A. Thalheimer

Book Reviews

John Pepper: For a Labor Party

(2 August 1923)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 3 No. 54 [32], 2 August 1923, pp. 581–582.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

John Pepper
“For a Labor Party”. Recent Revolutionary Changes in American Politics
Published by Workers Party of America. 799 New York City

Comrade John Pepper has recently published, through the Workers’ Party of America, a booklet which is intended to prepare the ground for the formation of a labor party in America which will embrace all the elements of the labor movement which stand for an independent proletarian class party, and which shall also rope in the proletarian and semi-proletarian farmer elements. The booklet has already run into a second edition, the first edition having been published in October of last year in anticipation of the Cleveland Conference on the 11th of December 1922, on the agenda of which there also stood the question of the formation of a labor party. The present edition was issued in view of the new conference of the 3rd of July last.

This booklet by Comrade Pepper, while serving the immediate purpose of facilitating the formation of a labor party as mentioned above, at the same time provides a very clear and thorough analysis of the relationships of the classes in America, which is of very great interest to the European working class. America is a country where the capitalist system stands on the most solid basis and still, apparently, possesses unlimited possibilities. In the course of the World Revolution, America will certainly form the strongest bulwark of counter-revolution. Finally, America is the country which is on the way to becoming the strongest imperialist power, and which already, in spite of her official policy of non-intervention in European affairs, [illegible] her net over all lands and seas. For the foregoing reason [illegible] of the utmost importance that the working class acquire exact knowledge of the class relationships and of the tendencies in the development of the classes in this capitalist Colossus. Such a knowledge reveals to us that this Colossus by no means consists of one compact mass, as is generally assumed in the West, but that already, elements of social disintegration are to be seen. Americans like to prate of gigantic figures and huge standards generally. As a matter of fact, things in America are on a far vaster scale and proceed at a much quicker rate than we are accustomed to in our narrow and Balkanised Europe, and we should be committing a great error were we to estimate the pace and the extent of social movements and developments in America by the diminutive European standards. This is not only an account of the extent of the country, but is due before all to her relative freedom from those traditions which check and hamper the broad masses in Europe. America is a young nation with a working class which is still in the early stage of development.

The writer examines in the first place the question as to how it is that, hitherto, all “Third Parties” which have arisen in addition to the two old parties – the democratic and the republican party – after a short time, during which they grew into more or less great mass parties, have, in one way or another, only disappeared. Comrade Pepper gives a short, but nevertheless a most striking analysis of these parties, which serves to fully explain why this is bound to be the case. Viewed outwardly, we see that all these Third Parties have arisen in a period of economic depression, have reached their culminating point during the recurrence of the economic crisis, only to disintegrate with the return of a period of prosperity. This is the historical law which has hitherto governed these third parties, the first of this series of third parties was the Greenback party (Greenback is a popular name for the dollar note), so called because it fought for a reform of the currency which should bring about a reduction of the farmers’ debts. The party united the petty bourgeoisie and farmers, while later on workers joined it. The party was formed during the economic crisis of 1873, which, as is known, extended to 1880. The party gained about 82,000 votes in 1876, and in 1878 one million votes; but the prosperity which set in in 1880 destroyed it. In 1884 it could only command 175,000 votes.

There followed the “Knights of Labor”. This party appeared in 1880 as a sect of no importance, but in 1884, a year of economic panic, it rose to more than 60,000 members, reaching its culmination in 1886 with more than 700,000 members and about 6,000 local groups. The period of prosperity, beginning in 1887, led to the decline of the party, which in 1889 had only 220,000 members.

Thirdly, there appeared the People’s Party. It traces its birth to the economic depression arising in 1800, reaching its highest strength in the year 1894 when it received more than one million and a half votes. The period of prosperity following destroyed its independence, and it joined the democratic party as its left wing. In the year 1900, when “prosperity was in full swing”, this party had disappeared entirely, even as the left wing of the Democratic Party.

The Progressive Party dates back to the crisis of 1907–1908. In 1909, the “National Progressive Republican League” was founded. A similar movement manifested itself in the democratic party as the “Democratic Federation”. In 1912 an independent “Progressive Party” was founded, which immediately grew to a great mass-party, it received 4 millions votes from farmers, lower middle class, and workers, while at the same time the Socialist Party gained nearly a million votes. In 1916, during the great prosperity engendered by the war, the progressive party again disappeared.

