The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

United States:
The Fight for the Working Class to Build Its Own Party

Jul 27, 2016

The working class in the United States today does not have its own political party, as the working class has in so many of the European counties. It did not create its own party. Many people still hold that conditions in the U.S. prevented such a development.

But the reality is that, whatever the differences, the American working class is not unique. It lives within the same capitalist system based on the exploitation of labor. And it has engaged in the same kind of explosive fights that led the working class in other countries to form their own parties.

One hundred and thirty-one years ago, Frederick Engels addressed this very question in a small text, “The Labor Movement in America,” which we reprint in the appendix of this issue of Class Struggle. In 1887, Engels wrote that many in Europe and the U.S. believed then that there was no working class in the U.S. in the traditional sense. And those people concluded that there could not be the same kind of class struggle that had already broken out in Europe, with the possibility to lead to socialism.

Engels discussed the factors that gave this view some credibility. For many decades there had been easy access to free land in the U.S., in contrast to Europe, and this allowed quite a few of the laboring classes to leave the cities and become small farmers. The rapidly growing capitalist class had been able—for awhile—to fulfill its needs for labor power by depending on the waves of immigrants entering the country, some of whom in turn looked to escape, or for their children to escape, the onerous conditions of wage labor. In this enormous country that made organization difficult, land supposedly acted as a safety valve to defuse conflict, preventing workers from becoming conscious of their common interests as a class.

All this may have been true, but by 1887, history was catching up in the U.S. For Engels, the struggle for the eight-hour day in 1886 and the organizations that came out of it not only showed that the working class was able to carry out an extended fight through much of this widespread country. It also demonstrated how quickly the working class in the U.S. was going through steps that had taken decades to go through in Europe. And he concluded that American workers had already become conscious of the fact that they “formed a new and distinct class of American society; a class of—practically speaking—more or less hereditary wage-workers, proletarians.

So what explains the fact that the U.S. workers movement did not go on to build what had been built elsewhere—their own political party?

The Fight for the Eight-Hour Day

American workers had been waging struggles ever since so-called modern capitalism had brought with it all of its “modern” trappings found everywhere in the world: including rampant poverty, unemployment and periodic crises and depressions. In the 1870s, that is, the decade before the movement for the eight-hour day, there had been a long and severe economic depression. When companies cut wages repeatedly, workers carried out desperate strikes to stop the pay cuts. These included the long and bitter Pennsylvania coal miners’ strikes, massive textile strikes in Fall River, Massachusetts, and the Great Railroad Uprising of 1877, which had involved 100,000 workers, along with tens of thousands of unemployed people.

The workers movement may have been battered by severe repression, including the hanging of 19 strikers during the Pennsylvania coal miners strike; nonetheless, in the next decade workers built on their experiences in these strikes. And in 1885, workers won a big victory against three railroads owned by robber baron Jay Gould. This became an encouragement to other workers. In 1885, a few small trade unions issued a call for a national strike for the eight-hour day, which would represent a sharp drop from the usual 12 or 14-hour days that most workers put in. The demand caught on. On May 1, 1886 and in succeeding days, over 350,000 workers walked off their jobs throughout the country, with about a quarter of the workers on strike in Chicago. Morever, tens of thousands more workers stopped work after eight hours, which their employers often accepted in order to avoid a strike.

Again, the capitalists and their government responded with massive repression, brute force, as Engels called it. In Chicago, the main center of the strike, the police arrested eight strike leaders on murder charges. A year later, five of them were executed.

Nonetheless, the workers continued the fight they had begun to impose shorter hours of work on the capitalist class. Most significantly, coming out of the movement, workers rapidly built a single national organization of their class. The Knights of Labor grew in three years time from 52,000 to 700,000. In a single year, 1886, 600,000 workers joined. The Knights of Labor was the first national organization created by the American working class as a whole. It aimed to include all workers, skilled and unskilled, black, native-born and immigrant, men and women. It contained all shades of opinion within the working class. So what held them together? What was the glue? The sense that workers have common interests against their common enemy, the employer class, and that when they come together they have much greater power.

