Swabeck Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

William Simmons

The Outlook for a Labor Party

(February 1945)

From Fourth International, Vol.6 No.2, February 1945, pp.53-56.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Amongst the belligerent powers the United States alone could afford the luxury of a wartime national election. American capitalism alone could grant such a democratic concession to the people. Compared to present day Europe this stands out naturally as an enormous concession. Viewing the question, however, in the light of the realities of American political development, the concession is small indeed. After all, American capitalism was in a position to face this election, as it has faced so many before, without a serious political challenge to its rule.

Had there been in this election even the mere parliamentary opposition from a virile and popularly supported workers party, there might have been a different story to tell. As it was, the traditional two party system again saved the day. It offered the electorate the choice of Roosevelt or Dewey; either the Republicans or the Democrats. This made the people’s ballot a yes ballot regardless of which name headed the slate.

Only the undeveloped political expression of class relations can account for such a situation. In Europe – except during periods of fascist or semi-fascist dictatorships – bitterly contending parties mirrored existing class antagonisms. Here the unequalled concentration of economic power has brought a similar concentration of political power. This political power is lodged securely in the grasp of organized wealth. And so, the country which is most advanced economically and technologically, still retains within its social system a backward political development. While class conflicts have found violent outbursts in economic action, they were rarely in the past reflected in politics. The proletariat produced by super-modern American industrial conditions has thus far remained, to all intents and purposes, politically inarticulate.

The traditional two parties have for many decades served equally as instruments of the dominant class. And they have long since become elevated into a system of politics. This is not to say, however, that there never were any differences between them, or that neither ever served a progressive purpose. Each of the two parties is a product of two different historical stages of development. At one time they came to contest issues of life and death, a conflict which culminated in the Civil War. While neither party expressed fully the conflicting interests of classes, both parties did mirror currents in the conflict over fundamental issues involving the advancement or retardation of the productive forces.

The division into two national parties arose originally out of the clash between the industrial system in the North, based upon wage labor, and the plantation economy of the South, based upon slavery. As northern capitalism grew stronger, more united, became more conscious of its interests and developed definite objectives, it created a political party to advance these interests and aims. That was the Republican Party. In this historical setting it became a progressive instrument for the advancement of the productive forces. On behalf of industrial capitalism it challenged, at its inception, the Democratic Party for governmental control. And it became the party of the golden age of capitalist expansion.

The Democratic Party entered the stage much earlier. It emerged as an expression of the need for centralized government at a time of clashing sectional interests, as, for example, the conflict between the commercial Northeast and the agricultural plantation-owned South in regard to the frontier, as well as the conflict between the settled areas and the frontier.

Capitalists Maintained Both Parties

But while the increasingly powerful capitalist masters challenged the Democratic Party for control of the government, they took good care never to attempt to destroy it. On the contrary, they soon found it useful to maintain and support both parties in order to maintain the fiction that the totality of public interests was being served by a two party system.

During the golden age of capitalist expansion, political patronage, public plunder and robbery on a colossal scale were the distinguishing characteristics of American politics. Loathsome corruption, nefarious scheming and outright debauchery of municipal, state and federal government became its natural corrolary. And this happened not only in the long forgotten past. Just recall the scandals under the Harding administration. Or take the testimony of a Chicago Commissioner of Public Works at the time of his resignation in 1906:

“Application to the State Attorney,” said he, “evolved the fact that our present laws – passed in the interest of capital – make it no offense for capital, i.e. the privileged few, to steal from the community, i.e. the unprivileged many.”

Corrupt legislative assemblies and law courts set their seal of approval upon the plunder of the public domain. In fact the entire machinery of government functioned at the bidding of organized wealth, regardless of which party occupied the seat of authority. Politics became business. Specialization extended from industry into politics where specialists in corruption operated. Laws and judicial decisions were made to conform to this custom. It was class rule in its most outrageous guise. And, of course, class rule it remains to this day, even though the plunderers have adopted somewhat more refined methods. American capitalism has had the good fortune, owing to its enormous resources and its ability to pay above European levels, to exercise this class rule through bourgeois democratic forms. The two party system became an important element in this setup. It kept alive the illusion of freedom of choice and it was therefore religiously preserved.

