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Arne Swabeck

Is a Third Party Coming?

(August 1935)

From New International, Vol. II No. 5, August 1935, pp. 145–148.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

CHANGES OF A profound nature are taking place in American political life. Superficially these may appear as the ordinary upsets and realignments of forces that usually follow a change in the business cycle; but their real significance in an historic sense are of a much more fundamental character.

For three-quarters of a century the broad political trend has followed the traditional two-party system, in which the Republican party was naively reputed to be the true harbinger of prosperity. Its preponderance was undebatable, except for the interruptions of the Democratic administrations of Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today this question hangs in the balance. The Democratic party has perhaps already passed its pinnacle of the popular, panegyric acclaims accorded to it as recently as the 1934 elections. The Roosevelt administration finds ever greater difficulty in managing its overwhelming Congress majority. Some Senators and Representatives become recalcitrant and turn “progressive” or “conservative” as they interpret their own fears of a swing of the political pendulum. Political free-lancers, spellbinders and quacks, democratic windbags and plain charlatans are out to reap the harvest. Republicans are kindling fond hopes of regeneration and revival from the grass roots. And most important of all, third party developments are actually appearing on the horizon. But in their deeper significance all these manifestations denote a beginning toward divisions along class lines of American politics – still clothed, however, in its unique American form.

Here we have a new phenomenon. Although it must be admitted at the outset that these third party attempts are by and large repetitions of earlier forerunners, now they appear at a time when the United States is entering a new epoch. This is important for our analysis. In view of the beginnings of class divisions in polite ical life the emergence of a third party or parties has become historically inevitable in the sense of the inadequacy of the traditional two-party system. Of course, such a statement can apply only when speaking broadly and without making any commitments to any specific kind of third parties. Whether the attempts now being made will result in a third party acquiring serious proportions and serious influence at this particular stage, to be exact, at the 1936 elections, is of importance only for those who stake their political fortune on such a development. To us the question presents itself in a different form. In the first place, it is reasonable to assume that the system of two capitalist parties, representing essentially the same interests and holding sole sway, will soon be a thing of the past. Another party, or other parties, will be due to contend with them for popular mass support. Which party? Historical experience on a world scale has shown us the various forms that such parties assume. Liberal parties of a middle class ideology, labor or farmer-labor parties and the classical social democratic parties – the revolutionary parties are, of course, in a separate category. Theoretically, the rapid large-scale development of either type is possible in the United States. But here we have become accustomed to consider only the third party type of Populist days or the labor or farmer-labor party and therefore more exact definitions and more exact evaluations are now necessary.

There is today a veritable conglomeration of variegated groups and elements from the blustering demagogue and old and new-baked “progressives” in Congress through the lopsided idealists, social uplifters and naive self-deluders, to the Old Guard in the Socialist party and the Centrists of the “Militant” and Stalinist brands declaiming with ardor, some noisily, others softly, in favor of one or another type of third party. In its historic essence, the difference between their claims is not so very great.

The presumptuous demagogue or plain charlatan of the Long and Coughlin calibre have no particular allegiances. While they do not favor the martyr’s garb of lost elections, they will easily stake their chances on swaying masses to their own political fortunes. At times they may run short of sensational material but in the critical moments of mass despair they are the more dangerous because they are the least principled and the most unscrupulous. For the cautious “progressives” in Congress matters stand somewhat differently, for they are the much more practical kind of office-holding politicians. The younger LaFollettes captured the state of Wisconsin for a brand new Progressive party, but in national politics the Senator considers it much safer to attempt to tag on “radical” amendments to the various Roosevelt measures. Obviously his aim is to build up a certain record and await the propitious moment when he may make the jump into the older LaFollette’s shoes. Senator Gerald P. Nye, another “progressive”, complains that “capitalists have bought their way into both of the old parties”, but he warns his more impatient friends: “Don’t make the mistake of trying to cover too much territory and try to change the structure of the nation overnight.” Fearful of the “calamity” that any division, that is, division in the capitalist parties, “would throw the government back into the hands of the reactionaries [!?]”, these cautious “progressives” become suspicious of their own shadow. Governor Olson of Minnesota is perhaps a little more daring, but he is too occupied now with local matters to give much attention to national affairs. Still he says that he is ready to “follow any movement which is designed to bring about a change from the present system to a production-for-use system”. A year ago, during the Minneapolis truck drivers’ strike, he called out the troops, declared martial law and had his soldiers raid the union headquarters in the name of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor party. Upton Sinclair, of Epic fame, proposes to capture both the Republican and the Democratic parties for a “production-for-use” program and he believes that Roosevelt can still be induced to accept this program as the leading feature of the New Deal. The pacifist petty bourgeois liberals, always ready to champion the “producing interest” in society against the “speculating interest” and who plumped for Roosevelt in order to aid the “forgotten man”, now begin to find the New Deal as disappointing as the war to make the world safe for democracy. Full of lovely vagaries and longings they espouse the cause of righteousness against social and economic injustices whose effects make them so indignant. On such grounds they would daringly support a third party. But the system that engenders these injustices is considered by all of these elements as divinely ordained, not to be abolished, only to be tinkered with – to be “regulated in the public interest”. Was not this what they expected from the New Deal? And now it disappoints them, but they still find it so terribly difficult to make the choice between Roosevelt and a new party. Pious protestations against fate plus the capitalist invasion of the Democratic party, which has put them into this cruel position, will scarcely help.

