation.
Compared with Archer's accomplishments, these criticisms are minor. Archer's book advances our understanding of American Exceptionalism, the history of Australian labor, and the development of socialist and labor movements throughout the world.