From Socialist Appeal, Vol.1 No.3, May 1935, pp.6-12A.
Transcribed and Marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The failure of working class parties claiming to be based on Marxian principles to win the support of the American workers has been and. is the primary factor in the periodical interest in and activity on behalf of the creation of a Labor party on the British model. Organized labor by which is meant the American Federation of Labor, has kept at more than a respectful distance from the Socialist party and from all other parties the purpose of which was to change the capitalist order of society. And unorganized labor contrary to the theories of those who contend that unorganized labor is more radical than organized labor has followed in the political footsteps of the A F of L and as a result the workers have up to now been supporting either one of the two capitalist parties.
Many within the Socialist movement have expressed the opinion that the name “socialist” or “communist” has kept the workers away from parties bearing those names and have advocated a change of name as a method of weaning the working class away from the Democratic and Republican parties. This very simple idea is still expressed by some socialists who write for and follow the American Guardian. To get socialism, in the opinion of these profound politicians, both the capitalist and working classes must be fooled. Others with a greater understanding of Marxism have looked to the formation of a Labor party as the instrument for tearing the working masses away from the capitalist parties. At the present moment the former tendency is shown in articles by Oscar Ameringer and George H. Shoaf in the American Guardian, while the latter tendency has found expression amongst members of the party both of the right and left wings who understand the difference between a third party and a Labor party and who understand that Socialists can have nothing in common with those who want to form a third party.
Numerically speaking a Labor party can of course also be a third party. Should a Labor party in the British sense of the term come into existence and contend for supremacy with the Republican and Democratic parties it would be a third party but only in that restricted sense. We must keep in mind that the term Labor party should be applied only to such a party that has as its base organised labor, in which organized labor plays the dominant role while the term “Third” party should be used to mean a party formed, by middle class elements and in which organized labor, if it plays any part at all, will be of secondary importance. A party formed by a possible combination of Huey Long, the Utopians, Townsendites, Upton Sinclair and Oscar Armeringer will be a “Third” party, while a party organized by the International unions of the American Federation of Labor will be a Labor party.
The reason for the present interest in the question of a Labor party is not difficult to find. The hopes aroused in the hearts of the laboring masses by the promises of the Roosevelt administration and particularly by the National Industrial Recovery Act are beginning to disappear. The rise in wages which several millions of the most underpaid workers obtained through the various codes was more than off-set by the increased cost of living. Section 7-A which the officials of organized labor depended upon to bring the unorganised into the American Federation of Labor brought many more workers into company unions than into the Federation. While it would be wrong to allege that the faith of the masses in Roosevelt has entirely disappeared, enough disappointment has been generated in the ranks of organized labor to make even Green threaten vaguely about independent political action. We are still quite a distance from the time when the bureaucrats of the A.P. of L will come out for a Labor party, but the mere suggestion of such a thing has created a great deal of discussion in the radical movement.
To the amazement of everyone interested in the revolutionary movement the Communists blithely ignoring everything they said about the “social-fascists who advocated the formation of a Labor party”, came out as the champions of such an idea. This sudden change was of course kept a dark and. mysterious secret from everybody including the Communists. Armed with instructions from the Moscow Holy of Holies, Browder came running to the Communist Social Insurance Convention and presented the Papal Bull. The consent, applause and veneration of the faithful who had just finished beating up the Lovestoneites for advocating a similar idea showed that the idea of a Labor party was just as acceptable to the Communists as any other idea emanating from the Russian Mt. Sinai. The poor Communists who had only a day or so before religiously repeated the injunction against any Labor party now just as zealously urge the “rank and file” to form anything that might slightly resemble some kind. of a Labor party. But what can one expect from a party that is nothing more than a religious cult worshiping the God Lenin and his Prophet Stalin?