The socialists, Old Guard, “Militants” and RPPA alike favor a Labor party. The position of the right wing is understandable. Long ago it lost sight of the theoretical socialist premises. Its social reformist position became almost indistinguishable from the New Deal and Abe Cahan could justly proclaim that Roosevelt lacked only the little red Socialist party membership card. Today it accepts warmly all ideas suggesting a broader party that promises greater positions and promises to be a better barrier to Leftward tendencies which it views with such horror and dismay. The Right wing pleads with the high trade union officials to give leadership to such a party. But these officials, who have personal interests to consider, are too busy fighting the militant and the revolutionary workers in the unions. They are too busy putting the union label on strike betrayals and besides, like the capitalists themselves they have vested interests to protect. So far they have not stirred to these pleas and at the present juncture it is most unlikely that they will. Some of them took chances with LaFollette in 1924, but on the whole, the AF of L officials usually tie up the career of their leadership as well as their personal interests in a system of collaboration with the capitalist party in control of the administration. Their title: labor lieutenants of capitalism, is most appropriate indeed. It would be far from the minds of the Right wing socialists to say anything that is unkind about this despicable and treacherous political relationship. Some irritating demands to this effect were made by the “Militants”. But that was only for a time, only until the erstwhile “militant” leaders could divert the rank and file pressure for a revolutionary policy into the safer channels of “harmony”, and find sufficient comfort for themselves in the formula: What we lose on the Left we shall gain on the Right. Their spineless opposition succumbed to the onslaughts of the Old Guard, whom they hated for one reason and another, but with whom they had no difference in principle. The newly constituted Thomas-Hoan-Oneal NEC majority, born out of capitulation, may continue the efforts to save the SP from the danger of the Left and work for a Labor party that will embrace the class collaboration policy of the AF of L leaders. The difference in principle between this new majority and the latter is too fictitious really to stand in the way. But on the Left, the RPPA, fully aware of the perfidious reformism that pervades the SP, also takes up the cudgels for a Labor party within which they say that “the Socialist party must act as a Marxist force ... and seek to direct the workers into channels of socialist thought”. The net effect of a mass Labor party, they hold, will be the “emancipation of the workers from the thralldom of capitalist politics”. No more and no less. But still more than is accomplished by the social democratic parties whose leaders occupy ministerial posts by the grace of their majesties, the tall kings of the Scandinavian countries and Belgium.

The Stalinists present in their latest political turn the most curious and the most fantastic ideas of a Labor party melange. They do not want a Labor party, they say, that is merely a third party. Nor do they want an ordinary Labor party that accepts the leadership of the AF of L bureaucracy or the SP Right wing. Their aims are far more grandiose and, incidentally, much more ridiculous. They champion the idea of a Labor party that will wage “revolutionary mass struggle for the immediate demands of the workers which go beyond the interests of capital”. It is to be a “genuine Labor party,” they say, that will “really carry on a struggle against the growing menace of war and Fascism”. What pompous nonsense! What marvelous rhetoric designed to shield an opportunist orientation and clothe it in revolutionary phrases! It is entirely devoid of Marxian content for, as all history proves, a Labor party, even when it has a genuine trade union base, is a reformist party and nothing else can be expected from it. But the Stalinists are not to be deterred by such arguments or such proofs from history. They have started a veritable crusade to bring their idea of a Labor party into life. Not because a widespread sentiment for its creation already exists; on the contrary, that is not the case and the crusade is undertaken purely because it is prescribed by their latest turn of policy, the American adaptation of the Stalinist opportunist degeneration.

At the present junction of political developments greater advances are scored by the purely third party proponents. Of course, there is no certainty at all that the accelerated tempo of capitalist contradictions will permit either type to unfold on a large scale and play a serious historic role or attain a serious political influence in the United States. But it is very natural that the petty bourgeois demagogues of third partyism should be a few steps ahead. Politically the middle class, which is now so hard pressed by brutally and irresistibly advancing monopoly capital, is more articulate, more uprooted from traditional adherence to old shibboleths, and give vent quicker to its feelings of discontent in a clamor for political expression.

