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

The Formation of the Socialist Equality Party

Social conditions in the United States

Objective conditions lead in the direction of revolution. But the development of revolutionary consciousness is not, as we know from history, an automatic process. The impulses generated by the subterranean contradictions of capitalism do not directly translate themselves into socialist forms of thinking. The response of the working class to a given objective situation is bound up with a vast complex of historically-given conditions. These may and, indeed, do vary from country to country. But in each case the Marxists must find the path to the minds and, I might add, hearts of the working class.

In transforming the league into a party, we must consider the form in which the crisis of the capitalist system reveals itself to the broad mass of working people. To put it most simply, millions of working people have experienced a protracted and ongoing decline in their standard of living. They live their lives in permanent fear for the security of their jobs, struggling to make ends meet as wages decline and prices rise.

The dominant feature of American life is the widening gap between a small percentage of the population that enjoys unprecedented wealth and the broad mass of the working population that lives in varying degrees of economic uncertainty and distress.

The indices of wealth and poverty

I recently acquired a book entitled America’s New War on Poverty that contains valuable data relating to social stratification in the United States. Permit me to cite some of the information contained in this book.

Polarization of wealth and poverty

From 1977 to 1988, the incomes of the richest 1 percent rose by 96 percent and those of the richest fifth more than 25 percent, while the poorest fifth of American families saw their incomes drop by more than 10 percent.

From 1983 to 1989, the lion’s share of the nation’s total increase in wealth—62 percent—went to America’s richest 1 percent. The bottom 80 percent captured just 1 percent of the gain.

In 1990 the poorest fifth of Americans received 3.7 percent of the nation’s total income, the lowest proportion since 1954. That same year, the richest fifth received over half the nation’s total income, the highest proportion on record.

In 1943 Americans who earned the equivalent of at least $1 million annually in modern dollars paid 78 percent of their total incomes in federal expenses. As of 1990, the percentage of federally taxed income for the richest 1 percent had gone down to 21.5 percent

Between 1979 and 1989, the number of taxpayers reporting adjusted gross incomes of $200,000 or more grew more than eight times (94,000 to 790,000) while their federal income tax rate decreased from 45.3 percent to 24.1 percent.

In 1988 approximately 1.3 million individual Americans were millionaires by assets, up from 574,000 in 1980; 180,000 in 1972; 90,000 in 1964; and just 27,000 in 1953. In 1994 there were 28 millionaires in the US Senate and 50 millionaires in the House of Representatives.

The proportion of Americans with full-time jobs whose incomes were too low to bring a family above the poverty level rose by 50 percent between 1979 and 1992, from 12 percent to 18 percent of all workers. One out of 10 Americans use food pantries, soup kitchens or food charities.

Child poverty

One in five American children—14.6 million—is poor. More American children lived in poverty in 1992 than in any year since 1965, although the US Gross National Product grew by 53.2 percent during the same period.

In 1991 an estimated 12 million children under the age of 18 (18.3 percent of all children) were hungry. Between 1989 and 1992 the number of children receiving food stamps increased by 41 percent, to 13.3 million. In 1990 children made up an estimated 30 percent of all homeless persons seeking shelter.

In 1990,15 states had child poverty rates of 20 percent and above. In Mississippi and Louisiana one in every three children was poor, while in New Mexico, West Virginia, the District of Colombia and Arkansas, the rate was one in four.

American children are twice as likely to be poor as Canadian children, 3 times as likely to be poor as British children, 4 times as likely to be as poor as French children, and 7 to 13 times more likely to be poor than German, Dutch or Swedish children.

Between 1984 and 1987, the US had the lowest success rate in lifting children out of poverty among a sample of industrialized countries, with a rate nine times smaller than countries like the UK and France.

Anemia and other dietary deficiencies are common among poor children and adults. Iron deficiency anemia is twice as common in low-income children between the ages of one and two than in the general population.

In 1989, of high school students living in households with incomes between $10,000 and $15,000, 4.4 percent used a computer at home; in $40,000 to $50,000 households that number was 27.7 percent.

Between 1984 and 1994 the US spent 3 times more on defense than on its combined human needs and approximately 15 times more on defense than on education.

Wages and part-time workers

Between 1970 and 1993 there was a 178 percent increase in the number of involuntary part-time workers, while the number of full-time workers went up by only 51 percent.

The minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation. Minimum wage earnings for a full-time, year-round worker have fallen below the annual poverty line for a family of three.

The 17.2 million net jobs created between 1979 and 1989 involved a loss of roughly 1.7 million high-wage manufacturing and mining jobs and an increase of 18.8 million low-wage jobs in the service sector. Most of the newly created jobs were in the two lowest paying industries: retail, $276 a week, and services, $357 a week.

Prison population

During the 1980s the fastest growing category of housing was prisons. More than one in 250 Americans were housed in correctional facilities, the highest incarceration rate in the world.

In 1980 the census counted 315,974 prison inmates. A decade later the prison population had more than tripled, to 1.1 million inmates, or more than the entire population of Detroit.

Health insurance

More than 36 percent of Americans with annual incomes below $10,000 have no health insurance at all. In 1991 uninsured patients had death rates 44 percent to 124 percent higher than privately insured patients. One in five poor people had no health insurance during 1992.


The percentage of immigrant families living below the poverty line increased from 11 percent in 1979 to 31.7 percent in 1991.

Rural America

A quarter of the US population, nearly 70 million people, reside in rural areas. Of these people, one in six lives in poverty.

The top 5 percent of American landowners own 75 percent of privately-held US land; the bottom 78 percent own just 3 percent.

