Why Labor Needs Its Own Party - Towards a basic realignment in US politics

Submitted by AWL on 8 October, 2013 - 12:56

Any discussion of politics in the United States must sooner or later get around to the question of a "third" party.

Some caution against having "too many" parties. Others insist that another major party could only be a "protest" movement that could never win. Still others insist that the "two-party system" is so deeply entrenched in American life that it can never be replaced. Then there are those who warn against "class" parties, praise the virtues of "broad coalitions" that represent all the people and shun concentration of too much power in too few hands.

Most of this argument misses the mark; for what is at stake is not the "number" of parties, or even the two-party system as an abstract principle, but the reality of current American politics embodied in two real, not abstract, parties: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.
The basic fact is this: since the organization of the majority of the American industrial working class, an achievement of the last 15 years, the structure of the nation's political party system has become utterly obsolete.
Power bumps back and forth, like the old Toonervllle Trolley. But that section of the population which is largest in numbers, most strongly organized, strategically placed, and powerful, is hardly represented inside either of the two old parties. That part of the population is the working class; and it scarcely obtains formal representation even in the party which it regularly supports and usually puts in power, the Democratic Party. What is necessary is not just "another" party but a thorough-going reorganization of US politics; a realignment of forces to truly represent reality. And in this realignment a party of the working people must emerge: a labor party. Consider for a moment the absurd line-up of classes in the ruling parties.


The Republican Party has traditionally combined a most open concern for the big monopolies with the support of masses of independent farmers. Those who farm the farms are trapped in one party with those who farm the farmers. Monopolists who control the stockyards and packinghouses mulct [exploit] the stock farmers who sell their animals at low prices to the meat trust only to discover that the public pays sky-high prices on the retail market. The milk farmer is milked by the dairy trust - yet they all cohabitate in one party, whose slogan might truly be "What's good for General Motors is good for America."
Now the farmer is becoming restive and turns toward labor! In Michigan, a new organization of dairy farmers collaborates with the CIO. In Iowa, and other grain States, new farm organizations are rising; contemplating, not merely cooperation with the AFL-CIO, but actual affiliation to it. The former, then, is looking away from big business. But what does he find in the other party?

The Democratic Party unites the Slave Dealers of the South with the New-Dealers of the North. This party held power for 20 years with the support of the democratic masses of the cities: workers, Negroes, and poor people. Yet, in Congress, the party is dominated by the representatives of the Southern planters and mill owners who choose its top leaders and run its main committees. Here in the South, the party remains in power by excluding the masses from political life: the whites by trickery; the Negroes by terror. Backwardness and dictatorship - that is the Democratic Party in the South. And in the North? The Democratic Party is run not by the millions who put it in office but by exclusive machines of bosses, some legally - and others only morally - corrupt. The rich and powerful who buy the Republican Party outright have to buy the Democratic Party through its political bosses.

Such is our "two-party system." Would another set-up put too much power in the hands of one class? Could another system increase the influence of a small minority and thwart the will of the majority? Anyone who answers such questions should ask himself: what do we have now? Millions of farmers vote Republican only to learn to their dismay that they have turned the country over to Wall Street. And millions of workers and Negroes vote Democrat only to discover that they have turned the nation over to slave-dealers, or at least to a coalition of Southern reactionaries and Northern Wall Street agents.


As the people switch back and forth in the dizzying quest for proper representation, they never get what they want. At bottom, the power of wealth and monopoly remains; privilege and exploitation dominate in both parties.
High prices; growth of monopoly; war and imperialism; cycles of unemployment and prosperity; corruption in government; high taxes for the poor; ever-higher profits for the rich; small business to the wall; concentration and monopoly: it continues alike under Republican rule as it did under the Democrats.

Do you mean to say, it will be asked, that both parties are the same? Not at all. They are as different as a Stanley Steamer and a Model T. Ford. But both are outlived in the age of jet-propulsion.

As we have just pointed out: they are different. Each appeals to different classes; each proposes a program different in important respects. To put it truthfully, each deceives different sections of the population by different devices. But in this respect they resemble one another: the voters who put them in power cannot get what they want. Arable Farmers vote for a better life and higher income for themselves. They get high monopoly prices for the machines they must buy. Labor and Negroes vote for democracy. They get right-to-work laws, and terror at the Southern polling booths. They vote for Lehman; they get Eastland at the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But hold on: Has there been nothing but reaction, profiteering, anti-democracy? Hasn't there been the New Deal, social legislation, rising incomes, better standard of living for the masses and a hundred and one other things? Of course, and we have no intention of painting a picture of unrelieved gloom and utter blackness. There has been progress, great progress. But that simple truth alone tells us very little. The important question is this: how was that progress achieved? How did modern social legislation get on the books? It was not because of the Democratic-Republican two-party system but despite it.

