When dealing with rank and file organizations, one encounters a tremendous amount of variation. Therefore, it’s very risky to generalize. I say this in advance because the actual situations are much more varied than I’m going to be able to indicate to you, which is why it’s very difficult to become and “instant trade union expert.” This is true even for people with some experience in the trade union movement; often they will find themselves faced with a situation where their experience doesn’t apply. Especially when you get down, concretely, to what has to be done.
Let me give you a personal example. The first union I belonged to, and of which I became president at the age of 21, was the most peculiar union local I’ve ever heard of. It was an honest-to-goodness local of WPA workers. There were about 50 teachers, employees of the Workers Educational Project, and every single one of them was some sort of communist, socialist or Trotskyist. The reason I became president was that I was a member of the Socialist Party and we had the largest fraction there!
If anyone were foolish enough to think that his “experience” in that local was much of an indicator of trade union work, he’d have to be out of his mind. You could go through a year and a half of “trade union activity” in that WPA local and still know as little about trade union work as you did when you started.
I took that as the weirdest example I knew of, and therefore it is an extreme case. But, in one way or another (leaving the weirdness out), that’s true of most specific situations. For example, the next union I was active in was the Teachers Union, and work in the Teachers Union is quite different from work in a blue collar union, or many other unions. So, I emphasize the difficulty in generalizing, in order to counteract some of the generalizations I’m going to give you.
The problems connected with rank-and-file opposition movements and organizations vary according to a great number of things. First of all, there is the nature of the times. Clearly, the problem of rank-and-file organization will be different in a time of radicalization than in a period of apathy in the labor movement. I don’t mean that the principles of Marxism change. But the specifics of what you have to do may change considerably.
Then there is the nature of the industry. When Anne and I were working in the shipyards, for example, the workers by and large had two advantages for trade union work that you don’t have in most plants. One was mobility on the job; the other was the ability to talk on the job. Two little things like that make an enormous difference.
Another important factor is the tradition and structure of the union. An outstanding example of this is the difference between factional or caucus organization in the Typographical Union, where it is a standard procedure (although within the bureaucratic shell of the union) and, say, the Carpenter’s Union. And of course there’s the whole question of whether the plant is organized in the first place.
The problems you face depend also on whether there’s already a movement to which you have to relate, or whether it’s a question of initiating such a movement. You may find yourself in a situation where the issues are already laid out for you, or in one where you have to develop the program yourself. And, of course, if the issues are laid out you still have to ask yourself if you want to steer a different course, or if you should.
There are other factors according to which the situation may vary. One, which I want to deal with now, is the nature of the union leadership with which you’re involved – both the local leadership and the top leadership. Because, since we’re talking about rank-and-file organization and opposition groups, that’s what you’re going to be fighting.
I said “union leadership,” and Standard Operating Procedure demands nowadays that you talk only about the Union Bureaucracy. This brings up a terminological point. The “bureaucracy” has become an ambiguity, especially in the student milieu. (For example, I hear comrades talking, only semi-jocularly, about the “I.S. Bureaucracy,” meaning, say, the Area Committee. Of course, to think of the International Socialists’ Area Committee as a bureaucracy just about reduces the term to absurdity.)
For students and the academic milieu generally, the concept of bureaucracy has taken on all the flavor suggested by the Weberian theory, where it is looked upon as a social institution taken in a vacuum. But when you look at the union leadership, there are some important ramifications you’re going to have to take into account.
In another session, I commented upon the “horror story” approach to the union leadership or bureaucracy – an approach which is absorbed especially by people outside the trade union movement, from two sources particularly: the press and communications media and the academy. In both cases, in other words, from the bourgeoisie. But what I’m going to try to explain is why, from the Marxist point of view, that is misleadingly one-sided. From the point of view of Marxism the trade union officialdom, bureaucracy, structure, has a dual social function – and this is what I want to stress.
I should make clear that the other source of ambiguity of the term “bureaucracy” is the fact that in common parlance it has two different meanings. On the one hand, “bureaucratic” means undemocratic. On the other, it refers to a type of social institution, with a certain structure, whether democratic or undemocratic. What I am discussing now is the institutional aspect, the social role and function of the union officialdom or bureaucracy--democratic or undemocratic – as an institution.
From the point of view of Marxism, the union leadership necessarily has a dual social function, and it is important to understand both sides of it. One side of it is the fact that this union bureaucracy is the organizational leadership of our class. Whereas, the state bureaucracy, for example, is the organizational leadership of their class. Now from the point of view of the academic sociologist, it doesn’t make any difference; there’s no such thing as “our class” and “their class” – you just have bureaucracies. You have the union bureaucracy, the state bureaucracy, and 15 other bureaucracies, and one bureaucracy is just like another bureaucracy. They all conform to the same system. From our point of view, you cannot take that phony, non-class attitude.
When you are discussing the trade union bureaucracy, you’re talking about the organizational leadership of our class. I make the analogy: if you are in a revolutionary army, you have an officer corps – whether you call them officers, marshals, commissars, or whatever. That’s your officer corps; you’re fighting with them, while at the same time you may not like them. But you and they are on the same side of the barricades. In the same sense, I mean something similar when I emphasize that the trade union bureaucracy is the bureaucracy of our class.
Now, the second side of that union leadership is that, at the same time as it is the bureaucracy of our class, it is the channel and the agency for the exercise of bourgeois influence on the working class, and for bourgeois control of the working class. And it is both of these two things at the same time.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that at any instant of time any particular section of the union leadership is acting simultaneously in both ways equally. That never happens with social phenomena.
I will tell you furthermore that, until the revolution, this union bureaucracy is going to continue to serve both functions. Likewise, it cannot help but serve both functions – even if you constituted it, and it does this in continuing uneasy tension and with varying forms. This duality of the trade union leadership is not just some surface phenomenon about the trade unions. It’s a view of the social role of this stratum which is inherent in Marxism and Marxism’s view of the class struggle in this society, and peculiar to Marxism. It flows from Marx’s view that the proletariat in motion already implies the dissolution of capitalist relations and that actual revolution is only the culmination of that process. Some of you may remember Marx’s oft-quoted and very pregnant remark (in the Inaugural Address) on how the passage of the ten-hour workday bill in England represented “the political economy of the working class,” not of capitalism. If you examine the meaning behind that remark, you’ll see what I’m trying to explain to you.
A sectarian will say, “But the 10 hour day is only a reform that will keep the working class satisfied with capitalism.” That, of course, is the official line of the Socialist Labor Party. And it’s a statement which is half true! Like almost all statements of that sort. One side of the fight for the 10 hour day, or such reforms, was the fact that when the capitalists were forced to concede it, the class struggle was temporarily eased. That’s the side of it which does help keep capitalism together. The capitalists were defeated in a battle and gave in – made a concession that didn’t destroy capitalism.
