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Socialist Alternative, October 1936, Volume 2 No. 9, Pages 13-15
Transcribed, Edited and Formatted by Damon Maxwell and David Walters in 2008 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.

Should Socialists Work for a Labor Party?

[NOTE: Comrade Tyler’s article on behalf of the idea that Socialists must help build a Labor party, published in the August issue of the APPEAL, brought four replies. We published Comrade Burnham’s answer in the last issue. Since all of the articles submitted contained many arguments which are similar we have deemed it advisable to print excerpts of two of the articles in this issue and of the other two in the next issues. We hope that those who favor Comrade Tyler’s viewpoint will submit their contributions to the discussion.

John Stirling is the pseudonym of a comrade who has been active in the party for quite a few years. He was a delegate to the Cleveland Convention.]


THOSE party members who conceive it to be the duty of the Socialist party to create a Labor party are unanimous in regarding it (they have their own definite antecedent for it) as a step toward the conquest of power, and, in particular, as the next step. This Labor party we are to work within, as a federated member. It is the Eagle Brand milk that will wean the workers from the dugs of the capitalist parties to the strong diet of the revolutionary struggle. We are to build it, even though we disagree with its formulation of principles, we are to lavish our precious efforts on its objectives and are to steer it away from the pitfalls of the People’s Front. We can’t build our own party just now –except in a purely organizational way; the only alternatives are to build the Labor party or to sit idly by and watch history make our decisions for us. So Gus Tyler. I suspect that the alternative is not an alternative at all, that the former course is the contemporary version of the latter, but let us assume that they are alternatives. Are they then exhaustive of the possibilities? Some of us think they are not.

*  *  *  *

The Labor Party, says Tyler, is “the expression of trade union consciousness when it has reached the political level.” He should have said an expression. Since the fate of the working class depends on just how that consciousness is developed, Tyler’s loose expression is indicative of a fundamentally false approach. Is the Labor Party an expression of political consciousness that we want to encourage or not? This is the nub of the whole question, and we must stop awhile at this point and not simply rehearse a syllogism to the effect that unionism expresses itself in the Labor Party, we are for unionism, therefore we are for the Labor Party.

*  *  *  *

We all believe in fostering independent political action on the part of the trade unions. Comrade Gross on behalf, of the Labor resolution at Cleveland, reiterated the sentiments of all of us, in holding this to be a separate question from that of the Labor party.

This is admittedly advocacy of a working-class party; it does not involve support of, but rather opposition to, a labor party, handed down from above. It means first and foremost uncompromising opposition to our leading Labor party, Labor’s Non-Partisan League for Roosevelt. At present, the purposes of Lewis and Hillman are served by swinging labor behind Roosevelt; in 1940 or 1944 (if we carry on our agitational work in the unions as we should) they, or their successors, will try more extreme measures. If, in view of the rising tide of revolt among the rank-and-file, an endorsement of a Republican or Democrat is impossible, an unmasked Labor party will come on the field, with hand-picked candidates, to keep the workers from supporting the Socialist party. Already, in many localities, labor parties are being formed by trade union bureaucrats in an attempt to forestall any determined swing to the left. Trade union leaders are not slow in learning the possibilities of a Labor party as a means of holding onto power for a while longer; in this respect it is ominous that the same John L. Lewis who leads an emancipatory movement, the C.I.O., holds a halter behind his back, Labor’s Non-Partisan League for Roosevelt, with which to head the young colt into sate pastures.

*  *  *  *

Tyler is utterly wrong when he says that the Labor party “bears the same relationship to the revolutionary party on the electoral field as do the trade unions on the industrial field.” The electoral field, for Socialists has but one use, to serve as a recurrent forum in which the socialist analysis of capitalism, of recent events, of trends and the inseparable question of the seizure of power by the working class can be driven home to large sections of the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie. The Labor party, like the other capitalist parties, like also the Communist party of the present has but one use, to befog the issues in a thick smoke of misleading programs, false hopes and deceptive personalities. The Labor party is one more refinement in capitalist electioneering, with which we should have nothing to do ourselves, and which we should expose to the workers.

