The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Drive for the Labor Party:
The Power Was There, The Perspective Was Not

Mar 31, 1985

In the United States, unlike in the other imperialist countries, the working class has never constructed its own political party. Today we do not see in the American working class even the expression of a desire for a labor party, let alone any actions toward the creation of one. But this has not always been the case.

In the 1930s and 1940s there was a tremendous social movement of the working class in this country. It was out of this movement that the industrial unions of the unskilled were formed. Some 4 million workers succeeded in imposing on the bourgeoisie the recognition of the newly built CIO unions. It was out of this same upsurge, and based on these unions, that attempts were made to create a labor party. In the process of confronting the bourgeoisie and its government, wide sections of the working class came to understand that they needed mere than just the unions to defend their interests. If nothing else, there was a vague sense that workers could not trust in the two official parties, and that the workers should have their own party. In the unions, at all levels, there was widespread discussion about a labor party, and there were a number of actions taken towards its creation.

Finally, however, no labor party was created during this period. The power the working class demonstrated to create its unions did not find an organized expression on the political level. Why not?

The Drive for a Labor Party

The desire of the working class for its own independent political organization took the form of a drive for a labor party based on the unions, like the Labor Party in Great Britain. And on both the local and state level, nuclei of such a party were actually formed throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Much of the push to form a labor party developed around the attempts of the unions to put up candidates for office. In 1935, autoworkers who were still organized at this time within the AFL, ran a candidate for mayor in Columbus, Ohio; for Toledo City Council and Board of Education, winning 4 seats. In Michigan in 1935, auto unionists ran labor tickets for municipal offices in Port Huron, Dearborn, and Hamtramck. And they backed a “United Labor Ticket” for Detroit Council. The ticket was led by Maurice Sugar, a supporter of the Communist Party (CP). Two years later, during the wave of sit-down strikes, the UAW ran another “Vote Labor” campaign in the Detroit municipal elections. Six candidates including 3 members of the CP Patrick O’Brien, Tracy Doll, and Maurice Sugar plus union officers R.J. Thomas, Walter Reuther, and Richard Frankensteen, all ran as a labor slate. All 6 candidates succeeded in the primary and were placed on the November ballot. None of them won office, but all polled over 30 per cent of the votes cast.

In the textile areas of New England, labor candidates were put up in many towns, including: Cambridge, New Bedford and Springfield, Massachusetts; Berlin and Lincoln, New Hampshire; Danbury and Hartford, Connecticut. Union candidates were sponsored on labor tickets in Buffalo and New York, New York; Allentown and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Chicago and Hillsboro, Illinois; San Francisco, California. Additionally there were Farmer-Labor tickets run in towns in South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

In 1936, labor candidates were put up on a state-wide basis in several areas. Auto militants in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana worked closely with Farmer-Labor parties at the time. John Bartee, an auto worker and union official ran for governor in Indiana. In Ohio, Farmer-Labor party candidates were supported for U.S. Congress. In New York, a new state-wide party, the American Labor Party (ALP) was formed.

In this period, many union militants tried to push their unions to establish a labor party on the national level, though it was never successful. In 1935, resolutions calling for a national labor party were put before the AFL convention by 16 different international unions. Despite the hostility of the federation’s hierarchy, a labor party resolution made it to the floor on the last day of the convention. The main speech for the resolution was given by Francis Gorman, the first vice president of the United Textile Workers, who called on the AFL to, “sanction, through approval of a labor party, the people’s resistance to tyranny, to the destructive efforts, of the bosses, and their agents, the Democratic and Republican Parties.” The resolution narrowly lost, 108 to 104.

In May of 1936, autoworkers held a national convention in South Bend, Indiana. An overwhelming majority adopted a resolution condemning the Democratic and Republican Parties, as both being “controlled by capital.” And the resolution called for the autoworkers to give full support on both the state and national level to the farmer-labor parties, until a national labor party could be formed with the AFL. An endorsement of then President Roosevelt was voted down at the same time.

Through the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, such labor party resolutions were put up and passed in trade union conventions, especially in the industrial Midwest.

Opposed by the Bourgeoisie

The bourgeoisie opposed even these kinds of developments of a labor party. An example of this can be seen in 1945, when the UAW ran a vice president, Richard Frankensteen, for mayor of Detroit. In the immediate post-war period, this Detroit election campaign became a symbolic test case. There was much discussion about whether U.S. labor was going to form its own political organization, in the image of the British Labor Party which had just come into the government.

