On The Labor Party Question
by James Robertson
[Transcript from a tape recording of a 5 November 1972 speech at an internal meeting, published in the Spartacist League (US), Internal Discussion Bulletin # 23, August 1974, “edited only to make coherent sentences”.]
This report is intended to be a presentation of a series of interlocked home-truths and a comment on the search for deviations, of which in a hardened way we seem to have discovered only two. Its origins are the West Coast Labor Day Pre-Conference Discussion, where the issue of the Labor Party thoroughly dominated the discussion. A great deal of uncertainty, confusion and a very considerable spread of opinion on the Labor Party question presented itself there and we had to thrash it out. At this point the slogan which I have been defending and want to defend here is the slogan “Dump the Bureaucrats! For a Workers Party based on the trade unions.” Another slogan which was debated, and which presents an aspect of rank and file-ism, of syndicalism, is the slogan, “For a labor party without bureaucrats.” That slogan lacks the contradictory tension of a struggle and suggests simply rank and file-ism and possibly, by implication, the development of an organized, mass workers party counterposed to the trade unions: perhaps the equivalent of the red unions of the CP’s third period. I gather that on the coast there is a comrade who objects to the first part of the slogan, “Dump the bureaucrats,” and just wants to have a slogan “For a Labor Party based on the trade unions.” In New York, there is a comrade who just wants to have the slogan “Dump the Bureaucrats. For a Communist Party.” There is a great deal of confusion. The confusion centers on two separate axes, and that’s why it’s a great deal of confusion, or rather complicated confusion. In the last debate in New York, I spent all my time in the decisions of the Third and Fourth Congresses. I’m going to evade that this time and simply point out that the Labor Party slogan is the current American version of the issue of the united front. In the absence of a massive political expression of reformism or Stalinism in the United States, but rather with the organization of industrial unions with a deeply committed pro-capitalist trade union bureaucracy, the issue of proletarian unity and the process of a communist triumph in struggle is centered on the Labor Party question.
There are two axes of confusion over the Labor Party. One is the importance of realizing that this is a propagandistic demand for us today, which has no relationship to what will happen in the future. That is, today the workers (the cadre notwithstanding) who think that Meany because he does not like Negroes, homosexuals or abortion laws, is therefore building a Labor Party in order to carry out these anti-capitalist demands are idiots. There has to be a sense of proportion, which the CP originally lost in 1924. In the first place, the Labor Party is not the real issue for propaganda. The Workers Government is. We stumbled into this. If you read the early issues of Workers’ Action, you will find out that the final, triumphant, ultimate statement of position in the Workers’ Action program was for a Labor Party. We are for a Workers Government, in the unions, in the plants and in our general education and approaching students with the conception of proletarian power. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a formulation which suffers certain problems. A popular understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat is that the workers are going to be put into concentration camps, you know, like in Russia. If you talk of some kind of socialism, you get an image of happy Sweden maintaining its high alcoholism and suicide rates through victoriously staying out of two world wars. But what should be clear in every way, through every kind of issue, is that the working people need their own government. But—how do you get a government? That implies a political party of the working people—a class party. The workers party is a subordinate element of the achievement of a workers government, which is an algebraic expression, as the saying goes, for the concrete realization of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which requires a workers or a labor party. In its concrete expression, this is a revolutionary labor party: a Bolshevik party. That’s a propaganda presentation.
Now what’s really going to happen in this country? Who knows?… Only Lyn Marcus. I’ll give you some variants. One is, we have an unpolitical, extremely combative working class, with a bureaucracy that at present and without the aid of a thousand YSAers, is incapable at any serious level of struggle of controlling this class. Part of the residue of the enormous class struggles in Europe is the presence of an extremely sophisticated, able political bureaucracy in depth. Can you imagine the capacity of a George Meany to cope with an American general strike the way that the CP did in France in ‘68? It’s impossible. Which is where Jack Barnes and his gang think they’ve got their opening. As indicated in the fundamental premises of the transformation memo, now that American hegemony has been lost, reducing the United States to a very effective, most powerful of the capitalist/imperialists and with the fundamental preconditions for severe social crisis in the plant, it’s entirely possible that the American working class may be impelled into massive political actions without a revolutionary party, without any party at all, and overwhelm the bureaucracy. In the best case that will be a fruitful catastrophe, rather akin to the Paris Commune and the 1905 Revolution. It is not something, therefore, that we work for. But as a smaller propagandistic group we’ll do our job. If we are unable to have the capacity as revolutionists to place ourselves at the head of insurgent masses, we will fight anyway, even if we have to go through an experience as the Spartakusbund did in 1918, 1919. The next time around, it will be different. That’s a possibility if the motion in the base accelerates. It is possible to cope with the other extreme—an orderly, stretched-out intensification of social crisis, the capacity of the growing communist movement to keep ahead of developments. The possibility that the communist party could simply grow in linear fashion began to suggest itself classically in 1934 in this country when three erstwhile communist organizations led three citywide general strikes in Toledo, San Francisco and in Minneapolis. The other possibility would be the realization of a labor party either of a revolutionary or of a reformist character. Under the accumulated mounting pressures of social struggle, the bureaucracy may begin to be torn asunder from the pressure from below, from developing class antagonisms, and it becomes stretched. With a successful communist agitation at the same time the Labor Party could be formed in what will be a very convulsive act. What is behind so much of the conceptual garbage that the Workers’ League puts out, is that the Labor Party is an easy thing. There’s a book by Henry Pelling, The History of the Labor Party in Britain, which is useful for guidelines. If you study the history of the achievement of political class consciousness by any proletariat, you’ll see that it is a convulsive, historically monumental act—sometimes compressed, sometimes stretched out—but always enormous in character, even if the outcome after the dust begins to settle is the restabilization of a pro-capitalist bureaucracy. The impact of ripping the mass of the working people away from capitalism so that the assertion is we need in society in which the working people govern, the productive property is nationalized, is enormous, and on top of this is laid the reformist and Stalinist labor skates. That will be a convulsive period in American history, substantially larger than that of the sit-down period from ’35-’37. But what will happen has no particular relationship to our present advocacy, which is a way to pose the question of working people becoming the government and to develop the political instrument to achieve this, to link up that objective, fundamental need with the present consciousness of the bulk of trade union conscious American workers. The attempts to telescope the two as if there were a particular relationship, a linear connection, between what we say today and what will happen in mass motion, is the source of a great deal of confusion and error.
