From The New International, Vol. IV No. 9, September 1938, pp. 279–280.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
TO say that a change in the situation dictated a change in tactics can be interpreted in two ways. It can be inferred that the tactic previously followed was correct in the light of conditions then existing and that the new tactic, which may be directly contrary to the one previously followed, is also correct because of the change in the situation. Or the inference can be made that a change in conditions made clear the incorrect policy previously applied and that the present policy has corrected the former one.
In the case of the proposed re-orientation of the Socialist Workers’ Party on the labor party problem it can be truthfully said that both of the above inferences can be made. Our tactic in rejecting the labor party slogan, at a time when there was practically no movement for a labor party, was correct and because of the radical change in conditions it is now correct to adopt that slogan. Our formulation with reference to the labor party question, however, a formulation which prevented us from shifting our position quickly when circumstances demanded a shift, was too rigid to be correct. It was a case of an incorrect reason for a correct tactic.
Our statement that it is not the business of a revolutionary party to help in the formation of a labor party could result in a correct tactic only in a period when there was no serious movement for the formation of a labor party. But that formulation applies to all times and under all circumstances. Consequently, when a substantial movement for independent political action came into being, the abstract character and incorrectness of that formulation was thrust upon us because it interfered with the adoption of a correct tactic of supporting a labor party movement.
What was most effective in impressing leading members of the party with the necessity for a change both in tactic and formulation was the practical experience of the trade-union activists. With the organization of Labor’s Non-Partisan League the political life of the trade unions, especially of the CIO was awakened. Resolutions for and against independent political action, proopsals to support Democratic candidates and other political resolutions were being constantly introduced necessitating a definite attitude on the part of our members in the trade unions.
One of two courses could be followed. To oppose the formation of any labor party and to advance the SWP as the party which the workers should follow now and in the immediate future or to propose that the trade unions should organize their own party. It is highly significant that while there was some hesitation on the part of the activists in suggesting the second policy, practically no one thought of advancing the first policy as a practical measure. It appeared to those active in the trade unions as too unrealistic a policy to deserve serious consideration.
Reality came in conflict with theory and when that occurs Marxists do not hesitate to give up theory.
It is not enough, however, to support a movement simply because it embraces large numbers within its scope. It is necessary to analyze the nature of the movement and its tendencies and determine whether or not it will aid the labor movement to advance in a revolutionary direction before we decide to support it even critically. In short, before throwing our support to any movement, we must be convinced that it is progressive in character.
At a time when the plague of semantics has descended upon us one must watch his step very carefully in using any word which has not been defined exactly. What is “progressive” and what is “retrogressive”?
We designated, for instance, the struggle of the Ethiopians against the Italian imperialists as progressive in character and on that basis we supported the former as against the latter. Any number of sectarians of both the right and left variety pooh-poohed the idea that the war on the part of the Ethiopians was progressive in character. Was not Haile Selassie as brutal a taskmaster as Mussolini? Were not the Ethiopian peasants horribly mistreated by the aristocratic Ethiopian landlords? No noticeable difference could result from a victory of either side. Hence no support of the Ethiopians or the Italians. We, however, considered the Ethiopian struggle in its relationship to the whole imperialist system, in the light of the general struggle of the colonial and semi-colonial peoples for freedom from imperialist exploitation and of the effect which a victory of the Ethiopians would have upon the struggle of the working masses throughout the world. Viewing the Ethiopian struggle from that general viewpoint, from the viewpoint of the development of the forces arrayed against capitalist imperialism, we declared that struggle to be progressive and offered whatever support we were capable of giving.
At the very beginning of the fascist revolt against the Loyalist government we came out for material support of the latter on the ground that the war of the Loyalists against the fascists was progressive. We still adhere to the same opinion. To oppose our position, sectarians pointed to the shooting of revolutionary workers by the Negrin-Stalinist regime. We did not permit that to swerve us from our position, though we intensified our political struggle against the Loyalist government. We still consider that a victory of the Loyalist Government is preferable because that will afford the workers a greater opportunity to march forward.
We may not be able to define the term “progressive” with the exactness that will satisfy super-critical semanticists but for the purposes of a political party that is hardly a legitimate requirement. From the point of view of revolutionary Marxism any movement which sets forces into motion against the capitalist system and weakens that system, which serves to heighten the class-consciousnes of the workers, and makes possible a further advance is progressive in character.
Would the formation by the trade unions of their own party, separate and apart from the avowed capitalist parties, constitute a progressive step? To determine that we must of course consider conditions as they are and not as we would like them to be. It would be folly to claim that a labor party movement would be progressive under all circumstances. The discussion must necessarily be limited to the present situation. Nor would it be germane to the subject to discuss whether the formation of a labor party is the most probable development. Whether or not a labor party will actually come into existence is immaterial in a discussion on the question whether or not the formation of a labor party would constitute a progressive step.
At the present time the American workers are still tied to the two capitalist parties; they do not conceive of these parties as representing exclusively capitalist interests; they accept without question the idea that a capitalist party can also represent their interests.
