The fight for a mass workers’ party in the US

Millions of workers and youth in the US are fed up with the two parties of the capitalist class: the Republicans and the Democrats. The lack of a mass working-class party leaves voters with little real choice: either vote for one of the ruling class’s parties; cast a protest vote for a tiny third party; or abstain altogether. But why is there no mass workers’ party in the US? Why have past attempts to build one failed? What lessons can we learn from history to change this in the future?

By reviewing the major political battles in the history of the US class struggle, Tom Trottier shows that workers in this country have taken the road of class independence many times before—only to be held back and betrayed by leaders and organizations that were not up to the tasks before them. By drawing out the lessons from these struggles and learning from the mistakes that were made, a new generation of revolutionaries can prepare for the turbulent times ahead.

“I believe that the consistency and continuity of our program are unquestionable. Events have vindicated us time and again and continue to do so. If our program obliges us to maneuver energetically in a constantly changing environment, among unparalleled difficulties, that is not our fault. We do not choose the conditions under which we must function any more than we choose our own parents.”

— Leon Trotsky

“The first task of the Marxists is to work out correct ideas, policies, program, and perspectives. The second task, even more complicated and difficult than the first, is to find the way to link up the scientific program of Marxism with the necessarily unfinished, confused and contradictory movement of the masses. If we fail to establish this link, we become a sect, neither more nor less.”

— Alan Woods

Every election year, and especially when the presidency is at stake, millions of Americans are dissatisfied with the “choice” between the Republicans and the Democrats. Although these parties may have different policies on a number of issues, they are united on the following fundamentals:

  1. They are both staunch defenders of the declining capitalist system, a system based on private ownership of the key levers of production, distribution, and exchange. This does not include personal property and consumer goods like cars, clothes, a family home, etc.
  2. They both defend the domestic and international interests of the American capitalist class. Although they may at times favor this or that sector of the capitalists at the expense of other parts of that class, their ultimate aim is to represent the long-term interests of the capitalists as a whole.
  3. They demagogically appeal to different layers of the workers, but do not represent or defend the interests of the working class—even though it is our class that makes up the overwhelming majority of society.

Some people complain about the “two-party system,” but we don’t think this is the main issue. The real issue is that the working class does not yet have its own party and this should be one of the main parties—whether there are two political parties or ten.

The dominance of the two bourgeois parties is a feature of the rule of the US capitalist class. Frederick Engels commented about this in 1891:

“Nowhere do “politicians” form a more separate and powerful section of the nation than precisely in North America. There, each of the two major parties which alternately succeed each other in power is itself in turn controlled by people who make a business of politics, who speculate on seats in the legislative assemblies of the Union as well as of the separate states, or who make a living by carrying on agitation for their party and on its victory are rewarded with positions (Engels, Introduction to the Civil War in France).”

As Engels’s comment explains, this includes not only party functionaries, but also lobbyists and those who receive government contacts and funds, including in today’s world, many so-called NGOs. The frustration felt by many workers due to the lack of a mass party representing them grows even greater when there are big protest movements. The massive movement against police brutality that developed in 2020 around the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, led many to search for a viable political expression—but there is none. The lack of a mass workers’ party leaves people with little real choice: vote for one of the ruling class’s parties, cast a protest vote for a tiny third party, or abstain altogether.

So why is there no mass workers’ party in the US? Why have past attempts to build one failed? What lessons can we learn from history to change this in the future?

The class struggle: political, economic, and theoretical battles

The working class develops class consciousness through its experience in the class struggle. The history of the class struggle includes the innumerable fights by workers to build unions and other mass organizations such as tenants’ organizations. However, the class struggle also includes political struggle, and the building of a working-class party is part of that battle.

The establishment of a mass working-class party represents a qualitative stage in the development of the class struggle, whereby a large section of workers see themselves as a class with their own interests opposed to the bosses’. A political party generalizes the collective struggle of all the workers against the concerted interests of all the capitalists. In countries where mass workers’ parties exist, the working class has alternated its struggles in the workplace and on the streets with battles on the electoral front.

Friedrich Engels portrait colored Artistosteles Wikimedia CommonsIn the 1890s, Engels advised German-American workers to unite with English speakers in the fight for a mass socialist party / Image: Artistosteles, Wikimedia Commons

The establishment of a mass workers’ party means that workers are no longer forced to place demands on the ruling class, but rather, can work to support their party coming to power against the capitalist parties. The program of such a party would be what the workers want implemented as the policies of a workers’ government. Even if they are not politically clear on many issues or points, when a mass workers’ party exists, those workers who vote for it and support it begin to see themselves as a class fighting for power. The building of such a party is a process that includes objective factors and the subjective decisions of the leading figures in the movement. The leaders’ decisions and actions can make or break a party at certain historical moments. This is why theoretical struggle is just as important as political and economic struggle, and is absolutely key to the victory of the workers.

What is a mass workers’ party?

The “Old Bolshevik” Gregory Zinoviev wrote: “For us a party is, I repeat, a party of a particular class, which has arisen from its depths and has linked its fate with it.” To Zinoviev’s definition we would add that a mass workers’ party would have substantial support in the class as a whole. Today, 11% of the labor force is organized in trade unions. While that is not a majority, it still includes many millions, so we identify the unions as mass organizations.

As another example, we would not call the Green Party in the US a mass party, as it does not have substantial support in the population. We would also not call it a small workers’ party, as it is not a part of and did not arise from the working class. This is not to say that there are no workers in it. However, it is primarily a party reflecting the interests of a segment of the petty bourgeoisie, not the expression of any significant part of the working class.

tommy douglas Image Themightyquill Wikimedia CommonsTommy Douglas was the first leader of the Canadian NDP. Under pressure from the party, the Canadian ruling class conceded reforms like universal healthcare / Image: Themightyquill, Wikimedia Commons

In short, mass parties emerge from mass forces, and the class character of a party is a reflection of the class forces that control and lead it. A workers’ party can arise in different ways. In much of the English-speaking world, trade unions were built which, in turn, eventually formed a labor party—such as the Labour Party in Britain or the New Democratic Party in Canada, as well as other examples in Australia and New Zealand. In other countries, like France and Germany, Socialist and Communist Parties were built in advance of, or in conjunction with, the building of the unions and became mass forces.

Canada provides an instructive example. In Canada, there was a reformist socialist organization known as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) which was founded in 1932. In the late 1950s, the CCF began to negotiate with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the Canadian version of the AFL-CIO. The result of the negotiations was the establishment of the NDP in 1961, with Tommy Douglas as its first leader.

Up to this point, the Canadian ruling class had two parties: the Liberals and the Tories. The fact that the CLC decided it wanted to have its own political party rather than support the “lesser-evil” Liberals or Tories was a giant step forward. The NDP became the political arm of the organized working class.

The capitalists then had to take this party into account in their governing policies. Their attempt to keep the NDP in third place in elections meant conceding reforms like universal healthcare during the postwar boom. However, the leaders of the NDP always had a reformist outlook. The crisis of capitalism is also the crisis of reformism, and the NDP leadership has accommodated their policies to the limitations of a declining system. Therefore, it is no mystery that, for now, the NDP is not attracting radical youth and advanced workers to its banner, and has lost support. They would need a major move to the left to change this trajectory.

The historic interests of the working class

As Marxists, we would argue that to fully and truly represent the interests of the workers, a labor party must represent the historic interests of the working class. That is, it must be committed to advancing the class struggle, to leading the working class to power internationally as well as at home, bringing an end to capitalism, and opening the path to world socialism. To be true to the working class, it must be armed with the ideas of Marxism, which represent the interests of the only historically progressive class in society.

putilov plant petrograd meeting of workers july 1920 Image picryl comTo fully and truly represent the interests of the workers, a labor party must represent the historic interests of the working class. It must be committed to advancing the class struggle and to leading the working class to power / Image:

However, we recognize that such a party will not emerge ready-made, complete with a revolutionary Marxist program. Nonetheless, in the context of the US, any mass workers’ party, even without a Marxist leadership, would be a giant step forward compared with the present situation. Marxists would support the creation of such a party and be an enthusiastic part of it.

