This site is a static archive. Visit the current IWW website at ▸
Skip to main content

The Labor Party Illusion

The cry for a Labor Party is again being heard from all sides. Some of the Socialist Party people are agitating for it. The Trotskyites are currently in favor of it and [George] Meany (now deceased), President of the AFL-CIO, climbs on and off the band-wagon as the spirit moves him or as policy considerations dictate.

Agitation for a labor party is almost as old as the labor movement itself Numerous beginnings in this direction have at times been made. In 1820, the Workingmen's Party in New York received 6,000 out of 21,000 votes cast, a higher proportion than any other independent movement has since achieved.

At times, the sentiment for a Labor Party has been confined to small radical and liberal groups on the fringes of the broader labor movement At other times, powerful coalitions with a mass following, including unions and farmer's organizations, have organized large mass movements such as the Populists of the last century and the two "Progressive Parties" of Robert La Follette and Henry Wallace.

At the 1936 convention of the AFL, 104 delegates, representing a powerful bloc of unions, small, and large, came close to committing the Federation to working for the establishment of a Labor Party. Such a policy would have been the reversal of the traditional position which called for rewarding our friends and punishing our enemies," among the Republican and Democratic Parties Other examples of Labor Party attempts have been the American Labor Party in New York State and the Farmer Labor Party in Minnesota and surrounding states.

In addition to those who have wanted a distinct political party of labor based on the unions, independent of and in opposition to the old line parties, there have been organizations such as the Socialist Party, that oscillated between running their own candidates and supporting capitalist "friends of labor" Despite their differences, all the radical tendencies supporting parliamentary action by the workers base their attitudes on the belief that such action can in some way alleviate or cure social ills.

Those who favor independent electoral action by labor reason that "the United States is a democracy in which the majority rules. We, the workers, farmers, and small businessmen, are the majority of the people. We have voted for the Republicans and the Democrats and they have betrayed us. We must now establish a political party controlled by ourselves and run our own candidates. They will surely be elected, since we have a majority. Then, the government controlled bv us will legislate in our favor"

At first sight this appears reasonable. What could be simpler? However, a closer examination reveals that this argument is based on fundamental political and economic misconceptions. The idea of a Labor Party is based on the widespread myth that in a democracy the majority rules. This is a myth that must be exposed.

Leon Blum, the eminent French politician, whose vast and unsavory experience qualifies him as an expert on the subject, remarked that:

. . . the parliamentary regime is a regime of PARTIES. Jean Jacques Rousseau, the philosopher of democratic government, would not endorse representative government as it is practiced today. In The Social Contract, Rousseau wrote that the deputies of the people cannot and should not be the people's representatives. . . .they can only be its servants. . . .The moment that people give power to their representatives they abdicate their liberty. . .

The fundamental principle of EVERY political party, regardless of the form of government, is the same. V.O. Key, professor of government at Yale University, in his penetrating analysis, Parties, Politics, and Pressure Groups has this to say:

. . .it is sometimes said that the method by which a party seeks to gain control of the government is the unique characteristic of the party or the group The American party uses peaceful methods of campaigning and appeal for to gain power, which is said to differentiate it from other factions. . . .which struggle for power by use of military force. . .

. . . the theory is advanced that the modern party and the democratic electoral process are but a sublimation, perhaps temporary, of the tendency to resort to force to gain control of the government. This theory gives a clue to the nature of the party struggle. The term "party" is applied equally to the peaceful parties of America and the Communist Party of Russia, the Nazi Party of Germany, and the Fascist Party of Italy The methodology of these parties varies, but their fundamental objective--to place and keep their leaders in control of the government is the same. . .

A capitalist democracy is a competitive society where predatory pressure groups struggle for wealth and prestige and jockey for power. Because such a society lacks inner cohesion, it cannot discipline itself. It needs an organism which will appease the pressure groups by satisfying some of their demands and prevent conflicts between them from upsetting the stability of the system. The government plays this role and in the process enacts more and more laws. The bureaucratic governing apparatus thus becomes a class in itself with interests of its own, and becomes ever-more firmly entrenched as it extends its influence.

The end result of this process will be reached when the state assumes ownership and/or control over the whole of society establishing state capitalism, or if you prefer, state "socialism."

