The Fight for a Labor Party: Trotsky’s Revolutionary Perspectives

(February 2009)


The oppressed and exploited have risen up time and time again in U.S. history. But each of these mass movements — such as the militant labor movement of the 1930s and ’40s, the Black liberation struggle, or the movement against the war in Vietnam — was severely stunted, and eventually derailed, by the fact that they remained subordinated to the twin parties of the bosses. A political alternative, a party truly representing the working class majority, was missing.

We are facing the same situation today. Obama and the Democrats have been swept into power promising “change,” but far from being socialist — as the increasingly unhinged and isolated right-wing claims — the Obama administration has been the most consistent defender of the bankers and the war profiteers. Obama explained to a roomful of bankers at the White House that he is “the only thing [standing] between you and the pitchforks” of a fed-up populace, according to Washington D.C.-based publication Politico. Particularly in today’s situation of economic free-fall, layoffs, and cutbacks, the continued subordination of the trade unions and social justice organizations to the Democrats is political suicide.

To move forward workers’ struggles today and tomorrow, there is an urgent need for a break with the Democrats. A new party is needed to express and fight for the needs of all working people and the oppressed, to break their subordination to the twin-parties of the bosses, and to pose the perspective of a government of and for working people.

Leon Trotsky’s Perspectives

This is not a new discussion. In 1938, Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky held various discussions with leaders of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) concerning the need for American revolutionaries to fight for a Labor Party, a mass independent workers´ party based on the trade unions. [Trotsky also discussed with the SWP the pressing need to fight for an independent Black organization. For a discussion of the dialectical relationship between the development of a Labor Party and Black self-organization — which is needed for Black people to fight for their specific interests as an oppressed nationality and unite in struggle with white workers and a Labor Party as partners, not subordinates — see our article “Marxism and Black Self-Determination.”]

For Trotsky, the fight for a Labor Party was the concrete expression of how to implement The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, the founding program of the Fourth International, in the United States. This monumental text was — and remains — an insightful guide to action to help bridge the gap between the ripe socio-economic conditions for socialist revolution and the absence of the mass revolutionary parties needed to enable the oppressed to overcome all the obstacles in their path toward the conquest of power.

In this article we will analyze Trotsky´s arguments and their relevance for today. Of course, there is no need to blindly accept Trotsky´s analysis. For Socialist Organizer and the Fourth International, there are no “infallible leaders” or “sacred texts.” Marxism is not a dogma.

So why discuss Trotsky´s perspectives on the Labor Party question?

First of all, in a situation marked by bipartisan complicity in the corporate bailouts, the propping up of the banks and institutions responsible for the crisis, the slashing of public services, the attacks on immigrants, and the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for independent working class politics has become a burning necessity because the U.S. working class and its organizations remain subordinated to the parties of the bosses. Any discussion of how to change this situation should be welcome by all fighters for social justice.

Second, in light of the fact that almost every other organization in the United States that raises the banner of Marxism has abandoned the fight for a Labor Party, it is necessary to re-establish the facts concerning the perspective of Trotsky — as well as Engels and Lenin — on this crucial question. Socialist Organizer is proud to uphold the continuity of revolutionary politics in the United States — and we believe our position on the Labor Party question illustrates the profound political differences between our organization and the many groups that talk about socialism, but lack a strategic orientation to achieve this goal.

We repeat: There is no need to dogmatically accept Trotsky’s arguments or their current relevance. But, as we will demonstrate in part two of this article, the basic conditions that in 1938 created the necessity for a Labor Party continue to exist today and Trotsky´s arguments remain an indispensable guide to action for revolutionaries in this country — and beyond.


American Marxists and the Labor Party Question

As early as 1886, the famous Marxist Frederick Engels declared: “The unification of the various independent bodies into one national Labor Party, with no matter how inadequate a provisional platform, provided it be a truly working class platform — that is the next great step to be accomplished in America.” Engels went on to advise revolutionaries in the United States to advocate and work within a Labor Party.[i]

By 1919, U.S. Communists had abandoned this method, but under personal persuasion from V.I. Lenin and Trotsky, the newly formed Communist Party abandoned its initial sectarianism and adopted a position in favor of a Labor Party. Between 1922 and 1923, the Communist Party actively fought to build such a party — with very positive results. (For more on this fascinating history, see the Socialist Organizer article “Marxists and the Labor Party Movement: 1919 to 1924.”)

In the late 1920s, the Marxists (“Trotskyists”) in the United States, organized in the Communist League of America after being expelled by the Stalinist Communist Party, abandoned the fight for a Labor Party. Later in this article we will discuss the theoretical roots of this mistake.

In 1929, the stock market collapsed. By the early 1930s, a deep mobilization and radicalization of the American working class had erupted, resulting in the creation of the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) — the first true federation of mass industrial unions in U.S history.

In this new situation, Trotsky in 1938 proposed to his American co-thinkers, organized in the Socialist Workers Party, to change their position and plunge head-first into the fight for a mass independent Labor Party. An intense debate shook the SWP. Let´s take a look at Trotsky´s arguments.