We should also be clear that a mass workers’ party with a reformist leadership would contain within it an internal battle between those who fight for the class interests of the workers, and those who reflect the pressure of the big bourgeois and the petty bourgeois—i.e., a battle between revolution and reformism; between class independence and class collaboration.

Even if elements within the party have illusions in alien class ideas and interests, a mass workers’ party would still be qualitatively different from bourgeois parties like the Democrats and Republicans. Parties, and especially workers’ parties, are not static entities but are in continual flux and change. The balance of forces in such parties changes over time depending on events and whether a strong Marxist current exists in the party and the working class.

Past efforts to build a mass workers’ party in the US

There have been a number of attempts throughout history to build a mass workers’ party in the US, but even the more successful efforts have always been cut across before the task was completed and consolidated. These movements faced both objective and subjective obstacles, as will future efforts in this direction. However, if we study these past examples, it can help us overcome these obstacles in the future.

There have been times when the American working class seemed to follow in the footsteps of the workers in the English-speaking world: build unions first, followed by the unions forming a labor party. There have also been historical trends where there was the potential for the development of a mass socialist and even a mass communist party.

Before examining these experiences, it is important to understand that three main objective factors have proven consistent obstacles to the construction of a mass party of the working class:

  1. The role of the petty bourgeoisie and of populism
  2. Systemic racism
  3. The vagaries of the economic cycle

Until the late 1800s, the class balance of forces was not as favorable to the working class. The large population of small farmers, business owners, and artisan producers—particularly in the expansive West—was fertile ground for the amorphous cross-class confusion of populism from both the left and the right. Due to its place in society, the petty bourgeoisie is known for its erratic political confusion and vacillation. Squeezed in a class vice between the workers and big capital, it tails either the workers or the bourgeoisie but cannot play a consistent, independent role.

small farmers Image Russell Lee New York Public LibraryIn 1860 roughly 53% of the labor force was engaged in agriculture. By 1900, just under 40% of the US population lived on farms. / Image: Russell Lee, New York Public Library

In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, roughly 53% of the labor force was engaged in agriculture. By the early 1900s, the end of slavery and the country’s rapid industrialization created a much larger working class, and it became the economically dominant part of the population. In 1900, just under 40% of the US population lived on farms and 60% lived in rural areas. Today, the respective figures are only about 1% and 20%. The class balance of forces is overwhelmingly in favor of the urban working class. Nonetheless, due to the lack of a mass workers’ party and the role of the labor leaders, the petty bourgeoisie makes more noise than their real weight in society, and there is plenty of scope for the confusion of both left and right populism.

Racism has always played a pernicious role in dividing the working class and the labor movement, and it has been consciously fomented by the ruling class. Racial divisions have hamstrung the development of organized labor and cut across the development of class consciousness. Generally speaking, however, when the working class is on the offensive, racism tends to weaken. And although racism continues to be a serious problem, past struggles like the Civil Rights Movement and present struggles like Black Lives Matter have made inroads against this poison dividing the working class.

As for the economic cycle, the overall growth and development of US capitalism from the late 1700s until the early 1970s helped to provide a relatively acceptable standard of living for a large section of the working class, at least when compared to workers in other countries. Several historical efforts to build a labor party were cut across by booms in the economic cycle. However, we live in a very different situation today, with capitalism in the midst of a long and painful decline and the workers made to bear the brunt of the system’s crisis.

The above three objective factors are significant but do not exhaust the question. Other obstacles play a role; for example, the social weight of the two dominant parties, their skill at co-opting social movements, and the issue of ballot access. However, with their system in a severe crisis, there are limits to how long the capitalists can use these parties to dupe the masses. As for ballot access, you don’t need a mass party to get on the ballot, although you do need a solid core of organizers and a solid base of support around them.

Some argue that because the US does not have proportional representation, this also prevents us from building a workers’ party. Although proportional representation would make it easier to start such a party, neither Canada nor Great Britain have proportional elections and workers in both countries succeeded in building mass labor parties.

There were also subjective factors—the question of working-class leadership—that served as obstacles at key historical moments. Examples of this will be examined later. However, let us first examine where the main objective factors stand today.

Majority rule?

As seen above, the class balance of forces is overwhelmingly on the side of the working class. The working class has been the majority of American society since the early 1900s, but as capitalism has continued for another 100-plus years, it has created even more of its “gravediggers.”

The US Department of Labor reports that in August 2020, there were roughly 2,259,000 people employed in agriculture, which included 1,457,000 wage and salary workers, 788,000 self-employed, and 14,000 unpaid family workers. Contrast this with the 144,965,000 who were employed in non-agricultural industries, with 136,073,000 of them wage and salary workers, while only 8,815,000 were self-employed and 77,000 were unpaid family workers.

workers working Image Washington State Department of Transportation FlickrThe working class has been the majority of American society since the early 1900s. In August 2020 there were 136,073,000 wage and salary workers in non-agricultural industries / Image: Washington State Department of Transportation, Flickr

These statistics indicate that even in agriculture, the working class is the majority. In addition, among wage and salary workers only a small minority are top management or highly compensated professionals, and the vast majority are non-supervisory workers. Professions such as teaching are heavily unionized, and unions are growing among sections of doctors and lawyers, who are much less likely to be self-employed than they were in the past.

A petty-bourgeois academic might object that, “Yes, there are many workers in the US, but they are not class conscious.” It is true that thanks to the current crop of labor leaders, class consciousness has been thrown back as compared to the past. And yet, a Gallup poll from the summer of 2020 found that 65% of Americans approve of labor unions, while just 30% disapprove. The further development of class consciousness is a function of the class struggle, including the political struggle. The fight for a mass workers’ party will consolidate class consciousness, and the party itself will expand such an understanding by turning bourgeois elections into a contest between the two principal social classes.

The struggle against racism

The capitalist class needed slaves and immigrant labor to build their system in North America and Europe. This was true in the early Colonial period and continued after the American Revolution. Racism and white supremacy were nurtured and fomented by the ruling class to justify slavery as well as wage labor, and to keep the masses divided.

The American Revolution ended with the uneasy sharing of power between the rising bourgeois in the North and the slave plantation owners in the South. But capitalism’s inexorable drive to expand its profits and territory on the basis of wage labor conflicted with the competing interests of the Southern slavocracy. The result was the Civil War and Reconstruction, which represented a continuation of the American Revolution. This destroyed chattel slavery and established legal equality, but did not lead to equality of life and prosperity for the former slaves. The counterrevolutionary betrayal of Radical Reconstruction led to the long nightmare of Jim Crow. Racism was used to divide the working class and to find scapegoats for the miseries of capitalism.

George Floyd Uprising BLM Protest Fist Black Lives Matter Image Lorie Shaull FlickrThe huge Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020 united many workers and youth across racial lines / Image: Lorie Shaull, Flickr

The ruling classes of the world have long understood that if they can successfully pit one section of the exploited against another, the masses will be powerless to unite against their common enemy—the exploiters. The American ruling class knew that if they could get workers to define themselves as “white” instead of “worker,” they would identify more with their boss than with “non-white” workers—or that at the very least it would frustrate united class action. Black workers were excluded from many jobs by the capitalists, except when there was a strike—in which case they were brought in as scabs to keep production moving and sow even more division. While arguing for solidarity, many unions excluded Black workers and did nothing to fight racism, playing right into the hands of the capitalists.

Black workers were excluded from many unions until the 1930s. In that decade, the movement to organize the unorganized and build the CIO began to break down racial divisions in the workforce. The Civil Rights movement in the 1960s also played a huge role in further integrating unions and workplaces. In the 1960s, unions like the teachers, UAW, and 1199 healthcare workers supported the movement.

History shows that when the working class does not struggle, the poison of racism can rise, but when the battles begin, there is a tendency towards unity and a decline in this prejudice. The huge Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020 united many workers and youth across racial lines.

Racism continues to be a major problem and will not be defeated until capitalism is completely eradicated. However, past and present movements have weakened racism. It is not as strong as it was in the 1920s or even in the early 1950s. In the 1920s, the KKK could march unopposed through Washington, DC. Let them try that today!