At this stage in its drift toward totalitarianism, governing groups cannot rule alone. They need the financial and moral support at any given time, of the most of the influential power groups: the financiers, the labor movement, the farmers, the press, the Church, as well as the military and civilian bureaucracies. Despite their differences, all these groups and institutions are inter-dependent and no one of them can stand alone without leaning on the others. Parliamentary democracy, is at this stage, the political system which safeguards the unjust economic and social order.

The actual rulers in a parliamentary democracy are the professional politicians. In theory they are supposed to represent the people, but in fact they rule over them. They do not represent. They decide. This is why Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the anarchist thinker, said, " . . . Parliament is a king with 600 heads. . ." The political parties, or more accurately, the inner clique that controls them, select the candidates for whom the people vote. The candidates express the will of the party and not that of the people.

The platforms of the contending parties are adjusted to trick the voters into balloting for their candidates. Then the immense machinery of mass hypnotism goes into high gear. The press, the radio, television and the pulpit brainwash the public. The stupefied voters cast their ballots for candidates they never nominated and never knew, whose very names they forget, and whose platforms they have never read. The electoral swindle is over. The voters go back to work (or to look for work) and the politicians are free to decide the destinies of the millions as they see fit. The democratic system is actually a dictatorship periodically renewed at election time.

Political machines seek to perpetuate themselves by all sorts of tricks. They sidetrack, channelize and emasculate the popular will. New politicians try to displace old ones by changing electoral laws; while entrenched politicians defend outworn electoral systems when they feel that the new laws might weaken their positions and perhaps even abolish their sinecures.

For example: the politicians in the big cities are incensed at the politicians from the rural areas who control many state legislators, because they dictate to the cities and deprive them of revenue. Representation in many state legislatures is not relative to actual population but according to districts or counties. These arrangements were made when America's population was predominantly rural. Since then the growing population is concentrated in the cities. Yet, representation remains the same. The Painter and Decorator of June, 1960, in an article titled "All Votes Are NOT Equal," gives many examples, such as:

. . . fewer than 300 inhabitants of Union, Connecticut, have the same number of representatives in the state's lower house as the city of Hartford, with a population of over 177,000--giving each Union voter the strength of 685 Hartford voters. Business groups generally defend unequal representation. They have learned that the conservative philosophy of small town lawyers and business men is closely in line with their own views Also rural legislators may always be counted on to oppose the objectives of organized labor....

. . . such inequities are a major factor in American politics . . . in the South, political machines have used the county-unit system to become self perpetuating. In many Northern states, high city populations have been denied proportional voice and vote in enacting legislation essential to their survival....

Labor parties are no more immune to the diseases inherent in the parliamentary system than are other political parties. If the new Labor Party legislators are elected, they will have to "play the game" according to the established rules and customs. If they are honest, they will soon become cynical and corrupted and will be swallowed up by the machine. Most of them, however, will find their new environment to their taste because they have already learned to connive when they were operating as big wheels in their own union organizations. The administration of most labor unions are patterned after governmental forms of political parliamentary democracy. A course in the school of labor fakery prepares the graduates for participation in municipal, state and national government. When they take political office, they will not represent the union members, but rather, the political machine that controls their labor organization.

By way of illustration, let us assume that a strong Labor Party in the United States has finally succeeded in electing thousands of local, state and national officeholders--as has happened in England, France, Germany and other countries. The history of parliamentary labor and socialist party movements in Europe gives us a good idea of what is most likely to happen to a similar movement in the United States .

The record of the Labor Government which ruled Britain from 1945 to 1951 proves that it betrayed every socialist principle and violated nearly all its pre-election pledges. These betrayals were reflected in both its domestic and foreign policies. The direction of Labor Government policy was clearly formulated by a high Labor Party official, Sir Hartley Shawcross, in February 1946:

. . . I take the opportunity of making it quite clear that this government like any other government as an employer, would feel itself perfectly free to take disciplinary action that any strike situation which might develop demanded. . .

The Labor Party had pledged itself not to use troops as strikebreakers. Only six days after coming to power the Labor Government ordered troops to break the strike of the London dock workers. This was repeated three months later. The government also decreed wage freezes and compulsory arbitration.

The principle behind these domestic policies also guided the Labor Party government's action in foreign and colonial affairs. Before dropping the atom bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945, President Truman had obtained the approval of the British Labor Government. The military adventures in Greece, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia, Korea, and elsewhere caused an increase in military spending from 692 million pounds in 1948 to 1032 million pounds in 1951. One hundred and thirty six Spanish anti-fascists were deported into the arms of Franco to certain imprisonment, perhaps torture and death.

