From New International, Vol. 1 No. 5, December 1934, pp. 129–130.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
THE WORKERS Party of the US did not emerge suddenly from nowhere. It was born of the merger of the Communist League of America and the American Workers Party, itself the outgrowth of the Conference for Progressive Labor Action. Each organization took pride in its past. It did not disown that past in coming into the merger. Rather did each organization by its participation in the merger bear witness to its appreciation of the history of the other.
Before launching on the main theme of this article, two observations on the significance of the merger may be made. In the first place, a number have asked the question, Why is it that precisely the group which has been most concerned about theory, and on the other hand, the group which has been most “activist” have got together? Without entering now into a discussion as to the exactness of the description here employed, it may be pointed out that at one point in the evolution of the movement, the elaboration of theory may be the prime need, and at another the application of theory in action. However, there cannot be, and never is, a divorce between sound theory and sound practise. A group which devotes itself to the discussion of theory in the Marxian sense does not do it for the sake of agreeable mental exercize, as an alternative perhaps to working cross-word puzzles. It is concerned with theory because it needs to know how to act and will not act on a merely opportunistic basis. Elaboration of theory leads, therefore, to practical work in the labor scene. On the other hand, a group which seeks to act in a responsible and not an adventurist spirit in the revolutionary movement, which is concerned about ultimate and not merely about immediate aims, may indeed scorn Talmudic theologizing and debates which lead simply to more debates; but it cannot be indifferent to theory. It can render a service which the trade union bureaucrats, for example, cannot render, not merely because its members may individually be more honest or self-sacrificing, but chiefly because it has a clear conception of the economic and political system, the role of the working class, etc., and therefore can thread its way through the complex maze of events. That is to say, it must fall back on theory. If it does not find theoretical questions answered by any existing political party it must hammer out theory for itself and build a new party. Thus the fusion of the CLA and the AWP was not accidental. Moreover, the fusion will bear fruit which neither group by itself could have produced.
Another question which has been raised is, Why is it that the most “internationalist” and the most “nationalist” group got together? The first comment on that question is naturally that one cannot believe everything he reads in the papers, especially in the Daily Worker. Seriously, the point of the revolutionary internationalism of the CLA has been that it is a fatal error to make the laying of the foundations of the socialist economy in the Soviet Union and the so-called “defense of the Soviet Union” the almost exclusive concern of the revolutionary movement; that the defense of the Soviet Union itself today depends upon the growth and victory of revolutionary parties in capitalist countries and that energy must be concentrated on that task. When the AWP has insisted that the revolutionary movement must be built in the United States it has done this, not with any notion that a revolutionary movement could be national in character, but precisely because it was so deeply concerned that the working class of the United States should do its part in the world revolutionary movement. It inveighed sometimes against sentimentality and romanticism about labor internationalism because it was so deeply concerned about building the international revolutionary movement realistically and so avoiding a repetition of the tragic debacle which overtook the movement in 1914 with the outbreak of the war and again in 1932 under the onslaught of Fascism in Germany and elsewhere. Again, therefore, the merger is the correct and natural outcome of the history of the two groups.
The merger also signifies that we are not slaves to the past. Our faces are set to the future. We go to meet the test of action.
Objective conditions vary in different countries; the working class is at different stages in its evolution. Consequently the crucial issue before the revolutionary party is not the same in different countries or at different periods. The trade union issue is the master issue in the United States today. By the manner in which it meets that issue the Workers party will justify or stultify itself in the initial period of its existence.
Reactionary employer interests and the “liberal” Roosevelt administration are well aware of the fact that it is over the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, in the organizing campaigns and strike struggles of the past two years, that capitalism and the working class are locking horns today in the US. By might and main, by direct and brutal or indirect and subtle means, they seek to prevent organization, to build company unions, to postpone the issue over Section 7a of NRA to prevent strikes, to break them, and where unions are formed to confuse the membership and corrupt the leaders so that the unions may not become or remain genuine instruments of struggle.