Surely the workers are under no less pressure and they have resisted militantly in strike struggles, but their political consciousness still remains on a low level. Definite Labor party sentiments, in the strict sense of the term, are much less manifest. The trade union movement adheres, at least formally, to the political policy of its bureaucratic top leaders. However, with the rumblings of new class conflicts distinctly audible and with fuel piled up for a general conflagration, an urge for independent labor political action is bound to develop. A response in some measure to the pressure that will be put upon them, cannot be altogether avoided by the trade union officials. Naturally, the collaboration that they have hitherto maintained with the political parties of the master class can in no sense be considered as a permanent condition. The dialectics of the class struggle would not permit any such permanency. Already today some changes are noticable in the fact that they lay less stress on the hoary old political slogan of rewarding friends and punishing enemies. In its place they have adopted an attitude of aggressive support for the specific Rooseveltian program of perverted reformism which was supposed to grant collective bargaining rights, assure expansion of the purchasing power of the masses, unemployment relief and social security. The paradox of this perverted reform program with its measures intended to go no further than to help restore the internal equilibrium in order to lay the groundwork for a stronger, a more aggressive and a more monstrous imperialism – on this fact the labor leaders are diplomatically silent. They will be prepared to break their alliance with the parties of the master class only when they sense that the urge for independent labor political action is beginning to take on revolutionary qualities. Their breach would be dictated by efforts to stem such a tide by means of new illusions in place of the old ones and by transferring the policy of class collaboration to an organized political party in order to thwart the progress of the working class.

History may then repeat the role of the agents of opportunism, the bearers of social reformist illusions, in a special American version. Not, to be sure, as was the case in Great Britain where the Labour party, despite all its defects nevertheless became a factor of historically progressive importance during the period of capitalist growth as a result of its contribution to the advancement of the proletariat as a class. In this country, when given such developments as indicated above, which are far more likely than the fantastic concoction presented by the Stalinists, it would start as a retrogressive force. Its main function would be to canalize the discontent of the working class into more or less futile reformist endeavors and to swerve the movement from the revolutionary path. It is far more likely also, and this is already indicated by present trends, that this party would be a hybrid combination of third party and Farmer-Labor party forces under the leadership of the petty bourgeoisie rather than a distinct or a genuine party of labor. This can be deduced not because of any socalled American exceptionalism, but because of the dialectic relationship between capitalist disintegration and reformism in the present epoch. On the one hand, we have in the United States a highly developed technology existing on a background of a retarded political ideology of the masses. On the other hand, we have the tendencies of disintegration of American capitalist society and the titanic dimensions of its contradictions that may create the possibility of a stormy forward march of the American working class, in which it may advance by leaps and skip stages. To be sure, it will have to learn anew many experiences that were acquired by the European proletariat over a long period of time, to be consumated here, however, in far shorter periods of time. Forces for the revolutionary movement will develop alongside of the hybrid combination of Farmer-Labor and third party and in direct antagonism to it. Who will gain the hegemony of the masses, the latter or the revolutionary Marxists? That is the decisive question.

The Stalinists are in this respect in a twofold contradiction. In the first place, the forces which they may succeed in arousing by their deceptive Labor party slogan may just as likely become the captives of a retrogressive third party combination functioning as a brake upon the proletarian revolutionary movement. In the second place, their ardent espousal of the Labor party cause, requiring for its realization the trade union movement, which cannot be considered separate and apart from its bureaucratic top leaders, will in the decisive moment render them politically prostrate, servilely kissing the hem of the class collaboration garment.

