Independent political action - The Next Step: labor's own party

Submitted by AWL on 8 October, 2013 - 2:21

"We live in a world where everybody is bound to take care of himself. Yet the English working class allows the landlord, capitalist, and retail trading classes, with their tail of lawyers, newspaper writers, etc., to take care of its interests. No wonder reforms in the interests of the workman come so slow and in such miserable dribbles.

The working people of England have but to will, and they are the masters to carry every reform, social and political, which their situation requires. Then why not make that effort?"

The question with which Frederick Engels ended his article "A Workingmen's Party," from which the above sentences are quoted, and which he directed to the British workers in 1881, can no longer be relevantly asked of them. It is the American proletariat and Its economic institutions, the trade unions, which are called upon to supply an answer to this cogent query. The English workers proclaimed their declaration of political independence from the capitalists 50 years ago and have had their own political party since that time. In the United States alone out of all modern countries in the world do we find the workers without a political party; only in this country do the workers continue to give political support to a party of their class enemy. The American labor movement has yet to assert this elementary condition of dignity. It may grumble privately at what its "friends" in the councils of government are doing, and from time to time it may even grumble publicly. But when election time rolls around, the Democratic Party knows that, no matter who its candidates and what its program, no matter how it has disregarded the interests of labor during the preceding four years, still the trade unions will support it and campaign for it and give it their votes.

This is one of the facets of the political underdevelopment of the American workers, which contrasts so sharply with their frequent combativeness in economic struggles. The historical roots of this situation have already been explained in another article in this issue.

Labor Parties Attempted

To be sure, attempts at labor party formation were made. Many times throughout the 19th century local and regional groups of workers formed political parties and launched candidates for office. But these were almost always isolated local affairs of a transient character. Or else they were the efforts of groups of workers, sometimes new immigrant workers, alienated from the mainstream of the American working class. Their character was in many ways similar to that of the various socialist groupings and parties in this period.

The character of the labor movement's attitude toward politics in this country was best summed up in Gompers' famous phrase: "Reward your friends and punish your enemies." Day-by-day participation of the workers in politics was excluded; on election day, the trade unions would urge their members to vote for this capitalist candidate and against that one. These "recommendations" of labor were almost always confined to municipal and state elections. From a narrow point of view, this policy could be said to correspond to the interests of the then trade-union movement. If a local craft union in the building trades was concerned that its members should have jobs, wasn't one way of achieving this to get the workers to vote for that candidate for alderman who would promise to have the construction of a new Municipal Building turned over to a builder with whom the union had contract? And if the concern of the craft unions of the AFL was solely with muinicipal and state politics rather than national politics, didn't this correspond to the fact that what the unions wanted out of politics was safety regulations and factory legislation for the industries it organized, and these could be more easily satisfied in the municipal councils and state legislatures?

The Narrow View

To be sure this meant ignoring the needs and interests of the broader, unorganized working class, not to speak of society as a whole, but the narrow craft unions were concerned only with the interests of the "aristocratic" dues-payers enrolled in their ranks. The vast change which has occurred in the political life of the Americas working class in the last few years followed the creation of the CIO, that is, of industrial unionism. Naturally therefore, the first manifestations of a new attitude toward politics occurred in the CIO. From the very beginning it intervened in national political life, indicating its preferences in presidential elections. And unlike the AFL, in which many leaders are supporters of the Republican Party, it was from the beginning the supporter of the Democratic Party and of Roosevelt's New Deal, of that party which seemed to it to be the party of political and social reform, the party of liberalism. That its attitude toward politics was serious could be seen by the role which John L. Lewis' support to the Republicans in 1940 played in his resignation from the office of CIO president, and the subsequent withdrawal of the Miners from the CIO. Hand-in-hand with these attitudes went the creation of trade-union political machines. In the 1936 presidential elections there was created, as part of the wave which produced the CIO, Labor's Non-Partisan League, which in contrast to the old Gompers policy of endorsing this or that capitalist candidate mobilized the workers for cohesive action in the elections.

PAC and LLPE are Born

The creation of the CIO Political Action Committee for the 1944 elections signified the establishment of a more permanent political machine under the direct control of the more progressive of the two labor federations of the country, for permanent participation in all phases of political life. In the 11 years of its existence, PAC has grown and strengthened itself, has established branches in local wards and precincts, has in many areas taken over or become the mainstay of the machine of the Democratic Party, and has played a decisive role in many elections, including the 1948 election of Truman to the presidency. The AFL, reluctantly perhaps, but nevertheless, followed suit, in correspondence with the growth of industrial unionism in its ranks. In 1952 its endorsement of a presidential candidate - the Democratic candidate at that - for the first time in its history, not counting the 1924 support it gave to LaFollette, marked a turning-point for it, as had its earlier creation' of its own political machine, Labor's League for Political Education.