But, as on all of these questions, there are two sides to the everyday struggle of the working class. We see this duality in the development of the whole trade union movement. At first, the capitalists fought it to the death, recognizing that legalizing the trade unions meant giving up prerogatives of ownership. Yet, in most capitalist countries today, trade unions are legalized in some form or another. Here we see that duality which is so characteristic of the class struggle. The capitalist class was forced to accept, and live with, the trade unions. But this didn’t mean they gave up the struggle. Capitalism is still here! The capitalists make the best of the situation by utilizing their concession to undercut the class struggle. This started in England in the 1880s with the move from the legalization of the trade unions in order to use them to discipline the working class. And this has been going on for over a century.
Now, that’s their view of it, the capitalist class’s view of it. But, if that’s the only view that you can see – that is, the capitalist’s use of these legalized, recognized, trade unions as domesticated instruments – then your view is purely bourgeois. Because, from a Marxist’s point of view there is the other side, the other part to that duality I referred to – the working class’s class-struggle part of that duality.
Without such a disciplining side to the role of the union bureaucracy, the trade union movement couldn’t exist under capitalism! It’s true that, from our point of view as revolutionists, we don’t like the role of the trade union bureaucracy in disciplining the working class, because of what they discipline them for. But, without this role, the trade union movement couldn’t exist under capitalism. We must keep in mind that, until the revolution, the trade union movement exists, for the most part, within the premises of capitalism. And that’s what keeps its function dual, even in the most radicalized times. On the one hand, even in the most apathetic times the class struggle is always seething down below. On the other hand, even in the most radicalized times (I’m not talking about revolutionary periods), the trade unions still remain disciplinarian. Neither of these sides ever wholly disappears – although, they change in their degree and relationship.
Now, does this disciplining function of the union leadership serve the bourgeoisie? Of course it does. But, does it serve the bourgeoisie only? Or does it also serve the interests of the trade union movement? I will tell you, that when you get down to disciplining – and not just extremes or atrocities, but the normal disciplining of reformist labor bureaucrats – for the trade union movement to continue to exist and not shake itself to pieces, that still plays also a preservative function.
But in a sense, the function played by that discipline is determined also by the struggle in that union. The union leadership is going to discipline its membership, as long as it is there in power. As a matter of fact, a militant union leadership – even you – will also have the need to discipline the ranks, although you’ll do it by persuasion or other democratic means. But if you think that disciplining means only using bats on the membership, you don’t know the realities of the trade union movement; that is not what usually takes place. The usual – necessary or unnecessary – restraining of the action from below by the working class takes place through all the various means of internal persuasion available to a leadership.
The meaning of discipline in a particular situation is determined by the struggle, including the struggle of the ranks. It’s not simply determined by pinning a label “disciplining the working class” on it. You have to understand in a concrete situation what that means. Under capitalism, the union as an institution and its official leadership are inescapably in the middle of two pressures. One is the pressure from above, which means, concretely, from the bourgeoisie and all of its institutions – political and non-political, state and non-state, especially non-state, which also means from outside the working class. The other is the pressure from below, from the ranks of the class. And it is in the course of the struggle in the trade union movement that the real relationship between those two pressures gets determined.
That is the context in which you should think of the subject of rank and file groups. The function of revolutionaries in the trade unions is to understand the constellation of forces, and to understand that their special role in that trade union movement, among other things, is to throw the full force of whatever they’ve got towards that other pressure, the pressure from below on that leadership institution, good or bad.
This applies just as much to a good union leadership as to a bad one. Therefore, the role of a revolutionist in the trade unions does not depend, in the first place, on whether you can tell horror stories about the union leadership. The fundamental function of the revolutionist doesn’t change – although the tactics and strategy may change, depending on the situation. This applies even to any union you might be the head of; you would need that countervailing rank-and-file pressure just as much as the next guy.
This brings me back to where I started – to the great variations in actual, living trade union situations with regard to the organization of rank and file groups. There are basically two kinds of situations (not mutually exclusive, or even inclusive): firstly, where you may have to take the initiative in forming a rank and file organization yourself; and secondly, where you come into a situation where you must relate to an existing movement.
Starting with the second, I’m going to turn you over to an expert on that subject. Here’s what I mean. There is a widespread view – not in the I.S. but in the student milieu – that the trade union movement is a kind of desert. That is, there is a bureaucracy which disciplines the working class, and that’s all. I remember talking to a sociology professor who expressed great interest and surprise when I mentioned to him that, in the course of her travels in the labor movement, Anne runs constantly into situations in unions where there are opposition groups and fights at conventions. This was an entirely new view of the trade union movement for this sociology professor! This was completely unknown territory for him, and is to a great many. Now, it’s very difficult territory to explore, because nobody ever knows what goes on; it never gets written about, or very rarely. Even if you were to read the whole labor press – which is edited, in most cases, by intellectual flunkies for the labor officialdom who don’t ordinarily like to write about opposition groups in the unions – you wouldn’t find out very much. So, if you wanted to find an expert on this sort of thing, where would you go? You’d have to go to someone who just gets around the labor movement.
Now, in the state of California, there are perhaps a handful of people who do, and I’ll introduce you to one who probably gets around to more of the California labor movement than anyone else. Over a period of time, Anne gets around to most of the union conventions on the West Coast. In the course of doing so, she has run into people in opposition groups who are fighting the leadership, who she never before knew existed. She gets up and makes her little speech about the Union Label and the Class Struggle, and, as a result, militants and oppositionists come up and talk to her. And so, over the years, because of her, I have gotten a feel for the absolutely unknown territory that nobody writes about or speaks about – the temporary, sporadic, amorphous, unconnected kinds of fights and struggles that go on in the trade union movement. That’s what she’s going to talk about for a little while, and then I’m going to come back and talk about an entirely different kind of situation, a more organized kind of situation.
Anne: When I go to these conventions and urge the delegates to give us their solidarity, their support, what I’m trying to do is heighten, in effect, their class consciousness in supporting other union struggles. And, in this particular work, I have been enabled to get a broader view of the West Coast labor movement than one could get even by reading the official labor press. It’s not necessary to repeat some of the ground we’ve covered in previous sessions on the attitude socialists take toward the working class, as the basic class that has the social power, at the point of production, to carry on the revolution. Hence, our concern with the only mass, class, organizations in America, namely, the trade union movement – which embraces some 20 million workers. These workers are fragmented into something like 190 different unions. And every comrade who goes into one of the 190 unions is going to have a different concrete situation. Your first job is to acquaint yourself, in some detail, with what your concrete situation is – on the shop floor, on a regional level, on an international level. What I want to try to do now is give you some picture of the ferment, the antagonism, the struggles that are going on that don’t get reported.
In the last six months, something like 20 different international unions held conventions and adopted positions either calling for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, or in some form expressing sharp disagreement with George Meany and the standard AFL-CIO support to Nixon’s Vietnam policy. You could read the official AFL-CIO press inside out (as I do) and only in very rare cases where it was impossible to suppress it, read about anti-war resolutions and discussions. This is why, unless you have literally hundreds, if not thousands, of revolutionary socialists in the trade union movement, you can’t get too accurate a picture of the ferment that’s going on. And I can only go through some of the things that have occurred to me during some of the conventions that I’ve recently attended.