Differences Between the American and European Labor Movements

Without independent organizations, workers are only material for exploitation. The working class transforms itself from a class in itself (an object of exploitation) into a class for itself (a conscious agent in the struggle for its independent class interests) only through building class organizations — principally trade unions and, on a higher level, political parties.

This process takes different forms in different countries. Trotsky´s case for advocating and fighting for a Labor Party stems from the particularities of the development the U.S. labor movement.

“The question of the labor party,” explains Trotsky, “has never been a question of principle for revolutionary Marxists. We have always taken our point of departure from the concrete political situation and the tendencies of its development.”[ii]

“The most important fact we must underline,” argues Trotsky, “is the total difference in America in comparison with a working class from Europe”:

“In Austria and in Russia especially the workers’ movement began as a political movement, as a party movement. … In such countries as Germany, Austria, and especially Russia, where trade unions were unknown, they were initiated, constructed, and guided by a political party, the Social Democracy.

Another type of development is that disclosed in the Latin countries—in France and especially in Spain. Here the party movement and the trade union movement are almost independent of one another and under different banners—even to a certain degree antagonistic to one another. …

The third type is provided by Great Britain, the United States, and more or less by the dominions. England is the classic country of trade unions. They began to build trade unions at the end of the eighteenth century, before the French revolution, and during the so-called industrial revolution. … The trade unions were the organizations of the working class–in reality the organization of the labor aristocrats, the higher strata. In England there was an aristocratic proletariat, at least in its upper strata, because the British bourgeoisie, enjoying almost monopoly control of the world market, could give a small part of the wealth to the working class and so absorb part of the national income. The trade unions were adequate to extract that from the bourgeoisie. …

In England the trade unions, after centuries of existence and struggle, were forced to build up a political party. What were the reasons for this change? It was due to the complete decline of English capitalism, which began very sharply. … What is the reason for this change? It is well known that it was due to the abolishing of England’s monopoly control of the world market. … The bourgeoisie lost its ability to give the leading strata of the proletariat a privileged position. The trade unions lost the possibility to improve the situation of the workers, and they were pushed onto the road of political action because political action is the generalization of economic action. Political action generalizes the needs of the workers and addresses them not to the parts of the bourgeoisie but to the bourgeoisie as a whole, organized in the state.”[iii]

The decline in British capitalism — which Trotsky classifies as “the beginning of the decay of the capitalist system” — forced the unions to move to political action. This was necessary to move the struggle to a more advanced stage because only this form of struggle could break the subordination of the trade unions to capitalist parties, project and unite nationally the various local economic struggles, and direct the focus of the workers to the central question of state power.

Trotsky continues:

“In the United States we can say that the characteristic features of English development are presented in even more concentrated form, in a shorter period, because the whole history of the United States is shorter. Practically, the development of the trade unions in the United States began after the Civil War, but these trade unions were very backward even compared with the trade unions of Great Britain. .. It is only during the last two or three years that the genuine trade unions developed in the United States. This new movement is the CIO.

What is the reason for the appearance of the CIO? It is the decay of American capitalism. …What does this fact signify? That it was a long time in the United States before the organization of trade unions, but now that genuine trade unions exist, they must make the same evolution as the English trade unions. That is, on the basis of declining capitalism, they are forced to turn to political action. I believe that this is the most important fact of the whole matter.”[iv]

The decline of U.S. capitalism — an expression of the terminal crisis of the world capitalist system after the constitution of the world market at the beginning of the 20th century — obliged the U.S. working class to construct mass industrial unions. In England, trade unions were formed in a period of ascending capitalism, of rising prosperity, and for decades could manage to wrest concessions from the bosses. American industrial trade unions, however, were formed in the period of the final stage of capitalism, the decay and decline of imperialism, a period in which the capitalists could no longer afford to buy off a significant privileged sector of the workers.

Unlike their British counterparts, U.S. unions were obliged virtually from birth to turn to political action:

“In the United States the situation is that the working class needs a party — its own party. It is the first step in its political education. … It is an objective fact in the sense that the new trade unions created by the workers came to an impasse — a blind alley — and the only way out for workers already organized in trade unions is to join their forces in order to influence legislation, to influence the class struggle.

The working class stands before an alternative. Either the trade unions will be dissolved or they will join together for political action. That is the objective situation, not created by us, and in this sense the agitation for a working class party becomes now not an abstract but a totally concrete step in progress for the workers organized in the trade unions in the first instance and for those not organized at all.”[v]

Trotsky concludes, “If the class struggle is not to be crushed, replaced by demoralization, then the movement must find a new channel, and this channel is political. That is the fundamental argument in favor of this slogan.”[vi]

So what kind of workers´ party could immediately, in 1938, express the political will of the working class and its trade unions?

The Revolutionary Party and the Labor Party

Many SWP members asked Trotsky, “Why should revolutionaries waste time building a Labor Party? Why not concentrate on directly building the revolutionary party?”

