“The Labor Party in the United States” was published in Socialist Voice No. 6 (Spring 1978)

The Labor Party in the United States

by Sy Landy and Walter Daum

The following article is excerpted from the document “The League in Crisis: Behind the Labor Party Slogan” by Sy Landy and Walter Daum. This document was issued in November 1975 during a faction fight inside the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), in response to the majority’s point of view as expressed by Jack Gregory in “The Marxist Approach to the Labor Party and the General Strike.” “League” in the article refers to the RSL. The faction fight resulted in the expulsion of the Revolutionary Party Tendency which then became the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP); for a full discussion of the dispute, see Socialist Voice No. 1.

The RSL leadership’s response to this document was to forbid its circulation among the membership, ban any further documents from the minority tendency and then ban the minority itself. The RSL has publicly denied the existence of this document and of course has never replied to it. The document was issued in a limited mimeographed edition at the inception of the LRP. We are giving it a broader circulation now because of the significance of the ideas it presents. In this issue we are publishing (in edited form) the sections of the document on the question of a labor party in the United States; other sections dealing with the importance of the general strike slogan (which we have written about elsewhere) are omitted here.

What passes for Trotskyism today is in a sorry state. It is typified by a fetishistic preservation of Trotsky’s words combined with a studious rejection of their revolutionary content. Nowhere is this more true than with the labor party question. The slogan once used by Trotsky in a revolutionary fashion is today used openly to promote reformist politics. The RSL was not alone in this – virtually the entire pseudo-Trotskyist milieu has essential agreement. After the historic struggles of Bolshevism against Menshevism it is hard to believe that a reformist party would be considered a necessary and desirable stepping-stone to socialism by self-professed Bolsheviks, but that is indeed the case today.

The advocacy of a labor party has become a hallmark of American “Trotskyism” since the Socialist Workers Party adopted the slogan at Trotsky’s urging in 1938. Yet the slogan and its continuing applicability have been subject to little reexamination. Since 1938, through the Second World War, the post-war strike wave, the post-war boom, and now the onset of a new depression – that is through vastly changing circumstances – there has been only a sporadic discussion among those who claim adherence to Trotskyism. The discussion has been sparse not only among the false claimants to the mantle of the Fourth International but among the genuine revolutionists as well.

The League, from its inception until just yesterday, never subjected the labor party slogan to serious examination. We accepted it as we accepted other concepts because they were part of the heritage of Trotskyism as we understood it. Until well after our last convention, all members of the Political Committee as well as some other leaders of the organization expressed reservations about the slogan. The resolution of views on the subject is very recent, and now the question has become polarized.

The question is critical for the League. The Central Committee resolution of October states that “a continued emphasis on the Labor Party slogan is central.” A Detroit auto bulletin calls it the trade unions’ “foremost political task now.” The Torch, the industrial bulletins and verbal presentations now far more than in the past make a big push for the labor party. In a Detroit Postal Action Bulletin (November 1975) the two demands on the union officials are: 1) Full employment at living wages – JOBS FOR ALL! and 2) Build a political party representing the needs and interests of the working class – FOR A LABOR PARTY!

The Revolutionary Party Caucus holds that the labor party slogan has been used in a mistaken fashion from the League’s beginning. It is an even more dangerous mistake to use it now as the hub of our work. The slogan for the revolutionary party has to be central and foremost. This question is critical for the League and the maintenance of its revolutionary politics.

The labor party position in the past was used in a frequently changing manner and never as centrally as now. As we cast off other vestiges of Shachtmanism-Pabloism we could have coped with this one. Now, however, the new-found urgency to beat the drums for the labor party slogan occurs as part of a general right turn (under cover of the necessary deepening of our practical work). It comes as part of a theoretical capitulation to defeatism and fatalism.

The labor party slogan – the labor party struggle – is under other circumstances and in other times necessary and correct. At this point it means not the advance of the struggle for the revolutionary party but its sidetracking, its postponement to a dimly seen future day. The labor party position and the right turn represent an acceptance of and adaptation to the present level of consciousness of the class, and acceptance of its frustration, its fears, its cynical rejection of “far out” alternatives. Acceptance of “what is” instead of fighting it will over time make us part of the problem and not part of the solution. That is the danger.

The Central Committee Resolution adopted by the League in opposition to the Landy amendments introduces a strong element of fatalism and defeatism into League politics:

There will be a rise in the class struggle, greatest in the countries most affected by the crisis. At the same time, the struggles will not be united. Although the struggle in the semi- and under-developed countries will be “joined” by workers in the more healthy, advanced countries, this will not be impressed on the consciousness of the overwhelming majority of the workers. The struggle will retain its fragmented unconscious level. (emphasis added).

The Resolution further insists that “The class struggle will increase, although mostly on a trade union and democratic basis; the lull will come to an end but not yet break into a l933-l934-type mass upsurge.” Another example: “Thus, while we do not expect a massive outbreak of the class struggle in the U.S. or on a world scale, we do not expect the relative peace of the past period to continue to the same degree. Rather we see a rising curve of struggle largely limited to trade union and democratic struggles.”

There is an underlying consistency between the view that the next interval of struggle will be on a democratic and trade union basis and the advocacy of a labor party. The Central Committee Resolution accurately reflects this link when it states: “...our call for a labor party is based on a general assessment that at least at this point the road leading the working class to a revolutionary party will go through if not an actual labor party then at least a mass movement fighting for such a party within the labor movement.”

