While the American workers movement did end up playing an important, if perhaps secondary, role in the fight against slavery during the 1860s (see previous article in series), it would be another decade before an independent workers party with a national scope managed to coalesce onto the political stage. This party, first called the Workingmen’s Party and later the Socialist Labor Party, is often dismissed or overlooked by mainstream historians of the American socialist movement as too foreign of an organization – noting that much of the early SLP’s core was German-speaking workers, and influence among English-speaking or more “Americanized” workers was somewhat limited.
The limitations of the early SLP aren’t wrong, though the ideological tack taken by these aforementioned historians are more often interested in proving the United States’ “exceptionalism” by attempting to paint Marxism as a foreign concept which didn’t resonate with the more pragmatic American working class. Indeed, this perspective ignores the yeoman work that the Socialist Labor Party did in terms of propagating the concept of an independent working class party, and beginning to forge connections with workers parties forming internationally. Furthermore, while the German core of the SLP may have hindered some early growth, it also allowed the organization to maintain contact with, and draw close inspiration from, the vanguard of the socialist movement in Europe – the newly formed Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).
Nowhere is this cross-pollination more evident than in the first platforms of the respective parties – the Gotha Program of the SPD and the 1877 platform of the SLP. Both platforms start out very similarly, reflecting both conscious modeling on the part of the Socialist Labor Party and the fact that both the SPD and SLP were formed through similar processes: the unification of different socialist trends into a common organization.1
Ironically for the historians that castigate the SLP for its dogmatic Marxism, its first platform would likely have been criticized by Marx and Engels for having made too many compromises to what was then known as Lassalleanism. This trend, which had supporters in both the United States and Germany, argued for a focus on electoral action as a way to convince their counties’ respective governments to sponsor workers cooperatives, rather than organizing workers to take political power for themselves and transform society as a whole. Thus, both the Gotha Program and the 1877 SLP platform focused more on ameliorative economic demands rather than calls for the radical restructuring of the state as a precondition for the working class taking power.
Nevertheless, the core idea of the working class having to form an independent political party whose struggle was distinct from and opposed to the other political forces in society also resonates in both programs. Such were the contradictions of both early parties. That said, the development of the SLP gradually saw political demands come into greater prominence. By 1883, a section on the state was introduced to the platform, clearly calling for – among other things – the abolition of the Presidency and US Senate (“checks and balances” against the popularly-elected House of Representatives), and the introduction of “minority representation” (likely meaning proportional representation).2
This helped the SLP move into more democratic-republican territory consistent with Marxist politics. Moreover, this helped lay the groundwork for a critique of the US political system, which other socialist currents in the country did not yet undertake. While this didn’t necessarily help the SLP grow in the short term, this contribution was essential to making Marxism “American,” by providing analysis and critique of the specific problems faced by the American workers movement when coming up against the state, which at the time was unique in the world.
(From The Red Vine.)
1. For a fuller comparison of the programs, see https://www.archive.org/stream/GothaProgramme/726_socWrkrsParty_gothaProgram_231_djvu.txt for the SPD’s Gotha Program, and http://marxists.org/history/usa/parties/slp/1877/plat1877.pdf for the SLP’s 1877 platform.