Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Public forum on unions in BC

Who needs a vanguard party?

First Published: In Struggle! No. 270, November 3, 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and 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.

(Vancouver, BC) – The B.C. region of IN STRUGGLE! recently held the first in a series of monthly forums on issues facing the communist movement. The topic of the meeting was “Current state of the trade union movement” and some of the questions addressed were: Is there a new wave of militancy in the trade unions?; is affiliation to the CLC the only way to build workers unity and strength?; and, do communists, as communists, have something useful to contribute in the trade union movement?

Leading off on the first two questions, long-time IWA militant and IN STRUGGLE! spokesperson Ron Brown said that there is a growing combative trend in the Canadian trade union movement, a trend that is characterized not just by its struggles for militancy and democracy but as well by its willingness to take up the calls to action by the progressive and popular movements such as the struggle for abortion rights and the fight against racism.

This opposition movement is not confined to the CLC where there are progressive caucuses in many affiliates but includes the Confederation of Canadian Unions as a labour central (it is militant, democratic, and takes progressive stands on most questions, he said) and many independent unions like AUCE and VMREU.

Brown questioned the position of many left groups – the Communist Party, Revolutionary Workers League, and to a certain extent the Workers Communist Party – who put forward as a formula that the only way to build the unity of the Canadian trade union movement is to struggle within the “House of Labour”. “The House of Labour is a myth”, Brown said, perpetuated by social democracy to blunt the class struggle. At its height only 71% of unionized workers in B.C. were in the CLC. Since the building trades split, it probably represents less than half of all organized workers, he said. Brown reminded forum participants of the CLC’s role in failing to unite workers during the CUPW strike, the Inco dispute, and the recent B.C. forest industry strike. The CLC’s track record is nothing to boast about when it comes to organizing the unorganized either, he said.

“Pre-Marxian thinking”

The second part of the meeting which was supposed to be on the role of communists in the trade union movement turned into something quite different. In part due to the presentation made by Al Engler, one of the panelists, and in part due to the preoccupation of IN STRUGGLE! members and supporters with what is becoming a central question for the 4th Congress, the debate and discussion focussed around the question “Is a vanguard party necessary to transform society?”.

Engler, an activist in the CBRT, said that communists will without question play a crucial role in the rebirth of a conscious working class movement because they are the people who have class consciousness ahead of others. But for Engler the concept of the vanguard party has nothing to do with communism, The Communist Manifesto, he said. “rejects the partyism that has plagued and derailed the left for more than 60 years.” Leninism is pre-Marxian thinking based on the outdated view that a minority of like-minded people can become the agency for social change, he said.

For Engler, workers taking control of their own organizations is the first step in gaining control of the economy. What is necessary to educate workers about their own fundamental interests is not a party but education in the form of magazines, forums, etc. Magazines like Saskatchewan’s Briar Patch have done is much better job of this than communist organizations, he said. While agreeing that workers wil eventually have to confront the combined might of the State, Engler said that there is no need for a political party to organize the working class – the trade unions can do it.

Engler’s presentation sparked a lively discussion period. A trade union activist said that while “I don’t know enough about the Leninist party to argue about it, I do know that the working class has to be organized into a disciplined fighting force and that it has to be led ideologically. One of the things that communists have is an understanding of the State, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, and the stance that workers should take in their rank-and-file organizations in relation to the State and social democracy’s collaboration with it.”

More than a trade union needed

A woman active in international support work commented that Engler’s strategy fails to address the relationship of the working class in Canada to the working class in the rest of the world. Arguing that the demands of the mass struggle drives the most advanced together, an IN STRUGGLE! supporter said that the question isn’t “Should we have a vanguard?” but rather “What is the best relationship between the party and the masses to be sure that it defends the fundamental interests of the working class and isn’t aloof from it?”.

An IN STRUGGLE! member asked; “How do you educate people about their fundamental interests if you don’t begin to speak to them today about changing the world and not just about winning this or that struggle?”. “It seems to me that if you’re going to embark on a project like turning this society upside down”, she continued, “you need something more than a trade union”. “Even if we all had trade unions and even if all the trade unions had leaders who defended the interests of the workers, that doesn’t answer the needs of women in the homes, it doesn’t answer the needs of children and the kinds of schools they need, it doesn’t answer the needs of family life. It’s true that we need to unite all these people in our day-to-day struggles but the only way this can be done is by convincing than that they need a different kind of society in which to live. This can only be achieved through revolution and an organization is needed to lead this revolution”, she concluded.

While participants found the discussion interesting and provocative, it just scratched the surface of a debate that must be deepened. The next public forum on the topic “Political crisis facing revolutionary organizations” will be held in Vancouver on November 17 and features a presentation by IN STRUGGLE!’s general secretary Charles Gagnon (see the ad on this page).