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What follows is excerpted from a talk at Oberlin College on March 14, 1998, sponsored by the Oberlin College Labor Party and the Student Labor Action Coalition. It has also been published in Impact Newsletter.
Direct Action And Electoral Action
It is particularly ironic that I should be asked to say a few words to a group interested in the formation of a labor party. Throughout the twentieth century there has been a deep divide within the radical movement in the United States between those who favored direct action, and those who preferred electoral politics. Before World War I this division was between the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the moderate wing of the Socialist Party. In the 1930s and 1940s there was a similar difference, at least in emphasis, between those who favored sit-downs and other direct action to solve problems on the shop floor, and those who leaned to the more legalistic process of NLRB elections and collective bargaining.
During the 1960s some people favored electoral politics and frowned on direct action. Others engaged in direct action and civil disobedience, and considered electoral politics a waste of time. I was of the second persuasion.
...a strong and mature radical movement would use both direct action and electoral politics, as its left and right hands.
However, since the 1960s I have concluded that we were childish to consider these activities to be mutually exclusive. It now seems to me obvious that a strong and mature radical movement would use both direct action and electoral politics, as its left and right hands. One of the best things about the recently formed Labor Party is that it sees the need for both kinds of politics. A recent statement says: "Although we accept electoral politics as an important tactic, we do not see it as the only tool needed to achieve working class power. Unlike other political parties, the Labor Party will be active before and during the elections, building solidarity in our communities, workplaces and unions." (Labor Party Electoral Strategy Committee, Proposal, December 1997, p.1.)
Bureaucratic Electoral Politics and Grassroots Electoral Politics
A division that the new Labor Party has barely begun to overcome is between what I shall call bureaucratic electoral politics and grassroots electoral politics.
When the party was in formation, the bureaucratic tendency expressed itself in the rule which said that only union bodies could vote at the Labor Party conventions and only union officials could hold office in local Labor Parties. We in Youngstown were appalled. The steel mills have shut down in our community, and many of the most militant and visionary folk are involuntary early retirees. In the African American community a majority of young males are unemployed. At the GM plant in Lordstown we had a lively group of chemically disabled workers who could no longer work. A rule limiting participation to union members seemed to us parochial, nay, constipated: it took a narrow trade-union view of things, rather than a class view.
At the first Labor Party convention the bureaucratic tendency expressed itself in the decision not to run candidates. John Sweeney and Richard Trumka were enthusiastic supporters of Bill Clinton, so in order not to offend the AFL-CIO hierarchy, the Labor Party decided not to mount even local candidates.
At the first Labor Party convention the bureaucratic tendency expressed itself in the decision not to run candidates.
Again this was a choice with a history. In the early 1930s there was a strong and almost forgotten movement for a labor party in the United States. Particularly after the 1934 textile strike, when Democratic governors called out the National Guard against striking workers both in New England and in the South, the labor party movement swelled. Numerous central labor bodies and state AFL-CIO conventions endorsed immediate formation of a labor party. At the 1935 AFL national convention, the same formation that launched the CIO, a motion to form a labor party failed only by a few votes.
But in 1936 the labor and radical movements lined up behind Franklin Delano Roosevelt and launched a 60-year marriage with the Democratic Party. The new CIO leaders, John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman, and David Dubinsky, took the lead. In the spring of 1936 they announced the formation of Labor's Nonpartisan League, which derailed labor party candidacies from that year with vague talk abut perhaps forming a labor party in 1938 or 1940. The Socialist and Communist Parties swung into line, the Communists because of their newly adopted "popular front" strategy which sought to unite as many liberal forces as possible against fascism. In retrospect it seems obvious that the movement could have supported Roosevelt nationally while running local Labor Party tickets, but that is not what was done.
Now our new Labor Party is beginning to talk about running candidates, presumably mostly at a local level. But the bureaucratic approach expresses itself yet again in an amazing top-down procedure for approving electoral campaigns. It is proposed that the Labor Party National Council should solicit "applications" for Labor Party electoral campaigns. The Council is to review applications according to "criteria to assess whether a credible campaign can be run." What are those criteria? The first is that the local proposal must have the approval of the "chartered state Labor Party." In addition, each application must contain a "political impact statement" seeking to persuade the national pooh-bahs that the "target district" has sufficient election volunteers, endorsing unions, Labor Party members, credible candidates, and campaign financing "including cash in hand," as well as a campaign committee representing the demographics of the district, a campaign manager, a campaign plan, and the endorsement or support of local community organizations. ("Proposal, December 1997," pp. 2-3)
One fears that by the time such applications can be compiled and acted on, the election is likely to have come and gone.
It is irresponsible to launch a new labor party in this country today without considering what happened in the past to labor parties closely linked to the organized trade union movement.
This approach, which treats running a candidate like applying to the Ford Foundation for a grant, is, in my opinion, disrespectful of working people and a counter-productive approach to building a movement. Let me explain why I feel so strongly.
Labor Party and Trade Unions
In many European countries the terms "labor party" or "social democratic party" historically meant a party with close ties to the organized trade union movement. Not only were union members expected to supply a majority of the party's votes, but the party's platform and tactics were never permitted to go beyond what was acceptable to national trade union officials.
