The presidential candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party from the USA and the good results he is obtaining have opened an intense debate within the world left, among a large majority (including several organizations who call themselves Trotskyists) which, using different arguments, support and called to vote for Sanders, and a minority which, as the IWL-FI, is opposed to this line, and considers it to be a new and much deeper capitulation by these tendencies.
As a contribution to the debate with these sectors, defined as ‘Trotskyist’, it seemed important to us to recover the Trotskyist tradition in the United States, and its history of struggle for the construction of an independent Labor Party.
And it is a high level tradition, since we refer to conversations and discussions Trotsky himself had with the main leaders of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), in 1938, on the development of the program for the founding of the Fourth International, and the one for the USA party.
The proposal of constructing an independent Labor Party, based on the trade unions (and their possible participation in elections) is analyzed in two of those conversations:
How to struggle for a workers’ party in the United States? (April, 1938), and Comparison between labor movements in the United States and Europe (May 31st, 1938).
The first of those materials addresses the question in a more concrete way: how this proposal was seen by leaders and most bold trade union activists, and the tactical ways to implement this proposal. In this context, Trotsky introduces a definition of the strategic perspective that such proposal entailed:
“We are for a Party, an independent Party, of the working masses, to take the power of the State“.
In the second one, Trotsky faces the issue in a more general way. He starts from a comparison on how had it been given the relation between the emergence of working class’ parties and the trade unions. He analyses that, in Germany, Austria an Russia, the parties of the Second International appeared first, and then there were these parties who founded and headed the trade unions (the process was from the political field to the Union field). In France and Spain, there was a sort of parallel process: parties on one side (and basically electoral), and trade unions on the other, driven by different tendencies, confronted in many cases. Meanwhile, in England the process was from the Union field to Politics: the unions appeared first, and a century later they were forced to found their own party (the Labour Party). He opens the hypothesis that, for objective reasons of the capitalist development, the English process would repeat in the USA, but in faster way:
“Now in the United States we can say that the characteristic features of English development are presented in even more concentrated form in a shorter period because the whole history of the United States is shorter.
(…) What does this fact signify? That it was a long time in the United States before the organization of trade unions but now that genuine trade unions exist, they must make the same evolution as the English trade unions. That is, on the basis of declining capitalism, they are forced to turn to political action. I believe that this is the most important fact of the whole matter“.
Next, he alerts despite the conditions and objective need to it, the fact of launching slogan and campaign for it did not guarantee their realization per se:
“What does this signify? That we are sure the working class, the trade unions, will adhere to the slogan of the labor party? No, we are not sure that the workers will adhere to the slogan of the labor party. When we begin the fight we cannot be sure of being victorious. We can only say that our slogan corresponds to the objective situation and the best elements will understand and the most backward elements who don’t understand will be compromised“.
At the same time, he referred to how to combine this proposal with the construction of the revolutionary workers party (SWP):
“Should we use both slogans or one? I say both. The first, independent labor party, prepares the arena for our party. The first slogan prepares and helps the workers to advance and prepares the path for our party. That is the sense of our slogan“.
Finally, as a key issue in the current debate about Sanders, he posed, with total clarity, to move forward on the electoral field, workers should break with the Democratic Party and its leaders, including those who had great prestige among the workers, or a “leftist” profile.
“We must show to the workers what this party should be: an independent party, not for Roosevelt or LaFollette, a machine for the workers themselves. That is why on the field of election it must have its own candidates“.
We reproduce here the second one of the quoted materials.
Discussion in Mexico City, May 31, 1938
Question: In the ranks of our party the question which seems most disputed in relation to accepting the program of transitional demands is that dealing with the labor party in the United States. Some comrades maintain that it is incorrect to advocate the formation of a labor party, holding that there is no evidence to indicate any widespread sentiment for such a party, that if there were such a party in process of formation, or even widespread sentiment, then we would meet it with a program that would give to this movement a revolutionary content – but in view of the lack of such objective factors this part of the thesis is opportunistic. Could you clarify this point further?
Trotsky: I believe that it is necessary to remind ourselves of the most elementary facts from the history of the development of the workers’ movement in general and the trade unions in particular. In this respect we find different types of development of the working class in different countries. Every country has a specific type of development but we classify them in general.
