In the first session, I started talking about the importance of the trade union question to the revolutionary socialist movement. And I was saying that revolutions haven’t been defeated, socialists haven’t lost or won, because of their analysis of Hegelianism, the Labor Theory of Value, or because of their views of the Application of Historical Materialism to the Epoch of Christianity, or questions of that order. Rather, because of their given relationship to the masses of people in critical times. And, recently, in looking at Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism, I was reminded of the situation of which it was the outcome, and to what an extreme extent the background of that situation illustrates what I said.
Here’s what I mean. If you ask yourself why the world isn’t socialist today, and if you go back and try to put your finger on the crossroads in the recent history of Europe and the world where that was decided, there’s no question, in my mind, where you would have to put your finger. And that is at the point after the success of the Russian Revolution, and at the end of the First World War when revolution was sweeping most of Europe, where the key was Germany and the German Revolution. It was the defeat of the German Revolution, at the end of 1918 and 1919, which was the link in the chain that meant the defeat of the European revolution, and the fact that the world moved in the direction of the development of fascism and of Stalinism and the problems of the socialist and revolutionary movements of the next several decades.
What was the problem? You can answer that in two ways. When I give lectures on the German Revolution, for example, I emphasize that the German Revolution was defeated, not by the power of the bourgeoisie; it was defeated by the Social Democracy. But even after you’ve proven that, as I think I can, you still haven’t answered another question. You have shown that the Social Democracy played the role of the last-ditch defender of capitalism, but you have not answered the question: Why wasn’t it possible for the revolutionary forces to beat this enemy? All you have shown is who the enemy is and what the enemy looks like. But why couldn’t the revolutionists beat this enemy? Why could they, and did they, in Russia and not in Germany? It was not because Karl Liebknecht had a false position on Marxian economics (which he did, by the way). And it was not because Rosa Luxemburg had a wrong position on national self-determination for Poland. In fact, it isn’t any of a number of political questions which the movement has for other reasons spent a great deal of time on. Let me give you a tableau which has to do with the answer to that question.
There, at the end of the war in 1918, you had a German working class ready and eager for revolution and a socialist government. You had a revolutionary leadership in the Spartacus League, and you had another revolutionary leadership someplace else. You may not be aware of it, but at the end of the war, when the revolution (to overthrow the Kaiser’s regime) was aborning, there were two sets of revolutionary leaderships – both planning a revolution! And neither got around to that revolution; the masses made it for them – themselves.
Those two leaderships were the Spartacus leadership, and the group called the Revolutionary Shop Stewards which was organizing revolutionary groups and a revolutionary movement in the factories. And the basic tragedy of the German Revolution, which meant its defeat, was that there was no relationship between these two forces. They not only never got together, but the Spartacists didn’t have any conception that they had to get together! Luxemburg and Liebknecht had something of a conception, but the membership of the Spartacus League was wildly sectarian, to the point where Luxemburg and Liebknecht were voted down on some crucial points. And even they had no Marxist conception of the role of the trade unions. I have mentioned previously that Luxemburg herself, who never had anything to do with the trade union movement, believed there was no room for an independent type of trade union, not controlled by a party. Her view of trade unions was wildly at variance with any Marxist concepts.
So there you had the Spartacus League, which you usually think of as the revolutionaries at that time, with no contacts in the factories! No contacts in the trade unions! And what do we mean by the trade unions? Not the bureaucracy; they were the counter-revolution (we’re talking about a revolutionary situation). I mean the Revolutionary Shop Stewards who were organizing the revolution, in cells, on the shop floors, and had organized themselves in a Berlin-wide network, independent of the trade union apparatus, independent of the Independent Party. And the Spartacists had no relationship to them, had no influence among them, had no connections with them. At this point, therefore, the fate of the German Revolution was decided.
It took two or three years before the early Communist Party of Germany even straightened itself out on the elementary question of what it should have a relationship with in trade union work.
This tableau has been repeated time and again in history. If you can see it at a crucial moment like this, that’s because it had existed for decades in reality. And it continued to exist: the chasm between, on the one hand, the political revolutionaries who had the right line on the theory of the state, etc., and the masses in the trade unions who were being mobilized in a revolutionary direction.
