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Albert Goldman

Labor Party Confusion

(April 1936)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 2 No. 4, April–May 1936, pp. 4–5.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

There are enough major mistakes in the resolution on the Farmer-Labor party passed at the Call conference held in New York and published in the Call of March 7, 1936, to make it absolutely unacceptable to any revolutionary Socialist. The closer we come to the actual formation of a Labor party or a Farmer-Labor party the more careful must we be and consequently, in drawing a resolution at the present moment when all kinds of Farmer-Labor parties are springing up, great care should be taken to stress fundamental principles which should under no circumstances be forgotten by any Socialist.

In the state of Wisconsin the Socialist party has joined the Wisconsin Farmer-Labor Progressive Federation; in Terre Haute the S.P. has made a pact with the Communists to work for a Labor party; in many sections of the country our party is contemplating joining some kind of a Farmer-Labor party. The question, in other words, has been taken out of the realm of mere theory and in entering the world of practice, we might find ourselves confronted by monstrosities which will set our party back rather than advance its interests and the interests of the labor movement.

Every resolution dealing with the formation of a Labor or Farmer-Labor party, passed at any Socialist conference, must stress the point that we do not believe that a Labor party will solve the problems of the working class. It is just because there is so little understanding of that simple but fundamental idea that it is so necessary to emphasize it. It is safe to say that most Socialists, even amongst those tending to the left are in favor of a Labor party either because they believe that a Labor party is the one thing necessary to solve the problems of labor or because they have lost hope in the ability of the Socialist party to lead the working class to socialism. It is one thing to look upon the Labor party as a step forward in the struggle for socialism; it is quite another thing to consider it as able to solve any important problem confronting the working class.

The resolution published in the Call states that the S.P. should not “become submerged in the Farmer-Labor Party” and also states that eventually “only a revolutionary party with a Socialist program will be in a position to lead the masses to a working class victory.” But the whole tone of the resolution is that “eventually” we should think of building a revolutionary party. Whereas throughout the resolution the idea that it is NOW our main task and will be at all times to build a revolutionary Socialist party should be as clear as crystal. The task of building a Labor party is at most a subsidiary one and is not aimed primarily to gain a concession or two but to set the workers into motion on the road of independent political action.

At the present period of the development of capitalism it is inconceivable that a reformist Labor party can gain much in the way of reforms from the capitalist class. We are living in a period of the decline of capitalism and not of its upswing. And in such a period it is necessary to wage a revolutionary struggle in order to achieve any substantial reforms. It is as safe as anything can be to say that a real Labor party will not wage a revolutionary struggle. Our attitude to workers in trade unions who want a Labor party should not be the one which would deepen their illusions with reference to such a party. We must frankly tell them that we do not believe that a Labor party will solve their problems; that only socialism can do that and socialism requires a revolutionary Socialist party. We must tell them that we favor such a party simply because it is a step in the direction of independent working class action and that we are willing to go along with them so long as they are not convinced that our party offers the correct solution.

“Either a Labor party or fascism” is the threat that is made by many a Socialist speaker who has not given any too much thought to the problem. And what reason is there to believe that a Labor party will be able to defeat fascism? If the Socialist and Communist parties of Germany could not defeat fascism will a reformist Labor party in this country be able to do so? You will say that the working class of Germany was divided. Was the Austrian Socialist party, who had under its banner practically the whole working class of Austria, able to defeat fascism? Unity is necessary to defeat fascism but it takes more than unity alone to achieve that result. We shall admit that in so far as the formation of a Labor party at the present time would raise the morale of the workers the struggle against a possible fascism would be made easier but it is the possibility of fascism. The struggle against fascism is essentially a struggle for socialism and this demands a revolutionary Socialist party. To accept the alternative of a Labor party or fascism is to fall right into the same error of the Stalinists who have accepted the idea of fascism or bourgeois democracy. They have forgotten that fascism springs out of conditions as they are and to do away with the possibility of fascism one must destroy these conditions.

While the resolution passed at the Call conference is way above the ordinary Socialist resolution dealing with the question of a Labor party in the recognition of the need of a revolutionary Socialist party, still the necessity of building such a revolutionary party is not sufficiently stressed. We must remind our comrades that it would be infinitely better for the working class if the growth of the Socialist party. And it is not at all excluded that our party can grow to a point, before any Labor party worthy of the name is formed, where the formation of a Labor party would be a detriment rather than a step forward.

*  *  *  *

It should need no extensive argument to convince anyone in he least acquainted with the elementary principles of Marxism that we should strive with all our might to favor a Labor party rather than a Farmer-Labor party. It is axiomatic with al Marxists that the class struggle which will transform capitalist society into socialist society is a struggle primarily between the industrial wage-working class and the big capitalist class. A revolutionary Socialist party is a party which represents the historic interests of the working class and stresses the importance of the independent action of the working class as against other classes. This does not mean of course that the working class is not interested in the support of the middle class including the farmers. It must strive to win the support of large sections of that class and neutralize other sections. It does mean however that the party of the working class can make no permanent alliance with organizations purporting to represent the middle class or the people in general. The party of the working class must attempt to win the middle class masses away from the middle class parties and not unite with such parties. It can do so by fighting for the demands of the middle class masses to a greater extent than the middle class parties.

There are comrades who are so enamored with the false idea of a two class party that even when there are, practically speaking, no farmers’ organizations joining with labor organizations to form a party they insist upon creating a Farmer-Labor instead of a Labor party. There can be no objection to an organization of farmers accepting the program of the Labor party and becoming part of that party. But there should be decided objection to the idea of having a two-class party in the sense of organizations representing farmers getting together with labor organizations to form one party.