It further states that “We would struggle jointly with non-revolutionary workers, even with left-wing bureaucrats, to actually try to build a movement to have the labor movement form an independent political party.” Naturally the masses will have to go through the stage of a struggle for a labor party, a party of the trade unions, since this too reflects the projected “fact” that their struggles will attain no more than a democratic and trade unionist content. We can, of course, try to put our content into the struggle, but we have to accept the framework of the labor party since the content the masses will put in will be reformist – democratic and unionist. So goes the logic of the argument.

The labor party slogan is featured in the Resolution and has become increasingly central in our work. The acceptance of the labor party instead of the revolutionary party as the major party slogan reflects the acceptance of the limits to the struggle indicated by the Resolution in general. Let us examine this fatalistic limitation more closely.

The Resolution attributes the restriction of the future struggle to democratic and trade unionist demands to the general economic situation alone. The critical factor, however, is the power of the union bureaucracy and the relationship of forces within the proletariat. The leadership question is not only the chronic and central question of the epoch but it is acutely important in this conjuncture. The Landy amendments rejected in toto by the current majority stood on this alternative understanding of reality. The democratic and unionist outlook of the masses stems fundamentally from its cynical acceptance of the reformist leadership.

Tailing the consciousness of the masses means in reality tailing the consciousness and actions of the bureaucracy. The “realistic” statement of “what is going to be” and the adaptation of our struggle to that “reality” (actually the limits foisted upon the class by our enemies), instead of posing the question of how we overcome that “reality,” is a continuation of the objectivism and outsiders’ view which marred our past politics.

From the very origins of the League we stated our understanding that “critical support” was a version of the united front tactic. We understood that it meant entering into a relationship with a movement we marched with while counterposing to its program and seeking to expose its leadership. We, as opposed to the Spartacists, had no sectarian aversion to wielding the weapon of critical support for Arnold Miller and the Miners For Democracy; we gave no carte blanche to the left bureaucracy. We outlined the shape of the Miller-Rauh leftist current as we saw its development. We thought it was very possible, given the cynical attachment of the working class to the bureaucrats or aspiring bureaucrats as the “realistic” alternatives that the left bureaucrats would dominate the future upsurge. We thought it quite probable that we would have very small influence as compared to them. We would fight to change this probable development through critical support, among other tactics. However, we would give no blanket critical support; we made it clear that we would not accept their supremacy without a fight. We would not conform to any stage, period, or conjuncture of left bureaucratic hegemony in advance. We stood for the revolutionary alternative. We would not tail. In words now sneered at in the RSL, we “planted the pole,” we “unfurled the banner.”

The current majority leadership of the RSL accepts the politics of the Left bureaucrats – democratic and trade unionist demands – as hegemonic for the next stage. If this course is kept to it can lead only to capitulation. The form of such a capitulation is not yet determined. It might lead to paving the way for the accession to power of the left bureaucrats. Our work, propaganda and agitation could help pave a boulevard to power for them should the masses begin to push underneath them. However, there is no guarantee in this epoch that reformists feel free enough to carry out their own program or part of it. The alternative course to capitulation is for the RSL to pave a road for itself as a substitute for the reformists.

The central duty of revolutionists at the moment is to fight both variants of capitulation in the League. A key struggle in this regard is the fight against the omnipresent labor party slogan.

Consciousness and Reality

When the comrades who authored the Resolution discuss the conjuncture they cite objective conditions. However it is the subjective consciousness of the workers, the stated “democratic and trade union” consciousness, which typifies a limited and discrete stage that cannot be bypassed or above all fused with the stage afterward. According to the Resolution, objective conditions set the stage for the subjective consciousness that the League must relate to in order to end being “outsiders” from the labor movement. The acceptance of a discrete democratic and trade unionist stage is fatalist and defeatist. It posits a reformist stage, if we are to call things by their right name. Trotsky made the necessary point about Stalin’s version of stagism:

...Comrade Stalin advanced his theory of stages that cannot be skipped over. By the word “stage” in this case, must not be understood the political level of the masses which varies with different strata, but of the conservative leaders who reflect the pressure of the bourgeoisie on the proletariat and conduct an irreconcilable struggle against the advanced sections of the proletariat. (Leon Trotsky on Britain, p. 267)

Trotsky points out that the level of political consciousness is not the factor which marks off stages of development. Levels of consciousness (“democratic and trade-unionist” for one) vary between layers of the class. To accept the level of consciousness of the relatively backward as the level of the stage is to tail the misleaderships who reflect bourgeois understanding. To accept this understanding of the conjuncture is to misunderstand the conjuncture. The backward do not understand the objective conditions or tasks because the bureaucracy “understands” neither the objective conditions nor the tasks imposed on the proletariat. It is not simply a misunderstanding but a bourgeois, albeit reformist, understanding.

When the comrades accept the limits of consciousness as being democratic and trade unionist for the entire conjuncture, they accept a limit to the possible tasks and results of the stage as well. Thus we have seen the fatalist statements already cited: “we see a rising curve of struggle largely limited to trade union and democratic struggles”; “the struggle will retain its fragmented unconscious level.”

Comrades claim that this cynicism is a scientific assessment of “reality.” But this is not reality. It is simply the way that the bureaucracy of the labor movement conducts the struggle. It is designed to foster this level of consciousness and impose it upon the class. It is not “reality” but what the Marxists have in the past labeled as “realpolitik.”

Why is it necessary to accept that the conjuncture will not end in a reversal of this defeatism? The defeat which propelled the present pro-bourgeois forces into leadership occurred long ago. As a result of this, the backward consciousness which comrades tail predominates at the moment and is used to block all potentially revolutionary upsets of the current balance of forces. But the working class, this working class, has not suffered massive defeats; to be precise, it has had some defeats but it is not defeated. If the working class had been smashed and its institutions crushed, then it would be both possible and necessary to say: from the vantage point of the revolutionary proletariat so much is possible and little more. But even then the tasks of revolutionaries would be to overcome the consequences of defeat, not just to accept them as limits to work within for the immediate stage.

