Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States?

May 8, 2008

In 1906, Werner Sombart's hallmark study of American political development sought to underline the peculiar social chemistry of an advanced industrial order that had achieved economic prominence without the accompaniment of a widespread reform impulse centred upon a socialist alternative. Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? gave emphasis to the relative affluence of American workers in relation to their European counterparts. It referred to the joint effects of an expanding society that kept labour markets mobile and of an immigrant culture that depressed forms of collective economic consciousness.

Sombart's study was instrumental in popularising the notion of American exceptionalism. It not only offered an analytical reason for the distinction but defined the essence of the exception itself. The assertions surrounding the notion of American exceptionalism thereafter acquired a solidity that became something of a controlling orthodoxy during the Cold War, when consensus historians fused Sombart's conclusions with an overall conception of the New World's historical experience of providential otherness and developmental idiosyncrasy.

At the same time, this notion of exceptionalism has repeatedly been subjected to close scrutiny. Analysts from several disciplines have sought to look behind the rhetoric of national identity in the search for some historical settlement surrounding the meaning and usage of this device.

Robin Archer is not only the latest to enter this dense historiography but offers an entirely different way of looking at the evidence. In Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States? he abandons the customary bases for comparison. Instead of using European reference points or employing the case of Canada, as Seymour M. Lipset does in his work on the same theme, Archer makes a strong argument for adopting Australia as the "most similar case" to the US for the purpose of analysing the variation from a comparable base.

In an intriguing and elegant exposition of comparative history, Archer uses the labour politics of the 1890s in both countries to illustrate the similarities and the differences between the two societies. He examines and assesses those categories that are traditionally cited as explaining the divergence of the US from other advanced capitalist societies. He concludes that for the most part these explanatory factors were equally applicable to the conditions prevailing in Australia during the 1890s at the very time when Australian unions decided to establish a labour party.

In stark contrast, American union leaders decided against such action despite experiencing the same conditions of industrial defeat and depression that had prompted their New World counterparts to opt for a party-based political strategy.

The cumulative effect of the evidence leads Archer to widen out the significance of the episode in order to contest the credentials of the customary claimants to American exceptionalism; namely the alleged positives of liberalism, democracy and prosperity as well as the negative of racial hostility. In a fine-grained recalibration of the "multiple traditions" approach to American development, Archer's research exposes the ignoble forces of state repression, religious tension and political sectarianism as the main agencies of America's missing labour party. The central claim is that the presented evidence will "turn much of the conventional wisdom about American exceptionalism on its head".

The thesis can occasionally appear to force the issue both in terms of the presumptive autonomy of its main categories of explanation, and in the study's adoption of its own logic of exceptionalism in accounting for an egregious sociohistorical deficiency. Nevertheless, it cannot be doubted that the innovative quality of Archer's approach, together with the clarity of its exposition, will unsettle established opinions and rejuvenate what has been a venerable debate into an altogether fresher controversy that will succeed in turning heads and changing minds.

Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States?

By Robin Archer
Princeton University Press
368pp
£19.95
ISBN 97806911019
Published 1 March 2008

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