Hal Draper


Marxism and the Trade Unions


II. Working Class Lifestyle and the Radical Sect

The subject for this evening is how to get from here to there. “Here” is society today, and “there” is the socialist society as a goal. We take as our starting point the problem of the radical sect.

One part of the question of getting from here to there has been popular in the socialist movement: that part dealing with “how to make the revolution.” That is not the subject I’m going to be speaking about. For some self-styled revolutionists that is all there is to the question of how to get from here to there. The Marxist attitude on this point is that the job of the socialist vanguard is to help get the mass of the working class moving as a class, independently of the ruling class and the state.

Moving where? Toward the social revolution in general, to be sure, but in the first place on behalf of its own class interests. The central idea of Marxism on this question is that insofar as the working class does this consistently and without drawing back from the consequences, it thereby moves in the direction of social revolution. This is a brief formulation of the crux of Marxism. That is the primary political meaning of those three volumes of Capital.

Capital seeks to prove that capitalism is incompatible with the consistent advancement of the interests of the working class. What is meant is that the workers in their struggle can go only so far and still stay within the boundaries of the system. Marx’s conception of the elementary process of social revolution is that it is the process by which the mass of people press beyond the limits of capitalism in the course of their class struggle (whether they think that is what they are doing or not). It is in this sense that every strike is a sort of rehearsal for revolution – not in the minds of the strikers, but from the point of view of the Marxists.

This is also the reason why a strike settlement always raises the question of the limits of capitalism. This happens in two ways. The capitalist raises it himself: “I can’t afford it.” And, increasingly, you get from the government: “The economy can’t afford it.” What they are demonstrating is the point of Capital.

The pressure of a purely economic struggle does not automatically lead to revolution, but it does lead to the recognition that the economic struggle has its limits and, therefore, has to go over to a political struggle which brings it beyond the limits of capitalism – if that struggle is carried on consistently and without drawing back from the consequences. That is a very big “if” – especially for the trade union movement – and that defines much of the function of the socialist vanguard in this situation.

If this much is clear, let’s go back to what I said is the central idea of Marxism. That was that the job of the socialist vanguard is to help to get the working class moving as a class, independently. That statement is very carefully limited not to say too much but to say just enough. This does not mean moving in a revolutionary action. It does not mean moving, necessarily, on a socialist basis. It just means moving on its independent class basis – moving on its own level, not yours or mine.

Now here is where the problem for socialist sects comes in, because the level of the working class is always, until a late stage, unsatisfactory to you and me. Therefore, it also always means all kinds of horror stories about how unsatisfactory the state of affairs is. It involves the problem of what has been the great failure of socialist movements: that is, the inability of the sect to bridge these two levels – the level that the working class is moving on, and the level that the sect is thinking on.

On the one hand, you have socialists who bridge the gap by driving right across it and over to the other side, losing themselves (and their socialist ideas) in the mass movement. This has been a very popular thing to settle for, and it is one way of solving the problem personally.

On the other hand, you have the absolutely natural reaction which would make it impossible for that to happen: Avoid all temptation to lose yourself in the mass movement by keeping as far away from it as possible. That guarantees it.

The sect guards against the first possibility by counterposing its own very fine ideas to the actual mass movement of the class, and it remains a sect. Marx and Engels had much to say on the problems of sects that existed in their time.

The chronic problem becomes acute when the socialist sect arises as a congregation of intellectuals who have, to begin with, no organic connection with the working class at all. This congregation of intellectuals has the additional problem of changing itself before it can change anything else. It is not rare for socialist groups to begin as congregations of intellectuals. Marx and Engels were very sensitive to the question of even admitting intellectuals to socialist groups; in the First International it was Marx who proposed and put through the rule that branches had to consist of at least 2/3 workers. (I wonder what Marx and Engels would have thought of a Marxist sect that consisted only of intellectuals; I think it would have blown their minds.)