The backward workers see themselves as powerless and disunited. They are frightened of worse conditions to come, They feel themselves to be prisoners of forces beyond their control. They are cynical and see no alternatives to the present class leadership which looks like another uncontrollable “reality.” They are also cynical about the State, the electoral system, the President and the Congress. They see enemies on all sides, foreigners, blacks, other ethnic groups. Little better is possible, they feel.

This outlook also permeates the more advanced layers, the ones who do have more belief in the possibility of social change through struggle. The more advanced layers are subjected to their own forms of cynicism in addition to those directly percolating up from the more backward workers. First, they are cynical about the capabilities of the mass of workers – whether they can go beyond democratic and trade union demands or fight for even these. Second, they are aware of the defeats the working class has suffered internationally – Chile, Bolivia, etc. Through this stratum the backward attitudes which in the last analysis are transmitted into the proletariat via the bureaucrats and their allies are being infused into the League.

The mass of the working class believes itself to be weak and powerless. This is precisely backward consciousness, untrue and at variance with the objective conditions and the objectively necessary tasks of the proletariat. The gap between objective reality and subjective illusions is enormous. The trade union movement in the United States is more strongly organized and more powerful than any other in the world. The American working class is highly organized by a highly organized economy and integrated production methods. The historic volatility and combativity of the working class in the United States is still a cultural factor of no small proportion. The strategic concentration and lessons learned by a potent black proletariat are a vital asset. Even the familiarity with weaponry is far advanced as compared to many other national proletariats.

In this specific conjuncture the economy is in serious trouble, an aspect of the chronic crisis besetting capitalism at this time and in this epoch. Cities and banks perch at the edge of default. The bourgeoisie is also going through its own serious crisis of leadership. The bourgeoisie itself is beginning to deepen its internal polarizations. The Presidency is still enormously weak; Congress has not gained authority; the “system” is still viewed cynically. The new mercenary army is untested, racially torn, suffering from disciplinary problems. The American bourgeoisie is not in imminent danger of falling apart. But its problems are severe and the lines of tension and division arc apparent. The crises of Vietnam and Watergate still haunt the ruling class.

The fundamental material basis for reformism and for disunity in the working class is eroding as American capitalism moves to strip away the gains of the working class. The miseries imposed by the bourgeoisie are precisely what advanced consciousness would not accept and would fight. Yet the backward consciousness lingers on in the class even though its material base, sown in the past, erodes.

Advanced workers are “advanced” in the Marxist sense to the degree that they understand the objective conditions, the needs and the consequent tasks of the proletariat. Marxism both stems from the objective conditions and at the same time reflects them; it is conscious of them and reacts upon them. Marxism represents the most advanced consciousness of the proletariat. Backward consciousness is consciousness which reflects a pro-bourgeois understanding of objective conditions and tasks.

The backward workers are caught in the contradiction between their consciousness and their material condition as workers. They are caught between the subjective illusion of weakness and the objective reality of strength. Consequently the masses in struggle, and especially the oppressed sectors of the working class, may have one conception of the world (it is frequently torn with contradictions) but in practice find themselves doing something else. They find themselves acting in a more profoundly radical way. This is because of the impact of the real material interest of workers which can only be learned in struggle, in practice.

Take the example of the ghetto riots of the 1960’s. At the same time that they were rising up in city after city, blacks also registered in record numbers in the Democratic Party. Burning cities and rebelling is not yet communist consciousness, but it is a dynamic step beyond the consciousness indicated by the black workers in the polling booths. The depth of the hostility demonstrated in practice reflected the dawning recognition that the material interests of the oppressed workers lie in the rejection, the destruction of capitalism – not in its democratic reform.

The rioting black workers were demanding an alternative to the failures of the civil rights leadership, the black power and nationalist leadership, the trade union and liberal Democratic leaderships. It was at varying levels of consciousness – but the mass struggle was demanding a new leadership and program and at the same time trying to force one into existence.

In France in 1968, the most massive general strike on record took place, during a conjuncture which seemed relatively slow-moving. The balance of forces was not favorable; the CP and SP led the working class and pursued a collaborationist strategy; revolution and even mass action appeared to be unlikely events. Nevertheless, the unprepared (and therefore seriously hampered) general strike rocked France and its solidly entrenched Gaullist regime and army. A month before, the French workers would have thought the prediction of a general strike to be wild. But in practice the workers built a truly massive attack on the seemingly stable regime.

The failure of the CP and SP to lead – indeed, their role as betrayers – was proven. The centrist “Trotskyist” groups failed to provide an alternative strategy. Not one of the three major “Trotskyist” groups fought for a real political alternative to the Fifth Republic. They allowed the strike to remain substantially economic and defensive rather than seeking to press it in the necessary political and revolutionary direction. None of them opposed such a direction in the future – but they did not see it feasible at that stage. Basically their argument was not different from Gregory’s: “The workers’ consciousness is overall too retarded. The correct revolutionary leadership and understanding of conditions does not exist.”

Material causes, the fundamental objective questions, are what compel the workers to move. The gap between the objective reality and consciousness is now enormous. The fundamental reality is not expressed by backward consciousness or democratic and trade unionist consciousness, but is expressed by the program of the Fourth International. Revolutionaries must demonstrate that the masses are capable of transcending their own consciousness of the moment. The power of the working class in the ghetto riots and especially the massive French events is proof of the need for our program. Revolutionaries use democratic and unionist demands, openly stating that they are subordinated to the revolutionary program. We emphasize that such demands cannot deal with the objective situation. The leaderships that foist such a limited program on the masses must be fought.

