First Published: Progressive Labor Vol. V, No. 6, March 1967
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.
Publisher’s Note: Jeff Gordon is a student at Brooklyn College, New York and National Student Organizer for the PLP.
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The central force for revolution in the United States is the working class, especially its organized sections. Realizing this, the ruling class has placed great emphasis on destroying left leadership in the labor movement, and, in its place, supporting the “labor statesmen” of the Meany-Reuther-Dubinsky type. The rulers have also done all they can, utilizing the mass media and the educational system, to isolate the workers from all other sections of the population and to split the working class from within.
The anti-Vietnam war movement, made up primarily of students and intellectuals, has become an annoyance to the government. But if that movement reaches into the working class it will become an immediate danger. Without the support of the workers in this country the Vietnam war cannot be carried out. Students and intellectuals, acting alone while the working class supports the war, must be virtually ineffectual in efforts to stop it. And, as we shall see later, this ineffectiveness leads to a disheartening of the movement and its general isolation from the majority of the campus and intellectual community.
It is the workers, because of their key relationship to the process of production, transportation and communication in the U.S., who have the power, when properly organized and led, to carry out their demands. And as the U.S. economy becomes more automated, this central role, if anything, increases. “As the economy becomes more intricate and cohesive, strikes become more painful and disruptive.” (Life, August 26, 1966–special section on “Strike Fever”)
The U.S. working class in the past has been among the most militant of any in the world in fighting on economic issues. Strikes in the U.S. date back to the 1790’s. The organizing of the CIO in the 1930’s, with leftists and communists playing a key role, was characterized by courage, unity and perseverance in some of the most violent confrontations in U.S. history. The working class was no one’s patsy then.
After a long period, in which many of the gains won in the organizing drives before World War II are being wiped out, the rank and file of the labor movement is once again making itself felt. They are fighting for higher wages and better working conditions. They are telling the bosses, the government and their own mis-leaders all to go to hell. A frightened ruling class finds expression in Life magazine’s hysterical 17-page cover story on the new upsurge:
Today’s labor leaders are mostly aging, mostly out of ideas and mostly out of touch with a newly militant rank and file which can be energized only by the strike cry. Indeed the strike fever of the unions, as reported in these pages, is such that 1967 could see the worst labor-management tussles since the big postwar strikes of 1946. (August 26, 1966)
There are objective reasons why this is happening. They fall into two areas, each complementing the other.
Firstly, the objective situation of workers is worsening in the U.S. Real wages went down 2.9% last year, while profits soared. Inflation, emerging in higher prices, has hit even harder this year. Control of working conditions–overtime, speedup, etc.–is still out of the hands of the workers. The Vietnam war, while it means some new jobs, also means that the young workers and workers’ sons are drafted to die in a hated war nine thousand miles away. Taxes are sure to go even higher this year because of the war in Vietnam (see Governor Scranton’s comments on the front page of The New York Times of September 24, 1966).
And secondly, the Black Liberation Movement, the student and world-wide revolutionary movements have made the 1960’s the years of organizing. A general trend is growing to resist and fight a situation that grows objectively worse with each passing day. The “Silent Generation” of American youth, once frightened into passivity by the McCarthy years and confused and made cynical by world events that no leadership had explained, has begun to fight back.
This recent upsurge of militancy in the trade union movement has happened without left leadership. The level of that struggle would be much higher if led by radicals and communists developing political understanding of the nature of the state, of classes and of the necessity for the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In response to this threat, city, state and federal governments can be counted upon to do their jobs for the ruling class. On the one hand they will pass a series of anti-labor laws, protect scabs and injunct strikes. And on the other hand, they will support a new group of mis-leaders, a little more clever or, at least, different looking than the present lot, make a whole series of new promises and wave the banner of “patriotism.”
It is the job of all revolutionaries, especially those in the working-class party, to join the fight to build a trade union movement that will fight in the interests of the workers and to begin to raise the political level of the struggle so that it can become revolutionary in content. This is a difficult, long-term struggle. But the outcome–a conscious, left-led trade union movement–would mark a qualitative shift in the class balance of power in the U.S. and would move us closer to socialism, to state power in the hands of the workers.
