Source: Fourth International, Vol.4 No.8, August 1943, pp.230-235.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This outline was introduced last November in the Political Committee of the Socialist Workers Party, and has since been before the party for discussion.
We must make an important political turn without delay. It is time to start an aggressive campaign for the formation of an independent labor party, to transform the propaganda slogan into a slogan of agitation. This is the most important conclusion we must draw from the recent elections in the light of the present situation in the labor movement and the attitude of workers and the changes which are sure to come in the not distant future. The labor party is the central issue around which the drive of the workers for class independence can be best expressed in the next period. By becoming the active champion of the labor party the Socialist Workers Party will link itself to an instinctive class movement which is almost certain to have a tumultuous growth, and thus multiply its influence and recruiting power. A brief review of our experiences with the labor party slogan since its adoption in 1938 up to the recent elections will show that now is the time to strike.
The adoption of the labor party slogan in 1938 by the Socialist Workers Party was predicated on the stormy development of the elemental mass movement of the workers through the CIO and the assumption that this movement, in the next stage of its development, must seek a political expression. The enormous disproportion between the rate of growth of this mass movement of millions, and that of the vanguard party, showed that we could no longer hope for our party to be the medium for the first expression of political independent action by the mass of the workers.
We concluded that this first expression would take the form of an independent labor party! based on the trade unions. Hence, in order for us to link ourselves with the next stages of the political development of the American workers, we had to adapt ourselves to the trend toward a labor party; to work within it in order to influence its development in a revolutionary direction and, at the same time, build the Trotskyist party. Our estimation of the most probable next stages of development, and our reasoning as to the role our party would be obliged to play by the circumstances, were correct. The development was slower than we anticipated at that time. But if we examine the causes which slowed down the labor party development, it will be clear that the movement was only arrested, dammed up, so to speak, in order to break out with still greater strength after some delay. The causes for the delay were transitory and are already passing away.
Just about the time that we adopted our labor party position, the economic conjuncture began to improve. This checked the discontent of the workers which had been rising up till that time. Roosevelt still appeared to the workers as their champion and his social reform program was taken as a substitute for an independent political movement of the workers. At the same time, the entire leadership of the CIO, including the Stalinists, who had been the most aggressive proponents of the labor party idea, supported Roosevelt in a body. They squelched all organized expressions of the sentiment for an independent labor party. The labor party question was thus taken off the agenda of trade union meetings and conventions, and to superficial reasoners the movement seemed to be killed. The campaign of agitation for a labor party which we had planned did not find a favorable field in these circumstances. Foreseeing future developments, we did not abandon the slogan, but in our practical work we had to change it from a slogan of agitation to a slogan of propaganda.
War conditions – the huge preparatory development of the armaments industry and later the actual entry into the war – introduced two factors which served to militate against any immediate response to the labor party slogan. The preliminary war prosperity tended to dampen the interest of the workers in the labor party for the time being. They still regarded Roosevelt as their political champion and supplemented their support of him by economic action against individual employers and corporations.
Then began the process of blocking off this economic outlet of the workers’ struggle. By a combination of cajolery, threats and treachery – granting of some wage increases, institution of the War Labor Board, labor leaders’ pledges of no strikes – the workers have been stymied on the economic field. Once this was accomplished, wages were virtually frozen, while the cost of living rises at a scale which amounts, in essence, to a monthly wage cut. Meanwhile, the employers, taking advantage of the situation, resist the settlement of virtually all grievances. These grievances pile up in the pigeon-holes of the War Labor Board and the workers get no satisfaction.
The workers’ discontent is already evident and is bound to grow enormously as the cost of living mounts, as taxes and other burdens are piled upon them and they are denied corresponding wage increases, and they feel balked by the denial of the right to resort to the strike weapon. The entire history of the American labor movement shows that the workers tend to resort to independent political action when they find themselves defeated or frustrated on the economic field. There is every reason to believe that this tradition will assert itself more powerfully than ever in the coming period.
