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David Coolidge

Towards a New Union Program (IV)

Organization of Labor Politics

(December 1944)

From The New International, Vol. X No. 12, December 1944, pp. 399–402.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In this, the fourth article in this series dealing with the need of a new programmatic orientation for the labor movement in the United States, the discussion will revolve mainly around the organizational and tactical questions of working class political action.

The first article, in the May number of The New International, dealt with the war and the no-strike pledge. The second, in the June number, discussed class collaboration and the relationship of the trade union bureaucracy to the bourgeoisie. The third, in the September issue, took up proletarian politics in relation to the bourgeoisie and the capitalist state. This article ended with the statement that “... the Republican and Democratic Parties are the political instruments of a class. They serve the interests of the capitalist class. They cannot serve the interests of the proletariat, which is an alien class to the bourgeoisie ... For the proletariat, the little propertyless people, to stand before the capitalist state, before the men of property and power, and demand a place in the sun, is to demand a transformation of that state by the class which can profit only from the status quo. This sets a real challenge before the proletariat: the challenge to organize politically, independently, with class-conscious clarity and militancy.”

The Imperative Task of the Trade Unions

This is the practical and imperative task before the trade union movement. The reelection of Franklin D. Roosevelt to some degree aids in transferring the question to a different area of attack. Before the elections, the problem was clouded by the fact that millions of workers believed that the contest between Roosevelt and Dewey was a genuine contest between two parties with fundamentally different social viewpoints. Previous articles in this series have attempted to explain why this is not so. But because they believed this, thousands of workers felt that Roosevelt was, in an important sense, a lesser evil and to be preferred to Dewey. Since there was no mass party of labor, these workers believed that not to vote for Roosevelt meant either to “throw away their votes” or to turn the country over to reaction.

It must be said that despite the soundness of the theoretical arguments that can be made against this conclusion drawn by labor, their instincts, which drew them to Roosevelt and away from Dewey, had definite progressive features. The matter was confused for the working class furthermore by the existence of the PAC. Here was a political committee, formed out of the CIO, which purported to be leading labor to independent political action. The fact that the independence of the PAC resided only in its organizational and physical “separation” from the Democratic National Committee and of course from the Republican National Committee, was not of political significance to the CIO masses for reasons which have already been gone into in detail. Also the demonstration of strength by the PAC, even before the election, was a further source of disorientation to workers whose political thinking is still very immature and naive.

The proletariat is now in politics as never before. This has been demonstrated. But what was done was a manifestation once again in history of trade union politics, that is politics at the trade union level, the bread and butter “take home” level. This may be described as the politics of a militant proletariat groping toward class consciousness. It is political action without the illumination of political theory.

Despite this, the proletariat has made real political progress in the United States during the past year. This is irrefutable. Through the activities of the PAC there has unquestionably arisen a new sense of political power and a slim understanding of the inadequacy of simple trade union activity. The question arises of what to do next. What, for instance, should be done with the PAC? Turn it into a Labor Party? Organize a Labor Party? Continue the PAC as it is?

Before we go further into this it is necessary to take up a phenomenon that rears its head perennially in American politics. That is the third party movement and third party propaganda. This agitation has already begun and appeared in the liberal press immediately following the election. This is a great danger for the proletariat.

The Liberal Party of New York State received over 300,000 votes in New York City alone. That is, this number of people voted for Roosevelt through the Liberal Party. The leaders of this party are very enthusiastic about their showing and are already talking about a national Liberal Party. Such a party could only get its membership from the petty-bourgeoisie and labor. Labor, however, would play only a subordinate role and would find itself under the ideological influence of a petty bourgeois leadership. Not only would this be true of the ranks of labor but also of that part of the labor bureaucracy which allied itself with such a party. This course could only lead to the shrouding of the proletariat in another myth: the myth that the middle class, including the liberals, is a coherent social class and that the petty-bourgeoisie and the farmers can play an independent class role in capitalist society. The penetration of the labor movement with such erroneous concepts and theories would not only disorient the working class politically but would also interfere seriously with the sustaining of trade union militancy on the economic level. This was demonstrated very clearly by the attitude of the petty bourgeois liberals toward such anti labor measures as the no-strike pledge and wage stabilization.

The Question of a “Third Party”

The present talk from the liberals about forming a third party, so soon after the election, is a sort of shamefaced admission that even these stupid people realize that the campaign talk and promises were only a blanket to cover over the real aims of the Roosevelt Administration, namely, the extension of United States imperialism to world dominion. For labor or the working farmers to place themselves at the disposal of such puerile sycophants would be to commit political and class suicide.

