Max Shachtman


Prospects for a Labor Party

(February 1937)

Source: Socialist Appeal: An Organ of Revolutionary Socialism, Vol.3 No.2, February 1937, pp.15-16.
Editorial Board: Ernest Erber, Albert Goldman, Rudolph C. Olson.
Transcribed & marked up: Sally Ryan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THOSE WHO look forward to a Labor or Farmer-Labor party development in the United States as the road for the socialist movement, have received three rude blows in almost as many weeks, following the presidential election.

The will-o’-the-wisp hunters have concentrated their hopes upon three sources as the springs from which a Labor party movement would gush forth if only the magic wand was applied with sufficient skill and patience. The oldest is the Farmer-Labor party of Minnesota; then, the Labor Non-Partisan League, and finally, its New York branch, the American Labor party. The elections once over, and the task of all of them successfully completed – namely, herding the labor vote into the corral of the Democratic party – they have, one after another, sprayed the yearning hopefuls with a stiff cold douche.

Let us hear first from Minnesota, remembering that this is not the first time it has rejected the often-proffered crown of “leadership” in the movement for a national Labor or Farmer-Labor party. A recent Federated Press dispatch, which remained unreproduced in the more vociferous organs of Farmer-Laborism (particularly the CP press), reads as follows:

“ST. PAUL (FP)– ‘Attempting to form a national Farmer-Labor party around the election returns of 1936 is ridiculous,’ declares the Minnesota Union Advocate, official organ of St. Paul labor and a mouthpiece for advanced Farmer-Labor opinion. ‘Before Minnesota Farmer-Laborites lend their prestige to the formation of a national party they should first demonstrate to the people of this state the worthiness of their party as a state organization (this task still needs accomplishing after more than a decade of party existence! – M.S.). All that has been achieved came through a coalition with liberal Democrats and Liberal Republicans.”

The item, by itself, would suffice to indicate the prospects for Farmer-Laborism in the coming period. The finality with which hopes are dashed means that the Minnesota people are not acting (or rather failing to act) on their own hook. Beyond any doubt, the confidential conversations that have been going on among our great labor leaders have reached the entirely predictable conclusion concerning the future of a Farmer-Labor party which is voiced in the Advocate editorial.

Confirmation of this is contained in a highly significant article that appears in the December issue of the Jewish Frontier. It is called Is a Labor Party on the Way? and it is written by a man who ought to know – J.B.S. Hardman. Hardman is editor of the official organ of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, and he ought to know this much: just what his superiors, immediate and remote, are planning. And his superiors include, and collaborate with, the rulers of the destiny of the Labor Non-Partisan League – Sidney Hillman, John L. Lewis, and associates. What Hardman writes is what Hillman and Lewis do not find it convenient or necessary to sign their own names to, but what they are nevertheless not loath to have known. It may safely be assumed that in this article, at least, Hardman is unofficial spokesman for the LN-PL officialdom – which is the same as saving, for the LN-PL itself.

“By putting wishful thinking to work,” begins Hardman, “it should be easy to draw a cheerful picture of a labor party rising in the near future, in consequence of the part played by labor in the national election.”

(But Hardman is no wishful-thinker, and he sets right those who are.)

“Labor didn’t enter the campaign for independent political action, but to mobilize labor strength in support of the President. The move had one central political intention: to prepare the justification for a claim of reward, in the form of favorable labor protective legislation, in the eventuality of success. The LN-PL was not intended to be the framework of a labor party. Its essence was and remains – organized labor pressure, during nominations, elections, and in the course of legislative activity, for political support of labor demands. Labor progressives, and this goes for the spokesmen of the Committee for Industrial Organization, view the matter of forming a labor party pragmatically: will it, or will it not, serve the objectives of labor organizations? ... The unqualified, self-denying support given by labor to the President has made the probability of an independent labor party emerging in the near future problematical, to say the least.”

The third blow to Labor partyism is dealt by the private-owned American Labor party of New York. At a recent meeting, it adopted a resolution which forbids the affiliation of other political parties. The decision is of considerable significance. It is aimed primarily not at the Communist party – which has exerted itself so magnificently to prove that it is as conservative and as little to be feared as the ALP bureaucracy itself – but at the Socialist party. The mechanical-minded non-Marxists, who have analyzed the Labor party problem in the United States by abstract analogy and not by an examination of the concrete and specific conditions of time and place, take it for granted that the “coming” Labor party in the United States will, like the British Labor party, not be a direct competitive body, with individual membership branches, but a loose, inclusive, federated party, within which the Socialist party could function freely as the educative Left wing leaven. With these good intentions, they have conceived the role of the SP in the Labor party as a Left wing combatting reformism and class collaboration, unlike the CP role, which is that of a Left wing supporting reformism and class collaboration.