To a certain extent – positively, and especially negatively – the workers asserted a tendency to resort to independent political action already in the recent Congressional and State elections. For the first time the Gallup poll was badly upset and the calculations of all the political experts were refuted by a factor which had not been anticipated – the unprecedented abstention from voting by the workers. The smallness of the workers’ vote can be attributed, in part, to the military mobilization, the shifting of vast numbers of workers to new locations, their failure to register, etc. But a very important factor, if not the main factor, in the mass failure of the industrial workers to vote, was their attitude of indifference and cynicism toward the two capitalist parties.
On the other hand, in New York, where the leaders of the American Labor Party found themselves, much against their own desires, conducting an independent campaign, the workers turned out in great numbers to support the American Labor Party. In New York City the ALP polled 18 per cent of the vote, despite the fact that it had an unknown nonentity from Tammany Hall as a candidate, and despite the appeals of Roosevelt – and of Hillman, his chief labor lieutenant – for the Democratic ticket. The vote of more than four hundred thousand for the ALP in New York is a rather convincing demonstration of the deep sentiment of a considerable mass of workers in New York for independent political action.
In the Minnesota election somewhat the same phenomenon is to be observed. Despite the terrible disintegration of the upper circles of the Farmer-Labor Party there, the treachery of the Stalinists, the support of Stassen by the offical heads of the CIO and considerable sections of the AFL bureaucracy – despite all this, the Farmer-Labor Party polled a bigger percentage of the vote this year than was the case in 1940 or 1938.
From these two examples, we must conclude that a strong sentiment for independent political action by the workers reveals itself wherever they have a chance to express it through the medium of an independent party.
In the light of the election results in New York, the correctness of the position taken by our party in support of the ALP ticket, and the absurdity of the boycott policy of the Workers Party juveniles, are equally demonstrated. The Workers Party decided to boycott the ALP ticket just at the moment when it was demonstrating its greatest appeal to the workers under the most unfavorable conditions. We, on the other hand, by our policy, linked ourselves to the movement of the future. The lesson of this experience will not fail to impress itself on the minds of the class-conscious workers who are observing developments.
We should draw the following conclusions:
Our campaign should be developed according to a carefully worked out practical program, designed to swing the entire party into activity and to mobilize its energies for the advancement of the campaign, step by step, in coordination with the tempo of the mass movement itself. The main points of such a practical program are approximately as follows:
Our labor party campaign must be understood as having great implications for the building of our party. We must conceive of it as our third big political maneuver, the first being the fusion with the American Workers Party, and the second the entry into the Socialist Party. This maneuver will be different from the others, but the differences will be all in our favor, and the prospects of gain for our party are vastly greater.
From the labor party campaign we will get fresh workers whose political education will begin with us. They will come in as individuals without factional attachments from the past, and their assimilation and education will be facilitated by the united cadre of our present party which, in the meantime, has accumulated considerably more political experience.
The third important difference between the labor party campaign and the two previous political turns we have made is in the magnitude of the prospects. This time we must think in terms of thousands – and eventually of tens of thousands – of recruits who will come in to our party from the labor party movement. And, given the facts that they will come to us not as a previously constituted faction or party, but as individual recruits; that they will enter a party which is homogeneous in its composition, whose unified cadres have serious political experiences behind them, we can confidently expect to assimilate the new members without an internal crisis.
There is no doubt that the key to the further development in the next period of our party and the expansion of its membership lies in the self-confidence, speed and energy with which we plunge into an organized labor party campaign. Big successes are possible for us along this line; even probable, I would say. Naturally, we cannot promise ourselves any miracles overnight. There will be favorable returns from our campaign from the very start, but we must plan a long-time fight.
We can expect big results within a reasonable time. But even the first big results will only be a down payment on the unbounded prospects which lie ahead of us along this road. The modest recruiting campaign we are now conducting should be conceived, in the light of a labor party campaign, as a mere curtain-raiser. We may hope to recruit thousands in the course of the labor party campaign, and our work from the start should be inspired by this confidence.
