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James Burnham

For a Revolutionary Socialist Party

An Answer to Gus Tyler’s Article For a Labor Party

(September 1936)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol.2 No.8, September 1936, pp.5-8.
Transcribed by Damon Maxwell.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

COMRADE Tyler, in the conclusion to his article, states that he has tried merely “to outline the approach of revolutionary Marxism” to the problem of the Labor party. This is as it should be: until the approach is clear and understood, there is small likelihood of answering correctly the practical and secondary questions. I shall, therefore, also confine my discussion to the approach; and there is the more reason for this in the fact that Comrade Tyler’s approach is consistently and thoroughly wrong.

How do revolutionary Marxists solve such a problem as that of the Labor party – or, for that matter any other important problem? The solution is twofold: we must, first, start with and clarify the fundamental issues of political theory which are involved – theory itself being conceived of by Marxists as simply the generalized experience of the revolutionary movement. Following this, we must apply our theory to the concrete, specific circumstances which confront us.

Tyler employs another method. It is sufficiently clear from his article that he has started, not with basic theory and principle, but from certain immediate “experiences” in the unions; from a wish to find a magic shortcut to the revolutionary party; and especially from a fear that socialists in the unions will be “isolated” and left behind unless they jump on the Labor party band-wagon. This is evidenced by such sentences as the following: “... if we openly oppose a Labor party, our orientation cannot 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.” His “theory,” as a result, is nothing more than the loose rationalization of his fears and wishes. How else can we understand the absurd analogy. “It (the Labor party) bears the same relationship to the revolutionary party on the electoral field as do the trade unions on the industrial field”; or the fantastic picture of his ideal Labor party, free from class collaboration and Peoples’ Frontism, immune from “bribery with a few reforms,” and imbued with “the basic philosophy ... of the class struggle”? No such Labor party ever did, does, or could exist. Tyler is dreaming of the leopard changing its spots.

Tyler Ignores Existing Labor Parties

This first aspect of Tyler’s method of approaching the problem is a mark of opportunism – which always takes what looks like the easier and winning way, and proceeds to justify it by rationalization into a respectable theory. But, in Tyler’s case, this is combined with what would at first glance seem to be its opposite: a complete removal from concrete reality. Not once, not a single time, in the article does Tyler make any reference whatever to concrete fact. He does not mention real Labor parties which have existed or do exist – for him the British Labour Party is evidently in another world. He does not refer to the present historical stage of capitalism – the stage of its decline as a whole, of wars and mass unemployment and fascism and revolutions: this can hardly be thought irrelevant to political theory and strategy. He does not review the experience in this country with Labor parties and near or would-be Labor parties, nor the present position of the Socialist party itself. He sees no reason to estimate the concrete perspectives for American capitalism in the coming period, the relationship of forces in this country, and its place in the world system of decadent capitalism. What amazing, and revealing omissions! And omissions of this kind constitute a divorce from reality, which lead to the wish-world of either Utopianism, on the one hand, or sectarianism on the other. However right his theory in the abstract – and it is far from right – it would remain uselessly in his head, with actuality so vigorously left out of reckoning.

Basic Considerations

Let us begin, then, at the beginning:

From the point of view of fundamental theory, there are two basic considerations which must guide us in approaching the problem of the Labor party: first, the nature of the state; and, second, the role and function of the revolutionary party. Marxism teaches that the state, its apparatus as a whole, is the executive committee of the dominant class in society, the task of which is to maintain existing social relations, and thereby to ensure the rule of the class whose state it is. This applies to the bourgeois state, whose task is to maintain capitalism and the rule of the bourgeoisie; and equally to the workers’ state, whose task is to enforce the domination of the proletariat, eliminate the bourgeoisie as a class, and guide the transition to a socialist, classless society. The political aim of the revolutionary movement, consequently, is not to “reform” capitalism, not to “take over” the capitalist state – whether by parliamentary means or by force – but to smash the bourgeois state and to build in its place a workers’ state. In this process, the role of the revolutionary party itself is to act as the conscious, independent, autonomous leader and vanguard of the working class in accomplishing the conquest of power, the overthrow of the bourgeois state, the establishment of the new workers' state, and the transition to socialism.