In the same year, 1886, workers also pushed to be heard in the political arena. Labor unions tried to set up working class parties in a number of cities, including New York, Chicago and Milwaukee; as well as Fort Worth, Texas; Eaton, Ohio; and Leadsville, Colorado—cities where they ran candidates in the 1886 elections.

In this movement, Engels wrote, U.S. workers had accomplished more in ten months than what had taken European workers many decades to do, that is, to understand they were part of the same class.

But, as Engels wrote, “Still, all this is but a beginning. That the laboring masses should feel their community of grievances and interests, their solidarity as a class in opposition to all other classes; that in order to give expression and effect to this feeling, they should set in motion the political machinery provided for that purpose in every free country—that is the first step only. The next step is to find the common remedy for these common grievances, and to embody it in the platform of the new Labor Party. And this—the most important and the most difficult step in the movement—yet has to be taken.”

To work out this platform—“the common remedy for common grievances”—is not simple. In Europe, where capitalism had first developed out of feudalism, and where the industrial revolution had produced the first industrial working class, it took decades more for the workers’ movement to come up with a coherent program—“60 years of dissensions and discussions,” according to Engels. But once worked out, this program, which was defined most clearly by Marx and Engels, became the acquisition of the working class movement, first in Germany and spreading from there into most other countries in Europe.

But the U.S. was separated from Europe by an ocean that cut it off from the experiences and discussions of ideas that rolled through the European workers movement. There was a socialist party in the United States: the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), most of whose members had come from Europe, especially Germany, where many had access to the writings of Marx and Engels. And some had taken part in the struggles of the workers in Germany and other European countries. The SLP might have been a vital link in transmitting these gains from Europe. But the SLP isolated itself inside a few immigrant communities. Much of what the SLP wrote and discussed remained in other languages, particularly German. And many of the members of the SLP refused even to learn English. Thus cut off from the whole of the American workers movement, the SLP could not transmit the ideas that had been gained through difficult struggle in Europe.

What could have been accomplished if the SLP had made the effort to transmit these ideas, no one can say. But the fact that no one did, meant that the American working class was left on its own, to grapple through its own experience for what the working class movement in Europe had already worked so hard to gain.

Debs and the IWW: The Ideas of Socialist Revolution

Within a decade, the American working class began to produce militants who struggled to acquire these ideas, and to bring them into the American workers movement. Among them, the most important were Eugene V. Debs and members of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World).

Eugene V. Debs had started out as a traditional Democrat, working as an insurance agent for a railroad brotherhood. He even served two terms as a Democrat in the Indiana state legislature. But he identified with the railroad workers with whom he was in daily contact. Seeing how easily the railroad companies broke their strikes by playing on the divisions among the craft unions and railroad brotherhoods, Debs and others around him took the big leap to try to bring all the unorganized railroad workers into one big industrial union, the American Railroad Union (ARU). Barely had the union been formed in 1894 than workers on strike against the Pullman Company, outside Chicago, asked for the ARU’s help. Debs feared that the ARU was not prepared for such a fight. But with the ranks of the union pushing to join the fight, Debs led them into battle, and this very new ARU spread the strike and boycott to railroads across 29 states, from Chicago to the Golden Gate.

The federal and state governments intervened with troops, militia, martial law and the courts, breaking the strike and throwing Debs and other leaders of the ARU into prison. The fact that the employers could defeat the union by resorting to the machinery of the state—this forced Debs to re-examine many of his old assumptions. While he was in prison, Debs was introduced to the writings of Marx and Engels. After he left prison, it took Debs several more years to assimilate their ideas—for a while he experimented with utopian and reformist ideas. It was only through a slow process almost of trial and error that Debs became a revolutionary socialist. But from that point on, he made the class struggle the central theme of all his agitation and he worked tirelessly to let working people understand that they have the power to get rid of capitalism and to build their own society.