It is irresponsible to launch a new labor party in this country today without considering what happened in the past to labor parties closely linked to the organized trade union movement. The heyday of such parties was in the decades prior to World War I, and the strongest of all such parties was in Germany. The single most traumatic event in the history of the radical movement in the twentieth century-more so than the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, worse than the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the 1980s-was that when World War I began in August 1914 the European labor parties of the kind I have described decided to support their respective national governments. Their deputies in European parliaments voted for war taxes. Despite years of incessantly repeated rhetoric about how they would call the working class into the streets in the event of war, none of these parties did so.
Almost the only socialist party in the world to oppose the war in deed as it had promised to do in words, was the Socialist Party of the United States. The party's leader Eugene Debs was imprisoned for 10 years because of a speech against the war in Canton, Ohio. Countless other socialists, Wobblies, and radicals of all varieties, refused to fight, insisted on circulating anti-war literature, and like Debs served long jail terms.
The reason for this was that the Socialist Party was not as tightly linked to the AFL-which of course did support the war-as its European counterparts were bound to their respective national union bureaucracies.
What must we learn from this? The conclusion I draw is that the trade union movement never has been and is not today genuinely interested in the socialist transformation of capitalist society or in all-out opposition to imperialist war. Trade union leaders are interested in higher wages, shorter hours, and increased dues revenue. Through collective bargaining they become dependent on and end up promoting the financial well-being of the capitalist corporations with which they negotiate. And by a very similar process, in time of war they join hands with the national government whose mission is to preserve the institutional framework of capitalism for that particular society.
Do we not have an obligation to learn from history? Are we not derelict in our duty to the working class if we mindlessly repeat it?
...the trade union movement never has been and is not today genuinely interested in the socialist transformation of capitalist society or in all-out opposition to imperialist war.
Just as we should not create a party that gives the national union leadership a veto over party policies, so we must not devote our main energies to simply increasing the size of the existing unions.
It is an error to equate the mere quantitative increase of trade union membership with the qualitative strengthening of the radical movement. Trade union "density," to use the current catch word, does not determine how militant or radical or even successful in its own terms, a labor movement will be. The French working class staged a national general strike in the fall of 1995 that caused the French government to reverse a number of previously announced neo-liberal policies, although the "density" of the French working class is less than the roughly 10% figure in the US. The next spring, 3,000 brake workers in Dayton went on strike, causing General Motors to shut down all its North American assembly plants and to lay off 175,000 workers. It is simply untrue that an increase in dues-paying union members translates into greater strength for a truly radical labor movement or a truly radical labor party.
The AlternativeBut is there an alternative? Or isn't it the case that when unions play footsy with capitalists, that's because workers want it that way, or when unions become jingoistic supporters of war, this is because their members are super patriots? What makes me think that my approach to workers could result in the creation of a radical social force, committed to the creation of a new society?
To begin with a small point. It is not true that workers supported the Vietnam War. In the years when the media invented the term "hard hats" a higher percentage of workers expressed opposition to the war in national public opinion polls than was the case for members of the middle class. And of course, direct action by workers brought the war to an end. Only two members of the Harvard class of 1970 saw service in Vietnam. It was workers white and black who actually stopped the war by refusing to fight it once they were in Vietnam.
Beyond this, workers in this century have over and over again demonstrated their capacity to organize themselves in decentralized, democratic bodies to make themselves felt in time of crisis. The Russian working class was certainly as backward, illiterate, patriarchal, anti-Semitic, and alcoholic, as any group of workers elsewhere. But in 1905 and again in 1917, to the astonishment of the self-appointed Russian vanguard parties, memorably described in John Reed's Ten Days That Shook The World, they actually made the Russian Revolution.
In Spain in the 1930s, Spanish workers and peasants seized their factories and farms and administered them in a decentralized, communal manner in the midst of civil war. You can read about this in George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. In his poem Looking Back On The Spanish Civil War, Orwell wrote of these workers and peasants, with whom he served at the front:Your name and your needs were forgotten
Before your bones were dry,
And the lie that slew you is buried
Under a deeper lie;
But the thing that I saw in your face
No power can disinherit;
No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit.
Similarly in 1956 in Hungary workers took over the country through self-organized workers' councils. Had the Soviet army not invaded and suppressed their revolt, they would have completed a successful revolution. As it was, they left us the imperishable image of teenagers digging up bricks from the paved streets, and hurling them at oncoming Soviet tanks.
Finally, in Poland in 1980-1981 workers won a general strike of shipyard workers in Gdansk, organized themselves outside the official trade union movement of that country, and set out to democratize Polish industry. They failed, partly because of martial law, and partly because of the blandishments of neo-liberalism. From their efforts I recall especially an incident a visitor to Youngstown described some years ago. It seems that in the Polish city of Lodz, the teachers had grievances that caused them to want to strike. The working class of the community decided that they did not wish their children's education to be interrupted. So steelworkers struck to achieve resolution of the teachers' grievances.
...workers in this century have over and over again demonstrated their capacity to organize themselves in decentralized, democratic bodies to make themselves felt in time of crisis.
There is enough out there in the way of decentralized, horizontally organized, solidarity unionism, to cause one to go about all other aspects of movement building in the same spirit. This would mean letting local groups decide for themselves when and how to launch Labor Party electoral campaigns. It would mean doing this, not because there would be no mistakes or regrettable candidacies, but because bureaucrats at the center are just as mistake-prone as anyone else. Local groups should be free to find their own way, in electoral candidacies as in all else.