Trotsky on the US Labor Movement and the Need for a Labor Party

trotsky1938We republish here an extremely interesting discussion between Leon Trotsky and Abraham Plotkin, Midwest representative of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), held at Trotsky’s home in Mexico in 1938. While much has changed since this interview took place (for example, the threat of fascism in the US is not at all imminent at present), Trotsky’s insights on the nature of the labor bureaucracy, the tasks confronting the labor movement, and the need for a labor party are as relevant today as they were in the stormy years before World War II.




Discussion with a CIO Official

September 29, 1938

CIO Official: Our union’s policies are aimed at preventing complete unemployment. We’ve got the work spread out among all the members of the union with no reduction in the hourly rate of pay.

Trotsky: And what percentage of their former total wages do your workers now get?

CIO Official: About 40 percent.

Trotsky: Why that’s monstrous! You’ve won a sliding scale of working hours with no change in the hourly rate of pay? But that only means that the full burden of unemployment falls with all its weight on the workers themselves. You free the bourgeoisie from the need of spending its resources on the unemployed by having each workers sacrifice three-fifths of his total wages.

CIO Official: There’s a grain of truth in that. But what can be done?

Trotsky: Not a grain, but the whole truth! American capitalism is sick with a chronic and incurable disease. Can you console your workers with the hope that the present crisis will have a transitory character and that a new era of prosperity will open in the near future?

CIO Official: Personally, I don’t allow myself such illusions. Many in our circles understand that capitalism has entered an era of decline.

Trotsky: But of course this means that tomorrow your workers will get 30 percent of their former wages; the day after, 25 percent; and so forth. Episodic improvements, it is true, are possible, even inevitable; but the overall curve is toward decline, degradation, impoverishment. Marx and Engels predicted this even in the Communist Manifesto. What is the program of your union and the CIO as a whole?

CIO Official: Unfortunately, you don’t know the psychology of the American workers. They are not used to thinking about the future. They are interested in only one thing: what can be done now, immediately. Among the leaders of the trade union movement there are, of course, those who clearly take into account the dangers that threaten. But they can’t change the psychology of the masses all at once. The habits, traditions, and views of the American workers tie them down and limit what they can do. All this can’t be changed in a day.

Trotsky: Are you sure that history will provide you with the years enough in which to prepare? The crisis of American capitalism has “American” tempos and proportions. A sturdy organism that has not known sickness before begins to deteriorate very rapidly at a certain point. The disintegration of capitalism means, at the same time, a direct and immediate threat to democracy, without which the trade unions cannot exist. Do you think, for example, that Mayor Hague is just an accident?

CIO Official: Oh no, I don’t think so at all. I have had quite a few meetings in the recent period with trade union official on this subject. My opinion is that in every state we already have—under one banner or another—a ready-made reactionary organization that can become a support for fascism on the national level. We don’t have to wait fifteen or twenty years. Fascism can conquer among us in three or four.

Trotsky: In that case what is—?

CIO Official: Our program? I understand your question. It is a difficult situation; some major steps are necessary. But I don’t see the necessary forces or necessary leaders for this.

Trotsky: Then does that mean capitulation without a fight?

CIO Official: It’s a difficult situation. I have to admit that the majority of union activists don’t see, or don’t want to see, the danger. Our unions, as you know, have had an extraordinary growth in a short time. It’s natural for the CIO chiefs to have a honeymoon psychology. They are inclined to view difficulties lightly. The government not only has them figured out, but even plays with them. They are not used to this from past experience. It’s natural that their heads spin a little. This pleasant dizziness is not conducive to critical thinking. They are tasting the joys of today without worrying about tomorrow.

Trotsky: Well said! On this I agree with you completely. But the success of the CIO is temporary. It is merely a symptom of the fact that the working class of the United States has begun to move, has broken out of its routine, is hunting for new ways to save itself from the threatening abyss. If your unions do not find new ways, they will be ground to dust. Hague is already stronger than Lewis; because Hague, despite his limited situation, knows exactly what he wants, while Lewis doesn’t. Things may end up with your chiefs waking from their “pleasant dizziness” to find themselves—in concentration camps.

CIO Official: Unfortunately, the past history of the United States with its unlimited opportunities, its individualism, has not taught our workers to think socially. It’s enough to tell you that at best 15 percent of the organized workers come to union meetings. That’s something to think about.

Trotsky: But perhaps the reason for the absenteeism of 85 percent is that the speakers have nothing to say to the ranks?

