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American Socialists and the Labor Party Question
From Debs to Mazzocchi

by Bill Onasch

This is an extended version of a presentation to the SA Midwest Socialist Educational Conference in Kansas City April 27, 2013

You don’t hear much about the need for a labor party from most other left groups. DSA believes the Democrats are the Labor Party, simple as that. Struggling for continuity, the political orphans once dependent on Moscow still look to the Democrats as “a broad, all peoples’ movement.” ISO, sometimes working with the Greens, talks of a vague “genuine independent left political alternative.” The syndicalist IWW, currently attracting some good young people, dismiss all political action, focusing solely on direct action of the workers. Of all the camps in the radical workers movement only some of us labeled Trotskyist have consistently raised the labor party demand.

Because of the tendency of journalists and historians to personify influential movements the terms Stalinist and Trotskyist have long been used as a convenient description of at times mortal opponents. We in Socialist Action identify with the Cannon tradition in American Trotskyism.

We’re meeting in the home town of James P Cannon, who was active in both the IWW of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Big Bill Haywood as well as the Debs Socialist Party before being drawn to the inspiration of the Russian Revolution. He was the first National Chairman of the Communist Party as it emerged from the underground functioning imposed by early persecution. He came to side with Trotsky in the fight against the Stalinization of the Communist International after Lenin’s death.

After his expulsion from the CP he helped launch the current that eventually became the Socialist Workers Party as well as our world party, the Fourth International. For more than a half century, the Socialist Workers Party was an effective defender of Trotskyism—and was the most active advocate of a labor party in the post-World War II period.

But the SWP went through a series of bizarre Turns in the 1980s. They downgraded their appreciation of Trotsky and Cannon and, while flirting at times with regimes in North Korea and Burkina Faso, they split from the Fourth International. Along the way they bureaucratically purged dozens, including veteran leaders and most of the party’s experienced trade unionists—some present here today. Socialist Action was launched thirty years ago by many of those expelled.

Today the SWP is a mini-cult around Jack Barnes. They still pay lip service to the labor party demand. When hundreds of unionists came together in 1996 to launch a Labor Party the SWP was there—on the sidewalk out front with a Pathfinder literature table.

SA is today unique on the left in not only issuing a clarion call for a labor party—which doesn’t cost very much—but also working in a nonsectarian way to actually try to build one. That’s because we are convinced that this gigantic maneuver is essential to navigating the obstacle strewn road to the Third American Revolution.

In the time allotted I can only briefly touch on the rich history of how this position was developed and implemented in the course of class struggle. There is much more I would have liked to add and expand.

Along with a reading list you received, I hope this session will encourage you to pursue this topic more extensively on your own, or—better yet—through classes in your branch.

Historically, the labor party question has been a major issue primarily in the English-speaking countries.

In most of Europe, unions were initially formed by worker parties, or anarcho-syndicalists, or even churches.

But Britain was a different kettle of fish for breakfast. This was the cradle of the industrial revolution, where the modern working class was first assembled by the capitalists. There the unions came first, prior to Marx’s earliest published writings, decades before any worker parties were established.

The British ruling class extended the right to vote to the growing working class only very slowly, gradually and only in response to mass pressure. Male workers didn’t win complete voting rights until 1890—twenty years later than in the Kaiser’s Germany. Women didn’t get voter equality until 1928. While workers were still largely disenfranchised they mainly tried to influence the bourgeois Liberal Party.

As the British trade unionists painfully learned from experience that the Liberals were not their true friends they responded to initiatives by socialists, finally founding a party of their own in 1906. The British Labor Party was—at least until 1995—firmly based on and controlled by unions but with provisions for other groups and individuals to join as well.

While never declaring themselves Marxist, the Labor Party soon had a definite socialist perspective. No doubt influenced by the Russian revolution, in 1918 they adopted the famous Clause IV of the party constitution that called for “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange,” and “the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.” That language stood until Tony Blair’s “New Labor” makeover in the mid-Nineties.

The British labor party model was carried over to Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. It took a little longer to consolidate in Canada, the NDP was only founded in 1961 as an amalgam of various provincial bodies. Today the NDP is the Official Opposition in the Canadian parliament. Our Canadian comrades work inside the NDP, part of the Socialist Caucus that caused a little ruckus at the recent NDP convention, as well as building Socialist Action.

They weren’t Bolsheviks but these class-based parties were a quantum leap over accepting the political monopoly of our exploiters.

