Max Shachtman

Vital Questions of the New Party

The Program of the A.W.P.

(February 1934)

From The Militant, Vol. VII No. 9, 24 February 1934, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The idea that the greatest immediate need of the working class everywhere is a new revolutionary International and a new revolutionary party in every country, is being accepted by ever wider sections of the radical labor movement. The decision of the Pittsburgh convention of the Conference for Progressive Labor Action to launch the “American Workers Party” on July 4, 1934, is additional proof of the irresistible power of this idea.

Because we Internationalist-Communists are for a new party which unites the maximum possible forces on a revolutionary program and for revolutionary action, we have commenced a discussion with the representatives of the American Workers Party, with the aim of establishing the extent to which agreement exists, and consequently, united action and eventual fusion is possible.

The Decisive Question

In this discussion, we pursue no narrow or sectional interests. Our fight for the fundamental principles of Marxism (carried on for over five years in this country and ten years internationally) excludes such a conception. What is decisive for us in our attitude towards any other group is not this or that individual in it, or this or that isolated action in which it has engaged. Our first question is: What is your program? – Here is ours. Only when, by open confrontation, sharp if comradely mutual criticism, an agreement has been arrived at on the programmatic questions, is it possible to talk seriously and fruitfully about unity and fusion.

Program is of fundamental importance because by it the party is judged – essentially by program and not by action, because it is the former that determines and guides the action.

And it is precisely in the domain of the program that the founders of the new revolutionary party have a tremendous advantage over those who preceded them. The Third International, when founded in 1919, was able to take all the events, the actions, the isolated phenomena, the ideas, the men and the movements that went before it, subject them to the pitiless fire of Marxian criticism and strain the residue through the screen of generalization. The distilled result was condensed into the basic programmatic documents of the new International and the forming Communist parties. This not only gave them political justification for existence and an unmistakable physiognomy, but immediately invested them with a vast superiority over all the old organizations which, sought to continue as if nothing – neither the war, the collapse of the Second International, the Russian revolution, nor the post-war revolutionary movements – had occurred.

On the eve of the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of the Communist International, much the same task has to be performed. Even less than in 1919 we are handicapped this time by the need of starting out with nothing. A great deal has been lost in the painful defeats suffered by the working class. That is true. But just as victories teach us, generally speaking, what to do, defeats should teach us what not to do, what to avoid.

Settled Questions

The experiences up to the time the Third International was formed were sufficient to settle in the mind of every genuine revolutionist – once and for all, irrevocably – the dispute between reform and revolution, social democracy and Communism. In the new movement, there was no longer any need to debate a whole series of problems and questions which had agitated the pre-war parties. They had become settled questions for Marxists.

Not being a political Hamlet, who is worthless just because no question is ever settled for him, the true revolutionist engaged in building up a new party must also cast up a balance of the past period, take inventory, and settle in his own mind, and what is more, important settle publicly in his own program, all accounts which the class struggle itself has settled beyond further argument. No dispute over questions of principle and strategy can be ignored in this reckoning. An unambiguous and positive stand must be taken on all of them.

It is here that the document issued several weeks ago, Toward an American Revolutionary Labor Movement, Statement of Programmatic Orientation by the American Workers Party, reveals a number of defects which, we think, require the most drastic revision.

A new revolutionary party cannot be formed – certainly it cannot gain important strength – without justifying its existence. It cannot justify its existence as a separate organization, at least not in the eyes of the more advanced workers, without showing conclusively that the parties already operating in the held are fundamentally outlived or injurious to the interests of the working class.

Following the classic example of the Communist Manifesto a revolutionary party must make its programmatic debut with a criticism of society in which it lives and which it aims to overthrow, and conclude with a criticism of all the parties of any importance, and above all, of their basic conceptions. Not, let us make clear, a criticism of every little sect with ten members, but of every distinct current in the labor movement.

For purposes of concentration, we will in this article confine our comments to the third chapter of the A.W.P. statement: The Inadequacies of Existing Parties as Instruments of Revolutionary Change. The parties referred to are of course the socialist and the official Communist (Stalinist) parties.

The International Approach

In the case of both parties, the problem cannot be approached from the angle of one country. The bankruptcy of social democracy and Stalinism in this or any other country derives from the fatal explosion caused in both instances when their fundamental conceptions, universally held, were tested against decisive events. It is only from this angle that the criticism of them can be generalized; for the United States only the specific manifestations can be established. (Thus, social democracy is equivalent to coalition, governments with the bourgeoisie; the American social democracy, with all the will in the world, has not yet had the occasion to join a coalition.)

By failing to deal with the two principal labor parties from this angle, the A.W.P. statement not only presents an inadequate and partly false criticism of them, but one which characterizes its dangerous approach to the problem of internationalism.