Between 1980 and 1990 farm employment declined 22 percent.

Additional statistics

The richest 1 percent of US households, with a net worth of at least $2.3 million, own more than 40 percent of the country’s wealth.

Less than 0.5 percent of the population owns 37.4 percent of all corporate stock and 56.2 percent of all private business assets.

The top 5 percent increased their incomes from $120,253 in 1979 to $148,428 in 1989, while the wages of the poorest 20 percent fell from $9,990 to $9,431.

The top four percent of wage earners, numbering 3.8 million people, earned as much as the entire bottom 51 percent, numbering 49.2 million.

The top 20 percent received more income per year than the other four-fifths of the population combined.

The Impact of technological developments and changes in production techniques

The deterioration in the economic position and social conditions of the working class is directly related to the technological revolution and the globalization of production that it has fueled. Under the regime of the private ownership of the productive forces, the working class is victimized by technology. In contrast to the technologies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which established mass production, assembly line industries that created tens of millions of new jobs, the computerization of production is driving millions out of their jobs.

In the 1950s one-third of US workers were employed in manufacturing. By the 1990s, the figure stood at 17 percent.

In 1990 US Steel employed 20,000 workers to produce as much steel as it had in 1980 with 120,000 workers.

Between 1983 and 1993 the introduction of automatic teller machines resulted in the elimination of 179,000 jobs.

Between 1947 and 1973, real weekly wages rose at an average rate of 1.9 percent per annum. Between 1973 and 1990 they fell in real terms by 0.9 percent per annum.

Measured in constant 1982 dollars, the average worker’s wages fell from a peak of $308.03 in 1973 to $260.37 in 1991, a staggering fall in income.

At the start of the 1990s, the purchasing power of the average wage was 15 percent less than what it had been a decade before.

The proportion of male workers aged between 25 and 34 earning less than what has been determined to be the essential level to support a family of four has risen from 13.6 percent in 1969 to 32.2 percent in 1993.

New categories of work are emerging on the basis of the new technology, but they offer less pay and provide far less security.

It is to these social conditions that the Workers League must respond. In doing so, it must relate the historic perspective of socialism—so abused and distorted by the crimes of Stalinism—to the needs of the working class.

The Workers League, in forming a new party, must demarcate itself clearly from all the petty-bourgeois radical groups and their alphabet soup of pseudo-revolutionary initials and various names from Marxist-Leninist Collective, to Lenin-Trotsky party, League of Communist Revolutionaries, etc. The more “revolutionary” the name, the more rotten their opportunism.

The aim of our party should be stated clearly in its name and in a manner that the workers can both understand and identify with. I propose at this time that we initiate preparations for the transformation of the Workers League into the Socialist Equality Party.

Briefly, in presenting this party to the working class, we must explain that its goal is the establishment of a workers government: and by that we mean a government for the workers, of the workers and by the workers. Such a government will utilize the political power it intends to gain through democratic means, if possible, to reorganize economic life in the interests of the working class, to overcome and replace the socially-destructive market forces of capitalism with democratic social planning, to undertake a radical reorganization of production to meet the urgent social needs of the working people, to effect a radical and socially-just redistribution of wealth in favor of the working population, and thereby lay the basis for socialism.

We will stress that these aims of the Socialist Equality Party are realizable only in alliance with, and as an integral part of, a consciously internationalist movement of the working class. There cannot be social equality and social justice for the American worker as long as multinational and transnational corporations oppress and exploit his class brothers and sisters in other countries. Moreover, there exists no viable national strategy upon which the class struggle can be based. The working class must consistently and systematically counterpose its international strategy to the international strategy of the transnational corporations. There can be no compromise on this essential question, which is the cutting edge of the socialist program.

The demands of the Socialist Equality Party

In striving to politically organize the working class, the Socialist Equality Party must respond to the pressing needs of the masses that arise out of existing social conditions. At a time when international capital is engaged in an unrelenting offensive against the working class, the social demands which address the basic needs of the working class assume a revolutionary character. After all, the old organizations would not have abandoned reformist demands if it were possible to achieve them through reformist measures. Every demand of the working class, on the most basic questions, poses a direct confrontation between the working class and the capitalist state.

We must outline, in detail, the demands which we will incorporate into our program. It is not necessary, however, to write a program as if it were a blueprint for the socialist utopia of the future. Rather, it must provide the working class with a unifying aim that corresponds to its objective interests. Moreover, it must strike a chord in the consciousness of the masses. The demand for social equality not only sums up the basic aim of the socialist movement; it also evokes the egalitarian traditions that are so deeply rooted in the genuinely democratic and revolutionary traditions of the American workers. All the great social struggles of American history have inscribed on their banners the demand for social equality. It is no accident that today, in the prevailing environment of political reaction, this ideal is under relentless attack.

Tactical considerations

In introducing this proposal, I think that we must give careful consideration to the manner in which it is implemented. Because the transition from the Workers League to the Socialist Equality Party involves not merely a reorganization of our present forces but a change in our relationship to the broad masses, I believe that this transformation requires patient preparation. It is not enough for us to change our name and proclaim ourselves a new party. We must work to encourage and develop a real social movement of the working class upon which this new party can establish a firm foundation.

We will utilize the 1996 election campaign to build up the forces upon which this transformation can be based. That is, the Workers League shall intervene in the 1996 elections with presidential and congressional candidates. It will adopt, for the purpose of ballot identification, the name Socialist Equality Party, explaining that it is utilizing this campaign to encourage a movement, based on the working class, for social equality. Through this campaign we shall establish the necessary foundation for the formal transformation of the league into a party.

This, comrades, is how I propose we should proceed.