Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Mensheviks in the Slag Heap

Forging Correct Line in Steel

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First Published: Revolution, Vol. 3, No. 9, July 1978.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: 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.

Summing up work in the steel industry in light of the two-line struggle against the Menshevik, Jarvis-Bergman headquarters formerly in the RCP has important lessons and implications for the Party’s work overall. The struggle over how the Party should carry out its tasks among steel workers, while not so sharp or open in this industry as it was in a few other areas of work, reflected the overall two-line struggle in the Party. Although the Mensheviks did not have hegemony in the Party’s steel work, their line and their influence was widespread and corrosive. The road down which they would have dragged the whole Party had their line won out becomes clearer in some of their hare-brained schemes and revisionist formulations for the Party’s activity in steel. Today as the Party implements its PROGRAMME free from the interference and sabotage of these Mensheviks, and with a deeper understanding resulting from the struggle against and defeat of their line, it becomes possible and necessary to examine these influences.

The basic approach of the Mensheviks to work in steel had its origins in the syndicalism and economism which had been a hallmark of this clique from its very beginnings. Essentially, they saw the struggle of steel workers as being a self-contained one–defined and determined by the boundaries of the steel industry and the perimeters of the United Steel Workers of America (USWA). It was–according to their outlook–a struggle of steel workers against the steel companies, of dissidents within the union against the hacks.

It was a struggle whose first stage (but in reality whose highest aim) was to reclaim the union, with Party members and the activists grouped around them the “biggest and baddest” dissidents of all. Increasingly, they saw their task as coaxing and cajoling hacks or would-be hacks and opportunists of various stripes into action, while they themselves would jockey and maneuver for position. Anything that stood in the way of this or detracted from their petty careerism was poison. Accordingly, one of their current luminaries opposed the Party’s campaign to expose and hit back at the Presidential election of 1976 declaring that “steel workers are only interested in steel, sex and sports.”

Struggle Over Role of Steelworker

These Mensheviks tried to stamp their vision on THE STEELWORKER newspaper which had been established in late 1975 by Party members and rank and file activists from the steel industry. Much of the impetus for the paper came from a successful demonstration held at the USWA Convention in Atlantic City the year before.

The main purpose of the paper was to spread the word and lessons of important struggles within the steel industry, as well as other sections of the working class, and to build these struggles, since the hacks would inevitably pour cold water on them and spread defeatism. The need for such a rank and file voice and center of resistance was demonstrated by way of negative example in early 1975 when workers at Youngstown Sheet and Tube wildcatted for three days over the elimination of several jobs in defiance of the no-strike agreement. Word of this major struggle was blacked out by the hacks and they were able to isolate and contain it.

On the other hand, with such a paper it became possible, for instance, to develop a national campaign out of the struggle of Local 3059 (a small fabricating local which had been put into receivership because of its militant strike activity), culminating in a powerful demonstration in Pittsburgh and the eventual freeing of the local.

This struggle illustrates the use of the single spark method called for in the Party’s PROGRAMME. The militant fight of Local 3059 against the sabotage of the International concentrated the feelings and determination of tens of thousands of steel workers who daily experience the jackboot of the International officials. What started as a small, isolated battle was turned into a question for steel workers across the country, exactly because it spoke to their hatred for this treachery, and important strides forward in struggle and organization throughout the industry were made.

THE STEELWORKER had other important functions as well. It was necessary to expose the collaboration of the International and their lower level flunkies with the capitalists, the doctrine of common interests they preached, and the multitude of ways they try to keep workers chained to this whole rotten system. When particular ideological assaults were launched against the rank and file, like the recent imports hysteria, THE STEELWORKER could play an important role combatting them. In addition, it could put forward a clear and proletarian stand on questions around which there was much struggle and controversy, such as the Consent Decree (an agreement by which minority workers would be given a cash bonus if they dropped charges of past discrimination.)

THE STEELWORKER in short, could help link up and coordinate struggle within the steel industry, help clarify the important questions and issues faced by steel workers, and promote more solid organization. But, fundamentally, the task of THE STEELWORKER was to help build the fight of steel workers as part of the fight of the whole working class, and to help steel workers see their struggle in this light.