As an important union organizer and labor leader, Debs became the most important individual involved in the founding of the Socialist Party of America in 1901. For the next two decades, Debs became the untiring tribune for the working class far and wide. He brought the ideas of revolutionary socialism to workers, the unemployed and poor farmers for the first time, crisscrossing the country, speaking in big cities and small towns, eloquently expressing what they were feeling. He told striking workers who had been attacked by company thugs and police to arm themselves in order to fight fire with fire. He denounced the imperialist wars of the day, including the U.S. invasion of Mexico and World War I, saying that he was a proletarian soldier, and the only war worth fighting is the war against the capitalist class in order to free humanity from its grip. He spoke of the power of the working class and its ability to transform the society.

Debs used five presidential election campaigns in order to magnify his outreach, allowing growing sections of the working class to express their class interests against those of the Democratic and Republican servants for the capitalists and plutocrats.

But while Debs was the most important leader in the Socialist Party, and there were some who agreed with him, there were many others who looked at the SP essentially as a vehicle to run in elections and, among those, there were careerists who wanted only to gain office. They didn’t want to hear about the class struggle, and they avoided opposing World War I, as Debs had done.

But Debs was not the only one in this time period to advocate for socialism. He was joined in this by the IWW, which came out of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). The Western Federation of Miners itself had been created out of a merger of several smaller unions in order to take on the big trusts in the mid-1890s. Over the next decade it carried out many long, hard-fought and often bloody strikes (including Cripple Creek, Colorado; Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; the Michigan copper strike), out of which struggles, the leaders of the WFM recognized the need for workers to organize into one big union. They also began to call for socialism. The WFM became the leading force behind the formation of the IWW in 1905, an industrial union whose aim was to unite all workers in order to defend their immediate interests, including skilled and unskilled, black, white, immigrant, men and women.

But the IWW aimed far beyond industrial unionism. It saw that capital and labor were in a state of war, class war. It regarded the organization of industrial unions as a means to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a new social order. Big Bill Haywood declared at its founding convention: “Fellow workers... This is the Continental Congress of the working-class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working-class from the slave bondage of capitalism.”

Over the next 15 years, the IWW carried out hard fought battles, such as in the textile production centers of Lawrence and Patterson. It carried out organizing drives among the unskilled in industries, such as in steel and auto, who had been shunned by the leaders of the craft unions in the American Federation of Labor. The IWW often succeeded in organizing some of the hardest sectors to organize, such as itinerant lumber jacks and farm hands. And the IWW’s fights went beyond economic struggles. When the capitalists and politicians barred workers from speaking and meeting in cities and towns across the country, the IWW carried out long-running fights for “free speech.” It actively opposed World War I as being an imperialist war, a stance that it paid for with government persecution, mass arrests, and lynchings by vigilantes.

The opportunist leadership of the Socialist Party repeatedly slandered the IWW for being “against politics” because it opposed running in elections. Yes, the IWW opposed elections—in reaction to reformist SP officials who used them to create the illusion that elections could change the fate of the working class. In reality, whatever its limits, the IWW was attempting to build a political organization on a working class basis.

With Debs and the IWW, revolutionary ideas and socialism finally moved out of the small circle of big city immigrants—Jewish and German socialists speaking their own languages. It had finally made its mark on the U.S. working class.

The Impact of the Russian Revolution

When news of the Russian Revolution of 1917 arrived in the U.S., many American workers and militants were aware that the first successful revolution in which the workers took and held power was also their victory. The Russian Revolution encouraged workers’ fights in this country.

Certainly the revolutionary spirit of the time and above all the spirit of the Bolshevik Revolution permeated the five-day Seattle General Strike of February 1919. Participants knew that they were not at the point of making a revolution. But that is what many wanted. And for a short time, power was in the hands of the General Strike Committee and the city stopped functioning except for the activities organized by the strikers to provide essential services, including a Labor War Guard to keep the peace. The strike was eventually thrown back. But writings from that time showed that workers had felt their own power in that strike, and many understood that their class could bring about a new social order.