New York, November 25, 1942.
(A speech at the Political Committee meeting of November 30, 1942)
You all have the outline. I don’t have much to add except that some of the points can be elaborated.
The first point, abount changing the slogan from a propaganda slogan to a slogan of agitation, I think is an important one to understand. In our work, generally, we ought to distinguish between three types of slogans: slogans of propaganda, slogans of agitation, and slogans of action. A perfectly correct slogan can be either effective or ineffective according to how it is applied in a given situation.
For example, the slogan of workers’ defense guards during the height of the fight with the Coughlinites, Silver Shirts, Nazi Bundists, etc., was a slogan of agitation, in some cases leading directly to action. But with the temporary slowing down of this fascistic movement, we have moderated the tempo with which we press the slogan of workers’ defense guards. The practical necessity for them is not clear to the workers. It is now a propaganda slogan. We don’t conduct an active campaign because there is not enough response in the present situation. A little later, when reaction gets more aggressive, and the labor movement runs up against fascistic hooliganism again, we will have to renew our agitation for the guards.
Similarly, with the labor party. We have been talking about the labor party, but only in an educational, that is propagan-distic way because the movement didn’t seem to have any wind in its sails during the last year or two. In the next period things will be different. We draw this conclusion from two points of view.
The fundamental point of view: the situation in which the workers find themselves – with increasing pressure and difficulties upon them, and the fact that they are stymied on the economic field – must push them into the direction of political expression through a labor party. We should anticipate this and begin to prepare our campaign so as to get full prominence in the movement.
The second, subsidiary, point of view: the results of the elections, especially the negative demonstration, showing the indifference of the workers to the Republican and Democratic Parties, should be construed as the preliminary symptoms of a movement in the direction of an independent political expression.
Now is the time, in my opinion, for us to begin beating the drums for a labor party, with the confidence that we are going to get a response, if not right away, a little later. The more active we are right now, when no other tendency in the labor movement is agitating the question, the more we will gain.
Point 3 under section 5 of the outline is a very important point. When the workers begin to make a break from the capitalist parties toward a labor party, it is quite possible that they will not give it the reformistic connotation which has been associated in the past with the labor party, but that it will symbolize to them, even if vaguely, a break with the whole regime and a move for a new one, a regime of workers’ power. This idea was first mentioned by Warde when he came back from Detroit. The more I have thought about it, the more it has impressed me as a very plausible deduction. Under present conditions the labor party idea can have far more revolutionary implications than in past periods when it was advanced as a reformistic measure.
There is no need at all for us to speak about a reformistic labor party. What we are advocating is an independent labor party, and we are proposing our own program, which is not reformist. In the past, the assumption has always been that a labor party would surely be a reformist manifestation. It may, in some instances. But in others it may have a more profound meaning in the minds of many workers who adopt the slogan. In England, for example, the slogan of “Labor to Power” has no doubt the same double meaning for many workers. For some it can mean a purely moderate demand that the reformist labor leaders take over the government as agents of the bourgeois regime. For others it can indicate a call to the workers to take power and change the whole system. These things should be taken into account when we weigh the feasibility and effectiveness of the labor party slogan in the present situation.
It is very important that a resolution or other political document considered by the National Committee be clearly motivated; that it be completely objective and properly proportioned. That is, it shouldn’t be an “agitational” document in any sense of the word. I have this conception about all documents concerning policy and line and if my outline proposal appears to contain agitational optimism, I don’t mean it in that sense at all. The outline is intended as an objective appraisal, from my point of view, of the situation and perspectives.
Comrade Henderson has reminded us of Trotsky’s conception that the economic basis for a successful reformist labor party is undermined. That, of course, is the materialistic foundation for the idea which Warde expressed – that the workers will take the move for a labor party, in a vague way at least, as having revolutionary implications.
