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James Burnham

The Labor Party: 1938

(March 1938)


From The New International, Vol. 4 No. 3, March 1938, pp. 71–73.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE PRESENT POLITICAL developments in this country which are vaguely and somewhat inaccurately referred to as the “labor party movement” are by no means uniform in character. The existing forms include: the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota; the Farmer-Labor Progressive Federation of Wisconsin; the American Labor Party of New York; Labors’ Non-Partisan League, in some localities still remaining as an informal committee carried over from the 1936 campaign, in others more elaborately and solidly organized, with local clubs and dues-paying members; and a few local attempts to run candidates on a “trade union ticket”.

These existing forms differ among themselves. The Farmer-Labor Progressive Federation is a loose coalition tagging along after the liberal, purely bourgeois third party of the LaFollettes, which itself dates back to 1924. The Minnesota party goes back formally to 1918, and even before that to its roots in Arthur C. Townley’s Non-Partisan League. The only independent party organization of this new period is the American Labor Party, though it is interesting to notice that the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party has been undergoing an evolution bringing it closer in political content and social composition to the American Labor Party. All of the various forms are, of course, in rapid transition.

We sometimes forget that Labor, Farmer-Labor, and third parties have a long history in the United States. The first labor party was briefly established more than a century ago, in Philadelphia in 1828 – not merely before Marxism came to the United States but before it came to Marx. Every decade since then has seen some sort of attempt to initiate one or another kind of “progressive” party, sometimes a party professedly of labor, more often of workers and farmers, always a party aiming to get the votes of workers and farmers even when it made few pretenses about its class character.

The present movement, however, differs in decisive respects from all of the earlier movements:

In the first place, the present movement takes place against the background of a far more mature capitalism; indeed, a capitalism which has entered its stage of decay. The earlier movements had no deep social roots. The possibilities for capitalist advance and the comparative fluidity of class relationships were a firm foundation only for the traditional capitalist politics; or, at an earlier time, the capitalist-slaveholder politics. The earlier movements flickered briefly, and went out. Now, however, the two-party system is palpably outworn, a fact recognized by every commentator of every camp, and attested daily by political events. It is outworn both from the point of view of the workers, who are beginning to see through it, and also from the point of view of the bourgeoisie who can no longer utilize it to solve efficiently either their general class problems or their internecine conflicts.

Second, it is observable that in this new movement the influence of the farmers is far less than in any of the previous movements.

The farmers often, indeed usually, dominated the earlier movements, in terms both of organisational control and of program. Platforms always featured farmers’ planks: cheap money, debt relief, free coinage, lower transportation rates, lower tariffs on manufactured goods, etc. Today this is no longer the case. Even in, for example, the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota, which at its start was dominated both in composition and program by the farmers, the influence of the farmers in recent years has continuously lessened. The change in the relative position of the farmers reflects, of course, the general shift which has reduced the importance of the farmers in the United States, in terms both of relative number and more especially of weight in the national economy.

Third, and of crucial significance, the present movement is taking shape in a United States where the workers are to an unprecedented extent beginning to consolidate as a class. It must always be remembered that though Marxism defines a class economically through the relations of groups of men to the instruments of production, a class does not assume a specific functional role politically until its members reach at least some degree of class consciousness. It is only in recent years in the United States, with the ever decreasing social fluidity, the spread of mass production technique, the heavy impact of the 1929 crisis, and the drawing of the mass production workers into the organized trade union movement, that the extension and deepening of class consciousness has been making gigantic headway. The really enormous importance of this factor cannot be too much underlined; it marks a change in the whole character of American society. It is amusingly and strikingly revealed in, for example, changes in the verbal habits of those sensitive weather-cocks, the journalists and intellectuals. Ten or even five years ago, many “radical” intellectuals used to say that Marxism would never take in the United States because American workers refused to think of themselves as “workers”. They were “as good as the next man”, and all potential executives or at least chief clerks – in their own minds. “Worker” was a word seldom found in the news columns, and “proletarian” never; a more polite substitute, such as “employee”, was almost always used. Today the argument and the practise have changed. The workers know that they are workers, and most of them know that they are always going to remain workers; and more and more they know that they have certain common problems and interests as workers, as a class. This class consciousness is as yet primitive, it is true. It extends much further under its economic than under its political aspect. Politically most workers still feel that they are free citizens in a democracy, and therefore the equal of anyone else, even while they understand that economically there is an absolute gulf between them and the bosses.

