Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Marxist-Leninist League

Exchange with PUL on the Trade Union Question

First Published: Mass Resistance, Vol. 11, No. 5, October 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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We thought that it might be productive to exchange some views on issues of mutual concern. Your article from March 1980 on work in the working class particularly raised some questions which we wish to speak to. One of the impressive points about this article was its attempt to come to grips with problems which not only affect LPR-ML/COReS-MLM, but in fact, the work of most ML groups. Few communist groups have made outstanding gains in the working class, a fact which the movement is presently coming to grips.

The dilemma you address, i.e., the relation between reform, work in the shops, and more propagandistic (consciously or openly socialist) tasks is a significant issue. We had some thoughts on this and other points in your statement. Your article raises a question about a tendency to overemphasize economic or trade union work in the shops. You note that your cadre tended to be active trade unionists, but were weak in carrying out other tasks. You characterized this deviation as economism. This characterization sounds accurate, but at the same time inadequate.

Under economism there are many types of deviations, both rightist and “leftist”. We are in no position to summarize or characterize your work, especially since we have never worked directly with you in a shop situation. We do, however, encourage you to look at both aspects of the economist deviations. In the past, many comrades have characterized any sort of trade unionist deviation as being right-economism. This has just not always conformed with reality. Through our work and examination of the line and practice of others, we came to identify “left” economism as a very common error.

As we understand “left” economism, it is rooted in anarcho-syndicalist theory. Foster, who himself was influenced by this trend, noted some important characteristics of this deviation:

1. failure to provide the closely-knit organization of the most revolutionary elements (which must be in the Communist Party) indispensable for uniting and leading the less developed masses;
2. failure to utilize the many political methods of struggle vitally necessary to carry on the workers’ daily fight against the state and the capitalists for the eventual overthrow of capitalism, and for the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat;
3. failure to establish a basis for the unity of the workers with the poorer sections of the farmers and petty bourgeoisie against the capitalists, a unity fundamental for effective struggle against capitalism;
4. failure to work out a practical plan for the operation of the workers’ society after the abolition of capitalism. (Foster, THE COMMUNIST, Nov. 1935)

We would basically agree with these points. As is clear, an obsession with trade union work in and of itself says little about the deviation. What is important is the real nature of the work being carried out and the line which was guiding it. Were the caucuses you worked in organized “in principle” in opposition to most things done by the union officials or did the committees or caucuses basically tail the officials; did your cadre practice united front tactics or was there basically a go-it-alone orientation for the left-wing in the unions? Additionally, what kind of leadership did your cadre exert? Was there an encouragement of confrontation-ism; or was it more conciliation-ism? These are some of the issues which we and other comrades have been dealing with. We have found that even the category of “militant trade unionism” is only adequate to give an empirical description of a problem. Anarcho-syndicalists are certainly militant trade unionists s but the same can often be said of some more right-ward leaning activists, for example, some honest activists in union democracy struggles. We don’t have any simple answers to all these questions from our work, but they are the types of questions which must be asked if any serious rectification of the movement’s work is to happen.

Since we know little about your work, we cannot say to what extent some of our points apply, but they may be worth considering. The lack of Marxist-Leninist unity, additionally, has certainly affected the level, the competition around winning over certain activists has often led to these individuals turning away entirely out of frustration. Additionally there are a number of tasks in the working class which individual pre -party organizations will have and have had a difficult time accomplishing. Organizing the unorganized is one such task. Different communist groups, yours included we’re sure, have played an important role in helping to form, organize and lead union organizing committees. Difficulties have arisen in struggling with the ridiculous union officials. Overcoming this reformist passivity is a task which affects us all, and must be taken up by the movement. Perhaps meetings might help to coordinate such activity as well as come up with possible solutions to these and other problems. With the increasing antiunion offensive, new and dynamic methods must be utilized to win workers to recognize the need for unions. The reliance which many union officials place on cash just will not get over. Non-union companies, such as Polaroid, Gillette, as well as many of the open-pit mining companies in the West, can provide rather substantial cash incentive to overcome union drives based primarily on the issue of wages. This will probably change the face of unionization in the immediate future. Also, the reliance or extreme emphasis which has been placed on boycott as a primary thrust in union drives has been used to substitute for the actual support work and organizing which must be done.