Revolutionaries base themselves on the material conditions, including the objective power of the working class. They ceaselessly fight and expose the misleaderships whose role it is to blind the class from awareness of its historic tasks. The RSL in contrast now accepts the predominant belief among the advanced workers today that the class as a whole is weak. As we have stated, the backward workers’ belief that the working class is powerless has percolated into the advanced layer, and through this layer into the League. But the backward workers’ belief is only a reflection of the bureaucracy’s pro-bourgeois line – in a dialectical sense. The reformist bureaucrats, left and right, do not believe that the working class is weak. In a conservative and immediate sense the labor lieutenants of capital are actually afraid the workers might break out and smash everything in their path. A victory of the ranks would mean shunting the bureaucrats aside, in their view, in favor of chaos or the reds. It would mean, at the least, disruption of the system they urgently support.

Therefore this bureaucracy has carefully avoided giving the ranks opportunities to break out. They know how deep the anger and frustration run. They recognize the power of the class. In the spring, Woodcock, the IUD and Gotbaum were flexing a few muscles; there were rallies of modest size in Washington and New York. This kind of rally has been dropped; the breakout by the ranks at the April 26 Washington rally was the signpost. Woodcock called off his projected little demonstration in Lansing soon after. The New York situation and similar situations elsewhere force some still-limited and sporadic actions on the bureaucrats, but as soon as possible they back away rapidly. Even though the leaders were forced to make general strike threats in New York, Gotbaum and others clearly recall the bridge tenders’ strike in 1970. They saw in embryo what a general strike could do and therefore now acted as conservatively as the situation allowed them to.

The constant craven submissions that occur daily prove the bureaucracy’s fear of the ranks. Although the ranks are by no means consciously revolutionary, their actions would be incredibly powerful and radical – and the leadership knows it. The ranks in turn judge the actions of the leaders, and this proves to them that the leaders are bad. But the ranks are rendered cynical and therefore accept the leadership; it exists, it is real, and there is no credible alternative. They believe the class is weak because the bureaucracy has, so far, prevented any display of strength. Thus the backward workers have drawn the conclusion that no display of strength is possible because there is no strength. The bureaucracy knows better. The workers will know better.

The Labor Party Today

The bureaucracy, even in its brief flirtation with rallies before it burned its fingers, was careful to emphasize electoral action and not industrial or mass action. The elections and the Democratic Party are a safety valve for the anger and frustration building up in wide sections of the class. The bureaucracy points to a Democratic victory as the answer. But they work up little enthusiasm from any significant layer of the class. The workers are cynical about more than the Democrats; their cynicism extends to the state, the President, Congress, etc. The war, the economy and Watergate have taken their toll in terms of the legitimacy of the institutions of society. The workers at the moment expect little from any politicians or from the “system.”

The bureaucracy has been attempting not only to prop up the Democrats (and in some cases the Republicans) but to “restore faith in the democratic process,” ... faith in the electoral and bourgeois-democratic system. To not understand this is to understand nothing. That is the meaning of the bureaucracy’s political moves. They seek to prevent mass industrial action, to prop up the “democratic” state and to prop up the Democratic Party. Thus they try to prevent a workers’ victory over the system the bureaucracy is wedded to.

The task of revolutionaries is to lead the working class to challenge state power. We must fight any attempt to rebuild support for the state. We must demonstrate the power of the workers’ alternative and combat the workers’ cynicism and self-cynicism.

To this end, the labor party slogan was a central slogan in 1938 and is incorrect at this juncture. In 1938 the working class was the class that had created the CIO. It had engaged in giant battles on the industrial front against the bourgeoisie. The Lewis bureaucracy of the CIO had been pushed by the class into active economic combat. The reformist leadership betrayed the class, but it also in part reflected the militancy of the class and its struggle. It had to, in order to retain leadership.

The militant economic strike was a familiar weapon to the workers. However, the class was tied politically to Roosevelt and the Democrats through the union bureaucracy. Labor party sentiment existed, and there was some hostility to Roosevelt. But the decisive elements of the bureaucracy and the class were still attached to the New Dealers.

The working class became increasingly aware of the limitations of the strike weapon because of the historic impasse of the CIO restrained to the economic sphere. The central question was that the class move politically to challenge the state and break with all bourgeois forces. The labor party tactic was crucial: it put pressure on the bureaucracy (which enjoyed respect in the ranks) to break from Roosevelt and the Democrats (who also enjoyed respect). It posed the question of an independent party of the working class based upon the trade unions, a militant force created by the mass workers’ movement.

In Trotsky’s hands the weapon was designed to emphasize the revolutionary content and the revolutionary party. The workers, even though the strike tactic was losing its influence because of recent defeats (Little Steel, etc.), well knew the power of their own actions which had built the CIO. When the labor party was posed, it meant the same militant CIO translated onto the political scene. The workers of the Late 1930’s would not understand surface electoralism to be the method of a struggle indicated by the labor party slogan. It meant the joining of a militant political weapon to a militant economic understanding.

It was necessary, however, to combat the remaining beliefs that pro-bourgeois electoralism plus militant action had won the workers their gains (the belief in Roosevelt and the CIO struggles). That is one reason why Trotsky insisted on the revolutionary content in the slogan. He insisted, for example, on associating the workers’ militia slogan with the labor party slogan directly.