Does Tyler dispute this? I do not think so. If he does, there is little use discussing with him the problem of a Labor party; we should first have to come to clear and full agreement on these two points – the nature of the state and the role of the revolutionary party – before we could even argue profitably over the Labor party. The answer one gives to the problem of the Labor party depends on and follows from the answer to these two fundamental issues.

These two issues are, in fact, the decisive dividing line between revolutionary Marxism and reformism. All reformist parties – no matter how grandiose their verbal allegiance to “socialism” and socialist ideals – conceive of their political aims as lying within the framework of the capitalist state: as winning reforms from capitalism, winning a majority in the capitalist government, or even as “transforming” the capitalist government into a “socialist government” (i.e., requesting the capitalist state to commit suicide). And, conversely, all political parties which conceive of their political aims as lying within the framework of the capitalist state are (when not directly bourgeois parties) reformist.

Labor Party Necessarily Reformist

Applying this test, we can readily enough conclude that a Labor party – any Labor party – is a reformist party. This, also, I imagine, Tyler will not dispute – though, significantly, it is not mentioned in his article. This – reformism – is the basic, determining, decisive characteristic of a Labor party: its political genus, we might say. But, as Tyler remarks, “a Labor party is a particular type of party.” True enough, it is a reformist party which is based on the organized trade union movement, includes the bulk of the trade unions in its membership, and is dominated in direction by the trade-union leadership: this is its particular species in the general genus of reformist parties.

Now, the fundamental position of Marxists toward a Labor party is determined in the light of its basic, defining nature – by the fact that it is a reformist party. The specific tactics of Marxists toward the Labor party, however, take into account also its special characteristics – namely, that it comprises the bulk of the trade unions. Tyler wants a “bona-fide” Labor party, by which he seems to mean one with a “good” “class struggle” program and fighting trade-union candidates. From this follows, in practise, the sectarianism to which his position leads: he will not be “satisfied” with existing Labor parties or those which will come into existence, since they all have and will have “bad,” class collaborationist programs, and bureaucratic rascals as candidates. Marxists, on the contrary, base their interest in Labor parties on the presence of organized labor within them, and are not particularly worried over the exact shade of reformism which their programs represent. From this follows the far greater flexibility of the Marxist tactics with respect to any actual Labor party, which permit critical support, affiliation, or head-on opposition, depending on the concrete circumstances and the given relationship of forces.

Reformist Parties Protect Capitalism

A Labor party is, then, a reformist party. What does this mean in practise? The lessons of theory and history teach us. It means that it, like all reformist parties – Labor or not – acts in all crucial situations as an agent of the bourgeoisie within the working class. This is indeed what reformism, in its social roots, is: an agency of the bourgeoisie within the working class. In war-time, reformist parties support imperialism. Does Tyler deny this to be the case? And is it not equally true of the British Labour Party and the German Social-Democracy? In revolutionary situations, reformist parties do not merely fail to aid but actively suppress the revolution. Did not the German Social-Democracy smash the German revolution, and hand back Germany to the bourgeoisie (and thus to Hitler) through the Weimar Constitution? Did not the British Labour Party break the British General Strike? Has it not today declared its devotion to the defense of the British Empire? Or perhaps Tyler does not think the British Labour Party a “bona-fide” Labor party?

A reformist party is powerless to defeat either war or fascism. Does Tyler deny this? I do not think so. The reason is sufficiently obvious: a reformist party will not overthrow capitalism, since it functions within the framework of capitalism; and consequently it cannot stop war or fascism, both of which follow necessarily from the continuance of capitalism.

And since these things are so, we must say them – in the trade unions as elsewhere. Not for any mere devotion to truth in the abstract, but because if we do not, the workers will in time find out for themselves – from that bitter and inescapable teacher, experience – and will not believe us so readily on the next point.