However, the biggest English-speaking country has yet to follow all the rest. Lack of class consciousness has historically been the main obstacle to the success of the socialist movement in the USA—today even more than ever. This even undermines the effectiveness of collective bargaining as the union bureaucracy increasingly seeks to become “partners” with the boss. Tackling that all important question of class is what has motivated the generations long discussion among socialists about the need for a labor party in this country.

The high point in socialist influence in the USA was around the Socialist Party of America during its first sixteen years after its founding in 1901. With Eugene V Debs as their most prominent spokesperson, especially through five presidential campaigns, party membership once reached a peak of 118,000 dues-payers and even enjoyed some modest electoral success.

These glory days for the SP foundered on two big crises. First was around America’s belated entry in to the War to End All Wars. As a result of its opposition to the war the party suffered greatly from both defections—20,000 dropped out right away—and, along with the IWW, even more by persecution by the government and violent vigilantes. Debs himself spent two years in the Atlanta Penitentiary for an antiwar speech.

The other big turmoil was how to react to the Russian Revolution. Debs was not shy about his feelings. He publicly declared “From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet—I am a Bolshevik!” The majority of the SP ranks were similarly sympathetic and supported SP affiliation with the new Communist International.

But most of the party officials were hostile to the Soviet Union and Third International. If you saw Warren Beatty’s film Reds, you know they bureaucratically expelled the majority of the SP membership—who responded by organizing not just one but initially two Communist Parties. This took place during a second wave of government suppression that hit immigrant workers particularly hard during the infamous Palmer Raids. In 1920, the New York legislature refused to seat five elected Socialists—and got away with it.

The immediate post–World War I period was a mixed bag of not only repression and broken strikes but also a new upsurge in labor and farmer-labor party activity on local and state levels. Most of these proved to be short-lived—except in Minnesota. There the Farmer-Labor Party dominated state and local politics until the Stalinists and Hubert Humphrey arranged a war-time shot-gun marriage to the Democrats in 1944. Farrell Dobbs devotes a lot of attention to Trotskyist interaction with the FLP in his four volumes about the Minneapolis Teamsters and we have a comrade present here today who is quite knowledgeable about the history of that unique formation.

In the early Twenties there were several conferences testing the waters for some kind of national labor/farmer-labor effort in time for the 1924 elections. They were initiated by significant forces in the union movement—a coalition of rail craft unions, the Chicago Federation of Labor, and a local labor movement in Seattle known for a general strike as well as winning a respectable vote for Labor Party candidates in the state of Washington.

In his last major articles Debs returned to the topic of the need for a labor party, something that he had raised even during past better times in the SP. As always, he clearly stated what he wanted, “...a party with a backbone and the courage to stand up without apology and proclaim itself a Labor Party, clean, confident of its own inherent powers, bearing proudly the union label in token of its fundamental conquering principle of industrial and political solidarity...”

In a reference to one of these conferences, Debs made clear he wasn’t talking about a new, improved Socialist Party but something much broader and inclusive.

“If a genuine labor party is organized at Chicago I shall not expect the platform to go the limit of radical demands but shall be satisfied with a reasonable statement of labor’s rights and interests as well as its duties and responsibilities, doubting not that with the progress of the party its platform will in due time embrace every essential feature of the working class program for deliverance from industrial servitude.”

The Communist Party also had leaders who had considerable authority in the unions such as William Z Foster, Jim Cannon, and Bill Dunne. But they were not assigned to lead the party’s work in these conferences. During this period a Hungarian lad using the party name Pepper used his credentials as an emissary from the Communist International to act like a commissar. He took charge of the party’s intervention—and made a proper mess of it. Your reading list includes a detailed criticism by Cannon and Foster of the Pepper adventure.

In the end, with union support declining, the conferences got hijacked by a bourgeois candidate for President—Fighting Bob La Follette, senior patriarch of a Wisconsin Republican dynasty, who ran as a Progressive. The SP supported Fighting Bob, the CP, under orders from Moscow, ran their own last- minute token campaign for Foster and Gitlow.

During the radicalization that ultimately arose out of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Trotsky initially thought that it might be possible to bypass the labor party stage and concentrate on directly building the revolutionary party. Delegations of comrades involved in union work met with Trotsky on several occasions after his arrival in Mexico. The transcripts of some of these were included in at least the early editions of the Pathfinder book, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution.

All radical groups grew somewhat during the Thirties—the CP, identified with the Soviet Union known to be providing full employment, most of all. But none achieved a genuine mass character. Workers still tended to first seek out unions, especially after the formation of the CIO which was seen as a broader social movement, championing the interests of all workers, and winning some impressive victories. Even in Minneapolis, where our Teamsters comrades were widely known and respected, the branch never had more than a couple of hundred or so members. Union consciousness was strong, class consciousness was developing, but revolutionary consciousness still lagged far behind among American workers.