I left open the question of the outcome of the character of the Labor Party in the third case. In the Bay Area somebody said, “Ah, but how can there be a revolutionary Labor Party? Obviously by definition it’s reformist.” And immediately there came to mind the transformations of the Italian and French mass Socialist Parties into Communist Parties. More engagingly, because of the similarity in name and origins, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (majority) is commonly taken to be a revolutionary Labor Party. But that depends on the relationship of forces between the revolutionists and the reformists who associate themselves with such an insurgent move on the political plane—approximately the same way that John L. Lewis and a section of the AFL bureaucracy did in 1935 with the CIO industrial organization. So that’s one kind of confusion.
The other axis of confusion is over “Why advocate a Labor Party?” and what is the relationship between the advocacy of a Labor Party and its political character? Will it represent the general historic interests of the proletariat, i.e. be a revolutionary Labor Party or will it represent special, narrow, aristocratic, chauvinistic and nationalist appetites within the proletariat, i.e. a reformist Labor Party. And therefore why advocate a Labor Party at all since it seems to have a kaleidoscopic character?
There is, of course, a perfectly good circumstance in which the present propagandistic and limited advocacy of a Labor Party would be abandoned. And that is, if we begin to see that a Communist Party began to be recognized by advanced sections of the proletariat, not even very large ones but significant layers, and had the capacity to struggle in a linear way, by boot strap operation, to become the authentic and literal vanguard of the class. At that point we would probably see a section of the bureaucracy form a Labor Party very fast in an attempt to head this off. The progressive wing of the bureaucracy would counterpose the development of a Labor Party. From its birth its essential purpose would be that of an anti-communist Labor Party. We would fight such a thing in every way. We would try to united front it to death, we would denounce it to death, we would raid it to death, we would do everything we could to smash it in the egg. But that is a far cry from the present situation. It is literally not possible by qualitative orders of magnitude—not just one, but qualitative orders of magnitude—to advance at this juncture the Spartacist League as the answer to the felt mass problems of the proletariat. But those mass problems aren’t felt to exist. What does exist in a mass way is the trade union movement. Therefore one can point out that the trade union movement, the economic organization of a section of the working class, has the responsibility to offer the political as well as the economic answers to the plight of the working people. And so it is an address to the one institution that exists in the United States—the organized labor movement.
Now I’ve got a couple of other points to make in this connection. To go back to the workers’ government slogan, which is the purpose of the Labor Party agitation, we should be clear what is meant by a workers’ government. It is nothing other than the dictatorship of the proletariat. There have appeared some speculations or projections either in a hypothetical way or at one point as an ephemeral possibility in history. A workers’ government is not simply a synonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Interestingly enough, in the formulations of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, where there was a vagueness and an abstraction about the projection of the conditions under which a workers’ government would be achieved, both Hal Draper and Joe Hansen zeroed in on that material as they did on a phrase in the Transitional Program in order to prove that the British Labor Party of 1945 and Fidel Castro’s Cuban government were workers’ governments.
The concrete possibilities that Trotsky posed in the Transitional Program were roughly of the following formulation: it is conceivable that under mass revolutionary pressure reformist elements might go much further in the direction of a workers’ government than they conceived they would at the outset. That was a “what—if” question; a generalization on the following condition that took place in the Russian Revolution between February and October. The slogan of the Bolsheviks addressed to the Provisional Government, which was a coalition government of Social Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, the miniscule Trudoviks of Kerensky and the Cadet Party, that is, the constitutional democrats, the effective liberal bourgeois party, was the slogan “Down with the ten capitalist ministers, form a government purely of the workers’ parties,” coupled of course with the social and political and economic demands that the Bolsheviks were raising. Posed in a “what—if?” way, the question is, what if the Cadets had been thrown out of the government? You would have a murky period at that point, something not very stable, in the context of what is already inherently a historical episode of a dual power situation between a bourgeois government and the existence of organized nation-wide soviets. What that would represent is not a workers’ government separate and apart from the dictatorship of the proletariat, but an episode immediately on the way. But of course the centrists make a lot out of non-viable episodes possible in the histories of revolutions, only to try to construct a sort of third camp between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the administration of a bourgeois state by the reformists.
