David North
The Workers League and the Founding of the Socialist Equality Party

The Formation of a New Party

A new stage has begun

The profound economic and political transformations of the last two decades have compelled us to make a new assessment of our strategical tasks. We do not call for a labor party based on the trade unions, for it is incontestably true that such a party would in no way represent a progressive, let alone revolutionary, movement toward independent working class politics. As this review of the development of our political line since 1966 should make clear, we have not arrived suddenly at this conclusion as the result of a subjective overreaction to the crimes of the bureaucracy.

There has been an objective change in the character of the trade unions and their relation to the working class. The decades of political degeneration have resulted in the deep-going alienation of the bureaucracy from the working class. The AFL-CIO is not, in any serious sense, an organization of the working class, albeit one that pursues reformist goals. At a press conference Lane Kirkland was asked whether he saw the need for any change in the policy of the AFL-CIO. This was not too long ago. He said, no, union policy remains the same as it was in the time of Gompers. He saw no reason for change. As a matter of fact, his policy is not what it was in the time of Gompers. When asked what the goals of the AFL were, Gompers said: “More!” Kirkland’s response to that same question, if he were honest, would have been: “Less!” The AFL-CIO is an organization based on a petty-bourgeois social formation whose interests are entirely hostile to those of its captive working class membership.

It is impervious to the interests and needs of the working class. For more than 15 years Lane Kirkland presided over an endless series of devastating defeats without encountering from within the Executive Council any notable opposition, let alone a serious demand for his resignation. During the same period, heads rolled in the board rooms of corporate America. In the Senate and Congress the bourgeoisie orchestrated a purge of the liberal establishment. But within the labor movement, nothing changes within the bureaucratic hierarchy.

Just consider the following: in the course of the twentieth century there have been, I believe, eighteen presidents of the United States. There have been seven British monarchs. There have been, eight, or perhaps, nine, popes. But there have been only four presidents of the American Federation of Labor, including the two who have served since it merged 40 years ago with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. That is a measure of its isolation and alienation from the working class. Indeed, it is possible for an official of the AFL-CIO, I am referring to Richard Trumka of the UMW, to increase his power within the union hierarchy even as the rank-and-file membership of the organization of which he is the nominal leader shrinks to a fraction of its size when he originally took office. Today, if Lane Kirkland has been compelled to resign from office, it is not because the AFL-CIO is finally “reflecting” the pressure of the membership. Rather, it is because, at long last, the shrinkage of the AFL-CIO is directly affecting sections of the bureaucracy and causing unease within its ranks.

Another, though no less important, factor is the concern among the strategists of the bourgeoisie that the disintegration of the AFL-CIO has created a vacuum for the emergence of an alternative radical popular movement within the working class.

Our task, however, is not to speculate on the fate of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy or to align ourselves with a nonexistent progressive tendency. We must draw the appropriate conclusions from the collapse of the AFL-CIO and correctly formulate the new tasks of the party. If there is to be leadership given to the working class, it must be provided by our party. If a new road is to be opened for the masses of working people, it must be opened by our organization. The problem of leadership cannot be resolved on the basis of a clever tactic. We cannot resolve the crisis of working class leadership by “demanding” that others provide that leadership. If there is to be a new party, then we must build it.

Perspectives and formulation of strategic tasks

The strategic tasks of the revolutionary organization must be based, first and foremost, on a scientific assessment of the principal characteristics of the epoch.

The International Committee maintains that the present crisis is of a systemic, rather than merely conjunctural, character. This crisis, in the final analysis, is rooted in the fundamental problem of the capitalist system: that of extracting sufficient surplus value to offset the tendency of the rate of profit to decline. The very technological revolution instigated by the bourgeoisie in its war against labor—and I want to stress again, this technological revolution is not merely a response to abstractly conceived economic forces; there were real political and social aims—has deepened the fundamental contradiction of capitalism. Seeking to solve one problem, it has in fact reproduced it on a higher level. In the course of intensifying the rate of exploitation, the driving of ever broader sections of the working class out of the process of production has reduced the total mass of surplus value produced by labor and upon which the average rate of profit is based.

All the measures now being employed by the bourgeoisie of the leading capitalist powers—the relentless drive to increase productivity, lower the cost of production, obtain access to ever cheaper sources of labor and increase market share at the expense of their competitors—reflect the pressure of this objective process.

The development of this crisis leads inexorably in two directions: (1) toward war as the product of the intensification of the struggle among the capitalist powers for market share and (2) toward social revolution as the product of the intensification of the class struggle arising out of the need of the bourgeoisie to subordinate even the most elemental needs of the workers to its struggle for global domination and its insatiable drive for surplus value.