The SWP and the Labor Party Question in the 1940s

By Suzanne Jones

The Theoretical Framework

The perspective for building a Labor Party in the United States was elaborated theoretically, from Engels in his correspondence to American marxists to the American CP and the Communist International in the early 1920’s. The realization of mass workers’ parties was raised through such experiences as the Socialist Party before World War I. Trotsky linked the prospect of the Labor Party based on the unions to the Socialist Workers Party’s concrete intervention in the class struggle during the late 1930s, especially during his discussions with American trotskyists.

Before then, that is, before the historical events which led to the massive industrial unionism of the CIO, Trotsky had set out the general framework of his thinking on the issue. He formulated the building the revolutionary party in the United States in terms of an alternative, for the first expression of independent political organization which American workers would embark upon was still uncertain at the time.

According to Trotsky: either they would choose to directly build their mass revolutionary party; or else, their movement might take the path of forming a labor party based on the trade unions. In other words, before 1938, it was not at all a foregone conclusion that the American workers would necessarily have to experience a broad labor party development prior to their acceptance of the revolutionary party as their spokesman.

Cannon explained why it was the Labor Party alternative which was eventually adopted in 1938:

“The adoption of the labor party slogan in 1938 by the SWP was predicated on the stormy development of the elemental mass movement of the workers through the CIO and the assumption that this movement, in the next stage of its development, must seek a political expression. The enormous disproportion between the rate of growth of this mass movement of millions, and that of the vanguard party, showed that we could no longer hope for our party to be the medium for the first expression of political independent action by the mass of the workers.

We concluded that this first expression would take the form of an independent labor party based on the trade unions. Hence, in order for us to link ourselves with the next stages of the political development of the American workers, we had to adapt ourselves to the trend toward a labor party; to work within it in order to influence its development in a revolutionary direction, and at the same time, build the Trotskyist party.” (“Campaign for a Labor Party”, November 1942 )

It was the Labor Party alternative which would most likely embody the new political consciousness that the American working class would acquire through its own experience. The Labor Party therefore represented the transitional line towards building the revolutionary party of the IVth International in the United States.

According to Trotsky’s initial analysis, workers’ political consciousness could only arise in relation to the concrete development of the class struggle in the United States and inversely, the objective conditions of the class struggle would inevitably bring the American masses to reason in political terms. When analyzing the 1929 stock market crash and the crisis which subsequently spread across the USA, he said that this would lead to a new era “in the life of the American proletariat and the American people as a whole”, that of the radicalization and politicization of the American workers. In 1931 Trotsky wrote in relation the U.S.:

“The grandiose economic crisis acquiring the character of a social crisis, will inevitably become transformed into the crisis of the political consciousness of the American working class.” (“Germany, the Key to the International Situation”)

As we will see below, Trotsky’s analysis would be taken up later by the SWP leadership: the radicalizing effects of the class struggle resulting from the economic crisis would transform this economic crisis into a social crisis. This social crisis would in turn fuel the political consciousness of the American working class. However, the SWP leadership will adopt the perspective like a blueprint or method, in the sense that each step – economic crisis, social crisis, political crisis – will be interpreted as being a fairly pure or mechanical stage of political development. What followed was a somewhat formal, systematic understanding of post-war events, helping to lay the bases of the objectivism that would characterize future positions taken by the SWP.

This is the general framework which allows us to understand a shift which occurred in relation to the Labor Party line. When Cannon wrote the “Theses for the American Revolution” in 1946, he forecast that the revolutionary crisis could break out at any time, and in the coming period in any case. This flawed analysis of the objective situation would have serious repercussions later on, especially in relation to the development of Pabloism and the SWP’s “national Trotskyism”.

There were also immediate repercussions, however. For in the conditions of generalized economic and social crisis laid-out by Cannon in the Theses, a rapid radicalization of the masses could be safely predicted. According to the step-by-step pattern, this radicalization would inevitably result in the masses quickly achieving their “political” consciousness.

And this is where the above-mentioned “scheme” of workers’ consciousness led to an analytical short-cut: for the SWP leadership, the masses achieving their “political” and then “revolutionary” consciousness meant favoring Trotsky’s alternative of the direct road to building the revolutionary leadership party of the masses. The party in question would be the SWP.

Favoring this perspective had obvious consequences on the Labor Party question. Because in light of imminent revolutionary events and a corresponding rapid construction of the SWP as the leadership party of the masses, the line of building the Labor Party as a strategic transition for working class organization was not concretely carried out. In other words, the Labor Party was no longer perceived as an essential weapon in the working class’s fightback against the bourgeois institutions of the United States.

As we will see, this shift in positions concerning the Labor Party was reflected in the SWP’s trade union work. During the 1940s, the central axis was to help build a new “left wing leadership” to take power in the unions, particularly the CIO. This line of intervention was a key lever to opposing the trade union bureaucracy as such. It ended up, however, subordinating the question of the Labor Party to a line of pressuring the apparatuses, who were themselves submitted to the Democratic Party.

Pressuring the trade union apparatuses was the corollary of the heavy pressure placed on the trotskyists by the “New Deal”. The SWP leadership swayed from the transitional line during the national elections of the 1940s by reneging the fight within the national labor movement for the presentation of independent working class candidates. Above all, this political pressure was expressed in the fact that waging an all-out fight against FDR, linchpin of the Popular Front, was not a central pillar of the SWP’s orientation.

One other very important issue of the 1940s concerns the great CIO strike movement which spread across basic industry during the winter of 1945-1946. Although the SWP put forward the perspective for independent political action early on, the “left wing” labor leadership line of pressuring the most militant apparatuses ended up taking over.

Even more decisive was that the “left wing” labor leadership line prevented the SWP from drawing a comprehensive political balance sheet of this generalized strike movement, and of its betrayal. For in the final analysis, what blocked the realization of the general strike in basic industry was the submission of all the trade union apparatuses, “left” and right, to the Democratic Party. Their utmost priority during the strike wave was to cut a deal with President Truman, to disperse the general strike movement in exchange for insuring the “New Deal’s” lifeline in the post-war period. And so it was that the “left wing” line would eventually become contradictory with one of independent working class politics and the Labor Party.

We are going to see how SWP party-building in relation to the Labor Party was articulated by its leadership during the key periods surrounding The War (1938, 1942, 1944), the Immediate Post-War Period and 1946, and finally, as of 1948. Finally we will place the issue back within the debates of the International.

Building the Revolutionary Party: 

I. The War

The Labor Party back on the SWP’s Agenda

During the 1930s trotskyists had fought in the trade unions for the Labor Party when the perspective was raised by Trotsky. Then taking into account the improved economic conjuncture and the illusions which workers had in Roosevelt and his social reform program – illusions which were widely disseminated by the CIO apparatus and the Stalinists – the SWP modified the Labor Party from a slogan of agitation to one of propaganda.

By 1942, Cannon placed the question of the Labor Party based on the unions back into the center of the SWP’s agitation and party-building work. He noted that the objective conditions had changed once more and that workers were increasingly discontent over their declining living standards during the war. This was the essential starting point of Cannon’s analysis: “The entire history of the American labor movement shows that the workers tend to resort to independent political action when they find themselves defeated or frustrated on the economic field.”

This trend towards independent political action was the very lesson of the 1942 legislative elections for Cannon. In the same text called “Campaign for a Labor Party”, Cannon pursued his thinking on this issue:

“1. The elections in New York and Minnesota positively, and in the other states negatively, show the beginning of a trend of workers’ sentiment for independent political action.

  1. The mass sentiment of the workers in this direction must grow tumultuously, as the gap widens between frozen wages on the one side and rising prices, tax burdens, and enforced contributions on the other.
  2. The sentiment for independent political action may, and to a considerable extent will, take a very radical turn. To many workers, burning with indignation over grievances which cannot find an outlet for expression on the economic field, the demand for a labor party will signify in a general way the demand for a workers’ government — for a change in the regime!
  3. The time is opportune right now for the SWP to start an aggressive campaign of agitation for an independent labor party. It would be a great political error to lose any time in establishing our position in the forefront of this movement.”