CIO Official: Hmm. That’s true to a certain extent. The economic situation is such that we are forced to hold back the workers, to put brakes on the movement, to retreat. This is not to the workers’ liking, of course.

Trotsky: Here we have the heart of the matter. It is not the ranks who are to blame but the leaders. In the classical epoch of capitalism the trade unions also got into difficult situations during crises and were forced to retreat, lost part of their membership, spent their reserve funds. But then there was at least the assurance that the next upturn would allow the losses to be made up, and more besides. Today there isn’t the slightest hope for such a thing. The unions will go down step by step. Your organization, the CIO, may collapse as quickly as it arose.

CIO Official: What can be done?

Trotsky: Above all, one must tell the masses what’s what. It’s inadmissible to play hide-and-seek. You, of course, know the American workers better than I. Nevertheless, let me assure you that you are looking at them through old eyeglasses. The masses are immeasurably better, more daring and resolute than the leaders. The very fact of the rapid rise of the CIO shows that the American worker has changed radically under the impact of the terrible economic jolts of the postwar period, especially of the past decade. When you showed a little initiative in building more combative unions, the workers immediately responded and gave you extraordinary, unprecedented support. You have no right to complain about the masses.

And what about the so-called sit-down strikes? It wasn’t the leaders who thought them up, but the workers themselves. Isn’t this an unmistakable sign that the American workers are ready to go over to more decisive methods of combat? Mayor Hague is a direct product of sit-down strikes.

Unfortunately, no one in the top layer of the trade unions has yet dared to deduce from the sharpening of the social struggle such daring conclusions as capitalist reaction has. This is the key to the situation.

The leaders of capital think and act immeasurably more firmly, consistently, daringly, than do the leaders of the proletariat—these skeptics, routinists, bureaucrats, who are smothering the fighting spirit of the masses. It is from this that the danger grows of a victory for fascism, even in a very short time.

The workers don’t come to your meetings because they instinctively feel the insufficiency, the lack of substance, the lifelessness, the outright falsity of your program. The trade union leaders give out platitudes at the very moment when every worker senses catastrophe overhead. One must find the language that corresponds to the real conditions of decaying capitalism and not to bureaucratic illusions.

CIO Official: I have already said that I see no leaders. There are separate groups, sects, but I see no one who could unite the worker masses, even if I agree with you that the masses are ready for struggle.

Trotsky: The problem is not leaders, but program. The correct program not only arouses and consolidates the masses, but also trains the leaders.

CIO Official: What do you consider a correct program?

Trotsky: You know that I am a Marxist; more precisely, a Bolshevik.

My program has a very short and simple name: socialist revolution. But I don’t ask that the leaders of the union movement immediately adopt the program of the Fourth International. What I do ask is that they draw conclusions from their work, from their own situation; that for themselves and for the masses they answer just these two questions: 1) How to save the CIO from bankruptcy and destruction? 2) How to save the United States from fascism?

CIO Official: What would you yourself do in the United States today if you were a trade union organizer?

Trotsky: First of all, the trade unions should stand the question of unemployment and wages on its head. The sliding scale of hours, such as you have, is correct: everyone should have work. But the sliding scale of hours should be supplemented by a sliding scale of wages. The working class cannot permit a continuous lowering of its living standards, for this would be equivalent to the destruction of human culture. The highest weekly pay rates on the eve of the 1929 crisis must be taken as a point of departure. The mighty productive forces created by the workers have not disappeared nor been destroyed; they are at hand. Those who own and control these productive forces are responsible for unemployment. The workers know how to work and want to work. The work should be divided up among all the workers. The weekly pay for each worker should be no less than the maximum attained in the past. Such is the natural, the necessary, the unpostponable demand of the trade unions. Otherwise they will be swept away like trash by historical developments.

CIO Official: Is this program realizable? It means the certain ruin of the capitalists. This very program might hasten the growth of fascism.

Trotsky: Of course this program means struggle and not prostration. The trade unions have two possibilities: either to maneuver, tack back and forth, retreat, close their eyes, and capitulate bit by bit in order not to “anger” the owners and “provoke” reaction. It was by this road that the German and Austrian Social Democrats and trade union officials tried to save themselves from fascism. The result is known to you: they cut their own throats. The other road is to understand the inexorable character of the present social crisis and to lead the masses to the offensive.

CIO Official: But you still haven’t answered the question about fascism, that is, the immediate danger that the trade unions draw down upon themselves by radical demands.