*  *  *  *

How then are we to put up with the Labor party? Are we to gnash our teeth in outer darkness, while expert architects of labor parties, say the Stalinists, travel the high road of revolutionary success? No, we spend no time wailing over lost opportunities, but we do not confound the tombstones of past failures with the sign-posts of new opportunities. Granted, that my union has not only gone on record favoring a Labor party, but, over my opposition, is involved in the construction of one. In view of the fact that I and my fellow Socialists have forewarned the brothers, there can be no misunderstanding if we work, loyally abiding by the rule of the majority, for the Labor party’s candidates, at the same time criticizing its program. We are in the unions, after all—if we aren’t, the entire question of socialism is but of academic interest—and no power on earth can keep us out of the Labor party, the inadequacies of which we constantly expose. Psychologically, we may be suspect in many quarters—what revolutionary can afford the luxury of pleasing everybody, or can even escape the distrust of many who will later be loyal comrades?

If our position has been made clear in advance, how obviously loyal we have been to the trade union struggle in giving critical support to its abortively formulated objectives! Then, when the time of awakening comes, we will deserve and will get the only confidence worth anything—trust in our revolutionary integrity. Coincident with the work of Socialists, or Socialist Leagues, in the trade unions, indeed the presupposition of it, the party, whether as federated member of the Labor party or not, but presumably not, both carries to the masses the agitation for conquest of power by the proletariat, and tells them, for the present, to vote for the Labor party’s candidates. Only if the party’s revolutionary stand is clear, only if the program of the Labor party is mercilessly criticised, can our stand in support of its candidates be unequivocally and uncompromisingly made. The trade union bureaucrats running for office will be infuriated, but they can no more avoid our support than could Hoan the (more enthusiastic) support of the Communists in the Milwaukee elections.

Trotsky has reminded us that the famous slogan of Danton, De l’audace, toujours de Faudace, et encore de l’audace must be the motto of a revolutionary party. The second commandment is like unto the first, and it reads, De la verite, toujours de la verite, et encore de la verite, which is to say: the truth, at all times the truth, and yet again the truth.


THE BELIEF in the inevitability of a national Farmer-Labor Party is sometimes based on nothing more than the vulgar interpretation of history by the method of uncritical analogy. In other countries, notably in Great Britain, the Labor Party has represented a stage in the separation of the working class from the capitalist political parties and the movement toward independent class action. Ergo, the same process must be repeated in the United States where the bulk of the workers are still attached to the two old political parties. This method of political analysis ignores the vast changes in the character of capitalism since the formation of the British Labor Party and similar parties. Rising capitalism was the classic period of reformism. In the period of declining capitalism, the decaying capitalism of today, reformism is domed to futility. Moreover, the workers are not foredoomed to go through this stage, but under the impact of rapidly changing events can move directly into the revolutionary stage. A number of factors indicate an acceleration of the class struggle in the United States: the split in the A. F. of L., the organization drive of the CIO, the reflection of events in Spain and France, the possibility of war and of a new economic crisis, to mention only a few. On the other hand, the factors which appear to point to the development of a Labor party may very well prove to be temporary and partial. Aside from the frenzied incantations of the Communists, there is the existence of a number of state farmer-labor parties, the attempt to form local or state labor parties, and the passing of resolutions by various trade union organizations. None of these are new phenomena; the rapid growth of a revolutionary movement would soon sweep them all into the dustbin of history. The powerful bloc of unions joined in Labor’s Non-Partisan League has indeed promised a “new political alignment” in 1940. But tied to Roosevelt’s kite as it is, it too will be swept aside as a result of the inevitable disillusionment of the workers with Roosevelt.

The future of reformism, of a Labor party, is by no means a matter of inexorable historical development. The economic crisis of capitalism disturbs the political equilibrium which prevails in “normal” times and produces new political alignments. But this process is not a mechanical one; it takes on the most diverse rhythms and the most variegated forms. The role of the vanguard party is of decisive importance in canalizing the awakening consciousness of the working class into revolutionary paths.

