The Socialist Workers Party and election policy for 1948

James P. Cannon (center).


Commentary and background on a speech by James P. Cannon to a plenum of the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party in 1948. The speech can be read at:

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was formed in 1938, its initial leadership having come out of the Communist Party (CP) of the 1920s. James P. Cannon, Max Shachtman, and Martin Abern, three central leaders of the Communist Party, had been expelled from the CP in 1928 for support of Leon Trotsky and opposing the Stalinist degeneration of the CP. They went on to form the Communist League of America (CLA, American section of the International Left Opposition).

In December 1935, the CLA merged with the American Workers Party to form the Workers Party of the United States (WPUS). In the summer of 1936, the WPUS entered the Socialist Party. By late 1937, Trotskyists and their supporters in the Socialist Party were expelled from the SP and met on New Years weekend 1938 to found the Socialist Workers Party. 

Almost immediately a crisis developed in the SWP, and in 1940 the party lost almost 40% of it’s membership when a petty bourgeois opposition led by Max Shachtman left to form the Workers Party. Although the Socialist Workers Party went into the World War II years in a weakened condition, with 18 of its leading members having been imprisoned by the Roosevelt administration for violating the Smith Act, the party made great advances during the war in terms of increased membership and influence in the union movement far beyond its actual numbers. This was especially true during the great labor upsurge and strike wave of 1945-46, the greatest labor upsurge the United States has ever seen.

This cannot be overstated. The SWP was recruiting workers by the droves. There seemed to be nowhere to go but toward building a mass revolutionary party. The Stalinists, even though much larger, had lost a great deal of respect and support among workers due to the role they played during the war (support for the speedup and the increasingly unpopular no-strike pledge for instance).

The SWP’s transitional demands such as “Build the Labor Party Now,” “Open the Books of the Corporations,” and “30 for 40!” (a sliding scale of wages with a sliding scale of hours) became extremely popular. They resonated with thousands of workers in basic industry—many of whom were women, returning war vets, and vast numbers of Black and other workers of color who were under threat of massive layoffs as capitalism transitioned from a wartime to a peacetime economy. (The sliding scale of wages and hours demand eventually found its way into the contracts of the UAW and other unions as they won cost-of-living allowances in their contracts.)

The radicalization comes to an end

All of this labor militancy, all of this recruitment and party expansion suddenly came to a crashing halt by 1947. The Great Strike Wave of 1945/46 faded away, having been sold short by the labor bureaucracy. It was instead replaced by a wave of conservatism that seemed to sweep the country as the Cold War began to develop.

The Communist Party, once a huge force in the labor movement, began to come under increasing attack by the right wing of the labor bureaucracy in the CIO. The CP’s policies in the unions during the war had made them easy targets and they began to feel increasingly isolated. The Stalinist bureaucracy in the Kremlin was also under attack by world imperialism and was feeling threatened. Stalin still looked for peaceful coexistence with world imperialism but felt it necessary to change tactics on the political front.

In the U.S., the CP’s support for the Roosevelt wing of U.S. capitalism suffered a blow with FDR’s death and Truman’s increasingly hostile stance vis a vis the Soviet Union. And that required a change in the CP’s support to the Democratic Party. At this point, along came Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s vice president from 1940-1944. Wallace had been dropped from the Roosevelt ticket in 1944, but had been appointed Secretary of Commerce. After Roosevelt’s death Wallace was fired by Truman. The two had bickered over foreign policy, especially Truman’s increasingly hard line on the Soviet Union. The CP saw a Wallace candidacy as the best way to continue the Roosevelt policy of dialog with the Soviet Union, and Wallace agreed to run as a candidate of the Progressive Party, which the CP began to have increasing influence over.

Trotskyist militants in the unions were by no means immune to the increasing attacks by the labor bureaucrats and by 1948 begin to experience growing isolation in the union movement. For example, the party had a large and influential fraction in the Maritime industry, with members in both the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific (SUP) on the West Coast, and the National Maritime Union (NMU) on the East Coast. However, attacks on the party’s members by the Harry Lundberg bureaucracy in the SUP, and the Joseph Curran bureaucracy in the NMU decimated the party’s Maritime fraction.

The SWP had seen recruitment of Black workers vastly increase, and by 1946 Black workers comprised almost one-third of the party’s overall membership. But under the hammer blows of the witch hunt, by the end of the 1940s almost all of the SWP’s Black membership had drifted away. In this atmosphere newer members (and some older party leaders) begin to look toward the Progressive Party, (or as Cannon refers to it, the “Wallace Party,” or “Wallace Movement”), as a way to break through this growing isolation. This is the background to Cannon’s speech before the 1948 plenum of the SWP’s National Committee.

Jim Cannon and the debate on electoral policy

Cannon began by drawing the SWP National Committee’s attention to a potentially serious problem: A group within the party led by some members of the Chicago Branch like Arne Swabeck, some other leaders like Sam Marcy and Vince Copland (future leaders of the Global Class War Tendency within the party and later founders of the Workers World Party), and some in the SWP’s Los Angeles branch who saw in the Wallace Party the makings of an incipient labor party. This development was beginning to attract these newer members, with the potential, as Cannon saw it, of seriously disorienting and miss educating them on the party’s orientation to the labor party question.