Presently, in the fight around political demands, it is the student and intellectual movement that is out in front. In a revolutionary process the working class is not always in front at each moment. But unless the working class finally forms the vanguard and the center, no socialist revolution will take place, no anti-imperialist or anti-Vietnam war movement will have much effect.
The student and intellectual movement, especially the anti-Vietnam war movement, goes through high and low periods: times of excitement and periods of depression, and relative inactivity. It is now simmering. The frustration of growing in numbers and militancy while having little influence has had a negative effect on the movement. Activists on campus are turning inward, moving to secondary and often esoteric issues or doing nothing at all, claiming either that all that can be has been done about Vietnam; that saturation point has been reached with the student body and that we have no real power to affect the war; that U.S. imperialism cannot be stopped.
Some turn to the sick “salvation” of drugs. They join Timothy Leary in eschewing struggle, saying to the delight of the U.S. government that they will find “inner truth and understanding.” They will reach “higher levels of understanding” that will lead them to be able to “see beauty and live beauty” in the middle of capitalism. Therefore let the U.S. napalm Vietnam, draft students, raise prices, gun down SNCC workers, arrest John Harris, because “I see the ’truth’ in it all.” There is “beauty” in everything. This comes out of the frustration and cynicism bred in many honest young people in this country because it seems impossible to defeat U.S. imperialism.
The only way not to become frustrated through the struggle is to understand how it can be won. It must be understood that capitalism is so rotten and corrupt from its base up that piecemeal changes or appealing to its “better” spokesmen won’t work, that only revolutionary socialism–a society for the working people, not the profits of the bosses and the landlords–can bring us what we need.
We must understand who it is that has the power to win the demands it fights for. The frustration of the student anti-Vietnam war movement is a necessary one, because, even if we closed down every school in the country the government wouldn’t have to stop its aggression–and students know this. There are only two groups that have real power in this country. One, the imperialist bosses and bankers, have state power and rule this country. The other is the working class, whose hands and minds keep the system working and who, therefore, when properly organized and led, can seize it.
A New York City subway advertisement shows a computer circuit and says “What will you do when this circuit takes your job?’ On one subway car someone wrote underneath it “Smash it!” It is in the power of the workers, and in their power only, to do that.
The isolation of the student and the anti-Vietnam war movement from the working class is felt instinctively by the majority of the student body and helps account for the isolation of these movements on the campus. Why should a student join a campus movement that is isolated from the one group that could effect change with its strength rather than reasoning with “honest” and “reasonable” men in Washington, who are napalming Vietnam because they haven’t heard all of the arguments yet?
While students may not think of this power as the working class, but as “the American people,” it adds up to the same thing. We will only be able to build a mass movement on the campuses when we can show students that they will not be involved in futile protest politics, but will have a good chance to win, at least in the long run.
That will only happen if the working class, slowly beginning to rise again, takes the lead. Students and intellectuals are objectively an unstable and vacillating group as a whole when isolated from the working class. Upton Sinclair, in Goosestep; talks of “the anarchist attitude which goes with the intellectual life’’ and the “class prejudices that stand in the way” of intellectuals organizing themselves well enough to be able to play the vanguard role. This is not an insult; it is just a fact. Workers, because of their relationship to the mode of production and to each other, will be better organized and therefore more stable and stronger. The CIO was organized in the auto plants and not on a campus.
The fact that the anti-Vietnam war movement is mainly student- and intellectual-based is used by the ruling class to try to split it permanently from the rest of the population. Ted Lewis has written in his column in the New York Daily News–read mainly by workers, white and Black–that the anti-draft protests on campus are so that students won’t have to fight in Vietnam and, therefore workers should be sent. One of the leaders of the Roosevelt University anti-Viet draft and anti-ranking sit-in was speaking on a Black radio station on a call-in program. He explained the reasons behind the sit-in and explained that the students were opposed to 2S and anyone being drafted. Many of the listeners had misunderstood the meaning of the sit-in, thinking that students were out to save their own necks, thereby forcing Black youth to be drafted, and were thankful for the clarification.