For the purpose of showing one kind of a “Labor” party that we must shy away from it is worth while analyzing to some extent the nature of a Labor party as conceived by the Communists. If one understands the nature of the Communist united front from below the Communist conception of a Labor party can be easily grasped. Provided of course one can make any sense of the first idea which is highly problematical. The Communists do not want a Labor party which is a revolutionary party nor do they want a party that is reformist. The closest one can get to their idea is that their Labor Party will be a revolutionary reformistic party advocating revolutionary reforms. One who does not know the Communists might say that that is about as far as they can possibly go in making confusion worse confounded, but those who know them well always expect one better.
Necessarily in the eyes of the Communists, no Labor party is a real labor party which is led by trade union bureaucrats or by Socialists. Such a party as the English Labor party is no Labor party at all since it has no Communists or “rank and filers” in the leadership. From now on we can expect to see a great many local “Labor” parties organized by way of a “united front” between the Communist party, all its numerous alphabetical auxiliaries, some liberal or possibly “socialist” minister and the housewives. Organized labor will of course be invited to be the tail to the Communist kite but we can count on the stony indifference of organized labor to such an invitation. Outside of the fact that Labor will not be in that party it will be a real “Labor” party. To the initiated it will be the Communist party under a different name. Those who are inclined to doubt the above prophecy should investigate the Communists effort to organize a “Labor” party in San Francisco where the Epic organization which no longer exists but which has been “captured” by the Communists, and the Utopian organization together with all the regular Communist auxiliaries have been invited to attend a conference for the purpose of forming a “Labor” party.
In contradistinction to the Communists we must clearly realize that a real Labor party at the present time in this country, will have as its backbone the conservative International Unions of the A. F. of L. and the leadership of such a party will undoubtedly be in the hands of the conservative officials of those unions. Those who have the dominant influence in the trade unions will have the same influence in the Labor party. It would be the merest folly for us to participate in the formation of any Labor party unless at least a very substantial number of powerful unions furnished a real labor base for such a party. And one can add that the unions necessary are more, many more than the Socialist needle trade unions. Local Labor parties are not excluded; in such parties the local labor unions must furnish the foundation.
But why, many will ask, should revolutionary Socialists occupy their time and expend their energy in organizing a Labor party? Are we not, should we not be interested primarily in organizing and in building a revolutionary Socialist party for the purpose of conquering political power? Why help create a party that will compete with the Socialist party and possibly in the future become an obstacle to the revolution?
If one thinks in an abstract manner and does not analyze actual conditions and social relationships one can easily come to the conclusion that it is no concern of revolutionary socialists to build any party but their own. Such is the method of reasoning followed by Comrade Shachtman in an article dealing with the problem of a Labor party in the March issue of the New International, organ of the Workers Party. Using some general assertions which Trotsky made with reference to the same problem, Shachtman without any attempt to analyze the specific class conditions existing at the present time easily solves the whole problem with the mere allegation that “there is no room in the present conditions of the class struggle for the stable existence of a Labor party.
What the conditions are, why there is no room is something left for the reader to imagine. Much easier is it to assert than to enter into an analysis. The closest that Shachtman comes to furnishing us with some argument and not merely with an assertion is that “assuming that it is formed in the United States it is more likely than not that it will take shape as a directly anti-revolutionary (ergo, anti-progressive) party.” Leaving out the weak attempt at prophecy the assertion would have merit if it meant that to help in the formation of a Labor party at the present time would create a present anti-revolutionary force. The sentence does not really mean that but I am giving Shachtman the benefit of the doubt in order to furnish him with a sensible argument. And this brings us to the very crux of the problem.
Will the formation of a Labor party act as a progressive or a reactionary factor at the present time? Were there in existence now (and not in the indefinite future) a mass revolutionary party with a tremendous following in the working class then it would be an anti-revolutionary act to help in the formation of a Labor party. We can all agree to that. But even Shachtman will agree that his Workers party is not as yet a mass revolutionary party. That Is why he must have recourse to the vague phrase “it is more likely than not”, speaking of some uncertain future. But we are interested in the present and neither we nor the workers in general can be satisfied with the categorical assertion that “the only genuine labor party is the party of revolutionary Marxism”. And it is hardly necessary to retain a Sherlock Holmes to be certain that Shachtman means by that the Workers party.
