The Dartmouth Observer
Friday, September 16, 2005
The Missing American Socialist Party, or, Why Mass Labor Parties Didn't Happen
I'm having fun in my intellectual journey of the American Civil war era and the aftermath of that, Reconstruction. What I am most shocked to discover, time and time again, is however (Jeffersonian) republican freedman claims about justice and freedom were. Whereas some of the free blacks in Louisiana espoused a paternalistic stewardship message concerning the masses of freedmen, most of the former slaves, when given a chance to articulate their views, looked forward to owning their own land, participating in the wage-labor economy irregularly, subsistence farming, and an absence of state (read: white) intervention into their daily affairs.
For many of the newly emancipated, there was not much difference between wage-labor for the southern agricultural elite or white land speculators and the bondage from which they had so recently escaped. Thus, the hope of receiving and buying land plots for individual and cooperative use was at the top of the list for the freedman, right after familial autonomy and subsistence support from their former masters. I continue to be shocked how the southern elite, and some of the poor whites, wanted the blacks to participate in the regional/national wage economy of the south at that time without any social-economic support. Many of the older blacks and the women refused to labor outside the home and were convinced that there former masters owed them a debt to provide for some of their welfare. The whites, by contrast, wanted to proletarianize the entirety of the black workforce in a laissez-fare labor environment, and was slightly upset when the older and female workers did not want to participate in the redevelopment of the southern agricultural infrastructure under white Northern business control or southern landed-gentry agricultural control buttressed by poor white and black labor.
The blacks, by and large, wanted to opt-out of this system through land ownership. Like many of their laboring counterparts in industrial capitalist Europe, black workers organized strikes, collectively bargained, and, for a short time, emerged a mass political force in the election of Republican governors, mayors, and presidents throughout the former Confederacy. I amazed how quickly a proto-socialism emerged among these blacks as they pooled monies to create banks and buy land while collectively bargaining and forming separate, autonomous political organizations through the black--generally Baptist--churches.
My intuition is that unlike some of the mass parties in Europe (and this occurs in Europe primarily between 1870 and 1890 as opposed to the black labor movement of the 1860s and 1870s) the black collective labor and political struggle never either overcame nor sublated the racist and supremacist views of American whites, and was not able to form a mass socialist/labor party. The party of labor, soft money, and immigrants in America was the Democrat National Party, which was as racist as it was progressive. The party of Lincoln, emancipation, and blacks quickly turned to industry and commercialism as the project of federal reconstruction and federal centralization of power wilted before the onslaught of state's rights, Supreme Court decisions, and systemic terrorist resistance in the South and political resistance in the North against claims of black political, economic, and social equality.
In Europe many of the socialist parties were able to make international claims and undermine nationalist sentiment through a lofty appeal to the workers of the world unite!. Mass movements, in targeting workers as workers, were able to politicize proletarianizaton, and expose the predation of industrial capitalism inchoate within wage-labor systems. This appeal never worked in America because the fundamental equality-in-suffering that was at the heart of the labor movements simply was not present in the American political and social climate. While materially many of white ethnic immigrants were as worse off as a good portion of black labor, the social and political reality quickly evolved such that racial hierarchical categorization was prior to, and, in some ways, more important than the equality-of-misery in the material circumstances. The social equality of the labor classes being non-existent among American labor prevented, in my mind, the emergence of a truly powerful and radical labor party in America.
Many such labor parties existed in Europe and were feared by the ruling classes. Though the First War World, as unnecessary as it was bloody, temporarily broke the power of the socialist labor parties, and created a social climate more amenable to despotic revolution in the East and fascist brutality in the West. The same racism and white supremacist ideology prevented the workers of the world from seeing the other predation of industrial capitalism: colonial markets. Thus the European labor-left, until well after the First World War, and arguably, the Second, did not comprehend nor acknowledge their common fate with the colonial subjects, and, in fact, rallied around the flag-waving nationalism of the imperial centers when it preached the necessity of the colonies for the continued improvement of labor conditions for the working classes.