Trotsky´s response was simple. The ideal situation would have been for the SWP, the U.S. section of the Fourth International, to be influential enough to directly become the mass party of the American working class — as the Bolshevik Party had become in Russia in 1912-14 and definitively in 1917. But, unfortunately, the SWP was still too small to immediately play this role.

“Of course,” Trotsky writes, “if we had any real choice between a reformist party or a revolutionary party, we would say this is your address (meaning the revolutionary party). But a party is absolutely necessary. It is the only road for us in this situation.”[vii]

In an article written for the SWP, he explains:

“The Socialist Workers Party, section of the Fourth International, clearly realizes the fact that by virtue of unfavorable historical reasons its own development lagged behind the radicalization of wide layers of the American proletariat; and precisely because of this, the problem of creating a labor party is placed upon the order of the day through the whole course of development.

In Minneapolis we cannot say to the trade unions, ´You should adhere to the Socialist Workers Party.´ It would be a joke even in Minneapolis. [The SWP was most influential in Minneapolis, in large part due to its heroic leadership in the historic 1934 Teamster strikes — Editors Note]. Why? Because the decline of capitalism develops ten, a hundred times faster than does our party. It is a new discrepancy. The necessity of a political party for the workers is given by the objective conditions, but our party is too small, with too little authority to organize the workers into its own ranks. That is why we must say to the workers, the masses, you must have a party. But we cannot say immediately to these masses, you must join our party.

In a mass meeting five hundred would agree on the need for a labor party, only five agree to join our party, which shows that the slogan of a labor party is an agitational slogan. The second slogan is for the more advanced. … We can’t say to the workers: Wait till we become more authoritative, more powerful. We must intervene in the movement as it is.”[viii]

“The comrades are absolutely right,” writes Trotsky, “when they say we should tell the workers the truth. But that doesn’t signify that every moment, every place, we state the whole truth, starting with Euclid’s geometry and ending with socialist society. We do not have the right to lie to them, but we must present to them the truth in such form, at such a time, in such a place, that they can accept it.”[ix]

The crisis of U.S. capitalism created an urgent need for an independent working class political expression, but the relatively small SWP — a party of around 1,000 members at the time — could not immediately become this instrument. Therefore, a transitional form of organization — which act as “bridge” towards the construction of the revolutionary party — was a burning necessity.

Only a few years earlier, in 1932, Trotsky and the American Marxists had rejected the need for this transition, a Labor Party, because they had not foreseen the upcoming crisis in U.S. capitalism:

“Why did we declare during the past period that we were not willing to fight for this slogan of the labor party? The explanation is very simple. … Some of us, and myself among them, imagined that the ability of American capitalism to resist against the destructive inner contradictions would be greater and that for a certain period American capitalism might use the decline of European capital to cover a period of prosperity before its own decline. How long a period? Ten to thirty years one could say?

Anyway I personally didn’t see that this sharp crisis, or series of crises, would begin in the next period and become deeper and deeper. … My opinion was that we couldn’t foresee when the American trade unions would come into a period where they would be forced into political action. If this critical period started in ten to fifteen years, then we, the revolutionary organization, could become a great power directly influencing the trade unions and becoming the leading force. … Now we must reckon not by our prognosis of yesterday but by the situation of today.”[x]

The Development of a Labor Party in the U.S.

But hadn´t all the mass workers parties in Europe degenerated into class-collaborationist obstacles? Wouldn´t the same occur with a Labor Party in the United States?

Max Shachtman, a leading SWP member, bluntly told Trotsky, “The labor party can become a trap. And I still can’t understand how the labor party can be different from a reformist, purely parliamentary party.”

“You put the question too abstractly,” Trotsky responded. “Naturally it can crystallize into a reformist party, and one that will exclude us. But we must be part of the movement.”

Nevertheless, “It would be absurd for us to say that because the new party issues from the political amalgamation of the trade unions it will of necessity be opportunistic. We will not invite the workers to make this same step in the same way as abroad.”[xi]

For Trotsky, a key factor able to push for a positive development of the Labor Party movement would be the direct intervention of revolutionary Marxists.

Moreover, the specifics of the American situation made it unlikely that a Labor Party would follow a similar course to its European predecessors. In Europe, the vast majority of mass workers´ parties were founded in the 1880s, 1890s and early 1900s — that is, in the epoch of progressive, ascending capitalism. In this period, the capitalist system was prosperous enough to grant reforms, accept the existence of independent workers parties, and buy off a privileged sector of the working class, the “labor aristocracy.” In this period of growing prosperity, the mass workers´ parties degenerated.

By 1938, the situation in the United States and the world was qualitatively different. Capitalism had entered its final stage, a period of imperialist decline and decay. The capitalists could no longer buy off a significant “labor aristocracy,” nor could they even accept the existence of independent workers´ organizations. In order to destroy these organizations, fascism and corporatism rose throughout the world.