American capitalism could well afford to extend this measure of democratic liberties without too great fear that its rule would be challenged. It had been generously favored through decades by what Marxists recognize as the law of uneven development. Its most striking expression is the distinction between advanced and backward countries. In their development they have passed through different stages, through different forms and at an uneven tempo. In the United States capitalism could draw on an unequalled abundance of natural resources; and it therefore experienced the most rapid expansion within the system of growing capitalism. It could constantly avail itself of the most efficient utilization of productive forces and was finally able to overtake all of its capitalist competitors and even advance further at their expense.

But within this uneven development there emerged also the stages or the features of what Trotsky called a combined development. Backward countries, for example, supplement their backwardness with some of the latest advances. Here it was a case of the latest advances existing alongside carryovers of a deeply rooted backwardness. Within the same social system appeared at certain stages the extreme opposites. But these exist dynamically, that is they must undergo change or disappear.

So far as the United States is concerned such features were and still are apparent. In the first place, the United States enjoyed the most rapid growth of productive forces and yet emerged late as an imperialist power, owing to the fact that the greatest possibilities of capitalist expansion remained for decades within the borders of the 48 states. In the second place, industrialization, beginning in the East, advanced constantly into new regions. At the same time backward forms of split-up tenant holdings, amounting to virtual peonage, together with Jim Crowism, persisted in the South. But during the early decades of westward advance, class distinctions rose only slowly along the frontier. There, mutual cooperation prevailed; social and political organizations remained democratic. As long as free land was available, competition-crushed or blacklisted workers found a place to start life anew. Class and social antagonisms often found their outlet in pioneer rebellions. In this manner and for quite a long time a variety of social stages existed side by side.

Moreover, vast numbers of immigrants arrived in the United States every year,

“and while they did not bring over any medieval institutions from Europe,” as Engels said in a letter to Sorge, “they did bring over masses of medieval traditions, religion, English common (feudal) laws, superstition, spiritualism, in short every kind of imbecility which was not directly harmful to business, and which is now very serviceable for making the masses stupid.”

Therefore, when we take into consideration these historical conditions together with the ability of American capitalism to maintain a relatively high standard of living for the masses, it is only natural that this finds its expression today in a retarded political development. Herein are likewise to be found some of the important reasons for the paradoxical situation of opposite extremes existing within the United States. Despite this country’s advanced industrialization and technology, the most backward political ideology of the masses has prevailed to this day as evidenced by the absence of a mass working class political party, whether reformist or revolutionary. At the same time this is also the most outstanding illustration of the combined development in the United States.

This does not mean, however, that where, as Marx said in a letter to Sorge, “capitalist economy and corresponding enslavement of the working class developed more rapidly and shamelessly than in any other country,” there were no popular political movements or no influence of revolutionary or socialist ideology. History shows examples of both. But Socialist influence never penetrated in a sustained fashion deeply into the ranks of the American masses. And so far as Popular movements are concerned, they were mainly middle class in make-up and in ideology, hodge-podge affairs, mostly limited to certain sections of the country; and they were shortlived. They were in the nature of a by-product of the class struggle rather than its direct expression. The rapacious plunder of big capitalism often forced the middle class to the wall. It became rebellious at times. Some of these movements used to attract labor support during periods of strike upheavals and the ensuing vicious persecution of the workers.

Outstanding among such movements was the Greenback Party which started as a reaction against the depreciation of the Civil War greenbacks. During the late ‘seventies amidst strikes and labor agitation, the party emphasized labor demands and in 1878 it received about a million votes and elected fourteen representatives to Congress. From then on, however, it declined rapidly and disappeared.

Later arose the Populist Party. It originated in Kansas and spread in the Middle West and West. The closing decades of the nineteenth century had witnessed the industrialization of agriculture, thus requiring more efficient and more expensive implements. As a result heavily mortgaged farms went into the hands of financial and industrial corporations. A census of 1890 reveals that mortgage indebtedness had already passed the one billion mark carrying an interest rate of 7 percent. Only 47 percent of the nation’s farmers actually owned their farms unencumbered. On the remainder 34 percent were tenants or sharecroppers.