A final point about your article. The issue of the advanced worker raised by you is an important point. There has been a lot of confusion behind the character of the advanced worker (this is especially true since the dogmatic and subjectivist debates carried on by WVO, RWL/PRRWO). You correctly point out that we must not judge the advanced strictly by their words and viewss but especially based on their relationship to the class struggle. This point was particularly ignored in past debates. It is clear from work in the workers’ movement, but the same is true in the other mass movements, that there are many who express an openness to socialism, and may even “adhere” to some form of eclectic socialist view, but this does not make them advanced. Communist have spent alot of time engaging individuals in interesting discussions, but this often led nowhere. It is particularly important to seek out the leading activists within the mass movements and place energy on wining them over.

Your article provided food for thought for all of us, we as well as (we’re sure) for other communists. Marxist-Leninists need to further sum-up and critically evaluate our work. Yours is definitely a contribution.

With Communist Greetings,
Proletarian Unity League

M-L League Response

We agree with the Proletarian Unity League that under economism there are many types of deviations, both rightist and leftist”. We take to heart their call to “look at both aspects of the economist deviations.” In fact, if everybody in our movement were to look at all the aspects of things, as opposed to being onesided, we would have a more consistent and systematic struggle against revisionism and all sorts of opportunism, rather than these holy crusades against this or that danger.

Our organizations had been actively integrating cadres and close contacts into factory shops until the last two years. In moving them into the shops it is fairly reasonable to say we did not know exactly what we were doing. This doesn’t mean we blindly led our forces without direction. But it does mean that when it came to answering the past questions in the working class struggle, our cadres lacked the experience, and many times the line, to successfully take the leadership of these struggles. Our forces thus fell into a lot of tailism and spontaneity.

In the article in question, (RESISTANCE, March 1980) we pointed out that at the moment (that is still the case) we were in need of a thorough sum-up of the LPR(ML) and COReS (MLM) line and practice on the trade union question. It is the goal of our Rectification Campaign, initiated 2 years ago, to determine our errors, successes and future direction of our work. In doing this sum-up we will definitely take into account PUL’s remarks. Up to now we can say that we have committed both right and “left” errors and we have identified our a main tendency as a rightist one.

We consider the characterisation of much of our factory work as one of “militant trade unionists” both accurate and adequate. Yes, it is true that you have “militant trade unionists coming from the right and from the “left”. Yes, “anarcho syndicalists are certainly militant trade-unionists...and the same can often be said of more rightward leaning activists... ” But we were not talking about ararcho syndicalists, nor right-ward leaning activists, but about our cadres, about communists. We were saying that by our cadres failing to develop communist propaganda and agitation in the shops, by failing to link the day to day struggles for reforms with the long range struggle for socialism, they were acting as militant trade-unionists, and not as Marxist-Leninists. Furthermore, we identify that tendency as a rightist one, not a “leftist” one.

Why rightist? Became our errors were not in overestimating the subjective factor but in underestimating it. It is not that we proposed to the workers actions that were beyond their actual level of preparedness and consciousness, but rather that we failed to propose a course of action that the workers were more than ready to take.

In the context in which we were using the term “militant trade unionists” we were referring to the type of activity our organizations were involved in in the shops. In the main, we were liquidating the ML tasks and overemphasising the trade union ones. The correct relation which combines the legal and illegal work of MLs among the working class was thus not being practiced.

We agree with PUL that the lack of ML unity has affected communist work among the working class. We would add further that it is the lack of struggle for unity which has hurt the movement’s ability to give leadership to the working class as well as its ability to move closer to an ML party, so necessary to lead the working class to socialist revolution.

Finally, in relation to the question of the advanced workers, we want to stress the importance of taking into consideration both the class stand and the viewpoint of the workers in our approach. If they do not actively participate in the day to day struggles, if they talk to other workers with contempt, if for them every struggle is “not going to resolve anything”, unimportant, etc., we are not dealing with an advanced worker. But on the other hand, if we just go for the “leading activists” we can make the mistake many times of relying on “rightward leaning activists” or anrcho syndicalists, and not advanced workers. Words and deeds, theory and practice, that is how we are to detect those advanced workers who in every country determine the character of the working class movement.

In closing, we will state that we may find out that we have more unity or disunity with PUL’s view of the working class movement and our role as MLs in that movement. The point is that we should keep the channels for discussion open. In our part, we will be discussing this question further, and will in the future be printing the results of those discussions and sum-ups of our work. We will be substantiating with concrete examples of our work the views that we have laid out here today.

M-L League