There is reason to believe that this third party movement suffered a real blow by the death of Wendell Willkie. It is clear to me that Willkie was playing with the idea of a new Liberal Party, perhaps to take the field in 1948. This would have been a most insidious evil for the proletariat to be faced with. It seems that Willkie became convinced that the Republican Party was so thoroughly discredited that it would not likely be able to recover. He was probably of the belief that the Democratic Party, lacing insuperable difficulties in the next four years, would also lose the confidence of labor and the masses of the people.

Willkie was a man moving in a definitely liberal direction, developing great influence and enthusiasm. At the same time he was a big business man and the representative of big business. During his active business career he was allied with the most reactionary section of big business. Outwardly at least he disassociated himself from business and became a “people’s champion.” Willkie had little or nothing to say about business during his days of political activity. He concerned himself with foreign policy, forays into the realm of civil liberties and the rights of minority groups.

We may never know what Willkie had in mind, but from what he was, it can be said that any move of his toward third party organization would have interested large masses of people and the big bourgeoisie also. Under certain conditions, he might have been supported by them temporarily just as they did Roosevelt during his first administration. From their side Willkie could become their representative in one final effort to resolve the deep contradictions of bourgeois society. After Roosevelt, the Democrats will have no one sufficiently astute and proficient in the arts of bourgeois politics. The Republican Party will recline in the grasp of the Old Guard and its crouching medieval-minded but powerful patrons. Willkie and a new Liberal Party might have given the bourgeoisie temporary surcease from the ominous rumblings in the ranks of a long-suffering proletariat.

Basic Problems That Call for Solution

This brings us back to the point where we left off discussing the re-election of Roosevelt. The fanfare and pyrotechnics of party warfare are behind us. Great social problems are before us and cry out for solution. Mankind stands confronted with questions of such portent as we have never had to deal with before in all the decades of the twentieth century. First there is the general matter of the salvation of humankind itself and the rescue of civilization from a headlong plunge into despair or barbarism. This is the lesson of the Second Imperialist World War, the lesson taught us by the piles of dead and maimed, the wreckage of the cities, the European shambles, starvation and misery, imperialist thievery and capitalist oppression.

The United States is not separate from Europe, Asia and Africa, and cannot be separate. The rapacity of the imperialist plunderers causes the bourgeoisie of the United States and England to reach out into every nook and corner of the earth. Markets, raw materials, natural resources, labor power, capital – these are the building blocks of world imperialism, of international war, of the exploitation and oppression of the people. This is the god of the Anglo-American bourgeoise and Roosevelt and Churchill are his major prophets.

The Anglo-American bourgeoisie seeks to dominate the world. But before them stands the threat of disunity in their own ranks, the danger to them of mass uprisings on the continent of Europe and the inchoate but ever present demand of the proletariat that it be fed, housed and clothed. The bourgeoisie in the United States will attempt to pacify the proletariat here with blood money drawn from the exploitation and sufferings of the European workers and the colonial masses. England will play the same game as of old. But it will not work this time. The working class will not be so tolerant and the colonial masses will not remain quiet.

The embattled bourgeoisie cannot possibly recover except temporarily. This means that the working class and the masses of the people face a great danger: the progressive degeneration of bourgeois democracy. This is but a cautious way of saying that while the military defeat of Germany and Japan seems assured, the fascistization of the United States can proceed apace in the years following such a military triumph. American workers cannot defeat fascism by killing German workers, just as German workers cannot rid themselves of their Hitlers by killing American workers.

The bourgeoisie will fight like fury to retain its social power, the right to exploit and plunder. To retain and protect their class opportunities they will resort to every subterfuge, every canard; every form of bribery, political and economic. Should these fail, they will be prepared to strike relentlessly at the proletariat and its organizations. The question today is: who shall be master in the house? This is the way all important social questions pose themselves. Which class shall rule? The bourgeoisie, the class of the minority; or the proletariat, the class of the majority? How shall the proletariat pierce the thin veil of sham bourgeois democracy and come to actual grips with the social dictatorship of the bourgeois minority? How can this be accomplished and at the same time the proletariat gird itself for protection against the bourgeoisie when this class, recognizing that it can no longer rule through bourgeois-democratic slogans, decides on repressive measures?

Labor Must Think and Act on Class Lines

This is the framework into which the proletariat must fit all of its political and economic thinking and planning today. This is the class pattern along which the working class must think. Their constant frame of reference should be relentless prosecution of the class struggle. Outside of this framework and this reference, the proletariat cannot approach the problems of the war, of reconversion and unemployment, of continued taxation to pay for the war, of democratic rights and civil liberties with any degree of benefit to itself.