What they had done gave them a much broader view of the class struggle and the role of the American working class. A few months after the strike, Seattle longshoremen stopped a boatload of Remington rifles disguised as sewing machines from being sent in a U.S. government-chartered ship to the White Army in Vladivostok, and then tried to get longshoremen up and down the West Coast to do the same—thereby helping to defend the Russian Revolution.

The Seattle General Strike took place in the midst of the largest strike wave in this country up until that time, encompassing one in five workers throughout 1919. These included 350,000 steel workers, 120,000 textile workers and 30,000 silk workers. In Boston, the police went on strike, and in New York City cigarmakers, shirtmakers, carpenters, bakers, teamsters, and barbers were out on strike. In Chicago, the press reported more workers on strike than ever before.

In response to the strike movement and the rise in radicalism, the government let loose a sweeping repression, including the Palmer Raids. Federal agents picked up thousands of immigrants in coordinated raids all over the country, held them in seclusion for long periods of time, then deported them. In New York City, after arresting and holding an anarchist typesetter for weeks, federal agents threw him from a 14th floor window. Two anarchist workers, Sacco and Vanzetti, were arrested on trumped up murder charges and executed seven years later. Major employers carried out their so-called “American Plan,” appealing to reactionary patriotic attitudes to help root out unions and militants. And the KKK was revived. By 1924, it would grow to have 4,500,000 members, in the North as well as the South, and it did not just stage gigantic parades and rallies—it lynched black people and murdered union organizers.

The strike wave receded at the end of 1919. Faced with the limits of the movement, as powerful as it had been, militants pushed for the unions to set up working class parties. In Illinois, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Minnesota, Ohio and other states, they tried to run their own candidates. The Chicago Federation of Labor set up a Farmer Labor Party and ran a candidate in the presidential election of 1920.

But the most significant response to the repression was Debs’s last presidential run in 1920. Old and sick, Debs had already sought to greatly reduce his political activity. But in 1920, Debs was serving a 10-year term in federal prison for obstructing the draft and war effort in a speech that he had given in Canton, Ohio in June 1918. The Canton speech, by the way, was an indictment of capitalism and a militant argument for socialism. It was an affirmation that the American working class could build its own power and carry out a revolution.

“They tell us that we live in a great and free republic; that our institutions are democratic; that we are a free and self-governing people. That is too much even for a joke,” said Debs in 1918. “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder... and that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the wars.” And Debs called for revolution: “Yes, in good time we are going to sweep into power in this nation and throughout the world. We are going to destroy all enslaving and degrading capitalist institutions and recreate them as free and humanizing institutions. The world is daily changing before our eyes. The sun of capitalism is setting; the sun of Socialism is rising....”

During his trial for violations of the Espionage Act, Debs refused to back down: “I have been accused of obstructing war,” he told the jury, “I admit it. Gentlemen, I abhor war. I would oppose war if I stood alone... I have sympathy with the suffering, struggling people everywhere. It does not make a difference under what flag they were born, or where they live...” After the jury found him guilty of violating the Espionage Act, Debs addressed the judge before sentencing: “Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Debs used his 1920 presidential campaign from prison in the middle of the “Red Scare” repression, when so many other workers and militants had been imprisoned, or deported and murdered, in order to once again express his confidence in the ability of the working class to take power and free humanity from the ills of capitalism. With Debs restricted to his prison cell, countless ordinary people throughout the country carried out the Debs campaign. Debs got a million votes, more than any of his previous runs. In the face of growing repression, working people had used the Debs presidential election campaign to show their defiance of the capitalists and to proclaim their belief that the working class could build another kind of future.

