Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

October League Holds Southern Labor Conference

Stresses Unity of National and Class Struggles

First Published: The Call, Vol. 2, No. 12, September 1974.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Atlanta, Ga. – “The united struggles of the working class and the Afro-American people” was the central theme of the Southern Labor Conference, held here August 3-4. The conference, sponsored by the October League, was one of several regional conferences being planned in the wake of last November’s national conference.

More than 125 activists from around the South attended the conference, representing many organizations and collectives. Revolutionary activists from a broad range of struggles participated, including fighters in the Harlan County, Ky. miner’s battle for union recognition; the Gulfcoast Pulpwood workers; activists in the Oneita textile strike; the campaign of the United Farm Workers of America; the anti-repression movement in Atlanta and many other movements of the laboring and oppressed people throughout the South. Organizers from factories, shops and mills around the region exchanged experiences and learned from each other.

The conference was marked by a high spirit of unity which was evident throughout the whole weekend. Principled struggle and debate took place on a number of important questions.

The strength of the conference, as in past OL labor conferences, was the fact that the discussions, including the theoretical discussions on the national question and trade union work, were based on practice among the masses, paying attention to the particular conditions of southern labor.

The South is the area where Afro-American people, after suffering through hundreds of years of slavery and racist oppression under capitalism, were forged into a nation. Due to the history of Black oppression and the special significance of the national question in this area, the South has always been viewed as a special question by U.S. Marxists. It is here, where the legacy of white supremacy and the plantation system has most strongly left its mark, that you find the lowest level of organization among both the Black and white workers. It is here that white supremacy has played its most treacherous role and has left a deep imprint on the consciousness of all workers and the broad masses of the people.

The fact that the conference was held in Atlanta, the scene of the most severe and open fascist police terror, aimed primarily at the Black population, showed vividly that these conditions have not disappeared, even with the breaking up of most of the old, semi-feudal agricultural conditions. To the contrary, they have grown even sharper.


The conference was deeply influenced by the growing need to build communist unity and form a new communist party. Discussion of party-building was a central focus for the conference. Other focuses for the conference were on the need to unite the working class in struggle with the Afro-American struggle and the movements of people and countries around the world oppressed by imperialism.

Charles Costigan, a leading member of the OL in Atlanta, gave the opening presentation on the character of the struggle in the South. He gave many examples of the great advances that were made whenever Black and white workers were able to unite in the course of struggle. Through this presentation, he demonstrated clearly the fact that the fight against white supremacy must be central to our work in the labor movement.

Numerous speakers pointed out the need to build a new party. Michael Klonsky, Chairman of the October League, in his address to the conference said, “The masses have always shown their willingness to fight... so the question comes up, ’What is Lacking?’ It is the lack of a party.”

“The existence of a party will qualitatively change our ability to carry out our tasks,” he said. “For example, regarding the national question and the labor movement, communist work necessitates that communists take up their special duty of fighting the bourgeois ideology of white chauvinism among the white workers, taking the question of Afro-American self-determination to them and secondarily combatting narrow nationalism within Afro-American people’s movement. But how can this work be fully carried out as long as Marxist-Leninists are split up in different organizations, each working in its own direction without a common center? How can our tasks be linked together as long as Afro-American and white communists are in different organizations of national as well as multi-national character?

“Our goal,” said Klonsky, “must be one multi-national party with one center. To accomplish this, the same main enemy must be combatted within the communist movement as must be done in the general movement of the working class-white chauvinism.

“Marxist-Leninist organizations built along national lines have played a valuable role in bringing Marxism-Leninism to hundreds of workers and movement activists, but multinational unity must be our goal. Nationalism in the communist movement is in the main a by-product of, a reaction to, white chauvinism. To build multi-national unity, communists must resolutely take up the task of combatting white chauvinism within their own ranks as well as taking the question of self-determination to the class as a whole.”

