Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Wrong tactics and structures or programme itself?

What’s behind errors in our union work?

First Published: In Struggle! No. 283, March 21, 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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Participants in the March 14 national conference to sum up IN STRUGGLE!’s work in the labour movement voted unanimously for a second conference. It will be held in Montreal on Sunday, May 9.

The vote reflected both the success and the limits of the one-day conference. Many workers have had real problems with the general and intellectual level at which the pre-congress debate is being carried on. The conference was organized so that trade unionists could “put the programme on trial” from the vantage point of their practice.

In fact this process was barely begun. However, many workers said they “felt at home” at such a conference where “we have something to contribute based on our practical knowledge and expertise”. Others said they felt better able to judge the stands of those for and against the programme after hearing what the practical implications were for union work.

Is tactical unity enough?

The conference began with two personal accounts. Ron, a BC woodworker, explained why he joined IN STRUGGLE! after 12 years as an active unionist and “non-aligned socialist”. The work done in English Canada around the wage controls, defending Quebec’s right to self-determination and challenging McDermott at the 1980 CLC convention showed the value of a country-wide organization. IS! was able to generate and promote a concrete analysis of the overall class struggle. The campaigns showed communists could have a practical impact and unite with non-communists without subordinating or hiding their communist ideas.

Ron explained the basic theme of the BC trade union communique, distributed at the conference: communists must always work to build the unity of the working class. To do this, the militant trend must be correctly identified – both CLC and non-CLC unions, consistently militant centrals and unions like the CCU and CUPW, underpaid and non-unionized workers, rank and file, women’s and anti-racist caucuses. “Tactical unity” must be built with other leftists and militants around specific demands and battles despite political differences on other points.

Ron concluded by saying that more changes had to be made in our way of looking at the struggle for reforms “so that we can actually take part in the struggles of the people of this country.” However, tactical unity, based on the principles in Article 8 of our present programme, was the cornerstone of a correct approach.

Later, in the workshops, critics of the programme challenged this. What does it mean to say (as we did in the newspaper once) that “we are ready to build tactical unity with counter-revolutionaries in the interests of the masses”? Is everyone outside our Organization who wants socialism a “counter revolutionary”? Don’t we in fact share common objectives in relation to long-term goals with others also? How can we have a revolution where the masses have built up their mass organizations to be ready to seize and exercize power along with the revolutionary parties if we never work in unity with others to strengthen them in terms of the long-term fight?

Breaking with the “Martian” style

The second personal account was by Francoise, a Montreal social worker. She presented conclusions that she and Claudette, a Montreal hospital worker, had reached about their experiences in IN STRUGGLE!

IS! trade union work could be divided into three periods. In 1974-5, the “Against Economism” period, union work was seen as reformist and workers were invited to join readers and study circles. Immediate struggles were at best a pretext to do “communist educational work”.

From 1976 to 1979, beginning with the campaign against wage controls, IS! began to analyze the immediate struggles. However, intervention was still “Martian-like” from the outside. Hence, Claudette and others moved in and out of local hospital struggles but talked only about wage controls. When some comrades were fired they found out how isolated they were from other workers who didn’t actively support them.

The 1979 Quebec Common Front marked a real turning point. IS! militants provided a concrete overall analysis and made specific proposals to advance the struggle. At Francoise’s job, IS! members stopped “pyramiding”: meeting alone to work out a common tactical approach prior to every meeting with active sympathizers and/or every progressive caucus meeting. Since then, many comrades have tried to do sustained union work on a local level and to do political agitation in this context.

Differences about roots of errors

Conference participants generally agreed with this history of our line but saw the roots of the problems differently. Defenders of the programme explained our sectarian errors as secondary to the basically positive work we had done by applying our programme to fight for working class unity in a pan-Canadian perspective. The problems were largely due to a bureaucratic centralism where members all had to apply the same directive from top (petty-bourgeois) leadership instead of having autonomy to judge the local situation themselves.

Others replied that we had broken with sectarianism to the degree we had moved away from certain conceptions in our programme. Monolithic application of directives and pyramiding derived from our notion of a single vanguard party, not the class origin of our leadership or the organizational structure as such. Non-aligned people (especially non-members) generally were reluctant to support rejecting the programme. They assumed that this would inevitably lead to the liquidation of IN STRUGGLE! in any form. Unionists, unlike some intellectuals or activists in other movements (like the women’s movement), feel the need for a political organization in order to do any effective political work, especially in a deepening economic crisis.

Different evaluations of the Montreal transit strike showed different approaches to contradictions within the working class. Programme critics argued that when unions acted contrary to the interests of less-privileged strata this had to be criticized, even during strikes. Contradictions within the working class had a material basis in significantly differing material and social situations (men vs. women, unionized vs. non-unionized etc). Programme defenders agreed that the working class was less monolithic than in Lenin’s day. However, critics went too far, with some even denying the existence of a single working class with identifiable common interests.

Next conference on women, tasks

Everyone agreed the union movement was on a downswing. Programme critics explained this in terms of objective conditions, pointing out that in the early Depression years the number of strikes dropped, only to pick up again with the pre-war economic recovery. They said programme defenders were wrong to automatically equate deepening of the crisis with better subjective conditions for revolution. Programme defenders agreed this equation was simplistic but insisted that the key to the current situation was that many workers, despite being on the defensive, were willing to fight and were looking for alternate leadership to the labour bosses.

The questions of women and of the place of workers in a communist organization were only briefly discussed. Al, a Toronto printer, suggested a one-day National Workers Caucus to discuss the latter issue. This may take place on Saturday, May 8. The Sunday May 9 second conference will spend all morning in workshop on the women’s question. The afternoon will be devoted to examining the different proposals coming before the 4th Congress on IS!’ future tasks from the point of view of our union practice.