On Comrade Dave Holmes’ ‘transitional approach to party building’

The Activist – Volume 17, Number 9, October 2007
By Doug Lorimer (Sydney central branch)

Comrade Dave Holmes’ October 2006 discussion article The transitional approach to party building (printed in Activist Vol. 16, #7) attempted to provide some theoretical grounding for the DSP majority leadership’s political line of building the Socialist Alliance as our “new party”. He did this by drawing a comparison between this line and the post-1938 policy of the US Socialist Workers Party of advocating that the US workers form their own political party based on their existing mass organisations, the trade unions-a “labour party”.

Comrade Holmes’ wrote: “The question of an independent labour party in the United States is instructive for any consideration of the Socialist Alliance project here. In the early 1930s Trotsky was opposed to raising the labour party idea; he thought the future path of development was unclear and it was not excluded that the Trotskyists might directly experience massive growth. (We must remember that there has never been an independent workers party in the US – not even a reformist one. In the heartland of world imperialism the two-party Republican-Democrat cartel dominates everything.)”

This is not true. There have been “independent workers’ parties” in the US, e.g., the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the SWP. What there has never been in the US is an independent mass workers party.

Comrade Holmes then went on to cite the following remarks made by Trotsky in 1938 discussions with leaders of the US SWP:

“In Minneapolis we cannot say to the trade union: ‘You should adhere to the Socialist Workers Party.’ It would be a joke even in Minneapolis. Why? Because the decline of capitalism develops 10, 100 times faster than does 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 to organise 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 would agree to join our party, which shows that the slogan of a labor party is an agitational slogan. The second slogan [of a revolutionary party] is for the more advanced.

“Should we use both slogans or not? 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. {Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1977, p. 165.]”

Comrade Holmes then immediately equated what Trotsky said about the US SWP in 1938 agitating among the mass of US workers that they form a political party based on the trade unions to the DSP majority leadership’s line of building the SA as our public party:

“The explanation of why the labour party tactic is required is a striking parallel to our own situation. Here too the crisis of capitalism (and the wretched ALP) develops immeasurably faster than the revolutionary party (the DSP). A few people will be willing to directly join us but hundreds and thousands will be willing to join a broad left, socialist party – if we can reach them. That’s the fundamental idea behind the Socialist Alliance project. In the given situation the masses will not come to us directly so we must go to them.”

So, according to Comrade Holmes, building the SA as our public party is a “striking parallel” to Trotsky’s arguments calling on the US SWP to advocate to masses of US workers that they break from supporting the Democratic or Republican parties and create their own political party based on the trade unions.

Let’s leave aside the fact that Trotsky did not advocate that the US SWP in 1938 (with some 2000 members) set up a “labour party” with other small leftist groups and a roughly equal number of independent leftists, or transform itself into a “Marxist tendency” within such a “labour party” and carry out al its public political work in the name of this “labour party”. Rather, he explicitly advocated that the US SWP continue to publicly build itself as a public Leninist party, while at the same time advocating the formation of an independent labour party.

Comrade Holmes equates the “given situation” that we face in Australia today with the objective situation that the SWP faced in the United States in 1938, but he tells us nothing about either of the two situations other than the fact that in both the revolutionary party was/is “too small, with too little authority to organise the [masses] of workers into its own ranks”.

Comrade Holmes forgets to mention that application of the “transitional method” of imbuing the masses with socialist consciousness involves as its starting point an objective assessment of “today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class”.

What was the political consciousness of wide layers of the US working class in 1938? A clue is given by Trotsky’s comment that in a “mass meeting [of workers], 500 would agree to the need for a labour party, only five would agree to join our party, which shows that the slogan of a labour party is an agitational slogan”, i.e., a slogan calling for immediate action. In the US case, this meant raising the slogan (in leaflets and speeches) “Build a Labor Party Now!” at mass meetings of workers.

The objective political situation facing the US SWP in 1938 was a mass labour radicalisation (produced by the deep economic crisis of US and world capitalism of the 1930s Great Depression, the coming to power of fascist regimes in Europe, the impending outbreak of the second world war) in which masses of US workers had fought huge struggles (city-wide strikes, factory occupations) against the employers and organised into trade unions millions of previously unorganised “blue-collar” workers in the mass production industries – the auto plants, the steel mills, the coal mines, etc. These new unions had, in 1938, constituted themselves into a new labour federation, the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO), whose leaders had set up Labor’s Non-Partisan League (LNPL) presenting it as a step toward the formation of a labour party, with some 59 unions affiliated to it (the CIO union leaders actually used it to mobilise their members to back the Democrats).

So Comrade Holmes thinks that the situation we face today in Australia is “strikingly parallel” to this – that is, in a mass meeting of Australian trade unionists, “if we can reach them” with the call to join the SA (as the organisational nucleus of an mass workers’ party) “hundred and thousands will be willing to join”. We did this at the June 28, 2005, anti-Work Choices rallies, and at the subsequent ACTU-organised mass protests against Work Choices in November 2005, July 2006 and November 2006 – handing out tens of thousands of glossy leaflets calling on workers to join the SA. But what has been the result? How many have joined the SA? “Thousands”? “Hundreds”?

In her report to the January 2006 DSP congress on the Socialist Alliance, Comrade Lisa Macdonald observed that “it is still very easy to join people to SA. For example, since the November 15 rallies SA has received 16 new paid-up memberships at the national PO box alone, and another 13 applications from the web site to join SA.” According to figures provided to the April 2007 NC plenum by SA national coordinator Dick Nichols, in March 2005 the Socialist Alliance had 1015 members but in March 2007 the SA had 717 members (see Activist Vol. 17. No. 4, p. 54). That is, during the period in which we appealed to tens of thousands of protesting workers to join the Socialist Alliance, its membership declined by 298.