The Cannon wing of the SWP, which included most of the active trade unionists in the party, eventually won over Trotsky on the need to revive the call for a labor party. The Shachtman wing, who soon split with Trotsky and the SWP mainly over other questions, countered with an ultraleft attack. Hal Draper, who later became an icon for many founding leaders of Solidarity, TDU and Labor Notes, was their point man.

Draper argued that in the death agony of capitalism a labor party could only be a reformist impediment. For him, it was practically the final battle, there was no “middle ground”—either you are for revolution now or you are a defender of capitalism. By inference, his polemic could just as well have been extended to the unions upon which labor parties are based.

Draper never got past the somewhat flamboyant title of the Transitional Program adopted by the Fourth International. Clearly he didn’t grasp the essence of transitional demands.

Reformists, in the parlance of revolutionary Marxists, are those who think the present social system can be made to work justly by fixing it with reforms. We totally reject that. But while not reformists we, of course, fight for reforms. As the Communist Manifesto declared, we have no interests separate and apart from those of the working class. That seminal document, written as a “specter is haunting Europe,”is chock full of demands for all manner of economic and political reforms appropriate to that time. If we can pry out of the cold tight fist of the boss as much as a nickel more for the workers that’s a good thing and we’ll do it every day, twice on Sunday.

The Transitional Program is much more than the document adopted at the 1938 founding of the Fourth International. It is above all a methodology that dialectically overcomes the false dichotomy of reform and revolution. Rooted in current reality, it guides us in formulating demands for reform in a way that advances worker consciousness and logically leads to escalated struggle. This is what separates us from the resolutionary socialist sects shouting from the sidelines as well as the reformists. It’s not the call to the final battle but to the next battle—and there is no more important question than what to do next.

The Labor Party call is a good fit for the Transitional Program.

A 1943 article by Jim Cannon under the title Campaign for a Labor Party, opens with this paragraph: “We must make an important political turn without delay. It is time to start an aggressive campaign for the formation of an independent labor party, to transform the propaganda slogan into a slogan of agitation....The labor party is the central issue around which the drive of the workers for class independence can be best expressed in the next period. By becoming the active champion of the labor party the Socialist Workers Party will link itself to an instinctive class movement which is almost certain to have a tumultuous growth, and thus multiply its influence and recruiting power.”

Cannon’s general expectations proved to be well founded. A mighty upsurge of class struggle erupted as World War II came to an end. There was a successful Bring Us Home movement, bordering on mutiny, among GIs being kept in the Pacific area after Japan’s surrender for possible intervention in the Chinese Revolution.

The expiration of the war-time no-strike pledge led to the greatest strike wave this country has ever seen. More than three million workers hit the proverbial bricks during 1946.

The SWP’s agitational Labor Party campaign found a receptive audience and proved to be an effective recruiting issue. Dozens of local unions adopted resolutions calling for immediate formation of a Labor Party. Ad hoc Labor Party groups came together in places such as Flint and Toledo and even elected some candidates for municipal office.

And as a result of union and also civil rights struggles, the Socialist Workers Party experienced breathtaking growth tripling its prewar size in a year. By the end of 1946, SWP membership briefly peaked at its all-time high of more than three thousand members.

But this burst of radicalization was short-lived. In 1947 the Taft-Hartley Act was passed. It essentially outlawed all of labor’s most effective bargaining and organizing tactics and authorized states to ban union shop contracts through so-called “right-to-work” laws. Union officials complained but complied.

This attack was accompanied by a new Cold War inspired witch-hunt against reds—including the SWP.

The very first government employee fired for belonging to a group on a list of subversive organizations drawn up by the Truman administration was an SWP rank and filer Jimmy Kutcher. Kutcher had lost both legs in the battle of Anzio and held a low pay clerical job in the Veterans Administration. The party went all out in Jimmy’s defense, documented in the book, The Case of the Legless Veteran, and won massive support in unions and veterans groups. Eventually, the government caved in and restored Kutcher to his VA job with full back pay.

But most victims of the witch-hunt, that grew even nastier when Senator Joe McCarthy came on the scene, were not so lucky. Many leftists and union militants were fired and blacklisted, others deported, some even going to jail. Radicals of all shades had to keep their head down in the labor movement well in to the 1950s.

The bureaucracy that consolidated in most U.S. unions after Reaction replaced postwar upsurge abandoned the social vision of the rise of the CIO. These new pie-cards instead concentrated on delivering bread and butter for their dues paying members, joining the bosses in christening a new Middle Class. Dismissing class-based politics, they reverted to Sam Gompers’ approach— “reward your friends, punish your enemies” in the twin boss parties.