A UPI release carried in the N.Y. World-Journal-Tribune (September 21, 1966) reports that over 200 anti-war demonstrators met Lady Bird Johnson when she appeared at the San Francisco opera. But in the same release we read: “A friendly delegation from a local truck driver’s union also appeared outside the building carrying signs reading, “The Teamsters Union Welcomes Mrs. LBJ!” Now whether or not this was a representative group, the point is that the ruling class press likes to play upon and divide different sections of the population who really have similar interests: Black from white workers; a striking worker from the rest of the working class; students from workers; etc. These divisions only strengthen the ruling class–while any unity or working together strengthens the people.
We can see that any unity on the question of the Vietnam war between the student antiwar movement and some sections of the working class would mark a qualitative turn in the situation and give a tremendous boost to campus organizers. It would also put a real scare into the government, because they would see a real threat for the first time. The recent election campaigns, where a number of candidates against U.S. aggression in Vietnam scored well in working class areas, were a good sign and are important to continue on an independent, militant and democratic basis. Bob Scheer, running on an antiwar program, won in the working class districts in the East Bay area, losing only the middle class districts.
It is one of the key tasks, and now perhaps the key task, of the movement to mend these divisions by common action and struggle and through education; to destroy the stereotypes fostered by the mass media; and to unify the people against their common enemy.
Why now? What does it mean? It does not mean that all student activists should leave the campus, abandon student organizing and become workers. The student movement is an important and essential ally to the working class in fighting for socialism. Students have many just demands that must be fought for and which can only be satisfied under socialism. At this point students are leading the anti-Vietnam war movement.
It is late already. We must start now because if the student and the anti-war movements do not begin to make such contacts and form a limited alliance now, the movement will cease to grow and over the next several years, as the war expands, will become even more isolated from the working class and the rest of the campus. It will remain a relatively ineffective moral protest movement and be open to being destroyed if the government attacks to destroy.
No situation remains static for long. It goes either in one direction or the other. This is especially true for something so important as the relationship between workers and the anti-Vietnam war movement, some sections of which are putting forth a militant anti-imperialist political perspective.
The U.S. government is not going to sit idly by. They and their press and other agents will move full steam ahead to broaden this split. They will attempt to use the division to isolate and destroy the student movement against U.S. aggression in Vietnam and the draft before it spreads. At the same time, they will try to see to it that workers don’t develop their own opposition to being drafted to fight in a war which is not only unjust, but is eroding living conditions and the rights of organizing.
This alliance will not be made overnight. We know very little about how to proceed. A great deal of education work must go on among the student body as a whole and within the student movement itself concerning the nature and the role of the working class. If this is not done now it may be too late in a few years. Given the fact of a growing government splitting campaign, we would be beginning with even greater handicaps and in an even weaker position in a few years.
We cannot afford the luxury of waiting much longer. We must begin now! If carried out correctly this will not, by “taking us off the campus,” decrease the base of the movement on the campus, but increase and enliven it.
Five areas can be thought of now in which we can begin to build a worker-student alliance–an alliance whose political program could be: to demand that the U.S. get out of Vietnam now; that no one be drafted for Vietnam; to support the just struggles of each other for better conditions on the job and on the campus. For example: the Teamsters refused to cross the FSM’s University of California picket; students should refuse to cross a school employees picket line.
1.When an important strike comes not too far from a campus, or a smaller strike right near the campus, the student movement should support the strike. A group of students can go down to the line and ask if they can help man it or help in any other way. A group of eight Columbia students went up to Schnectady to support the G.E. strike there and were received very warmly. They plan to return. They wrote up their experience for the campus newspapers and have asked one of the strikers to speak at Columbia explaining the strike. If the strike had been closer to their campus more work could have been done, and political questions and questions about the war could have been raised. The G.E. strikers, many of whom had friends or sons in Vietnam, very much resented Johnson’s use of the Vietnam war and “patriotism” against their right to strike.