This sectarian character of the Spartacist League membership, as a historical fact, has a very evident explanation too. The membership of the Spartacist League, a small organization of people, especially young people, who had reacted and revolted against support to the war, was very inexperienced. They were not old cadre of the Social Democratic movement who had been revolutionized. They were primarily new and inexperienced elements – which of course was not their fault! And the development of the Communist Party in Germany from these elements continued the problem for several years – up to the writing of Left-Wing Communism.
Left-Wing Communism was written by Lenin in anticipation of the Third World Congress of the Communist International in 1921, in anticipation of the fight which was to take place there between Lenin’s line and that of the sectarian wing. In Germany, the latter was represented by one of the two Communist Parties that had been organized – the KAPD, Communist Workers Party of Germany – reflecting a continuation of the type of sectarian revolutionism which had gutted the Spartacist effort. And it was at the Third World Congress that Lenin came in, proclaiming, “I am the right wing of this Congress!” as against the infantile leftists of whom he writes in Left-Wing Communism.
I expect to get back to Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism at the end of this talk. But the picture I wanted to give you was that, at this most crucial point, history was decided, not by any of the questions that you and I have been discussing and talking about for some time in the movement, but by the subject of this class. Now, let me pick up where I left off last time.
I told you last time that the subject I was discussing then – the question of progressive groups, of rank and file oppositions in the trade unions – merged into the subject for today, dual unionism. But I did not get to the point where they merged.
The transition comes when you ask yourself the following question: What happens when the oppositional work you are doing in a union, fighting against a leadership, or fighting for a program, tends to brim over the bounds of the apparatus laid down by the trade union leadership itself?
There is, for example, a common misconception, especially among people with little or no experience in trade union work, that a rank and file group within a union is a group which simply runs candidates for office. However, let me ask this: If that were true, what is the group doing during the two years or so between elections? Now this is not a question that would bother anyone who has done any work in a real, live, rank and file group that wasn’t invented by a resolution but that came out of the struggles of the workers. Because, such a person would know that a real rank and file group exists only as long as it is fighting all of the time, not just cropping up at elections.
What do these groups, the ones that actually crop up, do between elections? They must be doing something. It’s perfectly true that there are some outstanding cases where the existence of some group is tied up with elections. For example, the case of the Typographical Union is so well-known that it may account for part of the false impression. In the Typographical Union, the party set-up is very largely an official electoral structure. But that’s one of the reasons why, except at times, this structure is not exactly the same as the real struggle that is going on in the union. In any case, everyone knows the Typographical Union is a special case.
Now let’s consider a real situation in a union – not one that some would-be revolutionary has invented because he thinks there ought to be a rank and file group and he goes ahead and invents it (which may be necessary, but not the characteristic situation). If this is a situation where this rank and file opposition has resulted from the real grievances and the real issues and the real need of the workers in that shop to fight, they are going to be fighting on those issues, whatever they are.
Permit me to take the same example I took last time – the Progressive Group in the shipyard workers union that Anne and I were in during the Second World War. In this case, there weren’t any elections in the union. That union was under a receivership, so the top leadership wasn’t elected; it was appointed by the International. There were, however, elections for shop steward, and that wasn’t one of these cases where the election takes place every one or two years and that’s it. Shop stewards came and went, for various reasons. So, the question of how to get elected shop steward, or how to get a good guy elected shop steward, was not a question that only came up at the time of the election. It came up as part of the continual work that went on in the shop; that is, who was fighting grievances, and who was standing by the men on the floor when a problem came up. This was taking place in a “face-to-face group” (as the sociologists call it), where the workers worked in one department and knew one another.
At this point, you have the problem of opposition work which is partly electoral, but also has its day-to-day side. To make this more concrete, when I was working in that shipyard, I was in the sheet metal department and the shop steward was one of our comrades who had been elected simply because the men in the shop regarded him as the guy who would fight their grievances. After I’d been there about a year and a half, the company (in collusion with the union leadership) decided they would get rid of this comrade who was shop steward (Bob was his name), and they used the device of promoting him, without asking him, to a classification which was outside the bargaining unit, thereby making him ineligible to be shop steward. He said, “I refuse to accept it.” They said, “To hell with you. You’ve got to accept it.” At that point, the men in the shop got together by themselves to try to figure out what to do about it.