The creation of a Labor Party in the period of capitalist decay, would necessarily have a more feverish, explosive, and radical character. “If the official leaders of the trade unions,” Trotsky explains, “in spite of the imperious voice of the situation and the growing pressure of the masses, hold back on the question of a labor party, it is precisely because the deep social crisis of bourgeois society now imparts to the question of the labor party a considerably greater sharpness than in all preceding periods.”[xii]

This is why “the trade union bureaucracy … resists the creation of a labor party, or attempts to convert it into an auxiliary weapon of one of the bourgeois parties.”[xiii]

In other words, the fight for a true mass Labor Party would come up against the resistance of the reactionary labor bureaucracy, joined at the hip to the Democratic Party. The fight for independent workers´ politics would be a crucial wedge to win the ranks away from their misleaders.

To oppose the fight for a Labor Party because of the theoretical possibility that it could become an obstacle, would be like opposing a strike because the union leaders could eventually betray it.

Trotsky argues, “To say that we will fight against opportunism — as of course we will fight today and tomorrow, especially if the working class party had been organized — by blocking a progressive step which can produce opportunism, is a very reactionary policy, and sectarianism is often reactionary because it opposes the necessary action of the working class.”[xiv]

“Any revolutionary organization,” adds Trotsky, “occupying a negative or neutrally expectant position in relation to this progressive movement will doom itself to isolation and sectarian degeneration.”[xv]

The “Apathy” of the Masses

In a discussion on May 31, 1938, a member of the SWP asked Trotsky the following question: “Some comrades maintain that it is incorrect to advocate the formation of a labor party, holding that there is no evidence to indicate any widespread sentiment for such a party; that if there were such a party in process of formation, or even widespread sentiment, then we would meet it with a program that would give to this movement a revolutionary content — but that in view of the lack of such objective factors this part of the thesis is opportunistic. Could you clarify this point further?”

Trotsky responded:

“I do not find it decisive as to what degree the leaders of the trade unions or the rank and file are ready or inclined to build a political party. …The problem is not the mood of the masses but the objective situation, and our job is to confront the backward material of the masses with the tasks which are determined by objective facts and not by psychology. …

What does this signify? That we are sure the working class, the trade unions, will adhere to the slogan of the labor party? No, we are not sure that the workers will adhere to the slogan of the labor party. When we begin the fight we cannot be sure of being victorious. We can only say that our slogan corresponds to the objective situation — the best elements will understand, and the most backward elements who don’t understand will be compromised. … We can measure the mood by action only if the slogan is put on the agenda.”

The SWP member remained unconvinced. He insisted, “The workers seem absolutely apathetic about a labor party,” to which Trotsky replied, “But this is characteristic of a certain period when there is no program, when they don’t see the new road. It is absolutely necessary to overcome this apathy. It is absolutely necessary to give a new slogan. … Objective necessity will find its subjective expression in the heads of the workers, especially if we help them.”[xvi]

Similarly, the Marxists should continue to fight for a Labor Party even if the current economic crisis should abate for a period. Trotsky continued:

“To be sure, the C.I.O., in a new period of prosperity, would have a new possibility of developing. In this sense, we may suppose that the improvement in the state of the economy would defer the question of the Labor Party until later. Not that it would lose its propaganda importance, but it would lose its immediate relevance. Therefore we can prepare the progressive elements for this idea and be ready at the approach of the crisis which will not be long in coming. …

We have the greatest interest in gaining more time, because we are weak and the workers in the United States are not ready. But even a fresh revival would allow us only very, very little time — the disproportion between the mentality and the methods of the American workers in the social crisis, this disproportion is terrifying. None the less, I have the impression that we must give some concrete examples of success and not restrict ourselves to good theoretical advice.”[xvii]

In other words, even in times of relative stability, revolutionary Marxists should not limit themselves to propagandizing for a Labor Party, but should try to organize “concrete examples of success” of independent workers´ politics.

In response to the SWP members who argued that the revolutionaries should wait for the spontaneous emergence of a Labor Party movement before acting in favor of one, Trotsky replied: “If, as you say, we wait and see and then propagate, then we’ll be not the vanguard, but the rearguard.”[xviii]

Revolutionary Methods Inside a Labor Party

How then should revolutionaries work within a Labor Party movement? What should be their methods, slogans, and goals?

For Trotsky, the fight for a Labor Party was, above all, a means to solve the crisis of revolutionary leadership — that is, to build a revolutionary Marxist party capable of leading the working masses and all the oppressed to power.

“For the Socialist Workers Party,” he writes, “the labor party should on the one hand become the arena for recruiting revolutionary elements, on the other a transmissive mechanism for influencing ever wider circles of workers.”

