From Socialist Appeal, Vol.1 No.5, August-September 1935, pp.18-22.
Transcribed and Marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The decision of the Supreme Court holding the National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional and thus bringing to an end the various codes created a sufficiently deep stirring among the laboring masses to justify a campaign of explanation and a program for the purpose of mobilizing the workers to guard whatever they had won by virtue of some codes and to achieve further gains.
Two lines of conduct were possible for a political party representing the working class to meet the situation arising out of the decision. The decision could be used as the spearhead of a campaign to give Congress the right which the Supreme Court said it did not possess. A working class party utilizing the decision for that purpose would in no way differentiate itself from any liberal, group composed of people who conceived, of the possibility of reforming capitalism and making the lot of the working class tolerable under that system. The demand to “liberalize“ our constitution to permit social legislation is not at all a demand peculiar to the working class. Conclusive evidence of that fact is furnished by Roosevelt’s intimation that the constitution must be amended to permit the Federal government to legislate on those subjects covered by the N.R.A. It is a demand which all enlightened defenders of the present system support. The fact that all other capitalist countries have that power shows how little that power really means to the working class.
To follow the line of conduct indicated above would stamp a working class political party as hopelessly opportunistic.
Another method to follow for the purpose of utilizing the decision to educate the masses and gain support for the Socialist Party is to show that the working class cannot and dare not trust a capitalist government to guard the interests of the working class and that it must rely on its own strength to achieve and retain the concessions wrested from the capitalist class. It was a glorious opportunity to bring home to the workers that what a capitalist government for one reason or another grants to them can be taken away very easily if reliance is placed on that government but that which the workers through their own struggles win for themselves and guard with their organized strength cannot be taken away so easily.
Could a six hour day or a minimum wage gained by organized struggle be declared unconstitutional? The simplest worker would understand the meaning of such a question.
It was the duty of a revolutionary party to point out that. lesson to the workers and furthermore to call upon them to act on the basis of that lesson. It was necessary for the Socialist party to call upon the workers to organize and struggle and achieve by their struggle much more than that which Roosevelt had given them through the NRA as a sop.
The course which a party followed to meet the situation created by the Supreme Court decision determined whether that party was a socialist party or a liberal party, whether it was a revolutionary party or a reformist party.
Should we then neglect the political aspect of the decision and urge the workers to confine their efforts merely to economic action? Should we cease all efforts to pass social legislation and concentrate on trade union activity? NOT AT ALL!
To urge the workers to rely upon their own organized strength does not mean to neglect political action. It simply moans that even in questions of legislation the only real force to rely upon is the organized strength of the working class. To forget that the class struggle plays the dominant role not only in trade union activities but to all forms of working class activities is to forget the A B C of socialism. Assume that the Supreme Court has the power to declare laws favorable to the working class unconstitutional, it does not at all follow that the organized struggle of the masses will have no effect upon the court. Assume that the Supreme Court has no such power, it does not follow that without any organized, struggle any favorable legislation will be passed. Of all factors the organized struggle of the working class is far and away the most important single one determining whether any concessions will be obtained from the capitalist state.
But will it not be easier to achieve favorable legislation if we get the working class to struggle and at the same time grant congress the specific right to legislate on matters affecting the condition of workers in industry? Why not first clear the ground, so to speak, by passing the amendment giving congress that right and then wage a struggle for social legislation? A totally incorrect way of considering the whole matter.
Let it be first of all understood that it would be absurd to carry on a campaign against such an amendment; no realistic revolutionary socialist would oppose the passing of such an amendment. The whole question revolves not on whether the Socialist party should favor the “workers’“ amendment but on the correctness from a revolutionary point of view of bringing out this amendment as the center of a campaign to meet the situation resulting from the adverse decision with reference to the N R. A.
Reading the socialist press, one would be justified in concluding that the Socialist party is of the opinion and so informs the workers that the solution to all their immediate problems and the answer to the hostile attitude of the court is the Hillquit amendment. To be convinced of that; it is not necessary to read the press published by the out-and-out reformists, the press typified by the New Leader and the Wisconsin Leader, but it is sufficient to read an editorial entitled “Judicial Hitlerism“ in the Socialist Call, a weekly published by the Militant group in the party. “There can only be one answer to this dictatorship of the judiciary,“ says this editorial. “It is: PASS THE HILLQUIT WORKERS’ RIGHTS AMENDMENT!“ (capitals in original). If the organ of the Militants contains such sentiments it can be imagined what the reformist press contains. (see note below)
THE INCORRECTNESS OF THE CAMPAIGN AROUND THE AMENDMENT CONSISTS NOT IN FAVORING THE AMENDMENT BUT IN MAKING IT APPEAR AS THE ONLY THING NECESSARY TO SOLVE THE PROBLEMS OF THE WORKING CLASS.