At this point, it was not a question of electing shop stewards, but of fighting this beef which came up about the shop steward. And the workers had to show what they were going to do. While Bob was shop steward, there was a continual series of hassles in the shop, where it was not just a question of his arguing with the foreman, or with the department manager, but of what extent he, and others, can mobilize worker support for him. These are some of the day-to-day problems which come up whenever you have an election, and these are the problems around which you want to organize your forces.
If anybody has the idea that a rank and file or progressive group can operate simply as an electoral group at a time when elections take place, he’s talking about a rank and file group which is a fake! Not a real one. Because it cannot really operate that way. It cannot really function, unless it’s fighting, in one way or another, or organizing its people in one way or another for the fight which goes on day after day in the shops!
Now, as that goes on, very often certain things start happening. For one thing, the question often comes up of the activities of the group. What is such a group going to do when and if it is going to stay within the bounds of the routine activity of the trade union structure? A very typical example was our shipyard union situation. It was the people in our progressive group who initiated the job actions that occurred in the yards. Is that inside the trade union structure? Of course not! It’s outside the trade union structure. Such an action, if a progressive group is associated with it, is an activity of the progressive group! It doesn’t even have to be an activity decided at formal meetings of the group; often things don’t happen that way. But it takes place – outside the trade union structure.
But this is by the best union men in the plant; they do it as better union men than the apparatus. And, for them, that is not only trade union activity, but far better trade union activity than the routine “trade union activity” of attending a meeting and raising your hand at somebody’s motion.
So there are any number of examples of an actual struggle going on outside the trade union structure, but not outside the trade union movement.
Let me take as another example some of the opposition work carried on by the earlier Communist Party in the trade unions: the TUEL, which I discussed last time, was an opposition group within the unions.
At one point, the TUEL participated in a May Day demonstration. It participated, not as the union – the union wasn’t taking part – but as the TUEL! That was outside the union; a section of the union was carrying on an activity which was outside the union. Is that outside the trade union movement? Not as far as any good trade unionist is concerned. And anyone who thinks that it is does exactly what the trade union bureaucracy does, and is accepting a purely bureaucratic point of view.
There are many cases where a more-or-less well-organized trade union opposition group goes off on its own for some particular activity. They’re not going outside the trade union movement; they constitute part of the trade union movement! Just as much as the trade union bureaucracy does.
Let’s continue this a little further. There have been a few cases (of course, when you get to this level, very few cases) where you have not simply a rank and file progressive group in a union, but where you have an inter-union opposition movement. The TUEL was such a case.
There’s an interesting variation on this if you look at a couple of other countries, where the situation is different from that in the United States.
In England, for example, in big plants there is a structural difference that doesn’t apply in the U.S. In such a plant, there are several different unions, and the shop stewards are not the shop stewards of any particular union, but are elected for a whole section of the plant, representing workers in many different unions. So, the shop steward structure is inter-union; whereas, in this country that would be an extraordinary exception. In that case, you automatically have a structural situation where the shop stewards cut across union lines and therefore are not responsible to the administration of any one union. You can see the potentialities of such a situation.
In Germany in 1919, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards I referred to were the shop stewards of the union structure. And they had freed themselves, during the war, from their subordination to the top leadership – not organizationally, but politically! Theoretically, administratively, they were still subordinate to the top leadership. The organization of the shop stewards system, therefore, was a political break – not outside the trade union movement. The shop steward system in England is another part of the trade union movement; the TUEL was a part of the trade union movement.
Having gone through all that, however, we face the next question. Time and again there is a split from a union, which leads to another set of problems. This brings us to the subject of dual unionism.
First, we have to deal with a terminological question. The term “dual unionism” covers a lot of territory, and distinctions have to be made. Especially between two different types of “dual unionism” that have to be discussed completely separately.
