USA: the fight for socialism and the lessons of the Labor Party

Tom Trottier examines the rise and fall of the Labor Party, which was founded by an alliance of unionists in 1996 and won some support, but rapidly declined in the late-90s and early-2000s. Tom explains why the Labor Party failed and why Marxists must draw lessons from the past to start laying the foundations and framework for a future mass, working-class, socialist party in the United States.

“Against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes. This constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end—the abolition of classes.”

– Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1871 London Conference of the First International

“There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than to learn from one’s own mistakes. And for a whole large class, there is no other road, especially for a nation so eminently practical as the Americans. The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction, and all who resist . . . will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own.”

– Friedrich Engels, in an 1886 Letter to Florence Kelley

The question of how the US working class will create a party of its own—a class-independent, mass socialist party—has been a foremost concern of Marxists since the earliest beginnings of the movement, both in the US and around the world. Reactionaries have long pointed to the lack of a working-class party as an indication of “American exceptionalism” and the weakness of the class struggle in the land of McCarthy.

Meanwhile, revolutionaries have tirelessly maintained that a mass workers’ party is an objective historical step that must be achieved in order for the US working class to fight back effectively and reverse decades of lost ground in the class struggle. That this discussion is being taken up again is a healthy indication of a revival of historic class instincts among millions who are equally fed up with both parties of US capitalism.

After the experience of the Bernie Sanders campaign and the 2016 election in general, support for the two-party system is at record lows. The subsequent growth of the socialist movement, particularly around DSA, has opened up widespread strategic debates about how a mass socialist party can be built, what it would mean to break with the Democrats, how to win over the labor movement to such a perspective, and of course, what went wrong in the past.

Mass forces are required to build a mass party. The AFL-CIO has the resources to build a party or millions, but the present labor leadership has no such intentions, and there is no organized socialist opposition force in the unions at present moving in that direction. Bernie Sanders could have built such a party instead of backing Clinton in 2016. Even today, Sanders could call for such a party and hundreds of thousands would join, but he continues to embrace and collaborate with the Democratic Party, in contrast to his past independent socialist political standpoint.

The present forces of the socialist movement are too small to build a mass party on our own, but in the current political vacuum, we can and must do the necessary work to build the foundation and framework for what can be a mass socialist party in the not-too-distant future. The effort to build a labor party 20 years ago, along with the concrete problems it posed—winning over the labor movement, breaking with the Democrats, and taking on the political apparatus of the bourgeois state—provided lessons that have not yet been fully absorbed by the socialist movement today.

The role of Tony Mazzocchi

Tony Mazzocchi was the key labor leader behind the effort for a labor party in the 1980s and 1990s. He must be given credit for being one of the few leaders at the time to stand up and publicly call for the creation of a labor party. However, Mazzocchi also had a flawed method, which eventually led to a stillborn party.

Tony Mazzocchi Image Oakland SocialistTony Mazzocchi / Image: Oakland Socialist

In 1989, a small group of American Marxists, grouped around the paper Labor Militant, set up a group called the Campaign for a Labor Party (CLP). The goal of the CLP was to bring the issue of the labor party to the union ranks, to the picket lines, to organizing campaigns, to students, and non-union workers. Labor Militant was part of the Committee for a Workers International, which the comrades who later became the IMT were part of until 1991.

The 1989 founding CLP conference in NYC had then-mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Bernie Sanders, as a speaker, as well as the Marxist MP from the British Labour Party, Terry Fields. The context of this conference was the following. Bernie had run for Congress as an independent in Vermont in 1988, and though he lost to the Republican by 3 points, he pushed the Democrats to third place, with less than 19%.

In November 1989, after the Pittston Coal strike, Jackie Stump, a member of the UMW (United Mine Workers), initiated a write-in campaign in Virginia just weeks before the elections to the House of Delegates and defeated the longtime Democratic incumbent. It should be noted that Bernie ran again in 1990 and won the seat with 56% in a three-way race, with the Democrat getting just 3%.

Tony Mazzocchi was invited to speak, but he declined, as he was only willing to speak on platforms which had a union local or higher labor body endorse the meeting. Given the ties between the labor leaders in NYC and the Democratic Party in 1989, there was no official labor endorsement of the CLP Conference.

Shortly after this, Labor Militant and CLP members in Oakland, California were able to get AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) Local 444 to endorse a meeting on the need for a labor party and they were also able to get endorsements from other labor bodies in the Bay Area. Mazzocchi agreed to speak. Though he thought there would be a weak turnout, he was surprised and enthused when more than 100 people attended the meeting, and there was complete support for the idea of a labor party.

