William Z. Foster

The New Political Bases for a Labor Party in the United States

Source: The Communist International, Vol. XII, No. 12, June 20, 1935
Publisher: Workers Library Publishers, New York, N.Y.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

THE Communist Party, U.S.A., has in the recent period resumed its efforts to establish a mass labor party in the United States. Its work is beginning under very favorable auspices. From the outset we must stress the point that the Communist Party is the only consistent proletarian party which the working class has. It is the vanguard which the working class of the U.S.A. began to bring forward immediately after the war. The working class can have only one such party. To transform it into a powerful mass Bolshevik Party is the basic condition for the liberation of the working class. Therefore when the Communists raise the question of a labor party they do not think of an organization to compete with or to replace the Communist Party, but of a broad mass workers’ party, established on the basis of the united front between the Communists and all other workers, who accept the policy of the class struggle for their direct interests and who therefore break with the capitalist parties. Historical facts show that wide masses of the American working class have been until now unable to detach themselves politically from the two bourgeois parties and to form a mass party of their own. But, under the pressure of the deep and prolonged industrial crisis, occurring in the developing general crisis of capitalism, the situation is radically changing; in fact, it has already become so altered that one may correctly say the objective conditions for a mass labor party now exist in the United States and make such a party of profound importance for the working class.

In order to understand why the situation is at present so much more favorable to establish such a party of labor, it is necessary to first review, at least briefly, the main causes why no mass party of workers has as yet arisen in the United States.

It is a fact that mass parties of the workers first grew in those European countries where the bourgeois revolution either largely or wholly failed to give democratic rights to the workers. In such countries, notably Germany, Austria, Russia, etc., the workers, being acutely aware of their burning political grievances, early organized Socialist Parties to fight, in first line, for the democratic rights which they, the workers, so evidently lacked. In England and France, on the other hand, where the workers had more democratic rights, the mass parties of the proletariat were consequently much longer delayed in taking shape and strength.

It was in the United States, more than all other major countries, that the working class had the most extensive bourgeois democratic rights and illusions. This is the basic reason why they did not develop class consciousness and a workers’ mass party. Possessing in some measure the formal rights of free press, free speech, free assembly, the right to vote and to bold every political office, the legal right to organize unions and to strike, as well as a theoretical social equality with all other citizens, consequently, the American workers became saturated with bourgeois democratic illusions in spite of the fact that in America, as well as in other capitalist countries, these bourgeois democratic rights were used against the workers. Unlike the workers of Russia and Germany (and even of England and France), they did not feel the necessity for having a political party of their own to fight for immediate political demands. And, of course, they felt an even lesser urge to form such a party for the purpose of ultimately overthrowing capitalism. Therefore, until very recently, the Communist Party remained a small organization without wide mass influence.

In order to organize a separate mass political party it was necessary that they be conscious of a whole series of burning immediate political demands, but of these urgent needs they were not conscious. The grievances that pressed them most, and often these were very severe—chiefly long hours, low wages, bad working conditions—were mainly of an economic character. Hence, historically, the struggle of the American working class has almost always been limited to that for economic demands, and did not go beyond the bounds of simple trade unionism, which did not, however, prevent it from often being extremely bitter in character. And hence, also, for two generations all attempts to found a strong Socialist or labor party resulted in failure.

There were a number of other powerful factors that further checked and frustrated the growth of class consciousness and the political organization of the American working class. Among these were the presence of great tracts of government free land during several generations; the relatively higher wages and living standards of the proletariat in the United States than in European countries; the fact that during the rapid industrialization of the country large numbers of workers became well-to-do and some even became capitalists, thereby creating widespread petty bourgeois prosperity illusions among the proletariat; the reactionary influence of the large labor aristocracy and trade-union bureaucracy, the heterogeneous composition of the working class, etc. But the decisive factor was the lack of a popular program of concrete political demands for elementary democratic rights put forward as mass demands by the whole process of the class struggle.

It is not surprising, therefore, that during this whole period, which only now in the crisis is coming to an end, the trade unions, although they raised certain political demands, never developed a real political program. The demands they formulated were not of such a burning and urgent character that they could serve for the foundation of a labor party. The center of these demands was a defensive political struggle to prevent encroachments upon the trade unions’ legal rights through court decisions on picketing, boycotts, trade restraint, etc. Aside from further scattering demands for the abolition of child labor, for factory health and safety inspection, for workmen’s accident compensation and a few minor labor questions, the rest of organized labor’s (A. F. of L.) so-called political program consisted mostly of a lot of haphazard petty-bourgeois measures against the trustification of industry, for currency reform, against prohibition, for immigration restriction, etc. And during this whole period the masses themselves did not develop outside the framework of the A. F. of L. legislative program any additional major political demands, nor could the Socialist Party succeed in creating a popular mass political program that the workers would fight for, although it tried diligently for many years to do so; the Communist Party failed likewise.