First of all, the reports at conventions indicate that the official wildcat figures don’t even begin to tell the truth of the dissatisfaction, the grumbling in the workers’ ranks on the problems of the cost of living, on the problems of automation, of joblessness, of unsatisfactory settling of grievances. Yet, as you read the official reports, you get this picture of ranks wildcatting, striking, and in California the official figures show that during 1969 there were 357 officially recognized, legal, strikes – the highest in California since almost ten years ago.
This rising militancy gets reflected in the convention reports, convention discussions, and the demand for more contract increases. It is reflected by the organizations of blacks, Chicanos, and women. The pressure from outside already has begun to have its impact inside the trade union movement.
For example, at a recent convention of the UAW there was a big battle on the part of the women delegates for more women on the International Executive Board. In the process of fighting for this democratic demand, they set in motion a whole series of objective consequences that can only heighten the consciousness of women workers, of workers in general, and prepare them for bigger battles. Likewise, with black representation on leading bodies and with Chicanos.
You’re aware, too, that the trade union leadership, the bureaucracy, is increasingly frightened that their contracts are being rejected by the ranks. Over and over again, they have to report that this is a “bad” thing, an “alarming” thing, this is “destroying the stability of our union,” etc. That is a tribute to the fact that the ranks will not stop their rejection, but will be increasing it. At a recent convention, we had not only talk about the American wildcats, but a British trade union leader was quoted about a dissident group in his Electrical Workers Union in England. He went on in great detail about how these communists and Trotskyists were upsetting the union leadership terribly, upsetting the economic picture; he went on in great detail on how big this group had been. They had control of the union for years, and had just been ousted. And this report was being given to a convention which had not yet had its first battle on the floor!
Then there’s the Carpenters’ convention. This union is very typical of blue-collar unions, building-construction workers. They have organized some 400,000 carpenters out of a potential of 2 million! And this of course raises an important fact about the trade unions in general. They have not organized even half of the American working class; about one out of every three workers is organized. Huge sectors are unorganized – totally under the domination of the employers and lacking even that level of collective action and consciousness that the organized trade unions have been able to achieve.
At the Carpenters Union convention, held here in San Francisco, the big question which raged in the halls among the leadership, and which went all the way to Washington and Meany’s office was: “Will Meany dare to talk about the Vietnam War? If he does, there’ll be a floor revolt.” So the great achievement was to prevent Meany from speaking in support of the Vietnam war. Now, you can shrug your shoulders and say, “Big deal!” But when you can get George Meany frightened that there’ll be a rank-and-file revolt that the leadership may not be able to contain, then that is some indicator of the significance this question held.
There were very few blacks among the 2,500 delegates present. And yet, the questions of racism, apprenticeship, turnover, are just burning in the ranks. Over and over again, workers would discuss the fact that they work only 6 to 8 months out of the year, that their standards are steadily deteriorating, and that they are unable to organize new workers, particularly in the South, because of the racist attitudes of the union.
Also raised was a question which I think we have to be more concerned with: the rising feeling among the Canadian sectors of all the unions that they want their autonomy. You know that unions are called “International” unions because they have sections in America and Canada. In one convention after another, the Canadian sector will get up and demand that they have control of their contracts, control of their organization, and not be beholden to the International leadership. And in some unions the Canadian section is very large – in the Steelworkers it’s roughly 1/6 of the union (and the base of the New Democratic Party of Canada).
If this can happen in 1970 at the Carpenters convention, consider the significance; because, the fact that it gets to the floor is an indication of how deep this ferment is.
Take the United Federation of Postal Clerks. Earlier in the year, there was a magnificent strike of postal workers. And that class action impelled, for the first time, the formation of groups throughout the nation that came to a convention of the Federation of Postal Clerks and demanded, and got, a promise from their leadership that they would stand for the repeal of any no-strike law on the federal level and would fight for amnesty for the strikers. A Committee for Effective Leadership, composed largely of the strike leaders, took leadership at that convention floor and raised one issue after another, including withdrawal from Vietnam. The height was reached when the president was voted down a salary increase of 14%.
So, if comrades are concerned with what level you enter a struggle, my opinion is this: when you have an organization concerned with democratizing the structure, such as the Committee for Effective Leadership, if we had had delegates there I hope they would have been functioning within that committee, because that’s where the real concrete struggle was taking place. It was what drew the blacks, the Chicanos, the women workers. They ran opposition candidates, and in some cases got them elected. We would function as the left wing, in my opinion, of such a national rank and file caucus.
Take another example: the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, with 400,000 members, one of the largest unions in America. Their hourly rate is one of the highest; in New York, they work 32 hours per week at from 5 to 8 dollars per hour. They have a convention every four years. Their last convention was as silent as the grave; I understand some opposition voices were raised, and immediately gaveled down. But in the interval, they did elect a new president. And every time you have a change of officers, the control is weakened.
The first vote which came up before this particular convention was whether or not to pay the retiring president some astronomical sum, about $70,000 a year for life. And the convention of close to 4,000 delegates voted that down. This was the first and only time at that convention that the dissidents won; on subsequent votes, the tellers counted more carefully and somehow the oppositionists’ motions always lost, even though, as far as I could see from the balcony, the voting went about the same as it did the first time.
Nevertheless, it is important that there were caucuses formed at that convention to defeat the bureaucratic demands for more pay for top officers, and that over and over again constitutional amendments were raised, and a battle took place over the demands of Canadian locals for autonomy and control over their contracts.
Here again, I would say that if we had anyone in the IBEW, he would be part of the struggle, working with such groups as the newly organized sector of 30,000 women telephone workers in the New England states that had just voted to join the Electrical Workers Union, rather than the Communication Workers.
The point I want to underscore with these and similar stories, is that these kinds of oppositions, of spontaneous rank-and-file organization, are but a reflection of the struggles taking place on a local level, and on the shop and plant level. And that the degree to which we know how to function as revolutionary socialists is the degree to which we recognize the problems that workers are concerned with and want solutions to; and with our background, politics and deeper understanding and consciousness, we ought to be able to propose solutions.
Let me just say something about the California State Federation meeting that was held here also in San Francisco. This is the largest state federation of labor in the country, with close to 12 million members. For the first time, a black caucus was formed, and a black vice-president elected. He’s an Uncle Tom type, but even that is a concession to the rising demands of the blacks. For the first time, a Chicano caucus was formed at the convention to press the Chicano demands. And for the first time, a women’s caucus – not a rank and file caucus but one consisting of secondary and tertiary leaders – was formed. And all of these tended to coalesce around an opposition candidate for vice-president of the union, Art Carter, who had received some notoriety when he stood up on the National AFL-CIO Convention floor and challenged Meany on the Vietnam issue.