The crisis, the sharpening of class relations, the creation of a workers’ party, a labor party, signifies immediately, immediately, a terrible sharpening of forces. The reaction will be immediately a fascist movement. That is why we must now connect the idea of the labor party with the consequences – otherwise we will appear only as pacifists with democratic illusions. (Trotsky on the Labor Party, p. 10)

Today the situation is quite different. In the conjuncture the unions have not exhausted the strike weapon; it hasn’t been used. The workers are not educated by their life experience and struggle to know their own mass power through participating in their own economic actions. In contrast to the militants of the thirties, they see themselves as weak and impotent. On the other hand, they have far less confidence in the electoral system, the state and the Democrats. For them, the labor party slogan would not connote placing their militant fighting trade unions into politics – because the unions are not militant and fighting. This is why the labor party slogan can have only an electoralist content today. That is why training workers’ eyes on the electoral system does what the bureaucracy wants to do: avoid a head-on confrontation.

Throughout Lenin’s attack in “Left- Wing” Communism – An Infantile Disorder on the sectarians who reject using parliament and elections, he makes an additional point. The campaigns for and about parliament must emphasize the anti-parliamentary and anti-electoral politics leading to the dictatorship of the proletariat. In his critical support of the British Labour Party, Lenin stressed revolution, soviets and the proletarian dictatorship. He urged that these ideas be posed continually and in a popular manner.

Comrade Gregory’s document and the Resolution give no such content to the labor party slogan. Where is the notion that the labor party cannot carry out our program, the program formally attached to the call for the party, by electoral means? Not only does the slogan conform to the bureaucracy’s electoralist path, the League also does not use the slogan in such a way as to guard against the danger. We give no warnings. Our literature never counters electoral illusions which must accompany the term “labor party.” And that is because the majority is presenting the labor party slogan not in the algebraic way that can be used to communicate in practice the need for the revolutionary party, but as part of a discrete stage: a reformist stage for this conjuncture because the challenge to state power is not possible at present. When algebra becomes arithmetic, this is the only result.

Gregory took Landy to task for posing revolution in his “General Strike for a Workers’ Government” slogan. For Gregory, that meant revolution now, an impossibility in this conjuncture. (We have already proved that the slogan contains no call for insurrection now even though we insist that it does pose the connection between the strike and the need to take power.) To the political general strike, Gregory counterposes the labor party. For Trotsky, the call for a labor party was associated with a congress of labor to launch it and a workers’ government as its goal. This set of slogans poses algebraically the soviets, the revolutionary party, and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Revolutionary Marxists must fight for this meaning. If Comrade Gregory were to do that, he would be issuing a call for confrontation which, like the political general strike, would mean disaster for the class – in his opinion.

Gregory does not fight for the revolutionary meaning of his labor party slogan. He is consistent; his methods of reducing algebraic demands to minimal demands mean that he divorces revolutionary implications from them. His labor party slogan is not used as a way of proving in struggle the need for a revolutionary party. Instead, his slogan addresses the advanced workers who want a revolutionary party and tells them to accept the consciousness of militants who feel that the stage is set only for a party with reformist content. “Revolutionary program” becomes a cover for a reformist call. The next stage will be the revolutionary stage, the socialist stage. We have heard that one before.

For us the revolutionary party must be the central slogan. This slogan always is central on the strategic level. Now it is central on both the strategic and the immediate tactical level. We are a propaganda organization which uses every opportunity to agitate in order to propagandize more effectively. Action and active intervention are necessary for the correct use of propaganda and agitation. The labor party is an agitational slogan. A group may also systematically discuss in its propaganda how, when, and where to raise the labor party agitationally.

This is not the question before the League. The RSL at the moment is using the slogan directly, and generally not in the form of systematic discussions of the method of using it. The labor party has become a minimal demand separated by a stage from the revolutionary party.

The Revolutionary Party Caucus calls for the foremost slogans to be “Build the Revolutionary Party” and “Reconstruct the Fourth International.” We must continue our policy of giving critical support inside the unions when left bureaucratic currents actually wage struggles under the pressure of the ranks in motion. Since such elements have been noted for their acquiescence rather than struggle, the League has not been able to use this tactic frequently. The Revolutionary Party Caucus favors the use of the labor party slogan in similar fashion. When a segment of the bureaucracy or incipient bureaucracy moves to the left under pressure of the ranks, we can challenge them on the basis of the labor party as follows: “You claim to be for certain political demands necessary for the workers. You will never get them from the Democratic Party. You are betraying the interests of the ranks. We do not believe these demands can be really won and solidified without a further program, a revolutionary party, and a revolution. You don’t accept that. Then at least form your own party, a labor party, and fight for the demands; etc. You will not do so, you have no intention of really conducting this fight.”

Thus the labor party slogan is not central in this conjuncture, but it can be used occasionally as a united front tactic, as part of an effort to win the ranks from the vacillating leaders whom the masses are pressing forward. When in fact the leaders are not vacillating but are firmly betraying, the central labor party slogan is a disaster. And that is the League’s present course.

Trotsky on the Labor Party

Trotsky’s discussions on the labor party have been subject to much abuse in the League, so they have to be carefully reexamined. The initial discussion was based on an interview with the New York Times in 1932, in which Trotsky was quoted as saying that “the emergence of a labor party is inevitable” in the U.S. As he explained in the letter from Prinkipo of May 19, 1932, the term “labor party” had been ill-chosen; he had meant an independent party of the working class, an algebraic formulation which was perfectly open-ended, that could take on either a revolutionary or a reformist content as the struggle developed. He stated:

The question was not of a labor party in the specific British sense of the word but in the general European sense, without designating what form such a party would take or what phases it would go through. (Leon Trotsky on the Labor Party, p. 6)

Trotsky added that although a labor party of the British trade union type was possible, “that eventuality, which appears to me to be 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.” He explained the reason:

A long period of confusion in the Comintern led many people to forget a very simple but absolutely irrevocable principle: that a Marxist, a proletarian revolutionist, cannot present himself before the working class with two banners. He cannot say at a workers’ meeting: “I have a ticket for a first-class party and another, cheaper ticket for the backward workers.” If I am a Communist, I must fight for the Communist Party.

