Hal Draper


The Question of a Labor Party

For the Present Party Position

(August 1938)

From The New International, Vol. IV No. 8, August 1938, pp. 229–231.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE PRESENT PARTY POSITION on the Labor party question as embodied in our Declaration of Principles – now the position of the National Committee minority in the discussion going on – was adopted only last December. What has happened since to make the Political Committee decide that we must advocate the formation of a labor party?

Where Is the Labor Party Movement Going?

The present trend in the Labor party movement is further away from independent class politics than when the Declaration was written. The LN-PL leadership is intent upon following its present policy of tailing after the capitalist parties. Their perspective is the formation of a third party movement, through a coalition with the left Democrats, banking on a split in the Democratic party – a bourgeois Democratic Front with or without the Stalinists. The CP has dropped even the slogan of a Labor party. In practise, the LN-PL has produced hardly a single instance of independent labor candidacy. In such a place as New Jersey, the LN-PL has proved itself incapable of capturing the enthusiasm and loyalty of the same workers who are conducting militant struggles on the economic field – the New Jersey LN-PL leaders admit they are “generals without an army”. In New York, the ALP branch meetings are attended largely by the “politicals” – social-democrats, SP’ers, Stalinists, independent radicals, etc. – assembling under the disguise of the ALP in order to work on each other.

Certainly nothing to stampede us into reversing our position ... provided that our basic approach itself has not changed.

Our Basic Approach

This trend which we saw and foresaw is not accidental or the result merely of a particular conjuncture of personalities at the head of the movement. It is rooted in objective social forces, in the role of reformism in the period of declining capitalism.

At the time when reformist advances were still possible under a rising capitalist order, the formation of a Labor party might have been able to play a part in raising the working class to higher levels of class consciousness. But today and increasingly, “even the most pressing immediate problems of the workers” cannot be solved except through the social revolution, for the ravages of the capitalist crisis cancel whatever gains may be made by the struggle organs of the working class. A Labor party has to meet these harsh alternatives: For socialism, or for the defense of capitalism – which? In periods of sharp social crisis, middle grounds crumble away, forcing one to take refuge on one side or the other.

Today, the program which might have been the basis of an attempt at a “middle-ground” Labor party has been taken over by the New Deal Democrats. Is it any wonder then that the LN-PL, which has no other program than this, finds no political basis for independent working class action?

It is for these reasons that we came to our conclusion: In this period of capitalism, a Labor party can play no progressive role. Without having made a single attempt to show why this analysis is false, indeed while even admitting that it still holds true today, the majority speaks of the Labor party as playing a progressive role! “Theoretically”, this “abstract” analysis holds good, – but what are you going to do in Pennsylvania? – this is the answer of the majority.

Can a Labor Party Be Progressive?

The “abstractly” reactionary role played by a Labor party manifests itself quite concretely. Here we must consider two questions.

1. If we take our own words seriously, the outbreak of imperialist war is imminent. And unless one believes that we are going to, or can, get such an animal as a “revolutionary Labor party”, the outbreak of war will find the Labor party or Labor party movement not only a strong bulwark of imperialism but one of the main means of deceiving the masses. The channelization of the workers into the Labor party means putting them directly under the influence of the social-patriotic machine; building the Labor party means building our political rival, a tremendous obstacle to our work.

Our job now is to attack and discredit in advance every political tendency which acts as one of the channels of imperialist influence or illusions on the working class. Our job is to warn the workers now against the sources of their betrayal in time of war. To advocate a Labor party, on the other hand, means precisely to put it before the workers as the center for them to rally about, and so make it all the harder to break them away from their social-patriotic organizational allegiance in time of war.

Here is a central question: are we going to tell the workers the truth as to what the Labor party will mean to them – that it cannot solve “even their most pressing immediate problems”, that it cannot fight war but on the contrary will lead the workers into the next imperialist slaughter, that it plays capitalist politics? And how can we tell them this and at the same time tell them to build this Labor party – which will do nothing significant for them? On the basis of the majority position, this contradiction must be solved in practise (whatever the protestations) only by fostering the illusion that the Labor party can do something, and thereby sowing the seeds of disillusionment not only with the Labor party but also with ourselves.