A question again comes up: what role would we play in a struggle, for example, to run a candidate like Carter? In this case, they put forward a very weak, ambiguous program – vaguely for democratization, for alliance with the young, with Chicanos, with blacks – and around them were coalesced the most progressive, advanced rank and file delegates. In a sense, they acted as a catalyst, precipitating out the best elements in the trade union movement in California.
We should have, and did, play the role of a kind of left wing within that caucus-in-formation, raising the issue of a stand on Vietnam, on blacks, on the apprenticeship program, etc. The fact that at this State Federation convention, for the first time, one saw the formation of such caucuses opens up all kinds of opportunities which did not exist ten years ago. It is within the past ten years that I have seen this kind of increased militancy and aggressiveness, which has led to the overturn of one established leadership after another in various trade unions.
Just to remind you: several years ago, in the State, County and Municipal union, there was a challenge by Jerry Wurf against the long-time Arnold Zander presidency, which won by a very narrow margin. And, in the course of arousing thousands of members, locals and delegates, he gave impetus to all kinds of democratic impulses that would not have been in existence without his challenge.
The same thing is true with the fight between Abel and MacDonald. Abel attacked MacDonald, head of the Steelworkers Union, for “tuxedo unionism.” MacDonald was known for his chummy arm-in-arm visits (with Management, of course) to all the steel plants – a partnership between management and the union. And when the time came that Abel, who had been part and parcel of the same bureaucracy, felt his job would go down the drain when the membership knocked out MacDonald and his cronies, he began to think in terms of a movement to behead MacDonald, before he was beheaded. But, in starting that movement, Abel and his friends in the bureaucracy set in motion a whole chain of objective events which can help to democratize the union and challenge the bureaucracy – especially if we have people in the right places who know how to conduct themselves.
There were similar fights in the Electrical Workers Union and in the Retail Clerks. I don’t think the fact that eight or ten major unions chopped off their old bureaucracy, and some new bureaucracy came to power, is a sign that the trade union movement cannot change its leadership, is not subject to pressure from below. On the contrary, it proves that even the bureaucrats recognize when their time is coming to an end. And they will separate out, and the more clever and astute ones will begin the process of eliminating the worst symbols of bureaucracy and oppression within that union.
So, the work of our comrades within the trade union movement is now in a far more hopeful period – a period where there is more rank and file rebellion, more discussion and more challenges to the bureaucracy (and I have deliberately not gone into any of the local rank and file groups that have formed in one local after another, because they are now literally in the hundreds). Our task is already that much more facilitated when workers are already in struggle for democratization of their unions, for greater militancy, more control, better contract demands, etc. And given that kind of position, I think that revolutionary socialists can play a more fruitful role if they recognize the concrete possibilities before them.
Hal: Now, you see, what Anne was talking about is the kind of thing that never gets written about, and is very hard to deal with because it’s the kind of rank and file movement which is atomized; it’s local, temporary and usually elementary in level. And, although that’s the most usual state of things, representing the opportunities, the situations, the problems which any revolutionist faces in the present circumstances, it’s precisely the kind of situation hardest to put your finger on. It never gets written up.
I’m going to talk now about another side of this question which does get written up. But you’ve always got to keep in mind that while the kind of thing which I’m going to be talking about is going on, what Anne was talking about is going on down below, and in fact probably makes the larger events possible. I’m going to talk about a couple of cases of large-scale minority opposition organizations in the trade union movement and the lessons that they can give.
As far as I know, there are just three points in the history of the American labor movement when a left progressive opposition movement of some kind was a real force. One was in the DeLeon days, the SLP days, before they went for dual unionism, when they became a very powerful force in the Knights of Labor, and later in the AFL.
There was a second point, just before the beginning of the First World War, when the socialist bloc in the AFL – in 1911 or 1912 – got a vote of 30–40% for Max Hayes, running for president against Sam Gompers.
Those are episodes that are long ago. I want to say a couple of things about the third and most recent, but not least, case where a left-wing opposition in the trade unions became a real power within the AFL. And that was the case of the TUEL, the Trade Union Educational League, in the years 1922–23. It’s an enormously educational scene that I can’t begin to do justice to in these few minutes; but let me say just this about it.
The Trade Union Educational League was organized and launched by William Z. Foster before he became a member of the Communist Party. William Z. Foster had been the leader of the 1919 steel strike, perhaps the biggest of the post-World War I class-struggle movements in the country. He was a first-class trade union organizer – before he became a mere Stalinist hack in later years.
He had been an IWW member and a syndicalist. The organization of the TUEL by Foster in 1920 was the result of his coming to the conclusion, after a life of excellent trade union work, that the whole IWW and syndicalist perspective of dual unions was wrong and that you had to organize a left opposition in the existing trade union movement.
Now the TUEL, when he launched it, was him and a group of militants around him. It became more of a power when the early Communist Party took it up. This was the early Communist Party, in the days when its membership, and a good part of its leadership, consisted of people who were trying to be revolutionary socialists, as best they knew how. We’re talking now about the beginnings of a revolutionary socialist movement, the early Communist Party, and the problems of its approach to the building of a trade union opposition in the AFL. Now, what happened?
In broad outline, what happened was this: the TUEL, at first just a group of militants who knew and followed Foster, was taken up by the Communist Party as its trade union instrument and had a great success in the first two years, after a series of struggles along the lines of militant unionism. By 1922–23, the TUEL had gained national strength, to the point where its taking over the AFL was becoming a realistic possibility.
It had taken over whole sections of hundreds of locals, sections of national unions and regional bodies, on a mass scale. How did it do this in 2–3 years? The situation was very clear; there were two issues before it which it didn’t have to invent. Those were amalgamation (today we would call it industrial unionism) and political action (that is, a labor party). And there was a tremendous amount of steam behind those two issues which the TUEL was able to coalesce.
What happened was not that Foster, or the Communist militants who worked with him, were such terrific trade union organizers that in two years they were able to build from virtually nothing a movement that had the possibility of threatening the leadership of the AFL. What happened was that, as a result of the policy they followed, everything that already existed of ferment, all of those currents of opposition like those Anne spoke of, coalesced around the TUEL. That’s how, in two or three years, the TUEL became a power as a left-wing opposition – led by Communists, to be sure – in the AFL.
Now, what happened after that to the TUEL is a sad story. I can’t give you all the details here, but it had to do, not with what the TUEL was doing in the AFL, but with the policies adopted by the Communist Party – policies imposed, or persuaded, upon these trade union militants leading the TUEL, including Foster.