I don’t speak in the outline about existing labor parties, because our tactics in these cases can be easily decided. Naturally, we are not going to propose to start a new labor party in New York or Minnesota. We work within the existing parties. But I should point out, however, that we haven’t been working within the ALP. The clubs are scattered all over the five boroughs. The Stalinists are quite active in these clubs and so are the Social Democrats; but we have not gotten around to them yet. Where there are existing parties, we certainly must participate in them if our campaign is to have any serious meaning.
When I speak of labor party clubs in the outline, I don’t mean them in the sense of these ALP clubs. These latter are Assembly District organizations required by law, the legal basis for the election machinery. The labor party clubs suggested in the document are groups formed in the unions to fight for the labor party. For example, in a progressive local union a club would be formed for the object of propagating the idea of the labor party in the local. Such clubs will, in the nature of things, become the natural centers of left-wing organization. They will represent a direct challenge to the whole regime – to the state administration, as well as the trade union bureaucracy – without exceeding, in a formal sense, the legalistic bounds. I have the idea that these labor party clubs can become in the next period a tremendous mechanism for the building of the left wing in the unions.
The question has been raised in the discussion whether there is a trend or only the beginning of a trend toward the labor party, whether the election results are exaggerated in the outline. I tried to state it very carefully, that the elections should be taken as representing the beginning of a trend. I emphasized the negative manifestations – that is, the abstention of the workers from voting throughout the rest of the country – more strongly even than the positive vote for the labor party in New York and Minnesota. Obviously, it is not yet a very conscious movement for a labor party. But it is a half-break with the old parties, and that necessarily has its logic. This, together with the fact that we are all confident the next period must promote a politicalization of the workers, justifies us in asserting that there is the beginning of a trend toward a powerful labor party movement.
The ALP vote keeps coming up to plague those who have any reservations in this regard. The fact is that the ALP got 400,000 votes in New York, under the most unfavorable conditions. The leaders were scared of themselves; the candidate, a Tammany hack, had never been heard of before; the pressure of Roosevelt and of Hillman, who was, you may say, the co-founder of the party, swung the whole bureaucracy of the Amalgamated away from the ALP. In spite of all that, the ALP got 18 per cent of the votes in New York City and over 10 per cent of the votes in the state. That must signify something. I think it has to be taken as signifying in part that these workers – those who voted the ALP ticket were mainly workers – have something in mind different from the old idea of voting for the Democratic party.
I don’t think it would be correct to say these are votes against Roosevelt. I would venture to say that 90 per cent of them are still pro-Roosevelt. But this vote shows that the workers, still largely for Roosevelt, are not for the Democratic Party. That is the important thing. They don’t give a hoot for the Democratic Party. All during the time they were led in behind Roosevelt, they weren’t led in behind the Democratic Party. On the contrary, their hostility is perhaps greater today than before. I think if you look back at this period of the Roosevelt regime you will see that Labor’s Non-Partisan League, the ALP in New York, and other manifestations showed that even then, in order to dragoon the workers to support Roosevelt, they had to provide some kind of labor or pseudo-labor machinery for it. They couldn’t just unfurl the banner and say, Vote for Roosevelt.
This election was the greatest test of all. The workers in New York – 400,000 of them – stood up independently for the first time. I can’t read anything else into this ALP vote except a strengthening of the impulse of the workers to have a party of their own.
I come to a point here which has been discussed and which I am quite insistent upon: that I want to describe this proposed labor party campaign as a maneuver, comparing it to the two other big maneuvers we carried through: the fusion of the Trotskyist organization with the AWP and the entry into the SP. Of course, I don’t mean to equate the labor party campaign with the fusion and the entry. It is not the same thing at all. But it is the same kind of thing.