Without in most cases thinking the problem through, with wrong or incomplete theory perhaps, if they have any at all, the masses of the workers also sense the significance of the conflict. And this includes not a few white-collar, professional and technical workers, who until recently hardly thought of themselves as “workers” at all. They are fighting for bread and butter of course. What else should starving men and women fight for? But they sense the need for power in order to get bread; they know that power comes from organization; they fight magnificently and starve in order to get recognition of their union. In the room in which Okey Odell, the Ohio onion strike leader, lay recovering from his wounds last August, surrounded by armed union members determined to fight it out with any vigilantes who might try to seize him again, a special guard stood before the federal union charter these onion workers had received from the AF of L pledged to die before they would permit it to be taken away!
In certain more sophisticated quarters of the labor movement, there are those who do not see what is plain to the capitalists and politicians on the one hand and the working masses on the other. The avowed social democrats and the unavowed ones, including, some of those who regard themselves as devotees of the “American approach”, think of course that the class struggle is fought primarily and mainly at the polls. One of them recently remarked that Upton Sinclair in his EPIC campaign for governor of California had carried the class struggle in that state to the highest point it had ever reached, and did not even mention the marine workers’ strike that raged up and down the Pacific coast last summer, and the general strike in the San Francisco area! No, not Upton on his soap-box but Tom Mooney in jail is still the symbol of the class struggle in California.
At the other extreme are cloctrinaries and Leftists to whom the unions, especially those in the AF of L, are company unions, Fascist unions, “bulwarks of capitalism”, etc. Until recently at least the CP held to this estimate and proceeded to do its utmost to divide the working class by building its own sectarian, paper “industrial” unions: Others holding this estimate stand in holy aloofness from the present struggles of the workers and their ill-advised attempts to organize, perhaps condescending to lift up their voices to preach the one true doctrine to deaf ears. Those with syndicalist leanings may participate actively and courageously in strike struggles, but they will have nothing to do with the unions which conduct or grow out of these strikes. Some day, they feel blissfully certain, objective conditions will compel the workers to rise spontaneously, to turn their backs suddenly upon the past and its misguided struggles, and to put over the revolution.
To reject these attitudes does not mean that we accept the present leadership of the AF of L, its structure, its policies, its attitude toward employers and government. For the Marxist that is even more impossible than it was at an earlier period. The unions cannot in the period of capitalist decline fulfill the functions, achieve the gains for the workers, that were possible when capitalism was still able to give substantial concessions at least to large sections of the population. The class-collaboration philosophy becomes more dangerous as the capitalist crisis deepens, will prove fatal if it prevails as that crisis reaches its climax.
The struggle of the unions against the employing class and the government is genuine and has a progressive character, therefore, only in the degree that within the unions the struggle against the bureaucracy and its policies goes on. This intra-union struggle can be effectively waged by the rank and file, the progressive and Left elements, only if they are organized. Who shall lead and inspire in this struggle and the organization for it, if not the politically developed, the theoretically trained workers? In other words, the revolutionary party? Correctly, therefore, the Workers Party of the US places in the forefront of its Program of Action for the next six months the organization of the Left-progressive wing in the unions.
Neither the socialist party as a whole nor any section of it worth mentioning has a clear conception of the crucial nature of this task. In effect, therefore, they all strengthen the hands of the trade union bureaucrats and, so far as they have influence, commit the movement to a non-militant and reformist attitude. The Right wing has of course always served the union officialdom in exchange for votes and jobs as “labor lawyers”, etc. At the Detroit convention they fought bitterly against even a mild censure of the AF of L leaders. Today they are openly seeking an alliance with the unions under their present leadership in a Labor party – to the Right of where the SP has supposedly stood.
Meanwhile the adolescent and unrealistic character of the leadership of the various shades of “Militants” is clearly illustrated by the fact that they engage in most violent shadow-boxing with the Right wing over the “united front” with the CP (or that poor relation of the CP, Lovestone, of whom the RPC is in turn a poor relation) and over what they are going to do, or think they are going to do, when war or the revolution comes – but back down before the Right wing on the trade union issue, the test of the revolutionary realist today. The Militants do not concentrate on building the Left-progressive wing in the unions. They concentrate on getting posts in the unions which, in the absence of a Left-progressive wing under the leadership of revolutionary forces, can only result in the Militants becoming assimilated to the trade union bureaucracy, as has happened often enough in previous years. It is inconceivable that the workers, the miners, e.g., or the steel workers, who know the union situation from the inside and whose very livelihood in many instances depends literally upon the outcome of the struggle against the union bureaucracy, can long follow such leadership, can postpone joining the Workers party and thus assisting most effectively in building the Left wing in the unions.