At this point, the early ’20s, it was not a question of a bureaucratized or Stalinized CP. The problem was a different one. The membership of the CP had, for the most part, been recruited from two or three directions: from the left wing of the old Socialist Party, from the IWW and other syndicalist elements, and only to a third and lesser extent from a more variegated type of working class militants. And within the organization, a large part of the membership – completely unacquainted, by the way, with Lenin’s writings – was not for mass trade unions. They were for revolutionary unions only. Therefore, the whole enterprise that the TUEL represented was off-limits to them: “You shouldn’t be in there in the first place – what’re you doing, horsing around with bureaucrats in the AFL?” But, since that point of view was defeated in the CP, the form it took was the pressure to turn the TUEL from an organization of trade union militants on a left-progressive trade-union basis into a trade union opposition movement with a revolutionary political program.
The TUEL, for example, eventually adopted a program for socialism. (”How can you solve the problems of the working class without socialism?”) It also adopted calling for the dictatorship of the proletariat: after all, if you don’t come out with a full program, you’re “lying to the workers.” In fact, the upshot was that the TUEL, first in terms of its political program, also in terms of its personnel, became more and more the trade union arm of the Communist Party.
For example, in place after place, the TUEL operated out of CP headquarters. (”The only people you can really trust, after all, are Communists. So, the only people you can really bring into the leadership are Communist Party members.”) And that whole line of approach toward building a militant movement meant the sterilization of the TUEL, its becoming turned into nothing but the CP fraction, which of course dwindled away to nothing.
That was not the conception with which Foster started. We have here two conceptions of how to operate as a revolutionist in the trade union movement, which go all through the history of the relationship between socialists and revolutionists and the trade union movement. Here is the conception with which Foster started: You take the working class and its struggles at the point where it is now – the struggle at the point where it is now – and you try to find the issue which will move as massive a section of that class as possible against (a) the union leadership that you have to fight, (b) the whole employer class, which always gets involved in such a fight and (c) the state.
What are those issues? The dictatorship of the proletariat? No, that won’t move any massive section of this class. That will only alienate them, because they’re not for it. The issues of amalgamation (i.e., industrial unionism) and political action were the two issues, at that point, with which the TUEL moved the mass.
Amalgamation: it’s an elementary issue; it doesn’t mean you’re making the revolution. Now, what if someone says: “Well, what kind of issue is that? Suppose you win it! So what!” You may eventually win it; the working class has won those reforms that I’ve mentioned, and that doesn’t make the revolution. What you have to keep your eye on is not these things, typical of the points raised by the outside intellectual in the CP, but, rather, the reality of the struggle itself! And the meaning of the struggle itself. What the TUEL was doing successfully in 1921–23 was moving large masses of workers for this “inconsequential” issue, against the powers-that-be, and that was what was educational. That, also, is what made Communists, so that they then could be talked to about the dictatorship of the proletariat. You have to keep your eyes upon the meaning of the issues in terms of the class struggle itself!
Now it was this approach, you see, which couldn’t be understood by the majority of the membership of the CP in those early days, because of their unfortunate past. The elements in the AFL who understood the meaning of the struggle tended to be reformists. In country after country, there was a polarization between people who wanted to be revolutionaries, but who conceived it in ultimatistic terms, and the reformists who understood that was nonsense and turned the thing around – ”the struggle is the only important thing; that’s all you have to be concerned about, the day-to-day struggle.” And in period after period, country after country, the division between those two wrong types has sterilized socialist work in the trade unions.
Thus, periods like 1921–23, for example, when you had an outstanding example of how to do it, are relatively rare. That’s why I direct you to that case, because it illustrated on a mass scale what has happened time and again on a small scale: the difference between these two conceptions.
Let me illustrate this difference with a personal case, in terms of activity we were involved with. After looking at the mass movement of the TUEL, which seems very distant from us, let us consider a local case where, however, the problem is exactly the same. I’m talking about the same situation I referred to last time; that is, the situation Anne and I were in in the shipyard workers union during the Second World War with a group of party members – only about a couple of dozen – who were faced with the same problem.
Here you had these shipyards, which were full of ferment, on an elementary basis. There’s a war on. Our position was opposed to the war. In our political propaganda, we were opposed to support of the war. But that was a very small minority position; what kind of trade union work could you do? In this situation I think that we showed, on a very small scale, how to approach the problem.
You have ferment in the shipyards. What program do you try to put forward? Do you, for example, try to agitate these workers to oppose the war? Do you get up on the union floor and make speeches against the war? No, you couldn’t explain, in 1943, in a three-minute speech, your point of view about the war. (For various reasons, good and bad, it was difficult for people to understand right off.) Just as, in 1922, those same militant workers who were joining the TUEL would have had difficulty understanding why the hell you wanted a dictatorship – the dictatorship of the proletariat, etc.
But, the interesting thing about the situation was, we didn’t have to invent the issues. There was no problem of program – unless, of course, you invented the problem for yourself. The issues were there. As a result of the war, and of the positions taken by the entire union bureaucracy, the workers’ conditions were being cut right and left. One of the first steps – during the war – was the abolition of time and one half for overtime and double time for Sunday. Another, of course, was the no-strike pledge. The latter was a pledge; whether workers went out on strike or not was a different matter. But when time and a half was taken away, that was it! You didn’t get it in your paycheck! Those issues were there.
They were elementary bread-and-butter issues. But there are different kinds of bread-and-butter issues in different situations. In 1943, the issue was tied up with the war question. How was it tied up? Not theoretically. It was tied up in the following way, and if I can emphasize nothing else, let me emphasize this: in that year, and in those plants, carrying on a simple struggle for such things as time and a half for overtime meant opposing the war. To whom did it mean that? Not to all of the workers, but to us. Because it tested the willingness of large masses of workers to say, “I will carry on the struggle of my class, regardless of the war.” Now, in the last analysis, that is a more important statement about the war than any resolutions that you can sign. Because, as far as the movement of the mass is concerned, the test of the matter was the continuation of the class struggle despite the war.
Now, if you will think for a moment, you will find that Lenin understood this very well. His formulations during the war, likewise the fundamental test, in the Zimmerwald Manifestoes and so forth, was put in exactly those terms, in a highly theoretical document. The test was, not whether you’re for “revolutionary defeatism” or some other political term that few people understood, but: Are you willing to carry on the class struggle in spite of the war? That was what these issues meant. And the meaning of a left progressive group in that shipyard workers union, and in other unions – at this time and in this situation – was that you could move relatively large masses of workers on their elementary basis: a movement which would set them against the union bureaucracy, the owning class and the state.
Yet, even in a situation like that, someone comes along and says: “You mean you never once got up on a union floor and proudly presented your position on the war? Why, you sold out!” I would say: that guy ought to be carefully kept away from any socialist movement! Does that mean we ignored the question of the war? No.
Let me give you the other side of this operation. At the same time as all this was going on, we also had our political organization operating. As a political party, we held public meetings and, more importantly, in our weekly newspaper, we said everything. And it was the combination of the two which I want to emphasize. Not just one or the other, because it’s the combination that’s important. Neither side is complete without the other. Within the framework of the trade union, we behaved as progressive, militant trade unionists (although, of course, we talked with our fellow workers). But in our newspaper, we said everything. The combination of these two things represents an all-sided and balanced revolutionary approach to the problem of trade union work.