The formation recently of the Wisconsin Farmer-Labor Progressive Federation where the Socialist party joined with the LaFolette group to form a party (together with other groups) is a classic example of what kind of a party revolutionary Socialists should avoid if at all possible. This is a party where the petty bourgeoisie will have the complete hegemony instead of vice versa. But of course nothing else could be expected of a Socialist party such as the Wisconsin party which essentially is a “people’s” party.

While Socialists should exert all their efforts against the formation of a Farmer-Labor party, a different question arises where one is; formed in spite of their opposition. To join such a party is permissible and necessary under certain circumstances; to help create one is impermissible and harmful.

If the above analysis is correct it is obvious that the resolution of the Call conference is quite defective. To be sure it intimates that the “wage-earning working class is the spearhead of the attack against capitalism” but it flatly comes out in favor of a Farmer-Labor party.

*  *  *  *

It is on the programmatic position which the Call conference resolution outlines for a Labor party that the greatest confusion exists. After the resolution correctly enumerates the five characteristics of a Labor party it proceeds to lay down a nine-point program which from a Socialist point of view is thoroughly incorrect. In the first instance the resolution declares that the Socialist party shall favor certain programmatic provision?. Then it goes on to say what the Labor party must contain in its program. And it docs not distinguish between those points which we must simply favor and those which must be included as an absolute condition to our entry. But a more serious objection to the whole program is that it is an indication of a fundamentally wrong approach to the idea of a Labor party.

If we view the Labor party as an instrument which will set the workers into motion on the road of independent political action and not as a party which will solve the fundamental problems of the working class the important factors must be considered to be the composition of the party and its independence of middle class organizations and domination. As far as the actual program is concerned the more it confines itself to immediate demands, such as the six hour day or unemployment insurance, the healthier it will be for the Labor party and for the Socialist party. Not that we should prevent the Labor party from coming out with the idea of the socialization of the means of production but that we should not consider such a point in the Labor program as essential. If we should consider it essential then we are close to the concept of substituting the Labor party for the Socialist party.

And that is exactly what is happening in Wisconsin. The fact that the Wisconsin comrades fought so strenuously for the inclusion of the idea of production for use in the program of the Farmer-Labor Progressive Federation and are so enthusiastic about their “victory” should not prevent us from seeing clearly that it is just that point which will practically destroy all signs of demarcation between the Wisconsin Socialists and the other groups in the Federation. That “victory” is somewhat dimmed by the fact that “production for use” is defined as the public ownership of “the basic monopolistically controlled industries.” It would have been a thousand times better had the Wisconsin Socialists fought against any alliance with the LaFollette group. But then they would not have been Wisconsin Socialists.

The Socialists in going into any Labor party must fight for their full program. It may be that we shall be unable to wage a successful struggle for the adoption of our full program but we must not create the impression that we are satisfied with anything but our full program. We shall accept a lesser program not because we want to but because we are in a small minority. There may be some points in the program which would prevent us from joining and we should struggle strenuously against such points. But we are not in a position as Socialists to be satisfied with anything less than our complete program. We should “favor” including in the Labor party program everything that we stand for. To do otherwise; is creating illusions for ourselves and the workers.

Judging by the standard set forth above the whole nine-point program for a Labor party should be thrown out. What does the third point of the program mean? “The program shall be based on American conditions.” Does that mean that we Socialists must be against inserting into the program some demands dealing with international problems? Consider the sixth point, favoring taking over power through the ballot box. Does that mean that if the Labor party should adopt a revolutionary philosophy we Socialists should oppose that? There was obviously no thought given to the whole theory of a Labor party. Otherwise there would have been the simple declaration that the Socialist party will participate in a Labor party the heart of which is organized labor and that, since it is out of the question that a Labor party will accept the full Socialist program, it will attempt to keep that program to such demands as are not inconsistent with the program of our party provided further that we be given the unconditional right to propagate our own program.

Probably the best method to furnish a program for a Labor party is first to write a good platform for a Socialist campaign for 1936 and then present the document to any conference for the formation of a Labor party and let that conference choose that part of the platform acceptable to the representatives of organized labor.

*  *  *  *

No one can quarrel with that part of the resolution dealing with a Labor party in 1P36 and with local Labor parties. Organized labor is not yet ready, in the main, to leave Roosevelt. Consequently there can be no talk in forming anything but a caricature of a Labor party. The possibility (or better the certainty) that the dominant sections of the Wisconsin Farmer-Labor Progressive Federation will support Roosevelt and that, the Socialists will support Thomas in the national campaign is not anything to be enthusiastic about. And that possibility is almost certain with every local Labor party where organized labor will be represented in substantial numbers. It should be an invincible rule with Socialists that where the Labor party is not yet ready to break with Roosevelt we must not encourage or enter into such a party.

The threat of the Communists to do something desperate if we do not unite with them to form a Labor party in the immediate future should be completely ignored. There is something to be said in favor of an agreement between Socialists and Communists to support each other’s candidates but nothing at all in favor of launching a Labor party on the basis of a union between these two parties.

Taking all the factors into consideration the Socialist party by conducting; an independent campaign all over the country, on correct revolutionary principles, has a great opportunity to strengthen itself in numbers and morale. To play around with Labor Tickets or with local Labor parties will in the vast majority of cases do great damage to the party.

But the correctness of the resolution on the points dealing with a Labor party in 1936, with Labor tickets and with local Labor parties is more than outweighed by the incorrectness of the fundamental approach to the whole problem of a Labor party. The resolution therefore should be completely rewritten.

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