Though its poison remains, and can become even more virulent in the aftermath of defeats or betrayals, racism is less of an impediment to the building of a mass workers’ party now than it was in the past. The movement to build such a party will have to make it clear that unity of the working class can only be achieved by fighting against this hideous tool of the bosses.

Marxists must be at the forefront of the struggle against racism and for unity of the working class. We oppose all attempts to divide workers, including the confused and reactionary tool of “identity politics,” which the ruling class has used since long before it was given that label.

strike heart racisim Image Joe Piette FlickrTo strike at the heart of racism, a mass workers’ party must at the very least demand a $1,000 per week guaranteed minimum wage, full employment, and a 20-hour workweek / Image: Joe Piette, Flickr

Identity politics aims to make people think that a particular group—whether based on ethnicity, race, gender, or sexual identity—have more in common with each other across class lines than they do with those in their own class. This leads to divisions in the working class and to workers following the lead of capitalist politicians.

The working class must stand for unity based on a class-based fight against all forms of discrimination. To win a workers’ government and a new basis for society, the question of the program is key.

To strike at the heart of racism, a mass workers’ party worthy of the name must at the very least demand a $1,000 per week guaranteed minimum wage, full employment, and a 20-hour workweek. It must fight for massive investment to repair and expand infrastructure, public transit, housing, schools, hospitals, parks, and recreation centers, beginning in those neighborhoods with the highest unemployment. Union hiring halls should be opened in these neighborhoods and workers should be paid at union scale with union working conditions and protections. Free universal health care, education, and a cap on rent at 10% of wages would benefit all workers, but it would have its greatest impact on the lowest-paid layers of the working class. And to pay for all of this, the Fortune 500 should be expropriated without compensation and operated under democratic workers’ control.

The period of capitalist prosperity and “American Exceptionalism”

After the American Revolution, and especially after the Civil War, the US grew into the world’s most powerful imperialist country. This domination reached its pinnacle after World War II, with the postwar boom stretching into the early 1970s. The upward trajectory of US capitalism for more than 180 years, topped off with superprofits from foreign plunder, allowed the ruling class to provide some concessions and a higher standard of living to some sections of the working class. This was used to reinforce support for the two main capitalist parties and cut across the development of a mass workers’ party. The American bourgeois—along with many on the “left”—believed in and fomented the idea of “American Exceptionalism.”

The devastating Great Depression of the 1930s, and the destruction and slaughter of 70 million people worldwide in World War II served to “reset” the system, allowing the capitalists to temporarily overcome the inherent contradiction of overproduction. But the shores of North America are not exempt from the laws of capitalism, and as the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end.” The postwar boom was an exception, not the rule—and it inevitably led to overcapacity and overproduction. Beginning in the 1970s and continuing to today, the era of concessions and reforms was over, and the bosses went on the offensive to attack wages, benefits, working conditions, and labor unions.

The worldwide slump of 1973–76 signaled the end of the postwar boom, but the dramatic expansion of debt over the following three decades postponed a further massive decline. But this, too, came to an end with the crisis of 2008–09.

The period that has opened up since then is one in which the relative “stability and prosperity” of capitalism is over. The “new normal” of capitalism is the “old normal”—crisis, instability, and open clashes of the class struggle in a world more interconnected than ever. All workers are under attack, but this is particularly true for working-class youth. Young people are forced into enormous debt to pay for their education and end up with low-paying jobs—if they are lucky enough to find work at all. Many are forced to live with their parents well into their 30s.

The organic crisis of the system means that the Republicans and Democrats can no longer provide the kinds of “reforms” that cut across the development of a mass workers’ party in the past. At the moment, there is no serious movement in the direction of such a party, but the need for one will come roaring to the forefront on the basis of the crises and struggles that will unfold over the coming period.

The 1880s and the running of labor candidates

The betrayal of millions of former slaves in a dirty deal between the Republicans and Democrats over the 1876 presidential election coincided with a major economic crisis. The Panic of 1873 triggered a depression that lasted half a decade. Approximately one out of every five workers was unemployed in 1877. It should be remembered that unions at this time functioned as underground organizations, given the vicious hostility of the employers and their government.

the great railway strike Image G J Nebinger picryl comThe Great Railroad Strike of 1877 involved thousands of workers around the country. In St. Louis, the movement evolved into a general strike / Image: G.J. Nebinger,

Yet conditions forced the working class to take action, despite the unfavorable legal situation. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 started in July of that year in West Virginia, but it quickly spread beyond that state and involved thousands of workers around the country. In St. Louis, the movement evolved into a general strike. The strike was defeated with repression, particularly with the use of federal troops. However, the defeat eventually pushed the working class from industrial action to political action. The labor movement at this time was mainly made up of revolutionary socialists and an organization called the Knights of Labor. Soon, farmers struggling against big business joined with labor in the “Greenback Party.”

As explained in Labor’s Untold Story:

“In the fall of 1878 some 1,000,000 votes were cast for Greenback-Labor candidates for Congress, fifteen of whom were elected, six from the East, six from the Midwest, and three from the South. The Congressional vote for the Greenback-Labor candidates in Pennsylvania was almost 14% of the total vote, and the largest part of it came from the so-called Molly Maguire counties in anthracite [coal].”

There was yet another depression from 1883 to 1885. This was followed by more strikes and the movement for the eight-hour day, culminating with the 1886 May Day demonstration at Haymarket, Chicago. The repression against the demonstrators—with four leaders hanged by the state, one driven to suicide, and others imprisoned—led to a series of labor candidates running for office that year.

The 1886 elections

The young labor movement decided to stand independent candidates in the midterm elections across the US that year. There were independent labor candidates for Congress in 13 states: Maine, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Kansas, and Washington State. In addition, many other labor candidates ran as independents for state legislature and city government.

One of the most interesting campaigns that year took place in the NYC mayoral election. Today, the NYC Central Labor Council has 1.3 million members and more than 400 different union locals affiliated to it. In 1886, the forerunner to the Central Labor Council was much smaller in numbers, but the leadership had a more courageous and class-conscious approach to politics. The election would be in November, but as late as August 1886, they brought the unions together to form the United Labor Party (ULP) in NYC. The labor movement decided to run socialist Henry George for NYC Mayor. George was not a Marxist, but he had proposed a “land tax” as a solution to poverty.[1]

ulp ran socialist Image New York Public LibraryThe ULP ran socialist Henry George for NYC Mayor in 1886 / Image: New York Public Library

Despite the last-minute establishment of the ULP, it came in second place. The Tammany Hall Democrats, who had tight control over the city and government patronage, won with 41%. But Henry George received 31%, and the Republican candidate and future president Teddy Roosevelt came in third with less than 28%.

Unfortunately, the ULP disappeared due to infighting and factionalism, as there were battles between Marxists, Georgeists, and workers influenced by the Catholic Church. The fundamental reason that the labor candidates of 1886 did not solidify into a national party was the general weakness of the labor movement and of the Marxists at the time, coupled with the fact that capitalism was still growing and in its historically progressive phase.

It bears noting that the forces of Marxism were concentrated among German immigrants, many of whom were very sectarian, reflecting their insular approach. They wanted to organize only among German workers in the US, without connecting with other American workers. Frederick Engels even suggested that they should translate some of their publications into English, which would allow other workers to understand them. Though he tried, Frederick Engels failed to convince them to break with this approach.

When the capitalists’ parties were faced with workers’ struggles or competition in the elections, they had room for small reforms to win over sections of the working class and this would cut across the movement toward class-independent parties. In addition, large parts of the working class were first-generation immigrants, and the capitalists used these differences to stifle class organization.

Especially in the large cities of the East and Midwest, the capitalists relied on ethnic politics, similar to today’s “identity politics.” This is the idea that German immigrants must stick together and elect German-American politicians, with the Irish doing the same, and so on. These ideas divide the working class by inviting workers to “unite” with the bourgeois and petty bourgeois of “their” ethnic group. This, of course, was augmented by a large dose of racism against Black workers.