Analyzing present conditions we must come to the conclusion that a Labor party will tear the working masses away from the two capitalist parties something that no working class party has succeeded, in doing, and. will set the workers into motion in the right direction. To that extent a Labor party will perform a progressive function and. thus justify its existence. And since it would be a progressive step we cannot simply he satisfied with sitting back and saying “if the workers take that step we shall join them”. We must urge and convince the workers to take that step. Which means that we must at every opportunity attempt to convince the labor unions to form a Labor party.
Is there then no possibility at all of winning the masses away from the capitalist parties without a Labor party? It would be absurd, to hold to such a proposition. We shall ultimately succeed in winning the working class to Socialism with or without a Labor party. We can only say that at the present period the formation of a Labor party would hasten the process of winning the working class for Socialism. Should it happen then millions of workers decide to follow the Socialist party (or let us make a violent assumption, the Workers party) before a Labor party comes into existence it will then be our duty to fight against the formation of a Labor party.
That ultimately the Labor party, if formed, will become an obstacle to the revolution can be asserted with a great deal of assurance. The fundamental Marxian principle that a revolution requires a disciplined revolutionary party composed of the most conscious elements of the working class and led by experienced and decisive revolutionary Marxists would justify the conclusion that in all probability the bureaucracy of a Labor party will in a critical moment oppose the revolutionary party. Does this mean that we should oppose the formation of a Labor party now when it would constitute a progressive step because in the future it will be an anti-revolutionary force? We might as well oppose the formation of trade unions because in all probability the union bureaucrats will oppose the revolution in a critical moment. It would indeed be an exceedingly ideal situation if the revolutionary Socialist party would have no obstacles at all to overcome. But alas, we live in a real and not in an ideal world.
Will the Socialist party be compelled to surrender its existence upon the formation of a Labor party? Undoubtedly it will not be able to function as a party in the sense of putting up its own candidates for elections and have its own election platform. To the extent that its influence will penetrate the Labor party to that extent will the election platform be what the Socialists will want it to be and to that extent will the Labor party candidates be members of the Socialist party. But in general the Socialist party will have to accept the organizational discipline of the Labor party. Under no circumstances, however must the Socialist party consent to be liquidated. It must function as an organized group within the labor party carrying on its propaganda for Socialist aims and methods. It is only on the condition that the Socialist party will be given freedom to propagate its own ideas that it can think of consenting to enter into a Labor party. Should a Labor party be formed which will demand of the Socialist party that it surrender any of its fundamental principles before it can gain admission to the Labor party then it will be our duty to reject such a demand. It would then be our task to gain sufficient influence within the trade unions composing the Labor party in order to gain admission without surrendering any Socialist principle.
The fact, however, that in the beginning a conservative union officialdom would prevent our admission into a Labor party should not in the least make us opposed to such a party. The formation of such a party even though we would not be admitted would constitute a progressive step. And. this alone should determine our attitude. It is hardly likely that under present conditions a conservative bureaucracy could for long keep the Socialist party out of a Labor party. If a Labor party will be formed it will be largely due to the pressure from below and Socialists have enough influence to compel the officials to admit us as a group.
Within the Labor party our function will be to win more and more workers over to our viewpoint and to, our organization. There will be no greater opportunity than a Labor party to bring our party into close contact with millions of workers who will “be convinced by both our message and our tactics. We can build a revolutionary Socialist party large enough and influential enough to make an attempt to win political power independent of the Labor party if necessary. But we need not at present solve all the possible problems that might arise in the future in connection with the existence of a Labor party. It should be sufficient for us that right now the formation of a Labor party will be a tremendous step forward for the labor movement and consequently for the Socialist party.
There are comrades who seem to be of the opinion that we must not enter into any Labor party unless it accepts the ultimate aim of abolishing the capitalist system and introducing the co-operative commonwealth. It would be gratifying if the Labor party would accept the ultimate goal and that would not in the least obviate the necessity of a party composed of revolutionary Marxists. But it would be wrong to make the acceptance of that ultimate aim a condition to our entry into a Labor party. We must get it into our minds that a Labor party will in all likelihood at any rate in the beginning, be more reforest than the right wing Socialists. It might be formed simply for the purpose of trying to win some immediate demands and nothing more. But that is not the decisive factor for us. It is the fact that Labor will begin to act as a class or the political field and that a Labor party will set into motion forces beyond the control of the conservative officialdom that we should take into consideration above everything else.