From the start, however, there was a sharp struggle over the role and content of THE STEELWORKER. Would it simply become a hodge-podge of what’s happening in the steel industry, or would it identify the pressing questions and struggles faced by steel workers and their key tasks, so that their strength could be concentrated? Would THE STEELWORKER wall off the struggles of steel workers from the rest of the working class, or would it show the common fight of the whole working class and draw the links between these struggles and all those resisting the rule of capital? Would it approach particular struggles from the standpoint of narrow interests alone–particularly from the standpoint of the struggle against the company men now in control of the steel union–or would it take up these struggles from the standpoint of developing a conscious movement of the working class fighting the capitalists on every front?

In its coverage, THE STEELWORKER was at best uneven. It did not always bring home in a living way the experiences and lessons of battles outside the steel industry, like the rubber workers’ and coal miners’ strikes. These things got thrown in with articles simply describing, here is what’s happening here and what’s happening there. Furthermore, it did not always situate the important battles and questions of steel within the context of the whole working class. Often, attacks like the Experimental Negotiations Agreement (ENA, which takes away the right to strike) and productivity committees or the more recent layoffs and shutdowns were treated as matters purely internal to the steel industry.

This was especially pronounced with attempts to explain the crisis which, more often than not, became a “steel industry crisis.” In the final issue of THE STEELWORKER under the Mensheviks editorial direction, the front page was emblazoned with the headline “Industry Closing Down–Mills Closing Everywhere.” Apart from the “sky is falling” level of analysis there was no attempt made to talk about how this effort by the steel capitalists to reorganize the industry was linked with the overall capitalist crisis nor how these shutdowns represented a challenge to the whole working class requiring more advanced forms of struggle to marshal the strength of the whole class.

In the regularly appearing editorial statement of THE STEELWORKER, called “Where We Stand,” the Mensheviks expressed their orientation this way: “We as workers have no interest in taking the company attacks like layoffs, low wages, job combinations, speed-up, bad working conditions and discrimination on the chin. Our only salvation is to fight the steel companies tooth and nail, to resist these attacks, to formulate and fight for our demands and in the course of each struggle to unite our ranks tighter while constantly building a bigger and still bigger movement to win our just demands. As a big part of this fight we also have to fight the company interests in our union. We have to make our union truly our organization, an organization that actively fights in the interests of the rank and file... This newspaper can serve its function to communicate what is going on in our fight to push the steel companies off our backs.” (our emphasis)

While the idea of resisting the company attacks can certainly be united with, this statement contained in embryo much of the subsequent reformism and syndicalism of these Mensheviks, the view they promoted being basically to build a bigger and bigger steel workers movement which would be capable of winning more and more demands and pushing the steel companies off the backs of steel workers.

There was no sense of an enemy that was larger than the management of one mill or the barons of one industry nor, as is correctly expressed in the editorial of the most recent issue of THE STEELWORKER, now out of the hands of the Mensheviks, that “the fight is “alongside the rest of the working class. We’re fighting the whole damn system, and if we are serious about fighting for our freedom, we’ve got to build the kind of movement able to take on that system.” (The Mensheviks, it seems, are putting out something they call “The Steelworker,” in a pitiful attempt to peddle their economism and syndicalism; but this should not be confused with THE STEELWORKER, which having broken with the Menshevik line is playing an important part in building a class conscious movement of steel workers as part of the overall struggle of the working class, and its allies, against capitalism.)

NUWO, Menshevik Style

Nowhere was the narrowness and syndicalism of these Mensheviks more openly proclaimed than in their attitude toward the formation of the National United Workers Organization (NUWO). The formation of such an organization was a tremendous step forward for the working class. It meant that the working class could begin, in a more systematic way, to bring its backbone and understanding into the major struggles raging in society and take up the task of transforming its scattered fights into a more solid, class-conscious movement.

