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Socialist Appeal, August 1936, Volume 2 No. 07, Page 4-5
Transcribed and Marked Up by Damon Maxwell in 2009 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.

For A Labor Party

By Gus Tyler

NOTE. The Editorial Board is not in agreement with the views expressed by Comrade Tyler. We oppose the idea that revolutionary Socialists should take the lead in building a reformist party. But one of the functions of the Appeal is to discuss freely all the problems confronting the Socialist movement. Comrade Pemble of Minnesota has contributed an article on the same question, which will appear in the next issue. We have also asked comrade James Burnham to write on the same subject.

THE question of a labor party is inherently confusing because in countries of bourgeois democracy the question: What is a party? is not a simple one.

To the Marxist, a working class party is the vanguard of the proletariat and the leader in the Socialist revolution. This means that the Socialist party gives conscious, socialist cohesiveness and direction to the often unconscious, spontaneously inchoate struggles of the masses for certain vital needs. These struggles organized and unorganized, sporadic and protracted, are conducted by trade unions, BY ELECTORAL MACHINES, by unemployed organizations, by student, middle class, and nationalist revolutionary forces. The Socialist party, without imagining that any one of these bodies, and certainly not all of them, is revolutionary in character or purpose, attempts to give form and content to the struggles of these separate bodies as TO RAISE THEIR LEVEL OF CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS or to imbue them with socialist purpose.

To the legalist Socialist, this entire great task of the Socialist party is narrowed down to the important, but narrowly one-sided function of conducting elections. And no matter whether the Socialist party conducts an election for reforms, or for complete Socialism, or for the immediate and unconditional surrender of the capitalist class, so long as it conceives its purpose to be primarily electoral, it is doomed to stagnate in the swamps of reformist impotence, – phrases, program, planks, demands and principles notwithstanding.

Now what is a Labor Party?

Some comrades imagine that a Labor party is synonymous with a reformist Socialist party. While it is true that a Labor party is foredoomed during its period of normal functioning to a reformist policy, one must not forget that there have been and there are reformist Socialist parties which are NOT Labor parties and are even ANTI-Labor-party.

Labor Party an Electoral Instrument

A Labor party is a particular TYPE of party. Essentially, a Labor party is the expression of trade union consciousness when it has reached the political level. This essential feature of a Labor party is reflected both in the organizational structure and the political ideology of a Labor party. It is not a substitute for a revolutionary party; it does not stand in contradiction to a revolutionary party. It bears the same relationship to the revolutionary party on the ELECTORAL field as do the trade unions on the industrial field. I underline “electoral,” because many comrades who have a fairly clear understanding of revolutionary work in trade unions, based not on destroying the trade unions but advancing them, insist that a similar approach can not apply to a Labor party since a Labor party is a POLITICAL competitor. Such comrades, although Marxist, approach the problem from the same viewpoint as the reformists, limiting the essential task of the party to ELECTORAL work, without understanding that at certain times a revolutionary party can best conduct its work by shifting the work of ELECTIONEERING to a mass party of the workers.

I emphasize this point because some comrades of the “left” like some comrades of the “right,” and for the same reason, can only think of building a Labor party in opposition to building a Socialist party, very much as some comrades in the past, and even today, speak of building the party instead of unions, or unemployed leagues, or cultural groups, or student bodies. The very heart of revolutionary mass work resides in the fact that we build the party and we build for Socialism by taking the lead and thereby giving direction to these NON-revolutionary, NON-party mass organizations of struggle. And a Labor party is just such a NON-revolutionary, non-party mass organization of struggle on the electoral front. We can build the S. P. WHILE building and THRU building a Labor party. The S. P. in such a Labor party, of course, maintains its organizational identity and independence.

Labor Party not a People’s Front

Labor parties go under various names nowadays, such as People’s party, Farmer-Labor party, etc. The name is not of primary, altho of some, importance. Essential is the content.

The Labor party in America has been repeatedly discredited because what went under the name of Labor party was really a people’s front party. Such mixed class parties of the “poorer” classes suffered universally from the fact that they could never pursue a consistent course because of the absence of any single dominating class philosophy. They were destroyed by their enemies who took advantage of their non-class outlook to bribe them out of existence with a few reforms; but they were more often destroyed by themselves either thru the clash of internal forces, arising from inherent class antagonisms, once they took power, or from an inability to “take the next step” in any consistent direction once they gained certain immediate demands. These failures, however, were not inherent in the Labor party but in a non-class or middle-class party which went under the false colors of “Labor party.”

Unfortunately, many of our comrades have had to taste the bitter effects of such people’s front affairs in America, especially some middle western states. But such comrades, especially those who are able to distinguish between a people’s front and a labor front in France, should also be able to differentiate between a people’s front and a labor front in Minnesota or Wisconsin or Harlem. Just because the Communists try to wash the united front in the muddy bath of the people’s front is no reason why we, when letting out the muddy waters, should also let the potentially healthy baby go down the drain with the rubbish.

