The Spark

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

The Labor Party Issue in the United States

Jul 30, 1972

In practice all of the various groups claiming to be the organizational inheritors of the Fourth International have abandoned the construction of proletarian, revolutionary parties. This abandonment takes many forms.

In the U.S. one of the most important forms is that of aligning politically with petty-bourgeois black organizations and leaders.

A second form is the abandonment of an independent policy in the trade unions and an accommodation to “progressive” elements and tendencies in the union bureaucracy.

The largest American Trotskyist organization, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), is moving away from the union bureaucracy to better glorify the essential role of the peace movement, the women’s movement, and many others. This shift is only accomplished, however, to the extent that the SWP sacrifices what was originally its distinguishing characteristic: its base in certain sectors of the working-class; and to the extent that it becomes a party which recruits primarily from petty-bourgeois movements.

Nonetheless, the attitude which the SWP held, and to a degree still holds, toward union leaderships has profoundly marked the American Trotskyist movement, including the groups which have split out of it. Thus the problem remains. And some day, if flirtation with these elements of the union bureaucracy were to again appear profitable, it is quite probable that this policy would reappear inside the SWP.

This accommodation of the SWP to the union bureaucracy is nothing new. It was exposed by Trotsky who closely followed the evolution of the American section. One of his last political statements, in a discussion in 1940 with the American leadership, included a warning on precisely this issue.

In the course of this discussion, one of the SWP leaders boasted of the Trotskyists’ successful work with the progressive members of one particular union. He expressed concern, however, at the proposal advanced by Trotsky that the SWP call on people to vote for a Stalinist candidate in the presidential elections. He argued that such a decision would only confuse those “progressives” who probably envisaged voting for Roosevelt.

Trotsky replied as follows:

TROTSKY: “I believe we have the critical point very clear. We are in a block with so-called progressives not only fakers but honest rank and file. Yes they are honest and progressive, but from time to time they vote for Roosevelt once in four years. This is decisive. You propose a trade-union policy not a Bolshevik policy. Bolshevik policies begin outside the trade-unions. The worker is an honest trade-unionist, but far from Bolshevik policy. The honest militant can develop but it is not identical with being a Bolshevik. You are afraid to become compromised in the eyes of the Rooseveltian trade-unionists. They, on the other hand, are not worried in the slightest about being compromised by voting Roosevelt against you. We are afraid of being compromised. If you are afraid, you lose your independence and become half-Rooseveltian. In peace times, it is not catastrophic. In war-times it will compromise us. They can smash us. Our policy is too much for pro-Rooseveltian trade-unionists. I notice that in the Northwest Organizer this is true. We discussed it before, but not a word was changed; not a single word. The danger a terrible danger is adaptation to the pro-Rooseveltian trade-unionists. You don’t give any answer to the elections, not even the beginning of an answer. But we must have a policy.” Discussions with Trotsky - stenographic draft - June 12, 1940 in “Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-40)” Merit Publishers

The tendency to align with a wing of the union apparatus is the expression of a social phenomenon, of the social pressures experienced by trade-union militants in a revolutionary organization. The smaller the organization, the stronger the pressures. It is in no way specific to the American Trotskyist organization after Trotsky’s death; but as long as he was there to closely follow the SWP’s activity, the manifestations of these pressures were recognized for what they were and dealt with as such. Today these manifestations are displayed as virtues and presented as the expression of a conscious analysis of American social reality.

Certain texts by Trotsky who was the first to fight the pressure of the trade-union bureaucracy within the SWP are taken out of context and used as the foundation for a whole theoretical edifice designed to justify the most flagrant compromises with the union bureaucracy. This is particularly the case with his positions on the question of the independent labor party in the United States.

A Mass Labor Party - A Necessary Step in the Building of the Revolutionary Workers’ Party in the U.S.A.

The most significant feature in the development of the U.S. labor movement is the absence of a mass political party of the working class, the absence of any significant tradition of proletarian political organization. Both the social-democratic and the communist currents have failed to gain any notable influence. Yet if the notion of working class political organization is deeply rooted in the traditions of the vanguard of the European labor movement and even to some extent in the traditions of larger masses of workers this is by no means the case for the American labor movement.

The similarities between the earlier evolutions of the British and American working class movements would tend to corroborate the hypothesis of an “English” development in the American labor movement. In both cases, during the first period, powerful trade-unions became deeply rooted in a labor aristocracy which managed to receive the crumbs distributed by an opulent imperialist bourgeoisie. Then later, as the bourgeoisie became less and less capable of maintaining the privileged positions of the upper layers of the proletariat, the union leaderships’ room for maneuver was increasingly reduced. Thus the hypothesis is that the American trade-unions, like the British trade-unions before them, in losing their capacity to improve the workers’ living standards would be pushed into political action and into the creation of a political party.

