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Arne Swabeck

The 1932 Elections and the American Working Class

(November 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 48, 26 November 1932, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The presidential elections have once again rendered devastating proof of the paradox of a politically terribly backward working class in a highly developed industrial country. That is shown on the face of the returns. But it is still necessary to probe a little deeper to enable us to find the trends which are indicative for the future.

Here we have a situation of more than three years of acute economic crisis and yet we have reached no further than the Democratic party, one of the very important cogs of the system itself, being able to corral an overwhelming majority on the promise of “a new deal.” It is indisputable that the issues of the economic crisis pressed forward, overshadowing everything else in the elections. But the results, insofar, as they were expressed in elections, were only the fact that the Republican administration and Hoover received the blame for the crisis and the democratic party marshaled by and large the mighty, but blind protest vote.

Discontent and Radicalization

Are we to conclude from this that there is not as yet any visible radicalization of the American workers or any visible Leftward trend accelerated by the effects of the crisis? Let us say at the outset that we do not at all proceed from the fundamentally false estimates of radicalization made by the official party leadership. With that we have nothing in common. Nevertheless it would be incorrect to conclude that there are not yet tendencies of a Leftward development of the American workers.

No one could fail to notice the enormous discontentment as revealed by the elections, and revealed clearly also in demonstrations outside the elections. But it is still groping. Politically, in the main, it is still harnessed within the traditional channels, flowing from one capitalist party to another. This is the one side of the picture, on the other there is the growth of support enjoyed by the Socialist party. In this instance that does represent a swing away from capitalist allegiances of the past, despite the fact that its historical meaning becomes something else. Also, in actual numbers, here is a growth of the Communist vote in such instances where the official party managed to get on the ballot. A growth, however, which is entirely too insignificant to be commensurate with the opportunities which were at hand. But that is, as has been said before in these columns, particularly due to the failure of the official party leadership to conduct an election campaign in such a manner and to pursue a policy in the day-to-day struggles which will win for the party at least a measure of confidence of the discontented masses.

Above all one must remember the political background of the American working class. The European tradition of independent political action has not yet been established. The American workers, regardless of their many heroic examples of strike struggles, have not yet learned to act as a class in a political sense. That, of course, is expressed also in the parliamentary elections. Hence its blind protest vote became entirely undistinguishable from the conscious capitalist vote. Hence also the support of the Socialist party and the Communist party is the only material expression of opposition to the capitalist parties, recognizing, however, the limitations of a parliamentary elections in actually registering the working class sentiment. Moreover, when we speak of the support to the Socialist party in this sense, it is particularly important for us to remember that, while this was undoubtedly in the main a working class support, it could be recorded for its ticket also primarily because of the failures of the official Communist party leadership to indicate clearly the revolutionary direction. In this instance the reformists gained at the expense of the revolutionary party. Historically, this can only mean in opposition to the revolutionary party.

But in the United States today the economic basis for an ideological and political regrouping of class forces is already established. American politics will become Europeanized. It would at this moment be difficult to forget that the decisive economic factors which have long ago pricked the bubble of national self-sufficiency are also very strongly expressed in politics. As one small example we might mention the claim made by the various debtor nations, immediately after the elections, to get in on “the new deal”. They want a suspension of the present payments due and a general downward revision of debt payments to the United States. This, of course, only testifies to the increasing role played by American imperialism in world affairs. Its struggle for hegemony, its struggle to supplant the bourgeoisie of the other capitalist nations and simultaneously its efforts to save the whole of the capitalist system from the further extension of the October revolution, will in the main be determining for future political developments at home.

But within the United States the dialectics of class relations, resting upon the economic basis already created, is also at work performing its task of transforming the political backwardness of the working class into its opposite. There need be no doubt that on a historical plane the traditional two capitalist party system holding exclusive sway, will give way to parties contesting along class lines with a working class acting politically independent of the capitalist parties. That we know will be the direction. But it is not yet decided to what extent and for how long it may assume forms of social reformist political action. In that decision the Communist vanguard will play its part. And it is in consideration of this that the support recorded by the Socialist party deserves serious attention.

There have been tendencies before in the United States toward a break-up of the two party system, horizontally and along class lines. We had the various blocs of which the farm bloc and the “progressive” bloc became the most outstanding. They represented mainly the middle class elements from both parties seeking a way of combination against the big bourgeoisie. This is temporarily arrested by all of these forces more or less being corralled behind Roosevelt as far as the elections were concerned. It is quite clear that the majority of the workers still followed this leadership of the middle class. But it is just as certain that the process of break-up cannot be arrested for very long.

Then will not the Socialist party become a more formidable political contender? Its growth is significant, not merely by the votes recorded which appear to be less than what was recorded by the Debs candidacy years ago; but it is significant from its position of almost non-existence a couple of years ago up until its ability today to enlist the support of considerable sections of the Leftward developing workers. It is taking on political form and its leaders are more skilfully manipulating the issues.

Problems of Social Reformism

This has its important bearing upon the question which still confronts us namely, to what extent social reformism in general will develop in the United States and how to most effectively combat it and turn the tide in a revolutionary direction. We are not making any futile attempt at guessing whether social reformism will actually come into power, but merely concerning ourselves with its prospects of sway for a time within the working class. And in this respect, considering the general trend as well as the position of the Communist party, it would be difficult to deny such prospects. It is necessary to acknowledge the objective possibilities for social reformist developments, and to take them into account in our revolutionary strategy. Whether they will assume the form strictly speaking of a labor party, based upon the trade unions, or the Socialist party actually mustering the forces under its banner, is not yet certain. That depends upon many factors of future developments. But that social reformism will exist only as an opposition force to Communism is as certain as the fact that the rapidity of developments of capitalist contradictions will also serve to limit its existence.

As an imperialist power the United States faces the problem of further expanding its productive forces within a decaying capitalist world. Its very first steps in attempting to issue out of the crisis its reorganization and greater concentration of industry, its greater centralization of capital, its intensified exploitation of labor and general lowering of the standard of living narrows the margin of concessions which can be given to social reformism. And social reformism can in the final analysis exist only on such concession crumbs. Its possibility of functioning in the United States at all as a historically progressive force are becoming enormously lessened. The solution which American imperialism is seeking, in a historical sense, becomes at best a breathing spell which itself increases the social antagonisms. This embodies greater prospects for the revolutionary party. It is our task to fight at every step of the road against social reformism.

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