War and fascism are the twin evils of our time. All the immediate and concrete disabilities of the proletariat are subsumed under these twin evils. Such evils as the anti-labor acts of Congress, wage freezing, profiteering prices, job stabilization etc., are but the reflection of the underlying political course which the bourgeoisie is traveling. The heart of the problem is the degeneration of bourgeois society, the decrepitude of capitalist productive relations and the attempts of the ruling class to escape from its importunity through imperialist war and totalitarianism. So far as the future is concerned, there is very little left in the capitalist horn of plenty save economic crisis, war and fascism. The bourgeoisie cannot save the world from mass unemployment, it cannot escape the Third Imperialist World War and it is not the class upon which reliance can be placed to deliver the world from fascism.

These are the foremost tasks confronting the organized labor movement, the organized proletariat. The trade unions cannot accept the tremendous responsibility which is laid at their door if they remain as they are. I do not mean that they should cease to be trade unions in the historical and functional sense, but they must acquire a new outlook on history, they must take on a new function in addition to the economic functions they perform today. The new outlook on history is to acquire a knowledge of the course of capitalist society, the class nature of bourgeois society, consciousness of the place and r61e of the proletariat, conscious acceptance of class struggle and progressive realization that the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat can only result in dismemberment of workers’ organizations unless the working class is organized for the exercise of social, political and economic power and control.

This means above all the political organization of the proletariat as a class, the formation of a mass political party of the toilers. This is the task before the trade unions: to realize the reasons why this is Imperative, to envisage the goal of political organization, to understand its practical aims and to take the necessary concrete steps for providing out of the ranks of the union movement the human and financial equipment needed for the formation of the party of the proletariat. This is the new function, the new program the organized labor movement must assume. This course is indicated not only in connection with the evils of imperialist war and fascism, which many workers may believe to be remote, but also in connection with the practical survival of the trade union movement with any appreciable degree of militancy. The survival and independence of the trade unions can be guaranteed through class political activity of the working class. In the future it will not be possible to protect the unions even as economic organizations save by the political party of the proletariat. To talk of protecting the unions, the rights of the workers to organize, to bargain collectively and to enforce its demands even partially by the grace of a bourgeois government in the future, is to confuse protection with surveillance.

The Position of the Workers Party

The Workers Party, a political organization of Marxian revolutionists, has for several years advanced the idea that the trade unions should accept the responsibility for initiating and carrying through the formation of a mass labor party in the United States. The Workers Party put forward this slogan for an independent labor party as the concretization of the concept of independent political action by the toilers. It was and remains a call from the Marxian revolutionists for the working class to break with the bourgeoisie politically, to reject bourgeois politics and the present or future capitalist parties. In practice this means, at present, to renounce the Republican and Democratic Parties and in their place erect the mass party of labor. All of the articles in this series have been concerned with elucidating the reasons why this step should be consummated by the trade unions and the working class.

Aside from the important propaganda carried on by the PAC, urging workers to “get into politics,” and the stimulation to political thinking which this propaganda accomplished, virtually nothing has been done in a practical way toward independent proletarian political organization. This is due mainly to the political immaturity of the working class in the United States and the trade-union bureaucracy’s class-collaborationist servility.

The labor party we are talking about and which the Workers Party advocates should be based on the unions. In the first place here is where the most advanced workers are. Here are the masses of the organized proletariat. Here are the financial resources necessary for perfecting a political organization. Also it is in the unions that workers are made conscious of the need for political organization if for no other reason than the fact that it is here that their daily experience aids in the germination of political thinking. The maturing of this experience, however, and its conceptualization can only take place in the political organization where this experience is generalized, clarified and interpreted. It is in the workers’ political party that proletarian political theory is developed and the political program organized. It is here also that the strategy and tactics of working-class political organization are learned. The party of labor should not be based on the unions primarily for the reason that the composition of a political party is determined by its composition, for the nature of a political party must be judged by its program as well as by its composition. But a party based on the trade unions is more likely to have a proletarian program. This point is of significance in connection with any future excursions by the labor bureaucracy into the field of labor party organization. From their platform of class collaboration and their petty-bourgeois outlook they are likely to ignore the important question of program and base themselves on “people.” Not the people in the labor movement but the liberals outside the trade unions. They might invite some Senator Norris to form a party that labor would support. But the labor bureaucracy does not think in terms of themselves as the leaders of an independent party of the working class. What we wish to emphasize is not so much that non-trade-union liberals should be rejected because they themselves are petty bourgeois but rather because their ideas and program are petty bourgeois. This means that their politics is really bourgeois politics. This is what the proletariat must reject and renounce.

This all, for the working class, is a part of an evolutionary process, a dynamic process of trial and error, of struggle against the bourgeoisie, of failure today and success tomorrow, of learning in the course of the class struggle and assimilating the teachings of the great masters’ proletarian politics.