The Labor Party line was thus presented by Cannon as being the third major political maneuver for party-building which had been adopted to date:

“Our labor party campaign must be understood as having great implications for the building of our party. We must conceive of it as our third big political maneuver, the first being the fusion with the American Workers Party, and the second the entry into the Socialist Party. This maneuver will be different from the others, but the differences will be all in our favor, and the prospects of gain for our party are vastly greater.” (Emphasis in the original).

Cannon continued: “From an internal point of view, it is very important, in my opinion, to explain to the membership that we conceive this campaign as a maneuver. On the one hand, we must show them the great scope of its possibilities; on the other hand, that we are maintaining our independence all the time. And we are working, not to build the labor party as a substitute for our party, but to build our party as the party that must lead the revolution. The labor party may never come to full-fledged shape at all…”

At the same time, Cannon left open the possibility of a rapid radicalization of events: “…the sentiment for independent political action may, and to a considerable extent will, take a very radical turn. (…) Under present conditions the labor party idea can have far more revolutionary implications than in past periods when it was advanced as a reformistic measure.”

The Labor Party was in fact an important party-building maneuver. Cannon also opened up the possible revolutionary implications of a Labor Party for the American working class and its struggle.

Trotsky and the Labor Party as an Instrument of Struggle

The strategic importance of the Labor Party for the working class was the very characteristic which distinguished it from its predecessors as a party-building maneuver. Trotsky emphasized the significance of a Labor Party in the United States and the key role trotskyists had in influencing the wide masses by helping to shape its policies. In 1938 he explained the following: “Vis-à-vis the Labor Party, the SWP maintains a critical attitude at every stage of its development, supporting the progressive tendencies against the reactionary tendencies, and at the same time, unremittingly criticizing the fence-sitting nature of these progressive tendencies. For the SWP the Labor Party will become, on the one hand, a recruiting ground for the most revolutionary elements and on the other hand, a transmission belt for influencing ever greater groups of workers.” (“Le problème du Labor Party”, April 1938. ).

For Trotsky, the Labor Party had become an utmost necessity for American workers, the only possible means of political expression for the youth and the powerful trade unions. He insisted on how the revolt of millions of workers, the great movement which created the CIO industrial unions contained the embryo of a labor party. When polemicizing in 1938 with the SWP minority which understood the Labor Party as an intellectual, and so purely opportunistic perspective Trotsky replied:

“The most important fact which should be underlined is the total difference which exists in America in comparison with the working class in Europe. […] In the United States, the situation is that the working class needs a party, its own party. It is the first step to 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 for workers already organized in trade unions is to join their forces in order to influence legislation, to influence the class struggle. […] 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. […]

In the second place, it is an absolutely concrete task determined by economic and social conditions existing in this country. […] But in any event, a party is absolutely necessary. It is the only road for us in the present situation. We have of course consistently fought against opportunism in the past and will continue to do so in the future, especially if the party of the working class is organized. But to say that we would be fighting against opportunism by blocking a progressive step forward which could eventually produce opportunism is a totally reactionary policy. And sectarianism is often reactionary because it opposes the necessary action of the working class.” (Emphasis by S.J. “Deuxième Discussion sur le Labor Party”. )

It is important to note that for Trotsky, even before the current economic and social conditions, it was the blind alley created by the CIO bureaucracy which determined the need for the transitional line towards independent political expression of American workers.

And what role would the Labor Party play? According to Trotsky, the Labor Party clearly had a strategic role for American workers in their class struggle against the state: “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: 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.”(“Discussion with a CIO Organizer” )

At the same time, while representing a necessary “concrete step in progress” in the American workers’ struggle against the bourgeois state and in helping to solve the leadership crisis of the proletariat, this did not mean that Trotsky ever idealized the perspective of the Labor Party. He envisaged that its realization might be partial, or take one of a number of possible forms. These forms included that of a reformist party similar to the British Labour Party, or one which could result from various possible splits within the US labor movement away from the Democratic Party. Such labor party forms could be led by Green and Lewis, Lewis and Browder, etc. The first form of a Labor Party might not be independent at all, but a simple “left-wing expression” of the Popular Front in the United States. In his text “The Strengths and Weaknesses of Cannonism”, Frank Wainwright takes these examples to explain Trotsky’s method of intervention towards building the Labor Party, according to which the trotskyists must intervene into the movement as it actually exists. Says Wainwright: “For Trotsky, the search for the transition meant looking for the progressive step forward along the road of breaking with the bourgeoisie, no matter how modest this step may be.”

One “progressive step forward along the road of breaking with the bourgeoisie”, this was the method that Trotsky adopted when referring to the SWP’s work in the various political groupings which had formed in the U.S. labor movement by 1938 (ALP, FLP, LNPL – the CIO-PAC’s successor).

The starting point of Trotsky’s method was understanding the “double function” of these groupings. Firstly, they represented the aspiration for independence; at the same time, their leaders were using them for the very purpose of heading off this mounting tendency towards independent political organization. As for the leaders, said Trotsky: “On the one hand they exploit this tendency for their own authority and on the other they try to break it and not permit it to go ahead of its leaders.”

Trotsky’s method was to lean on this internal contradiction, in the sense of enhancing that progressive tendency towards working class independence which existed within it. To do this, revolutionists should fight within these groupings for transitional demands as a means of building the Labor Party and its leadership as an instrument of workers’ struggle. The best elements of leadership would thus come forward by taking a concrete stand around the demands for independent struggle and the most backward be discredited in the process. Trotskyists would at the same time be fighting for the leadership of the Labor Party. This was Trotsky’s method for taking that “a progressive step” forward along the road towards political power.

The SWP’s Labor Party Work in the Unions

As of 1942, being the best fighters for the Labor Party in the trade unions was increasingly linked by the SWP with the struggle for the formation of a “left wing”, especially in the CIO. The setting up of “Labor Party Clubs” would become, for Cannon, “the organizing center for the left wing in the unions. (…) I have the idea that these labor party clubs can become in the next period a tremendous mechanism for the building of the left wing in the unions.” (“Campaign for a Labor Party” )

During the difficult conditions of the war, the SWP was the only significant anti-imperialist fighting force. The party had correctly analyzed the CIO leadership’s collaboration in the war effort, after its adhesion to the New Deal in the 1930’s, as representing the fundamental roots of its bureaucratization. This is what motivated the SWP’s struggle to build the “left wing” as the means of preserving the class independence of the trade unions. The perspective was to be partially realized as of 1943 when wildcat strikes started proliferating among important sectors of miners, rubber workers, auto workers, etc., against super-exploitive wartime working conditions. This rank and file movement against the unanimous CIO leadership’s “No-Strike Pledge” targeted the linchpin of the trade union bureaucracy’s collaboration with the bourgeois state during the war.

The highpoint of this deepgoing working class fightback came at the 1944 UAW Convention when the “Rank and File Tendency” almost succeeded during the convention in overturning the “No-Strike Pledge”. The holding of a membership referendum was then seized by the UAW leadership in order to disperse the opposition. But this should not obscure the significance of “Rank and File Tendency” which organized the auto workers’ aspirations for working class independence against the collaborating labor bureaucracy. The key role played by SWP activists in labor’s rank-and-file anti-war movement, in the UAW and beyond, was consolidated in terms of numbers and party-building, for the SWP won over 1000 new members between 1944 and 1946, built new branches and reinforced its industrial centers, integrated Black workers, etc..

For the SWP, the anti-“No-Strike Pledge” mobilization would become a model for the emergence of a “left wing” in the trade unions. Nevertheless, despite the undeniable importance of this movement for the class struggle of American workers, a balance sheet still needs to be drawn. For the logic of the SWP’s “left wing” labor leadership line itself suggests that it needs to be linked up with the Labor Party perspective.

