Workers Vanguard No. 1169
7 February 2020
From the Archives of Marxism
The Need for a Revolutionary Workers Party
From Max Shachtmans The Fight For Socialism
We reprint below an excerpt from The Fight For Socialism: The Principles and Program of the Workers Party, written in 1946 by Max Shachtman, the full text of which is available online. The passage effectively and in clear terms lays out the need for a revolutionary workers party in this country. Such a party would not administer the capitalist system; it would fight for a workers government that would expropriate the capitalist class and build a new social order based on a collectivized, planned economy.
When Shachtman wrote this text, he was the leader of the Workers Party, an organization that can be described as centrist: revolutionary in words but reformist in deeds. Having spent a good part of his earlier life as a dedicated revolutionist, in 1940 he broke with Trotskyism when he refused to defend the Soviet Union at the outset of World War II. Nonetheless, for several years after this break, he continued to be proficient at expressing many basic ideas about socialism without abstraction or condescension. Shachtman went on to move sharply to the right during the Cold War, joining the anti-Communist social democracy and becoming an open supporter of U.S. imperialism.
In 1965, the Resident Editorial Board of Spartacist wrote our own introduction to The Fight For Socialism and inserted it in copies we sold. We noted that the book was the best available of its kind, despite Shachtman’s revisionist position on the Russian question and his indifference to Marxist dialectics. We assert again here what we did then: “It is recommended to those who are new to socialist ideas and want a systematic exposition of them.”
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Although labor is engaged in political action, it has not equipped itself with the most important instrument required for participation in politics. Labor has no party of its own. To meet the capitalists on the economic field under more favorable conditions, the workers very wisely organized a special machine, the labor unions. To deal with the capitalist class on the political field, it is also necessary to organize a special machine, a working-class political party.
The class struggle is a political struggle. It cannot be fought successfully by the workers unless they have a political weapon, which means, their own political party. The capitalist class has its own political organizations. It sees to it that they remain committed to its basic interests, the maintenance of the capitalist system. It sees to it that they remain under its control. It provides them with a press. It provides them with funds, running into millions of dollars each year. In some places, the capitalists are in direct control of these parties, in others, its agents and sworn friends are in direct control. Even if, under certain conditions, a “progressive” breaks through to a nomination and gets elected, the capitalist class still maintains control of the political machinery and is able to realize its aims in the end.
Why should not the workers have their own political party, which openly calls itself the party of the working class? The workers are the most numerous and most important class in society. They have the most representative and largest organizations in society, the labor unions, which outnumber by far the membership of all the capitalist and middle-class organizations put together.
That is not all. Labor leaders and “friends of labor” try to discourage the workers from forming a party of their own with the argument that the workers, and especially the labor unions, by themselves, do not form the absolute majority of the population, and therefore could not win in the contest with the existing parties.
An utterly false and misleading argument! The capitalist parties represent a far tinier minority of the population than do the labor unions. That does not prevent the labor leaders and the “friends” from supporting these parties. A working-class party, with a correct program and leadership, could win the support of the overwhelming majority of the population. The main enemy of the working class is monopoly capitalism, represented by the big industrial and financial magnates. Why should not, why cannot, labor, in its fight against the monopolistic class, enlist the support of the poor farmers, of the lower middle classes, of the Negro people in town and country, who are also under the heel of monopoly capitalism? Why cannot labor draw up and carry on a serious fight for such a political program as would attract to it the support of these other people, together with whom labor makes up far more than a simple majority of the population? On what ground should we believe that the political support of these people will always go to the leadership of capitalism, but never to the leadership of labor?
Those who argue against independent political action by the workers, against an independent workers’ party, are tied in body and mind to the chariot of capitalist politics. They find no difficulty in believing that capitalism always can and should win the support of the farmers, the lower middle classes and the Negro people. But they have so little confidence in the working class in whose name they presume to speak, that they cannot conceive of it winning the support of the bulk of the people and acquiring the leadership of the nation. That a few thousand capitalists should run the country seems natural to them. That it should be run by millions of workers is inconceivable to them. In this way, as in all others, they show they are capitalistic labor leaders, not real working-class leaders.
The workers need a party of their own. To form it, is to issue the Declaration of Independence of the American working class. It is the first big step in breaking from the capitalist parties and capitalist politics, and toward independent working-class political action.
However, it is only the first step. A political party that does not proclaim its intention of taking government power, is not worthy of the name. A Labor Party which announced, as some so-called labor parties do, that its aims in politics is to support the candidates of the capitalist parties, could neither inspire the support it should have nor fulfill the task before it. A party that proclaims as its purpose the nomination of “good” candidates by the capitalist parties and their elections with its aid, is a miserable bargaining agency, but not an Independent Labor Party. Its proclamation is a confession that the capitalist parties are so bankrupt and rotten, that their candidates can get support from the workers only if they also appear under the emblem of another party.
A Labor Party which announced that it had only a modest aim, like the election of a few candidates of its own, and nothing more, could not inspire serious support among the people. It could get such support and justify its existence in the eyes of the people only if it declared boldly that the capitalist parties are bankrupt, that it challenges them all along the line, that it aims at taking government power and reorganizing society to serve the interests of all the people instead of serving only the interests of the capitalist minority.
The formation of an independent workers’ party acquires great significance only if it proclaims the objective of a Workers’ Government.
What would be the program and purpose of a Workers’ Government? Would it simply be to put the workers in the offices now occupied by capitalist politicians and bureaucrats? Would it simply be to take over the responsibility for managing the affairs of the capitalist class? In that case, it would be a Workers’ Government only in name, and a capitalist government in reality. It would confuse the workers, and make it easy for capital to get back all its power.
This is not a mere assertion, it is a fact proved by experience. Twice in England, a Labor Government was in office; in Germany, in Austria, in Spain and in other countries, the same thing was true at different times. But in every one of these cases, the government failed to act in the interests of the working class. It left the power of the capitalists intact. It made no fundamental change. The position of the masses of the people was not sufficiently improved or not improved at all, because no bold steps were taken to remove the causes of the social evils produced by capitalism. The hopes of the people were disappointed. Their enthusiasm declined. The capitalist class thereupon found little difficulty in regaining all its political control by taking over the government directly. It either crushed the labor government by violence or simply dismissed it from office. In many cases, an outright reactionary or fascist government took control.
A Workers’ Government is needed not to protect the power and interests of the capitalists, but the power and interests of the workers, and of all the little people as a whole. We have already seen that political power—the government, the state—exists only to serve class interests. All the interests of the capitalist class are tied up with and based upon preserving their ownership and control of the means of production. Their whole power over society is based upon this ownership. It enables them to exploit and oppress the majority of the population. It results in growing social inequality, in unemployment, economic scarcity, insecurity and war. The maintenance of capitalist property is the basic principle of every capitalist government. To this principle, it subordinates everything else.
A Workers’ Government must have a basically different principle if it is to discharge its great obligation to those who placed it in power. To the evils of capitalism, it must oppose social progress and human welfare. To the interests of a ruling minority, it must oppose the interests of all humanity. Its aim must be to assure society a high, continuous level of production which will permit the cultural development of all, and which will not be broken periodically by convulsive crises; to assure abundance to all and peace among all the nations and peoples, so that the nightmare of insecurity is dispelled; to assure everyone freedom from physical and intellectual enslavement of any kind. Are not these the things that all the people long for?