The writer reveals quite correctly the causes of this phenomenon. All these parties were essentially petty bourgeois parties. Hence their vacillating and ambiguous character, their rapid rise in the periods of crisis, and equally rapid absorption by tbe great capitalist parties in the period of prosperity. The enormously rapid rate in the development and downfall of these parties seems to depend not only on their petty bourgeois character in general, tut on the specifically American character of the petty bourgeoisie, i.e., the tremendous class fluctuations within the American petty bourgeoisie. The American petty bourgeoisie, the principal masses of which are small and middling farmers, are changing at an immensely rapid rate in their personal composition, owing to emigration, changing from farming to industry, from industry to farming, through rising into the large bourgeois class or sinking down to the proletariat or down to the slum proletariat etc. Special causes for the rapid decay of these petty bourgeois parties are, beside the looseness of organization, the want of a fixed economic organizatory basis, and the utopian, confused and contradictory character of their programs. Hence with all these parties the time strived when they were taken in low by the capitalist leaders ruling both the old parties. Either their leaders were bought, or their programs were annexed.

The author has shown by this analysis that the mistrust of Ihe American workers in the existence of Third Parties is quite justified in regard to the former petty bourgeois parties. He shows, however, that all the causes which were responsible for the rapid disorganization of the petty bourgeois parties, would not apply to a workers’ party, to a party relying upon the working class and including the small tenant farmers and the mortgage farmers and in which the working class has the lead. The writer considers that the trade-unions should be the organizatory foundation of this party. He declares the present moment of transition from the period of crisis to that of prosperity, to be especially favourable for the formation of a workers’ party.

The writer then proceeds to the pre-requisites for the formation of a workers’ party in the foregoing sense. Two underlying facts are to be noticed which are highly important for the further development of the class struggle in America.

The first is the development of a centralized governmental power, an extensive state-bureaucracy. America has been up to now, and remains even so today for Karl Kautsky, the example of a democracy without bureaucracy and with a far-reaching local autonomy. Kautsky has been dozing during the development of America in the last few years. The non-bureaucratic, decentralized American democracy is already a thing of the past. It was, before all, the world war which swept away this old idyllic democracy and created the modern, centralized state, administered in a bureaucratic manner and protected by militarism. The great war brought about an enormous extension of the presidential power, a centralized governmental control of the whole industrial life (ship building, manufacture of munitions, coal, raw products of all kinds), the centralized governmental administration of railways and telegraphs, enforced labor in the war industries, the espionage act, the censor, a gigantic army and an equally gigantic bureaucracy.

The figures relating to the number of government employees are especially interesting. In 1884, the state bureaucracy had only 13,780 officials, but 278,000 in 1912, 440,000 in 1916 and 918,000 in 1918. At the end of the war, bureaucracy was again reduced to about 600,000 numbers, but its nature remained; the bureaucratic centralization has remained; the railroads have been given back to their private owners, but state control has been retained. At present we have the interference of the centralized Government as arbitrator in workers’ quarrels and as tighter for the interests of the employers in strikes.

The formation of a centralized state power in opposition to the working class is one of tie conditions for the formation of a centralized proletarian class party. A second fact is the levelling down of the American working class. The differences between skilled and unskilled, between American and immigrant workers are being obliterated. Of special importance in America up till now was the difference between the native American workers and the immigrant European workers, which often coincided with the difference between skilled and unskilled workers. The war has enabled the great masses, especially the unskilled immigrant workers employed in the metal industry, to approximate their standard of life to that of the old workers’ aristocracy. There is no longer any question of these masses going into agriculture. The land is already occupied. These masses, coming for the greater part from the East and South of Europe, descendants of peasants, half-peasants or petty bourgeoisie, are crowded together in enormous factories, transplanted into completely new conditions, and form the soil of the revolutionary development in America.

Further, the writer points out that under the pressure of capitalist concentration on the one land, and of the social pressure of the working class and petty bourgeoisie on the other, the old capitalist parties are decaying and the soil is being prepared for the formation of parties according to the altered social structure, i.e., a conservative reactionary capitalist party, including the reactionary elements of the democratic and republican party, a petty bourgeois radical party and finally a labor party. The writer considers that the conference of the 3rd of July will provide half a million of members at the very start. If this should be the case, it would betoken an immense progress, the beginning of independent action within the American working class. The American development is of special interest to the European workers. With the rapidly increasing capitalist concentration, with the growth of American forms of capitalism in Western Europe, there develops at the same time the American form of the class struggle: before all in the economic field as recent strike movements have already shown.

We recommend this excellent booklet to the thorough study of all comrades.

Last updated on 3 September 2022