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James Burnham
& Max Shachtman

The Question of a Labor Party

The Challenge and the Answer

(August 1938)

From The New International, Vol. IV No. 8, pp. 227–229.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

POLITICAL FORMATIONS IN THE United States are undergoing a radical realignment, and in addition to the old formations, new ones are appearing on the scene. The changes, in the situation are of such a nature as to dictate a change in or amplification of the tactics pursued by the revolutionary Marxists in this country.

Two unprecedented economic crises, the second following the first before it reached the stage of boom; the increasingly deep social crisis in which the bourgeoisie finds it impossible to solve the problems of its social order in any of the traditional ways; and the organization of the workers in the basic, mass-production industries under the banner of the CIO, numbering more than 3,000,000 genuine proletarians, have not only brought into existence an unmistakable movement for working class political action, but have developed it – for all its backwardness – on a vast scale, one never before known in the USA

The Labor Non-Partisan League, the direct intervention of the unions in the Detroit and Seattle elections and in the Pennsylvania primaries – these are only superficially similar to the ancient Gompers’ policy of “reward your friends and punish your enemies”; the formation of the American Labor Party in New York is an even sharper break from the traditional position of the labor movement. The advance consists in the fact that for the first time the American unionists are being mobilized as a class to participate in politics. The leaders of labor, however, strive to confine this movement to the old capitalist parties, that is, to prevent this class movement from exceeding the bounds of bourgeois politics, and taking the form of independent working class political action. The movement is not temporary or accidental. Under the impulsion of the social crisis it will grow and find clearer expression. Who can challenge this save those who expect an early stabilization of US capitalism, an easy surmounting of the crisis?

Side by side with this movement, however, exists and develops the movement for a “third party”. Its most concrete form to date is the organization of the National Progressives. This too is not the product of an individual caprice or aberration, but is based objectively upon the discontent and the dilemma of the middle classes suffering intensely from the crisis, which have been deliberately exploited by demagogues like LaFollette. While its very class basis deprives it of an enduring character, at least with its present form and program, it is an important sign of the times.

More important is the simultaneous movement to develop the “American form” of coalition in one party – a reconstituted Democratic party, freed of the “conservatives”, and composed of Roosevelt’s “liberals”, plus the Republican “progressives” and supported by the LN-PL, the ALP, and the two trade union movements. The division in the Democratic camp in 1936, the violent inner-Democratic fights in Congress, the present primary campaign, all of which are based on social conflicts within the party itself, indicate the lines of the schism which the crisis will only deepen and toward which many right wing and left wing Democrats are consciously working. Both camps realize that the old alignments no longer correspond to the needs of the new situation.

What, then, are the actual possibilities of development for working class political action on a mass scale in the next period? There appear to us to be three.

A national Labor party, similar in scope and position to the British Labour Party, would be far the most probable development if one could arbitrarily transfer the present forces back to the period of America’s expansion and rise, approximating the the present period of capitalist decline, so forcefully evident in the United States as well, such a development is distinctly less likely. The social limitations imposed upon a reformist party by desperate, decaying capitalism, set the political limits of such a party. Those who believe that a Labor party in the US would play the same progressive role, and for the same period of time, as the British Labour Party, are guilty of flagrant dogmaticism and of blindness to those very national peculiarities which they accuse their critics of ignoring. While local Labor party movements are already crystallizing and others will undoubtedly develop, there are few outstanding leaders of the trade unions consciously and firmly working toward a Labor party. On the other hand, other movements, now more powerful and having more conscious and determined leaders, are at work absorbing the incipient Labor party trends.

A “third party” is not unlikely to develop. On a small (state) scale, at least, its establishment is even certain. But its class instability, especially under the brutal blows of the crisis, gives it no great future and indicates that it will split in two extreme directions before it even grows to full stature. A long-lived independent middle class party, especially in our times, is a chimera; politically, the middle class must fly apart, one section following the leadership of the workers, the other – under fascism – the leadership of big capital.

A reorganized Democratic party, embracing in one coalition all the classic components of the People’s Front, has powerful forces working for its development. They include not only the Roosevelt wing, but virtually all the prominent leaders of the unions, especially of the CIO, and the powerful machinery of the Stalinist party, which is now firmly mobilized against the organization of a Labor party or any other form of independent working class political action. The almost certain reorganization of the Democratic party, while it does not necessarily exclude the other possibilities mentioned, could, for a short but indeterminate period, swallow up the other movements. In the worst case, which is not at all excluded, its realization might conclusively prevent the American working class from developing a Labor party on any important scale. It would, instead, open up two direct roads, one leading straight to revolutionary politics, the other to fascism.

Finally, it should be borne in mind that a new world war – no small or remote factor! – might well interrupt the whole process, especially the trend toward a Labor party, and at all events impel it to find new channels and forms of expression.