These differences I have mentioned between the movement now as compared with previous movements are not episodic. History will not unreel; the differences will increase and will deepen. What they indicate is that the present movement is far more serious, goes much further down, than any of its predecessors. Nevertheless, it would be an error to conclude that there stretches before the United States a long period of social-reformism and the perspective of a slowly, “normally” evolving American version of the British Labour Party as its chief carrier. The paradox is that the American labor movement is first seriously entering its reformist stage at the same time that reformism is losing its basis for existence in the general decline and crisis of international capitalism; and this is a derivative of the further paradox of the emergence of the United States into maturity and dominance among the capitalist nations at the same time that capitalism internationally is in permanent crisis and decline. In the older nations the reformist labor parties took the field against the traditional bourgeois parties. In this country the reformist labor political movement will in a very short time find that its chief rivals are not the old bourgeois parties in their old form, but on the one side the fascist, on the other the revolutionary, movements.


What does this vague, amorphous, developing “labor party movement” represent? Let us answer this question from three diverse points of view:

(1) From the point of view of the workers themselves, this movement must be understood as a groping but nonetheless genuine advance toward fuller class consciousness. With a far greater economic class consciousness than ever before in its history, the American working class is herein taking steps toward political class consciousness. Having felt something of the power and the limitations of its chances on the economic field, it reaches out to test ways and means for discovering what it can do on the political field. The political consciousness is as yet elementary, embryonic even. It is threaded with an infinite multitude of illusions. There is scarcely any awareness of the actual meaning of independent class political action. But in spite of the primitiveness and the illusions, the movement from this point of view, from the point of view of the mass of the workers, is unequivocally progressive.

(2) From the point of view of the labor bureaucrats – that is, of the agents of the bourgeoisie within the organized working class – this movement is both a threat and a promise. The labor bureaucrats are whole-heartedly devoted to capitalism; their position and leadership depends upon the maintenance of democratic capitalism, which in turn depends upon the dominance of a policy of class collaboration over the minds of the workers; and therefore any movement which contains the potentialities of independent class activity – no matter how undeveloped these potentialities may be – is an ominous threat to the bureaucrats. But this movement is also a promise to the bureaucrats: for, they believe, if they can hold its leadership, sweep it in every respect behind them, and confine it to a safe reformist course within the framework of capitalism, they will be able to use it as a bargaining instrument to increase their own share of the available plums of power and privilege.

The role, aims, and interests of the bureaucrats in this movement are, therefore, reactionary.

After a brief test period during the past two years, the tentative plans of the bureaucrats are becoming clearer. In general, they aim to catch up the movements within the boundaries of Labors’ Non-Partisan League. Labors’ Non-Partisan League will function as an independent organization, with members, clubs, dues, constitution, but not as an independent party. It will, as a rule, try to act as a balance of power between the two old parties, getting as much as it can in the way of naming candidates (to run on old party tickets) and influencing policy. Superficial observers say that this is merely the old Gompers neutrality policy, dressed up. This view is entirely wrong. A radical departure from the neutrality policy, it is one form of organized labor political action, intermediate between the neutrality policy and a clear-cut reformist labor party.

The plans of the bureaucrats do not exclude independent parties – as distinguished from LN-PL – on a local or State scale, where these are retired to solve some special problem. In New York there is already the American Labor Party, an independent party though as yet running only a few candidates entirely of its own. This step was needed partly because of the large number of politically advanced workers in New York, partly because the workers accustomed to vote communist or socialist would not have been satisfied with LN-PL and partly perhaps as an experiment.

Many experiences of the past few months (New Jersey is an outstanding instance) show that the workers really want an independent (reformist) labor party, and that the plan of the bureaucrats to herd them into LN-PL is a definite setback to their actual sentiments. They have as yet, however, too much confidence in the bureaucrats and too little skill in fighting them to be able so far to resist effectively.

(3) From the point of view of the bourgeoisie, in particular of the liberal bourgeoisie, this movement is also a threat and a promise: a threat for much the same reason that it is a threat to the bureaucrats; and a promise provided that the liberals hop aboard at the right time for exploiting it to their own ends. The aims, interests, and role of the liberals within this movement, are also, it goes without saying, reactionary.