At this point, then, you have a grotesque poltical animal – a “proletarian socialist movement” without any workers but with lots of fine ideas. Your problem is becoming a working class group, even a working class sect, and you have two strikes against you: Firstly, the life of an ideological sect is congenial only to ideologists, to intellectuals. And time and again those same individuals who have sincerely passed the most burning resolutions really don’t want to change the life of the group, which is congenial to them. Secondly, assuming a real desire to change, you must find some way of breaking out of the vicious circle: on the one hand, you really can’t change until you have workers in your organization and you can’t recruit and keep workers until you have changed.

The first way out of that vicious circle, historically, has been the conversion of the intellectuals into workers – the industrialization of the intellectual membership. There are varying degrees of experience in this. As far as this country is concerned, the best two cases that I know of were: the Communist Party (I’m leaving politics aside, now), particularly during the period of the organizing of the CIO; and the Independent Socialist League in the Second World War.

Now, just a couple of points about the CP in the CIO days. When the drive started, a symbiotic relationship came into existence between the CP and John L. Lewis. The CP took advantage of the situation by getting their people into the early organizing drives of the CIO. In doing this, they were doing something different from two other ways of getting into the trade union movement: working in a shop or factory, or becoming one of the intellectual flunkies of the bureaucracy. What the CP did wasn’t either of these. They weren’t simply rank and file workers, and often they weren’t “bureaucrats.” This opportunity arises every now and then. They went in and did not make communist speeches at CIO meetings. They went in and tolerated Lewis’ dictatorship. They lived under that, and it was damn hard for them to do so. But what they got was invaluable experience which you will never get in any other way. They got a second thing – something that comes from organizing workers on the job, who know that you fought for them – moral authority. They got their credentials as militant trade unionists while they were tolerating Lewis’ dictatorship on top. Thirdly, while they couldn’t get up and make revolutionary speeches, they spread their influence and their ideas – a little more subtly and in some ways more effectively.

On this question of getting more experience: I take as a contemporary example the question of whether or not radicals should go into the United Farm Workers organizing drive. While Chavez may be a “bureaucrat,” he does not compare with Philip Murray, John L. Lewis, or others who were better than those two. The sect will say: “Chavez does not let you make your own decisions. He tells the organizers what to do.” But Chavez is not the problem; he is not your problem. The best thing that could happen to some of our radical intellectuals is that they should go organize for UFWOC even if they keep their mouths shut for a while in order to gain those three other things. That is, get the “feel” of it. If there is one thing that is true of socialist sects, it is that they consist of people who have the best ideas of what the working class ought to do, and who are right, but who have no “feel” for it. They do not know how to talk to workers. Through these organizing drives you learn to talk to workers. You don’t begin as the professor; you begin as a pupil. You have to learn a few things you don’t know and get your credentials in the workers’ eyes. You get the authority to talk. “After all, who are you to tell them what to do? Have you ever organized two workers? And you are going to tell the union bureaucrats how to organize?! Why should a worker listen to you?” That is the nature of the problem.

So we come to the problem of industrialization, of really changing the character of the socialist sect. Once you start doing that, a number of questions are raised.

Anne and I had an opportunity to face the problems of industrialization in the period of the Second World War. I am referring to the experience of the ISL, when it was possible to a far greater extent than at present to industrialize and proletarianize the membership, an opportunity seized by the organization. What happened from 1942 to 1946 was the relatively large-scale industrialization of a large part of our membership. This opportunity arose from two sides: on the one hand, the alternative to going into a factory was getting drafted. Since most of the membership faced the draft anyway, we decided that everybody should go into the factories and get industrial deferments to avoid the draft for as long as possible. On the other hand, because of the war and the period, jobs were wide open.

What do you run into when this process starts? One of the first problems we ran into was a small fact which changed the life of the branch: we had to end every meeting at 10 p.m., for the simple reason that we all had to get up at 5:45 a.m. You would be amazed if I were to spell out to you the changes in the life of a branch brought about once you have to shorten the duration of your meetings and when none of your active people can attend four committee meetings a week because they have to attend four union meetings a week. The branch activists were not active within the sect; they were active among the workers.