So while participating in the labor party movement, the SWP must “[preserve] its own full organizational and political independence.”[xix]

In relation to organizational independence, he writes, “If the [Labor] Party is loose enough to accept us, it would be stupidity not to enter. … We, the Socialist Workers Party, enter as a section. This would be an extremely favorable situation.” Trotsky insists, “The dissolution of our organization is absolutely excluded. We make absolutely clear that we have our organization, our press, etc., etc.”[xx]

Moreover, revolutionaries should participate in any labor party, no matter how right-wing it is: “The most fighting elements in the trade unions should be our youth, who should not oppose our movement to the labor party but go inside the labor party, even a very opportunist labor party. They must be inside. That is their duty.”[xxi]

In relation to political independence, Trotsky explains, “Defending the labor party from the attacks of the bourgeoisie, the Socialist Workers Party does not and will not, however, take upon itself any responsibility for this party.”[xxii]

Concerning the specific slogans for the Marxists to raise inside the labor party movement, Trotsky explains that these will depend on the specific stage of development of the Labor Party. Nevertheless, the general method remains the same:

“When and how the labor party will be formed, and through what stages and splits it will pass, the future will disclose. In relation to the labor party in all stages of its development, the Socialist Workers Party occupies a critical position — it supports the progressive tendencies against the reactionary, and at the same time irreconcilably criticizes the halfway character of these progressive tendencies.”[xxiii]

Before the existence of a real Labor Party, the main demand of the revolutionaries is simple: “In the first step,” Trotsky argues, “we say: ´Workers, you need your own party.´”[xxiv]

But revolutionaries should not limit itself to theoretical advice and propaganda:

“An article is nothing if the party does not begin serious work in the unions with the slogan that the workers must take the state into their hands and that, for that purpose, they need their own independent Labor Party. … The danger is that the question of the Labor Party becomes a purely abstract one.”[xxv]

The 1930s saw the emergence of various ambiguous regroupments — such as the Labor Non-Partisan League (LNPL) formed by the C.I.O — which were expressions of the masses strivings for independent politics and which advocated a Labor Party, but whose leaders remained wedded to the Democratic Party. Trotsky noted that their leaders “exploit this tendency (toward independent politics) for their own authority and on the other hand they try to break it and not permit it to go ahead of its leaders.”[xxvi]

In order to win over the ranks of the LNPL and promote an effective movement towards the Labor Party, it was necessary, argued Trotsky, to utilize the contradiction between the stated aims of the organization and the intentions of their leaders.

In response to Cannon´s question, “Would we propose now that the unions join the LNPL?”, Trotsky states ,“Yes, I believe so. …We can say to the leaders of the LNPL: ´You’re making of this movement a purely opportunistic appendage to the Democrats.´ It’s a question of a pedagogical approach.”[xxvii]

For Trotsky, Marxists should fight for the Labor Party to run its own candidates, in order to concretize the party´s class independence: “We must show to the workers what this party should be: an independent party, not for Roosevelt or La Follette; a machine for the workers themselves. That is why it must have its own candidates in the elections. Then we must introduce our transitional slogans, not all at once, but as occasion arises, first one and then the other.”[xxviii]

Marxists should reject ultimatism and sectarianism and should help the Labor Party progress by raising relevant transitional slogans: “At every meeting I would say: … You are now trying to create a big workers’ party. I will help you, but I propose that you consider a program for this party. I make such and such propositions. … We must say to the Stalinists, Lovestoneites, etc.: ‘We are in favor of a revolutionary party. You are doing everything to make it reformist.’ But we always point to our program. And we propose our program of transitional demands.”[xxix]

Trotsky explains that revolutionaries should always look for ways to direct the masses to the central question of state power. The most advanced, “crowning” transitional demand would be for the formation of workers´ government of the Labor Party.

“We must have a program of transitional demands,” explains Trotsky, “the most complete of them being a workers’ and farmers’ government. We are for a party, for an independent party of the toiling masses who will take power in the state… That’s the genuine sense of the movement.”[xxx]

“The task of the labor party,” he specifies, “should consist in taking power into its own hands, all the power, and then putting the economy in order. This means: to organize the entire national economy according to a single rational 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.”[xxxi]

In this movement, by expressing the needs and desires of working people and demonstrating in practice that it was the most consistent fighter for the interests of the oppressed, the revolutionary party could place itself in a position to win over the majority of the working class and, possibly, the Labor Party itself.

“If in the labor party,” hypothesizes Trotsky, “we become the predominant tendency, a revolutionary tendency with the leaders our leaders, the ideas our ideas, etc., then we become the advocates of centralizing this loose party. We demand that the workers eliminate the fakers, etc. It is … the last stage of evolution, the stage in which our party dissolves in this labor party in such a manner that it determines the character of the labor party.”[xxxii]


The Relevancy of Trotsky’s Perspectives

Trotsky´s main arguments in 1938 for why Marxists should fight for a Labor Party can be summarized as follows:

1) In conditions of the decline of capitalism, the trade unions must turn to political action — or be crushed.

2) The revolutionary party is too small to immediately become the mass political expression of the U.S. working class. Therefore, a transitional form of organization, a Labor Party, is needed.

3) A Labor Party in the United States would not necessarily become a class-collaborationist obstacle because (a) it would be born in the epoch of the decay of capitalism, unlike its European counter-parts, and because (b) the intervention of revolutionary Marxists could shape its development positively.

4) In conditions of the decline of capitalism, Marxists should fight for a Labor Party even if a mass movement for one doesn´t yet exist.

