"The Labor Party Illusion", by Sam Dolgoff

Jamal Hannah (jamal@bronze.lcs.mit.edu)
Fri, 31 May 1996 20:07:13 +2000 (EDT)

The Labor Party Illusion

Originally written in the United States some 25 years ago, this essay was as
relevant then as it is today. At the time, Sam Dolgoff went by the pseudonym
"Sam Weiner" in his writings.

The cry for a Labor Party in the United States is again being heard from
various sides. Some of the Socialist Party people are agitating for it. The
Trotskyists are currently in favor of it, and Meany, President of the
AFL-CIO, climbs on and off of the bandwagon as the spirit moves him or as
policy considerations of the moment appear to dictate.

Agitation for a Labor Party is almost as old as the labor movement itself.
Numerous beginnings in this direction have at times been made. In 1829, the
"Workingmens Party" in New York received 6,000 out of 21,000 votes, a higher
proportion than any other independent movement has since achieved.

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

At the 1936 Convention of the AFL, 104 delegates, representing a powerful
bloc of unions large and small, came close to committing the Federation to
working for the establishment of a Labor Party. Such a policy would have
been a reversal of the traditional position that called for "rewarding our
friends and punishing our enemies" among the capitalist politicians of the
Republican and Democratic Parties. Other examples of Labor Party attempts
have been the American Labor Party in New York State and the Farmer Labor
Party in Minnesota and adjoining states. In addition to those who have
wanted a distinct political party of Labor, based on the unions, independent
of and in opposition to the old-line parties, there have been organizations
such as the Socialist Party, that oscillated between running their own
candidates and supporting capitalist "friends of labor." Despite their
differences, all of the radical tendencies supporting parliamentary action
by the workers base their attitudes on the belief that such action can in
some way alleviate or cure social evils.

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

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

Leon Blum, the eminent French politician, whose vast and unsavory experience
qualifies him as an expert on the subject, remarked that, "The parliamentary
regime is a regime of parties." Jean Jacques Rousseau, the philosopher of
democratic government, would not endorse "representative government" as it
is practiced today. He wrote: "The deputies of the people should not and
cannot be the people's representatives, they can only be its servants....
The moment that people give power to their representatives, they abdicate
their liberty." (The Social Contract)

The fundamental principle of every political party, regardless of the form
of government, is the same. V.0. Key, professor of government at Yale
University, in his penetrating and scholarly book, Politics, Parties and
Pressure Groups has this to say:

"It is sometimes said that the method by which a party seeks to gain control
(of the government) is the unique characteristic of the party as a group.
The American party uses the peaceful method of campaigning and appeal for
popular support to gain power, which is said to differentiate it from the
factions ... which struggle for power by the use of military force. The
theory ... is advanced that the modern party and the democratic electoral
process are but a sublimation, perhaps temporary, of the tendency to resort
to force to gain control of the government.... This theory gives a clue to
the nature of the party struggle .... The term Party is applied equally to
the peaceful parties of America and to the Communist Party of Russia, the
Nazi Party of Germany, and the Fascist Party of Italy. The methodology of
these parties varies, but their fundamental objective-to place and keep
their leaders in control of the government - is the same."

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

The end result of this process will be reached when the State assumes
ownership and/or control over the whole of society, establishing State
Capitalism-or, if you prefer, State "Socialism." The United States is fast
evolving in this direction.

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

The actual rulers in a parliamentary democracy are the class of professional
politicians. In theory, they are supposed to represent the people, but in
fact they rule over them. They do not represent. They decide. This is why
Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the anarchist thinker, said, "Parliament is a King
with 600 heads." The political parties, or more accurately, the inner clique
that controls them, select the candidates for whom the people vote. The
candidates express the will of the party and not that of the people. The
platforms of the contending parties are adjusted to trick the voters into
balloting for their candidates. Then the immense machinery of mass hypnotism
goes into high gear. The press, the radio, television and the pulpit
brainwash the public. The stupefied voter casts his ballot for candidates
that he never nominated and never knew, whose names he forgets, and whose
platforms he has perhaps never read. The electoral swindle is over. The
voters go back to work (or to look for work) and the politicians are free to
decide the destiny of the millions as they see fit.

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

For example, the politicians in the big cities are incensed at the
politicians from the rural areas who control many state governments, because
the state legislature dictates to the cities and deprives them of revenue.
Representation in many state legislatures is not relative to actual
population but according to districts and counties. These arrangements were
made when America's population was predominantly rural. Since then the
growing population has concentrated in the cities, yet the system of
representation remains the same.

The Painter and Decorator of June, 1960, in an article entitled "All Votes
Aren't Equal," gives many examples, such as:

"...fewer than 300 inhabitants of Union, Connecticut, have the same number
of representatives in the states lower house as the city of Hartford, with a
population of over 177,000-giving each Union voter the strength of 685
Hartford voters. Business groups generally defend unequal representation.
They have learned that the conservative philosophy of small town lawyers and
business men is often closely in line with their own views. Also, rural
legislators may almost always be counted upon to oppose the objectives of
organized labor.... Such inequities are a major factor in American politics.
In the South, political machines have used the county unit system to become
self-perpetuating. In many northern states, huge city populations have been
denied their proportional voice and vote in enacting legislation essential
to their survival."

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

For the sake of illustration, let us assume that a strong Labor Party in the
United States has succeeded in electing thousands of local, state and
national officeholders as has happened in England, France, Germany and many
other countries. The history of the parliamentary labor and socialist party
movements in Europe gives us a good idea of what would happen to a similar
movement in the U.S.