The unions are instruments of struggle, agencies of collective bargaining, etc. within the capitalist system. By themselves, they are not revolutionary instruments. In fact, left to themselves they become “pure and simple”, degenerate into rackets, fail even as collective bargaining agencies. What transformations, revolutionary changes, new formations, may occur in the economic organizations, and the economic struggle, as on the one hand the economic crisis deepen? and on the other hand the revolutionary party gains the confidence and leadership of the masses, is subject matter for analysis in future issues of this magazine. Even among those who may differ on these matters, there can be agreement – there must be if disaster is not to overcome the American working class-that today: in the US the main sector of the class struggle is the movement of workers of all categories into unions, the fight for recognition of the right to organize, the strike struggles, the fights against the trade union bureaucrats. In the shops, mines, stores, offices; in union halls; on the picket lines; on the streets of Toledo, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, San Francisco, the steel and textile and automobile and mining towns, that struggle rages and will rage in the months ahead. Build the unions; organize the workers; develop their militancy: broaden, deepen, intensify, politicalize the day-today struggles; fight the bureaucrats; build the Left-progressive wing – this is the program of revolutionists today, the program of the Workers party.
The so-called communist party has clearly demonstrated how such a program should NOT be carried out. Abandoning the conception of party democracy and workers democracy completely, the CP has espoused a mystical, absolutist, utterly un-Marxian conception of a party which can do no wrong, which stands outside and above the working class. (From this to an absolute ruler over the party itself is only a step.) This leads to a fatal lack of faith in, actual contempt for, the working class. It finds expression in the theory of social-Fascism (working class organizations that do not accept our domination are Fascist); in united-front-from-below manoeuvres (these stupid asses will not see through our clever scheme to crush them); in using strong-arm methods to break up the meetings of other labor groups; in “capturing” unions and other mass organizations by political trickery or main force; in manipulating union machinery so as to put party members in office; in calling strikes and telling the workers what the strike is about after they get out on the sidewalk. At this very moment we are seeing another ludicrous and yet tragic illustration of what this attitude leads to. Members of independent building trades unions fostered by the CP are in open revolt against the party which, after years of building separate sectarian, often paper, unions all along the line, has suddenly realized the futility of that course and now proceeds quite as mechanically and dictatorially to try to liquidate every independent union it can lay its hands on, regardless of the circumstances which gave it birth, its mass base or the will of the membership!
The Workers Party will not utter its own doom in advance by using such methods in its trade union work. It will rely upon the correctness of its analysis and program, the persuasiveness of its propaganda, above all upon the activity, devotion and militancy of its members in the unions to win the confidence first of the progressives and then of the broad masses in the unions.
No fact stands out more clearly from a survey of the present scene than the need of a revolutionary party with a sound trade union program. The masses are in motion. They continue to press into the unions. One strike struggle follows upon the heels of the other. Yet for lack of effective organization of the Left-progressive wing, itself the result of the disastrous policies of the CP and SP, many strikes are prevented, no strike has gained results proportionate to the spirit displayed by the workers, the issue of unionization in the traditional anti-union strongholds in the basic industries is still unresolved, the old AF of L machine continues in the saddle. The fact that the workers continue to organize in the AF of L does not mean that they have a naive confidence in the present leadership. On the contrary, textile, steel, automobile, marine workers, to mention but a few instances, know that this leadership cannot be trusted. They are ready to welcome a new leadership which will display vigor and a sense of reality. Wherever the idea of building an organization of Left-progressives has been broached, it has met with an instant response. In fact, the movement is already under way independently in many sections of the country.
No organization except the Workers Party is in a position to take advantage of the opportunity and to give leadership to the movement. The CP is in this field hopelessly discredited and at sea. The SP, apart from all other considerations, is so torn with conflict and confusion that it cannot devote attention to this crying need of the workers. In Toledo and Minneapolis the forces that by merging have constituted the Workers party have already demonstrated their ability and gained the attention of the masses.
Thus with confidence and determination we address ourselves to the task of building the Left-progressive wing in the unions – building the Workers Party of the US – building the new, the Fourth, International!