In San Francisco, during the Hunter’s Point Black rebellion, PLP, SDS and some independents marched and picketed in their own communities to protest the National Guard’s intervention and the conditions of the people in the ghetto.
Campus groups should pass resolutions supporting the workers and circulate them on campus. Perhaps students and professors can put a supporting advertisement into a newspaper. This is especially important when there is a major attempt to split the strikers from the rest of the population, as with the recent transit strike in New York. Let the strikers and the rest of the people know that students and intellectuals find common cause with workers.
For some strikes, such as the Delano farm workers and the Hazard miners, food, clothing and money should be collected on campus.
2. When an anti-Viet draft and an anti-Viet war movement is built on campus, one of its chief tasks should be to go to some carefully chosen group of workers and talk to them about these issues. This can be done at the union hall or the factory gate, or if you already know some of the workers, in a more intimate manner. The exact manner in which students and workers fight the draft are different (anti-ranking for students, for example), but they can be united around the slogan “No one should be drafted for the Vietnam war.”
The army, made up mostly of workers, is full of discontent. This must be reflected among workers here. The effect of any success in this area would be tremendous. Workers speaking on campus against the draft would have an electrifying effect on the movement. Workers beginning to raise the question of the war in their shops and unions might bring out numbers of workers, who are against the war but who are quiet about bringing it up first.
It would be good, but not essential, to start with a plant where students already have contacts or where they have supported a strike in the past. If possible, research should be done into the specific situation in the plant. The approach should be straightforward and honest. A good approach might be: We (the students) are against the Vietnam war and anyone being drafted for it. We think these are against both the students’ and the workers’ interest. We want to work together against them. We need your help. We know that we cannot win alone. And we are against 2S and other “special privileges” for students, which are phony anyway (they’ll still draft us) and are used to split us among ourselves and from working people.
The approach might include prominent talk of rising prices, taxes, government strikebreaking and corporate profits. It should say why we are against the war: it is unjust and aggressive on the U.S.’s part. It should say what the only solution we can support is: the U.S. getting out of Vietnam now.
A discussion group might be the first organizational step towards bringing workers into the anti-war movement.
3. Part of the work of a vital campus group should be to help organize a high school group around the war, the draft, unemployment, or other issues effecting the school. It would be especially important to help out in a working class school, where students face the draft at graduation or where they will join up at graduation, feeling that the army offers them the best opportunity in a system stacked against them. High schools, have to be organized by students in the schools, but active college chapters with personal and political ties in the area can offer needed assistance. High school organizing is very important.
4. Another important job would be carrying out on campus of an educational campaign about the nature and role of the working class and its history in the United States. (The textbooks distort or leave out working-class history altogether.) This is especially good if it accompanies action around points 1 and 2. But it should be carried out even without them. This can include forums, lectures, classes, and the sale of trade union literature and analysis.
5. Students should muster strong support for the demands of campus workers–library, cafeteria, building and grounds, etc.–for better conditions and for union recognition. Some student employees and former students now working on campus are helping at various schools in such drives. When these workers strike, student support is imperative. No student scabs! No crossing of picket lines!
These five areas point a direction for the building of a worker-student alliance. The alliance on the students’ part grows out of the existing movement and becomes an integral part of its work. It means the struggle to defeat pro-2S forces (all students in PLP have renounced 2S deferments). And the conception of the university as an ivory tower, to be kept pure while not concerning oneself with what’s happening outside, must end.
It would mean the forging of an alliance that has the power to win in the end. It means the destruction of the barriers that split people who, in some ways different and some the same, are being suppressed and cut off by the same system–imperialism. It would mean a qualitative leap in the building of an anti-Vietnam war movement that, along with the Vietnamese people, could really affect the ability of the U.S. to carry out its aggression. We must begin building this now.