In Austria and in Russia especially, the workers’ movement began as a political movement, as a party movement. That was the first step. The social-democracy in its first stage hoped that the socialist reconstruction of society was near, but it happened that capitalism was strong enough to last for a time. A long period of prosperity passed and the social-democracy was forced to organize trade unions. In such countries as Germany, Austria, and especially in Russia where trade unions were unknown, they were initiated, constructed, and guided by a political party, the social-democracy.
Another type of development is that disclosed in the Latin countries, in France, and especially in Spain. Here the party movement and the trade union movement are almost independent of one another and under different banners, even to a certain degree antagonistic to one another. The party is a parliamentary machine. The trade unions are to a certain degree in France – more in Spain – under the leadership of anarchists.
The third type is provided by Great Britain, the United States, and more or less by the dominions. England is the classic country of trade unions. They began to build trade unions at the end of the eighteenth century, before the French Revolution, and during the so-called industrial revolution. (In the United States, during the rise of the manufacturing system.) In England the working class didn’t have its independent party. The trade unions were the organizations of the working class, in reality the organization of the labor aristocrats, the higher strata. In England there was an aristocratic proletariat, at least in its upper strata, because the British bourgeoisie, enjoying almost monopoly control of the world market, could give a small part of the wealth to the working class and so absorb part of the national income. The trade unions were adequate to abstract that from the bourgeoisie. Only after a hundred years did the trade unions begin to build up a political party. This is absolutely contrary to Germany or Austria. There the party awakened the working class and built up the trade unions. In England the trade unions, after centuries of existence and struggle, were forced to build up a political party.
What were the reasons for this change? It was due to the complete decline of English capitalism which began very sharply. The English party is only a couple of decades old, coming into prominence especially after the World War. What is the reason for this change? It is well known that it was due to the abolishing of England’s monopoly control of the world market. It began in the eighties of the nineteenth century with the competition of Germany and of the United States. The bourgeoisie lost its ability to give the leading strata of the proletariat a privileged position. The trade unions lost the possibility to improve the situation of the workers and they were pushed onto the road of political action because political action is the generalization of economic action. Political action generalizes the needs of the workers and addresses them not to the parts of the bourgeoisie but to the bourgeoisie as a whole organized in the state.
Now in the United States we can say that the characteristic features of English development are presented in even more concentrated form in a shorter period because the whole history of the United States is shorter. Practically, the development of the trade unions in the United States began after the Civil War, but these trade unions were very backward even compared with the trade unions of Great Britain. To a great degree they were mixed trade unions of employers and employees, not fighting, militant trade unions. They were sectional and tiny. They were based on the craft system, not according to industry, and we see that it is only during the last two or three years that the genuine trade unions developed in the United States. This new movement is the CIO.
What is the reason for the appearance of the CIO? It is the decay of American capitalism. In Great Britain the beginning of the decay of the capitalist system forced the existing trade unions to unite into a political party. In the United States the same phenomenon – the beginning of the decline – produced only the industrial trade unions, but these trade unions appeared on the scene only in time to meet the new chapter of the decline of capitalism, or – more correct – we can say that the first crisis of 1929–1933 gave the push and ended in the organization of the CIO. But scarcely organized, the CIO meets the second crisis, 1937–1938, which continues and deepens.
What does this fact signify? That it was a long time in the United States before the organization of trade unions but now that genuine trade unions exist, they must make the same evolution as the English trade unions. That is, on the basis of declining capitalism, they are forced to turn to political action. I believe that this is the most important fact of the whole matter.