To sum up in short: the basic reason why the American working class did not organize a mass powerful Socialist or Labor Party during so many years was because it was not conscious of a set of pressing immediate political demands around which it could develop a class viewpoint, and for which it felt impelled to organize its own party and to conduct a systematic and persistent political struggle. It is clear that if the absence of such a program or the absence of a mass movement for such a program hindered the establishment of a mass party prior to the general crisis of capitalism, then in the recent period it prevented the Communist Party becoming transformed into a mass party.

The Promotion of a Mass Political Program

But the deep-going and protracted industrial crisis has fundamentally changed this situation. Suffering under years-long prostration of industry, which has brought gigantic mass unemployment, starvation wages, low farm prices, ruthless trustification of industry, etc., and produced widespread poverty and pauperization of many millions, vast sections of the toiling masses have become conscious of a whole series of the most urgent political needs. These demands in sum amount to a popular political program. As yet this developing political program is somewhat scattered and unorganized, but it is real and vital and it undoubtedly can become a political base upon which to organize a mass labor party.

How did the Communist, Socialist or “progressive” elements act in past years when they tried to organize a labor party? They first formulated immediate demands such as they thought the masses ought to want and then they tried to get the masses to support these programs. But for many years it remained a vain task; the masses did not respond. Now, however, great masses of workers, farmers and lower petty bourgeoisie are becoming conscious of the need to advance many such political demands, and more, are showing their willingness to fight for them.

Many of these political demands have assumed the character of mass demands under the pressure of the crisis (such as those for social insurance, etc.). The demands for social insurance are new; while others (such as those dealing with hours, wages, status of trade unionism, etc.), were formerly considered simply as economic questions. Thus, not only is the American class struggle becoming in general more political, but hitherto economic demands of the workers (even local ones) are turning into national political questions.

Of the issues listed below, every one is a mass demand in a real sense. Literally millions of the impoverished masses are supporting each one, and often several of them together. Many of these demands were wholly or partially popularized by the A. F. of L.; several (unemployment insurance, Negro, fascism, war) by the Communist Party; one (old-age pensions) by the Townsend movement, etc. All of them have become acute national questions in American political life.

Among the more burning of these demands (not arranged in the order of their relative importance) are the following:

Unemployment insurance.
Unemployment relief.
Old-age pensions.
Thirty-hour week.
Relief for poor farmers.
Legalized national minimum wages.
Government recognition of the trade unions (illegalizing of company unions).
Against high cost of living (reduction of government-fixed prices).
For government building program (right to work).
Full union wages on government relief work.
Relief from growing tax burden.
Relief for small home owners.
Abolition of child labor.
Equal rights for Negroes.
Against fascism (defense of strike rights, free assembly, etc.).
Against imperialist war (indorsement of the U.S.S.R. peace policy).

All these demands (and more that could be added) have become deeply rooted among the great masses who are militantly demanding them. They are serving as the basis of the sharpening present-day American political struggle. Besides the growth of this new mass political program of immediate demands there is a general radicalization of the workers. There is a growing feeling among the toiling masses that life for them is becoming intolerable under capitalism, that the capitalist system is doomed and must be supplanted by a new social order. On all sides there is vague but militant talk of revolution. This developing mass antagonism to capitalism itself is also quite new in American history. Very probably, therefore, the coining labor party, especially if it develops first in the lower organs of the trade unions, will reflect this growing radicalism, although only in general terms, by demanding the abolition of the capitalist system.

The foregoing popular immediate demands undoubtedly constitute a sufficiently solid political platform around which to build a mass labor party. The possibility of these demands being liquidated by an easing of the industrial crisis is excluded. Even if the United States should regain the production level of 1929, which is not likely, there would still remain huge mass unemployment and mass pauperization of workers and farmers, and every one of the above-mentioned demands would remain a vital issue.

And it is also futile to expect that the bourgeoisie can or will satisfy the workers on these burning questions. Roosevelt is dabbling with most of them, trying to forestall more insistent demands by sops and promises. But although this government is pouring out unparalleled billions for public works, unemployment relief, etc., it clearly cannot satisfy the masses, and daily their political demands grow sharper and become the center of more acute struggle. Despite Roosevelt’s billions and his demagogy, the radicalization of the American working class and large masses of poor farmers is growing at a pace unheard of in the history of the United States. And, of great significance; undoubtedly the broad, impoverished masses are steadily losing hope of securing real relief from Roosevelt or by the ending of the crisis. As a result of this, Roosevelt’s influence among the masses is falling and indications of a mass breakaway from the two capitalist parties are becoming more and more obvious.

The Labor Party Will Not Automatically Develop Itself

Thus, the basic elements are fast accumulating for a broad workers’ party in the United States. Most important, there is for the first time a real mass working class political program of immediate demands taking shape; secondly, the masses, despairing of achieving this program within the two old parties, are also developing very definite signs of splitting from these parties; and, further, the trade unions have recently greatly strengthened themselves and are now in a much better position to serve as an organized basis for a labor party.

