Felix Morrow

A Critical Analysis of the
American Workers Party

1. The Political Evolution of the C.P.L.A.

(May 1934)

From The Militant, Vol. VII No. 20, 19 May 1934, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Editor’s Note – The following is the first of a series of articles contributed to the discussion of the movement for a new party by Felix Morrow.

* * *

To all who look upon the building of a new revolutionary party and International as the primary task today, the evolution of the American Workers Party is of serious import. For here is a group, of undoubted seriousness of purpose, almost all of whom have come from the Conference for Progressive Labor Action with some training in mass work, and who have come out as a revolutionary organization. No one could seriously have expected, of course, that such a group, with no experience in party life and thought, and so new to the revolutionary road, should overnight develop revolutionary clarity; Bolsheviks are certainly not made at such short notice. Serious gaps in the political equipment of the A.W.P. were to be expected. The important question is whether, after a period of amorphous evolution, the American Workers Party will take to the road for a new party and international.

Three closely related tendencies stand between the A.W.P. and. the new road. I shall summarize these tendencies, including the form they take in the Program of the A.W.P., and then suggest the latest light thrown on them, by the A.W.P. public lecture-conferences in New York on April 14, 15, 21, 22.

The Past of the A.W.P.

The A.W.P. is proud of its “origin in action” in the Conference for Progressive Labor Action. While there is much that is useful in this past, it is also a reformist past. The sharpest theoretical clarity is necessary to distinguish between the useful heritage and its reformist nature. A break with this reformist past is necessary. In view of the A.W.P.’s proud boasts about its origins, and its insufficiently critical analysis of its past reformism (see Chapter IV of the Program), one is constrained to say that the A.W.P. stands more in danger of reformist hangovers than it is of losing any useful elements of its past. A glance at its history will make this clear enough.

Beginning, in 1929, as an organization of trade-union progressives, the Conference for Progressive Labor Action won a certain amount of success, due to the fact that the Communist Party had launched itself on its dual unionism, while the Socialist Party had long capitulated to the A.F. of L. leadership. Politically, the C.P.L.A. was reformist; in advocating independent political action for labor, it was little further advanced than the unions which in 1924 declared for LaFollette. Even when it began evolving more militant trade union policies, building rank and file oppositions, and branched out into the unemployed movement, the C.P.L.A. remained definitely reformist in politics. Nor was there further clarity in the declaration of the September, 1932 convention which made the C.P.L.A. into a political organization, for the criticism of the Socialist and Communist parties was limited to their mass work, and in no way was linked up with political fundamentals. Its declaration that it aimed “to abolish, not to reform, the capitalist system”, was only repeated the other day by the right-wing Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota. For the C.P.L.A., the concrete meaning of the phrase appeared to be, not evolution toward a revolutionary workers party, but a reformist Farmer-Labor party.

The year after the 1932 convention the leaders of the C.P.L.A. were in the Farmer-Labor Federation. Presumably that was their idea, then, of the way to “abolish” capitalism.

December Conference

Then came the Roosevelt program of “planned” capitalism, with its repercussions in the labor movement. It deflated the right wing in the Socialist Party – for Roosevelt’s was their program. The militants, Muste’s former allies, now began to come to the fore, talking like so many “Musteites” about militancy in the labor unions and unemployed work, reaching the workers, etc. As their strength grew, the militants did not fail to point out that if militancy was desired, the way to get it was to win the S.P., as they were doing, not to set up one’s own sect. The necessity of distinguishing themselves from the Socialists in more significant terms than militancy became apparent in the C.P.L.A. Nor could leftward-moving centrists close their eyes any longer to the essentially reformist character of farmer-laborism. In December, 1933 the C.P.L.A. convention decided to build the American Workers Party. All C.P.L.A. members automatically became members of the A.W.P.

At no time – including the 1933 convention resolutions – had the C.P.L.A. made the decisive distinctions between reform and revolution. Throughout this period the case against the Socialist and Communist parties had never been put in political terms; always the quarrel on the level of day-to-day work. Not until the Program of the A.W.P., published early in 1934 (written with the assistance of revolutionary intellectuals with no C.P.L.A. background) does there begin the first criticisms of the Socialist Party in terms of its reformism, and even here the talk is mainly of its mass work (see Chapters III and IV). It is true, as Sidney Hook says, that the theory of the state is the touchstone of a party’s nature; it is true that the Program (plus further statements by A.W.P. leaders) approaches the Marxist theory of the state (though it contains ominous omissions and ambiguities – role of Soviets before taking power, armed insurrection, the ambiguous formula of workers’ democracy substituted for the Marxist formula, dictatorship of the proletariat).