What was necessary immediately after the N R A decision was to emphasize the necessity for organization and struggle for such immediate demands as the thirty hour week with an adequate minimum wage, unemployment insurance and the prevailing wage rate for the unemployed on work relief. And as part of the struggle for these demands it would be necessary and correct to put forth the constitutional amendment. It is simply a question of emphasis which makes one campaign revolutionary and correct and the other reformist and incorrect.
Foolish indeed would we appear before the working class were we to take the definite attitude that first we must have the constitution amended and after that we shall propose such demands as indicated above. And while nowhere in the Socialist press does this idea clearly appear, the nature of the whole campaign would tend to give that impression to those workers who read our press.
Nor is the question of creating reformist illusions in the minds of the workers an unimportant one. Goodness knows they have too many such illusions as it is and the function of our party is not to add to them but to attempt to destroy them. When an immediate demand is put forth we must take into consideration the possibility of rallying the working masses for a struggle against the capitalist class and its state around that demand; we must also take into consideration the consciousness of the masses and the possibility of intensifying their class consciousness. It is not always easy to judge exactly what kind of immediate demand will best serve the purpose of mobilizing the workers and in the struggle also destroying their illusions. One of the tests of a revolutionary Marxist is to formulate such demands and not to hesitate to change them if they are not in harmony with the consciousness of the workers at a particular time and if instead of destroying they create illusions.
Revolutionary socialists differentiate themselves from the reformists in their conception of the state and the road to power. It is interesting to note how enthusiastic the right-wing socialists are about the amendment. That amendment harmonizes so well with their whole conception of gradualism. First we’ll change the constitution; then we shall introduce one good law after another; and one fine day the workers will wake up pleasantly surprised to find themselves in the midst of a socialist world.
The fact that the reformists also support a certain demand does not of course make it obligatory for the revolutionists to reject such a demand. As a matter of fact, it is the method in which agitation for a demand is carried out that distinguishes a revolutionary Marxist from a gradualist and not the demand itself necessarily. The reformist wants to achieve an immediate demand without struggle and as one of the necessary steps to achieve socialism without struggle. The revolutionary Marxist wants to achieve the demand through struggle, to mobilize and educate the workers in the struggle as a step towards the final struggle for power.
We take it for granted that socialism cannot be introduced by a change of the constitution and the enactment of one law after another. We take it for granted that the state is an instrument to serve and protect the interests of the capitalist class and it is pure utopianism to expect that the working class can use that instrument for the ushering in of a socialist world. It is the class struggle in its most tense form that will decide what class will have power and whether a socialist world will be created. The European capitalist countries have no Supreme Court which can nullify parliamentary legislation and the working classes of those countries will have no easier time to gain power and “build socialism than the working class of this country.
Consequently in putting forth a demand such as an amendment to the constitution exceedingly great care must be exercised not to give the workers the idea that socialism can be ushered in constitutionally. Again it must be repeated that it would be exceedingly mechanical to conclude, because of our conception of the nature of the state and the road to power, that we should be hostile or even indifferent to a constitutional amendment. Socialists have and must always interest themselves in the nature of the capitalist state. They must fight to have it democratized even from the point of view of capitalist democracy. But in that struggle we must be constantly teaching the workers that not capitalist democracy and not the capitalist state will bring us socialism but workers’ democracy and the workers’ state.
It must be made clear in our general agitation in support of the amendment that we do not consider it as the cure-all for the ills of the working class. From that point of view it is a grievous mistake to call the amendment the “Workers’“ amendment. There is nothing about the amendment which contains the special philosophy of the working class. Other sections of the population the liberals in general, will undoubtedly favor some such amendment. There is no threat in this amendment to the capitalist order; there is nothing in it which will be of peculiar benefit to the working class. All it does is to grant congress the authority to pass whatever laws it deems fit dealing with the matters enumerated in the amendment. This is not sufficient to justify calling it the “workers’“ amendment.
A real “workers’“ amendment would be one that specifically provides for the socialization of industry and a prohibition of exploitation. That kind of an “amendment“ will not come as a result of amending the constitution but of formulating a new constitution after the workers achieve power. All other “amendments“ will not help and in supporting them we must not create more and greater illusions.
1. In the issue of the Socialist Call of July 27, 1935, appearing subsequent to the writing of this article, an editorial appeared which went a long way to placing the Hillquit amendment in its proper perspective. That editorial clearly states that “revolutionary socialists have never believed that capitalism can be abolished by a series of reforms that will gradually transform the capitalist system into a socialist system.“
Last updated: March.11.2009