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Farrell Dobbs

Labor and the Elections

(August 1940)

Source: First published in Fourth International, Vol. 1 No. 4, August 1940, pp. 95–97.
Reprinted in Workers’ International News, Vol. 3 No. 10, October 1940, pp. 4–8. [1]
Transcription & mark-up Ted Crawford, and Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

History is made daily now, if not hourly. Yesterday great battles were fought for a few miles of territory; today a battle is for the conquest of entire countries. Great military powers are reduced in a few days to the role of a pawn. Political regimes beat their breasts in defiance one day only to collapse the next. The rotten structure of capitalistic society stands completely exposed before the eyes of the world working class. And with it the political quackery of the misleaders in the ranks of labor. The “middle way” has gone with the German conquests of Denmark and Norway. The fatal policy of working class support to “democratic” capitalism has brought the French workers new legions of dead and a totalitarian regime.

In the midst of these events the workers of the United States prepare to vote for a president to hold office during the next four years – four years which are pregnant with such events as would surpass the happenings of 400 earlier years. But the political policies of the officialdom of the trade union movement remain unchanged. They have learned nothing.

The AFL has proclaimed neutrality in the election campaign; it takes no official position. The individual officers are free to back whomever they choose. Hillman, Murray, Kennedy, Thomas, and others of the CIO have declared for “friend” Roosevelt, as have the bulk of the AFL leaders. Dubinsky is in the Roosevelt camp but no longer in the CIO. A few “rebels” are for “friend” Willkie. John L. Lewis has attacked Roosevelt, defended Hoover, told the Republican show they could be a “party of the people” and ballyhooed for Wheeler, representative of the copper trust, proposing him as a Democratic candidate and material for a third party leader. Both the AFL and the CIO have solemnly presented proposals for the Republican and Democratic platforms.

The very mention of the idea of an independent labor party frightens the wits out of these pro-Roosevelt Paul Reveres who are dashing madly up and down the countryside, shouting “The Republicans are coming.” John L. Lewis has not as yet indicated whom he will support, nor has he evidenced any thought of independent working class political action (his white hope, Wheeler, went back to Roosevelt at Chicago). Where there is not outright hostility to the proposal to form a labor party, there is widespread inertia on the question. It is sometimes argued that the trade unions have gotten along without a labor party in the past so there can be no practical reasons for getting heated up about it now. But the problem is not as simple as that. It is necessary to examine the conditions of the past and the problems of the present before making a decision.

Why No Labor Party Before

Samuel Gompers carved the first unit of the AFL out of the most highly skilled trades. Its growth thereafter was confined, in the main, to these narrow and select fields. The later inclusion of the miners and the needle trades workers as unions embracing almost all workers in a mass production industry were exceptions to the rule. The AFL has never at any time represented more than a small fraction of the industrial workers. There has always existed as the backbone of the AFL a skilled group of workers capable of commanding above-average wages and most generally able to control the labor market in their trade.

The AFL, jealous of its privileged position, has always been quick to resist fiercely any attempt at additional organization by a non-AFL union. This gave the employers an excellent stop-gap against broad mass organization. They could make concessions to this small minority and compensate for the outlay at the expense of the great majority which thus remained unorganized. The final struggle of the Knights of Labor, the activities of the Anarchists, the rise of the IWW, all helped to give the bosses an extra push toward cooperation with the AFL.

American capitalism was able until recently to afford certain concessions to the trade unions without seriously impairing its profits. It was then motivated both by the necessity of self protection and the ability to make small concessions. Then, as now, the politicians of the Democratic and Republican parties voted and acted according to the dictates of the corporations and the banks. It is not difficult to understand how, under these conditions, Gompers was able to outlaw independent working class political action and establish the theory that the trade unions have “friends” among the politicians of the employer-controlled political parties.

Capitalism still is and will continue to be motivated by the necessity of protection against the organized workers. But the AFL can no longer play its former role. It has been partially transformed in itself. And alongside it stands the CIO, just as powerful, if not more powerful, than the AFL. Further, capitalism finds itself less and less capable of making concessions even to skilled minorities. Those trade union leaders who continue to adhere to the Gompers political policy do so because “that’s the way Grandpaw did it.” They do not have a policy based on present day conditions. The majority of the officialdom, both AFL and CIO, falls in this category. They repeat the original sin of subordinating the workers to the political leadership of the bosses without having even the slender pretext of the originators of this policy.

What Has Happened Since 1929

A periodic capitalist crisis struck like a thunderbolt in 1929. The business index started on a dizzy descent which took three and a half years to hit bottom. Roosevelt came into office and undertook the job of patching up the cripple. He was forced by the severity of the crisis to make certain concessions to labor. The trade union officialdom hailed him as a Moses come to lead them out of the wilderness. But the workers reacted by flocking into the unions and pressing for direct action against the employers. This pressure from the mass production workers soon broke through the shell of the aristocratic AFL and the industrial unions of the CIO were formed.