The Socialist party, it says, is not a party of revolution, but of ineffectual reformism. Yes. But no reference is made to the essential characteristic of present-day socialism: its renunciation of the class struggle and, consequently, acceptance of class collaboration.

In departing from the program of class struggle and revolution, the socialist parties have degenerated into capitalist parties of labor, or more accurately, petty bourgeois labor parties, standing on the foundation and operating within the framework of capitalist democracy.

If the American Socialist party is small and weak today, that does not signify that a social basis does not exist for it (or its successor, or surrogate tomorrow, in the form, say, of a “Labor” or ‘’Farmer-Labor” party) to serve as the main pillar of bourgeois democracy. It is the sheerest self-delusion to imagine that because the American S.P. is small in numbers now, the ideology of social reformism in this country can either be ignored or passed off with an occasional sally. It is true that we hold to the view that the American working class need not necessarily pass through so protracted a reformist stage as did the English or German. Grounds exist for the belief that, given a competent revolutionary party, the period of social reformist influence in the working class can be compressed into a comparatively brief span. But one of the main preconditions for a successful achievement of this desirable aim lies in a clear-cut recognition of the essence of social reformism and a readiness to deal it vigorous and effective blows wherever it takes root.

As the party of petty bourgeois democracy, its alliance with the trade union bureaucracy lies in the very nature of things.

“The Socialist party,” says the statement, “takes cognizance of the workers’ industrial struggles only to the extent of rendering auxiliary relief or publicity services, but in every other way seeks to remain ‘neutral’ in the conflict of ideas, objectives and organizing principles which these struggles so abundantly express or reflect. No large political purposes will ever be achieved by the labor movement if this most powerful base, the industrial struggle, will be left to drift or go in circles, or move intellectually backward. The party’s record in this most important field is further marred (marred? Not at all. Characterized! – S.) by its policy of siding with the conservative as against the progressive forces in every contest in a union for influence or control. It has always wholeheartedly supported the ‘official’ labor leadership and invariably remained ‘neutral’ while progressives and militants fought the stalwart and pure and simple reactionaries.”

S.P. “Neutrality” in the Unions

This passage is either wrong and contradictory, or just plain wrong.

If the S.P. “seeks to remain ‘neutral’ in the conflict”, why does it follow a “policy of siding with the conservative as against the progressive forces in every contest”? Or how has it “invariably remained ‘neutral’ while progressives and militants fought” the reactionaries when it has “always wholeheartedly supported the ‘official’ labor leadership”, i.e., the same reactionaries?

The fact is that by its whole incorrigible nature, the S.P. is not and cannot be neutral in the trade unions, either with or without quotation marks, any more than can the other political groups in the labor movement. “Neutrality” in the trade unions, like its cousin “No politics in the unions”, has always been a pleasant mask behind which reaction fought against awakening class consciousness and against a class struggle policy and leadership. The Socialist party is just about as neutral in the trade unions as are the Communists. Directly and indirectly, the Socialist party is a prop and an ally of every reactionary, bureaucratic, class collaborationist group in the American trade unions in its struggle against the progressive and revolutionary forces. That is how it should be stigmatized.

Why is no mention made of the international connections of the Socialist party? Even for a party whose absorbing concern is with the problems in this country, the Second International is worth something more than one casual and one accidental reference. After all, it does live, and breathe, and poison the atmosphere. The fourth chapter of the statement cites, in curt parentheses, as one of the events which hastened the political evolution of the C.P.L.A. into the A.W.P. the “rise of Hitlerism”. A not unimportant contributor to this rise was the sister organization of the American Socialist party in Germany, that is, in every sense, the Second International as a whole.

A revolutionary program which does not establish the bankruptcy and perfidy of the Second International in the imperialist war and in the post-war revolutionary storms (and it must), might at least record the fact (and the why of it) of the second terrific collapse and treachery of the Second International in Germany in 1933, and the irreconcilability of the revolutionary party with that International, its foundations and ideas. An organization which has proved to be so potent an instrument for the devastation of the world labor movement, cannot be so off-handishly dismissed by the program of a revolutionary party, unless the international aspect of the proletarian struggle for freedom is to be relegated to second, or third, or tenth place, or into an obscurity from which it is to be hauled out on annual holiday celebrations.

There is, unfortunately, a great deal in the A.W.P. statement which lends itself too easily to such a conception. If it should prevail, the results would be little less than fatal. The true revolutionist of today, despite the nationalist reaction which has intoxicated and poisoned whole sections of the labor movement, is like the true revolutionist of yesterday: first and foremost an internationalist.

If this truism is stated so emphatically here, it is because it is all but emphatically (and far from correctly) stated in the document of the A.W.P. The deficiencies of the program in this respect, as shown by the stand taken towards the Stalinist party and the problem of the International, require comment which must be left to another article.

Shachtman button
Max Shachtman
Marx button
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 8 February 2016