The Russians now have their folk-tale of the evil Stalin who plotted to turn their nation into a nightmare of terror. We have a charming dream to go along with it. It tells how a noble hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt, sat by the fireside and lifted a nation out of despair into happiness. But the fairytale of Prince Franklin is for children. It was not he; it was not the Democratic Party; it was not a club of honorable politicians who happily delivered the social legislation of the New Deal era to a grateful people.


These gains were won because the people fought; they fought a long and dramatic class battle. Farmers gathered by the thousands, guns in hand, to prevent the foreclosure of their land; they toured the roads in trucks enforcing their produce strike in a National Farmers Holiday Movement which rallied millions. Veterans marched on Washington for their bonus. Unemployed demonstrated, forming into leagues and councils. And finally, tens of thousands of workers seized the factories in a wave of sit-in strikes that broke open-shoppism in industry.

In the wave of protest, the Socialist Party grew: Norman Thomas polled almost a million counted ballots alone in 1932. Mass indignation mounted and was even misdirected into the Communist Party which grew in size and influence. These struggles, these demands, this mood compelled the politicians to yield, and under the pressure of the rising people they quickly enacted a series of laws which the people took and went onto demand more.


Let us ask a question: if the great gains of the past generation came from the two-party system, or at least from the Democratic Party, how can you account for this fact? – Since the era of the great social gains, in the mid-thirties, social legislation has ground to a halt. At best, it is reduced to a dribble. And yet, the forces of labor and liberalism are not weaker; they are far more powerful than ever. In 1932 the union movement counted only two million. Now it enrols 17 million. In 1932 the Southern Negro was beaten and disorganized. Now he is shaking up the whole South and rousing the attention of the country.

Twenty-five years after labor's great victories, George Meany, AFL-CIO president, announces that labor's legal and legislative position is at a historic low point. In these years, the rising of the people was slowly brought under control and curbed by the two-party system of Democrats and Republicans. When the first popular waves subsided, political power remained in the hands of political bosses, slave-dealers, and the rich. The political forms and structure of American politics are now outlived not because there has been no progress but because there has been so much progress. The people are too powerfully organized to permit political parties to be run by narrow cliques.


In fact, the political structure is already cracking up: the Democratic Party is torn between Southern reaction and labor-liberalism. Walter Reuther explains: “you cannot have Senator Eastland and have us at the same time.” The Negro deserts the Democratic Party while the farmer is deserting the Republicans. But where are they all to go? What is to replace the decaying Democratic-Republican system? No crystal ball is handy. The reorganization and reorientation can swirl about in confusion while fantastic alliances are patched together on the spur of the moment. None can match the fantasy of the old Democratic Party: Eastland and the Negro; Reuther and the "right-to-work" Democrats – all in one coalition! We say simply this: if the coming political realignment is to be understandable, if it is to achieve the maximum for the people, then a labor party must be formed. Let those who want to rally to democracy and security for the people gather around a party of the working class. Let those who are ready to defend privilege and exploitation form their own party. For the first time, the people can have a clear choice of alternatives.


Why a labor party? Doesn't that seem "dogmatic"? Such objections quickly spring to mind. Remember, always, that the United States is the only modern democratic nation where there is no labor party. And now, politics can only give a true picture of what is happening in real life when such a party is formed here. To understand why there should be a labor party, consider first the question of democracy. Democracy means the domination of government by the popular masses through the forms of free discussion, free organization, and free elections. But the vast majority are poor; a tiny minority is rich. This becomes the great danger to popular democracy; for those who own wealth dominate society, not through numbers but through influence.

When a tiny class of bankers and industrialists can dominate the avenues of discussions, the press, the radio, television; when they can buy and sell politicians and intellectuals, then they can thwart the people even under the forms of democracy. Where concentrated wealth accumulates, democracy can live only when the force of money is counterbalanced by the organized people.

For a half century after the founding of the American republic, democracy de-pended upon the support of millions of free farmers and small merchants who were determined that bankers and commercial combines should not thrust the people aside. They were the backbone of the Democratic Party. But with the rise of slavery and the dominance of slave-owners, and with the rise of industry the old base of democracy began to crumble; the old alliances were torn asunder.