Secondly, and thirdly, let me mention two things which differentiate the people we were working with, as compared with what is enforced upon us today. First there is the question of responsibility. Students are “irresponsible” in the literal sense. Students are not weighed down and shackled by the obligations which most workers have. They are free in many respects. Workers are not free. Politically, when we talk of responsibility, we are dealing with the social consequences of lifestyle. When you make proposals, you have to think them out in a new way, to a much greater extent than you would for the student movement. Otherwise, you’re likely to get the reputation, among the workers, as the kind of person who makes an irresponsible move at the drop of a hat. And you won’t be listened to by people who are interested in keeping their jobs, paying off their mortgages, and supporting their husbands and wives.

What does your program mean to the lives of these responsible people whom you are trying to organize and whose lives and careers may depend on you if you are a union organizer, for example?

Another aspect of the difference between students and workers is that you are dealing, for the most part, with people who have a permanent prospect of having to be workers. You or I, even when we enter the workplace, always have alternatives; for the average worker there are no alternatives. In this respect, therefore, there is an inescapable difference you can’t get over. You can only realize it, you can’t get over it.

There is, in the working class, something equivalent to the temporary state of being a student. In the past, it has always been true that women workers, especially young women workers in offices, have been hard to organize because they viewed their jobs as temporary, a situation they pass through on the way to getting married. Whereas the worker who is working in a factory or the like looks upon the union in a totally different way. The union means something different to him than it means to those women workers, or to a certain sector of young workers today who may work for six months and then disappear for a while.

So, consider what this whole situation does in terms of the life of the radical sect, in terms of its educational life. A lot of our membership then (and undoubtedly now) found it difficult to get interested in “low-level” things like explaining elementary socialism to workers, to whom it is a brand new idea. They were bored. Intellectuals get bored very easily; they live in the world of ideas, and if the ideas aren’t challenging enough they lose their interest. We had comrades who could listen to five or six trade union reports and find it just a lot of mumbo-jumbo. It just wasn’t “interesting.” The solution to this problem comes about only insofar as you participate in these discussions not simply as an audience that needs to be amused or interested, but as a group of comrades interested in presenting these elementary ideas to workers. Comrades should listen to, say, a discussion on elementary socialism, asking themselves, “Could I do this?” Think in terms of learning to be the leader and focus of a circle of workers yourself. If you do this, you can find a good elementary talk on socialism fascinating. You are going to have to get across these ideas to people who are operating on an entirely different level from yourself, and if you can’t do that, you aren’t worth a damn.

There is one other question I want to take up. As I told you, there is not much written on the problem of getting from here to there. But there have been some interesting verbal discussions on the subject. One way of dealing with the question of the social composition of your group is purely mechanical. Trotsky, perturbed by the composition of the Trotskyist group, made the proposal that every member of the group be required to recruit, in the course of one year, three workers or be demoted to candidate status (i.e., second-class citizenship). That proposal was never considered seriously; it was too mechanical. At least Marx’s 2/3 proposal was easier to enforce because most of the branches of the First International did begin as workers’ groups.

Now, if I were to propose that we expel our students or non-workers we would have an obvious difficulty. The L.O. people would say that was because we started off on the wrong foot. What the L.O. people have done is take seriously the idea that if you are building a proletarian socialist movement, then workers are the first-class citizens in your movement and the others are either second-class citizens or not citizens. In my opinion, that is absolutely right. It has been the case for every revolutionary socialist group that was worth its salt, although perhaps in a different form than in L.O. In L.O. it is done mechanically, and I am not sympathetic to that, but in the best groups it has been true. Another thing that has been done is packing the leadership with workers, even if they are not the majority of the organization, in order to orient the organization.

Let me give you two examples of what this orientation means. When I went to L.A. in 1942, as party organizer, I kept my mouth shut about trade union problems for six months – and I was not even completely alien to trade union work. The branch was involved deeply in trade union work and you could not even begin discussing intelligently the problems they faced until you got a feel for their situation. So I’m trying to emphasize that this has nothing to do with your social position or the imposition of discipline. It has to do with the climate of opinion in an organization – the relationship between comrades who are involved up to their hips in serious trade union work as socialists and those others who might be much better at making speeches on Marxism.