Further Analysis Needed

There must be a period of thorough theoretical discussion and analysis, in order to see whether the rest of the Program, and particularly what the A.W.P. brings over from the C.P.L.A., is actually in consonance with Marxism. The mere presence of the class theory of the state does not guarantee the rest, certainly not when the introduction of the theory of the state is of so recent origin. No revolutionary but is gratified that the A.W.P. leaders who were a year ago preparing to build a Farmer-Labor Federation now are speaking in revolutionary terms; but such a volte-face reveals a gross empiricism which must be overcome by theoretical discussion and training. Clear formulation of fundamental principles is a necessity at this point. By all means let us be “flexible” in the application of our principles. But let us first have principles to be flexible about.

In the light of what has been said, one of the most disturbing aspects of the A.W.P. conferences were the many examples of contempt for theory or minimizing of the role of theory. There is no subtler way of blurring the distinction between reform and revolution than by shying away from fundamental theoretical discussion. In reformist parties, centrists express their discontent by talking action; the militants in the S.P. exemplify this mood. In revolutionary parties or parties gravitating to a revolutionary position, centrists pooh-pooh “too much theoretical discussion”, or by emphasis on events or mass action denigrate the role of theory and party. At the conferences, the most ambitious, and the most revealing example of this was J.B.S. Hardman’s discussion of the Russian Revolution.

The Role of the Party

Hardman built up a picture of the Bolshevik party playing no decisive role in the revolution: “Only the minority (of the Central Committee) carried out the insurrection: the majority was against it.” “For a quarter of a century the Russian working class did things rather than discuss. Fortunately nearly all its leaders had nothing to do with the revolution. Most of them were émigrés, and at the crucial moment the leaders were in Finland.” He held out as most significant the gap between Russian feudal government and its growing capitalist industry, contrasting it with the close nexus between industry and government in America. Thus, said Hardman, our problem in America is very different than the Russian. (He could say this, of course, only by ignoring the gap in America between industry and government on the one hand and the productive forces on the other.) So, said Hardman, the Russian Revolution lives “at best only certain lessons” (unspecified). By making what were actually strategy and purposive action carried through by the Bolshevik party, into blind history, Hardman is able to dismiss as peculiar and local events which were actually the resultants of fundamental principles of revolutionary strategy. That Hardman did not boldly enunciate which fundamental principles he dismisses – this is also typical of centrist ambiguity; Hardman is simply reserving in advance “the right” to differ, whenever a fundamental issue becomes racial. A keen observer once put Hardman’s case aptly. “He’s trying to make a philosophy out of commonplaces: don’t be dogmatic, be realistic, let’s be sensible, etc. etc.” Everything is there, in fact, except a theoretical foundation.

“Too Much Better”

The conferences supplied other humiliating examples. Answering the charge that the A.W.P. was in danger of all the pitfalls of the gross empiricism characteristic of the whole history of the American labor movement, V.F. Calverton said: “The Socialist Labor Party shows what too much theory can lead to. Its theory is so perfect, it can’t move”. It was a good joke and got the laughs – but revealed a true philistine’s attitude toward theory, as if to say, “A little of it is all right in its place. But –”. Walter Edwin Peck evidenced the centrist’s fearful hate for theory: “Radicals have been analysing the world as they saw it, but they had metaphysics on their mind. We have been trying to sell the workers Hegel and Saint Karl. What was the power of the I.W.W.? Because it didn’t sell workers any philosophy.” Then, most innocently, Peck went on to say that the I.W.W. “was killed by prosperity”. He could scarcely be expected to understand that this meant they had no adequate philosophy!

George Schuyler even embarrassed his own comrades with the assertion: “Marx hasn’t got anything to do with the U.S. We don’t have to borrow any European philosophy”.

Not every spokesman of the A.W.P. so denigrates theory, of course; but what do they do in the face of his tendency which has to be fought as uncompromisingly as outright reformism? So far as I could see, all they do is grin embarrassedly when their comrades make asses of themselves.


Last updated on: 15 May 2016