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Socialist Appeal, February 1937, Volume 3 No. 2, Pages 17-19
Transcribed, Edited and Formatted by Damon Maxwell in 2008 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.

Should Socialists Build a Farmer-Labor Party?


THIS ARTICLE is written, in part, as a case study of developing opinion on the question of a Labor or Farmer-Labor party. I have been, and still am, extremely interested in the question having served on the 1934-35 sub-committee of the National Executive Committee which was to “survey the possibilities for a Farmer-Labor party in the United States,” and having reported and argued for the majority resolution passed at the Cleveland Convention.

Since then events have served to shake my convictions but, up to the present, I have not joined in the discussion carried on in the pages of the APPEAL because, frankly, I had not made up my mind.

My interest in the Farmer-Labor party question, prior to Cleveland, arose out of a strong feeling that the general attitude of the party membership was one of contented isolation from the labor movement and from the broad problems of the working class. They just didn’t want to be disturbed in their little round of meetings and self-congratulation on being brighter than other people. As a consequence, when any sort of phoney move like Epic or even the Coughlin and Townsend affairs came along, whole sections of our membership decided that the Farmer-Labor party had come .in all its glory and went over to it without a struggle. The general party policy was one of ignoring the problem and the membership was thoroughly unprepared to deal with it when it became an immediate issue. Therefore I felt that to overcome isolation and to give at least some basis for action in relation to moves for mass working class political action we should face the question squarely and, above all, lay down definite conditions which would define the minimum basis for “genuineness” in a Labor or Farmer-Labor party.

Effect of Cleveland Resolution

As a matter of fact, the actual conditions of the Cleveland Resolution would brand every existing setup as ineligible for our support. Certainly the action of the NEC in sanctioning the alliance of the Wisconsin party with the Wisconsin Farmer-Labor Progressive Federation is in direct conflict with the instructions of the Convention.

This is but one of a number of instances which have made it obvious that the effect of the resolution on the party membership has been very different from that which we who supported it had hoped. Generally, the conditions have been ignored and the resolution taken as a blanket endorsement of any and every sort of Farmer-Labor party, local or national.

Moreover a tendency already present before Cleveland among a large section of party members seems to have been accentuated by the Convention action. Many of our people have come to regard the Farmer-Labor party as an infinitely more desirable ALTERNATIVE to the Socialist party. They look forward to the day when they will belong to what they think of as a real movement and are in the meantime restless and inactive in the Socialist party. The fact that this attitude exists is a severe criticism of the training and education in the party in the recent past.

To bring out this same point from another angle, take the contrast between Socialist activity in the trade union movement before the war and at present. From what I have read, Socialists in local and national trade unions and at every annual Convention of the A.F. of L. made major fights on straight socialist resolutions, that is on resolutions calling for the socialization of industry and direct endorsement of the Socialist party program and candidates. So far as I know no such resolutions have been introduced in recent conventions of the A.F. of L. Instead our people have fought for a Labor-party resolution as the solution for labor’s political problems. There can only be one conclusion from this.^ We have lost confidence and trust in our own organization, or at least trust in its appeal to the trade unions. Certainly this is an unhealthy attitude. If we are right the Socialist party comes first, any sort of secondary mass organization afterwards.

Just as at Cleveland felt that our contented isolation required an emphasis on our relations to the mass organizations and the workers, I now feel that we must emphasize above all the absolute necessity of no compromise of our own organization or its principles in those relations.

Labor Party in California

I think too that we must recognize that the practical perspectives for a mass Labor party are much less favorable than they were last May.

Perhaps it is best to begin with the California situation. There is no Farmer-Labor party in existence in this state. The Communists are, of course, for one and have called all sorts of conferences, which because of their strength in the State, have made quite a bit of noise. I attended the more important of them as an official observer and none has had any real backing from either labor or farmers. Another group interested, but somewhat dampened by the Communist ardor, is the Progressive party group, affiliated with Douglas’s Commonwealth Federation in representing the best elements left over from Epic. They are however equally without labor or farm influence. The Social Democratic Federation would like to form another American Labor party here but it, too, is isolated. There has been some rumor of action from within the State Federation of Labor but, in my opinion, it will be a long time before anything actually happens.

There was no Farmer-Labor party candidate in the field in 1936. I think that there is definitely less sentiment in California labor and farm ranks for such a party than there was a year or two years ago. There are three clear reasons for this. One is that the Roosevelt-is-our-salvation campaign has had its effect. Second is that the C.P. while successful in roping in a lot of liberals, has scared off or soured most of the genuine progressives in the labor and farm workers movements. Third the complete failure and collapse of Epic has shattered the illusions of many previous supporters of the “revolution by the back door.”