5) Inside a Labor Party movement, Marxists should support the progressive developments, criticize the reactionary ones, and, based on the existing consciousness of working people, propose the adoption of transitional slogans, with the goal of building the revolutionary party and leading the workers to the conquest of state power.

Let´s now discuss the relevancy of each of these five points to the United States at the beginning of the 21st Century.

The Trade Unions Must Turn to Political Action or be Crushed

Trotsky´s perspective on the labor party question was based on an understanding that capitalism had entered its final stage, its “death agony.” So the first question we must ask ourselves is whether we still live in the period of the decline and decay of the world capitalist system. As always, we must base our analysis on the facts.

In the United States, living conditions for the majority have declined since 1973. A massive wave of de-industrialization in the United STates and in the world began in the 1980s and continues today. The economy is based more on more on financial speculation and what real production does take place goes increasingly to the arms economy. The speculative “house of cards” finally collapsed in the financial meltdown of the economy in 2008 — and there are no indications that the economy will recover in the foreseeable future.

These are expressions of the fact that, ever since the saturation of the world market at the beginning of the 20th century, the capitalist system based on the private ownership of the means of production can no longer develop the productive forces. The massively destructive World Wars were expressions of this fact. Indeed, the 30-year post-WWII economic boom — the “exception that proves the rule” — would never have been possible had it not been for the virtually complete destruction of Europe from 1939 to 1945.

Today, this irrational system can only survive by massively destroying these productive forces through war, bailouts, privatization, and deregulation. In short, capitalism has not found a way to overcome its contradictions, it has not found “a fountain of youth.”

The United States is not immune to the terminal crisis of capitalism. Imperialism, in its desperate search for profits is obliged first of all to attack the workers and oppressed of “its own country” in order to lower labor costs. This can be clearly seen through the deepening offensive against the trade unions and democratic rights underway today.

Especially now with the financial meltdown, the capitalists no longer have the economic cushion to give crumbs to the workers. The very existence of trade unions is an obstacle to their profit needs. In this context, the policy of “labor-capital partnerships” — which had a certain economic base in the post WWII boom — promoted currently by the leadership of the trade-union movement is putting into question the very existence of organized labor. Can anybody deny this?

Politics is the concentration and expression of economic struggle. The opportunist labor leaders´ suicidal support for the Democratic Party is an expression of their class-collaborationist policies in the workplace. Millions of dollars are given by the labor movement to the Democratic Party every election — to elect politicians who support the militarization of the border, “free trade” agreements, and the occupation of Iraq!

Isn´t it clear that labor´s decline will continue as long as it remains chained to the Democratic Party and its policies?

In order to survive, the trade unions — those affiliated to both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win — must immediately break with the Democrats. This would be a crucial step in a united fight-back in the workplaces and on the political arena against layoffs, corporate bailouts, budget cuts, the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, ethnic cleansing in Louisiana and in cities throughout the country, the attacks on democratic rights, immigrant rights, and womens´ rights, and for single-payer health care and a living wage.

The creation of a fighting Labor Party — not just to run candidates, but to lead mass struggles in workplaces and communities across the country — would radically alter the whole national political situation. Apathy inevitably reigns among working people when no real alternatives are offered. The creation of Labor Party would be a harbinger of hope and a tremendous point of leverage for united mobilizations around the demands of all the oppressed.

A Transitional Form of Organization, a Labor Party, Is Needed

In 1938, Trotsky’s case for a transitional form of organization was demonstrably true in relation to a revolutionary organization, the SWP, which had over 1,000 members and considerable influence in the labor movement. After the implosion of the SWP in the early 1980s and the subsequent splintering of the American Trotskyist movement, it would be sheer lunacy to claim that any existing revolutionary Marxist organization could immediately, today, become the mass political expression of the American working class and its trade unions.

But the crisis of the labor movement is such that the trade unions need to break with the Democrats immediately. As Trotsky wrote in 1938, “Any revolutionary organization occupying a negative or neutrally expectant position in relation to this progressive [Labor Party] movement will doom itself to isolation and sectarian degeneration.” Far from being an obstacle to the building of the revolutionary party, the fight for a Labor Party is a necessary means towards building one.

But does this transitional form of organization necessarily have to be a Labor Party?

Unlike in 1938, many activists and organizations on the left today argue that a Green Party, a cross-class party “of the social movements” and “civil society” is needed.

It used to be a commonplace in the labor movement and the left that the working class can only harness its immense power through mobilizing in its own name, which requires building and defending class organizations. This simple idea used is under heavy fire by the media, the bourgeois politicians, as well as their relays in the trade-union apparatuses, the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and the Social Forums, which proclaim that “all members of civil society” can work together to combat the “excesses of globalization.”

History shows that cross-class “Third Party” formations — far from being steps towards building a labor party or a revolutionary party — are major obstacles toward independent working class politics. In 1924, a mass labor party movement was diverted into the populist electoral campaign of Robert Lafollette, which in turn was dissolved into the parties of the bosses. This phenomenon was later repeated in the late 1940s with the Progressive Party of Henry Wallace. More recently, this process took place with the Green Party, which attracted around it many honest activists and progressive unions (many of whom had supported the Labor Party founded in 1996), but which capitulated to the Democrats in the 2004 elections by adopting a “lesser evil” orientation.