A new party, a "third" party if you like, rose to lead the fight against the spreading of slavery. It was the Republican Party, and to it went the support of the masses of people in the North who wanted democracy.
During and after the Civil War, great fortunes were made; industry flourished; trusts consolidated toward the end of the century; the Democratic Party was dominated by the former slave owners; the Republican Party became the direct tool of big business – which began impartially to buy and sell both parties. It was an age of the open domination of Big Business.

Democracy was kept alive by short-lived popular political upsurges, inside and outside the two parties and cutting across both: Populism, progressivism, free-silver. The old base of democracy, the free farmer, had been undermined. The importance of agriculture in the economy was in decline; industry was growing. The revolt of the farmer proved to be futile and despairing; the rule of big business continued unchecked.

Meanwhile, a new class was rising: the modem Industrial working class. But in its vast majority it was unorganized, backward, and largely foreign-born. Although a small minority of the class succeeded in organizing itself, and an even smaller minority founded an active socialist movement, the vast majority remained in disarray, organized only as voting cattle by corrupt capitalist political machines. So it remained until just yesterday.

But now, the whole social balance in America has shifted. Democracy finds its new social base in a new class: the working class. In the last 25 years, this class has organized itself industrially; it has lifted itself into political consciousness; it is a force so powerful, so invincible, that no other class can move without taking its mood into account. . . .

Yet, while the class structure has changed, politics remains formally what it was fifty years ago. There is no party, there is no consciously organised faction of any party, that expresses and represents the fundamentally democratic class of our time! If class antagonisms, the self-interest of social groups, do exist in reality then let them be expressed openly and honestly in the forum of public discussion and politics. It would be a good thing: when a banker decries "socialism" and lauds "free enterprise," let the world know that he is really talking of his profit ledgers.

If class antagonisms do not exist in real life, then no party could possibly provoke them. American politics today, however, successfully expresses the self-interest and class desires of a tiny group of rich and privileged. Hypocrisy is their device; they are satisfied with the reality of selfish class rule; they prefer not to talk of classes. But if a labor party must not be organised because class interest is an evil thing that must be barred from politics, what holds the labor movement together? Why do workers organize into unions? Unions are class organizations; they enroll only wage-earners; they exclude their employers; they unashamedly advocate a program in the interests of the working people; they strive ceaselessly for higher wages, shorter hours, pensions and insurance for workers. Could there be any more scientifically defined class movement?


Should any union leader suggest that the AFL-CIO and its affiliates dissolve because the organization of the working class provokes "class antagonism," – he would be hastily dispatched to a rest home! The antagonism between worker and boss is not created by the union; the workers organize because such a conflict of interests already exists. If they cannot organize, they live not in some paradise of class harmony but in a state of super-exploitation.

If the working class is organized in industry, why not in politics? We may be told: It is true that the union organizes only workers, but it is not true that the union movement adopts a program only for workers; don't the most progressive union leaders always remind us that we want not a "nickel in the pay envelope" movement but one which will be responsible for the needs of all the people? Precisely! And that is what proves our contention to the hilt. In other words, the union which may appear to employers as a "narrow" self-seeking grab for money is actually a great social movement.
Although it is actually organized on a class basis, it nevertheless is ready to take on the fight of all the poor people, workers or not, organized or not! Because the union is a working-class movement and is compelled to fight against the big monopolies, it and it alone has been capable of stimulating such a program and of rallying millions behind it. The working class must lead the nation. And a labor party can do no more and must do no less.


But let us get down to brass tacks. The labor movement talks about leading the nation; the UAW, for example, calls itself the vanguard in America, in words and in resolutions. But these lofty goals are never quite brought to life.
How, we ask, does the labor movement propose to lead farmers, Negroes, professionals, and the poor? Fundamentally, the task is political; the unions must show how to organize government in the interests of the people. But in the last analysis, at present they have only this to offer: elect Democrats.

But in order to elect a government which will in reality carry out a people's program, it is not enough to pick and choose the few liberals who peep modestly like rare flowers among swamp rocks. A new movement, a new party dedicated to social progress must come forward, and that is a labor party.
Twenty-five years ago, industrial unionism was a dream. Yet in the course of a single generation it has changed the face of America and brought millions of workers into conscious political life. With their rise, democracy in America took on new significance but it was still limited and curbed inside parties dominated by others. And now, while the united labor movement hesitates in uncertainty, a great movement for democracy arises in the South, arousing hundreds of thousands of Negroes to demand equality.

For a labor party! It has been the need of our generation. It is now the imperative demand of the hour.

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