Three main mistakes came into play here, according to Cannon. The first was failing to see the Progressive Party as just another bourgeois party. The Wallace party may have had some working-class support (mostly Stalinists and their periphery) and some trade-union support (all from Stalinist-led unions like United Electrical Workers), as Cannon so correctly put it, the class character of a party is not determined by the class that supports it, but by the class it supports.

 The second was viewing the labor party as some kind of fetish. It is not sufficient to support a labor party in all cases just because it is a labor party. Cannon pointed out that the revolutionary party supports the labor party as a tactic, not as a principle. The independent political action of the working class is the principle.

As an example of this, Cannon referred on a couple of occasions to the candidacy of “Frankensteen in Detroit.” In 1946, Richard T. Frankensteen, a first vice president of the UAW, ran as an independent candidate for mayor of Detroit. He didn’t run as a labor party candidate, he didn’t even run as a labor candidate at all. However, the SWP decided to give him critical support. The Shachtmanite Workers Party, which had gained a certain amount of influence in the UAW in Detroit, chose not to support Frankensteen’s campaign for this reason: As Frankensteen was not running as a candidate of a labor party, he would not be subject to any labor party control.

Cannon and the rest of the SWP leadership viewed the Workers Party’s approach as a prime example of raising the idea of a labor party to the heights of “fetishism.” The important lesson of Frankensteen’s campaign was to show the workers of Detroit that independent working-class political action was both possible and necessary. (Readers can learn more about the campaign of Richard Frankensteen in “Labor’s Giant Step,” by Art Pries.) The third mistake was to hold up the labor party as a simple break from the two-party system. This Cannon called “bourgeois third partyism” and warned against a certain conciliation towards it. Cannon said that a break in the two-party system would, without a doubt, be a good thing, as it would cause a shakeup in the labor bureaucracy.

However, bourgeois parties, he pointed out, are not the arena of the revolutionary party. “Our specific task,” he said, “is the class mobilization of the workers against not only the two old parties, but any other capitalist parties which might appear.”

The fight against the labor bureaucracy

Cannon reminds us that the revolutionary party’s labor party policy is a method of struggle against the trade-union bureaucracy in all its sections. And our struggle against them will never end until the entire gang is replaced by revolutionary militants. Sometimes the revolutionary party shifts its emphasis to one faction of the labor fakers or another, this never changes the party’s basic line. Only our tactics change, and as Cannon said, tactics must always serve the basic line and never become a substitute for it.

In times such as these, our propaganda (or agitation as in 1948) has as its main emphasis the demand for the formation of a labor party more so than on the labor party’s program. However, revolutionists are not bound to that emphasis for all time. That is our method of struggle against the labor bureaucracy’s blocking of the workers’ development toward independent political action. But if and when the objective of that slogan becomes reality, then our emphasis shifts to a struggle against the trade-union bureaucrats as they attempt to keep the program of the labor party as a reformist program. We then fight for a revolutionary program. Our struggle against the bureaucracy never stops.

The labor party as the ruling party

So what about the British Labour Party? Is not the British Labour Party at times in practice the ruling party of British imperialism? Our fundamental attitude toward such parties are the same as our attitude toward any bourgeois party, irreconcilable and complete opposition. However, the fact that the composition of such a party—its base squarely in the trade unions and under their control, for instance, and its mostly working-class composition—gives them a certain distinctive character and requires us to have a different tactical approach. We can change these tactics at any time we see fit to further our principled line of “class against class.”

A “Wallaceite wing”

Cannon warned again and again of the dangers of disorientation that a line of support to the Wallace party would have on the membership of the SWP. He said that he contention of some of the “Chicago leaders” that the Wallace party would have the potential of developing into a labor party was completely unfounded given the make-up and program of the movement and must inevitably lead to the development of a “Wallaceite wing” within the SWP. This, he said, would be the greatest disgrace, and the greatest loss.

Finally, it would be good to point out Cannon’s view on local tactical experiences within the Wallace movement. He said, “Can the party fractions work in some local units of the Wallace Movement? Why not? I think it’s entirely permissible, on the condition that this is understood as guerrilla warfare, which must serve and not hinder the main campaigns. All around the country these local formations differ somewhat from the national party (the Progressive Party), which is cut and dried as to candidate and program.” In the end, some SWP comrades were sent into the Progressive Party, told to look around, and report back as to the possibilities for the SWP within the Wallace Movement. Those comrades all eventually reported back that there simply were no opportunities.

In the final analysis, as Cannon pointed out, the Progressive Party turned out to be multi-class electoral formation where the candidate and program had already been chosen in advance. There had never been any chance for revolutionary militants to join its ranks and fight to turn the PP into a true labor party, let alone fight for a revolutionary program. Following his disappointing showing in the 1948 election, Wallace returned to the Democratic Party—which he had promised to do, and which everyone had expected. The Progressive Party hung on for a few more years. In the 1952 elections, the party ran San Francisco radical lawyer Vincent Hallinan for president before disbanding three years later.

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