Does this hypothesis correspond to the objective conditions of the American working class movement? Is the acquisition in this manner of a tradition of working class political organization a condition for the development of a revolutionary communist organization? And lastly, what should be the attitude of a revolutionary communist organization toward those currents within the union apparatus which push the unions toward playing an independent political role? This triple question has been the subject of continuous debate within the American Trotskyist movement.

When in the 30’s, as a result of the great economic crisis, the rapid development of the American labor movement burst open the corporate narrowness of the American Federation of Labor, giving birth to the industrial unionism of the CIO; when the worsening of the economic and social crisis demanded the passage from economic to political action, Trotsky was in favor of putting forward the demand of an independent labor party based on the unions.

What for Trotsky was a concrete response to a concrete situation on the one hand the objective need for the American working class to have a political party, and on the other the inability of the SWP to be that party was transformed into a prophecy by those who claimed his inheritance. This prophecy established in advance the route which had to be taken by the American working class movement in order to end up with the building of a dominant revolutionary party.

The implications of so many compromises with the trade-union bureaucracy is primarily that the creation of an independent labor party is a necessary step in the development of the consciousness of American workers toward the building of a revolutionary party an analysis that Trotsky carefully avoided formulating this way. The consequence of such a formula would be to consider that the main task of revolutionary militants would be to support those tendencies in the union apparatus favorable to the creation of a labor party even at the risk of accepting their opportunistic politics. Not only did Trotsky never draw this conclusion, even in response to particular cases, but on the contrary, he fought strongly against it.

In the first place, the question of a labor party based on the unions was always considered by Trotsky in relation to the concrete general situation and not as an absolute.

If, in 1932, he envisaged the building of a labor party in the British sense as one of the possible directions in which the political movement of the working class could develop, this was but a hypothesis and the least likely one at that:

“One can declare that even the general term `party of the working class’ does not exclude a labor party in the British sense. Be that as it may. However, such an eventuality has nothing to do with a precise tactical question. We can admit hypothetically that the American trade-union bureaucracy will be forced, under certain historical conditions, to imitate the British trade-union bureaucracy in creating a kind of party based upon the trade-unions. But that eventuality, which appears to me very problematical, does not constitute an aim for which the communists must strive and on which one must concentrate the attention of the proletarian vanguard.” Letter from Prinkipo, Turkey, May 19, 1932 in “Leon Trotsky on the Labor Party in the United States”, Merit Publishers

Trotsky was very careful to add that even if this did occur it would by no means be a step forward:

“One can say that under the American conditions a labor party in the British sense would be a progressive step, and by recognizing this and stating so, we ourselves, even though indirectly, help to establish such a party. But that is precisely the reason I will never assume the responsibility to affirm abstractly and dogmatically that the creation of a labor party would be a `progressive step’ even in the United States, because I don’t know under what circumstances, under what guidance, and for what purposes that party could be created. It seems to be more probable that especially in America, which does not possess any important traditions of independent political action by the working class (as Chartism in England, for example) and where the trade-union bureaucracy is more reactionary and corrupted than it was at the height of the British Empire, the creation of a labor party could be provoked only by mighty revolutionary pressure from the working masses and by the growing threat of communism. It is absolutely clear that under these conditions the labor party would signify, not a progressive step, but a hindrance to the progressive evolution of the working class.” Ibid.

The deepening of the economic and social crisis, the acceleration which it imposed upon the evolution of American capitalism toward total collapse, and at the same time the impulse it gave to the American workers’ movement, led Trotsky, as we have seen, to change his analysis. From then on, he regarded the formation of an independent labor party as an absolute necessity. Explaining the reasons for his change in analysis and the conclusions he then drew, he stated:

“The other question is the speed of its development; and in this respect, in view of the strength of American capitalism, some of us, and myself among them, imagined that the ability of American capitalism to resist against the destructive inner contradictions would be greater and that for a certain period American capitalism might use the decline of European capital to cover a period of prosperity before its own decline. That is why eight years ago when I discussed this question with American comrades I was very cautious. I was very cautious in my prognosis. My opinion was that we could not foresee when the American trade-unions would come into a period where they would be forced into political action. If this critical period started in ten to fifteen years, then we, the revolutionary organization, could become a great power directly influencing the trade-unions and becoming the leading force. That is why it would be absolutely pedantic, abstract, artificial to proclaim the necessity for the labor party in 1930 and this abstract slogan would be a handicap to our own party.” He added: “We must change our program because the objective situation is totally different from our former prognosis.” Discussions with Trotsky - stenographic draft - June 12, 1940 in “Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-40)”, Merit Publishers