The position on the question of a Labor party held up to now by the Socialist Workers Party and the movement out of which it developed, may be summarized as follows: The “revolutionary party [cannot] properly take the initiative in advocating the formation of Labor or Farmer-Labor parties” which our Declaration of Principles characterizes as reformist by virtue of “their false program and perspective”; further, “far from constituting independent class politics, the present labor party development is, from the point of view of the bureaucrats and the bourgeoisie, the method for preventing the growth of independent class politics”; however, “the labor party movement, from the point of the workers themselves, does reveal a progressive development in general towards class consciousness”; therefore, “where the labor party develops as a genuine mass movement separate from the capitalist parties, the revolutionists must remain in the midst of the workers ... [and] stand at each stage for those concrete policies and actions which sum up a progressive and class perspective” (Our emphasis – JB-MS).

A study of the development of our position indicates that we based ourselves on two alternatives. If there is no mass reformist party, or movement for it, we do not initiate or form one as a substitute for the revolutionary party, but build the latter directly as a mass party. Where a mass Labor party does exist, we, to whom sectarianism is alien, are flexible in our tactics and, generally, give critical support to such a party; and, as is known, we followed this course in Minnesota where there is an established Farmer-Labor party, supported by the mass of the unions.

But our analysis was incomplete, and in some respects, not sufficiently clear. It did not allow for the present stage of development, in which an undeveloped and only party conscious mass movement exists and is torn by warring tendencies of progress and reaction, but is not yet crystallized. A contributory cause preventing us from supplementing our analysis was the need of concentrating our attention and attack upon the reformist Labor party conceptions of the right wingers and centrists in the old Socialist party, in connection, particularly, with the problem of the ALP which originated not as a break-away from the old parties, but as a machine to break the advanced and traditional socialist influence upon the New York workers and to corral the labor vote for an old capitalist party and ticket.

In brief, our old position cannot and does not effectively answer the problems raised by the present stage of development. It cannot even in theory, for the reason that the new situation was not clearly allowed for. More decisive is the fact that practise has also demonstrated its inadequacy, and consequently, the fact that it does not permit us to give concrete answers, not only such as are understandable and acceptable to the masses, but as will develop more speedily their class consciousness, their break with the bourgeoisie and its parties, and also with their petty bourgeois leaders.

In Pennsylvania, after Kennedy’s defeat in the primaries, if we do not urge the workers to put up their own independent ticket on a militant program (which, in view of the election machinery alone that is required, means the decisive step towards a Labor party formation), and break with the Democratic party – we can only urge them to support in the elections the SWP (which, alas, is yet too weak to put a ticket in the field); in effect, therefore, we leave the CIO bureaucracy and the Stalinists associated with them a free hand in keeping the masses tied to the Democratic party. In New Jersey, our participation in the conferences of the LN-PL is sterilized because we do not counterpose in the most concrete form independent political action to the Holderman-Stalinist policy of paralyzing the movement, disorienting it, rendering it passive and delivering it to one gang or another in the capitalist parties. In the ALP, similar indecision deprives us in advance of the possibility of playing any role whatsoever.

Our old position, irrespective of whether it was right or wrong, or of what specific position we adopt now, must be brought up to date. We advocate a positive policy, one that is based upon the present reality, as well as the objective needs of the working class.


Our attitude toward the present movement for workers’ political action must give concrete and unambiguous answer to these questions:

Are we indifferent to it? We are not indifferent, and cannot be, toward any mass movement of the workers.

Is the movement, in so far as it represents and expresses a break with the tradition of supporting the old capitalist parties, progressive or reactionary? On the part of the workers, as we have declared in the past, it is obviously progressive.

Will the trend towards independent working class political action, towards increased political consciousness of the working class, grow weaker or stronger in the coming period? One cannot seriously hold to the belief that the social crisis in the United States is deepening, that sharper class conflicts are ahead, that the bourgeoisie must seek to burden the masses increasingly with the cost of the crisis, that mere economic action will prove increasingly difficult and insufficient and therefore give greater point to the urgency of political action – without concluding that the American workers are certain to move at a faster and clearer pace towards independent political class action in the period ahead, whatever organizational forms it may at any given moment take.

Will this movement, in any decisive respect, take the form of a mass revolutionary Marxian party during the next period? At most, one can say that it is not theoretically excluded; but all practical and realistic considerations indicate that this will not be the case.

The actual alternatives, therefore, are the development of a mass Labor party, or the immersion and sterilization of the movement into a reorganized Democratic or third party. Powerful political forces are working in the latter direction: the bourgeois and social reformists, the trade union bureaucracy, the Stalinists, the pressure of the petty bourgeoisie, etc. They are all deliberately impeding the development of an independent Labor party.

In this concrete dispute, we have, and must have, an active preference. As against the last-named elements and their strategy, we are positively in favor of the political organization of the American workers as a class, that is, of a Labor party. This alone makes it possible for us to intervene in the labor movement in such a way as to heighten the class consciousness of the workers in the given circumstances, to sharpen their antagonism to the bourgeois parties, to widen the breach between them and their class-collaborationist, bureaucratic misleadership.