What do we mean by a maneuver? It is a tactical turning aside from a predetermined path which has been blocked off in order to accomplish the original objective, to reach the same goal by another road. The thing in common between the proposed labor party campaign and the other two maneuvers in our history is that which is basic: the attempt to build a revolutionary party through another party.
Normally and logically, when you organize a party and adopt a program and invite people to join it, that is the way you build up a party – by recruiting people directly. We came up against the fact in 1934, however, that there was another group developing on the left-wing road. They didn’t come over to us, so we had to go over to meet them. This fusion with the AWP was a departure from the line of direct recruitment. Similarly was the entry into the SP. It was a maneuver, a turning away from the path of building the party by direct recruitment, because a certain set of circumstances confronted us where the most eligible and logical candidates for Bolshevism refused to come into this party. We had to turn about and join them. In the same sense, the united front can be called a maneuver. In the early days of its existence the Comintern reached a certain stalemate in its struggle against the Social Democracy. The majority remained in the Social Democratic ranks and didn’t come over and join the Communist Party. Then the Comintern devised the medium of the united front as a means of approach to the Social Democratic workers. This was not a fusion or an entry, but a coming together for concrete actions for specific immediate aims, etc.
What are we trying to do here? It was not a historic law that we must have a labor party in this country, and that we have to become advocates of it and work within it. As a matter of fact, in the early days of our movement Trotsky refused to sanction the advocacy of the labor party. He said It is not yet determined whether the workers will seek their first political expression through a revolutionary party or through a reformist party based on the unions, and we should advocate the revolutionary party based on individual membership. The socialist movement over most of Europe and the world was built up that way. It was only during the stormy development of the CIO, which began to show political manifestations, when it became pretty obvious that the rate of development of this new mass movement of the CIO was so much faster in tempo and greater in scope than the development of the Socialist Workers Party – it was only then that the Old Man revised his conclusion.
The new movement of the masses was developing outside the SWP, on a vastly wider scale. This trend is even clearer now than it was in 1938 when Trotsky first recommended the labor party tactic. In order for us not to be left on the sidelines, we have to go into the labor party movement without giving up our own independent organization. That is what is contemplated in this proposal here. We are going to try, once again, to build our party through another party. We will be inside of it for a long time, although not in the same technical and precise way as in the other two maneuvers. This time there will be no fusion, and no entry. We will maintain the independence of our party all the time. But in some places we can conceive of the SWP being affiliated to the labor party; in other places, where we may be denied entrance as a party, we will participate in the labor party through the unions, etc. But, in every variant, we will be trying to build a revolutionary party through a political movement of the masses which is not yet clearly defined as revolutionary, or reformist, or in between.
From an internal point of view, it is very important, in my opinion, to explain to the membership that we conceive this campaign as a maneuver. On the one hand, we must show them the great scope of its possibilities; on the other hand, that we are maintaining our independence all the time. And we are working, not to build the labor party as a substitute for our party, but to build our party as the party that must lead the revolution. The labor party may never come to full-fledged shape at all. The conflict of the two wings – the revolutionary and the reformist – can reach such a state of tension that the movement will split before the party is fully formed on a national scale. I can even conceive of the existence of two kinds of labor parties for a certain time – a labor party with a revolutionary program and a labor party with a reformist program – which would engage in election contests against each other.
In the past, under the pressure of circumstances, parties based on the unions have taken a far more radical turn than the ordinary reformist conceptions. The Norwegian Labor Party was almost a replica, in its structure, of the British Labor Party. But, following the war, it formally adopted the communist program and joined the Comintern. The Comintern tried to transform it from a loose party based on delegates from unions into an individual membership party. In the process, eventually, a split took place and the Norwegian Communist Party was carved out of the body of the Norwegian Labor Party. When the revolutionary tide receded and the mass of the workers returned to reformism, things fell back into their old place again. The developments of the labor party movement in the United States, with the stormy developments of the class struggle which are clearly indicated, will least of all follow a predetermined pattern.