It should be remarked that though the bureaucrats and the liberals have very much the same political programs and the same devotion to capitalism, their roles in this movement are not wholly identical. This follows because of the difference in their social base. Conflicts and struggles between the bureaucrats and liberals are not, consequently, excluded; and have already appeared where, as in Minnesota and New York, the movement is organized and active. For example, the bureaucrats, in order to preserve their own positions, need to keep the trade unions organizationally ascendant, whereas the liberals wish to subordinate the unions. It may be remarked that in such conflicts nowadays the Stalinists are ordinarily found with the liberals.

However, the similarity in the fundamental policies of the liberals and bureaucrats tends to drive them together. Thus, the dominance in the movement of the bureaucrats and liberals as against the workers tends in the direction of People’s Frontism rather than in that of a more orthodox labor party.


I do not propose herein to deal with the probable outcome of this present “labor party movement”. I have discussed it briefly elsewhere, and shall find occasion to do so more at length. A plausible view is given by Arne Swabeck in this issue of The New International. There is a danger in attaching too much importance to the precise form that developments may take. There is no type of Labor party or People’s Front which Marxists regard as capable of solving the problems of the workers. The attitude of revolutionary socialists toward the movement is determined by the real social forces actually functioning in it, and not by the particular variety of reformism in which it eventuates. Moreover, the outbreak of the war would overturn all speculation.

In general, the task of revolutionary socialists with respect to this movement is to strengthen and extend its progressive component, and to fight against its reactionary components. This means, in other words, to act alongside the workers in such a way as to develop and advance their political consciousness through meeting the genuine concrete problems and issues which arise; and to fight against the bureaucrats and liberals, not merely in general, but in particular to block their concrete reactionary moves.

The liquidation of the revolutionary organization into this reformist movement is clearly excluded. The revolutionists are not the originators or initiators of any labor or any other kind of reformist party; they not merely give no guarantees or false hopes for such a party but, on the contrary, warn against the illusion that such a party can solve any major problem of the working class. The central task in the period ahead remains the building of the revolutionary party itself; it must at all times put forward its full program and concentrate on recruiting directly into its own ranks.

However, the reformist movement exists, is growing, and is drawing toward it wider sections of the workers. It cannot be ignored; and, through the trade unions and in part through the local clubs, the revolutionists must sympathetically and critically go through this experience with the workers in order to realize to the maximum its progressive potentialities and minimize so far as possible those that are reactionary.

From this it follows, for example, that where the Labor party already exists (as in Minnesota or New York), the revolutionists will demand independent candidates and no endorsement of old party candidates. The revolutionary party as such can legitimately give critical support to independent candidates, but not to candidates also on old party tickets. In the latter case, where possible, the revolutionary party can run candidates of its own against the coalition candidates, as is being done by the Socialist Workers Party in the coming St Paul mayoralty campaign (whereas the party is giving critical support to the independent Farmer-Labor candidates in the same election).

Where the labor party or Labors’ Non-Partisan League is up for consideration in the trade unions, the job of the revolutionists will be to press for a provision against all support of old party candidates as a condition for adherence, and to continue such pressure if the union joins without such a condition. Similarly, it is most important to demand a broad democratic organizational setup and to fight against the purely bureaucratic type of organization desired by the union officials and the liberals.

Under some circumstances, such as for instance occurred recently in California, it would be correct to support sentiment for a “trade union candidate” in a local election as against union support for an old party candidate or LN-PL endorsement of an old party candidate. Whatever form the labor party developments take in given localities, revolutionists and militants generally will find it necessary to fight against reactionary planks in the election platform; and, though it would be incorrect for revolutionists to interest themselves in the “general program” of a reformist party, they can well push for specific progressive planks on such questions as war, labor legislation and other social measures. Similarly, militants should preserve the right within the given labor party setup for criticism of the acts of elected candidates, and should demand repudiation by the labor party or the LN-PL of anti-labor acts of its own candidates, or candidates endorsed by it. Again, it is necessary to press within the labor party movement for the extension of activities to the non-parliamentary field: demonstrations, boycotts, support of strikes, and the like. This will further a better understanding of the real meaning of independent working class activity; and at the same time will act as a severe critique of the bureaucrats who wish to confine the movement to deals and jockeying on the parliamentary front. Finally, however small the chance of success in this, the militants must try to maintain the ascendancy of the trade unions within the movement and resist each step to turn it over to the liberals and a full-blown People’s Front.


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