NYC workers

Prospects for a Labor Party

In every major industrial country and even in many less industrialized countries, the working class has built trade unions to fight the capitalists at the workplace through collective action and political parties to combat the capitalists in the political arena; with one exception:  up to the present, the working class in the United States has not yet built its own political party.

Throughout the English-speaking world: in Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, mass parties of labor exist.  In some cases, political parties worked to organize the trade unions. In many other cases, labor unions were set up first. But the need for political representation in addition to representation in the workplace became clear, and the unions then set up political parties as they engaged in colossal struggles and ran into the road block of the capitalist state apparatus.  Although history does not repeat itself in an exact way, we can say that there is no particular reason why the United States should not follow the basic example of these and other countries.

Two Party System

Like Great Britain in the 1900s, the U.S. has developed as a two party system. In the U.S., victory goes to the presidential candidate who wins the most electoral votes in the “Electoral College,” a system in which “electors,” not the candidates themselves, are elected. These electors then vote for the president. In other words, the most powerful office in the world is not directly elected by popular vote. Furthermore, the “winner takes all” and gets to appoint and hire thousands of cabinet and other government officials without their having been elected. Furthermore, in order to have any chance at being elected, candidates must have access to millions of dollars to run their campaigns. All of this makes it much more difficult for third parties to participate in any meaningful way in the electoral process. If the U.S. had direct elections and proportional representation, there would be multiple major parties in existence today.

The U.S. began with two parties: Federalists and Anti-federalists.  The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, represented that section of the bourgeoisie which wanted a strong central state apparatus and the development of industry.  The Anti-Federalists, led by Thomas Jefferson, eventually became the Democratic Party.  Over time, the Democratic Party became the party of the Southern slave owners and the big city political machines in the North.

Later, the Whigs arose and the Federalists disappeared.  In the 1850s, the conflict between the interests of the Southern slave and plantation owners and the growing Northern industrialists and financiers led to a crisis culminating in the American Civil War.  The Republican Party had been created in 1854, and Abraham Lincoln became their first President in 1860. As a result, the Whigs were displaced as a political force. The fact that the Republican Party was created in 1854 and won control of the White House and Congress only six years later illustrates how quickly events can develop and sharply change the political situation.

Mass Party of Labor

If we look at history and the experience of the world working class movement, we can draw some conclusions. Firstly, that the development of a new mass labor party will come about because of a major crisis in society, on the basis of sharp, sudden changes in the situation. Today we can see the developing crisis of the decline of American imperialism and capitalism, which the WIL has explained in other articles. Secondly, that the development of a mass labor party will mean either the end of one of the two major capitalists parties (or at least one of the parties will become much smaller), or they will merge or form a coalition against the new labor party.

Past tendencies toward a Labor Party

The rise of American capitalism, especially from the middle of the 1700s to the 1930s, was spectacular, although very bloody.  This growth, combined with the rise of imperialism at the turn of the 20th Century, provided the material basis for a rise in living standards for much of the working class. But nothing was handed on a silver platter to the working class. Workers formed unions and went on strike, many of which were pitched battles in which strikers were killed.  These struggles, and the fact that American capitalism was making super profits, led to some crumbs being dropped from the bosses’ table, and workers’ wages and conditions improved to some extent.  This was especially true for the skilled workers and crafts organized by the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

When the sharpening class struggle threatened the stability of the system, the U.S. ruling class had various safety valves  – in addition to violent repression – which they used successfully to cut across the development and growth of working class consciousness.

For example, for many decades, there was the “Wild West.” Workers who did not like their situation could simply pull up stakes and move to California or another Western territory and try their hand at gold mining, ranching, or farming, far from the industrial bosses in the Eastern cities.

Racism has long been and continues to be a another tool that U.S. capitalism uses to divide and weaken the working class when it attempts to form unions and fight to improve conditions.  Those unions that prohibited black workers from joining were actually weakening themselves in their struggle with the bosses.