Trotsky: I have not forgotten that for a moment. The fascist danger is already at hand, even before the appearance of radical demands. It flows from the decline and disintegration of capitalism. Granted that it might be strengthened for a while by the pressure of a radical trade union program. One must openly warn the workers of this.

One must set about creating special defense organizations in a practical way right now. There is no other road! You can no more save yourself from fascism with the help of democratic laws, resolutions, and proclamations than you can from a cavalry unit with the help of diplomatic notes. One must teach the workers to defend their lives and their future, arms in hand, from the gangsters and bandits of capital. Fascism grows swiftly in an atmosphere of immunity from punishment. One cannot doubt for a moment that the fascist heroes will turn with their tails between their legs when they realize that for each of their squadrons the workers are ready to send out two, three, or four squadrons of their own. The only way not just to save the workers’ organizations but also keep casualties to the minimum is to create a powerful organization of workers’ self-defense in time. This is the trade unions’ most important responsibility, if they do not wish to parish ingloriously. The working class needs a workers militia!

CIO Official: But what is the further perspective? Where will such methods of struggle get the trade unions in the final analysis?

Trotsky: It is obvious that the sliding scale and workers’ self-defense are not sufficient. These are just the first steps, necessary in order to protect the workers from death by starvation or the fascists’ knives. These are urgent and necessary means of self-defense. But by themselves they will not resolve the problem. The basic task consists in laying the foundation for a better economic system, for a more just, rational, and decent utilization of the productive forces in the interests of all the people.

This can’t be attained by the ordinary, “normal,” routine methods of the trade unions. You cannot disagree with this, for in the conditions of capitalist decline isolated unions turn out to be incapable of halting even the further deterioration of the workers’ conditions. More decisive and deep-going methods are necessary. The bourgeoisie, who hold sway over the means of production and who have state power, have brought the economy to a state of total and hopeless disarray. It is necessary to declare the bourgeoisie incompetent and to transfer the economy into fresh and honest hands, that is, into the hands of the workers themselves.

How to do this? The first step is clear: all the trade unions should unite and form their own labor party. Not the party of Roosevelt or La Guardia, not a “labor” party in name only, but a truly independent political organization of the working class. Only such a party is capable of gathering around itself the ruined farmers, the small artisans, the shopkeepers. But for this it would have to wage an uncompromising struggle against the banks, trusts, monopolies, and their political agents, that is, the Republican and Democratic parties. The task of the labor party should consist in taking power into its own hands, all the power, and then putting the economy in order. This means organizing the entire national economy according to a single national plan whose aim is not the profit of a small bunch of exploiters but the material and spiritual interests of a population of 130 million.

CIO Official: Many of our activists are beginning to understand that the course of political development is moving toward a labor party. But Roosevelt’s popularity is still too great. If he agrees to run for president a third time, the question of a labor party will have to be postponed another four year.

Trotsky: There precisely is the tragedy resulting from the fact that Messrs. Leaders look to those above them instead of those below. The coming war, the decay of American capitalism, the growth of unemployment and poverty, all these basic processes, which directly determine the fate of dozens and hundreds of millions of people, do not depend on the candidacy or “popularity” of Roosevelt. I assure you that he is far more popular among the well-paid CIO officials than among the unemployed. Incidentally, the trade unions exist for the workers, not the officials.

The idea of the CIO inspired millions of workers for a certain period, the idea of an independent, militant labor party that aims to put an end to economic anarchy, unemployment, and misery, to save the people and its culture, the idea of such a party is capable of inspiring tens of millions. Of course the agitators of the labor party would immediately have to show the masses, by word and deed, that they are not electoral agents of Roosevelt, La Guardia, and company, but true fighters for the interests of the exploited masses.

When the speakers talk in the language of workers’ leaders and not of White House agents, then 85 percent of the members will come to meetings, while the 15 percent of conservative oldsters, worker-aristocrats, and careerists will stay away. The masses are better, more daring, more resolute than the leaders. The masses wish to struggle. Putting the brakes on the struggle are the leaders, who have lagged behind the masses. Their own indecisiveness, their own conservatism, their own bourgeois prejudices are disguised by the leaders with allusions to the backwardness of the masses. Such is the true state of affairs at present.

CIO Official: Now, what you say has a lot of truth in it. But—well—we’ll talk about that next time.



The Revolutionary Philosophy of Marxism Book

Socialist Revolution Issue 18 Cover


Socialist Revolution is the official publication of the US Section of the International Marxist Tendency.
Contact us at or 646-791-6279