A mass Labor party is by no means inevitable. But even if it is, that is no indication that Socialists must take the leadership in building such a party. The failure to do so will not be detrimental to the future of the Socialist Party; in fact, it will be quite the contrary. The sole perspective for the Socialist Party, in case a Labor party is formed, need not be that of working within such a party. There are numerous variant tactics; but if necessary, Socialists can and will find a way to work in the reformist party.

Two Testing Grounds: Wisconsin and Minnesota

It is precisely at this point that the experiences of Wisconsin and Minnesota afford such rich and instructive contrasts. To be sure, it would take a long stretch of the imagination to call the Wisconsin Socialist party a revolutionary party. Its socialism is of the predominantly municipal socialist variety, reformist in character. Naturally it is for socialism, but much in the same way as devout believers are for heaven. In this respect it differs little from other reformist parties, such as the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party which believes that "natural resources and monopolized industries essential to our national life and well being must ultimately be collectively and democratically controlled and operated. ...” (Emphasis not in original). Like the latter, its methods and program do not extend beyond what is possible within the framework of the existing order. It thus fails to organize its followers and to educate its supporters to the necessity of overthrowing capitalism. It fosters the fatal illusion that the capitalist state can be used to secure an amelioration in the condition of the exploited. It is thus in essence reformist. Its task in joining the Farmer-Labor Progressive Federation was not that of reconciling a revolutionary party with a reformist party, but that of combining its own special brand of reformism with that of a newer brand.

The Farmer-Labor and Progressive Federation, was formed in the latter part of 1935 by the coming together of nine economic and political groups: the Wisconsin State Federation of Labor, the Railroad Brotherhoods, Farmer’s Equity Union, Wisconsin Co-operative Milk Pool, Wisconsin Farm Holiday Association, Wisconsin Worker’s Alliance, Socialist Party, Progressive Party and the Farmer-Labor Progressive League. The State Federation of Labor for 15 years had passed resolutions favoring independent political action. In addition, as stated in the Declaration of Principles, adopted at Milwaukee, Nov. 30—Dec. 1, 1935, the Federation was an outgrowth of the discontent of the workers and farmers with the reactionary actions of the 1935 state legislature. The Federation thus represented the development of an additional mass of workers to the position of working-class reformism, a position which the Wisconsin party had long held. Under the circumstances there could be no valid reasons why the S.P. should stay out of the Federation. It is true than only with some difficulty did it manage to get inserted into the declaration of principles a condemnation of the present system and a declaration that “this farmer-labor federation proposes to change the present economic system based primarily on production for profit to an economic system based primarily on production for use.” This statement of intentions is left suspended in mid-air. Nowhere is there any statement of how such a system can be attained. For the most party the platform is a collection of contradictory immediate demands. It fosters every reformist illusion. Practically everything is to be attained through legislation. The 1935 platform includes a section on “War.” The latter is to be prevented by government manufacture and sale of munitions and armaments “so that none may profit from human slaughter,” by a referendum to determine if the people want war, and by “life imprisonment for bankers and newspaper owners connected with foreign governments financially or otherwise who use their businesses to advocate our entrance into any foreign conflict,” etc.!

Inevitably, in such a party, the center of gravity must prove to be the conservative and even reactionary forces. This was abundantly illustrated at the June 1936 convention of the Federation at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The convention met in order to endorse candidates and draw up an election program. On the insistence of Governor LaFollette and his progressive followers, the “production for use” plank was clarified, i.e., omitted from the platform. Then the Governor refused to join the Federation or abide by its discipline. The constitution required that only members be endorsed. Obligingly, the convention omitted to endorse any candidate leaving the field open to LaFollette. Of course all these incidents are of minor significance as compared with the character of the party. Moreover, the Socialist party does not play a progressive role within the federation because it is not itself revolutionary. And if it were, it probably could not stay in the Federation very long. As it is, the Socialist Party has for the most part given up independent activity on a state-wide basis.

Attitude of Minnesota S. P. to F. L. P.

The Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota has had a much longer existence, almost a decade and a half, than the Wisconsin Federation. Both the Communist and Socialist parties took an active part in the formation and building of the Farmer-Labor party. Moreover, they sincerely believed in it as a necessary and progressive step. Yet, here too, conservatism proved to be the center of gravity. The Communists and Socialists soon lost their freedom of agitation within the Farmer-Labor Party. The Socialist party, particularly, thereafter became a mere shell of an organization. It considered its function as that of educating the members of the Farmer-Labor party for socialism. This was mere self-deception. The Socialist party as such carried little weight in the Farmer-Labor party. It supported the party uncritically. Occasionally it made sporadic attempts to assert its independence by running one or more candidates.

But now there is a new and different Socialist party in Minnesota. At its last State convention it adopted tactics and a platform which show its revolutionary character. The platform aptly characterizes the role of the Farmer-Labor party. “The Farmer-Labor party of Minnesota, though based on workers’ and farmers’ organizations is not, however, the expression of workers and farmers independent political action. Controlled by small bankers, contractors, drug store proprietors, lawyers and political office seekers, the Farmer-Labor party dickers with the old capitalist parties, and in the present election is supporting the candidate of the Democratic Party, Roosevelt ..... The bulk of its activities result in the preservation of the profit system; that is the protection of the interests of the employers as a class ..... the Farmer Labor party can give no significant reforms to the masses.” The platform points out that although “the Minnesota Farmer-Labor party bi-annually adopts a radical program for the ‘cooperative commonwealth’,” it “in practice has not and cannot give any security to the workers and farmers of Minnesota. Even its program of reforms, which in themselves cannot solve the needs of the producers, can only be achieved by the independent actions of the organized toilers against the employing class.” .... “The Socialist party has confidence that only a revolutionary Socialist party can in reality champion the immediate and ultimate needs of the toilers.”

Thus, the Minnesota Socialist party has turned over a new leaf. Unflinchingly it paints the Farmer-Labor party in its true colors. It exposes the illusions of reformism. It calls upon the workers to build the Socialist party as the sole instrument of their emancipation. Further, the Socialist party declares its independence of the Farmer-Labor party.

“The Socialist party can be responsible only for members of its own organization; that is Socialists who accept the revolutionary program and are disciplined fighters in the every day struggle of the toilers. Thus we can accept no responsibility for those elected on a Farmer-Labor ticket. On the contrary, in view of the program and record of the Farmer-Labor party, we urge the greatest amount of vigilance in compelling these officials to carry out their election pledges for the defense of civil liberties and for the passage of social legislation.”

Critical Support

It would be wrong to conclude from this that the logical thing for the Minnesota S.P. to do would be to run a full slate of candidates against the F.L.P. This may be impeccable logic in the abstract; but it has nothing to do with the dynamics of class forces. The S.P. criticizes the F.L.P. in unmitigated terms, and yet at the same time it gives it support. “The Socialist party,” declares the platform, “is not placing a full slate in the field this year against the Farmer-Labor party. While we conduct an independent election campaign, and have no relations with the Farmer-Labor party, we urge you to vote for Farmer-Labor candidates where no Socialist candidate appears on the ballot.” (The S.P. is running a single candidate, for Secretary of State.) The S.P. gives the F.L.P. every opportunity to come to office and prove to the workers that the S.P. is right. At the same time it signalizes its independence by running a candidate for minor office. It does this not because it is weak, rather the S.P. is weak today (in comparison to the F.L.P.) because of its own past mistakes and because the great mass of the workers still believe in the possibility of securing reforms through the reformist parties. These workers will not change their opinions merely as a result of agitation alone. Agitation will help. But they need to go through the experience with reformism. The object of the Socialist party should be to abbreviate as much as possible this stage in the development of the working class. Having gone through this experience, these masses will all the more readily believe in the correctness of the socialist analysis. But there is every indication that vast sections of the working class will move almost directly from their present political backwardness to a revolutionary position. The best guarantee that this will be the case is the organization of the revolutionary vanguard, day in and day out!

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