2. But, say the majority, the swing of sections of the workers away from the old parties toward a Labor party is a progressive development, and we must encourage it. – This is true; from the viewpoint of the subjective development of the workers there is progress. But the same thing is true when a worker quits the Republican party and joins the CP because he believes it to be a working class party. The same thing is true when a worker who voted for Roosevelt in 1932 under the Democratic label, voted for him in 1936 under the ALP label. In each case, the worker is manifesting a progressive sentiment, but in each case this sentiment has been corraled into a reactionary channel. There is the point: the workers want independent political action – that is fine; but the crystallization of this trend into the organizational form of a Labor party has only reactionary consequences objectively.

Further on this point, the majority bases itself on the belief that the formation of an independent Labor party would raise the political class consciousness of the workers. Actually the relationship is the other way around. Suppose the desire for independent political action assumed large proportions and threatened to get out of hand, leaving the LN-PL heads behind: the classic answer of the bureaucrats is to run around in front of the movement and form the “independent Labor party” which is demanded, in order to continue playing capitalist politics with an independent party as the instrument instead of an LN-PL – capitalist politics in a subtler and more deceptive form. This is the old device of going-along-with for a distance, if sufficiently pushed, in order to stem the movement more effectively and siphon it back into the old channels.

“Far from constituting independent class politics, the present Labor party development is, from the point of view of the bureaucrats and the bourgeoisie, the method for preventing the growth of independent class politics,” says the Declaration of Principles. And this is also the answer to that variety of the majority position which is represented by comrades Shachtman and Carter, who emphasize the fact that since the labor bureaucrats don’t want a “real, independent labor party”, by advocating it ourselves we set the workers into collision with their leadership. “The resistance of the bureaucracy [to this mass pressure] will be broken,” the majority resolution assures us; an independent Labor party will be formed – but why necessarily over the heads of the bureaucrats? Who will be left holding the bag when Lewis and Hillman are mass-pressured into forming their version of an “independent Labor party”?

How Independent Is an Independent Labor Party?

So far we have accepted the category of “independent Labor party”. But what is it independent of?

According to the majority resolution, if the LN-PL coalesces with a split-off wing of the Democratic party, the resulting party would be a bourgeois third party, unworthy of our support. But if the LN-PL forms a party on the basis of its own forces, that would be the independent Labor party, the good kind.

But what makes one a “third party” and the other a “Labor party” – both being equally independent of the old parties in the sense of running their own candidates? Program? Where does the LN-PL differ in program with the left Democrats? Mass basis? The mass basis of the coalition party would necessarily be the LN-PL trade unions. Methods? Support of capitalism?

It is not enough for the majority to paste on labels – how would they tell the difference? After all, there is no scarcity of left Democratic elements in the ALP now – Eleanor Herrick, etc. And wouldn’t the majority be in a pickle if the LN-PL formed their “independent” party – the SWP gives it “complete and unambiguous support” – and then a split-off section of the Democratic party becomes ripe for a coalition! Would this “independent Labor party” automatically become a “third party” as the result of such a coalition after its founding?

The point is evident: in this period, a party may be independent of the old capitalist parties in the same way that LaFollette’s aggregation is – in the formal, organizational sense – but in the political sense, independence from capitalist politics means revolutionary politics. Here again there is no middle ground.

The Transitional Program

Thus far we have considered the question on the basis of considerations held by our party for some time. Some of the supporters of the majority, however, especially emphasize the fact that the adoption of our Transitional Program and of the analysis of the social crisis of capitalism contained in our general thesis automatically indicates the tactic of advocating a Labor party. They attempt to attach the PC’s Labor party position as a kind of “rider” to the Transitional Program.

Now the minority bases itself upon an acceptance of the Transitional Program as the correct strategical line for our party in this period. The question is: what effect does our new strategy – the general thesis – have upon our Labor party position? We must state that so far the attempt of the majority to show why, if you accept the Transitional Program, you must also accept their reversal on the Labor party, has remained in the stage of mere assertion.

The first point of the general thesis is that American capitalism has entered the period of an intense social crisis, not merely one of the periodic depressions which have come and gone, but this time a permanent, chronic crisis of the system itself, with fluctuations but no prospect of lifting to another boom era. This, we are convinced, is correct.