The Mensheviks would have none of this. They grudgingly embraced the task of building it only after they had rendered it practically meaningless. For them it was to be simply a vehicle for advancing the existing struggles of steel workers. While an important part of the NUWO is building resistance to the sharp attacks of the capitalists in particular plants and industries, what the Mensheviks were doing–and have consistently done–was to deny the overall role of the NUWO, which is to help infuse the strength, discipline and outlook of the working class into the key battles throughout society. They saw in the NUWO only some additional clout for their narrow “steel workers movement.”

Of course, when it came to the struggle against the steel companies, these Mensheviks’ line did not lead to mobilizing the masses of steel workers there either. This is because they did not see relying on the masses to fight their enemies, but instead they saw this fight as basically a question of jockeying for position and for allies within the union.

Listen to how they present the role and necessity of an organization like the NUWO in the editorial statement they ran in one issue of THE STEELWORKER: “We would ask our fellow workers, what is the main thing we have to overcome in the union? Is it how to fight the companies needs to be better organized, better led and more coordinated within the ranks so that the full power of our union, of our class, can be brought to bear against the companies?”

Here we see their lofty vision of the struggle of steel workers. Their struggle is to stay basically on the level where it’s now at, and all the fights are reduced down to simply a question of getting better organized within the union. Can there be a more clear recipe for top-down style, bureaucratic leadership? And it goes without saying that with this view an organization like the NUWO could only be a hindrance to this nearsighted trade unionist vision.

True to form, things got progressively worse. Continuing in the same vein they write, “It is true that a small number of people won’t turn the steel companies (our emphasis) around. But.. .while a small number won’t win the war [what war, we wonder], we can sure say that a small number can organize a small number into a big number, if they are working in the interests of the workers, both today and over the long haul.” And this was the consistent theme that ran through their work around the NUWO, the trick they wanted to turn, how to turn a small number into a big number. It became a dizzying question of numbers.

Even as they hinted at broader interests of workers (“the long haul”) they could not stomach the thought of raising the sights of the workers. Not once in this editorial do they mention taking up the fight against all oppression save a limp and token statement about such an organization enabling steelworkers “to make a real contribution to the cause of our class, against all the abuses we face on the job and off.”

But this is just the window dressing for what really counted: “that an organization of this type could serve as a real boost to push forward our attempts to organize our ranks in the steel industry.” There was no real politics here, just uniting small numbers so they’re not so small, just ’getting organized so we are not so disorganized, just figuring out plans so we have more plans.

To the extent that the Mensheviks had a strategic view at all it was, as is stated in the same editorial statement, that “conditions are bad now, and will surely get much worse before they get better, and so far as we are concerned may [our emphasis, these Mensheviks were never quite convinced about the nature of capitalism] never get better while those in power now, are running the show. Once again we have to stand up and organize our ranks against the companies and now we must take our union back.”

This was the heart of their orientation; it was stagism pure and simple: first take over the union, and perhaps the NUWO would help them out. To the extent that there was any politics it was unadulterated liberal reformism. In a leaflet circulated nationally they declared that “the foreign and domestic policies of the government directly affect every working person, yet on these questions we also don’t have any say.” So it’s a policy we don’t like and all we’re asking for is for more of a “say.” Needless to say, there are particular policies workers must fight against, but what this kind of statement implies is that the problems of society are the result of “policies,” not the operation of a system. And this “say” garbage is nothing but an appeal to backwardness.

The Mensheviks, having built for the founding convention of the NUWO with this incredible vision, would only do it justice by summing up its significance with a puniness which is distinctively theirs: “Steelworkers had come together to figure out a real plan of action to fight the steel companies and to take our union back.” In another editorial they declared that “with the formation of the NUWO we feel even more confident about the steps we have to take now, about our ability to wage the battles that need to be fought at this time in the steel industry.” (emphasis added) Again no sense of developing a movement of the working class which can broaden its perspectives and influence. No sense of a movement which can develop to a higher level qualitatively, representing the political interests of the working class. The achievements of the NUWO were translated into a call to steel workers to get behind the battle plan–for the steel industry. For the Mensheviks all roads lead back to Rome-to building a syndicalist movement with the aim of taking back the unions. The NUWO was palatable only insofar as it assisted this.