Now another question has arisen just lately; a useful question has been posed by Comrade Seymour’s article on the labor party I think, because it’s not a clear-cut case and it shows some problems in actual application. That’s the experience of the Communist Party in 1923-24 with the Farmer-Labor Party and the Federated Farmer-Labor Party and the general issue of the possibility of a bloc between the communists and, as Cannon put it, the progressive section of the labor movement. You know, apparently it is never too late to learn something, because after 25 years, while reading Seymour’s piece, it suddenly occurred to me, Farmer Labor Party—wait a minute, that’s a two class party, we’re opposed to a two class party, what the hell are we doing in a two class party situation? “One step forward…” Furthermore, the thing has got to be reformist: just think! what kind of interests of both workers and farmers could be contained within a common program. The farmers produce their commodities, they sell them themselves, they’re interested in high prices, squeezing out the middlemen, getting to the export market directly, all this kind of stuff is the economic program of the farmers. Sometimes of course farmers can be pretty restless and make a lot of trouble. But those interests of the workers that you could possibly put together could only be extremely narrow, the circumscribed interests of the American working class, even if you just sat down and said, “Let’s cook up a Farmer Labor Party.” Necessarily, it would have to be episodic and limited in a reformist way because there are a lot of antagonisms between petty- and sometimes not so petty-bourgeois producers, which is what farmers are, and the proletariat. And that’s the key to what was wrong in 1924 with the Communist bloc with the Chicago Federation of Labor. From the outset it was preordained that the struggle was going to be for a reformist Labor Party, i.e. throwing in the farmers to boot. It was on that basis that a bloc was constructed then: the Communists agreed to simulate a reformist party hoping for a maneuver on the inside, courtesy of Brother Pepper. It’s on that basis and probably from that experience that Shachtman wrote his article in 1935. Who needs a second class, fake, reformist, hidden Communist Party? Now we, for our part, should have no reason to be opposed to a bloc with a section of the labor movement, including the labor officialdom, providing that bloc goes in the direction we want it to go. But looking back to 1923, on what basis is this Chicago Federation of Labor going to give us what we want? Only on the basis of an agreement to struggle for a Labor Party together in the first place, to struggle with each other over the character of its program and its cadres in the second place. On that basis we’ll make a bloc with people. If Meany says, “I’m for a Labor Party—you guys are for a Labor Party,” fine; we’ll all go and organize for a Labor Party and we’ll fight like hell to determine its program. Yeah, we’d accept such a bloc, and we’d fight—we’d seek such a bloc. But it is not in the interests of our bloc partners to have such a bloc. The problem with a bloc is the nice old phrase of Bismarck that every alliance consists of two components—the horse and the rider. So that I do not know how we would realize the bloc because I’m afraid that our projected horse would bolt. And the Communist Party clearly was doing the donkey work—or proposing—simulating doing the donkey work for the trade union officialdom except that they also wanted organizational control by the Communists plus a reformist program. This does not help anything, and that’s the basic reason why they got such a mess out of it.
So that in reviewing the historical experience—we aren’t ever for a Farmer Labor Party—we oppose it. A Farmer Labor Party is not going to happen in America. James Burnham made an interesting point in 1938. He said, “Comrades, the Transitional Program says that we should be for a workers’ and farmers’ government in the United States.” But he observed already then, I believe, that there were more dentists than farmers in the United States, and therefore why not a workers’ and dentists’ government. Comrade Gordon waxes irate with me because I find the formula of a workers’ and “x” government very useful while on national tour. You know, there’s a workers and students’ government if you’re speaking on campus—you go out to the military base, it’s a workers’ and soldiers’ government, you know, and you gradually move through all sections of the population. I suppose in Berkeley a few years ago it would have been a workers’ and women’s government. The final achievement is one that boggled my own mind. The Argentine Pabloists came out a few years ago with a Workers’ and People’s government. Well, we’re for a workers’ and “x” government, all right, the problem with motley America is that “x” stands for a wide variety. But behind that is a truism: the dictatorship of the proletariat will be centrally, but not simply or purely, proletarian. There is a wide layer of oppressed sections in American society—racially, ethnically, socially oppressed, ranging from old people to latins, blacks, students, soldiers. This is quite real, it’s quite true, although a workers’ and people’s government is not exactly the formulation that one wants. But it senses something that’s particularly important—if one says a labor movement or a Labor Party right now—there is very good reason to see it right now in the most encrusted, aristocratic, racist, chauvinist George Meany-like fashion. It’s extremely important, and one of the reasons for the formulation “Dump the bureaucrats! For a Workers’ Party.” There’s no difference in conception between a Workers’ Party based on the trade unions and a Labor Party based on the trade unions, except that the terminology projects a somewhat different conception.