But if it was correct for us to say (as we did) that in a period of capitalist decline, a Labor party cannot be progressive – and if the majority has still not a word to say against this analysis except to call it correct but “abstract” – then what are we to believe? This, according to the majority: that in a period of capitalist decline it is abstractly true to state that a Labor party cannot be progressive, BUT – just when this capitalist decline becomes sharpest, enters the stage of permanent social crisis, makes it necessary to lead toward the question of power, THEN the Labor party does become progressive! This is literally their position, make sense of it who can.

One could take almost every paragraph of the general thesis and lay it aside the proposal to advocate a Labor party with nothing but astonishment; but the sharpest and most basic contradiction is with the perspective embodied in the general thesis that we must begin now laying the ground for the development of Soviets, the slogan for the formation of shop and factory committees, etc. This is the organizational form which we present as the means of carrying out the Transitional Program – workers’ organs of struggle on the extra-parliamentary field. Again we ask – how in the world does the majority square the proposal to prepare for Soviets and to advocate the Labor party at the same time? Are we going to build the Labor party and Soviets side by side?

A Line of Action for the Party

It is precisely the transitional program which represents the alternative to the Labor party approach – from the point of view of the question: how are we to build the revolutionary party?

The line of the majority is: there is now a mass movement for a Labor party, and we have to be in; the easiest way to get in is to ourselves come out as advocates of a Labor party; and once in, we can put forward the transitional program in order that it may be carried out by the Labor party.

It is our opinion that the existence of a mass movement for something we don’t want (whether it be war or a labor party) doesn’t change our minds about not wanting it. If it is true that a Labor party can play only a reactionary role in society today, then precisely because of the illusions in the minds of the workers, it is our duty to speak out the truth about it. Otherwise the disillusionment with the Labor party will react upon us too.

What then? Does speaking the truth about the Labor party doom us to isolation from the “mass movement”. Nonsense!

Even if we advocate a Labor party we can have influence only in proportion to the extent and effectiveness of our work in the trade unions, and our fractions in the Labor party movement – i.e., only in so far as we seriously undertake and carry through mass work. This is the key. As long as we have our roots in the union movement we cannot be isolated, no matter what position we take on the Labor party.

Our main line of approach to the militant workers must be the presentation of our Transitional Program in every situation which opens up the opportunity. In New Jersey, concentration on agitation for workers defense around the Hague menace, not the panacea of a Labor party. The extra-parliamentary action of the workers, on the economic field, in workers defense corps, etc., along the lines of our transitional demands. Political agitation pointing to the necessity of revolutionary organization to solve the basic problems of the workers: the only lesson we can draw from our analysis of the situation of capitalism.

On this basis, the Labor party movement itself offers us an excellent forum, an arena, for our agitation. It is absolutely necessary that we undertake serious fraction work inside the Labor party movements, putting our transitional demands before them, etc.

Speaking of the Labor party movement, the Declaration of Principles says: “To stand aside completely from such a development where it comprises the bulk of the militant and advanced sections of the workers would be hopelessly sectarian for the revolutionists ... the revolutionists must remain in the midst of the workers who are passing through that experience ...” This is the real conclusion to be drawn from the existence of a “mass movement” for a Labor party: not that we too therefore advocate it, but we must go through the experiences side by side with the workers in order to point out the lessons – but not merely to point out the lessons after the workers have found them out for themselves, but IN ADVANCE, NOW.

In our fraction work inside the Labor party movements, our concrete policies become a matter of tactically adapting our proposals to the stage of development of the workers and the concrete circumstances: critical support to Labor party candidates under certain conditions; where the organization endorses capitalist party candidates, we raise the slogan of independent labor candidates; inner-party democracy, etc.; where independent candidates are put forth, we concentrate on raising programmatic questions. But whatever the form of our tactics, the main line is the utilization of these experiences, before and after, to disillusion the workers with Labor party politics and break them away. While the majority also of course favors work inside the Labor party movement, their main line must necessarily be to convince the workers of the necessity of building and broadening the Labor party. There the lines part, in precisely the vital spot.

It well may be that this dispute may turn out to be more important symptomatically than in itself, as a reflection of pessimistic, conservative and opportunist currents within the party. The key is a plan of action to build the party, including a line for our work inside the labor party movement. This the minority will elaborate further in the course of the discussion.


Last updated on 11 September 2015