Why is There No Labor Party in the United States?
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: McCartin, Joseph A.
Pub Date: 03/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Spring, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 3
Topic: NamedWork: Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States? (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Archer, Rubin
Accession Number: 223732190
Full Text: Why is There No Labor Party in the United States? By Rubin Archer (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007. 388 pp.).

Over the years the question that forms the title of Robin Archer's intriguing volume has been at the heart discussions of "American exceptionalism." Why was the United States unique among the industrializing societies of the early twentieth century in not creating a political party closely affiliated with its labor movement? This question has engaged social scientists and historians at least since Werner Sombart first posed his own version of the question in 1906: "Warum gibt es in den Vereinigten Staaten keinen Sozialismus?" Occasionally those who have attempted answers to the question have illuminated some deep truths about American history and culture--one thinks of the work on John H. M. Laslett or Seymour Martin Lipsett for example. More often, though, scholars end up rehashing the same set of theories. Thankfully, this is not the case for Robin Archer.

In this volume, Archer poses the most novel and thought-provoking answer ventured in many years to one of American political history's most enduring questions. Archer takes an unusual approach to the subject, offering a comparative history of labor and politics in the United States and Australia as a means to tease out the key points that allowed Australians to form a labor party while Americans did not. The study is meticulous in its construction, and deeply informed on both the Australian and American contexts.

Archer usefully groups the explanatory factors most frequently cited as explanations for American exceptionalism into three categories. The first set of explanations tends to stress economic and social factors, such as American prosperity, levels and types of union organization, the relationship between workers and farmers, racial divisions, and immigration. A second set of explanations stresses political factors, including the timing of the extension of suffrage, the nature of the electoral system, the role of federalism, courts, the presidency, the party systems, and repression. And a third set stresses ideology and values, including social egalitarianism, individual freedom, religious affiliations, and the way socialist ideas were put in practice.

To weigh the relative importance of such explanations, Archer in turn identifies eight variables for comparison across these two national contexts. He devotes one chapter to each of these variables: the workforce in each country, including the relative power of skilled workers and relationships between workers and farmers; patterns of racial division; elections and constitutions; the role of the courts; repression; the influences of liberal political ideology; of religion; and of socialism. Each of the chapters is illuminating in its own right. Several come to intriguing conclusions.

Archer debunks the contention that American prosperity undermined the basis for a labor party. Australian workers were even more prosperous than Americans, he points out, and yet they organized the Australian Labor Party. Nor did racial division poison the possibility of class politics in the United States. Bias against people of color was high in both countries, Archer argues. Yet in Australia racism actually helped cement the white workers to labor politics. The theories of scholars such as William Forbath and Victoria Hattam that hostility from the courts forced American unions away from class politics and into a narrow craft-based voluntarism are similarly belied by the Australia-U.S. comparison, Archer suggests. The evidence indicates not that courts drove unions away from class politics in the United States, but "the opposite," Archer insists: "the unions had both opportunities to exercise influence over the courts and a strong incentive to do so" (111).

Why then did Americans not organize a labor party while their Australian counterparts (who were inspired by 19th century American experiments in labor politics) did? Archer narrows the explanation to "just a handful of factors": the weakness of the new unionism, the level of repression, the influence of religion, and socialist sectarianism. "These are the only factors that were both distinctive characteristics of the United States and were linked to the failure to establish a labor party by a plausible causal mechanism" (237). These factors interacted to produce different outcomes in the United States and Australia, he argues. The new unionism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was weaker in the United States, he explains, in part due to the impact of repression. Meanwhile, in the United States the influence of Evangelicalism and the hostility of Catholic and Protestant clergy to labor politics was higher and religious attachments more likely to bind Americans to non-labor parties (Republican and Democratic) than in Australia. Finally, socialist sectarianism was relatively unknown in Australia during the formative period of its labor politics; Australians were never dragged into the conflicts that divided Marxists from Lasalleans as deeply as Americans were, to the Americans' detriment.

Archer's conclusion that Australia shared many of America's most salient characteristics, and that what made the American experience different was not so much those characteristics as the way they interacted, makes for a powerful argument. Archer builds his case in carefully nuanced chapters, making this the most formidable contribution to the ongoing debate over the nature of American exceptionalism made by any scholar in decades.

Still, this book is no more likely to provide a final word on this subject than Werner Sombart was able to do a century ago. Future scholars are bound to find flaws in Archer's Australia-U.S. comparison. Even sympathetic readers are likely to believe that Archer downplays the importance of racial politics in the United States, to cite one example. Indeed, it is tricky to liken the position of African Americans in the late 19th century to that of "Kanakas," the Melanesians who were imported from South Pacific Islands to work on the sugar plantations of Queensland, as Archer does. Surely, Australian race relations differed profoundly from those in the United States in scale, scope, and history.

But the measure of Archer's success is not that he has provided a final word on the question his book poses. Rather it is that he has helped sharpen that question, providing many fruitful avenues for further inquiry which future scholars will no doubt pursue. For this, and for a splendidly thought-provoking book, we owe him a debt of gratitude.

Georgetown University

Joseph A. McCartin
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