The question reads, “There is no evidence to indicate any widespread sentiment for such a party.” You will remember that when we discussed this question with other comrades there were some divergences on this question. I cannot judge whether sentiment for a labor party exists or not because I have no personal observations or impressions, but I do not find it decisive as to what degree the leaders of the trade unions or the rank and file are ready or inclined to build a political party. It is very difficult to establish objective information. We have no machine to take a referendum. We can measure the mood only by action if the slogan is put on the agenda. But what we can say is that the objective situation is absolutely decisive. The trade unions as trade unions can have only a defensive activity, losing members and becoming more and more weak as the crisis deepens, creating more and more unemployed. The treasury becomes poorer and poorer, the tasks, bigger and bigger, while their means, smaller and smaller. It is a fact; we cannot change it. The trade union bureaucracy becomes more and more disoriented, the rank and file more and more dissatisfied and this dissatisfaction becomes greater and greater the higher were their hopes in the CIO, and especially in view of the unprecedented growth of the CIO – in two or three years 4,000,000 fresh people on the field facing objective handicaps which cannot be eliminated by the trade unions. In this situation we must give an answer. If the trade union leaders are not ready for political action, we must ask them to develop a new political orientation. If they refuse we denounce them. That is the objective situation.
I say here what I said about the whole program of transitional demands. The problem is not the mood ofthe masses but the objective situation, and our job is to confront the backward material of the masses with the tasks which are determined by objective facts and not by psychology. The same is absolutely correct for this specific question on the labor party. If the class struggle is not to be crushed, replaced by demoralization, then the movement must find a new channel and this channel is political. That is the fundamental argument in favor of this slogan.
We claim to have Marxism or scientific socialism. What does “scientific socialism” signify in reality. It signifies that the party which represents this social science, departs, as every science, not from subjective wishes, tendencies, or moods but from objective facts, from the material situation of the different classes and their relationships. Only by this method can we establish demands adequate to the objective situation and only after this can we adapt these demands and slogans to the given mentality of the masses. But to begin with this mentality as the fundamental fact would signify not a scientific but a conjunctural, demagogic, or adventuristic policy.
One can ask why we didn’t foresee this development five, six, seven years ago? Why did we declare during the past period that we were not willing to fight for this slogan of the labor party? The explanation is very simple. We were absolutely sure, we Marxists, the initiators of the American movement for the Fourth International, that world capitalism had entered into a period of decline. That is the period when the working class is objectively educated and moves subjectively, preparing for the social revolution. The direction was the same in the United States, but the question of direction is not sufficient. The other question is the speed of its development; and in this respect, in view of the strength of American capitalism, some of us, and myself among them, imagined that the ability of American capitalism to resist against the destructive inner contradictions would be greater and that for a certain period American capitalism might use the decline of European capital to cover a period of prosperity before its own decline. How long a period? Ten to thirty years one could say? Anyway I, personally, didn’t see that this sharp crisis or series of crises would begin in the next period and become deeper and deeper.
That is why eight years ago when I discussed this question with American comrades I was very cautious. I was very cautious in my prognosis. My opinion was that we couldn’t foresee when the American trade unions would come into a period where they would be forced into political action. If this critical period started in ten to fifteen years, then we, the revolutionary organization, could become a great power directly influencing the trade unions and becoming the leading force. That is why it would be absolutely pedantic, abstract, artificial to proclaim the necessity for the labor party in 1930 and this abstract slogan would be a handicap to our own party. That was at the beginning of the preceding crisis. Then, that this period would be followed by a new crisis even more deep with an influence five to ten times more profound because it is a repetition!
Now we must not reckon by our prognosis of yesterday but by the situation of today. American capitalism is very strong but its contradictions are stronger than capitalism itself. The speed of decline came at American speed and this created a new situation for the new trade unions, the CIO even more than the AFL. In this situation it is worse for the CIO than the AFL because the AFL is more capable of resistance due to its aristocratic base. We must change our program because the objective situation is totally different from our former prognosis.
What does this signify? That we are sure the working class, the trade unions, will adhere to the slogan of the labor party? No, we are not sure that the workers will adhere to the slogan of the labor party. When we begin the fight we cannot be sure of being victorious. We can only say that our slogan corresponds to the objective situation and the best elements will understand and the most backward elements who don’t understand will be compromised.
In Minneapolis we cannot say to the trade unions you should adhere to the Socialist Workers Party. It would be a joke even in Minneapolis. Why? Because the decline of capitalism develops ten – a hundred times faster than the speed of our party. It is a new discrepancy. The necessity of a political party for the workers is given by the objective conditions, but our party is too small, with too little authority in order to organize the workers into its own ranks. That is why we must say to the workers, the masses, you must have a party. But we cannot say immediately to these masses, you must join our party.
