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Leon Trotsky 19380723 Three possibilities with a labor party

Leon Trotsky: Three possibilities with a labor party

July 23, 1938

[The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, New York ³1977, p. 245-250]

Trotsky: Of course the question of the labor party cannot be considered independent from the general development in the next period. If a new prosperity comes for some time and postpones the question of a labor party, then the question will for some time become more or less academic; but we will continue to prepare the party in order not to lose time when the question again becomes acute. But such a tremendous prosperity is not very probable now, and if the economic situation remains as now, then the party can change in a short time. The most important fact we must underline is the total difference in America in comparison with a working class from Europe. In Europelet us say in Germany before Hitler, in Austria, France now, Great Britainthe question of a party for the workers was looked upon as a necessity; it was a commonplace for the vanguard of the working class and for a large stratum of the masses themselves.

In the United States the situation is absolutely different. In France, political agitation consists of the attempts of the CP to win the workers, of the SP to win the workers, and every conscious or semiconscious worker stands before a choice. Should he adhere to the SP or the CP or Radical Socialist Party?100 For the Radical Socialist Party it is not such a problem, since that is mostly for the foremen, but the workers have to choose between the SP and the CP. In the United States the situation is that the working class needs a party – its own party. It is the first step in political education. We can say that this first step was due five or ten years ago. Yes, theoretically that is so, but insofar as the workers were more or less satisfied by the trade union machinery, and even lived without this machinery, the propaganda in favor of a working class party was more or less theoretical, abstract, and coincided with the propaganda of certain centrist and communist groups, and so on. Now the situation has changed. It is an objective fact in the sense that the new trade unions created by the workers came to an impasse – a blind alley – and the only way for workers already organized in trade unions is to join their forces in order to influence legislation, to influence the class struggle. The working class stands before an alternative. Either the trade unions will be dissolved or they will join for political action. That is the objective situation, not created by us, and in this sense the agitation for a working class party becomes now not an abstract but a totally concrete step in progress for the workers organized in the trade unions in the first instance and for those not organized at all. In the second place it is an absolutely concrete task determined by economic and social conditions. It would be absurd for us to say that because the new party issues from the political amalgamation of the trade unions it will of necessity be opportunistic. We will not invite the workers to make this same step in the same way as abroad. Of course if we had any real choice between a reformist party or a revolutionary party, we would say this is your address (meaning the revolutionary party). But a party is absolutely necessary. It is the only road for us in this situation. To say that we will fight against opportunism, as of course we will fight today and tomorrow, especially if the working class party had been organized, by blocking a progressive step which can produce opportunism, is a very reactionary policy, and sectarianism is often reactionary because it opposes the necessary action of the working class.

We can imagine in schematic form three types of labor party in the United States in the next period. The first type: an opportunistic, confused, loose party; the second possibility: an opportunistic but sufficiently centralized party, directed by fakers and careerists; the third possibility is a centralized revolutionary party, where we have the leadership. We do not expect to have a clear and pure type. There will be different stages, different combinations, different parts, different kinds of labor party, etc. – but in order to present more clearly the situation and our tasks, we can consider these three types.

If the party is loose enough to accept us, it would be stupidity not to enter. If we enter with the possibility of working in it as a party, then the labor party is a loose opportunistic party. The fact that such a party accepts us itself signifies that the opportunists are not strong enough to eliminate us. It signifies good conditions of a sort. (I consider now that we enter as a partythat conditions become so critical that a labor party is formed, and that we, the Socialist Workers Party, enter as a section. This would be an extremely favorable situation.)

Then it can be a labor party created in a less critical period, in less turmoil, in rather calm conditions, quiet conditions, with the predominance of the conservative reactionary leaders, with a more or less centralized machine which will keep us out as a party. Then, of course, we continue existing as a party outside such an opportunistic party, and we consider only the possibility of penetrating such a labor party – but as a party we remain outside such a centralized, opportunistic party.

If in the labor party we become the predominant tendency, a revolutionary tendency with the leaders our leaders, the ideas our ideas, etc., then we become the advocates of centralizing this loose party. We demand that the workers eliminate the fakers, etc. It is the third type, the last stage of evolution, the stage in which our party dissolves in this labor party in such a manner that it determines the character of the labor party. In the first step we say: "Workers, you need your own party."