Labor Party in Period of Capitalist Decline

The sole positive argument that has been, with some show of truth, advanced in favor of a Labor party is that such a party can win certain “immediate demands” for the workers. On this question, two considerations will suffice: In the past, during the advance of capitalism, this was undoubtedly so, and is possibly so to a slight extent today. But Tyler correctly characterizes such reforms as “bribes”; they are granted by the bourgeoisie to the Labor party in return for the Labor party’s service in concentrating the eyes of the masses on “reforms” and turning them aside from revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of capitalism. They are a small price to pay for such a service. But, second, capitalist society has now reached on an international scale the stage of its decline. Capitalism can endure only by a continual and increasing relative sabotage of the productive forces, only by mass unemployment, hunger, lowering of real wages, war, and fascist tyranny. Now, in the decline of capitalism, reforms of any dimensions, immediate demands, can be won if at all only as the “by-products of revolutionary struggle,” (to use Lenin’s phrase), only by the sharpest collision against the forces of the class enemy. The incontrovertible facts of capitalist decay remove the last remaining prop in the theoretic underpinnings of reformism.

To sum up: A Labor party, then, like any other reformist party, is not merely non-revolutionary, but anti-revolutionary. It is a device for preserving capitalism, not a means for its overthrow. It is a mighty obstacle in the path of the revolutionary movement, not a boost forward. Under such circumstances, to ask whether it is a “rival” to the revolutionary party, whether revolutionists should “oppose” it, is childish. Of course it is a rival; of course revolutionists must oppose it. But it is, naturally, a different kind of rival from say bourgeois parties proper, and requires different tactics of opposition.

Purpose of Labor Party

These considerations are unusually obvious in this country. For what possible reasons will a Labor party be started here? The history to date of Labor’s Non-Partisan League and the American Labor party tells us the answer. It will be – or, rather, it has been – started precisely to stave off the growth of revolutionary class consciousness, to keep the allegiance of the masses for capitalism when the two old party machines are wearing out their facility in doing so. Is this not true of the American Labor Party, launched by the trade union bureaucrats in collaboration with Waldman, and blessed by Browder, to make up for the loss of prestige of the Democratic Party before the masses? And who else but these same persons, combined no doubt with Olson and Populists of the LaFollette variety, can launch a Labor party in this country, whether or not the American Labor Party itself (as it very probably will) evolves into a full-fledged Labor party? And its purpose, both in the minds of its leaders and in its objective social effects, cannot be anything else than to try to stave off the development of revolutionary class consciousness. If a “bona-fide” Labor party must include and be led by the trade unions, together with certain farm and other middle-class organizations, then clearly it must include and be led by the reformist bureaucrats whom these unions and organizations follow. Or will the Labor party be an electoral “united front from below”?

There can be no question of the basic attitude of Marxists toward a Labor party. Doubts can flow only from a misunderstanding or abandonment of fundamental principles; or from a resolute avoidance of historical reality.

Socialists Not to Work for Labor Party

From the basic attitude, the answers to more specific questions follow. For example, it is argued, should socialists initiate or aid in initiating a Labor party where one does not exist? In the first place, it should be noticed that this is a hopelessly abstract question when applied to the United States. The Socialist Party is not within many hundreds of percent of being a powerful enough force – especially in the unions – to even pretend to “initiate” a Labor party. The CIO perhaps can; we obviously cannot, nor even play a significant part in its initiation. But – if arguments in the abstract are useful – suppose the Socialist Party were a powerful mass force capable of initiating a “bona-fide” Labor party. What a fantastic proposal that would be! To initiate or aid in initiating an organization which would drill the masses in reformism, when we would be in a position to win them on a mass scale directly to revolutionary socialism; to give them deliberately a disease in order to prove what good doctors we were in curing it. The dilemma is complete: in neither alternative is it the business of socialists to initiate or take the lead in advocating a Labor party. While there is as yet no fully developed Labor party, it is the task of socialists to build and strengthen the Socialist Party if possible to such a point that it can head off and prevent the growth of a Labor party – that is, of one more obstacle in the revolutionary path.

Our Attitude to Existing Labor Parties

But where there is a Labor party already in existence, or one clearly in the process of formation on a genuine mass scale? In such cases, tactics cannot be decided beforehand in the abstract. They must be adjusted to the concrete circumstances. They will depend on many factors: for example, on the cohesiveness and size of the revolutionary Socialist party. If the Socialist party is not sufficiently cohesive, it will be swallowed up in the Labor party, as the Socialist Party in Minnesota was formerly swallowed up in the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party. This year, however, with a still small but a growing, strong, militant and revolutionary membership, the Socialist Party in Minnesota can correctly give “critical support” to the Farmer-Labor Party candidates, with no risk of losses and many prospects of gain from such a tactic. However, if the revolutionary party is sufficiently cohesive and also sufficiently large, it would not need to give any kind of support to the Labor party, but could combat it openly and directly in the organizational as well as the political plane.