Nanny Washburn, a veteran of more than 40 years in the communist movement, summed up her experiences in her early days as a child of a poor white textile worker’s family, who was forced into the mills at a very early age. As a young woman she was educated by communist organizers and recruited to the Communist Party when it was still a revolutionary organization and when it was spearheading the fight of the workers, and oppressed people in the South. Nanny, still an active OL member at 74, drove home her main point time after time in her speech, which was greeted with a standing ovation from the audience: “You’ll never be free in America,” she said, “until you build a real strong communist party.”

The conference spent a great deal of time discussing the national question as it applies to Black people in the South.

Sherman Miller, a member of the Central Committee of the OL, spoke directly to this question. He said, “Supporting the right of self-determination means waging a consistent struggle against all national oppression. This is not an abstract question about whether or not Black people are a majority or even if they should necessarily secede (separate to form their own state)! Rather it is a question of removing all barriers to Black people winning political power. Historically, Black people have suffered under national oppression and this oppression has meant precisely the denial of the right of self-determination by the ruling class in all its different manifestations.”


Miller continued, “National oppression is an inherent policy of imperialism. The fact that imperialism has driven people off the land into the urban areas where the majority have become workers does not eliminate national oppression, but rather intensifies it. The Afro-American struggle is in essence a class struggle and the national question can never be fully resolved under imperialism.”

Miller concluded, “But upholding the right of self-determination is not an abstract call for secession as it is put forward by the opportunists of the Communist League. The right of self-determination must be supported in the context of the overall struggle for class unity and the needs of that class struggle as well as the national struggle. The slogan, ’Support the right of self-determination,’ is primarily aimed at the white workers, to win them to struggle for consistent democracy in all areas of society and break from the white chauvinist line of the capitalists.”

The conference heard an excellent, well-prepared presentation from a Black woman textile organizer on the problems of organizing in the textile industry. She pointed out that it was the largest and most organized industry in the South. “Because of the historic conditions in the South,” she pointed out, “the textile industry serves to depress wages and working conditions for the entire region and serves to weaken the entire southern labor movement.”

Textile was seen as the key focus of the efforts to organize the unorganized in the South. Following this presentation, the conference saw a newly-produced film on the victorious strike at the Oneita Mills in South Carolina. (This film is available through THE CALL)

The conference paid special attention to the struggle of the United Farm Workers Union and reached the unanimous opinion that now more than ever before, it is vital that communists build the broadest possible support for this heroic struggle against the new attacks from the grower-Teamster alliance. Serious criticisms were made of one new policy of UFW however, which if carried out would critically weaken the farm workers’ fight. This policy is one of assisting the Immigration police carry out its mass deportations of foreign workers, who reside here in the U.S. without papers.

It has been reported that several of the UFW’s best organizers in various parts of the South have recently been fired from the union’s staff for refusing to take part in the rounding up of “illegals.”

It was concluded, that while giving the fullest possible support to the UFW’s work in the South, we should at the same time protest this violation of working class principles of internationalism.

The conference broke down into workshops on the role o women in the working class struggle; on applying the nation al question in practice among the workers; on building the anti-imperialist struggle in the plants and on organizing the unorganized to name a few.

The conference also was entertained by Anne Romaine from the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project, who sang several songs born out of the working class traditions of the South as well as some of her own original pieces. A dance was held Saturday night at which a band composed of workers who participated in. the recent strike at Warren Corp. in Atlanta entertained.

The conference was seen as a great success by all who attended and an important step forward for the revolutionary movement in the South. It strengthened the working ties between the various groups around the South and placed that unity on a higher level.

Michael Klonsky summed it up by pointing to the fact that “the next year will be crucial for the movement in the South as well as in the whole country. Unity is growing in the communist movement and we are approaching the day when the organizations here will cease to exist and all comrades here can unite into one single revolutionary organization, like Nanny Washburn said – ’a strong, genuine communist party’ – and I think that we’re all going to succeed in doing just that!”