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The Militant, 16 February 1948

George Lavan

Labor and Third Parties
in the United States

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 7, 16 February 1948, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A legend, well nourished by newspaper editorials and school books, is that the two party system is “natural” to this country, while labor parties and third parties are “foreign” and “un-American.” The facts of American history speak to the contrary. Not only did one of the great capitalist parties of today begin as a third party, but U.S. history saw the emergence time and again of labor and third parties.

Strange as it may sound to those who claim that the idea of a labor party is foreign or imparted, the first labor party in the world was built right here in the United States. This was the Working Men’s Party rounded in 1828 in Philadelphia by the organized mechanics. In the next few years branches of this party sprang up in New York, Boston, many parts of New England and New Jersey, and even in the West.

These labor parties won a number of local elections and for a time held the balance of power between the dominant parties of the period. Although this party disappeared from the national scene in the 1840s, it won many significant reforms. Its agitation was responsible for the creation of a public school system, abolition of imprisonment for debts, passing of homestead laws, and the reduction of the working day.

In Its Infancy

If the timid souls of today who insist that the time isn’t ripe for a labor party had lived in 1828, their arguments might have had some basis. For at that time the American working class was in its infancy. Factories were few and those that existed were very small. Workers were mainly artisans and they constituted a minority of the population. Nevertheless history shows that even the infant labor movement of 1828 was able to win elections and secure gains for the working people.

Andrew Jackson’s frontier democracy and anti-bank campaign carried the city workers with him. But after his destruction of the National Bank failed to solve the working man’s problems, a large section of the New York Democratic organization seceded and set up the Equal Rights Party. This party attacked monopoly – then in its infant stage – and demanded that collective bargaining to raise wages be legalized and the abolition of the legal doctrine of the time that denominated trade unions as conspiracies. This party elected three men to Congress.

In 1837 the nation was struck by a terrible depression. Both main parties – the Democratic and Whig – fearing a revolt on the part of the workers and farmers, adopted the main planks of the Equal Eights Party or loco-focos, as they Were popularly called (because one of their conventions had to proceed with light from candles lit by loco-foco or self-lighting cigars after the Tammany gang turned off the lights.)

In the whole pre-civil war period, however, the main axis of the class struggle was not between the workers and employers, but between the rising capitalist class and the slave-owning aristocracy of the South. The immediate point of contention was control of the federal government and the western lands.

New Party Born

Both Whig and Democratic Parties attempted to dodge this question. They wanted to preserve the status quo, a rotten compromise with slavery. But neither history nor its then progressive agent, the rising class of industrialists, would let the issue rest. In this struggle organized labor aligned itself with the progressive capitalist class against slavery. Out of this struggle a new political party was born – the Republican Party.

But the Republican Party grew out of third parties already on the scene. The first of these was the Liberty Party, organized by the abolitionists. The abolitionists had tried to push the anti-slavery fight by endorsing or opposing candidates of the two big parties. In other words, they tried the very policy the AFL and the CIO are pursuing today. Here is what the Encyclopedia Brittanica says about this “non-partisan political action”:

“The utter futility of seeking to obtain in this way any satisfactory concessions to anti-slavery sentiment was speedily and abundantly proved ... Accordingly, the political abolitionists, in a convention in Albany in April 1840, launched the ‘Liberty Party,’ and nominated Birney for the presidency.” (Murray, Green and Reuther, please note!) Birney received a small vote but four years later the vote of the Liberty Party in New York alone was so great that it more than held the balance of power. The great straddler, Henry Clay, lost the presidency because of the Liberty Party’s big vote.

In 1848, the Liberty Party withdrew its candidates from the field and joined the Free Soil Party. This was another “third party” formed the previous year to combat the spread of slavery into the new territories. Its slogan was, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men.” Representatives of 18 states, including the slave states of Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia, attended the convention in Buffalo which nominated a presidential candidate who received more than 10% of the national popular vote. Two Free Soil Senators and 14 Representatives were elected. In 1856 the Free Soil Party dissolved and joined the movement which founded the Republican Party.

Its First Election

The Republican Party was a “third party” which grew out of the other “third parties” – the Liberty and Free Soil Parties. This new party was organized in 1854. All opposed to slavery were invited to join. Fremont, “the Pathfinder,” who was the presidential candidate in 1856, won 114 electoral votes while Buchanan was elected with 174. Thus, in its first national election, the Republican Party emerged as the “second” party. The great Whig Party, which tried to straddle the slavery issue split down the middle and soon disappeared from the scene.

From the very beginning, the labor movement played an important part in the formation of the Republican Party. That is why the next Republican presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, went out of his way to endorse the rights of labor.

Lincoln was victorious in 1860 and this led to the slave holders’ rebellion. The Republican Party came out of the Civil War as the predominant political party. However, great changes had taken place. The capitalist class had accomplished its historically progressive mission of destroying slavery. It feared the growing industrial working class which it had brought into being. It now turned reactionary on the political field, to the point where it even failed to carry out its promise to the freed slaves, and in 1876 made a deal with the former slaveholders.

From this point on, the main axis of class struggles in the United States was the struggle of the workers and small farmers against the increasingly entrenched and powerful capitalist trusts and monopolies.

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