Comrades Holmes goes on to quote from a 1942 report by Cannon. in which he describes the objective situation that led the US SWP to agitate for a labour party – “the mass movement [for a labour party] was developing outside the SWP on a vastly wider-scale”. Comrade Holmes follows this quote with the claim that while “there are obvious differences between the labour party project as Cannon explains it and our Socialist Alliance project”, nevertheless with “all proportions guarded and all qualifications made, isn’t this exactly the same kind of thing that we are doing with SA?” In reality, as opposed to Comrade Holmes’ utterly superficial comparison, the answer to his rhetorical question is “No”. There is no “mass movement” developing outside the DSP “on a vastly wider-scale” for a mass workers’ party.

Below is an excerpt from James P. Cannon’s Speech to the Sixteenth Convention of the SWP (1954), which describes a much more “striking parallel” in the situation in the US to that which we face in Australia today, i.e., a “slowdown in the class struggle”. In his speech, Cannon argues that Marxists have to “determine our immediate tactics by what we see before us”. In a radical departure from this method, Comrade Holmes argues that we should determine our immediate party-building not “by what we see before us”, but by the situation that Comrade Holmes and other majority leaders wish was before us, i.e., that there are “thousands of workers” willing to join the SA “if we can just reach them”.

Excerpt from James P. Cannon, Speeches to the Party: The Revolutionary Perspective and the Revolutionary Party (Pathfinder Press, New York, 1973.pp. 212-14)

Our work in the next period is cut out for us, and it is primarily a work of propaganda. There are no big actions that we can initiate. If big actions are precipitated by the spontaneous eruption of the class struggle, we will of course jump into them. But we do not see such actions shaping up in the next period ahead. We have to determine our immediate tactics by what we see before us.

That means, some of our slogans have to be modified. There is nothing to lament about that; it is simply a recognition of the current reality and an adjustment to it. We must make our adjustment to the real situation clear-headedly and not mix up the basic work of propaganda, imposed on us by the situation, with slogans of agitation and action. If we are facing a period of slowdown of the class struggle, it follows that our main work for the time being is limited to propagandistic explanations. But that’s a great work. What can be more exhilarating, what can give more satisfaction, than to have the time and the opportunity, to explain the great principles of our movement and the historical perspectives of the working class?

If our main work in the next period is largely, primarily, and almost exclusively propaganda and pedagogy, that means the slogan “Organize a Congress of Labor!” is out for the immediate future. The trend is toward the mobilization of the workers by the bureaucracy for the Democratic Party in 1956. The call for a labor congress is a slogan of agitation leading to action. As such it was a perfectly good slogan, and it will be good again when there is a prospect of action. We don’t cancel it out, repudiate it, say it was wrong. We tried it out, it found no echo in the broad mass movement; so we just lay it aside for the time being and wait for future developments.

The slogan “Smash McCarthyism Before It Smashes US!” has to be modified. There is no prospect of an imminent showdown with McCarthyism, in the sense of a struggle for power. McCarthyism is far from that now. But again, the slogan is not to be repudiated as representing a false slogan. It is a perfectly correct idea and will be a correct slogan when fascism becomes a real threat. But McCarthy’s movement has been dealt some heavy blows and thrust into a corner. For that reason, the slogan goes into the file awaiting further developments when the issue of McCarthy fascism becomes a real issue for the labor movement.

Finally, the slogan “Build a Labor Party Now!” has to be amended. “Build a Labor Party Now!” – that’s a slogan of action. Originally. it was counterposed to the promise of such labor bureaucrats as Reuther [head of the United Auto Workers union] to build a labor party “after the next election”. How would it sound in the midst of an explanation, which we have already started to make in the paper, that the trend is toward the Democratic-labor coalition in 1956? Latently the sentiment for a labor party is probably stronger than ever, but there will be no action and very little if any talk about it in the near future.

There is no prospect whatever, as far as we can see now – barring some unforeseen explosion – of the workers turning to a labor party in the next two years. If that is the reality, beyond our power to change, it requires that we change the slogan “Build a Labor Party Now!” into a pedagogical explanation that the workers ought to go into politics independently as a class and build their own party, but leaving out the implication of immediate action.

Our main task for the next two years is the patient explanation of the principles of the class struggle in politics, and the recruitment of class-conscious militants into the party. That’s the great revolutionary work of our time. That’s the work of preparation for the future. I simply can’t understand anybody who regards that as a “pessimistic” perspective. Of course, if you demand the revolution in a hurry, in the richest and most conservative country in the world, you’re bound to run into disappointment. But if we have a historical view; if we see the tide of history working in favor of the socialist transformation of society; and if in the midst of that development we understand that we can’t jump over the head of the working class but must move at its tempo; and in the meantime have an opportunity to explain, to carry out our function as the conscious expression of the unconscious historical process; and we see our work facilitated by the recruitment of young people full of conviction and energy for the struggle – I really don’t see how one can be pessimistic about that.

That’s the realistic revolutionary work of the moment; nothing else is open to us, and that’s enough, I think. In any case, if we’re not satisfied to concentrate on this modest, preparatory work, it won’t help us any. As Marxists, we must recognise the present reality, adapt ourselves to it and prepare for the future.

The Activist was as the internal discussion bulletin of the Democratic Socialist Party