The 1890s also saw the development of the Populist Party, also called the “People’s Party.” This party was mainly based on farmers, who still made up a large part of the US population. It also won support from the United Mine Workers of America and the Knights of Labor.

But since the Populist Party was based on the rural, small-holding petty bourgeois, its ideology was necessarily reformist and did not challenge capitalism per se. This meant that the growth of the Populist Party could be accommodated by the Democrats. In 1896, the Democrats nominated Williams Jennings Bryan, who successfully absorbed the Populists, and they gradually disappeared.

The Socialist Party of America

In 1889, Frederick Engels and other leading socialists founded the Second International, also known as the Socialist International. This grouping brought together socialist parties from 24 countries, mostly concentrated in Europe but also including the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) in the US.

The SLP and its main leader, Daniel DeLeon, tended to be sectarian in their approach. This party had originated among the German immigrants, of whom Engels had been critical. In a letter to a US comrade Florence Kelly, Engels wrote:

“What the Germans [German-American socialists] ought to do is to act up to their own theory—if they understand it, as we did in 1845 and 1848—to go in for any real general working-class movement, accept its faktische [actual] starting points as such and work it gradually up to the theoretical level by pointing out how every mistake made, every reverse suffered, was a necessary consequence of mistaken theoretical views in the original program; they ought, in the words of The Communist Manifesto, to represent the movement of the future in the movement of the present.”

This was an impediment to building a larger and more influential socialist party in the United States. In 1901, a split from the SLP that wanted to connect with the broader working class merged with another group, called the Social Democratic Party, and founded the Socialist Party of America (SP). The SP linked up with the Second International and its mass parties in Europe, which helped to build up its forces.

victor Berger Image Harris Ewing Library of CongressVictor Berger, a leading right-wing reformist, was elected to congress on the SP line / Image: Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress

The Socialist Party of America included Marxists, as well as other tendencies in the movement. When it began, the SP had more than 7,000 members in 226 branches in 25 states, out of a total US population of around 76 million. Eight years later, the party grew to 40,000 members in 46 states. By the start of 1918, after the Bolshevik Revolution and in the midst of the terrible world imperialist war, membership had increased to 81,000 and then to 108,000 in 1919.

The SP also had some measure of electoral success. It was able to elect two congressmen on its party’s line: Victor Berger from Wisconsin and Meyer London from New York. The SP also elected many mayors, city councilors, and state legislators around the country, including the five New York State assemblymen who were expelled from the legislature in 1920 during the Red Scare.

The SP ran Eugene Debs for president four times, and in 1912, he received 6% of the national vote, his highest percentage. This was at a time when women, men below the age of 21, Native Americans, and most Black men could not vote. Also, many SP supporters were immigrants who were not yet US citizens and therefore could not vote. In 1920, Debs won nearly one million votes even though he could not campaign, as he was in federal prison for the crime of speaking against the US government’s participation in World War I. It should also be noted that the socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, which was not owned by the SP but was aligned with it, had a circulation of an astonishing 550,000 copies per week at its height in 1910.

In addition to the elections won by SP candidates, the party also contested many other elections. Even when they lost, these campaigns provided a platform for spreading the ideas of socialism. This helped attract new members and educated the working class as a whole, particularly when the candidates were from the party’s left wing, like Debs himself. This was an important factor in their growth from 7,000 to more than 100,000 members. Even if they lost the election, the vote for the SP was a way to measure the growing political consciousness of the working class, which does not develop in a straight line..

Could the Socialist Party of America have developed into a mass party?

In retrospect it is clear that, with a correct approach, the SP could have developed into a mass party. If it had held itself together on a principled basis, it could have built up its core membership and influence in the trade unions, and when the events of the 1930s unfolded, it would have been poised to become a mass party. This, along with correct policies, could have put it in a position to lead the working class to victory. This did not happen. What went wrong?

A working-class political party should be democratic and open to orderly internal debate. The point of a political party is not to have constant discussion and debate for its own sake, but to use debates to educate the membership, clarify the party’s perspectives and program, and show the broader working class the way forward. It should use debate to raise the theoretical understanding of the membership. When the party makes mistakes, debates should allow it to correct them and reorient itself.

eugene debs Image Wikimedia CommonsEugene Debs led the SP’s revolutionary wing and ran for president four times / Image: Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, the SP had different factions, but it did not have the kind of internal life required to attain principled unity. In the period from 1901 to 1919, it could be described as “unprincipled unity” or “a big tent.” Although alliances of different tendencies can exist for a period, eventually real events will break this type of party into pieces. World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution were two big events that led to splits in the SP and sent its remains to the land of sectarianism.

There was always a right-wing reformist faction in the SP, as well as a revolutionary wing. Victor Berger, a friend of German socialist renegade Karl Kautsky, was a leading right-wing reformist. Debs was a leader in the revolutionary wing. In a 1908 newspaper interview, Debs explained that an SP government would take over the big-business trusts without compensation, while Victor Berger stated that the SP would pay for any industries that the government takes over.

There were other important issues that highlighted the divisions in the party. The party’s policy on fighting racism was not what it should have been and what was needed. The SP essentially said that racism would fade away after the revolution, putting the present struggle against racism to one side. They failed to put forward a specific program and strategy to eliminate Jim Crow, and did not understand that the only way to achieve working-class unity and win power is to be at the forefront in the active fight against racist terror and segregation.

There were also divisions on party policy and the orientation to the AFL and IWW. Some SP members were fighting for socialist ideas among the AFL’s rank-and-file members. Others would have nothing to do with the AFL and only wanted to build the left-wing IWW, which had only a fraction of the AFL membership. This reflected an ultraleft approach, because most American workers were not members of the IWW. Additionally, as of April 1917, there were serious differences on what the SP policy should be on the question of the US participation in the imperialist war. The left wing and those connected with German-Americans were against US intervention. The right wing supported intervention once the US ruling class decided to enter the war.

Eugene Debs was without a doubt one of the most outstanding socialist and labor leaders in US history. But he did not play the leadership role in the SP that history demanded of him. When there were contentious debates in the party, Debs would recuse himself and let the various members fight it out. Nothing would really get resolved. Contrast this to Lenin, who always used political and organizational debates to raise the theoretical level of the party members and clarify the issues at hand. Even when this led to splits, those who remained emerged stronger. Engels explained that the party strengthens itself through splits—provided they are carried out in a way that raises the political understanding of the membership. Unfortunately, the SP’s approach reflected the narrow pragmatism of the US ruling class, and Marxist theory was not treated as a priority within the party.

It should also be noted that the break up of the Socialist International in 1914 had its reflection in the SP, but these splits mainly occurred in the US in 1919. In that year, there were two major splits of the left wing from the SP, followed by another split in 1921. From that point on, the SP lost membership rapidly, and by 1923, it had just 23,000 members.

The three splits from the SP eventually came together to form the Communist Party (CP).[2] Eugene Debs never joined the CP—both due to his own political limitations and because of mistakes made by the early CP—but he did lend some support to the CP’s International Labor Defense campaign. Debs died in October 1926.

The SP never regained its former strength. But in the 1930s, it started to attract a layer of workers and young people who were radicalizing and did not want to join the Stalinized CP. The American Trotskyists then joined the SP and were able to connect with them. But after the SP leaders expelled the left wing, the party became a tiny sect. It formally died in 1972, after another three-way split.[3]

The Communist Party in the 1920s

As was mentioned above, the left wing in the Socialist Party of America split away in 1919, which led to the formation of two Communist Parties. They eventually merged into one party with help from the Communist International (Comintern). Yet another split from the SP joined with the Communists in 1921.

The early CP was up to its neck in ultraleftism, which itself was a reaction against the pro-capitalist policies of the AFL leadership and the opportunism of the right wing of the Socialist Party. Their ultraleftism can be seen in how they split away from the SP. If they had a correct approach, the left wing of the SP would have organized as a tendency within the party, fighting politically to win a majority. They might have won, but even if they had lost this battle and been expelled, they could have won over more people in and around the SP by maintaining an orientation to it.