In fact, these Mensheviks always wanted to keep THE STEELWORKER at a safe distance from the NUWO. Why spoil a good thing, they reasoned. We’ve built up respectability among some hacks; we’re bona fide dissidents, after all. So they came up with all kinds of convoluted relations between THE STEELWORKER and the NUWO which effectively kept them apart. This is not to deny the importance of struggling with workers to affiliate with the NUWO from the bottom and carrying on continuing discussions about the need to be part of something like the NUWO, but the Mensheviks saw the whole question of affiliation as a burden, not a political task.

District Organizing Committees

Their line came out very clearly on the organizational question of district organizing committees. These were first established in Chicago/Northern Indiana and in Northern Ohio to concentrate the strength of steel workers on questions bigger than one mill and to assist the formation of in-plant organization. At first, the Mensheviks opposed the formation of these committees because it was in contradiction to simply joining in the so-called Fight Back committees which served as a vehicle for the campaign of union dissident Edward Sadlowski (more on Sadlowski later).

These district organizing committees played a positive role in putting forward the interests of the rank and file in the Sadlowski campaign and around other questions. But after awhile the Mensheviks saw something they liked in these committees and began to push for their formation everywhere. What began to appeal to them was the fact that these committees were organized along the lines of the USWA, reflecting its division into districts. While this had not been a principle of the district committees at first (the first organizing committees had been structured along district lines because that was what made sense in terms of how the struggle was developing in those areas) the Mensheviks made the district character of these committees the main thing, organizing four different district organizing committees in one city because that’s how the union was set up there! To the Mensheviks, organizing in this way would create a structure parallel to that of the USWA for the purpose of reforming the union and giving more legitimacy to the “dissidents.”

The Mensheviks hoped these committees would become instruments with which to contend with the hacks for power and influence over the union. It is absolutely essential for the NUWO to have an industrial identity–workers are organized by production along these lines and such organization is necessary to take up campaigns particular to the industry such as strikes or elections and to use the single spark method to spread classwide campaigns through these industries. But rather than tapping the tremendous strength represented in workers concentrated in plants or throughout the district as a force in the fight of the whole working class around big questions of the day, the Mensheviks would channel and restrict it to “getting organized” to take back the union.

This question of how to look at the unions has been at the center of many of the struggles between the RCP and reformists masquerading as Marxist-Leninists. The CP(ML) (and previous to it the OL) has always blasted the RCP for “dual unionism” because we have for years advocated the development of intermediate workers organizations–intermediate between the trade unions and the Party. The whole idea behind this concept has been to forge organization through which the working class can unleash its energy around key battles of the workers and other sections of the people, break out of the bounds of trade unionism, and at the same time develop the advanced into communists. Part of the role of these organizations is to defeat the treachery of the top union officials.

But as pointed out in the RCP’s PROGRAMME “the working class cannot base its strategy on ’taking over’ the unions by electing new leadership, and it cannot restrict its struggle to the limits set by the trade unions at any given time. The policy of the proletariat and its Party is to build its strength in the unions as part of building its revolutionary movement, and not to reduce the class struggle to the struggle for control of the unions.”

The view the Mensheviks pushed was not that workers must fight to make the union a weapon in their hands, but that the goal was to take the union back, and not until this was done could the struggle really advance. How to deal with the double-dealing and treachery of the union officials and whether or not putting a handful of new people in office would change the basic situation workers faced became the central question posed by the candidacy of Ed Sadlowski.

Two Lines Around Sadlowski Campaign

The RCP analysed the candidacy of Ed Sadlowski as representing an opportunity for the rank and file to advance its fight and weaken the grip of the Abel-McBride machine. This is not because Sadlowski happened to be the opponent of the entrenched hacks, and it was better to have someone hew in office. It was because his candidacy came at a tune of a rising tide of resistance of steel workers and he was forced to speak to some of the issues that the rank and file were fighting around.

Sadlowski himself is a petty reformer who had no intention of seeing the growing struggle pf steel workers break out of safe bounds. In fact, he got financial and political backing from various liberal petty bourgeois and bourgeois forces. But his candidacy was perceived as a threat by the machine, not because of who he was or what he wanted, except in the most narrow sense of whom the spoils of union office would go to, but because the righteous struggle of the rank and file had made this election into a referendum on the whole outlook of company-union partnership and cooperation.