Despite these favorable developments, however, it would be the very greatest mistake to conclude that because of them a labor party in the United States is inevitable, and that all we have to do is to sit around with arms folded until it automatically takes shape. The formation of a labor party is far from being an easy task; it is safe to assume that only by the greatest struggle, especially on the part of the Communist Party, can a mass labor party be definitely established.

A severe struggle will be necessary because the bourgeoisie, which has no intention of granting the demands of the workers and poor farmers, will not sit idly by while they create a broad labor party to fight for these demands. Already, indeed, it is vigorously attempting to make. use of these discontented masses so that they may be used for their own further enslavement. Fascism, supported by the big capitalist elements, is now growing with great rapidity in the United States. A whole crop of well-financed fascist and semi-fascist leaders, with the wildest demagogy and reckless promises, are working to confuse the discontented masses and to secure organized control over them. And, unfortunately, they are only too successful-undoubtedly millions of oppressed workers and farmers are already looking to them for leadership and organization.

The great danger consists in the fact that although the toiling masses are formulating urgent political demands and are tending to break with the two old parties, and labor party sentiment is growing, they are still not yet convinced that they should form a party of their own. In their political immaturity, they are very susceptible to fascist demagogy, and if the bourgeoisie realize that they can no longer control these masses in the old parties, they will, to forestall the organization of a labor party, very probably, through their new fascist agents and reactionary trade-union leaders, try to mislead the growing demand of the impoverished masses for a new party into a third bourgeois party, more or less fascist in character, which will be a real menace to the whole working class. In deed, such a semi-fascist third capitalist party is now a real probability in the United States. Preliminary conferences have been held and it may take shape in the coming presidential elections of 1936.

The great present political importance of the Communist Party’s labor party slogan, therefore, lies precisely in the fact that the formation of a broad mass labor party is the best way to prevent the discontented masses from falling under fascist control and also to organize these forces politically for effective working class struggle. A strong labor party can be made a great rallying ground, become the expression of the broad united front, which unites all the forces fighting against the rising wave of fascism in the United States.

In the building of an American labor party, the growing Communist Party confronts a huge task. It will have to do the bulk of the work. Upon it rests the chief responsibility of convincing the masses of the need to build a mass labor party, exploding the fascist demagogy and of overcoming the opposition to a labor party among the reactionary trade-union leadership, of building up the necessary united front among the various labor organizations, etc. And, even more important, especially will it fall to the Communist Party to prevent the new labor party itself from falling under reactionary leadership and thus becoming an instrument of fascist reaction; and to make of it a force that will lead the workers along the road to revolutionary struggle. Hard tasks are these, and they will test all the Bolshevik strength and leadership of our Party. This indicates that the recent growth of the C.P. is also an important factor for the building of the labor party.

In this connection we must briefly remark (in so far as in this article we are only dealing with one side of the problems of the labor party) that the question of the labor party is indissolubly connected with that of the Communist Party in the period of the general crisis of capitalism. But these two questions are not identical. The resolutions of the January Plenum of the C.C. of the C.P.U.S.A. clearly indicated why the C.P. which is now becoming transformed into a mass party still supports the movement for a mass labor party (help for wider masses than those who can follow the Party directly, to break with the capitalist parties, to help these masses to find the revolutionary path of struggle as distinct from social reformist compromise with the bourgeoisie). The resolution also pointed out that only the Communist Party is the consistent revolutionary class party of the proletariat.

This does not mean, however, that a labor party can be of value to the workers only if the Communists are in complete organizational control of it. On the contrary, one of the surest means of defeating the labor party movement would be to build on the basis of Communist control as an imperative condition. That would surely strip the labor party, from the outset, of its character as a mass united-front organization. The labor party must be a real united front on the political field. The labor party must be based upon the broad-mass unions, while the Communists must stimulate the unions to link up with the movement for a mass-labor party. In the given conditions in the United States, a labor party will certainly take on a militant and radical aspect, and if our Communist Party acts energetically and intelligently (it can especially entrench itself in the lower organs of the labor party) it can acquire a very powerful and even leading influence in the new party. This will be true even though, paradoxically, it may be that if the labor party were formed by the A. F. of L. officially, our Party might not be permitted formally to affiliate nationally with it.

By campaigning vigorously for the labor party—without slackening in its strike and other activities—our Party can enormously increase its strength, prestige and leadership in the new party and in the working class generally. The situation is such that if the C.P. energetically takes up the work, local united labor tickets and labor parties with a real mass base and powerful Communist influence can certainly be launched in many of the smaller but very important industrial centers, also very probably labor parties can be organized in several states and, so rapidly are the masses on the move, even the establishment of a national labor party or a national labor ticket by the time of the presidential elections of 1936 is not out of the question. The fight for a labor party is the greatest single task now confronting the American Communist Party.