The first and simpler one, which everyone is acquainted with, is simply a split in a union which leads to the organization of two trade unions, and the loss of trade union unity. Now, trade union unity is not the normal state of affairs, if you look at the world as a whole, although England would be an exception. There are damn few countries where there are not rival dual federations. This is true in France, where there are three or four rival federations; it was true in the U.S. when the AFL and CIO were fighting. The CIO was a dual union; it split from the AFL and became dual to it. Here we understand the term “dual union” to mean, simply, the existence of rival unions in the same field. Even now, within the AFL-CIO, there are all kinds of dual unions. There are three unions, for example, that organize laundry workers, one of which is the Laundry Workers Union. Two unions organize men’s clothing workers – the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the United Garment Workers; in fact, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers arose as a split from the United Garment Workers and for a long time was an independent union outside of the AFL altogether.
All over the trade union movement in this country there are dual unions, in this sense. So obviously we’ve got to make a distinction between that type of development and something else that’s involved in dual unionism. It’s that distinction that I want to try to make clear.
The cases I talked about, or like Debs’ American Railway Union, all came out of mass struggles within those trade union movements themselves, which led to a split. They were not the outcome of some general attitude that you’ve got to have dual unions; they were the outcome of the actual struggles that took place.
The other kind of dual unionism is a horse of an entirely different color. Let’s call it “leftist unionism.” (It often is called “revolutionary unionism,” but that is not completely satisfactory since these movements take place sometimes on the basis of “let’s form a militant, class-struggle, progressive union instead of the old-type of simple trade union,” not necessarily involving a “revolutionary” ideology.) The key thing is that the split takes place on the basis of some ideological aim about the nature of the union movement.
Now it is this that has given dual unionism its derogatory connotation. And it is this which is the more important side of the question. Because some conception of leftist unionism has been one of the great will-o’-the-wisps of the socialist and revolutionary movement. It has been one of the things which has gutted the development of one revolutionary movement after another.
The United States has a history of its own with regard to such developments. There are three outstanding cases from the socialist movement. The first case was, I think, DeLeon’s Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance, and it naturally is no accident that this came out of the Socialist Labor Party – which had been the butt of the most unbridled attacks by Marx and Engels for its thorough sectarianism.
The Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance, at its height, had a few tens of thousands organized, and after the turn of the century had petered out to nothing. Of, course, at the turn of the century, the SLP also suffered a split when the Socialist Party was formed, leaving the most sectarian elements behind.
The second big example is quite different. And that was the IWW. Now the IWW was in part the result of a syndicalist conception of trade unionism. But the IWW differs from a couple of other cases because of the fact that a lot of the practice and part of the steam of the IWW came out of a real need for the organization of the unorganized in fields that the AFL wasn’t even in. So you had a combination of two things. And part of the many controversies about the IWW is that there were different strains and currents leading in this direction. One of them, the organization of the unorganized, especially the unskilled laborers, was counterposed to the AFL concept of merely organizing the labor aristocracy.
The organization of the unskilled – for a large part of labor history – has been specifically a task of the left wing of the trade union movement, without itself being ideologically revolutionary. This is a conception which, while it is perfectly accessible to the most elementary-minded worker, in practice has been the task of the left wing of the trade union movement. And in the IWW, you get the convergence of a period in American history and labor forces where this was acted out to its fullest extent. That is, the drive to organize unskilled workers came, not only from a wing of the movement which felt itself to be revolutionary, but was also tied up with a syndicalist and dual union conception of unionism.
Now, as we know in hindsight, those two things were not necessarily bound up logically. They weren’t necessarily bound up in the later history of the trade union movement, because the mass organization of the unskilled became the task, in later years, of the CIO. The CIO, in order to carry out that task, had to split from the AFL; that is, it had to become an independent dual union of the first type that I discussed. As you know, it never did take on any of the characteristics of an ideological leftist dual union, of the second type.