In spite of this, there were some attempts at building labor parties or running labor candidates during this period.  One example of such a candidate was Henry George, who ran for mayor of NYC in 1886. A last minute effort by the Central Labor Council almost led to victory, but in the end, the Democrats won. However, the Labor Party came in second and beat the Republican candidate, future president Teddy Roosevelt.

Eugene Debs

The Socialist Party, although not based on the trade union movement as a whole, did quite well in the 1912 election.  Eugene Debs received 6 percent of the national vote at a time when women and Blacks could not vote.  In 1920, Debs got almost 1,000,000 votes while in jail.  In this period, there was a Socialist congressman and many socialist elected officials at various levels of government.

After World War I, there was a movement toward Farmer-Labor parties, which had the support of some layers of the labor movement and the then young Communist Party.  However, the temporary economic upswing known as the “Roaring 20s,” the strong opposition of most of the leaders of the AFL, and the defeat of the revolutionary wave which swept the world after the war, which led to the isolation and degeneration of the USSR, cut across this development.  Although the Farmer-Labor Party did not become a national party, it did establish itself as a state party in Minnesota, until it merged with the Democrats in 1944.  In the 1920s and 1930s, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor party elected three governors and four U.S. Senators as well as other candidates for other offices.  In the election of 1932, when FDR was swept into office, the Socialist, Socialist Labor and Communist Parties’ candidates for president received almost a million votes between them.

The 1930s

In the 1930s, U.S. capitalism entered its worse crisis up to that point in history.  Unemployment reached 25 percent.  Between 1929 and 1933, industrial production dropped 48.7 percent and national income went from $81 billion in 1929 to $39 billion in 1932 (figures from A. Preis’ book, Labor’s Giant Step).

In 1920, there were some 4,029,000 members in the AFL, but by 1929, the federation had fewer than 3,000,000 members.  The United Mine Workers union had gone from 400,000 in 1920 to (UMW) just 60,000 in 1931. But by 1934, as the economy began to improve and workers’ confidence began to return, there were new offensives to organize the unorganized and to force big business to give some concessions. After all, the workers had borne the brunt of the crisis. But as was to be expected, the capitalists fought back with extreme ruthlessness.

The subjective factor in the 1930s

In these conditions, a new form of labor organizing emerged. Instead of organizing workers on the basis of their individual craft or job within the workplace, factories and even entire industries were organized on an industry-wide basis, regardless of what job a worker did within the productive process. This strengthened workers’ ability to collectively organize against the employers.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a new labor federation that emerged from unions in the AFL, had less than 1,000,000 members in 1935.  But by 1941, the CIO had 5,000,000 members.  When the CIO began its organizing drives, John L. Lewis, the head of the UMW union and one of the main leaders of the CIO, brought in Communists and other radicals to help organize the new unions.  Lewis had fought against the Communists in the miners’ union in the 1920s, but under the pressure of events and the restive membership, he was pushed to the left, helping to establish the CIO.

Some of the best, most self sacrificing working class fighters in the 1930s joined the Communist Party (CP). By the late 1930s, the CP had 80,000 to 100,000 members and CP members and sympathizers led several CIO unions, representing 30 to 40 percent of the total membership.

However, from the mid-1920s to World War II, the leadership of the CP carried out a policy of zigzags.  From 1928 to 1935, they took an ultra-left position, denouncing the AFL and building “red” trade unions, which were basically “unions” made up only of party members.  They refused to call for or help build an independent Labor Party.  Then, during the “Popular Front” period, the CP reversed course and supported Roosevelt and the Democratic Party.  This policy continued until after the war, with the exception of the brief period between the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1938 until the invasion of the USSR by Hitler in June 1941.

Why did the CP do this?  The Bolshevik Revolution was supposed to be the beginning of a chain of revolutions leading to a new socialist system worldwide.  However, the revolutions which occurred in Germany, China, Hungary and other countries were defeated, mainly because there was not a prepared Marxist leadership in place, as well as the errors and betrayals of the Stalinists. Russia was a poor, largely rural country, bled white by World War I and a long war of attempted counter-revolution by the imperialist countries. In these conditions, a bureaucratic caste rose up and eventually consolidated its political domination in the USSR and the Communist International.  This bureaucracy, led by Stalin, based itself on the nationalist, anti-Marxist theory of “socialism in one country.” It did not want revolution to spread beyond the USSR, as that would threaten their own power and privileges.  They led the Communist International to zig-zags between ultra-leftism and opportunism, trying to use the Communist Parties of the world as pressure groups for their narrow foreign policy and bureaucratic interests.  The U.S. CP was used in this manner as well.