First of all, no alternative trade union leadership capable of opposing the trade union bureaucracy in the UAW or the CIO emerged from the “Rank and File Tendency”, one key to explaining its quick disappearance. Secondly, it’s a fact that a significant proportion of the most militant workers involved in the anti-“No-Strike Pledge” movement found themselves among those who called for a Labor Party – or “Third Party” – later on at the local union level. Still, there was no significant link to independent politics made within this movement or the “Rank and File Tendency” itself, neither in relation to the outright building of a Labor Party nor to the CIO’s concurrent attempt with its PACs (Political Action Committees) to divert independent political action and channel support for the Democratic Party in the 1944 elections.

This left-wing “mobilization”, albeit around powerful demands, was not enough. In itself, it did not represent a “concrete step forward” towards the Labor Party, towards the independent political expression and organization of the working class.

II. The Immediate Post-War Period and 1946

The “Theses for the American Revolution

As mentioned earlier, the post-war politics of the SWP until 1948 were based on an erroneous analytical assumption: that of the imminence of the revolutionary crisis. This perspective was consolidated in the “Theses for the American Revolution” which Cannon finished in October, 1946. The Theses ” began as follows:

“The overwhelming preponderance of American imperialism does not exempt it from the decay of world capitalism, but on the contrary, acts to involve it ever more deeply, inextricably, and hopelessly U.S. capitalism can no more escape from the revolutionary consequences of world capitalist decay than the older European capitalist powers. The blind alley in which world capitalism has arrived, and the U.S. with it, excludes a new organic era of capitalist stabilization. The dominant world position of American imperialism now accentuates and aggravates the death agony of capitalism as a whole.”

Cannon’s “Theses on the American Revolution” was a very important text in many ways. The Theses gave a striking account of the world situation after the Second World War as being revolutionary and opened the perspective for revolution in the United States. They were also a testimony to the SWP’s confidence in the American working class.

On the other hand, it is essential to analyze some of the drawbacks of the text. First of all, the development of the class struggle in the United States is fundamentally understood as being set apart from struggles in the rest of the world, aside from a reference to a fairly formal relationship of give-and-take. From the more practical standpoint of intervention, the Theses reflect a somewhat mechanical and oversimplified conception of the revolutionary process, especially regarding the important notion of revolutionary rhythms and prospects. For as we have seen, in the Theses the death agony of capitalism was imminent. Could one, though, go so far as to set a time-table for the revolutionary crises as such? In his report presented for the Theses’ subsequent adoption at the SWP’s 12th National Convention in November, 1946, Cannon answered:

“Our fundamental theses on the American revolution do not tie themselves to the economic prospects of the next month or the next year. They deal exclusively with the long-range inevitable outcome of the present artificial prosperity. From the point of view of our theses it makes no difference whether the deepgoing crisis begins in the early spring of 1947, as many bourgeois economists are predicting; or six months later, as many others think; or even a year or two later, as is quite possible in my opinion. Our theses do not consider immediate time schedules, but the general perspective. That is what we have to get in mind first.” (Emphasis in the original)

For the SWP leadership, then, the deepgoing crisis of the system was on the horizon, and would break out within the coming few years at the latest. In this situation, humanity was faced with the following alternative:

– either the outbreak of a new imperialist war, the IIIrd World War, in which American capitalism would attempt to “reorganize the world under its domination”. This war would be waged against the USSR in order to open up the markets covering one sixth of the planet and which remained beyond the control of imperialism;

– or the outbreak of the Proletariat Revolution, the only possible salvation for humanity against catastrophe.

If the programmatic bases of these two options were analyzed in “The Theses on the American Revolution”, the elaboration of the party’s work and tasks were set out in the other central text of the 12th National Convention: “From a Propaganda Group to a Party of Mass Action – Tasks of the SWP in the Present Political Situation”.

A Fightback Program of Transitional Demands and the CIO’s PAC

“From a Propaganda Group to a Party of Mass Action – Tasks of the SWP in the Present Political Situation” thus set out the action plan for the trotskyists in the immediate post-war around the two prospects: a military policy to fight against war; intervention in the class struggle in preparation for the revolutionary uprising.

It emphasized the link between US imperialism’s economic and political need to go to war, and how the party’s fight against this imperialist war was “inseparable from the struggle vs. the rule of Wall Street” at home. This meant mobilizing mass class actions against capitalism and Wall Street’s war plan, against the witch-hunting campaigns which were taking on greater prominence and serving to spread the ideology of this new war. The SWP emphasized its own role in setting out a labor program of action for the trade unions to take positive action in favor of trade union unity (AFL, CIO, Railroad Brotherhoods…), full employment, job security, the sliding-scale of wages, the setting up of consumer committees in order to organize the working population against inflationary attacks against their wages, the fight against discrimination and Jim Crow, etc.

“It is imperative to safeguard all social gains and progressive legislation, but it is not enough to wage a purely defensive battle. Our party must aggressively advance its demands for social legislation and urge all the workers’ mass organizations to pass over to the offensive in this field, and fight for a broad program of social demands to be adopted by city, state and federal governments. These demands should cover the immediate needs of the unemployed, the veterans, aged and disabled. Such a bold program of social legislation can act as a magnet to draw together the separate segments of organized labor and attract other oppressed sections of the population to the side of the workers”.

The SWP clearly demonstrated how this labor action program could not be won through economic action alone, for it directly raised the need for an offensive political struggle. The party should intervene in the CIO’s Political Action Committees (PAC) both nationally and locally along the line of forming a Labor Party.

“Although organized originally to corral the labor vote for Roosevelt and to forestall the formation of the Labor Party, the PAC as the existing political expression of the most dynamic section of organized labor can at the next stage play an important role in the launching of the Labor Party. (…) The impasse of the PAC leadership and the contradictions within the PAC present the party with a favorable opportunity to intervene with its clear-cut program for the Labor Party. This would enable the SWP to form an alliance with the best elements within the PAC and crystallize the growing sentiment in the labor ranks for the independent Labor Party. Active intervention of the SWP in this highly fluid situation becomes all the more necessary because the PAC leadership may seek to divert the workers’ urge toward the Labor Party into the channels of a third capitalist party.

“Our approach to the PAC heretofore has not been flexible enough. Repelled by the PAC support of capitalist candidates, the party was not sufficiently alert to the possibilities latent in the PAC. It is necessary to introduce a sharp corrective. The Socialist Workers Party never supports the candidates of capitalist parties, under any circumstances or in any way regardless of whether they may be endorsed by the PAC or any other labor organization. At the same time, the party militants in the unions must penetrate the PAC and work side by side with the workers who are going through the PAC experience and help them draw the correct lessons from it.

“At the present time participation in the PAC represents a medium for transforming our demand for the Labor Party from a propaganda slogan into a slogan of action. A likely development is the formation of the labor party on a local and state-wide scale, especially in those cases where our comrades are influential in the unions and where the conditions are favorable. This is especially important. It is one-sided, and therefore wrong, to view the formation of the labor party from a purely national perspective and ignore the local and initially limited opportunities which may prove decisive in the final analysis.”

(…) “It is necessary to promote labor and social legislation by raising these issues inside the PAC, organizing mass actions for them, and demanding that the PAC-supported candidates sponsor such legislation. From mere vote-getting instruments, the local PAC bodies can and should be transformed into bodies functioning the year around, raising the self-action of the workers and accelerating their politicalization.”

We will come back to the importance which the SWP grants to local actions towards building the Labor Party. But first it is interesting to look a bit closer at the line evoked above, that is, intervening in the PACs around the struggle for a labor program of demands: “The impasse of the PAC leadership and the contradictions within the PAC present the party with a favorable opportunity to intervene with its clear-cut program for the Labor Party”.

This labor action program calls on SWP militants to intervene in the PAC by advancing working class, transitional demands and slogans and by working for the PAC and the candidates “supported by the PAC” to adopt this fightback program. “It is necessary to promote labor and social legislation by raising these issues inside the PAC… demanding that the PAC supported candidates sponsor such legislation..”.