A movement begins which, by and large, is clearly in the direction of separating the working class from the capitalist parties. (For an analysis of that movement, see the article by Burnham and Shachtman in the August issue of The New International.) It is true that Labor’s Non-Partisan League supports Democratic candidates; it is also true that the whole movement is exceedingly unclear in its aims; it cannot be denied that the trade union bureaucrats place obstacles in the way. But it is impossible to interpret recent developments in the labor movement in any other way except as an attempt by the workers to find a path which would lead them to their own working-class party.
Reasoning abstractly it is possible to admit the existence of such a movement for independent political action and to contend that it is our duty to turn it towards the revolutionary party, that is, to offer that party as the vehicle for the working masses to express their sentiments for independent political action. We take it for granted that revolutionary Marxists must attempt to channelize a vague and inchoate movement for independent political action such as we are confronted with at present. They must try to give it a definite organizational objective and that objective must be of a character which will appear reasonable and necessary to the workers. Under the circumstances, to present our party to the workers as the instrument which they should use to express their desire for independent political action would be a futile gesture. It would evoke no response from them whatsoever. This statement is made not only on the basis of a general knowledge of the present state of consciousness of the working masses but on the strength of the well-nigh unanimous testimony of all revolutionists active in the trade unions.
The only organizational aim which is understandable to the workers and which has a real chance to set them in motion, is the formation of a labor party. To insist upon counterposing our party to the Democratic and Republican parties means, under present conditions, to fail to use whatever influence we can wield in the labor movement for the purpose of strengthening the tendency towards independent political action. We are justified in asking the question of our opponents: do you prefer the present situation to a situation where the trade unions would have their own party? Of course it will be indignantly denied that a labor party is the only alternative to the present lack of any working-class party; it will be emphatically asserted that the revolutionary party is the logical alternative but emphasis and repetition do not alter the sad reality. It is not what we would like to have but the actual response of the workers that should determine our tactics.
A subtle distinction is made between the labor party movement and the crystallization of that movement into a labor party. The former is progressive, the latter reactionary. It is difficult to see how it is possible to separate the movement from its immediate and logical organizational objective. As I indicated before, without presenting to the workers a serious objective which appears feasible to them, the labor party movement ceases to have any significance. A movement for independent political action which has no organizational objective appearing realizable to the workers is bound to end in nothing at all. To say that the movement for a labor party is progressive while the actual organization of such a party is reactionary is equivalent to saying that the struggle of the Ethiopians is progressive while a victory would be reactionary. Schoolmen might be able to understand such reasoning but not ordinary workers.
Just as subtle a distinction is the one that is made between what is progressive for the workers and for the revolutionary party. It is an elementary principle of Marxism that every advance made by the working masses is an advance for the revolutionary party. Considering the vanguard as part of the class and not as a group looking down upon the class with a condescending air, no other conclusion is possible. Carried to its logical conclusion such a distinction would mean to consider the proletarian revolution as the sole progressive step for us; everything else may be progressive for the masses but not for us. This would naturally lead us to the position of those sects that are satisfied with issuing an ultimatum to the capitalist class demanding its unconditional surrender and upon the failure of the unsympathetic capitalists to comply with the demand, retire to the class room.
The argument is advanced that a labor party could play a progressive role in the period of capitalist up-swing but not in a period of capitalist decline. And the reason for that is the fact that in the former period a labor party could gain concessions from the capitalist class but not so in the latter period. It is difficult to see why the possible achievements of a labor party should be taken as a criterion for its progressive character. Even a revolutionary movement is unable, in a period of capitalist decline, to gain as much for the workers as in a period when capitalism is making huge profits. This is not to say that a militant movement cannot gain more for the workers than a reformist one. It simply means that in the period of decline the working class must fight harder for less than in the period of capitalist up-swing. Not the possible achievements of a labor party but the mobilization of the workers as a class on the political arena, setting them into motion against the capitalist class, are the factors which should determine our attitude with reference to supporting the labor party movement.
But will not the labor party be reformist in character? Will it not support an imperialist war, and so forth and so on? Would such an argument deter us from actively participating in the organization of trade unions? Will not the bureaucrats of the trade unions be just as reformist, will they not support an imperialist war just as enthusiastically as the bureaucrats of the labor party? Yes, we know that there are differences between trade unions and a political party but any argument based on the future activities of a labor party is equally applicable to the trade unions. It is the general effect which the organization of trade unions has upon the working class that determines our attitude towards them. The same general rule should apply with reference to our attitude to a labor party.
How can we reconcile support of the labor party movement with the necessity of telling the workers that only a revolutionary overthrow of the present system can solve their problems? Must we not tell the workers the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Yes, we must. But those experienced in the field of propaganda for workers understand that it is impossible to go through the whole gamut of revolutionary Marxism on every occasion. What to say, how and when to say it are questions involved in the general problem of effective propaganda. To show that it is necessary for the trade unions to create their independent political party and at same tune to guard against the illusion that the problems of the working class can be solved without a revolution led by a revolutionary party, requires great attention and skill. But once we are convinced that the labor party movement is progressive in character and that it is our task to develop and strengthen that movement, the difficulties, whatever they may be, are of secondary importance.
They are not confronted by difficulties who lead a secluded and cloistered existence. Those who want to intervene actively in the actual life of the labor movement must be prepared to face and solve many exceedingly difficult problems.
Last updated: 12 September 2015