In Pennsylvania, we counterpose to the capitulatory policy of the CIO chiefs, the proposal that labor should enter its own ticket, and set up the political-organizational machinery to run this ticket; we conduct a vigorous campaign for this policy which will be realistic and acceptable to thousands of workers, perhaps only a handful of whom will be interested in an SWP ticket. And the policy will be correct not only because it is “realistic and acceptable”, but because it will impel thousands of workers to break from the Democratic party, to break with bourgeois politics and also its sponsors in the CIO and AF of L, and to seek the road to independent class action. When the bosses of a Labor Non-Partisan League conference propose the endorsement of Democratic Smith or Republican Jones, we cannot seriously counterpose Trotskyist Robinson; it is entirely correct, however, and fruitful for our movement, to fight at the conference for a candidate put forward by labor itself, for a Labor party organized and controlled by the workers. In the ensuing fight, the militant, advanced, comparatively conscious workers will rally to our side and, in time, swell the ranks of the revolutionary party.

Do we then become a “Labor-party party”, which, like the Lovestoneites and Thomasites, will carry on an abstract, general, universal and perpetual campaign for a Labor party? Nothing of the kind. We need a position that enables us to give the concrete revolutionary answer to the specific situations that arise (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan, the ALP, Workers Alliance, etc.). But more important than this is the fundamental point of difference between our revolutionary position and the opportunist position of the Lovestone and Thomas groups. They are the advocates and defenders of a reformist Labor party, a “good” reformist party. Our Declaration of Principles properly defines the present Labor party movement as reformist on the basis of its “false program and perspective”. The Socialist Workers Party does not and cannot advocate or support this program and perspective.

Let us put it more concretely. We are not the advocates of a Labor party “in general”, in the abstract, or even of the Labor party as it stands now. We say to the workers: You want to break from the capitalist parties, to form a party of your own? Excellent! That is a step forward, it is progressive. Such a step we will support; we will urge all workers to do likewise. A political party is formed to take control of the affairs of the nation, and we are for the workers taking such control. But – you cannot take control and impose your will and interests by means of a reformist program and tactics or under a reformist leadership. That is demonstrated by the experiences in England; right now in the United States; in fact, throughout the world. We of the SWP are a revolutionary party. We therefore propose to you, not a program of petty reforms which the deepening crisis prevents from really improving your conditions; not a program of reforms for reconciling you with your hateful class enemy and its bankrupt social order; but a program of revolutionary transitional demands which correspond at once to your needs and desires and to the objective situation. We propose, in order to advance the Labor party movement toward class struggle and not class collaboration, that you adopt a program calling for workers’ control of production, for militant Labor Defense

Guards to protect our democratic rights and combat fascism, for the expropriation of the industrial and financial dictators of the country, etc., etc.

This is our program. If the workers do not adopt it as a whole, or at all, we continue to give support to the Labor party, but critical support. We are not sectarians or ultimatists. We give the labor movement no ultimatum: Accept our program, join our party or we will have nothing to do with you. On the other hand, we accept no ultimatums, even from the labor movement. We have our views, and if labor does not accept them in full, we continue with our comradely criticism and do not make our own the inadequacies or mistakes of the working class; but support unmistakably every progressive step, even small ones. In this way, we help to revolutionize the mass movement, and to make a mass movement out of the revolutionary party. There is no other way.

Our main aim is to build the revolutionary party, and all tactics must subserve this aim. The Labor party tactic is not, of course, given for all time. It is imperative for the period ahead. If the trend toward a Labor party is swallowed up in the coming period by a third party or “Democratic Front”, the Labor party slogan may lose its effectiveness, and the struggle will take the form of combat for direct leadership of the masses between the revolutionary party and the reformist-patriotic movement. The coming war, after a short period, would, for example, enormously sharpen all relations and problems. It will be recalled that the big reformist movements after the last war broke in two, with such large sections coming over to revolutionary Marxism that the small communist sects in many countries became mass parties almost overnight. Such a perspective is far from excluded in the United States. But it is still not on the immediate horizon.

While the next period does not indicate the likelihood of the revolutionary party directly becoming a mass party, there is no reason at all for lack of confidence. The adoption of the Labor party slogan, as elucidated by us, does not mean giving up the revolutionary party; it means the best way, under the concrete circumstances, of rooting the party in the living mass movement and of building it into a stronger force. Given a correct policy on our part, the very same forces pushing the workers now toward a Labor party will, as they deepen and as experience is accumulated, push the workers even more firmly towards the revolutionary party. The terrific social crisis, and the impending war, open out directly revolutionary perspectives, with a concomitant tumultuous growth of our party which will bring the United States to the very forefront of this old world. We need only, know how to exploit the vast possibilities in a realistic, practical, effective, i.e., Marxist manner. An arena in which our ideas are brought to the masses and our party built – it is in this sense, above all, that our tactics toward the Labor party must be understood.



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