The Labor government's defeat in the last general elections was primarily due to the justified disappointment to the workers with its actions and policies while in office. In 1945, Arthur Greenwood (Labor Government Privy Seal) declared:

. . . I look around my colleagues and I see landlords, capitalists and lawyers. We are a cross-section of the national life and this is something that has never happened before. . .

It is impossible for any political party of "Labor" to reach power without concessions to the "right," to the middle class and other groupings thereby violating basic principles. Labor or Socialist parties lose their identity and eventually are found to differ only on relatively minor points from the non or anti-labor contenders for power. Labor Partyism is class collaboration in the political field and it is just as disastrous for the working class as class collaboration on the economic field. There is every reason to believe that the same fate would befall an American Labor Party if one is established. Advocates of a Labor Party in the United States could profit by the lessons of the British Labor Party.

In the competition for votes, the original ideals and principles would be forgotten. The thousands of new officeholders would become a conservative force deeply imbedded in the established order--married to their careers. They would be constrained to establish rapport with the business community, with the agricultural interests, the clergy, with the middle-class whose support they will need for the enactment of measures advanced by them in exchange for like enactment of legislation advanced by other political parties and factions. The Labor Party would be swamped by hordes of lawyers, bourgeois intellectuals, liberal churchmen, politicians. Office seekers and other careerists, who would infiltrate and alter the character of the Labor Party beyond recognition. The honest workers and radical elements would be forced into the background. Of "labor" only the name would remain. The once proud Labor Party would inevitably degenerate into just another party in the machinery of the state. Such, in outline has been the fate of past Labor Party attempts.

In 1871, the 640,000 member National Labor Union, strongly influenced by Marxist ideas, organized a labor party (National Reform Party). Historian Ely writes that the organization "Died of politics." Though written in 1913 by Morris Hiliquit, a founder of the Socialist Party, his assessment confirms our observations and remains relevant:

. . . the fate of the Labor Party was the fate common to all independent political parties formed by American trade unions before and after it. As soon as it acquired appreciable strength, it was invaded by professional politicians, who entangled it in alliances with political parties Its platform was gradually watered, its class character obliterated, its identity obscured, and finally it merged into one of the dominant political parties. . .

Hiliquit thought that his party would escape the same fate. But socialist parties in Italy, France, the United States and elsewhere conclude alliances with, and campaign for, candidates of bourgeois non socialist parties

Matthew Wohl, deceased Vice-President of the AFL (himself a first-rate conniver) in the debate with the labor party bloc at the 1936 convention, in an unguarded moment, let the cat out of the bag:

. . . I have watched these politicians in our movement. I followed their methods and regardless of how they talk of their trade union loyalty, my experience has been that when they enter the political arena they begin to talk like politicians, and very soon thinking like politicians, to the desertion of every trade union activity they pledged themselves to become part of. . .

The various factions inside the American labor movement were always sharply divided on the question of parliamentary action in general and the labor party in particular. There are factions who believe in the class-struggle and also in parliamentary action.

In our opinion, tactics must flow from principles. The tactic of parliamentary action is not compatible with the principle of class struggle. Class struggle in the economic field is not compatible with class collaboration on the political field. This truth has been amply demonstrated throughout the history of the labor movement in every land. Parliamentary action serves only to reinforce the institutions responsible for social injustice--the exploitative economic system and the State.

The strength of the labor movement lies in its economic power. Labor produces all wealth and provides all the services. Only the workers can change the social system fundamentally. To do this, the workers do not need a labor party, since by their economic power they are in a position to achieve the Social Revolution, the indispensable precondition for human-progress. As long as the means of production are in the hands of the few and the many are robbed of the fruits of their labor, any participation in the political skullduggery which has as its sole purpose the maintenance of this system amounts to both tacit and direct support of the system itself. By electoral participation in any form, radicals actually become accomplices in the fraud.