Although the situation changed by the time of the next discussion in 1938 the method for analyzing the question did not, and Trotsky did not retract his statement of principles, nor his methodology, nor indicate he had been wrong retrospectively in 1932. The class struggle itself, the creation of the CIO in the 1930’s determined that the form the “independent party of the working class” would have to take in the latter part of the decade. The mass struggles of the workers, reflected in a bureaucracy which to a degree led militant actions, determined that the algebra could no longer be “independent party of the working class.” Given the struggle of the unions, the party would have to be based upon them.

The rise of the CIO was a result of an enormous mass working class movement. It was clear to Marxists that the movement must transcend itself and head towards politics. The transmutation of the CIO into politics had to be posed as a struggle for a CIO-initiated party, a trade union party. However, the labor party in this epoch has always been a party through which the labor bureaucracy maintained its ties to capitalism, attempting to maintain control over the workers by reflecting in part their need for an independent class party. The revolutionary party is the only party that truly represents the proletariat; we have no second banner.

In 1938, if the pressure for an independent party of the class could be maximized, the bureaucracy might be forced to go along. (It might not: the reformists often do not carry out their own program out of fear of the masses’ actions.) The masses and the reformist leadership might fight for the same slogan but the meaning would be different to each. The program and ideological nature of the party which the Trotskyists called on the masses to struggle for was left open deliberately – not because they wanted a party whose program was neither bourgeois nor Marxist, but because the openness corresponded to the actual struggle.

This was done in order to pose the Marxist solution as part of the CIO movement and not in counterposition to it. The labor party slogan, however, could not be perfectly algebraic (open-ended) in the way that “independent party of the working class” could. In answer to a question by Cannon about whether the labor party is a revolutionary party, Trotsky replied:

I will not say that the labor party is a revolutionary party, but that we will do everything to make it possible. At every meeting I will say: I am a representative of the SWP. I consider it the only revolutionary party. But I am not a sectarian. You are trying now to create a big workers’ party. I will help you but I propose that you consider a program for this party. I make such and such propositions. I begin with this. Under these conditions it would be a big step forward. Why not say openly what is? Without any camouflage, without any diplomacy. (p. 20)

For Trotsky, the question was always one of siding with the labor party struggle in order to raise the revolutionary party. As Trotsky stated in 1932:

That the labor party can become an arena of successful struggle for us and that the labor party, created as a barrier to Communism, can under certain circumstances strengthen the Communist Party, is true, but only under the condition that we consider the labor party not as “our” party but as an arena in which we are acting as an absolutely independent Communist Party. (pp. 8-9)

Trotsky did not claim nor could he claim that the labor party was a revolutionary party or even that it was perfectly open to that possibility. In stating that his party is the revolutionary party (then the SWP), he demonstrated that he still adhered to the 1932 position: there cannot be two banners for a revolutionary. In fact, he says explicitly that his 1932 position and outlook were essentially right:

When for the first time the League considered this question, some seven or eight years ago – whether we should favor a labor party or not, whether we should develop initiative on this score – then the prevailing sentiment was not to do it, and that was absolutely correct. (p. 14)

Thus the labor party remains a reformist party. In the course of struggle its content as a slogan becomes more open-ended. By participating in the struggle (even entering the labor party if necessary) the revolutionaries can raise the question of the revolutionary party in more concrete terms than otherwise. To raise the question of a “revolutionary labor party” sows illusions that the end result of the movement for an independent working class party should be an enormously expanded SWP (of 1938) under no matter what name. If the revolutionaries won hegemony in such a movement, then in a living way the labor party as such would cease to exist. The struggle would be openly and explicitly transformed into the creation of the revolutionary party.

What made the conditions of 1938 different from 1932? Trotsky took great pains to show the SWP Leaders in the discussions that it was not the subjective mood of the workers or the bureaucrats that was decisive: rather it was the objective situation. By the objective situation he meant more than the mere fact that the CIO had been organized. The CIO struggle had reached an impasse and had to change its direction:

The problem is not the mood of the masses but the objective situation, and our job is to confront the backward material of the masses with the tasks which are determined by objective facts and not by psychology. The same is absolutely correct for this specific question on the labor party. If the class struggle is not to be crushed, replaced by demoralization, then the movement must find a new channel and this channel is political. That is the fundamental argument in favor of this slogan. (p. 24)

Trotsky considered the labor party an objective necessity at the time not solely because the CIO unions had come into existence, but more precisely because their struggle, hitherto taking the form of economic strikes, had reached the limits imposed by the renewal of the Great Depression.

Now we have a movement of tremendous importance – the CIO; some 3,000,000 or more are organized in a new, more militant organization. This organization which began with strikes, big strikes, and also involved the AFL partially in these strikes for a raise in wages, this organization at the first step of its activity runs into the biggest crisis in the U.S. The perspective for economic strikes is, for the next period, excluded, given the situation of the growing unemployed ranks, etc. We can look for the possibility that it will put all its weight in the political balance. (p. 14, emphasis added.)