A Labor party in America would mark a great step forward. It would mean that the trade unions, which today control millions of workers and have them dissipate their energies in playing cat and mouse with various capitalist politicians, would declare a political declaration of independence. The organized trade union movement would in bulk action lift the class consciousness of the worker from the purely economic to the political level. If the Socialist party can help act as the lever in this process it has accomplished a colossal task.

But the decisive task is to get organized labor to make a political declaration of independence, not to have it jump out of the non-partisan capitalist frying pan into the class-collaborationist fire of the people’s front.

This formulation of the problem does not imply that a Labor party must be composed solely of proletarian groups whether of the economic or political type. It means that the basic philosophy of the party is that of the class struggle; i.e. a recognition of the fact that although there are more classes than two in present capitalist society the dominant struggle is that between the proletariat and the capitalists. A sound Labor party must be a proletarian class party, not in the sense that every affiliate must be proletarian but in the sense that its class direction must be that of the working class.

Marxists Must Build Labor Party

A Marxist does not wait for things to happen in order to tag along after events. And neither does a Marxist try to create events solely in accord with his own subjective wishes.

Some comrades take the position that they will wait and see whether or not a Labor party is formed. Until it is formed we should openly oppose it. When it is formed we shall try to work with it to expose it.

This position is just confusion worse confounded. It is an expression of theoretical and practical despair.

First, if we openly oppose a Labor party, our orientation can not be to work with or within it once it is formed. Our hostile attitude in the period when it is being formed will close all doors to us.

Second, it is impossible to work within in order to expose, without becoming a hopelessly discredited, sectarian, disruptive force. Every move we make, every statement we issue will hint or state the fact that we are in the Labor party to destroy it. Better to be on the outside, openly fighting it than on the inside with such a crazy policy that makes us hated by our allies and makes us impotent before our enemies.

The hopeless confusion, contradiction, and self negation of this policy which declares that a Labor party is a “backward step with forward implications which we oppose while supporting” arises from the basic confusion of the role of a revolutionary party in a labor electoral machine. More generally stated, the confusion arises from a poor understanding of the subjective role. as it must be played in objective environments.

Positively stated:

A concrete analysis of the American scene will reveal certain historical forces that make a mass Labor party not only possible but likely. Such a Labor party may very well slip into the populist trap. Whether or not it shall do so depends not only on certain objective forces but also on the healthy influence we, as a subjective power, may wield m the movement for a Labor party.

Should we oppose a Labor party, we guarantee in advance that we shall play no decisive part in determining the nature of the Labor party. The party when it develops will be just such a party as we do not want. And in most cases we will find ourselves compelled finally to seek admittance or to be part of just such an undesirable sort of people’s party.

Nature of Labor Party Depends on Socialists

Should we attempt to take the lead in the formation of a Labor party, we will then play a role in determining the nature of such a party. We will not be in the ridiculous position of criticizing a party for certain misshapen features which we helped to create by our own passivity.

Some comrades are frightfully worried that if we press for such a Labor party we shall have to take responsibility for an organization with whose policies we do not agree. May we point out that we as Socialists work with might and main to build and strengthen the American Federation of Labor which has just asked for the withdrawal of recognition from the Soviet Union. May we point out that in ALL our mass work we build organizations with whose program we do not necessarily agree. And a Labor party is one such mass organization, the fact that it is called a PARTY should not fool revolutionaries although it will always bewilder reformists who do not understand the double meaning and function of the word PARTY.

It is shockingly amusing to note the KHVOSTISM of many comrades on the Labor party question. But it is a “left” khvostism. The reformist KHVOSTIST waits for things to happen and then applauds, no matter what it is. The “left” KHVOSTIST waits for things to happen and then moans, groans, and curses the working class for its damned stupidity. The Marxist is not a pedant, either of the Pollyanna or blue-law variety. The Marxist does not rely merely on the spontaneity of the masses nor does he reckon without the spontaneity of the masses. The Marxist attempts to give realistic direction to the spontaneous movements developed by the masses. Unless we understand this we become hopeless sectarians of the “left” or “right” variety.

*  *  *  *

In this article I have dealt with only one aspect of the Labor party question; namely, the relationship between such a party and a revolutionary party which should be a federated body within the Labor party. I have omitted a number of questions for lack of space such as the function of such a party in the present epoch of capitalism, the limitations as well as the powers of such a party, the extent of the NON-electoral activities of a Labor party, the effect of such a party upon the increase in united class action on the part of the trade unions, the value of such a party as an organizing force in the economic field, the agitational value of such a party in forging the bonds of unity between the working class and other classes, groups and individuals in capitalist society. All these questions, which are rich with substance and deserving of separate articles, I have omitted, until some later time perhaps. I have here dealt with what I consider to be the necessary prerequisite in any Labor party discussion; namely, HOW DO WE APPROACH THE PROBLEM. I have tried to outline the APPROACH of revolutionary Marxism in opposition to the approach of parliamentary cretinism and purist sectarianism.

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