As we know, the crisis of the 30’s, profound as it was, was nonetheless overcome. American capitalism gained a new period of respite, albeit at the expense of “declining European capitalism”. Trotsky had touched upon just that possibility in discussing the question of the workers’ party, maintaining that:

“Of course, the question of the labor party cannot be considered independently from the general development in the next period. If a new prosperity comes for some time and postpones the question of a labor party, then the question will for some time become more or less academic...” Discussion in Mexico City, July 20, 1938 in “Leon Trotsky on the Labor Party in the United States”, Merit Publishers

After Trotsky’s death, the SWP transformed concrete analysis into academic dogma in order to use it as theoretical justification for opportunistic political practices which during his lifetime Trotsky had combated.

A radical new change in the situation of American capitalism could give new immediacy to the question of a union-based workers’ party. In this case it would be vital to put forward the slogan, vital to jump at the occasion which would permit the working class to express itself politically. Of course, this expression would not yet be the revolutionary communist workers’ party. But such a policy, even if a hundred times more necessary than it might be, would never justify any sort of blind following, any accommodation with any current whatsoever of the union bureaucracy. A revolutionary’s action can be oriented in the same direction as that of certain factions in the union machine, factions which favor the creation of a party; even circumstantial and tactical alliance might conceivably be made with these factions. But at no time is it a question of accepting and approving the policy of these factions. A revolutionary can never forget that whatever might be the momentary similarity between their points of view, his objectives and those of the union bureaucracy are fundamentally different, even if he is dealing with its most “progressive” faction. For a revolutionary, the political struggle for the construction of an independent workers’ party aims at raising the working class’s level of political consciousness in order to get the workers to take a step toward the organization of the revolutionary proletariat. For the union bureaucracy, whatever be its immediate political positions, taking the initiative in the construction of an independent workers’ party merely reflects an adaptation to developments in the workers’ struggle in order to better control it, and in the end, to sabotage it. Political confrontation between the two forces is inevitable. The day this confrontation arrives, there must be no confusion among the workers.

If an independent workers’ party, based on the unions and attracting the vanguard of the working class, was born in this present period that is at a time when the revolutionary movement is extremely weak and lacking an audience, and unable to entertain the notion of quickly becoming the political expression of the working class it is nonetheless certain that revolutionaries ought to be in that party. The implication is that if the objective situation imposes the necessity, revolutionaries must know how to take the initiative and propose it.

But whether or not this situation presents itself, and by way of whatever corresponding tactical positions, the objective remains constant: the formation of a revolutionary party in the Bolshevik sense of the term, with all of the implications in terms of clarity of ideas and political positions; with all that that implies, as well, on the level of selection and formation of militants. Yet this objective would become unattainable if the revolutionary current dissolved itself organizationally within a broader political grouping, as unattainable as if it dissolved itself politically.

To join an eventual reformist workers’ party would require that the revolutionary current defend its program, its banner, and its political line all the more relentlessly; that it struggle against all the opportunistic notions with that much more determination, denouncing the role of the political and union bureaucrats that much more vigorously, whatever their progressive coloration.

This is the exact opposite of the political behavior of the SWP.

Even if the evolution of the American working class’s consciousness toward a revolutionary consciousness lends itself to possibilities other than the formation of a union-based workers’ party, the absence of such an independent workers’ party and the necessity of creating one can and must be a constant theme in the propaganda of a revolutionary current. This might be the case particularly at the time of presidential elections when the absence of any workers’ political representation becomes all the more glaring in the eyes of large portions of the working class. So, the propaganda for an independent workers’ party ought to be a simple, popular, and, one might say, educational presentation of the necessity of such a workers’ party, the necessity that workers become conscious of themselves as a class. It is the evolution of the concrete situation which will imply the content for this general objective presented through the propaganda. There is no way of saying categorically whether or not this party would directly become the revolutionary party. But in any event, the propaganda must aim at clearly demonstrating to the workers that it is up to them to construct this party, that they have the possibility, that they have the power, and that they must not place their confidence in the union bureaucracy in this area nor in any other areas.

Reprinted from Class Struggle #2

July - August 1972

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