The populist Party grew out of this situation. The party also endeavored to gain support from the industrial workers in the East, and succeeded primarily as a result of the furious strikes then in progress in Homestead, Pa. and Pullman, Illinois. At the 1894 elections the Populists polled over one and a half million votes, only in order to disappear shortly thereafter.

The LaFollette Movement

This was the last of the lower middle class political challenges to the American ruling class. From then on such political opposition as did arise originated by and large with the working class. Yet nearly all these attempts suffered equally from feebleness of principle and poverty of numbers. Only the campaign for LaFollette Sr. in the 1924 presidential election netted a vote of almost five million. But this movement was expressly stipulated not to be a third party movement and its program did not go beyond anti-monopoly, anti-injunction and anti-imperialist demagogy in the Wilsonian sense of the term. Otherwise labor parties of a sort have come and disappeared, none of them passing beyond a sectarian, local or statewide basis.

The official trade union leadership reluctantly agreed to support the LaFollette campaign. But otherwise it has, throughout its history, always constituted a brake upon political development of the masses. At times it would be aroused from its political stupor by some especially outragepus anti-labor legislation; but it has always been beset by a greater fear of any radical or socialist influence, or anything tending toward independent labor political action. The worst scare it experienced, no doubt, was at the 1892 convention when a resolution, sponsored by the Socialists, to the effect, “that the AFL advise the working people of America to organize their economic and political power to secure for labor the full equivalent of its toil”, was defeated by the narrow margin of 4,897 votes to 4,171. At that point however, the Socialist Party leadership became helpful. What if that resolution should be carried next year? They might really have to do something about it. The resolution was not reintroduced and the AFL leaders were free to continue their activities in either Republican or Democratic political machines or cliques, on a local, statewide or national basis. This activity would yield at times some small concessions to labor. Above all it yielded patronage to these officials.

But politics develops its own logic: and today, the tighter the union leaders, both AFL and CIO cling to Roosevelt, the wider grows the gap between them and the rank and file. The longer these leaders succeed in retarding labor’s independent political development the more complete and thorough will be the breakthrough.

Meanwhile both of the old capitalist parties have long since outlived the conditions under which they came into being. And hence, the progressive features which they once possessed have disappeared. American society could in the past, at different stages of its development, find political expression through either of these two parties, because of the essential need to advance the productive forces. Both parties were able to survive practically as sole contenders beyond the period of their own progressive role because the class historically destined to challenge capitalist rule had failed to develop its own political party.

Today the productive forces have not only advanced but the owners of the means of production have exhausted the long term factors of expansion. With this capitalism itself has ceased to be progressive. Class contradictions and class antagonisms have assumed gigantic proportions. Interrelations of class forces have also changed. The working class, now more homogenous, more conscious of its position, and better organized, can no longer find any political expression whatever through the old parties.

The last election marked the zenith of the two party system. Opposition parties, i.e., those actually running their own candidates and not just merely furnishing a new buckler for old “friends,” appear to have reached the lowest ebb. But this election also signalled the breakdown of the two party system.

Basic social cleavages are now reflected not between the two major parties but inside both of them. Major political issues engender serious political conflicts within both parties. This is the case notably with issues of world affairs. But problems of domestic economy also often create deep fissures. The democratic Party in fact was held together in this election only by its one indispensable candidate. What we witnessed in 1944 was the forerunner of the political division along class lines. For class lines are now much less in flux. They have congealed and settled down to permanent conditions of conflict. From now on class lines will form the basic alignments of the American body politic.

The Dominant Imperialist Power

While American politics are still confined to the 48 states its problems embrace the entire planet. The United States is now the dominant imperialist power. President Roosevelt’s four terms in office are not merely an extraordinary wrinkle of present-day politics. They mark the beginning of a new turn of events. For his administration has introduced American capitalism to largescale world conquests and – to the world revolution.

