Left Wing Needle Trades Crisis

(May 1930)

From The Militant, Vol. III No. 21, 24 May 1930, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Left wing movement in the needle trades is experiencing a severe crisis. With the exception of a handful of blind bureaucrats for whom nothing has changed, the crisis has been realized by everyone. The most superficial glance at the situation reveals the bald facts that while the Left wing, two or three years ago, was followed by the decisive majority of the needle trades workers and was driving back the Right wing office holders on every front, it has today accumulated an unbroken series of defeats, been reduced to the Communist fraction and its most direct sympathizers, and the Right wing has succeeded in re-establishing a large measure of its control. The picture includes not only New York, but practically every other needle trades center in the country where the Left wing contended with the Right for the support of the workers.

Neither the causes nor the remedies for the situation have yet been given by the official Left wing leadership: on the contrary, an honest and thorough analysis is prohibited by it (that is, by the present leadership of the Communist Party) because it would be the one to suffer primarily from such an investigation. It even seeks to forestall this urgently needed examination by a barrage of criticism directed against its factional opponents in the union and against the lower functionaries who merely executed orders.

False “Self-Criticism”

That kind of “self-criticism” is best exemplified by the notorious article of Johnstone’s which we dealt with in our last number. For the Johnstones it is sufficient to unload their responsibility upon someone else; as for what is to be done in the future so that the blundering past shall not be repeated, they let the blueprints of the “third period” take care of that. But since these blueprints do not improve the situation (on the contrary, they worsen it), it falls to the rank and file workers in the Left wing to review its position and decide upon a proper course of action.

The Left wing is today reduced to a shadow of its former strength. One need only look at the recent Summary of Minutes of Executive Council Meetings issued by the Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union to see this truth substantiated. There is not a single gain recorded there; not one step forward is referred to; but in every field there are numerous losses and failures mentioned. And the admissions of the Executive Council are far more to the point than all the gaseous bluff of the Daily Worker and Freiheit.

Out of the thousands that once adhered to the Left wing, the union today has a scant 3,000 dues paying members left in New York (more than one fourth of whom are Party members!) with a worse record in other cities. Out of the irrepressible enthusiasm and spirit of self-sacrifice that imbued the Left wing and won its victories, there is left only passivity and skepticism. Out of the prestige and authority its leadership once enjoyed, there, remains only the distrust and suspicion of the workers.

What has happened? . There can be no adequate understanding of the causes for the, situation unless it is clearly seen that the crisis in the Left wing of the needle trades ia part and parcel of the crisis in the whole Communist movement, a crisis engendered by the multiplication of zig-zags known as Stalinism. The apparent inability of the leadership to maintain a stable policy is a reflection of the constant leaps every national Party leadership is compelled to make in order to keep pace with the ruling machine in the Comintern and the Russian Party. Only with this clearly established can we explain how the Left wing leadership passes so abruptly from an openly opportunist line of action to a rigidly sectarian one, from ultra-conservatism to the wildest adventurism, from united front with Sigman to a rejection of the united front with rank and file workers. It dances and leaps to the tunes changed each year by the Stalinist group in the movement to suit its narrow factional interests.

A Zig-Zagging Leadership

The needle trades Left wing leadership has been most prominent in executing these zig-zags. At one moment, it seeks united fronts with Sigman or Ninfo; the next moment, it vents its spite upon Sigman by denouncing the workers whom he still deludes (or who follow him for any other reason) as “social fascists’’ with whom it will have nothing at all to do. At one moment, it lets golden opportunities go by without forming its own Left wing union, for fear of making the Right wing bureaucrats angry; the next moment, it seeks to make up for lost time and blunders by artificially forcing events and creating “unions” where there is no basis at all for them.

All of these changes, which occur with Increasing frequency, are decided bureaucratically, behind the scenes, upon arbitrary command from above, without relation to the realities of the struggle. It is precisely because of the purely administrative nature of these changes and the fact that they do not correspond to the needs of the struggle, that each change leaves the workers more bewildered. The workers are not chessmen that can be moved about unresistingly by “master strategists”. The result of these zig-zags, therefore, is that the workers are alienated from the movement, becoming a prey to the Right wing demagogues or falling into indifference and passivity. That is what has happened particularly in the needle trades Left wing movement.

Another factor of enormous importance is the cancer of corruption (we do not refer here, necessarily, to financial corruption) and bureaucratism. For shallow-minded observers and similar Johnstones, these are accidental and personal phenomena which can be wiped out by simply denouncing them. Unfortunately, the matter is not so simple. They are the natural twin products of that very regime which the Johnstones personify and defend. Why? Because to carry out a zig-zag policy which the workers would not accept of their own accord, it is necessary to have bureaucrats who will execute orders from above even against the interests and wishes of the ranks. Not the “deviations” from Stalinist policy produce bureaucracy, but the policy itself. And bureaucracy goes hand in hand with corruption and degeneration. Bureaucracy is a synonym for mutual factional protection.