They initially won not only impressive wage gains but also attractive so-called fringe benefits such as health insurance, pensions, vacation time for those lucky enough to hold a union card—never more than a third of the working class, today only eleven percent, less than seven in the private sector.

We could devote an entire conference to the fundamental flaws of this strategy. The benefits they obtained were employer-specific and non-transportable in an economy where workers today usually go through several job changes over their work life.

These benefits are not freebies. Their cost is included in the total labor compensation package negotiated with the boss—and they have grown exponentially resulting in stagnant, even falling wages.

In a desperate effort to maintain the good life for a few most unions have sold out their sons and daughters with tiered contracts denying them entrance to the Middle Class prosperity their grandparents may have enjoyed.

By contrast, the European workers not only had their unions but also reformist labor and social democratic parties that secured benefits through legislation—guaranteeing them to all workers. The unions could concentrate on their main mission—wages and working conditions—while the parties they supported took care of their health care, retirement, vacation time, even paid sick leave.

As technology began to eliminate jobs the reformists in several countries shortened the work week, lowered retirement age, and expanded vacation time to share the work. The legal standard work week in this country has remained unchanged for 73 years. Retirement age for us keeps going up.

Most European countries have long provided free or low cost college education or trade school apprenticeships to working class youth. As many of you know so well, most students in this country are being saddled with enormous student loan debts that now exceed car loan debts—and can’t be discharged through bankruptcy.

Now everything is not rosy in Europe today. The bosses there, like here, are pushing hard both in collective bargaining and, especially government austerity, to take back past worker gains. We’ll be discussing Greece later on our agenda. The reformists can’t be counted on to preserve even their own reforms.

The next opportunity for agitation around the labor party didn’t come until the early Nineties. A most remarkable self-described union bureaucrat, Tony Mazzocchi, convinced the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers to test labor party sentiment with a probe called Labor Party Advocates. Some of our comrades in the Labor Standard current were invited early on to become involved.

This was the period when labor friend Bill Clinton relentlessly drove through NAFTA. Unions and environmental groups were justifiably furious about this deal that dealt a body blow to the workers and environments of all three countries involved— and opened the gates to a cascade of other deals advancing what became known as Globalization.

Affiliations started pouring in to LPA from a broad spectrum of union bodies and community chapters sprouted in dozens of cities. Nearly all started clamoring for launching the Labor Party now. Mazzocchi and his leadership team had little choice but to reluctantly take the plunge in to what they feared might be a premature action.

Several of us here were present at the inspiring Founding Convention in Cleveland in June, 1996. More than 1400 were on hand—for the most part union activists with a sprinkling of left sects adept at getting to the front of the speaker’s line. If you think in either/or terms since the program adopted did not call for revolution it was a reformist party in formation. But I don’t think you can find a single sentence with which we would disagree. More than that, the flavor of transitional demands permeates much of the document. As far as it went, it was a program we could take in to the labor movement with no caveats or apologies.

The contentious question of if and when the new party would run candidates for office was deferred to an Electoral Policy Commission charged to report to the next convention. I was appointed to that commission and when the body’s only face-to-face meeting was scheduled in New York City I made arrangements to rack at the home of my mentor Frank Lovell. Frank was a long-time leader of the SWP until his bureaucratic expulsion, then founded what was to become Labor Standard. He had always been an educator about the labor party question. I was glad to get his advice. It turned out that was the last time I would see Frank—he died not long after.

First, we agreed it was important to take on the illusion of elections being the center, if not sole arena of political activity. Even many radicalizing workers and intellectuals fall for that Establishment trap. There’s a long list of failed or failing third-party attempts by good people just in my personal political life-span—the Citizens Party, Peace & Freedom Party, a couple of Green Parties, the New Party, and others that sucked activists out of issue movements in to campaigns that were usually silent about class, spoke mainly in platitudes—and still won very few elections.

We know that at best elections can only reflect and codify gains already won in other battles. We wanted a Labor Party dedicated to support of worker struggles in the workplace and communities 365 days a year—not just during election cycles.

Frank and I were also of one mind that Labor Party electoral policy needed to be far different than what we had practiced in the SWP. There’s nothing wrong with a small socialist group running a strictly propaganda campaign. We don’t care if our vote percentage is tallied to the right of the decimal point. We seek to find a wider audience than normally available for our general socialist ideas and perhaps recruit a few individuals to the party. It was through a presidential campaign that I first came in to contact with the SWP.