The third example of tendentious dual unionism was the Communist Party’s experiment with dual unionism which followed the TUEL. By 1928, the TUEL, primarily as a result of Stalinism and the Communist International, was turned into a systematic dual union federation. This began at the beginning of 1928. By 1929, it had changed its name to the Trade Union Unity League. So, the TUUL from 1929, until that line petered out in the Communist International in 1934, represented the third fairly large-scale effort at a leftist dual union federation. And the history of the TUUL from this point of view was as instructive as the history of the TUEL from the point of view I discussed last time. You can get a good rundown on the operations of the TUUL in Howe and Coser’s History of the Communist Party. You can read about the mess the TUUL made in the fields in which it was involved – coal, the Shoemakers’ Union, the Needle Trades Industrial Union (as against the ILGWU and the Amalgamated). The activities of the TUUL gave rise to stories of heroic trade unionism in rank-and-file struggles, where blood ran and courage was high – for the greater glory of the Communist Party line, and which were undercut because the Communist Party was using, for its own political ends, those struggles – such as the Gastonia struggle, the Passaic strike (which was organized by the CP in a real situation of tremendous exploitation, by importing a Harvard law student, Albert Weisbord, to become leader of the strike), etc.
On the one hand, there were the tremendous forces of struggle, which the AFL never could and never did tap. On the other hand, these forces flowed into the political confines of the CP and were not so much betrayed as frittered away. The CP line was not a trade union line, or even a line that had the possibility of developing a mass movement of struggle; it was a political expedient for the Communist Party.
So, when you look at these three cases, they’re quite different – in their motivations and in their consequences. One thing, however, is common to them: they show the futility, from the point of view of revolutionary socialism, of trying to substitute revolutionary unionism for the combination of a revolutionary party carrying on its political work, and a trade union movement representing the whole class on its elementary basis, where it is, and not on an advanced basis laid down by fiat.
The extreme form of this takes place when the revolutionary unions are substituted for the party; then you have syndicalism.
Dual unionism of this sort – ideological dual unionism – has been a failure. It has demonstrated, precisely where mass class-struggle movements were possible on an elementary trade union basis, that such an approach to trade unions cannot (a) build a revolutionary party and (b) build a revolutionary trade union movement, and leads, therefore, to the foundering of both.
At this point, there’s another side of this question, another fantasy that has to be discussed. Not the fantasy that we’re going to substitute “class struggle” unions for the class-collaborationist unions, but a more advanced fantasy.
In the period after the First World War, in the U.S., Germany, England, etc., one of the consequences of the impact of the Russian Revolution and of the revolutionary movements in Europe was a great enthusiasm about soviets, which it is hard for people to remember now. Not only among left-revolutionary socialists, but even among much milder types. Here they saw a new and different form of worker organization. It wasn’t a party, and it wasn’t a union. The idea of workers’ councils came to be counterposed to any other kind of organization.
You understand what the difficulty with that is. The soviets were the expression of a revolutionary crisis. The Russian or German soviets never came into existence in normal times, non-revolutionary times, and could not have. The arising of soviets, in fact, is one of the symptoms that a revolutionary crisis exists! The soviets arise when the existing organizations can’t contain the struggle; the struggle overflows all other organizations. So that even in Germany, where there was a powerful trade union movement, that trade union movement was swamped with the development of a revolutionary crisis in Germany – but only with the development of a revolutionary crisis.
The soviet form of organization, precisely because it is so well adapted to a revolutionary crisis, cannot exist in normal times. The fantasy, then, is that this wonderful type of organization can be taken out of the context of a revolutionary crisis and inserted into a situation where no revolution is taking place and where the tasks of the revolutionary movement and the working class movement are more elementary.
That fantasy, however, like so many other wish-fulfillment hopes, isn’t taken care of simply by such an explanation. In Germany, as the revolutionary crisis was passing, and when the Weimar Constitution was adopted, soviets were written into the constitution! The Social Democracy, especially its left wing, would say, “Well, sure, everybody’s for soviets. So we’re going to write them into the Weimar Constitution!” And they did. Now, how do you write soviets into a constitution? You do it by squeezing all real life out of the concept and leaving an empty shell. That’s all you could do, even if you were very sincere about it. And, in a sense, anybody who entertains that fantasy, whether he writes it into a constitution or not, is going to arrive at the same result.
