Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

OL’s Trade Union Pamphlet: A Distortion of Our History

First Published: The Communist, Vol. III, No. 14, July 29, 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Workers Congress (Marxist-Leninist) Introduction: In this article a correspondent demonstrates how the OL’s failure to recognize the leading role of theory and ideological struggle in our movement today led to their failure to recognize it in the history of the communist movement. In doing so, the comrade provides us with both an excellent exposure of the shaky foundation on which the CP (ML) has been built and an invaluable history lesson about an important struggle against right opportunism that took place within the Communist International in 1928.

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The recent consolidation of the October League and some 10 or 11 local collectives and independent Marxist-Leninists into the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) makes a careful study of the Party Program and recent publications such as “Building Class Struggle Trade Unions–A Communist View” very important.

The past period has seen OL change some of their policies on a number of key questions. Among these previously held positions was that ultra-leftism is the main danger within the communist movement. Following OL’s third Congress, this was changed to the view that right opportunism is the main danger. This was accompanied by articles and resolutions which talked about “winning the advanced”, “welding a core” and “building factory nuclei”, and “propaganda as the chief form of activity”. In the past OL had attacked such formulations as reflecting the ultra-left line, and accused organizations and individuals who advanced such formulations of party-building in isolation, being removed from the mass movement, etc.

Another important policy change was in relation to trade union work. OL rejected its earlier line of “move the trade unions to the left” in favor of the line of revolutionizing the trade unions, i.e., exposing and isolating the trade union bureaucrats “liberal or otherwise” in order to win revolutionary leadership of the trade

Many Marxist-Leninist organizations and individuals had criticized OL’s rightist trade union policy, particularly its support of Arnold Miller in the UMW and Sadlowski in steel.

At the time these criticisms were firmly rejected, by OL and treated as another example of ultra-left errors which would isolate communists.

While many of those who had criticized OL welcomed the changes and saw it as an advance, they were concerned about the lack of thorough criticism regarding the source of the previous errors. This lack of comprehensive self-criticism made many of the changes seem shallow and appear as superficial changes rather than anything fundamental.

Recently OL published a pamphlet “Building Class Struggle Trade Unions–A Communist View” (May, 1977). This pamphlet is basically a reprint of six CALL, articles. Its purpose, according to the OL, is to restate the fundamental principles of Marxism-Leninism concerning trade unions and to sum up the main features of the American labor movement, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the CPUSA when it was a revolutionary vanguard party. And thirdly, the pamphlet draws important lessons from experiences of OL and other Marxist-Leninists.

The pamphlet says it will take a close and self-critical look at OL’s experience and work over the last few years. Thus it provides a basis for analyzing OL’s attitude towards its past mistakes as well as determining the soundness of the foundation on which the new CP(ML) has been built


One of the great difficulties which severely hampers the communist movement today and which must be overcome in order to build a vanguard Party, is an understanding and analysis of the revisionist betrayal of the CPUSA.

An entire generation was cut off from its past, left with little or no knowledge of the rich revolutionary history of the American working class and of the important ideological battles fought to Bolshevize its vanguard party.

On page 15 of the pamphlet the authors state: “To deepen the struggle against revisionism today, the lessons from the ’30’s must be summed up and applied. What was correct and what erroneus in the CP’s trade union work?”

They then proceed to present a sum up of these lessons that is both superficial and incorrect and which consistently downplays the central role of ideological struggle and political line within the Party.

First, we are told that “the Party developed its program for the trade unions in the course of the struggle against dual unionism and syndicalism”, that communists such as Foster “who earlier had been a founding member of the Syndicalist League, learned through their own experiences the danger of “left” sectarianism, a deviation clearly criticized by Lenin in the early days of the Third International.” Based on this experience the Party directed its members to work inside AFL unions and fight to transform the character of these unions. It was during this period, particularly during a special campaign from 1925-1929, that the Party “developed its factory networks and an expanded system of shop organizations and shop newspapers in the course of union drives, strikes and day to day work in the plants.”

It was thus on the basis of “this strong base in major industry” that the party was able to gain the leadership of the tremendous upsurge of working class struggle in the late 20’s and most particularly in the 30’s.

This summary is incorrect. The authors have failed to mention the very sharp ideological struggle that took place at the 6th Convention of the Communist International in 1928. Many communists today are familiar with or have at least some knowledge of the importance of this convention in relationship to the development of a revolutionary position on the Negro Question. It was at this congress that the theory of the oppression of Black people as a national question, a question of an oppressed nation in the Black Belt South was first advanced.

However, what is not as well understood is that the struggle and debate on the Negro question took place within the context of a broader ideological struggle. The main slogan of the convention was “Fight the Right Danger – Turn to the Left.”

At the heart of the struggle was an estimation of the international situation. The right wing in the CPSU united with their counterparts in other Parties (the Lovestone faction in the CPUSA) and advanced the line that the relative capitalist stabilization which took place during the 1920’s would continue. They argued that the communist activity should be focused on legal and parliamentary work in line with this relative stability and prosperity which would extend for a considerable time.

This line was staunchly opposed by Stalin and the CPSU majority. They pointed out that the period of capitalist stabilization was coming to an end. And that the key task of Communist Parties was to revolutionize their ranks and prepare for a coming storm of revolutionary struggle which would be precipitated by the rapidly maturing capitalist crisis.