Comintern2ndcongress Image Wikimedia CommonsIn its early years, the Comintern was a school to educate the young leadership of the Communist Parties around the world / Image: Wikimedia Commons

Instead, one of the left factions was in a rush to split from the SP and the other one followed them shortly thereafter. They then took a sectarian position toward the Socialists. As an example, when Debs ran for president in 1920, the CP did not support him, even though they did not have a candidate in the election. It should be understood that from 1917 to the day that he died, Debs was an enthusiastic supporter of the October Revolution. The mistaken approach to the 1920 elections led to bitter feelings and undermined the Communist effort to recruit Debs, who would have been a giant addition to the early Communist movement in the US.

There were many obstacles that the early Communist Party needed to overcome, but the root of the problem was that the leadership needed to be trained in Marxist theory and apply this to the question of party building. They needed to build a leadership team at the top, united on a principled basis. Instead, they had a leadership divided into three main factions and, as we will see, none of them really understood the Marxist method—although the factions around James Cannon and William Z. Foster were healthier in some respects than the other main faction, the Ruthenberg-Lovestone-Pepper faction.[4]

In its early years, the Comintern was a school to educate the young leadership of all the Communist Parties around the world. Lenin and Trotsky were excellent and patient teachers, and the resolutions, speeches, and debates of the first four Congresses of the Communist International remain a treasure trove of material that can be used to educate Marxists today. However, the beginnings of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state and the Bolshevik Party, combined with the role of Zinoviev, Bukharin, and Stalin in this period, cut across the development of the CP.

Communists and the Farmer-Labor Party movement in the early 1920s

After World War I, the unions started to grow. There was an increase in strikes and some major organizing drives, particularly in the steel industry. There were also important political developments in the labor movement. The Conference for Progressive Political Action (CPPA) was founded in 1922. It was an initiative of the railway worker unions to reach out to other workers and farmers. The SP and the CP also got involved in this effort. The majority of the CPPA did not favor creating a workers’ party. They had a strategy of supporting a “labor bloc” of “progressive” Democrats and Republicans such as the Republican Senator Robert La Follette from Wisconsin. The initiative also permitted other candidates in the bloc to run independently of the two bourgeois parties, and in Minnesota they could run on the Farmer-Labor Party (FLP) ticket.

In the CPPA, contradictory pressures were at work. There was pressure from the working class to develop its own party reflecting its class interests. This was in the context of the aftermath of the world war and the viciousness of capitalism. It also reflected the various revolutions that unfolded worldwide after the war, with the October Revolution as the glowing example of the first workers’ state. On the other hand, there was constant pressure from the American ruling class, through its various institutions, for labor leaders to think and conduct labor politics within the framework of American capitalism and its established political system and parties.

majority of cppa Image Harris Ewing Wikimedia CommonsThe majority of the CPPA supported “progressive” Democrats and Republicans such as GOP Senator Robert La Follette / Image: Harris & Ewing, Wikimedia Commons

In early 1923, the left wing of the CPPA split away, grouped around the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) and those advocating for a national Farmer-Labor Party. The CP had ties to both of these groupings. The plan was to form this new party at a Chicago convention in July 1923. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers and three other national unions sent delegates. The CFL and several other central labor councils also joined this initiative, along with the West Virginia Federation of Labor. There were also nearly 250 trade union locals and farmers’ organizations represented, as well as 125 “fraternal societies.”

We must clarify the issue of a Farmer-Labor Party versus a genuine labor party. Any political party that is “multi-class” is, in fact, not a workers’ party. A workers’ party must be structured such that it is controlled democratically by its members, who would be overwhelmingly working class. A workers’ party would absolutely want to win over support from poor farmers and other sections of the middle class that were struggling against capital and wanted to join with the working class to fight big business.

But from a Marxist point of view, the key is this: the petty-bourgeois elements must not predominate or have disproportionate power in the party in terms of its structure and program. This being the case, we must view the Farmer-Labor Party at this stage as a new party in transition. It then becomes a question of the struggle of living political forces in the organization to determine over time whether or not it is consolidated as a workers’ party. It could also end up as yet another bourgeois party or disappear altogether. In the absence of a mass workers’ party, Marxists should, in most circumstances, work in these transitional parties, pushing forward the progressive elements and fighting against the class-collaborationist opportunist wing.

In the state of Minnesota, the movement successfully formed a Farmer-Labor Party in the early 1920s. Unfortunately, the program of the party was deficient and its structure allowed a disproportionate amount of power to petty-bourgeois elements. In some cases, “cultural societies” of 70 people could out vote unions with a few thousand members. Marxists should have and did work in the Minnesota FLP. But although the Minnesota FLP won elections and lasted a little more than 20 years, it never successfully became a genuine labor party. In 1944, with the help of the Stalinists, it merged with the Democratic Party. To this day, the Minnesota Democrats are officially known as the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL).

If the 1923 convention had formed a national “Farmer-Labor Party,” it would not have immediately been a mass party, but it could have established itself as a force and built mass support over time, eventually winning over larger sections of the labor movement. Even if this did not happen in a linear way, it could have also played a role similar to the Independent Labour Party in Britain, which eventually helped to give birth to the mass British Labour Party. This is why analyzing perspectives is an important part of party building. At the time, a historic crisis of capitalism was imminent, and certainly, this party could have become a mass force in the 1930s as the Great Depression unfolded. However, as things actually turned out, the convention ended in a miscarriage.

Left labor leaders move to the right

Objective conditions were cutting across efforts to establish and build a workers’ party. The Red Scare and the defeat of several revolutions from 1918 to 1923—including Finland, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Austria, Bavaria, Bulgaria—were two important factors in the situation. The temporary stabilization of capitalism referred to as the “Roaring 20s” was another. There were also major trade-union defeats, such as the failed attempt to organize the steel industry in 1919 and the miners in the Battle for Blair Mountain. All of this put enormous pressure on the labor leaders and they shifted once again to the right.

John Fitzpatrick, leader of the Chicago Federation of Labor, was another factor. Fitzpatrick had been working with the Communists and faced sanctions from the AFL as a result. In April 1923, Samuel Gompers, head of the AFL, ended the subsidy to the CFL, which accounted for roughly half of its budget.

John Pepper Image Pál Vajda Wikimedia CommonsJohn Pepper arrived in the US in 1922 and created a lot of problems in the heavily factionalized CP / Image: Pál Vajda, Wikimedia Commons

In addition, the Communists made some mistakes which aggravated the situation. The CP was to be given ten delegates out of approximately 500 to the 1923 Chicago convention. The Communists could have also legitimately won delegate positions from union locals and other labor groups. Instead, they used various “fraternal organizations” to pad their numbers and increase their representation in the convention as a whole. As a result, they ended up with a disproportionately large number of delegates that did not correspond to their real influence in the labor movement at that point in time.

Fitzpatrick and the forces around the CFL ended up deciding that they did not want to move forward with setting up a party at the convention. Once the convention started, however, the Communist delegates, along with other left-wing delegates, simply plowed ahead and pushed the convention to found a party. Fitzpatrick and most of the other unions used this as an excuse to break from the Farmer-Labor movement and to stop working with Communists in the unions altogether. The “Farmer-Labor Party” that was founded was basically the CP and the small forces around them.

The CP leadership was split into factions, and the leading faction around John Pepper refused to understand that since Fitzpatrick was stepping back, the Communists needed to adjust their strategy. A political ally of Zinoviev, John Pepper (Joseph Pogany) had arrived in the US in the summer of 1922 and created a lot of problems in the party for several years. The CP moved dogmatically forward under the notion that if the Farmer-Labor Party was not set up immediately, it amounted to a betrayal of the working class. But the “national party” they set up collapsed soon after, and by 1924 the Communists were running their own candidates, having abandoned the Farmer-Labor Party initiative.

What should the CP have done in this situation? With their many delegates, the CP could have played a key role arguing for the need for working-class independence. It should have supported steps forward and argued against steps in the wrong direction. It should have expressed disappointment with the decision of the trade-union leaders to postpone the founding of the party while acknowledging that more work could be done to increase support for a future launch. Those layers that wanted to move forward and were disappointed with the labor leaders would have been brought closer to the Communists, and the Communists could have kept lines of communication open with the other trade-union leaders. Due to rightward pressure from Gompers and his ilk, the CP would have gained from this, and the labor leaders would have been more exposed.