Who these candidates were and according to what criteria they were supported by the PAC was left vague. The positive struggle for the PAC to run its own independent labor candidates around this fightback program, or for the PAC to stop endorsing capitalist party candidates – to limit its support exclusively to independent working class candidates – was not raised as such. The question of independent candidacies, though, concentrated the progressive step forward for the CIO and it’s PAC towards political independence. The political stakes of the period and the transitional nature of intervening in the unions around a class-based program were not just limited to the correctness of the program itself, to “raising the self-action of the workers and accelerating their politicalization” as the above-resolution concludes. The essential question for the American labor movement of the day, and especially the CIO, was its need to break with the Democratic Party. However, even the adoption of a “correct” working class program of action was not in itself capable of reforming the labor bureaucracy, changing the class nature of the Democrats or transforming the PAC into a Labor Party.

Breaking with the Democrats is raised with ever greater acuity at election time, for it is the elections which raise the key question: which candidates are really capable of carrying out a genuine working class fightback program? The CIO needed to break with the Democrats, so practically raising the issue of independent working class politics within the PAC, especially by running independent working class candidates, represented the concrete step forward towards crystallizing the best leadership elements. It was the cutting-edge between political independence and the PAC’s “progressive” candidates – read Democrats. For a “correct program” was not enough at a time when many left-wing New Dealers and Stalinists were using the CIO-PAC’s lobbying arms in Washington and state congresses to promote often progressive social reforms, but this along the lines of extending wartime tripartite government committees and a postwar New Deal.

This strategical need to break with the Democratic Party by running independent candidacies is discussed by Frank Wainwright in his text “The Strengths and Weaknesses of Cannonism”. He shows how the fight to run independent working class candidates in the United States concentrated the transitional line towards the Labor Party, whether this be in the 1940s or today. “… in the strategic struggle for the Labor Party, we work in all cases towards genuinely independent working class candidacies. These candidacies pave the way for the independent political organization of the proletariat for they are an integral part of the process of building the Labor Party”.

The CIO’s “Left Wing” and the Labor Party

What then, was the strategic objective of the SWP’s political and trade union work if it was not centered around the immediate need to break with the Democratic Party by running independent candidacies towards the Labor Party? It aimed at building a “left wing” in the trade unions capable of promoting a class-based labor program of action. Building the PAC leadership on a left line as a first step towards building the Labor Party is already suggested in the above-stated passage: “(…) the PAC as the existing political expression of the most dynamic section of organized labor can at the next stage play an important role in the launching of the Labor Party.” (emphasis by SJ) The same resolution states this elsewhere in even plainer terms:

“The crisis of the Thirties produced the CIO as a revolt against the failure of the craft-ridden AFL bureaucracy… The next crisis will weld the best militants in the trade union movement into an organized left wing as a challenge wherever the dead hand of the trade union bureaucracy stifles the militancy of the workers in their political and economic struggle. Only this new leadership can secure the necessary unity of the class front and defeat the offensive of monopoly capital.” (emphasis by SJ)

And then, later on:

“The fate of the PAC, does not hinge upon the will and policies of the incumbent leadership alone. It will be decided in struggle. The decisive word will be spoken by the left wing in the CIO whose task it will be to give the clearest expression to the movement for the labor party.”

So if we understand this passage correctly, an emerging CIO “left wing” leadership would crystallize. As previously in U.S. labor history, it will emerge against the bureaucracy which would become an obstacle to militancy during the “next crisis”, that is, it will emerge when the objective conditions to its development become favorable. This new “left wing” leadership would then be entrusted with the important task of building the Labor Party. The formation of the “left wing” became in fact a precondition to building the Labor Party “at the next stage”, for only it could give the movement its “clearest expression”.

We know, however, that when a CIO left wing was effectively formed during the anti-“No-Strike Pledge” movement there was no spontaneous emergence neither of an alternative trade union leadership, nor of a movement for independent working class politics. And it was not enough to just support a progressive workers’ “program”: one part of the CIO labor leadership appeared to be moving to the left during the 1945-1946 strike wave because it was forced to embrace some progressive working class demands. Walter Reuther even popularized a slogan from the Transitional Program when, during the 225,000-man strong General Motors strike, he called on the company to “Open the Books”, a transitional slogan towards workers’ control. During the critical moments of December, 1945, the SWP automobile fraction took courageous leadership positions to advance rank-and-file interests from the picket line (leading the fight in Flint to control the factories and push back company attempts to brutally break the picket lines)… to the bargaining table (SWP members were key players in negotiations, from Local negotiating committees up to and including the 9-man UAW national strike negotiating committee). This activity culminated in the party’s initiating a unanimous call by the National Delegates Conference of GM strikers in December 1945 for the convening of an all-CIO Emergency Conference in Washington in order to smash the anti-labor campaign in Congress through independent labor action.

But in the final analysis, these initial independent initiatives ended up serving merely as means of pressure on the labor leaderships. For Walter Reuther proceeded to empty the “Open the Books” slogan of its revolutionary content and the UAW and CIO bureaucracies joined to divide and betray the general strike movement (the UAW’s “One-at-a-Time Strategy”, the CIO’s separate strike movements, etc.). Despite these bureaucratic two-tongued tactics, the SWP leadership eventually threw its support behind Reuther’s “GM Program” until the very last days of the GM strike and unconditionally backed Reuther’s presidential bid at the 1946 UAW Convention. The party didn’t succeed through any subsequent independent initiatives in concretizing the pivotal issue of the strike movement, that is, its sell-out by the apparatus’ submission to the Truman government.

That is why, though building a “left wing” in defense of working class demands was a pertinent line of struggle against the CIO bureaucracy from a trade union perspective, it was not developed fully as a transitional line capable of ensuring the unions’ struggle against the bourgeois state or of consolidating the labor movement’s political independence. There can be no step-by-step mechanism to political consciousness and vanguard organization solely driven by the development of objective conditions and workers’ mobilization in economic struggles, albeit around a class-based program of action. The positive intervention and organization by the revolutionary party is necessary.

This is the rich lesson to be drawn from trotskyist activity during the 1940’s GM strike. It was when revolutionists took independent initiatives, expressing the aspirations of workers, that they succeeding in both helping to advance the deep-going class movement and in maintaining their own independence from the apparatuses. Without independent organization along the transitional line, these initiatives were eventually recuperated from above. In the absence of such concrete organizational steps forward, the fight for workers’ independence is destined to become a propaganda campaign for radically correct working class slogans and of pressure on union leaders.

Whether or not social and economic objective conditions are most favorable, and carefully adapting them to the level of workers’ consciousness in these conditions, the revolutionary party takes independent initiatives along the transitional line to advance the working class’s independent political organization. By doing so, it practically helps to solve the leadership crisis every step of the way, however modest this step forward may be.

SWP Candidates and Independent Class Politics

The issue of presenting independent working class candidacies was in fact a central plank of the SWP leadership’s agenda in 1946. These were centered around SWP candidacies. The 12th Convention discussed the importance for American trotskyists of having run candidates from their party in local elections in 6 different states in 1946.

“Entrance of the SWP into the election arena in 1946 in six states (New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Minnesota, Washington and California) represented the most ambitious electoral undertakings in the history of American Trotskyism. This must pave the way for our entry into the 1948 presidential elections, with a national ticket as well as local candidacies.”

Candidates publicly defending independent revolutionary politics in six states was a key development for reinforcing the SWP and a vehicle for spreading revolutionary ideas. However, there was no attempt to link this political campaign to the Party’s trade union work along the same Labor Party line. For instance, despite electoral propaganda for the Labor Party, no fight was waged within the unions for the PAC to support SWP candidacies or independent working class candidacies in general.