But if you are out to build a new party that claims to speak for labor and the working class in general, if you hope to shape a party that can seriously contend for political power, you need a much different approach. You don’t want to start seen as contending with the Grass Roots Party, Constitution Party, Second Amendment Party, and other off-beat also-rans rather than the Democrats and Republicans. You don’t necessarily have to be assured of victory before running a candidate but you do need to be seen as a credible alternative.

These viewpoints, after some lively discussion, prevailed in the Commission. The final document clearly stated, “Our overall strategy is for the majority of American people — working class people — to take political power. Within this framework of class independence, with the ultimate goal of achieving power, we accept the electoral tactic of running candidates.” It quickly added, “Unlike other political parties, public officials elected by the Labor Party will be accountable to the party membership and required to follow the positions outlined in the party platform. Although we accept electoral politics as an important tactic, we do not see it as the only tool needed to achieve working class power.”

It proceeded to specify sensible preconditions for election campaigns: support from a substantial section of the union movement; sufficient volunteers and money for an effective campaign lined up in advance, and a local platform complying with the basic Labor Party national program. No Labor Party body could endorse any election campaign except those being run by the Labor Party. At the party’s second convention in Pittsburgh in 1998, also attended by about 1400, the Commission report was passed overwhelmingly.

All in all, those of us in the Labor Standard current left Pittsburgh on a note of enthusiasm fully expecting the best days were yet to come. For a while longer our optimism seemed justified. But within a couple of years a series of setbacks beyond the party’s control began to steadily reverse our fortunes.

Key founding unions merged into bigger ones hostile to the Labor Party. Others resisting merger experienced financial crisis and had to cut off their staff and cash assistance. Many local affiliates went out of business due to plant closings. And, after irrationally blaming Nader for Bush’s theft of the 2000 election, nearly all union officials became alarmed about “spoilers” intruding in to the natural order of two-party politics. They doubled down their bets on the Democrats.

As material contributions from unions steadily dried up the party had to shut down its excellent newspaper, close its national office in Washington, and eventually had no money to pay the two full- time national officers. Even under those harsh conditions, one last heroic effort was made that briefly offered some hope of a party revival. The unlikely venue of this project was South Carolina.

The then president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, Donna Dewitt, had long been an LP stalwart. So were Ken and Leonard Riley, brothers who lead the largely Black Longshore local in Charleston. Their plan was to get official ballot status for a South Carolina Labor Party and run one of the Riley brothers in an election they could win. It was hard work collecting the thousands of signatures of registered voters but they pulled it off and held a founding convention that had impressive color and gender balance, as well as representing most of the few major unions in the state.

But they soon got hit by Obamamania. Key players they counted on drank the kool-aid served by Oprah. It turned out to be a new lease on life for South Carolina Democrats—not the Labor Party.

The party essentially went dormant after that. Last December, the national officers published an article entitled Labor Party Time?—Not Yet and opened a discussion blog on the party website. I commented with an article published on the KC Labor site. Both are included in the reading list, along with a good Labor Notes article by Jenny Brown.

It is time to wrap up the 1996 Labor Party project. Nothing good comes from pretending you are something you’re not. Our comrades and friends involved in the Labor Party thought it might be possible to continue by reverting to the precursor format of Labor Party Advocates and we have been probing for possible support. While it’s still early days, we frankly have encountered so far only some mild interest. Whether or not LPA is relaunched, the Labor Party again has to be downsized to general propaganda.

But I don’t think we will again be condemned, like the Biblical Hebrews, to wander forty years in the desert. Public faith in the two parties is at an historic low. The intensifying austerity attacks seem likely to ultimately undermine the union bureaucracy’s subservience to the Democrats—and/or the very bureaucracy itself. I hope in my life time, and am confident that within yours, the Labor Party will again become an issue of agitation and action on the road to socialist liberation.

I thank you for your polite, patient attention to my lengthy remarks and now look forward to hearing from you.

A List of Some Suggested Readings Freely Available on the Internet

Labor Party Time? Maybe Not Yet—But Don’t Hit the Snooze Button by Bill Onasch
Labor Party Time? Not Yet. by Mark Dudzic and Katherine Isaac
The Corporations Have Two Parties, Now What? by Jenny Brown, Labor Notes Labor Party Program
Labor Party Electoral Policy
Campaign for a Labor Party! by James P Cannon
Speech to the Conference for Progressive Political Action, Feb. 21, 1925, by Eugene V. Debs Cannon/Foster Criticism of Pepper Labor Party Policy
1888 Letter by Engels about a labor party in America