In a mass meeting 500 would agree on the need for a labor party, only five agree to join our party, which shows that the slogan of a labor party is an agitational slogan. The second slogan is for the more advanced.
Should we use both slogans or one? I say both. The first, independent labor party, prepares the arena for our party. The first slogan prepares and helps the workers to advance and prepares the path for our party. That is the sense of our slogan. We say that we will not be satisfied with this abstract slogan which even today is not so abstract as ten years ago because the objective situation is different. It is not concrete enough. We must show to the workers what this party should be: an independent party, not for Roosevelt or LaFollette, a machine for the workers themselves. That is why on the field of election it must have its own candidates. Then we must introduce our transitional slogans, not all at once, but as occasion arises, first one and then the other. That is why I see absolutely no justification for not accepting this slogan. I see only a psychological reason. Our comrades, in fighting against Lovestoneites, wanted our own party and not this abstract party. Now it is disagreeable. Naturally the Stalinists will say we are fascists, etc. But it is not a principled question; it is a tactical question. To Lovestone it will seem that we lose face before the Lovestoneites, but this is nothing. We orient not according to Lovestone but according to the needs of the working class. I believe that even from the point of view of our competition with the Lovestoneites it is a plus and not a minus. In a meeting against a Lovestoneite I would explain what our position was and why we changed. “At that time, you Lovestoneites attacked us. Good. Now in this question, which was so important to you, we have changed our mind. Now, what do you have against the Fourth International?” I am sure we will prepare a split in this manner among the Lovestoneites. In this sense I see no obstacles.
Before finishing – a correction in the formulation of the question: The labor party proposal is not a part of the program of transitional demands but is a special motion.
Question: In a trade union does one advocate a labor party, vote for it?
Trotsky: Why not? In the case of a trade union where the question comes up, I will get up and say that the need for a labor party is absolutely proved by all the events. It is proved that economic action is not enough. We need political action. In a union I will say what counts is the content of the labor party, that is why I reserve something to say about the program, but I will vote for it.
Question: The workers seem absolutely apathetic toward a labor party; their leaders are doing nothing, and the Stalinists are for Roosevelt.
Trotsky: But this is characteristic of a certain period where there is no program. Where they don’t see the new road. It is absolutely necessary to overcome this apathy. It is absolutely necessary to give a new slogan.
Question: Some comrades have even collected figures tending to prove that the labor-party movement is actually declining among the workers.
Trotsky: There is a major line and then minor oscillations, as for example the moods in the CIO. First aggressiveness. Now in the crisis the CIO appears a thousand times more dangerous than before to the capitalists, but the leaders are afraid to break with Roosevelt. The masses wait. They are disoriented, unemployment is increasing. It is possible to prove that the sentiment has decreased since a year ago. Possibly the Stalinist influence adds to this, but this is only a secondary oscillation, and it is very dangerous to base ourselves upon the secondary oscillations since in a short time the major movement becomes more imperative and this objective necessity will find its subjective expression in the heads of the workers, especially if we help them. The party is a historic instrument to help the workers.
Question: Some of the members who came from the Socialist Party complain that at that time they were for a labor party and were convinced in arguing with the Trotskyists that they were wrong. Now they must switch back.
Trotsky: Yes, it is a pedagogical question, but it is a good school for the comrades. Now they can see dialectical development better than before.
Original translation from: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/04/lp.htm
 – See articles http://www.litci.org/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2785:bernie-sanders-the-independent-candidate-for-working-people-or-a-trap&catid=19:usa&Itemid=52 and http://litci.org/es/mundo/norteamerica/estados-unidos/apoyar-a-bernie-sanders/ (currently available in Spanish and Portuguese, soon to be available in English).
 – The debates on this matter were approached in Marxism Alive #7 – New Epoch.
 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the main leader of the Democratic Party, and president of the United States between 1933-1945. He counted with a major electoral support of the wrokign class and the backup of most trade-union leaders. Robert La Follete was Democrat Senator by Wisconsin, of “leftist” profile. In 1917, he voted against the participation of the USA in WW1, accusing back then current president Woodrow Wilson (Democrat) of becoming “a Wall Street instrument”, and “puting the dollar sign in the United States Flag”.