If the CP had pursued a correct policy from the early 1920s on, of calling for a Labor Party independent of the Democrats and Republicans, it is quite possible, given their growth, that they would have been able to create such a party in the 1930s. Lewis and the CIO leadership would have felt the pressure from below to support such an effort.  As it happens, Lewis broke with Roosevelt in the 1940 election. Some thought he was going to call for the creation of a Labor Party. Unfortunately, he remained with the confines of the two party system and backed the Republican candidate, Wilke.

The Post-WWII Boom

World War II had the effect of lifting American capitalism out of the Great Depression. At one point in the middle of the war, with mass conscription and the war industries running around the clock, unemployment was down to 2 percent from the 25 percent it was at in the early 1930s. The USA had the competitive advantage that its industry was not bombed during the war. After the war, the U.S. was the world’s dominant capitalist super power. The failure of the post-war revolutionary wave, the balance of power between U.S. imperialism and Russian Stalinism (which had also emerged from the war greatly strengthened), and the need to rebuild after so much destruction, laid the political and economic foundations for a recovery of the capitalist economy.

It was not until 1958 that the world had rebuilt from the destruction of the war. This extended boom of American capitalism, along with the strength of the labor unions and many hard-fought strikes after the war, led to a rise in the living conditions for many American workers. For example, between the late 1940s to 1974, the average non-government worker’s wages went up 40 percent in real terms. This in turn had a tremendous effect on the consciousness of the working class. For many workers, it appeared that capitalism had overcome its contradictions, and the illusion that gradual but steady and continuous improvement was possible within the limits of capitalism became widespread.

However, the contradictions inherent in the system also lead to its opposite. Along with the booms of capitalism come the busts. The postwar boom came to an end with the world recession of the mid-1970s. Since 1974, the average non-government worker in the U.S. has seen wages decline 5 percent in real terms, not counting the elimination of pensions, paid vacations, paid holidays and skyrocketing health care, education and housing costs.

As the crisis of world and American capitalism continues to unfold, continued attacks on the living standards of the working class will eventually lead to militant strikes and protest movements. Labor activists and young workers will rediscover the traditions of the past. Workers who today may not go to union meetings will become the most energetic rank and file activists. It is on the basis of big events, of bitter struggles, that the labor movement will begin to be transformed once again, to win strikes and organize the unorganized. As this process unfolds, the workers will battle the employers and their courts, police, National Guardsmen and politicians. As a result of this experience, U.S. workers will increasingly come to see themselves as a class, with common interests of its own that can only be defended collectively, instead of approaching the crisis confronting them as a series of individual problems to be solved through individual solutions.

It is through this contradictory process that at a certain point, labor movement activists will come together to fight for independent political representation and action in the interests of the working class majority: a mass party of labor. History tells us that when this happens, things in the U.S. will develop in an explosive manner.

Oppositions in the Labor Movement

In many unions today, there are growing oppositions to the policies of the leadership. Workers want their unions to stop giving concessions to the bosses and instead, fight to improve their working and living conditions. Workers are willing to fight, but they need a strategy to win these battles. They also want democratic unions in which they can change the leadership to change the policy. As these oppositions grow in the unions, many of these caucuses will demand a change in the political policies of the unions. They see the huge amounts of money, activists and other union resources going to the Democrats and sometimes the Republicans, with the only result being a continuing decline of workers’ standards of living. When these oppositions grow and start to influence the policies of some of the large unions, the dam could break and the movement for a labor party could become unstoppable.