This is not a secondary question. By abandoning the fight for building independent candidacies within the labor movement, the SWP leadership in fact turned its back on the transitional line during the 1940s elections. The only way to break the PAC leadership’s “impasse” was by leaning on its own class collaboration “contradictions”. Fighting for the CIO’s “unconditional” break from the bourgeoisie meant forcing the PAC to take a clear stand on the issue of supporting or presenting its own independent labor candidates – up to and including a presidential candidate.

For if, as the SWP resolution suggests, the PAC was in fact the most advanced form of labor’s political groupings and it was not forced to clarify its class positions, the PAC would in turn become the major stumbling block towards independent organization. For it was in fact occupying the political place of the Labor Party.

We referred above to the importance placed by the SWP leadership on local initiatives for building the Labor Party, where the SWP in fact made significant progress. Trotsky had criticized American party members during the 1930s for not being implanted enough in the trade unions and not raising the Labor Party question in concrete terms. He could hardly have made the same remark ten years later, proportionally speaking in relation to their forces.

In the Los Angeles, California region, the party had worked for several years to put together the Southeast Committee for Labor Candidates which included unionists from the CIO, AFL and Railroad Brotherhoods to run candidates for local Southeast city council elections in 1948. In the city of Flint, Michigan, the most active strike center in automobile in the 1930s and 1940s with Detroit, leading officers from the Big 4 UAW General Motors locals, organizing tens of thousands of workers, formed a Labor Party Committee. They ran labor candidacies for local Flint city offices and launched a united appeal for the Labor Party which was signed in other cities by numerous UAW locals and rank and filers. Local trotskyists were the driving force behind this important work. Elected as union Local officers in many cases, trotskyist militants helped to turn Local union newspapers into open forums of debate around the Labor Party question (notably Local 659 in Flint). Dozens of resolutions and meetings called by trade union locals throughout the country began a real rank and file movement for the Labor Party (though in unequal terms, especially within the UAW).

These significant initiatives, however, remained essentially limited to the local level. The 12th National Convention set out the framework for this intervention: “It is one-sided, and therefore wrong to view the formation of the labor party from a purely national perspective and ignore the local and initially limited opportunities which may prove decisive in the final analysis.” The party’s local emphasis was of great significance, but the opposite is also true: a national perspective for independent politics, one which fights to unite and generalize these initiatives and for national union support of them was also key. This was a necessary dimension for the labor movement’s breaking with the Democratic Party. It was necessary as well to prevent these important actions from being isolated and used, in the final analysis, as means of letting out the steam.

The Need to Fight the New Deal

Because building labor political organizations at the exclusively local level – and not necessarily independent – was not unprecedented in the United States. The Democratic Party actually lent itself to this: its decentralized structure has traditionally been a haven for local political machines. Such was the compromise imposed by the reactionary Southern bourgeoisie in order to preserve its own regional political power. The Democratic Party is the essence of constitutional federalism, it is the party of “States Rights”.

In this framework, building local political parties which were “progressive” on a number of even very important issues was one of the central forms in the United States of the objective alliance between the Democratic Party and labor apparatuses, a form which was especially refined by the Stalinists in the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, in order to divert the growing aspirations for independent politics among workers, a number of political formations presenting themselves as independent labor parties were formed at the local level, most notably the American Labor Party (ALP) in the state of New York. The existence of these political groupings allowed the Stalinists and trade union apparatuses to channel workers aspirations by presenting, when necessary, independent candidacies locally. Even the trade union bureaucracy, for its own interests, was led at times to run local candidates (the UAW ran candidates for the Detroit City Council and even for the Mayor of Detroit – most notably the famous 1945 Frankensteen candidature. Though supported by the PAC, this top-UAW officer was also a member of the Democratic Party and specifically campaigned as NOT being a “Labor” candidate).

These movements, however, were a double-edged sword: hiding behind their apparent local independence was their national adherence to the New Deal. Their avowed intent was to let off the steam of discontent in a decentralized way in order to better rally the vote for FDR and the New Deal during presidential elections. As Cannon remarked in 1942, explaining the significance of the American Labor Party in New York and the LNPL-CIO (the PAC’s predecessor), workers’ aspirations for independent politics were so strong in certain areas that: “… in order to dragoon the workers to support Roosevelt they had to provide some kind of labor or pseudo labor machine for it. They couldn’t just unfurl the banner and say, vote Roosevelt.”

FDR was thus conveniently poised as being separate from, even “above” the Democratic Party; this allowed the apparatuses and the Stalinists to present the FDR vote as simply a vote in support of New Deal social reforms. By preserving and strengthening the pivotal representative of American political institutions, the vote for Roosevelt was a life-support system developed to protect the bourgeois state. Rallying around the vote for Roosevelt: this was the linchpin of the “Popular Front” in the United States.

That’s why, the key issue during the 1930s and 1940s was not only running independent labor candidates against Democrats locally, but that of opposing the most important Democrat of them all… FDR and the presidency. Running an independent labor candidate against Roosevelt in 1940 and 1944 would have been a direct attack against the linchpin of the Popular Front. The SWP’s 1946 criticism of its previous PAC work did not place the need for independent labor candidacies – neither local or for president as a central plank. And yet, the SWP at the time had correctly pointed out the PAC’s major shortcoming which prevented it from becoming a real Labor Party, that is, its lack of direct participation in electoral politics.

Such a campaign for independent national politics in the 1940s could have taken one of a number of forms, – a national convention called by the unions to unite local PACs in order to discuss an anti-Roosevelt or anti-Truman candidate, labor candidates in other general elections, etc. As difficult as such a campaign would have been at the time, and even if unsuccessful, unconditionally fighting to run an independent labor candidate for president was the concrete step forward towards political clarity and political independence. This was true for both the CIO “left wing” and for the SWP itself.

Such was the essence of Trotsky’s discussion with SWP leaders in June 1940. Trotsky was concerned that the party’s alliance with progressive, anti-Stalinist leaders in the trade unions had led to its adaptation to labor bureaucrats politically during the 1940 elections. He did not criticize these tactics as such within the framework of trade union work. But he insisted that from a political standpoint the SWP, as an independent party, absolutely needed to develop a clear orientation aimed at mobilizing workers against Roosevelt. Trotsky polemecized on several occasions with SWP leaders about the need for an independent labor presidential campaign, for a worker president against FDR, raising the possibility of a John Lewis candidature at the very heights of New Deal fervor.

This line of political mobilization required specific political tactics. And these tactics could not be automatically assimilated with the party’s trade union work as such, for confusing the two could be dangerous. Said Trotsky:

“I believe that the critical issue is quite clear. We are present in a trade union block with so-called ‘progressives’, not just fakirs but also honest rank-and-file militants. Yes, they are honest and progressive, but once in a while they vote for Roosevelt – every four years. This is what’s decisive. You are developing trade unionist policies, not Bolshevik policies. Bolshevik policies have their starting point outside the unions.”

One of the American Comrades present, later asked Trotsky to clarify the significance of his criticisms. Hansen said:

“Yesterday, comrade Trotsky made a number of remarks concerning our adaptation to those who’ve we called the ‘progressives’ in the unions… I would like to make note of the fact that this is not entirely new for comrade Trotsky. More than two years ago, during our discussions around the Transitional Program – taking into account the differences of the historical context and the fact that it was the Farmer Labor Party, and not the elections which were being discussed – he took the same positions.

“(…) During the recent factional struggle also, in his polemical text ‘From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene’, comrade Trotsky emphasized the following: ‘The party should often remind its trade unionists that their pedagogic adaptation to the most backward layers of the proletariat should not be transformed into a political adaptation to the conservative trade union bureaucracy.’ I wonder if comrade Trotsky believes that our party has manifested a conservative tendency in the sense of adapting ourselves politically to the trade union bureaucracy.”

To this Trotsky answered: “To a certain extent, I believe this to be the case.” And while tactfully respecting the important work done by the American comrades, Trotsky described the existence and the dangers of such an adaptation. (“Discussion avec les visiteurs américains du S.W.P.”, June 12-15, 1940).

