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The History of Independent Working-Class Parties
The independent left was a force to be reckoned with in US politics from the 1830s through the 1930s. A succession of third parties—the Workingmen’s Parties, the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party, and the Republicans—carried the causes of cooperative labor, abolition, land reform, and Radical Reconstruction from the 1830s through the 1870s. With post–Civil War industrialization and the capture of the Republicans by big business interests, the prewar reform movements evolved into the populist farmer-labor Greenback Labor and People’s Parties of the 1880s and 1890s, which made their issues—monetary and banking reform, cooperatives, publicly-owned utilities, anti-monopoly measures, and voting rights—central election issues.
After the collapse of Populism into the Democratic Party, its radicals were central to the formation of the Socialist Party of America, as well as regionally based labor, farmer-labor, nonpartisan, and progressive parties between 1900 and 1936, which added social insurance, public jobs for the unemployed, and public enterprise in basic industries to the independent farmer-labor politics agenda. Together, these late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century movements elected hundreds of local officials, scores of state officials, and dozens of members of Congress.
Those successes fueled widespread agitation for an independent labor party based on the unions, which reached a peak as the 1936 election approached. Unfortunately, the unions and the Communist Party’s Popular Front policy led most of labor and the left into the Democratic Party’s New Deal Coalition in 1936. Labor and the broad progressive left have remained captive to the Democratic Party ever since. Unlike almost every other industrial nation, the United States has yet to consolidate an independent working-class party as a major party.
What has made America a difficult terrain compared to other industrialized countries for developing a major working-class party is rooted in how its democratic forms initially developed. From the American Revolution and before, America’s landed and business elites supported a popular electoral vote. Though initially extended only to propertied white males, political rights were articulated in universalistic terms, which other groups were able to appeal to in the course of American history to win the vote for themselves.
In other industrially developing countries, workers and peasants had to form their own independent workers parties to fight for the voting franchise and social reforms against the new business elites as well as the old landed elites. That reality became the first principle of socialist politics: independent political action by the working class. Except for some socialist traditions in the ideological left, independent politics has never taken hold as a principle in the popular left in America. It has been particularly weak as a political principle since the unions and the Popular Front policy of the Communists in 1936 took the popular left as well as the majority of the ideological left into the New Deal Coalition in the Democratic Party.
Most American progressives to this day regard the question of whether to run in the Democratic Party or independently as a tactical question to be decided according to immediate contingencies. If a third party based in the working class is ever to be formed in the United States, independent politics will have to be a principle, not a tactic to be picked up or discarded with each election cycle.
The populist parties of the 1880s and 1890s and the Socialist Party of America and locally and regionally based labor, farmer-labor, nonpartisan, and progressive parties between 1900 and 1936 came close to establishing a major third party on the left with a working-class base. They demonstrated that independent working-class politics can overcome the structural barriers to a third party posed by single-member-district, winner-take-all elections, as have labor-based parties in similar electoral systems in other countries, including Canada, the UK, France, New Zealand, Mexico, and Venezuela. The failure to sustain independent labor parties in the United States can be found in their mimicking of the traditional American party structure developed by the Democratic and Republican Parties instead of building a grassroots, mass-membership party funded by party member dues.