The forces of American Communism were small at this time, but its layer of cadre was larger than anything that exists on the US left in 2021. The CP could have publicly stated that, although it was disappointed by the results of the Chicago convention, it would continue working with these forces, patiently arguing for the way forward. It could have also launched concrete united front campaigns with any and all forces willing to do so. Those forces could have supported Communist candidates, or they could have joined together to run independent working-class candidates in some areas. They could have used all this to popularize the idea that workers need their own party and government. These campaigns may have been modest, but they could have won over the advanced layers and laid a more solid foundation for when the objective situation pushed the movement to the left again. While that was not necessarily an immediate perspective, it was ultimately only a matter of time.

Steps forward and backward and the Great Depression

In spite of its weaknesses, the CP was able to build a foundation for itself in the 1920s and become the premier organization on the left. The CP established a daily paper in English, the Daily Worker, along with other publications, and it had newspapers in other languages as well. In particular, its work in the labor movement, including the Trade Union Education League and the International Labor Defense, allowed it to build a network of support in and around the trade unions. Unfortunately, much of this was destroyed in 1928 when, in deference to Stalin, the CP expelled the Trotskyist Left Opposition, and then the right wing of the party grouped around Jay Lovestone. The Communists then went on an ultraleft binge and went about building independent “Red Trade Unions”—”Communist” unions separate from the already existing mass organizations.

This destructive policy finally came to an end around the time of the 1934 San Francisco Longshoremen strike. By that time, some of the ultraleft policies of the Stalinist “Third Period” were abandoned. Still, the CP had become a thoroughly Stalinized party as of 1928. Serious internal discussions and debates would not be tolerated any longer, and the party line would be dictated by Moscow. The party leaders and members would “follow the line.” This was not based on explanation and political conviction but simply on orders from above.

despite its opportunism Image US National ArchivesDespite its opportunism from 1935 onward, the CP grew rapidly during the Great Depression, reaching 100,000 members in 1938 / Image: US National Archives

The 1929 stock market crash and the international trade war following the Smoot-Hawley Tariffs devastated US capitalism. Industrial production declined 48.7% from 1929 to 1933. Unemployment soared and long lines formed at soup kitchens. In this context, the AFL leaders, for the most part, continued to oppose organizing industrial unions and to base their policies on what was acceptable within the limits of the capitalist system. In this context, the main alternative on the left was the CP. It was the largest force, it was part of the Communist International, and it was connected with the USSR, the world’s only workers’ state—which, although ruled by a degenerate bureaucracy, had understandable prestige among the advanced layers of the working class.

After burning his fingers with ultraleft policies, which facilitated Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Stalin had the Comintern turn to opportunist “Popular Front” and “People’s Front” programs. This new line encouraged class collaboration as opposed to working-class political independence. These policies blended nicely with the pressures from the American ruling class on the CP, and the party began to adapt accordingly. The CP, correctly, had never supported Republicans or Democrats from 1919 to 1934. This began to change for the worse.

Despite its opportunism from 1935 onward, the CP continued to grow. It was growing not because of its opportunism but in spite of it. Most of its recruits saw it as the party of the working class and socialism. The Trotskyists also grew from just over 100 in 1929 to more than 2,000 members by 1938—but they remained much smaller than the CP, which went from about 9,000 to 100,000 members in the same period. Both the CP and the Trotskyists had even larger layers of sympathizers around them.

Important strikes led by the Trotskyists, the Musteites, and the CP in 1934 lead to a split in the AFL leadership and the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CP played a big role in the new CIO unions, eventually leading unions with over 800,000 members, including the Transport Workers Union, United Electrical workers, the Distributive Workers union, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on the Pacific Coast. They also had important influence in other CIO unions, such as the UAW and the Steelworkers. We will examine the CIO in more detail later on.

In the 1930s, with correct policies, the CP could have become a mass party. Arguably, at its height, it was more of a factor in the working class and society as a whole than the Socialist Party of America ever was. The CP could have put organized pressure from the left on John L. Lewis, and other CIO leaders—who would be forced to shift left or face a major loss of support. The CIO leaders would have needed to form a labor party to cut across the growth of the CP. But this was not done. This was a major lost opportunity for the working class. Stalinism squandered it and instead supported Roosevelt and the Democrats for the majority of his presidency.

In September 1939, World War II began in Europe with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Just a few days earlier, the Hitler-Stalin Pact had been announced. Shortly after this treaty became public, the CP adjusted its policies, reducing its attacks against fascism and German militarism and modifying its supportive policies toward the Democrats. There was an estimated loss of one out of every seven members between 1939 and 1940.

during the war Image Milner Library Illinois State UniversityDuring the war, the CP followed the Comintern’s political line of class collaboration with US and British imperialism / Image: Milner Library, Illinois State University

However, in June 1941, Hitler invaded the USSR. The Comintern and the CP once again changed their policies, now supporting US imperialism as part of the “popular front against fascism.” Stalin had the Comintern dissolved in 1943, without even calling an international Congress or conducting any internal discussion and debate in the various Communist Parties. Earl Browder, the head of the American CP at the time, took these policies to their logical conclusion and the Communist Party dissolved itself in 1944. It became the “Communist Political Association”—just another pressure group on the Democrats. Neither Stalin nor any of his top people took any action until the war in Europe was close to an end, at which point they anticipated that US imperialism would start a more aggressive policy toward the Soviet Union, especially under Truman. In June and July 1945, Browder was removed from leadership and the CP was reconstituted. Browder was eventually expelled in 1946.

World War II was an inter-imperialist war, like World War I, with the important exception that the USSR was a factor in the war—a workers’ state to be defended unconditionally against imperialism, in spite of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Marxists should have used the contradictions and opportunities of the war as a way to build a leadership and lead the working class to power. A workers’ government in the US with internationalist and socialist policies would defeat not only fascism, but also imperialist militarism and capitalism itself.

During the war, the CP followed the Comintern’s political line. This meant class collaboration with US and British imperialism against the Axis. In practice, the CP’s heavy influence in the labor movement meant they opposed strikes and other job actions, helping the bosses profit from the war while the working class paid the bill. In contrast, John L. Lewis, who was not at all a “radical,” led his members in the UMW on illegal strikes during the war. The CP’s policies undermined the way the workers looked at the Communists and the union leaders under their influence. When the new postwar Red Scare began in the labor movement, the CP’s policies during the war made it more difficult to rally workers’ support. The way they struggled against the repressions of the late 1940s and 1950s also weakened their position.

The CP politically tailed Henry Wallace—one of FDR’s former vice presidents—when he split from the Democrats in 1948 and ran as the Progressive Party candidate for president. This was not a step toward a workers’ party. Wallace was diverting workers to popular-front politics that would only temporarily be independent of the Democrats.

Then, in 1956, workers rose up in the Hungarian Revolution seeking not a return to capitalism, but the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The Stalinist bureaucracy sent in the tanks and crushed this attempt at political revolution. This, along with the Khrushchev revelations in his “Secret Speech” against Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, led to the American CP losing a large part of its membership and periphery. Since the 1950s, the CPUSA has basically had a policy of working with the “left wing” of the Democratic Party. The CP, which could have become a mass party in the 1930s, became a sect. They had a daily paper until the late 1980s, a weekly paper after that, and since 2009, they simply have a website, with no regular printed publication.

The lesson here is that without theory, without the method of dialectical materialism applied to the questions of party building, the results are always a disaster. If applied in a balanced way, the Marxist method will keep us from the mistakes of opportunism and sectarianism and ensure we focus on processes as they unfold and develop over time. We cannot necessarily expect immediate success, but the work we do today can lead to a transformation tomorrow. If new people are joining the CPUSA today and trying to revive it, they should take a serious approach. They should really study Marxist theory and history and seek to learn what went wrong. These past mistakes explain the state of the CPUSA today.