I think it is correct to characterize what is proposed here as a political turn. A campaign of agitation, as is proposed, requires a radical change in our activity and, to a certain extent, in our attitude. We have to stir the party from top to bottom with discussion on the labor party question and show the party members that they have now a chance to participate in a fight, in a movement. We should aim to inspire them with the perspectives of the big possibilities which are by no means stated in an exaggerated fashion. At the appropriate time our comrades will begin moving in the unions step by step; perhaps to form a labor party club, perhaps to introduce a resolution, perhaps to circularize this resolution to other places, according to circumstances in each case. All this represents a turn from what we have been doing up to now in our purely routine propaganda in the press without pressing or pushing the issues in the unions.
If we had been imbued with this conception a few months ago we would have taken a different attitude in the New York election. We would have been campaigning for the labor party in New York from the very beginning if we had been as sure then of what was going on as we are now. I personally couldn’t support such an idea then because I didn’t know; I needed the results of the election to convince me that the ALP was not going to fall apart. It is clear now that we underestimated its vitality.
Comrade Charles has pointed out that the trend of the war, the Allied victories, promoting reaction on the one side, will also provoke more resentment and discontent, and perhaps revolt, in one form or another, by the workers. The assumption is that, in general, there will be a sharpening of the class struggle. How can this manifest itself in the next period? Possibly there will be a wave of outlaw strikes. But I think its strongest manifestation will be in the political field. The two may go together. But, in any case, we should absolutely count on a sharpening of the class struggle and help to give it a political expression.
We must appraise correctly the workers’ attitude toward Roosevelt. I believe, also, that the abstention of the workers from the elections in the big industrial centers, did not signify a break with Roosevelt. It showed that they want to make a distinction between Roosevelt’s social reforms and the Democratic Party’s war program. Their tendency is to support the war under the leadership of Roosevelt, in payment for the social reforms they think they got from him. The thing they consider most is the social reform program. From their standpoint, at the present time, the ideal political situation would be a labor party with Roosevelt at the head of it. Their sentiment is for a labor political expression, but they haven’t broken with Roosevelt. We have to be very careful that we don’t over-estimate that question or conclude that the elections showed a break with Roosevelt.
The “New Deal” of Roosevelt was a substitute for the social reform program of Social Democracy in the past. That was the basis of its hold on the workers. The bankruptcy of the New Deal can’t possibly, in my opinion, push the workers back into an acceptance of traditional capitalist party politics. Their next turn will be toward a labor party.
Once more about kinds of slogans: We must carefully explain to the party the difference between a propaganda slogan and agitational slogan, and an agitational slogan and a slogan of action. I am especially sensitive on this because, in the early days of the Communist Party, in those furious debates we used to have on the labor party, we fell into all kinds of mistakes on the question. In a situation such as there has been in the past few years, the labor party could only be a propaganda slogan. If we had been beating the drums all over the labor movement and tried to form labor party clubs, we would have
simply broken our heads. The time was not ripe, there was not enough response, to justify intense agitation for the labor party. It was necessary to confine it to a propaganda slogan. But now there are possibilities, and even probabilities, of a rising sentiment of the workers and a favorable response to a concentrated agitation for the labor party. In the new situation we would make the greatest error if we were to lag behind events and continue with the routine propaganda of the past period.
There is a difference also between slogans of agitation and slogans of action. This is illustrated by one of the classic errors of the early communist movement in the United States. Propaganda for the idea of Workers’ Soviets is, now as always, a principle of the program. But in 1919 the editors of the New York Communist, growing impatient, issued the slogan of action in a banner headline: “Organize Workers’ Councils.” Sad to say, the Soviets did not materialize. The slogan of action was premature and discredited its authors.
It wouldn’t be out of order, in connection with the educational preparation of the party for this campaign, if we impart to the whole membership a better understanding of the different ways of applying slogans – as slogans of propaganda, of agitation, or of action – according to the situation, as it is in reality.
Last updated on: 14.6.2006