When Frankensteen won 42 per cent of the primary vote in a 3 way race, the 3 daily newspapers in Detroit shrieked headlines against the UAW campaign, saying the companies were getting nervous, and would move out of Detroit taking people’s jobs. Right-wing groups and anonymous backers published a string of neighborhood weeklies warning of labor’s steps to revolution and chaos. They said that a Frankensteen victory would only multiply “the attempts of Communist-inspired Negroes to penetrate white residential areas.” Such racist and red-baiting slanders were spread by intensive neighborhood phone campaigns.

When the votes were tallied in November, Frankensteen lost. The incumbent mayor, Jeffries, backed by a 2-1 majority in the outlying middle class areas of the city, won with 56 per cent of the vote.

Confronting the development of such labor parties, the bourgeoisie changed its own electoral laws. They made it more difficult to get on the ballot, and also extended electoral districts geographically which tended to submerge the working class districts into the population as a whole.

But in fact, the obstacles created by the bourgeoisie weren’t the problem. The working class was facing much more serious opposition than verbal attack in its fight for the unions during the same period. And it had been able to overcome this resistance, even when the resistance went beyond the verbal level.

Diverted by the Union Leaders

The real issue was that the leaders of the working class, those who were accepted by the workers to head their unions, served as a barrier to the formation of a labor party.

Sometimes the trade union leaders’ opposition was expressed in open fashion. For example, at the national autoworkers convention in 1936, where a resolution was passed in support of a national labor party and where the workers opposed the endorsement of FDR, John L. Lewis intervened personally. He threatened to withdraw the $100,000 earlier promised the UAW for its organizing drive in order to force the reversal of the labor party and the FDR resolutions in the last minutes of the convention.

Sometimes the trade union leaders’ opposition was more subtle, effected through careful maneuvers designed to sidetrack the movement for a labor party. This was the case, for example, with the creation of Labor’s Non-Partisan League in 1936 and the Political Action Committee in 1944. Those organizations were each presented as if they were a step towards independent political action by the working class, and perhaps in the future towards a national labor party. In fact, these organizations were used to justify the argument that for the immediate situation, the workers’ interests were best served by supporting the candidates of the Democratic Party.

The trade union officials did run labor candidates in local elections, presenting themselves for office. And they did talk about the need for a labor party. Walter Reuther and other officials of the UAW even set up the National Committee for Education for a New Party in 1946. But if union officials did these things it was not with a will to create a labor party, but for other reasons. Above all, such actions were necessary if the trade union bureaucracy was to maintain its legitimacy in front of the working class when there was a deep sentiment for a labor party.

It is clear that the trade union bureaucracy did not want a labor party. When the 1940 elections were approaching, Lewis first offered to Roosevelt to run as his vice-presidential candidate. When Roosevelt turned him down, there was a break between the two. Lewis then made a series of fierce denunciations of Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, which struck a very responsive chord in the working class across the country. Many workers who looked to the CIO thought the time had finally come and that Lewis would launch a national labor party. But instead, Lewis came out in support of the Republican candidate, Wendel Willkie. It shows just how integrated the union bureaucrats were within the perspective of the bourgeois two-party system.

The leaders of the trade unions were not even like the reformists of an earlier period, those who had built up the labor parties in Europe. They did not view the working class as a class having even its own independent interests and having a need for its own independent fighting organization.

The union bureaucracy of the 1930s in the bastion of imperialism had the view that the workers could share a common interest with the bourgeoisie, that there could be a partnership between labor and capital, if capital could be made to see things correctly.

Within their framework, the union bureaucrats saw no need for the working class to have its own independent political organization. And for themselves, there was no need, since they had the means to express themselves politically within the two-party system. The bourgeoisie, led by Roosevelt, had given them a place within the Democratic Party. To the union leaders, a labor party was at best superfluous, and at worst a threat to their acceptance by the bourgeoisie. Their class collaboration corresponded to their social position, to their desire to maintain their acceptance by the bourgeoisie. It was the trade union leaders who used their authority, that is the confidence they had won in the working class throughout the union struggles, in order to direct the political activity of the working class back into the official two-party system.

The Lack of a Political Perspective

For the working class to have built up a labor party in this time period, something very different than what actually took place would have been required.

First of all, a fraction of the militants and leaders of the working class needed to have had a real will and determination to build up a labor party. And this is something which could come only from the perspective that the working class is independent from other classes, with its own distinct interests and needs, with its own future. It is out of this understanding that the need for the working class to have its own independent political organization flows.

Militants with such a perspective would have tried to build up a permanent, ongoing organization one that gave the working class the means to intervene on the day-to-day issues it confronts. It would have addressed issues not only in the plants, but also in the streets and in the neighborhoods; around wages and working conditions, but also around housing, crime, transportation, sanitation, high prices... whatever. Not only would it have intervened on the local level, but also on the national level. Such an organization would have tried to mobilize the power of the working class, using whatever means were necessary, against those who would oppose it.