But, to take another example: in England, revolutionists clearly should not merely support but be in the British Labour Party – not because the British Labour party is any “better” in ideology or function than other reformist labor parties, but because the overwhelming majority of the British working class is within it. Naturally, however, revolutionists in the BLP will not be there to work for the program of Citrine; but to work against that program, and to show the workers by participating directly in their own living experience that Citrine’s program is fatally wrong, that they must accept and fight for a revolutionary program, and must be part of a revolutionary organization embodying that program.

Or again: In the elections this year in this country, circumstances dictate imperiously a direct open revolutionary campaign through the organization and for the candidates of the Socialist Party, in spite of the fact that the American Labor Party has entered the field. But the reason for this is not at all that the American Labor Party is not a “bona-fide” Labor party – which in New York at any rate it certainly is. It is simply that, under the given conditions – the undeveloped stage of the Labor party, the lack of preparation of the Socialist Party itself for complex and dangerous maneuvers, the opportunity to expose the methods of reformism by showing how (in this case openly) it works for the preservation of capitalism, etc. – under these conditions the SP stands to gain more, and risks losing less (not, of course, in votes, but in the extension of its ideas and the winning of workers to socialism) by a direct independent campaign. The case may well be different in 1940 or 1938; but the tactics for those years will be worked out when the time comes. The basic strategy – strengthening and building a revolutionary Socialist party – remains the same.

Basis for Participation in Labor Party

The reason why, in the case of a Labor party, tactics such as “critical support” or even affiliation are not excluded and sometimes necessary, is not that a Labor party is “a great step forward” or a “good” kind of party, or an auxiliary rather than a rival to the revolutionary party. It is simply because a genuine Labor party comprises the bulk of the organized workers, and marks a stage through which the working class in many countries tends – though not at all inevitably – to go. Under certain circumstances, it is necessary for revolutionists to go through this experience along with the workers, in order to aid them in having done with it, to speed the process of breaking down (not by any means to reinforce) the reformist ideology to which the Labor party gives expression, to keep away from a sterile isolation, to gain the confidence of the masses in action. But this means that the revolutionists participate in a Labor party not to “support” it and its ideas – which are both anti-revolutionary – but to build through it, when it is part of the historical reality which is given, the revolutionary party.

Comrade Tyler is afraid that such an approach (which he wholly fails to understand in the first place) must bring isolation, must “make us hated by our allies ... and impotent before our enemies.” He does not see how we can have anything to do with a Labor party unless we are “for it”; and since he wants – justifiably – to have something to do with it, he goes to the length of corrupting Marxist principles, inventing fantastic theories, and obscuring the nature and role of the revolutionary party and its relation to reformist parties, in order to satisfy his conscience.

Marxist Approach to Labor Party

But in this approach which I have outlined there is nothing unique or unusual. It is the constant approach of Marxists to many problems, distinguishing Marxists on the one hand from sectarians, on the other from opportunists. Marxists work, for example, in craft unions. They do so loyally, not to destroy but to build working-class strength. Within these unions, however, they do not hide their trade-union policy: they work to give conscious and progressive direction to the unions, which in the end means to change them entirely. Or take the case of an ill-timed strike. Marxists explain openly why the strike is incorrect under the circumstances. They do not flatter the prejudices and feelings of the workers. But, once the strike starts, they stand with the workers as a whole, and are in the forefront of the strike struggle. It fails, let us say, in spite of all efforts for its success. Are the Marxists then isolated and discredited? Quite the contrary: their leadership and prestige are doubly reinforced, because they have shown the workers in action both that their estimate of the situation is correct and also that they stand with the working class whether or not that estimate is heeded. Or again: in July, 1917, the Bolsheviks warned the workers of Petrograd that a demonstration would lead to a serious defeat. They repeated their warning even after the demonstration had begun. But the workers persisted. In the face of this, the Bolsheviks neither changed their opinion nor retired like Achilles to their tents. They took their places in the leadership of the demonstration. The demonstration was defeated. But because of the attitude of the Bolsheviks that very defeat marked the turning point in the revolution: from then on the tide swung ever more strongly to the side of the Bolsheviks and the victory of October.