Until this happens, attempts to put forward candidates independent of the two parties and to the left of the Democrats will continue. When the Democrats are in power, this will probably help this process along, as many workers and young people who had hopes that the Democrats would change things will inevitably become disappointed. The WIL supports the Cynthia McKinney campaign for President and the Sheehan campaign for Congress. We will also support future independent efforts to combat the two parties of big business. Out of these campaigns, will come activists who can help to build the mass labor party of the future.

These campaigns are important in that they raise ideas not discussed by the representatives of big business, and they raise the necessity of breaking with the Democrats and Republicans. However, it is highly unlikely that a mass party of labor will come out of these efforts in and of themselves. Most workers will not vote, work for, or contribute time and money to candidates and parties that have little or no chance of winning. But once a large section of the labor movement puts their resources behind such a party, it will be seen as a party that can have a real effect on politics. Millions will be attracted to it. However, until this happens, it will be very hard to build a mass party from the ground up. This is partly due to the control of the media by the capitalists, and their electoral system, which seeks to keep other parties off the ballot and does not allow for proportional representation. But the biggest obstacle in this process is the current trade union leadership, which is tied by a thousand strings to the bosses’ parties.

Growth of Socialist Ideas

Already, many workers and youth are looking for solutions to the crisis unfolding in American society and around the world. They are looking for ideas to explain what is happening and most importantly, how things can be changed. A small but growing number are rediscovering socialist and Marxist ideas. During the late 1980s and 1990s, the politicians and media proclaimed the capitalist counter revolution that took place in the former USSR and Eastern Europe as the “End of Communism,” even though it was Stalinism, not communism, that collapsed. But capitalism has not solved the problems of the people who live in those countries. It has, however, taken away their free health care, guaranteed employment, affordable housing and free higher education. These countries will be brought further down by the crisis of capitalism in the West.

Venezuelan Revolution

In the coming period, thousands more workers and youth in the U.S. will look to the ideas of socialism and Marxism and get involved in politics. This will also have an effect in the labor movement and help in the process of building a mass labor party. Many workers and youth here are also inspired by the revolution taking place in Venezuela and across Latin America. Revolutionary struggles around the world will tend to educate American workers and help develop class and political consciousness.

The Recent Period

Since 1976, the capitalists have tried their best to prevent deep or long recessions, but they have still not solved any of the fundamental contradictions of the system.

Some workers and youth in the U.S. have survived the last period by going into debt: education loans, credit cards, home equity loans etc. This had to come to an end at a certain point and with the collapse and crisis of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac, it seems the end may have arrived. The enormous debt not only allowed the capitalists to keep the economy moving, but it served as a safety valve, as workers lived better than they otherwise would have. If the workers now have to live on what they really make, this will inevitably lead to major struggles and radicalization of the class at a certain stage, perhaps sooner than most people expect.

It should also be acknowledged that a Labor Party, although without a mass base, came into being in the 1990s in response to the right wing policies of Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress. However, there were two main reasons this party did not take off. First, the vast majority of the labor movement, under the leadership of the pro-capitalist labor leadership, would not support it. Secondly, the Labor Party could have developed at the very least as a small opposition party, but its leadership did not want to run even a few real candidates in order to spread its ideas and gain support and publicity. Therefore, this small effort did not move forward and become a mass force in U.S. politics.

The Future

At some point in the future, possibly once the Democrats win control of both the executive and legislative branches of government, there will be movements by the working class to defend against the attacks we are suffering and to fight for a better life. Once such a movement develops, the Democrats will probably move to the left, at least in words, and perhaps with a few cosmetic concessions to try to contain the movement. But due to the organic crisis of the system, and since the Democrats are owned and controlled by the capitalist class, there is only so far they can move.

Eventually, there could be a split in the Democratic Party. If this happens, a left wing split could link up with the labor movement and might form a labor party, with the former Democrats constituting the new labor party’s right wing. However, a left-wing split from the Democrats could also move in a populist direction, led by Dennis Kucinich or someone like him. It is possible that this could be the last gasp to try to prevent a genuine labor party from being formed. It is impossible to predict the future, but we can see general tendencies and must constantly re-evaluate the situation as it changes. One thing is clear, if you want to help build a labor party, you should join with the WIL now and help us in fighting for this perspective.


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