These formations inevitably dissolve back into the capitalist parties because they lack a class analysis and a working class base. They criticize the Democratic Party for being “too far to the right” but fail to condemn it as a party of the bosses. Therefore, the moment that the Democrats make a gesture to the left, they jump run back into their arms to defeat “the greater evil” of the Republicans.

These formations are made up of “all progressive sectors of society” and therefore refuse to call on the working class to mobilize independently as a class. They fail to base themselves on the only social force capable of providing a political alternative to the capitalists: the workers — Black, white, and immigrant; men and women; young and old — and their trade unions, in alliance with all the oppressed.

The ruling class and its lackeys are going on an ideological offensive against the concept of class because the capitalists today, in their desperate search to lower labor costs, are attempting to destroy all independent organization of the workers, particularly the trade unions.

The fight for independent labor politics, for a Labor Party, cuts across the massive ideological and material offensive against the working class and the oppressed. This fight is integrally linked to the battle to preserve the existence of the trade unions and to turn them into effective instruments to defend workers’ interests and conquests.

A U.S. Labor Party Would Not Follow the Same Path as its European Counterparts

The formation of a mass Labor Party in today´s explosive situation would inevitably produce a deep crisis for the ruling class. The whole structure of capitalist rule in the U.S. currently rests on the two-party system. The capitalists can not even accept the existence of independent trade unions today — imagine their reaction to the creation of a working class party challenging them for political power!

Let us not forget: A central task of the reactionary labor bureaucracy is to do everything possible to prevent the formation of Labor Party. Such a party will be have to be formed against the will of the labor misleaders and the Democratic Party. This radicalizing dynamic will mark it from birth. That said, the deepening capitalist offensive against the very existence of the trade unions also means that wings of the reformist bureaucracy could be obliged, in order to survive, to take partial steps towards independent politics.

There is a possibility that a Labor Party could eventually degenerate and become a future obstacle for the workers — just as there is a possibility that strikes can be betrayed or that revolutions can degenerate. But it is undeniable that, at the very least, a mass Labor Party would necessarily be a tool of and expression of a deepening working class radicalization and mobilization that would profoundly shake up the whole political situation. In this process of the awakening of the sleeping giant of the American working class, a revolutionary organization with a correct orientation to the Labor Party could quickly grow in size and influence.

What will be the political development of the Labor Party? What will be the exact relationship between the Labor Party and the independent self-organization of Black, Latinos, and other oppressed peoples? Will the Labor Party eventually split? Will the revolutionaries win the leadership of the Labor Party? Obviously, it is impossible to answer these questions today.

But in any case, it is clear that Marxists must build and participate in this movement. The history of the U.S. working class shows that it is highly unlikely that a revolutionary party, a U.S. section of the Fourth International, can win over the majority of workers and their allies prior to the creation of a national Labor Party and outside and independent of its evolution.

Marxists Should Fight For a Labor Party Even Before the Existence of a Mass Movement for One

Many organizations today that raise the banner of Trotskyism say that they favor a Labor Party but that, “Conditions do not exist to begin to fight for one. The masses are apathetic. How can a mass Labor Party be formed if the unions cannot even win strikes? Let´s build a fighting labor movement, then let´s talk about giving this a political expression.”

We in Socialist Organizer do not think that a Labor Party is a panacea. We, too, mobilize to transform the unions into fighting instruments and we agree that a Labor Party must be the expression of a revitalized, fighting trade union movement. But there are various reasons why it makes sense to begin fighting for a Labor Party today.

First of all, and most fundamentally, the political independence of the workers and their organizations is an objective necessity and, sooner or later, workers will wake up to this fact. The role of Marxists must be to aid this process advance.

Second, fightbacks on the economic arena and the political arena are two sides of the same movement. Victories for independent workers´ politics on the political/electoral stage would build class consciousness and the workers´ confidence in their own strength, in this way aiding the revitalization of the trade union movement. To say, “Let´s just concentrate right now on transforming the trade unions” means, in practice, accepting the subordination of the trade unions to the Democrats.

Third, it is only possible to measure the actual consciousness of the masses if the Labor Party slogan is put on the agenda. The apparent apathy of the workers, in the words of Trotsky, “is characteristic of a certain period when there is no program, when they don’t see the new road… It is absolutely necessary to give a new slogan.” History shows that apathy can quickly disappear if a credible mass alternative is presented.

Fourth, a central feature of the U.S. labor movement is its explosive character, as the spontaneous mobilizations for immigrants´ rights in the Spring of 2006 have again demonstrated. This means that the upcoming mass radicalization of the workers and oppressed will most likely take us all by surprise. In this context, we should begin now to lay the political and organizational bases for this radicalization to be able to express itself politically.

