From The Pen Of Frank Jackman (updated January 2016):
As we enter another "bummer" of an election year the notes below from the archives of Labor History seem to be timely if not for this election cycle then as thoughts to drive our up hill work forward. The sentiments expressed below except the dates of delivery and events characterized could have been written in the year 2016 without blinking an eye. That is not good, not good at all. Read on.
These notes (expanded) were originally intended to be presented as The Labor Question in the United States at a forum on the question on Saturday August 4, 2012. As a number of radicals have noted, most particularly organized socialist radicals, after the dust from the fall bourgeois election settles, regardless of who wins, the working class will lose. Pressure for an independent labor expression, as we head into 2013, may likely to move from its current propaganda point as part of the revolutionary program to agitation and action so learning about the past experiences in the revolutionary and radical labor movements is timely.
I had originally expected to spend most of the speech at the forum delving into the historical experiences, particularly the work of the American Communist Party and the American Socialist Workers Party with a couple of minutes “tip of the hat” to the work of radical around the Labor Party experiences of the late 1990s. However, the scope of the early work and that of those radical in the latter work could not, I felt, be done justice in one forum. Thus these notes are centered on the early historical experiences. If I get a chance, and gather enough information to do the subject justice, I will place notes for the 1990s Labor party work in this space as well.
The subject today is the Labor Party Question in the United States. For starters I want to reconfigure this concept and place it in the context of the Transitional Program first promulgated by Leon Trotsky and his fellows in the Fourth International in 1938. There the labor party concept was expressed as “a workers’ party that fights for a workers’ government.” [The actual expression for advanced capitalist countries like the U.S. was for a workers and farmers government but that is hardly applicable here now, at least in the United States. Some wag at the time, some Shachtmanite wag from what I understand, noted that there were then more dentists than farmers in the United States. Wag aside that remark is a good point since today we would call for a workers and X (oppressed communities, women, etc.) government to make our programmatic point more inclusive.]
For revolutionaries these two algebraically -expressed political ideas are organically joined together. What we mean, what we translate this as, in our propaganda is a mass revolutionary labor party (think Bolsheviks first and foremost, and us) based on the trade unions (the only serious currently organized part of the working class) fighting for soviets (workers councils, factory committees, etc.) as an expression of state power. In short, the dictatorship of the proletariat, a term we do not yet use in “polite” society these days in order not to scare off the masses. And that is the nut. Those of us who stand on those intertwined revolutionary premises are few and far between today and so we need, desperately need, to have a bridge expression, and a bridge organization, the workers party, to do the day to day work of bringing masses of working people to see the need to have an independent organized expression fighting programmatically for their class interests. And we, they, need it pronto.
That program, the program that we as revolutionaries would fight for, would, as it evolved, center on demands, yes, demands, that would go from day to day needs to the struggle for state power. Today focusing on massive job programs at union wages and benefits to get people back to work, workers control of production as a way to spread the available work around, the historic slogan of 30 for 40, nationalization of the banks and other financial institutions under workers control, a home foreclosure moratorium, and debt for homeowners and students. Obviously more demands come to mind but those listed are sufficient to show our direction.
Now there have historically been many efforts to create a mass workers party in the United States going all the way back to the 1830s with the Workingmen’s Party based in New York City. Later efforts, after the Civil War, mainly, when classic capitalism began to become the driving economic norm, included the famous Terence Powderly-led Knights of Labor, including (segregated black locals), a National Negro Union, and various European social-democratic off -shoots (including pro-Marxist formations). All those had flaws, some serious like being pro-capitalist, merely reformist, and the like (sound familiar?) and reflected the birth pangs of the organized labor movement rather than serious predecessors.
Things got serious around the turn of the century (oops, turn of the 20th century) when the “age of the robber barons” declared unequivocally that class warfare between labor and capital was the norm in American society (if not expressed that way in “polite” society). This was the period of the rise the Debsian-inspired party of the whole class, the American Socialist Party. More importantly, if contradictorily, emerging from a segment of that organization, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, Wobblies) was, to my mind the first serious revolutionary labor organization (party/union?) that we could look to as fighting a class struggle fight for working class interests. Everyone should read the Preamble to the IWW Constitution of 1905 (look it up on Wikipedia or the IWW website) to see what I mean. It still retains its stirring revolutionary fervor today.