The ideas of socialism and working class power that had taken form in the Russian Revolution were being planted in American soil. In 1919, the left-wing of the Socialist Party had split away and joined with elements of the IWW and other radicals to form a Communist Party (CP), which set the goal of a workers revolution in this country. It was very small and inexperienced, with much of its membership from organizations that had been far from the Bolshevik tradition that had been key in making the revolution in Russia possible. And the repression at home and the civil war in Russia meant that the American communists were largely cut off from the Bolsheviks in Russia, who could have given them help and guidance.

Nonetheless, a new party, which called itself revolutionary and communist, existed.

1930s and 40s—The Sleeping Giant Erupts

With the development of the Great Depression—the worst economic crisis so far seen under capitalism—unemployment, homelessness, hunger and misery skyrocketed. The working class, which had been beaten down and demoralized during the previous decade, responded slowly, like a sleeping giant. But when it did finally raise itself, it carried out a massive mobilization, especially of the unskilled industrial workers, that vast part of the working class the organized union movement had ignored.

In an attempt to throw the workers backward, the state apparatus carried out a virtual civil war during which hundreds of workers were killed, thousands were wounded, and tens of thousands arrested. Once again, American workers confronted the state in its naked, brute form. Despite illusions later fostered about Roosevelt and the New Deal, it was the Roosevelt administration that presided over these atrocities. Summarizing six months of Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” from July 1, 1933 to January 1, 1934, the ACLU charged: “At no time has there been such widespread violations of workers’ rights by injunction, troops, private police, deputy sheriffs, labor spies and vigilantes.”

Workers responded with mass strikes, general strikes that sometimes verged on urban insurrections, and factory occupations, during which the industrial workers imposed their unions on the capitalist class. In a matter of a few short years, four million workers organized. The goal of so many of these fights was to organize, not simply a union, but their class. When workers fought, they repeatedly put forward as their goal, not single unions, but the CIO, one big union of all the workers, an echo of the old IWW goal.

Wrote Leon Trotsky, “The unprecedented wave of sit-down strikes and the amazingly rapid growth of industrial unionism in the United States (CIO) is the most indisputable expression of the instinctive striving of American workers to raise themselves to the level of the tasks imposed on them by history.

Once again, explosive struggles—during which the working class showed its ability to organize, mobilize and fight—had created an opportunity. But to take advantage of it, not only did the working class need to become conscious of its own power and forces, it needed, in the words of Engels, to “find a common remedy for its common problems”—that is, within the situation of a foundering capitalism, to impose its own power to build a socialist society.

An organization of revolutionary militants in that situation might have used its influence in these struggles to open up this road for the working class to travel.

Communist Party militants had led the most important organizing drives, strikes and mass upsurges that had built the unions, from the coal mines, to the auto, steel and rubber plants, to the docks and ships, to the farm workers and sharecroppers of the West and South. There were, of course, others who were active. But it was the CP and its militants who had earned the confidence and respect of the largest part of the working class.

The CP didn’t use the influence its militants had earned with the working class to propose the road that the working class needed to travel. Instead, the CP reinforced the union bureaucracy, which Roosevelt and the capitalist class was imposing on the big CIO unions that the working class had just built. In effect, the CP militants told workers that the sole purpose of their massive movement, all their sacrifices and spilled blood, was to create a union apparatus that would bargain with the company over better terms of their exploitation, while leaving politics to Democratic Party “friends of labor,” starting with Roosevelt.

The Communist Party had thus delivered the working class into the hands of its enemies, an enormous betrayal.

The Communist Party, which had taken the Russian Revolution for its inspiration when it was founded in 1919, no longer aimed at bringing about a workers’ revolution. It had come under the thumb of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, which had wrested power from the working class after the Russian Revolution was surrounded and isolated. That bureaucracy, interested only in maintaining its power and privileges, balanced between the working class and imperialism. The rise of Hitler and fascism in 1933 represented a mortal threat, not just to the working class, but to the Stalinist bureaucracy as well. It responded by seeking alliances with the imperialist powers opposed to Germany. In the U.S., the Communist Party supported Roosevelt and the Democrats, that is, it supported its own capitalist class and its government.

