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Ernest Erber

Answering Questions Often Put Before Us

The Prospects for a Small Revolutionary Party

(14 October 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 41, 14 October 1946, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The following article is a continuation of a series by Ernest Erber explaining the aims of the Workers Party to new readers of Labor Action. The series was interrupted after the first two articles appeared in our issues of August 5 and 12 as a result of Erber’s absence on a national speaking tour.Editors


In our last article (Who Is Behind the Workers Party?) we stated that only a party composed of workers who were prepared to sacrifice their time and efforts for the ideas they believed in would remain true to its working class aims. We said we were positive that the workers were capable of the idealism necessary for such self-sacrificing devotion because they have continually given evidence of it in strike struggles which involved more than an immediate dollar and cents gain for them. In this sense, idealism is but another term for class consciousness. The latter, we pointed out, was based upon understanding. The most class conscious, we said, were those who achieved an understanding that went beyond solidarity in the trade union struggle and succeeded in comprehending the “long-range, historic goal of the working class in re-organizing society upon a Socialist basis.” It was from among these, we added, that the members of the Workers Party came.

At this point the skeptic among the new readers said:

“But how many are there who understand these things today? Isn’t it true that your Workers Party consists of only a handful of people? How can such a small party get anywhere?”

The last thing that the Workers Party seeks to do is to conceal the fact that its numbers are small. It has no need to engage in wild exaggerations of its size, as so many small parties do, because it does not regard its present size to be the decisive factor in its ability to achieve its goal. If the achievement of Socialism depended upon the strength of the party today then the question of whether the Workers Party had five hundred or a thousand or five thousand members would surely make no difference, for one figure would be as inadequate as the other.

Historical Reasons

Our party will begin to “get somewhere” only when historical development has prepared the ground for it. In this premise we stand upon one of the basic tenets of Scientific Socialism or Marxism. Karl Marx laid it down nearly a hundred years ago when he wrote:

“Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand.” (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)

What Marx taught was that men could change the conditions under which they live but only in accordance with the basic course of historical development. They could not arbitrarily run against the current of historical development nor would they run ahead of it. This current of historical development is based, in the fundamental sense, upon economic development. However, the latter gives rise to a whole series of complicated and contradictory political, cultural, psychological and sociological factors which often combine in such a way as to play a tremendously important role. Though their role is never decisive in that it never reverses the basic current of historical development, it is yet often important enough to vastly speed up or slow down social change.

Let us give some examples of what we mean. Had one set out to organize trade unions in this country during the late 1700’s, one’s most brilliant efforts would have been doomed to failure. Even had an organizing committee been formed with such writers as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, such agitators as Tom Paine and Patrick Henry, and such organizers as Sam Adams, its converts would still have been only a handful. Yet in the late 1800’s far less talented speakers, writers and organizers enrolled millions of workers in the Knights of Labor and, later, the American Federation of Labor. We need not explain much to show what had happened in the hundred year period between the two dates. The development of industry, the growth of a class of industrial workers, the sharpening battles between labor and capital all plowed the soil for the rise of the mass trade union movement.

Forerunners of Today

Let us carry this example further. From the earliest years of the American Federation of Labor outstanding leaders of labor have advocated organizations along industrial lines. Men like Eugene Debs and Bill Haywood stumped the country for years on behalf of this idea. A number of the important unions of the AFL were committed to it. Yet some forty years passed before it was realized in 1935 with the formation of the CIO. In this case the lapse cannot be explained by economic development alone. The mass production industries which became the backbone of the CIO were already fully developed by the end of the First World War. A whole series of other factors related with the development of the American working class and the labor movement in this country, many of them conjectural and “accidental,” combined to delay the appearance of the CIO.

In one sense, one can say that the history of the American working class as an organized movement on the economic field only began twelve years ago with the appearance of the CIO. The difference between three million organized workers at the high-point of the AFL at the end of World War I and fifteen million organized workers today is not a mere quantitative difference. Before the CIO was formed only a thin upper-layer of skilled workers were organized. Today the working class as such is organized. Those workers still unorganized today, except for the South, are relatively unimportant. If one dates the appearance of the first nation-wide labor organization back to the 1860’s when the National Labor Union was organized, one can say it took American workers fully seventy years to achieve anything near total economic organization.

Compared to this record, the English workers achieved the amount of organization proportionate to their numbers, in half the time. What roughly corresponds to our CIO movement took place in England in the early 1900’s. The speed with which workers on the Continent, like the German, Scandinavian, Belgian, etc., achieved their economic organization makes the English, in turn, seem very slow.

How explain these differences? By the wisdom of the leaders in one country compared with another? By the skill of labor agitators, writers and organizers in one country as compared with another? No. This is not the answer.

The answer is rooted in the historical development of each country. The wisdom and skill of the labor leaders can make a difference. But it is relatively unimportant in the long run. The labor leader, like anyone else, cannot make history “out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand.”

Time and Place

Let us take another example. The ideas of social and economic reform which became known as the “New Deal” were not brilliant discoveries on the part of Roosevelt and his “brain trust.” Each of these reforms had been advocated for years by various groups or individuals. Had Roosevelt run on a platform calling for these reforms in 1920 or 1924 he would not have received much support. As a matter of fact, Robert La Follette, Sr., did run for President in 1924 on a platform calling, more or less, for the very things that the “New Deal” adopted ten years later. Yet LaFollette carried only his own state of Wisconsin.

Or another example, this time from the reactionary camp. Had Hitler written his Mein Kampf in 1900 it would have attracted the attention of only a handful of crackpots. Even had he organized them into a movement and agitated up and down Germany, he would have found little response. It took Germany’s defeat in the war, the failure of the Socialists to make a revolution, the Versailles treaty, the inflation, the paralysis of the Weimar Republic and the mass unemployment following 1929 to plow the soil for the Hitler movement. As a matter of fact, Hitler’s movement almost folded up between 1924 and 1928 when Germany had a few prosperous years.

We therefore see that the question is not one of how we “expect to get anywhere with such a small party.” The real question is this: Are the ideas of the Workers Party in line with historical development in general and the future political development of the United States in particular? Is history plowing the soil for the seeds which our party is planting today? Will millions of workers rally to the ideas of our party tomorrow? We of the Workers Party are supremely confident that they will. Our reasons for this belief will be dealt with in our next article.

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