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Why Join the Workers Party

A.J. Muste

Why Join the Workers Party

Letters to a Worker Correspondent – III

(23 March 1935)

From The New Militant, Vol. I No. 14, 23 March 1935, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


My last letter pointed out that we workers cannot obtain plenty and security, deliverance from misery and war, by trying to reform the capitalist economic system. We have to abolish it. And we cannot abolish it except by the revolutionary method. The capitalists are not going to retire gracefully and without a struggle from the scene!

In your answer you said that the workers in your shop kicked about a lot or things like wages and the way they are being speeded up and the high cost of food, but that they did not read any serious papers or books and were against any “radical theories” You added that although they growled a lot they did not show much fight and that you did not think they would ever be ready to “make a revolution”.

If by this you mean that you do not have any hope that the masses of the workers will become students of economics and government, will understand and accept the theories set forth in Marx’s Capital, and as a result of intellectual reflection will determine to overthrow capitalism, you are perfectly right. That is not the way things happen in history.

You know how it is when a strike occurs in your mill. It does not happen primarily because the workers have been reading statistics of what is happening in the industry, or because in general they have become radical in their thinking. It comes because of grievances about things in which they are directly concerned, the way in which a foreman treats them, a wage cut, an attempt of the boss to squeeze more work out of them. Such grievances pile up. Presently workers who have had a meek attitude and still regard themselves as thoroughly conservative, strike and fight. In the strike they learn a great deal about the economic system, the banks, the role of the government. Many a worker has become class-conscious and been started on his way to a life of activity in the labor and revolutionary movement in this way.

What the Masses Fight For

The masses may be said always to fight for direct and simple things, for the right to exist, for a better life. When the great Bolshevik revolution broke out in Russia in 1917, they were not moved by a conscious determination to build “a new social order” and a clear picture of what kind of an order it would be. The slogans in the fight were Peace, Bread, Land. The whole economic and political machinery of the Czarist regime was broken up, was ceasing to function altogether. The soldiers wanted to quit the army where they were being slaughtered like cattle. The masses in the cities wanted to eat. The peasants wanted the land which was in the possession of the big land-owners.

The time had come when in order to exist, in order to prevent complete ruin, the masses had to carry on their fight, ever more broadly and intensely, and at last against the economic system which served to maintain that economy. Thus, under the leadership of the revolutionary party, the masses carried through the revolution to overthrow capitalism and establish the workers’ state.

All the details as to how the job was done in Russia, or how it may be carried through here where, of course, the conditions are not exactly the same, we need not go into here. But we can see before our own eyes how things may shape up. We recall how last year in Toledo, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and plenty of other places, tens of thousands came out on the streets and picketed in support of strikes which in many cases involved directly only a small number. When a “general strike” occurs, even on a restricted scale, who decides whether milk shall be delivered to children or the light and power kept on in the hospitals?

The mayor, the city council, etc. have become powerless. The instruments of capitalist government cannot function. The workers’ Strike Committee, or in some cases where food is involved a farmers’ Strike Committee, decides such things. You have them taking over some of the functions of government. Thus we can see the possibility of Workers’ Councils emerging, the instruments with which workers carry on the light and also the instruments through which the government of the workers functions after they have taken power. The Russian name for councils is Soviets. That is why we often speak of the workers’ state as Soviet power.

Thus the picture unfolds. The capitalist system, though the development of productive forces makes plenty possible, cannot function effectively any more. It presses the standard of living of the masses ever lower. The capitalist state also begins to break down. The workers, in order to exist, have to fight on a broader and broader front. Presently they have to overthrow the state and abolish the capitalist economic system altogether. Then they establish the Workers’ State which functions through new governmental instruments and disbands or destroys the old agencies and forms of the capitalists’ military forces, etc. Then and not until then, under the workers’ state, the masses can use the productive forces to provide plenty and security.

How Are Strikes Caused?

At this point, another important factor must be emphasized. You know that agitators and radicals do not cause strikes, as the kept press tries to make out. You have had plenty of experience of how at certain times no amount of agitation can cause the slightest stir among the workers. Rotten conditions cause the workers to revolt, particularly when they see a chance o£ doing something about them. But yon know also that when last year the unrest increased in your mill, it was you and the other fellows I have been writing to who got together, talked things over, called a meeting at Bill Roberts’ house, got a lot of workers to sign cards that they would join a union if and when half the mill was signed up, later called a mass meeting, set up the union, sent for a charter from the international, etc. You fellows and a few others are the officers of the union, you serve on the department committees, you were on the strike committee.

In other words, there was a leadership. It consisted of the men who had read and studied some, who knew more out the labor movement than the general run of the workers, who could organize, who had courage and fighting qualities, who could look ahead and plan. Besides, you acted as a group, rather than as individuals. The time before when the workers wanted to do something, but everything was fed by this fellow Jackson, a good fellow in many ways but erratic and a free-lance, everything went wrong. The same conception holds good for the entire revolutionary struggle of the working class.

The Revolutionary Party

That is why we say that the basic instrument of the workers in the revolutionary struggle is the revolutionary party.

The working class as a whole is not homogeneous. It is divided by many interests. Many sections are backward. It cannot, as a class, directly plan and guide its battles. Just as you found in your mill, a staff, a vanguard is necessary. If there is none, or if its basic policies are wrong, only confusion, defeat and disaster can result for the workers. As our Declaration of Principles puts it, “this is the revolutionary party. It embraces the most advanced, the most militant, the most devoted workers, unites them firmly on the basis of tested principles, and welds them together in rigorous discipline”.

The party does not impose its leadership on the masses. It wins their confidence and support by its devotion to the interests of the masses, its courage, the correctness of its policies. Even immediate struggles are carried forward effectively only where such leadership plays an important, if not a leading, role.

When, and only when the revolutionary party, as the crisis deepens and conditions ripen, gains the support of the majority in the Workers’ Councils, or whatever the mass struggle organizations of the workers may be called, establishes its leadership, can the revolutionary struggle of the workers be carried to a victorious conclusion.

That is why it is so important that you and workers like you should join the W.P. – why on the one hand you should contribute your strength, energy and intelligence to it and on the other hand receive from membership in the revolutionary party the training, discipline, comradeship and enthusiasm which can come in no other way, and without which we cannot accomplish the colossal and urgent task before the Party, before the working class here in the U.S. and throughout the world!

(A fourth and final letter be published in next week’s issue of the New Militant.)

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