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Labor Party?

Hugo Oehler

Should Revolutionists Build a Labor Party in America?

(February 1935)

From The New Militant, Vol. I No. 10, 16 February 1935, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(continued from last issue)

The question of the Labor Party must be considered within the framework of our general program of parliamentary action. If we hold to the theory that we can vote the capitalists out of office then a Labor Party may be the ideal instrument to sneak up on the capitalists. But since this is the height of folly the Labor Party falls from grace. On the other hand, it is not difficult for the ultra-lefts who swing to the other extreme and refuse to participate in parliamentary action, to dismiss the Labor Party with one stroke of the pen.

The revolutionary Marxists utilized parliamentary action only as an auxiliary activity and to win backward layers of the masses in ;he process of exposing the enemy and their agents in elections, etc. Because we work in reactionary unions and help build trade unions of the workers, some draw the conclusions that we can help build a Labor Party. But there is no comparison between the elementary union organizations on the economic field and the Labor Party on the political field. It is important to obtain a proper relationship between the elementary economic organizations of the class which are the instruments for immediate demands and the political party of the class.

The political party is the instrument of the vanguard and its main objective is the struggle for power. Only a revolutionary Marxian party can lead the masses and fulfill this purpose. A Labor Party can only be an instrument of reform.

Reforms and Immediate Demands

The question of a Labor Party is bound up with the question of immediate demands and reforms. Let us consider the question of reforms.

All working class organizations claiming to fight for the class have stumbled on this problem to a greater or lesser degree. Outstanding in the Marxian camp are DeLeon and the S.L.P., which, unable to find a way out, just threw the whole question of immediate demands overboard and denied it all except in the trade unions. But since practical needs of the class today are material things and not ghosts their denial was to no avail. The P.P., to this day, is following the footsteps of the S.L.P., on this vital class question. Both of these organizations have taken a negative position while the S.P., swinging to the opposite direction, has transformed every struggle for immediate demands into reforms of the worst kind. In the Communist currents, sad to say, we find them handling the question with kid gloves.

We Marxists cannot borrow many dictionary words and use them to define things and conditions in the class struggle. The word reform is one such word.

Is there any difference in the material gains or practical needs of the day for our class “given” by the bosses or their labor leaders or won by our class in struggle? To every Marxist, we know there is a fundamental difference for our class position. Only by understanding the class forces and causes for the way our class receives these material gains from “day to day” can we (after explaining) use the word “reform” in a “revolutionary sense”. This understanding enables us to label the kind of material gain to denote reformist or revolutionary action in the struggle for immediate demands.

If the practical needs of the day are “given” by the bosses or their government they are reforms; if they come from the bosses’ labor leaders, trade union or political, they are social reforms and if these gains are won by our class in struggle led by its vanguard they are sparks for revolution. Practical needs of the day for our class cannot be abstracted from the class struggle and the organizational and ideological position of the class. If we could abstract these immediate demands or gains from the position of battle of the class forces we could say all these galas are reforms. But such an abstraction is false while other abstractions, such as are explained in Capital are not false.

We know that reforms or social reforms do not come from the big kind hearts of the bosses and their flunkeys. We know they are granted from above because the class pressure from below compels them to relinquish this material gain for our class in order to stem the tide and check the growing opposition. It is more profitable to “kill with kindness” than to kill through white terror, providing the position of the bosses enables them to carry out the former. The degree of class pressure determines, in the majority of cases, if the practical needs will be direct from the bosses or from their flunkeys or from the class itself through correct leadership. Reforms can be said to result from class pressure but class pressure without or with wrong pressure of the class vanguard means a disproportion in the relation of class and party.

The growth and decay stage of capitalism will cause a big variance in this disproportion. In the growth stage of capitalism, the objective factors favor the capitalist and reforms while the decay stage gives the objective factors to the revolutionist to a far greater degree. This brings to the fore the subjective factor, the vanguard as the vital determining factor of the problem as Trotsky points out, not only in revolutions but also in the struggle for immediate demands.

The degree of class pressure does not always determine the success of reformism, as the above will indicate. The stage of capitalism we live in as well as its ebbs and flows, and also its uneven capitalist development, is no abstraction in the class struggle. In the growth stage of capitalism, crumbs in response to class pressure were the least evil for the bosses, because the very expansion and new markets more than made up for the loss. In the decay stage reforms are bitter concessions from the capitalist, knit to a higher degree not only to the class pressure but more so to the policies of the vanguard.

If capitalism grants reforms (beats us to our point of advantage) this has its ideological influence upon our class or section of the class as well as a negative organizational result, scattering our forces and at the same time driving these class forces into some form of capitalist, controlled organization.

Such prevents the crystallization of our class ideology and unless the vanguard is wide awake and capable we lose even the possibility of retrenching ourselves for the next struggle. In this sense, as a class problem and not as an abstract material gain our class, which only learns by experience, has lost by the bosses’ coup and with it the vanguard loses.

With the capitalist coup in reforms, the class line re-forms with the bosses at a more advantageous position than before. A material gain given by capitalism, as a reform is just so much labor power (controlled by capitalism) spent as it would be spent on the battlefield in destruction of the enemy forces by shells and ammunition. But the comparison does not hold water. Because a material gain even in relation to the capitalist is just so much spent, while in relation to the workers it is a material gain. Let us see. If the vanguard of the workers moves up and intrenches the class behind the material gain (reform and not a spark) it is already a NEW PROBLEM and especially a totally different struggle. If the capitalists try to retake what they gave, and not what we won, it is no longer a question of reform in the sense of immediate demand (offensive struggle) but a problem of defensive struggles of our class. How many material gains (regardless of how they came) were retaken and are being retaken by the capitalist in the present crisis? Any thinking worker can answer this fairly well. In this case if the vanguard does not measure up to standards we can say, the greater the number of these gains through reforms and social reforms, the easier it is for capitalism to retake them and those that come to us as material gains as sparks toward revolution, the harder it is for the capitalist to retake.

One only has to look at the sick coal industry (favorable to the capitalist) with past gains primarily through class struggle and compare it with other healthy capitalist industries (favorable to the workers) where gains were mainly reforms and realize the difference between the two. A comparison will show reforms are relinquished easier than the gains through class battles unless the vanguard’s right or wrong policy alters the problem.

Can we lay down definite plans to prevent our action from following the reformist camp? We can lay down principles in general, but it is impossible to lay down a line of march that is fool-proof. Each concrete struggle must have its tactics formulated on the basis of Marxian analysis. A line of demarcation between reformist action (reforms) and revolutionary action can be made in every struggle but every developing struggle will have forces and action of both. It is up to the Marxists to move these struggles out of the channels of REFORM into the channels of deeper class struggles. A simon-pure struggle (made in the office of the bureaucrats) is just as wrong (isolation) as to enter movements which are organizationally part of the enemy forces (Parliamentary action – charity organizations, etc.) – the latter will not be isolation from numbers but will be isolation from the role of the Marxists as the vanguard of the revolution.

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