The U.S. Workers Movement: The First Workers’ Parties

In the first installment of a new series, Peter Moody gives an overview of the U.S. workers' movement - from its formative period in the early 19th century to the near-mass parties of the 20th and the defeats of the recent period

Worker political action: the neglected American history

The workers movement in the United States has deep roots. While trade unions and working class political organizations for the most part didn’t become major players until the decades after the Civil War, worker-radicals existed on the American political landscape since the early 19th century, and their activities formed some of the first experiments with the independent organization of the working class.

Like the Chartist movement in Great Britain, these early movements fused multiple currents around radical democratic politics and various forms of pre-Marxist socialism, and campaigned on both the economic and political fields in order to achieve their goals, meeting with some early successes. However, this early movement, known as the Working Men’s Party, was not able to sink deep roots into the working class as it existed at the time, and gradually filtered back into the (also recently formed) Democratic Party, helping begin the workers movement’s long and tortured relationship with said organ of bourgeois political power.

Labor strife had started to become more common in the years after the War of 1812, particularly as the larger cities on the US East Coast developed into manufacturing centers.  Still mostly semi-independent skilled workers rather than employees in large scale factories, these workers were nevertheless acutely aware of their position as wage-earners rather than truly “independent” farmers or craftsmen, engaging in both labor activism – such as resisting an attempt by employers in Boston to increase the working day from ten to eleven hours in 1829 – and forming educational and mutual aid organizations like the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York. This initial element of working class organization was assisted and supplemented by free-thought and democratic radicals, as well as early utopian socialists, which helped coalesce the movement into one with broader political principles and goals.

One of these utopian socialists, a worker-intellectual by the name of Thomas Skidmore, was a major catalyst for the creation of the Working Men’s Party.  Placing himself firmly within, but radically extending, earlier traditions of American democratic radicalism, Skidmore sought a strategy to overcome social inequality and class divisions through workers participation in politics.  According to the schema Skidmore laid out, those won to his political program would elect enough legislators in every states so that constitutional conventions could be called.

These conventions would open up the electoral franchise to all adults, who would then set about to expropriate all private property and divide what could be easily divided equally among the populace, and although Skidmore did acknowledge that talented individuals would acquired more wealth and property over the course of their lives, the abolition of inheritance would ensure that these individual differences would not develop into entrenched inequalities over the long term.

While Skidmore’s vision of the future still rested in large part on the equal division of property to individuals rather than collective ownership and use, he did recognize the emergence of large-scale economic activity like banks and factories which couldn’t necessarily be divided up on an individual basis needed to be held in common. His proposals for working class political action were – if perhaps somewhat incidental in the long run – important enough in the short term that he strongly pushed the creation of an independent workers party, which, with the combination of Skidmore’s proto-communist politics and the already-existing working class activity in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, lead to the emergence of local Working Men’s parties in those cities in the late 1820s.

Unfortunately, these parties did not last long. While achieving respectable votes and managing to elect some of their candidates in local elections, the various branches of the Working Men’s Party were divided between those who sought more radical solutions and supported independent action – such as Skidmore – and those who argued for smaller-scale reforms, as well as supporters of the main bourgeois parties at the time.  The Democratic Party in particular had started to make overtures towards the constituencies that the Working Men’s Party intended to represent, and helped direct the nascent workers movement towards more populist channels.

Nevertheless, this ultimately failed attempt represented one of the first times the working class in a particular country theorized its interested on both an economic and rudimentary political level.  And while the failures of the Working Men’s Party did mean that American workers were locked in representation through bourgeois parties for many decades, it suggests that such an arrangement was not a natural order of things for American workers, and independent workers parties would likely arise in the future, as they indeed did.

(From The Red Vine.)



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