On the one hand, you do not sterilize your trade union work by turning it into a carbon copy of your political work. Because that just isolates you, and you come out with what the TUEL came out with: yourself and nobody else. On the other hand, you use your trade union work also to direct people, to move people, to your political position by at the same time doing competent political work. “But you mean you never proposed to the Progressive Group that they adopt a position against the war?” Nope. We never did! We wouldn’t have dreamed of it. We did not propose our politics to the group. Because we had the following conception of the Progressive Group:
The Progressive Group was not just us. If it had been, it wouldn’t have had any meaning. There was a real movement there. It included people who were, so to speak, naturally born revolutionary militants, but who didn’t know it because they had never run across any revolutionary ideas before. It included all kinds of people, and a movement like this naturally will. And, as a movement, it wasn’t merely an extension of our two dozen people; it had its own life. We were revolutionary politicals in that Progressive Group. Our conception of that Progressive Group was that it was not a substitute for a revolutionary party and should not be made into one. It had its own function, role and program – as broad as possible a progressive and militant program that still is capable of moving large masses of workers against those three forces I mentioned before.
That would be my definition for you of the program of a meaningful rank and file movement. It may be a shop committee; this is an organizational question. But it’s the conception that’s important. And if you run into a comrade, for example, who approaches trade union work naively, from a revolutionary impulse (”If you’ve got revolutionary ideas you’ve got to put them forward...”), you just patiently explain that the function, the purpose, the usefulness of a rank-and-file progressive group exists insofar as it fulfills the following criteria: it has as broad a program as possible provided that it is not so broad it misses out on the second qualification – that, in the course of struggling for that program, masses of workers will move against those three forces. And you should take that line in the confidence that as a result of the masses getting into struggle – against the bureaucracy, the bourgeoisie and the state – people will learn (not as a whole mass, but maybe tens or hundreds) and will have their minds open to what next you have to tell them about your politics. If you don’t have that confidence, you’ve got to adopt a whole new set of political ideas.
That’s the whole idea about a rank-and-file progressive group in terms of revolutionary politics, and there are damn few cases of any revolutionary movement that has ever done that. Very few, locally or nationally.
Now just consider that picture. Here’s a socialist movement, worldwide – in many countries, unlike the US, with large masses. And on this fundamental question – how do you approach the relationship of revolutionaries to trade union work – the approach which I’ve explained, which Lenin explains in Left-Wing Communism, is as rare as hens’ teeth – and very difficult for revolutionaries to learn; above all, for new revolutionaries. It has been learned only by a movement which has had time to develop a tradition, a practice and experience.
Before I throw the floor open for discussion, a word about the various attempts of New Lefters to do trade union work. A book could be written about what not to do. Like that famous conference that was held to mobilize students to go into the factories – to get them all together so the FBI could take pictures of them: the Work-in. And other such cases. Here, once again, for the 7,557th time, with this New Left movement of the’60s, when it was better than it is now, when the movement started turning toward trade union work it turned to the same old conceptions that have proven so absolutely fruitless and hopeless, time and again.
Comrade V: I’d like to address myself to the most controversial section of the talk tonight, and the one which raised certainly the most difficult questions. I certainly feel the criteria given by Hal were not sufficient. For example, the idea that your action is on one level and your newspaper is on another level, and those two balance each other – it seems to me if your newspaper is not related to your day-to-day action, you run into problems.
For example, on what moves the most people into action: It wouldn’t be clear to me, say, why we should raise a labor party slogan, since that will limit the number of people in motion, as against, say, a fight for higher wages. It seems to me, that the whole idea of transitional politics is that you raise what will move the movement to a higher level – you raise a strategy for the movement. That’s why the idea of amalgamation was good – it pointed a direction, it raised the movement to a higher level than AFL simple craft unionism. It’s not, simply, what will get the most people moving.
You can’t simply keep raising more militant action. Unless you take political action, you’re just going to go down the drain. The whole conception of a transitional program is what will move the movement as a whole to a higher level.
Anne: I think Comrade V’s question raises the problem, that when you try to summarize an experience, and when you try to put it in brief form, it opens you up to misinterpretation. Let me try to restate some of the things that Hal was saying.
Obviously, it isn’t just any broad program that will set the kind of masses into motion. We don’t project just anything. We project the concrete program, based on their concrete demands, rooted in their class struggle. They were being screwed, on every aspect of their trade union achievement. They had just gone through building a CIO shipyard workers union for five to six years before then. These were the militants, these were the progressives, these were the builders of the union. They had struggled and fought and bled to get time and a half, to get double time, to get a repair yard differential, and as far as they were concerned, these were not just any broad issues, but this was why they had built the union. And their defense of the union was the defense of the class! And we, the revolutionists, had just got through a whole assimilation of Trotsky’s transitional program. We went into that yard to carry out that transitional program. What issues did we raise?
”Repeal the No-Strike Pledge!” You cannot imagine the patriotism that existed through 1940–41 and throughout the’40’s. It was only toward the end that it began to wane. You can’t imagine what it was like to get on an open-air street platform and have the American Legionnaires take you over and make you kiss the American flag. You can’t imagine the kind of patriotic fervor that we faced then, W.
So that, when we raised the demand, “Repeal the no-strike pledge,” we were attacked on the floor as Hitler agents, we were attacked on the floor as traitors; I mean, do I have to tell you all this? We assume that some of you must have understood this. That the Stalinists had control of this union; that’s an important element which we have to mention. They had made an alliance with the administrators, so we had to battle the pro-war patriotic Stalinist line plus the tremendous brainwashing which the workers had received. And the fact that we built what was called the Progressive Caucus around slogans like, “Take Labor Off the War Labor Board!” – that meant, break with the capitalist state.
You know, you don’t say to the working class, “Overthrow capitalism,” in that many words. As Lenin explained, you say, “Land – peace – bread.” That’s what they want. They wanted their double time; that was the equivalent in the shipyards of 1942.
When we drew up a program for the election of stewards, when we drew up a program which went into details, for the swing shift, for the midnight shift, for the day shift, for women workers, for the blacks in the shop, every one of these was a challenge to the state, a challenge to the war.
And, you think we were quiet on the Labor Party? That was part of our program! All of these points. And, especially as the Gerald L.K. Smith movement came into existence, we were leaders of the anti-fascist marches that took place then. So the Stalinists were in this absolute quandary – how the hell could they attack us as fascists when we were being arrested and hauled off to jail because of our opposition to Gerald L.K. Smith?
Our aim was to bring these militants, these progressives, these trade unionists, to accept this program, to see the logic of where it went. And our political line was carried in greater detail in our weekly distribution of Labor Action. We gave out 15,000 to 20,000, every week, along those shipyards!