The ALP decision, however, precluded the playing of such a role. In effect, it is an ultimatum to the SP. If you want to play “Labor party politics” with us, you can do so only on condition that you dissolve your party and enter our party on our terms, namely, join as individuals, without an independent program or conception, uncritically, and with the pledge of acquiescence in whatever the private proprietors of our party propose.

How gray and unreal do the Labor party “theories:” which some people suck out of their thumbs, appear when confronted with the cold reality of the nearest thing to a Labor party that has thus far materialized! Those who now advocate that our party members should join the ALP as individuals, are offering us the alluring prospect of dissolving the Socialist party and making its individual constituent parts election trumpeters in 1937 for demagogue LaGuardia for Mayor in the same way that the individual constituent parts of the Stalinist party, which entered the ALP in 1936, became election agents for demagogue Roosevelt for President.

The last refuge of the Farmer-Laborite, harassed by stubborn reality, is the pseudo-Marxian argument: Admitted that the labor officials are reluctant to form a Labor party, isn’t it our task as active revolutionists to carry on a vigorous campaign in labor’s ranks in order to mobilize enough strength to force the unions and their officials to organize a Labor party?

Our task is nothing of the kind! Not only is there every reason to believe that if and when a Labor “party” is formed it will be done only to corral working class votes for a bourgeois party or candidate and to head off the growth of the revolutionary Socialist party (what else was the ALP formed for in New York?), but there is no reason why our party should take the responsibility for initiating, advocating and launching a reformist party, especially one which, under the circumstances, will be a party of individual membership as well.

It is interesting to note that the Socialist party concerned itself greatly with the Labor party question even before the war – in 1909. Although the question of the SP’s attitude toward a Labor Party was more abstract then than it is today – there was even less of a movement for it at that time than now – it is a fact that the period in which we lived three decades ago, offered more objective arguments for a Labor Party than are present today.

Hillquit on Labor Party

The editors of the International Socialist Review of that period circularized the candidates for the National Executive Committee of the party with the question whether or not they favored the merging of the SP with a Labor party. It is highly interesting to record the fact that, whatever the replies were, not one responsible comrade advocated that the SP or its members should help initiate a non-socialist, i.e., a reform party. The militant spirit in the party made such a position untenable. In fact, the only point of disagreement revolved around this question: If a Labor party should be formed by other forces (and not by us!) what should be the attitude of our Socialist party toward it? And this was and remains the only way the question of a Labor party can and should be posed by Marxists.

For obvious reasons, the reply of Morris Hillquit to the circular question is of special interest. I give it in full:

“Your question is purely academic. We have no Labor party in this country, and, as far as I know, there are no present indications of a movement to create one. Should our trade unions, contrary to general expectations, constitute themselves into a political party within the new future, the Socialist party will have to determine its attitude towards it in national convention or by referendum vote. The incoming National Executive Committee will have no power to formulate the policy of the party, and it matters little whether the members of the committee as such ‘favor’ or ‘oppose’ a merger of the Socialist party with a hypothetical Labor party.

“My personal views on the general question are, briefly stated, as follows: The main object of the Socialist party is to organize the workingmen of this country into a class conscious, independent political party. If our movement is to succeed at all, this object must be accomplished, and I am not worrying very much about the manner and form of the accomplishment. It would, of course, be preferable to organize the working class of America within the Socialist party: this would ensure permanent soundness and clearness of the movement. If, however, the organized workers of the country, independent of our desires and theories, should form a party of their own, a bona-fide and uncompromising working class political party on a national scale, I believe the logical thing for our party to do, would be to cooperate with such a party. I would not favor a complete merger in any case, because as long as the assumed Labor party would not be thoroughly socialistic, our party would still have an important mission to perform, even more so than now. On the other hand, if such Labor party should proceed on the theory of class harmony, enter into alliances with middle-class reform movements, and be reactionary in its general character, I would consider it very unwise on the part of our party to abandon or even to modify our policy of independent socialist politics. But all this is today mere speculation. What confronts us today is not a political Labor party, but a mass of workingmen, organized and unorganized, supporting the capitalist parties, and, whatever the future may hold in store for us, our present duty is to wean these workers from the politics of their masters, to instill in them a spirit of class consciousness and an appreciation of the socialist philosophy. This work should be done with far greater intensity, regularity and planfulness than heretofore, and this policy I will favor, if re-elected as a member of the National Executive Committee” (International Socialist Review, Vol.X No.7, Jan. 1910, pp.601f. – My emphasis, M.S.).

Whatever may be said about the defects in Hillquit’s Marxism – and they were neither few nor unimportant – his 1909 statement on the question of a Labor party is essentially sound, even exemplary, today. The party – to say nothing of the revolutionary Marxists within it – could do worse than adopt the Hillquit position of 1909 as its own. Its correctness has been confirmed by events; in its turn it confirms our view that the arguments of the consistent Left wingers in the party are not a product of “sectarianism,” but are entirely in accord with the best traditions of revolutionary Marxism in the movement.

Max Shachtman

Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 15.4.2005