Every day the rank and file felt the weight of the union machine, blocking and attacking its struggles, paving the way for new assaults against it. People hated and detested this machine and wanted to strike a blow at these traitors and create more favorable conditions to carry their struggle forward.

The election concentrated the key issues facing the rank and file and, in particular, the desire of the rank and file to break the shackles of these traitors. It was in this context–of advancing the fight of the rank and file and promoting its organization and unity–that the Party entered into this campaign.

But this orientation made it all the clearer that Sadlowski was not the leader of this resistance nor could he be relied on to carry it forward. The rank and file could and had to utilize the election–tens of thousands of workers were drawn into debate and activity around it–but in a way that did not collapse its fight into the election, recognizing the limitations and pitfalls of reformers like Sadlowski and the need to keep the initiative in its own hands.

The Mensheviks, in words, agreed with this. But their practice came down to pinning the struggle of the rank and file to Sadlowski, and as the campaign wore on their chief concern was that critical support not become too critical. In fact, for them critical support was only a euphemism for uncritical support. The key thing in this campaign was to focus on the whole line of class collaboration as embodied in the policies and actions of the Abel machine, and the key demands of the rank and file in opposing this treachery. Instead, the Mensheviks got caught up in the politicking of the election.

The whole idea behind getting involved in this campaign was to continue to organize the workers’ forces and build the movement of the rank and file from the bottom. But the Mensheviks came to see Sadlowski as a substitute for that movement and sought to turn that movement into a pressure group to make Sadlowski act tougher. And where the specific outcome of the election was important, but by no means crucial, the Mensheviks wanted to subordinate everything to it.

1976 Convention

There are some rather blatant examples of all this.

Starting back in 1976, at the Las Vegas convention, many of the leading Mensheviks saw their job as getting Sadlowski to act as a spokesman for the rank and file. The line they pushed going into this convention was that somehow we could garner the forces to win key demands on the floor of this unbelievably stacked convention. They wanted to coax Sadlowski to become the standard bearer for the rank and file and to push him out on to the convention floor. Sadlowski, who was preoccupied with the timing behind the formal announcement of his candidacy, basically said to jump in a lake.

These Mensheviks threw their hands up in disbelief! “How could he be so timid?” But the revolutionary forces summed up that this whole approach to the convention was wrong, that it wasn’t a question of out-maneuvering the hacks–with or without Sadlowski’s assistance–or putting one’s marbles into one corner or another hoping to win this or that demand. Rather the issue was the convention itself and what it represented. This understanding led to a much more powerful rank and file presence and to Abel being confronted openly with a declaration of war from the rank and file.

But it was in the heat of the campaign that the Mensheviks let it all hang out. In Chicago, Sadlowski and his successor as District Director signed a consent decree with Inland Steel which did not represent any sort of advance in the fight against discrimination (in this it was much like the national Consent Decree). This was done behind the backs of the workers. People were fuming and even McBride was able to make some hay off it. But when Party members in Chicago argued for putting out a leaflet to expose and condemn it, the Mensheviks balked. They said it would hurt Sadlowski’s election chances and create confusion among the rank and file.

Here we have a perfect crystallization of the Menshevik outlook. In effect, the line of critical support was considered beyond the reach of workers. It would be too demoralizing and confusing to them to actually point to the real contradictions faced by the rank and file in this election and where the workers’ real interests lay. In fact, these Mensheviks were denying that line–in this case, critical support–is based on the struggle and fundamental interests of the masses and must in turn serve that struggle. The key factor in this campaign was always the rank and file, and where this came into conflict with Sadlowski and his own ambitions he had to be criticized and opposed. This is why, for instance, the struggle to free Local 3059 was waged during the election campaign even though he opposed it, claiming that it tarnished his reputation.