This problem, when faced by a revolutionary group, must be met by an understanding on the part of at least a minority of the intellectuals of what their place is. Until and unless that happens, the concrete organizational solutions which one can discuss are not even thinkable. That is the way for getting from here to there – intellectuals in a socialist vanguard group must know their place.



Question and Answer Period

Comrade A: I think that you began to go into some of the problems of a revolutionary organization and the problems people face on the job when trying to relate to workers – problems of arrogance and inexperience. But that is only one side of the question. The other side of the question is why it is that the working class has the consciousness it has today. The problem you have to deal with is the objective circumstances that a worker faces. A worker worries about keeping his job; what does this do to his consciousness? This problem doesn’t escape revolutionaries when they go into the workplace. They face the same pressures that all workers have to face. One of the functions of a socialist organization is to help counteract these pressures by allowing the socialist worker to bring his socialist perspective to the job, by giving him the political and moral support to carry on so that, if necessary, he will take the risk of losing his job in order that he may see the pressures for what they are and get around them.

Two things disturbed me. I think it is nonsense to praise revolutionaries for spending all their time with workers and not having time to take part in the life of the organization. It is all the more critical in that situation that the life of the organization be structured so that what meetings there are are oriented toward discussing the work of those people who are active on the job, so that they can maintain a perspective on the work they are doing.

The second thing that worries me: were you not advocating that ISers become staff organizers for unions like UFWOC – organizers not responsible to the workers they are trying to organize, not representing them in any way but responsible for their jobs to a union bureaucracy? If that is so, I think it is a serious mistake.

It seems to me a program for industrialization has to include that kind or work, but by going into the shops, so that the organizing you are doing does reflect what ability you may have to raise the consciousness of the workers there and reflect the struggles going on in the shops. Especially today, with all the problems that exist for ISers and all revolutionaries, to go in and take positions as paid organizers who are responsible to the bureaucracy and not to the people being organized is to be put in an untenable position.

You have to take account of both aspects of the relationship between a revolutionary sect and working class work – the aspect of revolutionary sects gaining experience and learning from the working class, and the fact that only a revolutionary sect can provide the base for a revolutionary to survive in the working class. It seems to me that you failed to deal with that whole second half.

Hal: Let me correct you as to what I said. I think you ought to be disturbed if anyone thinks that worker comrades should not come to meetings or take part in the life of the organization. You did not hear me say that. I said that one of the things that happens when comrades go into the working class movement is that they get lost there. That is one of the dangers they face, and one of the first symptoms of getting lost is never coming to meetings or taking part in the life of the organization. What I was referring to is what happens to the life of the organization in order to make it possible for worker comrades to take part in it – such as ending meetings at 10 p.m.

Secondly, about staff organizers. You can advocate that all of our comrades should become staff organizers or that it should be forbidden for our comrades to become organizers – paid or unpaid. I don’t advocate either. I take it that comrade A was advocating that we should never do that. I was advocating that that was one of the things comrades should do. If you want to exclude it, you are absolutely wrong. In the industrialization that took place in the ISL, most of the time there was not that opportunity. Our comrades just went to work in factories. I raised the question of organizers with regard to a different kind of period and a different kind of situation – the opportunity of the CIO organizing drive. Did the CP go into the CIO as paid organizers? They were probably paid something. If you want to exclude that you are absolutely wrong and you ought to answer the five or six considerations I gave and not rest on the Principle of Bureaucrats. That is the answer of a typical sectarian.

Now, today in UFWOC you could do the same thing. If one or two of our comrades did that, I think it would have a great effect on the organization. You gain the benefits of experience, a feel of the situation and knowledge of what it is to be in the working class movement, without giving up your principles at all. If your are thinking of a situation in which, to become an organizer, you have to sell your soul, then I will inveigh against that. That was not the situation in the CIO; it is not the situation in UFWOC. You say you exclude taking jobs as staff organizers because you would be under a bureaucrat. I tell you, you are wrong. As long as you do not compromise yourself politically, you can both build yourself as a working class leader and, at the same time, do good work in the class struggle.