With these developments has gone a broadening of labor's political horizons. The two labor federations concern themselves today with all political and social questions, lobby actively for all types of legislation, including those not within the purview of the immediate narrow interests of the workers, operate on all political levels, and do so on a day-to-day basis. The organisation of millions of workers in the mass-production industries necessarily multiplied the political and social problems of the labor movement manyfold. This situation, plus the ever-increasing intervention of the government into all phases of life, particularly the economy, created a condition in which labor saw many gains which it had won on the picket lines taken away in the halls of government. Indifference to politics was no longer possible.

Progressive Developments

These developments are progressive ones, but nonetheless they remain confined within a reactionary context. The political machines and activity of the trade unions serve one capitalist party, the Democratic Party; PAC and LLPE are machines which can form the basis of an independent labor party but today are instruments for the election of capitalist politicans. They are labor machines which the labor movement has placed at the disposal of one of the political parties of the capitalist class. Not that the labor leaders are as enthusiastic about the Democratic Party as they were during the heyday of the New Deal or that they are very sanguine about the possibilities of that party enacting labor's program. But out of timidity and conservatism and on the basis of mistaken ideas, they continue to tie labor to the Democratic Party.

This timidity and conservatism reflect the comparative prosperity of the workers and the comparative absence of sharp social and class struggle. The labor movement would not even consider the idea of economic organizations which enrolled the workers and bosses together. But they continue to organize in the same political party with the bosses and the representatives of the bosses. As justification for this they give the shopworn arguments of the "lesser-evil": if labor formed its own party, the Republicans would win and labor's influence and prestige in the government would disappear. Those few wretched reforms which trickle down to us from the Democrats would end and the reactionaries would take over the country, with all of its consequent evil for the workers.

Leaving aside the facts that labor's influence in the government is negligible today under Eisenhower, and yesterday under Truman got labor nothing, and that the reforms which the Democrats are able to give labor are trivial in nature and grow fewer every day, the fact is that labor's lack of independence contributes heavily towards its low influence and the paucity of its political gains. Every member of a trade-union negotiating committee knows that the way to get a good contract is to be tough and militant during negotiations, to make large-scale demands and be prepared to fight for them. The trade-unionist who begins contract negotiations by asking for next to nothing, and informing management that the union will sign the contract regardless of whether management agrees even to its tiny demands, would get nothing. But the labor movement as a whole acts in just this way when it comes to politics.

A Show of Independence

A show of independence on labor's part and the formation of an independent labor party would result in an increase, not in a decrease, of its influence and gains. The creation of a labor party would put the capitalists and their political representatives on the defensive and force them to give more consideration to the needs and demands of the workers than they do today. British labor had to go through such experiences too. Anti-picketing laws in the early 1870s had made the English workers take up independent political action in 1874. And sure enough, as a result, Gladstones Liberal Party (read the Democrats) was defeated and the Tories (read the Republicans) were elected. The very next year the Tories repealed the anti-picketing laws and passed other pro-labor legislation including a broadening of the franchise. An accident? Hardly. Even from the narrow view, militant independence by labor is the best way to squeeze the most concessions out of the present powers-that-be. And the new unity of the AFL and CIO eliminates the argument that labor's split makes a political party of its own unfeasible. That a labor party will come to the United States should be doubted by no one, despite the fact that a clear-cut movement toward it is not now present. America cannot and will not escape the historical development to which every capitalist country is subject.

All sharpening of the class struggle, an economic recession, a major debacle for America in international events, as extension of the witchhunt to the labor movement, an intensified war danger, or a squeeze by the war economy on the living standards of the workers, can produce a movement for a labor party. And despite today's economic prosperity, the long-time trends of the war economy involve a cutting of the workers' living standards and an elimination of the gains which the workers have achieved. This long-range prospect and the shorter-range economic and political vicissitudes which the workers face, can produce an intensification of social conflict and of political antagonisms.

What is certain is that an independent labor party will arise. Independent Socialists will look sympathetically upon all developments in the labor movement toward its creation and will participate to the best of their ability in such developments with the aim of deepening and sharpening the struggle so that a party of the workers may come sooner, rather than later, and have a stronger program, rather than a weaker one. The creation of an independent labor party will only be the first step. That step will have to be followed by a struggle for a socialist program for the labor party, and a struggle for that party to take power in the nation. It is the beginning of the road which leads the working class to take command of the nation with a program to reorganize society on a socialist - which is to say, on a democratic - basis. But this first step will not, given the current political situation in the country, be a small one; it will represent a tremendous leap forward for the workers and for all of society.

The Time Is Now

The time for that step is now. As Engels said in the same article from which we have quoted above: "And yet there never was a more widespread feeling. . .than now that the old parties are doomed, that the old shibboleths have become meaningless, that the old watchwords are exploded, that the old panaceas will not act any longer. Thinking men of all classes begin to see that a new line must be struck out, and that this line can only be in the direction of democracy. But democracy means the dominion of the working class, neither more nor less. Let, then, that working class prepare itself for the task in store for it—the ruling of this great empire; let them understand the responsibilities which inevitably will fall to their share. And the best way to do this is to use the power already in their hands, the actual majority they possess in every large town in the kingdom, to send to Parliament men of their own order."