But this was only a taste of things to come. The Mensheviks blasted Party members in Chicago, who along with other members of Breakout (a Chicago rank and file steel workers committee in one mill) and the District 31 Organizing Committee had been kept at an arm’s length from other workers on the Sadlowski Fight Back Committee. The Mensheviks dismissed this as tactical blundering, refusing to accept the fact that Sadlowski was not about to tolerate a strong rank and file presence in his committee, especially in his home base. The Mensheviks held up in opposition to this experience, Milwaukee, where they distinguished themselves by initiating a Fight Back Committee.

The only problem was that there they completely liquidated any independent presence, using most of Sadlowski’s literature, not even thinking about THE STEELWORKER having any kind of life on the committee. This was their dream come true–the closest thing to a legitimate niche in the trade union hierarchy they had attained.

About the most militant thing they did in this campaign was to win the right to have one of their own people introduce Sadlowski at a dinner held in his honor. They had, in the period of summation of this work, accepted criticism of this. But like other correct verdicts that the Mensheviks hasten to reverse, they now declare this to be a shining model of work in the trade unions. The enduring significance of this work was not spreading the influence of THE STEELWORKER or even building up the steel section of the area workers organization in Milwaukee and advancing the fight of the rank and file. It was that Sadlowski won in Milwaukee!

The degeneration of the Menshevik clique accelerated following the Sadlowski campaign. The two leading Mensheviks with responsibility for steel work went bananas with reformism and outright reaction by the end of 1977. Especially in the face of the shutdowns and other attacks which were bound to intensify, the Mensheviks began casting about for gimmicks and palpable results, rather than seeing the need to help workers understand tire underlying causes responsible for this crisis and the kind of movement required to resist these attacks.

This shutdown fight was a tough one and if you couldn’t scare people into dealing with it (“industry shutting down”) you had to “get something going.” So one of them began advocating that we take up a campaign for TRA (Trade Readjustment Act) money. This is payment available to workers who can prove that they have lost jobs due to imports. But the TRA is a piece of legislation designed to strengthen the competitive hand of U.S. industry and its crumbs for workers are for the express purpose of getting them to line up with “impacted” companies and resign themselves to the loss of jobs. While it is not wrong in every case to join with a particular struggle involving the TRA, it is always the responsibility of communists and advanced forces to point out what the TRA represents overall and what the capitalists and their agents are attempting to do with it. But more than that, what these Mensheviks were trying to do by concocting a way to kick off struggle around the TRA in steel was to find some way to gimmick the workers into action by appealing to the most narrow and backward sentiments and playing into the hands of the steel barons and the capitalist class as a whole.

But all this “ideological stuff was just so much of a nuisance for these Mensheviks. The elder Menshevik advised Party members in the Ohio area to seek out hacks with whom to unite around the shutdown fight in Youngstown–to the point of making repeated phone calls about progress in tracking one of them down, who it turned out played a reactionary role in the whole struggle.

This sacrifice of principle and all-round political work this obsession with palpable results, led these Mensheviks to rack their brains over how to line up delegate votes and support for the upcoming union convention and which demand–could it be the right to ratify?–stood a fighting chance of winning.

In contrast, at a conference held in Buffalo by rank and file activists associated with THE STEELWORKER in June, there was a whole different way of looking at things. For instance, the September USWA convention was discussed as an attack on steel workers–as part of tightening up the chains of class collaboration in the union–and the question of delegates and demands for the conference was discussed as part of building among the rank and file to consciously take on this attack, and not from the point of view of “how can we win some influence in this convention?” This conference also affirmed the role of THE STEEL WORKER as the voice of the steel section of the NUWO, and the importance of mobilizing steel workers in key battles in society, broader than only the fight against the steel companies.

Because these Mensheviks were dyed-in-the-wool syndicalists and reformers, because their narrow outlook and interests came into sharp contradiction with the interests of the working class, they lost the little fiefdom they were trying to build in steel, they lost the AFL-CIO trade union opposition they were trying to create out of the NUWO, and of course they ended up out of the Party. Now of course, they are wilder still is pursuit of careers and careerism.

But they have made one contribution, in a certain sense. In the struggle against their line on the steel industry, as throughout the Party, the understanding of the correct line has been tremendously deepened, so that Party members have a far sharper idea of how to take up the tasks at hand in order to bring about the emancipation of the working class.