Could there be a crasser expression of this than Johnstone’s article, in which (by silence) he condones in the Party leaders of the Left wing union the same deeds for which he condemns Lovestoneite leaders? The knowledge that “loyalty to the line” means a grant of automatic immunity from above, is the greatest incentive to corruption. That is the theory and practice of Stalinism, and the Left wing, which gained its strength in the fight against the bureaucracy of the Right wing must immediately purge itself of the same malady before it is rendered impotent.

There is no absolute preventive for bureaucratism; but there are some excellent guarantees against it. Workers democracy is one of them. But it does not exist in the Needle Trades Industrial Union any more than it does in the other unions controlled by the Stalinists, because its existence is incompatible with their domination.

The absence of workers democracy is notorious in the N.T.W.I.U. The rank and file worker does not feel at home in the union meetings. An atmosphere of terror has been created so that when a workers rises to make the slightest criticism he is forthwith deluged with cries of “Trotskyite, Lovestoneite, Sigmanite, scab, renegade, disruptor,” and the dozens of others in the choice collection of the modern Left wing bureaucrats.

The Party bureaucrats in the unions devote their greatest attention to keeping every post – no matter how important – tightly in their own hands. The worker, sympathetic to Communism though he may be, is made to feel that he can have no say in the work or the directing of the work unless he is a Party member – and sometimes unless he is a member of a particular Party faction! The methods and system of Party organization, already narrowed down out of all legitimate proportions, are automatically transferred into the union, which the Party rules like an imperialist dependency.

Re-Establish Workers Democracy

The re-establishment of workers democracy in the Left wing is an imperative preliminary to any forward step. The Left wing union must be returned to the control of the membership. The Communists and their Party must become the guide, the advisor of the union and cease to be a taskmaster armed with a pistol and a lash. A continuation of the present high-handed, autocratic, brutal Party methods in the trade unions must lead inevitably to a repetition of the situation in the French C.G.T.U. (red trade unions) where a rebellion has set in not only against the Party, but (so far as some elements are concerned, at least) against Communism as such. The French situation, in which the pure “syndicalists” are profiting by the crude blunders of official Communism should be a warning to the comrades here. Workers democracy in the needle trades Left wing is no abstract question that can be postponed for some other time; it is an urgent, unpostponable issue involving the life and death of the organization. But its achievement – let this not be lost sight of for a moment – is conditioned upon a relentless struggle against that very bureaucracy which came into existence by abolishing workers democracy. There can he no half-measures in this necessary struggle.

To make a machine function properly – and a trade union is one of the workers machines in the class struggle – one must know how and where to direct it. It is necessary to make all the parts of this machine work smoothly and in proper relation to each other – the party and the union, the leadership and the masses. The problem in the needle trades Left wing – after the attainment of this proper coordination we spoke of above (fight against bureaucracy, corruption, for workers democracy, etc., etc.) – is to know how and where to direct this machine, that is, what policies the Left wing must pursue in order to win the workers to its side.

The essence of the problem to be solved by the Left wing in this respect is, first, to win back the workers over whom the Right wing has established its control, and secondly, to organize those Workers who are outside of both the Right and Left wing unions.

Organize the Unorganized

One of the most powerful slogans, one with which the Left wing grew strong in the eyes of the workers, was the organization of the unorganized. In New York (which is typical), the MAJORITY of the needle trades workers (with the possible exceptions of the men’s clothing workers) are UNORGANIZED. They are among the most exploited in the industry; they work under conditions most closely approximating the old sweat shops. It is primarily the task of the Left wing to organize these workers.

The fact of the existence of these tens of thousands of unorganized workers, who do not follow the Right wing and will not be organized by it, is already sufficient answer to any tendencies in the Left wing (and there are such tendencies) to liquidate the Left wing union and filter back into the Schlesinger union to function there solely as a minority group. These tendencies to easy surrender, which are nourished by the paralysis of the present leadership and the feeling of hopelessness it creates, cannot be successfully combated by administrative decree, or theses. They must be revealed as wrong by demonstrating IN WORK AND STRUGGLE that there remains a broad foundation for the existence and development of the Left wing Union.

The difficulty of organising these workers – depressed by previous defeats – need not be underestimated. That is true. But it is also true that they form an enormous reservoir of strength for the Left wing. They will not be organized over night, or by sensational, short-lived “campaigns”. But persistent, steady activity will do it, provided that these workers are approached on the basis of a concrete strugggle against their sweat-shop conditions and not on the basis of abstract slogans translated literally from the latest Molotov thesis.

They can be organized if the approach to them is based, not on the sectarian policies now dominating the Left wing, not on the virtual demand that every worker recognize the leadership of the Communist Party, but on the united front of the organized revolutionary workers with the progressive and even backward workers who watt a union that really fights the bosses.