The comrades of the majority read these passages to mean that the objective necessity was determined once and for all time by the rise of the CIO in the 1930’s. The specific impasse that the workers faced at the time of the 1938 discussions is not seen as specific. Thus Comrade Gregory wrote in his document, “From this point on, there could be no turning back. There would not be another movement to create industrial unions. Economic crisis would require political struggle, and in the absence of a mass revolutionary party this required demanding that the trade unions create the working class party to solve the immediate problems ...”

But the unions have “turned back” in one sense, a vital and important sense. The militant strikes characteristic of the early CIO are not characteristic today, and have not been dominant for nearly three decades. The CIO as a movement does not exist. For us to say now that “the perspective for economic strikes is, for the next period, excluded” would be unjustified: the unions, under the dead hand of this bureaucracy, have not even begun to fight. What we can say is that serious economic fights will pose the necessity for political mass action even more sharply. The unions’ failure to fight has not enabled them to avoid defeats; on the contrary, the union-busting campaign in New York and other cities is proceeding rapidly over the limp bodies of the bureaucrats. The series of defeats could be reversed if the unions take a firm stand. In no central way has the U.S. working class suffered a smashing defeat. As we have already argued, a general strike would be far from a disaster for the unions, but an indication that they are no longer willing to take the bourgeoisie’s attacks lying down. The question of leadership, the existing balance of forces is the decisive political question in our epoch reflecting (and altering) the objective scene.

Cde. Gregory tries to cement his argument with another passage from Trotsky’s discussions:

Of course the question of the labor party cannot be considered independent from the general development of 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, but we will continue to prepare the party in order not to lose time when the question again becomes acute... (Leon Trotsky on the Labor Party, p. 30)

Thus for Trotsky, the labor party slogan does not remain a constant from 1938 through a period of prosperity. The objective conditions that Trotsky is considering are obviously not limited to the existence of the CIO but include the economic questions, tempo and direction of material drives, etc. To say that the slogan becomes “academic” is to say that it is not being used; it is returned to the shelf for use at the appropriate time. Of course, the party will educate the workers (including its own members) on the method and timing of the labor party slogan even when the slogan is not in use, but this is something quite different from continuous agitation around the labor party slogan. Nevertheless, Cde. Gregory insists that a new prosperity (Trotsky’s hypothesis) would change nothing – precisely the contrary of what Trotsky wrote.

To drive this point home, it need only be recalled that the League has always understood that Trotsky never expected a twenty-year resurrection of capitalism after the Second World War. When he hypothesized a prosperity he had only a short interval in mind. Yet even with this understanding Trotsky wrote that the labor party slogan would under certain circumstances be withdrawn. It follows from the logic of the position stated here that the slogan was central in the late 1930’s until the war, during the middle 1940’s (the post-World War II upsurge of the labor movement), and at no other time.

This is also a question of the dynamics of the union bureaucracy. Trotsky used the labor party slogan to challenge the reformist bureaucracy and the workers who followed them. His working assumption was that these leaders were leading the workers in struggle. As he once wrote about the reformist bureaucrats (the context being the Anglo-Russian Committee and the British general strike of 1926):

The possibility of betrayal is always contained in reformism. But this does not mean that reformism and betrayal are one and the same thing at every moment. Not quite. Temporary agreements may be made with the reformists whenever they take a step forward. But to maintain a block with them when, frightened by the development of a movement, they commit treason, is equivalent to criminal toleration of traitors and a veiling of betrayal. (The Third International after Lenin, p. 129)

The tactic of the united front still retains all its power as the most important method in the struggle for the masses. A basic principle of this tactic is: “With the masses – always; with the vacillating leaders – sometimes, but only so long as they stand at the head of the masses.” It is necessary to make use of vacillating leaders while the masses are pushing them ahead, without for a moment abandoning criticism of these leaders. And it is necessary to break with them at the right time when they turn from vacillation to hostile action and betrayal. It is necessary to use the occasion of the break to expose the traitorous leaders and to contrast their position to that of the masses. It is precisely in this that the revolutionary essence of the united front policy consists. (Leon Trotsky on Britain, p. 255)

The union bureaucracy today is not committing the same degree of treason as its British counterparts who destroyed the 1926 general strike. Yet it is betraying daily, and in no sense is it taking forward steps in the interests of the workers. The labor party is the demand of reformism, even though the reformists do not generally build a party independent of the bourgeoisie if they can help it. The call for a labor party is therefore either a proposed united front with the bureaucracy, a demand that Meany et al form a labor party (and thus its meaning as a rotten bloc used at the wrong time is clear); or else it is a united front proposal to the United National Caucus in the UAW and other opposition types who may even now stand for the labor party or will in the future. Arnold Miller toyed with the issue; other bureaucrats have done so and will continue to do so. As a result of pressure from the workers, even sections of the current bureaucracy will turn towards a labor party strategy. By agitating in such a direction at this point when the Millers are not leading the ranks in struggle, the League is laying the groundwork for these reformists and making the workers’ minds fertile for their victory instead of the revolutionaries’.

Some of the majority leaders, Cde. Taber in particular, like to think that the labor party slogan is not a call for a united front with a section of the bureaucracy. We want a united front with the militant workers, says Taber; it is not their leaders who are responsible for their mistaken reformist ideas but the bourgeois ideology induced from society as a whole.

This in reality is only another way to deny the centrality of the leadership question. The working class accepts its leadership and the reformist program not simply because of the leadership itself but precisely because bourgeois material incentives, values and ideas are “in the air.” The backward workers to whom Taber adapts do not believe they are following the bureaucracy, so Taber adopts this illusion too in the Resolution and other unguarded moments. For a revolutionist to be in a united front with militant workers means to be in a united front with some leadership (as well as the ranks) even if it lacks a name. A leadership moving with the workers can be pressured to fight for its party, goal, or program (even if it does not yet have it) – or stand exposed. In 1938, the bureaucracy didn’t have the labor party program, yet the stand by the Trotskyists was correct. Today the same stance leads us to substitute for the reformists who don’t raise even their own programs or their party, the labor party.