Militantly pushing the fight against the corporations, the CIO workers rolled up impressive victories. The CIO enjoyed a phenomenal growth. Capitalism was forced to make concessions, one after another. But the CIO campaign was less than a year old when the business index again hit the skids, dropping back as far in nine months as it had in two and a half years during the previous decline, The four and a half years of “Roosevelt prosperity,” based mainly on a movement of light industry, could no longer sustain itself.

The CIO leadership was frightened by the militancy of the rank and file. The workers had already been led – in “Little Steel” – into a severe defeat in an attempt by the leaders to substitute dependence on “friendly” politicians for trade union action in a strike. The leadership welcomed the new crisis as an opportunity for them to move openly to curb strikes.

The mass production workers brought problems into the CIO which demanded action on the political front. The direct fight against the bosses, necessary as it was, could not alone provide an adequate solution. Sentiment grew for independent working class political action. Labor’s Non-Partisan League was formed by the CIO. It was not permitted, however, to be anything more than a streamlined method of applying the old AFL political policies.

These latest convulsions of capitalism have created the industrial unions. The AFL has also grown. The combined membership of the trade unions is today more than twice any previous figures. Capitalism finds its contradictions permanently sharpened. Yet the leaders of this new union movement are capable of nothing better than to continue to look to the capitalists for political leadership. They cannot visualize the working class doing its own political thinking.

Now Labor Faces the War

The present perspective of capitalist strategy is not based on a movement of the light industries; it is based on preparations for war. No matter whether a Roosevelt, a Willkie or any other capitalist politician is in the White House, this will be the program. They all have one plan for the workers – regimentation in industry and combat service in the military machine. The plan is of course sugar-coated so that the gullible among the trade union leaders will swallow it the quicker. Many of these leaders even seize upon the “defense program” as an alibi for a welcome escape from direct struggle against the bosses.

The industrial unions, just as the craft unions, have been unable to solve all the workers’ problems. The need for political action grows sharper. It is true that the business index has been hesitatingly working its way upward, especially since the war started. This has momentarily made the problem of workers’ political action less acute. But this is only momentary. American capitalism is strong, but its contradictions are stronger.

The trade unions are receding more and more into purely defensive activity. Under these circumstances they will lose members and become weaker. The treasuries will grow slimmer. The tasks will be bigger, but the means smaller. The leadership will become even more disoriented; the rank and file more dissatisfied. The situation will be worse for the CIO than for the AFL. The AFL will be more capable of resistance because of its aristocratic base. It will have less opposition than the CIO which, with its broad base among the mass production workers, will meet head-on resistance from the corporations. A much more energetic policy is possible in the direct struggle against the employers, but even with the most militant leadership, trade union action alone is not adequate.

As the trade unions become more and more aware of their inability to cope with all the problems of the workers, they are pushed toward the road of political action which is a generalization of economic action. Political action generalizes the needs of the workers and directs the struggle not against individual bosses or groups of bosses, but against the employers as a whole through their apparatus of state. Despite all the official opposition and inertia on the question, the objective necessity for a working class political party is present. The political channel must be developed if the class struggle is not to be crushed.

Why We Want a Labor Party

The Socialist Workers Party presents the program for the fundamental solution of the problems of the working class. It welcomes all workers into its ranks. But it must be stated frankly that the numerical growth of the Socialist Workers Party has not kept abreast of the radicalization of the broad mass of the workers. It does not as yet have sufficient authority in the general labor movement to attract a mass following. This is not unnatural. The program of the SWP is based on a careful analysis of the capitalist system, the international experience of the working class under capitalism, the role of the class in bringing about a socialist society. It is a party of advanced political thought. Many of the trade union militants have found their way into our ranks. The great mass of the workers, however, are learning mainly by actual experience. They have passed through the first stage of their training in the trade unions. It is now necessary for them to enter actively into the political arena.

At present the best medium for this political education is an independent labor party based on the trade unions – a working class political party which will present its own candidates from its own ranks for election. This political channel will enable the workers to generalize their needs and mobilize powerful forces for the struggle to obtain concessions from the bosses. These demands will also treat with the needs of the unemployed and the deep layers of highly oppressed workers who remain unorganized. They will lend their weight to the fight. Small farmers, merchants, professional people and other middle class elements will follow the leadership of the workers in such a political fight against the banks and the corporations.

It must be remembered that a trade union which places reliance upon the political agents of the employer is building a structure on quicksand. A policy of independent working class political action is necessary at all times. We repeat: an independent labor party is not the fundamental solution of the problems of the working class. If its creation is delayed too long it might be an unnecessary, even a backward, step. However, at the present time, the formation of a labor party based on the trade unions is a progressive step. The Socialist Workers Party will help to create it.

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1. Published in WIN under the title American Labour and Elections.

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