A mechanical attempt to build a party

It was after this Oakland meeting that Mazzocchi agreed that there needed to be an organized attempt to build a labor party, and he set up Labor Party Advocates (LPA). People would join LPA and pay a yearly fee. LPA had only one purpose: to advocate for a political party of labor. There would be no other goals or positions, and it would take no action.

Once it achieved 100,000 members, a founding conference of the labor party would be called. Chapters of LPA were organized, but the leaders were appointed by Mazzocchi and completely under his direction. In NYC, a retiree who was a member of the CPUSA, a political organization that usually supported the Democrats, was put in charge of the NYC LPA.

The way LPA was organized flowed from Mazzocchi’s core conceptions:

1) He wanted complete control from the top;

2) He believed the party could be built in an abstract way, divorced from the real struggles of the working class. That is, the idea of a labor party would be presented, but once you joined, you would only try to get new members—no other activity was proposed.

Mazzocchi was also against the formation of rank-and-file committees to push for a pro–labor party leadership in the unions. And if something like this did develop, he did not want his or LPA’s fingerprints on this. In addition to the above, Tony Mazzocchi had a flawed view of what a labor party should be. Mazzocchi was born in Brooklyn in 1926, and he grew up in New York, where the “American Labor Party” (ALP) had existed in the 1930s through the 1950s, and he was influenced by this. This was a party that had “permanent ballot status” in NY state for almost 20 years. The party was used to get workers who would not vote for Democratic Party candidates and liberal Republicans to vote for them under the “ALP fusion line.”

In this way, they got the most advanced workers to vote for FDR, instead of voting for the Socialist Party or the Communist Party. Occasionally the party would run its own independent candidates for some offices. The ALP is similar to the Working Families Party today, but the WFP rarely runs independent candidates.

Therefore, Mazzocchi had a conception of building a labor party as a pressure group on the Democratic Party, as opposed to a real independent party of the working class that would seek to win power and form a workers’ government. This is not to say that he did not imagine a day when a labor party could be much more than that, but as far as he was concerned, that day was a long way off.

The Democrats in power lead to the founding of the LP

Some leaders of unions like the OCAW, UMW, ILWU, UE, the California Nurses Association, and others started to give Mazzocchi some support, at least as a way to provide some left pressure on the Democrats and to “shift the political debate” in favor of the labor movement. They went through the experience of 1993 & 1994 when the Democrats controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress.

The only “pro-labor” reform passed was Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees certain employees up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave each year with no threat of job loss. But how many workers can afford to take three months of unpaid leave?

Along with that “reform,” the Clinton administration ratified NAFTA and passed a notorious crime bill, which greatly increased the prison population. This led to the 1994 election, in which the Republicans, with their “Contract with America,” gained control of the House and Senate. Many workers and youth did not want to vote for the “lesser evil” and had no other alternative, so they sat it out as the right wing mobilized its voting base.

Despite these conditions, due to its limited perspective and scope, Mazzocchi never achieved his magic number of 100,000 LPA members, though several unions representing hundreds of thousands of members endorsed it. The reality is that building a mass labor party requires a clear vision, perspectives, and activity linked to the real struggles of the working class. In addition, the organization must be structured and function in a thoroughly democratic manner.

Most workers will not get active today in an effort to build a party “at some point in the distant future.” Workers will join an effort that fights to improve their lives today while connecting this with a longer-term goal such as building a mass party and fighting for a labor government. But if all there is to do is wait, most people will wait at home.

Mazzocchi also did not understand the importance of getting young workers involved in this effort. Whenever social change occurs, it is youth and young workers who play the key role, as they did in building the CIO unions. In 1936, when Walter Reuther became the President of his UAW local, he was only in his late 20s!

Mazzocchi nevertheless felt that the LPA should be wound up, and a founding conference for a Labor Party was held in 1996. The party’s program, though limited to reforming capitalism, was significantly to the left of the Democrats. But despite being a party, it did not run Labor Party candidates (or even endorse independent labor candidates).

Unfortunately, most of the labor leaders who supported the LP did not want to directly challenge the Democrats. Nor did they want to “spoil the vote,” thereby allowing the “greater evil” Republicans to win elections. They had no problem putting a little pressure on the Democrats—but not too much! Unfortunately, Mazzocchi would not go beyond the limits set by the labor leaders.