I think our great moment of triumph (if I may be given another moment) came, in the middle of the war, when 12,000 workers met in the Wilmington Bowl. I shall never forget that great moment – 12,000 workers roared their approval to go out on strike in the middle of the war! And there were a few no’s. And the chairman said, “I didn’t quite see all those no’s. Will all those who said, ‘No’ stand up?” And I think exactly 17 Stalinists had the nerve to stand up. And he squinted and said, “Is that Kelsine Smith there? Is that Vic Calberry there?” Those names are engraved in my memory; I can’t forget them. The Stalinists hit rock bottom at that point.
And Joe, if you don’t feel that this kind of rank-and-file progressive caucus not only educated hundreds, no, thousands of workers into placing their class struggle, their class organization ahead of the demands of the patriots, then you’re not seeing how you operate in a concrete circumstance.
Comrade T: I want to talk about how we handled the question of labor party and independent political action in the AFT. Because there are a number of us there and we do a lot of work in the AFT, and it’s a question that has to come up.
When we went to the National Convention, when we went to the state convention, and when we’re in our locals, on the question of the current election campaign – we raise it. Dellums is raised, we stand up and say, “We’re against Dellums”; “We’re against the two parties,” etc.; “We need a labor party,” and so forth. In our propaganda – the piece that we put out for the National Convention – the key is independent political action as the only way out, the only road ahead.
Now, the point is – what would it mean if we organized a caucus that had this as one of its central foci, if that was one of the key things that really held it together? Well, it would be us and two dues cheaters. That’s who it would be. Because we’re the only ones – and people who are very close to us – who really understand this. Nobody else understands this. That’s why you don’t have a movement that means anything today, around that question – independent political action – in the trade unions or anyplace else. You see, if you make that a central point, to try to organize anything would mean you would organize yourself. And you would not accomplish the role that you really mean to focus on. And that is, the notion of trying to get a mass of people in your union in motion (I really enjoy Hal’s definition, I think it’s a good way of approaching it) against the three elements; that is, your present leadership – good or bad, that is – from below, the state, and the bourgeoisie generally. With teachers, the capitalists don’t come in to play immediately, because your employer is the state, so it works slightly different.
Just one more question, on how to handle it. In union caucuses at the National Convention and at the state convention, we raised this. We put forward a motion on independent political action for adoption in their platform, etc. At the state convention, anything anyone put forward was thrown in – but all that meant was that it wasn’t a key issue, it wasn’t something everyone saw as important.
Now, we lost on that question at the National Convention. But we continue to raise it, because, from our point of view, it’s a key to eventually being able to break out of the present political situation. But it’s not the kind of thing that you can focus on in organizing any large group of people. Because, today, you can’t organize a large group of people around that kind of thing.
Now, eventually we’ll be able to do that, and partly because now we’re raising it propagandistically. Not as something people have to accept in order to be able to do anything, but as a long range perspective. And that’s the way we’re handling that question at this point.
Question: ...What I want to know is, when you’re in a trade union, and you’re trying to come up with a program around which to build a caucus that will include more than just yourself, what do you include in such a program? You would include such things as, “Against speedup,” for better wages, working conditions, etc. But do you – or when do you – include such things as “For a Labor Party” as part of the caucus program, not just part of the outside agitation?
Hal: In the TUEL case, one was “Amalgamation,” the other was, “Labor Party.” In our case, the shipyards (I couldn’t go through the whole program), “Labor Party” was an immediate program, in the trade unions. The revolutionary stuff, on opposition to the war, capitalism, etc., that was part of our political work which I referred to. But our trade union slogans were around those that Anne mentioned, including, in particular, “Labor Party,” which was very important.
Question: But a lot of militants are against the bureaucracy, etc., but are still trapped in the Democratic Party ... What are the principles –
Hal: – I don’t think it’s a matter of principle; this is my opinion. I don’t think it’s a matter of principle. In these cases, as I say, “Labor Party” was a very important slogan because that was part of the reality of the day. I would not tell you that it is a principle that you have got to include “labor party” in the slogan of any given progressive group. That’s precisely the kind of ultimatistic and sterile approach, in general, that you’ve got to get rid of! If the situation, in your opinion, has all of the other qualifications – that is, there’s a movement, a push in a direction – and “labor party” does not fit – you can’t get it in, you can’t get it across – then, all right, you let it go. You raise it in some other manner. But it’s not a matter of being ultimatistic about it.
Comrade Z: I’d like to raise this in quite a different way, partly using experience we had in organizing in AFSCME. What I want to raise occurred to me when W. first raised his question.
There’s a sense in which raising a significantly “consciousness raising” issue can actually play a conservatizing role. That is, if you raise an issue that is so far removed from the immediate struggle, it functions simply to fudge over, make appear irrelevant, the immediate issues. There are two examples of that. The one that I think that most of us in this organization were very familiar with, and cut our teeth on (and it’s a shame many people have forgotten the lesson), was the whole experience of an independent political action movement, in this state, especially around the war: the CNP, and later the PFP.
One of the things that the people who either wanted to stay in the Democratic Party or wanted to have a halfway house between the Democratic Party and a really independent thing, one of the things they constantly said was, “But the simple little organizational question of an independent party is so irrelevant. You talk about illusions about the Democratic Party; what about illusions about parliamentary democracy that you automatically raise (and they’re right!) when you hold up as a slogan, ‘Labor Party’?” That’s true. It does nothing to dispel all kinds of parliamentary illusions, etc.
The point is, the reason people like Bob Scheer, and other types, raise that, is precisely that the issue that was relevant right then, in that movement, was precisely the break with the Democratic Party. That organizational question – that was what moved you into opposition at that point. Nothing else. And they wanted to raise these much broader, and, in some abstract way, more important, questions because that allowed them to make the concrete political break appear a tiny, irrelevant question.
Let me raise it a second way, the way it comes up in our union. The question came up with the present electoral contest. What happened was this: we’ve got a lot of new people in the union. The union started out, more or less, as people who’d been in and around, and knew about, the student movement. Now, we’ve got a lot of ordinary workers, a lot of black workers, etc. So, the question comes up. We take a position, we argue educationally about no support to Dellums. The CP’s line is – support Dellums, support Romo, etc. The bulk of the membership were caught up in support for Dellums. Romo, they never heard of (you could have explained he was running on the PFP ticket, except they’d never heard of that!). That is, it was completely irrelevant to them. That’s not the issue that divides the militants in that union, the progressives, from the right-wingers. (It happens to be a union where you can raise questions like that, educationally, but it’s not the cutting edge.) If you formed a caucus on that basis, it would not only be just us and, literally, two dues cheaters (in this particular case), but, more importantly, it would not polarize the union the way you want it to be polarized.
For example, all these black people who are, formally speaking, to the right of the CP, on the question of independent political action (that is, in the sense that they wouldn’t be for Romo if they knew who he was) – all these people, nevertheless, on what from an abstract point of view might seem to be a tenth-rate issue, came into serious conflict with the CP. I don’t want to go into details, because it’s very technical. The point is, an issue came up on strike support action for the Building Trades Council strike. (The technical details are very boring, very minute, etc.) But, as a matter of fact, it split the CP, not only from the militants in the union (and some of the right-wingers in the union), but even split some of the black CPers and fellow travelers of the CP. And it was a tenth-rate question.