The CIO and the possibility of a mass labor party

As we have seen, the path to an American mass workers’ party seemed likely to come via the Socialist Party or Communist Party becoming a mass force over time. In both cases, it was not so much objective obstacles as serious weaknesses in the leadership that were decisive in the failure to achieve this.

We also explained that there were other times when the path to a mass workers’ party in the US more or less followed the pattern in the English-speaking world: build labor unions first, and then the unions build a labor party. We noted that there were possibilities for a labor party emerging in this way in the late 1800s and in the early 1920s.

the communist league of america Image WBUR Bostons NPR News Station FlickrThe Communist League of America led the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike. It was the most successful of four major strikes which pressured union leaders to form the CIO in 1935 / Image: WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station, Flickr

In addition to those past opportunities, the massive growth of unions in the 1930s—especially industrial unions—and the mass movement of plant occupations and “sit-down” strikes, along with mass picketing and militant struggle, provided a perfect opportunity for the formation of a mass labor party in the US.

The devastation of the Great Depression sharpened the class struggle. At first, the working class was stunned and the number of strikes and other job actions decreased, as workers feared losing their jobs. There were movements of unemployed workers fighting for jobs or income, a related movement by World War I veterans to get relief, and struggles by tenants against evictions.

All of this, along with a weak economic recovery from the trough of the first slump, gave the workers more confidence to fight back. In 1934, there were four major strikes, three of them successful while the fourth was defeated with vicious measures by the ruling class.

The successful strikes took place in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco. The Minneapolis Teamsters strike was led by the Communist League of America, part of Trotsky’s International Left Opposition. The Toledo Auto-Lite strike was led by followers of A.J. Muste, who at that time were centrists moving toward revolutionary and Marxist conclusions. The San Francisco longshoremen strike was led by the Stalinists, who were starting to move away from their ultraleft policies of the “Red Trade Unions.” The fourth strike was a massive textile strike involving 400,000 workers from New England to the South. The police and National Guard killed and injured some of the workers, and in Georgia, some strikers were placed in a former POW concentration camp facility.

Up until 1935, the AFL had some three million members, and there were another 600,000 workers organized in independent unions. The AFL unions were mostly organized on a craft basis, although some of their unions, like the mineworkers and the clothing and textile workers, were industrial—meaning that all of the workers in the industry, regardless of title, were organized into one union. There were also some AFL Locals—union locals directly affiliated to the federation—which had a more industrial structure. There was a clear need for a massive organizing drive to build industrial unions in industries like steel, automobile, rubber, farm equipment, electrical appliances, and related parts. There was also demand for unions for retail workers, warehouse workers, telephone operators, public workers, and numerous other occupations.

As was mentioned above, a split began in 1935 with the formation of the Committee on Industrial Organization within the AFL. The split, which was led by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, was finally completed in 1938, and the name was changed to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Lewis and some of the other labor leaders saw the pressure that was building up in the working class. They noticed that this pressure was finding an expression in the political left. Lewis and the CIO leaders worked with the CP organizing the new unions. This was the same Lewis who had fought the CP so diligently in the 1920s. One lesson here is that formerly right-wing labor leaders can move to the left if they feel that they need to get ahead of and contain the struggle of the working class.

a large part of cio Image Sheldon Dick Wikimedia CommonsA large part of CIO organizing came as a result of the “sit-down” strikes. The Flint Michigan General Motors strike lasted 43 days from December 1936 to February 1937 / Image: Sheldon Dick, Wikimedia Commons

In 1935, the CIO unions had about one million members, and the remaining AFL unions had around two million. Five years later, after some CIO unions left and rejoined the AFL, the AFL membership had reached 4.2 million, the CIO had 3.8 million, and there were another two million workers in independent unions. In other words, over the course of just five years, labor rocketed from 3.6 million to 10 million, nearly tripling its membership!

We must be clear that a large part of the CIO organizing came as a result of the “sit-down” strikes. In his book Labor’s Giant Step, Art Preis writes: “Of the 484,711 sitdowners between September 1936 and June 1937, some 278,000 belonged to new unions and 182,000 to unions formed since the start of the NRA[5] in 1933.” These were strikes where the workers challenged private property itself. A plant occupation poses the question: who is really in charge of the workplace?

As part of this wave of sitdowns, the Flint Michigan General Motors strike lasted 43 days from December 30, 1936 to February 11, 1937. These strikes were mostly successful in forcing the bosses to recognize the union, and they created a situation where union organizing implicitly threatened this kind of action. Many employers were less willing to fight so hard against the union when they feared they might have to deal with their facilities being occupied and placed under workers’ control. In this way, the AFL was also able to grow. Some employers sought to have their workers organized by the AFL rather than by the “Communist” CIO.

Movements toward a labor party

In the middle and late 1930s, there was a lot of sentiment for a labor party. Some unions, like the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, were on record as calling for a labor party. Some of the new CIO unions also passed resolutions along these lines, or at least debated them. A debate over whether a labor party should be established even took place at the AFL convention of 1935.

However, the AFL leaders were dead set against it, as were John L. Lewis and his supporters in the CIO. All of the labor leaders were in alliance with FDR and his so-called “New Deal,” even though it actually did very little for the working class. Still, given the sentiment for a labor party, there were three organized, though contradictory, expressions in this direction. However, these were used by the leadership to hold the working class back.

The first expression was the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, mentioned in the earlier section. This could best be seen as a party in transition. Would it become a genuine labor party? Would the petty bourgeoisie predominate and eliminate it? The structure of the FLP allowed various kinds of “fraternal organizations” to dominate the party and outvote the workers. As Vincent R. Dunne explained to Trotsky in 1938:

“The FLP is based upon workers’ economic organizations—trade unions, cooperatives, etc., farmers’ cooperative organizations; also upon territorial units—township clubs, etc. It also allows for the affiliation of cultural organizations, sick-and-death-benefit organizations, etc., also through ward clubs. The Stalinists and intellectuals join through these clubs; they have more control than the drivers’ local of 4,000 members. We are fighting against that—we are demanding that the trade unions be given their real representation—we have the support of the trade unions on this.”

Through their control of these clubs, the petty bourgeoisie, led by the Stalinists, would make sure the FLP endorsed FDR for president and, in other instances, make deals to support capitalist candidates for certain offices. The clear battle here was on three fronts: changing the structure of the party so the working class labor unions could exercise democratic control through its labor unions; standing against the capitalist parties everywhere they could, opposing lesser-evilism and popular frontism; and fighting for a program that called for a workers’ government with socialist policies. Due to the continued domination by the alien class layers, the FLP was folded into the Democratic Party in 1944.

The second contradictory expression toward a labor party was the establishment of Labor’s Non-Partisan League (LNPL) on April 2, 1936. This was an attempt by Lewis and other CIO leaders to tap into the mood for a labor party, while diverting it into safe, pro-FDR channels. The idea was that the LNPL would be the political arm of the CIO. It could help elect labor candidates by raising money and providing foot soldiers. The name, “Non-Partisan,” seemed to imply that labor was not going to be tied to any one political party, yet right from the start, the leaders used this to support FDR in his 1936 reelection.

ilgwu leader Image Kheel Center Wikimedia CommonsILGWU leader Dubinsky, pictured here with Eleanor Roosevelt and Rose Schneiderman, used the ALP to get his members who voted Socialist or Communist to vote for Democrats and Republicans / Image: Kheel Center, Wikimedia Commons

The key task for Marxists was to support the positive aspects of this initiative, while exposing its contradictory and negative aspects. Marxists could have said to the workers: “We, the working class, need our own party. The LNPL could be a step forward in this direction, but only if it directs its efforts toward independent labor candidates, or better yet, toward establishing a labor party.” The Marxists could have provided facts, figures, and arguments to expose Roosevelt and the Democrats. In 1936, there were hardly any workers, especially in the CIO, that would support a Republican. If the Marxists had been in the vanguard on this, they could have gained a lot of support. It would have created real difficulties for the labor leaders. The Trotskyists were small. They were in the SP at this time, but they were not on point on this question, although this was later corrected in 1938.