At this point, we’ve got to spend a little time on the idea of shop committees. “Shop committees” has 16 different meanings. Shop committees have always been one of the important tasks and objectives of revolutionaries in the trade union movement. That is, rank and file organizations of the workers, on the shop floor. These are within the trade union movement. So, on the one hand you have shop-floor committees within the trade union movement. On the other hand, a fantasy of something you may call workers councils, or soviets, or “shop committees,” or any other name that you want to invent, for something which is abstracted from, extracted from, the context of the actual trade union movement in a normal situation. That is the fantasy.
The only conclusion I can give you, really, is Lenin’s. In the chapter on trade unions in Left-Wing Communism:
“When the revolutionary party of the proletariat, the highest form of proletarian class organization, began to take shape ... the trade unions inevitably began to reveal certain reactionary features, a certain craft narrow-mindedness, a certain tendency to be non-political, a certain inertness, etc. However, the development of the proletariat did not, and could not, proceed anywhere in the world otherwise than through the trade unions, through reciprocal action between them and the party of the working class.”
And that is what he is counterposing to that eternal fantasy, represented at that point by the KAPD and others, that there was some other road that did not lead through the trade unions.
On the next page, he begins this way:
“A certain ‘reactionism’ in the trade unions is inevitable under the dictatorship of the proletariat. [Here he’s talking about even after the revolution.] Not to understand this means a complete failure to understand the fundamental conditions of the transition from capitalism to socialism. It would be a grievous folly to fear this ‘reactionism’ or to try to evade or leap over it. For it would mean fearing that function of the proletarian vanguard which consists in training, educating, enlightening and drawing into the new life the most backward strata of the masses of the working class ...”
This idea became an important controversy later in Russia when the “trade union question” came up internally. Trotsky, in an attempt to solve the economic problems, proposed, in effect, the statification of the trade unions. Lenin opposed this. His opposition to Trotsky’s line at that time was of a piece with the argument that he’s making here with an entirely different political animal – namely, the sectarians of the KAPD, with regard to the role of the trade unions. He’s making the point that even after the revolution you have to consider the trade unions as fulfilling that function, let alone before the revolution.
“In countries more advanced than Russia, a certain reactionism in the trade unions has been, and was bound to be, manifested in a far greater measure than in our country. Our Mensheviks found support in the trade unions ... as a result of the latter’s craft narrow-mindedness, craft selfishness and opportunism. The Mensheviks of the West have acquired a much firmer footing in the trade unions. There, the craft union, narrow-minded, case-hardened, covetous and petty- bourgeois ‘labor aristocracy,’ imperialist-minded and imperialist-corrupted, has developed into a much stronger section than in our country.
“We are waging a struggle against the ‘labor aristocracy’ in the name of the masses of the workers, and in order to win them over to our side ... It would be absurd to forget this most elementary and self-evident truth. Yet it is just this absurdity that the German ‘Left’ Communists perpetrate when, because of the reactionary and counter-revolutionary character of the trade union top leadership, they jump to the conclusion that we must withdraw from the trade unions, refuse to work in them and create new and artificial forms of labor organization!”
Now that’s what he’s getting at, you see. These excellent revolutionists, disgusted with all the sins of the trade union bureaucracy, looked upon work in them only as a transitional effort toward the time when it would be possible to get out and form real “class struggle” types of artificial organizations. Which, of course, they had to dream up! And which remained in all cases simply a fantasy.
Lenin goes on:
“If you want to help ‘the masses’ and win the sympathy and support of ‘the masses,’ you should not fear difficulties, or pinpricks, chicanery, insults and persecution from the ‘leaders’ ... but must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found. [That is, in] the trade unions ...
“Millions of workers in Great Britain, France and Germany are for the first time passing from a complete lack of organization to the elementary, lowest, simplest, and (to those still thoroughly imbued with bourgeois-democratic prejudices) most easily comprehensible form of organization, namely, the trade unions.
“Yet the revolutionary, but imprudent, Left Communists stand by, crying out, ‘the masses, the masses!’ but refusing to work within the trade unions, on the pretext that they are ‘reactionary,’ and they invent a brand-new immaculate little ‘Workers Union’ which is guiltless of bourgeois-democratic prejudices and innocent of craft or narrow-minded craft union sins, a union which they claim will be (!) a broad organization.” [Although, as Lenin goes on to point out, one which will demand support for the dictatorship of the proletariat and a recognition of soviet power.]