Anne: I would like to add to the comments. Fresh from college in 1939, I became a CIO organizer for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, and I considered myself a revolutionary then. There was a group of socialists working within the CIO organizing committee. They were known as the most confident, active, dynamic and idealistic organizers. Phil Murray controlled that steel workers organizing committee up until 1942; for five years it was under his total control. Anyone who thinks that you cannot function as an organizer because someone sits in Washington and controls that union is thinking in very abstract, mechanical and sectarian terms. We built trade unionists and socialists while we were at it. The CP built the CP on the basis of its organizers. We could only gnash our teeth in envy. As the CP built the CIO, they were building for their party communist cadres steeled in the class struggle. Those of you who ought to know better and know the experience of the Teamsters in Minneapolis know that it took revolutionaries to build that union under the reactionary Dan Tobin. Our comrades now, whether they be in the teachers union, government employees, or the farm workers, can play a similar role when thousands begin moving in new areas, such as women workers, etc. It would be blindness on our part to ignore the possibilities for revolutionaries as union organizers in such a situation. It goes without saying that if you have to compromise your political principles, you don’t accept that position. If you have to sell the Democratic Party to the workers, for example, you don’t accept the position. But there are situations where possibilities do occur, and we ought to take advantage of them.

Comrade B: Very few situations today are similar to the CIO organizing campaign. In the CIO a mass union movement was coming into being and, however dictatorial the bureaucracy formally was, they did not have such a consolidated power and apparatus that they actually could police that power. In most situations now, one of the things that is imposed on you is that you can have no ongoing relationship to the people you organize, and this is certainly a critical factor. If you are sent in to get that election done and pulled out when it is done to do something else, that really affects the kind of work you can do.

I had a great deal of sympathy with much of what you had to say. There is a problem that comrades do not understand the concrete situation. The three months probation period at the place I work is the best thing for radicals who go in there, because it means that they have to keep their mouths shut instead of making fools of themselves. There are all kinds of problems of people coming in with romantic notions. But the other side of this is that there seems to be an assumption which I don’t think is valid for the IS today. There is a difference between the IS and a movement which has a certain substantial amount of working class cadre dispersed in a number of industries, a certain body of collective tradition which has been the basis of their work in the past, etc. These are things that have to be created; they don’t exist in the IS today. More particularly, a good proportion of our working class cadre are recruited from the working class with all of the good and bad things that come out of that experience. The question is: How does a revolutionary socialist organization have some effect on the development of its cadre in the shop, given the situation portrayed in your presentation?

Take the whole question of program: Do we intervene in a positive way? Do we have some way of training our people in the shops, giving them that experience and then taking that experience back to the organization and testing it in some way? Developing the organization by training new cadre – that interaction has been left out. What you say is right; however, people in the working class can make mistakes too, which can be very costly to themselves and to the organization. I think you are bending the stick so far the other way that you do not deal with the other problem – of gaining experience and of that experience becoming an integral part of the life of the organization, of training people, of developing a program, of teaching people the need to have a program and to work in that direction.

Hal: Comrade B is perfectly right about bending that stick, but he wants to bend the stick back in the other direction on the importance of laying down a program. In this IS, which is all that I was talking about, if there is anything which is not needed at this moment it is speeches about the necessity of adopting programmatic declarations. Of all the things the IS is good at, it is that.

Comrade B: The IS program exists on paper; it isn’t taken seriously.

Hal: Exactly.

Comrade Z: I just want to make a couple of comments. When Jack raised the question of the CIO workers being different from those today, he was right. But that is also true for work in the shops. It is not true that organizing situations are very rare. There are lots of circumstances in which you can do good work organizing. The point involved is that, especially for an organization with little experience, the organizing experience is a very good one.

There are lots of places where workers are organizing for the first time. The whole point about the CIO organizers is that they weren’t dependent upon bureaucrats even though the bureaucrats were dictators, even to the point of liquidating their opponents, like Lewis. Lewis and others were dependent on revolutionaries because, by and large, you can’t get paid hacks to organize workers. One of the reasons why the trade union movement in this country has difficulty organizing workers is that it depends on paid hacks. There are all kinds of organizing situations where you can get in and it is good to do so.