In an analogous way, in the case of a Labor party, we say to the workers: “A Labor party is a reformist party. It will not answer your class needs. It will not stop war or unemployment or fascism. It will lead you into false paths. Your problems can be solved only by overthrowing capitalism and setting up your own state. You can do this only through a revolutionary party.” But we may also have to add: “You do not agree. You still insist that what you need is a Labor party. Very well. We will go through this experiment with you, and you will learn from your own harsh experience that our view is correct.” What else can revolutionists say? How else can they gain or deserve, in the end and in the decisive hours, the confidence of the workers? If revolutionists begin by hiding the role of the Labor party, by fostering illusions with respect to it, they will themselves share in the inevitable betrayal which every reformist party carries out in every crisis; and the masses will understand this and draw the conclusions. Thus, far from overcoming isolation, isolation at the crucial time will only be guaranteed.

Socialist Program for Labor Party

Tyler and others who agree with him make much of the danger of isolation. They complain that if we do not “take the lead in the formation of a Labor party” – which is impossible to begin with – we won’t have the kind of Labor party that “we want.” But none of them has ever clarified to himself or to any of the rest of us what this can possibly mean – what kind of Labor party we can possibly “want”; and of course they never ask whether we could get it even if we knew what we wanted. Tyler is not satisfied with a Labor party merely because it comprises and is chiefly influenced by the bulk of organized labor (which is the only actual test of a “genuine” Labor party). He must, then, refer to its program. But there is only one program toward which revolutionary socialists have any allegiance whatever: the program of revolutionary socialism. A program three-quarter revolutionary is not at all necessarily better than one which is one-half revolutionary: the former may well be more difficult to expose, may look much more like the real thing and therefore constitute a greater obstacle to revolutionary development. If by chance socialists were participating in a programmatic convention of a Labor party, their only duty would be to put forward the full program of revolutionary socialism; and if this were rejected, their task so far as program went would be over.

But, Tyler argues, there is no reason to be “fright-fully worried” because “we shall have to take responsibility for an organization with whose policies we do not agree” – and he points to the case of support of the AF of L as precedent. The precedent is badly chosen. We do not take “responsibility” for the AF of L; and under no circumstances could we take responsibility for policies with which we disagree. We work in the AF of L to give it, so far as possible, class-struggle direction, and to make revolutionists from its members. We support its actions and its specific demands when these correspond with the needs of the working class; but we fight against all of its policies which are counter to these needs and in opposition to the policies of revolutionary socialism. Similarly, if we are in the future put in the position of supporting electorally a Labor party and its candidates, we shall not in the least “take responsibility” for its policies, but rather utilize the campaign to undermine its policies, to spread the ideas of revolutionary socialism, and to win individual Labor party members as revolutionists – which tasks are, in any case, the reasons why revolutionists participate in election campaigns. Tyler would like us to believe that a Labor party can be the “electioneering machine” of the revolutionary party. What extraordinary nonsense! It is the electioneering machine of a reformist party and a reformist program, i.e., an anti-revolutionary electioneering machine. When revolutionists utilize it they do so not because it is the machine of a revolutionary party, but because it gives them under certain circumstances the best working-class forum for pro-revolutionary and anti-reformist agitation.

Revolutionists Cannot Be Isolated

The whole argument from isolation – the motivating force of almost all left-wing pro-Labor party sentiment – is a perversion. Revolutionists can avoid isolation only through their real strength, the depth of the influence of their ideas, their actual penetration of the mass organizations. There is no magic formula for gaining this strength and influence and penetration. They can result only from the uncompromising clarity of ideas and principles, and the militant direct participation in the class struggle. To the extent that they have been gained, no device of any bureaucrat can bring about isolation; to the extent that they are lacking, all shortcuts are mere illusion. It is toward this end, and this end alone – the deepening of the influence of the idea of revolutionary socialism and the building of its party – that the energies of every Marxist must be intransigently directed.

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