Right now the United States is proceeding in rapid strides to Americanize the world; but, at an even more accelerated tempo, will American politics become Europeanized. And while the former is bound to fail ultimately, the latter, that is the political expression of class antagonisms, will start here on a far higher level. Hence we can confidently expect that its social impact will be so much more explosive.

This is the general framework within which the labor party will develop and by which it will be molded. It is therefore impossible to conceive of any absolutely fixed pattern for the role and function of such a party. There is no historical line of march laid down once and for all. A labor party will be conditioned by the framework within which it grows and develops. Its pattern can be envisaged at best only in outline form. At its inception it will denote only the fact that the workers have at long last engaged in political action independently of the capitalist parties. All-inclusive and broad in scope, as it must of necessity be, it will embrace conservative minded workers as well as radicals, trade union members as well as officials. And its limitations will be conditioned by the extent of its reformism. A distinct reformist stage after the emergence of a labor party is, of course, not excluded. But in the epoch of wars and revolutions this is bound to be shortlived because of the increasingly limited ability of capitalism to grant reforms and because of the acuteness of its contradictions. Historically, reformism, as such, has long ago exhausted its progressive role. It can now only prolong the agony of a decaying system. For capitalism will henceforth not even be able to maintain for the people the standard of living once attained.

Yet the organization of a labor party will be a progressive step, while at the same time also a drawback. Like everything in nature and society it will contain opposite elements. It will be progressive first of all in the sense that it means a declaration of political independence by the workers – an enormous step forward as compared to the present conditions. It will be progressive also in the sense of filling the gap, before the workers in their majority are ready to follow the revolutionary party. Thus it becomes both a stepping stone and a preliminary school.

At the same time it is also a drawback because it will tend to enlarge and prolong the gap – naturally not by the conscious or willful desires or actions of the membership. Once, however, it attains strength, influence and prestige, its leadership will certainly tend to consider the labor party in terms of permanency, as an agency for reformist purposes as well as in terms of permanency of official positions.

The British Labor Party

Examples of this are seen in England today. The British Labor Party leadership is not only so deeply rooted in the idea of permanency of its own positions, but it is also so completely bound up with the British Tories in furtherance of imperialist aims, that its own pretended reformist objectives have been drastically watered down or completely forgotten. As a result, the British Laborites are in ever more deadly fear of separation from the Tories and of standing up independently. Applicable to them is what Trotsky once said about the Austrian Socialist leaders, namely: that, while they maintained a firm majority in Vienna, they always took good care never to poll more than 49 percent of the vote in Austria as a whole, lest they might have to make good on their professed Socialist aims. The British Labor Party has now decided to stand independently in the next election. But who knows? By that time we may witness a section of the leadership splitting away like Ramsay MacDonald did. This leadership’s record during recent years has been one of increasing conspiracy with the Tories against the workers – a conspiracy against and a brake upon the revolutionary mission of the workers. Of course, the British Labor Party arose as a product of the period of expanding capitalism, the period of greatness and superprofits of the empire, and it is not yet adjusted to new conditions. Nevertheless its example should serve as a lesson, and a warning.

A labor movement is strong and progressive when it is conscious of a goal and strives for its realization along class lines. When the class lines become obscured, its strength is dissipated. From a progressive instrument it is turned into dead weight.

The British Labor Party leadership has attempted to erase the class lines; not so the membership. The latter are moving leftward. In this country the emergence of the labor party itself will be a result of the leftward march of the workers. It will arise under the conditions of decaying capitalism. It must fight from the outset. It is most likely to be quite radical from its inception, influenced by world revolutionary developments. It may even arise over the prostrate bodies of some of the worst diehard labor lieutenants of capitalism, while others may go along in an attempt to behead it. In any event it will start here on a relatively high level.

Of course, a labor party is not an end in itself; it is only a means to an end. It is only a political class expression on the road toward the abolition of capitalism and class society. Nor does it come into being purely as an automatic process. Men must exert their conscious influence and action. The conscious revolutionists particularly must be the leaven in a field of such fruitful work.

Swabeck Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 7.6.2005