One thing which Comrade A raised is absolutely true – that everybody who tries to organize workers faces the problem of having to meet those workers, whether just through sympathetic vibrations, or because he happens to be in the same economic situation (which most of our comrades aren’t) – that is, he really needs the job. Even if you industrialize and are in there ten years, you aren’t in the same economic situation as the workers. You can quit and get another job. The problem is that no organization and no individual can be any counterbalance on those people who are trying to organize in the working class except those who have done that job. There is no way that they can gain that moral authority because all their ideas, as good as they are about how to organize, are simply not fact. They are not going to get fired for that idea and therefore it becomes a purely abstract moral imperative. It is only when people with socialist principles succeed in organizing workers that it is at all possible.


Hal: Comrade W made a comment about needing a Marxist analysis. I’d like to say something about that. Since that is what I’m working on most of the time, you hardly have to convince me. In fact, who are you convincing of what? As I said before, that is one of the things the IS does best. However, for just this evening (and for the first time in the history of the IS) I’m discussing a different question. That’s what gets at this business of bending the stick. I’m perfectly willing to bend the stick, provided what I say is true. But that doesn’t mean that every evening of the year, no matter what the discussion, I have to cover all the bases. On this day of the year I am devoting myself to talking about something the IS is doing very badly and on which it needs a reorientation. I get the feeling that Dick’s main thought was, “My God, there wasn’t enough in there about a Marxist program,” rather than, “What can the IS do to implement this new direction that it has to go in?” This is one of the difficulties we face; given the comrades we have, they are not sufficiently keyed up to the vital importance of making a break in the other direction.

Now, on the question of the interaction between a program for the working class and activity, all I have to say on that is that you can’t even begin to talk about interaction until you have something to interact with. In those years when our comrades were hip-deep in the trade union movement, we spent our meetings on discussing the relationship between our work and our political goals. But this is a problem the IS has yet to run into. I hope that we get to the point where we face that problem. I assure you that when it was a real problem it put itself on the agenda.

It is interesting to hear so much of the discussion center around the question of becoming organizers. That question, in a way, is kind of a test of your soul. One way you make clear that a question is the all-important one for you is that you spend most of your time discussing it. This is not the key question for me. As I told you, during the war period when our most intensive trade union work went on, that question didn’t even arise. It arises in certain times of crisis and in a limited way.

One of the most important revolutionary slogans is, “Organize the unorganized!” One of the main indictments revolutionaries make against the bureaucracy is that they fail to organize the unorganized. Time after time it is only revolutionaries in specific situations that have gone out and organized the unorganized into unions (and not by telling them in the first place about the dictatorship of the proletariat).

I’d like to say something on the question of working for bureaucrats who are going to fire you. There is nothing wrong with that. It may happen. You may get fired out of any job, not just that of organizer. As a worker in a shop you can and should be an organizer, and the best militants have sometimes started as unpaid, unappointed organizers – shop floor organizers. And as a result of building up support in their shops, they have been able to become shop committeemen or organizers with a base in the rank and file and not simply being at the mercy of the bureaucrats.

Someday, when the IS gets to the point where it faces some of these problems as realities, we can go more deeply into this subject. But at the present time, that is a little theoretical, except for the purpose of bringing out some general ideas. Again, the problem of organizers is not the central issue. It is peripheral. In a number of situations being an organizer means being under the control of a bureaucrat. Those are the situations you avoid. However, if you come at it with the sectarian idea that you’re against it on principle, you’re going to be screwed.

Right now, we have to get to the point where we face these problems concretely, and to do that we have to change the organization. This is not a problem peculiar to the IS. What is peculiar, to some extent, is the degree. This, also, has nothing to do with the IS but with the times. There is no backlog of experience to give us continuity in approaching trade union work. In the ISL we had no problem, not because we were smarter or better than IS comrades today, but because we already had developed a small cadre of experienced trade unionists who knew what the score was and who could pass something on – who could affect and determine the political or public climate in the organization. The climate of the organization today is different because of the times. There is a lack of continuity with the revolutionary tradition of trade unionism. It has to be relearned. We are in the process of relearning it.

(October 16, 1970)

Last updated on 26.9.2004