The most unambiguous work of creating a mass labor party that we could recognize though really came with the fight of the American Communist Party (which had been formed by the sections, the revolutionary-inclined sections, of the American Socialist Party that split off in the great revolutionary/reformist division after the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917) in the 1920s to form one based on the trade unions (mainly in the Midwest, and mainly in Chicago with the John Fitzgerald –led AFL). That effort was stillborn, stillborn because the non-communist labor leaders who had the numbers, the locals, and, ah, the dough wanted a farmer-labor party, a two class party to cushion them against radical solutions (breaking from the bourgeois parties and electoralism). Only the timely intervention of the Communist International saved the day from a major blunder (Go to the James P. Cannon Internet Archives for more, much more on this movement, He, and his factional allies including one William Z. Foster, later the titular head of the Communist Party, were in the thick of things to his later red-faced chagrin).
Moving forward, the American Communist Party at the height of the Great Depression (the one in the 1930s, that one, not the one we are in now) created the American Labor Party (along with the American Socialist party and other pro-Democratic Party labor skates) which had a mass base in places like New York and the Midwest. The problem though was this organization was, mainly, a left-handed way to get votes for Roosevelt from class conscious socialist-minded workers who balked at a direct vote for Roosevelt. (Sound familiar, again?) And that, before the Labor Party movement of the 1990s, is pretty much, except a few odd local attempts here and there by leftist groups, some sincere, some not, was probably the last major effort to form any kind of independent labor political organization. (The American Communist Party after 1936, excepting 1940, and even that is up for questioning, would thereafter not dream of seriously organizing such a party. For them the Democratic Party was more than adequate, thank you. Later the Socialist Workers Party essentially took the same stance.)
So much then for the historical aspects of the workers party question. The real question, the real lessons, for revolutionaries posed by all of this is something that was pointed out by James P. Cannon in the late 1930s and early 1940s (and before him Leon Trotsky). Can revolutionaries in the United States recruit masses of working people to a revolutionary labor party (us, again) today (and again think Bolshevik)? To pose the question is to give the answer (an old lawyer’s trick, by the way).
America today, no. Russia in 1917, yes. Germany in 1921, yes. Same place 1923, yes. Spain in 1936 (really from 1934 on), yes. America in the 1930s, probably not (even with no Stalinist ALP siphoning). France 1968, yes. Greece (or Spain) today, yes. So it is all a question of concrete circumstances. That is what Cannon (and before him Trotsky) was arguing about. If you can recruit to the revolutionary labor party that is the main ticket. We, even in America, are not historically pre-determined to go the old time British Labor Party route as an exclusive way to create a mass- based political labor organization. If we are not able to recruit directly then you have to look at some way station effort. That is why in his 1940 documents (which can also be found at the Cannon Internet Archives as well) Cannon stressed that the SWP should where possible (mainly New York) work in the Stalinist-controlled (heaven forbid, cried the Shachtmanites) American Labor Party. That was where masses of organized trade union workers were.
Now I don’t know, and probably nobody else does either, if and when, the American working class is going to come out of its slumber. Some of us thought that Occupy might be a catalyst for that. That has turned out to be patently false as far as the working class goes. So we have to expect that maybe some middle level labor organizers or local union officials feeling pressure from the ranks may begin to call for a labor party. That, as the 1990s Socialist Alternative Labor Party archives indicates, is about what happened when those efforts started.
[A reference back to the American Communist Party’s work in the 1920s may be informative here. As mentioned above there was some confusion, no, a lot of confusion back then about building a labor party base on workers and farmers, a two -class party. While the demands of both groups may in some cases overlap farmers, except for farm hands, are small capitalists on the land. We need a program for such potential allies, petty bourgeois allies, but their demands are subordinate to labor’s in a workers’ party program. Fast forward to today and it is entirely possible, especially in light of the recent Occupy experiences, that some vague popular frontist trans-class movement might develop like the Labor Non-Partisan League that the labor skates put forward in the 1930s as a catch basin for all kinds of political tendencies. We, of course, would work in such formations fighting for a revolutionary perspective but this is not what we advocate for now.]
In 2014 AFL-CIO President Trumka made noises about labor “going its own way.” I guess he had had too much to drink at the Democratic National Committee meeting the night before, or something. So we should be cautious, but we should be ready. While at the moment tactics like a great regroupment of left forces, a united front with labor militants, or entry in other labor organizations for the purpose of pushing the workers party are premature we should be ready.
And that last sentence brings up my final point, another point courtesy of Jim Cannon. He made a big point in the 1940s documents about the various kinds of political activities that small revolutionary propaganda groups or individuals (us, yet again) can participate in (and actually large socialist organizations too before taking state power). He lumped propaganda, agitation, and action together. For us today we have our propaganda points “a workers’ party that fights for a workers (and X, okay) government.” In the future, if things head our way, we will “united front” the labor skates to death agitating for the need for an independent labor expression. But we will really be speaking over their heads to their memberships (and other working class formations, if any, as well). Then we will take action to create that damn party, fighting to make it a revolutionary instrument. Enough said.