It appears to us fully appropriate to equally apply Trotsky’s thoughts to the war and post-war periods. Building the CIO’s “left wing” (comparable to the “progressives” of the 1930’s) included pertinent trade union tactics, but this was not equivalent to unconditionally mobilizing workers against FDR and New Deal political relations, especially during elections.

The Labor Party and the union “left wing” should not be opposed, but coordinated along the same strategic line. Building an independent union leadership and a mass political organization from within the labor movement is a dialectical process which subtly combines trade union and political tactics, around the transitional line for the Labor Party. This complex process requires independent initiatives and organizational measures, flexible in form while firm on principles, taken by revolutionists within the unions.

From a Propaganda Group to a Party of Mass Action

We have tried to demonstrate how the fight for the formation of a CIO “left wing” on the one hand, and the SWP electoral campaigns on the other, did not succeed in concretely carrying out transitional policies aimed at building the Labor Party. If building the Labor Party was not the strategic orientation of the SWP during the 1940s, then, what was it? It was that of building the SWP directly as the revolutionary leadership party. “From a Propaganda Group to a Party of Mass Action”, once again, the major text elaborating the questions of political intervention during the postwar period, ends in this way:

“… Our achievements have been limited primarily by the weakness of our forces. As our activities increase in scope and effectiveness, the party will grow in numbers and power. We aim to become the mass revolutionary party of the American workers, and on the road to that goal set for ourselves the task of recruiting ten thousand new members. […] Our resolve is to continue with greater vigor, determination and speed to expand our party as the party of mass action capable of leading the millions of American workers to the conquest of political power and the revolutionary transformation of society from capitalism to socialism.” (page 32)

The recent growth and influence of the SWP in mass struggles in America had proved the party’s leadership qualities and potential for expansion. What is surprising in this passage is not the prospect of direct party growth, which remained a possibility, but the absence of the other alternative for mass political organization, that of the Labor Party. This same line also articulated the “Theses for the American Revolution”: directly building the SWP as the leadership party of the masses was presented as the direct consequence of the unfurling revolutionary crisis. After analyzing this imminent crisis, the Theses conclude:

“Numerical weakness, to be sure, is not a virtue for a revolutionary party but a weakness to be overcome by persistent work and resolute struggle. In the U.S. all the conditions are in the process of unfolding for the rapid transformation of the organized vanguard from a propaganda group to a mass party strong enough to lead the revolutionary struggle for power.

“The hopeless contradictions of American capitalism, inextricably tied up with the death agony of world capitalism, are bound to lead to a social crisis of such catastrophic proportions as will place the proletarian revolution on the order of the day. In this crisis, it is realistic to expect that the American workers, who attained trade union consciousness and organization within a single decade, will pass through another great transformation in their mentality, attaining political consciousness and organization. If in the course of this dynamic development a mass labor party based on the trade unions is formed, it will not represent a detour into reformist stagnation and futility, as happened in England and elsewhere in the period of capitalist ascent. From all indications, it will rather represent a preliminary stage in the political radicalization of the American workers, preparing them for the direct leadership of the revolutionary party.

“The revolutionary vanguard party, destined to lead this tumultuous revolutionary movement in the U.S., does not have to be created. It already exists, and its name is the Socialist Workers Party. It is the sole legitimate heir and continuator of pioneer American communism and the revolutionary movements of the American workers from which it sprang. Its nucleus has already taken shape in three decades of unremitting work and struggle against the stream. Its program has been hammered out in ideological battles and successfully defended against every kind of revisionist assault upon it. The fundamental core of a professional leadership has been assembled and trained in the irreconcilable spirit of the combat party of the revolution.

“The task of the Socialist Workers Party consists simply in this: to remain true to its program and banner; to render it more precise with each new development and apply it correctly in the class struggle; and to expand and grow with the growth of the revolutionary mass movement, always aspiring to lead it to victory in the struggle for political power.” .

We find concentrated in this passage the strategy of direct and rapid construction of the SWP as the revolutionary leadership party. The other alternative, that the masses would first take the road of the Labor Party to organize politically, is only formally opened up. The Labor Party as such is not attributed any practical role in the workers’ struggle against the bourgeois state or in the upcoming revolutionary events, it is presented mainly as a “preliminary stage” preparing them for “the direct leadership of the revolutionary party”. No concrete steps towards building the Labor Party from within the unions are set forth as a primary task of trotskyists.

In the “Theses”, then the SWP through Cannon in fact self-proclaimed itself as the mass revolutionary party. That is, the masses’ leadership party would necessarily emerge from the progressive expansion of the current trotskyist party. “The revolutionary vanguard party, destined to lead this tumultuous revolutionary movement in the U.S., does not have to be created. It already exists, and its name is the Socialist Workers Party.”

Self-proclamatory, this analysis was also highly objectivist. Cannon’s conclusions lean on the step-by-step analysis of the development of workers’ consciousness and vanguard organization that we analyzed early on in this text: “American workers, who attained trade union consciousness and organization within a single decade, will pass through another great transformation in their mentality, attaining political consciousness and organization.” The SWP would develop and grow along with the evolving revolutionary conditions, it would “…expand and grow with the growth of the revolutionary mass movement”. These objectives conditions and workers’ rising consciousness would, in themselves, help the masses to recognize the SWP as their leadership party. No concrete steps forward, no independent intervention or organizational initiatives were crucial to this party-building task. In turn, the party apparently had no determinant role to play in the successful unfurling of revolutionary events.

This perspective based on self-proclamation and objectivism had inevitable consequences concerning the Labor Party. The Labor Party prospect was thus conceived as a limitative notion which corresponded to a defensive situation, one of retreat of the working class. For in favorable objective conditions, those of the revolutionary mass upsurge, it was the SWP, not the Labor Party, which would necessarily emerge as the key player. In this case, there is obviously no need for a transitional line, and the Labor Party would in fact have no strategic role to play as such. We should not forget that according to the “Theses on the American Revolution”, the outbreak of the revolutionary crisis was very near, expected to come to pass within the coming two or so years. Thanks to these favorable objective conditions, the revolutionary party could take the place of the Labor Party.

III. 1948

These positions and underlying theoretical assumptions were confirmed and enhanced in the SWP’s subsequent postwar policies.

In 1948, the 13th National Convention corrected the prospects concerning the collapse of American capitalism as laid out in “From a Propaganda Group to a Party of Mass Action” adopted two years earlier. The major resolution entitled “Militarization of the USA and the Socialist Workers Party Tasks” outlined how war-mongering against the Soviet Union, Wall Street’s plans of world imperialist domination and American capitalism’s need to overcome its internal crisis had contributed to prolonging the artificial post-war recovery through a new arms boom and a permanent war economy (The Marshall Military Program for rearming Europe, etc.).

As the objective conditions for revolutionary events had thus not unfolded in the United States, the prospect of rapid radicalization and politicalization of American workers was no longer on the agenda. In these conditions, the Party’s corresponding forecasts for the development of workers’ consciousness were also revised. American workers, “… previously attaining only union consciousness, have made great advances in their education and stand today on the threshold of class consciousness”. (Underlined by SJ. The perspective of awakening “class consciousness” should be understood as distinct from the “political consciousness” which was to accompany the post-war prospect of revolutionary development). (“American Trade Unions in the Post-War Period and SWP Tasks” )

This revised analysis of revolutionary objective conditions helped to clarify the SWP’s postwar policies. First of all, directly building a mass workers’ party which had been linked to these conditions was no longer on the agenda. Moreover, the SWP’s de facto renunciation of the transitional line alternative would begin to take on its real significance: it meant passing by numerous possibilities of moving towards the Labor Party. By 1948, the SWP’s lack of transitional policy was consolidated in what one might call a growing distinction between the two main areas of Party intervention. Now there were “political” campaigns and propaganda on the one hand, and on the other, trade union tasks.