Even in the absence of a revolutionary policy for the working class, there was, nonetheless, a push by union militants to build their own political party as an extension of the unions. It was an attempt to break out of the two-party strait jacket that the union bureaucrats and Stalinists had imposed on the working class. In 1935 and 1936, unions put up candidates to run for local office in dozens of cities throughout the country. At the 1935 American Federation of Labor (AFL) convention, 16 different unions called for a labor party. In May 1936, an overwhelming majority at an autoworkers’ national convention adopted a resolution condemning the Democratic and Republican Parties, as both being “controlled by capital,” and calling for creating a national labor party with the AFL.

But those efforts were quickly led into a dead end. The growing union bureaucracy, with the help of the CP, channeled and contained these fights and initiatives into formations set up to support the Democrats, even as the Democrats were preparing to go to war. During the war the union bureaucrats and the CP collaborated with Roosevelt to impose on the working class the no-strike pledge that made strikes illegal.

The working class was robbed of its own political perspective. And the biggest opportunity in its history was lost—a defeat that the working class still has not recovered from, and still is paying for. The working class was pulled back from trying to organize politically. It was an historic defeat that has framed an entire historical period.

The Class Struggle

Certainly, the American working class did not stop carrying out fights. On the contrary, in 1945 and 1946, the working class carried out its largest strike wave in history. But as massive as they were, these strikes were contained and controlled by the union apparatus and Stalinists from the beginning. American workers, who had raised themselves in the 1930s “to the level of the tasks imposed on them by history,” as Trotsky wrote, were led into a dead end by those they trusted. They were subjugated by the bourgeoisie and its state.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the black movement, which encompassed the most oppressed sectors of the working class, confronted the state over and over again. Culminating in the urban rebellions of the 1960s, the mobilization of black people shook capitalism to its core. Yet, during this entire fight, the unions stood to the side. That’s how quickly they had been turned into narrow, reactionary and corporatist shells.

If Debs, who went to prison for his revolutionary opposition to World War I, were alive during the 1960s, he would have pushed to lead opposition to the Viet Nam War on a working class basis. Who knows how far the working class could have taken this fight, given the explosive situation at that time. The anti-war movement extended into the military. The soldiers, that is, the working class youth, revolted against being turned into cannon fodder; they carried out mutinies and fraggings. The state apparatus itself was being challenged from the inside.

Once again, the union apparatuses did not help. They either supported the war, or were largely silent—the submissive upholders of the capitalist social order.

One part of the working class was confronting the capitalist state, another part of the working class was undermining it from the inside. But without a consciousness on the part of the working class of what its possibilities were, of what it could do when it mobilized that power—this opportunity could only disappear.


We have now gone through a very long period marked by the lack of fights and a lack of political consciousness, the consequence of those betrayals so many decades ago. And that’s not just true in this country. The working classes in the rest of the big imperialist countries have gone through a similar development, because the same factors have been at work everywhere. The big parties that workers built up in those countries, whether they are Labor Parties, Socialist Parties or Communist Parties, long ago were integrated into the bourgeois political system and they either ceased to serve the working class’s interests, or simply disappeared all together.

But the class struggle continues, a decidedly one-sided struggle today as the capitalist class continues to erode workers’ living standards worldwide in order for the capitalists to maintain and increase their profits and wealth during this decades-long crisis in its economic system.

But we have every reason to expect that the workers will rise up—and when they do, that their struggles will be explosive. They will need their own political organization with the will and the determination to fight for a different perspective than that of the old, failed reformist and Stalinist European parties, not to speak of the U.S. union bureaucracy. In the midst of new explosive struggles, if a layer of militant workers exists, with the consciousness, will and determination to fight for a revolutionary perspective, then the possibility exists that not only can the American working class build its own political party, but that a revolutionary struggle can once more be put on the agenda.