Nevertheless, it was over a question like that those people actually began to move into opposition and where, for example, the conservative role – in this case, of the CP – became clear, even to some of its own members.
Now I can’t tell you what kind of issue will really polarize that union and create the basis for a rank-and-file caucus. I can tell you right now that it will not be independent political action. In the first place, it’s not going to polarize the local; it really isn’t an issue that’s determined by a local union. It’s purely a propagandistic educational thing, in a local union. If you’re talking about a caucus in the International, then that question might become an immediate issue that was really important for people. And, I think that’s the kind of thing you have to keep in mind – what is, so to speak, the bread-and-butter issue – not only for the rank and file, but for the bureaucracy, in terms of determining how seriously you’re going to fight.
That’s the thing that really raises people’s consciousness – whether or not you’re willing to fight, for a particular thing, which may be very minute in a particular case. One of the problems, it seems to me our comrades have, which is very understandable in the present situation, is that even such questions as a labor party are simply at a much higher level of struggle than the American trade union movement and the American working class are involved in. And, in their eagerness to get to that position, they overlook the fact that that is not what’s going on, and that’s not what the fight is. And that, as a matter of fact, the fight is on a much more minimal level. If you concentrate on the abstract situation, which doesn’t exist, you miss the opportunity to really organize people who are, nevertheless, willing to fight on all sorts of other issues that don’t seem so immediately important, but which, unless you fight on those, unless you organize people around those, they’re never going to move to a higher level. They’re never even going to understand what you’re talking about!
It’s not that people are in opposition to you. It’s that they don’t even understand what the issue is. It just doesn’t mean anything. It’s not something to fight over. And, on the other hand, the things they are fighting over are, unfortunately, much smaller. But that’s where you begin organizing and building a militant caucus.
Hal: I said before that I would consider it utterly absurd to say, “It is a principle that any progressive group that you join has got to be for political action.” That I say is absurd.
Now, as a matter of fact (in the case of our shipyard workers group, I don’t even remember whether political action was part of its program), let us say that our progressive group did not include “Labor Party” in its political program. That’s perfectly all right with me. But we, that is our people, talked about that in the progressive group.
I was also going to link that up with some of the points I told you I wasn’t going to be able to cover in the beginning, because of the variations in the situation. There are cases, for example, where we – the revolutionary group – organize a progressive group and lead it. That’s one type of situation – and it has its own difficulties. A quite different type of situation is, where there’s a movement going on and you join it – and where you don’t control it. Now, as a matter of fact, the one that we were engaged in was somewhere between. A lot of people in the group couldn’t be sure whether it was really controlled by us or not, because we were so influential. But, as a matter of fact, we did not control it; it had a life of its own. If, for example, we had thought that trying to jam the political action part of our program – ”Labor Party” – past a majority of the progressive group would harm its main work, I’m sure we would have been against trying to jam it past talking up the question of the labor party to progressive group members, as well as, of course, anybody else that we talked to.
So, there you have three levels, right? Now, there were some complications on this that we won’t get to this evening at all; we’ll get to those only when we have some practical problem to face.
But, for example, when Comrade V began by saying the newspaper ought to have something to do with your day-to-day action, well, again, in giving a big picture obviously I missed a part of it for him. The situation was not that in the trade union movement we talked about political action and immediate questions, while in the newspaper we talked about the Russian Revolution, the history of the German Social Democracy, etc. That was not the case at all.
The newspaper, which was a weekly called Labor Action – at a time when I was not editing it, therefore I can tell you freely – was one of the best examples of an agitational workers’ socialist newspaper which, precisely in its columns, ran the gamut, did two things.
One of the reasons why we distributed 15–20,000 copies around the area was that a lot of those workers, as a matter of fact, didn’t read the socialist stuff – although it was there for them. They read it because it told them what was going on in the trade union movement!
In the newspaper, within the same eight pages, we had constant reports on the struggles going on in our area and in our union, and there was a whole, big clientele – who we never even got to know – literally thousands who regularly read Labor Action to find out what was really going on in their union at the same time that, in the next column, they could read about other matters.
Now take the business about the War Labor Board. It’s a perfect example of a bridge; because (I’m not sure that you understood this point), there are two different ways you approach the question of “Get the unions off the War Labor Board.” We did both of them, of course. One was, you could attack it from the trade union point of view. We could, and did, talk to repair yard militants, who understood nothing about socialist politics, and nothing about the Marxian Theory of the State, and explain to them in terms of what I would call the interests of the working class (and they had other names for), why labor ought to get off the War Labor Board.
At the same time (and in the newspaper), you could attack that question from the broader, more class conscious, more socialist (if you wish), more theoretical angle. And we did both. But, you see, that slogan, like the slogan of political action, has those protean possibilities.
As a matter of fact, the same thing is true (this is the point I was trying to make before) with regard to the question of double time, because you never got a response from anybody “We don’t want the money” – nobody argued that. The argument was the war! This is the thing Comrade W doesn’t understand in his abstract approach. How could you talk, or argue – not to speak of fight in an organized fashion – on this issue in this situation, without everybody thinking of the war. That was the only argument against it. There wasn’t any other.
Now, W, in giving that speech, is an excellent example of that honorable history of all of these revolutionary left-wing abstractionists who never could understand how to make contact with the trade union movement. In a sense, he represents a tendency far more massive and distinguished than what I’m talking about. That’s the reason why most of the socialist movements have sterilized themselves; that is, this abstract approach.
He says, “What you want is a program that points to a strategy for the movement to raise it to a higher level.” And he said “raise it to a higher level” three or four times. All right! What raises the struggle to a higher level? How do you know when you’re raising the struggle to a higher level? After you’ve gotten through using that language – how do you know you’re doing it? Because the textbook tells you that this slogan raises things to a higher level and the other program doesn’t raise things to a higher level? How do you know when you’re doing it?
And I tell you: you know when you’re doing it, that is, raising the struggle to a higher level, only by one criterion. (Of course, if it’s the dictatorship of the proletariat, you know in advance it’s a higher level, because no one has set some higher level ...) But, otherwise if it’s a borderline case, how do you know? And I tell you, it’s the criterion I gave you! Which is the class struggle. That’s what’s so foreign to the sectarian abstractionists. They never really understand what the real role of the class struggle is, after all the Marxian textbooks that they read.
You know that the struggle has reached a higher level when the class starts moving in a struggle against those three forces. That’s when they’re at a higher level. And when those demands, like double time, are achieved, OK, then your problem changes. That is, then you have to raise the struggle to a still higher level. That’s the answer to Comrade W, about this “higher level” business, which to him is a pure abstraction.
Last updated on 26.9.2004