Concerning the [projected Farmer-Labor] party in Newark, you say that it is not the kind of party you need. Change this party. Replace the leaders. In what manner we say this depends upon the circumstances. The comrades are absolutely right when they say we should tell the workers the truth, but that doesn't signify that every moment, every place, we state the whole truth, starting with Euclid's geometry and ending with socialist society. We do not have the right to lie to them, but we must present to them the truth in such form, at such time, in such place, that they can accept it. And precisely here we have the very important question of illegal work. The war approaches, and we must prepare ourselves for illegal work. Many comrades have discussed the question. We must educate ourselves for illegal work, but we forget that illegal work must be done in the New York [American] Labor Party. It is the first illegal work to be done, and we cannot educate ourselves for illegal work outside reality.

The leaders of the labor party are the political police of the ruling class. Now they stop us where the democratic police of Roosevelt themselves cannot stop us. He permits everybody to meet, everybody to speak what he wishes, but he can allow us this freedom only because he has at his disposal not only constitutionally organized police, but also very solidly organized police in the American Federation of Labor, the police of the CIO, the La Guardia Labor Party of New York, etc. They repulse us from the workers, and the question is not what will we do when the official police of Roosevelt declare us illegal, but right now what should we do in order to eliminate the handicap which is presented by the police of the trade unions, labor parties, etc.?

How can we enter the labor party if we declare ourselves members of the Socialist Workers Party? That depends on circumstances. In order to enter into illegal revolutionary work, I change my passport, change my name, and don't declare that I am a member of the Socialist Workers Party. I am submitted absolutely to the discipline of my own party, but when it comes to the others, we owe the fakers nothing. As to the Roosevelt police, it is the same. If we have the possibility, through trade unions, of introducing our comrade into the labor partythe reformist treacherous labor party-it is a very important factor. Then suppose we have a fight. They will expel him. For the workers who delegated him it will be an exemplary fight. For nonmembers who send into the labor party a member of the Socialist Workers Party independently of the fact that he is a member, they are not interested in the party, but have a high estimation of the individual. Then he says, "Yes, I am a member of the Socialist Workers Party." You know in the tsarist courts we had a division of work. Of ten comrades arrested, one would declare he was a member of the party, denounce capitalism, and denounce the rulers. Nine others would say, "I am absolutely nothing; I have nothing to do with this party." The police would not have enough evidence and would have to turn them loose. Then they would go back to work in the trade unions. The declaration of the one member had a tremendous influence in the country. We must act absolutely the same way now in trade unions and in our own party. It is the genuine preparation for the new, more difficult illegal work.

A comrade who enters the labor party as a known Socialist Workers Party member must be a whole lot more cautious. It is not opportunism; the others will supplement him, but nevertheless he will say, "I am absolutely loyal to the statutes of the party. I don't claim I agree with you, but you see that I am loyal." He merely leaves it to the others to supplement his work, and, of course, in the nucleus of our own party he gives them instructions as to how to do itnot in order to betray the workers but to fool the police, the capitalists, the labor fakers. Lenin is very often quoted on this.101 We must penetrate the masses despite the rascals, the traitors. We must fool them as we fool the police. I believe that now our comrades don't accomplish this division of work sufficiently, that often our comrades work together with the reformists, bureaucrats of trade unions, against the Stalinists. The situation is such in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, everywhere almost that our comrades have penetrated the trade unions and shown themselves to be good workers, honest, devoted functionaries of the trade union movement. They are appreciated by the old routiners of the trade unions better than the Stalinist fakers. We utilize this opposition between them and the Stalinist charlatans and careerists. It is absolutely correct that we to a certain degree support the progressive (in reality conservative) elements against the Stalinist disrupters, but we must supply supplementary help.

Comrade Skoglund, President of Local 544, cannot make a speech in the name of the Fourth International himself, for he must be a bit more cautious. However, his attitude must be supplemented immediately by a good organized nucleus; and if the direction of the trade union is not good and a member of ours is expelled, Skoglund says, "I am opposed to expulsion." But Skoglund is himself not expelled.

I believe that the most fighting elements in the trade unions should be our youth, who should not oppose our movement to the labor party but go inside the labor party, even a very opportunist labor party. They must be inside. That is their duty. That our young comrades separate the transitional program from the labor party is understandable because the transitional program is an international question; but for the United States they are connected – both questions – and I believe that some of our young comrades accept the transitional program without good understanding of its meaning, for otherwise the formal separation of it would lose for them all importance.