Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Irwin Silber

Party-Building and Trade Unions

First Published: The Guardian, Vol. 29, No. 23, March 16, 1977
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Which comes first–“fusing” communism with the workers’ movement or building a new communist party?

This question is now being debated among many Marxist-Leninists. Some believe, in effect, that until Marxist-Leninists have established a base and some measure of influence in the spontaneous workers’ movement, party-building efforts should be carefully circumscribed.

But a moment’s thought will reveal an inherent contradiction in this thesis. That is, how can the Marxist-Leninists establish a “base” in the working class if they are not already organized as Marxist-Leninists? And in order to organize as Marxist-Leninists, the question of ideological unity on the basis of the inherited legacy of scientific socialism is paramount.

Now we will agree that there is no more pressing task–with the exception of forming and building the communist party itself–than that of developing the connection between the communists and the proletariat.

But to do what? And in attempting to answer this question, it should become apparent why the “fusion” of communism with the workers’ movement can only develop in an organized fashion; that is, on the basis of a conscious, carefully worked-out plan by the communists themselves.

Such a plan involves much more than communists taking jobs in factories or distributing leaflets at plant gates. Nor can such a plan confine itself to the goal of individual communists becoming the most militant trade unionists and best fighters for the immediate economic demands of the workers–although communists must indeed play such a role.

Concededly, just making the workers’ movement its prime arena of political concentration at this moment would be .a step forward for communists. We cannot deny that the connection between today’s Marxist-Leninists and the working class–particularly the industrial proletariat–is, at best, tenuous. And it is only natural, at the beginning, that the communists will pay particular attention to the economic struggles of the workers. This, after all, is the concentrated expression of the class struggle, the battleground on which the bourgeoisie and the proletariat face each other most directly.

But the communists do not seek merely to become a “part” of the working class; they aim to become its vanguard. In seeking leadership, the communists are not aspiring to become a new breed of “progressive” labor leaders. That is the path of revisionism and reformism which attempt to subvert the revolutionary potential of the working class by confining its goals to economic gains which do not threaten the system of wage slavery.

Communist activity in the trade unions is not aimed at transforming revolutionary intellectuals into trade union militants. The working class can itself produce far more effective trade union militants than can the intellectuals.

What, then, should the political practice of communists in the workers’ movement be based upon? The following are offered as contributions to a discussion on communist strategy within the working-class movement that must be the first order of business for a new communist party–and that may help give some direction to existing Marxist-Leninist groups who are correctly attempting to combine their party-building efforts with their involvement in the working-class and democratic struggles of the present.

1. Propaganda and education about the nature of the bourgeois state as the key political instrument of monopoly capital. Breaking the hold of the two-party system on workers’ political consciousness must be a prime objective of the communists. But if such an objective is pursued in a narrowly “populist” fashion alone–i.e., “they’re all a bunch of crooks”–the workers will learn little about the real workings of the state apparatus and will be prey for racist and fascist demagogues only too eager to exploit the discontent of the working class.

2. The struggle against racism and national chauvinism. The goal of the communists is working-class unity. They do not expect to be able to “right” all the injustices of capitalism through democratic reforms. To have such a goal would be to deny that imperialism requires national oppression in order to maintain its reserve army of labor, its superprofits out of the labor of the most exploited, its segregated work force and the divisions within the working class. But knowing that capitalism cannot “concede” complete equality does not prevent the communists from struggling for it. It is correct to raise those democratic demands which ultimately can be met only when the workers seize state power as a means of educating the workers to the necessity for proletarian revolution. In a more immediate and more basic sense, however, the struggle for the democratic and special demands of Blacks and other nationally oppressed workers is the indispensable key to building working-class unity. The communists, therefore, educate the workers–particularly the white workers–to the fact that their own class interest is bound up with the rights of the nationally oppressed workers, that affirmative action programs are in the long-term interests of the class as a whole and that white supremacist ideology is the ideology of monopoly capital.