In addition to not running candidates, the LP did not try to organize mass demonstrations, organize non-union workers, or advocate militant strike support tactics, as this would conflict with the outlook of the labor leaders. Imagine if the Labor Party and the unions supporting it started demanding a significantly higher minimum wage and coordinating mass demonstrations in labor strongholds such as NYC, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco. This, as well as running real workers as candidates, pledged to receive only a worker’s wage if elected, could have really built the Labor Party.

However, the vast majority of workers did not turn to the Labor Party, just as many union members in recent years have turned away from the unions in frustration, as they experience one contract after another with givebacks and concessions. All they know are union leaders who do not organize and mobilize for struggle, who are unable or unwilling to take on the class enemy. We must never forget that unions were not built politely but through militant mass struggle. Can a mass party of workers be built without a fight and with the permission of the bosses and their parties? Can we make an omelet without cracking eggs?

Wrong conclusions drawn from the past

Recently, Seth Ackerman of Jacobin wrote the following about the experience of the Labor Party:

“In a history of the party based on interviews with major participants, LP activist Jenny Brown cited two key factors as being most important in explaining its decline. The first was the weakening of the labor movement itself after 2000, especially the industrial unions that had formed its original core.

“But the second, more immediate reason was essentially political: the party failed to attract enough support from major national unions. That wasn’t due to any great fondness for the Democratic Party on the part of the labor leadership of the time, or because they opposed the idea of a labor party on principle. As Mazzocchi said in 1998: ‘I’ve never found a person in the top labor leadership say they’re opposed to a labor party.’

“Instead, the problem arose from the oldest dilemma of America’s two-party system: running candidates against Democrats risked electing anti-labor Republicans. For unions whose members had a lot to lose, that risk was considered too high.

“Despite the dedication of its organizers, the Labor Party didn’t succeed. But its founders were right to believe that a genuinely independent party, rather than a mere informal faction of the Democrats, is indispensable to successful working-class politics.”

A similar point of view was put forward by Mark Dudzic, a former organizer of the Labor Party, and Katherine Isaac, when they wrote the following in an article titled;“Labor Party Time? Not Yet”:

“Mistakes were certainly made in the short history of the Labor Party. And some obstacles proved too difficult to overcome. Perhaps the most difficult was the development of a strategy to extract the labor movement from the tentacles of the two-party electoral process. An organizing dynamic took hold in which enthusiasm for developing an alternative to the Democrats peaked in the off-cycle election years and diminished as unions mobilized for yet another round of elections.

This dynamic cannot solely be attributed to muddled, compromised, or timid union leadership. Unions, and working people in general, have real, concrete interests and concerns which must be defended in the electoral arena even as we work to transcend the boundaries set by the two parties of the bosses. The prospect of breaking completely with the Democratic Party without an established alternative was too risky for even the most militant unions and remains the biggest challenge to any effort to build an independent labor politics.”

The above indicates that Ackerman, Brown, Dudzic, and Isaac also support lesser evilism in some form, even if only “temporarily.” However, the points they raise are merely assertions—and assertions are not arguments. We agree that workers have real interests that must be defended and fought for, but we absolutely reject the idea that lesser evil politics can defend these interests. In contrast to the timid and defeatist view put forward by the above authors, Socialist Revolution believes the following:

  • We must put forward class politics, not lesser-evil politics. The only solution to the capitalist crisis is a workers’ government implementing socialist policies. For this, we need a mass socialist party of the working class. As part of the struggle for a workers’ government, we will win concrete reforms—far more reforms than the lesser-evil strategy. Our starting point must be the understanding that capitalism cannot be regulated or reformed out of existence, and that a system in crisis cannot provide the kinds of reforms that people got accustomed to during the anomaly of the 1946–1974 postwar boom. Our eventual aim should be to run independent socialist/labor candidates in every single electoral district, with candidates run in a handful of strategic districts from the very beginning. All such candidates should be directly accountable to the membership and party program, which should also be determined democratically.
  • The ruling class controls the Democratic Party directly and indirectly via the DNC, state committees, capitalist media, lobbyists, and, of course, the mother’s milk of bourgeois politics—money! Like the Republicans, the Democrats exist to implement capitalist policy, which is in contradiction to the interests of the working class. So as far as a labor party playing “spoiler,” there is nothing to spoil. Just look at the Democrats in power. As an example, from 1977 to 1980, the Carter administration and Democrat-controlled Congress began implementing the Reagan agenda even before “The Gipper” was elected. They increased the military budget, cut social programs, deregulated oil and gas prices, as well as the airlines and trucking industry—sponsored by that great “friend of labor” Ted Kennedy. When Reagan got into office, it was Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House, and other Democrats who colluded in raising the Social Security retirement age. 1993 and 1994 were already covered above. And what about 2009 and 2010, Obama’s first two years in office? The only “reform” was “Obamacare” cribbed directly from “Romneycare,” a massive handout to private insurers that left millions without coverage and millions of others with huge deductibles.
  • If one accepts lesser evilism, the “greater evil” eventually wins. Let down yet again, and without an alternative, demoralized workers stay home or even vote to the right—let’s not forget that given Clinton’s record, many workers saw Trump as the “lesser evil” in 2016. In 2000, many accused Ralph Nader of “stealing” votes from Al Gore. But it was Gore’s program, the Electoral College, electoral fraud in Florida, and the Supreme Court, not Nader, who led to GW Bush. In 2016, when we said that “only socialism beats Trump,” and that an independent Bernie campaign could beat both Clinton and Trump, people thought we were crazy. But in the end, Sanders capitulated to the Clinton machine, a historic opportunity to launch a new party was missed, and Trump won anyway, despite losing by nearly 3 million popular votes.
  • Those who say the Labor Party could not run candidates as it would have served as a spoiler do not explain why the party did not stand in the many Congressional “safe” districts firmly controlled by either Democrats or Republicans. Even assuming that 75 districts are up for grabs, the Labor Party could have run in 360 districts and still not played spoiler. In any case, we reject the idea that any district should be “off limits” to a party that represents the working class majority. Why should the Democrats, who represent the interests of a handful of billionaires and millionaires get any “gimmes” when it comes to elections? Like Gore in 2000, they should earn the votes of voters, not take them for granted, never mind the millions who abstain altogether.
  • Electoral campaigns are not only about immediate results but are an indispensable way of making a party’s program and ideas known, thus establishing a base of support for future victories. By building support, showing the workers an alternative, and engaging in real-life struggles, a labor party will eventually be seen as viable and begin to win elections. One thing is certain: a party that runs no candidates will never win any elections! Bernie Sanders did not let accusations of “spoiler” stop him from running for Congress and winning, despite an initial defeat.

Without a doubt, there are many barriers and challenges when it comes to getting non-Democrats or Republicans on the ballot. Part of our task is to continue exposing bourgeois democracy for what it is: democracy for the bourgeois. But we must also recognize that there is tremendous anger and even class hatred against the Republicans and Democrats, which was reflected in both Trump and Sanders’s campaigns. Bernie’s campaign showed how much money can be raised from millions of workers and youth, and he could have mobilized hundreds of thousands of his supporters to get on the ballot as an independent socialist. Consciousness can and has changed dramatically and quickly, and we must not have a gradualist, conservative, and evolutionary approach. Our starting point must be absolute confidence in the power and ability of the working class to take control of its destiny and to change society.

The decline of the Labor Party

Mark Dudzic says that one of the reasons the Labor Party declined was because the labor movement was on the defensive. On the surface, this seems like an airtight argument. However, if we look at history, we see that this is actually a defeated and defeatist argument. When labor is being attacked and on the defensive, militant strategy and action can make all the difference. In the 1920s and early 1930s, labor was smaller and weaker than it is today, but militant socialists and communists leaders turned the labor movement around, and by the mid-1950s more than 35% of labor was organized.

When the anti-globalization “Battle in Seattle” took place in 1999, and when Nader ran for President in 2000, what did the Labor Party have to offer? Those were prime opportunities for broadening the party’s appeal. Nader was a Labor Party member, and his campaign as a Green was only an attempt to fill the vacuum left by the LP’s fateful decision not to run candidates. And although the 2000 election debacle, September 11 attacks, and “war on terror” cut across these processes, an orderly retreat could have prevented the rout suffered by labor and left-wing activists.

Battle of Seattle Image Flickr Steve KaiserBattle in Seattle / Image: Flickr, Steve Kaiser

The fact is that from 1990 to 2002, LPA and the Labor Party tried to build a party without intervening in elections. This is what ultimately led to its withering on the vine. It is true that the lack of support from the biggest unions also contributed to its decline. But such support was never forthcoming for a party that didn’t go “all in” and build enthusiasm among workers both unionized and unorganized. The fact that OCAW merged and the Paperworkers did not support the Labor Party effort could have been made up elsewhere, had there been momentum, a sense of direction, and a clear plan to win workers’ political and economic power. Mazzocchi’s death in 2002 dealt a decisive blow to the effort, and although the LP ran a couple of candidates in South Carolina in 2006, it was too little too late.