The attitude of our own party membership has been influenced tremendously by these events and, also, by contact with recruits from the Workers party. At present the majority is probably opposed to taking the lead in, or assisting in the formation of, a national labor or farmer-labor party. They are certainly opposed to any state adventure.

All the news we have received from the West and mid-West has indicated a swing similar to that in California. I sincerely believe that this swing is less a consequence of the activities of the former members of the WP than it is of conclusions drawn from the actual experience of the campaign. The use of the CIO and the American Labor party as Parley stooges, the Minnesota experience and, particularly out here, what has happened in Wisconsin have made even the most ardent Farmer-Laborites is pull up and take stock.

In Wisconsin so far as we can learn we lost a weekly paper a large number of members, considerable morale among the members who remained, the chance of electing Congressmen under the party name, and, above all, the respect that we did have among the mass organizations in Wisconsin because our program stood out from all the rest. In return what did we gain? We did not even gain votes for municipal and congressional candidates. The attracting power of the progressive label for our own candidates seems to have been actually less than that of the Socialist party. You don’t have to be a Trotskyist to wonder what the point of all that is.

More, I’m beginning to seriously doubt the possibility of a program mid-way between what the New Deal, whether or not Roosevelt is its candidate has to offer and the straight Socialist program. The New Deal politicians have proven themselves quite clever enough to rope in the liberals and the labor skates. I see no particular reason why they cannot continue to do so. What is there less than a straight Socialist conviction which can expose the New Deal for what it is, a very clever bulwark for capitalism? If there is nothing then trying to conjure up a less than Socialist Farmer-Labor party is chasing rainbows.

Argument for Labor Party

However, supposing that, even in this late stage of the decline of capitalism, there is a possibility of an independent non-socialist mass working class political organization from which we could not afford to be isolated, we must ask ourselves just what our work would be.

The argument for helping to organize the Farmer-Labor party is very familiar to me because it was my own up till a few months ago, but just in case I may be a little rusty let me quote it as quite ably put in a personal letter from Alfred Baker Lewis, State Secretary of Massachusetts:

“If we are clear that we must be in such a party when and if one is formed, I think it is plain that the party will be less unsatisfactory from our point of view if we will take the initiative among those actively working to have it launched. Any such party to be worth while must be based on and controlled by the unions and cut loose from the old Parties. Preferably, it should be a federated party but it is unlikely that we will be able to get that, and if the party meets the two other conditions, I think we should accept individual members in it. We may lose some of the more weak-kneed Socialists in it as is the case now in Wisconsin, but the members we will have left will be those who are more than ever able to carry on work for the fundamental principles of Socialism., and more controlled by organized labor or a substantial section of it, it seems that the fight for Socialism is then carried on within a working class organization, and if we have any confidence in our principles we can expect much more rapid progress.

“The only difficulty about your position is that if we take a very grudging attitude towards a Labor party or Farmer-Labor party and do not work actively for forming it, in the sense of propagandizing for the idea within the ranks of organized labor, we are almost certain to have forced on us a more unsatisfactory party than would otherwise be the case, or even a party which would not want us at all. Between Catholic trade unionists who are otherwise militant in straight trade union action and labor bureaucrats, we might get people starting a Farmer Labor party who would then say ‘Hell, we got a party without the Socialists, and why should we let them in,’ especially now that our vote has declined.”

This argument brings out a point which should be noted before proceeding further. The majority of the party which is broadly termed “the left-wing” differs, of course, in clarity; but it has only one vital difference on the fundamentals of this question. We are generally agreed that we cannot be isolated from the genuinely mass labor political party, that such a party in a pro-revolutionary situation will be essentially reformist, and that the Socialist party must therefore maintain its organizational independence in order to present the strongest possible opposition based upon the full revolutionary socialist position. Our vital difference is on immediate tactics, should we assist or oppose the formation of national and local labor parties? It is on this question that I reverse my previous position. The essentials for the argument for assisting formation have been given. Let me number my present objections to it. 1. It is not crystal clear that we must be in such a party when and if one is termed. If the party gives no opportunity for maintaining and propagandizing for our own position we should not be in it To accept Lewis’s premise is to accept the position that we would be willing to sacrifice our program for contact with the masses. Contact without program has no value or meaning except in the negative sense. We would be vastly more :isolated” with our hands and tongues tied as the price of admission to a Farmer-Labor party than we are at present or would be outside of it altogether. (The apparent trend of the American Labor party makes this consideration a concrete and immediate one).

Will Labor Party Admit Us?

2. The second and most naive of the assumptions is that our position in the Labor party would be determined by the gratitude of labor leaders for our work in assisting its formation. Active Socialists, Norman Thomas above all, can testify to how little gratitude for services in strikes and organization campaigns means; How many votes from labor leaders did we get on this basis in the last campaign? How many times have we seen Socialists who nursed unions from their birth to an established position thrown out on their ears because they were not sufficiently “respectable”? If we have learned anything, we should have learned that the labor leaders do not pay off on gratitude.