Substituting for pro-bourgeois forces who don’t carry out their own demands out of fear is a time-honored form of capitulation. (e.g. the SWP’s substitution for the liberals in the anti-war movement based upon and confined to the bourgeois democratic demands which the bourgeois democrats could not fight for). The revolutionary who substitutes for the reformist becomes more and more reformist in practice. Trotsky said:

The policy of the united front has not only its great advantages but its limits and its dangers as well. The united front, even in the form of temporary blocs, often impels one to opportunist deviations which are frequently fatal, as, for example, with Brandler in 1923. That danger becomes absolutely predominant in a situation in which the so-called Communist Party becomes a part of a labor party created by the grace of the propaganda and action of the Communist Party itself. (Leon Trotsky on the Labor Party, p. 8)

Gregory sees nothing wrong with long-term united fronts. He writes:

Try to apply this argument to the trade unions. What are the trade unions? As we all know, the current trade unions involve a long-term united front with the bureaucrats. Should we abandon them? Should we break the united front? Of course not, and it’s not really necessary to go into the absolute necessity of working in the trade unions, the defensive necessity of the trade unions, etc. They are objectively necessary.

“But the labor party is also an objective necessity. Political struggle by the trade unions is necessary for defensive purposes. Therefore we make the united front appeal.

At this point we will allow Trotsky to answer Gregory.

To defend the maintenance of the Anglo-Russian Committee with the argument that we cannot leap over the organizations of the proletariat that are “historically given” is to engage in crude sophistry, which will invariably lead to opportunist conclusions. We cannot leap over the trade unions, since they are “historically given” organizations of the proletariat. But the Anglo-Russian Committee is a temporary formation, brought into existence by a temporary situation. (Leon Trotsky on Britain, p. 254)

We have already cited Trotsky on the episodic, non-long-term nature of political united fronts with opposition leaderships, and the dangers that flow from the contrary policy. Lenin could be cited at length as well. Cde. Gregory can only argue that the labor party is nothing like the Anglo- Russian Committee; it isn’t temporary but on the contrary is the political equivalent of the economic trade unions. This attitude towards the Labour Party is shared by a multitude of politically dead “revolutionary” organizations in Britain who have chosen to enter and stay within the Labour Party as they do with unions. Gregory has established a basis for a similar policy when a labor party develops in the United States. The logic points to more than a united front: deep entry becomes the only conclusion.

Gregory’s idea of the acceptability of the long term united front of the labor party was answered by Trotsky directly. In the course of discussing whether or not to raise the united front call for a labor party in 1932:

To consider a labor party as an integrated series of united fronts signifies a misunderstanding of the notions both of the united front and of the party. The united front is determined by concrete circumstances, for concrete aims. The party is permanent. In a united front we leave our hands free to break with our temporary allies. In a common party with these allies we are bound by discipline and even by the fact of the party itself. The experience of the Kuomintang and of the Anglo-Russian Committee must be well understood. The strategic line dictated by the lack of a spirit of independence of the Communist Party and by the desire to enter into the “big” party (Kuomintang, Labour Party) produced inevitably all the consequences of the opportunistic adaptation to the will of the allies and, through them, to that of the enemy. We must educate our cadres to believe in the invincibility of the Communist idea and in the future of the Communist Party. The parallel struggle for another party inevitably produces in their minds a duality and turns them onto the road of opportunism. (Leon Trotsky on the Labor Party, p. 8)

The danger of capitulation in the labor party slogan is indicated by the way the RSL has raised the slogan in recent months. It is not used to bring forward the revolutionary party, as Trotsky advocated. In the October Postal Action (New York), the “propaganda article” called for the labor party because “today there is no mass revolutionary party, and it won’t be formed overnight.” This amounts to separating the “today” labor party from the future “won’t be formed overnight” mass revolutionary party. Instead of using the labor party struggle as a way to build the revolutionary party, the two are divided. A labor party for now, a revolutionary party for the next stage. A reformist (or perhaps a “neither bourgeois nor proletarian”) party for now, a revolutionary party when it is possible. Not just a struggle for a labor party now instead of a struggle for the postponed revolutionary party, but the need now is for the actual labor party!

The revolutionary party is used as a cover for the labor party designed to attract advanced workers and trap their practice at the level of the less advanced. A bridge can be traveled in two ways. This is the wrong direction. The algebra is broken down into minimal and maximal. Labor party for today, revolutionary party for tomorrow; reform “democratic and trade union” struggle stage today; revolutionary stage tomorrow.

The basis for this is to be found in the stagist position of the Resolution, and it is explicit in Gregory.

Do we say that there is nothing that can be done until a mass revolutionary party is built? Or do we raise the immediate need for the trade unions to struggle in the political arena, demanding the construction of a labor party to fight for the workers’ needs? The answer is obvious.

The majority’s position can have no other meaning than the fight for a reformist interlude party. There is no party that is neither Marxist nor bourgeois, and Cde. Gregory’s labor party is specifically for the stage “until a mass revolutionary party is built”: that is, it is not a revolutionary party. Trotsky, answering Shachtman who couldn’t see what he was saying either, said: “It would be absurd to say that we advocate a reformist party.” But for Gregory, “the answer is obvious.” On the theoretical level, the League majority has laid the basis for a reformist stage and reformist parties. The danger of degeneration into outright centrism is the “obvious” course.

Return to LRP homepage | Write to the LRP