Ample evidence to back up this statement will be produced in abundance in the course of the developments on the new party arena. Suffice it at the moment to look a little closer at the first of the present third party experiments made at the Chicago conference July 5–6. Except for the great ardor of the delegates present and the hopes of its naive well-wishers who remained at home, the party for which a basis was tentatively laid is still an unknown quantity. Importance can be ascribed to the Chicago conference only in the sese that it was indicative of the new trend. Great care had been taken in advance to stress what its initiators described, in the common diplomatic parlance, as its purely exploratory character. Sponsored officially by five Congressmen, Amlie, the real father of the Wisconsin Progressive party, Marcantonio, Schneider, Scott and Lundeen, the gathering drew its representation from a fair cross-section of the variegated groups and elements who today form the vanguard of the third party movement. There were present amateur politicians of the Common Sense school, intellectuals without any particular allegiance and with as yet unknown principles and, more important, members and officials of trade unions like the railroad unions, the mine workers, the clothing workers, the stone masons, the electrical workers, the Chicago Federation of Labor and the Wisconsin Federation of Labor, together with representatives of farmers’ organizations and of diverse political groupings, including the socialists and Stalinists. Socialist representatives attended mainly as observers, amongst them Nathan Fine, who came straight from the Right wing headquarters in the Rand School. As a spokesman of conciliation, replying to the opponents of participation by the Communist party, appeared Alfred Wagenknecht, who entered the conference by way of Missouri and wore a delegate’s badge. Fine succeeded in demonstrating his usefulness as a member of the platform committee and there need be little doubt that Wagenknecht proved a certain usefulness in clarifying Marcantonio and his New York contingent of Knickerbocker Democrats. Or – God forbid – did this pair perhaps attend in order to bore from within this mass movement? Be that as it may, even boring from within depends on the direction that is laid out by the borers. And Fine, it appears, started out with his gear in reverse, for when he returned enthusiastically and reported his noble intentions to his NEC (to become an organizer for the new party while retaining his membership in the SP) that went even a little further than Thomas, Hoan and Oneal were prepared to go at this moment. The point not to be missed, however, is that both socialists and Stalinists found it possible to attend this conference and partake in its decisions, including the preparations to call a “more authentic” conference in the Fall to be held for the purpose of putting the stamp of legitimacy on the embryo third party as it is called by one of its well-wishers. Here we have an indication, in embryo form but a distinct indication nevertheless, that the new party trend is assuming the form of the hybrid Farmer-Labor and third party combination covering all the ground from Democratic and Republican “progressives” to the socialists and Stalinists. This is not at all strange in view of the spectacle in France of the CP, the SP and the petty bourgeois Radical-Socialist party uniting to preserve the imperialist republic with the slogan of national defense.

This brief description indicates the make-up of this first gathering ; its true political complexion found more adequate expression in the platform adopted. Dedicated to the principle of “production for use and not for profit”, its preamble proclaims that “a new economic order is necessary”, and that “until it is established industrial stagnation will persist”. No more lucid, precise and unassailable statements could be asked from this motley gathering. Is it conceivable that the petty bourgeois third party proponents, who may in moments of despair seek recourse to the strongest language of condemnation to express their moral indignation, have now accepted the revolutionary way out of their dilemma? No, these native radicals, as they call themselves apparently to be absolved from any revolutionary implications, naively pursue the illusory phantom of “a new economic order” to be established without the revolutionists, without the Marxists. Roosevelt and Tugwell remain in their views far greater authorities than Marx and Lenin, and on this basis the struggle will ensue for hegemony of the masses between the third partyites and the proletarian revolutionists.

A demand for production for use and not for profit has, as is well known, distinctly revolutionary implications and presupposes revolutionary action for its realization. Today capitalist ownership of the means of production and its legal right to exploitation of labor stands in the final analysis determines all political relations; which is another way of saying that those who own and control the means of production are those who rule. The mere change to government ownership or public ownership, so long as these capitalist relations remain in effect, would therefore not suffice. It is nonsense to assume that production for use, which pre-supposes the expropriation of the means of production and the transfer of the ownership thereof to the producers, can find its realization without the overthrow of capitalist rule. In other words it can find its realization only through the proletarian revolution. To Marxists this is elementary.

Of course, these are not at all the aims and objectives of the third party movement and the proclamations of its preamble are obviously intended only as an empty adornment. Paragraph 8 of its platform makes this perfectly clear in declaring: “We affirm our faith in our democratic form of government.” Let us remember that this is not speaking of some future government but of the present capitalist democratic form of government. And should any doubt still remain as to the intentions of the authors of the platform they will quickly be dispelled by its opening paragraph.

The magnificent slogan of the third party gathering is there presented in its real essence, viz.: “As a means of transition to an economy of abundance we favor unlimited production for use by and for the unemployed:” Is this anything but a glorified barter program? Objectively, and when considering its appearance at a specific historic stage when the marvelous structure of American national economy can find its full and complete usefulness to humanity only through socialization, the third party can become nothing else but a distinctly anti-progressive force. The mere fact, however, that the slogan “production for use and not for profit”, aside from its complete perversion, could find its way into this movement gives eloquent testimony to the deep-seated mass discontent with a system of robbery and spoils that is devastating in its consequence – a discontent not yet given articulate political mass expression.

The United States is at the turn of a cycle, but it is not the ordinary business cycle experienced before. The US has now become inescapably and irrevocably embroiled in the maelstrom of world capitalist disintegration. It is entering a new epoch. The reorganization of its national economy and the ensuing ideological regroupments cut across old political lines. The politics of pork barrel spoils is nearing its end. American political life is beginning to divide along class lines, and the new epoch will put the political parties to new tests in which the petty bourgeois third party, or Farmer-Labor third party combination, will have no real progressive role to play. The future belongs to the revolutionary party.


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