If such a development had taken place, a labor party could have come out of the period of the 1930s and 1940s in the United States. The working class could have built upon the fights and organizations it had created out of the struggles for the CIO unions.

On the trade union level, the working class was learning to mobilize its power for its own interests. In 1934, the working class carried on city wide strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco. In 1936 and 1937 there was the wave of sitdown strikes. Some 400,000 workers kicked out their bosses and took over their work places, from heavy industry to department stores and hospitals. In these fights the workers developed their power by fighting together across plant lines and across industry lines. They were ready to mobilize their own forces to contend with all that was thrown against them. They stood up to the judges, the vigilantes, the cops and the troops. And they were ready to violate the sanctity of private property.

It was this widespread mobilization of the working class, along with its militant tactics, that changed the relationship of forces against the bourgeoisie and won for the working class the recognition of its unions.

The construction of a labor party could have come out of these very same fights of the working class. What it would have required is that the mobilization and the militancy that the workers used on an industrial basis to build up their trade union organizations be developed consciously on a class-wide basis to build up a political organization.

...And of a Socialist Leadership

The problem of the working class in this time period was that there was no one with sufficient influence in the working class who had the will to build up such a labor party. As we have seen, the central leadership in the trade unions had a different perspective. This meant that if there was to be a labor party, it would have required the workers to force the existing leaders of the unions to do what was necessary. Most likely it would have meant bypassing this leadership, replacing it with another one. In any case, what was required was an alternative to the trade union leadership, sufficiently rooted in the working class, with a clear understanding of the nature and the limits of the existing trade union leadership.

The organization that was in the best position to provide such an alternative at that time was the Communist Party. Communist Party militants had been organizers and leaders of many of the early fights of the working class. Its militants were trusted leaders in the ranks of the working class. Its membership had almost doubled between 1933 and 1935, from 14,000 to 27,000. CP influence was especially important among the foreign-born and the second generation workers who constituted some 60 per cent of the industrial proletariat at the time. By 1940, the CP reached its height with perhaps 75,000 members and a periphery estimated around 500,000.

The political perspective of the CP, however, was not to aid the working class to develop its own independent power, but rather to utilize the working class as a means to pressure the American bourgeoisie according to the needs of the Soviet bureaucracy. With a brief interruption during the Stalin-Hitler Pact, this meant seeking an alliance with the American bourgeoisie through the CP’s participation in the New Deal. In 1935, the CP had favored a Workers and Farmers Labor Party. But by 1937, the CP had shifted to its “center-left coalition” and attached itself to Lewis and Hillman. The political framework the CP offered to the working class was the same as that of the other trade union officials: electoral support for the Democratic Party.

The Socialist Workers Party held out the goal to the working class throughout the period of the need for independent political organization and a wider mobilization of its power to the point of the workers taking control of the society. The Trotskyists, however, were very few. Never in this period were they more than a few thousand. Maybe this limited size would have made it impossible to offer an alternative seen as realistic by the working class. In any case, it would certainly have made it more difficult.

However, even the Trotskyists were somewhat susceptible to the influence of the bureaucrats, hesitating to oppose them on the political level. Approaching the 1940 presidential elections, to take an example, Trotsky fought with the Socialist Workers Party to support the candidacy of the Communist Party against Roosevelt. The SWP was hesitant to do so, as its leaders explained, because such a policy could disrupt their work inside the trade unions where they were in alliance with people like those around Reuther. What we see is that the SWP did not have a clear understanding of the trade union bureaucracy. At least not until it was too late, at least not until the trade union leaders broke their alliance with the Trotskyists inside the unions, and instead led attacks against them as part of the preparations for World War II.

In any case, when the working class upsurge of the 1930s and 1940s came to an end, the American working class was left without any broad political organization. The power that the working class displayed on the trade union level never found its expression politically, not even in an electoral labor party like the one in Britain.

What we can conclude from this time period is that to create even an electoral labor party would take not only a huge upsurge of the working class to overcome the resistance of the American bourgeoisie. But it would take also the consciousness, in at least a part of the working class, that workers cannot rely on the union bureaucracy. And it would require militants with the will and the determination to fight for another perspective than that of the bureaucrats.

But if this develops, if such a layer of militant workers exists, with such a consciousness, will and determination, it would mean not only that a labor party like the old reformist ones which exist in Europe would be possible. It would mean that the creation of a revolutionary workers party, and a revolutionary struggle of the American working class could be on the agenda.

Reprinted from Class Struggle #20

March 1985