The working class will come to accept the idea of following a revolutionary Socialist party not because all the workers will read our literature but because bitter experience will teach it that there is no other way out. The working class always tends to take what appears to be the easiest path and only after constant disappointments will it come to realize that the path of revolutionary struggle offers the only solution. This presupposes a revolutionary Socialist party that is close to the masses and participates actively in all their struggles, constantly teaching and learning from the masses. And while it is not absolutely essential that the working class pass through a period of reformism nor is it absolutely certain that it will, the greatest probability is that it will do so and the sooner and faster it goes through such a period via a Labor party the better for the revolutionary movement. In the present period of the decay of capitalism we can confidently expect that the period of reformism through which the working class will pass will be of short duration.
We must guard against any effort to form a Labor party prematurely. There is always the temptation to come together with a few unions either on a national or local scale and launch something that is called a Labor party but which is far from being such. It is incorrect for us to talk as if we can decide to form or not to form a Labor party. We are not the ones to launch a Labor party; organized labor alone has it in its power to do so. All that we can do is to urge and convince organized labor to take the initiative in forming a Labor party. There must be no playing around with “Labor” parties.
And with those members of the Socialist party who are anxious to unite with any and all middle class liberal elements to form a Third party there can be no compromise. When Oscar Ameringer writes: “I give not a whit what means it employs to reach the goal, be it third party, new party, old party or no party at all” he shows such utter middle class confusion and such amazing ignorance of the ABC of Socialism that the N.E.C, of the party would be justified in ordering him to attend classes in Socialism conducted for the Falcons. All that we can say is that it would be best for Ameringer, who is ready t o support the Communists, Soviet Russia, Long, Sinclair and the Detroit Declaration of Principles, to follow “no party at all” to achieve his goal.
It must be understood from the outset that what the people grouped around the American Guardian want is not a party of Labor but a party of the middle class. That Socialism can be achieved only by way of the class struggle is an idea totally unfamiliar to them. Between such “socialists” who might support the Detroit Declaration and the right wing socialists who oppose the Declaration but who understand at least that Socialism must depend for its realization upon the working class, we prefer the latter any time.
And the reason why a third party should be formed according to the proponents of that idea is because fascism is around the corner and a third party is the only instrument with which to save democracy. If in Germany neither the Socialist nor the Communist parties basing themselves on the working class could defeat fascism, how in the world one can expect a middle class party not based, on labor to prevent the victory of fascism, is a mystery not easily solved. Perhaps Comrade Shoaf reasons that since the German working class could not defeat fascism it is best to depend upon the middle class. Just as logical to expect the capitalist class to bring Socialist into existence.
As a matter of fact some advocates of a bona fide Labor party urge the formation of such a party in order to defeat fascism, which everyone seems to see around the corner. If fascism was victorious in Germany, Austria and Spain where there were millions of organized Socialist workers, there is less reason to expect that a politically backward Labor party will save this country from fascism. It will be the tactics which a future Labor party will follow that will determine whether or not fascism will win. If it will choose the policy of the “lesser evil” as the German Social Democratic party did, or if it will wait until the last moment as the Austrian Social Democratic party did, then we shall suffer the same fate as our Austrian and German brothers suffered. In and of itself the formation of a Labor party does not mean a victory against fascism nor the winning of some immediate demands. Whether or not that will occur will depend on the policies which a Labor party will follow.
The one almost certain thing that a Labor party will accomplish will be the beginning of independent political action on the part of the American workers and that alone is a sufficiently progressive step to justify our advocacy for the formation of a Labor party. As said above, it will set the workers into motion in the right direction and once set into motion they will undoubtedly find the path of revolutionary struggle.
Last updated: 03.1.2009