Political Campaigns

The SWP’s political work was meant to spread socialist ideas and convince workers of the need for a revolutionary party, for the Workers and Farmers government and other transitional demands, including the Labor Party. Regarding the 1948 presidentials, the first time the SWP ran its own candidate:

“The presidential campaign enables us to demarcate ourselves not only from the capitalist parties, including the Wallace movement, but also from the Stalinists and Thomas Socialists who falsely speak in the name of communism and socialism. It provides a singular opportunity for putting forward our program of socialist revolution and pointing out to millions of workers that the only road to power is through a Workers and Farmers Government.” (“Militarization of the USA and the Socialist Workers Party Tasks” adopted at the 13th National Convention in 1948)

This campaign was essentially a propaganda effort to promote the SWP and its politics, “A Vote for Trotskyism” as one The Militant article put it (November 13, 1948). The main programmatic slogan waged, for instance, that of educating workers to the need of a “Workers and Farmers Government”, had no comprehensible expression for workers in America, where no mass political representation existed for either workers or farmers. Neither the 1948 SWP presidential candidate Farrell Dobbs, nor the Minnesota Senate candidate, Vincent R. Dunne, practically placed their candidacies within the Labor Party perspective. And yet both of them were genuine working class “heroes”, recognized by unionists nationally for their role as leaders of the 1934 Minneapolis, Minnesota Local 574-AFL truckers’ union strike.

If advancing a transitional line towards building labor’s own party had been the underlying strategic orientation of the campaign, we can imagine a number of maneuvers of electoral campaign-Labor Party linkage within the trade unions. SWP members running could have called for AFL and CIO recognition of their candidacies, to collect and publish trade union leader endorsements at various levels, and to campaign in direction of the unions the candidates’ intent to withdraw from the race in support of independent working class candidates if run by the CIO or AFL. With such maneuvers the SWP candidacies would have practically run as “Candidacies For the Labor Party Based on the Trade Unions”. However, despite a number of tactical slogans launched within the CIO for a Labor Party and labor candidates, an August, 1947 National Committee Plenum resolution had already firmly reasserted the 1946 decision that the SWP would run its own independent presidential candidates in the 1948 elections. The Labor Party work within the AFL or CIO was limited to propaganda work. It was not conceived as a concrete step forward, one which unconditionally struggled for the labor movement to run independent labor candidates and break with the Democrats during these elections. (“Election Policy in 1948”, Report to the February, 1948 Plenum of the National Committee Plenum)

Trade Union Work

In the trade unions party members were to intervene to build the “left wing” opposition around two major slogans: trade union democracy and a program of transitional demands for trade union independence from the capitalist state. The 1948 Trade Union policy resolution adopted at the 13th National Convention described this program of transitional demands: “Most of the planks of our Transitional Program are now directly applicable as a program that the trade unions ought to be pushing. It is sufficient to mention them to see how timely and cogent they are for the unfolding struggle: Sliding Scale of Wages; Factory Committees, or as we call it, Shop Steward system; ‘Open the Books’ and Workers’ Control of Industry; Expropriation of given branches of industry, such as railroads, meat trust, etc.; Workers Defense Guards, or as the unions call them, Flying Squadrons; Labor Party; Workers and Farmers Government.” (“American Trade Unions in the Post-War Period and SWP Tasks”)

It is important to note that building the CIO “left wing” around these slogans now became in itself the “strategic aim” in the party’s trade union work. “Our militants must understand that a broad left wing is in the making at the next stage of development in trade unions and that our strategic aim is to build this left wing. (…) The forging of a left wing must be seen as a struggle – and a process… this process will necessarily pass through different stages.” (Emphasis by SJ)

No strategic line was developed, though, to concretely link the fight for a “left wing” union leadership to the transitional struggle for independent politics and the Labor Party.

But can the two be separated? Is there something inherent in the content of transitional demands which mobilizes workers and trade unionists irreversibly against the capitalist state without fighting at the same time to positively build the independent leadership and political organization capable of carrying through these demands?

Trotsky never separated the two issues.

In September 1938, while discussing with a CIO organizer who visited him in Mexico, Trotsky insisted first on the urgent need for transitional demands to be defended by the CIO in order to fight for workers’ immediate interests. But then Trotsky added that by themselves, the transitional demands were not enough:

“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 people. (…) 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.” (Emphasis in the original) (“Discussion with a CIO Organizer”, September, 1938)

Trotsky insisted that presenting the program of transitional demands needed to be concretized by raising them in parallel with worker representatives and the idea of an independent Labor Party. “Otherwise it is an abstraction and an abstraction is a weapon in the hands of the opposing class,” he added.

In the United States, transitional demands are inseparable from the labor party process; the satisfaction of these demands implies advancing American workers’ struggle for independence from the capitalist state. Linking transitional demands to Labor Party work from within the unions was crucial in 1948, for it concentrated the independent fightback against the bureaucracy’s specific form of collaboration with Truman’s Fair Deal: by accepting to “trade unionize” workers’ social demands within the decentralized and purely economic framework of collective bargaining agreements, CIO and AFL leaders allowed the capitalist state and its Democratic Party helmsmen to wash their hands of basic workers’ gains.

However, the SWP’s direct mass leadership party line in the 1940s, in which trotskyist militants were slated as the only force capable of leading the CIO “left-wing”, practically excluded a transitional perspective within the unions.

“The recent years have demonstrated that the SWP trade unionists and their friends constitute the only core of leadership for a new left wing in the unions. And the trend of events are ripening for the formation of such a movement.”

“(…) What is important now is that our militants remain in the unions; remain imbedded in the progressive ranks; and view all temporary maneuvers and makeshift blocs as merely aids towards molding the forces of the coming left wing. This will provide them, later on, with the opportunity of emerging as leaders of masses in action, and in the struggle, of building the mass party of the American revolution.” (“American Trade Unions in the Post-War Period and SWP Tasks”)

In practical terms, by thus poising SWP trade unionists and close contacts as the alternative leadership for the trade unions, tactics and slogans for trade union democracy and independence would then be directly dictated by the SWP. On the other hand, if linked to a transitional line, progressively developing these tactics and slogans with an emerging independence leadership would become the very nuts and bolts of solving the leadership crisis from within the trade union movement. Such a transitional line would not in any way preclude the hypothesis of a mass Labor Party, based on the unions, being led by revolutionaries. To the contrary, this hypothesis integrates the struggle for the Labor Party.

In the final analysis, however, by presenting itself as a self-proclaimed alternative leadership and not attempting to articulate its intervention with a line of transition, SWP developed policies of oppositional pressure on the traditional leaderships.

And what about the Labor Party?

The Labor Party prospect was not concretely advanced. The Labor Party slogan was cast into the tactical role of party-building and consciousness-raising maneuver, one of “educational” importance, “concentrated upon convincing workers” and unionists to organize politically and independently.

The 13th National Convention in 1948 clarified the relative place of the Labor Party in the SWP’s trade union work (“the mass organizations”) and in the upcoming 1948 electoral campaign:

“At the present level of the Labor Party movement, our efforts in the mass organizations are largely concentrated upon convincing workers to form their own party, and force the leadership to break with the capitalist parties. But as soon as an independent campaign or organization becomes a reality, the questions of program, methods of action and the goal of the new class political movement advance to the fore. The militants must bear in mind that the Labor Party is essentially a stage in the political march of the American workers on the road to power. It is a major step that will advance the political education and heighten the independent political development of the labor movement. It is not and cannot be an end in itself, as the reformists imagine. For us it is a means of hastening the politicalization of the working class as a whole and of speeding the growth of our mass revolutionary party.

“In our Labor Party work our principal aim is to spread the ideas of revolutionary socialism, politically educate and recruit workers and build the revolutionary party. That is the primary meaning and purpose of our 1948 Presidential campaign. In the last analysis, the maturing political crisis of American labor can be solved only through the growth of the Socialist Workers Party, the strengthening of our ties with the toilers, and our ability to lead the fight against capitalism.” (“Militarization of the USA and the Socialist Workers Party Tasks”, 13th National Convention, 1948 )

The Labor Party itself, then, had no strategic role as such in the struggle of American workers against the bourgeois state, and its building was no longer on the immediate agenda. First, workers had to be “convinced” of the need “to form their own party, and force the leadership to break with the capitalist parties”, which explains the party’s emphasis on propaganda activities.