The record of the Labour Government which ruled Britain from 1945 to 1951
proves that it betrayed every socialist principle and violated nearly all
its pre-election pledges. These betrayals were reflected in its domestic,
foreign and colonial policies.

The direction of Labour Government policy was clearly formulated by a high
party official, Sir Hartley Shawcross, in February, 1946: "I take the
opportunity of making it quite clear that this Government like any
Government as an employer, would feel itself perfectly free to take
disciplinary action that any strike situation might develop demanded."

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

Pre-election pledges to the effect that the unions would have direct
representation in the management of state owned industries were forgotten.
The Party, once in power, reversed its traditional opposition to military
conscription in favor of permanent peacetime conscription.

In nationalizing the Bank of England, the coal mines, railways, canals and
other utilities, the Labour Government guaranteed the stockholders the same
income as before.

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

The Labour Party's defeat in the last General Election was due primarily to
the justified disappointment of the workers with its actions when in power.
In 1945, Arthur Greenwood (Labour Government Privy Seal) said: "I look
around my colleagues and I see landlords, capitalists and lawyers. We are a
cross-section of the national life and this is something that has never
happened before."

it is impossible for any political party of "Labor" to reach power without
concessions to the Right--to the middle class--at the expense of basic
principles. "Labor" (or "Socialist") parties lose their identity and
eventually are found to differ only on minor points from the "conservative"
contenders for power. Labor Partyism is class-collaboration in the political
field and it is just as disastrous for the workers as class-collaboration
has been in the economic field. There is every reason to believe that the
same fate would befall an American labor party if one were established.
Advocates of a labor party in the U.S. could profit by the lessons of the
British Labour Party.

In the competition for votes, the original ideals and principles would be
forgotten. The thousands of new officeholders would become a conservative
force deeply rooted in the established order, and married to their jobs.
They would establish rapport with the business community, with the large
agricultural interests, with the clergy. They would cultivate the support of
the press and other mass-media interests upon whose support they will come
to depend. The Labor Party would then be swamped by hordes of lawyers,
bourgeois intellectuals, liberal churchmen, ambitious office-seekers and
other careerists, who would infiltrate the organization. The honest workers
and the radical elements would be forced into the background. Of "labor,"
only the name would remain. The once proud Labor Party would become just
another party in the machinery of the State.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any serious Labor Party that is formed will be under the domination of this
corrupt, collaborationist union bureaucracy. The same leaders who have
repeatedly sold out the workers at the bargaining table will repeat their
betrayals in the legislative bodies. Labor Partyism means class
collaboration on the political field. The same disastrous results are
inevitable since It involves making concessions to classes whose interests
are diametrically opposed to the basic interests of the working class.

Selig Perlmann, the well-known labor historian, in A Theory of the Labor
Movement, says:

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

The middle class, as the name implies, allies itself not only with the labor
legislators, but also with the military faction, the financial interests and
other anti-labor pressure groups, when it feels that it has something to
gain thereby. The Labor Party will then be forced to support their middle
class allies for fear of retaliation when they need its support for some of
their own measures. This being the case, it is bound to lose whatever
identity it did have, and become as corrupt as any of the old parties.

Those who are today beating the drum loudest for the `Labor Party are
radicals of various Marxist or pseudo-Marxist groups. These same people will
tell you that they believe in the class struggle and economic action by the
workers. Some will explain that parliamentary action is only a gimmick to
gain a public forum, or free time on television every four years. Others
claim that parliamentary action is necessary to supplement and make economic
action more effective.

Nothing could be more dangerous to the workers' cause. Electioneering
diverts the attention of the working class from militant struggles into
essentially counter-revolutionary channels. It vitiates their confidence in
the class struggle and in their own independent economic power.

In the supplement to Elzbacher's Anarchism, Rudolf Rocker deals with this
problem in the following terms:

"All the political rights and liberties which people enjoy today, they do
not owe to the good will of their governments, but to their own strength....
Great mass movements and whole revolutions have been necessary to wrest them
from the ruling classes, who would never have consented to them voluntarily.
What is important is not that the governments have decided to concede
certain rights to the people,but why they had to do this.

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

"It is a fact that when socialist labor parties have wanted to achieve some
decisive political reforms they could not do it by parliamentary action, but
were obliged to rely wholly on the economic fighting power of the workers.
The political general strikes in Belgium and Sweden for the attainment of
universal suffrage are proof of this. And in Russia, it was the general
strike in 1905 that forced the Tsar to sign the new constitution. It was the
recognition of this which impelled the Anarcho-Syndicalists to center their
activity on the socialist education of the masses and the utilization of
their economic and social power. Their method is that of direct action in
both the economic and political struggle of the time. By direct action they
mean every method of the immediate struggle by the workers against economic
and political oppression. Among these the outstanding are the strike in all
its gradations, from the simple wage struggle to the general strike,
organized boycott and all the other countless means which workers as
producers have in their hands." (Pages 257-259)

In this connection, the reader has but to recall the direct action movements
of workers and students in our own Southern states, as well as in South
Africa, Korea, Turkey, Japan, Venezuela, Hungary, Poland and East Germany.
The American labor movement turned to parliamentary action not because
economic action is ineffective but because it surrendered its greatest
weapon--the right to strike--to the employing class, the State and the union
dictators. The labor movement is in deep crisis because the membership has
been infected by the counter-revolutionary virus of class collaboration of
which parliamentarism is but one form.

Instead of chasing the Labor Party illusion, all who seek a progressive
revolutionary transformation of society should work to re-educate and
inspire the labor movement with revolutionary principles, from which
revolutionary strategy and tactics will logically flow.

- Sam Weiner

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