3. Our admission and the length of our stay in the Labor party will be determined by one thing and one thing only. That is the extent of our actual rank and file support in the trade unions themselves. That in turn depends on winning Socialists, not just Farmer-Labor partyites, in the unions now. We win Socialists in the unions by working for Socialism and the Socialist party, not by soft-pedaling these things for a “half-way” Farmer-Labor party.

4. The Lewis argument glides over a very tough problem The reason we want to be in a Farmer-Labor party is to gain a wider working class forum for Socialism. This of course means that we will be the opposition not the leadership in the FLP until we reach the revolutionary crisis Yet we are to take the leadership in organizing a party in which we will be the opposition. Just how when and on what excuse do we make the transition? The more I think about this question, the more convinced I am that this course of action is impossible. Essentially it means that right now when all our efforts should be directed toward digging our roots deep into the labor movement so that, come what may, we cannot be isolated from it, we should declare a moratorium on campaigning for Socialism and the Socialist party, and take the lead in organizing another party which we ourselves concede will have a different and less adequate program. It just doesn’t make sense.

Even if a few of the more subtle of us can find some .d complicated way of resolving this contradiction to our satisfy faction (I, for one, no longer can), it seems to me quite clear that we can never convince or take along the bulk hp of our own party members on the devious route that would lie ahead. Nor could we justify it to the average or trade union member later on.

Therefore our program comes down to this: reestablishing the old confidence and aggressiveness of the Socialist party itself; driving forward on the campaign to dig into every important section in the labor movement; insisting that our trade union members fight openly first, last and all the time for the full Socialist program and for direct support of the Socialist party.

Attack or support of the Labor party idea has nothing to do with our admission so far as the labor leaders who may form it are concerned. Unless we throw away or declare a moratorium on revolutionary Socialism, they will do everything possible to oppose our admission in any case. On the other hand, the choice between attack and support makes a vast difference in our future relations with the masses who alone can make a revolution. Attack is based on the sure knowledge that a non-Socialist organization and program cannot solve any of their fundamental problems – exploitation, insecurity, war or fascism. Support will be based on – what? A program of opposition to the formation of any political parties short of the Socialist party is realism, not sectarianism. In fact, in view of the fog generated by the Stalinists, an old truth should be re-emphasized. Sectarianism does not consist in insistence on a correct program for the conquest of power; that is the essence of revolutionary socialism as opposed to reformism. Sectarianism consists in failing to carry the logic of a correct program into every immediate struggle of the workers.

It is, then, the proponents, not the opponents, of helping to build a Farmer-Labor party who are essentially sectarian. Their program begins in contact with the masses by catering to their illusions and ends with isolation consequent upon the shattering of those illusions.

If we maintain a clear Marxian position and at the same time build, educate, work and fight side by side with the workers in each and every phase of the class struggle we will have no reason to worry about the charge of sectarianism or to fear isolation from the masses.

Any attempt to build a backfire to our progress in the form of a reformist Farmer-Labor party would be offset by the fact that our roots are in the solid earth of the mass organizations of the working class. We can force our admission into any such organization and compel its leaders to respect our programmatic independence. Only as we are able to force and compel can we deal with reformism without compromise.

Above all, this course means that we can face the eventuality of a mass labor party with clean hands and free hands. The issue between the inevitably reformist leadership and revolutionary Socialists will be clear and unmistakable from the start. Then our own “genuineness” will decide whether the labor bureaucrats or we will win the day, whether the Farmer-Labor party will be reformist and counter-revolutionary or an effective mass supplement to the revolutionary socialist vanguard when the crisis comes.

Finally, as one of the authors of the Cleveland resolution on the Farmer-Labor party, I must take issue with the position expressed by Comrade Goldman in his column “Toward Socialist Clarity” in the December Appeal. “The duty of revolutionary socialists” will be far more than merely making “a serious effort to balk all attempts to dissipate our energies in the creation of local Farmer-Labor parties” and seeing to it “that the special convention will make the necessary changes to enable the party to develop farther on the road of revolutionary Marxism.”

The duty of revolutionary Socialists is to present a full revolutionary Socialist position on the Farmer-Labor party question and on all other fundamental questions now pressing for solution. Compromise is no healthier in the Socialist party than in a Farmer-Labor party. Many of us who have been delegates to the last three Conventions are fed up to the ears with compromise.

The six year excuse for compromise – that the party would be split – has ended with a split despite the fact that the left-wing played at everything and anything but being left. There is no justifiable excuse for continuing that game.

Let’s buckle down to choosing delegates who will make decisions and select leadership on the basis of a full, uncompromising, revolutionary Socialist program.

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