The failure of the Labor Party to establish itself and gain a mass following was ultimately a combination of difficult objective conditions and subjective mistakes. The late 1980s and 1990s saw the collapse of Stalinism, a debt-fueled period of modest economic growth, and a fierce ideological offensive by the capitalist class proclaiming the “death of communism” and the “end of history.” While a series of successful political revolutions in the USSR and Eastern Europe would have opened new vistas for the world revolution, the capitalist counterrevolution of 1989–91 was a major historic setback for the world working class, leading to enormous demoralization, confusion, and ideological capitulations to the enemy class.

However, it is clear from the above, that had the labor leaders around Mazzochi taken a different approach to party building, a small labor party could have been established, one that ran some candidates and engaged in other activities as well. Even a small party could have become a point of reference when times changed. For example, in 2010, the disappointment with Obama that spawned the Tea Party could have also led to a growth of the Labor Party. It is also not an exaggeration to say that, had a labor party of even modest size been present in 2016, Sanders’s campaign, the entire election, and the course of US history may have been different.

The Socialist Party of Eugene Debs was on track to becoming a mass party but the effort came to an end due to the split over the Russian Revolution, further exacerbated by the repression of the Red Scare. The Communist Party also had a good chance at developing into a mass party, had it adopted genuine Marxism, but its initial ultra-leftism and later Stalinist opportunism cut across its potential. During the huge labor upsurge of the 1930s, if the CP had had a correct political method, it had the kind of influence that could have resulted in a mass labor party at that time. The postwar boom of 1946 to 1974, the weakness of the Left, and the acceptance of capitalism by the labor leaders, all led to the postponement of this task. Today, the crisis facing capitalism in the US and on a world scale has opened up new opportunities.

Even though it was not successful, several thousand people were involved in the Labor Party effort, and they did try to bring about change. The best thing activists can do today is to learn the lessons so we will not fail next time. The path forward is not to build a party that pressures the Democrats but to build a party that can organize the working class to establish a workers’ government. This is our class’s unfinished historical task.

The way forward

Building a mass party that represents workers’ interests and fights for socialism must start with a perspective that accepts there will be ups and downs, victories and defeats. The broad shifts coming now are mainly anti-Trump and the Democrats will inevitably benefit to some degree from these swings. At this stage, socialists must not target the broad mass but rather, the more advanced layers, while warning all who will listen that the return of the Democrats to power will not solve anything. These seeds must be planted now so that when the Democrats do regain power, ever-wider layers will draw increasingly radical conclusions and thus boost our forces. We must also see youth and young workers as the key to building in the next period—they can eventually win over the older layers of workers.

DSA, as the largest socialist group in the US today, has a key role to play in building support for the idea of a mass socialist party while strengthening itself and increasing its influence. With a clear perspective for how we can win socialism in our lifetime, DSA could easily grow to 50,000, then 100,000 members, and beyond. This would transform the situation and open up other possibilities. In the meantime, socialists could set a goal of running five to ten independent socialist candidates for Congress in the 2018 elections.

DSA Image David ShankboneDSA has a key role to play in building support for the idea of a mass socialist party / Image: David Shankbone

In our view, they should run on a clearly socialist ballot line, or, if the laws against alternative parties are too onerous, run as independents but identify as and campaign on an unapologetically socialist program. These candidates would then have a platform to reach out to those workers and youth looking for an alternative to the two parties of the bosses. The DSA nationally could pour its resources into these races and turn the next election season into a truly national campaign to build DSA and further increase interest in socialism.

As part of this strategy, socialists who are members of unions could set up committees to raise awareness and gain support from the rank and file, explaining the key role of organized labor in the success of a future mass labor party effort. This could start a real debate in the labor movement about how to go from the defensive to the offensive at both the workplace and the ballot box.

As an example, in 2017, DSA member Jabari Brisport ran for the City Council in Brooklyn on both an independent socialist line and a Green Party line. Even though it was his first time running and he had no major forces supporting him, he received 30% of the vote and over 1,000 votes on the socialist line. This occurred in a low turnout, municipal election and shows the potential that exists.

We are passing through a low ebb of the class struggle but this can change from one day to the next. Socialists must start today to lay the foundations and framework for a future mass party, or at the very least, to play a role in influencing mass forces in that direction. Participating in elections is not a magic solution, but the increased visibility can help us strengthen and support other struggles, such as the fight against police violence, organizing nonunionized workers, solidarity with strikers, protests against government austerity, etc.

As the experience of the Campaign for a Labor Party shows, even small groups of socialists, using a correct method, can begin to influence events. We live in critical times. There is no time for routinism and we cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Join us

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