Now this is the lesson which Lenin, and at this point Trotsky on the Communist International, had to draw in order to transform the character of the Communist International. The Communist International and the early Communist Parties arose as cadres of very sincere, devoted revolutionaries who had no idea of how to build a revolutionary movement. They couldn’t depend on the Bolsheviks to teach them; there weren’t any instruments to do that teaching. It was in the course of the painful development of the Communist Parties and the Communist International that they thought out this essential question. It was not theory, like the Labor Theory of Value, or Hegelianism, but the fundamental question of how revolutionary socialists get to the point where they can carry their revolutionary ideas into and through the broadest possible organizations of the masses. How do you combine two things: (1) the most advanced political organization, even if it’s small, and (2) the participation in struggle with the broadest possible organization of the masses in movement. Which brings us to the formula I gave you last time, and which I will end by repeating:
What you want to do is get moving, as a class, the broadest possible movement of the masses against the capitalists, the state, and therefore also the trade union bureaucracy itself. It’s the conception of that combination which was fought out in three congresses of the Communist International.
Comrade W.: I want to ask you a question about the IWW. As you pointed out, there were two things going on simultaneously. There was an attempt to organize a whole section of workers the AFL had refused to organize, and, simultaneously, you had a kind of revolutionary dual unionism, syndicalism, etc. Now I wonder if we could artificially separate the two for a minute. What if the IWW had not been syndicalist and attempted to impose an ideological straitjacket on unions – what do you think of the choice to go outside the AFL at that point?
Hal: That’s exactly the line taken by Debs. Debs started with the IWW. He organized the American Railway Union, which was a dual union but not a leftist dual union. Debs left the IWW precisely over this question. He was enthusiastic for a movement outside the AFL; that didn’t bother him. But as the IWW developed its more clearly syndicalist character, he left it.
There was a great opportunity there, and the fact that the IWW combined this opportunity with its syndicalist ideology, hindered them in taking advantage of the opportunity.
Comrade W: In other words, you think they were right to leave the AFL ...?
Hal: Let me put it this way. The fact that the IWW left the AFL doesn’t bother me a bit. But if someone wants to argue that they could have done it inside the AFL, I would consider that. I would ask him to prove that to me; but I wouldn’t try and prove it to you. The important thing for us to understand is that we, as revolutionary socialists, could have absolutely no objection, in a situation like that where there is a new movement being organized, to leaving the AFL. In fact, of course, much later the CIO had to leave the AFL in order to perform that very task of organizing unorganized workers. So, if somebody wants to prove the opposite to me, I would consider that the burden of proof was on him. Because time and again, experience has showed that any kind of breaking of real, new territory can most successfully be done outside the framework of an existing organization which has become fossilized. But not outside the trade union movement.
So, I wouldn’t make an argument that the IWW had to leave the AFL. It seems to me that’s so; but it certainly doesn’t bother me. There’s no reason why it should bother anybody.
I should mention, by the way, that there are other cases where there were fruitful splits from the AFL on a smaller scale. For example, there was the Progressive Miners Union, which was organized out of the Illinois coal fields, as a breakaway from Lewis’ union, the UMW. And it was of the first type that I discussed above.
One final point. For explanatory reasons, I made a perfectly sharp distinction between the two types of dual union. Actually, the distinction is never that sharp, and I want to explain one shadowy aspect of it.
Consider any of a whole series of independent unions which had to split from the AFL, in order to carry out the struggle they were engaged in – without a leftist ideological motivation. Precisely because of the way they are organized – because they are a breakaway in the course of struggle – there is a tendency for these unions to take on a more radical coloration. And they did. But not in the sense of a “revolutionary dual union.” Rather, simply in terms of the influence of radicalism in them.
What this illustrates is not an exception, but really underlines the point. Here you have breakaways which are natural consequences of the class struggle. And it is because they are being thrown off from the main body of labor by their own struggle, that they do bring more radical elements to the fore. There were socialists and Communists all over the place in the Progressive Miners Union without, however, it being a tool of the CP or anybody else.
So, this first course is a natural form of radicalization of the working class, without adopting ideological leftist unionism.
Last updated on 26.9.2004