3. The struggle for union democracy. The U.S. trade union movement today is dominated by a labor bureaucracy who are not merely the “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class,” but the bourgeoisie’s colonels and brigadier-generals. The likes of George Meany, I.W. Abel, Lane Kirkland and Frank Fitzsimmons–to name only a few of the most blatant examples–have actually become a part of monopoly capitalism’s general staff. They combine class collaboration with social chauvinism, virulent anti-communism, racism, male supremacy, suppression of union democracy and corruption. The struggle for union democracy, then, becomes a means of confronting the reactionary trade union leadership around these questions and promoting the political activity of the rank and file in union affairs.

4. Organize the unorganized. One of the most glaring examples of the degeneration of the labor movement has been the failure to make a significant dent in expanding the percentage of workers in the organized labor movement. Bureaucracy, complacency and fears of the militant spirit which newly organized workers tend to bring into union affairs are all factors in the union leadership’s foot-dragging on this matter. But for communists, the goal of unionizing the masses pf unorganized workers–a very large percentage of whom are third world and women workers–must be a top political priority. The immediate benefits to the already organized workers in expanding union organization of “their” industry should be readily apparent. But the communists also have the long-term goal of unleashing those political forces that help to weld the working class into a fighting unity–and the organization of the unorganized workers is a giant step in this direction.

5. The struggle for women’s rights. Today, with women comprising more than 40% of the total work force, with more and more married women working in order to. maintain the working-class family’s living standard, the question of women’s rights on the job, equal opportunity and social equality have assumed a new urgency for the working class. Modern industry itself is rapidly realizing the goal stated by the communists 100 years ago of bringing the great masses of women into social production. The material conditions for the struggle against male supremacist ideology within the working class have already come into existence. The communists must introduce and press this question before the working class–particularly among the male workers –and win the workers to taking up the democratic and special demands of the women workers against discrimination, for affirmative action, for equal pay for equal work, for sharing of household tasks, and for social as well as legal equality. This is the key to building working-class unity between women and men workers.

6. Educating about and building solidarity with national liberation straggles In the third world. The communists must win the workers to an understanding of proletarian internationalism–the two-way street that links working-class struggles a home with the anti-imperialist movements around the world. Of these, the most important of course is southern Africa–Zimbabwe, Namibia and Azania. Actions around the Rhodesia-chrome boycott demonstrate the vast political possibilities inherent in this struggle–particularly among (but not confined to) Black workers. Puerto Rico, being an outright colony of the U.S. and an enormous focus for capital investment, is another “international” question that communists must make a special point of introducing into the workers’ movement.

7. The struggle against anti-communism. Along with racism and male chauvinism, anticommunism is one of the most important ideological tools employed by the bourgeoisie in the workers’ movement. Anticommunism must be actively combatted; it will not disappear simply if the communists attempt to disguise themselves under some other label. In the final analysis, the overcoming of anticommunist ideology is the key without which the path to revolutionary ideology cannot be unlocked.

8. Build the communist party. It would be unrealistic to expect that the communist presence in the working-class movement would have a major effect on the course of that movement at the present time–or even in the immediate future. But seeds are being planted, experience is being acquired. More importantly, however, is the opportunity thus presented to win advanced workers to communism, to bring such workers into organized Marxist-Leninist study groups and to begin recruiting them into the communist organization. These advanced workers are, in one sense, the prime target of the communists; we do not aim to “reduce” our politics so as to make them palatable to the average or backward worker. We hope to move the workers as a whole more directly into the political arena, but our particular goal is to find those workers whose own experience has brought them to the point where they are ready for the ideas of scientific socialism.

The above eight points are only the barest beginning outline of a communist plan of work in the trade unions. At the present time they could be little more. But their very listing demonstrates that such a plan of work could not be fully formulated–much less executed–without the prior existence of a communist organization bound together not merely by democratic centralism, but a firm set of revolutionary principles forged in the heat of ideological struggle against revisionism and “left” dogmatism.

Involved in these eight points are political principles that go far beyond anything that may be learned spontaneously at the point of production or a trade union gathering. Those principles flow out of the Marxist-Leninist world outlook which has been 125 years in the making and which constitutes the theoretical foundation for party-building.