Labor Party and Revolutionary Party

Many workers who know of the Workers Party and who are readers of Labor Action will ask why the Workers Party, a revolutionary party, advocates formation of a labor party. The answer to this question is a simple one. The Workers Party is primarily concerned with the building of the Marxian revolutionary party in the United States, for the reason that only a revolutionary party can lead the masses of the working class to the accomplishment of its historic tasks and the achievement of its class aims. This is no less than the complete reorganization of society for social ownership, production and distribution. The Marxian revolutionists aim for the reorganization of human society for real freedom and genuine democracy; not the sham that is capitalist democracy. In a word the goal of the revolutionists is socialism and the socialist society.

All workers who understand the full needs of the working class and are prepared to accept the program of the revolutionary party will come directly into the Workers Party. Unfortunately, however, experience teaches that the great mass of the toilers have not advanced to this stage. This does not eliminate in the least, however, the basic need for the proletariat to effect a break with capitalist parties and capitalist politics. The Marxists will not hold aloof in snobbish isolation, however. We emphasize, that the proletariat must take that step which it is capable of taking in the United States today and under the present circumstances. The trade unions can found a mass independent labor party. Trade-union militants can lead and inspire those workers under their influence to break from and renounce the Republican and Democratic Parties. The leading militants in the labor movement can begin now to organize the labor party. The mass of the workers are ready for this modest step. It is a modest step but if consummated it would be the most tremendous leap forward that the proletariat has taken in its entire career in this country. It would be the most progressive movement ever to materialize inside the working class. It would mean that the proletariat had awakened from its long political slumber, that it had seen through the shabby covering of bourgeois society, that it was in full flight away from the miseries of capitalist exploitation and oppression.

Why do we make such claims for such a modest beginning in proletarian political independence? Because even such meagre beginnings would be a demonstration that the working class has been aroused, that its class consciousness has been heightened, that it is learning – learning political organization, political tactics and the elementary forms of political theory. The proletarian masses would not be left to themselves to grope their way forward. The more advanced trade-union militants and the Marxian revolutionists would be at their side and in their midst: working with them, fighting with them; teaching, leading, inspiring them.

The Program of a Labor Party

The Workers Party has published in Labor Action a Transitional Program, a program for an independent labor party. This is the program that the Workers Party proposes for the labor party. It may turn out that when the labor party is formed that it will not accept all of this program. We cannot predict about this. This is the program that we will advocate. The Workers Party believes that this program is a necessary bridge for the proletariat into the full Marxist revolutionary position. Should it not carry, the Workers Party will remain at its post in the ranks of the proletariat and in the labor party, as the rallying center for the most advanced workers and the inspirer and teacher of the masses.

The workers’ struggle is therefore carried on, on two fronts: the narrower front for the direct building of the revolutionary party, the Workers Party, and the wider front where the struggle is to lead the mass of the proletarians to break with the Republican and Democratic Parties. There is no contradiction between the two; they complement each other. It is in the course of this struggle that the mass revolutionary workers’ party will be built. The call for independent political action for breaking with the two capitalist parties poses the main questions of the living class struggle before the working class as a whole. It cuts across the line dividing the AFL from the CIO. The forces of the labor party will come from the AFL and the CIO. Labor party activity is a unifying activity that may prove fruitful in bringing the two trade-union federations together. It is realized though that the industrial unions are the most fruitful field for political action. The power of the industrial unions even at the trade-union level will be enhanced as their membership absorbs the new proletarian political learning in the labor party. It is then and not until then will the functional aspect of industrial unionism be exalted above the worship of structure which prevails today.

The Fear of Capitalist Reprisals

The question of reprisals by the bourgeoisie against the working class and its organizations, if there is a break from the bourgeois parties, is feared by many workers. This is the argument continually dinned into the ears of labor by the labor bureaucrats. This is a question that must be faced. Of course, slave-owners will never consent to the emancipation of their slaves. They, assisted by their labor lieutenants, will fight like a wolf pack against the labor party. They know what it means. No matter how long the road may be, the bourgeoisie know that once begun the march of the proletariat into a labor party is a gathering of the proletarian masses for victory, freedom and social power.

The struggle for independent class political action will engender a reaction from the bourgeoisie. This must be true unless we accept the no-class-struggle of the liberals, the most backward workers, and the trade union bureaucracy. The answer to any aggression from the bourgeoisie is mass organization, mass militancy; not softening of the class struggle, not class peace but determined intensification of the class struggle whenever the bourgeois counter-offensive sets in.

This completes our argument for the formation of the labor party. The great necessity is to begin. This is a challenge to the militants in the trades unions. They cannot escape this responsibility. It is far better to take on this responsibility now than to repent later in an American version of the concentration camp.,

Next month these articles will be continued with a discussion of the Negro Worker and the Trade Unions.

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