Marxists Should Work Within a Labor Party and Push it Forward

Seeing as we are still in the initial stages of the movement for a Labor Party, our discussion of this point will focus on Trotsky´s advice on how to fight for the creation of a Labor Party.

Trotsky argued that in order to promote an effective movement towards the Labor Party and win over the ranks of contradictory formations like the Labor Non-Partisan League, it was necessary participate in these formations and play upon and utilize the contradiction between the stated aims of the organization and the intentions of their leaders. But, later, Cannon and the SWP leadership would break with this method, arguing that any involvement with this effort would only help the Stalinist misleaders in their drive to derail the fight for independent politics. This effort had to be denounced and exposed from outside, the SWP leaders contended.

This same approach is what would frame many years later many radical organizations´ approach to Labor Party Advocates (1991) and the Labor Party (1996). This was not a real movement for a Labor Party, they argued. This was a “rump Labor Party.” While the Labor Party formed by OCAW leader Tony Mazzocchi has ceased to exist for all practical purposes since its founding in 1996, the same question Trotsky brought up with the SWP leaders in 1938 still holds true: Was it better to attempt to build the Labor Party from inside this process — seeking to get the LP to launch its own candidates against the Democrats, seeking to push it step by step on an independent course — or was it better to sit back and denounce the process from the outside?

We in Socialist Organizer answered: One had to fight for the Labor Party from inside this process. While Socialist Organizer was not a large political formation and was not able to prevent the degeneration of the Labor Party, we played a very important role in this movement. Much of the work done by the Labor Party helped pave the way for the formation of U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW). And Socialist Organizer’s ability to play a central role in USLAW was aided by all the work we carried out to build the Labor Party.

Socialist Organizer and its supporters helped to pass a resolution for running candidates at the 1998 LP convention. S.O. and its supporters helped to put together an “electoral caucus” with Baldemar Velasquez and other respected labor activists; and SO members were at the origin of the LP-endorsed Robin David for MUD (public power) campaign in 2001 in San Francisco. These are just a few of the steps forward taken by the LP at our initiative. What we accomplished could have been magnified a thousand fold by a party truly rooted in the trade union movement and with cadre poised to challenge the misleaders of the Labor Party. The demise of the SWP in the late 1970s, in that sense, became an objective barrier to the development of what has been the most promising formation toward a Labor Party in the last 50 years.


The struggle for a Labor Party remains the principal means today for U.S. workers and their oppressed allies to break free of the stranglehold of the capitalist parties and move forwards on the road toward the creation of a workers’ government. Socialist Organizer, the U.S. section of the Fourth International, has set itself self the goal of helping develop and deepen this movement. Only through doing so can we begin to solve the crisis of revolutionary leadership in the United States. We invite you to be part of this historic struggle.



[i] Engels, Frederick. “Preface to the American Edition: The Condition of the Working Class in England.” January 1887. Progress Publishers.

[ii] Trotsky, Leon. “The Problem of the Labor Party.” April 1938. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution. Pathfinder Press.

[iii] Trotsky, Leon. “U.S. and European Labor Movements: A Comparison.” May 31, 1938. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution. Pathfinder Press.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Trotsky, Leon. “Three Possibilities With a Labor Party.” July 23, 1938. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution. Pathfinder Press.

[vi] Trotsky, “U.S. and European Labor Movements: A Comparison”

[vii] Trotsky, “Three Possibilities With a Labor Party”

[viii] Trotsky, Leon. “How to Fight for a Labor Party in the U.S.” March 21, 1938. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution. Pathfinder Press.

[ix] Trotsky, “Three Possibilities With a Labor Party”

[x] Trotsky, “U.S. and European Labor Movements: A Comparison”

[xi] Trotsky, “Three Possibilities With a Labor Party”

[xii] Trotsky, “The Problem of the Labor Party”

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Trotsky, “Three Possibilities With a Labor Party”

[xv] Trotsky, “The Problem of the Labor Party”

[xvi] Trotsky, “U.S. and European Labor Movements: A Comparison”

[xvii] Trotsky, Leon. “First Discussion on the Labor Party.” July 20, 1938. Oeuvres.

[xviii] Trotsky, “How to Fight for a Labor Party in the U.S.”

[xix] Trotsky, “The Problem of the Labor Party”

[xx] Trotsky, “How to Fight for a Labor Party in the U.S.”

[xxi] Trotsky, “Three Possibilities With a Labor Party”

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Trotsky, “The Problem of the Labor Party”

[xxiv] Trotsky, “Three Possibilities With a Labor Party”

[xxv] Trotsky, Leon. “Problems of the SWP”, October 5, 1938. Oeuvres.

[xxvi] Trotsky, “How to Fight for a Labor Party in the U.S.”

[xxvii] Trotsky, “U.S. and European Labor Movements: A Comparison”

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Trotsky, “How to Fight for a Labor Party in the U.S.”

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Trotsky, Leon. “Discussion with a CIO Organizer.” Oeuvres.

[xxxii] Trotsky, “Three Possibilities With a Labor Party”


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