The third contradictory expression was the New York State affiliate of the LNPL, the American Labor Party (ALP). In New York State, the capitalists’ electoral laws allow fusion voting. This means that a candidate can appear on the ballot under two or more parties, and all of the votes for the candidate on the different party lines are totaled up to determine the winner.

The labor leaders, especially the ILGWU’s leader Dubinsky, wanted their members who voted Socialist and/or Communist to vote for some Democrats and liberal Republicans, like NYC Mayor LaGuardia. By setting up the ALP, there would be class-independent candidates running on the ALP ballot line, but for some offices, like president or mayor, they would endorse FDR or others from the bosses’ parties. Mike Quill, founder of the New York Transport Workers Union who at the time was around the CP, was elected to the New York City Council on the ALP line.

The correct position for Marxists was to explain that, from the perspective of class independence, fusion means confusion. Genuine socialists should join the ALP, build the ALP, and campaign for the party’s candidates. But they should make two things clear: 1) the party should not support capitalist candidates like FDR and LaGuardia; 2) the party’s own candidates should never run on the Democratic or Republican Party lines.

There is no question that if Lewis, Hillman, Dubinsky, and the CIO leaders had built a labor party in the 1930s, this party would have changed US politics. The labor leaders did not do this because of their ties with FDR and the ruling class. Even though the US was in a massive slump, US imperialism was still growing in power compared to its rivals. Also, World War II cut across the process, with millions of young workers drafted into the armed forces and away from home. On the basis of wartime production, unemployment dropped to 2%.

Given the circumstances, the labor leaders would only have taken this road if there was a sizable threat from the left. Unfortunately, the Trotskyists were too small to play this role, and, as was explained earlier, the CP only became another obstacle to the formation of a workers’ party.

The sacrifices that the workers made during the Great Depression and the war years, coupled with the huge profits the capitalists raked in, led to a big wave of strikes throughout the US in late 1945 and into 1946. There were strikes of auto, steel, and electrical workers, meatpackers, and others. There were several citywide general strikes including in Oakland, Stamford, and Lancaster.

This led to the continued pressure for a labor party, which was expressed in some debates at various union conventions and occasionally in some elections. However, the one-two punch of the postwar boom and the second coming of the Red Scare, which began in the late 1940s and extended to the 1950s, ended serious discussion on the question of the labor party.

The boom came to an end with the slump in the middle 1970s. And the labor party question did come back in the late 1980s and the 1990s, as we analyze in our 2018 article “The Fight for Socialism and the Lessons of the Labor Party.”

Perspectives for a mass working-class socialist party

Nobody has a crystal ball with which to see future developments. But it is clear that the crisis of American and world capitalism will sharpen the class struggle in the years to come. Marxists argue that the American working class will eventually find a way forward out of its current impasse, overcome the objective and subjective obstacles in its way—including the present leadership—and build its own party. It is impossible to know precisely what path this will take. But one thing is clear: the more socialist activists there are fighting for class independence, the less protracted the process will be and the sooner humanity can get out of the nightmare of capitalism.

We believe three main developments will coalesce in some form towards the establishment of a mass workers’ party:

  1. An increase in strikes and fights to organize the unorganized, along with other similar struggles, will create militant left oppositions in the unions. This would push forward a tendency for the unions to establish a labor party which would eventually gain mass support. The present labor leadership, with almost no exceptions, will not support a mass labor party. In fact, it will fight tooth and nail against it, so a left opposition in the labor movement would have to gain a lot of strength to break through the logjam.
  2. Up to this point, mass movements such as Black Lives Matter and Occupy have not tried to express themselves by establishing a political organization and running candidates independently from the two major parties. However, as we have seen in other countries recently, future expressions of these or other movements may challenge the political structure in a more conscious way. If this were to occur, it might establish a transitional form of party from which a workers’ party could eventually be born. This would necessarily be a complicated process and would not unfold in a straight line.
  3. Hegel explained that historical necessity expresses itself through accident. In today’s conditions, an accidental figure—an AOC, Colin Kaepernick, or someone as yet completely unknown (as was the case with Ralph Nader or Bernie Sanders)—could change course, run for office independently of the two parties, and channel the anger and hopes of the working class. This also would be a complicated and contradictory development. Marxists would need to accompany these experiences and skillfully push forward the ideas of working-class independence, while patiently explaining the need for a revolutionary program.

The building of a workers’ party will be an uneven process. It may also start in a particular region or in a few states before becoming a truly national party. Whatever the specifics may be, there will be enormous pressure from the whole of bourgeois society against the formation of a mass workers’ party, which would sound the death knell of the Democrats and would also seriously compromise the Republicans.

When a mass workers’ party is eventually established, it needs to be armed with Marxism or it will not be up to the tasks posed to it by history. A reformist labor party will simply try to manage the calamity of capitalism. What is needed is its overthrow. At this stage, the IMT has no control over the broad strokes of this process. What we can control is whether or not we build a large and strong Marxist tendency, with growing influence in a section of the working class that can intervene in such a party. With sufficient forces, we can play a role in resisting the pressure of the ruling class and win larger layers of the party to a revolutionary socialist program and perspective.

we need a sense of urgency Image Socialist RevolutionWe need a sense of urgency now, even though a mass workers’ party might seem like a distant prospect / Image: Socialist Revolution

In the present political vacuum, socialist or worker candidates running independently of the two major parties are a step forward. The aim of such campaigns is not so much to win, but to use elections as a platform for presenting socialist ideas, to recruit and build a larger foundation of socialists around the country. Such campaigns may not lead to a full-on workers’ party in the short term, but they could help to pave the way for such a development in the future.

In this context we have argued that although groups like DSA do not have the resources to build a mass workers’ party immediately, they could point the way forward for the working class and help burn away illusions in the two parties. Nobody is saying this is easy, but the path of lesser-evil politics and running on the Democratic Party line has been the main tactic employed by the labor movement and the left since the 1940s and has led only to disaster for working people.

Independent electoral campaigns at this stage will likely not win office and may not even get many votes, but they can be brought to unions, workplaces, tenants’ associations, schools, and working-class neighborhoods. They could help to establish groups of socialists in all of these locations. Five socialists in a workplace or a union local can build wide support, but this takes time. The main message they should be putting forward is that under capitalism, what is produced from the workers’ labor ends up in the pockets of the rich. A workers’ government with socialist policies could bring an end to this. When this happens, problems like unemployment, debt, poverty, and more could be eliminated, dramatically improving living standards for everyone.

We must keep our eyes open when political opportunities and movements in the direction of a mass workers’ party open up, supporting the progressive aspects and constructively criticizing any political errors. If we arm ourselves with these important historical lessons, we can change the future and help usher in a new world.

There are no shortcuts to this goal, and sitting on the sidelines waiting for “better times” will only delay the process further. Those who recognize the need for an independent working-class political party and who want to help build the necessary foundation should seriously consider joining the IMT today. We need a sense of urgency now, even though a mass workers’ party might seem like a distant prospect. It is one thing to work within a mass workers’ party with 500 trained Bolshevik cadres—but quite another to do this with 5,000 or 10,000. The clock is ticking and history is accelerating. We must do our utmost not to be caught unprepared.


[1] Followers of Henry George were known as “Georgists.” Henry George believed the evils of society were caused by monopoly ownership of the land. He thought a land tax could solve this, without eradicating capitalism per se.

[2] The CP was known as the Workers’ Party as of December 1921 and later as the Workers’ (Communist) Party. After 1929 it became known as the Communist Party USA or CPUSA. For clarity, we will refer to them as Communist Party or CP throughout.

[3] The main section became the Social Democrats, an anti-Communist organization that supported Democrats who were “Hawks” on Vietnam. Another section formed a small sect, the SP-USA. The remaining piece formed the “Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee,” which later evolved into the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

[4] To learn more about the early CP factions, see our articles on the CPUSA as well as James Cannon’s History of American Trotskyism and First Ten Years of American Communism.

[5] The NRA was the National Recovery Administration, part of FDR’s New Deal. It had a component which supported the right of workers to organize, but when push came to shove, the state was on the side of the employers, although it could require some concessions from them from time to time.

Originally published 21 October at |

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.