For the American Party this two line struggle focused in on the Negro National Question, on the question of factionalism and unprincipled struggle which had undermined the morale and unity of the party and on the question of building new industrial trade unions and organizing the unorganized. This was a pivotal question. The party’s trade union work had been mainly within the AFL but now with a rapidly changing international situation, with capitalist crisis on the horizon, it was imperative that the Party launch vigorous efforts to organize the large concentrations of proletarians, in basic industry. The limitations imposed by the narrow AFL craft-unions and their reformist leadership had to be broken–the new industrial trade unions had to be built. This did not mean ceasing work in the AFL or abandoning the struggle in existing unions. It did however mean a dramatic shift in focus and in points of concentration.

The struggle at the 6th Congress was very sharp and protracted. It was only after considerable debate that the delegates of the American Party were united and won to the correct line.

It is this point which the “Summary” simply ignores. The summary implies that it was the struggle to work within the AFL which helped prepare the party for the upsurge in the 1930’s. The opposite was in fact the truth. But more importantly the summary implies it was the “day to day” work in the plants, “in the course of union drives and strikes” that laid the basis of strong party work.

This is fundamentally incorrect. It was the ideological struggle to rid the Party of opportunism (like Lovestone’s ideology) and factionalism, to develop a revolutionary position on the Negro National question, and on building the red trade unions that provided the foundation on which the Party Bolshevized its ranks and prepared for the revolutionary storm which followed. Without this thorough all-sided ideological struggle none of the day-to-day activity in the plants and mines would have developed along revolutionary lines. The party would have been at the tail end of the mass upsurge, unprepared and unable to lead it.

The fact that the party was able to gain the leadership of the mass upsurge is a great lesson for all of us pointing to the decisive role of revolutionary theory and ideological struggle.

The next section summarizing the CIO drives and development of Browderism suffers in the same way. The article says, “This period of the building of the CIO was one of great upsurge in the mass movement, which greatly increased the dangers of rightism, of getting swept up by these mass struggles, overestimating the consciousness of the masses and underestimating the decisive importance of independent communist work.”

The authors give a description of the errors “cultivated and then consolidated” by Browder, “downplaying communist education and training of cadre, as well as communist aims and independence.. .” spreading illusions about CIO, reformist and Roosevelt New-Dealers, praising them as saviors and heroes of the working class.”

While these points are generally correct, how can Marxist-Leninists make an analysis of the period and not even mention the United Front against Fascism? The authors ignore entirely the world situation at the time and the political line which served as the cornerstone of communist activity–not only in the US but throughout the world.

Is it possible to learn from the strengths and weaknesses of the CPUSA by only describing the errors that were made? Isn’t it crucial to focus on the ideological and theoretical struggle that took place and the political line that emerged from these struggles? Isn’t this the meaning of “class struggle is key” and “political line determines everything”?

It is important to examine the errors made in this part of the pamphlet from another angle. These articles are intended to be propaganda directed at the advanced. As such they must serve as examples to teach and train cadre in correct methods of study, in summing up historical experience, and in general in applying the science of Marxism-Leninism to concrete problems.

The effect of the serious shortcomings of this article can be clearly seen in the last part of the pamphlet in the section, “Summary of OL Work”, pages 42 to 49. On pp. 45-46, the authors describe the “strong rightist deviation which developed. But they claim it developed despite a generally sound approach. This “right deviation” took the form of “tailing sections of reformist union leadership”, “preached gradualism as opposed to revolutionizing the trade union” and “mistakenly underestimated the great danger of liberal reformists in the trade unions”.

This most certainly describes serious right errors, but the same ignoring or dismissing of ideological and theoretical struggle that was evident in the earlier summary is evident here. This description leaves out entirely any analysis or discussion of the larger ideological struggle that existed at the time and which provided the framework in which specific policies–in this case on trade unions–were developed. The overall ideological struggle which was waged at that time – and continues today – most specifically whether ultra-leftism or right opportunism in the form of economism represents the main source of revisionism and opportunism within our ranks, is simply not mentioned. The specific examples cited in the pamphlet of the errors made during the building of the Brotherhood Caucus at the GM plant in Fremont, California, brings out this point more directly.

The errors are summed up as “propaganda work was much too limited”, “the task of building strong communist organization, in the plant was not always taken up” and “we did not struggle as we should within the United Front”.

It was exactly these errors which were (and are today) at the center of this larger ideological struggle. Were not these errors criticized at the time as logical developments of the tendency to underestimate the importance of propaganda (i.e. fail to make propaganda the chief form of activity) and to plunge into “leading” the mass spontaneous movement without winning over the advanced, without building strong factory nuclei and thus becoming submerged in–and by–trade union reformism? And isn’t it true that these criticisms were rejected as being ultra left and sectarian?

Now OL is making the very same criticisms–except that the relationship between OL’s line that ultra-leftism represented the main danger and the rightist errors in its trade union work is completely ignored. This is done in exactly the same way that the crucial ideological struggles that provided the basis for the CPUSA’s revolutionary activity in the 1930’s are passed over.

It is clear that underlying both “summations” is the well entrenched tendency to underestimate the importance of revolutionary theory. Just as the authors cannot possibly develop a thorough understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the CPUSA without digging into the underlying ideological struggle, neither can they develop a sound foundation for correcting their own past errors by such superficial summing up.

And more importantly they are actually fostering and nurturing–despite their intentions–the domination of bourgeois ideology within our ranks by failing to root out and make a complete and conscious break with the source of these errors.

For at the heart of these errors is bourgeois ideology in the form of economism, reflected in bowing to the spontaneous character of the mass movement; belittling the role of revolutionary theory; and failing to take as our primary task winning advanced workers to Marxism-Leninism, and the welding of a core of the most militant and class conscious workers to form a communist party worthy of its revolutionary heritage and capable of fulfilling its historical tasks.