The American labor movement today is reactionary. Almost all the unions are tyrannically controlled by unprincipled bureaucrats, and not a few, by racketeers, whose ethics are those of the predatory social system in which they operate. They practice class collaboration and uphold the doctrine that the interests of the employer and his victims are identical. This is a secret to no one. In the August 1958 issue of Harper's Magazine, Dick Bruner, ex-political staff executive of the CIO, wrote:

The labor movement lacks its own ideas. On many of the most fundamental political and social issues, it is hard to distinguish labor's position from that of the National Association of Manufacturers It has adopted the mass market concept of the big corporations, and its leaders treat the rank-and-file with contempt. . .

Any serious Labor Party that is formed will be under the domination of this corrupt, collaborationist union bureaucracy. The same leaders who repeatedly sold out the workers at the bargaining table will repeat their betrayals in the legislative bodies. Labor Partyism means class collaboration on the political field. The same disastrous results are inevitable since it involves making concessions to classes whose interests are diametrically opposed to the basic interests of the working class. Selig Perlman, the well known bourgeois minded labor historian, in his book, A Theory of the Labor Movement writes:

. . . under no circumstances can labor afford to arouse the fears of the great middle class for the safety of private property as a basic institution Labor needs the support of public opinion, meaning, the middle class, both rural and urban. . .

The middle class, as the name implies, allies itself not only with labor legislators, but also with the military faction, the financial interests, and other anti-labor pressure groups, who also defend private property and also, when the middle class feels that it has something to gain, by allying itself with these interests. The Labor Party will then be forced to support its temporary middle class allies, for fear of retaliation when it needs middle class support to enact some of its own measures. This being the case, labor is bound to lose whatever independence and identity it did have, and eventually become just as corrupt as the old parties.

Those who are beating the drums loudest for the Labor Party are "radicals" of various Marxist or psuedo-marxist groups. These same people will tell you that they too, believe in economic action of the workers and the class-struggle. Some will explain that parliamentary action is necessary to supplement and make economic action more effective. Others, that it is only a gimmick to gain public attention, or free time on television and radio during the nominating and election period.

Nothing could be more dangerous to the worker's cause. Electioneering diverts the attention of the workers away from more militant struggles into essentially counter-revolutionary channels. It undermines confidence in their most effective weapon, their economic power. In his valuable work Anarcho-Syndicalism, Rudolf Rocker, deals with this problem in the following terms. It is worth quoting at length:

. . . all the political rights and liberties which people enjoy today, they do not owe to the good-will of their governments, but to their own strength.... Great mass movements and whole revolutions have been necessary to wrest these liberties from the ruling classes, who would never have consented to them voluntarily. WHAT IS IMPORTANT IS NOT THAT GOVERNMENTS HAVE DECIDED TO CONCEDE CERTAIN RIGHTS TO THE PEOPLE, BUT WHY THEY HAD TO DO SO.

. . . if Anarcho-Syndicalists nevertheless reject participation in national parliaments, it is not because they have no sympathy with the political struggles in general, but because its adherents are of the opinion that this form of activity is the very weakest and most helpless form, of the political struggle for the workers. . .

. . . It is a fact that when socialist labor parties have wanted to achieve some political reforms they could not do so by parliamentary action, but were obliged to rely wholly of the economic fighting power of the workers The political general strikes in Belgium and Sweden for attainment of universal suffrage are proof of this and, in Russia, it was the general strike of 1905 that forced the Czar to sign the new constitution.

It was the recognition of this which impelled the Anarcho-Syndicalists to center their activity on the socialist education of the masses and the utilization of their economic and social power Their method is that of direct action in both the economic and political struggle of the time. . . By direct action they mean any method of the immediate struggle by the workers against economic and political oppression Among these the most outstanding are the strike in all its gradations, from the simple wage struggle to the General Strike, organized boycott and all other economic means which workers as producers have in their hands. . .

While the worker's most effective weapon--direct economic action--is being sharply curtailed, the labor movement is sinking deeper and deeper into the political swamp. Through its Political Action Committees, the unions waste many millions of dollars in political campaigns for "favorable" candidates and lobbying for "favorable" legislation. The National Headquarters of the AFL-CIO as well as most of its affiliated unions are housed in Washington, D.C. close to the seats of power: the White House, the legislative chambers and the governmental bureaus. In the competition for votes, politicians from the President down to the local ward-heeler invite candidates to address their gatherings.

The labor movement is in deep crisis, because to a large extent, the membership is infected with the parliamentary virus. THE LABOR PARTY ILLUSION MUST BE DISPELLED.

Next page: Revolutionary Tendencies in American Labor - Part 1.