Organize the Right Wing Workers

The policy of organizing (not talking about it on paper, but really organizing) the unorganized workers for struggle (not putches, not two day strikes for the record, but real struggle) inseparable from the job of mobilizing the workers in the Right wing union for the same purpose – a job that can be accomplished only in battle against Schlesinger and Co. and their class collaboration.

There are thousands of militant workers today registered with the Right wing who were with the Left wing yesterday. They are working in many instances under virtual check-off conditions, i.e., no dues to Schlesinger? no job in the shop! The Right wing established control over them by its connivance with the employers and with the aid of the Left wing’s blockheaded blunders.

It goes without saying that the Right wing has not improved their conditions, that there is great dissatisfaction among these workers, that it is possible to organize them for a fight against the joint forces of the bosses and their labor agents. In the majority of cases these workers have not ceased to be militants and Left wingers; many of them were simply compelled to register with the Right. The policy of the Left wing union makes it impossible to win them back. Its slogan is simply: Stop paying dues to Schlesinger and join the N.T.W.I.U. Naturally, this slogan has not yet registered a single success.

Out of some stupid fetish, the official Left wing has till now refused to organize the militant elements in the Right wing union for a struggle. This policy – or rather lack of policy – must be dumped over board. It is good for nothing at all. The Left wing must immediately proceed to organize its minorities in the Right wing union, and on the basis of the daily needs of the workers which the Schlesingers so cynically disregard, mobilize a force for the disruption of the boss-controlled union and the recruitment of the workers now in it for the Left wing. An intelligent program, fitted to the needle trades workers needs, can succeed in mobilizing them for a fight – and a fight against the bosses means a fight against Schlesinger.

The workers want unity. They want to fight when there is a possibility of success. They can see none in the narrow, academic policy of the Left wing. The plank to bridge the gap between the small organized Left wing union and the thousands in the Right wing union is the united front. More than six months ago, before Johnstone was awakened by Lozovsky’s proddings and the need to find a scapegoat, we wrote in the Militant (November 1, 1929) in connection with the Right wing cloak strike:

“The Left wing can make headway, and regain the strength and influence it enjoyed in 1926 and 1927, if it knows how to approach the Right wing worker, how to work for a united front. It must challenge Schlesinger and Co. openly to unite the divided ranks of the workers. It must work for joint action, joint committees in the shops. The Schlesingers and Dubinskys will expose themselves sufficiently in their actions during the struggle, but only if the Left wing shows its readiness to work side by side with the Right wing worker.”

This proposal was rejected at that time by the Left wing; it paid for that by further losses. Long after the fact, Johnstone attempts a similar criticism, but he proposes nothing for the future. Our proposal then holds good in essence today and for the next period.

The United Front

The official Left wing theory of the Right wing workers as “social fascists” automatically excludes the idea of a united front on a minimum platform of struggle. The theory is false; it is also good for nothing at all – except to demonstrate the theoretical poverty of Stalinism – and must be rejected. The tactic of the united front is not a cement to unite the leaders of the Left wing and the Right, the Purcells and the Tomskys – that is the perversion of the united front; the united front can be a knife cutting the masses still following the Right wing loose from their misleaders. Properly utilized, this knife can become a powerful weapon in the hands of the Left wing. Lightly thrown aside, as the official Left wing has done it leaves the Right wing bureaucrats just that much greater predominance of weapons.

The superficial argument that that I.L.G.W. is a “company union” is not worth a penny. That is the attitude of Mr. William Green towards out-and-out company unions: “We will have nothing to do with them!” That is, we will not fight the bosses for the workers they dominate. The left wing, by its argument, says: “We will not fight Schlesinger for the workers he dominates. Let them come to us or be damned eternally in hell as social fascists.”

* * *

The philosophical idealist believes the world of reality to be a mere reflection of man’s ideas. The third period chiefs of the needle trades Left wing (and, for that matter, the whole Party-controlled Left wing) seem to believe that the world of reality can be made to act in conformity with their abstract, pre-conceived blueprints, drawn up without any relation to life and struggle and facts. The Left wing must learn to look at facts, disconcerting and inconvenient as they may be, and to “proceed from that which is”.

No program, irrespective of its excellence, can settle the difficulties over night; the Left wing cannot so easily pay off the debts it has accumulated through a series of past blunders and defeats. Still, the serious crisis in the N.T.W.I.U., which threatens the whole future of the Left wing movement, demands a profound and free discussion – not the contemptible, bureaucratic “revelations” of the Johnstones. The Johnstones, Golds and the rest, cannot lead such a discussion, for it means their own downfall. Therefore they prohibit it. Therefore, it must be held in spite of them. And that not only in the needle trades, but in every other industrial union controlled – and undermined – by the Stalinists. That is the need of the moment. That is the job of the rank and file of the Left wing. The future of the movement is at stake.

Shachtman button
Max Shachtman
Marx button
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 29.9.2012