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James Burnham

Progressives Merge with Fourth International

(October 1938)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 46, 22 October 1938, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Conference for Progressive Labor Action came together in 1928 primarily as the result of the then existing situation in the American labor movement. The trade unions, cramped in the corsets of the craft form and a passive and entrenched bureaucracy, were lethargic. No direction was being given to the growing millions of unemployed. The Communist Party, by its insane Red Union tactics dictated by the strategy of the “Third Period,” had succeeded in isolating itself and the many militant workers under its influence from the main stream of the labor movement. The Communist League of America, not yet emerged from its stage of functioning as an opposition faction to the Communist International, was active only to a negligible degree in trade union situations.

There was thus no center for the development of progressive influence within the trade union movement itself. The conception of the founders of the C.P.L.A. was, at first, that of such a center: an organized group of militants who would promote progressive trade union policies, by propaganda, but in particular through direct participation in the mass action of the unions, in strikes, demonstrations, organizing campaigns, and in building up the organization of the unemployed.

Not a Party

It was believed that for such a task no specific party formation and no specific party allegiance were necessary. The C.P.L.A. did not regard itself as a party. At the beginning its membership included a number of members of the Socialist Party, as well as many without any party affiliations. It was soon apparent, however, that its path led necessarily away from the existing parties, and within a brief time the Socialists had dropped out.

The task which the C.P.L.A. had set for itself was beyond its powers; but in spite of the smallness of its numbers and resources, its mark was definitely and in a number of instances splendidly felt within the American labor movement. The militant and determined work of its members in a series of notable strikes was climaxed at the great Auto-Lite strike of 1934 at Toledo. The National Unemployed Leagues, organised under its leadership, played no small part in forcing the federal government to accept some measure of responsibility for relief, and gave an example of class struggle methods which has not yet been equalled in the unemployed movement.

The experiences of the C.P.L.A.. in the class struggle Were not long in proving to its membership that the scope of its perspective would have to be expanded. The problems posed day by day within the trade union and unemployed movements were seen to be, in the last analysis, political problems, and to demand precise and unequivocal political answers. The existing political parties not being able to give such answers, the issue presented was realized to be nothing else and nothing less than the building of a new political party of the working class.

This realization was expressed at and by the Convention held at the end of 1933. The resolutions adopted at the Convention stated the need for a new party of the workers, divorced from the Socialist and Communist Parties; declared the period of the C.P.L.A. finished; and elected a Provisional Organizing Committee for the American Workers Party.

Choice of the A.W.P.

This great step, however, could not conclude the evolution of the C.P.L.A. Once having shaken loose of the social-democracy and of Stalinism, once having recognized and asserted the need for the new party, it was faced positively and inescapably with the central fact of the new epoch then beginning: with the Fourth International. The sole completion to its progressive evolution meant fusion with the movement for the Fourth International. Falling this, the embryonic American Workers Party could only reverse direction, and fall back into the blind alleys of reformism [line of text missing] ment of the 4th International Movement altogether. This was the choice for the group as a whole and for every individual one of its members.

Fortunately, the greater part of the membership both of the A.W.P. and of the Communist League understood the need for the bringing together of all available forces into the movement for the new party. And fortunately, also, there were those in both organizations who saw clearly just what steps this need called for. Negotiations, discussions and united activities reached their fruitful conclusion in the fusion of the two groups in December 1934 under the banner of the Fourth International.

Obstacles Met

All was not, of course, smooth sailing. Within the C.P.L.A.-A.W.P. there were those who were at heart bitter enemies of the new perspective, who made nominal declaration for a new party in 1933 only under the compulsion of events too strong for them to withstand; and there were others whose backbones, adequate for the earlier tasks, were not strong enough for the stern jobs that lay ahead.

Their resistance, treacherous and disloyal from some, confused or weak-kneed from others, could not alter the outcome. Their own fate – bought off for a few contemptible dollars by Stalinism, or sliding back to an evangelical God, or pulling up the stakes from the labor movement as a whole – points in its own way to that great lesson from the history of the A.W.P.: that today there is no neutral ground. There is only one way to cast off the dregs of reformism and Stalinism, of imperialism which finally these serve: by taking the road of the Fourth International.

A Foreshadowing

The A.W.P. found the road. It was this that proved its own basic health and vitality. Its own accomplishments, and all that is finest in its traditions have ber come incorporated organically into the young but sturdily growing body of the new International.

Just how or by what stages the Fourth International will complete its development we cannot know in advance. The fusion of the A.W.P. is, however, in many essentials a correct foreshadowing. The Fourth International is projected into the historical arena as a political magnet. Its function and its destiny are to draw to itself all those, from whatever quarter, who resolve to break from the old world and its refuse, and who set for themselves the goal of the new world of international socialism.

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