Certainly by 1948, with the advent of the Cold War and the mounting witch-hunt of militant unionists within the CIO, the possibilities for building the Labor Party were reduced in comparison to previous years. The concern for protecting the Party and its members’ place in the unions was real.

But at the same time it is undeniable that Labor Party opportunities still remained. The 1946-8 period had witnessed national strikes across wide sectors of American industry which stood up to President Truman’s open strike breaking (automobile, mines, railroads, telephone workers…) and incipient mass movements against the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act in which SWPers played a key role. This was the expression in the United States of an international wave of workers’ mobilization whose content was that of political independence: in France, for instance, workers struggles at Renault motors forced the Communist Party to take leave of the de Gaulle government. SWP members were still actively engaged in Labor Party grassroots work in unions. Local union calls in both the AFL and the CIO for independent labor politics were regularly reported in The Militant. The 1948 Wallace Presidential campaign and his “People’s Party”, along with other references to independent politics by labor bureaucrats, were certainly evidence to the fact that the Labor Party still remained upfront on the political agenda in the United States. Independent candidates run by the CIO-PAC would have been of vital importance in 1948 against the labor-busting Democratic Party, at this pivotal time when the CIO leadership and Stalinists were adamantly working to channel workers’ struggles within the 2-party legislative framework through their acceptance of Taft-Hartley and the CIO leadership was itself on the verge of officially joining the Democratic party.

It was not because the Labor Party was not “an end in itself”, as the above-quoted resolution remarks, that every possible concrete step forward should not be seized to build it. But now the other party-building alternative, that of directly building the SWP as the mass revolutionary party in the United States, had become ostensibly predominant.

The Transitional Line and Stalinism

The SWP’s renunciation of a transitional line in favor of “self-proclamation” was linked to the Party’s analysis of Stalinism. The SWP presented itself, in fact, as an alternative to the Communist Party, directly disputing its leadership place in the working class. The Militant’s front page editorial entitled “Outlook for Labor: January 1, 1949” (December 27, 1948) clearly asserted as much. At no time in the article – nor in The Militant’s immediate post-election editorial on November 8, 1948 – was the “Labor Party” even mentioned. After denouncing the collaboration and betrayal in the United States of both the capitalist-minded union bureaucrats and then Stalinism:

“In order to solve the crisis of humanity the workers must clean out both of these gangs of misleaders and replace them with genuine revolutionists who want to struggle for socialism and know how to do it. (…)

“Central to this task of assuring a correct leadership and program of the working class is the task of building the revolutionary socialist party. There is only one party of this type in the U.S. today. It is the Socialist Workers Party, now celebrating its 20th Anniversary. (…)

“Although not yet the mass party the SWP is destined to become, it proved by conducting a hard-hitting presidential campaign in 1948 that it is already a force to be reckoned with on the national political arena. (…)

Conclusion: The Line of Transition

This experience all points to the same, inevitable conclusion concerning the SWP leadership’s subjective conception of party building.

During the war and post-war periods, the SWP leadership abandoned the attempt to formulate and implement, even on the most modest scale, a transitional line for building the party of the IVth International in the United States. The independent trade union and political initiatives the Party took during this period were not consolidated along a transitional line, at that key time when the Labor Party prospect was most cogent to American workers. By practically abandoning the transition in favor of self-proclamation, the SWP thereby missed some politically important opportunities to advance the independent organization of American workers and modify the political place of the revolutionary party.

Fundamentally, the abandonment of transition was a corollary of the SWP’s “national Trotskyism”, of its narrowly “American” perspective of the workers’ movement and revolutionary prospects. The Party’s analysis of the 1945-46 strike wave in strictly “American” terms, for instance, left it more vulnerable to pressure from the “syndicalist” line developed by the schachtmanites and the Workers’ Party. National Trotskyism also meant objectivism: social and economic “objective conditions” in the United States primarily dictated the SWP’s party-building strategies. When setting out the Labor Party prospect in the United States, though, the first objective condition evoked by Trotsky was the American workers movement’s historical development: the need for a transition line towards mass political organization was determined first of all by the blind alley created by the CIO bureaucracy’s link with imperialism. Because a transitional framework of workers’ politics had not been concretely opened in the U.S., once the social and economic objective conditions most favorable to directly building the SWP had subsided, there was nothing left to do but spread socialist propaganda and wait for the arrival of fair weather days ahead.

It is necessary to place these events back into their international context. This tendency towards national-Trotskyism was concretized in the SWP’s refusal to engage in international discussion, preventing it therefore from fully elaborating and integrating the experience of the IVth International. At the 1948 Congress of the French PCI, an important amendment was voted to the resolution on party-building. In substance, the amendment said: if it is sure that the revolutionary party will be built around the Fourth International program, it was not at all certain that its form would be that of the present trotskyist parties.

The amendment’s significance lied in its search for the practical application of the Transitional Program. It was our movement’s first attempt to fight against self-proclamation and the “formalization” of bolshevism, to seriously work out the real conditions of building the revolutionary party through the introduction of transitional “forms” of construction. The notion of “transition” would thus be understood as that “next step forward” in building the revolutionary party. The SWP’s self-proclamation as the single framework for the mass leadership party would prove to be false.

It is the role of the International to consolidate such experience. However, none of the key issues of trotskyist development were debated at the Second World Congress of the International which was held in 1948. All told, the discussion of the International’s activities over the first ten years of its existence since 1938, ten years which included some of the century’s most seminal events, only lasted 40 minutes or so, translation included. The International’s refusal to approach these key issues, whether it be concerning trotskyist intervention, party-building or the place of Stalinism, etc., would prove costly, laying the groundwork for Pabloite revisionism. The SWP’s national-Trotskyism prevented it from taking the leadership role in this discussion which fell upon it naturally due to its rich class-struggle experience during the 1940’s and the historical place it occupied.

One of the deep-seated undercurrents of the crisis of our international movement has been the failure to fully integrate the Transitional Program as a principled method, that embodying the unity of theory and practice within the process of party-building. Above all, this means grasping the complex, dialectical notion of the “transition” towards building the IVth International and its sections as both a national and international process. Trotsky was already concerned in 1938 about the Program’s integration by the younger SWP members who questioned the labor party line. He specifically warned against a formal understanding of the Transitional Program because for him, the question of building the labor party was the progressive step necessary towards solving the historical crisis of the revolutionary leadership in the United States. According to Trotsky:

“I believe that 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 opportunistic labor party. They must be inside. That is their duty. That our young comrades separate the transitional program from the labor party is understandable because the transitional program is an international question. But for the United States they are connected – both questions – and I believe that some of our young comrades accept the transitional program without good understanding of its meaning, for otherwise the formal separation of it would lose for them all importance.” (“Discussion on the Labor Party in Mexico City, July 20, 1938. )

We can only advance on the basis of an honest and thorough balance sheet of the past. Only in this way can we redress our weaknesses and lean on our strengths in order to move progressively forward in the future. This is the very essence of Trotsky’s method. The SWP under Cannon played an irreplaceable role of insuring the continuity of revolutionary Leninist party-building at some of the most crucial moments of our history, its members played a historic role in the class struggles of the 1930’s and 1940’s. The party stood firm in action and in principle against the direct representatives of world imperialism and remained a reference for groups fighting Pabloite revisionism throughout the rest of the international trotskyist movement. We are proud to claim this revolutionary heritage as our own.

By renewing with the concrete struggle for the Labor Party in the United States, by taking their place alongside workers and peoples in struggle and solidarity around the world, US workers are taking that important “step forward” towards their independent political organization. They are part and parcel of the process of rebuilding the workers’ international.

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